In Iraq, a balance of power | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 18.05.2015
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Middle East

In Iraq, a balance of power

In the battle for Anbar, IS has taken almost the entire province west of Baghdad - and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the deployment of Shiite militias. Birgit Svensson reports from Fallujah.

The "Street of Olives" in Abu Ghraib is deserted. Only a handful of students scurry to the entrance of a university building. The adjacent factory, once Iraq's largest milk producer, has also been abandoned.

Fallujah destruction (Photo: Xinhua/Sami Jawad)

Fallujah has been the site of numerous battles

It's easy to assume that inhabitants are living in fear of militant group Islamic State. Fear and terror have prevailed since its forces attacked the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and proclaimed their own state. IS has been expanding through brute force.

"No, no," says a soldier at the checkpoint to assuage fears and adds, "it's not IS's fault that everyone's gone." The young man points to the sky where the midday sun is at its zenith. It's 45 degrees Celsius in the shade.

Abu Ghraib is the first city you reach in Anbar province, Iraq's largest, when traveling west from Baghdad. IS has attacked it several times. Parts of Fallujah, 40 kilometers (30 miles) further west, fell to the militants in early 2014.

IS now hopes to seize the capital Ramadi in the attack it launched two days ago.

A total of eleven checkpoints must be passed to reach Brigadier-General Ali Abdul Hussain Khadhim. His predecessor was killed in the fighting.

His headquarters is just under 50 kilometers from Baghdad. Ramadi is another 30 kilometers away. Black IS flags have been flying over the governor's palace since Sunday evening. It seems as though IS wants to take revenge for having been driven out of Tikrit at the end of March.

Shiites to the rescue

Today, 90 per cent of Anbar belongs to the militants. But Abu Ghraib has resisted this fate.

Two Iraqi officers

Ali Abdul Hussein Khadim (l) with one of his officers

On Monday morning, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abhadi ordered the deployment of Shiite militia in the battle for Ramadi. By noon, the checkpoints were already being staffed by mixed forces: Sunnis and Shiites were serving together.

That was not the originally plan, as Shiites are viewed with apprehension in the predominately Sunni province. This sentiment owes much to the Shiite former Prime Minister Nuri-al-Mailiki, who constantly excluded his Sunni countrymen from the political process and even prioritized Shiites recruitment in the army. Peaceful Sunni protests that lasted over a year were ignored and their demands were neglected.

In the end, Sunni forces in Anbar allied themselves with radical IS forces against the government in Baghdad. Shiites kept out of the battle for Anbar. But now, with the situation becoming more grave, the new Shiite prime minister wants to deploy all forces at his disposal.

However, al-Abadi seems be aware of the controversy surrounding his decision. To keep the religious conflict from flaring up again, large posters have been put up in Abu Ghraib and other parts of the province to improve the image of Shiites. "We serve all Iraqis," proclaim Shiite clergymen, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

Brigadier-general's garden

Petting zoo in the war zone

Even al-Abadi is doing everything in his power to prevent the situation from escalating. When members of a Shiite militia group in Baghdad set fires in the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya in Baghdad last week, the prime minister visited the area immediately to settle the dispute.

Between 2006 and 2008, the bloody clashes in the capital between the two Islamic sects were widely referred to as a civil war. Thousands were killed; hundreds of thousands fled. Now members of the IS are trying to revive the old conflict again by calling the Shiites "infidels" who therefore deserve death.

Back in Anbar, the general returns from his inspection of the frontline troops under his command. Germa is five kilometers from Fallujah. Everything behind it is IS country.

A brave face

But the diminutive 46-year-old brigade commander says the situation is calm, briefly taking off his purple beret. While the air conditioners hum in his office, the sun beats down on the garden paradise that the commander and his officers have created. Birds are chirping in an open cage, two ostriches are strutting around, stray cats are roaming about and a rooster is crowing in broad daylight. The surreal side of war reveals itself on a small piece of land.

Ali Abdul Hussain Kadhim is the commander of the Al-Muthanna brigade, one of the five army units stationed around Baghdad. They cover an area stretching from the outskirts of capital to as far away as Germa, a suburb of Fallujah, on the frontline against IS.

Khadhim must protect Abu Ghraib and the international airport, also a target IS covets. He says IS is militarily weak, and propaganda is their greatest strength. If so, that propaganda must be extremely effective. Soldiers in the Iraqi army keep deserting, as has again happened in Ramadi.

Estimates suggest half Iraq's soldiers have deserted, as can be seen from the forces under Khadhim's command. His brigade now consists of 3,400 men from the Iraqi army and 3,200 Shiite volunteers who have come to fight against IS.

Khadhim insists that Sunnis and Christians can be found in his ranks, but the Shiites far outnumber them.

The Habbaniya military base is on the road back to Baghdad. There, new recruits were supposed to have been sworn in on Monday at noon - but the ceremony was called off when the battle for Ramadi began.

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