Iraq: People Remember

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April 10, 2016: Everyone (Iraq, Kurds, Iran and Turkey) agrees that retaking Mosul is a top priority and all those concerned are cooperating to help make that happen sooner rather than later. American advisers doubt enough Iraqi soldiers are ready for the assault but the Iraqi government is willing to risk embarrassing battlefield setback in order to keep the advance on Mosul moving. Iraqi Army forces have been slowly advancing from the south while Kurdish forces have been moving down from the north. The U.S. led coalition is ready to provide a lot of air strikes to keep things moving. Iran has assured Iraqi leaders that Iranian military trainers and advisers with the many Shia militias are under orders to keep those militias from misbehaving (murdering Sunnis, looting or interfering with army operations).

As Iraqi forces move in on Mosul the troops surrounding the city have made it more difficult, and often impossible, for people to enter and leave the city. Until recently civilians could travel freely with only those leaving subject to strict security checks to prevent ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members from sneaking out. Supplies are still allowed in, but these are also subject to more strict scrutiny. Many dual use (items that have a military use) are blocked. This includes some chemicals used for making explosives. As the Iraqi forces advance there are more civilians fleeing their homes to avoid injury. These civilians provide a good source of details on ISIL defenses. Talking to many people from the same area gives a pretty accurate picture of what the troops can expect. That is why the Iraqis always announce precise numbers of bombs and mines their forces must deal with when they fight their way into a city. The fleeing civilians have an incentive to provide this information because they don’t want to return home later and get killed by an ISIL explosive that was not reported and cleared away. Clearing these explosive devices is a time consuming process and it is still under way in and around Ramadi, which was liberated (organized ISIL resistance ceased) in late December 2015. On the plus side more civilians are returning to Ramadi and one of the military benefits of that is getting tips from returnees about suspected ISIL members who are still in the city, or who sneaked back in among the returning refugees. Several ISIL men have been caught in Ramadi and ISIL now considers Ramadi a dangerous environment for its clandestine operations. That’s a side effect of the harsh treatment of civilians ISIL is infamous for. People remember. Despite that ISIL continues to punish civilians for real or suspected disloyalty. This includes public executions of suspected traitors. This isn’t always the result of ISIL paranoia as a growing number of Sunni tribesmen in Anbar are fighting back or preparing too even though the areas they live in are technically still under ISIL control. That control is weakening in western Anbar but is often still sufficient for ISIL gunmen to find, seize and publicly execute tribesmen organizing armed resistance.

ISIL has also been seizing civilians who are known to have kin in the security forces and apparently plan to use them as human shields or hostages for coercing members of the security forces to turn traitor and work for ISIL. This is an ancient practices that is still widely used in the Middle East. The widespread use of cell phones makes it easier to use this technique and it is yet another reason why most Iraqis want ISIL in particular and Islamic terrorists in general eliminated.

The government has decided to allow Shia militias to join in the battle to liberate Mosul. Sunni politicians had pleaded for the Shia militias to be kept out of the fight because of fears the Shia gunmen would kill Sunni civilians on purpose, as revenge for the many Sunni (mainly ISIL these days) terror attacks on Shia civilians. The revenge attacks are much less of a problem with army units, which include Sunni, Kurdish and other minorities. The “no Shia militias” policy worked during the recent liberation of Ramadi. But that required a lot more air supports and lots more damage to the city. Mosul is nearly five times the size of Ramadi and only the Shia militia are fanatic enough to go in and fight ISIL up close, and take casualties, while liberating the city. The Shia militias still expect some air and artillery support as well as army engineers to take care of many of the ISIL mines and bombs. The decision to allow the Shia militias to join the attack force is a tacit admission that there are not enough Kurds and reliable army troops available to take Mosul, at least not this year. This problem was made clear in recent days when some army troops refused to advance or fled when fired on during operations to clear towns surrounding Mosul.

This failure was not surprising. Troops are only as good as their commanders. As the old saying goes, "there are no bad troops, only bad officers." Iraq has always had a lot of bad officers and not enough good ones. This is all about the pervasive corruption. Many officers will steal or basically do anything for some cash or favors. Troops sense this and it destroys unit effectiveness and cohesion. Soldiers will fight for officers they trust and respect but tend to flee from the enemy otherwise. Since 2014, with American help, the Iraqis have compiled lists of all police and military units, with an assessment of effectiveness. Details are kept secret, for obvious reasons. Some American advisors have commented (off the record) that many Iraqi units are currently “not ready” for combat. What that means is that there are not enough reliable and trustworthy officers available for all the units needed to retake Mosul. The recent incidents of Iraqi troops fleeing from combat is a reminder of that.

ISIL is having similar morale problems and has not won a battle for months. The increased air and ground attacks against ISIL has caused a major loss of confidence among lower ranking ISIL personnel. American electronic monitoring aircraft collect a growing amount of ISIL radio and cell phone chatter discussing low morale. ISIL leaders are trying to get their men to stand and fight but more frequently the ISIL men run when pressed by airstrikes, artillery and ground forces. Even the ISIL policy of executing those who run no longer guarantees better performance. There have been fewer of those public executions lately. ISIL can still get suicide bomber volunteers but many of the non-suicide fighters are increasingly unreliable in combat. There are fewer new recruits and more deserters.

Despite Iranian pledges of cooperation to take Mosul the U.S. and its Sunni Arab allies fear that Iraq is still on its way to becoming subordinate to Iranian foreign policy. Because of effective Iranian aid in dealing with ISIL the Iraqi government has become less dependent on American and NATO support. 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 against 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. There are now nearly 5,000 (including contractors that are military veterans). The government has 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. But Iraqi leaders also know 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 all making demands, often contrary ones.

April 8, 2016: In the northwest, troops reached the center of the ISIL held town of Hit. Located on the Euphrates River some 200 kilometers from Baghdad Hit is near the al Asad airbase, where many U.S. troops have been stationed since 2015. Hit had a population of 100,000 in mid-2014 but by the end of the year the arrival of ISIL had led nearly half of the people to flee. Another 10,000 civilians fled in the last week as troops advanced into the city. ISIL only had a few hundred men defending the city and they used snipers, hundreds of landmines, roadside bombs and ambushes to delay the army advance. Like other cities and towns ISIL has recently been driven out of it will take weeks to clear out all the bombs, mines and suicidal “stay behind” ISIL snipers. With the liberation of places like Ramadi and Hit refugees from other ISIL held cities (like Fallujah and Mosul) are holding demonstrations urging the government to speed up the liberation process so they can go home.

April 7, 2016: In the north (Mosul) the ISIL “information minister” was killed by a smart bomb that hit his vehicle. His wife and five children also died.

April 3, 2016: In the north (near Kirkuk) an American UAV used a missile to kill a mid-level ISIL leader believed responsible for the rocket attack that killed an American marine on March 19th and wounded eight others. Five other ISIL members were also killed by the UAV launched missile.

April 1, 2016: Iraqi casualties from ISIL inspired violence spiked in March (to 1,119 dead) after being quite low for sixth months in a row. This was the result of ISIL responding to several recent defeats by increasing its use of suicide bombing attacks against civilian targets. By way of comparison February deaths (security forces and civilians) were only 670 Iraqis dead. That was down 21 percent from 849 in January and down 31 percent from 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 was part of a trend because there were 888 dead in November 2015, 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. After January 2015 (when nearly 1,400 died) monthly terrorist related deaths were usually 1,100-1,200 a month for most of the year. 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 much higher once you include ISIL losses. Many (up to half) of the ISIL dead are not Iraqis. Since late 2015 ISIL losses have been heavy, usually more than Iraqi 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.

March 26, 2016: One of the rockets ISIL fired at a Kurdish military base in the north killed a Turkish soldier. The dead Turk was among the hundreds of Turkish troops who have been training and advising Kurdish troops. Not all Iraqis want the Turks in the north. The Shia Arabs are the majority in Iraq, dominate the government and have demanded that the Turks withdraw their troops. The Kurds and Turks disagree. The Kurds are the best Iraqi troops available and got that way because of years of training (mainly by Americans, but also British, Germans and Turks). When the Kurds point that out the Iraqi government does little more than protest. The Turks do more than protest when their troops are attacked and carried out air raids on several (eventually over a dozen) nearby (to where the Turkish soldier died) ISIL camps or concentrations of ISIL fighters. These air strikes were not criticized by the Iraqi government as they were done as part of the U.S. led coalition that is bombing ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. Turkish participation has been sporadic but always increases when PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists based in Iraq) or Islamic terrorists attack Turkey.

March 25, 2016: The U.S. announced that more troops would be sent to Iraq but did not mention precise numbers. This admission is an after-effect of an American marine sergeant getting killed by an ISIL rocket on March 19th while 70 kilometers southeast of Mosul. Because of questions raised about how that came to be the United States admitted that the dead marine and the other 200 marines he was with were doing a lot more than advising. These marines were providing artillery support for the Kurdish Iraqi forces and the incident took place within Kurdish controlled territory. This was the first time the U.S. government admitted that American troops were actually fighting in Iraq. Since the U.S. got involved in Iraq again after mid-2014 ten American military personnel have died there. But the U.S. now admits that it has nearly 4,000 troops in Iraq and a growing number of them are close enough to the fighting to be at risk. Except for a few American commandos, no U.S. troops are engaged in close combat. That is being left to the Iraqis. The Kurds are among the most effective troops Iraq has and the ones most qualified to carry out attacks. American troops have been training, advising and fighting alongside Kurds since the early 1990s.

In a town 40 kilometers south of Baghdad a teenage ISIL suicide bomber attacked a crowd of teenage boys at a sporting event, killing 32 and wounding 84. Among the few adults killed was the local mayor and some of his bodyguards.

 


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