In the Kurdish north popular opposition to the corruption and mismanagement of the two Kurdish ruling parties has led to days of rioting and protests. This was not unexpected. Government salaries have not been paid for two months because of the September referendum on Kurdish independence. This rash act and the resulting disorder has the federal government threatening to send Arab troops in to “restore order” and end nearly three decades of Kurdish autonomy. This would be a tragic loss for Iraq as the Kurds, despite their current unrest, have had less corrupt and more effective government than the rest of Iraq since 1991. Because of that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Islamic terrorists in general have been less effective. The Kurds are also very effective at resisting Iranian subterfuge. All that is easily forgotten by the Iraqi Arabs who see the Kurds as an alien presence even though the Kurds are Sunnis and have lived in the area for thousands of years.
This autonomy began during the aftermath of the 1991 war to drive Iraqi troops out of Kuwait. American and British special operations troops in northern Iraq helped train and organize the Kurds who, to the surprise of many, were able to drive out the Iraqi government forces and keep them out ever since. The Kurds had some incentive as Saddam Hussein had been particularly brutal in the 1980s, even using chemical weapons (including nerve gas) against Iraqi Kurds.
In effect, since the early 1990s the Iraqi Kurds up there have been largely autonomous. But they were not united. The main division was between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, which is led by the Talibani clan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is dominated by the Barzani clan. The Turks, Iraqis and Iranians frequently exploit the PUK-KDP rivalry
to keep the autonomous Iraqi Kurds weak.
That seems to be a factor in the current situation
lthough the Kurds are the most effective Iraqi fighters there
be internal disagreements
within the Kurdish community
It was local politics that led to the September
referendum on independence. Kurdish popular sentiment strongly favors an independent Kurdistan and the current Kurdish leadership openly promises a vote on independence “in a few years.”
But this made no sense as none of the major powers (Turkey, Iran, and the United States) were willing or able to back such a move. The referendum gave the Iraqi government the popular support it needed to halt financial aid for Kurds and send in troops to settle a festering dispute over who should control Kirkuk province.
Despite the importance of maintaining unity, the Iraqi Kurds continue to squabble. This continues despite the two parties agreeing to unify in 2006. At first that appeared to work. But with more foreign aid coming in the PUK accused the KDP (which holds most top leadership positions) of taking more than their share. To make this worse Iran began offering direct aid to PUK and, according to the KDP and many in the PUK, trying to divide the Iraqi Kurds.
In effect the major threat to Kurdish autonomy was Kurdish political disputes. Despite that since the early 1990s Iraqi Kurdistan has maintained its autonomy and become far more stable and prosperous than the rest of the country. This encouraged Kurds because they saw themselves better able to run their own state than Arabs or Iranians.
Then came the 2003 U.S.-British invasion of Iraq and the establishment of a democracy throughout Iraq. That process was delayed for several years by a Sunni Arab Islamic terror campaign against the Shia Arab majority. By 2007 that was defeated, in part because the Kurds had some of the most capable military forces of any of the factions in Iraq, and that included the government. In 2006, when the factions agreed to “unite” the PUK had some 40,000 militiamen, and the KDP nearly 60,000. In addition, between them the two groups have about 50,000 reservists as well. Most of the militiamen were (and still are) armed and trained as motorized light infantry, and organized into brigades of 5,000-8,000. Several "armored" brigades were formed, equipped with Russian tanks, APCs, and artillery. There is also a small, but effective artillery force. In addition to these forces, there were an estimated 15,000-20,000 Kurds in the Iraqi Army or National Police, and a further 10,000 or so working for private security organizations. But the KDP and the Barzarni clan is largely to blame for the current mess because they misused their power and resisted growing calls to address corruption problems. If Iraqi Kurdish autonomy is lost it will be on the Barzanis and many Barzanis will refuse to admit it and the feuds will continue.
The Iranian Threat
Iranians and Iraqis are quietly fighting for control of the PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias after organized because the Iraqi army fell apart in the face of the ISIL advance that took Mosul and about a third of Iraq in a few months. Three years later, with ISIL defeated, there are over 120,000 PMF militiamen on the government payroll, most of them organized by Shia leaders and most of them accepting assistance (and direction) from Iran. The PMF accounts for nearly half the strength of the military and even if you include the Interior Ministry force (National Police and several thousand SWAT and special operations personnel) the PMF accounts for a quarter of the armed personnel the government pays for and, in theory, controls.
This development bothers a lot of Iraqis and has done so since 2015 when it was noted that there were already about 100,000 of these largely Shia militia. In late 2016 parliament passed (after much Iranian pressure) a law making the PMF a part of the armed forces. At that point the PMF militiamen were already on the government payroll (for about $500 a month). In late 2016 some (usually pro-Iran) militia leaders were demanding a share of the military budget and enough money (nearly half a billion dollars to start with) to build their own bases. That did not happen and it reminded all Iraqis what the Iranians were up to. The signs were already there.
The 2016 laws providing pay and other benefits for the PMF also included rules making it mandatory that non-Shia militia be included if they were of proven loyalty. There were plenty of those and by the end of 2016 about a quarter of the PMF were Sunnis. A smaller number were Turkmen, Christian and other minorities ISIL wanted to wipe out. More than half the militias were always Shia. Much publicity was given to instances where Shia militias massacred Sunni civilians and the use of many Iranian trainers and military advisors by some (at one point most) of the Shia militias and the Iran connection in general.
But most of the PMF just concentrated on defeating ISIL. Now that ISIL is defeated many PMF members and leaders believe some, or all, of the PMF units should be retained because the PMF is less corrupt and more experienced at fighting Islamic terrorism. But some Iraqi, and many foreign, observers note that the longer the PMF exists as a government supported militia the more likely corruption is to become a major problem and the experience dealing with Islamic terrorism will fade. What is needed is less corruption in the government and more professionalism in the military. The big appeal of the PMF to its current members is not religion or ideology but the payroll. Most of the PMF men were poor Shia from urban areas (Baghdad and down to Basra). The PMF was a job and commanders found that the threat of dismissal was an additional incentive for the PMF gunmen to do well.
Although the Shia Arabs feel an affinity with Shia Iran, the ancient (we're talking thousands of years here) Arab fear of the Iranians makes it possible for Shia and Sunni Arabs to make deals. And that's what Saudi Arabia, and the other Sunni Arab Gulf States, are doing with Iraq. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the neighborhood bully, and Iraq as an Arab, not an Iranian, asset. Part of this came about because of the pro-Iran PMF militias in Iraq. By 2016 most Shia Arab politicians in Iraq tended to feel they are expendable to the Iranians, who are, quite naturally, more concerned with taking care of Iran, than Iraq, in all of this. Blood is thicker than religion.
The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised, especially the few percent of Iranians who are Arab) 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).
There are constant reminders of the Iranian threat, which is considered equal, or even worse than the Sunni Arab Islamic terrorism attacks on Shia. For example in September 2017 a leader of one of the PMF Shia militias went public with his belief that his men would start killing American troops once ISIL was no longer a threat in Iraq. That was not a surprise to many Iraqi Shia. In August 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. The Iraqi prime minister (a Shia), wants to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it.
The cause of all this fear is largely because Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them) and even more enlisted IRGC personnel to Iraq to train and advise these militias. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. These IRGC personnel are seen by most Iraqis as hostile foreign agents but they did play a major role in turning these Shia militias into militarily useful organizations.
That effectiveness is now part of the problem and since ISIL was defeated (even before Mosul fell) the number of Shia religious and militia leaders who openly supported Iran was declining. More Iraqi Shia are doubting Iranian intentions towards Iraq and believe Iran ultimately wants to control the Iraq government or even partition Iraq and annex the largely Shia (and oil rich) south. At the same time Iranian efforts to discourage Iraqi Kurds from obtaining more autonomy are unwelcome with many Arab Iraqis who see this as another example of Iran treating Iraq like a subordinate, not an ally.
There are still over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the PMF Shia militias. The Iraqi government fears that these IRGC advisors and trainers are secretly building pro-Iran armed militias in Iraq. That’s simply not true because the IRGC is quite open about what they are doing to encourage Iraqi Shia to organize armed groups so they can work with Iran someday to impose the same kind of religious dictatorship in Iraq that has existed in Iran since the 1980s. That is equally unlikely (because of popular opposition inside Iraq) but the Iranians tend to think long-term.
December 19, 2017: In the west (Anbar Province) Iraqi EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) teams and some foreign mine clearing personnel have, over the last two years, found and disposed of more than 38,000 pieces of ISIL ammunition, including those used for mines and roadside bombs. It was in 2015 that ISIL was first driven from parts of Anbar. It soon became clear that ISIL would always leave lots of explosive surprises behind. The U.S. has been training Iraqis for this EOD work since 2004 and after that Iraq had its own school that has been turning out a growing number of very effective EOD technicians. These men are essential if there is to be a rapid and sustained advance into ISIL held territory or urban areas ISIL has held for a while.
December 18, 2017: The government revealed that the security forces (army, police and militias) suffered some 35,000 dead and about as many badly wounded in the three years of fighting ISIL in Iraq. Foreign forces, mainly American, lost about fifty dead in the same period. The government is still trying to get a total count of civilian losses. This is difficult because ISIL did not publicize many of its mass killings and quietly put the bodies in mass graves. Many of these may not be found for years. Then there was the widespread use of civilians as human shields. That rarely worked during the last year of fighting as it became clear that the sooner ISIL was defeated the fewer overall deaths there would be. As high as the security forces losses were there were more civilians killed and ISIL losses were over 20,000 dead in Iraq, but many of those were foreigners.
There are still a few hundred ISIL fighters left in Anbar, mostly along the Syrian border. For the last month troops have been visiting hundreds of villages and remote farms in Anbar and further north (around Mosul) seeking ISIL gunmen. Many rural civilians fled and there are plenty of places diehard ISIL fighters could try to use as hideouts. This has led to several hundred ISIL dead and fewer losses among civilians and security forces (some of them from ISIL explosive devices). Losses are still being suffered in Mosul where ISIL left men (and women) behind with orders to try and establish terrorist cells. These Islamic terrorists had knowledge of hidden arms caches and will often be discovered using them to obtain arms or ammo. Most of the casualties in Mosul are from the many explosive devices ISIL left behind.
December 15, 2017: The top Iranian religious leader declared that the Iran backed PMF militias must follow the orders of the Iraqi government. At the same time the Iranian cleric declared that the PMF militias should not be disbanded. Many Iraqis, including most Shia, apparently want the PMF disbanded and the PMF militias not controlled by Iranian “advisors” (Quds Force officers) are disbanding.
December 14, 2017: ISIL snipers have become a persistent problem in several villages in Salahuddin province (north of Anbar and northwest of Baghdad) and adjacent Diyala province (northeast of Baghdad and bordering Iran). Both of these provinces have large Sunni Arab populations and have seen occasional combat between ISIL and Iraqi forces since 2016. With the collapse of ISIL control in Mosul and surrounding areas by mid-2017 many ISIL fled to the countryside and apparently remained there. It has been difficult to get out of the country and any ISIL gunmen operating in large (over a dozen armed men) groups tends to get noticed and attacked. But smaller groups, in some cases individuals, have evaded capture or death by travelling light. That means they have little opportunity to use bombs but have found that frequent sniping, even with an AK-47 (which can be pretty accurate in single shot mode when used by a marksman) can disrupt travel and economic life in an area. This is not a widespread problem but the news gets around and makes the rural population in both provinces anxious.
December 11, 2017: Senior Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr ordered the PMF militias loyal to him (about 10-20 percent of the total) to begin disarming and urged the government to provide government jobs (civil service or military) for the demobilized PMF men.
December 10, 2017: Iraq officially celebrated the defeat of ISIL in Iraq. For the Kurds there was less to celebrate, as was obvious on the 9th when the prime minister named the units most active in defeating ISIL and didn’t mention the Kurds. This caused an uproar even among many Shia and Sunni Arabs who remembered that the Kurds not only stopped the ISIL advance in 2014 but were key in the effort to retake Mosul and the rest of ISIL occupied northern Iraq. The prime minister corrected his list by the time the official parades and other celebrations were underway. Another bit of bad news was the U.S. belief that there are still 500-1,000 ISIL members active in Iraq. Because of that threat plus a growing Iranian presence most Iraqis are fine with most of the 5,300 American troops now in Iraq remaining.
December 3, 2017: General Qassem Soleimani was proclaimed (via Iranian TV) the best Iranian armed forces commander during the last year. Soleimani commands the IRGC Quds Force and has been regularly praised as responsible for victories in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Soleimani is seen as some sort of master of mayhem and an ideal Iranian hero. The United States and many other nations consider Soleimani an international terrorist. To that end the head of the CIA recently warned Soleimani that he and his Quds Force associates would be held personally responsible if the Iran backed forces in Iraq or Syria attacked American troops. Soleimani had recently said that would happen if American troops did not leave Iraq and Syria. Most Iraqis want the Americans to stay until the Iranian threat is diminished.
November 28, 2017: In the north (Saladin Province, some 200 kilometers north of Baghdad) an American airstrike killed a known courier for senior ISIL leaders. Apparently the courier had information that led to an airstrike on December 1st just across the border in Syria (near the Euphrates River) that killed ISIL senior leader Abu Faisal and his deputy Abu Qudama. The U.S. confirmed these three deaths on December 20th.
November 27, 2017: In the north, near the Turkish border, Turkish F-16s carried out several airstrikes against at least two PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) hideouts leaving about 80 PKK fighters dead and a lot of PKK ammo and other explosive materials exploding in a spectacular fashion. The Iraqi government and local Kurds tolerate these Turkish airstrikes as long as they concentrate on PKK personnel hiding out in remote areas near the border. The Turks regularly launch airstrikes on PKK camps or concentrations they have identified in northern Iraq.