Iraq army alone doing war against IS in Ramadi

Baghdad—As fighting in Iraq raged last summer, Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani came across unexpected opposition to his plans to defeat Islamic State.
Soleimani is the commander of Iran’s al-Quds brigade and has been a key figure in the fight against the Sunni Islamist group in Iraq. That fight has been led not by Iraq’s army but by Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.
But in August, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Soleimani that a planned assault on the Sunni city of Ramadi should be left to the Iraqi army, according to a government official and two diplomats.
Abadi, a 64-year-old Shi’ite, wanted the militias to stay away to avoid inflaming ethnic tensions, the sources said. Abadi’s office declined to comment on the story, which has been repeated in Baghdad’s diplomatic circles for months. Three Iraqi politicians denied it ever happened.
But the government official and the diplomats said the incident was one of a series of moves by Abadi to assert his authority as leader and to distance himself from Tehran and the militias that came to Baghdad’s rescue in 2014 and early 2015.
Abadi has begun to push for reconciliation between Iraq’s Shi’ites and Sunnis, and for better relations with Sunni Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia, they said.
If he can bridge the gap between rival sectarian communities as he has promised, he will have gone a long way towards reuniting a country which has been deeply riven since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
According to the government official and the two diplomats, Abadi also objected to Soleimani’s plane landing at Baghdad airport without prior permission. Abadi was also irritated that Soleimani used an official VIP hall at the airport when entering Iraq, even though he was not officially invited by the government.
The deterioration in their relationship, the sources said, began in August when Soleimani attended a top Iraqi security meeting run by Abadi and behaved in, what one source said, was “a bossy manner as if Iraq was an Iranian protectorate”.
This, the sources said, had led Abadi to ask Soleimani why he was at the meeting. The Iranian general had then left. “Abadi questioned his presence. It was a matter of Iraqi sovereignty and nationalism,” one Western diplomat said. Abadi’s office declined to comment.
The Iraqi government official said Abadi and Soleimani had not fought but were “keeping an operational, business-like relationship. We can’t say it’s warm”.
Whatever the case, Soleimani has receded from public view in Iraq in the past six months. The omnipresent posters and television images of him on the battlefield have all but disappeared.
There are likely to be limits to that change. Iran’s allies within Abadi’s Shi’ite camp are pushing back against his more muscular stance, while the collapse in oil prices has cut the government budget, said Hisham al-Hashemi, an Iraqi government adviser and an expert on Islamic State.
For now though, Abadi seems to be trying to deliver on his initial address to parliament in 2014 in which he painted a vision of a decentralized and united Iraq.
The army’s victory in Ramadi against the ultra-hardline Sunni militant group was a key moment. An elite corps of the Iraqi army dislodged Islamic State from the city, the largest in western Iraq, in the final days of 2015. Support came from U.S. warplanes while Sunni tribesmen held the ground behind the army lines.
The army is now preparing to take on Islamic State in Falluja, a bastion of Sunni jihadists to the west of Baghdad, and plans to start a push towards Mosul, the largest northern city. It was the fall of Mosul to Islamic State in 2014 that forced the exit of Abadi’s predecessor Nuri al-Maliki.—Reuters

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