Iraq: Counting Heads

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February 27, 2018: Iraqis are generally seeking help from fellow Arabs, China and the West, and not Iran, when it comes to reconstruction. Iraqi Arabs, including most Shia, see Iran as more threat than friend. Most Arab oil states seem much less threatening than in the past, especially with Saudi Arabia enacting long overdue reforms that make it easier for the Saudis to support Shia majority Iraq. All Arabs agree that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is not gone, it is simply diminished and gone underground. ISIL survives because of the social and political problems still common throughout the Middle East. The big issue is corruption and incompetent governments. Dealing with ISIL dirty money and their transformation to well financed gangsters is an easier problem to deal with than the corruption that is found everywhere.

The Kurds also need some financial help, even though there was hardly any fighting in Kurdish administered territory. But the surprise October 2017 government offensive on Kirkuk and the northern oil fields the Kurds were operating to pay for their government meant the Kurds had much less income.

Since late 2017 oil production from the southern oil fields has averaged 3.5 million BPD (barrels per day). In early 2017 Iraq, as a founding member of the OPEC oil cartel, had agreed to reduce its oil production by over a million BPD to help increase the world price for oil. Iraqi production hit a peak 3.51 million BPD at the end of 2016. Iraqi production increased in 2017, often to take advantage of the production cuts the Saudis had agreed to and were making. But the October offensive against the Kurds in Kirkuk shut down most of the oil production up there.

The surprise Iraqi government attacks on Kirkuk in mid-October 2017 led to a sharp reduction in oil exported from the north by the Kurds. The Kurds were exporting 500,000 BPD before October and now that is running at about 200,000 BPD. Iraq has ten percent of the world's oil reserves and 2017 exploration efforts have that increased 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. What is keeping the world oil price low 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. The fall in oil prices since 2013 (from over $100 a barrel to as low as $30) cut foreign currency reserves to about $48 billion by the end of 2017, compared to $53 billion in mid-2016. By early 2018 the price of oil had climbed to $60 a barrel mainly because OPEC members were not cheating on their quotas and several members were producing less than their quota because of internal security problems. The ISIL crisis forced Iraq to be more prudent with its finances, and government operations in general. The Americans are no longer being blamed for all that goes wrong. Taking responsibility does indeed make it easier to deal with problems. But many Iraqi leaders and politicians still prefer to blame all the problems on America, Israel and so on.

Nearly everyone hates ISIL but many Iraqis remember that it was government corruption and incompetence that enabled ISIL to so easily grab control of a third of Iraq in mid-2014. The government says it is aware of the problem and plans to do better with rebuilding the country, an effort that will cost hundreds of billion dollars to accomplish. Fear that corruption will cripple reconstruction is not unexpected because Iraq has long been one of the most corrupt nations in the region. This results in much of the foreign aid being stolen and not getting to the people it was intended for. This is not surprising as Iraq was recently rated as one of the most corrupt (169th put of 180 countries compared to 166th out of 176 in 2016) nations in the world for 2017. Somalia was rated the most corrupt nations in the world and has held that dubious distinction for a decade. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. The current Iraq score is 18 (17 last year) compared to 40 (41) for Turkey, 49 (46) for Saudi Arabia, 48 (48) for Jordan, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 30 (29) for Iran, 71 (66) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 62 (64) for Israel, 15 (15) for Afghanistan, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 40 (40) for India, 29 (29) for Russia, 41 (40) for China, 17 (12) for North Korea, 73 (72) for Japan and 75 (74) for the United States. A lower corruption score is common with nations in economic trouble. African nations are the most corrupt, followed by Middle Eastern ones. Fixing an existing culture of corruption has proved a most difficult challenge.

The War With ISIL

The United States continues to monitor ISIL activity in Iraq and Syria and conduct airstrikes daily. In February this has been 2-4 airstrikes a day. Most of these airstrikes are still in Syria while in Iraq F-16s, ground attack and armed helicopters from the Iraqi air force provide dozens of sorties a day. Iraqi appreciates the American effort, especially the intelligence collecting and analysis part because this keeps track of the continued presence of ISIL groups in Anbar, Mosul and elsewhere in northern Iraq (between Baghdad and the Kurdish controlled far north). The Americans believe there are over a thousand armed ISIL members in these areas and reports of ISIL clashes with security forces in those areas confirms this. In addition there are still many ISIL supporters among the Sunni Arab Iraqis present in these areas who aid in supplying (cash, weapons, recruits) and concealing the armed ISIL groups. The Iraqi government has a better sense of the extent of ISIL support among Iraqis and while the support is much reduced some of it still exists.

The government also has to deal with the growing threat from Iran and over 120,000 armed men of the PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias that were organized after 2014 because the Iraqi army fell apart. Most PMF are pro-government but a large majority openly pledge allegiance to Iran and lead the calls for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraq. The pro-Iran PMF units are popular targets for ISIL attacks, especially those using suicide bombers.

The ISIL gunmen generally operate at night and often wear army, police or PMF uniforms and pretend to be part of the security forces to stage ambushes and attacks on checkpoints or small bases. Kurdish intel officials believe ISIL is going to attempt a major offensive in Kirkuk province, where security has been uneven since government forces expelled Kurdish troops last October. Clashes with these ISIL gunmen occur several times a week in addition to instances where police or troops arrest actual or suspected ISIL members or discover ISIL facilities (storage sites, workshops, hideouts). The situation may be worst in Anbar, where Sunni Islamic terrorists have long operated. The government did not release any casualty data for Anbar in January, even or civilian casualties. That is always a bad sign.

Terror related civilian deaths in Iraq rose in January to 115 and that does not include Anbar province, which has long been second to Baghdad when it comes to civilian casualties to terrorism. Most (78 percent) of the January deaths occurred in Baghdad. The increased casualties are disappointing because the deaths hit a new low (69) in December 2017. With 35 percent of the deaths in Baghdad an old pattern continued. In October when 114 civilians were killed. Most (63 percent) of this violence was equally split between Baghdad (long a Sunni Islamic terrorist target) and Anbar province. The government has still not resumed reporting casualties among the security forces (military and police). Civilian deaths were higher (at 196) in September and have been declining steadily for most of 2017. During the last two months most of the civilian deaths occurred because the victims were near an unexpected suicide bomber attack. Soldiers and police usually can spot and stop suicide bombers but this often means the suicide bomber will set off his explosives before he can he shot dead or captured alive. At that point the bomber is often near civilians who became the casualties instead of the security forces. The government says the January Anbar casualty data will be released once all the data can be collected. With the decline in Islamic terror related deaths other forms of violence are now getting more, long overdue, attention. At the top of the list is tribal feuds. Tribal politics has long been a major factor in Iraqi society, especially the largely Sunni tribes of Anbar and the six major Shia tribes of Basra (the southern province).

Meanwhile Iraq has over a thousand ISIL foreigners who were captured and that is causing all sorts of problems. European nations that with the many widows and children of ISIL fighters came from are a major problem. The mothers are threatened with long prison terms or even execution and there are disputes over what to do with their children. Many of these widows are asking to be returned to their European homelands and raise their children in the places they denounced as they left to join ISIL in Syria or Iraq. This is most frequently a problem in Iraq where the government wants to prosecute some of the widows who were known to have worked for ISIL, usually by making videos urging other European Moslems to join ISIL. Some of the widows had administrative jobs with ISIL and some are accused of murder and other major crimes. The European nations have no problem with prosecuting the widows but the main concern is the children. Research has shown that mothers are more effective at radicalizing children than fathers. Another reality is that “deradicalization” programs are a failure, especially in situations like this. Then there are the public exhortations by ISIL leaders for these widows to return home, help organize new attacks and radicalize their children for future attacks. That has already been happening in several European countries and is not a theoretical threat.

While many Europeans believed Islamic terrorism in their midst was caused by the American invasion of Iraq, the local police and intelligence services knew better. Islamic terrorism has been a problem in Europe for over three decades, and in the 1990s it was getting worse. After September 11, 2001, and especially after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was fashionable for more Moslems, especially young ones, to declare America an "enemy of Islam." This is causing major crime problems in Europe as most of the illegal migrants are young men seeking to make money anyway they can and not inclined to let local laws or customs get in their way. Interestingly the largest source of illegal migrants to Europe are from oil-rich states. The largest source of illegal migrants reaching Europe in 2017 was Nigeria (37,000) with another oil-rich state, Iraq providing 27,000.

The Iranian Threat

Iran continues to call for a military coalition to oppose American expansion in the region. So far there have been no takers. Iraq has been trying to convince Iran that most Iraqis see Iran as more of a threat than the Americans. The hardcore Iranians who hear this are not pleased and tend to threaten “ungrateful” Iraqi leaders. This further reinforces Iraqi fears of Iranian domination. Most Iraqi Shia oppose Iranian demands. Neighboring Pakistan, which has nukes, quietly points out that it is on very good terms with Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States and now Israel as well. The Saudis and other Arab oil states have responded with pledges of financial and military support for Iraq. The Saudis also indicate that the Arab oil states continue to crack down on all Islamic terrorist activity within their borders. For a long time this Islamic terrorist fund raising and recruiting was tolerated, if only because it got the Islamic radicals out of the country. That backfired and now Iraq and Saudi Arabia openly agree that groups like ISIL and al Qaeda are a danger to all and will not be tolerated. This is a new development because for over half a century the Saudis supported the Sunni minority dictatorship in Iraq because it was seen as the only way to keep Iran from taking over Iraq.

Iran accused the United States (as it has done for years) of creating ISIL. Now Iran insists that the Americans are making it possible for the surviving ISIL personnel from Syria and Iraq to move to Afghanistan. While there are some ISIL personnel in Afghanistan most of them are former Taliban looking for something more hardcore. Meanwhile Afghanistan sees Iran as a threat, if only because Afghan security officials keep finding more Afghans spying for Iran. Iran responded to American criticism of Iranian aggression in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon by insisting that it had an obligation to aid these nations in their fight against American and Israeli threats. This justification is unpopular with most Iranians who want their government to pay more attention to real problems inside Iran rather than imaginary ones overseas. Leaders of the PMF (government supported militias) in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon openly boast of their financial and other support from Iran. This makes most Iraqis and Lebanese uncomfortable. Hezbollah has long been recognized by most foreign nations as an Islamic terrorist organization. Syrians are dreading Iranian plans to create a Syrian Hezbollah. Now Iranians officers openly talk of attacking American troops in northeast Syria, with the help of Turkish troops who are already attacking Kurds in northwest Syria (Afrin).

Iraqi officials admit that the Americans are taking the Iranian threats seriously and increasing security around their bases. The threat is the continued calls by Iran-backed Shia militia leaders to drive all American forces out of Iraq. The problem is most Iraqis want the Americans to stay because of the threat of Iranian domination. Meanwhile the American government has confirmed that U.S. troops will remain in Syria and Iraq for as long as they are needed. At the moment that appears to be indefinitely and Iran does not agree with that at all. Meanwhile Iraqi leaders, including the current prime minister, are admitting that the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in 2011 was a mistake they do not want to repeat. It appears that the pro-Iranian PMF militias leaders calling for violence against American forces will hold off until after the May 12th national elections (which will indicated how much popular support the pro-Iran groups have.)

Iran was not pleased when Iraq changed its mind back in 2014 about how to treat American troops. The Iraqi government finally signed a status of forces agreement with the U.S. in mid-2014 and that enabled hundreds of American Special Forces and intelligence personnel to enter Iraq and assist in battling the ISIL advance. Special Forces and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) personnel provides ground controllers for American air strikes and advisors for Iraqi army and police commanders. The advice included a better sense of who is where on the ground by virtue of American intel efforts. The American personnel were also there to report back to the U.S. a more accurate picture of what was going on. Even the Iraqi government was badly in need of better intel. For ISIL intel was less of a problem because many of their men were on a mission from God and victory was assured. ISIL leaders do make use of a network of informants they have long employed to determine who to bribe or assassinate in the government and which criminal or Islamic terrorist group they could work with. The American data collection (via aircraft, satellites or monitoring the Internet) provided the Iraqis with names for many of the Iraqi officials ISIL had corrupted and that played a major, if largely unpublicized, role in defeating ISIL.

Until the ISIL crises in mid-2014 the Iraqis could not muster the political will to provide the United States with a Status of Forces agreement so that American troops could operate inside Iraq. No one from the West would send trainers to Iraq without a Status of Forces agreement In 2013 Iraq, beset by a resurgence of Sunni Islamic terrorism, appealed for international support, especially from America. The U.S. responded with some intelligence support (handled by personnel outside Iraq) and a few experts (with diplomatic passports) on the ground. Because Iraq refused to provide American troops with protection from corrupt Iraqi police and courts, there was no Status of Forces agreement and the only Americans available in Iraq are the few who can use diplomatic immunity. What prevented Iraq from providing Status of Forces type immunity was the pressure from Iran. Refusing to sign a Status of Forces agreement (which is actually quite common) is seen as a matter of honor among some Iraqis and no politician dared to point out that countries like German, South Korea and Japan disagreed with this stand. U.S. troops would not return without the Status of Forces agreement and that was not negotiable. Currently the Iraqis don’t want American combat troops but they do need the American trainers and technical experts (including intelligence collection and analysis).

February 26, 2018: In Baghdad police arrested two ISIL leaders who had escaped capture in Anbar province and were seeking to establish themselves in a Sunni Arab area where they could rebuild ISIL in Iraq. That’s difficult to do just now as many, if not most, Iraqi Sunni Arabs see ISIL as a bad idea and a danger to everyone. That means ISIL personnel can no longer assume they are safe in Sunni Arab areas. Not with all those cell phones carried by anti-ISIL Sunnis.

February 25, 2018: Fighting in Mosul continues. Troops trapped at least 30 ISIL men in a large bunker built inside a cave. The ISIL men refused to come out and Iraqi troops fired 27 TOW missiles at the cave entrance and eventually collapsed the entrance. The trapped ISIL men may have had another exit from the bunker (which is standard when building such bunkers) but apparently this bunker was full of ammunition and explosives because after the cave entrance collapsed the troops could hear (and feel) large explosions inside the bunker. These “secondary explosions” indicate that a large amount of explosives inside the bunker were detonated on purpose or as a side effect of the missile fire. The troops wanted to take some of the ISIL men alive for interrogation but now there won’t even be another ISIL bunker to search for documents and other useful information (like how many ISIL personnel are left in Mosul, who local collaborators were and so on). The government estimates that at least 25,000 ISIL personnel died during the nine month battle to capture Mosul.

February 24, 2018: In the north (Kirkuk province) ISIL gunmen attacked an oil field facility and were repulsed but only after three policemen were killed. This was the first attack on an oil facility since Iraqi forces drove the Kurds out of Kirkuk last October. Since then security has deteriorated in Kirkuk province and violence by ISIL groups has increased. This was not unexpected as the Kurds have always been better at providing security than Arab Iraqis.

February 23, 2018: The government will re-open the highway from Kirkuk to the Kurdish capital of Erbil by the end of the month. The highway has been closed since last October because of the Iraqi attack on Kurdish forces in Kirkuk province. ISIL has established a presence in areas where the Kurds had kept them out since 2014. PMF forces were largely responsible for chasing the Kurds out of Kirkuk and pro-Iran PMF groups have made themselves unpopular with the locals and ISIL is taking advantage of that by concentrating their attacks on pro-Iran PMF personnel and facilities.

February 21, 2018: In the northeast (Diyala province) an Iraqi airstrike killed a known ISIL leader and one of his subordinates. Iraqi security forces are receiving a lot of tips from civilians about ISIL movements and locations. In some cases the Iraqi forces have to move fast and the Iraqi Air Force F-16s with smart bombs and helicopters and other aircraft armed with laser guided Hellfire missiles.

February 19, 2018: In the west (Anbar province) a police raid in Ramadi arrested a senior ISIL leader who had been hiding out in the city. Further north, in Mosul, police arrested seven ISIL members.

In the north (Kirkuk province) ISIL ambushed PMF militiamen and killed 27 of them in a two hour gun battle. ISIL then withdrew taking their dead and wounded with them.

In 2008 Iraq ordered and received (by 2010) 140 M1A1 tanks and in 2015 ordered 170 more. Delivery of those is being held up until Iraq can account for all the M1s it already has. As many as nine M1s are apparently being held by pro-Iran PMF militias and the government is having difficulty in getting them back. The U.S. threatens to cut more military support, including deliveries of F-16s and other aircraft, if the M1s are not recovered. Iran says it can supply Iraq with what it needs. Iraq does not believe or want that. Iraq has seen the American equipment in action since the 1990s and has been increasingly using that stuff over the last decade. Iraqi commanders want the American weapons and equipment and the U.S. government is not cutting Iraq any slack over the missing M1s. This could get interesting. Meanwhile Iraq is not the only Arab nation to become fond of its M1 tanks. Iraq was not be the first Arab country to operate the M1 tank. Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia already operate over 1,600 of them, and Egypt has built hundreds of them (mainly using components imported from the U.S., but with some locally made parts). Iraq received the M-1A1 version. All the other Arab users have at least some of the latest model (M1A2 SEP). Corruption in the Iraqi Army led, before 2014, to Iraqi M1 crews being poorly trained and led. After 2014 Iraqi troops lost (or abandoned) at least 40 M-1s to enemy action or panic. At least one Iraqi M1 was destroyed by a Russian ATGM (anti-tank guided missile). The Iraqis promise they will do better with their new batch of M-1s but first they have to account for the ones they already have.

February 17, 2018: A senior Iranian cleric (Ali Akbar Velayati) made an official visit to Iraq and told everyone that Iran will not allow “liberals and communists” to rule Iraq. This was seen as a direct criticism of an Iraqi political alliance containing a major Shia (Sadr) religious party (that opposes Iran) and the Iraqi Communist Party (same attitude). While the pro-Iran groups (and militias) backed this the majority of Iraqis did not and the seeming arrogance of Velayati reinforced popular fears that Iran is out to control Iraq whether the majority of Iraqis agree with that or not.

February 16, 2018: In the west (Anbar province) there is a nasty problems with families who had one or more members join ISIL and then participate (or tolerate) ISIL attacks on families (and tribes) that refused to declare loyalty to ISIL. This is an old problem in this area, where wrongs committed by members of one family to members of another family trigger nasty clan or tribal feuds that can go on for a while and often lead to reprisal killings. There are currently about 500 Anbar families that fled the area to avoid all the fighting who are fearful of returning because of the retaliation threats.

February 15, 2018: Russia delivered the first batch of nine T-90S tanks to Iraq. Another 27 will be arriving over the next week or so. This is half of what Iraq ordered and those will arrive by April. The T-90S is a popular Russian export, with 64 of them delivered to Vietnam in late 2017. The T-90S usually cost about $4 million each and are similar to the T-90 model India uses. Russia also offers a T-90SK “command tank” for export (without the latest Russian communications and security systems installed). Older equipment is included or none at all so the buyer can purchase such gear from other (usually Western) suppliers. Iraq ordered the T-90s, and some other Russian weapons, in part to gain some diplomatic clout with Russia, especially when it came to dealing with Turkey and Iran.

February 13, 2018: The government released video of its Chinese CH-4 UAVs, which are similar to the American Predator. Iraqi received its first CH-4Bs in 2015 and since then they have carried out nearly 300 airstrikes but spend most of their air time carrying out surveillance. The CH-4s use a Chinese version of Hellfire.

February 12, 2018: In the north, near where the Turkish and Iranian borders meet, Turkish F-16s carried out several airstrikes against at least PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) camps destroying at least sixteen specific targets. 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. Most of these occur near Mt Qandil, a remote area near the Turkish and Iranian borders that has long harbored PKK hideouts. Thus a series of Turkish airstrikes in late January killed 49 PKK members in the same area.

 

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