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"We are all al-Saadi": The controversy around Iraq's PM and the removal of CTS commander

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

A hashtag spreading on social media in support of CTS commander Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi (عبد الوهاب الساعدي) is calling into question decisions to seemingly sideline the well known commander two years after major combat operations against ISIS ended in Iraq. This comes amid several important trends in the country, including the rise of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) and concerns that their incorporation into t he security forces could make them a pillar of power in the country. In addition Iraq is still fighting ISIS presence and there are continued discussions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government about budgets. The US presence in Iraq, at the invitation of the government, has also been called into question amid rising Iran tensions. A mortar fell near the US embassy on September 23.

Iraq's President was in the US in late September to attend the UNGA and meet with US President Donald Trump. "Now, the task of rebuilding Iraq, reconstructing Iraq, affirming the sovereignty of Iraq, and being a partner in the neighborhood for a more stable Middle East is a hope and an aspiration that we look for the help of the United States and the help of the international community," President Barham Salih said on September 24. He met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on September 23. Iraq's Prime Minister is also supposed to have travelled to Saudi Arabia and will head to Iran amid the tensions over al-Saadi. He is also talking up a partnership with China. It should be noted that the border crossing between Iraq and Syria at Al-Qaim is supposed to be opened on September 30.

The removal of al-Saadi, which was announced over the weekend of September 27-28 has led to many questions in Iraq. Al-Saadi has also been vocal in his surprise and opposition to the orders. He has spoken to local media. He calls the transfer a "humiliation." A hashtag "we are all Al-Saadi" emerged soon after (#كلنا_عبد_الوهاب_الساعد).

The first reports of the transfer provided different reasons, including claims that he had clashed with supporters of the PMU and been pushed aside, or that it was due to the discovery of "ghost" employees in the CTS. One report notes: "While some saw it as a normal procedure that falls under a military context, other politicians and experts said that it came in the wake of deep disputes inside the CTS, led by General Talib Shaghati al-Kinani. A security source announced Friday that Abdul Mahdi referred Saadi to the ministry of defense." Al-Saadi has indicated that he did not want to be transferred to the Ministry of Defense and has been outspoken since the reports came out. Asharq al-Awsat notes "security expert Dr. Hisham al-Hashemi told the newspaper that the fight against ISIS was still ongoing and therefore holding onto the figures of victory in the meantime would lift the enemy's spirits." Rudaw reported: "Saadi told iNews he will not obey Abdul-Mahdi’s order that effectively freezes his military career and is ready to go to jail, if it comes to that. 'I have been on the frontlines against ISIS during the anti-ISIS operations in Iraq and have never hesitated in my duties,” Saadi said. 'I have also been offered to be Iraq’s Defense Minister, but refused because I am and will always be a ground commander.'"

Video shows protests have been placed online and there appears to be an outpouring of support for the commander. Many photos show the commander sleeping on the battlefield with his men, carrying the wounded and meeting with civilians. His battlefield exploits are remembered. There are many calls to support the Iraqi war hero. Irfaa Sawtak published a special report on the dismissal (link here). Although social media support is difficult to quantify, it appears the decision has left many Iraqi insiders and observers perplexed.

Among the analysis are claims that he was pushed out because he had seen too much action, a seemingly odd claim. Another argument asserts it was an internal power struggle within the CTS. David Witty also notes "Iraqi political source says PM Abdel-Mahdi has offered CTService’s Lieutenant General Abdel-Wahab al-Sa’idi position as military attaché or ambassador outside of Iraq. Sa’idi refuses." According to another report the Fatah Alliance leader whose Badr Organization plays a key role in the PMU, Hadi al-Amiri, affirmed that the PM would go through with the decision, even if it is wrong. Video of his response here and here.

Another commentator notes that given Saadi's record it is a major humiliation. Sajad Jiyad provides a long threat, worth reading, on the decision. He links it to disputes that emerged after the takeover of Kirkuk in 2017 by Baghdad and the removal of the Peshmerga. But Al-Saadi is known for continuing the fight against ISIS in the last two years.

Overall the discussion on Saadi's case appears to delve deeper into the cleavages in Iraq between the PMU, the US and other forces. Yet a lot of Iraqi media appear critical of the decision which makes the Prime Minister appear to have misstepped. Some reports to follow: Hawijah residents allegedly put pamphlets supporting the commander.

Some other theories presented, including relation to the visit to Saudi Arabia. Other sites have covered the controversy, some of them superficially.

In addition an article notes that numerous Iraqi political figures, including Ammar al-Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr expressed concern at the decision. It also appears the Minister of Defense Najah Al-Shammari and Osama Nujaifi opposed the decision. Hakim's comments were reported at Rudaw.

Riot police stopped demonstrators who sought to gather at a statue to Al-Saadi in Mosul on Sunday. The Prime Minister said the decision to transfer him was irreversible. The controversy continues to roil Iraq with questions remaining if it was due to Iran's pressure or because of other foreign issues. One statement inferred he had visited a "foreign embassy." Meanwhile the Iraqi PM is supposed to visit Tehran. This could strengthen perceptions that the decision was related to Iran. Fears remain that this is a bad sign for the future.

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