Iraq: The Curse That Keeps On Killing

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April 26, 2016: While the Americans have doubts about Iraqi forces taking Mosul by the end of 2016 all agree that it’s not a matter of if but when. Retaking Mosul is a top priority for Iraq and all those concerned are cooperating to help make that happen sooner rather than later. The Iraqi government is apparently willing to risk embarrassing battlefield setbacks in order to keep the advance on Mosul moving. Iraqi Army forces have been steadily 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).

ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces are not demonstrating any ability to stop the advance. Although ISIL keeps bringing more fighters into Mosul it does not help a lot because losses and desertions remain high and morale quite low. This can be seen by the increasing use of mass executions of ISIL fighters (often poorly trained new recruits) who flee a battle or otherwise refuse to fight.

In a recent incident ISIL executed 45 of their men by locking them in industrial walk-in freezers for 24 hours and then displaying some of the frozen bodies around Mosul as a warning to everyone. The 45 victims here were among the defenders of the recently (April 8th) lost 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 last week of the battle. 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. ISIL leaders were dismayed when most of the Hit defenders fled as troops began moving into the town. ISIL can still get men to volunteer for suicide bombings but large scale attacks by ISIL gunmen are a risky proposition now because the average ISIL fighter is not up to it in terms of skills or motivation. For that reason ISIL counterattacks tend to fail and simply boost the morale of the advancing Iraqis and Kurds.

Harsh discipline may encourage some ISIL men to stand and fight but a lack of training and experience does not make them any more effective and advancing government and Kurdish forces report continuing declines in the battlefield effectiveness of their ISIL opponents. The dwindling number of ISIL combat veterans fondly remember the good old days of 2014 when the enemy could be defeated by simply roaring into a town, shouting and firing off a few shots as civilians surrendered and soldiers and police fled. That rarely happens now and many more households have weapons which are quickly brought out and used if ISIL attacks. More often now it is the security forces (army, Kurds, militia) showing up and liberating grateful civilians from ISIL rule. The liberators are often finding many civilians latterly held captive in guarded compounds or small camps.

What ISIL lacks in resolute battlefield warriors it somewhat makes up with its continuing use of mines, roadside bombs and booby-traps left behind it areas it is forced out of. This has gotten so bad that areas cleared of ISIL fighters are marked as off-limits to returning residents for weeks or months until the area can be thoroughly searched for explosive devices. Even when the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) or army engineer teams have come and done their work there is no guarantee that something might have been missed. Posters are put up warning civilians, especially children, about these dangers, what to look for and who to call if something suspicious is encountered. There will be new victims of ISIL violence for years to come because of this. It’s the curse that keeps on killing.

These explosive devices, plus the few men ISIL can depend on to stay behind as snipers and fight to the death, are all that prevents ISIL defenses from rapidly collapsing. ISIL has lost its forward momentum and is desperately seeking a way to get it back. Meanwhile the enemies of ISIL get more effective at using air attacks to destroy ISIL forces, storage sites and facilities in general. This is largely due to the increasingly active civilian resistance in ISIL controlled territory. This informer network provides more target data that can be quickly used by the Iraqis as well as their allies.

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 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 and chemical weapons. 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 can often provide a pretty accurate count 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.

The U.S. and its Sunni Arab allies fear that Iraq is still on its way to becoming subordinate to Iran. Because of effective Iranian aid in dealing with ISIL the Iraqi government has become less dependent on American and NATO support. Meanwhile Iran still supports the aggressive and autonomous behavior of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias that are assisting the Iraqi Army. The Shia militias are also taking control of territory in urban and rural areas, displacing the police and local government. 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. The Shia politicians running Iraq have to move carefully because Iran, Saudi Arabia and America are all making demands, often contrary ones.

The Kurdish Quandry

The U.S. had pledged to provide nearly a billion dollars in weapons, equipment and other aid for the Kurdish (Peshmerga) forces in the north. Weapons include armored vehicles, anti-tank missiles, mortars and artillery. The U.S. says “two brigades worth” of gear is being provided and all will pass through the Iraqi government before it is passed on to the Kurds. This is believed to be more diplomacy than reality as past efforts to supply the Kurds with military aid via the Iraqi government have failed, largely because of corruption and the fact that the Arab Shia dominated Iraq government does not want the Kurds to get better weapons. To get around this more of the American weapons are being sent direct to the north at the same time the Americans tell the Iraqi government that is being done (as part of an effort to save the Iraqis the cost and bother of handling the paperwork and expense of getting the stuff up north). The Arab Shia are not happy with this but the Kurds are the best troops Iraq has and the Americans are the largest provider of foreign aid, so the complaints are muted and largely for domestic consumption.

The Little Wonder

The Iraqi Army still received more weapons and ammo from the United States. Iraq has had lots of success with Hellfire missiles. These 50 kg (110 pound) missiles are laser guided, have been around since the 1980s and have a ranger of 8,000 meters. Since 2014 Iraq has equipped more of its aircraft with Hellfires and is now using over a thousand of these missiles a month. Iraq began using Hellfires on Caravan 208B aircraft in 2008. The 208B is a 3.9 ton single engine aircraft that can carry nine passengers, a ton of cargo or two Hellfire missiles and a laser designator. The 208B can stay in the air three hours at a time and has been also been rigged to carry electronic warfare gear (for picking up transmissions from the ground, or jamming.) In 2014 the demand for Iraqi aircraft and helicopters equipped to handle Hellfire skyrocketed and that high demand has continued. These missiles cannot be used on the Su-25s ground attack jets Iraq obtained from Russia and as a result the Su-25 attacks are less accurate than aircraft or helicopters using Hellfires. These armed helicopters and propeller driven aircraft are even more useful than jets because they are slower (like most UAVs) and the pilots can spend more time over the battle and that enables the aircrew to sort out where the targets are before unleashing their Hellfire missiles. Iraq now has a growing number of F-16s armed with smart bombs.

Permanent Problems

Most Iraqis mainly read about Islamic terrorism but all are exposed, often several times a day, to the pervasive and crippling corruption. This has always been a major economic, social and political problem in this part of the world. Most Iraqis realize that even when the Islamic terrorism has been eliminated there will still be the corruption. That has led to a growing anti-corruption movement. Since late July 2015 thousands of pro-reform Iraqis have been demonstrating in Baghdad and other cities every Friday to encourage the government to take more action against corruption. The reforms involve eliminating thousands of senior level positions in the government that exist mainly to enable politicians to steal and enforcing existing laws against corruption. The government responded by making some changes that made it more difficult (but not impossible) for corrupt officials to steal and generally muck things up. The people want more of this, and less corruption in general. So far all the government has not done enough and that inaction keeps the demonstrators coming. The people demand more action and these demonstrations may be the start of a sustained anti-corruption movement. What makes these demonstrations so effective is that they have the support of the two top Shia clerics; Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the younger, more radical and pro-Iran Ayatollah Sadr. This clerical support makes the demonstrations impossible to ignore but so many top officials are corrupt that it is difficult to get enough of them removed or persuaded to act with more integrity to make a difference.

Corruption has been endemic to this region for thousands of years, but now there is democracy and widespread realization that progress is impossible with the current levels of corruption. The problem with corruption is that it is a difficult addiction to quit, especially for those benefitting from it for the first time. Post Saddam democracy has meant more corruption because democracy means more people must be involved. So the government payroll, long monopolized by the Sunni minority (less than 20 percent of the population) is now monopolized by the Shia majority (60 percent of the population) with as little as possible passed along to the Kurds. The famously inept and obstructive Iraqi civil service has grown from a million under Saddam to over six million now. While eliminating corruption (or just curbing it substantially) would do wonders for economic growth and the quality of government services it would deprive thousands of politicians of a fortune-making opportunities and seriously cut the income of many government workers.

The Great Black Hope

Despite all the ISIL related violence the Iraqi economy continues to thrive. That is mainly because Iraq is producing nearly 4 million barrels of oil a day, more than the Saddam ever achieved. Iraqi oil production had been stuck at 2.5 million barrels a day since the 1980s. Production previously peaked in the late 1970s at four million barrels a day. Iraqi has nine percent of the world's oil reserves, but decades of war and mismanagement had prevented necessary maintenance and construction in the oil fields. For the last few years the oil regions have been safe enough for foreign oil production companies to bring in their experts, and cash, in to get the job done, so Iraqi production has been steadily increasing. The goal is ten million barrels a day by the end of the decade. The Kurds began exporting (80,000 barrels a day) in 2014, largely with the help of Turkish investors. That has since risen to 420,000 barrels a day. In the south the Iraqi government is still producing 3.5 million barrels a day. The oil prices falling by more than 50 percent since 2013 has hurt, but that is expected to change eventually. Meanwhile most (a little over half) of Iraqis believe that the low oil prices, ISIL and all the corruption are the fault of the United States, which wants to keep Iraq weak. Until Iraqis realize that the problem is closer to home, Iraq will remain weak.

April 25, 2016: In Mosul an American laser guided missile hit the vehicle carrying Waheed Ali Rashid al Sabawi, the ISIL “Oil Minister” for Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province.) Sabawi died along with two of his bodyguards. ISIL has lost control of most oil wells in Nineveh. But there is over 25 billion barrels of oil still in the ground under Nineveh province and it was Sabawi’s job to get as much of it as he could for local use and to smuggle into Turkey and sell.

In the north (Saladin Province, some 200 kilometers north of Baghdad) fighting broke out between Kurdish troops and a local Turkmen Shia militia. The shooting went on for two days and at least twenty were killed and over fifty wounded before Iraqi soldiers and tribal leaders arranged a ceasefire. The Kurds played a major role in pushing ISIL out of this area in late 2014 but did so with the help of local Turkman and other militias. Most Shia militias are supported and heavily influenced by Iran. While many Kurds blame Iran for instigating the violence here there is also the ethnic issue. There have always been ethnic and religious tensions in this part of Iraq and there was a similar clash in late 2015 that also involved the same Turkmen militia. This is all connected to the ongoing problem with the Arab dominated Iraqi government recognizing Kurdish control of Kirkuk province (90 kilometers further north). There was supposed to be a referendum in Kirkuk in 2007 to decide if it should become part of the Kurdish autonomous areas or remain “Arab”. That vote never took place and the Kurds want it to happen.

Kirkuk is about 83 kilometers south of the current Kurdish capital Erbil and nearly 300 kilometers north of Baghdad. The Arab controlled national government kept delaying the referendum in Kirkuk because they thought they would lose. That’s because for over a decade Saddam Hussein had deliberately driven Kurds from Kirkuk and brought in poor Sunnis from the south to take the place (and homes) of the departed Kurds. After 2003 the displaced Kurds returned and there has been violence between Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk ever since. Many of these recent Arab migrants left since 2004 and Kirkuk is believed to be a majority Kurd city again. Most of the non-Kurds in Kirkuk would rather be ruled by the more efficient and less corrupt Kurdish government of the north than the Arab dominated national government. There are problems with that as well. The largest non-Kurd group is Turkish (Turkmen, Turks from Turkmenistan in Central Asia not Turkey) and the Turkmen are not united. They are divided by politics (although most favor alliance with the Kurds), religion (Sunni, Shia and Catholic). The inability of the Turkmen to unite is exploited by the Shia Arab government in Baghdad as well as Iran. The national government is not happy with the fact that it does not control the Kurdish north but despite the ISIL threat still stalls in giving the Kurds their share of oil revenue and foreign military aid. Western nations are more sympathetic to allowing the Kurds to freely pump, ship and sell the oil on their territory (which, technically, the national government in Baghdad controls). In the past the Baghdad bureaucrats have used that legal status to block Kurdish attempts to sell their oil. Now more Western countries are willing to ignore the protests from Baghdad and do business with the Kurds in the north.

April 18, 2016: Kurdish and American commandos carried out a joint raid south of Mosul to kill ISIL leader Salam Abd Shabib al Jbouri and two of his bodyguards. The Kurds and Americans had been tracking Jbouri for some time. Jbouri is the military commander for Nineveh province, which contains Mosul.

In the northeast 68 Turkmen civilians were transported into Turkey to receive medical treatments for eye and long damage from ISIL chemical weapons attacks that began on the 9th and have continued with at least one a week. There have been a few suffocation deaths but most victims, who tend to be Kurdish soldiers, survive. The chemical used was chlorine gas and the attacks have been more frequent this year. For several years ISIL has been creating primitive chemical weapons by filling 120mm mortar shells with potentially lethal industrial chemicals and the most frequently used chemical has been chlorine. Chemicals like this can be lethal to humans in large quantities but when used in a mortar shells and not fired in large numbers on a small area those exposed tend to only have temporary effects ranging from nausea to poor vision, problems breathing and so on. The most frequent target of these chlorine shell attacks are Kurdish fighters and civilians in Saladin and Kirkuk provinces. This has happened before. Since most of the ISIL leadership also belonged to the pre-2008 Iraqi al Qaeda movement they are apparently familiar with similar tactics used before 2008 and content to use this sort of thing simply to terrorize their foes. Back in 2006-8 there were over a dozen suicide bombing attacks in Iraq that featured the use of chlorine as part of the bomb. These were recognized as attempts to use chlorine as a chemical weapon. These efforts were unsuccessful, despite the fact that the first chemical weapon attack in modern history, in 1915, used 168 tons of chlorine gas. Then, as now, chlorine proved to be an inefficient chemical weapon and was quickly replaced by more effective ones in 1915. The Islamic terrorists of 2007 also noted the ineffectiveness of their chlorine use in bombs, and intel monitoring picked up lots of chatter about obtaining more powerful chemical weapons. Then, and now, there are still many people in Iraq, and most are Sunni Arabs, who know how to manufacture more lethal chemical agents (like mustard gas, which burns skin, eyes, or your lungs, if you inhale it). ISIL may be trying to revive the 2007 effort but there is more speculation than evidence involved. ISIL has not captured any chemical plants capable of manufacturing the deadlier World War I chemical weapons and building such a manufacturing capability from scratch is very difficult and likely to be detected. The chemical threat from ISIL is, however, is real.

 

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