Iraq: Hated But Necessary Foreigners

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September 26, 2016: The attack on ISIL forces in Mosul is causing panic inside the city, both among the residents and the ISIL defenders. American intelligence estimates that ISIL has about 4,000 armed men in the city while some Iraqi estimates go as high as 10,000. The most important factor is not numbers but the morale and motivation of the defenders. The American led air attacks on Mosul have concentrated on key military targets and ISIL leaders. Since July these efforts have destroyed most large concentrations of ISIL ammunition, weapons and equipment in the city. ISIL has been forced to disperse its remaining weapons and supplies, usually to residential neighborhoods. While that provides some degree of protection (American pilots are under orders to avoid civilian casualties at all costs) it also makes it likely that nearby civilians will get the location information out of the city and that could lead of a laser guided bomb or missile attack on the location anyway. The informant network inside Mosul has grown despite aggressive, savage and indiscriminate ISIL efforts to shut it down. Part of this is due to the growing demoralization of the ISIL occupation force, which is increasingly corrupt and that means they are more willing to take a bribe and look the other way as civilians get out of the city or are caught communicating with someone outside the city. Most non-Arab Sunni Moslems have been driven out of the city and now ISIL is going after Arab Sunnis who might be working against them. Remaining residents are expected to “volunteer” help fortifying the city. This includes digging trenches and tunnels. ISIL is also been seen rigging oil and natural gas storage sites to be blown up when government forces approach. Many of the newly dug trenches are apparently to be filled with oil and set afire to delay advancing troops. In response air and artillery attacks are going after any remaining oil storage tanks or tanker trucks in the city. It has also been noted that ISIL has stopped sending patrols into parts of the city where there ISIL men have been attacked. There are more public executions of ISIL men accused of desertion or worse (like spying for the Iraqi government).

The Americans military advisors point out that whatever the size of the ISIL garrison, Iraq will not have the 30,000 trained and reliable troops needed to ensure the quick capture of Mosul. An extended battle inside the city would cause a lot more casualties than the Iraqi government can justify. For this reason the Iraqi politicians are being nice to the Americans at the moment because the U.S. has the best intel resources and also quietly keeps an eye on the quality of intel collected by Iraqi intelligence. So far the agreed on strategy is that as long as the Iraqi and Kurdish forces can keep capturing areas around Mosul they have a good chance of taking the city by the end of the year. Currently Iraq has about 25,000 “trained and reliable” troops converging on Mosul.

The Frenemies

Many, if not most, Iraqis see themselves as beset by enemies on all sides. At the same time Iraqis are quite proud of the ancient local custom of surviving by successfully (most of the time) playing off one enemy against the other. Currently the Iraqis see themselves successfully making use of frequent foes like the Americans (and the West in general), Iran, Turkey and the Sunni Arabs to the south. The modern term for such relationships is frenemies (friends or allies who are also rivals or enemies). Currently the most important frenemies are the United States and Iran. If nothing else, these two cancel out the threat each poses for Iraq.

The U.S. threat to Iraq is largely imaginary, as many Iraqis (especially Kurds and non-Moslems) will admit but the U.S. also provides some very useful service beyond the obvious military ones. For example the Iraqis have allowed American military advisors to be assigned to brigade headquarters. While Iran doesn’t like this the honest (and generally more competent) Iraqi officers do. A dozen or so American troops assigned to each brigade means that unit will get timely American intel (often real-time video from UAVs or satellites) and air support. The Americans can also be depended on to accurately report on corruption and incompetence. The advisors report this to their superiors and reports of Iraqi military corruption often makes its way Iraqi leaders (and journalists) along with threats to cut aid if Iraqi political leaders do not act. This was one of the main reasons so many Iraqi politicians wanted nearly all American troops gone by the end of 2011. Corruption is big business in Iraq, especially if you are a senior government official (civilian or military.) Meanwhile Iraqi generals must regularly stand up before the cameras and proclaim that no foreign (especially American or Iranian) troops will take part in the liberation of Mosul or any other major operation. There are about 4,500 American troops in Iraq and another 500 may arrive by the end of the year. There are nearly as many Iranian troops but Iran is more secretive about the exact number. That is one reason why Iraq refuses, so far, to allow the Iranian supported Shia militias to go into Mosul. These troops will take care of security around the city. This will not be easy as many ISIL fighters will try to flee the city once the last battle begins. Iraqi military and political leaders must also regularly repeat that while the Kurds will help take Mosul the Kurdish politicians have agreed to withdraw Kurdish troops from Mosul when the Iraqi government asks for that. The U.S. has agreed to back that up.

Iran is another matter and is seen as a growing threat by most Iraqis. Despite the fact that most Iraqis are Shia (as are nearly all Iranians) Iran poses a different threat to each of the major religious and ethnic groups in Iraq. Over 80 percent of Iraqis are Arab, and they have been threatened by Iran for thousands of years. As many as 20 percent of Iraqis are not Arab and the majority of them (the Kurds) have been persecuted by Iranians for centuries because the Kurds of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey would prefer to unite and form their own country. The Sunni Arabs are a minority in Iraq and see all Shia, but particularly the Iranian ones, as heretics and a threat to Islam, as well as all Arabs. To make matters worse none of the major groups can agree on how to conduct another census. It’s not for want of trying. In late 2009 these disagreements led to the last-minute cancellation of a long planned national census. With various factions fearful of the results (as every minority tends to believe they are more numerous than they actually are), the probability of violence against the census takers, especially in the north, was too great to risk a count. The last census was in 1987, when 16 million were counted. It's estimated that the current population was nearly 30 million in 2009 and over 37 million now.

Iran sees all this factionalism as an opportunity and the minority of Iraqis who support Iran (mainly for religious reasons) are willing to work with Iran in return for favored treatment once Iran has the control it wants (preferably a subservient Shia religious dictatorship). Meanwhile Iran uses religion, aid, diplomacy, threats, bribes and whatever else it can to obtain, maintain and expand that influence. Despite all that the Saudis are keen on maintaining a dominating influence in Iraq because Iraq is a largely Arab country. The religious angle puts Iraqi Arabs in an awkward position. The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised) but also don’t want to be dominated by their Sunni Arab neighbors and especially not by their own Sunni Arab minority, which created ISIL and has been a major supporter of Islamic terrorism since 2003. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia seek to create an Iraqi government that is all one (Shia) or the other (Arab). So far this struggle has been a draw, which many Iraqis are OK with as long as the death toll is reduced. But the Iranians in particular are willing to shed a lot of Iraqi blood to get their own way. The Saudis have already done that with their unofficial support of Sunni terrorism in Iraq. Most of the foreign Islamic terrorists in Iraq since 2003 have been from Saudi Arabia, even though the Saudis officially disapprove of their citizens from going elsewhere to kill people for religious reasons. In reality most Saudis are fine with this but the victims in Iraq tended to be Shia Arabs and that is not forgotten.

While Iraqi Shia appreciate Iranian support against ISIL, they are constantly reminded that this support comes with dangerous conditions. Case in point is the need for air support during the upcoming battle to push ISIL out of Mosul. Iraqi military leaders know that American air support is crucial to the success of Iraqi forces in talking Mosul. The Americans have offered substantial air support during the final assault on Mosul. The Americans have brought in more ground controller teams to operate with Iraqi forces and provide timely air strikes. Iran-backed Shia militia refuse to use American air support at the same time the Iran is pressuring Iraq to allow these Shia militias to play a major role in the Mosul battle. There are lot of non-Shia civilians in Mosul and the government fears that Shia militia will misbehave the way they have recently been accused of doing in Anbar. The Sunni tribes there, including the pro-government ones that have always fought ISIL, recently gave the government evidence of Shia militiamen killing or kidnapping Sunni or destroying their homes.

Many in the Iraqi government army leadership do not want any of the 80-100,000 or so Iran backed Shia militia fighters involved in retaking Mosul. The Iraqi Shia that control the Iraqi government and military do not trust Iran and believe the Iran controlled Shia militias are being prepared to support an armed takeover of the current Shia controlled government. Many of the Shia militia are from Baghdad and there are growing fears that Shia cleric Ayatollah Muqtada al Sadr, an open fan of the Shia religious dictatorship in Iran, is planning to use his anti-corruption campaign in Baghdad as justification for an armed takeover of the government. In response a lot of Shia pro-government militias are forming. This reinforces the point that most Iraqis, including most Iraqi Shia, do not want to be dominated by Iran. All this has led to more controls being placed on what the pro-Iran Shia militias are allowed to do. Currently that means staying out of Mosul and behaving in Anbar (where pockets of ISIL resistance still exist).

Follow The Money

Even with two years of ISIL related violence the Iraqi economy continues to thrive despite the corruption and added expense of fighting ISIL (and cleaning up the damage). Despite that the government has to borrow cash to pay for everything and that means seeking large loans from foreigners. That is proving to be difficult because the foreigners who can afford to lend demand guarantees that the loan will not be plundered by corrupt officials. The corruption is worst in the Arab south but even the Kurds are suffering from it, and the refusal of the Iraqi government to share government income with the Kurds. That, plus the expense of fighting ISIL and the way ISIL has blocked most commercial transportation with the south, has caused an economic recession up north. Since ISIL took Mosul in mid-2014 unemployment in the Kurdish north has more than doubled, to 15 percent. ISIL showed up at a bad time because the Kurds began exporting (80,000 barrels a day) in 2014, largely with the help of Turkish investors. That has since risen to over 500,000 barrels a day (worth $350 million a month to the Kurdish government up there). In the south the Iraqi government is producing the rest. The oil prices falling by more than 50 percent since 2013 have 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 impoverished and weak.

September 25, 2016: In the west (Anbar province) the army finally cleared ISIL out of the suburbs west of Ramadi, the provincial capital. Ramadi is 120 kilometers west of Baghdad and astride the Euphrates river. The city 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. Meanwhile ISIL was able to survive in several of the many towns and villages west of the city and along the river. The army is still busy clearing all the landmines and explosive traps ISIL left behind.

September 24, 2016: North of Baghdad (Tikrit) a group of ISIL men made two attacks on soldiers and police at checkpoints. In the first attack four policemen were shot dead, along with one of the attackers. ISIL later used three suicide car bombs against another checkpoint killing 11 more people. This was the first time since April 2015 that ISIL made any effort to attack Tikrit. This city was captured by ISIL in mid-2014 and was one of the first ISIL was driven from. As ISIL losses its ability to take and hold territory it relies more on suicidal terror attacks.

September 23, 2016: In the north (40 kilometers south of Mosul) American warplanes destroyed an ISIL chemical weapons workshop near Qayyarah Air Base. This was one of several sites in Iraq and Syria where ISIL has been trying, often successfully, to build crude (but sometimes effective) chemical weapons (the worst being mustard gas) and put the liquids into rocket warheads.

September 22, 2016: In the northwest, after months of fighting, Iraqi forces finally drove the last ISIL defenders from the key town of Shirqat (population 120,000). This was all going on 90 kilometers south of Mosul in Salahuddin province which is between Mosul and Anbar province. Shirqat and most of the smaller towns in Salahuddin have now been taken from ISIL. By the time the army began its final push into Shirqat two weeks ago more than half the population had already fled, most to non-ISIL territory. This final battle for the town was carried out by army troops while pro-Iran Shia militias were kept on the outskirts to reassure civilians that there would be no violent “reprisals” against the largely Sunni population. The reprisals were largely avoided, which meant the remaining residents were more cooperative about what ISIL had been up to in the city since mid-2104. Troops also captured several key ISIL compounds intact, including the one where Abu Omar al Assafi, the ISIL leader in charge of Shirqat, lived and worked. This proved to be particularly useful as Assafi left in such a hurry that he left behind some key items, like a USB drive containing ISIL lists of supporters in the city as well as details of an ISIL plan to set off explosives in some homes and blame the Iraqi troops. Worse for Assafi the security forces were able to follow up on this information quickly enough to find out how Assafi planned to get past checkpoints surrounding the city. He was prepared to dress as a woman (using something similar to a burqa). Personnel at checkpoints were alerted in time and Assafi was arrested on the 25th, which will lead to more information. ISIL leaders, when taken alive, tend to be amenable to making deals. Later on the 25th troops drove ISIL out of the last village they had held outside Shirqat.

September 21, 2016: In Baghdad some 63 percent of Parliament approved removing the Finance Minister, Hoshiyar Zebari because he was suspected of corruption. Zebari is a prominent Kurdish politician and his response was to quickly leave Baghdad for the Kurdish controlled north. Once there Zebari accused corrupt Arab Shia politicians of trying to blame him for the massive corruption his accusers are responsible for. Zebari said he would release documents proving this. In other words, he wants the Arab Shia politicians to behave.

The U.S. has agreed to provide $415 million to the Iraqi Kurds, who are still being short changed by the Iraqi government. It has gotten to the point where the Kurds were not able to pay their troops, the most effective in Iraq, for over a month.

September 20, 2016: In the north (40 kilometers south of Mosul) ISIL fired a rocket at the Qayyarah Air Base. The United States later confirmed that the rocket contained mustard gas and landed near where American troops were stationed. This use of chemical weapons was not unexpected. 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 was known to have been making and using crude (not very effective) mustard gas in Syria. It would be a big media deal for ISIL if one of their mustard gas rockets killed or injured an American soldier. That did not happen today. ISIL was driven out of Qayyarah Air Base in early July by Iraqi troops and by the end of the month there were hundreds of American troops there helping to rebuild the place which is now a major support facility for the effort to get ISIL out of Mosul.

Turkish artillery fired across the border into Kurdish northern Iraq killing four PKK men and wounding another. A stockpile of PKK weapons was also hit. A Turkish UAV spotted the PKK activity and called in the artillery fire.

September 19, 2016: In Mosul ISIL closed the last seven internet cafes, where civilians could legally use the Internet to communicate with areas outside ISIL held territory. From now on any civilians caught using the Internet can be executed for espionage. ISIL has been desperately trying cut off residents from all unauthorized communications with the outside world. That has not been completely successful. It never is.

September 14, 2016: In the west (Anbar province) unidentified gunmen raided a meeting of ISIL officials in Qaim (near the Syrian border, 400 kilometers northwest of Baghdad) and killed the four ISIL men there, stole their cell phones and weapons, set fire to their SUV outside and were quickly gone. ISIL gunmen soon arrived at the scene and kept locals away from the area.

In the north (45 kilometers west of Kirkuk) American warplanes destroyed an ISIL chemical weapons storage site near Hawija.

Turkish warplanes used smart bombs and missiles against at two PKK targets in northern Iraq leaving at least four dead.

September 13, 2016: In the north (Mosul) three gunmen ambushed a car carrying Abu Isaac (the chief spokesman for ISIL) and two bodyguards. All three men were killed and the attackers fled. Such attacks in Mosul are becoming more common, even in heavily patrolled parts of the city, like where Abu Isaac was killed.

September 11, 2016: Iraqi commandos raided a building 160 kilometers southwest of Mosul, near the Syrian border, and destroyed the ISIL media center. This involved killing Abu Muhammad Furqan, the chief of media operations for ISIL as well as twenty of his staff. The site of the raid was in Baaj, a town that was largely Sunni and not really controlled by the government or anyone but the locals. ISIL likes to keep some of its key operations in obscure locations like this, making them less vulnerable to discovery and an airstrike (as regularly happens to ISIL facilities in ISIL controlled Mosul). In this case the secret locations was found, and raided by Iraqi commandos who also seized documents and possibly some prisoners for interrogation. Just what was obtained during this raid won’t be revealed until after the information is acted on.

September 8, 2016: In the northwest, across the Iranian border (in West Azerbaijan province) border guards clashed with Kurdish separatists trying to cross from Iraq into Iran at night. Several hours of fighting left eight Kurds dead while others apparently escaped back into Iraq. Since mid-June Iranian security forces have been particularly active in this area as part of yet another attempt to eliminate any armed Kurdish separatists. This is proving difficult because the local population is largely Kurdish. The Iranian Kurdish separatists maintain bases in Iraq and Iranian artillery has fired shells and rockets at these Iraqi bases several times since June. The Iraqi Kurds don’t officially approve of these Iranian Kurds hiding out in remote border areas but they won’t send their own troops in to oust them. The Iraqi government apologizes to Iran but will not go to war with its own Kurds over this. Thus it is no surprise that Iran is currently blaming Saudi Arabia for the Iranian Kurds finding sanctuary in northern Iraq.

September 6, 2016: In the northwest, across the Iranian border (in West Azerbaijan province) border guards again clashed with Kurdish separatists leaving two Kurds and six Iranian soldiers dead.

 

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