Iraq: Winning The War And Losing The Peace

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June 26, 2018: The current parliament ends on June 30 and a newly elected parliament is supposed to take its place. It will be a few months before that happens and then the members of the new parliament have to form a new government. Delays like this are nothing new in Iraq. The May 12th elections were controversial, as is normal in Iraq, and more than half the members of the outgoing parliament want to annul the results but have been unable to do that. There growing evidence that despite (or because of) the new electronic voting system there was a lot of vote manipulation. That has led to agreement on a manual recount. That effort was approved by court decisions and now the May 12 vote results may not be certified and a new government formed until late 2018. The current parliament believes this is all about Iranian efforts to increase control over Iraq and delays in forming a new government suits Iran.

The two largest Shia coalitions (anti-Iran Sadr and pro-Iran Amiri) agreed to form a coalition that would control over 30 percent of the seats in parliament and make it possible, with a few minor coalitions added, to form a government. The Amiri faction control pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) forces and is seeking to repeat the Iranian success in Lebanon with the creation of a Hezbollah type organization. Amiri has used violence against those who oppose, secure in the fact that the police are controlled by a pro-Iran politician (who runs the Interior Ministry). These police are suspected of instigating political violence rather than containing it. Police are never around when groups hostile to Iran are attacked and police are the primary suspects in the recent warehouse fire that destroyed half the ballot boxes used in Baghdad. The fire makes it impossible to recount these disputed votes.

The real reason for the unexpected elections results is popular anger at corruption. One thing that united all Iraqi voters was anger at the persistent and crippling corruption. Moqtada al Sadr, who was the unexpected winner, had been openly and actively anti-corruption for years and that was why his victorious coalition contained so many non-Shia groups (including communists, who are anathema to Iran). Despite that many Iraqis (and foreign allies) believe Sadr is secretly allied with Iran because the Sadr family has long had ties with Iran and members of the Sadr clan often took refuge in Iran. But that was because the Sadrs were respected Shia clerics and Iran was where the best schools and scholars were. Yet the Sadrs, like most Iraqi Shia Arabs, are Arabs and Iraqis first and that has been proven time and time again. Moqtada al Sadr has seen up close and frequently how a Shia clerical dictatorship works in Iran and was not impressed. He largely kept quiet about this but it was no secret that Sadr did not want a religious dictatorship in Iraq, mainly because it would make the country even more difficult to rule.

Sadr also noted that Iranian Arabs (and Arabs in general) are despised by most Iranians. Meanwhile, Iraq will demonstrate, over the next few months (or more) why it is considered the most dysfunctional country in the Middle East. Iraqi politicians will argue and negotiate in a lengthy effort to form a governing coalition and then for that coalition to select a prime minister and all the subordinate ministers.

Sadr is often described as anti-American but he is generally anti-foreigner in general but is willing to work with other nations if it helps Iraq. Thus there was a recent visit by Sadr to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi leaders. The Saudis had long supported the Sunni minority rule in Iraq because it worked and helped contain Iran. With that Sunni minority government gone and not likely to return anytime soon Sadr believes the Saudis still want an Arab government in Iraq that will help keep Iran out of Arabia. Sadr and the Saudis agree on that as do the majority of Iraqis (including most Kurds and Sunni Arabs).

Iran has not given up on Sadr and still refers to him as a friend and brother. Sadr says nice things back but it is what Sadr does that counts and that won’t be clear until the new government is formed. This might not happen until the end of the year.

Iran is still controlling Iraqi Shia terrorist groups and Sadr has become more of an Iraqi nationalist than an Iranian puppet. By August 2017 Sadr was calling on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate loyal (to Iraq) members into the armed forces. The Iraqi prime minister (a Shia), wanted to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it. This caution was the result of the (then) upcoming May 12th elections. That vote was expected to be a very concrete example of how much political clout Iran has gained in post-ISIL Iraq. Iran has worked hard to line up political support in Iraq. That Iranian effort failed because at this point Sadr was seen as an opponent of Iranian influence efforts in Iraq. Sadr is also opposed to the Iraqi Shia groups that remained loyal to Iran. One of the things that hurt support for pro-Iran candidates was a video on the Internet that purports to show millions of dollars in cash seized at the Iranian border. The money was meant for pro-Iran Iraqis running in the parliamentary elections. Finally, Sadr himself did not run for office and instead served as the administrator, and chaplain, for his coalition.

The Corruption Vote

The current political chaos is a direct result of the corruption that took over the election process, including the Iraqi IHEC (Independent High Electoral Commission). UN observers noted the signs of corruption in the voting, many of them coming from local voting volunteers but IHEC refused to follow up. Later it became obvious that the IHEC was corrupted. In the aftermath of the May 12 elections, it was clear that Iran waged a major effort to get pro-Iran Shia elected (fairly or otherwise). When Iraqi courts recently decided the manual vote recount should only include districts where vote fraud was an issue, it was found that most of these involved alleged vote tampering to favor a pro-Iran candidate. Most Iraqis, including most Shia, oppose Iranian domination of Iraqi politics and the outcome of the recent elections is an example of why. Iraqis know how disastrously the Shia religious dictatorship has been for Iran and see a similar religious dictatorship is what the Iranians want to impose on Iraq. If that is not possible (which it is not at the moment) the Iranians will settle for substantial control over many key Iraqi government officials.

Anbar Adaptation

The Shia dominated government has adapted to the growing need for Sunni Arab cooperation in largely Sunni Anbar province by allowing the tribes there to unofficially govern themselves. This includes allowing the tribal elders to handle most legal issues, including local crime. Even before the ISIL uprising in 2014, the Shia government was having a hard time establishing national institutions like courts and police in Anbar. After many Sunni tribes in Anbar aided the government in driving ISIL out of the province, and keeping it out the government agreed to support the use of tribal justice. The government also paid for the recruitment, equipping, training and maintenance of 2,400 additional Sunni Arab tribal militiamen in Anbar province. These militiamen will be organized into four “Rapid Intervention Regiments” of about 600 men each and are used to reinforce local militias in areas where ISIL shows up and attempts to set up bases. These four units answer to the national government but are staffed and run by Sunnis Arabs. The Sunni tribes still feel left out, especially when it comes to obtaining what they feel is a fair share of oil income. At the same time, the Sunni tribes credit the national government with keeping pro-Iran militias from carrying out large-scale “revenge operations” against Sunni tribesmen who were seen as ISIL collaborators. The government left it to the tribes to handle that and the tribes did. There were many Sunni tribes that suffered losses due to ISIL violence against those who would not support them. As a result, Anbar is one of the most hostile areas ISIL still operates in. Most ISIL violence is outside Anbar (in and around Mosul and north of Baghdad). The Anbar Sunni Arabs want to keep it that way.

June 25, 2018: In Turkey president, Recep Erdogan won the presidential and parliamentary elections yesterday with more than half the vote and the ability to add even more power to the presidential form of government he has introduced over the last decade. Because of the vote, Erdogan will now be president until 2023 and will have more political power to do whatever he wants. Erdogan is hostile to Israel but has not cut trade ties or made any actual military threats. Erdogan is all about the Israel-Palestinian conflict and he sides with the Palestinians. Yet Erdogan does not offer to replace the aid (over half a billion dollars a year) that the U.S. and Arab states have stopped providing because of continued Palestinian corruption, violence against Israel and refusal to make a peace deal. Erdogan’s support for the Palestinians is all theater and little in the way of substance. In that respect Erdogan is acting like many opportunistic Moslem politicians worldwide; blame all bad things on Israel while trading with Israel on the side because that is economically (or militarily) advantageous. Erdogan has also maintained Turkish NATO membership, which has value given the potential threat from Iran. At the same time, Erdogan cooperates with Iran in shutting down the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) headquarters and other bases in northeastern Iraq. These PKK facilities are also close to the Iranian border, where less numerous Kurdish separatists often work with the PKK. The Kurdish minorities in Turkey and Iran have been kept down, often with force, for centuries. This is one of the few things Turkey and Iran agree on. Erdogan recently announced that Turkish air and ground operations against the PKK in northeastern Iraq had led to the deaths of dozens of PKK members, including several senior leaders.

June 24, 2018: In the west (Salahuddin province) troops trapped and killed Abu Salam al Iraqi, the military leader of ISIL forces in the province, and five of his associates. The six men were hiding in a tunnel and refused to surrender. Al Iraqi was believed responsible for most of the ISIL violence in Salahuddin province this year and the security forces expect it will be easier to hunt down and eliminate the rest of al Iraqis subordinates now that the boss is dead.

June 22, 2018: In the west across the border in Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Iraqi F-16s attacked a meeting of ISIL leaders in the town of Hajun, near the Iraqi border. ISIL was known to maintain a base there and section bombed consisted of three buildings connected by tunnels. The airstrike appears to have killed over 40 ISIL members including a known courier for ISIL supreme leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi along with the ISIL deputy war minister, police chief and a senior member of the ISIL media department. The rest of the dead were bodyguards and support personnel. This attack was done with the approval of the Assad government and the American led air coalition (which controls the airspace over much of eastern Syria).

June 21, 2018: The Supreme Court approved the decision by parliament to order a manual recount of the May 12 vote but refused to approve parliament efforts to cancel the votes of Iraqi refugees and those living abroad voluntarily. This court decision was later amended to restrict the recount to only disputed votes.

June 20, 2018: In Baghdad members of a pro-Iran PMF unit fired on a police patrol, wounding two police. Return fire wounded several of the PMF men. The headquarters of this PMF unit was then surrounded by police until the men responsible for causing the incident were turned over. This PMF unit considers itself part of the new Iraqi Hezbollah and has sent some of its members to fight in Syria. Some fifty of those PMF men were recently killed in Syria by an Israeli airstrike. The PMF fighters in Syria say they are there as volunteers not as members of the PMF. But many of them are still on the PMF payroll, which is part of the Iraqi military budget now.

June 18, 2018: In the west, just across the border in Syria an Israeli airstrike hit an Iraqi pro-Iran PMF unit assisting Hezbollah and other Iranian mercenaries fighting Syrian rebels. Over fifty Iraqis were killed in the air strike which Israel did not take credit for. Iraq had always maintained that it would not allow Iraqi forces to enter Syria but some pro-Iran PMF units have ignored that. The U.S. later denied any involvement in the air strike while Arab and Israeli media pointed out such an Israeli airstrike would have needed permission from the Russians and Americans. That permission would not have been difficult to obtain.

In the north (Kirkuk province) a group of ISIL gunmen maintained a roadblock on the main highway from Kirkuk city to Baghdad. It took six hours for the security forces to chase the ISIL men away and allow traffic to resume (at 4 AM). While blocking the highway the ISIL men stopped several vehicles and made off with nine civilians they had kidnapped (and later killed). Since the federal government drove the Kurd government out of Kirkuk province in late 2017 the PMA forces assigned to maintain security have been on the defensive against remaining ISIL fighters.

June 15, 2018: Iranians are being told by their government to restrict foreign travel (or find it restricted for them) and use of anything that requires a lot of foreign currency. The Iranian government expects the sanctions to return, despite pledges of help from Russia and China. The travel restriction threats are not really directed to trips to visit kin overseas or go on vacation, but the much more numerous (several million a year) trips to Iraq for religious reasons (most Shia shrines are in Iraq). The pilgrims don’t spend a lot of the sheer number of them makes it add up (to nearly a billion dollars a year). Fewer of these Iranian pilgrims will be a blow to the economies of Shia majority areas in southern Iraq.

June 12, 2018: Turkey announced that Iraq would allow (or at least tolerate) Turkish and Iranian troops entering Iraq in an area where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey form a triangle. This area, especially the Quandil Mountains, has long been the site of PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) camps and PKK headquarters. The Turks demanded that the Iraqi Kurdish forces deal with this but the Iraqi Kurds refused. Turkish troops are currently in operation 30 kilometers inside Iraq and some of those forces are approaching the Quandil triangle. Iran has not had as many problems with this area as the Turks but apparently would do what the Turks are doing if asked. The Iranian Kurdish separatists have bases south of the Quandil Mountains.

June 10, 2018: In Baghdad, a warehouse burned down despite being under guard because it contained about half the ballot boxes used for Baghdad. Apparently, someone did not want these disputed votes to be recounted.

June 8, 2018: In the west across the border in Syria (Deir Ezzor province) ISIL made an unexpected attack on Assad forces holding Abu Kamal, a small town on the Euphrates River near the Iraq border. This town has changed hands several times since 2011 and is currently held by Assad forces and Iranian mercenaries who took it in late 2017. Control of this town is important for ISIL as it is a major crossing point for their forces traveling between Iraq and Syria and makes possible the continued ISIL activity in the desert area (Salahuddin province) stretching from the border to the outskirts of Baghdad. Most of the ISIL violence is directed at the Sunni Shammar tribe, which sided with the government against ISIL and is still the major pro-government force in this largely desert area. The PMA militias assigned to maintain control of Salahuddin province have not been able to deal with the remaining ISIL forces.

In the northeast, across the border in Iran (West Azerbaijan Province) PDKI Kurdish separatists ambushed Iranian border guards near the Iraq border and killed nine Iranians and wounded 18 others. The PDKI contains Iranian and Iraqi Kurds and is based in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. The government said only two border guards were killed while disrupting 20 Kurds entering the country to carry out an attack.

June 6, 2018: In Baghdad, a mosque in the Shia Sadr City neighborhood blew up. The mosque was used to store weapons and explosives, which is illegal (in any residential neighborhood). The explosion killed 18 and wounded many more as well as damaging twenty nearby buildings.

The Iraqi Air Force received another six T-50 jets. Iraq had ordered 24 of the new South Korean FA-50 light fighters in 2013. This is a variant of T-50 jet trainer. The FA-50 is better equipped for air combat and is actually quite formidable. South Korea also sold the Philippines and Indonesia T-50s. The Iraqi FA-50s were supposed to be delivered in 2015-16 but the ISIL uprising interrupted this plan. T-50 pilot and ground crew training was to have started in 2014 but was delayed by the war with ISIL. This delayed delivery of the T-50s for two years. So far 18 of the 24 T-50s have arrived. The Iraq sale was worth $1.1 billion dollars and was the largest single South Korean arms sale to date.

June 2, 2018: In May 95 civilians and policemen died due to Islamic terrorist violence. Nearly half (45 deaths) occurred in Baghdad. Areas north of Baghdad (Diyala and Kirkuk) accounted for over a third of the dead). The May deaths are up from April when 68 died but down from March when 104 died. That was up a bit from the 91 killed during February and 19 percent of the dead were police. About a third of the deaths occurred in Baghdad. Terror related civilian deaths in Iraq were higher in January (115 dead). Most (78 percent) of the January deaths occurred in Baghdad. The increased casualties are disappointing because the deaths hit a new low (69) in December 2017. In October 2017 114 civilians were killed. Most (63 percent) of this violence was equally split between Baghdad (long a Sunni Islamic terrorist target) and Anbar province.

The government has still not resumed reporting casualties among the security forces (military and militias). Civilian deaths were higher (at 196) in September and declined steadily for most of 2017. Since 2017 most of the civilian deaths occurred because the victims were near an unexpected suicide bomber attack. Soldiers and police usually can spot and stop suicide bombers but this often means the suicide bomber will set off his explosives before he can be shot dead or captured alive. At that point, the bomber is often near civilians who became the casualties instead of the security forces. With the decline in Islamic terror-related deaths, other forms of violence are now getting more, long overdue, attention. At the top of the list is tribal feuds. Tribal politics has long been a major factor in Iraqi society, especially the largely Sunni tribes of Anbar and the six major Shia tribes of Basra (the southern province).

May 26, 2018: In the west, an American airstrike on the Syrian side of the border killed the ISIL head of oil sales and three of his associates. This man, Abu Khattab al Iraqi, used a lot of personal connections with smugglers and oil brokers to turn stolen oil into cash for ISIL.

 

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