A funeral procession for protesters killed in Baghdad violence. AP photo.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – US President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi both emphasized the importance of securing and stabilizing Baghdad.
The Saturday phone-call between the two leaders came amid renewed political turmoil in Baghdad where, on Friday, protesters supported by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr once again stormed the capital’s Green Zone, demanding that the government implement long-promised reforms.
The clashes paralyzed the city, injured hundreds, killed at least four, and saw the government closing key roads to the city’s Green Zone and deploying soldiers there. After a brief curfew the government claimed order was restored.
US officials have expressed cautious concern that the troubles in Baghdad may cause the government to lose focus of the war with the Islamic State.
In their phone call, Obama and Abadi “agreed on the critical importance of improving the security of Baghdad and the International Zone, noting the importance of continued dialogue among all parties in Iraq so that the Iraqi people can address their aspirations through their democratic institutions,” according to a White House statement.
On Friday, the Iraqi military implied that the protesters were hampering the war against ISIS.
“Infiltrators exploited our forces’ preoccupation with preparations for the Fallujah battle to penetrate state institutions and cause chaos,” the military claimed.
Fallujah, which is a mere 50 kilometers west of Baghdad, has been occupied by ISIS since January 2014. The Iraqi military says they plan to liberate Fallujah from ISIS before Mosul.
Friday’s events were the second storming of the Green Zone in less than a month. It also came after a series of car bombs, claimed by ISIS, killed over 200 people, making May the bloodiest month for the capital so far this year.
In spite of these tumults the US military spokesman for the American anti-ISIS operation, Col. Steve Warren, told reporters last Wednesday that Washington is confident it has a sufficient number of forces in place to counter any terrorist threats against American interests in Baghdad.
For the US the security and stability of Baghdad is important for the Iraqi war effort against ISIS. The US is counting on the Iraqis to organize themselves sufficiently enough to be able to force ISIS from the entirety of Iraq with close US coalition air and advisory support.
Col. Warren called on the Iraqis last Wednesday not to redeploy their troops from the frontlines to counter terrorist attacks in Baghdad or, possibly, to secure government institutions and assets from angry protesters.
"It’s an Iraqi government decision as to when they begin or if they begin to pull forces back. Our advice to the Iraqi government is to keep the pressure (on ISIS) up. We're going to support them in whatever decision they make, but our advice to them is to keep their foot on the gas, continue," Warren said.
Iraqis are worried that continued instability in Baghdad could lead to another civil war which could compromise the current war against ISIS.
“We already have a war against Islamic State, and this is more important,” a resident of Baghdad’s Sadr City told Voice of America on Saturday. “If we start a war against the government, we will have two wars, and this is not good for us. First, we should resolve the fight against ISIS.”
While the Iraqi Army, along with its Sunni tribal allies, have had recent successes in Anbar province – they recently liberated the strategically important town of Rutbah which sits on one of the main routes connecting Iraq to neighboring Jordan – progress against ISIS in Mosul has been slow.
Attempts to mount offensives against outlying ISIS-occupied villages on the Makhmour Front, which began late last March, haven’t yielded any significant strategic successes to date.
Nevertheless, the US is optimistic that the Iraqis are progressing towards reaching the ultimate goal that is the liberation of Mosul.
“Their (ISIS’s) territory is shrinking and they are now doing these suicide attacks (in Baghdad) against civilian populations. It is not going to work but this is what they are trying to do and it is nothing new,” said the US envoy to the US-led counter-ISIS campaign, Brett McGurk, last Sunday.
The Americans have repeatedly emphasized that the timing of the Mosul battle will be determined by the Iraqis. Continued internal instability and tumult in Baghdad, however, could potentially delay further this long-anticipated battle.