Iraq: History Repeats Itself Again

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July 6, 2014: The army has been fighting to retake Tikrit from ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) for a week now. Despite regular pronouncements of victory the fighting continues. In Syria ISIL continues to spend more time fighting fellow rebels than the Syrian government forces. This is apparently because ISIL is trying to clear all opposition out of their stronghold in eastern Syria, which they used to share with other Islamic terrorist rebel groups. One impetus for this is the need for money and ISIL has recently gained control over most of the oil fields in eastern Syria. The oil is sold to smugglers, at a big discount, and the smugglers then truck it into Turkey and sell it to brokers who buy oil with no questions asked. ISIL has moved a lot of armored vehicles and heavy weapons, captured from the Iraqi forces in Mosul, into Syria to use against other Islamic terrorist groups and this has been a big help. ISIL also uses violence against any Sunnis in Syria or Iraq who appear less than enthusiastic about ISIL ruling them. Many Iraqi Sunni tribes have openly joined ISIL recently and that means government forces passing through tribal territory face ambush and a generally hostile population.

ISIL continues to hold 49 Turks (diplomats and families seized in the Mosul consulate) and nearly a hundred Indian workers (including 46 nurses) seized in the north. ISIL is holding a lot of foreigners it grabbed when it unexpectedly seized Mosul on June 9th. While many have been released, some are being held for propaganda or trading purposes.

In northern Iraq ISIL is hunting down any real or imagined opponents (Shia or members of rival Islamic terrorist organizations) and killing them. ISIL is also destroying Shia mosques and religious shrines. To escape this over a million people (mostly Shia) have fled their homes in the north during the last four weeks. While some have fled south towards Baghdad or north into Kurdish territory many simply went to the many locations in the north where ISIL has no presence. ISIL actually controls little actual territory in the north. There are large parts of the countryside occupied by non-Sunnis. Many of these people have weapons and are organized to defend themselves. Of course if ISIL assembles a large enough forces (several hundred armed men and some heavy machine-guns, mortars and armored vehicles) they can overwhelm most of these village and town defense forces. The longer ISIL is active in the north the more of these local opponents they will crush. The government, with the help of Iran and the U.S. are trying to get these local defense forces organized and better armed and led. Meanwhile what armed men ISIL does have are increasingly tied up just patrolling or guarding Mosul and other towns in the north they do control along with the main roads connecting them all.

Iranian and American advisors are urging the Iraqi military to take ISIL more seriously. American intelligence has lots of detail on how ISIL used superior leadership and organization to take Mosul while keeping most of the Iraqi Army tied down in Anbar (western Iraq). The Americans have seen this before. The Iraqi Sunni Arabs have a deep talent pool, thanks to centuries of better education (than the Shia majority) and a large presence in the business community and the professions (law, medicine, technology). While many of these trained and talented Sunnis have fled the country, enough remained, and joined Islamic terrorist groups to provide the kind of talent and leadership that can make a terrorist organization much more effective. These terrorist groups always come to a bad end (due to internal feuds and growing opposition from the more numerous non-radical groups) but last longer if they have some good leadership. For the moment ISIL has a few effective leaders who are making the organization effective enough to take on the corrupt and poorly led government forces. The main goal of the American and Iranian military advisors is to persuade the government to fire all the loyal but lackluster army and police commanders and promote men who have some talent and leadership ability, even if these guys are not considered loyal to the corrupt politicians running the country. Current Iraqi prime minister Maliki (which Iran, the U.S. and many Iraqis want removed) promoted all the inept (but loyal to Maliki) military commanders and is reluctant to get rid of too many of them. Loyal generals are hard to find, especially when so many Iraqis want you dead or gone. Thanks to a dysfunctional parliament Maliki is likely to stick around. After he has a fortune in stolen cash to defend.

Since ISIL took control of the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 9th 2014 Iran has abandoned the unwritten agreement it has had with the Shia dominated Iraqi government since 2008. Back in 2008 the Iraqi government used Iraqi soldiers and police to crush the Iran backed Mahdi Army militia, and several similar organizations. These were private armies run by Shia religious leaders, usually with considerable (cash, trainers, weapons) support from Iran. These groups wanted to establish a Shia religious dictatorship in Iraq similar to what had been running Iran (not very efficiently) since the late 1980s. The 2008 Iraqi crackdown indicated that the Iran backed militias were not strong enough to defend themselves, much less force the creation of a religious dictatorship. Iran had already been convinced that most Iraqi Shia did not want a religious dictatorship. The 2008 crackdown showed that it was prudent for Iran to back off and bide its time. Now the time has come. The Shia politicians running Iraq allowed their corrupt behavior to cloud their judgment and that led to the collapse of many army and police units in the last month. Meanwhile these same politicians had allowed the defeated Shia militias to continue existing, as long as the military side of these organizations was deemphasized. While this rule was generally observed, since 2008 many of these militiamen were sent to Iran for further military training. This was no secret to the Iraqi government but everyone knew that if you kept quiet about it the Iranians would not cause trouble. Iran also cooperated by pulling most of their Quds Force trainers and operatives (including those from Lebanese Hezbollah Unit 3800) out of Iraq after 2008. Many of those trainers and advisors are now back, particularly those from Unit 3800. These trainers and advisors make a big difference when you have a lot of eager and armed volunteers but not much combat training or experience. Quds and Hezbollah are quickly getting these militias back into shape for combat. Thousands of foreign Shia men are entering the country eager to volunteer to defend Shia holy places (most of which are in Iraq). The Iranians and American Special Forces are very good at quickly getting untrained and unarmed volunteers like this in shape for combat.

Iraqi politicians are complaining that they don’t have an air force and that it’s not their fault. If only they had bought some jets from someone besides the American they would have gotten them faster. So a deal was quickly put together recently for a dozen second-hand Russian warplanes and on June 28th five Su-25s arrived. The Iraqis said they were using Iraqis to operate and maintain the Russian aircraft. But while Iraq had 66 Su-25s when Saddam was in power, only Sunnis flew and maintained those aircraft and those Su-25s last flew in the early 1990s when they were used to put down rebellious Shia. No Shia government today is going to let elderly Sunni pilots and maintainers anywhere near the newly acquired Su-25s.

Also conveniently forgotten is the fact that the delays in expanding the Iraqi Air Force were mostly on the Iraqi side. The first 18 F-16IQs (the version optimized for Iraqi use) were ordered in late 2011 and the first of these will soon arrive in Iraq. That was because this time Iraq actually signed the contract. Iraq originally proposed this deal in 2009 but nothing happened because at the last minute Iraqi government officials were informed by subordinates that putting money down for the warplanes would interrupt needed food purchases. If the food did not get paid for it would not arrive and there could be riots. So the F-16 purchase was delayed. That means that all 36 Iraqi F-16IQs probably won’t be ready for service until the end of the decade. The $3 billion the air force needs for its first 18 F-16s includes what it will cost to build maintenance and training infrastructure (for pilots and maintainers) for that type of aircraft. Iraq dragged its feet in arranging for all this support stuff, which has long been an Iraqi weak point (even when Saddam was in charge and long before that as well). Then there’s the personnel problems. Nearly all the experienced aviation people in Iraq (pilots, maintenance, operations) are Sunnis and the Shia majority does not (often for good reason) trust the Sunnis.

Meanwhile Iraq does have an air force and has had this new force for nearly a decade. It is composed largely of transports, helicopters and single or twin engine trainers and recon aircraft. Some of these are used to launch Hellfire missiles. Iraqi just ordered another 1,400 Hellfires and wants them quickly and another 2,600 by the end of the year. These cannot be used on the Su-25 (although Russia may send some engineers who could fix that quickly) but are very popular on the older, slower aircraft Iraqi has been using for years and has been successful with in the last month. These propeller driven aircraft are more useful than jets because they are slower (like most UAVs) and the pilots can spend more time over the battle and that enables the aircrew to sort out where the targets are before unleashing their Hellfire missiles.

The United States has 750 troops inside Iraq or on the way. Most are trainers, advisors or intelligence experts.

July 5, 2014: A video appeared on the Internet showing the ISIL leader preaching yesterday in a Mosul mosque and was the first public appearance of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The new self-proclaimed caliph asked all good Moslems to help him conquer the world.

July 4, 2014: The Kurds announced they will hold a referendum in the north to determine if the Kurdish controlled areas of the north, including the newly taken city of Kirkuk and its oil fields, should declare independence. While a popular idea among Kurds, the Turks and the United States are advising the Kurds not to do this. In the meantime the Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk three weeks quickly led to lots of construction along the new thousand kilometers of border the Kurds have to fortify and guard. For two decades the Kurds have kept Islamic terrorists out of their territory by doing a very good job of guarding their borders. So the sooner the new trenches, berms, fortified road checkpoints and bases are built the sooner the ISIL threat to the new territory will be greatly diminished. Meanwhile many Kurds urge that more terrain around Kirkuk be taken in order to incorporate some natural barriers (especially the Hamreen Hills) into the new Kirkuk territory. Kurdish leaders have chosen the prudent approach and are securing Kirkuk and the oil fields first. The Hamreen Hills can wait. This sort of prudence is one reason the Kurds have been so much more successful with self-governance and defense.

July 2, 2014: Armed Shia volunteers are rushing to Samarra (125 kilometers north of Baghdad). Most of the 350,000 people in the city are Sunni Arabs but the city contains some important Shia mosques and shrines and the Shia volunteers are determined to protect these sites. Already there have been some mortar shells fired at the main shrine. In 2006 major damage was done to the main shrine by Sunni Islamic terrorists and this was the main trigger for the subsequent death squad campaign against Sunni civilians.

Iraq has asked the United States for 4,000 more Hellfire missiles. Earlier this year Iraq ordered 500 Hellfires and 400 of those have already been delivered.

July 1, 2014: In Baghdad the newly elected parliament met for the first time and the various factions quickly decided they did not want to talk to each other. So much for hopes of national unity in the face of catastrophe. Parliament will meet again on the 8th and prospects for leadership from this corrupt and self-serving body are not good. While most Iraqis want prime minister Maliki replaced the parliament has too many different idea on how this should proceed and little feeling of unity in anything other than stealing as much as you can.

Iran has flown three of their Su-25 ground attack into Iraq to join the five that arrived from Russia earlier. It appears that most of these eight aircraft are being flown by Iranian pilots and maintained by Iranian and Russian personnel. Iraq had asked for the return of any still operational Iraqi aircraft that Saddam sent to Iran in 1990 to avoid having them destroyed by American air raids. Over a hundred Iraq aircraft ended up in Iran back then and most have been scrapped. But some Su-25s are known to have survived and the three that recently arrived in Iraq appear to be former Iraqi Air Force planes.

Apparently all the border police and soldiers guarding the Saudi border have fled or withdrawn. In response to this Saudi Arabia have moved another 30,000 troops to the Iraqi border and increased ground and air patrols.

There were over 2,400 terrorist related deaths in June, a big jump from the 934 in May (which was a slight decrease from April). About 63 percent of the June deaths were civilians with most of the rest being soldiers and police. In April there were 1,009 deaths (87 percent civilians, including terrorists and the other 13 percent security forces). Before June about a third of the civilian deaths were terrorists. Because the Islamic terrorists do not wear uniforms, and pro-government militiamen do not either, it’s sometimes difficult to tell which bodies are actually those of terrorists. The spike in terror related deaths in April was largely to do with terrorist efforts to disrupt the April 30 national elections. This effort failed but hundreds of people died in the process. In March at least 592 Iraqis died from Islamic terrorist violence. Soldiers and police were 18 percent of that and most of the rest were civilians. It’s believed at least 200 Islamic terrorists died. The March death rate was down from February, when there were about a thousand deaths. Deaths in January where over 1,500 and over half of those were in Anbar where ISIL was on the offensive. In 2013 the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. ISIL is believed to have lost heavily in the Anbar fighting and lost even more men in Syria. Some 7,000 Iraqis have died so far this year from terrorist related violence.

June 29, 2014: ISIL declared that the areas they controlled in eastern Syria and western Iraq were now part of the new caliphate. This shocked many people but it should not have as ISIL never made any secret of their long-term strategy to take control of a lot of territory and then create an Islamic State. This was tried before. Back in 2006 the "Al Qaeda In Iraq" leadership was already considered out of control by the most senior al Qaeda people (bin Laden and his successor). Back then most of the Iraqi Islamic terrorist leaders are really out there, at least in terms of fanaticism and extremism. This led to declaring the establishment of the "Islamic State of Iraq" in late 2006. This was an act of bravado, touted as the first step in the re-establishment of the caliphate (a global Islamic state, ruled over by God's representative on earth, the caliph.) The caliphate has been a fiction for over a thousand years. Early on, the Islamic world was split by ethnic and national differences, and the first caliphate fell apart after a few centuries.  Various rulers have claimed the title over the centuries, but since 1924, when the Turks gave it up (after four centuries), no one of any stature has stepped up and assumed the role. So when al Qaeda "elected" a nobody as the emir of the "Islamic State of Iraq" in 2006 and talked about this being the foundation of the new caliphate, even many pro-al Qaeda Moslems were aghast. This time around al Qaeda in Iraq has gained control over more than parts of Anbar (the 2006 “caliphate”). The big problem with making the caliphate work is not the government but the Sunni tribes that dominate Anbar and eastern Syria. These tribes are generally hostile to the sort of religious dictatorship ISIL has in mind. Al Qaeda turned off the tribal leaders a decade ago when they used assassination and kidnapping against uncooperative tribal leaders. This led to the tribes joining with the American and government forces to fight al Qaeda in 2007. Now it’s happening again, ISIL leadership just believes it isn’t. The new ISIL caliphate quickly angered many of their potential subjects (elsewhere in the Moslem world) by demanding that all Moslems join the fight and overthrow their corrupt local government. That isn’t happening and isn’t going to.

June 28, 2014:  Reports that ISIL has destroyed Shia shrines and mosques in and around Mosul has enraged the Shia community worldwide.

The U.S. revealed that about 500 American troops were in Iraq. About half of these were security personnel for the huge American embassy compound.

Five Russian Su-25 ground attack (similar to the A-10) arrived. These aircraft came with Russian pilots and maintainers.

June 27, 2014: The U.S. It was revealed that American manned and unmanned aircraft have been operating over Iraq. Apparently some of the UAVs were armed with missiles but there have not been any reports of these missiles being fired yet. Apparently 30 or more sorties a day are being flown meaning there are several American aircraft over Iraq at all times. About 180 American personnel have arrived in Iraq so far. Many more are operating from Kuwait and other Persian Gulf bases. Iran has already sent hundreds of advisors and some senior members of the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them).

June 26, 2014: Troops began attacking ISIL gunmen holding Tikrit, a Sunni city of 250,000 160 kilometers north of Baghdad. This is the hometown of Saddam Hussein and the source of many of his most loyal followers. By the 29th the troops had driven ISIL men from the center of the city but a week later ISIL fighters were still resisting in the outskirts and even though most of the population fled the fighting there were enough pro-ISIL civilians still in town to give the Islamic terrorists support.

ISIL gunmen made harassing attacks (mortars and machine-gun fire) against air force bases and oil fields around Baghdad.

June 25, 2014: The U.S. revealed that about fifth of 300 SOCOM (Special Operations Command) troops ordered to Iraq were now working in Iraq. The rest will follow in the next week.

 

 

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