In addition to bringing back American air power, intelligence operations and Special Forces advisors, Iraq has also asked for, and gotten, the return of American troops who specialized in detecting and dealing with roadside bombs and explosive devices of all sorts (especially mines and booby traps). These weapons have remained popular with the Islamic terrorists and in October killed over 800 Iraqi civilian and security personnel. Iraqis are finding that when ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) retreats they often leave some (occasionally a lot) of bombs planted in buildings and mines in dirt paths and roads. After U.S. forces left in 2011 Iraqi forces had the ability to deal with this sort of thing. But these weapons (except for landmine, often very old ones) had largely disappeared and the corruption and mismanagement in the Iraqi security forces allowed their ability to deal with these IEDs (improvised explosive devices) wither and largely disappear within a few years. So now the Iraqi government wants the Americans to come in and fix this as well. That can happen, but so can another decline in Iraqi abilities to deal with this once the Americans eventually leave again.
Iraq tried to make do with commercial demining firms, but these companies prefer to just deal with landmines, and not with roadside bombs or all the booby-traps ISIL might leave behind. The main reason ISIL was able to suddenly use so many of these bombs was that many of the Sunni bomb builders from 2004-7 are still around. Then, and now, building and planting these bombs was a business and ISIL has a lot of cash and can afford to lure skilled Sunni bomb builders back. At the moment business is very good.
When ISIL suddenly became a major threat last June, by capturing Mosul and much of northwestern Iraq, the Shia dominated government did what they always said they would not do and allowed the Shia militias to reform, or at least be public about the fact that many never completely disbanded. Some of these Shia militia have since been accused of going back to their use of death squads against Sunni civilians. There has been some of that, but not as much as in 2006-8. That round of sectarian murders was only ended by the forcible disbanding of the Shia militias. This time around the government is so eager to mobilize over 100,000 Shia militiamen that these men are being put on the government payroll (for about $500 a month). Over 10,000 members of the Salam Army (formerly the Mahdi Army) refused to take the pay (but took the weapons and equipment) insisting it was their religious duty to fight. Unlike 2008, there are now several new Shia militias, but the basic idea is the same; to defend Shia from Sunni Islamic terrorist attacks. While some of the militiamen have recent military experience, what makes the militias superior to the Iraqi Army and police is that these Shia gunmen are as fanatic as ISIL and better led than most army and police units. What the government is hoping for is another collapse of the Sunni Islamic terrorist organizations. The last time that happened, in 2007, there followed a sharp drop in violence (about 70 percent nationwide versus 2006). This was widely accepted as proof that the Sunni Arab terrorist organizations had collapsed in defeat. The main reason for that was that most of the Sunni Arab tribes had turned against the terrorists, and al Qaeda, which was responsible for most of the suicide bomb attacks. Most al Qaeda leaders were dead, captured or spending most of their time trying to avoid that fate. The system of safe houses and skilled technicians (bomb makers, trainers, supervisors) had been disrupted or destroyed. At the same time some U.S. commanders wanted to declare al Qaeda defeated in Iraq Osama Bin Laden came out with another audio recording calling for Iraqis to rally behind al Qaeda and restore the terrorist organization. This time around the government is trying to impose more discipline on and control over the militias. There is also talk about letting the militias be permanent, if they behave.
Most Iraqi Sunni Arabs have turned against ISIL. A year ago the attitude was different and ISIL was seen as a way to restore Sunni Arab rule in Iraq. But ISIL proved to want more than that, and more than Iraqi Sunnis were willing to pay. The strict lifestyle rules were always unpopular in Iraq, among all groups. ISIL also made itself unpopular because they were even more ruthless against any opposition than Saddam Hussein. That was hard to do because Saddam was notorious for his cruel and murderous methods of enforcing his orders. ISIL not only uses torture and cruel punishments, but it also quick to commit mass murder, executing hundreds of civilians or captured soldiers at one time. Some of these killings have been videoed and distributed. Others, especially against Sunni Arabs, have not been given as much publicity. This use of terror works in the short term, but it creates long-term opposition and more determination and discipline among the government and Kurdish forces, including all the government supported militias. The results have been impressive, with Iraqi forces recapturing towns and villages near Baghdad while up north the Kurds keep taking back territory near Mosul. The Kurds, because of their better reliability and long years working with American forces, get more air support and this has enabled the Kurds to advance against heavy ISIL resistance. The air strikes have been particularly useful in halting ISIL attempts to regain control of the Mosul Dam, which they briefly held in August. The Shia militias often operate in close cooperation with the army.
Meanwhile the Kurds in the north are encouraging more foreign aid, and getting it, despite objections from the Iraqi government that all such aid must go through them. That doesn’t work because aid (especially weapons and equipment) meant for the Kurds will often be held by the Iraqi government for months (or longer) in order to get the Kurds to comply with some political demand, or simply to obtain a larger bribe.
Air strikes against ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq are increasing. There have been nearly 700 so far (since August 8th), averaging over eight a day. Over 20 percent of them have been against targets in the Syrian town of Kobane. That means on some days there are none elsewhere because Kobane has been getting a lot, sometimes more than twenty a day, often involving French and British aircraft as well as American. As more Western warplanes arrive, more strike missions are being flown and more of them are against targets in Iraq. This is largely responsible for recent advances by Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq. In addition to air strikes there have been even more recon and surveillance missions flown, taking video, photos and monitoring wireless communications. This provides information on targets and on what ISIL is up to.
The Iraqi government and Kurds in Syria want even more air strikes but the United States is reluctant to do that because of increased risk of civilian casualties. The Iraqis and Syrians see it differently and believe that the sooner ISIL is defeated the fewer civilian casualties there will be in the long run. But Western politicians live in the short run knowing that they will take some major media damage for any increase in civilian casualties. The media doesn’t operate long term either so the enemies of ISIL are screwed in this department.
ISIL has reacted to more air strikes and increasingly effective Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces by reverting to more terror attacks, particularly against Iraqi security forces and especially in Baghdad where such attacks are most likely to be noticed. The idea is to demoralize as many Iraqi soldiers and police as possible. This is more difficult to do now that ISIL’s savage treatment of civilians in ISIL controlled areas becomes known. The government seeks to exploit that by establishing permanent local self-defense militias. There is some political opposition to this as there is some fear that this would lead to private armies run by local politicians and tribal leaders, or gangsters. This fear is encouraged by the growing presence of over a thousand Iranian advisors and training specialists. Many of these are from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them). It was Quds that helped form Hezbollah in the 1980s and build that Shia militia into a major force within Lebanon. Iraqis fear Quds will try and do the same thing in Iraq and even many Iraqi Shia don’t want that. At the moment Iraq needs all the help it can get and Quds officers and trainers have been very useful in directing the fight against ISIL and training Iraqi troops to better do that. But Quds comes in with an agenda, and an implied promise of freedom for Quds to do its own thing, which includes making Iraq a vassal state of Iran. This is not easy to do and despite a quarter century of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran still has limited influence there. That influence is being weakened as Lebanese see Hezbollah operations inside Syria (at the behest of Iran) causing morale problems within Hezbollah. Worse, more of the Syrian violence is spilling over into Lebanon. This is exactly what most Iraqi Shia have long feared would happen if Iran became too powerful inside Iraq.
Another bit of good news is that few Iraqi politicians believe air strikes alone will defeat ISIL and agree that the Iraqi ground forces have to be better trained and led to do the job. That is not easy, mainly because Iraqi troops have long been the most inept in the region. In short, there is little tradition of military professionalism in the country. The one exception is the Kurds up north, who have been under attack for decades and since the 1990s have eagerly absorbed American training efforts. Yet the Arab Iraqis do not want to depend on the Kurds to defeat ISIL and the Kurds don’t want to do it themselves either.
Responding to appeals from Iraq for more rapid delivery of military equipment Russia has, as of early November, delivered 12 of 28 Mi-35M armed transport helicopters and three of fifteen MI-28NA helicopter gunships. Some self-propelled rocket launchers were also sent early. Less urgently needed, but delivered early anyway, were some twin launchers for SA-16/18 anti-aircraft missiles (which were also delivered) and several of the Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft vehicles.
To the south, Kuwait supports the Iraqi struggle against ISIL by allowing Western forces to base themselves in Kuwait. Few Kuwaitis support ISIL and the government makes an effort to keep it that way and keep ISIL violence out of Kuwait. At the same time Kuwait will not get involved on the ground or in the air against ISIL. While Kuwait has had 35 American F-18 fighters since the 1990s, they have not offered to carry out any bombing missions. The Kuwaitis plead lack of ability although privately many Kuwaitis congratulate themselves on being able to get others (especially the West) to do the fighting for them.
November 1, 2014: There were about 1,300 Iraqi terrorism related deaths in October and about 65 percent of them were civilians. Data on terror related deaths since June have been missing some data from ISIL controlled areas, where the Islamic terrorists have barred journalists and free circulation of information in general. Thus actual death figures since June are probably 20-50 percent higher than reported and the real numbers may not be known for some time, if ever. For example it was recently revealed that back in June ISIL executed at least 600 prisoners in found in Mosul area jails. This action received no publicity from ISIL.
Without adjustments there were 1,200 deaths in September, 1,500 in August, 1,737 in July and over 2,400 in June. This is all 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). A 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. 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 13,000 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).
October 29, 2014: The first contingent (about 160 men) of Kurdish reinforcements from Iraq have arrived (via air to a Turkish airport near the border then buses into Syria) in Kobane. These are Peshmerga, from the trained Kurdish militia in northern Iraq. They join about two thousand Kurds and Syrian rebels defending the town against about twice as many ISIL fighters. More Peshmerga will fly in but many more (over a thousand) are moving by truck, with more weapons and equipment, via Turkish roads. The Turks are also allowing some supplies to cross the border into Kobane and the Americans continue to press the Turks to help some more, including sending some Turkish troops across the border.
October 27, 2014: Turkey agreed to allow Iraqi Kurds to move through Turkey and enter Syria to help with the defense of Kobane.
October 26, 2014: The U.S. revealed that Iraq had cancelled an agreement to buy 24 AH-64 helicopter gunships. Iraq felt it would take too long to get them and Russia had already started delivering Mi-28 and Mi-35 gunships ordered about the same time as the AH-64s. The U.S. also revealed that its aerial intelligence and interviews with Iraqi military officials confirmed that ISIL had captured about 2,500 military vehicles from Iraqi soldiers and police in June and July. This included hundreds of combat vehicles and heavy artillery. American air strikes have since destroyed or disabled most of the tanks and artillery.
October 23, 2014: In the west (Anbar province) a Sunni town that had resisted ISIL for months finally surrounded with a promise of no retaliation. But ISIL soon began slaughtering tribesmen and some women. Hundreds have been killed so far, as an example to other Sunni tribes thinking of resisting ISIL. The tribesmen that their calls for support from the government were ignored. There was no air support from Iraqi or American aircraft. Iraqi officials, at least the few who will talk about it, say there were too many requests for aid and not enough resources. Besides it was believed that the tribesmen had the local ISIL forces under control.