The American campaign against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in Iraq and Syria continues, especially the intelligence collection and air strikes. American forces in Iraq work with their Iraqi counterparts to search for and attack remaining ISIL personnel and a lot of this action is taking place close to the Syrian border. There are several air strikes a day (in Iraq and Syria) and these are often against major targets. ISIL no longer controls any territory in Iraq but Syria is another matter with several remote areas in Syria known to be under ISIL control. The Americans work their own intelligence sources to find and attack targets. After that some data is shared with the Iraqi government (not too dependable), the SDF Kurds in Syria (more reliable) and some Western allies.
The West has not given up on Iraq but is being cautious. NATO nations are increasing the number of military trainers and advisors being sent to Iraq. Most of these will work with Kurdish forces but a growing number will try to work with Iraqi forces. Iraqi special operations forces have a good relationship with the NATO advisors but the bulk of the Iraqi military, especially the pro-Iran PMF groups are less receptive to Western military help.
Iraqi officials admit 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 Iranian attempts at domination and the continued ISIL threat. Meanwhile, the American government has implied that it will pull its U.S. troops out Syria and leave it to Arab states in the region to take over. No Arabs are willing to step up and do this and the Americans are making it clear that the United States cannot be taken for granted and most Americans back that attitude.
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 indicate how much popular support the pro-Iran groups have.) The results of those elections will send a message, but no one is sure what the message will be. It will definitely be anti-corruption. Shia religious leaders are urging their followers to vote against any politician, especially local ones, who are seeking re-election but have not accomplished anything in the past. In many Shia majority areas, especially in the south (Basra), the voters are fed up with electing Shia politicians who do nothing to improve the lives of those who elected them. Shia religious leaders are getting a lot of attention for their “no votes for ineffective politicians”. That includes politicians who claim to be pro-Iran, anti-Iran, secular or whatever. If they did not deliver (and that is easy to measure) do not vote for them again. This has got a lot of popular (for other reasons) politicians worried because most have not improved the lives of their constituents. At best they have made excuses and promised change in the future. The religious leaders point out that this has not worked.
The Turkish Threat
Turkey continues its operations against the PKK (Kurdish separatists) in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. This year the Turkish attacks (usually via airstrikes) in northern (Kurdish controlled) Iraq have left 10-20 dead a month, at least until April. The Turks are usually pretty careful about hitting only PKK targets and the PKK do not try and use local Kurdish civilians as human shields. So it is rare for civilians to be hurt by these attacks although it has happened at least once so far in 2018. Until recently about 80 percent of the operations against the PKK (and their Syrian PYD associates) took place in eastern Turkey and northwest Syria. But for the last few weeks Turkish operations in northwest Syria have been stalled and operations, especially airstrikes, have increased against PKK in northern Iraq and just across the border in southeast Turkey. That has led to more complaints from Iraqi Kurds living in the remote areas where the PKK operate that the increased Turkish airstrikes have hit targets close to Kurdish towns and villages and this has caused 5-10 civilians killed or wounded each week of the increased airstrikes.
Currently, Turkey has openly said that it will pursue PKK and PYD Kurds into Syria or Iraq without asking permission from the governments of either country. This annoys the Iraqi government but at the moment it is considered preferable not to oppose the Turks. In some cases, Iraqi borders are officially open for some groups and vice versa. Such is the case with Iraqi forces chasing ISIL forces into Jordan. That can work the other way around but there is a lot more ISIL action on the Iraqi side of the border and the two countries have agreed to share intel on ISIL activities in their territory and tolerate cross border operations. There is still no Assad government control on the Syrian side of the border. That degree of control is coming but currently, independent factions (SDF in northern Syria, Iranian mercenaries further south) more or less control the Syrian side. But the Assads can still grant permission to Iraqi forces to cross the border when it comes to dealing with mutual foes like ISIL.
Consequences In Kirkuk
ISIL leaders and propagandists make no secret of the fact that they consider Kirkuk province, which was under Kurdish control from mid-2014 until October 2017, a major opportunity for ISIL. The Iraqi government had long been deadlocked in their disputes with the Kurds over control of Kirkuk province. The Kurds gained control in late 2014 because the Kurds had troops who could stop ISIL and keep them out of Kirkuk while the Iraqi government didn’t until, with Kurdish help, ISIL was driven from Mosul and most of the Iraqi territory ISIL had held since mid-2014. Encouraged by Iran, and growing corruption and political divisions in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq in October 2017 the Iraqi government launched a surprise attack on Kurdish forces in Kirkuk province. The Kurds, noting that some of their politicians had suddenly sided with Iran and the Iraqi government over this issue, withdrew from Kirkuk without much of a fight. As expected the Iraqis could not deal with ISIL threats as effectively as the Kurds had and Kirkuk province has become a major operating area for over a dozen ISIL gangs who are terrorizing the population and making a lot of money from kidnapping and other criminal activities.
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 forces now trying to use the formerly Kurdish territory as a base area. That cooperation is not as effective as the Kurds being back in charge of all security. The American advisors working with the Kurds and some Iraqi army units encourage cooperation. But it isn’t enough as the Iranian controlled PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) forces will not cooperate. The situation in Kirkuk is seen as a defeat for Iran, which saw to it that pro-Iran PMF led the October 2017 offensive and now dominate the occupation force in the north. The PMF is not as effective as the Kurds and ISIL quickly took advantage of that. Now ISIL groups are operating freely in rural parts of Kirkuk province, something they were unable to do for years while the Kurds controlled the province.
The main problem with the PMF is that its members are less well trained and disciplined than soldiers and police while also being more loyal to their tribe and religious faction than they are to the Iraqi state. Most (about 65 percent) of PMF members belong to 66 Shia militias. Most of these are political. That is, they were formed with the assistance of a Shia political party. Half the Shia militias have some degree of loyalty to Iranian Shia clerics or Iran itself. Some of these militias openly back killing American soldiers and defying the Iraqi government over issues involving Iran. About a quarter of the PMF force is Sunni, organized into about 40 militias. These tend to be territorial and loyal to a particular tribe. The Sunni militias, like the other minority ones (mainly about a dozen Turkmen, Christian and Yazidi) are mainly interested in protecting their people. Another problem with PMF is a greater incidence of corruption and resistance to government efforts to eliminate or limit the corrupt practices. Making the PMF part of the military in March was an attempt to impose some control but it did not work and now the PMF have access to more cash and weapons.
Another side effect of Kurds losing control of Kirkuk province is non-Kurd groups in Kirkuk are now demanding that the Kurds release most of the 5,000 people Kurdish forces arrested and imprisoned over the last 14 years. The actual number of prisoners is not known because of these men were actually killed during battles with Kurdish security forces or died while in captivity. These prisoners are one reason there was a lot less Islamic terrorist violence in Kurdish controlled territory and the Kurds are not inclined to let these prisoners go as it is obvious that many of them would return to Islamic terrorism. The Kurds have offered to send their forces back into Kirkuk province but the Iraqi government, and especially Iran, is not willing to accept defeat and hand security control back to the Kurds.
A Diplomatic Tank Purchase
Iraq has made deals to buy weapons from a wide range of countries, often for reasons other than military. Usually, its because it is easier to solicit bribes. But another reason is diplomatic or obtaining military tech or agreements to help Iraq rebuild its weapons industries. Iran has offered to get involved with that. Russia has offered help as well, in order to access to a wide variety of modern weapons. Iraq has ordered billions of dollars’ worth of weapons from Russia, especially since mid-2014 when ISIL grabbed Mosul and much more. One of the recent purchases was the 73 Russian T-90 tanks ordered in mid-2017. The first 36 arrived in February. The rest are supposed to arrive by the end of April. This could be timely because the Americans have cut off support for Iraqi M1 tanks until Iraq can get two M1s back from a pro-Iran PMF group. With politicians distracted by the approaching (May 12) national elections nothing is being done to retrieve the missing M1s and the T-90s may become the majority of operational Iraqi Army tanks as more and more M1s are sidelined with maintenance issues that can only be handled by the now absent American tech support people.
The T-90 is one of many upgraded T-72s available on the market. Until 2003 the Iraqi Army operated hundreds of older T-72s, which proved no competition for the American M-1. The T-90 has been produced in large quantities since the 1990s but not for Russia. It is mostly an export item. The T-90 was a late 1980s project that was to incorporate T-80 features into many upgrades of the T-72. Originally it was designated the T-72BU but when Russia finally began production in 1993 it was renamed the T-90. That succeeded in making the tank an export success with most (nearly 90 percent) of those produced going to export customers. In fact India and Algeria each have more T-90s in service than Russia. Worse Russia has quietly put over a third of its 550 newly built T-90s into reserve. While the T-90 was loudly proclaimed to be the next big thing the Russian army preferred the refurbished T-72s in the form of the T-72B3. These proved to be cheaper and more reliable than T-90s, something that got little publicity. While all the upgrades (new engine, gun, fire control and protection) made it nearly as expensive as the T-90 it was preferred by the troops and the older officers quietly agreed that it was a better tank than the new T-90/T-72BUs.
This apparently has something to do with the design of the T-72BU (trying to merge T-80 elements into the T-72 design) and the decline in manufacturing quality in Russian the defense industry after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. Since the T-72B3 was introduced in 2013 it has been produced in far greater numbers than any other tank and that continues. Especially telling was how T-90s began to be taken out of service (and put in reserve) as soon as enough T-72B3s became available. At the same time, the most popular Russian tank for export customers is the T-72B (a B3 with fewer of the upgrades) and these cost nearly two million each but can be delivered in a few months after the contract is signed. The T-72B3 has been so popular with Russian troops that the government is giving it more publicity in the state-controlled mass media. The Iraqis don’t really care about the superiority of the T-72B3 because the T-90s are easier to obtain, do the job (usually fighting irregulars) and have large profits built in that allow for generous bribes to Iraqi officials who approve the purchase orders.
April 26, 2018: Iraq offered eleven areas for oil and gas exploration to foreign firms. This was a typical auction and none of the major oil companies, especially the Western ones, made bids. The major Russian and Chinese firms also declined. All considered eleven areas too risky to invest in. In some cases, the areas were much fought over and still contained a lot of unexploded bombs and shells. Some areas in the north were suffering from growing ISIL violence while other areas were near the Iranian border and the chance of the Americans reviving sanctions on Iran made those areas unattractive for oil exploration. The main problem here is that the major oil companies are expected to invest billions of dollars and send in hundreds of the technical people to explore for oil and gas and then build wells and pipelines to make it all profitable. None of the major companies were willing to take on the degree of risk involved, especially not in a nation as corrupt and violence prone as Iraq.
April 25, 2018: The government agreed to pay for the recruitment, equipping, training and maintenance of 2,400 additional Sunni Arab tribal militiamen in Anbar province. These militiamen will be organized into four “Rapid Intervention Regiments” of about 600 men each and will be used to reinforce local militias in areas where ISIL shows up and attempts to set up bases. These four units will answer to the national government.
April 24, 2018: Iran is openly pressuring the Iraqi government to stop taxing Iranian goods exported to Iraq and instead tax similar goods coming from Saudi Arabia. The problem is that many Iraqis feel more comfortable increasing trade with Saudi Arabia, which does not seek to control Iraq like Iran does.
April 22, 2018: For the first time since October 2017 ISIL issued an official statement via the Internet. This one informed members and supporters of what the new ISIL strategy was. No surprises in that as the message repeated the call for ISIL members to return home, if possible, and organize terror attacks there. The primary ISIL targets are the “apostate” governments of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Gaza (Hamas) and the West Bank (Fatah). In addition, the Taliban of Afghanistan is the main target in Afghanistan because the local ISIL branch competes with the Taliban to control drug smuggling routes that provide large amounts of cash that ISIL in Afghanistan needs to survive.
ISIL considers itself strongest in Iraq and Syria where there are still a lot of Sunni Arabs who feel oppressed by the local government (in both cases governments dominated by Shia Arabs). ISIL also declared victory over the Americans because the United States has announced (more than once) that it is leaving Iraq and Syria once ISIL is eliminated. ISIL interprets that to mean the Americans are declaring victory and running away no matter how many ISIL are still active in Iraq and Syria.
The main ISIL message is that once ISIL has overthrown the apostate governments in the Middle East it will go after Israel. So for the moment, ISIL is admitting that Israel is not worth the effort (without saying carrying out attacks in Israel has proved to be nearly impossible). ISIL leaders have already quietly told local ISIL groups to concentrate on fundraising and recruiting by carrying out operations that terrorize and raise money. That means lots of kidnapping, extortion, drug smuggling and grand larceny. ISIL managed to get as much as half a billion dollars out of Syria and Iraq before they lost control of their “caliphate” in late 2017. The money is being sought both in the West and in Middle Eastern countries with increased vigor. After close encounters with ISIL more Middle Eastern nations are willing to go after local financial corruption that helped manage ISIL finances during the ISIL “occupation” of eastern Syria and a third of Iraq from 2014 to 2017. In Iraq, it was discovered that a lot of Iraqis with technical and financial skills worked with and for ISIL during the occupation. The defeat of ISIL included the capture of many documents detailing this collusion and who was involved. Some of those involved were arrested and provided more details. There is no longer any doubt about how savage ISIL is against anyone who does not support them and for once ISIL is dealing with a lot more Arabs who actively oppose ISIL and are not so easily bribed or intimidated. Yet there is still a minority of Sunni Moslems willing to join ISIL and do the dirty work of trying to conquer the world for their version of Islam. So the thousand year old internal struggle between violent Islamic conservatives and the more moderate majority continues.
April 20, 2018: In the northwest (Nineveh province) Iraqi troops stationed west of Mosul at the Syrian border were attacked by a large group of ISIL gunmen. The attack was repulsed and 18 ISIL men were killed. Iraqi troops on the border have to be particularly careful at night because large groups of ISIL gunmen try to sneak across the border (going either way) and are ready to fight their way through if necessary. In this case, the Iraqi troops were ready when ISIL launched what they thought was a surprise attack. This part of the Syrian border is most heavily used by remaining ISIL forces, some of them based in Syria less than ten kilometers from the border. Iraqi troops have orders to shoot anyone who tries to cross the border illegally at night. Despite the active defense of the border ISIL continues to cross the in both directions and tolerating the losses. Apparently, most of the crossings are not detected because ISIL personnel are arrested in Mosul who report they crossed the border several times recently.
Iraq resumed paying Kuwait reparations for damage done to Kuwait oil fields during the 1990-91 occupation. Payments had been resumed earlier but were suspended in 2014 because of the ISIL invasion and the consequent cash shortage the Iraqi government experienced. If Iraq continues making payments it should be finished paying the debt by 2021.
April 19, 2018: In the northeast (Diyala province) an Iraqi airstrike killed a known ISIL leader and an associate. An examination of the building hit by the airstrike revealed that this was an ISIL base for controlling smaller groups of ISIL members throughout the province.
Iraqi warplanes carried out airstrikes against ISIL targets in Syria in coordination with the Assad government. These airstrikes continue but Iraq refuses to allow any ground forces (especially pro-Iran PMF units) to enter Syria.
.April 18, 2018: Iran and Iraq signed an agreement whereby Iran will assist Iraq in rebuilding its military industries and production facilities.
April 15, 2018: In Baghdad Shia followers of Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr demonstrated against the United States because of the recent American led missile strikes on Syrian chemical warfare facilities. The day before the Iraqi government criticized the attacks on the Assad government chemical warfare operations. The Iraqi government argued that the American led attacks could lead to an increase in Islamic terrorist activity.
April 10, 2018: In the north (Kirkuk province) ISIL attacked two remote villages, took control and announced via the speaker systems in local mosques (used to call Moslems to prayer five times a day) ISIL was going to maintain control for as long as they could and anyone who disagreed with that should leave while they could. These temporary takeovers are becoming more frequent even though none of them last long. The ISIL occupiers come with escape plans already in place and vacate quickly when security forces approach.
April 9, 2018: In the north (Kirkuk province) troops patrolling outside Kirkuk city encountered a group of armed men and opened fire. One of those killed turned out to be Abu Walid al Checheni, the ISIL leader in charge of organizing terror attacks in the province. Kirkuk province has become a battleground between the security forces and the scattered, but substantial, ISIL forces still in the province. In the last month, the security forces have found and killed several hundred ISIL men but many more remain.
In the west (Anbar province) security forces obtained intel about a large force of ISIL men crossing the border from Syria at night. The ambush was a success and the entire ISIL force (65 gunmen) was killed. Because of the risk that some of the Islamic terrorists might be wearing explosive vests, or simply being armed and suicidal, the best policy is to keep shooting, especially at night, until you are certain they are all dead and then check out the bodies carefully when the sun comes up. When that was done it was discovered and at least six of the dead were not Arab and efforts were underway to identify where the foreign Islamic terrorists were from.
April 2, 2018: In March 104 civilians and policemen died due to Islamic terrorist violence. This is up a bit from the 91 killed during February and 19 percent of the dead were police. About a third of the deaths occurred in Baghdad. Terror related civilian deaths in Iraq were higher in January (115 dead). 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 militias). Civilian deaths were higher (at 196) in September and declined 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 be 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).