Iraq: ISIL On The Defensive

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September 8, 2014: The American air attacks have increased and put ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) on the defensive. There have been about 150 American air attacks since they began on August 8 th and now occur everywhere ISIL has forces in Iraq. Thus in the last month ISIL has lost control of a major dam, a refinery and major oil fields around Kirkuk. ISIL is also losing control of the oil smuggling operation it had established in Syria and western Iraq. The attack against the Haditha dam includes local Sunni tribal militiamen who have refused to join ISIL. Many Sunni tribes backed away from supporting ISIL or agreed to work with the government. Haditha is the second largest dam in the country in terms of hydroelectric power and water supply.

Kurdish troops, also backed by American air power (directed by American air controllers on the ground with the Kurds) are also taking back territory around Mosul. This is one of several operations in the last month where the Kurds have shown that, with the help of American air support, they are nearly invincible against ISIL forces. Even Iraqi Shia troops and Sunni militias have some success when aided by air support. Most ISIL fighters now accept this new battlefield reality, but some less determined ISIL gunmen are discouraged and desertions are more common. There have also been several recent instances of ISIL gunmen fleeing after the first smart bomb or missile hits, not willing to shoot it out with the oncoming Kurds. This often involves abandoning vehicles, weapons, ammo and equipment.

More American and NATO trainers and advisors on the ground have helped reform the Iraqi security forces. There are now more Shia and pro-government tribal militias involved but the most reliable local force remains the Kurds. However, most of the Kurdish troops are deployed on the border between Kurdish and Arab Iraq. The Kurds must continue to keep Arab Islamic terrorists out and that requires reliable troops. Thousands of Kurdish women have been mobilized for this, many of them combat veterans from past crises. The women generally take care of internal security to free up more men for duty on the border.

The U.S. is depending on the Kurds and Iraqi government to provide some help on the ground to identify targets in the urban areas (Mosul, Fallujah and Tikrit) the fighting is moving into. Out in the open it’s a lot easier to avoid civilian casualties since you can spot nearby civilians. In urban areas this is more difficult. The Americans want to avoid civilian casualties as ISIL can use this to generate media criticism of the military operations against the Islamic terrorists. The criticism causes political problems.

The American air strikes are expensive, costing about two million dollars each. The U.S. has managed to get nine other countries (Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Turkey, Italy, Poland, Denmark and Australia) to join an effort to destroy ISIL in Iraq and Syria. The coalition will provide more advisors, weapons, ammo and air power than the U.S. itself is currently providing. The Americans will probably continue to be the major contributor.

The Iraqi Kurds also expect some cooperation from the Iraqi government and its foreign supporters to allow the Kurds to sell the oil they have been pumping from their territory and shipping through Turkey. Since May the Kurds have gotten over eight million barrels to a Turkish port and onto tankers. But Iraqi government lawyers have interfered with many of the attempted sales. Most Iraqi Arab politicians still oppose the Kurds having any control over oil production and export.

The new prime minister Haider al Abadi is the first new Iraqi leader since 2006 and also a member of the Dawa party that his predecessor Nouri al Maliki led. Abadi has until the 14th to select his ministers and thus form a new government. He has agreed to keep some of the corrupt Maliki henchmen around, or at least safe from prosecution for a while. This did not go over well with the Sunni members of parliament and they have refused to play a part in the new government. As a practical matter this does not hurt Abadi because the Shia, Kurds and other minorities have over 80 percent of the seats. But it was the Shia politicians’ unwillingness to work with the Sunnis that led to the growth of ISIL and continues to provide some popular support for Islamic terrorism in Sunni communities. But most Iraqi Sunnis are disappointed with ISIL and with the return of American air power see ISIL facing another defeat, as their predecessor Sunni terror groups did in 2007.

Iraq has many new local allies, but not all of them come with clean hands. Saudi Arabia was the original source of nearly all current Islamic terrorism and is still the source of most recruits and financial supports for these groups. Despite this Saudi Arabia declared itself an enemy of al Qaeda in the 1990s, literally went to war with al Qaeda in 2003 and recently agreed to abide by new UN sanctions against Islamic terrorist fund raisers. These new rules were adopted on August 16th and pressure was applied to the wealthy Gulf oil states to enforce them vigorously this time. The Saudis recently demonstrated their determination to do so by sentencing four young Saudis to prison for trying to go off and join ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Earlier this year (February) the Saudis made it illegal for Saudi citizens to join ISIL but in typical Saudi fashion waited a while before strictly enforcing it. The Saudis have a hard time punishing fellow Saudis for being Islamic radicals, in large part because Arabia was where Islamic radicalism was invented and is still highly respected and practiced. The Arabian Peninsula is where Islam was founded in the 7th century and where the highest concentration of the world’s oil supply is found. This combination of Islamic conservatism and vast wealth has created a situation where it is difficult for the Saudi government to go after all the financial backers of Islamic terrorism in their midst. There too many of these guys and some are quite wealthy, powerful and well connected. Despite the official prohibitions there continue to be some wealthy Arabian families willing to fund Islamic terrorist groups, even those as extreme as al Qaeda and ISIL. The situation is worse with ISIL, which recently declared a new Islamic empire, or caliphate, in areas of Syria and Iraq that it controlled.  But now Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the two major sources of Islamic terrorist funding, have agreed that outfits like ISIL are a threat to even Islamic conservatives and must be destroyed. The Saudis and Kuwaitis won’t be able to stop all the ISIL donations but can reduce the flow of cash considerably by stressing “self-preservation” to the hard-core donors.   The UN has condemned ISIL for committing crimes against humanity and being an international pariah. Even other Islamic terrorist groups are appalled at the harsh way ISIL treats civilians and anyone who opposes them. ISIL relishes the publicity their atrocities receive. But al Qaeda knows from bitter experience (in Iraq from 2006-2008) that the atrocities simply turn the Islamic world against you.

Without getting too chummy the U.S. and Iran have been trying to work out some rules for each other’s use of UAVs now operating over Iraq. Iranian UAVs have been seen flying over Iraq since late June, apparently with the approval of the Iraqi government (and quiet assent of the Americans, who already had jet fighters and UAVs over Iraq). Between the U.S. and Iran there are often fifty or more UAV sorties over Iraq on some days. While Iraq is a big place, the UAVs from each country will often be seeking pictures of the same area at the same time. There have been no UAV collisions and few sightings by each other’s UAVs. Apparently the two nations have quietly agreed to leave each others UAVs to go about their business of supporting the Iraqi government in its fight against advancing ISIL Islamic terrorists. There has apparently been unofficial sharing of information via the Iraqi military, who receive UAV images from the Americans and Iranians. The Iranian government continues to criticize the United States for not doing enough to fight ISIL. In the past Iran had condemned U.S. bombing missions against Sunni Islamic terrorists in Iraq, but now they want more of it. Iran would also like to see the Americans bomb ISIL in Syria and thus ease the ISIL pressure on pro-Iranian Syrian dictator Basher Assad. Sunni rebels in Syria, most of them non-ISIL, have been fighting Assad since 2011 but all this year these rebels have been fighting ISIL as well. ISIL and the other rebels cannot agree on a lot of things and ISIL began trying to settle the issue by force in late 2013. The Iranians appear to believe that the U.S. air strikes and all the military aid (from Iran, the U.S. and other NATO nations) going to the Iraqi Kurds, plus a new government in Iraq, will be able to deal with ISIL in Iraq.  Iran has been very active in supporting the Shia Arab government in Iraq against ISIL, but not very public about it. This is because many of the things that ISIL is hated for (restrictions on women and on what people drink and do for entertainment) are the same things that have long been enforced in Iran. It is possible for Iran to condemn the ISIL tendency to slaughter lots of people just for being different (not Islamic or not Islamic enough) but they are reluctant to go into much detail, as least in the media. Iran would like ISIL to just go away, permanently and with great violence if necessary.

One of the least sympathetic victims of ISIL has been al Qaeda, which has lost much stature and support in the Islamic world because of ISIL achievements in the last year. Al Qaeda has condemned ISIL and recently called for a holy war (jihad) in India but nothing al Qaeda does changes the fact that the once mighty Islamic terrorist group has now been upstaged by an even more bloodthirsty and barbaric group.

The terrorist bombings still occur in Baghdad but now more of these attacks are by Shia terrorists against Sunnis. The Iraqi government is trying to get the Shia militias to back off on the retaliation attacks against Sunni Arabs, if only because a lot of Sunni tribes are still backing the government.

September 7, 2014: Kurdish troops backed by Shia soldiers, police and militia led the attack on ISIL held Haditha dam, 250 kilometers northwest of Baghdad. The operation is receiving air support from the United States. This comes in the form of missiles and smart bombs hitting any ISIL forces the Kurds encounter as they move to seize ISIL held villages and fortified positions around the dam.

September 5, 2014: The U.S. denied that it is coordinating anti-ISIL operations with Iran. But on the ground there is some, obviously unofficial and informal, communication and coordination. Iran also denies any formal cooperation.

September 4, 2014: In a town outside Kirkuk ISIL kidnapped 40 men, apparently to intimidate the locals into not opposing ISIL operations.

September 3, 2014: An American air strike outside Mosul killed two, or possibly three, senior members of the ISIL leadership.

September 2, 2014: In the north Kurdish and Shia troops liberated two more towns north of Amerli. This gives the government control of the main road going north from Baghdad to Mosul. If the road can be held it hurts ISIL mobility considerably.

September 1, 2014: There were about 1,500 terrorism related deaths in August, compared to 1,737 in July and over 2,400 in June. That 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. Over 10,000 Iraqis have died so far this year from terrorist related violence. For all that the deaths in Syria are still nearly three times what they are in Iraq. There are also a lot fewer refugees in Iraq (about 600,000) compared to Syria (more than six million).

August 31, 2014: In the north (170 kilometers from Baghdad) Kurdish and Shia troops broke a two month ISIL siege of Amerli, a town of 15,000 defended by the local Turkic (Turkmen) Shia militia. Amerli refused to surrender to the advancing ISIL in June and resisted ever since. Kept alive by air drops and ISIL unwillingness to make a major effort to take the town (not with more valuable targets to go after) the Turkmen survived long enough to be rescued.

August 27, 2014: American warplanes have begun recon missions over Syria, specifically eastern Syria where ISIL has moved some men and equipment from western Iraq to avoid American air strikes. The Americans are also apparently sharing intelligence with the Syrian government via the Iraqi government. The U.S. admits that it cannot defeat ISIL without going after targets in Syria. But this would be aiding the Assad dictatorship, which the Americans oppose. But because ISIL has recently beheaded two American captives, and put videos of this on the Internet, there is growing public pressure in the West to go after ISIL wherever they are. American air power experts admit that to do serious and permanent damage to ISIL a lot more air strikes will be required, along with hundreds more Western special operations troops on the ground to call in most of these strikes and advise Iraqi and Kurdish forces. So far there have been 84 American air strikes. These began on the 8th. That’s about four a day. It would take more like ten a day on a sustained basis and surges to over a hundred a day for major operations, to be decisive.

August 25, 2014: The Iraqi Kurds have halted ISIL advances to the north, but are complaining that promises of better weapons and ammunition have been slow in arriving

August 23, 2014: A roadside bomb went off in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil, wounding four people. In Kurdish controlled parts of Kirkuk three more bombs went off, killing 18 people. The bomb in Irbil was the first since ISIL showed up in northern Iraq in June and one of the few to ever go off in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. The Kurds blame the large number of Arab refugees they have allowed in and are calling on those Arabs to help find the Islamic terrorists in their midst. Meanwhile the Kurdish border guards have become stricter about who they let in. Young Arab men are having a much harder time gaining entry as a result. 

 

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