by Y. Graff
This debate largely reflects Iraq's sectarian division between Shi'ites, who view Russia as an ally along with Iran, and Sunnis, who treat it with great suspicion.
In late September 2015, prior to his departure for New York to attend the UN General Assembly, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-'Abadi announced the establishment of a joint intelligence center in Baghdad for Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Russia. The intelligence center, he said, would focus on collecting intelligence on the Islamic State (ISIS) so as to assist the Iraqi army in combating it, and would be staffed by military and intelligence personnel from these four countries.
The intelligence center began work in early October, with the arrival in Baghdad of its personnel, and on October 14, Iraqi parliamentary National Security and Defense Committee chairman Hakem Al-Zameli said that the Iraqi army had launched its first strike on ISIS targets based on the center's intelligence operations.
In addition to the establishment of the joint intelligence center, there have been recent reports on increased Iraq-Russia cooperation, and that Russia could strike ISIS targets in Iraq, as it is doing in Syria at this time. The Iraqi government has to date denied asking Russia for such help.
Russian involvement in Iraq, which since 2003 had been accustomed to significant U.S. activity on its soil, is a new development, and it has sparked public debate in the country. This debate largely reflects Iraq's sectarian division between Shi'ites, who view Russia as an ally along with Iran, and Sunnis, who treat it with great suspicion. Sunni politicians and clerics have expressed their opposition to Russian involvement in Iraq, while Shi'ite politicians, headed by Prime Minister Al-'Abadi, have expressed their support for it.
This divide was also seen in articles in the Iraqi press, all of which expressed disappointment with the U.S. and the U.S.-led international coalition, which in over a year of operation have failed to improve things in the country, sparking a debate regarding an alternative.
This report will review the public debate in Iraq regarding Russian involvement in the country.
Reports Of Closer Russian-Iraqi Military Collaboration – And U.S. Chagrin
As noted, along with the establishment of the joint intelligence center, numerous reports in the Arab press stated that Russia could attack ISIS targets in Iraq, as it has been doing in Syria. Thus, for example, on October 7, 2015, the website of the Saudi Al-Arabiya TV reported that Iraqi parliamentary National Security and Defense Committee head Hakem Al-Zameli, who is a member of the party of Shi'ite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr, assessed that the joint intelligence center in Baghdad would lead the war on ISIS in Iraq. He also said that Iraq would soon ask Russia to play a greater role than the U.S. in this war. On October 8, 2015, the Iraqi daily Al-Mada reported that a delegation led by Iraqi National Security Advisor Faleh Al-Fayyad and other officials was to go to Moscow to discuss the possibility of Russian airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq. Additionally, on October 13, 2015, Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled Al-'Obaidi hosted Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation director, Alexander Fomin, to discuss contracts between the two countries for arming and training Iraqi forces, with an emphasis on troops for wresting Al-Anbar province and the city of Mosul from ISIS.
In contrast to these reports, however, Iraqi government spokesman Sa'ad Al-Hadithi denied any negotiations between Russia and Iraq on expanding Russian military strikes to Iraq.
According to Russian Federation Council Chairman Valentina Matviyenko, Iraq has never asked Russia to conduct airstrikes in its territory; she added, "If Iraq does submit an official request to Russia, the country's leadership will examine the political and military benefits of our air force's participation in such aerial operations, but meanwhile there has been no such request."
Likewise, on October 20, 2015, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford arrived in Iraq; during his visit, he told the press corps accompanying him that the Iraqi prime minster and defense minister had told him in his meetings with them that Iraq had neither requested military assistance from Russia nor asked for airstrikes in its territory, and that Russia was not even considering doing this. He added that Defense Minister Al-'Obaidi had said that the joint intelligence center had yet to begin its work. The London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat reported that U.S. military elements were pressuring Iraq not to involve Russia in airstrikes against ISIS, fearing that this would complicate the activity of the U.S.-led international coalition, which is not coordinated with Russia.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-'Abadi (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the UN General Assembly (image: Ara.tv, October 19, 2015)
Shi'ite Politicians Welcome Russian Military Involvement, Sunni Politicians Oppose It
Russian involvement in Iraq, new for a country accustomed to an American presence, particularly in the past two decades, has sparked a public debate that is exposing the lines dividing Iraq's political and sectarian elements. As noted, while Sunni politicians and clerics opposed a Russian presence in Iraq, Shi'ite politicians, chiefly Prime Minister Haider Al-'Abadi, welcomed it.
While supporters of Russian airstrikes claim that they could further the struggle against ISIS, those opposed fear that they would cause further infringement on Iraqi sovereignty, already impacted by foreign elements, and could harm civilians, mainly Sunnis, in ISIS-controlled areas.
Shi'ite Politicians: U.S. Has Failed And Therefore We Must Use Russia's Help Against ISIS
Although he has not explicitly expressed a wish for Russian airstrikes in his country, Prime Minister Al-'Abadi has said that he was willing to consider the possibility. Asked by France 24 TV whether his government had discussed the possibility that Russia would bomb ISIS targets on Iraqi soil, he said: "Not yet, but it is a possibility, and if [Russia] submits such a proposal, we will examine it." Al-'Abadi stressed said that Russia had a genuine interest in fighting ISIS, because over 2,000 Russian recruits have joined it. Also, at an October 3, 2015 press conference, Al-'Abadi justified the establishment of a joint intelligence center, stressing that Iraq would accept any help from any country willing to fight ISIS. He expressed amazement at those with reservations about collaboration with Russia, saying that they "are acting as if they are relatives of President Barack Obama."
Other Shi'ite politicians hastened to side with the prime minister in supporting Russian military involvement, arguing that the U.S. had failed to defeat ISIS. Iraqi parliamentary National Security and Defense Committee chairman Al-Zameli stated that the joint intelligence center was established in response to "the U.S.'s failure to fulfill its role and its missions in the war against ISIS" and that Russia has "substantial intelligence capabilities." Another member of Al-Zameli's Shi'ite party, Hussein Al-'Awadi, told the Lebanese daily Al-Safir that the four-country coalition "can achieve true victories in Syria and Iraq, after the international coalition [led by the U.S.] had no achievements to show." Muwaffaq Al-Rabi'i, a member of the Shi'ite State of Law Coalition, called Iraq's increasingly close relations with Russia "a result of the international coalition's hesitancy in its fight against armed groups in Iraq, causing Iraq to lose more land to ISIS, as in Al-Ramadi."
Sunni Politicians: Russian Involvement Endangers Iraqi Sovereignty And Will Eliminate The Sunnis
On the other hand, Sunni politicians expressed reservations regarding Russia's military involvement in the country. Thus, for example, Sunni parliament speaker Salim Al-Jabouri said that he welcomed efforts by friends of Iraq to combat ISIS, but underlined that it is Iraq's parliament "that determines positions regarding coordination with any country or [joining] a new international axis." Mohammed Al-Karbouli, a member of the same party and of the parliament's Security and Defense Committee, told the London-based Qatari daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi that the establishment of the joint intelligence center in Baghdad endangers Iraqi sovereignty and "will turn Iraq into an arena for settling scores between international powers, at the expense of [Iraq's] land, people, and future." Al-Karbouli demanded a parliamentary discussion on why the intelligence center was established without the parliament's knowledge.
Along with the politicians, Sunni Iraqi cleric 'Abd Al-Malik Al-Sa'adi stated in a press release that Russia's increased military involvement in Iraq was aimed at cooperating with Iran to eliminate the Sunnis in Iraq and Syria: "Russian bombings in Syria, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-'Abadi's call to the Russians to drop bombs in Iraq, are aimed at eliminating this great sector of the population [i.e. Sunnis] in both countries. This is because Al-'Abadi knows for certain that they [the Russians] are not harming a single ISIS member, but are destroying the infrastructure of that country [Syria] and eliminating its people." Anbar tribal council official Turki Al-'Ayid told Al-Mada that Russian involvement would merely thwart the eradication of terrorism from Al-Anbar province, because of disagreements between Russia and the members of the international coalition that is assisting the Iraqi fighters. Another Sunni leader from Al-Anbar, Sheikh Kamal Al-Muhammadi, told the daily Al-Hayat that armed Sunni factions have even threatened to forcefully oppose any Russian military intervention.
Mustafa Habib, a writer for the Iraqi political website Al-Niqash, explicitly attributed the schism in Iraq regarding Russian involvement and the establishment of the joint intelligence center to the Sunni-Shi'ite split in the country. He said that Shi'ites see Russia and Iran as their allies, and that some Shi'ite militias operating in Iraq against ISIS, such as the Badr and Hizbullah brigades, are directly tied to Iran and hostile to the U.S. Conversely, Sunnis see Russia as an Iranian ally that supports Shi'ite militias with the intent of killing Sunnis, and thus place more trust in the U.S. This is why Sunnis try to acquire American weapons directly, without the mediation of the Shi'ite-controlled Iraqi government, an attempt that the Shi'ite factions have thus far managed to thwart.
Iraqi Press Argues For And Against Russian Involvement
The following two articles exemplify the schism in the Iraqi political arena between Sunnis, who oppose increasing Russian involvement in Iraq and see it as a danger to Iraqi sovereignty, and Shi'ites, who view it as a golden opportunity to restore Iraq's sovereignty over territory taken by ISIS.
Iraqi artist painting a portrait of Putin, from Gulf News article on the Russian president's growing popularity in Iraq (image: gulfnews.com, October 8, 2015)
Article on Pro-Sunni Website: Russian Involvement Places Iraqi Sovereignty At Risk
Kurdish researcher Jawdat Hoshyar wrote in the pro-Sunni Iraqi website Babil.info that, according to Russian reports, the role of the Baghdad intelligence center is not simply to supply intelligence, but also to bring about a tight security collaboration between the four countries. This would also include coordinating between the special forces of the four armies and providing authorization for Russian drones to operate in Iraqi airspace, thus "bringing Russia into the frontlines against ISIS through the Iraqi gate, causing a constant increase in the Russian-Iranian influence in Iraq." According to Hoshyar: "Washington's position regarding these developments can be characterized as weak, since the [existing] trend in the U.S.,... both in public opinion and in the White House and Pentagon, is to try and avoid entering into Middle East conflicts. Moscow has used this golden opportunity to penetrate the region under the guise of a war against terrorism, placing what is left of Iraq's sovereignty in a state of instability."
Pro-Iranian Website: "Our Friend Russia, Welcome"
Saif Aktham Al-Muzaffar wrote in the pro-Iranian Iraqi newspaper Al-Akhbar that Iraq should ensure its interests and form strong bonds with Russia, after its alliance with the U.S. has caused it massive damage. He wrote: "If Iraq does not use this golden opportunity [to launch security collaboration with Russia] in order to heal its wounds and make up for the losses it has suffered due to the Americans, it will never be able to liberate its land, given the economic and logistical difficulties of the campaign. [Iraq] must go hand in hand with the strongest ally on the international arena, the friend Russia, after it has expressed consent to an intelligence and military collaboration and to attacking [ISIS] positions in Iraq, and after it put the ball in the Iraqi court by saying: 'We will expand our attacks on ISIS to include Iraq if Baghdad asks this.' [Now] Iraq should merely say 'our friend Russia, welcome.'"
*Y. Graff is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 Al-Mada (Iraq), October 14, 2015.
 Ara.tv, October 7, 2015.
 Al-Mada (Iraq), October 8, 2015.
 Al-Mada (Iraq), October 13, 2015.
 Al-Mada (Iraq), October 7, 2015.
 Ria.ru, October 6, 2015.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 21, 2015.
 Al-Hayat (London), October 17, 2015.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), October 1, 2015.
 Al-Sabah Al-Jadid (Iraq), October 3, 2015.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), September 29, 2015.
 Al-Safir (Lebanon), October 10, 2015.
 Al-Mada (Iraq), September 29, 2015.
 Al-Hayat (London), October 9, 2015.
 Elaph.com, October 9, 2015.
 Al-Mada (Iraq), October 20, 2015.
 Al-Hayat (London), October 19, 2015.
 Niqash.org, October 8, 2015.
 Babil.info, October 8, 2015.
 Akhbaar.org, October 8, 2015.
Y. Graff is a research fellow at MEMRI.
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.