ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) made a surprising move into northeastern Iraq in June, seizing control of Mosul. At first it was believed that ISIL would then move south against Baghdad. But ISIL instead turned to confront the Kurds, who had quickly taken control of Kirkuk and nearby oilfields. In the last week ISIL has taken advantage of this temporary disorder of Kurdish border security to advance into Kurdish territory and seize several towns and a hydroelectric and flood-control dam. The ISIL move north is also meant to kill or expel religious minorities like the Yazidis and Christians. The Yazidis are a particular target because many Moslems, and some Christians, consider the Yazidi pagans and devil worshipers. The Yazidi are Kurds who practice a pre-Christian religion related to the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion common in Iran (and now only found in India). The Yazidis are considered pagans by ISIL and to Moslems pagans must either renounce their beliefs or die. This resulted in over 30,000 Yazidis finding themselves trapped and surrounded on Mount Sinjar, which is basically a ridge providing good defensive positions for the few armed Yazidis but little water or shelter. Over a hundred Yazidis are dying each day from thirst and exposure. ISIL is content to let most of them die like this and the Kurds are making slow progress as they fight to open an escape route. The Kurds have always gotten along better with Yazidis, Christians and other minorities and many of those people have already fled to the Kurdish north.
The move into Kirkuk required the Kurds to adjust their borders and that required building new border defenses along hundreds of kilometers of new frontiers. This was essential because the Kurdish north has always been so peaceful that Western journalists, and just about anyone else, could move about freely, without fear of attack. This was mainly because the Kurds have tight controls on their borders and any Arabs entering are checked carefully. Arab Iraqis are welcome to visit, and many do, for vacations from the violence in the south or to do business (sometimes to meet with foreigners uneasy about coming to Baghdad).
When asked, Kurds attribute their peaceful neighborhood to the fact that Kurds are not Arabs. But this is not the main reason, for the Kurds have, in the past, been as factious and violent as the Iraqi Arabs are now. It was during the 1990s, when the U.S. and Britain agreed to keep Saddam's forces out of the north (to prevent another large scale massacre of Kurds), that the Kurds sensed a rare opportunity and sorted out their differences and learned the benefits of cooperation, rule of law and civil order. In effect, the Kurds had a ten year head start on the rest of Iraq in the "how to create peace and democracy" department. The Iraqi Arabs, Sunni and Shia, who come north on business, or for a vacation, note this. The Arabs believe they are superior to the Kurds ("a bunch of hillbillies," to most Arabs), and find it irritating that the Kurds have made things work, while down south, especially in central Iraq, things are still a mess. Given time the Iraqi Arabs will probably catch up. But this is not a popular solution to the "Iraq problem," and no career-conscious journalist is going to talk about what the Kurds have done and why the Arab’s haven’t.
Turkish Kurds, including members of the Turkish Kurdish armed separatist group PKK, have been coming into Kurdish controlled northern Iraq to help Iraqi Kurds maintain the new borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. These new borders now incorporate two oil fields the Iraqi Kurds recently occupied. Many Kurds in the region (in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria) see the possibility of northern Iraq becoming an independent Kurdish state. Many Iraqi Kurds like the idea, but all the surrounding nations (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria) are hostile to it and make it clear that a landlocked Kurdistan will be subject to blockade and the threat of invasion. Because of that threat Iraqi Kurdish leaders are discouraging talk of independence. So far the political and economic autonomy has worked pretty well and the neighbors tolerate it.
The ISIL advance sent over half a million civilians running. Nearly half of these refugees headed for the nearby autonomous Kurdish territories. The Kurdish controlled areas are known to be safe but because of the ISIL threat Kurdish border security became even tighter. Kurds and Christians, or Arab Moslems with a sponsor in the Kurdish area passed border control quickly. But non-Christian Arabs, especially Sunnis and Turkomen (Turkic Moslems), had to wait a lot longer. After a while the Kurds set up temporary transit camps on the Iraqi side of the border because so many people were trying to get in that the screeners could not keep up. Arabs and some refugee NGOs complained but anyone who has paid attention over the last decade knows that what the Kurds are doing works, even if it takes longer. Sunni Islamic terrorists are not happy with this tight security because it has made the Kurdish areas largely immune to Islamic terrorist attacks. ISIL was particularly determined to attack the Kurds where they lived and Kurdish security officials believed ISIL would try to slip terrorists in with the flood of refugees. That has not happened so far.
This fanatic ISIL attitude is backfiring. In the eastern Syria the alliance ISIL had with the local Sunni tribes is falling apart. It’s an old story being replayed. The local tribesmen are not happy with ISIL efforts to force a strict Islamic lifestyle on them. Also unpopular is the ISIL attitude that anything they do is above reproach. That resulted in a recent ISIL edict that anyone in the areas they control who says (in person or via the media or Internet) anything hostile to ISIL will be severely punished. There have already been some executions of critics. This has recently led to several battles in villages as the tribes went to war with ISIL and won. More astute ISIL leaders have caused ISIL forces to refrain from escalating the fight and there appear to be efforts to negotiate the problem. In Iraq the same thing is happening. The Sunni tribes that ISIL expected to be allies and take care of administering the newly conquered territories have, increasingly, refused to impose the strict lifestyle rules ISIL demands. While the Sunni tribes like the measure of law and order ISIL has imposed they are not willing to accept all the other features of ISIL rule. The secular Sunnis (mainly the surviving Baath Party organizations) initially believed they could work with ISIL have since turned against the strict forms of Islam ISIL insists on. Meanwhile ISIL has antagonized many Islamic conservative groups by destroying shrines and even mosques ISIL considers heretical despite the fact that most Sunni Arabs tolerate these places because they are very popular, and bring in a significant amount of tourist business from foreigners and religious pilgrims.
The loss of support from secular Sunnis is a particularly debilitating defeat for ISIL, which only has about 15,000 armed men in Iraq. That is not enough to control all the territory they have access to in western and northern Iraq. ISIL expected skilled Iraqi Sunni Arabs to join them and this included the Baath Party. Saddam’s many supporters in the Baath Party are largely secular but also fanatic and hostile to Shia Iraqis. Baath contains many specialists and experienced Islamic terrorists that could be helpful to ISIL. But ISIL is full of religious fanatics who, not surprisingly, were not pleased with the general lack of religious fervor among the Baath members. Similar unstable alliances are coming apart wherever ISIL has taken control in it new caliphate of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The original caliphates all fell apart for the same reasons. Some ISIL leaders were aware of this possibility and they may yet gain enough control over the organization to create a more accommodating approach. Given the recent history of Islamic terrorist organizations, this is unlikely.
The government protested a recent meeting by 150 Iraqi Sunni Arab leaders in Jordan. The Iraqi Sunnis there agreed to form a new coalition to remove prime minister
Nouri al Maliki, who has been running things since 2006. Maliki has presided over a corrupt government where plundering the vast oil income has become the primary activity of senior politicians. Maliki has got this all organized so he has lots of wealthy and powerful supporters who do not want Maliki replaced with someone else that will probably replace all the Maliki cronies with a new crew of crooks. So far the greed has trumped concern for national survival, at least at the top. Most Iraqis are opposed to all the corruption and the inept government it produces. The Sunnis are angry mainly because they have not been getting a “fair share” of the oil income. Maliki long blamed the Iraqi Sunnis for supporting Islamic terrorists, which many do. In fact the meeting in Jordan did not condemn ISIL but left open the possibility of some peace deal. This is unlikely because many of the Iraqi Sunni leaders are already fighting ISIL and on guard for ISIL assassins. One reason this meeting was held in Jordan was to avoid ISIL attacks. Sunni Arabs are the second largest minority (after the Kurds) in Iraq with nearly 20 percent of the population. However some Sunni Arabs insist they are actually the majority, but there is no evidence to support this fantasy. Everyone in Iraq can agree on the Sunni desire to reestablish Sunni rule in Iraq. This would have to be a dictatorship because 60 percent of Iraqis are Shia who have been victims of Sunni abuse for centuries and want no more of it. However the U.S. has long urged the Iraqi Shia to treat the Iraqi Sunnis better as that has demonstrated (at least while American troops were in Iraq) to make many Iraqi Sunnis cooperative, especially against Sunni Islamic terrorists. At the moment the only thing most Iraqis can agree on is the need to remove Maliki from the top job. The Sunnis want this done soon because there are more and more Shia death squads murdering Sunnis. This tactic became widespread in 2006-7 and was one reason many Sunni tribes turned on the Islamic terrorists by 2007 and brought about a major al Qaeda defeat.
Since 2003 nearly all the violence you heard about in Iraq was in Sunni Arab areas of central Iraq and the Shia areas where the Sunni Islamic terrorists would make so many of their bombing attacks against civilians of all sorts (pilgrims, women, children) as long as they were Shia. The disputed (between Sunni Arabs and Kurds) northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk were also the scene of much violence since 2003 and that is why the ISIL moved into this area. But the animosity ISIL has stirred up has mobilized many armed Iraqis to join together and defend their towns, villages and neighborhoods from ISIL attack. This is not that difficult because ISIL is still very much an irregular military forces. There favorites (and most often used) is to take a few dozen vehicles (pickup trucks are preferred) and load them with several hundred fanatic gunmen plus some heavy weapons (machine-guns, mortars, RPGs) and drive fast for the target, moving in quickly and killing anyone (armed or unarmed) who resists. Defenders who are prepared and not intimidated by this dramatic tactic will inflict heavy casualties on ISIL and usually cause the Islamic terrorists to retreat. This is happening more frequently in the last few weeks.
Efforts to restore the Iraqi Army to some level of effectiveness continue. Most soldiers and police are tied down defending against ISIL terror attacks. The people demand this. But at the same time the government needs an offensive force to actually defeat ISIL. Many Iraqi military leaders believe the return of American air support (jets and armed UAVs) would make a big difference but that is being withheld in an effort to get someone to replace Maliki as prime minister. Maliki is seen as corrupt, inept and unreliable. The Americans, and most Iraqis, want him out but that corruption provides Maliki with enough allies to keep him nominally in charge. So Maliki fiddles around while Iraq burns down around him. Not the first time this has happened in this part of the world.
August 6, 2014: Kurds from Iraq, Syria and Turkey agreed to join forces against ISIL in northern Iraq. This is in response to recent ISIL attacks on Kurdish territory. The organized Kurdish military forces consist of the Iraqi Peshmerga (about 100,000 full time and over 300,000 part time fighters, many with formal training and years of experience), the Turkish PKK (several thousand based in northern Iraq) and the Syrian PYD (a smaller version of the PKK and largely tied down defending northeastern Syria.) The Peshmerga and PKK have been increasingly active helping the PYD defend traditional Kurdish territory against ISIL. The fighting in northeastern Syria has been going on for over two years and ISIL has faced nearly constant defeats. ISIL really has it in for the Kurds, mainly because of the decades of violence between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq. The Sunnis have been getting the worst of it since the 1990s and want revenge.
Kurdish forces attacked ISIL 40 kilometers southwest of Arbil (a long held Kurdish city). This effort pushed ISIL back and was described by the Kurds in the first of many offensive operations.
August 4, 2014: The government ordered the air force (several dozen armed helicopters, single engine propeller drive aircraft and some Russian Su-25 ground attack jets) to provide air support for Kurdish forces in the north seeking to regain control over a Tigris river dam that controls water flow to many farms around Baghdad. The Kurds are also the best hope of saving another hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River. The government has been making more and more air attacks on ISIL, with the help of Iranian technicians and pilots and American intelligence. The U.S. is now flying over fifty UAV missions a day over Iraq and may soon resume missile attacks aimed at killing key ISIL personnel.
August 3, 2014: ISIL seized the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River. This is the largest dam in Iraq and because of shoddy construction during the 1980s requires constant maintenance to prevent it from failing. If the dam did come down over half a million Iraqis could die from the flood and subsequent water shortages. The Kurds had been defending the dam since the Iraqi Army ran away in early June. ISIL also seized two nearby Kurdish held towns. This was not unexpected because the Kurds stretched themselves thin by trying to replace the Iraqi Army while also building and defending a new fortified border to incorporate Kirkuk and nearby oilfields. The Kurds asked for air support from the United States but have not gotten it. The Americans have shipped in ammo and light weapons and some additional American trainers and advisors. ISIL hit the Kurds with multiple columns of vehicles carrying armed men. This force included some suicide bombers and there were more ISIL gunmen coming from more directions than the small Kurdish force could handle. After a day or so of holding ISIL off the Kurds were ordered to withdraw and they did that in an orderly fashion. The Kurds are now organizing a counterattack force and again asking Iraq and the U.S. for some air support.
August 2, 2014: Most foreign airlines have halted flight to or over Iraq, fearful that ISIL has or will obtain anti-aircraft weapons for use against airliners.
August 1, 2014: For all the noise from and about Iraq in the last month there was a sharp 20 percent decline in terrorism related deaths in July. There were over 2,400 terrorist related deaths in June which was a big jump from the 934 in May (which was a slight decrease from April). 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. Nearly 9,000 Iraqis have died so far this year from terrorist related violence.
July 29, 2014: A noted Hezbollah commander was killed near Mosul. The dead man, Ibrahim al-Haj, was apparently brought in from Lebanon to help with the training program Iran is carrying out to help form pro-government militias among Shia at risk of ISIL attack. Hezbollah members are Arabs and are more adept at training Arabs than the Indo-European Iranians. There are several hundred Iranians in Iraq but Iran has not sent in a lot of combat troops yet. This is apparently part of an informal understanding with the United States to cooperate in helping the Shia government of Iraq defeat ISIL.
About 110 kilometers north of Baghdad an ISIL suicide truck bomber destroyed a key bridge over a canal. The bridge is a vital link on one of the few main roads going north to areas where Iraqi is trying to halt further ISIL advances.
July 28, 2014: ISIL released a video on the Internet showing mass executions of Iraqi soldiers. This was apparently meant to demoralize Iraqi security forces and in some cases it did.
July 25, 2014: The government confirmed that Russia has delivered more helicopter gunships along with other military supplies.
July 24, 2014: North of Baghdad ISIL ambushed a convoy carrying Islamic terrorist prisoners being moved to a prison further south to avoid the prisoners from being freed if ISIL took the prison. The ambush involved suicide bombers and gunmen and left over sixty prisoners, armed escorts and attackers dead.
July 21, 2014: Meanwhile ISIL has been selling Syrian oil to Iraqi brokers. This is done at a high (over 70 percent) discount because the oil can be identified as Syrian (via chemical analysis) and the Iraqis must be careful who they sell it to. Moreover, the oil must be moved out of Syria by truck which is more expensive than the Syrian pipeline which goes to a port on the Syrian coast, not Iraq. Since the current world price of oil is over a hundred dollars a barrel ISIL can still clear over $15,000 per truckload.