Oct 17th 2015
AT CHECKPOINTS across the country, Iraq’s many and various security forces cheer Russia’s arrival as an answer to their failure to turn the tide after 16 months battling the jihadists of Islamic State (IS) in north-western Iraq. “The US and its coalition did nothing,” says a policeman, back from a month on the front. “Finally we’ll have a real coalition with the clout to contend with IS.”
Late last month, Iraq signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia which infuriated the Americans. Days later Russia’s generals established an operations room with America’s two regional foes, Iran and Syria, inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, which houses America’s embassy. Then Russia fired missiles from the Caspian Sea through Iraqi airspace en route to Syria. Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister (pictured, left, with Vladimir Putin), has appealed to Russia to expand its air campaign from Syria to include IS targets in Iraq. His forces also proudly show off their Russian tanks. Some officials even talk of giving the Russians an airbase. “We want a full-blown military alliance,” says a senior security official.
America has reacted with consternation to the notion that, after it has expended hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives, Russia might regain the hold on Iraq it last exercised at the height of the cold war. Until now Mr Abadi, the prime minister America shoehorned into place last year, has been dutiful. Iranian military overflights destined for Syria have dwindled from 20 a day to a handful, says a Western diplomat in Baghdad. But his threat to reach out to the Russians, coupled with his failure to do anything significant to implement a promised anti-corruption drive, has prompted some Western powers to start looking for alternative leaders.
Filling a vacuum
Mr Abadi’s men argue that beggars cannot be choosers. Iraq spends a quarter of its budget fighting IS, despite a government deficit made worse by falling oil prices. A bond issue marketed overseas earlier this year failed to attract punters, despite offering an interest rate of 11%. And while America insists it remains on course to “degrade and destroy” IS (in Barack Obama’s words), the Iraqis suspect it has merely set its sights on containing the caliphate rather than rolling it back. That would amount to a permanent division of their country.
From a position of weakness, Mr Abadi is trying to play America’s coalition off against the putative Russian one. American aid has fallen by over 80% since the surge of troops it sent in against IS’s precursors, al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2007; and the government’s limited resources mean that it delivers weapons to its forces late and in a trickle. “We were expecting the international coalition, the Americans, to bring massive air power to protect our forces,” Mr Abadi has said. “We haven’t received that.”
The gamble may be paying off. The threat of an enhanced Russian role seems to have stirred America into action. In recent days the coalition has intensified its strikes on Baiji and Ramadi, providing air cover as Iraqi forces have girded themselves for a fresh push against IS lines. Never before has IS faced such multiple offensives, says an American official.
But there are also dangers. The region’s sectarian problems risk getting worse and broadening. Iraq’s cartoonists now portray Mr Putin as a Shia tribal hero, giving the region’s Shia powers (currently led by Iran) a global reach. Meanwhile, Sunni powers still look grudgingly to America, despite Mr Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. After months of waiting, some of Syria’s rebels have at last received an American arms drop (ostensibly to fight IS, not the Syrian regime). In Iraq, America is again arming and training thousands of tribesmen, adding a Sunni flank to the Iranian-dominated fight against IS. On the street and in parliament, some Sunnis have denounced Russia’s return to Iraq’s stage as vehemently as Shias have championed it. One cartoonist summed up IS’s response: “Bring back America’s bombs and spare us Russia’s!”
Not all Sunnis and Shias are so entrenched, however. Militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Shia cleric, insist they will fight Russians as fiercely as they once fought Americans. And Sunnis hopeful of returning to Mosul, Iraq’s second city now in IS’s hands, doubt Mr Obama is up to the job. To retake Mosul, we’ll need the Russians,” says Mishaan al-Jabbouri, a Sunni politician and tribal leader who was briefly Mosul’s mayor.