Iraq: Kurds Remain The Greatest Threat

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January 5, 2016: In the West (Anbar province) some 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and militiamen are clearing the city of Ramadi, which is now held by about a thousand ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters. There are some 700 ISIL gunmen in the outskirts of the city with the remainder inside the city. ISIL has left lots of mines and booby-traps inside Ramadi and the ISIL forces outside the city are in fortified positions where they are apparently expected to fight to the death. These fortified Ramadi neighborhoods also contain a lot of tunnels that enable ISIL gunmen to escape an attack or reinforce defenders elsewhere. ISIL has sent some teams out to attack army or militia positions inside and around Ramadi but these efforts tend to completely fail. Even the poorly trained militia units have come to recognize the need for vigilant security around bases and camps. Civilians have largely fled the area around Ramadi or obey orders to not move at night or on the roads without permission. So any unknown vehicles near army or militia units are assumed to be hostile and fired on if they get close enough. Inside Ramadi ISIL is still present in about 20 percent of the city. The army is in no hurry to clear the Islamic terrorists out of these places because they know that the ISIL men are not likely to surrender and are surrounded by mines and booby traps. It may be months before Ramadi is “ISIL free.”

Since mid-December ISIL has made several large scale attacks on Kurdish and Iraqi army positions outside Mosul and Kirkuk. Some of these attacks involved several hundred gunmen and suicide bombers. None have succeeded and that is particularly bad news for ISIL commanders. This lack of success indicates that the government forces have finally learned how to defend themselves and can no longer be terrorized into fleeing. From mid-2014 to mid-2015 ISIL could still defeat Iraqi (but not Kurdish) forces with a bold advance backed by recent memories of all the bloody videos and media reports about savage ISIL behavior. Bit by bit the Iraqis learned how to deal with this, not least because the Kurds had already demonstrated how resolve, discipline and vigilance nearly always defeated whatever ISIL sent your way. This shift in attitude is one major ISIL defeat that does not get much publicity but it is a big deal in Iraq where people take things like surviving ISIL very seriously.

Morale and reputation are important for ISIL because many, if not most, of their personnel consider ISIL an employer, not a cause to die for. ISIL is believed to have about 15,000 personnel in Iraq and Syria. Most are armed, although many are not trained fighters and tend to work in support jobs. It is estimated that some 30,000 people have come to join ISIL since early 2014 but over half have since been killed, deserted or (more rarely) were not accepted in the first place. Most of these volunteers (and the many who are turned back at the Turkish border) came from Moslem countries with the largest source being Saudi Arabia. Moslems living in Europe comprised about 15 percent of the volunteers and about 70 percent of those came from France, Germany, Belgium and Britain. Very few (2-3 percent) came from the United States.

The United States has apparently abandoned restrictions on providing weapons to the Iraqi Kurds directly. Armored vehicles, artillery and other weapons arrived in Kuwait in November and have been regularly flown into the Kurdish north ever since. The Kurds have long had some artillery (a few 155mm howitzers, lots of 60mm-120mm mortars and a growing number of Iranian 107mm and 122mm rockets) and American trainers noted how adept the Kurds were at learning how to use all this stuff effectively. So now the Kurds will have more 155mm howitzers. Initially (in early 2015) the Kurds took back some of the fifty M198 towed 155mm howitzers ISIL had captured in Mosul in mid-2014. Until the 1990s this was a standard weapon in the United States and the Kurds scrounged up people with M198 experience and began using their 155mm artillery. The big limitation was a shortage of ammo, but the M198 had a range of 22 kilometers and the crews learned to make every shell count. Now the Americans are providing more ammo and at least twelve more M198s plus armored hummers and much else besides. The Iraqi government remains quiet about this because the next major objective in Mosul, which the Kurds have agreed they will not claim as their own (although it had long been a largely Kurdish city) and will withdraw their forces once the city is captured and under the control of the Iraqi government. The Iraqi Arabs still want to limit Kurdish autonomy. That will be very difficult because the Kurds up there have been autonomous for over two decades now and are better fighters than the Iraqi Arabs. Now the Kurds are betting more weapons and modern ones at that. Unfortunately the Kurds are surrounded (mainly by Turkey and Iran, as well as Iraqi Arabs) who are hostile to independent or autonomous Kurds.

Senior Iraqi government officials openly admit that they will need Kurdish help to liberate Mosul. The Kurds have been advancing from the north for over a year, slowly but methodically. The Kurds keep their casualties down and rarely lose ground to ISIL counterattacks. Iraqi forces have advanced from the south, but more slowly and were often stalled for months at areas ISIL was not willing to give up. The Iraqis are depending on the Kurds to be seen by ISIL as the major threat and thus attract the attention of most ISIL forces defending the city. This will enable Iraqi troops and militiamen to advance against less opposition. ISIL knows this is the plan and cannot do anything about it. The Kurds have been and remain the greatest threat. Moreover everyone, including ISIL, sees the liberation of Mosul as a decisive defeat for ISIL, especially if it comes soon after ISIL is expelled from Ramadi and Fallujah. Both those cities are largely retaken already and Iraq expects to have ISIL completely gone from the cities and their outskirts within months. There are a lot of towns and key territory (especially along the border) that ISIL still holds in Anbar and it will take until mid-2016, or longer, to clear ISIL out. At that point all the best Iraqi units can be used against ISIL although Iraqi commanders may take a chance by moving units from Anbar to Mosul and leave the final fighting in Anbar to local militias and less experienced troops.

Mosul is the largest city ISIL controls and where they declared their “caliphate.” The loss of Mosul will be a major one for ISIL and will lead to more difficulty recruiting and raising money. Desertion will increase (as it does every time ISIL suffers a major defeat) and definitely put ISIL on the defensive and forced to consider the possibility of destruction, like all previous caliphates. For this reason everyone expects ISIL to put up a strong defense in Mosul, regularly fighting to the death and causing the attackers maximum casualties.

The attack on Mosul has always been based on a siege approach. The Kurds have already cut several key roads into the city and the Iraqis are working the same approach south of the city. Iraqi troops used this approach successfully against Ramadi and Fallujah and are willing to take the time required to apply it to the much larger city of Mosul. The Iraqis are more confident not just because of recent battlefield successes but because of the growing number of reliable and experienced officers in combat units. There has also been more air support by Iraqi warplanes and more American air controllers serving with Iraqi units (and calling in non-Iraqi air strikes) rather than just with the Kurds. The availability of the air support and the ability of more Iraqi units to effectively use it makes a big difference, especially when a unit is hard pressed by an unexpected ISIL attack. One obvious sign of these changes was the reappearance of American B-1 bombers and electronic warfare aircraft over Ramadi and Mosul. Several recent ISIL surprise attacks against Iraqi units failed because of air support and ISIL leaders understand that is not a fluke but a permanent change in the situation.

There is growing popular call for liberating Mosul sooner rather than later. This is largely because of the growing number of stories coming out of Mosul about ISIL punishing residents who do not obey. Currently ISIL is facing rebellion from teachers and parents over how ISIL runs the recently reopened (for the first time since mid-2014) schools. ISIL insists the kids be taught to become religious fanatics and support (and participate) in Islamic terrorism. Most parents and teachers want none of that and are openly or covertly subverting the ISIL education plan. ISIL threatens executions if this opposition does not cease. Already many outspoken teachers and parents have been jailed.

There is less urgency to liberate Fallujah, a smaller city in Anbar (and closer to Baghdad) that has been a battlefield against ISIL since 2013. Most of the civilians have left and troops are slowly clearing the rest of the Islamic terrorists out.

Iraqi leaders were upset when they heard that Saudi Arabia had recently ordered another $1.3 billion worth of smart bombs from the United States. This included over 12,000 laser and GPS guided bombs. This is far more than is needed to replace bombs used recently in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Not only that but the order includes BLU-109s, which are 910 kg (2,000) GPS guided bunker busters that can penetrate five meters (16 feet) of concrete. The only country in the region with a lot of targets for BUL-109 is Iran. Thus most of these 12,000 smart bombs appear to be for a possible war with Iran. The aircraft most often used for delivering these smart bombs are the 153 F-15SA fighter-bombers. Iraq fears that aligning itself too closely with Iran could put it on the Saudi hit list.

January 4, 2016: South of Baghdad two Sunni mosques were bombed and at another one a mosque employee was shot dead. This was believed to be revenge attacks for the recent execution of an outspoken (against Sunni mistreatment) Shia cleric in Saudi Arabia. Iran loudly protested this execution as well and a crowd of Iranian protestors invaded and burned part of the Saudi embassy there. This led to Saudi Arabia breaking diplomatic relations with Iran and ordering Iranian diplomats out of Saudi Arabia within 48 hours. Kuwait followed suit despite Iranian apologies. This is a disturbing development for Iraq because nearly all Iraqi Shia are Arabs. Despite close religious ties to Iran even Shia Arabs believe that Iranians (who are Indo-European, not Arab) want to dominate the region and Arabs in general oppose that. Thus the growing hostility between the Gulf oil states (led by Saudi Arabia) and Iran (which wants to be the leader of all Islam and control the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia) puts the Shia controlled government of Iraq in a difficult position. It doesn’t help that neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran completely trusts Iraq.

Meanwhile there are still problems with Turkey. North of Mosul some of the Turkish troops stationed there withdrew to Turkey in response to Iraqi demands. The Iraqi government had demanded that all the Turkish troops leave and threatened to use force. Turkey pointed out that their soldiers were there to help Iraqi regain control over the third of their territory they do not control (because of ISIL). 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. In early December 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. The Turks wanted to increase security against possible ISIL attack.

January 2, 2016: Outside Mosul American commandos landed from helicopters. They quickly killed fifteen ISIL men and captured eleven others, including at least one known ISIL leader. The Americans then flew away into the darkness. No one is saying anything yet about that that raid was all about. Locals, however, report that other ISIL leaders left Mosul after this raid and fled to Syria.

January 1, 2016: Iraqi casualties from ISIL inspired violence has remained at a lower level for the fourth month in a row. In December 980 Iraqis (security forces and civilians) died, up ten percent from 888 in November. As usual about half (52 percent) were civilian the rest include Iraqi security forces, including army, Kurds and the many Sunni and Shia militias. There has been a steady increase in casualties from 714 dead in October and 717 in September. This decline in deaths (from earlier in the year) 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 18 months are probably 20-30 percent higher once you include ISIL losses. 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 four months of 2015 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 2015 was about 13,400, compared to 15,600 in 2014. That’s still 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 killed by Sunni Islamic terrorists. While 2015 was 14 percent less deadly than 2014 both years were much less than the worst year. That 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 2015 death toll was 55,000, which was down 38 percent from the 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000in 2014) for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll has declined in both Iraq and Syria because ISIL has become less effective and in Syria there is a lot more war weariness. Most of the rebels and government forces in Syria are just playing defense and even ISIL has been less active in attacking compared to 2014.

December 30, 2015: Iraq declared Ramadi (the capital of Anbar) liberated as the flag was raised over government buildings recently cleared of ISIL fighters. There still hundreds of ISIL fighters in the city and even more on the outskirts but Iraqi leaders thought it best to declare victory in Ramadi now, before 2016 began. The U.S. added that it had confirmed that, since late November, targeted (going after a specific individual) air attacks had killed at least ten senior ISIL leaders in Iraq and Syria. That plus U.S. promises to use more commando raids on ISIL headquarters and other key installations has ISIL leadership terrified, or at least very anxious.

December 15, 2015: Saudi Arabia announced the formation of an anti-terrorist organization (the Islamic Military Alliance or IMA) composed of 34 (so far) Moslem nations. This includes Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Chad, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Guinea, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Qatar, the Palestinians, Pakistan, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), and Yemen. Indonesia, largest Moslem nation on the planet, is considering. The nation with the largest number of Moslems, India, was apparently not invited to join. All the current members are largely Sunni. Many people in Pakistan, Afghanistan Lebanon and Malaysia objected to their nation joining the IMA. Three of these nations have large Shia minorities while Malaysia has many non-Moslems, including Hindus. Some nations are not welcome, like Iran, Syria and Iraq. This is because the Sunni Gulf States (led by Saudi Arabia) are at war with Iran, which considers Syria and Iraq allies. A growing number of Moslem nations are openly complaining that Saudi Arabia is the source of most of the Islamic conservatism that propelled al Qaeda and ISIL, the Taliban, Boko Haram and many other Islamic terrorist groups into existence. Many IMA members are the recipients of Saudi financial assistance, so refusing to join the IMA was not considered fiscally prudent. The only specific terrorist organization IMA is at war with is ISIL. Saudi Arabia also considers Iran a terrorist organization, especially when Sunni nations are concerned.

 


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