Iraq: When The Past Bites You In The Ass

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May 17, 2016: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has changed its tactics in responses to heavy personnel and territorial losses suffered since late 2015. Thus while ISIL lost at least 2,500 personnel to air strikes (in Syria and Iraq) during December 2015 only about 600 died during April 2016. Territorial losses, at least in Iraq, have slowed down. ISIL lost only about five percent of its Iraqi territory so far in 2016 compared to 40 percent in 2015. This is because the government forces are under orders to keep their losses down. This means all operations pay a lot more attention to security and not providing ISIL opportunities for ambushes or the use of suicide bombers. ISIL tried to counter their deteriorating reputation with more high-profile (for maximum mass media attention) terror attacks in Baghdad. ISIL wants to hide the fact that they are losing and have been doing so for nearly a year now. Income is way down, desertion is way up and declining morale makes it impossible to carry out the bold moves and sustained offensives that worked so well for them in 2014.

The growing number of ISIL deserters provide more details about what is happening in ISIL controlled territory. The increasingly effective air strikes are indeed because of more local informants and relaxed ROE (Rules of Engagement that now ignore the use of human shields). The aerial bombings have more frequently hit ISIL leaders and caused a lot more ISIL casualties in general. ISIL leaders are, at least according to deserters, often visibly uneasy. So are their followers, in part because of reduced pay (or no pay at all) and even essential supplies like food and ammo. The more frequent use of public executions for ISIL deserters is driving more ISIL fighters and support personnel away. That is a major reason why ISIL has lost, so far, 45 percent of the Iraqi territory it seized in 2014. About half of ISIL oil production had been destroyed and other ISIL income sources were also under attack in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. Losses have been somewhat heavier in Syria, meaning there is little hope of reinforcements from Syria and that Syria is no longer a safer place for ISIL men to flee to.

ISIL is taking heavy losses in part because their fighters are under orders to never retreat and fight to the death. This sort of tactic is what led to the Nazi defeat in Russia during World War II. Adolf Hitler, who is much admired by Islamic terrorists and Arabs in general, was an inept military strategist and his “hold at all costs” order is seen as one of his major mistakes. While ISIL worships the past, they don’t seem to be learning much from it because the Kurds and their American air support took advantage of ISIL inflexibility in Syria at the Kurdish town of Kobane in early 2015. The heavy ISIL losses at Kobane hurt ISIL morale but did not persuade ISIL leadership to avoid making the same mistake again. Like Kobane (a historically Kurdish town near the Turkish border) ISIL is obsessed with Mosul. While ISIL never managed to take Kobane, they are determined not to lose Mosul. Historical experience is against them once more. The outskirts of Mosul has become a place ISIL fighters go to and never return from. Although they are told they will not be attacking they are not told that they will provide target practice for artillery and an international coalition of warplanes assisting the Iraqi Air Force. Iraqi troops have adopted the same slow but successful and safe tactics the Kurds have long used. Scout thoroughly, use aerial surveillance as much as possible and call in air or artillery strikes as soon as you have located ISIL fighters. Iraqi Army troops often have M1 tanks with them that use their 120mm cannon to destroy ISIL bunkers or even sniper hiding places. The downside of this is tremendous property damage. But in the long run that is easier to repair that than live with bitter memories of poorly trained and led troops being slaughtered because of government fears that well trained troops might become a threat. This is a common problem in the Middle East and even the elected government of Iraq was influenced by it. But now the Iraqi leaders are more influenced by the increasingly visible public anger at continued corruption, mismanagement and gridlock in parliament. Add to that the ISIL threat and suddenly the coup threat from competent Iraqi soldiers shrinks considerably. The improved tactics and leadership are cutting Mosul off from ISIL reinforcement and gradually lowering the morale, numbers and effectiveness of the defenders. Iraqi government assertions that they will retake Mosul by the end of 2016 may actually happen.

At the end of 2015 there were several thousand American troops were in Iraq and more (most of them Special Forces) on the way. There are now nearly 5,000 (including contractors that are military veterans). These troops are mainly concerned with training Iraqi troops and then coaching them in combat. The latter activity is dangerous but essential to make sure the Iraqis absorbed the training and are indeed now more effective and deadly when fighting ISIL.

It is believed that the U.S. led air effort has killed over 25,000 ISIL personnel in Iraq and Syria so far. Some 600 were believed to have been killed in April alone. From August 2014 through May 2016 American warplanes haves launched nearly 12,000 sorties against ISIL. So far 67 percent of those sorties have been against targets in Iraq with the other third against Syrian targets. Most of the targets were over 5,000 buildings and fortifications used by ISIL. Over 3,000 vehicles were destroyed and more than 500 industrial (mainly oil production) facilities were hit. Increasingly these attacks are in direct support of Iraqi troops fighting ISIL and Kurdish troops doing the same in Syria.

Meanwhile there is another war going on that does not involve ISIL. That is the continuing (since July 2015) conflict between Turkey and the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) based in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. Some 140 PKK members have died so far in May and most of those were the result of Turkish air strikes at PKK bases in remote areas of northern Iraq. Since mid-2015 this fighting has left over 4,500 PKK personnel dead (mostly in Iraq and Syria) and killed nearly 500 Turkish soldiers and police (mostly in Turkey). Turkish warplanes continue to seek out and bomb PKK bases in more remote areas of Kurdish Iraq. Turkey went to war with the PKK in late July because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. While the PKK still calls for an independent Kurdish state made up of majority Kurd portions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the largely autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq refuse to go along. For a while many in the PKK agreed with the Iraqi Kurds and were willing to settle for more autonomy in Turkey. But the radical PKK factions refused to go along and the 2013 ceasefire began to fray. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK fighters by force. The Turks are unwilling to send a lot of ground troops into northern Iraq and seem content to keep bombing the PKK there. This the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs tolerate, especially since the Turks are now also bombing ISIL in Syria. Turkey joining the air campaign against ISIL in Syria includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase. There has been more PKK violence in southeast Turkey and the Turkish security forces have responded with more raids and arrests. The Turks will win this fight, as they have in the past, and the Turkish Kurds will suffer the most casualties in the process. The PKK has lost a lot of popular support in in northern Iraq because of the PKK police of, in effect, using Iraqi Kurds as human shields. But the PKK retains enough popular support to back Kurdish troops forcing PKK out of Iraq into Syria.

May 6, 2016: In the west (Anbar) the senior ISIL commander in Anbar was killed by an American air strike. This was apparently a deliberate attack as the ISIL leader was travelling in a vehicle with three subordinates. A growing number of locals willing to provide information (often at great personal risk) leads to attacks like this. The dead leader once worked for Saddam Hussein and then for al Qaeda before helping found ISIL. Iraqi security forces and Shia militias continues to clear ISIL out of towns and villages in Anbar.

May 5, 2016: A U.S. Navy SEAL was killed in combat 22 kilometers north of Mosul. The dead SEAL was one of several SEALs accompanying a unit of Kurdish fighters to assist another group of Kurdish soldiers who had run into unexpected resistance during a complex attack meant to drive ISIL defenders closer to Mosul. ISIL unexpectedly organized an ambush for the reinforcements and that led to an intense gun battle that left the SEAL, several Kurds and a lot of ISIL men dead. Ambushes like this are rarely encountered because ISIL knows that actions like this usually end badly for the Islamic terrorists because the Kurds are able to call in air strikes.

May 4, 2016: In the west (Anbar) a dispute between two ISIL factions in Fallujah, over some $630,000 in missing currency, led to a gun battle that left at least 18 ISIL men dead and wounded. ISIL still holds parts of Fallujah but the situation is pretty desperate for the defenders.

May 1, 2016: Iraqi casualties from ISIL inspired violence were down a third in April (to 741) after spiking in March (to 1,119 dead). Before March the losses had been more like April and had been that way since late 2015. This was the result of ISIL responding to several recent defeats by increasing its use of suicide bombing attacks against civilian targets. The government managed to adapt, with big help from local militias, and security improved. Only 55 percent of the April dead were civilians, which is a decline from the normal 60 percent.

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. 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.

April 30, 2016: Several hundred Shia demonstrators forced their way into the heavily guarded Green Zone and briefly occupied the parliament building. This had never happened before. Iraqi soldiers and police took over all security for the Green Zone back in 2010. Before that it was handled by Americans and American contractors. This ten square kilometer (four square mile) sanctuary in downtown Iraq was long a sanctuary for Americans and senior Iraqis. Most Baghdad residents wanted the Green Zone, and the way it disrupted major traffic patterns, eliminated after the Americans left. But rich and powerful Iraqis wanted to live in the Green Zone, as protection from criminals and terrorists (both of whom murder, kidnap and rob the rich). So the Green Zone lives on, under Iraqi management. But the Green Zone also became the target of increasingly frequent and well-attended demonstrations protesting the inept and corrupt government. There were no casualties during this rare incursion into the zone. The demonstrators were followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent and well connected Shia cleric. Within a week the government fired the general in charge of Green Zone security and told his replacement to ensure this sort of thing did not happen again. This swift and effective government response was noted by Iraqis as in sharp contrast to the government inability to deal with more mundane matters like electrical and water supplies, rampant corruption and theft of government funds.

 

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