Iraqi forces are closing in on the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) occupied city of Tal Afar (65 kilometers west of Mosul and 150 kilometers east of the Syrian border). The city is the target of most Iraqi airstrikes and more Iraqi artillery units are moving close enough to fire at the city regularly. Iraqi and coalition aircraft and UAVs can be seen over the city constantly, many of them apparently seeking targets for the air strikes and artillery as well as mapping the defenses and location of the defenders. More civilians are risking death (from ISIL gunmen with orders to shoot on sight any such refugees) to get out of the city and are a source of firsthand information on what ISIL is up to in the area.
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 were told that only Iraqi army troops would be allowed into Tal Afar itself. That’s why 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 thousand or more 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. Because of that the Iraqi government relented and allowed some Shia militias to take part in the final assault on the city.
The Mosul Muddle
Mosul is now largely free of ISIL fighters and those that remain now resort to terror attacks. That is facilitated by many still hidden stocks of ISIL weapons and explosives as well as a large amount of cash. Kurdish troops complain that many of the Iraqi soldiers and police guarding access to Mosul will take bribes. The Kurds test this by offering bribes to get someone without ID and in civilian clothes and notes that about a thousand dollars will get you through many checkpoints. A vehicle costs more (about $1,500). It was noted that even guards willing to take a bribe would not do so it if was too obvious that the ones offering it were probably Islamic terrorists. But still, it is a problem.
Journalists in Mosul, especially the foreign ones, are noticing and reporting (often with video) incidents of Iraqi security forces looting, demanding bribes and attacking civilians without apparent reason. A lot of this misbehavior is real, not just being misinterpreted. Cell phone tech has reached the point where it is easy for anyone to take a broadcast quality video with sound and email it around the world. Governments in general don’t like this but it forces Iraqi officials to at least go through the motions of punishing the obviously (via videos) guilty.
This is particularly apt right now because Iraqi leaders are talking about “post-war reforms” and at the top of the list is the popular demand to curb corruption. Mosul needs a lot of that right now since all the government money spent on reconstruction means lots of opportunity for corruption and that generates short and long term problems because a lot of the repairs and new structures will be sub-standard in order to pay for the bribes and theft. While many of the usual offenders see this as a chance to play it straight others see it as a challenge with big financial rewards for those who can pull it off.
Most Iraqis now know there is a connection between corruption and the overall health of the economy, public safety and general welfare. Saddam Hussein and his predecessors were notoriously (and often shamelessly) corrupt and while Iraq is still one of the most corrupt nations on the planet there some local nations that are living examples of how less corruption means life gets better. Corruption can be measured and one of the more popular examples is the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index where national corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually North Korea, Somalia or, since 2011, South Sudan) have a rating of under fifteen while of the least corrupt (usually Denmark) is often 90 or higher. The current Iraq score is 17 compared to 13 for Syria, 41 for Turkey, 46 for Saudi Arabia, 48 for Jordan, 28 for Lebanon, 29 for Iran, 66 for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 64 for Israel, 25 for Afghanistan, 32 for Pakistan, 40 for India, 29 for Russia, 40 for China, 11 for South Sudan, 12 for North Korea, 72 for Japan and 74 for the United States. These rankings demonstrate how a lower corruption score indicates a nation with economic (and many other) troubles. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge. But the UAE and a few other Middle Eastern nations have demonstrated that it can be done. Making it happen is difficult, but so is retaining the old ways. That means if you want to keep the problems with the Kurds, Sunni versus Shia, the threat from Iran, ineffective police and armed forces plus high unemployment and persistent poverty, then just ignore the corruption. It is now generally recognized that Mosul was lost of ISIL in mid-2014 largely because of corruption in the security forces. Iraqis want change and they have been increasingly open, loud and public about that. Leading the anti-corruption drive have been many Shia religious leaders. These Shia clerics have also noted that Shia run Iran is not doing so well dealing with corruption while the largely Sunni UAE has, even doing better than Israel.
Turning Against Iran
With ISIL no longer a major threat Iraq has surprised Iran (and many others outside the Arab world) by rebuilding relations with Sunni Arab neighbors and telling Iran to back off with any plans it had to dominate Iraqi politics. Senior Shia Arab religious and political leaders have been leaning this way for a long time and Iran thought the war against ISIL was an opportunity to weaken the traditional Shia Arab distrust of Iran. That did not work.
Since 2005, when accurate opinion polls and generally free elections were once again available it became obvious that both in Sunni Arab areas (where there used to be a lot of support for al Qaeda) and Shia areas (where there used to be a lot of support for the kind of religious dictatorship found in Shia Iran) that Iran was seen as the enemy. This was obvious to familiar with Iraqi history. Fear of Indo-European Iran has always been greater than the fact that most Iraqis share their Shia faith with Iranians. Blood is thicker than religion. This is why more there was always so much violence along the ethnic border between Kurds (who are ethnically related to the Iranians) and Arabs, especially in oil rich Kirkuk.
From 2005 on it became increasingly clear that the vast majority of Iraqis, including Kurds and most Shia Arabs, feared increasing Iranian influence. Although most Iraqis are Shia, they are also Arab, and do not want to be ruled by their fellow Shia in Iran. That's because the Iranians are Indo-European people and have long treated their Arab neighbors with disdain and cruelty. Iraqis could now see this happening regularly in western Iran, where the Iranian Arab minority (about two percent of the population) is constantly being persecuted by the Indo-European Iranians. The Iranian Arabs also get it from the Azeri Turk minority (25 percent of all Iranians). Iraqis have bitter memories of centuries of domination by the Ottoman Turks (who now control only Turkey), whose empire once stretched into North Africa and the Balkans.
One reason Saddam Hussein had some support from all groups in Iraq and from his Arab neighbors was his ability to keep the Iranians out. After Saddam was overthrown in 2003 many Iraqis (and most Arabs) feared that, without a badass like Saddam, there would be no one to motivate Iraqis into blocking Iranian moves to occupy Iraq, or control its rulers. But now the Shia Arab Iraqi leaders (political and religious) appear confident that they can stand up to the Iranian threats. The is one thing all Iraqis can unite behind and apparently one of many reasons why Iraq is openly demanding that Iran back off while just as publically establishing economic, political and military links with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states in the region to oppose Iranian plans for expansion and domination of Arabia.
The new alignment means more technical and economic aid from the Sunni Arab states to the south and more vigorous efforts by those Sunni Arab rulers to ensure their Shia Arab minorities (or, in the case of Bahrain, majority) are treated well and that there is little support for Sunni Arab Iraqis. The Saudi leaders had always tried to maintain good relationships with their Shia minority but that had become more difficult as radical Sunni Islam (as in al Qaeda and ISIL) became more popular. Now that form of religious zeal has become less popular in Arabia, at least for a while. But that’s another problem that is less pressing hat the immediate ones posed by Iran.
August 17, 2017: The Iran backed Shia militias are accused of continuing to recruit, train and sent into combat teenagers 17 and under. Iraq has agreed not to do that but there is evidence that the militias have deliberately done so. Several hundred such “child soldiers” were apparently recruited this year. This makes it easier for Iraq to cut Iranian support for these militias.
August 16, 2017: In the northwest (Tal Afar) troops ambushed eight ISIL men trying to sneak out of the city at night. One of the dead was the ISIL mayor of Tal Afar and another was the police chief. Elsewhere in the area Kurdish forces report that in the last four days they have captured 30 ISIL men near Tal Afar. Most of these ISIL men were attempting to hide among nearly a thousand civilians who fled Tal Afar towards Kurdish territory in the north. Most of the several thousand civilians fleeing Tal Afar head east, towards Mosul and this Kurdish report motivated the Iraqi Arab troops to screen the refugees more carefully.
In the northeast (Erbil province) Iranian artillery fired several dozen shells at rural areas on the Iraqi side of the border. It is believed the Iranians were (for the second month in a row) firing on suspected Iranian Kurdish separatist group based in camps in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. There were no casualties this time but the July shelling left three dead.
General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, commander of the Iranian armed forces, visited Turkey for the first time, met with senior Turkish political and military leaders and that was a bad sign for Iraq. Most of what was discussed was not disclosed, but Baqeri and Turkish leader Recep Erdogan met together for a press conference and agreed that the Iraqi Kurds holding a referendum on Kurdish independence was a bad thing. Iraqi Arabs agree with that.
August 15, 2017: In the northwest, 90 kilometers south of Mosul in Salahuddin province an Iraqi air strike killed an ISIL leader who had been in charge of finding wives for ISIL fighters. Further south, west if Ramadi in Anbar province, ISIL executed five of its own leaders for trying to desert.
August 14, 2017: Saudi Arabia announced it will open the Arar border crossing permanently after it had been closed since 1990. Arar is a major crossing between the two countries and the crossing was only opened once a year to allow Iraqis going on the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. Those pilgrims were carefully screened coming and going.
August 13, 2017: In northern Iraq two American soldiers were killed and five wounded when a 155mm artillery shell they were using went off prematurely. Such incidents are rare but they do still happen. The army is investigating the incident to see if it could have been prevented. The American troops were part of an artillery unit providing support for Iraqi troops.
August 11, 2017: In the south, Majid Al Nasrawi, the former governor of Basra Province illegally crossed the border into Iran. Nasrawi had resigned as governor the day before after being accused of corruption and told not to leave the country. Although Nasrawi insisted he was innocent he took advantage of corrupt security officials to get out of the country. This confirmed to Iraqi Shia Arabs that Iran was not a friend.
August 10, 2017: In the northwest ISIL was reported searching Tal Afar for the son of an ISIL leader who had killed his father and fled.
August 8, 2017: In the northwest troops outside Mosul encountered a group of ISIL men who were killed apparently defending a large hidden workshop for building explosive vests and rockets. Hundreds of these devices were found in the workshop, most of them apparently ready for use. Over the last month Iraqi troops have found six similar workshops hidden in areas ISIL had apparently retreated from.
August 4, 2017: Senior Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate loyal (to Iraq) members into the armed forces. For the moment the Iraqi government is allowing Iraqi Shia militias to take part in the battle for Tal Afar but generally agrees with Sadr. However Haidar al Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, wants to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it.
August 2, 2017: UN observers report that 241 civilians were killed during July. This only included those Iraqis in government controlled areas. It will be a while before it is possible to get an accurate idea of how many Iraqis died in the battle for Mosul and other ISIL controlled areas. The military has been reluctant to disclose its loss summaries but the Kurdish intelligence analysts estimate (largely from interviews with refugees from the city) that about 10,000 civilians a month died during the last four months of fighting in Mosul. That was a combination of ISIL executions and murders plus the tremendous firepower the Iraqi forces used to keep their own losses down. While the use of human shields had some impact on non-Iraqi (especially American) air strikes, Iraqi air or artillery attacks generally ignored the use of human shields. This was done because all the fighting was being done by Iraqi, mostly those belonging to the elite army and police special operations units. This troops felt they had to keep their losses down any way they could.
Meanwhile the impact of terror attacks in government controlled has been steadily falling, indicating ISIL was weakening throughout the country. After rising in March civilian (and police) deaths declined 42 percent in April to 317. About half those casualties were in or near Mosul (Nineveh province). Baghdad suffered 17 percent of the dead while Salahaddin province (between Baghdad and Mosul) and western Iraq (Anbar province) accounted for most of the remaining fatalities. The pattern was similar in March when 543 civilians and five police were killed by Islamic terrorist related activities compared to 392 civilians and 26 police in February and 382 civilians and 21 police in January. The civilian deaths were up 42 percent in March compared to February and this is largely because of the fighting in and around Mosul. Two-thirds (67 percent) of the civilian deaths were in or near Mosul (Nineveh province). Baghdad suffered 15 percent of the dead while Salahaddin province (between Baghdad and Mosul) and western Iraq (Anbar province) accounted for most of the remaining 18 percent. Most of the deaths in Nineveh province were related to the effort to drive ISIL out of Mosul. Baghdad was usually where most civilian deaths took place and it still a major target for suicide bombing efforts, usually in Shia neighborhoods. Not surprisingly there have been fewer ISIL bombings in Baghdad and other usual targets because ISIL was in bad shape. Prisoners and deserters report low morale and panic among many of the less resolute ISIL members.
In July the government 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. That effort will continue for months.
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 fighting in Mosul. 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. They are already doing that and the Iraqi government is under a lot of pressure to stop the ISIL attasks.
July 31, 2017: Over the last week Iraqi aircraft have dropped millions of leaflets in western Anbar province warning civilians that a major offensive against the remaining ISIL forces there was about to begin. Over a thousand ISIL gunmen (it could be a few thousand) control portions of western Anbar, mostly near a few key (on main roads) border crossings with Syria. There are also three towns (Annah, Qaim and Rawa) that ISIL still holds (and has led since 2014). These ISIL controlled areas still have about a quarter million civilians. Anbar comprises about a third of Iraq in terms of territory but less than ten percent of the population. Anbar is largely desert with most of the people living in the Euphrates River valley in the eastern part of Anbar. Many of those civilians are kin to pro-government Sunni tribal militias that will be part of the offensive. Once Tal Afar is taken the Iraqi armed forces will move as many troops as it can to Anbar.
July 30, 2017: American intel analysts report that attacks against key ISIL personnel in the last few months appear to have crippled the ISIL media (especially Internet distribution) network. The ISIL Amaq News Agency appears to be out of business because of these losses. ISIL is currently killing any of these civilians they catch trying to escape to government territory.
July 29, 2017: Outside Mosul Iraqi troops encountered and killed three ISIL leaders who were trying to get away via the Tigris River. Some apparently have made but most have not.