Iraq: ISIL Should Know Better


July 31, 2016: Driving ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) out of Mosul is now a matter of when, not if. More ISIL personnel and their families are leaving the city (with or without permission). The coalition air raids are becoming more frequent and increasingly effective. This is because more target information is coming from inside the city and nothing ISIL does seems to reverse this process. A growing number of ISIL personnel and operations in the city are being moved from captured government and military compounds to residential areas in an effort to avoid air attack. Worse these attacks are largely against specific targets, like ISIL leaders and key technical experts. Weapons and critical equipment (like communications and military vehicles) are also more vulnerable. This is not a new problem, a lot of ISIL artillery and armored vehicles were ordered to leave Mosul for Syria in June. But the coalition keeps finding essential ISIL vehicles and destroying them. ISIL leaders appear to be getting more key people (leaders, tech experts, most reliable fighters) out of the city and back to Syria. Thus when Iraqi troops move into the city there will probably be less than 5,000 ISIL fighters (plus lots of mines, booby traps and roadside bombs) and few (but still over 100,000) civilians to deal with.

The government is urging all civilians to get out but they know from recent experience in Ramadi and Fallujah that does not work. In part this is because some civilians refuse to abandon homes and businesses to looting and destruction. But many civilians are forces to remain by ISIL so they can act as human shields. Again, based on the experience in Ramadi and Fallujah, the human shields are not as effective as they used to be. If Iraqi ground forces are involved the ISIL target will be bombed despite the presence of civilians. That’s another incentive for civilians to leave but it is unrealistic to expect all of them to be gone.

The Iraqis have put together a force of over 30,000 troops for the final assault. This includes 24,000 recently trained (by the Americans) and certified as combat ready (at least by Iraqi standards). There are also over 5,000 Kurds and other (like Christian) groups that the Americans have experience with and consider reliable and effective. Iraq has also relented and allowed the Americans to use a dozen or more AH-64 helicopter gunships and about as many HIMARS rocket launchers to support Iraqi combat operations around Mosul. Iraqi politicians, mainly the pro-Iranian ones, had opposed the use of HIMARS and AH-64s in western Iraq (Anbar province) to retake Ramadi and Fallujah. But Mosul is a much larger operation and the need for success is more urgent. Survival outranks political preferences. The Kurds and Iraqi troops with pre-2011 combat experience know and appreciate the usefulness of the AH-64 and the GPS guided rockets fired by HIMARS. The question of how many Shia militia will be involved in the liberations is still unclear. The Shia militias insist they will lead the way. American and Iraqi generals say that will hurt more than help.

Then there is the air support, which is expected to be substantial during the final assault on Mosul. The U.S. led air coalition over Iraq and Syria has been averaging about a hundred attacks (using either a guided missile or smart bomb) a day in June and July. About a third of that is in Syria but more will be switched to Iraq when the fighting is heavy inside Mosul. The Americans have brought in more ground controller teams to operate with Iraqi forces and provide timely air strikes. At its peak there will probably be several hundred guided missiles and smart bombs a day used in Mosul. Iran-backed Shia militia refuse to use American air support.

It did not go unnoticed by anyone that in the last few months many of the ISIL defenders in Ramadi and Fallujah were not willing to fight to the death, or even fight at all. This despite ISIL commanders ready to shoot on the spot any subordinate who faltered. The upcoming offensive to liberate Mosul is taking weakening ISIL morale into account and low level combat commanders have been told what to look for (a true morale collapse and not just a feint) and take advantage of it to quickly advance. This information is often delivered by NCOs and junior officers who experienced this sort of thing in Ramadi and Fallujah, so their advice has more impact on men who are going to risk death to act on this in combat.

What worries ISIL leaders the most is the growing network of informers, who pass on to Kurdish, American or Iraqi government spymasters’ information on the location and movement of ISIL leaders and other key personnel (technical experts and the like). These key people are dying from smart bomb or guided missile attack with increasing frequency. Worse, there informers are assumed to be passing on details of new ISIL defenses inside the city. This is causing a growing number of ISIL personnel at all levels to lost confidence in their cause. The people they have “liberated” soon come to hate ISIL and few major Islamic clerics or scholars support what ISIL is trying to do (conquer the world for Islam).

As ISIL tries to organize an effective defense of Mosul it is encountering more active and better organized armed resistance by the population. While only a few of the half million or so people still in Mosul are actually using weapons (usually guns or explosives) a much larger number are helping, often by not admitting, even under pressure or torture, that they have seen anything. Also encouraging are first-hand accounts from refugees about Mosul residents who would independently go after some ISIL man who was particularly hated and kill him with whatever was available, which was sometimes a knife, club or axe. Other civilians use one of the many weapons that became available after Saddam was overthrown in 2003 (like a pistol or hand grenade) and kill an isolated ISIL man. The battle for Mosul will not be just a military conflict but also a test of wills and morale.

There Is Good News And Bad News

On the bright side several hundred thousand civilians have returned home in western Iraq (Anbar province) after they were assured that ISIL fighters and bombs had been cleared out of their recently liberated towns, villages and neighborhoods in cities like Ramadi, Fallujah, Hit (or “Heet”) and others recently fought over. Iraqi soldiers and Shia militia continue to drive ISIL out of towns and villages in Anbar, where ISIL is trying to maintain a presence if only to support terror attacks in Shia population centers (especially Baghdad) to the east.

ISIL commanders are apparently under orders to carry out successful attacks at every opportunity, especially against security forces and the Kurds. The attacks against the Kurds almost always fail but the Iraqi Arabs are often easier targets because they are more prone to making mistakes (in maintaining security) or accepting bribes (to let a suicide car bomber past a checkpoint). But even in this area there is some good news; the government has finally admitted that police are using a notoriously ineffective explosive detector device (the ADE 651) and all will be removed from service. This is a major shift in Iraqi policy. Despite the 2013 prosecution and conviction (in Britain) of those responsible for manufacturing and selling phony bomb detectors, particularly to Iraq, the government continued to tolerate the use of the ADE 651. This was an issue back in 2014 when it was found that ADE 651 devices were still being used by some Iraqi police. At the time government officials, including very senior ones, insisted that “some of them (the ADE 651) work.” Iraqi police have been using the ADE 651 bomb detector since 2008 despite clear evidence that the device is a total fraud. In early 2010 the Iraqi government agreed to investigate the purchase of $85 million worth of ADE 651s. Iraqi officials had bought thousands of these hand held devices, for up to $60,000 each. But even then the British manufacturer was being prosecuted in Britain for fraud purchases continued. The device contains useless components, and repeated tests showed that it could not detect anything. Apparently a large chunk of the money Iraq paid for the ADE 651 was kicked back to the Iraqi officials who approved the sale. In 2011, an Iraqi general was arrested for taking bribes to approve the purchase of this device, but not much else happened. The ADE 651 is very cheap to make, and the manufacturer made a huge profit even after paying large bribes. Some of the Iraqi officials who received the millions in bribes are still in power and not willing to prosecute themselves. What really did in the ADE 651 was the news that several recent ISIL suicide car bomb attacks, which left over a thousand people (mostly Shia civilians) dead or wounded, were made possible because of continued dependence on the ADE 651.

More Budget Blues

The need to deal with ISIL plus the falling price of oil has produced a growing problem with the Iraqi government budget. The additional expenses to fight ISIL plus the lower price of oil has meant more deficits. Because Iraq has a lousy credit history there are not a lot of lenders available and the government has been forces to cut the budget. Thus the 2016 budget of $90 billion is fifteen percent lower than the 2015 one and $20 billion must be borrowed. This is more troublesome because some 70 percent of the budget goes to pay salaries of government employees, many of them unneeded. But these additional civil servants are how the implacably corrupt government survives. Hire enough people in an economy crippled by massive corruption and you have some control over the victims of the corruption. This has long been a common practice in the region and became easier to implement with the arrival of the oil business nearly a century ago. One of the things that attracts young men to ISIL is the promise to eliminate the corruption. Of course Moslem radicals have been making that promise for centuries and getting away with it but that’s another matter. The continued low oil prices has done even more damage to ISIL finances. That plus more air strikes on ISIL controlled oil fields.

July 30, 2016: Shia cleric Ayatollah Muqtada al Sadr has called off the regular Friday anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad for 30 days because he has been told that the government is going to finally respond to demands for more decisive anti-corruption measures. Since late July 2015 thousands of pro-reform Iraqis have been demonstrating in Baghdad and other cities every Friday to encourage the government to take more action against corruption. Among the more obvious changes demanded was eliminating thousands of senior level positions in the government that existed mainly to enable politicians to steal. Sadr also wanted the government to start enforcing existing laws against corruption. At first the government responded by making some minor changes. The people demanded more of this, and less corruption in general. So far all the government has not done enough and that inaction keeps the demonstrators coming. What makes these demonstrations so effective is that they have the support of the two top Shia clerics; Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the younger, more radical and pro-Iran Ayatollah Sadr. This clerical support makes the demonstrations impossible to ignore but so many top officials are corrupt that it is difficult to get enough of them removed or persuaded to act with more integrity to make a difference.

July 29, 2016: In the west (Anbar province) an air strike near the Syrian border destroyed an ISIL bomb making facility and killed 13 ISIL members. This included several leaders attending a meeting in the same compound. Among the ISIL dead was Ahmed Hassan Abu Kheir, the brother-in-law of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and a member of the ISIL inner circle. At least eleven more ISIL men were badly wounded but got away before Iraqi ground forces arrived.

In Mosul ISIL publicly executed twenty civilians suspected of spying for the enemy (the U.S., Iraq, Iran or whatever as details are always murky). Families of those killed were forced to witness the executions. A lot more civilians are arrested and never heard from again. ISIL personnel spend more and more time patrolling “unfriendly neighborhoods” and raiding homes and businesses suspected of harboring spies and other traitors. A lot of innocents are picked up, and some of them killed (by public execution or from torture) and ISIL feels this will inspire more people to behave. ISIL should know better.

July 28, 2016: The government has agreed to incorporate 80,000 members of Iran-backed Shia militias into the armed forces. This will include paying the militiamen monthly salaries comparable to what soldiers get allowing the militiamen the use of military bases. It is hoped that this will restore confidence in the Iraqi military. Since 2015 most men the army wanted to recruit preferred to join one of the Shia militias organized and trained by Iranians. It was all a matter of trust. Potential Shia recruits (in a country where Shia are over 60 percent of the population) did not believe the Iraqi Army could be reformed and rebuilt and felt the paramilitary Shia militias would be better led and more effective even though the Iraqi Army had better weapons and was more likely to get American air support. American military leaders were disappointed, but not surprised. Unfortunately many of the Shia militias are led by men known to have been members of pro-Iran militias that, before 2008, attacked American troops as well as Sunni Islamic terrorists. These militias were disbanded by 2010 but after 2014 were allowed to reform again. This alone was considered a great victory for Iran. What triggered the current American training effort in Iraq was the ISIL offensive in mid-2014 that took control of most of western Iraq (Anbar province) and the northwestern city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. By the end of 2014 Iraq had asked the United States to help rebuild the Iraqi armed forces and called in Iran to revive the Shia militias. Then came the rapid and unexpected loss of Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province) in May 2015 to a much smaller ISIL force. Government troops outnumbered nearby ISIL gunmen by ten to one. After that it became increasingly difficult to get Shia Iraqis to join the army.

July 19, 2016: For the first time since the July 15 attempted coup in Turkey, Turkish F-16s again bombed PKK targets in northern Iraq. Iraqi and Turkish Kurds agreed that defeating the coup was a good thing even though the current Turkish government is often quite hostile to Kurds and is believed to still be supporting some Islamic terror groups in Syria that kill Kurds.

July 17, 2016: The most powerful political and religious leader in the country, Moqtada al Sadr, declared on his web site that it is time to let the Americans know that his followers, especially members of Iran-backed Shia militias, are eager to kill American troops in Iraq. The Iraqi and American governments have not responded to this. Since January 2015 Sadr has been urging all Shia militias to work more closely with the army. Sadr leads the largest religious party in the country and has long been openly pro-Iran and in favor of establishing a religious dictatorship in Iraq. But he does not want Iran running the country. Sadr is famously anti-American, but also a shrewd politician and as corrupt as they come. He works for the government in return for financial support (legal and otherwise.) He is also popularizing the belief that ISIL was created by the Americans to hurt Arabs in particular and Moslems in general. Many Iraqis are buying into that and it surprises no one that Sadr will continue to exploit all this. Sadr also considers the Iraqi Kurds as enemies.

July 14, 2016: ISIL confirmed that a July 10th American air strike near Mosul killed Omar Shishani. The air strike Iraq hit what was believed to be a meeting of senior ISIL leaders, including the “minister of war” Omar Shishani. Also known as “Omar the Chechen” he has been the chief military strategist for ISIL since mid-2014 and one of the founding members of ISIL. Shishani has been a target for American air strikes since late 2014 and it was thought that one of these attacks succeeded in March 2016, but that was not the case. This time ISIL admitted the loss to its own people T he U.S. felt that other evidence had already confirmed that Shishani, and several other senior ISIL military commanders, were dead or seriously wounded. The death of Shishani result in less effective ISIL combat planning and leadership in Iraq and Syria.




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