Iraq: Bad Habits


September 8, 2020: The new prime minister (Mustafa al Kadhimi) is decidedly hostile to Iran. He has ordered the removal of many pro-Iran commanders in the security services and disbanded some units that were dangerously pro-Iran. Kadhimi went to the U.S. in late August to meet with the American leader and discuss improving U.S.-Iraq relations. Such a meeting was important because Kadhimi is the first post-Saddam (2003) prime minister that is not heavily influenced/controlled by Iran.

Kadhimi is not dependent on political parties and became prime minister because of that and the fact that he was anti-Iran, a former director of national intelligence and on good terms with the United States. He fled Iraq in 1985 as a teenager because of his opposition to Saddam. He ended up in Britain where he became a citizen, completed his education and began a successful career as a journalist. He returned to Iraq in 2003 and was eventually offered high-level government jobs in Iraq because he was seen as capable, not beholden to any political party and not corrupt. Kadhimi is expected to block Iranian efforts to control Iraq and reduce the crippling corruption. While Kadhimi has a lot of popular support for both of these policies, carrying them out is difficult and dangerous. The Iranians will kill troublesome foreign politicians if they have the opportunity. There is plenty of opportunity in Iraq. Corruption in Iraq is driven by party politics and the need for cash to buy votes and supporters. Party officials and the many party members who depend on corrupt deals to sustain they lifestyles will not change without a fight. Kadhimi has one very effective weapon here, his good relations with the Americans. That means U.S. officials made it clear that if anything happens to Kadhimi, the U.S. would cut or end most of its economic and military aid. While the corrupt politicians want to hang onto their plunder, they could lose it all if Iran becomes too powerful in Iraq and the Americans leave. Many Iraqis proclaim their dislike for the United States, but their animosity towards Iran, Turkey and their Arab neighbors is even greater. Then again Iraq has been self-destructive in the past and bad habits like that are difficult to shed.

The Iranian Threat

Iran still has enough loyal (to Iran) Iraqi militias to be a threat to the Iraqi government. Most Iraqi politicians and voters want less Iranian influence. Iran wants fewer foreign troops in Iraq. That is a point of contention because Iraqis realize the foreign troops offer some assurance that Western and Arab states would actively assist Iraq if Iran sought to take control via a civil war or invasion. Civil war is the more likely option, but only in an emergency, such as Iraq appearing to succeed in disbanding all the pro-Iran militias.

Iran has ordered its associates in Iraq to try terror, as in kidnapping and assassination, to extract cooperation from Iraqi officials. Iran also ordered its militiamen to fire on demonstrators who were protesting corruption in Iraq. In response to that the prime minister officially announced that the security forces had orders to not shoot at protestors but to use force against anyone who is harming protestors. Iran was not mentioned but this announcement made it clear that anyone shooting at protestors was working for Iran. Same with the growing number of kidnappings and assassinations. Some of these are the work of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) but a growing number are carried out by pro-Iran Iraqis. If the victim has been speaking out against Iran it means the attacker wasn’t Islamic terrorists and Iran was probably responsible.

Reduced support for Iran within the Iran-backed Iraqi PMF militias crippled the Iranian attack plan against American forces in Iraq. This Iranian campaign began in October and has included over fifty attacks so far. Few of these efforts did any damage and caused even fewer casualties. General Soleimani, commander of Iranian terror operations in Iraq, was trying to fix that when the American got to him in January 2020. Iran expected the death of Soleimani would trigger more anti-American anger among Iraqis. Didn’t happen. Most Iraqis saw Soleimani as more of a threat than the Americans. Iran was next door and forever threatening. The Americans were far away and had left once before, in 2011, and had to be asked to return in 2014 to deal with the ISIL invasion. The Americans are again eager to leave, the Iranians are not. Most Iranians want less money spent on subverting Iraq and more spent on building the Iranian economy and raising the standard of living. That is not a priority with the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) and its Quds Force that specializes in destabilizing other countries, like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The Turkish Threat

For several months Iran and Turkey have been cooperating in a military effort to get Kurdish separatists out of northern Iraq. The current Turkish campaign began June 16 and is still active, more so than any previous campaign against PKK activity in northern Iraq. Turkey has established about 30 temporary bases on the Iraqi side of the border indicating that Turkish ground forces, which have already advanced as far as 40 kilometers inside Iraq, will be in Iraq for a while.

The Turks consider the current operation a continuation of a smaller cross border offensive that began at the end of May. Turkish warplanes, armed UAVs and artillery hit nearly a thousand targets in a combat zone extending from border areas of Dohuk province (on the Syrian border) to Hakurk, the mountainous region where the borders of Iraq, Turkey and Iran meet. There were also airstrikes against a refugee camp outside Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish north. Iran cooperated in this operation by attacking PKK and local Iranian Kurd separatists found inside Iran opposite the Iraqi Hakurk region.

By early August the June offensive killed or captured 320 Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq. Troops raided over 320 locations, about 15 percent of them caves and seized a lot of weapons and equipment. Turkey declared that most of the ground (search and seize) operations were completed and Turkish troops would begin withdrawing. The Turks warn that unless the Iraqi Kurds are more effective in keeping Turkish and Syrian Kurd separatists out, the Turks will be back.

The Iraqi Kurds have frequently asked the PKK to get out of Iraq. For a long time, the Iraqi Kurds tolerated the PKK presence with the understanding that the PKK would not be violent inside Iraq and would stay away from Iraqi Arab and Kurd population centers. Over the last decade the PKK has increasingly violated that understanding and the Turkish attacks have become more frequent and intense. Iraqi Kurds will not go to war with the Turkish Kurds but now the PKK accuses Iraqi Kurds of supplying the Turks with information about where PKK camps are. There is no proof of that but more damage is done to the PKK-Iraqi Kurd relationship.

September 7, 2020: North of Baghdad a roadside bomb was used to attack a supply convoy for foreign troops in Taji. So far this year there have been one of two of these attacks a month. Not much damage is done and when someone does claim credit it is a pro-Iran militia.

September 6, 2020: Outside Baghdad three rockets were fired at the airport. Some damage to four cars occurred when one of the rockets landed in a parking lot. Sometimes no one claims credit but all of these attacks are believed the work of a pro-Iran militia.

The U.S. revealed that since 2014 American warplanes carried out 35,000 airstrikes on ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. Those airstrikes continue, but at a lower intensity because of the much-diminished ISIL manpower and activity.

Oil export income in August was $3.52 billion, versus $3.49 in July. Oil sold for $43 a barrel compared to $40 in July and $34 in June. Iraq has to cut production to about three million BPD (Barrels Per Day) for the rest of the year, from the 3.8 million BPD in August. This being done to maintain its membership in OPEC (the oil cartel) and to make up for several instances of overproduction since late 2019. Iraq is more dependent on oil income than any other Gulf nation. Because of lower oil prices and lower oil demand the Iraqi GDP is expected to shrink at least ten percent in 2020. The monthly government payroll is $4.5 billion and so far, this year oil income has only been able to cover a third of that.

The 2020 government budget is $135 billion but taxes, mainly on oil income, are less than $90 billion. The shortfall must be obtained elsewhere. The Arab Oil states are willing to help, but only if Iraq can reduce the Iranian operations in Iraq and control the corruption. Most Iraqis agree with both of these demands but there are doubts that the current Iraqi politicians can deliver. Despite a year of violent anti-corruption protests and national (parliamentary) elections that have most politicians denouncing corruption, not much has changed. It’s not that Arab states cannot reduce corruption because several Gulf states have. The UAE is now less corrupt than Israel and Saudi Arabia is carrying out reforms. So why not Iraq? Unless the Iraqi politicians can demonstrate real change, the Arb oil states are reluctant to provide the emergency cash. If Iraq cannot get the loans it will not be able to pay salaries and pensions that a fifth of the population depends on. Most of the salary and pension payments are actually bonuses or adjustments. A lot of this is bribes and outright theft. So how the government actually makes the cuts, if no loans are obtained, will reveal how serious the current politicians are about reducing corruption.

Another problem with the reduced income is that it makes it difficult to do anything about the growing electricity shortage. Decades of corruption in the construction and management of power plants. This is a very volatile issue with all Iraqis. Jobs and working/living conditions depend on there being a steady and sufficient supply of electricity. There is neither and this creates anger in the workplace and at home. The unreliable electricity supply also cripples other essential utilities like water supply and sanitation.

September 5, 2020: In Baghdad and Basra police raided several locations where illegal weapons were bought and sold. Many of the weapons were heavy machine-guns and mortars, which civilians are not supposed to possess. Civilians may own a rifle or pistol if they notify police and list the weapon on their ID card. Police arrested 13 people and seized hundreds of weapons, including some “technicals” (pickup trucks with a heavy machine-gun mounted in the cargo bed). The Arab Tribes Council in Anbar province also demands the disbanding of PMF militias, or at least withdrawing them from Anbar where they often attack Sunni tribesmen for no reason. With ISIL largely gone from Anbar the major threat to the tribal population are the Shia PMF brigades, especially the ones loyal to Iran.

The U.S. has managed to get two Iraqi Islamic terrorist web sites removed from the Internet. and were operated by Iran backed Katab Hezbollah. This is an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hezbollah Iran helped organize in the 1980s and has supported ever since.

September 4, 2020: ISIL claimed to have carried out a hundred attacks in Iraq during August. That was about 25 percent more than in July. The number of attacks has remained about a hundred a month for several years now. Since early 2018 nearly all the ISIL attacks reported in Iraq could be classified as terrorism. This reflects a known trend that began in early 2018 as ISIL concentrated on maintaining a presence in the area north of Baghdad (Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces). During 2018 ISIL carried out about 130 attacks a month and these attacks rarely involved bombings populated areas to kill civilians. There were also more ISIL operations involving threats of violence to intimidate civilians or local security forces. There was less use of violence because ISIL has fewer bomb builders and suicide bombers as well as the people who recruit, train and supervise suicide bombers carrying out their attack. Bombs were mainly used against security forces. The guerilla tactics can be seen by the number of attacks, especially along the main roads north from Baghdad to Kirkuk and the border with the Kurdish controlled north. Attacks involving kidnapping and murder (mainly to terrorize the population into not interfering with or reporting on ISIL activity) are more frequent. The number of these attacks went from seven in March 2018 to over 200 a month by the end of 2018. Most of these attacks did not involve violence but all involved threats. ISIL was counting kidnapping and extortion activities (which sometimes involved non-lethal violence). These “operations” were important because they raised money and kept locals in line. This increase in activity shows how effectively ISIL has established base areas to operate from. ISIL claims to control over 20 villages in rural areas between Baghdad and the Kurdish noeth. Most of the ISIL bases are in the Hemrin Mountains, which extend from Diyala province through northern Salahuddin province and into southern Kirkuk province. In early 2018 it was believed that there were 500-1,000 armed ISIL members operating in the Hemrins and about the same in desert areas near the Syrian border from west of Mosul south to include Anbar province. Those numbers more than doubled by the end of 2018 and continue to grow in 2019 and 2020. ISIL has also managed to reestablish itself in Mosul and that can be seen by the continued arrests of known ISIL members in Mosul and surrounding areas. West of Mosul (to the Syrian border) support for ISIL is particularly strong.

The main point of this is that ISIL is defeated but not destroyed. The main reason for that is the nature of Islam which, alone of all major religions, demands extreme measures (death) for those who try to leave Islam, Moslems or non-Moslems who criticize Islam (death) and trying to convert a Moslem to another faith (death). The list is very long and Islamic scripture also preaches justice and honesty but it also justifies being violent when “defending Islam” against real or imagined threats. All this is a problem that many prominent Moslems are now openly recognizing and seeking a solution for. That in itself is a brave and unusual act. Yet it is deemed necessary because many of the worst aspects of Islamic not only encourage terrorism but also limits academic, economic and social progress. Meanwhile Islamic terrorism continues to mainly kill other Moslems. While Islamic terror groups preach the importance of killing non-Moslems it is also noticed that nations that are mainly non-Moslem tend to be better run, wealthier and more capable to halting or limiting Islamic terror activity. In many Moslem nations, like Iraq, a large minority of the population continues to support Islamic terrorism as a cure for all problems real or imagined. The Islamic terrorists tend to go where they are least unwelcome.

A growing number of Iraqi Arabs recognize these destructive aspects of Arab Moslem culture and are willing to try and deal with it. That is still difficult in Iraq, where religious disagreements often lead to murder, all in the name of God. This shift in attitudes expresses itself in most Iraqis opposing Iranian efforts to turn Iraq into an Iranian puppet state that will serve as a front line in the Iranian effort to dominate all of Arabia. To that end most Iraqis want the 5,200 American and 1,000 other foreign troops to stay. Not just for help (which is considerable) in dealing with Islamic terrorism but in keeping the Iranians out. The U.S. plans to reduce its Iraq force to 3,500 by the end of 2020 and NATO forces are also shrinking.

September 3, 2020: In Baghdad rockets were fired at the headquarters of G4S, the British company that provides security for the Baghdad airport. There was property damage but no casualties. Someone, apparently Iran, was sending a message to G4S that the British firm should tolerate Iran doing whatever it wants at the airport. That is no longer allowed and using a foreign firm means it is less likely Iran or anyone else will get their way via intimidation.

In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike, apparently Israeli, attacked an Iranian base, killing nine Iraqi Hezbollah militiamen.

August 23, 2020: In northwest Syria (Idlib province) an Iran backed Iraqi PMF militia provided 250 militiamen for a planned offensive against Islamic terrorist rebels who still control half the province.

August 19, 2020: In Baghdad another PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) weapons and ammo storage warehouse exploded. There were two similar incidents in July and all where warehouses belonged to Iran-backed PMF brigades.

August 15, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike, apparently by armed Israeli UAVs, attacked an Iranian base, killing 23 Afghan and Iraqi mercenaries and destroying large quantities of ammo and weapons. This could be seen by the number of secondary explosions (caused by the UAV missiles).

August 10, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an airstrike, apparently Israeli, killed 14 Iranians and Iranian mercenaries, some of them from Iraq.

August 4, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), near the Iraq border an Israeli airstrike hit several Iranian targets next to the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Fifteen Iranian mercenaries were killed. Since late April Israel has carried out twenty or more airstrikes in Syria. Nearly half the attacks were in Deir Ezzor province, where the Al Bukamal crossing is, as well as other Israeli targets further away from the Iraq border. The rest of the airstrikes were all over southern Syria, wherever Iranian forces were operating.




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