Iraq: Turning The Tide

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November 25, 2015: Security forces have been making progress in retaking Ramadi. Since September the city has been surrounded and troops have cleared ISIL forces out of more than half the city. There are about 5,000 ISIL gunmen in Anbar and that number appears to be declining. Several recent ISIL defeats in Syria and Iraq have been bad for morale and suddenly ISIL seems to have fewer people to send out to fight. Many ISIL local hires have deserted and taken with them useful information on where ISIL stores its weapons and other important stuff. More of these sites are being bombed even though they are, from the air, just another building with nothing special going on around it. The locally recruited tribesmen (especially those on the ISIL payroll) were also unhappy with the ISIL policy of kidnapping tribal elders and killing them or holding them for ransom (money or cooperation from tribal chiefs for whatever ISIL wanted). A lot of the local tribesmen working for ISIL are related to some of the elders kidnapped or murdered by ISIL and that bad treatment is not appreciated. ISIL needs some victories in Anbar but is having a hard time making that happen. At the moment the ISIL forces defending Ramadi are not showing their usual aggressiveness and resolve. Thus soldiers have been able to slowly advance, removing roadside bombs and mines as they do and clearing the city one neighborhood at a time. American and Iraqi officials have been insisting that Ramadi will be retaken by the end of the year. Such claims are often based on intel that is not available to the public. For a long time it was believed this was just wishful thinking but now the Iraqis are closing in and ISIL is not responding. 

Iraqi forces have also gotten very good a finding and removing ISIL mines and roadside bombs. The U.S. has been training Iraqis for this work since 2004 and now Iraq has its own school that is turning out a growing number of very effective EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) technicians. These men are essential if there is to be a rapid and sustained advance into ISIL held territory or urban areas ISIL has held for a while. Iraqi troops are also better at detecting and stopping ISIL suicide bomb attacks. Some still get through and those make the new but over 90 percent of ISIL suicide bomb operations against Iraqi troops fail. The growing failure of the roadside bombs and suicide bombers is also bad for ISIL morale.

In early November the United States announced that it was going to carry out more commando raids and air strikes against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq and Syria. Until then no one else, not even the Arab states most directly threatened by ISIL, were willing to send in ground forces. The U.S. is sending fewer than a hundred commandos, who will work mainly with their Kurdish counterparts. The Kurdish commandos have been trained by the American since the 1990s and have a track record the Americans trust. The Americans only carried out two such raids in 2015. One in May killed a senior ISIL leader and captured his wife (wanted for war crimes) and seized seven terabytes (seven million megabytes) of ISIL records. This led to some more damaging air raids and a much better understanding of how ISIL was organized in Iraq and Syria and where new targets were likely to show up. The intelligence bonanza is said to be why there will be an increase in the number of American airstrikes against ISIL. The Arab air forces in Yemen (where there are no pesky Americans to interfere) and the Russians in Syria have an ROE that ignores human shields and bombs all targets of military value. In Iraq and Syria the Arab air forces were operating under American rules, which meant a lot of targets that would normally be hit (as the Arabs have been doing in Yemen) could not be. The Iraqi Air Force has a less restrictive ROE because it is less alarming to Iraqis if their own aircraft bomb Iraqi civilians (while going after an ISIL target) than if foreign aircraft do it.

For most Gulf oil states the war in Yemen is more important than the fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. That’s because the Arabs see Yemen as a bold Iranian attempt to seize control of the most populous, but poorest, country in the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabs were shocked at how close Iran came to succeeding. The scope of the Arab involvement in Yemen can be seen by the fact that for the first time since 1991 these Arab states have sent their regular troops (as opposed to a few commandos) into combat. Although these Arab states publicly sent their warplanes to join the American led coalition bombing ISIL in Iraq and Syria, soon after the Arab coalition aircraft began attack Shia rebels in March the Arab warplanes began disappearing from Iraq and Syria and now all are devoted to attacking targets in Yemen and keeping an eye on Iran. For the Arabs Iran is, and always has been, the most dangerous foe and defeating Iran in Yemen is a big deal. Iraq is pretty much dependent on Iran and the West to defeat ISIL.

November 24, 2015: French warplanes, operating from a carrier in the Mediterranean, bombed ISIL targets in Mosul. France has greatly increased its military efforts against ISIL since a series of ISIL terror attacks on the 13th killed 130 people in Paris. France also has warplanes stationed in the UAE and Jordan.

Iraq suspended commercial flights from Baghdad Basra and Najaf to the Kurdish north for security reasons. This was said to include the fear that the Russians would fire more cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea towards ISIL targets in Syria.

November 23, 2015: As expected the U.S. has changed its ROE and now goes after ISIL trucks that transport oil from Syria and Iraq to Turkey where it is sold on the black market. This has long been a major source of income for ISIL but the American ROE prevented attacks on much of the ISIL oil operations because ISIL used civilians as human shields. Thus the civilian drivers of the oil trucks make them immune to American air attack. But today nearly 300 of these trucks were destroyed by American AC-130 gunships and A-10 ground attack aircraft. The U.S. has not completely abandoned its old ROE because pamphlets were dropped beforehand where the drivers could find them warning of attacks and advising the driver to stay away from their vehicles. Using AC-130s and A-10s also give drivers in trucks a chance to jump out and run when their cargo is hit by the autocannon fire. If the drivers compartment is hit it’s all over for the drivers and some were killed. That makes it more difficult for ISIL to find drivers. Now ISIL will have to hold hostage family members of drivers and execute hostages if drivers run away. This is an ancient technique that is still widely used in the Middle East.

North of Baghdad (Tikrit) soldiers and Shia militia repulsed an ISIL attack on two oilfields. This is increasingly common and it is now the exception when Iraqi troops flee contact with ISIL. It does still happen, but the government now allows officers to be punished for such failures of leadership. In the past too many officers got off with an admonition for such failures because these officers were politically connected. American advisors have long warned the Iraqi government that they had to choose between their corrupt habits in running the armed forces and survival against ISIL attack. Getting rid of all the incompetent officers will take time because the corruption is waiting to return as soon as the ISIL danger is past. But as long as the ISIL threat continues the government has a powerful incentive to do the right thing in the military.

November 22, 2015: In Anbar Iraqi special forces carried out an operation that rescued 22o civilians held hostage by ISIL. The hostages were from a pro-government Sunni tribe in the area and ISIL was holding the tribal members to coerce the tribe into not fighting with ISIL.

November 21, 2015:  In the north (Salahuddin province) a senior ISIL commander was killed while trying to rally his men to halt another advance by soldiers and militiamen. ISIL commanders are more frequently called to get directly involved in persuading their fighters to stand their ground.

November 20, 2015: North of Mosul Kurdish and Yazidi forces drove ISIL out of Sinjar after a two day battle. Most of the 500 ISIL men defending the town fled as it became obvious that the attackers were surrounding the town and not taking prisoners. This lack of resistance was surprising especially when it was discovered the ISIL had dug over thirty tunnels under the town for their fighters to live in and fight from. Taking back Sinjar had long been sought by the thousands of armed Yazidis who have allied themselves with the Kurds. While the Kurds led a bold operation that recused several hundred Yazidis near Mount Sinjar in late 2014 the Kurds held off on retaking the main Yazidi town of Sinjar. The reason was that the town was easier to capture than to defend. It would require over 4,000 Kurdish troops to defend Sinjar and the Kurds did not have the personnel for that until recently. While the Kurds mobilized and trained more fighters (including many Yazidi men) ISIL has been in decline. ISIL is not getting as many recruits, is suffering more desertions (despite executing those who try to leave) and ISIL morale and motivation has noticeably declined. Apparently the Americans also assured the Kurds that if ISIL made a major move to retake Sinjar there would be plenty of air strikes available to slaughter the attackers. The Kurds saw how well this worked in Syria (at the Kurdish town of Kobane) and so did ISIL. The heavy losses at Kobane earlier in the year hurt ISIL morale and it is believed ISIL does now want another bloody defeat like that in Sinjar. Meanwhile a coalition of Kurds, Christians and Arabs captured another town from ISIL just across the nearby Syrian border.  This is all supposed to be about retaking Mosul from ISIL because these two victories make it more difficult for ISIL to supply Mosul. The Iraqi army commander outside Mosul would not reveal any details of his battle plans except to say they would be unconventional.

Many Moslems, and some Christians, consider the Yazidi pagans and devil worshipers. The Yazidi are Kurds who practice a pre-Christian religion related to the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion common in Iran (and now only found in India). The Yazidis are considered pagans by ISIL and to Moslems pagans must either renounce their beliefs or die. There are about 600,000 Yazidis in Iraq and half of those lived in and around Sinjar, a largely Yazidi town of 90,000. Since mid-2014 ISIL has killed nearly 2,000 Yazidis and another 6,000 have disappeared into ISIL custody. Some mass graves were found in Sinjar that apparently contained the bodies of some of the missing.

Turkish F-16s bombed several suspected PKK camps in northern (Kurdish) Iraq.

November 13, 2015: Turkish F-16s bombed several suspected PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) camps in northern (Kurdish) Iraq.

In eastern Libya (outside Derna) ISIL leader for Libya (Abu Nabil) was killed by an American F-15E aircraft delivering a smart bomb. ISIL later claimed that Abu Nabil was still alive but offered no proof. Abu Nabil was believed to be a key factor in setting up and running ISIL operations in Libya. Abu Nabil is an Iraqi who belonged to al Qaeda in Iraq 2004-2010 before joining in the formation of ISIL. This should remind everyone that the angry (at losing their control of Iraq) Sunni Arab minority in Iraq is responsible for providing most of the senior leaders of ISIL.

November 12, 2015: Iraqi and Iranian border security officials signed a cooperation deal in which the two countries would share information about border security to make it more difficult for Islamic terrorists to move across the border.

Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the head of the Iran backed Shia militias in Iraq said that if Iran ordered him to overthrow the Iraqi government he would do so. This confirms what Iraqi leaders have long feared. The Shia militias are supposed to be under the control of the Iraqi government, if only because the militia members are paid by the government. Yet the Shia militias often refuse orders from the government and are demanding more money while refusing to account for how they spend it. This sort of behavior is a major reason why the Iraqi government is so cooperative with the Americans since Iran is now seen as a greater threat than ISIL. Iraqi politicians also see the autonomous Kurds up north as a threat and provide the Kurdish troops with less financial support than the Iran backed Shia militias. The U.S. is constantly pressuring the Iraqi government to provide the Kurds with more money and a share of the weapons and military equipment bought. The government refuses, pointing out their fear that the Kurds plan to declare independence and take control of northern Iraq. The Kurds have said they will not do that, not least because it would mean worse relations with Turkey. The Arab Shia who dominate the government persist in their beliefs secret Kurdish plots to establish an independent “Kurdistan” up north.

Meanwhile Iran continues to insist that most of the ISIL success in Iraq and Syria is because of secret assistance from the United States. No proof is offered but this accusation is popular throughout the region.

November 11, 2015: The Kurdish government in the north announced that they had agreed to participate in a major offensive to get ISIL out of Mosul.

Outside Ramadi ISIL executed five local men for spying.

November 8, 2015: In East Europe the Czech Republic has sold (for about $40 million) fifteen used L-159 ALCA light bombers to Iraq. The first two aircraft arrived on November 5th and should soon begin combat operations against ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant).

 

 

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