Iraqi Shi'ites hail 'Sheikh' Putin's leadership

NAJAF (Iraq) • One of the most popular Facebook posts in Iraq's Shi'ite heartland is a photoshopped image of Russian President Vladimir Putin dressed in the robe of a southern tribal sheikh.

It was the United States-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein and empowered Iraq's long-repressed Shi'ite majority.

But with the struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) largely stalemated, it is the naked display of Russian military power in neighbouring Syria, and the leadership of "Sheikh Putin" that is being applauded by residents of this Shi'ite power centre.

"What the people in the street care about is how to get Daesh out of Iraq," said Iraqi MP Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum, using an Arabic name for ISIS.

"Now they feel Russia is more serious than the United States," he added.

Much of the popular fascination here with Mr 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 al-Assad as a brutal oppressor of Syria's Sunni majority.

But many Iraqi Shi'ites see Mr 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.

The Shi'ites are also concerned that the US-backed campaign against ISIS is moving too slowly, and that the US is no longer interested in being the dominant military power in the Middle East.

At a seminar of journalists and civic leaders last week, Mr Faris Hammam, the leader of the local writer's union, asked how many of those present were glad the Russian military was carrying out air strikes in Syria.

Most of them put up their hands. "The Russian intervention is welcomed, not because they like intervention but because of the American failure," Mr Hammam said.

Few Iraqis are aware of the US' assertion that most of the Russian strikes in Syria have been directed at opponents of Mr Assad, not at ISIS.

Many Iraqis are not eager for the US to send large numbers of ground troops back to their country. But they also harbour resentment at the unfulfilled expectations that the US occupation should have rebuilt Iraq.

Steeped in conspiracy theories, some say ISIS' persistence on the battlefield can only be a grand design of Washington.

"The Americans have the technology to spot water on Mars," said Mr Ahmed Naji, a professor at Kufa University. "So, why can't they defeat ISIS?"

Prominent Shi'ite cleric Mohammed Hussain Hakim said Moscow's new cachet said more about Iraqis' frustration with the pace of the joint American, allied and Iraqi campaign against ISIS than about support for Mr Putin.

"The Iraqis want effective, practical engagement against ISIS. It is not about Russian military intervention per se."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2015, with the headline 'Iraqi Shi'ites hail 'Sheikh' Putin's leadership'. Print Edition | Subscribe