March 17, 2014:
Despite continuing attacks by ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds are going their own way by helping the Syrian Kurds to consolidate their hold on northeastern Syria. On January 21
the Kurds declared an autonomous provincial government in the northeast. With the help of the autonomous Kurdish government of northern Iraq and the many Kurds in Turkey, the Syrian Kurds are keeping most of the war out of their territory. The Syrian Army considers the Kurds more trouble than they are worth at the moment and something that can be tended to once the other rebels are crushed. Many rebel groups get along with the Kurds and respect their desire to concentrate on protecting their own. Since the northeast is geographically out of the way the Kurds can do that. The Kurds do allow free passage for rebel groups they trust. The Kurds are 15 percent of the Syrian population, moderate and democratic Moslems, concentrated in the northeast. They have long opposed the Assads and are hated by the largely Iraqi ISIL (which has always hated the Iraqi Kurds). Allied with the Kurds are the Christians who are about ten percent of the population. Together have over 12,000 armed men available (mainly for self-defense). The Iraqi Kurds are about 20 percent of the Iraqi population and followed the same plan in the early 1990s with assistance from the United States and Britain (who provided air support, weapons and trainers) to keep the Iraqi forces out. The Syrian Kurds appear to be trying the same strategy.
Meanwhile the civil war between ISIL and most other rebels continues in Syria. This fighting has killed over 3,000 Syrian rebels since it began in January. This has weakened ISIL efforts to grab control of western Iraq. The civil war within the rebel movement has cost the rebel side nearly 10,000 dead and wounded. Worse, ISIL is still around, especially in eastern Syria. In part this is done to prevent more desertions by foreign volunteers, who are not enthusiastic about fighting fellow Sunni rebels. However, ISIL has gained some recruits in Syria who defected from Islamic terrorist groups still loyal to al Qaeda. That’s because ISIL represents the most extreme Islamic terrorist thinking and some guys when they get into the Islamic radical life get ambitious and ISIL is known to be the baddest of the bad. Despite that ISIL has been weakened, losing more than half its Syrian strength so far this year and about as much of their territory. Completely destroying ISIL appears to be less of a goal for other al Qaeda groups. A lot of the fighting in the last two months was over shared resources and these ownership disputes have largely been settled. Rebel commanders were unable to persuade many ISIL factions to switch sides and have settled with local agreements to leave each other alone and cooperate when mutual interests were involved. That may work, because the rebel coalition still contains many loyal al Qaeda groups. The main thing that’s hurting ISIL in Syria and Iraq is their savagery, which appears to be getting worse.
The war in Syria has had impact all over Iraq. In Anbar ISIL gunmen still control parts of the province. But in largely Shia Basra in the south there are now over a hundred dead a month coming from Syria, casualties of the Syrian fighting. Efforts are made to return the bodies of those killed in Syria and bring them back for burial in Iraq. For over a year now pro-Iran Shia militias in Basra and other Shia areas of Iraq have been recruiting young men to fight (for good pay, plus a death benefit to the family if killed) for the pro-Iran Syrian government. These volunteers are more enthusiastic than most Syrian soldiers and, along with Hezbollah militia fighters from Lebanon have halted the rebel advance in Syria. Iran pitches this service in Syria as part of the centuries old Shia-Sunni conflict as the most fanatical rebel troops in Syria are from the Sunni ISIL, which is responsible for most of the terror attacks on Shia civilians in Iraq. So thousands of Iraqi men have gone off to fight in Syria, where nearly 20 percent of them are killed or injured. Iran covers all the costs (equipment, transportation, medical and good monthly pay). It’s a job as well as a Mission From God.
In Anbar fighting continues in Fallujah which has, for over two months been the center of the action because of the crucial geographical position the city has occupied for nearly 3,000 years. The city is actually a small peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Euphrates River and the banks not covered by the city are full of date palms and other cover for armed men. The city itself is densely populated with lots of marrow streets and alleys. No wonder a quarter of the American dead during the Iraq war were in and around Fallujah. Only 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, it is the gateway between the desert-like region to the west and the densely populated Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the east. Initially the local Sunni tribes convinced the government to not launch a major military assault, which would probably succeed but likely destroy the city (again, it’s happened many times over the centuries). The tribes sent in their gunmen and negotiators in and hope to outtalk, outmaneuver or simply kill all the Islamic terrorists there. That did not work and for the last month the government has used airpower (aircraft and helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles) and groups of soldiers and allied tribesmen to take out ISIL positions one at a time. For most of the time since January 1st there have been ceasefires in Fallujah, at the behest of local pro-government tribes who want to avoid destroying the city with a major military assault. So for days at a time the tribes get ceasefires enforced although it is usually the ISIL that breaks it and the army and police go back into action. Arrests of ISIL men continue elsewhere in Anbar. But the province is too large for the government to completely control and there are still thousands of armed ISIL men hiding out in remote locations. Using cars, SUVs and trucks these Islamic terrorists can quickly move to most anywhere in the province and launch an attack. The army checkpoints control the main roads, but not the many dirt tracks found in the semi-desert province. It is still a fluid situation but the ISIL are losing. To survive the ISIL increasing turns to looting and just taking what they need. This creates anger even among Anbar residents who have long been sympathetic to the Islamic terrorists.
Fallujah is not the only city that ISIL has tried to take over. Across the border in eastern Syria ISIL has taken control of the city (population 500,000) of Raqqa and turned it into an “Islamic city.” Strict lifestyle rules have been imposed and local Christians have to pay an extra tax to avoid persecution. ISIL has pulled out of many towns and villages they controlled in northern Syria and apparently plan to concentrate in Raqqa for a last stand.
Al Qaeda has officially disowned ISIL, after many attempts this year to get ISIL to cooperate. ISIL has refused and declared itself the true Islamic radicals and defenders of Islam. Such splits in radical organizations are common and this one has been in the works for a decade. The Iraqi Sunni Islamic terrorists always had a very high opinion of themselves and that clashed with the largely Saudi and Egyptian leadership of al Qaeda. The main area of disagreement was the ISIL insistence on going after Shia (and other minority Moslem sects) and non-Moslems. Al Qaeda leadership considers there attacks counterproductive and prefers to work with other Moslems (including Shia) to replace the governments of Moslem nations with religious dictatorships. ISIL is seen as just out to kill and out of control.
Iraqi police complain that ISIL in Iraq have now started waging Information War as well. This consists of releasing rumors of police misbehavior (corruption, looting, rape and murder). Some of this does happen but the new ISIL effort has become widespread and continuous in some parts of Iraq. ISIL will try to coerce media (radio and newspapers) in areas where it is very active to report these allegations as truth (or risk having the station or newspaper offices attacked).
Responding to Iraqi requests for help with training their commandos the United States has set up a training program in neighboring Jordan, where Iraqi troops are being sent for training courses. The Iraqis still cannot muster the political will to provide the United States with a Status of Forces agreement so that American troops can operate inside Iraq. The U.S. is sending about a hundred Special Forces personnel to Jordan where two other nations will also provide trainers. No one from the West will send trainers to Iraq without a Status of Forces agreement so Jordan is the best alternative. In 2013 Iraq, beset by a resurgence of Sunni Islamic terrorism, appealed for international support, especially from America. The U.S. responded with some intelligence support and a few experts (with diplomatic passports) on the ground. Because Iraq refused to provide American troops with protection from corrupt Iraqi police and courts, there was no Status of Forces agreement and the only Americans available in Iraq are the few who can use diplomatic immunity. Iraq may yet come across with the Status of Forces type immunity and is under great pressure from Iran to not do so. Refusing to sign a Status of Forces agreement (which is actually quite common) is seen as a matter of honor among Iraqis and no politician has yet dared to point out that countries like German, South Korea and Japan disagreed with this stand. U.S. troops won’t return without the Status of Forces agreement and that assumes the Americans can be persuaded to let their troops get involved in Iraq again. Worst of all, just bringing back American counter-terrorist forces will not solve the fundamental problem; corruption. This condition cripples the Arab world, and especially Iraq, culturally, economically and militarily. Even though a growing number of Arabs admit this is a major, if not the major problem, there’s not been a lot of progress in dealing with it.
March 16, 2014: North of Baghdad over a dozen Islamic terrorists attacked the home of an anti-terrorist tribal leader. Their target was not home so they killed and beheaded his wife and two young sons. The compound was then blown up and the Islamic terrorists fled before police reinforcements could arrive. With the month half over nearly 300 have died from terrorist related violence so far.
March 15, 2014: Kurdish members of parliament are threatening to boycott the legislature unless this year’s national budget is amended to the satisfaction of the northern Kurds. The central government and the Kurds continue to feud over Kurdish efforts to develop oil fields in their territory and export the oil. The Iraqi government insists that it must control all oil related activities. The Kurds see this as unfair as the Shia dominated government steals a lot of the oil money and the Kurds would rather see Kurdish leaders steal it.
March 12, 2014: Prime minister Maliki made public statements on March 8th accusing Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states of supporting terrorism in Iraq. This caused a major diplomatic and media blowback from Saudi Arabia and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This led Iraq to officially backtrack. The Sunni states pointed out that they have long been the victims of Sunni Islamic terrorists from Iraq and that in Syria Shia Iraqis are fighting for the government and Sunni Iraqis (especially ISIL) are fighting for the rebels. While ISIL and other Islamic terrorist groups have long recruited in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf oil states, this has been a common pattern throughout the Arab world. The governments of Saudi Arabia and UAE have killed or jailed lots of Islamic terrorists and continue to do so. What Maliki really wanted was more government efforts to suppress the Islamic radical clergy and donors in Saudi Arabia. The Americans have long demanded this, but the Saudis point out that Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and religious fundamentalism has wide support there. Those attitudes extend to the Sunni minority in Iraq. These fundamentalist attitudes have been slowly changing over the last half century, but not quickly enough to suppress the desire of many young Sunni men to volunteer for “jihad” (“struggle”) operations in defense (from real or imagined threats) of Islam.
March 9, 2014: The Iraqi transport minister publically apologized for an incident on March 6th when a Lebanese airliner flying from Lebanon to Iraq was ordered to turn around 20 minutes after it left and return to pick up the son of the Iraqi transport minister, who had arrived at the airport too late to catch the scheduled flight. The son then made a few phone calls and got the aircraft brought back by getting officials in Iraq to tell Syria that the flight was banned from Iraqi air space if the minister’s son was not on it. This sort of behavior is not unknown in the region, but was never popular and has become something that is increasingly not tolerated by the media and a growing number of individuals who will speak out. After a few days of media criticism Iraqi officials openly apologized and promised to punish those involved. That may not actually happen, but the apology was a big step forward.
March 7, 2014: At the request of Iraq the U.S. flew in a hundred Hellfire missiles plus hundreds of assault rifles and several tons of ammunition. Iraqi soldiers and police are using a lot more ammo in Anbar province and Iraq does not like to keep large stockpiles of weapons and ammo because of the danger corrupt officials will sell the stuff.
March 5, 2014: In the Red Sea, off the coast of Eritrea, Israeli commandos boarded a 110 meter (360 foot) long cargo ship and found 40 Syrian made M-302 long range (160 kilometers) rockets that were shipped to Iran where they were loaded onto this ship and hidden under a cargo of bagged cement. Israel believes the missiles were headed for Sudan and from there were to be smuggled into Gaza or Sinai for attacks on Israel. Then again, Iran has been supplying Sudan with weapons as well, although there has long been a secretive pipeline of Iranian weapons shipped to Sudan then smuggled via truck and tunnel to Gaza. Iran denied having anything to do with this ship despite the fact that Israel towed it to an Israeli port in the Red Sea for further inspection. That provided more evidence that this cargo was loaded at an Iranian port. Israel revealed that Israeli and American intelligence had noted the Syrian made rockets being flown to Iran, which was unusual. Israel traced the rockets being moved to the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and loaded on the ship now in Israeli custody. That ship then went to an Iraqi port to load bags of cement that were used to hide the boxes containing the rockets. The cargo ship carried a fake cargo manifest stating that no cargo had been loaded in Iran. This is not the first time Israel has caught an Iranian arms smuggling ship. Since 2002 this has happened five times. Iran insists that this is all a publicity stunt invented by Israel to embarrass Iran. Yet it also demonstrates Iranian obsession with Israel, which is one of the main reasons Iran spends so much to support the Assads. The U.S. has asked Iraq to do something about this blatant cooperation with Iran in illegal activities. Iran pays a lot in bribes to Iraqi officials and expects some things in return.
March 3, 2014: Fighting continues in the Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. ISIL keeps trying to establish bases in the city but the army and pro-government tribesmen quickly detect these moves and attack. In the last two days over fifty ISIL men have died in these attacks with other captured along with weapons and documents.
March 1, 2014: Terrorism related deaths reached about a thousand for February. About a third of these were in Anbar, where there has been major fighting with ISIL there for two months. This was less than January, where over 1,500 died, and over half of those were in Anbar. In 2013 the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. ISIL is believed to have lost heavily in the Anbar fighting and lost even more men in Syria.
February 27, 2014: Iraqi officials denied signing any arms deals with Iran. Two days earlier the United States asked Iraq to comment officially on media reports that Iraq had signed an agreement in late November to buy $195 million worth of weapons and ammo from Iran. This is forbidden by international sanctions. Those sanctions have not prevented a lot of “smuggling” between Iran and Iraq. Much of this “illegal” trade apparently has official approval and assistance. According to documents Iraqi journalists had obtained state owned Iranian defense firms agreed to sell Iraq assault rifles, machine-guns, mortars and ammo for these weapons in addition to ammunition for 125mm tank guns and artillery. In addition the Iranians are providing night vision goggles and communications equipment. These arms deals were sought by Iraq because the U.S. was reluctant to sell Iraq weapons that it was feared would fall into the hands of terrorists.
February 25, 2014: Iraq has ordered another 500 AGM-114K/R Hellfire II missiles. The K model is for use against armored vehicles while the R model has a warhead that is effective against personnel and structures, as well as lightly armored vehicles. Iraq has some helicopters, trainers and recon aircraft that can be equipped with Hellfire and a growing number of these helicopters and airplanes have been so equipped.