Iraq: After ISIL Comes The Iranian Threat

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May 22, 2017: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) now holds only a few percent of Mosul and Iraq believes it has killed nearly 20,000 ISIL personnel since October 2016 when the battle to take Mosul began. It took three months to clear ISIL out of eastern Mosul and in February the effort to take western Mosul began. The estimate of ISIL dead does not agree with pre-battle estimates or even estimates of ISIL strength at several points in the fighting. The difference probably has to do with a combination of underestimating ISIL strength, claiming more enemy dead for publicity purposes and not being able (or willing because of other priorities) to find out who, and how many, died inside a building where enemy fire was coming from and a smart bomb or guided missile was used to deal with it.

Armed UAVs have been particularly useful in finding and killing key ISIL personnel because these aircraft can watch continuously for hours and act immediately if a target appears. In Mosul the UAVs have killed nearly a thousand ISIL men so far and destroyed over 500 vehicles, many of them rigged for suicide bomb attacks. The UAVs will sometimes be assigned to an advancing unit to continually show ground commanders the entire are and be available to quickly hit a sniper or surprise enemy attack.

By April nearly 70 percent of the original (2014) ISIL leadership had been killed. More are killed every week or, more frequently, their replacements are. Most of these deaths occurred in the last year and the little is known about many of the replacements. These are the men now commanding what is left of ISIL and one thing that is clear; a lot of them are foreigners. Islamic terrorists from Russia, Central Asia and North Africa predominate among the replacements. One reason these men were selected is that they are foreigners and veteran foreign Islamic terrorists have been less likely to flee or secretly make amnesty deals with the government, often involving passing on information. Local leaders have lots of kin in the region and the ancient custom of going after vulnerable family members is still practiced. The new leaders face a much less promising situation.

Since late 2016 ISIL leaders have been trying to get their key personnel (and their families) out of Iraq and Syria. Many of the lesser known ISIL personnel are advised to return to their homeland and establish more of an ISIL presence there. Efforts to establish another base area for ISIL have, so far, failed (in Libya. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt) so the “disperse and raise hell at home” seems to be the official plan. In response the Iraqis fighting in Mosul and the Kurdish led forces closing in on Raqqa are resigned to a slow, methodical advance. Nevertheless ISIL is expected to lose both Mosul and Raqqa by the end of 2017.

Analysis of satellite images indicates that since the February about 1,600 residential buildings were destroyed (and about as many non-residential) in Mosul. Based on what recent refugees have reported about who is left in west Mosul and how they live, it is estimated that up to 600 people (many, if not most civilians) a month were being killed by airstrikes and artillery fire in west Mosul. At least until recently. The remaining 500 or so ISIL fighters are confined to a few square kilometers of downtown west Mosul.

The Iraqis have a much better handle on their own troop losses. So far the Iraqi security forces have lost over a thousand dead and over 6,000 wounded, although there has been no official announcement yet. These figures come from U.S. advisors, who help with technical and tactical assistance as well as calling in airstrikes. The Iraqi troops are OK with the go-slow/death-from-above approach. There are about 100,000 soldier, police and militia men involved in the operation but only about a quarter of these have been regularly involved in combat. Most of the hard fighting has been carried out by a few thousand special operations troops.

The UN estimated that until early May at least a hundred civilians a week were getting killed in Mosul. It’s difficult to get an accurate count until the battle is over and all the rubble searched and survivors questioned. The UN is urging major donor states to provide the cash needed to take care of all the Mosul refugees. So far less than ten percent of the money has been provided. The UN does not like to publically discuss the main reason for shortfall. It is corruption with donors increasingly unwilling to donate to relief efforts in nations where the corruption is so bad that most of the aid gets stolen.

Next Comes Tal Afar

West of Mosul near the Syrian border ISIL is preparing to make a stand in parts of Tal Afar (the town and district) it still controls. ISIL lost control of much of Tal Afar and surrounding areas in late 2016. ISIL had occupied Tal Afar since June 2014 and it was a key transit point for anyone or anything moving to or from Mosul and Syria. Until 2007 Tal Afar was mainly a Turkoman (Turkish) town with large Sunni and Shia Arab minorities. Between 2003 and 2007 al Qaeda terrorized the Sunni Turkomen (for not being Arab), murdered the Shia and used the town as a base for bringing in foreign recruits via Syria. Back then the Shia rulers of Syria (the Assad clan) were willing to tolerate Sunni Islamic terrorists as long as they were just passing through and behaving themselves as they did. Now Tal Afar is still important to Sunni Islamic terrorists (ISIL) in Iraq because the city controls the main road from Mosul to Raqqa (the ISIL capital in eastern Syria). The battle for Tal Afar was fought largely by the Iran-backed Shia militia although they have been told that only Iraqi army troops will be allowed into the town of Tal Afar itself. That’s why the Tal Afar still has about 700 ISIL fighters in it, despite being largely cut off from Mosul and Syria. This isolation is the result of Shia militias spending the last few months shutting down road access between Syria and Mosul. With the main road from Mosul to Raqqa now blocked it is more difficult but not impossible to travel between Syria and Mosul. While the militias have established heavily armed checkpoint on the main roads, vehicles can still travel on dirt roads or cross country. The militias have not got the manpower to provide garrisons for all the towns in the area between Mosul and Syria so the fighting has consisted of lots of heavily armed patrols looking for the many small groups of ISIL men still around. The militias are largely pro-Iran and thus refuse to work with American advisors or air support. But with about half the 1,500 ISIL fighters left in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province cornered in about three percent of west Mosul, the rest of those ISIL men have to be chased down. The army, and particularly the Iraqi special operations troops can now be sent west of Mosul to deal with the remaining ISIL forces in Tal Afar and surrounding areas. The Iraqi army has air support and more specialists.

With all of Nineveh province free of ISIL the Islamic terrorists will have gone from controlling about 40 percent of Iraq, including Mosul and several smaller cities at its peak in mid-2014 to a few percent three years later. With ISIL out of Mosul and Tal Afar they will remain active mostly in thinly populated rural areas near borders. While ISIL has lost a lot of territory in Syria it still controls about 10-20 percent of the country. The final battle against ISIL in Syria and Iraq is mainly about driving the Islamic terrorists out of the major river valleys that contain most of the people and wealth. The two main rivers are the Euphrates and Tigris and that is where most of the fighting has been taking place. Well, at least in Iraq. In Syria ISIL has become a bystander as their many opponents go after each other.

Refugees Remember

One of the best sources of information on what is going on in Mosul comes from the refugees. Over half a million civilians from Mosul have already reached refugee camps and over 200,000 civilians are believed to still be in the city. The recent refugees provide details about ISIL strength and tactics. The refugees tell of how they had to constantly hide from or deceive ISIL gunmen trying to use them as human shields. ISIL now uses food (which is very scarce in the city) to entice civilians to act as human shields. At this point the Islamic terrorists believe that children work best and want get a lot of them visible around ISIL held buildings that are vulnerable to air or artillery attack. Intelligence analysts can compile and study these personal accounts for useful information. This analysis also provides a more accurate estimate civilian deaths. For the moment, nearly all this data is being kept secret to minimize ISIL doing more harm to civilians they control.

Another form of refugee is trying to remain hidden and get home without alerting police. These are the ISIL members from Western countries. There are several thousand of them and most are the children of migrants from Moslem countries. ISIL leaders appear to have decided in late 2016 to make an effort to keep these foreign recruits out of the fighting and get as many of them back home as possible. By early 2017 all of those foreigners had been moved from Mosul to Raqqa in Syria and by early May they had all been moved from Raqqa (which is increasingly under air and ground attack) to rural locations where ISIL will try to get them out of Syria and back to their families (mainly in Western Europe but also in the Americas, Australia and so on). ISIL is spending a lot of its dwindling cash on people smuggling gangs who will, for the right price, get anyone to anywhere, at least most of the time. Moving these Moslem citizens out of Syria, even after the travelers have been cleaned up and coached on what to do, is not easy. The security forces in Turkey and the destination countries know what ISIL is up to and are trying to prevent it.

May 21, 2017: The army confirmed that Mohamed Mejbal al Jawari, a senior ISIL leader in charge of running ISIL controlled Nineveh province, had been killed by an air strike in west Mosul. Jawari was recently appointed to the job and may be the last one to hold that position since ISIL controls very little of Mosul or surrounding Nineveh province.

May 20, 2017: Iraq has begun pulling its special operations units out of Mosul. Most of these men will be given a few days of rest and an opportunity to replace worn gear and get in touch with family. This process has actually been going on for about a week but accelerated over the weekend and the Defense Ministry admitted this long expected redeployment was underway. A few thousand Iraqi special operations troops led the way and took on many of the most difficult tasks since the battle for Mosul began seven months ago. It took as long as it did because Iraqi commanders realized they had to conserve their few special operations troops and that meant proceeding carefully and making maximum use of the air support provided by the American led air power coalition. The Iraqis had their own armed helicopters and smart bomb equipped aircraft, but the coalition was able to provide 90 percent of the air strikes.

May 19, 2017: In the south, near the Basra oilfields, there was a rare suicide car bombing. The bomber was unable to get past security and set off the explosives at a checkpoint, killing three soldiers and five civilians in a nearby bus. A second suicide care bomber fled into the desert but was chased down and killed. ISIL took credit for this operation, as was well as a similar attack on a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad that killed 19 people and wounded more than twice as many. ISIL also carried out several vehicle suicide bomb attacks in Mosul, killing 17 soldiers.

In the west (Anbar) ISIL gunmen ambushed Iraqi troops outside the town of Rutba (population 20,000), near the Jordanian border and 390 kilometers from Baghdad. Three soldiers were killed and several wounded and the ISIL fighters fled. ISIL has been active near this town for nearly a year because the place lies astride a key road connecting Baghdad with Syria and Jordan. ISIL had been driven out of Rutba in early 2016 and tribal militias were largely in charge of local security since then. More soldiers and police were sent after the recent attack and local tribes sent in more militiamen as well. Rutba is near the border town of al Qaim, which is still held by ISIL, the last major border town held by the Islamic terrorists. Al Qaim is the scene of frequent air strikes, apparently using accurate information supplied by locals.

May 18, 2017: In western Mosul an Iraqi brigade commander was killed in combat. Some 90 kilometers west of Mosul Shia militias seized the Sahl Sinjar airbase. This base is 65 kilometers from the Syrian border and taking it, in addition to operations to the north blocks the last major road routes from Mosul to Syria.

In Baghdad two policemen died during a clash with pro-government Shia militia. Exactly what happened was unclear. There has been more of this violence in Baghdad this year. Over half the 100,000 or so Shia militia on the government payroll are loyal to Shia politicians and clergy who support establishing a religious dictatorship in Iraq. These leaders have been able to get their followers into the police and armed forces and increasingly the pro-democracy and pro-religious dictatorship factions have been confronting each other in Baghdad, and that regularly leads to violence. One reason for the growing violence is many members of their Iran supported militias are losing confidence in Iran.

May 17, 2017: In the west (Anbar) ISIL made a video of the execution of four local civilians accused of providing information to the government. Most of the locals want ISIL gone. During the last month or so 0ver a thousand civilians (mostly men of military age) have apparently been kidnapped, and possibly murdered, by ISIL in Anbar and Nineveh provinces.

May 16, 2017: Iraqi forces began a major offensive against the last neighborhood in western Mosul held by ISIL.

May 15, 2017: The government is under domestic and foreign pressure to curb senior Shia clergy who are openly calling Iraqi Christians infidels and urging Shia to do whatever they can to drive the remaining Christians out of Iraq. This is not official government policy but it is still what many Shia and Sunni religious leaders openly and frequently preach. While ISIL atrocities against religious minorities gets some publicity, and recognition as war crimes, the similar atrocities by Iran backed Iraqi Shia militias in Iraq have gone largely unpublicized. That is changing but not fast enough to slow down the killings. The United States and most European governments had adopted the attitude that Christians in Iraq have not been singled out for attack but now the growing mountain of evidence has led a more Western leaders admitting that Christians and other non-Moslems are under heavy attack from Iraqi Shia (usually sponsored by Iran) militias as well. In 2014 ISIL atrocities against religious minorities like the Yazidis and Christians was noticed by the world media but that attention was temporary and the plight of Christians in Syria and Iraq was largely ignored. Atrocities against Christians is again newsworthy because the Iraqi Shia militias are increasingly attacking Christians in Baghdad. The militias are trying to drive all Christians out of Baghdad and Iraq. The militias are also out to make some money as they systematically seize the homes, businesses and other assets of the departed Christians and sell them off or trade them for something they need. The Iraqi government does nothing save for an occasional press release condemning this behavior. These press releases are to placate foreign aid donors who threaten to reduce aid if the atrocities do not stop. So far few aid donors have acted on these threats. In Baghdad the Shia militia want to emulate ISIL, which has, for the first time in history, killed or driven all Christians from Mosul

At the same time the number of Shia religious and militia leaders who openly support Iran is declining. More Iraqi Shia are doubting Iranian intentions towards Iraq and believe Iran ultimately wants to control the Iraq government or even partition Iraq and annex the largely Shia (and oil rich) south. At the same time Iranian efforts to discourage Iraqi Kurds from obtaining more autonomy are unwelcome with many Arab Iraqis who see this as another example of Iran treating Iraq like a subordinate, not an ally.

Adding to the fears are reports that Iran backed (and sometimes led, officially or otherwise by Iranian officers) Shia militia are ignoring earlier promises and entering liberated areas of Mosul and seeking “disloyal” civilians who can be arrested and perhaps murdered. Now there is fear that Iraqi Shia militia will ignore earlier agreements and cross into Syria when they get the chance.

May 14, 2017: An airstrike west of Mosul killed a senior ISIL military commander (and former general in Saddam era military) along with four of his followers.

May 13, 2017: In the west (Anbar) the Iraqis acted on intel that ISIL leaders were meeting to plan and coordinate terror attacks during Ramadan. The airstrike was part of a larger scale airstrike that hit several nearby buildings containing weapons and other ISIL equipment was well as a bomb building workshop. The leadership meeting was hit first and ground troops quickly showed up to find and identify the bodies. The IDs of several ISIL leaders were confirmed as well as the identity of some who apparently got away. Some people involved with the meeting were captured.

May 9, 2017: In the north Turkish F-16s bombed three PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) camps in northern (Kurdish) Iraq near the Turkish border.

May 7, 2017: In the west (Anbar) the army sent over a thousand soldiers and pro-government militia to Rutba, key town near the Syrian and Jordanian borders. ISIL continues to maintain forces in this area and local leaders and security officials have been promised reinforcements but were told that would have to wait until most of the Mosul battle was over.

May 4, 2017: In the west (Anbar) the army has assembled enough soldiers and local militias to start another offensive against the few areas the ISIL still controls near the Syrian border. Until now all military resources went to the forces fighting to take Mosul. But that campaign is winding down and now attention can be returned to the remaining ISIL forces near the Syrian and Jordanian borders.

May 2, 2017: After rising in March civilian (and police) deaths declined 42 percent in April to 317. About half those casualties were in or near Mosul (Nineveh province). Baghdad suffered 17 percent of the dead while Salahaddin province (between Baghdad and Mosul) and western Iraq (Anbar province) accounted for most of the remaining fatalities. The pattern was similar in March when 543 civilians and five police were killed by Islamic terrorist related activities compared to 392 civilians and 26 police in February and 382 civilians and 21 police in January. The civilian deaths were up 42 percent in March compared to February and this is largely because of the fighting in and around Mosul. Two-thirds (67 percent) of the civilian deaths were in or near Mosul (Nineveh province). Baghdad suffered 15 percent of the dead while Salahaddin province (between Baghdad and Mosul) and western Iraq (Anbar province) accounted for most of the remaining 18 percent. Most of the deaths in Nineveh province were related to the effort to drive ISIL out of Mosul. Baghdad was usually where most civilian deaths took place and it still a major target for suicide bombing efforts, usually in Shia neighborhoods. Not surprisingly there have been fewer ISIL bombings in Baghdad and other usual targets because ISIL is in bad shape. Prisoners and deserters report low morale and panic among many of the less resolute members.

May 1, 2017: In the north (the Kurdish zone) local Kurdish police and intelligence forces cooperated with their Turkish counterparts to arrest Hacı Türmak, a notorious PKK expert on organizing terror attacks. Türmak had been hiding out in Irbil, a town the Iraqi Kurds control.

April 30, 2017: In the west (Anbar) the Iraqi air force struck ISIL targets near the border town of al Qaim and locals later reported that at least twenty ISIL men died and, as could be seen from the air, stockpiles of explosives were detonated. What the airstrike had hit was an ISIL unit specializing in equipping and training suicide bombers.

April 29, 2017: An American soldier died from a roadside bomb in west Mosul. This is the second American fatality in Mosul since last October and the fifth since American troops returned to Iraq in mid-2014. There are currently several hundred American troops, mainly Special Forces advisors and trainers, working with Arab and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL in Mosul.

April 27, 2017: Iran condemned recent Turkish attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq. This all began on the 24th near where the borders of Turkey, Syria and Iraq meet. Turkish jets and two UAVs attacked Kurds and secular rebels. These attacks killed at least 30 of the rebels and many more were wounded. The Turks warned the U.S. and Russia an hour beforehand and there were no U.S. troops with the rebels attacked. The Americans and Russians tried to persuade the Turks to back off on attacking rebel forces that have not fought the Turks and concentrated on overthrowing the Assad government. Turkey believes the Kurds are a permanent threat. Yet the Turks were careful to make sure the United States did not have any troops with the targets bombed. It turned out that the closest American troops were about ten kilometers away. Since then there has been more fighting with Turks and Kurds firing at each other across the Syrian border and Turkish airstrikes continuing.

Turkey apologized to the Kurdish government of northern Iraq for a recent air attack that mistakenly killed some Kurdish soldiers. The air attacks were against PKK forces, which Iraqi governments (national and northern Kurd) long tolerated. The Iraq parliament is considering ordering PKK out of Iraq, which would put the pressure on the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq to attack fellow Kurds of the PKK. The Iraqis Kurds tolerate the PKK presence but have been reluctant to use force to get them out.

 


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