Iraq: The Curse That Keeps On Killing


September 6, 2016: In Mosul the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) leadership called on ISIL headquarters in eastern Syria (Raqqa) to send reinforcements and grant permission to withdraw some ISIL gunmen from parts of Nineveh province (which Mosul is in) for the defense of the city. ISIL apparently allowed the withdrawal of forces into Mosul and sent some men from Syria but not a lot because ISIL in Syria is now fighting the Turkish Army, which crossed the border in force on August 24 th . Within two weeks the Turks had driven ISIL forces from all parts of the Turkish border (mostly near Aleppo). The Turks are also fighting some of the Kurdish rebels. That is an escalation of the continuing (since July 2015) conflict between Turkey and the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) based in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. Since mid-2015 this fighting has left over 6,500 people (mostly PKK). The fighting has mostly been in Syria and Turkey. Turkish warplanes continue to seek out and bomb PKK bases in more remote areas of Kurdish Iraq. Turkey went to war with the PKK in late July because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK. While the PKK still calls for an independent Kurdish state made up of majority Kurd portions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the largely autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq refuse to go along. For a while many in the PKK agreed with the Iraqi Kurds and were willing to settle for more autonomy in Turkey. But the radical PKK factions refused to go along and the 2013 ceasefire began to fray. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK fighters by force. The Turks are unwilling to send a lot of ground troops into northern Iraq and seem content to keep bombing the PKK there. This the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs tolerate, especially since the Turks are now also bombing ISIL in Syria. Turkey joined the air campaign against ISIL in Syria includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase.

Most of the Syrian Kurds made peace with the Turks after a week of fighting on the Syrian side of the border. However ones of largest contingents among Syrian Kurd rebels is the PYD (a Syrian Kurd separatist group allied with Turkish Kurdish PKK separatists) and their military forces (the YPG). Western nations back the Kurds because in Iraq and Syria the Kurds are the most effective local fighters. Moreover in Syria the Kurds there have incorporated some Arab militias (some Moslems, others Christian) into an effective combined force. This joint force is also advancing south towards the ISIL capital Raqqa. This is done with support from American and other coalition warplanes and some special operations troops. The Turks don’t seem to care much about all that and prefer to regard armed Kurds (especially the PKK and PYD) as a threat to Turkey. The U.S. is trying to work out a compromise with the Turks. Meanwhile the PKK has lost a lot of popular support in in northern Iraq because of the PKK police of, in effect, using Iraqi Kurds as human shields. At the moment the Iraqi Kurds are more concerned with driving ISIL out of Mosul and all areas bordering Kurdish territory in northern Iraq.

Meanwhile Back In Mosul

The Kurdish offensive outside Mosul is a clear indication that the final battle is well underway. That’s because the Kurds take a lot of casualties (by their own standards) when actively attacking ISIL defenders in the dozens of villages outside Mosul. ISIL loses several of those villages a week and has not been able to take any back. The Kurds said they would start their offensive when they felt the Iraq government forces south of the city were ready and able to do the same. That condition has been met over the last few months. The Kurdish advance is described as a “shaping operation” to deny ISIL use of key roads for moving their forces or supplies. Since July the shape of ISIL defenses outside Mosul has been greatly reduced.

The Kurds have found that their security measures still work well and ISIL attempts to take back areas recently lost of the Kurds nearly always end in a lopsided defeat for the attackers. ISIL still depends on suicide bomber (on foot or in vehicles) but the Kurds and other Iraqi security forces have learned how to spot the suicide bombers and kill them before they get close enough to do much damage. The ISIL gunmen that accompany the suicide bombers usually attack anyway and are shot down by the now very alert defenders. These defeats don't do much for ISIL morale either.


Iran is quite open about its goal of becoming the dominant foreign influence in Iraq. It uses religion, aid, diplomacy, threats, bribes and whatever else it can to obtain, maintain and expand that influence. Despite all that the Saudis are keen on maintaining a dominating influence in Iraq because Iraq is a largely (80 percent) Arab country that is majority (60 percent) Shia. The religious angle puts Iraq in an awkward position. The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised) but also don’t want to be dominated by their Sunni Arab neighbors and especially not by their own Sunni Arab minority, which created ISIL and has been a major supporter of Islamic terrorism since 2003. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia seek to create an Iraqi government that is all one (Shia) or the other (Arab). So far this struggle has been a draw, which many Iraqis are OK with as long as the death toll is reduced. But the Iranians in particular are willing to shed a lot of Iraqi blood to get their own way. The Saudis have already done that with their unofficial support of Sunni terrorism in Iraq. Most of the foreign Islamic terrorists in Iraq since 2003 have been from Saudi Arabia, even though the Saudis officially disapprove of their citizens from going elsewhere to kill people for religious reasons. In reality most Saudis are fine with this but the victims in Iraq tended to be Shia Arabs and that is not forgotten.

While Iraqi Shia appreciate Iranian support against ISIL, they are constantly reminded that this support comes with dangerous conditions. Case in point is the need for air support during the upcoming battle to push ISIL out of Mosul. Iraqi military leaders know that American air support is crucial to the success of Iraqi forces in talking Mosul. The Americans have offered substantial air support 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 since June. About a third of that is in Syria but more are being switched to Iraq as the fighting to take Mosul increases. 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 at the same time the Iran is pressuring Iraq to allow these Shia militias to play a major role in the Mosul battle. There are lot of non-Shia civilians in Mosul and the government fears that Shia militia will misbehave the way they have recently been accused of doing in Anbar. The Sunni tribes there, including the pro-government ones that have always fought ISIL, recently gave the government evidence of Shia militiamen killing or kidnapping Sunni or destroying their homes.

Many in the Iraqi government army leadership do not want any of the 80-100,000 or so Iran backed Shia militia fighters involved in retaking Mosul. The Iraqi Shia that control the Iraqi government and military do not trust Iran and believe the Iran controlled Shia militias are being prepared to support an armed takeover of the current Shia controlled government. Many of the Shia militia are from Baghdad and there are growing fears that Shia cleric Ayatollah Muqtada al Sadr, an open fan of the Shia religious dictatorship in Iran, is planning to use his anti-corruption campaign in Baghdad as justification for an armed takeover of the government. In response a lot of Shia pro-government militias are forming. This reinforces the point that most Iraqis, including most Iraqi Shia, do not want to be dominated by Iran.

Follow The Money

Despite two years of ISIL related violence the Iraqi economy continues to thrive. That is mainly because Iraq is producing more oil despite ISIL efforts to interfere. In August Iraq produced 4.6 million barrels of oil a day. That was 15 percent more than in April. The peak was January, when daily production hit 4.7 million barrels. Subsequent ISIL efforts to reduce that were defeated or repaired by April. Under Saddam Iraqi oil production was stuck at 2.5 million barrels a day since the early 1980s. Production previously peaked in the late 1970s at four million barrels a day and then declined because Saddam invaded Iran in 1980 and Iraqi oil production never recovered until after Saddam was ousted in 2003. Iraqi has nine percent of the world's oil reserves, but decades of war and mismanagement had prevented necessary maintenance and construction in the oil fields. Since 2008 the oil regions have been safe enough for foreign oil production companies to bring in their experts, and cash, in to get the job done, so Iraqi production has been steadily increasing. The goal is ten million barrels a day by the end of the decade. The Kurds began exporting (80,000 barrels a day) in 2014, largely with the help of Turkish investors. That has since risen to over 500,000 barrels a day (worth $350 million a month to the Kurdish government up there). In the south the Iraqi government is producing the rest. The oil prices falling by more than 50 percent since 2013 have hurt, but that is expected to change eventually. Meanwhile most (a little over half) of Iraqis believe that the low oil prices, ISIL and all the corruption are the fault of the United States, which wants to keep Iraq weak. Until Iraqis realize that the problem is closer to home, Iraq will remain weak.

September 4, 2016: South of Mosul (about 400 kilometers northwest of Baghdad) a building exploded in the recently liberated village of Awsajah killing ten soldiers and eight civilians. ISIL is known to plant explosives in buildings they etreat from. These bombs, sometimes containing over a hundred kg (220 pounds) of explosives are triggered by tripwires in dark hallways or attached to doors or furniture. Sometimes pressure plates on damaged floors will be used. It takes experienced combat engineers and EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) personnel to deal with this. Even when the EOD or army engineer teams have come and done their work there is no guarantee that something might have been missed. Posters are put up warning civilians, especially children, about these dangers, what to look for and who to call if something suspicious is encountered. There will be new victims of ISIL violence for years to come because of this. It’s the curse that keeps on killing even as the Iraqi government spends more money on training Iraqis to deal with the problem and even hiring foreign contractors to help speed the work and reduce accidents. .

In Mosul and smaller ISIL held areas to the south (mainly Shirqat) the Iraqi Air Force dropped several million leaflets warning civilians to stay inside as much as possible and stay away from ISIL personnel or facilities. Shirqat is in Salahuddin province which borders Anbar to the north. The government said that once all of Ramadi and all of the Syrian border in Anbar was under government control again the most effective units will be moved from Anbar to the outskirts of Mosul in preparation for the mid-2016 offensive there. That has happened and Shirqat (population 120,000) and smaller towns in the Salahuddin. So far more than half the population of Shirqat have fled (most to non-ISIL territory) and those remaining know they are in danger.

September 1, 2016: Iraqi deaths from terrorist (mainly ISIL inspired) violence declined nine percent in August (to 691). July saw an increase of 15 percent (to 759) over June (662). The July losses are closer to what they were in May (867). This continues a downward trend that began earlier in the year (April 741, March 1,119, February 670, January 849). Civilians accounted for most (68 percent) of the August deaths because ISIL is losing on the battlefield and concentrating on terror attacks against civilians, mainly in Baghdad. That’s where most of the civilian deaths occur and most of the dead there are Shia civilians. That’s a change from the past as civilians accounted for about half the June and May deaths, which was down from 55 percent in April and the 60 percent that had long been the norm. This shift came from increased attacks by the security forces on ISIL, better security to deal with ISIL terror attacks on civilian or military targets and, finally, the diminishing strength if ISIL after over a year of defeats.

The total 2016 deaths are expected to be at least 20 percent lower than the 13,400 in 2015 and continue the downward trend after the last peak (15,600) in 2014. That’s still a big increase from 2013 when 8,900 died and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians killed by Sunni Islamic terrorists. While 2015 was 14 percent less deadly than 2014 both years were much less than the worst year. That was 2007 when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship.

In the north the Kurds reported that their forces (the most effective Iraq has) killed 548 ISIL fighters in August, largely the result of the Kurdish advance on Mosul and ample use of American air power. Iraqi army and militia forces are advancing on Mosul from the south and there is fighting in Anbar as well as daily air strikes by the U.S. led aerial coalition. During August ISIL probably lost at least a thousand killed in Iraq, and possibly 20-30 percent more than that.

Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the combat related deaths are expected to be higher in 2016 than the 55,000 in 2015. That was a 38 percent decline from the 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000 in 2014) for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll has declined in both Iraq and Syria because ISIL has become less effective and in Syria there is a lot more war weariness. Most of the rebels and government forces in Syria were just playing defense in 2015 and even ISIL was less active in attacking compared to 2014. But that changed in 2016, especially after August 2015 when Russian forces arrived. A year later Turkish troops entered Syria in large numbers and everyone would like to eliminate the ISIL presence in Syria and Iraq by the end of 2016. That might be possible, but 2017 seems more likely.

Precise data on ISIL losses is hard to come by but that is less of a mystery as more ISIL territory is taken and more deserters and prisoners can be interrogated. The U.S. is also deliberately going after ISIL leaders in Iraq and Syria with commando raids to grab documents (usually on laptops, smart phones, and USB drives) that accompany these men. In August American military intelligence revealed that since September 2015 ISIL appears to have lost 25,000 fighters in combat (mainly in Syria, Iraq and Libya). Thus about 45,000 ISIL fighters have died since 2013. It’s believed that ISIL currently has only about 20,000 fighters available, mostly in Syria and Iraq. There are a few thousand more in northern Libya, eastern Afghanistan and Egypt. In all five countries ISIL is under heavy attack.

August 30, 2016: In Anbar, the Khalidiya District Council was announced. This is a coalition of Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar that have about 5,000 armed men that are willing to fight alongside army (not Shia militia) forces against the remaining ISIL forces in Anbar and adjacent areas.

August 29, 2016: Turkish warplanes used smart bombs and missiles against at least twelve PKK targets in northern Iraq. Some of these targets were attacked more than once.

August 26, 2016: Turkey, Russia, Iran, the Assad government and finally the Americans agreed that Turkish ground troops would enter northwestern Syria to destroy or drive ISIL forces away from the border area. The Americans would also drop support to Kurdish forces operating west of the Euphrates River. The Kurds reluctantly agreed with the U.S. decision and pulled back from Manbij. The Kurds in the northwest corner of Syria were more difficult to persuade. Turkey, Russia, Iran, the Assad government and the Americans all had to agree because together they controlled most of the airpower and pro-government foreign ground forces in the area. The Turks had made areas west of the Euphrates too hostile for the Kurds to deal with, especially with the withdrawal of American air support and Kurds becoming targets for Turkish, Russian and Syrian warplanes. Turkey wants to prevent the Kurds in Syria from establishing an autonomous area similar to what exists in northern Iraq. The Assads, Iran and the Iraqi government (dominated by Shia Arabs) agree on this. Up until now the Syrian Kurds ignored Turkish demands that Kurdish forces not advance west of the Euphrates River. The Turks (and the Assads) object to this because it would enable the Kurds to complete their plan to control the entire Turkish-Syrian border. The Syrian Kurds had declared autonomy in late 2013 and published maps showing their claims stretching from their traditional Kurdish majority areas of northeast Syria east of the Euphrates as well as everything to the east. The claimed areas west of the river did not extend more than a hundred kilometers into Syria but claiming the entire Syrian border was not acceptable to Turkey or most Syrians. By late 2015 the Syrian Kurds were fighting ISIL west of the river and dealing with occasional air attacks by the Turks. Now that has all changed and by early September Turkish troops controlled most of the Syrian side of the border west of the Euphrates.

August 25, 2016: South of Mosul Iraqi troops took the town of Qayyarah from ISIL. Iraqi forces had already seized the nearby oil fields and main roads that made Qayyarah such an important objective. In early July Iraqi forces took the nearby Qayyarah Air Base from ISIL. By mid-July American logistics and maintenance and engineering personnel were assisting the Iraqis in restoring Qayyarah so it could serve as the main support facility for the 25,000 or so Iraqi troops, police and militia who would carry out the assault on Mosul from the south. While many facilities at Qayyarah Air Base have been destroyed and most equipment removed or inoperable the air strip, long enough to handle heavy transports, was intact as were many of the buildings on the base. The town and base are between 50 and 25 kilometers south of Mosul.

The government announced that it was negotiating an agreement with the Assad government to restore government control to both sides of the Iraq/Syria border. Iraq had lost control of much of that border in 2014 because of growing ISIL violence. But now nearly all the Iraq-Syria border is free of ISIL control and Iraq will cooperate to persuade Syrian rebels that hold some portions of the Syrian side of the border to recognize the authority of the two governments at the main border crossings. Most of the ISIL controlled border areas are near the city of Mosul, which ISIL took in mid-2014 and Iraq expects to retake by the end of 2016.

In Baghdad parliament impeached (removed from office) the Defense minister, Khaled al Obeidi, for corruption. Obeidi is a Sunni and has frequently been described as one of the most corrupt ministers. This corruption was recently linked to recent successes of ISIL in getting large vehicle bombs to Shia neighborhoods and religious shrines.

August 24, 2016: The Kurds have agreed to shelter up to 400,000 refugees from the fighting to take the city of Mosul itself. It is believed that this final battle, which will occur before the end of the year, will send as many as 800,000 civilians fleeing to avoid the violence. This agreement was part of a larger deal (concluded several days later) to settle disputes between the Arab dominated national government and the autonomous Kurds over who would do what during and after the battle for Mosul. All the details were not released.

August 19, 2016: Iraq did not object to Russian warplanes flying overhead to and from targets in Syria since the 16th and even complied with Russian requests to order civilian air traffic out of Iraqi air space the Russian bombers would be using on their way to hit ISIL (as well as other rebel groups in Syria. But Iraq agreed with Iranian reluctance to allow Russian, or any other foreign warplanes, to operate from bases on their territory. Iran had ordered Russian warplanes to stop using an Iranian airbase near the Iraqi border because Russia had implied that it was establishing a base in Iran. Russia soon apologized and may be allowed back into Iran.




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