He's a Traitor: Minister of Defense Go Home!

Carl Yonker analyzes the Islamic State (ISIS / ISIL) success in Iraq and the concomitant furor on social media, including a campaign calling for the resignation of Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi.

In late April, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took control of a region of strategic importance west of Ramadi, in the Anbar province of Iraq, where the al-Tharthar dam is also located. During the campaign, ISIS forces overran the army base adjacent to the dam and executed 120 Iraqi soldiers, including Brigadier General Hassan Abbas Toufan, the commander of the Iraqi Army’s 1st Division.[1]This failure is a further demonstration of the Iraqi security forces’ inability to mount a suitable strategic response in the fight against ISIS and forestall its offensives, certainly not without the assistance of the Iraqi Popular Forces known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi and other Shi'i militias operating in Iraq under Iranian sponsorship. In the Iraqi political arena, this loss provided another opportunity for the Shi'i opponents of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Minister of Defense Khaled al-Obeidi to attack their management of the fight against ISIS. The fall of Ramadi in mid-May also contributed to the escalating campaign against the two, for which social networking sites are the main platform.

In October 2014, against the backdrop of the humiliating defeats of the Iraqi army by ISIS the preceding summer, Khaled al-Obeidi, a Sunni Muslim from Mosul, was appointed minister of defense in the government of Haider al-Abadi. His appointment was a message to Iraqis that al-Abadi was looking for a new way to fight the Islamic State, as well as an effort to ameliorate the fears of Iraq’s Sunni citizens who considered the Iraqi military a sectarian force. This step was received with anger by the Shi'i opposition to al-Abadi. The massacre at al-Tharthar provided the opposition with additional ammunition for attacking both the defense minister and the prime minister.

Shortly after news of the massacre was published in the media, a Facebook page entitled “Defense Minister Go Home” was launched. The page, which directed users’ attention to the deaths of the Iraqi soldiers and called on the Defense Minister to resign, has now accumulated 6,000 likes.[2] Based on the content of the page, it appears to be managed by Shi'i Iraqis who support the Shi'i militias, particularly the Popular Forces. This is evident from the many posts calling for support of this militia, which one user called “the Shield of Iraq”[3] and the posts criticizing the inability of the Iraqi Army to achieve any victories over ISIS without the support of the Popular Forces.[4] A picture of the demonstration supporting the forces held in Baghdad was also published on this page and later shared via Twitter. [5]

An image published on this page shortly after its establishment claimed that al-Abadi and al-Obeidi were the reason for the massacre of Iraqi soldiers at al-Tharthar.[6] Another addressed al-Obeidi accusingly: “If you heard them cry and did not come to their assistance, you must resign.” A response to the picture let users complete the sentence themselves: “If you knew of this tragedy…”[7] Users’ comments rejected any possibility other than the defense minister’s resignation, and stressed that they are not interested in an apology; only a change of leadership will do. Another image displayed on the Facebook page presented the defense minister and two other Sunni politicians, with the caption: “Politicians of ISIS.”[8] This tag, which was intended to de-legitimize the minister of defense and his partners by deprecating their commitment to the Iraqi people, reveals the depth of the Shi'i-Sunni rift in Iraqi society today, and the doubt that Shi'a cast on Sunni politicians.

The campaign against al-Obeidi also took root on Twitter.[9] One user encouraged his followers: “Iraqis, expose the traitors and expel them, just as Khaled al-Obeidi of Mosul was exposed.”[10] Another user called him a “traitor” and an “unspeakable lowlife like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”[11] Yet another demanded that Al-Obeidi be executed[12] and this demand was repeated in other tweets, which accused him of supporting ISIS and leading a campaign of lies, in cooperation with the prime minister.[13]Similarly, users criticized the helplessness of al-Obeidi at al-Tharthar, particularly the fact that he did not send a response force to save the Iraqi soldiers.[14]

The massacre of Iraqi soldiers by ISIS forces at al-Tharthar provided an ideal opportunity for the Shi'i opposition to attack Sunni Minister of Defense Khaled al-Obeidi and cast doubt on his loyalty to Iraq. These attacks augmented the already wide-spread campaign to undermine the strategy of the Iraqi government against ISIS and reinforce the standing of the Shiite militias, both those supported by Iran and others. Currently, this campaign is mostly limited to social media but it seems to be gaining momentum, particularly after ISIS took control of Ramadi in mid-May. In any case, the online furor is very indicative of the internal political discourse in Iraq and reveals the deep rift between Sunnis and Shi'a. 


[2] It is important to note that the page is not the only one launched to transmit this and similar messages. However, this does seem to be the most prominent. For another example see,https://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1007559915935912&hc_location=ufi. ?