After nearly a year of stalemate near the oil refinery at Baiji (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul 200 kilometers north of Baghdad) has been broken as government forces made major progress in October. Security forces have managed to push ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) away from most of the refinery. For over a year ISIL attacks were constant and deadly. They generally involved suicide car bombs and equally determined gunmen. In the last few months the security forces developed better ways to deal with these attacks to the point where they could call in air strikes on ISIL men preparing for another attack and stop it before the Islamic terrorists were able to even make their move. This was made possible by the growing capabilities of the Iraqi Air Force, which at Baiji has been accounting for some 90 percent of the dozen or so air strikes a day. The Iraqi ground controllers have gotten lots of experience and become quite effective at quickly calling in air strikes. This apparently made it too expensive for ISIL. For nearly a year ISIL was willing to suffer as many as several hundreds of casualties a week to hold onto parts of the refinery and the surrounding town. But since September ISIL has been sending in fewer replacements and this has enabled government forces to regain control of most of the refinery and the surrounding town. ISIL has been fighting here since mid-2014 and this is the first time they have been unable to make an effective effort to regain lost ground. In the past they pushed back many times and kept returning with more suicide bombers and mobs of suicidal gunmen anytime the army gained some ground. At this point unless ISIL can muster a lot of reinforcements and do it quickly the security forces will be able to push the Islamic terrorists far enough away to restart refinery operations before the end of the year. The Beiji refinery can process 320,000 barrels of oil a day and that represents more than a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. It was always the case that until ISIL is cleared out of Baiji a major advance on Mosul was not practical. But with ISIL being forced out the government has revived its plan to taking back Mosul and reinforcements are being moved up to get that attack under way.
The nearly two million civilians in and around Mosul are largely in favor of liberation, the sooner the better. The ISIL occupation force is becoming more brutal and paranoid this year. Earlier in the month 25 civilians were publicly executed outside the city after being accused of spying for the government. A lot more civilians are arrested and never heard from again. Even many ISIL men are not happy to be in Mosul where the hostile population and the growing threat of being cut off by advancing Iraqi and Kurds forces makes it clear that the future is not promising.
Meanwhile security forces have been making progress in retaking Ramadi. In the last month more American and Iraqi troops have been sent to Anbar. The Americans are there to train and advise Iraqi soldiers, police and pro-government tribal militias. Most of the several thousand U.S. troops were at al Asad airbase (in eastern Anbar) but more are being sent west, closer to ISIL occupied Ramadi and the main ISIL forces. Iraqis handle security for these bases but American troops take part in the fighting when needed. More American troops are being seen out in the countryside with Iraqi troops. There are about 5,000 ISIL gunmen in Anbar and that number appears to be declining. Several recent ISIL defeats in Syria and ISIL have been bad for morale and suddenly ISIL seems to have fewer people to send out to fight. Many ISIL local hires have deserted and taken with them useful information on where ISIL stores its weapons and other important stuff. More of these sites are being bombed even though they are, from the air, just another building with nothing special going on around it. The locally recruited tribesmen (especially those on the ISIL payroll) were also unhappy with the ISIL policy of kidnapping tribal elders and killing them or holding them for ransom (money or cooperation from tribal chiefs for whatever ISIL wanted). A lot of the local tribesmen working for ISIL are related to some of the elders kidnapped or murdered by ISIL and that bad treatment is not appreciated. ISIL needs some victories in Anbar but is having a hard time making that happen. At the moment the ISIL forces defending Ramadi are not showing their usual aggressiveness and resolve. Thus soldiers have been able to slowly advance, removing roadside bombs and mines as they do. American and Iraqi officials have been insisting that Ramadi will be retaken by the end of the year. Such claims are often based on intel that is not available to the public. For a long time it was believed this was just wishful thinking but now the Iraqis are closing in and ISIL is not responding. In the last few days Jordan has doubled its troop strength on its Iraqi border, which is near Ramadi and what Jordan expects will soon be a major battle with ISIL.
So far the American led air coalition has carried out nearly 7,700 air strikes (64 percent in Iraq and the rest in Syria). The growing number of Iraqi and Russian air strikes to not follow the restrictive American ROE (Rules of Engagement) and have been more effective. There are accusations from within the American intelligence community that political leaders are hiding the truth about how the restrictive ROE are crippling the air offensive against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Another reason for the greater success of Iraqi and Russian air strikes is that they have air controllers on the ground to make sure the right target is hit. The American political leadership forbids putting American air controllers on the ground despite the fact that American military commanders believe that the chances of these U.S. troops getting killed or captured is an acceptable risk because it would mean more effective air strikes. Currently the American ROE is obsessed with avoiding any civilian losses from air strikes and ISIL exploits this by regularly using human shields. The locals, including the Iraq government, realize this is counterproductive because the longer ISIL remains operational the more death and misery they bring to the millions of civilians they control.
The need to deal with ISIL plus the falling price of oil has produced a growing problem with the Iraqi government budget. The additional expenses to fight ISIL plus the lower price of oil has meant more deficits Because Iraq has a lousy credit history there are not a lot of lenders available and the government has been forces to cut the budget. Thus the 2016 budget of $95 billion is nearly ten percent lower than the 2015 one and still 12 percent of the money must be borrowed. This is more troublesome because some 70 percent of the budget goes to pay salaries of government employees, many of them unneeded. But these additional civil servants are how the implacably corrupt government survives. Hire enough people in an economy crippled by massive corruption and you have some control over the victims of the corruption. This has long been a common practice in the region and became easier to implement with the arrival of the oil business nearly a century ago. One of the things that attracts young men to ISIL is the promise to eliminate the corruption. Of course Moslem radicals have been making that promise for centuries and getting away with it but that’s another matter.
The War Against Iran
The low oil price is Saudi Arabia’s way (along with some other local Sunni oil states) to put the hurt on Iran. One reason for seeking nuclear weapons is to give Iran the ability to persuade the Saudis to ship less oil and let the price go up. After that there will be the demand to let Iran run the Moslem holy places in Mecca and Medina. The Saudis are not willing to make deals and remain firm on their oil policy. Iraq, being a largely (80 percent) Arab country that is majority (60 percent) Shia is caught in the middle. The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised) but also don’t want to be dominated by their Sunni Arab neighbors and especially not by their own Sunni Arab minority (which created ISIL and has been a major supporter of Islamic terrorism since 2003). The Shia dominated Iraq government also has problems with its Kurds, who are Sunni but not Arab. The government has been trying to get the Kurds to obey the Arab majority and since 2014 has been using Arab control over most oil income for that. The Kurds have not been sent their share of oil income in the last year and as a result the Kurds have not been able to pay their own excessive force of government employees. Many have not been paid in three months and are demonstrating more frequently and violently. Kurdish participation in the fight for Mosul is expected to involve some financial relief from the Iraqi government. This strained relationship between the Arab Iraqi government and the non-Arab Kurds shows you the kind of problems any ruler in the region has, especially if the ruler is corrupt and inefficient.
The government has backed away from recent anti-American (and pro-Russian) statements. This came after the United States threatened to withdraw military aid and let the Iraqis depend on Russia and Iran instead. While Iraq receives weapons from Iran and Russia, these do not match the higher quality (and more effective) stuff the Americans can provide. Moreover, if the Americans leave so does major protection against problems with Sunni Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The government is also wary of the Shia militias Iran has helped organize, train and advise. Some of these militias are loyal to Iraqi Shia clerics who want Iraq to be ruled by a religious dictatorship, as Iran is. Most Iraqi Shia do not want that and the government makes sure these Shia militias get paid on time and are well supplied. These militiamen are not the best troops Iraq has but their fanaticism and enthusiasm makes them more effective than the average Iraqi soldier. Meanwhile these militiamen have sometimes turned on anti-Iran Iraqi demonstrators, beating up the otherwise peaceful Iraqi civilians. This just increases the tensions and is a major reason why Iran is less of a threat to Iraq than most foreigners (especially in the West) fear.
The Russian intervention in Syria initially led Iraq to openly accuse the United States of being ineffective and unwilling to do what it takes to defeat ISIL. Iraqi leaders pointed out that over a year ago the U.S. and its Arab allies promised sufficient air support and other military assistance to defeat ISIL. That has not worked. Iraq believes the United States lacks the will to get the job done while Iran and Russia do have what it takes. Iraq also announced that it had established an intelligence sharing arrangement with Iran, Syria and Russia and invited the United States to join. The U.S. declined and Iraq had to back away from the deal unless they wanted to be cut off from American intel. The bigger issuers here is that Iraq disagrees with the American ROE which puts more emphasis on protecting civilians than in destroying the enemy. ISIL uses lots of human shields to protect its men and facilities from air attack. Russia and Arab air forces will bomb a target even if there are human shields present. Another unspoken issue here is the high level of corruption in Iraq. The Russians, Iranians and other Arab states tolerate that while the West, and especially the Americans, do not. The Western experience is that, in the long term killing your own people and tolerating corruption does a nation more harm than good. Thus it is a cultural thing, with the leaders of Iraq, Iran, Russia and most other Arab states more concerned with the short term and thus more tolerant of what the West sees as self-destructive behavior. Soon Iraq realized that the Russians were in Syria mainly to keep the Assads in power and were doing little or nothing to hurt the Assads.
Turkey Has A Problem
Meanwhile Turkey continues to battle rebellious PKK Kurds in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. The Kurdish government in northern Iraqi tolerates the Turkish air raids on PKK camps in remote areas and publicly denounces the PKK (although many Iraqi Kurds support the PKK goal of a Kurdish state formed from Kurdish populated parts of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria). The PKK went to war with the Turks again in July and so far the Turks have arrested over 1,300 PKK members so far although most were later released. The Turkish army and air force have killed over 1,600 PKK members since July and lost nearly 20o troops and police.
October 21, 2015: The Iraqi Kurds confirmed that they are ready to take part in an offensive to drive ISIL out of Mosul. The Kurds made it clear that they would concentrate on Mosul and not go after pro-ISIL Sunni tribes around Kirkuk, which is what the Iraqi government feared. The Kurds control Kirkuk and have made it clear they plan to keep it. The Kurds have also made it clear that they consider Mosul Arab, not Kurdish like Kirkuk and have no plans to stick around after their forces have helped drive ISIL out.
October 12, 2015: The government revealed that military and police reinforcements had been sent to Ramadi in Anbar in preparation for a major effort to drive ISIL out of the city.
October 11, 2015: The government announced that its air force has attacked a convoy in Anbar (western Iraq) that was carrying ISIL leaders, including supreme leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to a meeting near the Syrian border. At first Iraqi officials believed the airstrike had killed Baghdadi but later had to admit that while they did kill nine lesser ISIL leaders and many security personnel Baghdadi survived badly injured and was driven away for treatment. It is still unclear how badly hurt Baghdadi was.