Fire in Baghdad, smoke in Anbar: new pressure to isolate the Antichrist

An Iraqi demonstrator at an anti-governmen protests in Baghdad on November 4, 2019. Photo: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP

Fire in Baghdad, smoke in Anbar: new pressure to isolate Sadr

The political deadlock in Iraq continues after the third failed attempt to elect a president of the country on March 26, and after top Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr gave his rivals a 40-day window to form a government without him from April 1. No major political progress has been made, but in the province of Anbar – the current capital of Sunni decision-making – attempts to separate the tripartite alliance have heated, involving both the power of the gun and the judiciary. 

Anbar is the hometown of a number of current Sunni political players, including Speaker of Parliament Mohammed al-Halbousi, and the head of the largest Sunni alliance, the Sovereignty Alliance, Khamis al-Khanjar. Anbar is also the pathway between Iran and the Shiites to Syria, and from there to Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the basin of the Mediterranean Sea. Due to the fact that it was one of the provinces that fell to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), when the city was re-controlled in December 2015, several strategic areas fell in the hands of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd al-Shaabi), similar to the later stages of what occurred in Nineveh and Salahaddin.

As a result, the large area of land in Anbar that became a brief asylum for Saddam Hussein and his family after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, is now one of the enclosures of Hashd al-Walayi (a hardliner faction of Hashd al-Shaabi). As it neighbors Karbala, and because there are a number of disputed areas between the two provinces – Nikheb and Rahaliya – there are more eyes on it.

The situation with ISIS has paved the way for PMF hegemony in western Iraq, which is now one of the cards being used by the Shiite Coordination Framework to strike Halbousi and force the Sunni Sovereignty Alliance to withdraw from the tripartite alliance. According to the fact that after Baghdad and Mosul, Anbar is now the center of Sunni decision-making, the Shiites have made attempts for it on numerous fronts, including freeing Rafi al-Issawi, the former minister of finance, from prison, as well as supporting Abu Risha: the first of whom is a key Anbar figure with greater popularity and experience than Halbousi and Khanjar, and the second of whom is a sort of opponent to the Speaker. When military forces went to arrest him, following his harsh March 31 tweets, his guest house was covered by Hummers and soldiers of Hezbollah units.

The pressures on Halbousi include directing the PMF towards Anbar and the western side of Iraq, followed by threats from tribes for opposing them, and also the return of another Halbousi rival, Sheikh Ali al-Hatami, the head of the Dulaimi tribe.

Hatami, who has a high social stature in Anbar, headed a number of Anbar tribal armed groups eight years ago, and saw his relationship with then-PM Nouri al-Maliki crack. As a reaction, he began to praise ISIS, telling Reuters in a 2014 interview that he was ready to collaborate with ISIS, raising the slogan of “We’re coming for Baghdad” as a threat. Because of his actions, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Now, he returns to Baghdad, accompanied by a number of guards from armed units that are allegedly affiliated with Hezbollah. This jeopardizes the leadership of Halbousi and Khanjar in the Sunni public bases, especially in Anbar. After arriving in Baghdad, Hatami hit out at Halbousi and Sadr, and his support for the Coordination Framework’s project for adaptation was clear from his tweets and public appearances.

Using the judicial system and the court to break political rivals is an old and well-known Maliki tactic. During his reign as PM from 2005 to 2014, Article 4 of terrorism was specific for rivals and opposition of Sunnis, and now, with the pardoning of two wanted individuals, and rumors circulating around more to come, the magician is about to fall under his own spell. Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri and many of the PMF groups were forced to indirectly condemn the pardoning of the wanted Sunnis, and exonerate themselves from being aware or having made arrangements for the return of Hatami.

The intensification of the Coordination Framework’s efforts in Anbar follows the fear of direct confrontation with Sadr and his partners, and after a sense of growing hopelessness around Masoud Barzani’s stance in the tripartite alliance. This province, which does not have powerful strategic depths, is expected to fall under more pressure and disharmony, in order to take down one of the main components of the Save the Homeland Alliance. Halbousi and Khanjar have shown no obvious signs of retracting from the alliance.

A theory circulating around is that this the second stage of March’s Erbil missile attack and later burning of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) office in Baghdad, especially since the Iranians canceled a scheduled visit from Halbousi on March 26, so that he appears a rejected character in Tehran.

There are also a lot of rumors that Iran and the United Arab Emirates have entered the conversation to discuss attempts made by Shiite groups to remove Halbousi and Khanjar from the tripartite alliance. The Shiite camp remains attached to Sadr, because any government and alliance formed with Sadr and his bloc will lead to violent confrontations, protests, and chaos, similar to the time they stormed the parliament and government, and he himself took his tent to the Green Zone in 2014.

Yaseen Taha is an expert on Iraqi affairs, and has written this article specifically for Rudaw Research Center.

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