The government has become less insistent about not needing foreign troops in Iraq. This is because of the increasingly aggressive and autonomous behavior of the Iran-backed Shia militias that are assisting the army in the fight against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Shia militias are also taking control of territory in urban and rural areas, displacing the police and local government. Now the Iraq government sees the American troops as saviors. At the end of 2015 there were several thousand American troops already in Iraq and more (most of them Special Forces) on the way. The government has apparently made it clear to Iran (which is very hostile to U.S. forces in Iraq) 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 or backing a takeover by Shia militias) and everyone knows that. Most Iraqis are more concerned with Iranian meddling than anything the Americans might do. At the same time Iraqis are wary of the other Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia. For example the Saudi ambassador to Iraq recently commented that the Iran backed Shia militias in Iraq should stand aside and let the Iraqi Army deal with ISIL. That comment was widely condemned by Iraqi Shia clerics and politicians.
In Iraq over a thousand Western troops, many of them special operations (Special Forces, SEALs and other commandos), are providing training and advisory assistance to Iraqi forces. To get the most out of this, especially when special ops forces are involved, the effort is directed towards the best local troops. Experience has shown the Kurds and Iraqi Arab special operations troops benefit the most from this training and do so more quickly than less trained and experienced troops. This comes with some risks, mainly because this training is often done in a combat zone and the advisory aspect is often done in combat. In both these cases there are many instances where the trainers themselves come under fire. While the trainers are not there to fight they are armed and allowed to defend themselves when necessary. Unofficially the trainers are allowed to get involved in situations where their trainees are in great danger and the intervention of the trainers would be useful, and much appreciated by the trainees. This is allowed unofficially because there is risk of trainers being killed or wounded. This causes political problems back home where politicians have pledged to provide combat trainers but no combat troops. While some trainers have been killed or wounded during front line training there is always the risk of there are too many casualties among the foreign trainers politicians and media back home would make an issue out of it. Same with Iraqi politicians and media, who are insistent that there be no foreign combat troops in Iraq. Armed trainers are tolerated, but not if they regularly engage in combat.
Meanwhile American officials talk of driving ISIL out of Mosul and Raqqa soon, as in by mid-2016, while some senior Iraqi officials openly doubt that Mosul will be liberated this year at all. A lot of Iraqis still doubt the capabilities of their armed forces and are more afraid of the Iran-backed Shia militias that openly call for a religious dictatorship in Iraq. So while the Kurds report that they have surrounded Mosul from the north and are ready for the final battle the Iraqi government forces south of the city are pointing out that they have to keep an eye on ISIL as well as their “allies” the Iran-backed Shia militias.
At the end of 2015 Iraq declared Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province (which is most of western Iraq) back under government control. Despite that declaration Iraqi troops are still slowly moving through parts of the city where ISIL planted lots of booby-traps and landmines. These explosive devices were meant to “punish” the disloyal (to ISIL) population of the city and cause maximum losses to advancing troops and Shia militia. The militias are letting the soldiers use their training and special equipment to find and clear the explosives. Meanwhile Iraqi troops have moved past Ramadi and are advancing deeper into territory controlled by ISIL for a year or more. So far ISIL counterattacks have slowed but not stopped this advance. ISIL has to stop this advance or it will find its Iraq and Syrian territories cut off from each other. This would be a major problem for ISIL and make the Islamic terrorists easier to defeat. Many ISIL members are sensing this danger and desertions are up while veteran troops in contact with ISIL find the enemy less effective and apparently demoralized. ISIL is depending more and more on suicide bombings to demoralize and dissuade the Iraqi troops and militias. This is not working as the troops and militias have learned to be more vigilant and decisive about detecting and halting (by killing the terrorist) these attacks.
The continued operations in Ramadi have not delayed the efforts to drive ISIL out of Mosul. ISIL has controlled the city since June 2014 and most (all but about 800,000) of the original three million inhabitants have fled. Nearly all those still in Mosul are openly hostile to ISIL, which is suffering from increasingly frequent and accurate air attacks. This is apparently the result of a more effective informant network in the city. Government forces south of the city and Kurdish troops (and non-Moslem militias) north of the city are preparing for the final attack, which is now supposed to take place in a few months. ISIL is most concerned with the Kurdish advance from the north because the Kurds have long had American air support. As more U.S. aircraft have arrived in the region, along with more American Special Forces to work with the Kurds, the Kurdish forces have become ever more deadly. In the last week ISIL made an attempt to slow the Kurdish advance and failed, suffering nearly a thousand casualties (most of them dead) in the process. The Kurds are more vulnerable when they advance but because so many of the Kurds have years of combat experience and lots of U.S. training it is difficult to kill or wound enough Kurds to stop these movements. The Kurds are concerned about keeping their casualties low. This is good for morale, preserves the experienced fighters and recognizes the fact the Kurds have limited (compared to the Iraqi Army and Shia militias) manpower and want to conserve it.
A side benefit of the recent ISIL attacks on the Kurds was the capture of many wounded (and unwounded) ISIL fighters. Many of these men, once they realize that their wounds will be tended and they won’t be executed or tortured, talk freely to Kurdish and American interrogators. They report that ISIL is having more problems with desertions in Mosul and has been carrying out more public executions of ISIL fighters caught trying to leave. Some of the recent executions included mid-level ISIL leaders who sought to flee what many consider a hopeless situation.
The advance on Mosul will find two types of American support critical for making the operation a success and keeping Iraqi casualties down. Reporters were not surprised to hear that Iraqi officers were glad to see the return of American air support, and in a big way. Many of these battalion and brigade commanders had started their careers after 2003 when American air support was common and greatly missed it after Iraqi politicians refused to let the American continue providing it after 2011. But to the surprise of foreign journalists Iraqi commanders also praised the return of American electronic warfare aircraft, especially those with the ability to selectively listen in on enemy wireless communications and, if needed, quickly jam it. With this capability Iraqi intel officers and commanders could listen to the enemy communications in real-time and at any point ask for it to be jammed. This made the enemy vulnerable because the army was listening in no matter what wireless communications was used and could quickly jam it if that seemed more advantageous for the army. To ensure that Iraqi forces make the most of the U.S. air support several hundred additional American trainers are on the way to make sure commanders and key subordinates know how to best use the air support.
The Iranian Menace
Abu Mahdi al Muhandis, the head of the Iran backed Shia militias in Iraq has said publicly that if Iran ordered him to overthrow the Iraqi government he would do so. This confirms what Iraqi leaders have long feared. The Shia militias are supposed to be under the control of the Iraqi government, if only because the militia members are paid by the government. Yet the Shia militias often refuse orders from the government and are demanding more money while refusing to account for how they spend it. Abu Mahdi al Muhandis is also very vocal about his belief that ISIL is the invention of the United States and secretly supported by the Americans as a way to weaken Islam. Supporters of the “ISIL is American” theory point to the way Ramadi was largely destroyed during the battle to retake it and it was found that there were only about 600 ISIL defenders killed. Most of the damage was done by American aerial bombs. Fighting continues in some parts of Ramadi where a dozen or more small (ten or so men) groups of ISIL fighters continue to fight. Iraqi police have been questioning civilians still in Ramadi and have compiled a list of the locals who collaborated with ISIL. Nearly 200 of these suspects have been found and arrested so far.
The U.S. also has a problem with the terror tactics used by the Iran backed Shia militias because they have a “take no prisoners” policy and will even execute (often by beheading) ISIL leaders (including women) they capture. The U.S. feels that it would be better to interrogate all ISIL prisoners and Iraqi military intelligence officials agree. So do some Iranian military advisors. But the Iran backed Iraqi militias depend on enthusiasm and fierce hatred of ISIL to make up for lack of military training and experience. This inexperience and lack of discipline can be dangerous for nearby Iraqi Army troops. Sunni politicians complain that the Shia militias freely murder any Sunnis they perceive as a threat to Shia domination of Iraq. These victims include Sunni clerics who have nothing to do with Islamic terrorists but are simply popular. Most Sunni politicians are also targets.
ISIL Works On Plan B
ISIL is directing many of its new recruits to Libya, where the Islamic terror group apparently senses an opportunity to establish another relatively secure base. ISIL is under increasing threat in Iraq and Syria. Apparently ISIL sees Libya as a backup base if the core of the current “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria is lost. ISIL also has franchises in Libya and nine other countries but none as valuable as Libya.
One reason ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is still active and in control of large chunks of Iraq and Syria after two years is because they have paid attention to logistics (getting supplies) and finance (finding ways to pay for the supplies.) ISIL succeeded because they had plenty of qualified and experienced administrators willing to get the job done. This came about because for centuries the Sunni minority in what is now Iraq ran the largely Shia area. For most of the last four centuries the area was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The Sunni Turks had taken what is now modern Iraq from Shia Iran and did not trust the Shia Arabs to run things. The Sunni Arab minority in the area was another matter as this group was always better educated and more prosperous than the Shias and tended to run Baghdad and areas to the south no matter what empire was in charge. So the Turks had these Sunni Arabs administer this part of their empire. When the Ottoman Empire fell in 1918 the British took over, looked around and decided to leave the Sunni Arabs in charge. In 1932 Iraq became independent as a constitutional monarchy but the king, most army officers and senior officials were Sunni Arabs and largely controlled the new Iraq. But after destroying the constitutional monarch in 1958 and ruling Iraq as a Sunni Arab dictatorship until 2003 the Iraqi Sunnis are desperately trying to get their power back. They are betting everything on ISIL and a growing number of Iraqi Sunni Arabs see that as a bad bet.
The Wisdom Of The Ancient Kings
Jordan believes that ISIL can be defeated militarily rather quickly. Although Jordan is poor (no oil and only 6.5 million people) its leadership has always been the most “bi-cultural” (comfortable with the West as well as with Islamic culture) Arab government in the region. Jordan was one of the first Arab states to establish good relations with Israel. While a monarchy, its current king is Western educated but still able to handle the tribal politics and religious conservatives he rules over. Jordan has some of the best Arab soldiers in the region. Jordanian F-16s provided air support in Anbar and Syria. After ISIL burned to death a Jordanian pilot in early 2015 the Jordanians greatly increased the number of bombing missions their air force carries out and expanded those operations into Iraq. Some of the pro-government (or just anti-ISIL) Sunni tribes in Western Iraq have kinsmen in Jordan so providing air support is something of a tribal obligation. Jordan also warns that defeating ISIL in battle is easy but eliminating the tradition of Islamic terrorism is much more difficult. The Jordanian king comes from an ancient (descended from the prophet) and distinguished family that has had centuries of experience dealing with the violent religious conservatism that regularly erupts into widespread death and destruction. The king, and many Jordanians, would like this to end, but knows that it won’t be easy or soon.
January 12, 2016: Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) boasted that the IRGC was responsible for training (and often recruiting, arming and paying) 200,000 fighters in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. At least a quarter of these are in Syria, followed by Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Pakistan and Afghanistan were not happy with the IRGC publicly admitting that Iran has sponsored local (and often illegal) Shia militias. Iran had to do some diplomatic fence mending over that. Jafari’s comments confirmed Iraqi suspicions that Iran was indeed serious about gaining more control in Iraq in any way it can.
In northern Iraq four Turkish F-16s and two helicopter gunships destroyed three PKK camps discovered by Turkish UAVs that now patrol the area regularly. Turks have also noted that ISIL is something of an ally in the fighting against Kurdish nationalists. Thus the recent ISIL attacks inside Turkey tend to be against foreign tourists, Turkish Kurds or refugees from Syria. Given that ISIL leadership is dominated by Iraqis who once served in the Saddam government, this strategy makes sense. Many Iraqi families had served the Turkish Empire for centuries and know how the Turks think. Nevertheless most Turks also realize that ISIL was founded to build a new Arab Empire that would rule the Turks, not be ruled by them. There is agreement on one subject; the Kurds in the region must not be allowed to units and create a Kurdish state.
Two U.S. Navy coastal patrol boats and ten sailors manning them were seized by armed Iranian patrol boats in the Persian Gulf in an area between Iraq and Iran. The Americans were accused of being in Iranian territorial waters. The American boats and sailors were released a day later but the U.S. Navy has not yet explained how this improbable event actually took place. The Iranian supreme leader (the unelected cleric who has the final say in everything) later publically praised the Iranian troops who seized the U.S. boats and declared the incident a great victory for Iran.
January 11, 2016: In Baghdad three American contractors (two men and a woman) were apparently kidnapped from a club that served alcohol. Three were American citizens. The two men were originally from Iraq and the woman from Egypt. The government concluded that the three were taken by criminals who would ransom them or sell them to Islamic terrorists. So far there has been no known ransom demand. Many locals believe Shia militias were responsible.
January 10, 2016: In Mosul American warplanes used two 908 kg smart bombs to destroy a bank used by ISIL to store cash and pay its staff. Video of the strike showed thousands of bits of paper (most of it cash) in the air after the explosions. The U.S. later reported that ISIL lost several million dollars of cash in this one attack and that there have been similar strikes elsewhere. ISIL deserters have been reporting a growing number of ISIL fighters, especially the foreigners, have been deserting because of pay cuts or long delays in getting paid.
January 9, 2016: Iraq repeated its demand that Turkey withdraw all its troops from a base north of Mosul. Turkey insists out that their soldiers were there to help Iraqi regain control over a quarter 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 even though this was all about increasing security against possible ISIL attack. The Turks also point out that the day before Turkish troops in the Mosul camp defeated an ISIL attack and killed 18 of the Islamic terrorists. The Iraqi government doesn’t care about that. It wants the Turks out but is not able to force the issue and that is part of the problem here.
January 6, 2016: American officials announced that they believe air strikes in Syria and Iraq killed at least 2,500 ISIL members in December. The growing number of ISIL deserters provides more inside information on what it happening in ISIL controlled territory and the deserters confirm that the increasingly effective air strikes, which are apparently because of more local informants and relaxed ROE (Rules of Engagement that now ignore the use of human shields). The aerial bombings have caused a lot more ISIL casualties. That and the reduced pay (or no pay at all) and use of public executions for deserters who are caught (or ISIL simply suspected of planning to leave) is driving more ISIL fighters and support personnel away. That is a major reason why ISIL has lost, so far, 40 percent of the territory it seized in 2014. Over a third of ISIL oil production had been destroyed and other ISIL income sources were also under attack in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. French officials believe that over 22,000 Islamic terrorists (mostly ISIL) have been killed in Syria and Iraq since mid-2014. Despite that the French believe that ISIL still have over 30,000 active personnel in Iraq and Syria. Most of these, however, are tied up with security (and an increasingly troublesome resistance) and support functions (supplies, finance and other essentials that even Islamic terrorists have to deal with). Overall there were 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000in 2014) for the Iraq and Syria in 2015, mainly because of ISIL.