Iraq: Nasty Neighbors


July 31, 2019: Iran is encountering more resistance in Iraq than expected but is not giving up. Iraqis are openly hostile to Iranian influence and the Iranian attitude that they can do whatever they want in Iraq. What Iran wants right now is continued opportunities to send its loyal (to Iran) PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militia units into the many parts of the country where local security forces cannot cope with criminal or ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) violence. The Iranian PMF make a show of establishing security by setting up checkpoints and conducting searches. This is all mainly for show because the Islamic terrorists and criminal gangs are carefully not being hurt. The Iranian PMF do establish legitimacy for their use of force to get what they want. The real enemy of the Iranian PMF is the Iraqi government and once Iranian PMF are established in an area they will, in effect, be allied of ISIL and local criminals in curbing government power. The Iraqi government is not happy with this, nor are local leaders (tribal or government) in areas where Iranian PMF are “helping” establish security. In July the Iraqis began to shut down this Iranian influence and Iran is fighting back. This is going to get interesting.

Noting this developing chaos, more ISIL members are moving from Syria to Iraq because survival is easier in Iraq and the local opposition (government or otherwise) less effective. While the Shia Assad government of Syria has always been threatened by a Sunni majority, the Shia majority government in Iraq feels less threatened and that makes it less effective and more vulnerable. Iran and ISIL are trying to take advantage of this.

Despite the actual or implied Iranian threats, the government has become more aggressive in curbing the Iranian backed PMF militias and are now trying to eliminate Iranian control completely. The PMF was created in 2014 after the Iraqi army fell apart in the face of the ISIL advance that took Mosul and about a third of Iraq in a few months. The creation of the PMF was an admission by the Iraqi Shia government that they had failed to curb corruption, especially as it weakened the military. Iran rushed in with trainers and advisors for the new PMF groups and that did indeed help. But at the same time, Iran took control of many of these militias. By 2018 Iraqis realized that the pro-Iran PMF units were a threat to the Iraqi government and independence from Iranian control. Iraqis also remembered that in 2011 there was a crackdown on Iranian backed militias and although the Iranians are better prepared for that in 2019, popular hostility towards Iran is greater now than in 2011. Iran pretends to be popular in Iraq but in fact, Iran is more feared than admired.

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. Moreover, Iraq is an Arab, not an Iranian, asset. 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. At the same time, Iraq doesn’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.

The pro-Iran PMF units maintain popular support by aggressively enforcing Shia efforts to reclaim property that had been taken from Shia during the decades that Saddam Hussein ran the country, and did so very much for the benefit of the Sunni Arab minority. Once Saddam was overthrown in 2003, Kurds and Shia Arabs began seeking the return of their stolen property. Most of the claims were for urban and rural land Shia and Kurds had been displaced from and replaced with Sunni Arabs from other parts of the country. Saddam went further and seized Shia shrines (which Iraq is full of) and gave them to Sunni Arabs, who often tore down Shia religious structures and converted the land to secular uses. This angered Shia Arabs but there were so many of these former Shia properties in now Sunni majority areas that it was difficult to get them all returned.

That situation was made worse when ISIL grabbed control of a third of the country in 2014. In areas where there were a lot of Shia, like Mosul, ISIL quickly and violently reversed the recent (since 2003) transfers of property from Sunni to Shia. This won ISIL a lot of Sunni support in Mosul, and smoldering anger from the displaced Shia. This was made worse by the fact that many of the properties in question were originally the sites of Shia shrines. Pro-Iran PMF militias backed claims to get these “sacred sites” back under Shia control, and often used intimidation and force to get it done. This puts the government in an awkward position because the government exists to see that such transfers are done legally, using the courts. The pro-Iran PMF leaders invoked a higher power (their version of Islam) to get it done quickly, without the risk of a judge or other official being bribed to let the Sunni Arab owner keep the property. In this way, Iran maintains popular support (from Shia Arabs) for the often lawless pro-Iran PMF units. The government sees this process as providing more support for ISIL among the angry Sunni Arabs of the north. These Iraqi Sunnis don’t like ISIL but they are more angry about having their property taken from them by Iran-backed Shia militias.

There are still over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the PMF Shia militias. These Iranians are now to be sent home as part of the new Iraqi policy of putting all PMF militias firmly under the control of the Defense Ministry and army generals. The Iraqi government believed that these IRGC advisors and trainers were secretly building pro-Iran armed militias in Iraq. IRGC leaders were instead quite open about what they were doing to encourage Iraqi Shia to organize armed groups so they can someday 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 Iranians like to pretend that they have l0ts of support in Iraq. They do have some, but it is declining, as it usually does after it is no longer useful for Iraq.

Another problem for Iran in Iraq is the persistent Iraqi support for keeping American troops in Iraq. This is basically a ploy to discourage Iran from attempting anything too drastic because harming the American personnel brings in a lot more U.S. military muscle. Iran is aware that its extensive involvement in attacks on American troops before 2011 is well documented and that Iraqi and American leaders are ready to go after Iran if there is any more violence against Iraqi or American forces that can be directly linked to Iran. So Iran is making attacks that are not obvious, not for a while anyway.

Oil Crimes

The national budget for 2019 is $112 billion. That is 27 percent more than 2018 and does not include money to rebuild Mosul and the provinces of Nineveh, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk and Salahuddin that suffered the most damage from three years of fighting ISIL. It is generally agreed that $88 billion is needed for reconstruction. It is also widely understood (but not publicized) that much of any reconstruction money would be stolen by corrupt officials. That is one reason for not providing cash to “rebuild.” Residents of Mosul have to accept that and much of the economic activity there is shifting to the relatively undamaged East Mosul while the older and denser west Mosul is going to get by with many piles of rubble, most of them full of dead bodies and unexploded bombs.

Besides corruption, the economy is very dependent on oil prices. For example, GDP contracted .6 percent in 2018 while the non-oil part of the economy GDP grew by .8 percent. In 2018 Iraq had to lower oil exports to comply with OPEC efforts to prevent oil prices from sinking evermore. An even larger problem that is not popular among politicians is making an effort to reduce corruption. This is the self-inflicted wound that hurts the economy the most.

Concentrating on paying government workers, including two years back pay for Kurdish forces plus some new government jobs, is seen as a more effective use of the money. It is not considered polite to bring up the corruption angle but everyone knows it exists and is the biggest obstacle to reconstruction. Potential donor nations, both Western and Moslem know it as well. Reconstruction doesn’t happen until commercial organizations do it or there is a major civil disorder (as is currently going on in Basra) to force the issue. Because of donor and lender wariness, it is difficult to handle large budget deficits. The 2019 budget is based on shipping 3.88 million BPD (barrels per day) and sell it for $56 a barrel. The world price of oil remains low because the United States and Canada continue to produce more oil and natural gas. The American state of Texas, which by itself used to be a major global oil producer and has regained that status, is producing 4.6 million BPD. That total is exceeded only by Russia and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. is again a major exporter of petroleum and natural gas.

July 29, 2019: Interior Ministry intelligence believes ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is now hiding in Iraq and is partially paralyzed from wounds he received during a 2018 Iraqi airstrike in Syria. Al Baghdadi is supervising the transformation of ISIL back to a guerilla type organization capable of supporting attacks outside of Iraq as well.

July 28, 2019: In the north (Saladin, or Salahuddin, Province), security forces repulsed another ISIL attack on oil facilities. This is the third time this year that ISIL has attacked these facilities.

The domestic (Interior Ministry) intelligence agency reported that over the last six weeks they had disrupted several major ISIL attacks planned for Baghdad and Kirkuk province up north. This disruption involved the arrest of 200 suspects, most (80 percent) of them in the north.

July 24, 2019: Security forces completed a six-day campaign to clear ISIL personnel from areas north of Baghdad. Army Counter-Terrorism units took the lead assisted by PMF militia and air support from Iraqi and American warplanes. American intel was also involved because the U.S. still operates electronic monitoring aircraft in Iraq. The operation raided four ISIL hideouts, arrested twelve wanted ISIL members and seized weapons and explosives. The operation involved searching 89 villages and 87 orchards (a favorite hiding place for all sorts of things).

July 23, 2019: Iran publically reassured Iraq that tankers and other ships working for Iraq would not be interfered with by Iranian forces that are seizing or threatening British tankers.

July 19, 2019: In the north (Saladin Province, some 200 kilometers north of Baghdad) Iranian PMF complained of their base being attacked by an unidentified aircraft, possibly a UAV. Two Iranian advisors were wounded and damage was done to the base, including one militiaman killed and several wounded. Israel is being blamed. The bombed base is 80 kilometers from the Iran border it was bombed again on the 21st. Israel will not comment on these attacks although retired Israeli military leaders believe that Iraqi bases used by Iran for moving modern weapons to Syria and Lebanon are now legitimate targets and capable of being hit. Israeli warplanes now have long-range air-to-ground missiles so these attacks could be launched from Israeli warplanes flying over eastern Syria. Speculation is that Israeli F-35I aircraft are being used and Israel is fine with such rumors because it makes the F-35I seem even more formidable.

Less mysterious was the action out in the Persian Gulf where an American warship used its electronic weapons to force down an Iranian UAV while Iranian forces seized a British tanker.

July 18, 2019: The U.S. announced sanctions on several Iraqis, including several accused of corruption and two for leading Iran backed PMF militias. The sanctions on individuals are often just an annoyance although for those who are corrupt the personal sanctions can be expensive

July 17, 2019: In the north (Kurdish controlled Iraq), Turkey began three days of airstrikes against PKK targets. It was later reported that 34 PKK personnel were killed or disabled. Iraq protested the Turkish use of warplanes but the Turks pointed out that they have permission from the Kurds who control that part of northern Iraq.

Elsewhere in the Kurdish north a Turkish diplomat assigned to the Turkish north was shot dead in a popular restaurant along with another man. No one took responsibility but PKK was suspected.

July 11, 2019: In the northwest, Iranian artillery fired at least a dozen shells into rural areas on the Iraqi side of the border (Erbil/Arbil province) over the last two days. The shells landed several kilometers inside Iraq and the shelling today wounded two members of Komala, an Iranian Kurdish separatists group. The shelling yesterday killed a civilian and wounded two others. Iranians regularly fire on suspected Iranian Kurdish separatist groups based in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. Iran claimed the attack was carried out by a UAV firing guided missiles. Kurdish officials have not revealed if a search of the bombed area for missile fragments was made.

July 10, 2019: In the northeast, across the border in Iranian Kermanshah province IRGC troops intercepted five gunmen crossing the border from Iraq. After a brief firefight, the five intruders were dead and they were found to be carrying explosives and communications gear in addition to loaded weapons.

July 4, 2019: At the British port of Gibraltar, 30 Royal Marine Commandos, secretly flown in for the occasion, boarded and seized an Iranian supertanker at 4 AM. The tanker was there to resupply after a long voyage around Africa. Britain claimed the tanker was breaking sanctions by transporting two million barrels of Iraqi oil to Syria for Iran. Syria is under sanctions and Iran is making an enormous (and expensive) effort to get the Syrian government the oil it needs to continue fighting rebels and Islamic terrorists. The tanker was acting suspiciously as it avoided traveling via the Suez Canal and instead took the longer and much more expensive route around Africa. The Egyptians would have carefully scrutinized the tanker if it had used the canal and quite possibly seized it. After the British seized the tanker Iran threatened to retaliate by seizing British tankers and attempted to do just that a few days later but failed. By July 13th Britain was offering to free the tanker if Iran could offer guarantees that the Iraqi oil in the Iranian tanker did not reach Syria. Iran declined and Britain continues to hold the tanker. Meanwhile, Iran seized two small British flagged coastal tanker in the Persian Gulf. Iran appears willing to pay a high price to get oil to its Syrian ally because the seizure of the British tanker in the Hormuz Strait was a direct threat to all ships that use that passage. This attack has united Europe against Iran and reduced European support for Iran (and against revived American sanctions.)

Iranian tankers can legally transport Iraqi oil to legitimate (unsanctioned) customers. But Iraqis are willing to do more lucrative, if illegal, business with Iran. Iraq and Iran already have barter agreements to cover situations like paying for imports of Iranian electricity. Iran legally, or illegally, exports a lot of stuff (including electricity) to Iraq and expects some cooperation from Iraq when it comes to evading sanctions.

July 2, 2019: In the northeast across the border in Iranian Western Azarbaijan province, Kurdish gunmen, apparently PKK, killed three IRGC troops. Two of the Kurds died as well. It was unclear if the Kurd gunmen came from nearby Iraq.

July 1, 2019: The government announced that all PMF militias were now under the control of the army and that all PMF members must obey orders given them by army officers. This means PMF leaders, especially pro-Iran ones, are subject to arrest if they refuse to follow orders. Enforcing this new rule will be difficult. By the end of July, it was agreed that it would take at least two months to complete the process for the 140,000 PMF personnel. At that point, the Defense Ministry will have a better idea of how successful the process was and which PMF militias were still controlled by Iran or some local warlord.




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