Iraq: A Bittersweet Victory


December 15, 2015: While the army continues to slowly gain ground in Anbar and move closer to Mosul the most decisive move against ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) this year was the decision in July to stop paying government employees in areas under ISIL control. This made it impossible for ISIL to get a viable economy going in areas they controlled. Unlike the Iraqi government, which has regular and considerable oil income to keep it, and much of the population, going ISIL has much less revenue per capita. Moreover the ISIL controlled territories are largely cut off from the rest of the world. Smugglers are making a lot of money sneaking things in but the blockade was sufficient to wreck the local economies. As a result more civilians tried to leave and ISIL responded by making that more difficult. ISIL could not afford to have most of the population of its new “caliphate” flee. So now ISIL areas, especially the large cities like Mosul and Ramadi are large prisons full of hungry and angry inmates. This creates a worsening security problem because more of these angry people are willing to spy on ISIL or even join the growing armed resistance. Thus the simple act of cutting off payroll for government workers in ISIL areas created a substantial military and intelligence advantage for Iraq. The additional information from desperate and trapped Iraqis makes aerial bombing more accurate, especially efforts to kill ISIL leaders. The armed resistance in places like Mosul and Anbar creates even more savage ISIL reprisals (beheadings and other nasty punishments) that creates more resistance. ISIL keeps the resentment building by continuing to enforce its rules which include no smoking, music or sports and growing restrictions on Internet use. Electricity shortages are getting worse and prices for everything are continually rising. Adding to the misery in Ramadi is ISIL destroying all the bridges around the city to slow down the advancing Iraqi soldiers.

Iraq needs to get its military improved because the only other effective force it can depend on are the autonomous Kurds in the north. While the Kurds are seen as the most effective rebel force in Iraq and Syria, they are internally divided and that factor is often ignored or underestimated in the West. While the autonomous Kurdish area of northern Iraq has a somewhat united armed force (the Peshmerga), many of the other Kurdish groups up there are divided by clan and politics. Thus the PKK (Turkish separatists) are difficult to work with, in part because the Turks are hostile to any Kurdish group that gets too cozy with the PKK. Same with the Syrian YPG, but to a lesser extent. Then there are the Yazidis, who Kurds largely regard as Kurds but ones who have developed very different religious and social customs. Most Moslems consider the Yazidis heretics or pagans.

In northern Iraq the autonomous Kurds want more autonomy but short of declaring themselves a separate state, which would enrage Turkey. Meanwhile the Kurdish north is turning into a dictatorship run by the Barzani family. The Iraqi Kurds had long been divided into warring clans with the two largest of them led by the Barzani and Talibani families. Since the 1990s, the Barzanis have emerged as the most powerful clan and they are behaving more like a dictatorship (corruption, suppression of dissent, and rigged elections). Popular anger against this among Kurds is increasing. Despite that, Kurds living outside the autonomous area continue to move back to the Kurdish region. Even the Iraqi Army, which was rebuilt after 2003, with a core of experienced, loyal, and reliable Kurdish troops lost many of its Kurds. It’s mainly a matter of not wanting to get caught up in the war between Shia and Sunni Arabs.

Yet the Iraqi Kurds are still a formidable military force. Since the early 1990s the Iraqi Kurds have been autonomous (with British and American help) and they had always been more effective soldiers than the Iraqi Arabs. The Kurds still suffer from tribal and clan divisions as well as corruption, but to a much lesser extent than the Arabs. Thus a disproportionate number of Western trainers were always sent to the Kurds, who are only about a fifth of the Iraqi population. The Kurds are considered reliable enough to work with Western commandos and protect ground control teams (that can call in air strikes). Kurds regularly assist the American and British commandos in carrying out their most dangerous tasks; reconnaissance inside ISIL territory. But the Kurds have not got the manpower for large scale operations. The Kurdish capture of Sinjar in November cut a key ISIL supply line making it easier to clear the remaining ISIL fighters out of Fallujah. This battle has been going on for over a year but with resupply now more difficult the remaining fighters in Fallujah are less able to resist the advance of soldiers and Shia militiamen.

The increased American air strikes have concentrated on ISIL leadership and economic targets. Thus in the last few weeks three senior ISIL leaders have been killed from the air. This includes the chief of financial operations. Another serious loss is the ISIL leader in charge of transportation (including smuggling). Over a dozen lower ranking leaders have been killed as well. Angry civilians trapped inside ISIL territory have provided a lot more information on the movements of ISIL leaders and helped confirm which of them were killed in air strikes. Iraqi troops are close enough to the city to use the same walkie-talkies and other civilian commo gear ISIL uses and some of the civilians in Ramadi also possess. This is good for Iraqi troop morale because they can hear the increasingly desperate and dispirited tactical conversations of the ISIL men they face, as well as getting a better idea of what the enemy is up to. Contact with civilians via these radios also aids collecting intel on what is going on inside the city and ISIL territory in general.

The Iraqi Air Force is also improving in effectiveness. This is because they have more aircraft (F-16s, Russian Su-25s and helicopter gunships) and more pilots with combat experience. The maintainers of these aircraft are more numerous, experienced and efficient meaning aircraft can fly more missions. Iraqi troops and militia have more confidence in the effectiveness of Iraqi warplanes and more experience calling them in to hit targets. This has sped up the advance and increased ISIL losses.

December 14, 2015: The government revealed that it believes about 8,000 Anbar residents are working for ISIL and 2,500 have been identified by name and arrest warrants issued.

North of Mosul some of the Turkish troops stationed there withdrew to Turkey. The Iraqi government had demanded that all the Turkish troops leave but settled for a partial withdrawal. The Turks have had a training camp there to train Kurdish and Sunni Arab militiamen but only had permission from the autonomous Kurdish government in the north. Like much of what the Kurds up there do, the Iraqi government just ignores it. Recently Turkey sent more troops to this camp along with several armored vehicles. Iraqi media chose to depict this as a Turkish invasion and the government joined on condemning the Turks.

December 13, 2015: In the north (Kirkuk) a senior official of the state oil company was killed along with an associate when their car was fired on. This attack was believed related to a corruption the murdered official was in charge of.

December 11, 2015: The U.S. believes that ISIL has only about a thousand armed men defending Ramadi (in Anbar) and that in the last few days American air strikes have killed over 300 of them. Despite that the U.S. admits they Iraqi advance on the ground has been disappointingly slow. There are about 10,000 soldiers and Shia militia surrounding Ramadi but because of inexperienced leadership and Iraqi reluctance to incur casualties progress is slow. This is the result of the new Iraqi government removing many incompetent officers (who were there more for political loyalty than their military skills) and the shortage of capable officers to replace the departed ones. While you can train junior officers in months, commanders of larger units (companies, battalions and brigades) takes years. Thus many of the officers in charge of the offensive are recently promoted, inexperienced and cautious especially since they have orders to keep casualties among their troops as low as possible. This is good for morale but makes it easy for a small number of ISIL defenders to slow down a much larger number of advancing attackers. The Iraqi troops may be slow while attacking but they have also proved steadfast and effective when attacked. The ISIL forces are launching more suicide bomber attacks to keep troops out of the city and these rarely work. The Iraqi troops have been taught effective tactics to deal with these attacks and tend to defeat them with little or no loss to themselves.

December 10, 2015: About 200 American Special Forces troops have arrived in Anbar. This is part of an increased American effort to destroy ISIL.

December 8, 2015: Outside Ramadi Iraqi troops recaptured a base they had been ordered to leave last May when an incompetent commander of forces defending Ramadi ordered a general retreat. This allowed a far smaller ISIL forces to advance and take the city. Some of the troops who reentered this base today had been stationed here last May. They had to fight their way back in and it was a bittersweet victory.

December 2, 2015: Iraqi casualties from ISIL inspired violence has remained at a lower level for the third month in a row. In November 888 Iraqis (security forces and civilians) died up 24 percent from 714 in October and 717 in September. This decline is mainly because the government has improved the leadership in the security forces and one result of that is fewer friendly casualties. Another factor is the difficulty obtaining accurate data on casualties in ISIL held areas. Thus the actual Iraqi total deaths for the last three months are probably 20-30 percent higher. In the last three months most of the reported dead were civilians killed in terror attacks. In August 1,325 Iraqis died, which was almost identical to the 1,332 Iraqis killed in July. In these two months the government still controlled much of Anbar. June losses were 1,466 and this was higher than 1,100 dead in May. The increase since May is largely because the government began its promised June offensive a little late but still in June. Fighting increased around Mosul and in Anbar and deaths among the security forces (including pro-government militias) more than doubled (from 366 in May to 700-800 a month in June, July and August) but during the last three months have fallen sharply. Since January (when nearly 1,400 died) monthly terrorist related deaths were usually 1,100-1,200 a month. This is because most of the ISIL violence was of the terrorist, not military, variety.

The death toll for all of 2014 was about 15,600. That’s a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. It looks like 2015 will be nearly 20 percent less than 2014. The worst year was 2007, when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the death toll was 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 91,000 dead during 2014 for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll in Syria has risen more sharply than in Iraq and it looks like the combined (Iraq and Syria) deaths will be close to 100,000 in 2015.

Until October Iraqi officials still insisted that ISIL would be crushed in Iraq by the end of 2016. It’s happened before (like in 2007-8), but this time these Sunni fanatics have learned from past mistakes and are more resilient. ISIL will still be around in 2016. ISIL violence has forced over three million Iraqis from their homes. American military advisors are less optimistic about how fast ISIL will be defeated mainly because the Iraqi army and police still have so many incompetent (and often corrupt) officers. Fixing that situation takes time and there is no way to speed it up dramatically. Iraqi and Western politicians and media pundits have a hard time understanding that reality. ISIL losses are believed to be higher than those for the security forces but there is no precise data available or if there is it is kept secret to prevent ISIL from finding out how it was obtained.

December 1, 2015: The government repeated that it saw no need for foreign troops in Iraq. This announcement was mainly to placate the growing strength of the Iran-backed Shia militias that are assisting the army in the fight against ISIL. Not counted are the several thousand American troops already in Iraq and several hundred more (most of them Special Forces) on the way. The government has apparently made it clear to Iran that some American troops are essential. The presence of American troops also makes it less likely that Iran will attempt anything too ambitious (like invading) and everyone knows that. Most Iraqis are more concerned with Iranian meddling than anything the Americans might do.

November 30, 2015: The U.S. revealed that its increased air efforts (since the November 13 ISIL attack in Paris) had destroyed 400 ISIL oil tanker trucks and bombed some of their oil pumping and processing facilities. The smuggled (mainly via Turkey) oil is the main source of cash income for ISIL. The U.S. claims to have killed 23,000 ISIL personnel since 2014 while also training 15,000 Iraqi troops and providing Iraq with over $2 billion worth of weapons and military equipment.

November 25, 2015: Britain revealed that its UAV operations in Iraq had killed 305 ISIL members with no, as far as the British could tell, any civilian deaths. This was accomplished with more than 200 UAV missile attacks in the last year.




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