The government has a hard time getting everyone to agree on who the most urgent future threat is. Iran is the most frequently mentioned threat, the one that even many Shia Iraqis regard as a neighbor more interested in subjugating than supporting Iraq. But Iran is also the neighbor with the most armed and organized local support inside Iraq. One side effect of this is that Iraqi leaders still support links with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Turkey, Jordan and the United States.
The war with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has become less intense but it has not gone away. American warplanes used 584 smart bombs and missiles in December, the lowest number since the American air support effort began in mid-2014. Smart bomb use continues to decline but will not cease for a long time. Meanwhile the Iraqi air force grows as they receiver more F-16s and other fixed wing and helicopter aircraft that can use smart bombs and missiles. These precision weapons help keep ISIL on the defensive and on the run as well as making it less dangerous for the security forces to confront armed ISIL groups.
Senior ISIL personnel are still fleeing Iraq, usually via people smugglers who can get you into Turkey, for a price. Not everyone has the cash, or foreign contacts, available for this. But after that the fugitives have to deal with Turkish security forces and many of these fugitives are being caught in Turkey. Iraqi intelligence and security forces continue to encounter armed ISIL groups and find senior ISIL officials trying to hide among the millions of displaced Iraqis still living in camps or home vacant because their owners were killed or fled the fighting. Some of the captured ISIL officials will make deals and their wives will often talk. Many widows of ISIL fighters are in custody or in refugee camps. Iraqi widows of ISIL fighters usually cannot return home because ISIL is widely hated in Iraq and that extends to widows and their children. All these sources of information on ISIL makes the intelligence experts confident in their assessment of ISIL and where to keep looking (in business records and secret foreign bank accounts) in order to do the most damage to ISIL revival efforts. The senior ISIL leader (and principal founder) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive and believed hiding somewhere in northwest Iraq, most likely near the Euphrates River Valley. Baghdadi is the only one of the 43 original senior ISI: leaders who has not been killed or captured. The “second tier” leadership of about a hundred people is about 90 percent gone and none of the ten known to be still alive appears keen on replacing Baghdadi.
The fight against the remaining ISIL forces in Iraq (about a thousand armed and active personnel) continues nonetheless. That’s because ISIL is known to have thousands of dedicated supporters and about has many hired supporters. The latter are attracted by the vast (over half a billion dollars’ worth of cash and other assets) in Iraq and abroad. The U.S. and other Western nations are using their intelligence and financial investigators to track down the ISIL owned assets. Inside Iraq there are other problems, like the pervasive corruption and large number of surviving, but hidden, ISIL supporters. The smugglers and politicians-for-hire are attracted to the more than $200 million ISIL managed to “launder” by buying legitimate businesses and other properties all over the country. An equal amount is believed to be outside Iraqi in foreign banks or as assets in other countries. These assets make it more likely ISIL will attempt a comeback and the best way to prevent that is to find and seize those assets. But for the moment ISIL is in survival mode and avoiding contact with their hidden cash and ownership of assets.
Iraqis are generally seeking help from fellow Arabs, and not Iran, when it comes to reconstruction. Iraqi Arabs, including most Shia, see Iran as more threat than friend. Most Arab oil states seem much less threatening than in the past, especially with Saudi Arabia enacting long overdue reforms that make it easier for the Saudis to support Shia majority Iraq. All Arabs agree that ISIL is not gone, it is simply diminished and gone underground. ISIL survives because of the social and political problems still common throughout the Middle East. The big issue is corruption and incompetent governments. Dealing with ISIL dirty money and their transformation to well financed gangsters is an easier problem to deal with than the corruption that is found everywhere.
The Kurds also need some financial help, even though there was hardly any fighting in Kurdish administered territory. But the surprise October 2017 government offensive on Kirkuk and the northern oil fields the Kurds were operating to pay for their government meant the Kurds had much less income.
Iranians and Iraqis continue fighting for control of the PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias that were organized after 2014 because the Iraqi army fell apart in the face of the ISIL advance that took Mosul and about a third of Iraq in a mid-2014 surprise attack. Three years later, with ISIL defeated and there are over 120,000 PMF militiamen on the government payroll. Most of the PMF were organized by Shia leaders and most of them accepting assistance (and direction) from Iran. The PMF accounts for nearly half the strength of the military and even if you include the Interior Ministry force (National Police and several thousand SWAT and special operations personnel) the PMF accounts for a quarter of the armed personnel the government pays for and, in theory, controls.
This development bothers a lot of Iraqis and has done so since 2015 when it was noted that there were already about 100,000 of these largely Shia militia. In late 2016 parliament passed (after much Iranian pressure) a law making the PMF a part of the armed forces. At that point the PMF militiamen were already on the government payroll (for about $500 a month). In late 2016 some (usually pro-Iran) militia leaders were demanding a share of the military budget and enough money (nearly half a billion dollars to start with) to build their own bases. That did not happen and it reminded all Iraqis what the Iranians were up to. The signs were already there.
The 2016 laws providing pay and other benefits for the PMF also included rules making it mandatory that non-Shia militia be included if they were of proven loyalty. There were plenty of those and by the end of 2016 about a quarter of the PMF were Sunnis. A smaller number were Turkmen, Christian and other minorities ISIL wanted to wipe out. More than half the militias were always Shia. Much publicity was given to instances where Shia militias massacred Sunni civilians and the use of many Iranian trainers and military advisors by some (at one point most) of the Shia militias and the Iran connection in general. The Iran backed militias tend to be very pro-Iran and accept a lot of official Iranian policies (hate America and Israel seek to install Iran as guardian of Mecca and Medina and so on). Yet a growing number of these militiamen have become less enthusiastic about Iranian policies and pretend to remain loyal because, well, a job is hard to find.
Most of the PMF were enthusiastic about defeating ISIL. Now that ISIL is done many PMF members and leaders believe some, or all, of the PMF units should be retained because the PMF is less corrupt and more experienced at fighting Islamic terrorism. But some Iraqi, and many foreign, observers note that the longer the PMF exists as a government supported militia the more likely corruption is to become a major problem and the experience dealing with Islamic terrorism will fade. What is needed is less corruption in the government and more professionalism in the military. The big appeal of the PMF to its current members is not religion or ideology but the payroll. Most of the PMF men were poor Shia from urban areas (Baghdad and down to Basra). The PMF was a job and commanders found that the threat of dismissal was an additional incentive for the PMF gunmen to do well.
Although the Shia Arabs feel an affinity with Shia Iran, the ancient (we're talking thousands of years here) Arab fear of the Iranians makes it possible for Shia and Sunni Arabs to make deals. And that's what Saudi Arabia, and the other Sunni Arab Gulf States, are doing with Iraq. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the neighborhood bully, and Iraq as an Arab, not an Iranian, asset. Part of this came about because of the pro-Iran PMF militias in Iraq. By 2016 most Shia Arab politicians in Iraq tended to feel they are expendable to the Iranians, who are, quite naturally, more concerned with taking care of Iran, than Iraq, in all of this. Blood is thicker than religion.
The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised, especially the few percent of Iranians who are Arab) but also don’t want to be dominated by their Sunni Arab neighbors and especially not by their own Sunni Arab minority (which created ISIL and has been a major supporter of Islamic terrorism since 2003).
There are constant reminders of the Iranian threat, which is considered equal, or even worse than the Sunni Arab Islamic terrorism attacks on Shia. For example in September 2017 a leader of one of the PMF Shia militias went public with his belief that his men would start killing American troops once ISIL was no longer a threat in Iraq. That was not a surprise to many Iraqi Shia. In August 2017 senior Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate loyal (to Iraq) members into the armed forces. The Iraqi prime minister (a Shia), wants to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it. There will be elections for parliament on May 12th and that will be a very concrete example of how much political clout Iran has gained in post-ISIL Iraq. Already Iran is working hard to line up political support in Iraq.
Since ISIL was defeated (even before Mosul fell) the number of Shia religious and militia leaders who openly supported Iran was declining. More Iraqi Shia are doubting Iranian intentions regarding 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.
There are still over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the PMF Shia militias. The Iraqi government fears that these IRGC advisors and trainers are secretly building pro-Iran armed militias in Iraq. That’s simply not true because the IRGC is quite open about what they are doing to encourage Iraqi Shia to organize armed groups so they can work with Iran someday to impose the same kind of religious dictatorship in Iraq that has existed in Iran since the 1980s. That is equally unlikely (because of popular opposition inside Iraq) but the Iranians tend to think long-term.
The Syrian Border
Russia is being asked to take sides in northern Syria where Turkey has begun attacking Syrian Kurds west of the Euphrates River, an area dominated by Russian warplanes and air defense systems. The Russians did not interfere with Turkish air strikes. Turkish warplanes are supporting Turkish ground troops seeking to drive Syrian Kurds out of territory (especially the town of Afrin) they control near the Turkish border. After that the Turks want the Americans to get out of northeast Syria. The Americans don’t want to leave but have heeded Turkish concerns and agreed that the Syrian Kurds would not control security along the Turkish border (from Iraq to the Euphrates River). In mid-January the United States announced that it is assisting in the creation of a 30,000 strong BSF (“border security force”) in northeast Syria. This appears to be a repeat of what the U.S. and Britain did in Kurdish northern Iraq in the early 1990s. Neither Turkey, Iran nor Syria (the Assads) support this autonomous Kurdish portion of Syria. But the Americans insist it is essential to ensure that Islamic terrorists do not again have an opportunity to operate in this area. Russia noted with approval how the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq kept things quiet in their territory since the early 1990s. The U.S. backed SDF (Kurdish led secular rebel coalition) have already said they would not allow Assad forces to cross the Euphrates River in order to regain control of northeastern Syria that was now largely held by the SDF. The SDF is being converted to the BSF and, unlike Kurdish northern Iraq, the SDF controlled territory will have a defense force (the BSF), that will be about a third non-Kurds and border security will be handled by whichever ethnic group dominates in that area. Most of the Turkish border will be patrolled by Kurds while the Iraq border will have a lot more Arab participation. There will be two American bases in this SDF controlled territory. One will be on the Iraq border at the al Tanf (on the Syrian side)/ Walweed (on the Iraqi side) border crossing. The other American base in Syria will be at the airbase outside Raqqa. This American controlled area will block Iran from having a land route from Iran to Damascus (and Lebanon).
January 22, 2018: The governor of largely Sunni Arab Anbar province is pressuring the government to order all PMU militia units out of Anbar. Many of the PMU are run by pro-Iran Shia Arabs and are regarded by many Anbar residents as a threat, especially now that the ISIL presence is nearly gone. There are still several hundred ISIL hiding out in Anbar but the governor believes the army and local militias can take care of that, as well as clearing ISIL bombs and such from areas they had long occupied. Iran wants to keep the PMU in Anbar to assist in keeping the land route from Iran to Lebanon open. Meanwhile there is a lot of ISIL activity in provinces north of Anbar, especially in and around Mosul and the Anbar governor feels those provinces could make better use of the PMUs.
January 19, 2018: In the northwest, ISIL gunmen continue to operate in Shirqat (population 120,000). Security forces killed two ISIL men who were among a small group attacking a checkpoint. Long an ISIL stronghold. Shirqat is 90 kilometers south of Mosul in Salahuddin province which is between Mosul and Anbar province. Shirqat and most of the smaller towns in Salahuddin were under ISIL control until mid-2016. About half the population fled the fighting, most to non-ISIL territory. When these refugees returned they found their villages and neighborhoods had changed and some of the new faces were ISIL men (sometimes with their families) trying to blend in. The refugees found that the safest thing to do was say nothing and this is how ISIL survives in many parts of Iraq.
January 18, 2018: The United States announced that it intended to keep troops (currently about 2,000) in northeast Syria in order to keep an eye on Islamic terrorism in Syria, especially a possible resurgence if ISIL. The U.S. troops, working with local Kurds and a largely anti-Assad population in that area, also want to make sure that Iran does not gain access to this area and that Turkish forces stay out. Inside Iraq there is a lot of support for continued U.S. presence, in large part to keep Iran from gaining too much power over Iraqi political and economic life. Naturally Iran considers any U.S. presence in the region as a “foreign invasion.”
January 17, 2018: In the north (Diyala province) an ISIL roadside bomb killed two policemen and wounded seven. For about a year now there has been an ISIL presence in this province north of Baghdad. Diyala had been largely free of any ISIL control since early 2015. But the province has also long been home to a lot of Sunni Arabs, including many who supported Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorism. While most of the locals are disenchanted with ISIL and have been working with the largely Shia security forces to keep ISIL out, some of these Islamic terrorists fleeing from Mosul and other areas are apparently trying to establish a terrorist network in the province to support further attacks against the large Shia population south of the province in Baghdad. In areas like Diyala local Sunni tribal militias play a key role in restricting ISIL activity, especially their use of the roads. Soldiers and local tribesmen staff the checkpoints and the tribesmen provide local knowledge of who can be trusted and who cannot. That prevents a lot of suicide car bombers from hurting anyone but themselves. In both these areas more police, soldiers and PMF have been brought in to try and eliminate the ISIL presence.
January 15, 2018: In Baghdad two suicide bombers attacked in the center of the city where a large number of civilians were present. The two explosions left about 30 dead and nearly a hundred wounded.
January 14, 2018: Iraq has backed off from plans to double the size of its counterterrorist force over the next three years by recruiting 20,000 more special operations personnel. When it came down to working out the details it was obvious that there were not enough trainers and facilities available for that, especially since over a third of existing counterterrorism troops had been killed or wounded during the campaign to destroy ISIL in 2016 and 2017. Most of the 5,200 American troops in Iraq are involved in training and advising Iraqi forces and this provides a valuable (and often more detailed) second opinion on what the Iraqi government would like to do. While ISIL is still a problem (although a much smaller one) in Iraq there are still threats from Iran and feuds between Iraqi tribes and ethnic groups that these special operations can handle more quickly than anyone else.
January 10, 2018: Turkey offered to mediate between the autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq and the Iraqi government. The Iraqi Kurds are divided into two main factions, one of which tends to side with Iran. That became much less fashionable when Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias took the lead in a late 2017 offensive to drive Kurds out of Kirkuk and much of the territory they had occupied since 2014 in order to keep ISIL out. Internal Iraqi Kurdish politics led to a disruptive September 2017 referendum in northern Iraq on establishing a separate Kurdish state. Some 93 percent of Kurds approved of this and instantly wrecked most of the good will they had with Turkey and the Iraqi government.
Turkey has found, since the 1990s that it can work with the Iraqi Kurds and that includes assistance in limiting PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) activity in Iraq. Turkey has been fighting the PKK since the 1980s and has been winning, but never to the extent that the PKK is gone. Turkey resumed its war with the PKK in mid-2015 because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. While the PKK still calls for an independent Kurdish state made up of majority Kurd portions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the largely autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq long refused to go along. For a while many in the PKK agreed with the Iraqi Kurds and were willing to settle for more autonomy in Turkey. But the radical PKK factions refused to go along and the 2013 ceasefire began to fray. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK fighters by force. The Turks occasionally send a few troops into northern Iraq and seemed content to keep bombing the PKK there. This the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs tolerate, especially since the Turks have also been bombing ISIL in Syria since 2015. The PKK has lost a lot of popular support in in northern Iraq because of the PKK policy of, in effect, using Iraqi Kurds as human shields. But the PKK retains enough popular support to block efforts to have Kurdish troops forcing PKK out of Iraq into Syria or Turkey.
For all of December Turkey killed 120 PKK members, mostly in southeast Turkey, along with over 160 arrested throughout Turkey.
January 9, 2018: In the west (Nineveh province) Sunni tribal leaders are calling for Kurdish and American troops be moved into the area to discourage bad behavior by pro-Iran PMF militias. Mosul and Tal Afar are the largest cities in Nineveh province and to the south is Anbar province where some ISIL groups are still active but are being tracked down by the local Sunni tribes. The Iraqi government believes that there are over 3,000 ISIL members or supporters remaining in Nineveh, Anbar, Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. That seems like a high number but includes ISIL supporters who are not active all the time but are armed and willing to fight if ordered to.
January 8, 2018: In the northwest (Salahuddin province) security forces confirmed that the local ISIL force had executed some of its members for refusing to carry out a suicide bomb attack. Normally ISIL does not demand that a member be a suicide bomber and depends on volunteers (some of whom are deceived or coerced into cooperating). There is a shortage of volunteers and the local ISIL leadership thought that that executing several of those who refused to volunteer would make it clear that when you are in ISIL and asked to volunteer there is only one acceptable response.
January 7, 2018: In Iran the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) declared the nationwide anti-government protests had been shut down two weeks after they began. Thousands of protestors were arrested and dozens killed or badly injured. The IRGC implied that any further demonstrations would be handled with even more violence.
January 2, 2018: Terror related deaths in Iraq hit a new low (69) in December. With 35 percent of the deaths in Baghdad an old pattern continues. In October when 114 civilians were killed. Most (63 percent) of this violence was equally split between Baghdad (long a Sunni Islamic terrorist target) and Anbar province (where most of the remaining ISIL Islamic terrorists in Iraq remain). The government has still not resumed reporting casualties among the security forces (military and police). Civilian deaths were higher (at 196) in September and have been declining steadily for most of 2017. During the last two months most of the civilian deaths occurred because the victims were near an unexpected suicide bomber attack. Soldiers and police usually can spot and stop suicide bombers but this often means the suicide bomber will set off his explosives before he can he shot dead or captured alive. At that point the bomber is often near civilians who became the casualties.
With the decline in Islamic terror related deaths other forms of violence are now getting more, long overdue, attention. At the top of the list is tribal feuds. Tribal politics has long been a major factor in Iraqi society, especially the largely Sunni tribes of Anbar and the six major Shia tribes of Basra (the southern province).
December 26, 2017: In the northeast (where the Iraq, Iran and Turkish borders meet) Turkish airstrikes claim to have killed at least 22 PKK members.
December 21, 2017: A recent terrorism survey (GTI or Global Terrorism Index) showed Iraq has nowhere to go but down in these standings. Iraq has long been ranked among the most violent of 163 nations. For the last five years the top four slots were filled by the usual suspects (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Syria). Being part of the top ten nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Syria, India, Somalia, Yemen, Philippines and Thailand) is more volatile and the bottom two positions are the only ones that seem to show a lot of change. Note that most of the terror related deaths are Moslem related. Only India and the Philippines had a significant minority of terrorist deaths that were not carried out by Moslems. In those two countries the minority terrorists were leftist rebels who are slowly fading away. Afghanistan lost its leftist rebels in the 1970s and 80s and now it’s mainly religious fanatics, and plenty of them.