With the struggle against the Islamic State group largely stalemated, the naked display of Russian military power in neighboring Syria, and the leadership of “Sheikh Putin,” is being applauded by Shiites in Iraq.
NAJAF, Iraq — One of the most popular Facebook posts in Iraq’s Shiite heartland is a Photoshopped image of President Vladimir Putin of Russia dressed in the robe of a southern tribal sheikh.
It was the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein and empowered Iraq’s long-repressed Shiite majority. The United States also took the lead more than a year ago to assemble a coalition to conduct airstrikes in Syria and Iraq against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group.
But with the struggle against the Islamic State group largely stalemated, it is the naked display of Russian military power in neighboring Syria, and the leadership of “Sheikh Putin,” that is being applauded by residents of this Shiite power center.
Syrian troop advances: Syrian troops backed by Russian airstrikes advanced against insurgents in the center of the country as President Vladimir Putin defended Moscow’s intervention in the conflict, saying it would aid efforts to reach a political settlement by stabilizing the Syrian government and create conditions for a political compromise.
Cluster bombs: Human Rights Watch said an advanced type of Russian cluster munition was used in an airstrike southwest of Aleppo on Oct. 4.
Iraq hits ISIS: The Iraqi military said Sunday it had attacked a convoy in Iraq’s western Anbar province that included Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group. But a U.S. official said it could not confirm that al-Baghdadi or any other senior Islamic State group commanders had been targeted or struck.
Russia terror claim: Russia’s counterterrorism agency says it has arrested a group of people who were preparing to carry out an attack in Moscow.
Turkey blasts: Thousands mourned the 95 victims of Turkey’s deadliest attack in years as state inspectors tried Sunday to identify who sent suicide bombers to a rally promoting peace with Kurdish rebels. The government said Kurdish rebels or Islamic State group fighters were likely responsible, while mourners accused President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of fomenting violence to gain votes.
Seattle Times news services
“What the people in the street care about is how to get Daesh out of Iraq,” Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, a member of Iraq’s parliament, said, using an Arabic name for the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. “Now they feel Russia is more serious than the United States.”
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As if to underscore that point, one widely viewed YouTube video shows Putin striding purposefully to the sounds of a patriotic Iraqi song, which hails him as a leader with the vision and determination to bring stability to Iraq.
“We don’t have to say his name; he knows himself well,” the singer belts out in the video, which ends with a clip of Putin conferring with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran.
Much of the popular fascination here with “Sheikh Putin” stems from the projection of sectarian politics onto the international stage.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has outraged Sunni Arabs in the region who see President Bashar Assad as a brutal oppressor of Syria’s Sunni majority. But many Iraqi Shiites see Assad’s Alawite-dominated government as a bulwark against Sunni extremism and are heartened that Russia has joined forces with Iran and the Syrian government.
Further fueling Shiites’ concerns is the perception that the U.S.-backed campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq is moving too slowly and that the United States no longer wants to be the dominant military power in the Mideast.
At a seminar of journalists and civic leaders last week, Faris Hammam, the leader of the local writers union, asked how many attendees were glad the Russian military was carrying out airstrikes in Syria. Most shot up their hands.
“The Russian intervention is welcomed, not because they like intervention but because of the American failure,” Hammam said.
Few Iraqis are aware of the United States’ assertion that most of the Russian strikes in Syria have been directed at opponents of Assad, not at the Islamic State group. Those details have been overshadowed by the dramatic images of Russian planes blasting their targets below.
“In the Middle East, what often counts is strength — or at least the illusion of it,” said Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a London-based international-affairs research group.
Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is not on the front lines. But the war with the Islamic State group does not seem very far away. It was in Najaf that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites, called in June 2014 for the Iraqi people to take up arms against the Islamic State group after the Iraqi army abandoned Mosul.
At the Imam Ali Shrine, a golden-domed religious complex that draws millions of pilgrims a year, militia fighters fresh from their battles with the Islamic State group to the north carry the wooden coffins of their slain comrades. Displaced Iraqi families from Fallujah, Mosul and Ramadi — cities now firmly under the grip of the Islamic State group — live in makeshift housing along the highway outside Najaf.
The Imam Hussain Shrine in nearby Karbala was recently visited by Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds force. U.S. officials say Suleimani went to Moscow in late July in an apparent effort to coordinate on the Russian offensive in Syria, and he is also spearheading the Iranian effort to assist Iraqi militias.
Many Iraqis are not eager for the United States to send large numbers of ground troops back to their country, and the effort to rebuild the Iraqi army has been hampered by Iraq’s failure to recruit more volunteers. But an array of factors have shaped the perception of Russia’s role.
While sectarian tensions are clearly one element, many Iraqis also harbor resentment at the extravagant and unfulfilled expectations that the U.S. occupation should have rebuilt Iraq. Steeped in conspiracy theories, some say that the Islamic State group’s persistence on the battlefield can only be a grand design of Washington.
“The Americans have the technology to spot water on Mars,” said Ahmed Naji, a professor at Kufa University. “So why can’t they defeat ISIS?”
For Iraqis who recall the U.S. military juggernaut that toppled Hussein, the progress produced by the airstrikes and the United States’ effort to advise and train the Iraqi army seems inexplicably slow.
Wary of being caught up in the fighting, the Obama administration has limited the mission of the approximately 3,500 U.S. advisers and other military personnel in the country. The advisers, for example, do not go on the battlefield to call airstrikes for Iraqi troops — a restriction a former U.S. commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, recently told Congress should be eased.
Unhappy with the Islamic State group’s ability to control much of northern and western Iraq, some Iraqis would like the United States to strengthen its military effort by increasing the number of advisers, broadening their role and cracking down on the group’s supply lines from Turkey.
“We have to put pressure on the United States to change their attitude and make more actions to help the Iraqi people,” Bahrululoom, the Iraqi parliament member, said.
The groundswell of Shiite support for Russia’s actions already appears to be influencing Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. The Russian transport planes that ferried weapons and equipment to the Kremlin’s new base in Latakia, Syria, passed through Iraqi airspace without complain. And the Iraqi military announced last month that it had joined a working group to share intelligence with the Russian, Iranian and Syrian governments.
There appear to be limits, however, to Russian-Iraqi military cooperation. While Hakim al-Zamili, the leader of parliament’s defense and security committee, has gone so far as to suggest that the Russian-led coalition might one day supplant the U.S.-led one in Iraq, there is nothing to suggest the government has such a plan.
Still, with his eye on his public and possibly Russia’s Iranian ally, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq has been careful not to slam the door on cooperation with Moscow.
”Inside Iraq, there are very dangerous guys, so I think to have the Russians on board will help me,” al-Abadi told PBS NewsHour this month.