Iraq has a rapidly growing population. It is about 40 million now and growing at nearly a million a year. A growing portion of the population has no memory of life under Saddam (where demonstrations or any dissent was forbidden) but do take for granted that they can now protest against corrupt or incompetent government officials. That is changing politics in Iraq, where elected officials find they can be called out, or lose elections, over poor performance. This is something quite different, and often hard to handle, for older politicians.
Most young Iraqis see no future in Islamic radicalism and terrorism, which has, for most of their young lives been more of a threat than a source of salvation. Down in Basra the ongoing riots and demonstrations are about basics, like clean water and regular electricity supplies. The Basra unrest has been going on for ten weeks and at least 25 protestors have been killed and many more wounded or arrested. Dozens have disappeared and feared dead. The protestors note that Iran backed militias are also involved in attacking the demonstrators. This, for many young Iraqis, confirms suspicions that Iran is not their friend. The government has promised to improve living conditions in Basra but that slow in coming.
Iraqi anti-government demonstrators were always angry at Iran. In part this was because of the Iranian backed PMF
(Peoples Mobilization Forces)
militias in Iraq, whose leaders often speak of imposing a religious dictatorship in Iraq and generally ignored all the corruption. Protestors in Shia majority Basra are also criticizing Iran for halting electricity exports in early July. Iran cut the electricity because corrupt Iraqi officials had not paid for much of it. Moreover there was an electricity shortage developing in Iran. It was necessary for Iraq to import electricity because for a long time (the Saddam era) there were not many electric power plants in Basra because it was a Shia majority area and Shia were starved for resources before 2003 (when the Sunni Arab minority ruled). But after Saddam was overthrown in 2003 and Shia politicians gained power, corruption prevented the construction of power plants. Iran thought cutting the power, especially since they had a good reason, would increase the anger against the Iraqi government. But the protestors saw through the Iranian intentions and added that to the long list of reasons why Iraqi Shia do not like Iran. After a few weeks Iran restored the electricity exports.
The current Iraqi enthusiasm for battling corruption is hurting Iranian efforts to expand its influence inside Iraq. That’s because pro-Iran groups in Iraq have long justified outlaw behavior in order to serve their mentor Iran. This has led to Iraqi army commanders being more aggressive in dealing with Iran backed PMF units. Most of the PMF units were formed in late 2014 to fight ISIL. Since then the PMF has been put on the government payroll, despite the fact that nearly half of them are also supported by Iranian cash and equipment. Since the government began paying PMF militiamen the PMF became part of the defense forces. Technically the army can order PMF units around but until recently the Iran-backed PMF would often ignore those orders. In some cases PMF commanders would threaten army officers. Given the results of the recent elections (pro-Iran parties did poorly) and the growing popular unrest in Iran attitudes have changed. Iraqi army officers are not just ordering pro-Iran PMF units to back off but using force to make the PMF comply. So far this has not go much beyond armed confrontations (which often work) and arresting (“kidnapping” according to pro-Iran Iraqis) PMF men who disobey army orders. Apparently the anti-Iran election results have led to pro-Iran PMF commanders being advised (by Iran) to play nice with the army and back off. This is seen as temporary as there is no sign that pro-Iran PMF groups will cease to take orders from Iran. Iraqis believe the pro-Iran PMF units are backing off as part of an Iranian effort to persuade Iraq to oppose the renewed American economic sanctions on Iran. Iraqi leaders were under a lot of political pressure from Iran to ignore the American sanctions, if only because complying would hurt the Iraqi economy. That pressure caused some hesitation by Iraqi leaders until they realized that most Iraqis preferred the Americans to the Iranians. After all, when Iraq asked the Americans to leave in 2011 they did. Iranians are not very cooperative in that respect and for centuries have been trying to get its way in what is now Iraq.
And then there is the oil price issue. As the revived American sanctions take effect Iranian oil exports decline. OPEC, which is dominated by Arab oil states, refused to increase production to make up for the missing Iranian oil. This refusal angers oil importers who have become accustomed to cheaper oil. The major oil exporters have had a hard time since 2013, when oil tumbled from over $100 a barrel to a third of that. But now the price is on the way up and the Iranian loss becomes a plus for Arab oil states, including Iraq. Since 2013 the Americans have again (because of fracking) become a major oil exporter so the U.S. wins whichever way the oil price goes.
As ISIL personnel are now generally in hiding it is difficult to get an accurate count. Official mid-2018 estimates were about 17,000 in Iraq and 13,000 in Syria. But that implies that the number of armed men ISIL had in Iraq by 2014 is the same as mid-2018. How can that be given the relatively low level of ISIL activity since early 2018. The answer is that the official estimates include a lot of unarmed supporters, including family members. Captured ISIL members will often exaggerate the size of the group he belongs to as will ISIL members delivering threats to local civilians who the Islamic terrorists are trying to intimidate into compliance (not informing on ISIL). Cooperative civilians are immune to ISIL attacks so there is that. But the ability of ISIL to enforce the cooperation is often an illusion because ISIL tries to appear more omnipresent than they actually are.
A population of cooperative civilians is essential for ISIL to survive as guerillas and that is why there are probably more ISIL operating in Iraq than in Syria. The civilians not only provide some cover but are also a source of supplies (which ISIL strives to pay for, in order to build more loyalty.) This is all basic guerilla tradecraft that is made more difficult when there are a lot of cell phones around. That increases the risk of some angry (or not even local) civilian making a call to the police to report possible ISIL activity.
ISIL leaders noted that a key factor in the loss of control in an area was the local civilians retaining some access to Internet and cell phone service as well as satellite TV receivers. ISIL (and other Islamic radicals) have long tried to control use of all three of these items but have been unable to completely eliminate them from populations they control. Once ISIL was driven out of an area the cell phone companies were eager to rebuild their cell phone and Internet service and as people in those areas of restored cell phone service became more confident that reporting on remaining ISIL activity would not get them killed the calls started coming. These phone calls have become more frequent and has led to the growing number of arrests or discovery of ISIL hideouts and the destruction of active ISIL terrorists. This has led to a decline in terror related deaths and more violent encounters between security forces and the many “sleeper cells” ISIL deliberately left behind when they lost control of an area. What has kept ISIL going are Sunni Arab areas where they still have some support, at least as someone who will fighting hack against the Kurds and Shia Arabs. There are fewer Sunni majority areas in Syria for ISIL to get support from.
Despite the continuing violence in the south continues to increase. Continuing the July-August trend production so far in September keeps inching higher looks like it will average 3.6 million BPD (barrels per day). The rate at which production is growing could mean production of nearly four million BPD in the next month. The 2016 OPEC limits set on Iraqi production are 4.35 million BPD. Since late 2017 oil production from the southern oil fields has averaged over 3.5 million BPD. In early 2017 Iraq, as a founding member of the OPEC oil cartel, had agreed to reduce its oil production by over a million BPD to help increase the world price for oil. Iraqi production hit a peak 3.51 million BPD at the end of 2016. Iraqi production increased in 2017, often to take advantage of the production cuts the Saudis had agreed to and were making.
Iraq has ten percent of the world's oil reserves and 2017 exploration efforts have that increased by 10 billion barrels. That makes 153 billion barrels, which more than a third larger than it was after the resumption of oil exploration a decade ago. Iran has reserves of 158 billion barrels, Saudi Arabia 266 billion and Venezuela 300 billion. These four nations have the largest reserves which are about 60 percent of the world total. What is keeping the world oil price low is fracking. That new American technology is making much more oil and gas available and it is expected that the U.S. and Canada will soon have “proven reserves” equaling a third of the current world total. The fall in oil prices since 2013 (from over $100 a barrel to as low as $30) cut foreign currency reserves to about $48 billion by the end of 2017, compared to $53 billion in mid-2016. By early 2018 the price of oil had climbed to $60 a barrel mainly because OPEC members were not cheating on their quotas and several members were producing less than their quota because of internal security problems. The ISIL crisis forced Iraq to be more prudent with its finances, and government operations in general. The Americans are no longer being blamed for all that goes wrong. Taking responsibility does indeed make it easier to deal with problems. But many Iraqi leaders and politicians still prefer to blame all the problems on America, Israel and so on.
There are about 6,000 American troops in Iraq as well as about 2,000 from other Western nations (mainly Britain, France, Italy and Germany). Iran has no soldiers in Iraq but does have several hundred advisors and trainers from the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). In Syria there are about 5,000 American troops in 22 bases, all of them near the Iraqi border, mostly in the northeast where they advise the Kurdish forces that control the Syrian northeast (which is adjacent to the Kurdish controlled areas of northern Iraq). Some of the U.S. troops in Iraq are in the Kurdish north where American and British troops have been operating since the early 1990s.
September 22, 2018: In the east, just across the border in Iran (Khuzestan province) four gunmen fired on a parade killing 30 (including at least eight IRGC men) and wounding even more. Local Arab separatists (al Ahwaz National Resistance, a coalition of several groups) took credit as did ISIL. Over the next three days more than 20 people were arrested and Iran blamed Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United States and threatened to take revenge by attacking American forces in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. responded by reminding Iran that it has only itself to blame and most Iranians would agree. Since 2003 the Iranian Arabs in Khuzestan have been increasingly vocal, and often violent, about the harsh rule of the Iranian Shia. Iran is acutely aware of how unruly its own Arab minority (a few percent of the population) can be. There are a growing number of terrorist incidents inside Iran traced to Iranian Arabs. Most Iranian oil is pumped from the ancestral lands of these Arabs, who are bitter about how they receive little from all that oil income. The three million Arabs in Khuzestan province (formerly Arabistan) are Shia and have been ruled by non-Arab Iranians for centuries. Arab unrest here has grown since 2003, when the Sunni dictatorship was overthrown in Iraq and the Shia majority won elections to take power. Iranian Arabs noted that the Iraqi Shia were now getting most of the Iraqi oil income, unlike just across the border in Khuzestan. Since 2003 hundreds of Iranian Arabs have been arrested for separatist activities. Many are still in prison and over 30 have been executed.
September 21, 2018: In the northwest (Nineveh province) police arrested two men illegally crossing the border from Syria. The two later admitted they were ISIL members and headed for nearby Mosul to help organize new attacks. The security forces regularly find and arrest ISIL members in the area, largely because of tips from residents who do not want ISIL to reestablish themselves in Mosul or anywhere else in Nineveh province.
September 20, 2018: In the west (Anbar province) troops and militiamen, with some air support, found and killed seven ISIL men near the Syrian border.
In the northwest (Nineveh province) an ISIL gunman, wearing a police uniform, went to home of the mayor of a rural village and killed the mayor, wounded his son and then killed another civilian as he made his escape.
September 19, 2018: In the west (Anbar province) troops killed 15 ISIL men hiding out in a large cave, which turned out of be one of their bases. Troops found explosive vests and numerous weapons and lots of equipment in the cave. This comes after six ISIL members were arrested in different parts of Anbar in previous five days. All those arrested were seeking to recruit and organize new ISIL cells that would plan and carry out attacks.
September 18, 2018: In the north (Kirkuk province) a roadside bomb hit a police bus, killing five policemen and wounding several others. Later that night an Iraqi airstrike killed six ISIL members in the same general area.
September 17, 2018: The government has agreed to send border patrol troops to guard the Iraq-Turkish border. In the past most of this had been handled by Iraqi Kurdish forces, who were likely to allow PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) to pass freely. The new non-Kurd border guards will not do any favors for PKK personnel trying to sneak in or out of Iraq.
September 15, 2018: The new parliament (elected in May) finally agreed on a new speaker of parliament; Sunni Arab Mohammed al Halbousi. He was promptly accused of spending $30 million in bribes to secure the needed votes (169 out of 298). Halbousi is from Anbar and a former defense minister. Current custom dictates that there be a Sunni speaker, a Kurdish president, and a Shia prime minister.
September 10, 2018: In the northwest (Mosul) police arrested three ISIL members.
September 9, 2018: In the west (Salahuddin province) three ISIL suicide bombers attacked some troops searching an area. All three attackers died as did one soldiers.
September 8, 2018: In the northeast (Erbil province) Iran fired long range rockets and some Fateh 110 ballistic missiles at targets in the town of Koya (halfway between the Kurdish capital of Ebril and the Iranian border). The missiles were aimed at the headquarters of two Iranian Kurdish separatist groups (KDPI and PDKI). At least 17 were killed and dozens wounded by the rockets. Some of the rockets landed in or near a refugee camp outside the town. The Fateh 110 is a solid fuel missile that
can be launched from trucks that carry them and have a range of 300 kilometers. The guidance system enables them to his a specific building, which one of them did in the Koya attacks. The next day Iran admitted it made the missile attack.
In the north (Kirkuk province) two bombs were used to set fire to an oil pipeline. ISIL was suspected.
September 7, 2018: In the south (Basra) the general in charge of security forces for the province was replaced. The reason was the inability of the security forces to reduce the growing violence, including recent attempts to shut down the main airport with mortar fire. In this incident four mortar shells landed and exploded just outside the airport fence. Since July the anti-government (and corruption) violence has left fifteen dead and nearly 200 wounded.
In Baghdad three mortar shells were fired at the U.S. embassy (located in the Green Zone). The mortar shells came close but missed the embassy compound. Several days later the U.S. told Iran there would be military if Iran kept up these attacks or escalated them (by attacking American troops in Iraq). The American retaliation would include going after the “several dozen” short range ballistic missiles Iran has sent to its most trusted Iraqi militias, to be used when Iran believed necessary.
September 2, 2018: In August 90 civilians died due to Islamic terrorist violence. Some 27 percent of the deaths occurred in Baghdad while Nineveh province (including Mosul) accounted for 32 percent and the rest were north of Baghdad and in Anbar. In July 79 died compared to 76 in June and 95 in May which was an increase from the 68 April deaths. March, when 104 died had been the deadliest month so far in 2018. That was up a bit from the 91 killed during February. The government has still not resumed reporting casualties among the security forces (military and militias). Based on local reports the Islamic terrorists, mainly ISIL, are suffering much higher death tolls each month, in addition to nearly as many lost to arrest or capture.
September 1, 2018: In the west, just across the border in eastern Syria (Homs province) an Iranian military convoy was hit by an airstrike. This killed four Syrians, one Iranian and three foreign mercenaries. At least eleven people were wounded. The airstrike may have occurred because the convoy was too close to the American special operations base of Tanf, on the Syrian side of the Iraqi border near the Jordan border. The American forces there reported they had been fired on by unknown forces but there was no damage and they did not return fire. So it remains a mystery whose warplanes did the deed. The Americans have some support from Sunni tribes in Syria and Iraq and that is mainly to keep informed on what is going on in the area around Tanf. Iran has assisted (with its mercenaries) Assad forces in trying to eliminate the Tanf base but these effort have failed. The Americans have too much airpower and too much aerial and ground surveillance around Tanf. The U.S. has declared a “free fire” zone that means any Assad/Iranian forces getting within 30 kilometers of Tanf are automatically attacked. Iranian and Assad forces rarely test this free fire zone. They know it works. While no one took credit for the airstrike it is now believed to be Israeli, but the Israelis often try to hide their involvement.
August 28, 2018: In the northwest, across the border in eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) Iranian mercenaries have been fighting with Syrian Army (Assad) troops for control of the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq and the fighting has been going on, sporadically, for weeks. Apparently there is a dispute between the Assads and Iran over who will control border crossings for routes that are part of the Iran to the Mediterranean land route. This route is essential to supporting any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon.