Iraq: Death From Above Makes A Comeback

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S eptember 25, 2014: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) controls (or contests control) of a third of Iraq (mostly in the west) and a third of neighboring Syria (mostly in the east). So far the air strikes have concentrated on ISIL headquarters (buildings taken over and now staffed by ISIL men), at least a dozen improvised oil refineries and concentrations of vehicles (especially armor and artillery). There are more aircraft and UAVs over Syria and Iraq seeking out new ISIL targets than there are bombers hitting targets. ISIL forces are dispersing now that they have to deal with a sustained air offensive.  This is not a major problem because ISIL forces are not as concerned with controlling large areas, if only because most of eastern Syria and western Iraq is desert and uninhabited. What ISIL is concentrating on is attacking Kurdish and government forces wherever it can. The Kurdish and Iraqi forces are largely tied down keeping ISIL raiders out of more densely populated areas the government and Kurds control. Thus there are clashes with these ISIL raiders every day, especially around Kirkuk, Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province, which is most of western Iraq) and Baghdad. The raiders often just set up mortars several kilometers from a target, fire a few shells and then quickly move before they can be found and attacked. The U.S. carries out daily strikes against any ISIL forces that are spotted out in the open. This has forced ISIL to be a little more careful about how it moves around and reduced ISIL mobility considerably. While ISIL knows a lot about avoiding smart bombs and missiles they also know that if they are to control their new “Islamic State” (eastern Syria and western Iraq) they have to use bases and concentrate gunmen to deal with armed opposition. There is no tactic that will make ISIL immune to smart bombs under those conditions, not if they still want to control territory in their new “Islamic State.”

What the international coalition must do is establish a system where air support can quickly be provided for all anti-ISIL forces on the ground. This is difficult because having trained troops (air controllers) on the ground is the preferred method. But there are hundreds of specific locations anti-ISIL forces are guarding or based in and all are potential targets. This is not a new problem, but how it is handled in Iraq and Syria will determine how quickly ISIL can be reduced from major threat to dangerous nuisance status. The United States has declared that it will seek to destroy ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) without putting any troops on the ground in Iraq or Syria. That means no American regular troops will be sent in for offensive combat. That does not apply to Special Forces advisors and ground controller teams. Some Americans will be there to help with security around the massive U.S. embassy compound, and perhaps other American facilities as well. There will also be a lot of security contractors. While these are civilians, many are veterans of the U.S. Army, Marines, Special Forces and so on. Given their civilian status, there may be a temptation to use the contractors if a lot of offensive muscle is needed. By the end of the year there will be at least 5,000 American military personnel in Iraq and even more contractors. That number is expected to grow in 2015 is needed.

ISIL has had to establish government services in Mosul which is a large city that would rapidly fall apart (and lose much of its population) without a functioning government. ISIL has established a police force, mainly by selecting ISIL gunmen with some knowledge of Mosul (or Iraq) and putting them in charge of security and punishing anyone acting in an “un-Islamic manner.” This includes drinking alcohol, smoking in public, not dressing properly (especially women) and a growing list of new restrictions. The worst offenders can be executed on the spot. There is also a judicial system with courts run by conservative clerics.

Kurdish forces continue to advance on Mosul but admit the city itself, and its two million inhabitants, is too large for the available Kurdish forces to handle. Most Kurdish troops are tied down defending Kurdish borders and the recently (August) acquired city of Kirkuk and surrounding oil fields. The Kurds had been fighting ISIL in Kirkuk since June and the American air strikes that began in August were a big help to the Kurds fighting in Kirkuk. But now Kirkuk (population 400,000) has to be defended against ISIL counterattacks and that requires a lot of manpower.

Iraqi government forces have another problem in that, unlike the Kurds (who are generally competent and reliable) Iraq still has a lot of inept (but politically well connected) officers commanding a lot of demoralized (because of the corruption and bad officers) soldiers. Foreign advisors are trying to sort this out, but Iraqi leaders are still not willing to expel all the “political officers” just because these guys are incompetent on the battlefield.

Israel was not asked to join the international coalition against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). This was because the ten Arab members of this twenty country coalition are still trapped by decades of their own “Israel must be destroyed” propaganda and rhetoric. Many Arabs now regret this rigorous anti-Israel policy but it has become a part of Arab culture and very difficult to change or even discuss openly. So despite the fact that ISIL sees the overthrow of the Shia Syrian dictator as only the first of many conquests that include Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Saudi Arabia and, eventually Turkey and Israel, the Arab states must play down the fact that they and ISIL agree on one thing; that Israel must be destroyed. Meanwhile since the fall of Mosul in June ISIL has appeared to be unstoppable and all the Moslems nations on the ISIL target list realized that ISIL was a threat to everyone. The Saudis called on the West to do more because ISIL will eventually turn its attention to making terror attacks in the West. The Saudis do not mention that they are higher on the ISIL hit list than the West, Israel or Turkey and that the most effective force against Islamic terrorism in the region (Israel) is not being called on to help against ISIL. Israel does not complain, since ISIL is not as much of an effective threat to Israel as it is to Moslem states in the region.

Iran continues to be an unofficial member of the anti-ISIL coalition. 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 (and Saudi Arabia). 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. Iranian aid can make a big difference, even if the Iranians don’t send in troops to fight. Iranian trainers, military advice and cash are another matter. This sort of thing worked wonders in Syria. Performing similar magic in Iraq means shoving corrupt Iraqi officials and officers out of the way and taking care of Iraqi troops with Iranian cash and training these troops using experienced (in that sort of thing) Iranians. This is insulting to many Iraqis, especially senior politicians. But at the moment it may be preferable to being murdered by ISIL gunmen.

September 24, 2014: ISIL gunmen are attacking the army units defending Ramadi. At an army base 10 kilometers south of Ramadi contained 200 troops who were well enough led to resist ISIL attacks but the place is now surrounded and without resupply or reinforcements soon, will eventually fall. ISIL has surrounded the base with landmines and roadside bombs. Unless a major effort is made against ISIL forces in the area, Ramadi will fall.

Sources inside Turkey claim that the Turkish government secretly agreed to release fifty ISIL men held prisoner by secular Syrian rebels in return for the freedom of 46 Turkish diplomats and family members captured when ISIL took Mosul in early June. The Turkish government denies that any such deal was made. It is claimed that the Turks made promises to the Syrian rebels in order to get the Turkish captives released. Turkey so far refuses to provide a lot of support for the campaign against ISIL and is accused of secretly allowing support for ISIL from Turks to continue.

Some 90 kilometers north of Baghdad ISIL ambushed a convoy of Shia militiamen, killing 19 and wounding 39 mostly with machine-gun fire.

September 23, 2014: Overnight the U.S. and Arab nations began large scale (over 200 bombs on nearly 30 targets) air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria. Most of the attacks were carried out by American aircraft, as well as 47 cruise missiles fired from U.S. ships. Some warplanes and other support was provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, UAE (United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. It was estimated that 120 Islamic terrorists were killed. Some 70 of the dead were ISIL while the other fifty belonged to a faction of al Nusra that was planning attacks on the United States. Phone calls to Syrians living near the targets indicated that there was little damage to nearby structures or injuries to civilians. But the Islamic terrorists were keeping locals away from the buildings hit while the wreckage was searched. Meanwhile the U.S. has carried out nearly 200 attacks against ISIL targets in Iraq since August 7th. The U.S. also announced that over fifty countries had agreed to join a coalition to destroy ISIL. Most of these nations would not be contributing military forces but would assist in intelligence and police operations against ISIL. Some countries will provide support for coalition military forces and this is what many Arab states are doing. Western intelligence agencies now believe that there are at least 3,000 Moslems from the West fighting for ISIL. The Saudis reluctantly admit that Saudi citizens comprise the largest national faction of ISIL, including many senior positions. Most ISIL members are Iraqi or Syrian Sunnis.

In the north (Kirkuk) ISIL carried out ten bombings at the homes of Kurdish security force leaders. There were no casualties, largely because of Kurdish security measures.

September 21, 2014: An army base 50 kilometers west of Baghdad (Saqlawiya) was overrun by ISIL troops, who killed or captured over 500 soldiers.

September 20, 2014: ISIL released 46 Turkish diplomats and family members captured when ISIL took Mosul in early June.

The American air attacks continue. There have been over 150 American air attacks since they began on August 8th and they 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 included help from local Sunni tribal militiamen who had 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.

September 19, 2014: French warplanes have begun making attacks on ISIL targets in Iraq. Two Rafale fighter-bombers are being used for now.

September 18, 2014:  In the west (Ramadi) an army base some ten kilometers south of the city was overrun by ISIL troops, who killed or captured over 200 soldiers.

September 17, 2014: T he United States released the findings of American military evaluation teams sent to Iraq to find out how much of the Iraqi Army was salvageable. It was discovered that only 52 percent of the 50 Iraqi combat brigades were worth training and supporting in the short run. The other 24 brigades had been rendered ineffective by Shia politics and officers who were too poorly trained, experienced or dedicated to hold these units together in heavy combat. The basic problem was bad officers, in particular officers more interested in politics and getting rich (via corrupt practices) than running an efficient army. This is not a new or unique problem in the Iraqi Army. Since 2011 the Shia politicians running the government chose politically reliable Shia officers over those who were merely competent at their jobs. That led to the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of a mid-2014 ISIL offensive. That should not have happened, but it did and will again unless the Iraqis put more emphasis on competence than political loyalty when selecting military officers.

September 16, 2014: A group of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) members declared that they had formed a new faction and pledged allegiance to ISIL. This sort of thing is happening all over the Islamic world as the more fanatic Islamic terrorists seek to identify with what appears to be the most successful Islamic terrorist group at the moment. ISIL recently declared the establishment of a caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq and that was a big deal with many young Moslem men. This triggered a massive counterattack by Moslem and Western nations. That will eventually make ISIL a rather less attractive role model  and the hard core Islamic terrorists worldwide will find another way to brand themselves as the worst of the worst in their neighborhood.

September 15, 2014: An international conference is being held in France to organize a multi-national coalition to oppose ISIL. Russia has offered to join the international coalition against ISIL. This comes after Russian condemned (as illegal) the initial American bombing efforts against ISIL in Iraq. Russia has since been directly threatened by ISIL and apparently believes there is a real threat.

September 13, 2014: ISIL broadcast a video of the recent murder (by beheading) of a British aid worker they had taken prisoner last year. This enraged the English speaking world and strengthened the effort to form an international military coalition to attack ISIL.

The Iraqi prime minister ordered his air force and army artillery to halt attacks on targets in populated areas. This was an effort to limit civilian casualties. There was also a political reason. Sunni leaders demanded such a ban before they would join the effort to fight ISIL. Many Iraqi Sunnis are afraid of ISIL and while many Iraqi Sunnis belong to ISIL, that is still a small minority. Most Iraqi Sunnis either go along with ISIL or try to remain neutral. Iraqi Sunnis fear that the growing use of air attacks will get a lot of innocent Sunnis killed, especially since ISIL has no problems using any available civilians as human shields (against air or ground attack.)

September 12, 2014: U.S. warplanes will soon be operating from the Abril air base in northern Iraq. Abril is the capital of Kurdish northern Iraq.

September 9, 2014: Something is up as Iraqis report they have spotted, and sometimes captured video of, American recon jets (F-15Es, known to be based in Qatar) and UAVs (also based in the Persian Gulf) flying over or towards ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. This turned out to be part of a week’s long effort to find and then confirm the location of targets for the bombing and cruise missile attacks that began on the 22nd. F-15Es have the range and capacity to haul a surveillance pod (in addition to their normal powerful surveillance and targeting sensors) to quickly gather lots of details on potential targets. Then there were the photos showing up online of American MQ-9 UAVs carrying the latest version of the Gorgon Stare surveillance system. This is a device that is designed to gather lots of data over a wide area. And on a long endurance UAV like the MQ-9 Gorgon Stare is a formidable intelligence tool.

September 8, 2014: The Iraqi parliament finally approved a new government. 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.

 

 

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