Iraq: The Avengers

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July 19, 2017: By mid-2017 security forces had regained nearly all of the territory ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) gained during an offensive that began in early 2014 and was halted a year later. At that point ISIL controlled about a third of the country. Now ISIL holds nothing in Mosul and is dispersing or retreating towards Syria. ISIL is something of a passing problem while the major woe remains the widespread corruption and mismanagement the government created or tolerated after elections put the Shia majority in power after 2004. The root cause of the continuing terrorist violence is diehard Sunni Arabs who refuse to accept democracy and Shia domination. Another problem is growing terrorist support from Sunni Arabs elsewhere in the region who fear growing Iranian efforts to spread Shia Islam via Iraq. After 2003 Shia politicians found it convenient to exploit the intense hatred the majority (60 percent of Iraqis are Shia and 20 percent Kurd) feel for the Sunni Arab minority. Iraqi Sunni terrorists got a big boost from the 2011 uprising in Syria, which was led by the Sunni Arab majority there (against the ruling Shia Arab minority). Iraqi Sunni Arabs enthusiastically aided the Syrian rebels and eventually formed a faction (ISIL) dominated by Iraqi Sunnis. ISIL was more ruthless and appealed to hard core Islamic terrorists, especially foreigners and because of that that grew to be major threat in both Syria and Iraq. The Iraqi government was officially neutral but actually doing much of what Iran asked to support the Syrian government. Meanwhile there were growing tensions between the Kurds in the north (over northern oil fields and autonomy) and the Arab majority. That was put aside (temporarily) after Mosul fell to ISIL in 2014 and the Kurds moved in and grabbed nearby Kirkuk (and its oil fields). The Kurds have since shown themselves the most competent and reliable military force in Iraq. By late 2016 the Kurds had driven ISIL back to the outskirts of Mosul. They were assisted by their main backer (the United States) along with a coalition of NATO and Arab countries who provided air support. The Kurds were better prepared for war and the oil money was very important to preserving their autonomy. Less corrupt than the Arabs, the Kurds are the one group in Iraq the West can depend on. Moreover the Kurds don't trust the Arabs. To make matters worse for the Iraqi government, Turkey backs, or at least tolerates, the Iraqi Kurds. The Turks don’t trust the Arabs either. Considering the current situation in Iraq, most Iraqis don’t trust Iraq either. Despite all that there is enough unity to defeat ISIL and keep the Iranians from getting too ambitious. Yet radical Sunnis, separatist Kurds and meddling Iranians will remain a problem, along with corruption and unstable neighbors.

Mosul Aftermath

Many families from Mosul, both those who fled and those who stayed to the end, are demanding that the families of Iraqis who joined ISIL or worked for them must be punished. This is a tricky situation because most of the suspects are Iraqi Sunni Arabs, many from prominent Mosul families and clans. Because some 900,000 people (nearly have the Mosul population) stayed in the city there are plenty of witnesses to the many locals who, because of belief, greed or fear, worked for ISIL. Many of the survivors know that well-connected (from prominent families) and wealthy (often from doing business with or for ISIL) will be able to bribe their way out of any prosecution and punishment. So there will be a lot of murders and disappearances (because of murder or slipping away into exile) in the next month or so.

The list of avengers is long and includes many non-Moslems (Christians, Yazidis and others) and non-Moslems (Kurds, Turks, Assyrians and so on). Many members of the army and commandos who liberated Mosul had lost family (and now soldiers) and not all of them were able to refrain from instant vengeance on captured ISIL men. Since this sort of thing has happened so many times in the past there is a certain informal protocol that is observed. For a brief period the incoming security forces will ignore the revenge killings but after a few months the vengeance will be drifting away from punishment towards extortion and other gangster motivation. So by the end of the year Mosul will settle down to its usual simmer of angry religious, ethnic, tribal and political feuds.

This will be a time when many secrets can be revealed because of the chaos and desperation. Experienced intel operatives, both foreign and local, know this. The American Special Forces specializes in making the most of situations like this. It’s like a brief flash of light in a dark cave of secrets. Yet few of the secrets will be particularly shocking because this routine has played out in this area so many times over the last few thousand years. This time the difference is the impact of mass media and the movement of so many foreign volunteers to ISIL and the dispersal of ISIL survivors back to their homelands. Groups like ISIL have been a feature of local life for over a thousand years but exporting that form of madness to the non-Moslem world is a new angle. Another novel feature is the large number of landmines and explosive devices rigged to explode when disturbed that have been left behind. ISIL hid away lots of weapons, ammo and explosives. All this stuff will keep the death toll from the Battle of Mosul increasing for years to come.

Security forces have already arrested several hundred foreigners found hiding in Mosul who either admit they are ISIL or were trying to hide it. Many of these are young women from other Moslem countries or the West. Some were captured wearing explosive vests or near lots of weapons. These captives are highly prized by the intel collectors because once captured these young women often speak freely and at length about what they saw and did. The same often applies to male ISIL recruits from the West and, to a lesser extent, recruits from other Moslem nations. In addition there are all the documents, especially electronic ones. Smart phones have become the tool of choice for ISIL leaders and administrators and most of them don’t bother with heavy duty security measures on their phones. While often forbidden, many lower ranking ISIL have smart phones as well. Not as many ISIL documents on those but lots of pictures and interesting texts and emails to each other and people back home. The intel agencies are particularly interested in where the ISIL money is. Hundreds of millions of dollars is believed to have been moved out of Iraq and Syria and dispersed into bank accounts and other hiding places. A lot of this cash has already been stolen or, less frequently, seized by a government. What remains can finance a lot more death and destruction and finding it is a priority.

Security forces expect to be finding groups of armed ISIL fighters in Mosul at least through August and individuals and the bombs left behind for months. This has been the pattern in other cities ISIL has held for a while and lost (like Ramadi in Anbar).

Over a thousand ISIL fighters are still active in Iraq, mostly near the Syrian border. This includes the city of Tal Afar between Mosul and the Syrian border. ISIL has occupied Tal Afar since June 2014 and it was a key transit point for anyone or anything moving to or from Mosul and Syria. Currently about 20,000 civilians, a fifth of the normal population, remain in Tal Afar. Until 2007 Tal Afar was mainly a Turkoman (Turkish) town with large Sunni and Shia Arab minorities. Between 2003 and 2007 al Qaeda terrorized the Sunni Turkomen (for not being Arab), murdered the Shia and used the town as a base for bringing in foreign recruits via Syria. Back then the Shia rulers of Syria (the Assad clan) were willing to tolerate Sunni Islamic terrorists as long as they were just passing through and behaving themselves as they did. Now Tal Afar is even more important to Sunni Islamic terrorists (ISIL) in Iraq because it is the only large urban area they still hold and it still controls the main road from Mosul to Raqqa (the ISIL capital in eastern Syria). The fighting around Tal Afar since 2016 has largely been handled by Iran-backed Shia militia although they have been told that only Iraqi army troops will be allowed into the town of Tal Afar itself. That’s why the Tal Afar still has several hundred ISIL fighters in it, despite being largely cut off from Mosul and Syria. This isolation is the result of Shia militias spending the last few months shutting down road access between Syria and Mosul. With the main road from Tal Afar to Raqqa now blocked it is more difficult but not impossible to travel between Syria and Tal Afar. With all of Nineveh province free of ISIL the Islamic terrorists will have gone from controlling about 40 percent of Iraq, including Mosul and several smaller cities at its peak in mid-2014 to a few percent three years later. Mosul and Tal Afar are the largest cities in Nineveh province and to the south is Anbar province where nearly a thousand armed ISIL supporters still operate, most of them near the Syrian and Jordanian borders. Anbar has always been a good source of local recruits for ISIL and a few of them continue fighting.

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. Most of the fighting in Anbar has been in the Euphrates River Valley, which stretches from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. Along the way this river valley passes next to or through Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and Raqqa in eastern Syria. Anbar has always been largely Sunni Arab and that means a lot of supporters for any group that wants to put Sunni Arabs back in charge of Iraq (as they were for centuries until 2003). While the Anbar Sunnis learned to hate al Qaeda after 2006 and ISIL by 2015 they do not trust the Shia Arab majority that now runs an elected government. ISIL survives in Anbar and as long as ISIL controls the Syrian side of the border. That is changing as rebel and government forces close in on Raqqa. Apparently ISIL has not ordered all its armed members in the area back to Raqqa for a final battle but has instead ordered many of these men (and women) to go home (be it Syria, Iraq or Western Europe) and keep fighting. Because of this there is a certain urgency to capture or kill as many of the fleeing ISIL as possible. That is difficult in Anbar because the area has not replaced all the police and government workers ISIL drove away or killed between 2014 and 2016. Anbar outside the river valley is largely thinly populated desert where there is no one to observe, much less influence what is going on.

The lack of security forces on the ground has made aerial surveillance and airstrikes the primary means of finding and attacking ISIL forces wandering around the vast Anbar desert areas. This leads to periodic reports of ISIL convoys or individual vehicles being hit with smart bombs or missiles. The main problem with this is making sure the vehicles are not carrying locals. American and Iraqi intel personnel have become pretty good at identifying who is ISIL and who isn’t, especially on the roads.

The Casualties

The government has finally allowed the security forces commanders to discuss losses among the 100,000 soldiers, commandos (both army and police) involved in the eight months of fighting to regain control of Mosul. The military reported that it had killed about 25,000 ISIL members during the fighting. This included nearly 500 suicide bombers. The offensive destroyed 1,247 vehicles fitted with explosives to be used for suicide bomb attacks or roadside bombs. These vehicles were often spotted by aerial surveillance and destroyed by smart bombs or missiles. In addition another 1,500 ISIL vehicles were destroyed, mostly from the air or with artillery fire. The attackers shot down at least 130 ISIL UAVs (all of them commercial models). After the July 9th declaration of victory troops carefully searched for tunnels (many of them revealed by civilians or captured ISIL members or supporters), often using robots. This is something the Iraqis learned from the Americans. It is good for soldier morale and scares any hostile folk down there.

The government is still reluctant to release full data on casualties among the security forces. The U.S. did confirm that the elite Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force of about 20,000 personnel suffered about 40 percent casualties (dead, wounded and missing) during the nine months they were involved. The Americans had this data because the U.S. offered to assist in training replacements and they had to know who and how many had to be replaced. On the plus side Iraqi civilian deaths from Islamic terrorist attacks are way down in June and that is largely attributed to the collapse of ISIL in Iraq. But there are still ISIL supporters in Iraq, and elsewhere, and it’s only a matter of time before the local ISIL gets organized and starts killing again.

The Kurdish Conundrum Continues

The Kurds are still going to hold their independence referendum on September 25th and in light of the large role in the liberation of Mosul, and defeating ISIL in northern Iraq, they want some payback from the government. The Shia Arabs dominate the federal government and those officials are split on how to deal with the Kurds. That is nothing new, but now the Kurds have the most powerful armed force in the country not to mention control of about 20 percent of Iraqi oil.

July 17, 2017: Kurdish intelligence officials in Iraq and Syria agree that ISIL founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is apparently still alive and probably operating out of a new ISIL headquarters south of Raqqa (Syria). The Kurds, who have decades of experience dealing with Islamic terrorist leaders like Baghdadi have one of the best informant networks in both Iraq and Syria and U.S. intel analysts consider the Kurds a very reliable source.

July 12, 2017: ISIL leaders in the town of Tal Afar, west of Mosul, have declared Tal Afar an independent ISIL area and no longer part of the ISIL caliphate.

July 11, 2017: The American forces commander for Iraq and Syria noted that the recent liberation of Mosul was very much a collaborative effort and the Iran backed Shia militias made an important contribution. It was also noted that these Shia militias never interfered with or threatened American troops in Iraq. Other American officers and NCOs had noted that some of the Shia militias were rabidly and openly anti-American but that most of the Shia militias worked well with the Americans and some of those militiamen expressed concern about the Iranian (Quds Force) officers who supervised their training and support. These observations reflect the complex situation Iran faces in Iraq, where the Shia Arabs are a majority of the population but most Iraqi Arabs (Shia or Sunni) are wary of Iranian intentions. The United States, on the other hand, overthrew the Sunni dictatorship in 2003 and that was popular in Iran as well. Unlike Iran, the U.S. has no historical claims on Iraq and despite Iranian propaganda blaming the Americans for everything that goes wrong, more Iraqi Shia note that Iran is the traditional and still the current threat to Iraqi Arabs no matter what form of Islam they follow. For that reason the Iraqi government (dominated by Shia Arabs) officially refuses to send Iran-backed Shia militia forces into Syria. Some of these militiamen have crossed the border (usually with Iranian encouragement) and it has been noted that these illegal moves were not supported by anyone on either side of the border.

July 10, 2017: In the north Turkish F-16s bombed several PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) targets in northern (Kurdish) Iraq killed at least three PKK members dead. Most of these airstrikes take place in remote areas near the Turkish border.

July 9, 2017: The government declared Mosul liberated from ISIL. This came right after Iraqi forces reported that the last organized ISIL resistance in the Old City had been wiped out. But there are still believed to be hundreds of ISIL members in Mosul, including wives and children of dead ISIL fighters as well as many ISIL deserters or foreign members ordered to try and get home to continue planning terror attacks and recruiting.

July 2, 2017: In the northeast (Kurdish Iraq) across the Iran border in West Azerbaijan Province IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) troops fired several dozen shells into Iraq. Three Iraqis were wounded and hundreds of Iraqi Kurds fled their homes. There was some damage to property. The artillery fire was aimed at a rural area that was often used as a base area by Iranian Kurdish KDPI separatists as well as the larger PJAK Iranian Kurdish rebel group (with about twice as many armed members as KDPI). 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.

June 29, 2017: Syrian rebel groups announced that ISIL founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was dead but would not provide details. As recently as June 16th Russia still claimed that it had used an airstrike to kill Baghdadi on May 28th.

June 23, 2017: In the northwest, on the Syrian border a force of Iraqi Shia militia crossed into Syria (Deir Ezzor province) and joined with Syrian Army troops to push ISIL forces further away from the Iraqi border.

June 20, 2017: Saudi Arabia and Iraq have agreed to a prisoner exchange. Iraq will return 75 Saudi ISIL members jailed on Islamic terrorism charges while the Saudis will turn over two Iraqi Shia who were arrested in 2016 while Mecca and preaching against Saudi control of the Islamic holy places. Saudi Arabia also announced it was providing infantry weapons and ammunition to Iraq and increasing cooperation in dealing with Islamic terrorism. Since the late 1990s the largest source of recruits for al Qaeda and ISIL have come from Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government only reluctantly eventually (especially after 2003) admitted that this was a problem but is still seeking a solution.

 

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