By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Iraqi cities will take years to recover from ISIS. In Mosul, a member of Iraq’s elite Emergency Response Division was killed by an IED recently. It is one of thousands that Islamic State left behind. ISIS is still active in Hawija, south of Mosul, with almost daily clashes with the security forces and the paramilitary Shi’ite militias that operate alongside them. But in southern Iraq, mostly untouched by years of war against the extremists, things are different.
America, which helped liberate the Shi’ites from Saddam Hussein’s iron grasp, is not popular today. Anastasio says that whereas in northern Iraq among Kurds there is a lot of friendliness to Americans and foreigners, people are more suspicious in the south. “They are against US culture and government for obvious reasons. People are conspiratorial and they believe in various theories that they regurgitate from watching TV. So a lot think there are secret elites running the world or that the US invasion was a CIA and Zionist plot to destabilize the Middle East.”
Because of this they oppose Western influence and outsiders. “They don’t want non-Muslims or non-Shia in the holy cities.”
THE RELATIONSHIP with Iran and its hegemonic pretensions is complex. While many are influenced by Iran’s power, they are also critical of it. “But a lot less critical than of the US or Israel.”
There is little thanks for the US role in 2003. They are still influenced by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi army militia opposed the Americans after the invasion. “They read a lot of pro-Iran propaganda.”
While they may like Iran as a cultural influencer, some reject Iran’s theocratic form of government and oppose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he says.
Security in the south has improved in recent years. ISIS has not been able to penetrate this area south of Baghdad. Where once Sunni jihadists targeted Shia mosques and holy sites, there has been quiet.
Surprisingly for the American visitor, there were Christmas trees on display in Muslim areas over the holiday. He says that there is interest among young people in Western holidays such as Valentine’s Day.
“The older people are traditional and conservative and oppose Western culture or values being imposed on them, but there is a new Millennial generation that is more liberal and international. Although he says he never saw a woman not wearing a hijab, or alcohol for sale, he was surprised to find wanna-be hipsters. Trendy cafes are opening. It’s not nearly as trendy or wealthy as the Kurdish cities of Sulaimaniya or Erbil in the north, but he was surprised to see people seeking a new quality of life.
With elections coming up in Iraq and ISIS seemingly defeated, he characterizes the population as partly optimistic. “Many are also pessimistic about the future under current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the corruption among the business class.”
Abadi came to power during the war against ISIS and he is seen by the US and the West as a kind of hope for Iraq. However, opposition parties in the Kurdish region and Shi’ite leader such as Sadr plan to oppose his rule in the election. The small Communist Party is also seeking out allies against the administration.
“Corruption and politicians stealing money and getting favors from business class is discussed a lot, and people oppose the Islamist parties in government. Most people would like to see him [Abadi] out of power and lose the election, but they expect him to win. I’m not sure who they think should replace him.”
SINCE THE independence referendum in the Kurdish region in September 2017 there has been a lot of populist anger against the Kurdish autonomous region in the north. Whereas the Shi’ites and Kurds cooperated against Saddam, now that the Shi’ite parties are in power they see he Kurds as competitors. During clashes in Kirkuk province last October, Shia militias burned Kurdish shops in the city of Tuz Khurmatu. The burned Kurdish shops were still visible two months ago, he says.
“A lot of the anti-Kurdish sentiment stems from jealousy,” says the American. “You also hear conspiracy theories regarding the Kurds from the Arabs. They say Kurds are not from the Middle East or they are European interlopers or Gypsies,” he says. They also resent that the Kurds are pro-American and that their region prospered after 2003 while the rest of Iraq was damaged by insurgency.
The Kurdish region is relatively liberal as well, and people feel it has progressed socially compared to the south. “They have nicer highways and buildings and the Kurdish region is cleaner and has better government, that’s the perception.”
He says the presence of trash in the south is particularly egregious. “I rarely saw a street cleaner in my time in Karbala.” The hospitals were also lacking staff. “You call the local version of 911 and no one is there. Here are no ambulances.”
According to the visitor, who spent months in the south of Iraq, the presence of armed Shi’ite militias is ubiquitous. The Popular Mobilization Units were called up in 2014 by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to defend Baghdad from ISIS. Now the militia genie can’t be put back in the bottle and they have been incorporated into the official Interior Ministry forces with federal pay. “You see armed men all over the place. There are checkpoints on all roads leading into the cities. Some are controlled by the Iraqi police or army and others by the Popular Mobilization Units. “The central government isn’t strong enough to control the entire land area so they outsource the security to the militias.”
And the militias have political hopes as well. They are connected to influential individuals and groups such as the Badr Organization that are both political and military, like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Anastasio says that locals support these armed men and see them and Iran as a protector against “Western imperialism and Zionist incursions.” They won’t be going away any time soon.