Trip to UNGA: Will it embolden Abadi over Mosul offensive?

An offensive to retake Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, is imminent

Dina al-Shibeeb
Dina al-Shibeeb - Al Arabiya English
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Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is heading to New York to attend the UN General Assembly (UNGA) on Monday, which could embolden him politically in the run up to the offensive to retake Mosul, the country’s second-largest city.

The UNGA will be “an opportunity for Abadi to meet with world leaders and present a case for Iraq,” Ghassan Attiyah, president of the Iraqi Foundation for Development and Democracy, told Al Arabiya English.

“Since he represents more of a moderate Shiite, he needs support to stand against militant Shiites in Iraq.”

After Iraq’s army was unable to stop the lightning offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in capturing Mosul in June 2014 and Ramadi in May 2015, a mainly Shiite volunteer force known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) emerged to take on the militants, overshadowing the army.

The PMUs - which include Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and Turkmen fighters - have become official, reporting to Abadi’s office, but they continue to compete with the central government.

On Sept. 1, Hadi al-Amri, head of the PMUs, boasted about how they had become “stronger” than Iraq’s army, and “no one can stop us in the upcoming battles.” Sunnis fear that the Iran-supported PMUs will be fighting to retake Mosul.

Other political forces - including former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who covets a third term - have also worked to undermine Abadi.

Professor George Joffe, a Middle East expert at Cambridge University, said Abadi’s appearance at the UNGA “can show him as the internationally accepted prime minister of Iraq, giving him some strength against Maliki.”

Abadi, who took office after Maliki in Sept. 2014, was seen as the much-needed anti-corruption, anti-sectarian reformist, and most importantly as a moderate Shiite, as opposed to his predecessor, who was seen as partisan.

However, Maliki’s allies and ongoing tensions in parliament have obstructed Abadi’s reform drive.

US President Barack Obama has a meeting scheduled with Abadi, and will discuss Iraq’s progress against ISIS, the Mosul operation, and the humanitarian crisis in the country, said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

The UN has dubbed the looming Mosul offensive a “huge challenge,” as it expects about 1.5 million people to flee in a short space of time. Some 3.3 million Iraqis were internally displaced people (IDPs) as of Dec. 2015.

The US recently announced more than $181 million in aid to address the humanitarian crisis due to the ISIS insurgency.

With the number of IDPs expected to rise, Iraq’s approximately $22-billion deficit, and “no agreement between Iraqi factions” on coordinating the Mosul offensive, “Abadi will ask UN member states for more support,” Baghdad-based analyst Ahmed al-Abyadh told Al Arabiya English.

“He’ll most likely ask for military support and increased UN help, especially in terms of helping displaced people,” said Abyadh, adding that “reconciliation” efforts among Iraq’s factions are needed.

“The main issue to be discussed at the UNGA is how to make Iraqis go back to the negotiation table, especially with the Kurds.”

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, “is touring Europe pressing for independence,” said Abyadh. “This is a very big problem.”

Attiyah said the UNGA could be an opportunity for Abadi to talk about Iraq “losing its independence to regional powers.”

In Nov. 2015, the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously called on its member states to fight ISIS.

The following month, the UNSC passed a resolution strengthening legal measures against those doing business with terrorist groups, targeting mainly ISIS.

Currently, however, “I don’t think there’s anything on the table regarding Iraq, no pending resolutions, only recommendations that can’t be enforced,” Attiyah said.

“Iraq needs international and UN peacekeeping forces in Mosul to prevent warring parties from fighting and trying to fill the vacuum after ISIS. I’m not sure Abadi will recommend or ask for that.”

Joffe said: “The UN can’t do much. Only Iraqi forces, and the Americans supporting them, can stabilize the situation, so I don’t think the UN will have much of a role to play.”

Considering the circumstances, if Abadi manages to consolidate support for the Mosul offensive, it will immensely help his position back home.

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