Iraq: China The Fixer


March 28, 2023: Three weeks ago, China arranged a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is all about the Chinese need for tranquility in the Persian Gulf so that China can continue to get half its imported oil from Persian Gulf states. Iraq has been trying to arrange such a peace deal for several years but lacked the standing and clout to get the deal done. Iran is hoping this new deal will enable Iran to expand its waning influence in Iraq. Since 2021 this Iranian influence has visibly declined because of so many Iraqis opposing Iranian interference in Iraq plus help from other Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, in reducing Iranian influence in Iraq. This was obvious after the 2021 national election where pro-Iran parties did poorly while the anti-corruption Sadr coalition won 73 of 329 seats in parliament. Senior Shia Islamic cleric Moqtada Sadr now had momentum and the best chance of forming a majority coalition, and of forming a government that would make good on his promise to do something about government corruption (the two are not the same, which is often true in politics). Sadr was unable to get enough ethnic or religious coalitions to join him and form a government. Even then, Sadr would have to achieve a two-thirds vote in parliament to elect a new president. This was seen as a win for Iran and corrupt Iraqi politicians.

While Iraq resists Iranian offers for economic and military cooperation, Saudi Arabia was welcome. The Saudis have the cash to invest in rebuilding war torn Iraq and, along with Iraqis, have to deal with Iranian opposition to any Saudi presence. This conflict gets little media attention because the Saudis have no military forces in Iraq, just investors and Saudi personnel managing the new investments. These are often attacked by Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias. The government is trying to disband these militias but that has proved difficult because of continued Iranian support for these groups.

A year ago, Iraq hosted Saudi Arabian and Iranian officials holding their fifth round of negotiations in an effort to resume diplomatic relations. These talks were suspended seven months earlier. Iraq along with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf Oil states are angry with the Americans because the U.S. is not only offering Iran a revival of the 2015 sanctions treaty, but also a modification of the terms to make it easier for Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Worse, the United States considered taking the Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and its Quds Force off the list of known terrorists. This was all about the 2020 presidential elections in America, which put into power what is now recognized (by numerous polls) as the most unpopular and inept American president ever. One reason for this unpopularity was the current American policies towards Iran and reduced support for Arab resistance to Iranian violence. This has driven many Gulf Arab oil states, including Iraq, into an economic alliance with Russia to drive up the price of oil. This policy makes it easier for Iran to smuggle more of its heavily discounted oil to customers. That plan survived the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and even more economic sanctions.

Inside Iraq, Iran has a more serious problem with the obvious shift in Iraqi government attitudes about Iran. For example, in late 2021 Saudi Arabia signed a deal with Iraq to build and operate a second major border crossing in Muthanna province. This is one of three Iraqi provinces that border Saudi Arabia and the one closest to Kuwait. Muthanna is where the borders of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia meet. The Saudis will pay for construction on both sides of the border for this massive border crossing complex, which will enable trade between Iraq and Saudi Arabia to increase from the current one billion dollars a year to three billion. Years of violence in Iraq have led to the closing and destruction of the major border crossings to Saudi Arabia that could handle large amounts of commercial traffic. The new crossing is a big deal for the 770,000 residents of Muthanna province, where half the population lives in poverty and there is not a lot of economic activity.

Iraq has found China willing to invest in the local economy, especially if it includes developing or operating oil production facilities. Iraq is also aware of the Chinese proclivity for eventually using these investments as political and diplomatic tools to achieve whatever local goals China had. In 2021 Iraqi officials revealed that China was the major customer for Iraqi oil, currently receiving 40-44 percent of what Iraq exports.

In 2019 China, a major customer for Iranian oil, announced it would comply with the American sanctions and halt Iranian oil imports as its 180 day import waiver expired. Until mid-May China had not made it clear how it would react and is still indicating that it could keep changing its policy. The Chinese decision was enforced quickly and Iranian tankers in transit or waiting to unload at Chinese ports were told that their cargo would not be accepted. This was a major blow for Iran as China was Iran’s largest oil customer. China was buying nearly half a million barrels a day and was willing to pay in barter (thus avoiding the banking sanctions). China has lots of items, including high tech goods that Iran needs. Now all that was gone.

China has tried to invest its way into the Persian Gulf. Since 2005 China has invested over $120 billion in the four Gulf nations that matter most to them; Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), and Iran. Most (a little over half) of those investments were made after 2013. Fighting and general chaos in the are the greatest threat to local Chinese assets.

The Incorruptible

The ICTS (Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service) is a small but elite Iraqi force that is not only effective but apparently incorruptible. ICTS emerged in 2008 as a component of the then-new (since 2005) Iraqi Special Operations Brigade. Immediately after the Saddam Hussein dictatorship was overthrown by the American led invasion in 2003, one of the priority items was to recruit and train Iraqi special operations troops. By 2009 the Iraqi commandos (ISOF, or Iraqi Special Operations Forces) had over 10,000 well trained and combat experienced operators. ISOF was always small but reliable and effective and often took the lead in fighting the remaining terrorists in Mosul and northern Iraq. A prime example was the 2016 offensive, led by several thousand Iraqi special operations troops, which was supposed to overcome that problem. The Iraqi government was reluctant to admit how essential U.S. trained special operations forces were and tried to ascribe some of the success to the army.

The successful 2014 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) advance into Iraq made it clear how corrupt the Iraqi military was. About a quarter of the 253,000 soldiers in the army should not have been recruited. These are men who were too old, illiterate, physically or mentally disabled, and thus disqualified. Many of these troops were allowed to remain in uniform because they performed well despite their problems. Auditors were also looking for "ghost soldiers" (troops who do not exist, and whose pay is stolen by an officer or government officials). Many of the improperly recruited soldiers were the result of corruption, or the need to placate some local tribe leader or politician, by providing jobs for his people. In 2014 it was ISOF that organized the defenses that stopped ISIL from advancing beyond Mosul and on to Baghdad.

By 2019 it was obvious that the commandos and other special operations forces were the most effective personnel the government had to use against ISIL. The problem was there were not enough of these elite troops and one reason for keeping the Americans around after 2011 was that U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) trainers and advisors were a big help in training more Iraqi commandos and keeping the current ones effective.

March 26, 2023: In the west (Anbar province) the army continues trying to block all the areas on the border with Syria that ISIL groups continue to use to freely cross between Syria and Iraq.

March 25, 2023: Iraq obtained an International Court of arbitration ruling that declared it illegal for Turkey to allow 370,000 barrels of oil a day to move through a Turkish pipeline to a port where the oil can be sold to export customers and finance the autonomous Kurd government. Turkey gets a transit fee for use of the pipeline. Without the oil income the Kurds will have to surrender some of their autonomy to the Arab dominated Iraqi government. The Iraqi Arabs have never treated the Kurds well and under Saddam, the Kurds were constantly being attacked, in one case with chemical weapons.

March 23, 2023: In the northwest, across the border in Syria (Hasaka province) an Iran backed Iraqi group called the Al-Ghaliboun Brigade launched an attack on an American base, using an explosives carrying UAV. The attack killed an American contractor, wounded another and wounded five American soldiers. The Americans retaliated with air strikes on bases used by the IRGC and known anti-American groups in Syria. The Iraqi government has tried to shut down Iran-backed Iraqi militias but some still operate, especially along the Syrian border.

March 20, 2023: It was twenty years ago today that the Saddam Hussein government was defeated and replaced by a democracy that could not initially deal with continuing resistance from the Sunni minority that Saddam belonged to. Iran expanded its influence in Iraq and supported attacks on Iraqi Sunni Arabs. The Sunnis were using Islamic terrorism to justify its continuing violence and in 2014 this led to the creation of ISIL in Syria by Iraqis, many who used to work for the Saddam government.

March 19, 2023: Iraq and Iran have agreed to a new security treaty that has Iran and Iraq cooperating on curbing Kurdish power in Iraq and Iran. The Iraqi Kurds have been autonomous since the early 1990s when the Americans and British provided air power and some special operation troops to keep Iraqi troops out. This has annoyed The Shia Arab central government ever since. The Iraqi Kurds are formidable fighters and led the 2016 effort to retake Mosul and push ISIL out of Iraq. The Iraqi government downplayed the Kurdish contribution but foreign observers reported what really went on and the Kurds prepared for another attack on them by the Iraqi government.

March 13, 2023: In the northeast (Diyala Province) there was another attack on civilians as a roadside bomb and gunfire were used to kill six civilians. That makes 18 such deaths in the last few weeks as Shia tribal militias attack local Sunnis or other Shia groups. The main cause of the attacks is who (usually Sunnis) supported past ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) attacks in the area. There is more violence like this throughout Iraq as various tribal or religious groups settled old grudges. There has never been a lack of such grudges and the security forces have a difficult time getting the warring groups to make peace. In addition, there are still some pro-Iran Iraqis who are regarded with suspicion and sometimes attacked. The central government is seen as part of the problem because one of the anti-corruption efforts involves cracking down on smuggling gangs in areas like Diyala province. Most Iraqis still want a crackdown on corruption, but not when it hurts them financially. To make matters worse, smuggling gangs that lose their access to smuggling routes often turn to more violent money making activities like kidnapping for ransom and killing hostages when the family does not pay the ransom. Until last year there were still small groups of ISIL fighters surviving in the north and west, mainly by avoiding the security forces and concentrating on raising money via extortion and kidnapping so they could rebuild and recruit. The fundraising has been more successful than the recruiting and ISIL in Iraq is evolving into another organized crime network. Gangsters tend to prefer a lower body count than terrorists. In the last year there have been many months where there were only a few terrorism-related deaths, often the result of police activity where Islamic terrorists would not surrender.

March 12, 2023: In the west (Anbar province) a major anti-terrorism effort resulted in 22 ISIL members killed. Among the dead were several known ISIL leaders. The entire operation was carried out by the ICTS,

March 11, 2023: In the northeast (Diyala Province) a counter-terrorism effort arrested 86 ISIL members or supporters and seized several stockpiles and weapons and equipment. This included over 60 rifles, a mortar and large quantities of ammunition. Also taken were 18 cars and trucks along with 160 motorcycles. A cell phone was also taken and examination of that and interrogation of suspects yielded information on some more fanatic ISIL members in the province.

March 10, 2023: China brokered a peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

March 3, 2023: Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) reported it had killed a senior PKK commander in operations in the vicinity of Sinjar, Iraq. The commander was identified as Saad Ali Badal. MIT claimed Badal planned to attack Turkish soldiers at a base in Bashiqa (Iraq, Nineveh province). It is believed Badal is connected to an attack on ethnic Turkmen in the city of Kirkuk (northern Iraq). The Turkmen belonged to the Iraqi Turkman’s Front. Badal allegedly has ties to Iran.




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