Iraq: Slow Down For The Voters

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April 24, 2017: ISIL controls only six of 38 districts in Mosul and are only able to slow the army advance, not stop it. The areas ISIL still control are difficult to fight through. The most dangerous of these areas is the “Old City” with its ancient buildings, narrow streets and many alleys. There are still several hundred thousand civilians living there and the advancing troops fear ISIL is concentrating in the Old City for a last stand. That means a long battle to clear the crowded area and the additional problem with so many civilians to watch out for. ISIL is quite open about using civilians as human shields but in the end the Iraqi troops, artillery and aircraft will hit a target with human shields if there is no other way to get at the ISIL fighters. Iraqi leaders are no longer announcing when Mosul will be free of ISIL. That’s because the Iraqi generals have pointed out that ISIL can be removed from Mosul more quickly but the attackers would take heavier losses and more damage would be done to the Old City and more of its inhabitants would be killed. The troops and the families of those killed are all voters so prudence rules, at least on the Iraqi side. ISIL makes up rules as it goes along seems indifferent to how many get killed. Nevertheless ISIL is doomed.

At its peak in mid-2014 ISIL controlled about 40 percent of Iraq, including Mosul and several smaller cities. Now ISIL holds less than seven percent and that is mostly thinly populated rural areas. The final battle against ISIL in Syria and Iraq is mainly about driving the Islamic terrorists out of the major river valleys that contain most of the people and wealth. The two main rivers are the Euphrates and Tigris and that is where most of the fighting has been taking place.

The Euphrates River Valley stretches from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. Along the way this river valley passes next to or through Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and the ISIL capital of Raqqa in eastern Syria. Also on the river, some 200 kilometers from Baghdad is the al Asad airbase, where most of 2,000 or American and NATO troops in Anbar have been stationed since 2015. 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 larger (by water volume) and faster flowing Tigris River Valley also starts in Turkey and ends near the Persian Gulf where it merges with the Euphrates at Basra. Unlike the Euphrates the Tigris only passes through 44 kilometers of Syria and most of it is in Iraq. The Tigris passes next to the three largest cities in Iraq (Baghdad, Mosul and Basra) as well as other major population centers like Tikrit, Samarra and Baiji. ISIL grabbed Mosul in 2014 and went after Tikrit, Samarra and Baiji but only took Samarra briefly and never controlled all of Baiji. South of Baghdad the population is largely Shia while north of Mosul it is largely Kurdish and ISIL avoided areas where these two groups were dominant. On maps showing areas ISIL controls you can see that they still are active in lots of territory but most of it is in the sparsely populated semi-desert areas outside the river valleys. That’s why taking the major cities is so important as they are all next to these two rivers and ISIL only holds onto parts of Mosul and all of the much smaller city (a tenth the size of Mosul) Syrian city of Raqqa.

In Iraq some of the ISIL men not trapped in Mosul are fleeing to other river cities. This small groups of ISIL gunmen are showing up in Diyala province (north of Baghdad). Diyala has been largely free of any ISIL control since early 2015. But the province has also long been home to a lot of Sunni Arabs, including many who supported Saddam Hussein and Islamic terrorism. While most of the locals are disenchanted with ISIL and have been working with the largely Shia security forces to keep ISIL out, some of these Islamic terrorists fleeing from Mosul and other areas are apparently trying to establish a terrorist network in the province to support further attacks against the large Shia population south of the province in Baghdad. There is a similar situation 90 kilometers south of Mosul in Salahuddin province. This area is between Mosul and Anbar province. Most of the urban areas and smaller towns in Salahuddin were lost to ISIL by the end of 2016 but the Islamic terrorists are still operating out in the rural areas. As with Diyala local Sunni tribal militias play a key role in restricting ISIL activity, especially their use of the roads. Soldiers and local tribesmen staff the checkpoints and the tribesmen provide local knowledge of who can be trusted and who cannot. That prevents a lot of suicide car bombers from hurting anyone but themselves.

Losses

So far (since the battle began in October 2016) the battle to take Mosul has cost the Iraqi security forces nearly a thousand dead and over 6,000 wounded. There are about 100,000 soldier, police and militia men involved in the operation but only about a quarter of these have been regularly involved in combat. The UN estimates that at least a hundred civilians a week are getting killed in Mosul. It’s difficult to get an accurate count until the battle is over and all the rubble searched and survivors questioned. The UN is urging major donor states to provide the cash needed to take care of all the Mosul refugees. So far less than ten percent of the money has been provided. The UN does not like to publically discuss the main reason for shortfall. It is corruption with donors increasingly unwilling to donate to relief efforts in nations where the corruption is so bad that most of the aid gets stolen.

By April nearly 70 percent of the original (2014) ISIL leadership had been killed. Three more were killed in the last week. Most of these deaths occurred in the last year and the little is known about many of the replacements. These are the men now commanding what is left of ISIL and one thing that is clear; a lot of them are foreigners. Islamic terrorists from Russia, Central Asia and North Africa predominate among the replacements. One reason these men were selected is that they are foreigners and veteran foreign Islamic terrorists have been less likely to flee or secretly make amnesty deals with the government, often involving passing on information. Local leaders have lots of kin in the region and the ancient custom of going after vulnerable family members is still practiced. The new leaders face a much less promising situation.

Armed UAVs have been particularly useful in finding and killing key ISIL personnel because these aircraft can watch continuously for hours and act immediately if a target appears. In Mosul the UAVs have killed nearly 600 ISIL men so far and destroyed over 400 vehicles, many of them rigged for suicide bomb attacks. The UAVs will sometimes be assigned to an advancing unit to continually show ground commanders the entire are and be available to quickly hit a sniper or surprise enemy attack.

Since late 2016 ISIL leaders have been trying to get their key personnel (and their families) out of Iraq and Syria. Many of the lesser known ISIL personnel are advised to return to their homeland and establish more of an ISIL presence there. Efforts to establish another base area for ISIL have, so far, failed (in Libya. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Egypt) so the “disperse and raise hell at home” seems to be the official plan. In response the Iraqis fighting in Mosul and the Kurdish led forces closing in on Raqqa are resigned to a slow, methodical advance. Nevertheless ISIL is expected to lose both Mosul and Raqqa by the end of 2017.

Oil Politics

Iraq is being accused of reneging on its promise to cut production in an effort to drive up world oil prices. When prices approached $30 a barrel in early 2016 the major producers agreed to cut production to turn that around. The price per barrel went over $50 by the end of 2016 but is now falling again. While increased North American production (because of fracking) has played a part Persian Gulf nations suspect Iraq, and some other OPEC members are cheating. As a founding member of the OPEC oil cartel Iraq had agreed to reduce its oil production by over 1 million barrels a day to help create a shortages and drive up the world price. But instead Iraq production increased slightly (according to the official data) in early 2017. This is a big deal because Iraq has ten percent of the world's oil reserves and renewed exploration recently increased those reserves by 10 billion barrels. That makes 153 billion barrels, which more than a third larger than it was after the resumption of oil exploration a decade ago. Iran has reserves of 158 billion barrels, Saudi Arabia 266 billion and Venezuela 300 billion. These four nations have the largest reserves which are about 60 percent of the world total and, in theory, should be able to control the world price by raising or reducing production as needed. What has broken this cartel power is fracking. That new American technology is making much more oil and gas available and it is expected that the U.S. and Canada will soon have “proven reserves” equaling a third of the current world total. China, a major oil importer, has enthusiastically adopted fracking and will become a major produced in the 2020s. The fall in oil prices since 2013 (from over $100 a barrel to as low as $30) has cut Iraqi foreign currency reserves to $49 billion. In mid-2016 the reserves were $53 billion.

Meanwhile up north the Kurds continue to pump and ship (via a Turkish pipeline) up to half a million barrels a day. The Shia Arab dominated national government wants to change that but has not got the military superiority to do that. Meanwhile the Kurds are preparing to hold a vote to establish an independent Kurdish state in the north. The main obstacle to the Kurds moving forward with the independence effort is internal divisions. Despite the apparent unity the Iraqi Kurds have long been divided by clan loyalty. The Kurdish north is currently dominated by the Barzani family. The Iraqi Kurds had long been divided into warring clans with the two largest of them led by the Barzani and Talibani families. Since the 1990s, the Barzanis have emerged as the most powerful clan and they are behaving more like a dictatorship (corruption, suppression of dissent, and rigged elections). Popular anger against this among Kurds is increasing. Despite that, Kurds living outside the autonomous area continue to move back to the Kurdish region. Even the Iraqi Army, which was rebuilt after 2003, with a core of experienced, loyal, and reliable Kurdish troops lost many of its Kurds. For the Kurdish soldiers leaving was mainly a matter of not wanting to get caught up in the war between Shia and Sunni Arabs.

April 23, 2017: In the west (Anbar) ISIL ambushed a convoy carrying 60 border guards killing ten and wounding 20. Three soldiers were missing and may have been captured. The ISIL men were wearing army uniforms and took advantage of a sandstorm to get into position (setting up a fake checkpoint) for the ambush. The convoy was headed for the town of Rutba (population 20,000), near the Jordanian border and 390 kilometers from Baghdad. ISIL has been active near this town for nearly a year because the place lies astride a key road connecting Baghdad with Syria and Jordan. ISIL had been driven out of Rutba in early 2016 and tribal militias were largely in charge of local security since then. More soldiers and police were sent after the recent attack and local tribes sent in more militiamen as well. Rutba is near the border town of al Qaim, which is still held by ISIL, the last major border town held by the Islamic terrorists.

April 20, 2017: In the north (west of Mosul) Iraqi F-16s used smart bombs to hit four ISIL bomb storage and assembly sites. The secondary explosions revealed that these were indeed major storage sites for explosive materials. Iraq attributed the precise target location data to the growing number of Iraqis in ISIL controlled territory who are collecting and passing on more information on what ISIL is up to and exactly where.

April 19, 2017: Iran appointed a retired Quds Force general as its new ambassador to Iraqi. This caused a lot of Iraqis to complain openly that this was part of an Iranian effort to turn Iraq into an Iranian controlled nation, like Syria has been since the 1980s. Some Kurdish officials who had dealt with the new ambassador when he was in the Quds Force reported that he was not as hard-core ideologically as most Quds Force officers. Meanwhile Turkish leaders called the Iran-backed Shia militias in Iraq terrorists and intended to expand Iranian power, not defend Iraq.

April 17, 2017: Iraqi intelligence has evidence that ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is in Syria and has been there for several months.

April 16, 2017: In the north (Mosul) an Iraqi special operations unit leading an advance encountered ISIL mortar shells and rockets that appeared to use chemical warheads. About six troops fell sick after inhaling the noxious substance. The day before Iraqi troops fighting in another Mosul neighborhood encountered similar chemical shells. U.S. and Australian commandos were with some of the Iraqi units and noted that some of the shells contained noxious substances and helped collect samples for laboratory analysis. This is not the first time for this, in late February troops in Mosul encountered ISIL mortar shells that contained some kind of deadly chemical. Twelve civilians were injured by this and were moved to Kurdish territory for better care and closer examination. It was soon discovered that ISIL was again using the crude mustard gas that has been showing up a lot more since 2015. In 2016 Russia revealed that its chemical warfare experts collected mustard gas samples from a dud shell fired in September 2016 by ISIL forces in Aleppo. The Russians also found evidence of ISIL shells filled with chlorine. ISIL is believed to have used chlorine and mustard gas bombs and shells at least 60 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

April 15, 2017: So far this month over 20,000 refugees had returned to their home in Anbar. Refugees are cautious about returning because ISIL is still active in Anbar. Some of the recent returnees went to cities that have been free of ISIL for over a year but were not yet “safe”. Ramadi is a good example. This city 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 any 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 spent months clearing all the landmines and explosive traps ISIL left behind. Since the ISIL offensive in mid-2014 some four million Iraqis have fled their homes. Most have not returned yet. About ten percent of those refugees are recent and from Mosul. Fighting with ISIL continues in western Anbar province, especially along the Syrian border.

April 8, 2017: The Syrian government, Russia, Iran and Iraq condemned an American cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase yesterday. These critics supported the Syrian Assad government denials that they had anything to do with the use of nerve gas during an airstrike on a rebel held village last week. But the rest of the world either openly supported the American retaliation or were undecided. Most Western nations openly supported the cruise missile barrage as did Middle Eastern nations Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This American action was a big deal in Israel which had hoped the newly elected American government would be more supportive of Israeli efforts to deal with Islamic terrorism (both Sunni and Shia) in the region. Israel and its new Sunni Arab allies are particularly concerned about the growing threat from Iran, which the previous U.S. government did not take as seriously as the Middle Eastern nations (particularly Israel) that Iran openly threatened.

 


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