Iraq: A Messy Business

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April 27, 2014: Much of the current terrorist violence is a Sunni attempt to disrupt the parliamentary elections on the 30th. This will succeed in parts of Anbar province where ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is struggling to deal with increased pressure from government forces and pro-government tribal militias. The elections are the fourth opportunity to change the parliamentary balance since the Sunni dictatorship was overthrown in 2003. There are more than 9,000 candidates participating to see who will win the 328 seats. Whichever of the dozen major party coalitions can put together a majority of parliamentary seats can form the next government. The coalition of the current (since 2006) president Nouri al Maliki is currently the most likely to do that, despite a dismal record of corruption, mismanagement and inability to halt in the increasing terrorist violence. Maliki is the favorite because he uses his control of the government to persuade voters and politicians (with bribes, jobs, promises or threats) to support his effort to gain enough members of parliament to form the new government and rule for at least twelve years. There is growing anger against Maliki, corruption and inept government, but it remains to be seen if this can be translated into real change.

If Iraq seems like a mess it is and has been that way for a long time. It seems worse since 2003 because now there is no dictatorship to keep foreign (and domestic) journalists from reporting about the true extent of the mess. In the last decade the international organizations that measure how effective (or ineffective) a country is at running its affairs have been able to measure Iraq. By over a dozen measures Iraq always comes in near the bottom. Local and foreign journalists like to blame this on the 2003 U.S.-British invasion that overthrew the decade’s old Baath Party dictatorship. But Iraqis, and many in the U.S. Department of Defense know better. Iraq has always been a mess, no matter who was running the place.

Another reason for all the violence in Iraq is the three years of civil war in Syria. But the crap flows both ways and the biggest advantage the Syrian government currently has, besides the Iranian mercenaries is the civil war among the rebel Islamic terrorist groups that broke out in January. This is mainly ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also called ISIS) versus all the other rebels. ISIL is outnumbered but has a secure base in eastern Syria and help from the Iraqi branch of ISIL. This infighting is killing several hundred additional rebels a month and it means less rebel pressure on the government. The biggest problem the rebels have is disunity. While the mainstream rebels have defeated ISIL in northern Syria, they have lost ground in eastern Syria because ISIL is still strong in western Iraq (Anbar province). This area (east Syria/west Iraq) has always been a stronghold for Islamic conservative Sunni tribes, many of living on both sides of the border. ISIL is at war in both Syria and Iraq and 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 a big fan of war with the Shia. ISIL is believed to have lost heavily in the recent Anbar fighting and lost even more men in Syria. Over 4,000 Iraqis have died so far this year from terrorist related violence. The 2013 losses in Syria were more than twice as high, but most of that was in western Syria. The Sunni tribes had driven most government forces out of eastern Syria by early 2013. ISIL forces on both sides of the Iraq border are cooperating to drive the remaining government forces out of the area. But on the Iraqi side there are over 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and police in Anbar trying to destroy ISIL there. A lot of this fighting is in and around the city of Fallujah, which ISIL controls parts of. In eastern Syria ISIL controls Raqqa, the largest city in the east and the only provincial capital to be captured by the rebels. The main thing that keeps ISIL going is the extensive criminal activities the group uses in Iraq to raise cash. This includes kidnapping, extortion and theft. For most Iraqis ISIL is a very large and very scary bunch of thieves, kidnappers and all-round bad buys. All that money enables ISIL to pay its gunmen, bribe officials and buy weapons (often from the security forces). It’s the cash, more than ideology or politics that keeps ISIL going in both Iraq and Syria.

Anbar province (most of western Iraq) has become a major battle zone as ISIL continues fighting in both Iraq and Syria. Efforts to expand the fighting to other parts of Iraq have failed. Not for want of trying as ISIL has conducted raids as far east as Abu Ghraib, with is 20 kilometers west of Baghdad and the outskirts of Baghdad itself. Efforts to get closer to Baghdad have been foiled by a strong and aggressive army presence around the city. Same situation in neighboring provinces. Despite army announcements of heavy enemy casualties fighting continues in Fallujah. Since January this city has been the center of the action because of the crucial geographical position the city has occupied for nearly 3,000 years. Only 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, Fallujah is the gateway between the desert-like region to the west and the densely populated Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the east. The local Sunni tribes are cooperating with the government to clear ISIL out of Fallujah without destroying the city. That has turned out to be a slow and tedious process as ISIL continues to control some neighborhoods. Since February 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. Meanwhile many residents of Fallujah and Ramadi (the provincial capital which still contains pockets of ISIL control) have left their homes until the fighting is over. The total number of such refugees in Anbar is about 400,000 (a quarter of the provincial population). These people have good reason to flee because in March alone over a hundred civilians were killed or wounded by the fighting. The civilian casualties are down in April and ISIL losses are up. Pro-government tribesmen are losing patience with all this ISIL violence and disruption to life in Anbar and have managed to prevent ISIL from getting more gunmen into the city. A lot of the fighting now revolves around ISIL efforts to break the army cordon around Fallujah and to defend the rural ISIL bases that the army is now targeting for air and ground attacks.

As a precaution the government moved the 2,400 inmates of Abu Ghraib prison to other facilities on the 14th. This was to avoid ISIL attacking the prison and freeing many of the ISIL members held there. Once ISIL has been defeated the prison will get its prisoners back.

ISIL recently bragged on the Internet about how the majority of the suicide bombers used in Iraq were foreigners. These were mostly from North Africa, but also from Chechnya, Denmark, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Tajikistan. It’s become fashionable for many young Moslem men to commit suicide by killing “enemies of Islam.” ISIL seeks Sunnis who are fired up with hatred of Shia Moslems. Why so many suicidal young men? Some say it’s a cultural thing in this part of the world. There’s historical evidence for that. But a lot of springs from the hopeless economic and social situation most young Moslem men find themselves in. All the corruption and bad government means few jobs and even fewer honorable ways to make a living. For the religious minded young man, suicide looms as a righteous way out. ISIL can now get suicide volunteers into Iraq easily because of the Syrian civil war. The Iraq-Syria border is poorly guarded on both sides and the other Syrian borders make it relatively easy for these volunteers to get to ISIL camps inside Syria. This is not the first time Syrian Sunni Arabs have worked with their Iraqi counterparts to carry out terror operations. During the Islamic terrorist campaign in Iraq from 2004-7 over ten percent of the foreign terrorists in Iraq were Syrians (while about half were Saudis). These foreign volunteers made up at least ten percent of the Islamic terrorists in Iraq during this period. Many fled to Syria after the Iraqi Sunnis turned against them in 2007. Some have since returned but the Iraqi and Syrian Sunni terrorists have learned to work together. Al Qaeda sees the civil war between ISIL and the rest of the rebels as a disaster for the Islamic radical cause but has been unable to get ISIL to cooperate. Al Qaeda has tried threats and offers to negotiate, but nothing has worked.

Iraqi military commanders continue to demand their government do more to obtain help from the Americans. The U.S. has promised more intelligence support, including adding more military intelligence officers to the embassy staff to directly assist their Iraqi counterparts. The U.S. will also expand its Jordan based training program for Iraqi commandos. NATO and Iraq wanted foreign trainers (including Americans) to remain in Iraq after 2011. But the issue of immunity from local prosecution became a hot item in Iraqi politics and the “status of forces” agreement was impossible to get through parliament. Such immunity was essential because the Iraqi justice system is corrupt, and foreign troops could be falsely prosecuted. That risk was unacceptable in the West. Over 700 American civilian (former military personnel) trainers remained, using a special diplomatic agreement to obtain immunity. Even if Iraq now agreed to a status of forces agreement it’s unlikely there would be enough political support in the U.S. to let American troops return. The U.S. has a tradition of getting stuck in these kinds of situations. U.S. troops are in Europe and Japan, 69 years after the end of World War II. American forces are still in Korea, 61 years after that war ended. Don't expect Iraq to buck the trend. Many Iraqis wanted U.S. troops to stay, as an insurance policy against an invasion (from Iran, or even Turkey) or a coup. Many still do, but it’s not likely to happen.

The growing violence has hurt oil production. Oil exports are running at the rate of 2.5 million barrels a day for April. That less than the 3.2 million that the oil industry is currently capable of. Terrorist violence and Kurdish refusal to share its oil have kept production down since a February high of 2.8 million barrels a day. There also still a problem with repairs and maintenance. From the 1980s (when Saddam invaded Iran) to 2007 it was not possible to do a lot of maintenance and upgrades. The war with Iran that lasted until 1988 followed by the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 followed by over a decade of sanctions. Then in 2003 the Americans and British invaded. Several years of terrorist violence made work on the oil industry difficult. But since 2007 a lot of delayed work has been done. The government had hoped to get production up to nine million barrels a day by 2017, but that is considered too ambitious by oil industry experts. Getting production over six million barrels a day is more likely, but is impossible as long as the Sunni terrorists and the independent minded Kurds do not cooperate. Although security in the oil facilities is pretty tight there are still problems with attacks on some pipelines. Still the oil sales are producing over seven billion dollars a month in revenue for the government. Despite all that oil income Iraq’s main problem remains corruption and the inability to find or keep in office honest and efficient leaders. Iraq has 150,000 million barrels of oil in the ground and there is an endless supplies of Iraqi politicians eager to get a share. Since Saddam was deposed in 2003, production has risen from one million to a brief peak of three million barrels a day. The government gets most its revenue from oil income and that means Iraqis pay no income taxes. That makes the oil fields all the more important. While GDP is $130 billion, it would be a third of that without oil. Some 95 percent of the $80 billion annual government budget comes from oil profits. But the rampant and seemingly uncontrollable corruption means that little of that oil income goes to improving roads and other infrastructure nor to mention security and all the other things you need to expand oil production. Corrupt politicians steal much of the oil income and are not very trustworthy when it comes to making business arrangements with foreign firms needed to increase oil production. Despite all the oil wealth a quarter of the 33 million Iraqis are still very poor and unemployment is over ten percent. Many Iraqis admit the corruption is the core problem, but no one has been able to get a critical mass of cooperation needed to get most of the corrupt practices out of government and business.

The oil dispute with the Kurds and the general chaos in non-Kurdish Iraq has the Kurds talking of declaring independence. That requires cooperation from the Turks, which is not likely. Meanwhile the Kurds continue to keep Islamic terrorists out. The latest security measure is the construction of a seventeen kilometer long trench on the Syrian border. This will keep smugglers as well as terrorists out, or at least cause them to expend a lot more effort to get in and at a higher risk of getting caught.

April 26, 2014: Shia death squads are apparently back at work in Baghdad as nine Sunnis were gunned down in Sunni neighborhoods. This was apparently in retaliation for yesterday’s bombing of a Shia political rally. ISIL claimed responsibility for the bombing at the political rally.

April 25, 2014: In Baghdad a large rally at a sports stadium was hit with three terrorist bombs, killing nearly 40 people and nearly a hundred wounded. ISIL took credit for this one and that triggered reprisal attacks against Sunni civilians.

April 24, 2014: The military used air strikes against ISIL in Fallujah to kill at least 39 of the terrorists.

April 19, 2014: On the western outskirts of Baghdad troops confronted a large group of ISIL gunmen trying to get into the city. The ISIL force was driven off, leaving 21 dead behind.

April 8, 2014:  On the southern outskirts of Baghdad troops confronted a large group of ISIL gunmen trying to get into the city. The ISIL force was driven off, leaving 25 dead behind. 

 

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