January 2016 Briefs (Free)

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 1


Nicholas A. Heras

Predominately ethnic Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are reportedly preparing to stage a major offensive against Islamic State forces in areas south of the strategic, oil-rich central-northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. It is believed that ethnic Turkmen militias, which historically have a tense relationship with the Kurds, organized under the Hashd Sha’abi (PMU-Popular Mobilization Units) national militia network, will participate in the Peshmerga campaign against the Islamic State (ARA News [Erbil], January 25). Although this campaign is an important step forward in local Iraqis’ fight against the Islamic State, it is unclear if ethnic Turkmen militias organized by the powerful Iraqi Turkmen political coalition, Irak Türkmen Cephesi (ITF-Iraqi Turkmen Front), led by its Chairman Arshad al-Salehi (Erşad Salihi), will participate in the Peshmerga’s campaign south of Kirkuk.

Al-Salehi, 57, one of the most important and powerful ethnic Turkmen Iraqi leaders, is a native of the Turkmen-majority district of Musalla in the city of Kirkuk (Turkmensani [Kirkuk], April 2, 2014). His family members were well-known political activists working toward greater recognition for Iraqi Turkmen’s cultural and communal rights under successive Arab nationalist governments in Iraq, and as a result of their activism, al-Salehi’s brother was assassinated by the government of Saddam Hussein and his family was forced into internal exile from Kirkuk into southern Iraq (Turkmensani [Kirkuk], April 2, 2014). Al-Salehi, himself a political activist from his youth, was imprisoned by Saddam Hussein’s government from 1979-1988; after his time in prison, he practiced clandestine activism for the ITF until the defeat and consequent removal of Saddam Hussein’s government from power in 2003 (Turkmensani [Kirkuk], April 2, 2014). Since 2003, al-Salehi has been a prominent ITF organizer and leader in Kirkuk city, the most important base of constituents for the ITF. Through these positions, he was first elected to the Iraqi Parliament to represent Musalla in 2010 and rose to become the Chairman of the ITF in 2011. He has survived several assassination attempts, notably a May 2011 mortar attack against his Musalla home, and a February 2014 drive-by shooting attack on his convoy while it was driving him around the Musalla district (YouTube, February 19, 2014; YouTube, May 11, 2011).

Both al-Salehi and the coalition that he leads are polarizing entities in northern Iraq. The ITF seeks to protect and assert the cultural and communal rights of ethnic Turkmen in Iraq, as well as beyond Iraq in neighboring countries such as Syria, with and without social and political cooperation with other ethnic groups such as Arabs and Kurds. It is believed to maintain strong ties to the Turkish government (Radio Sawa [Baghdad], December 16, 2015; Biz Turkmeniz [Kirkuk], November 26, 2015; YouTube, April 30, 2015; ARA News [Sanliurfa], April 28, 2015; Hurriyet Daily News [Ankara], May 30, 2014). Al-Salehi and the membership of the ITF are also associated with the ideology of the ethnic Turkmen militancy, including the creation of an autonomous Turkmen-led governorate in northern Iraq centered on Kirkuk, particularly in confrontation to ethnic Kurds that have sought to annex Kirkuk (YouTube, April 30, 2015; Al-Bayan [Baghdad], December 7, 2013; Al-Mustaqbal News [Kirkuk], July 28, 2013). Al-Salehi, as the leader of the ITF, has frequently made confrontational statements regarding the status of Kirkuk, including referring to Kirkuk as a “Turkmen city,” and making public statements that the Turkmen militia forces mobilized by the ITF would fight against what he perceives to be the Peshmerga occupation of Kirkuk as well as against the Islamic State (Rudaw [Kirkuk], December 9, 2014; Al-Jazeera [Doha], June 18, 2014). Peshmerga forces controversially took control over the city of Kirkuk in June 2014, arguing that the provocative move was a preemptive measure to protect the city and its surrounding area from the Islamic State’s advances (Al-Jazeera [Doha], January 11, 2016; Al-Jazeera [Doha], June 16, 2014).

Since 2014, al-Salehi has been the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Iraqi Parliament and in this role, al-Salehi has been a prominent advocate for the rights of his community, which includes raising awareness over targeted killings of his Turkmen constituents in communally-contested areas of Iraq, such as in Ninewah governorate and in and around the city of Kirkuk, the Islamic State’s systematic abduction and sexual crimes against Turkmen women throughout communally-mixed areas that it has seized in northern Iraq, and in publicly contesting the expansion of Kurdish territorial control over these areas of Iraq (Press TV [Kirkuk], January 12; Iraqi News [Baghdad], September 22, 2014; World Bulletin, March 20, 2014; Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty [Baghdad], March 18, 2011). He asserts that over 200,000 ethnic Turkmen Iraqis have been displaced by the Islamic State, and has made it a particular area of focus in his work on issues that impact the Turkmen community (Daily Sabah [Istanbul], July 28, 2015). Some estimates place the number of Turkmen displaced by the fighting at 600,000, out of a potential population of 3 million people located throughout northern Iraq’s Ninewah, Ta’mim (Kirkuk), and Salah al-Din governorates (Daily Sabah [Istanbul], July 28, 2015; Anadolu Agency [Kirkuk], November 28, 2014). Prior to the Islamic State’s Mosul offensive, he controversially sought the introduction of an international intervention force in Iraq, arguing that it would be used to protect Iraqis, particularly minorities such as the Turkmen, from attacks (Al-Sumeria [Baghdad], December 14, 2013).

Following the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul and significant areas of northern Iraq in June 2014, al-Salehi ordered the armament and mobilization of ITF members to protect Iraqi Turkmen communities threatened by IS’ advances, in spite of initial opposition from Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) opposition to the move (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], March 14, 2015; YouTube, February 2, 2015; Anadolu Agency [Kirkuk], November 28, 2014). It is estimated that 4,000 Iraqi ethnic Turkmen fighters, primarily Shia but also including Sunni, that have been mobilized against IS under the PMU structure (DotMasr [Cairo], May 9, 2015). The PMU mobilization of ethnic Turkmen also includes members of the ITF, leading to accusations that al-Salehi is aiding the expansion of Iranians influence in Iraq (Twitter, March 14, 2015). It is estimated that al-Salehi commands at least 500 ITF fighters from Kirkuk, which have been deployed in the front-lines to recapture ethnic Turkmen from the Islamic State (Afkar Hura [Kirkuk], March 22, 2015; Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], March 14, 2015; Twitter, TRT Avaz [Kirkuk], March 13, 2015; YouTube, January 3, 2015; Hurriyet [Kirkuk], June 17, 2014). Turkish Special Forces are reportedly conducting training for ethnic Turkmen fighters in camps throughout northern Iraq, including fighters from the ITF, and al-Salehi asserts that more than 500 ethnic Turkmen fighters have been killed fighting against IS (Al-Araby Al-Jadeed [Erbil], April 8, 2015).

Al-Salehi is one of the most dynamic and important Iraqi ethnic and sectarian minority leaders. His political importance within the Turkmen community of Kirkuk is now supplemented by his status as a militia leader, although one whose armed group is increasingly being incorporated into the Hashd Sh’abi structure. So long as he survives, al-Salehi’s influence and power in Iraqi politics is likely to increase into the foreseeable future due to the Turkmen community’s strong demographic presence and effective social mobilization, and increasingly armed organization, in the area of Kirkuk and throughout northern Iraq, along with the ITF’s strong ties to the government of Turkey.


Nicholas A. Heras

Military forces loyal to the Tripoli-based General National Conference (GNC) government, one of two separate Libyan parliamentary bodies that recently agreed to begin the process of forming a unified government, engaged Islamic State fighters seeking to seize the important oil fields in the vicinity of the central coastal towns of Es-Sider and Ras Lanuf (Saudi Gazette [Jeddah], January 30; Reuters, January 6). Commanding this operation is Major General Abd al-Salam Jadallah al-Ubaidi, the Chief of Staff of the Libyan security forces that are loyal to the GNC political bloc (Erem News [Abu Dhabi], January 8). General al-Ubaidi is responsible for the operations of Libyan military forces that defected to support the GNC, and this includes the current, slowly moving campaign against the Islamic State in and around Derna (Ayn Libya [Tripoli], November 17, 2015; Libya Akhbar [Tripoli], November 16, 2015).

Al-Ubaidi, 56, is a native of the town of al-Qabah, a suburb of the eastern coastal city of Derna, located in the Jabal al-Akhdar district of Cyrenaica governorate. A career officer in the Libyan Army under Gaddafi, General al-Ubaydi earned an advanced degree in military science in Libya and received management training in the United Kingdom (YouTube, February 14, 2015; Al-Quds Al-Arabi, July 30, 2013). Over his career in the Libyan military prior to 2011, General al-Ubaidi held several important leadership positions, including as the head of the elite Thunderbolt air wing in the Libyan Air Force, as the commander of the Libyan Special Forces NCO school, and was deployed to Lebanon in 1983 in support of Syrian-backed Palestinian militias (YouTube, February 14, 2015; Al-Quds Al-Arabi, July 30, 2013).

He defected from Gaddafi’s regime early in the Libyan revolution, and assumed command of the February 17th Revolutionary Movement’s Eastern Front soon after his defection (YouTube, February 14, 2015; YouTube, January 7, 2014). After the defeat of the Gaddafi regime, he was nominated to be Minister of Defense in the first post-revolutionary Parliament formed in October 2012 (Al-Jazeera [Doha], October 4, 2012). Although his nomination was not subsequently approved, his reputation as a military leader within the revolutionary movement and his strong political connections within the GNC led to his promotion to Chief of Staff of the post-Gaddafi Libyan Armed Forces in July 2013 (Al-Quds Al-Arabi, July 30, 2013; Al-Sharqiya [Tripoli], July 30, 2013). During his tenure as the Chief of Staff of the Libyan Armed Forces, General al-Ubaidi expressed particular concern in disarming, demobilizing, and reintegrating militias throughout Libya into the national security forces, and building the institutions of the Libyan Armed Forces (YouTube, November 6, 2013; YouTube, August 21, 2013; Al-Rassed Al-Libi [Tripoli], August 16, 2013). His goals were aligned with the security objectives of Libya’s foreign donors, particularly from Europe (Al-Wasat [Tripoli], May 26, 2014).

However, in spite of his stated goals to build a unified, strong, and nationally-focused Libyan Armed Forces, General al-Ubaidi has become embroiled in the factional political conflicts and the persistence of the power of localized and regional militias that continues to divide and destabilize his country. From his perspective of defending the unity of Libya’s Armed Forces, he is a vocal and committed opponent of General Khalifa Haftar. He supported the General National Congress (GNC) against Operation Dignity led by General Khalifa Haftar, and denounced Operation Dignity’s campaign in Benghazi against predominately Islamist militias affiliated with the Libyan Dawn coalition (Moheet [Tripoli], October 22, 2014; YouTube, May 19, 2014; Al-Raseefa [Tripoli], May 16, 2014; Al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], February 14, 2014).

As a result of his position in opposition of General Haftar and Operation Dignity, in June 2014 his motorcade was targeted by gunmen, although the assassination attempt against him failed (Al-Ahram [Cairo], June 3, 2014). He was later stripped of his rank as Chief of Staff of the Libyan Army by the House of Representatives, which is the competing government against the GNC based in the city of Tobruk. General al-Ubaidi has since become a primary opponent against Haftar’s bid to completely control the Libyan military forces, an effort that has been partially successful (Ajwa [Tripoli], June 3, 2015).

General al-Ubaidi is one of the most powerful military commanders in Libya who is also a revolutionary hero for many of the country’s militias. His association with the GNC, and by extension the militant Islamist militias within the Libyan Dawn coalition, is controversial but may not diminish the potential role he could play in reintegrating defected Libyan military forces back into a cohesive force structure. However, Al-Ubaidi’s rivalry with Khalifa Haftar is more problematic due to Haftar’s influence in the country’s politics and his control over many elements of the Libyan armed forces, including Special Forces and Libya’s small air force. The rivalry between al-Ubaidi and Haftar presents a strong challenge to any effort to reconstitute the incipient Libyan armed forces back into a unified military.