The U.S. and its Sunni Arab allies fear that Iraq is on its way to becoming subordinate to Iranian foreign policy. Because of effective Iranian aid in dealing with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) the Iraqi government has become less enthusiastic about needing more American and NATO troops in Iraq. In addition Iraq has made it clear that Saudi Arabia should not even consider sending troops into Iraq to fight ISIL. The Saudis did not suggest this but are planning to send troops into Syria. The Saudis have no border with Syria but do have land access to Jordan and Iraq. Thus Iraq is emphasizing that Saudi forces are not welcome in Iraq even if they are just passing through.
Meanwhile Iran supports the increasingly aggressive and autonomous behavior of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias that are assisting the Iraqi Army in the fight ISIL. The Shia militias are also taking control of territory in urban and rural areas, displacing the police and local government. Because of that by late 2015 the Iraq government saw more 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 made it clear to Iran (which is very hostile to U.S. forces in Iraq) that some American troops were 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. But now Iran appears to have convinced Iraqi leaders that American troops come and go while Iranian forces are always next door. 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 suggested 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. The Shia politicians running Iraq have to move carefully because Iran, Saudi Arabia and America are making demands, often contrary ones, on Iraq.
One little mentioned advantage Iraq has right now is generally secure borders. The Syrian border is the only one that is really dangerous. The borders with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Turkey are all well-guarded and pose little risk that ISIL or other hostile groups can get in from there. Jordan in particular has been very successful in keeping ISIL out. For example recently Jordanian security forces got a tip that a number of ISIL men appeared to have established themselves in a town near the Syrian border. When police raided the building they were met by gunfire. After a brief battle seven of the Islamic terrorists were killed, 13 arrested and large quantities of weapons and bomb making materials seized. Despite its long Syrian border the Jordanians have managed to make it very difficult to ISIL men to sneak across and when they do they have a hard time keeping their presence secret.
Since January American warplanes have been attacking banks and other sites used by ISIL to store cash and pay its staff. The U.S. believe these attacks have destroyed over a billion U.S. dollars in ISIL cash and caused an acute money shortage. Around Mosul Kurdish troops report more ISIL deserters showing up complaining that their pay has been cut or they have not been paid for months. These men risk their lives deserting because ISIL publically executes those who leave without permission or disobey any orders. These public executions are increasingly common in Mosul. Many of these deserters are unskilled foreigners attracted to ISIL in large part by the prospect of regular pay and a better life in general.
The air attacks on ISIL finances are part of the preparation for the attack on Mosul. This will require about 25,000 combat troops (eight Iraqi Army brigades and two brigades from the Kurdish north). Most of the Iraqi brigades are still being trained and are not expected to be ready until the end of 2016. Iraqi politicians talk of taking Mosul sooner but American advisors consider that unlikely unless the government wants to send in poorly trained troops. That might work if the ISIL defenses are too disorganized and poorly prepared to resist. That is a difficult assessment to make but the government might take a chance. They can always blame the Americans if it doesn’t work. Meanwhile advancing Kurdish and Iraqi forces have pushed the ISIL defenders back towards the city itself. Until mid-2015 ISIL put up a lot of resistance to these advances but ISIL decided that the constant air attacks made it preferable to keep casualties down by delaying the advance and not trying to stop it. That was good for morale and ISIL fighters knew that they would be safer and able to cause more casualties when fighting from inside Mosul. But a growing number of ISIL men are not too encouraged by that prospect, in part because they see a growing armed opposition forming among the civilians still inside the city. Iraqi government propaganda plays this up and there is enough evidence of such a resistance within the city to convince a growing number of ISIL men that it is worth risking execution by fleeing Mosul. Many of these men are not deserters (although all would be executed if caught) and plan to show up and rejoin ISIL in Syria or elsewhere. ISIL record keeping is not thorough enough to prevent that sort of thing.
ISIL morale is low for many reasons, not just because of the increased danger and unpredictable payroll. ISIL men know that in Iraq ISIL has lost nearly half the territory the organization had seized by the end of 2014. The situation is a little better in Syria but even there ISIL is losing towns and key roads it had controlled for over a year. Foreign ISIL recruits are also dismayed to find that life in ISIL controlled territory was less ideal (in an Islamic way) than they were led to believe. In fact ISIL areas are run like a police state. Punishments are harsh and quickly administered for the smallest infractions (actual or suspected). Recruits from the West are especially dismayed by this. ISIL recruits are also unhappy to find that some of their leaders are unworthy. There is corruption in ISIL and while ISIL punishes this (like it did recently when the ISIL finance minister was executed in Mosul for stealing) that is still not what many recruits expected. Even more demoralizing has been the execution of ISIL police on corruption charges.
The growing number of air attacks don’t just hit concentrations of ISIL fighters but also convoys carrying ISIL supplies. It has become increasingly difficult for ISIL to supply all its forces because of the growing number of attacks on trucks and supply storage areas.
March 2, 2016: In the Kurdish north oil exports (via a pipeline to Turkey) are expected to resume soon once repairs are complete. PKK bombed the pipeline on February 17th and Turkey had to make sure the area was clear of PKK rebels for bringing in the repair teams on the 27th. PKK has been attacking the pipeline inside Turkey repeatedly and that has cut Kurdish oil exports (and revenue) about 20 percent during 2015. The Kurds use this money to run their autonomous government and pay for their military operations against ISIL. The Arab dominated Iraqi government is reluctant to send the Kurds cash or military aid.
The Iraqi government has hired an Italian construction firm, for nearly $300 million, to make needed repairs on the Mosul Dam (on the Tigris River). Italians were involved in building the dam and in December 2015 Italy announced it was sending 450 troops to help Iraq guard the Mosul Dam. Aside from the fact that an Italian firm is one of the owners of the dam and its 750 MW electricity generating plant, there is a humanitarian aspect to providing the dam with more security. This is the largest dam in Iraq and because of shoddy construction during the 1980s requires constant maintenance to prevent it from failing. If the dam did come down over half a million Iraqis could die from the flood and subsequent water shortages. The wall of water created by a dam collapse would be about five meters (16 feet) high when it reached Baghdad. The power generating plant would also be lost along with the credibility of the Iraqi government, which has long acknowledged that the dam is important but rarely comes through when troops are needed for security or money is required to make the constant (and essential) repairs. The deal with the Italian firm did not say when the repairs would begin but engineers who have seen the dam recently report that a collapse could occur soon.
March 1, 2016: Iraqi casualties from ISIL inspired violence has remained at a lower level for the sixth month in a row. In February 670 Iraqis (security forces and civilians) died, down 21 percent from 849 in January and down 31 percent from the 980 in December. This is also down more than a third from February 2015. So far in 2016 most (60 percent) of the dead are civilian while the rest include Iraqi security forces, including army, Kurds and the many Sunni and Shia militias. All this is part of a trend because there were 888 dead in November, 714 in October and 717 in September. This decline in deaths (from earlier in 2015) is mainly because the government has improved the leadership in the security forces and one result of that is fewer friendly casualties. In contrast during August 2015 1,325 Iraqis died, 1,332 in July, 1,466 in June and 1,100 dead in May. The increase after May was largely because the government began its promised June offensive a little late but still in June. 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. Another factor is the difficulty obtaining accurate data on casualties in ISIL held areas. Thus the actual Iraqi total deaths since late 2014 are probably 20-30 percent higher once you include ISIL losses.
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. Despite an expected increase in combat casualties in mid-2016 when the attack on Mosul begins the total 2016 deaths are expected to be at least 20 percent lower than 2015. 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.
A more widespread problem is coping with the needs of the more than three million people driven from their homes by ISIL violence since 2014. Most of these refugees have been relocated inside Iraq and most want to go home (especially to Mosul and surrounding areas.)
February 29, 2016: American commandos (from Delta Force) captured what was described as a “key ISIL leader” near Mosul and that man is being interrogated by U.S. investigators before being turned over to Iraqi forces.
February 28, 2016: In Baghdad two ISIL suicide bombers got into a Shia neighborhood and detonated their explosives in a crowded market. This left 73 dead and over a hundred wounded. The Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad have long been a prime target for Sunni Islamic terrorists and despite extensive security the bombers keep getting in. This is a major embarrassment to the pro-Iran Shia dominated government and ISIL knows it.
February 27, 2016: In Anbar over 500 ISIL men and their families were apparently ordered to leave Fallujah for Mosul. That will leave only a few hundred ISIL fighters in Fallujah. ISIL can get away with depleting the Fallujah garrison because most of the Anbar population is either pro-ISIL or anti-government. Nearly all the Anbaris are Sunni Arabs and while most don’t like ISIL’s heavy handed rule (lots of restrictions on lifestyle plus heavy taxes) the local Sunnis tend to doubt promises by the Shia dominated government that with ISIL out life will be better. That was not the case before ISIL took over in 2014 and many Anbar Sunnis do not believe the government has changed. That said many, if not most, Anbar Sunnis are willing to stand aside and not interfere with government efforts to fight ISIL. That means the government forces in Anbar cannot depend much on local tribes to fight the remaining ISIL gunmen in Fallujah. For the moment the government is concentrating on clearing ISIL out of western Anbar and putting more troops on the Syrian border before turning towards the few ISIL men left in eastern Anbar (Fallujah). Meanwhile the government is using a lot of non-Sunni militias to keep the peace in Anbar and despite orders to behave some of these non-Sunni militiamen do not try to hide their hatred and distrust of all Sunni. Despite that these militia have also proved effective at defeating ISIL attacks, be they by gunmen or suicide bombers. These attacks continue and some of the efforts using suicide bombers, usually wearing army or police uniforms, work and account for most of the security forces casualties in Anbar.
February 25, 2016: Turkish F-16s bombed a suspected PKK base near the Turkish border in northern (Kurdish) Iraq. The Shia Iraq government is not happy with this Turkish incursion, nor the presence of some two thousand Turkish troops in a training camp (for Iraqi Kurds and their allies) north of Mosul. Fortunately the February 26th elections in Iran brought in more “moderate” politicians who are openly encouraging better relations with Turkey (and the West).
February 18, 2016: Iran revealed that it had sent special operations troops (Saberin) to Iraq and Syria. Those in Iraq are there mainly to ensure security around some very important Shia shrines in southern Iraq. The Saberin in Syria are apparently for special combat missions. The Saberin are modeled on the British SAS and U.S. Special Forces. At the same time the Saberin were headed to Syria many, if not most, of the 2,000 trainers and advisors from the IRGC (Revolutionary Guards) have been withdrawn. Many of these appear to have been shifted to Iraq where Iran wants its military well represented as Iraq seeks to clear ISIL out of Anbar province and Mosul.