Iraq: The March On Mosul

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June 22, 2016: The offensive to liberate the city of Fallujah was declared a success on the 17th when Iraqi troops gained control of the city center. The reality was that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters are still present in many neighborhoods and, as with the earlier victory in nearby Ramadi, it will take a month or more to clear all the ISIL gunmen out. Ramadi was declared “liberated” at the end of the December 2015 but it wasn’t until two months later that the city was safe enough to allow refugees back in. Even then those returning were warned to be on the lookout for any ISIL bombs that had not been found and disabled. Iraqi commanders announced that they had killed at least 2,500 ISIL men in the battle for Fallujah. American advisors pointed out that this was an estimate and it will take months of counting bodies, questioning prisoners and examining captured documents to get a better idea of ISIL losses in Fallujah. Meanwhile over 80,000 civilians who fled Fallujah are waiting (in nearby refugee camps) to return. It will cost billions to repair the damage done by the fighting as well as what ISIL deliberately destroyed.

This Fallujah operation began in mid-May after a lot of preparation. In mid-2015 over 10,000 soldiers and Shia militia moved in to cut the few supply routes ISIL forces in the city still had. ISIL took most of Fallujah in January 2014 but was prevented from advancing further or taking control of the entire city and its suburbs. Fallujah is important because of the crucial geographical position the city has occupied for nearly 3,000 years. Only 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, Fallujah is the gateway between the desert-like region to the west and the densely populated Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the east. The local Sunni tribes have cooperated with the government efforts to clear ISIL out of Fallujah but only if that was done without destroying the city or killing any of the largely Sunni civilians left there. That has slowed things down more than anticipated. ISIL forced thousands of Sunni civilians to remain so they could act as human shields. That had the desired result and in order to maintain the cooperation of the Sunni tribes massive use of artillery or air strikes were ruled out. Since early 2015 the government has used airpower (aircraft and helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles) and groups of soldiers and allied tribesmen to take out ISIL positions one at a time. This worked in theory but in practice there were never enough reliable troops or aircraft available do it on a large scale. The current offensive, led by several thousand Iraqi commandos, was supposed to overcome that problem. That did, but never as quickly as the government press releases indicated.

The Fallujah operation revealed another problem few Iraqis want to talk about. American military advisors and trainers sent to Iraq to retrain and reform the Iraqi Army recently admitted the U.S. plan to expand the Iraqi army and improve the quality of officers and troops failed in large part because Iran offered a more popular alternative. The basic problem was that most men the army wanted to recruit preferred to join one of the Shia militias organized and trained by Iranians. It was all a matter of trust. Potential Shia recruits (in a country where Shia are over 60 percent of the population) did not believe the Iraqi Army could be reformed and rebuilt and felt the paramilitary Shia militias would be better led and more effective even though the Iraqi Army had better weapons and was more likely to get American air support. American military leaders were disappointed, but not surprised. Unfortunately many of the Shia militias are led by men known to have been members of pro-Iran militias that, before 2008, attacked American troops as well as Sunni Islamic terrorists. These militias were disbanded by 2010 but after 2014 were allowed to reform again. This alone was considered a great victory for Iran. What triggered the current American training effort in Iraq was the ISIL offensive in mid-2014 that took control of most of western Iraq (Anbar province) and the northwestern city of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. By the end of 2014 Iraq had asked the United States to help rebuild the Iraqi armed forces and called in Iran to revive the Shia militias. Then came the rapid and unexpected loss of Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province) in May 2015 to a much smaller ISIL force. Government troops outnumbered nearby ISIL gunmen by ten to one. After that it became increasingly difficult to get Shia Iraqis to join the army.

Shia And Sunni Do Not Mix

Sunni politicians and Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq complain that some of the Shia militias in Anbar have tortured prisoners and terrorism suspects. At least four Sunni men have died under torture and dozens more are badly injured. Other Sunnis complain that the Shia militias killed hundreds of unarmed civilians and claimed they were ISIL. Shia militia leaders say it is all a misunderstanding and that Shia interrogation techniques are regularly used against suspects in Shia majority areas because it is the only way to get needed information about upcoming attacks on Shia neighborhoods. Torture has long been used in the Middle East and works for intelligence collection if you have enough likely suspects (who know something.) While some may tell you anything (to stop the pain) enough will tell the truth (as in items that can be quickly confirmed) that useful information is obtained. This has prevented a lot of Sunni terror attacks on Shia civilians but in Anbar the Islamic terrorists are more selective and concentrate on the security forces, since most of those soldiers and para-militaries are Shia. This gets really complicated in Anbar where pro-ISIL civilians are a majority and using the traditional intel gathering methods the Shia militias used for questioning a lot of innocents backfired. Even pleas from local, pro-government (or at least anti-ISIL) Sunni leaders could not save these civilians once the Shia militias suspected them.

The Shia militia being used in largely Sunni western Iraq (Anbar) were supposed to avoid this sort of thing. The government had warned the militia leaders of these Iran supported (with cash and advisors) paramilitaries to avoid antagonizing the local Sunni Arabs because most of them are anti-ISIL and a good source of information and other support. The Shia government knows the value of this and that is the main reason the pro-Iran Shia militias have not been allowed to participate in high-profile operations like the assault on Fallujah. Everyone (Shia and Sunni politicians alike) knows that these militiamen are more fanatic than the trained soldiers and would likely ignore (as in kill any that got in the way) civilians ISIL was hiding behind. Sunni leaders have made it clear that this would most definitely reduce the number of useful tips coming in from Sunni civilians and that would lead to more Shia Iraqis (police, soldiers and civilians) getting killed. Even corrupt Shia politicians understood this math. This problem won’t go away because a lot of Shia militia will have to be used to drive ISIL out of Mosul. That city is mainly non-Shia. While only about 30,000 Shia militia were used in Anbar (most of them without incident) a lot more will be used against Mosul.

Moving On Mosul

Around Mosul a year of air attacks and using tactics that keep friendly casualties low have eliminated a lot of ISIL resistance and are all part of the preparations for taking Mosul. This will require about 25,000 combat troops (eight Iraqi Army brigades or militia equivalents and two brigades from the Kurdish north). Most of the Iraqi brigades are still being trained and that is not working out because Shia men prefer to join Shia militias. Iraqi politicians talk of taking Mosul soon but American advisors consider that unlikely unless the government wants to send in poorly trained troops or depend on a lot of Shia militias. 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 seems inclined to 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 far from the city. 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 and 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.

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.

The Poison Pill That Makes You Well

Low oil prices and persistent corruption have forced the government to seek foreign loans to maintain essential services (like water, power, sanitation and paying the security forces). The only foreign lenders available are international organizations like the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund). The government does not like working with these groups because their loans come with strict conditions that you cannot bribe your way out of. The IMF has agreed to loan Iraq $5.4 billion over the next three years, and much more in addition to that if the government can meet IMF terms. This includes a lot of long-overdue reforms in taxation, cuts in spending and improved transparency (allowing the IMF and the public see details of government spending.) Normally oil-rich states, especially in the Middle East, become corrupt and stay that way because they rarely have to call on the IMF and expose themselves to close scrutiny. In a perverse way there’s a benefit to the low oil prices and the Iraqi financial crises because the IMF can be more effective at enforcing anti-corruption measures than internal pressure.

As the IMF reforms are implemented a growing number of corrupt officials will resist. This usually takes the form of indignant politicians accusing the foreign lender of interfering with Iraqi sovereignty and acting no better than an invading army. Most Iraqis won’t go along with this because they 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. Among the more obvious changes demanded was 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 minor changes. The people demanded 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

June 21, 2016: Turkish warplanes used smart bombs and missiles against five PKK targets in northern Iraq. These attacks have become more frequent since late 2015 because Turkish UAVs now patrol the area regularly. For the Turks it is imperative that the Kurds in the region not be allowed to unite and create a Kurdish state. This is what armed Kurdish rebels in Turkey (PKK) plus smaller groups in Syria, Iraq and Iran are fighting for. That conflict has gotten worse since July 2015 as Turkey went to war with the PKK because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire. Since mid-2015 the Turkish war with the PKK has left over 5,000 PKK personnel dead (mostly in Iraq and Syria), which is about ten times the number of Turkish soldiers and police (mostly in Turkey) killed. Turkish warplanes continue to seek out and bomb PKK bases in more remote areas of Kurdish Iraq. There the autonomous Kurdish government tolerates the Turkish air strikes because Turkey provides access to the outside world for trade and travel. The Iraqi Kurds sell oil from oil fields they control via a pipeline through Turkey. The Kurds are producing over 500,000 barrels a day but because to the low world price for oil, currently net (to the Kurdish government) only about $320 million a month. Meanwhile the Kurds try to get a fair share of oil income from the Iraqi government, which exports over three million barrels a day. The Iraqi government wants the Kurds to surrender their autonomy but the Kurds won’t do that and the government has not got the military ability to force the issue.

June 20, 2016: North of Baghdad (halfway to Mosul) a senior ISIL leader (Sarmad Mazahim) was killed by an air strike on the bunker he was in. ISIL confirmed the death.

June 18, 2016: The government announced that forces were being moved from Anbar to the northwest to participate in the battle for Mosul. Officially the government considers Fallujah liberated but troops in Fallujah know better.

June 17, 2016: North of Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province) police raided two villages north of the city that ISIL have moved back into. The raid left at least 17 ISIL men dead and three suicide car bombs were found and disabled. Although Ramadi was recaptured in late December and declared “cleared” of ISIL forces two months later there are still over a thousand armed ISIL members operating in Anbar, trying to prevent the Iraqi security forces from gaining complete control of the province and thus blocking ISIL access to the rest of Iraq from that direction.

June 15, 2016: In the northeast just across the border in Iran IRGC troops fought PJAK Kurdish separatists. Iran claims 12 PJAK and three IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) dead while Kurds say they killed twelve IRGC men. A large PJAK force came from Iraq and IRGC intercepted them after they crossed the border. Apparently the PJAK force retreated back into Iraq after the clash. A similar clash took place two days earlier which left five PJAK fighters. There has been more clashes between PJAK and the IRGC since Saddam Hussein was taken down in 2003.

 

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