While the army has been victorious in Tikrit and around Baghdad, and still has tight control over the largely Shia areas south of Baghdad, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is not discouraged and has concentrated its forces in Anbar (western Iraq) where some tribes still support ISIL and reinforcements and supplies from ISIL in eastern Syria are readily available. Thus for most of April ISIL has been on the offensive in Anbar. These attacks had not had a lot of success, but they have demonstrated the continuing weakness of the Iraqi Army. It’s estimated that there are fewer than 100,000 troops available in the Iraqi ground forces. The official number 125,000 but corruption is still at work and about 20 percent of those soldiers do not exist (so officers can or officials take their pay).
Western and Arab trainers and advisers are retraining many of these troops, which further reduces the number available for combat. These advisers are also trying to get the government to crack down more on the corruption. That is difficult because corruption is still common throughout the government and Iraq as a whole. Even ISIL has to deal with it and despite the ISIL approach (prompt execution of those found to be corrupt) this bad and corrosive behavior persists, as it has for thousands of years.
The one big advantage the government has is the brutal and destructive behavior of ISIL as they try to govern in the parts of Iraq and Syria they still control. That maladministration (and the starvation and poverty it produces) is turning more and more people against ISIL and willing to fight to be free of these Islamic terrorists. That process takes time and the Iraqi government believes time is on their side. That may be true, but it will mean a lot of bad press for the government until ISIL does eventually crumble into dust. Meanwhile Iraqi commanders make the most of the coalition air power and the growing number of better trained Iraqi troops and pro-government tribal militias. This is not “smart” warfare but more of a grind where you keep at it until victory is achieved. You find out who your good soldiers are by noting who dropped their weapon and fled when things got tough and trying not to let them enlist again. Many Iraqi soldiers joined because it’s a job, not because they want to risk their lives for anything.
ISIL still controls about two-thirds of Anbar but the area is mostly desert and thinly populated. ISIL has been trying to control the cities (especially Fallujah and the provincial capital Ramadi) but has had limited success. ISIL can easily conquer sand, but has a much more difficult time when there are people with guns present who know what ISIL is all about. The government understands this and tries to make deals with all the tribes that dominate Anbar politics. That is a difficult and time-consuming process that involves a lot of talking, bribes and keeping some promises. Meanwhile ISIL continues to use suicide bombers to demoralize and terrorize. More of these bombs are going off at Jordanian border crossings and in attempts to kill senior political and military leaders. ISIL is frustrated because it can no longer take and hold territory. So far in 2015 the government has managed to put together sufficient reliable forces to quickly (or at least eventually) push ISIL back. Thus ISIL advances in Anbar or around Mosul are almost all lost within days or weeks. This is a big concern for ISIL because in 2014 they had terrified Iraqis to the point where you could take a place by just having a pickup truck full of armed teenagers flying an ISIL flag show up. That no longer works and it is a major loss. So far this year government forces has regained a quarter of the territory ISIL held at the end of 2014 and ISIL has not been able to take this lost territory back.
Another less reported trend is that a lot of the violence described as terrorism is really criminals using Islamic terrorism as an excuse to operate their usual scams. Extortion and kidnapping for ransom is the most common example. While many Islamic terrorists will finance themselves this way, a lot of the money goes to gangsters, not religious zealots. This applies to Sunnis as well as Shia. Thus a lot of the attacks on Sunnis living in and around Baghdad are not revenge by Shia militias but gangsters making money under the guise of sectarian revenge for ISIL violence.
ISIL’s use of media to publicize its savagery has brought lots of suicidal and demented recruits to Syria and Iraq and like-minded Moslems in the rest of the world have declared themselves ISIL franchises. That has resulted in an international opposition to ISIL and that backlash even included a growing number of Moslem pundits and leaders calling for some fundamental changes in Islamic thinking to eliminate these periodic outbreaks of Islamic terrorism. The opinion surveys taken over the past few decades have shown that a substantial minority of Moslems approve of Islamic terrorism on religious grounds and this provides the motivation, manpower and popular support for groups like ISIL. It has been that way for over a thousand years. At the moment the ISIL media strategy is the only thing keeping it going. Gains on the ground are rare and losses are far more common. In situations like this even the impressionable young men eventually catch on, but here you have a lot of adults (especially radical clerics) discouraging anti-ISIL attitudes. Nevertheless the quality of ISIL recruits is declining and desertions are on the rise, despite savage measures to capture and execute those who try to leave.
Although the American led coalition has been attacking ISIL from the air in Iraq and Syria since 2014, the pattern of attacks are different in each country. As of early April there have been nearly 1,900 attacks in Iraq, of which 68 percent were American. In Syria there have been nearly 1,400 attacks of which 86 percent have been American. Because of the more complicated political situation in Syria fewer NATO and Arab nations are willing to make attacks in Syria. The problem there is many more factions and no coalition members have agreed to attack the government (Assad) forces yet. Worse ISIL is but one faction of the rebels and ISIL is the main target. While ISIL is the largest rebel faction, some of the other rebel factions are allied with ISIL. Moreover there are far fewer ground controllers in Syria thus making it easier to bomb someone you don’t want to hit. In the meantime the coalition has become more active in both countries. So far this year there have been 25 percent more air attacks a month than in 2014.
This air campaign began on August 8 2014 when the U.S. began aircraft began attacking ISLI in Iraq. Between then and the end of the year over 14,000 sorties were flown, mostly by American aircraft but also by those from NATO and nearby Arab countries as well as Australia.
Only ten percent of those sorties result in an aircraft using a smart bomb or missile. About two thirds of the air operations are against ISIL in Iraq. Half of the air strikes in Syria have been carried out by American warplanes. The rest have been flown by NATO and Arab countries. Most of the air activity has been in Iraq because these operations began in Iraq began in early August while those in Syria did not begin until late on September 22nd. Moreover most NATO nations prefer to restrict their operations to Iraq, so initially only the U.S. and five Arab nations were bombing in Syria.
Since August 2014 this coalition has hit over 5,800 ISIL targets, most of them in Iraq. Moreover many of the Iraq targets were hit with the help of American, Kurdish or Iraqi controllers on the ground. Thus the air attacks in Iraq are much more damaging to ISIL. Moreover more than half the air attacks have been in Iraq and this air support is a major reason why ISIL has lost about a quarter of the Iraqi territory it held in late 2014. Many, if not most, of the coalition air attacks in Syria have been against ISIL administrative, economic and logistical targets in eastern Syria, which ISIL is trying to run as an “Islamic State.” That is not working out so well with growing rebellion among the local tribes and similar problems with foreign volunteers who become disillusioned and try to leave (although a few have joined the local anti-ISIL rebels).
Officials of the Kurdish government in the north revealed that Kurdish forces now control 90 percent of the territory in Kirkuk province that have been in dispute and are now fighting to regain the rest from ISIL control and then keep pushing the Islamic terrorist forces back. The Kurds took control of Kirkuk in June 2014 after ISIL took Mosul and successfully defended Kirkuk against several major ISIL assaults. Meanwhile there was supposed to be a referendum in Kirkuk in 2007 to decide if it should become part of the Kurdish autonomous areas or remain “Arab”. Kirkuk is about 83 kilometers south of the current Kurdish capital Erbil and nearly 300 kilometers north of Baghdad. The Arab controlled national government kept delaying the referendum in Kirkuk because they thought they would lose. That’s because for over a decade Saddam Hussein had deliberately driven Kurds from Kirkuk and brought in poor Sunnis from the south the take the place (and homes) of the departed Kurds. After 2003 the displaced Kurds returned and there has been violence between Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk ever since. Many of these recent Arab migrants left and Kirkuk is believed to be a majority Kurd city again. Most of the non-Kurds in Kirkuk would rather be ruled by the more efficient and less corrupt Kurdish government of the north than the Arab dominated national government. The Shia Arab government in Baghdad is not happy with the fact that it does not control the Kurdish north but despite the ISIL threat still stalls in giving the Kurds their share of oil revenue and foreign military aid. This has led more Western nations to send Kurds weapons directly (despite protests from the Iraqi Arabs) and are more sympathetic to allowing the Kurds to freely pump, ship and sell the oil on their territory (which, technically, the national government in Baghdad controls). In the past the Baghdad bureaucrats have used that legal status to block Kurdish attempts to sell their oil. Now more Western countries are willing to ignore the protests from Baghdad and do business with the Kurds in the north.
April 28, 2015: Kurdish police in the north announced they had tracked down and arrested five of the six men involved with the bombing outside the U.S. consulate in the Kurdish capital on the 17th. Such attacks are rare in the Kurdish north, but there always have been a few fans of Islamic terrorism among the Kurds and with all the Arab refugees the Kurds have taken in, there are a few more Arabs to worry about. One of the six men identified is an Arab living in Kurdish controlled Kirkuk.
April 27, 2015: In Mosul ISIL arrested and executed ten of 25 oil smugglers because of a dispute over how much the smugglers should be paid to smuggle and sell the oil. Doing business with ISIL can be dangerous and this incident was another reminder.
April 22, 2015: Over 50,000 civilians returned to Ramadi after the army and tribal militias drove out ISIL fighters who had suddenly attacked. Locals were disappointed that most of the 5,000 policemen in the city fled on the 17th rather than fight ISIL. When the police fled so did nearly 100,000 civilians, many of whom began leaving two weeks ago as ISIL increased their attacks in the suburbs.
April 20, 2015: Iraqi leaders have paid back Iran a bit by openly criticizing the Arab coalition waging an air campaign against Shia rebels in Yemen. Iran is getting little support in the region for its backing the Yemen rebels and the Arab states supplying aid for Iraq were not pleased with this Iraqi criticism. The Americans were not amused either.
April 19, 2015: In the north (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul) ISIL forces were again expelled from the oil refinery at Baiji. ISIL had spent two weeks trying to capture the refinery and eventually failed, with heavy losses but not before occupying parts of the refinery compound. In late November 2014 ISIL forces were driven away from the refinery which they had besieged for over a month. Since then ISIL has continued to stage attacks, all of which have been repulsed. The Beiji refinery can process 320,000 barrels of oil a day and that represents more than a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. Clearing ISIL out of this area also isolated the ISIL held town of Tikrit, which is due north of Baghdad and is full of Sunni Arabs and Saddam admirers who have had enough ISIL. The Iraqi Army recently recaptured Tikrit.
April 16, 2015: Fighting continues in Tikrit as government forces continue destroying or pushing back ISIL forces north of the city. Some of the 30,000 soldiers and militia men involved in the Tikrit operation have been sent to Anbar, where ISIL is trying to get an offensive going. This Anbar offensive got underway on the 13th.