Iraq: Iran Put On The Defensive

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March 28, 2018: Iraqi leaders admit that the October 2017 attack that drove Kurdish forces from Kirkuk province and other areas of the north (except in the autonomous, since the early 1990s, Kurdish provinces) has created less security in areas taken over by Iraqi forces. This admission comes as Iraqi and Kurdish forces have increasingly worked together to find and eliminate ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces now trying to use the formerly Kurdish territory as a base area. This is seen as a defeat for Iran, which saw to it that pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) led the October 2017 offensive and now dominate the occupation force in the north. The PMF are not as effective as the Kurds and ISIL quickly took advantage of that.

The reconciliation with the Kurds is another example of Iraq pushing back against Iranian efforts to dominate and control Iraq. Iran hoped to use many of the pro-Iran PMF militias to make this happen. There are now 120,000 armed men in the PMF and the government recently made them part of the armed forces in an effort to better control them and diminish Iranian influence. PMF militias were organized after mid-2014 because the Iraqi army fell apart under the ISIL offensive. 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.

It’s not just the northern areas where the PMF are a problem. A similar situation has developed in Anbar Province (western Iraq) where some (usually pro-Iran) PMF militia leaders are reluctant to leave this largely Sunni area (as they had agreed to do after ISIL was defeated) because local tribal militias and Iraqi army troops have been unable to eliminate all ISIL activity. The government cannot bring Kurdish forces down here and in desperation are seeking more help from the United States. This is dependent on getting two missing M1 tanks back from pro-Iran PMF forces. Failure to retrieve those tanks means the Americans will reduce support for Iraqi forces, including tech and maintenance assistance in keeping Iraqi F-16s fighters, M1 tanks and other American gear operational. All this, plus the traditional Arab (Sunni and Shia) hostility to Iran, has caused the Iraqi government to decisively choose sides. Iran is not pleased and has few good options.

Iraqi officials also point out that the Americans are justified increasing security around their bases to deal with Iranian threats. These come in the form of continued calls by Iran-backed PMF militia leaders to drive all American forces out of Iraq using force if necessary. The problem is that most Iraqis want the Americans to stay because of the threat Turkish invasion and 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. While pro-Iranian PMF leaders are still calling for violence against American forces they agreed to hold off until after the May 12th national elections (which will indicated how much popular support the pro-Iran groups have.)

ISIL Resurgence

The government is facing continued ISIL activity with several dozen ISIL members a week killed or arrested during March. Those arrested often include senior officials, most recently that meant two men involved with finance and planning military operations. The perceived defeat of ISIL in Iraq and Syria by the end of 2017 made more Iraqis willing to share what they know with the security forces. The restoration of full cell phone service in areas formerly controlled by ISIL also made a big difference. In 2016 ISIL realized that cell phone service in occupied areas was dangerous for their forces. This became obvious after ISIL lost control of cities like Ramadi (by the end of 2015) and Hit (in early 2016). ISIL leaders noted that a key factor in the loss of these areas was the local civilians retaining some access to some Internet and cell phone service as well as the presence of many satellite TV receivers. ISIL (and other Islamic radicals) have long tried to control use of all three of these items but have been unable to completely eliminate them from populations they control. Once ISIL was driven out of an area the cell phone companies were eager to rebuild their cell phone and Internet service and as people in those became more confident that reporting on remaining ISIL activity would not get them killed the calls started coming. These phone calls have become more frequent and has led to the growing number of arrests or discovery of ISIL hideouts and the destruction of active ISIL terrorists. This has led to a decline in terror related deaths and more violent encounters between security forces and the many “sleeper cells” ISIL deliberately left behind when they lost control of an area.

This was first noted in 2016 when large areas of Anbar Province (thinly populated western Iraq) were cleared of ISIL forces. The “sleepers” became more of a problem in more densely populated northern Iraq (especially Mosul). These ISIL supporters were a minority of even the Sunni population and they had a hard time remaining hidden among a population with cell phone access and fear of ISIL violence (which tended to kill a lot of civilians even if the target was security forces or government officials). In Kirkuk province alone ISIL has carried out about 20 attacks (assassinations, bombings or ambushes) a month since December 2017 (when ISIL was declared defeated in Iraq). Kirkuk was particularly vulnerable because the government had driven out the Kurdish forces (who had controlled the province since 2014) in October 2016. ISIL took advantage of this.

Another thing ISIL has to worry about is that the United States continues to monitor ISIL activity in Iraq and the Iraqis appreciate that, especially the intelligence collection and analysis part because this keeps track of the continued presence of ISIL groups. The Americans believe there are thousands of armed ISIL members in the north and Anbar and reports of ISIL clashes with security forces in those areas confirms this. Even though the government killed nearly 20,000 ISIL members since 2014, and most of those were Iraqis, there are still lots of resentful Sunni Arabs who will die for ISIL. In addition there are still many ISIL supporters among the Sunni Arab Iraqis who assist by supplying (cash, weapons, information and recruits) and concealing the armed ISIL groups. The Iraqi government accepts that there is still some ISIL support among Iraqis and while the support is much reduced some of it still exists.

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. 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 is nearly as bad in Anbar, where Sunni Islamic terrorists have long operated. The government did not release any casualty data for Anbar in January, even of civilian casualties. That is always a bad sign.

The Turkish Threat

Another bad sign is the increasing Turkish threat. Iran, theoretically an ally of Turkey in Syria, has been unable to stop the Turks from sending troops into northern Iraq and increasing the use of Turkish airstrikes to support those Turkish ground forces. This Turkish problem began in January when the Turks insist ed that they are going to control the Syrian side of the border from the Euphrates River west to the Mediterranean but . The Turks say they have a deal (“an understanding not an agreement”) with the Americans that will allow the SDF (Kurdish led secular rebel coalition) and U.S. forces to remain in northeastern Syria .

The Turks also made it clear that they intend to clear PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) and Islamic terrorist bases from all areas on the other side of their borders. That would include all of Syria and Iraq as well. The Iraqi government did not believe the Turks would act so aggressively against Iraq. Between the U.S. and Iran the Iraqi leaders see that the Americans are more likely to succeed in getting the Turks to back off. Another loss for Iran.

Meanwhile Turkish troops have advanced about ten kilometers into the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh (to the west is Dohuk province, one of the four autonomous Kurdish provinces in the north). Some parts of Dohuk are claimed by the Iraqi government. The Turks believe that a large (over a thousand armed men) force of pro-PKK Yazidis (who are generally considered Kurds) are seeking to establish a PKK base near Sinjar. This is a largely Yazidi area west of Mosul that became the scene of a major battle between ISIL and Kurdish forces who came from Dohuk to assist the Yazidis. The October 2017 offensive forced Kurdish forces back into Dohuk but local Yazidi forces remained and these contained many PKK supporters. Turkey considers all the Yazidis pro-PKK, something the Iraqi government and Iraqi Kurds disagree with. In response to the Turkish advances Iraq sent an army brigade to Sinjar and the PKK announced it was leaving Sinjar. The Turks are not so sure and insist that Iraq ensure there are no PKK bases in the north.

Sad Iraqis

It came as no surprise that the recent UN sponsored World Happiness Index put Syria at 150th place (out of 156 countries) but it was more shocking that neighboring Iraq was nearly as bad off, coming in at 117th place. This could have something to do with threats from Turkey, Iran and ISIL. What was more interesting was how other nations in the region scored. Israel came in at number 11. The top ten are all the usual suspects (Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia) and then comes Israel, the happiest country in the Middle East as well as being the most powerful militarily and one of the least corrupt. The other Iraqi neighbors had rankings similar to the corruption survey. Turkey is at 74th, Jordan at 90, Lebanon at 88, Iran at 106, Palestinian Territories at 104, Egypt at 122, UAE at 2o, Saudi Arabia at 33, Kuwait at 45, Russia at 59, the U.S. at 18, Japan at 54, South Korea at 57, Libya at 70, China at 86, Pakistan at 75, Venezuela at 102, Somalia at 98, Bangladesh at 115, Burma at 130, India at 133, Afghanistan at 145, Yemen at 152, and at 156 (last place) Burundi. Communist dictatorships like North Korea and Cuba block access to data needed for the survey and were not rated.

March 27, 2018: Iraq and Saudi Arabia agreed to resume commercial flights between the two countries. These flights had been halted since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. This is one many agreements to resume economic and other relationships between Iraq and the other Arab oil states in the region. Iran sees this sort of thing as a hostile act because Iran wants to turn Shia (and Arab) majority Iraq into an Iranian ally and foe of the Sunni Gulf Arabs. That isn’t working out too well and never has in the past.

March 26, 2018: In the north (120 kilometers west of Mosul) an Iraqi Army brigade arrived to ensure the town of Sinjar and the surrounding area was free of PKK fighters. As a result the Turks said they would not send troops into Sinjar as long as the Iraqis kept PKK out. The Kurds withdrew from Sinjar in October 2017 when the Iraqi army advanced and pushed Kurdish forces out of Kirkuk province and nearby areas like Sinjar.

March 25, 2018: In the north (south of Mosul) security forces spent the last two days dealing with ISIL forces operation south of the city. The result was 18 ISIL dead (including two Chechens) and seven arrested. Two ISIL hideouts were found and many weapons and equipment were seized.

Elsewhere in the north (Kirkuk province) ISIL blew up a Sufi (a much less aggressive form of Islam) shrine. At first the locals thought Shia radicals in the Iraqi security forces had done it. But later ISIL took credit. Conservative Sunnis and Shia consider the Sufi somewhat heretical.

March 24, 2018: Turkey allowed commercial flights to resume from Turkey to Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. These flights had been suspended in late 2017 after the Kurds held an independence referendum. The Iraqi Kurds were eager to make peace with the Turks after seeing much that referendum hurt the Iraqi Kurds. The Turks have, since the 1990s, had a better relationship with the Iraqi Kurds than the Arab dominated Iraqi government.

March 23, 2018: In the north PKK said they would leave the town of Sinjar after the Turks threatened to send in troops to clear out the PKK from Sinjar.

March 22, 2018: In Baghdad police arrested Taha al Jubouri , a known Hamas bomb expert who had been deported from Turkey. Israel wants Jubouri.

March 20, 2018: In the north a Turkish airstrike killed ten PKK fighters but also killed four Iraqi civilians. Normally the Iraqi government does not protest these Turkish airstrikes against the PKK, but when Iraqi civilians are killed there is a protest.

In the north (Kirkuk province) ISIL attacked two families and killed 21 civilians, including children. Attacks like this are usually about intimidating local civilians to either support ISIL or at least not cooperate with government forces.

March 19, 2018: An Iraqi court sentenced 17 women, all wives of ISIL members, to death. Another six were sentenced to life in prison.

March 18, 2018: In the northeast Turkey threatened to send troops into the entered an area where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey form a triangle. This area, especially the Quandil Mountains, has long been the site of PKK camps. The Turks want the Kurdish forces to deal with this or else.

March 15, 2018: The U.S. accused Iran of sending lots of cash to Iraq for use in efforts to influence upcoming (May) national elections. It’s rather more dangerous for Iraqi politicians to point that out but a recent visit by the American Secretary of Defense made the accusations newsworthy in Iraq and a number of Iraqi politicians agreed (but often not openly).

March 13, 2018: In the north (between Samarra and Tikrit) a unit of the Presidential Guard clashed with a pro-Iran PMF unit, leaving a Presidential Guard commander dead and two of his troops wounded.

March 10, 2018: Turkey began a major offensive against PKK camps and hideouts in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. This is nothing new and in the past the Turks would withdraw their ground forces (usually special operations troops) when the PKK activity in northern Iraq declined. But this time the Turks have sent more troops into Syria and eliminated a lot of PKK refuges there. That, plus growing pressure on PKK in eastern Turkey (where most Turkish Kurds live) has resulted in more PKK members seeking refuge in Iraq. This is part of a revived (in July 2015) war between PKK and Turkey. So far that has led to the deaths of over 1,200 Turks (security forces and civilians) and far more PKK personnel in Turkey, northern Syria and northern Iraq. By the end of March this latest effort in northern Iraq had led to 20-30 PKK members a week killed or captured. By using Turkish troops in addition to airstrikes it is possible to collect intel from dead or captured PKK members. This offensive also had much less opposition from the Iraqi government. That was because of an ill-advised Kurdish independence referendum last September. This was largely done because of internal Kurdish politics. The Kurds ignored the fact that the referendum would anger Turkey, Iran and the Iraqi government.

March 8, 2018: The PMF was officially made part of the Iraqi military.

March 7, 2018: Iran revealed that 2,100 Iranians had died since 2011 fighting in Syria and Iraq. The occasion for this admission that the 2,100 trees planted near a Shia religious shrine represented those deaths. This number was not a surprise as it was close to previous estimates based on reported funerals for Iranians who had become “martyrs” in that period while in Iraq or Syria.

March 1, 2018: In February 91 civilians died due to Islamic terrorist violence. Most (54 percent) of the deaths occurred in Baghdad. Terror related civilian deaths in Iraq were much higher in January (115 dead) 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 three 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).

 

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