Iraq: Arab First, Shia Second

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January 29, 2019: While economic problems, as well as the continued threats from Iran and Islamic terrorists, 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. So far there has been little reconstruction spending because the money always seems to disappear. This is not surprising as Iraq was recently rated as one of the most corrupt (168th compared to the 2017 rank of 169 out 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/13, South Sudan/13 and Somalia/10) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85. The current Iraq score is 18 (same as 2017) compared to 41 (40) for Turkey, 49 (49) for Saudi Arabia, 49 (48) for Jordan, 28 (28) for Lebanon, 28 (30) for Iran, 70 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 61 (62) for Israel, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 33 (32) for Pakistan, 41 (40) for India, 28 (29) for Russia, 39 (41) for China, 14 (17) for North Korea, 73 (73) for Japan and 72 (75) 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 corruption in Iraq appears in many forms. For example, the delays in capturing natural gas that is currently wasted (burned off) is good for Iran, which sells Iran natural gas and would lose that business if Iraq finally, after decades of delays, invested in the effort to capture the gas, at least for internal use. Iran will bribe or intimidate whoever they must to retain the gas export business and the resulting dependence on Iran. There many less lucrative economic dependencies that Iran profits from. The trade dependencies are just one of many ways Iran maintain influence and control in Iraq.

Another dependency is the pro-Iran PMF (Peoples Mobilization Forces) who serve as security forces in most of the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq that the PMF helped free of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) control. The United States is demanding that the Iraqi government disband or discipline on armed pro-Iran groups in Iraq that use violence against Iraqi civilians and threaten to do the same to foreign troops. The NATO troops, particularly the Americans, can defend themselves from PMF violence but the Sunni Arab civilians being policed by PMF militias have less attractive options. The best way these civilians can fight back is to tolerate continued ISIL recruiting and operations in their neighborhoods. This is why ISIL continues to operate in Anbar and Kirkuk even though the local Sunni Arab tribes led the fight against ISIL in Anbar and Kirkuk was free of ISIL problems when the Kurds ran local security. That ended in late 2017 when the government used PMF as well as regular troops to drive the Kurds out of Kirkuk province and replace them with pro-Iran PMF.

American and Iraqi Special Forces, as well as Iraqi counter-terrorism forces all agree that a major factor for continued popular support for ISIL in Sunni Arab areas is the bad behavior of the Iran-backed PMF units. ISIL provides the easiest and quickest way to fight back against the rogue PMF units. Even PMF units loyal to the government have problems because some of them consider their first loyalty is to an Iraqi Shia cleric and then to the government. At least these groups oppose any foreign influence. The pro-Iran PMF also face dissent, with a growing number of these militias beginning to doubt that Iran is the solution to Iraqi problems. Not when so many Iranians are calling for the fall of the religious dictatorship that is seeking to control Iraq.

Not surprisingly most Iraqis see the Americans as the good guys and the Iranians as the bully next door, and often just down the street because pro-Iran PMF commanders are being more aggressive with the army and any Iraqis who openly oppose Iran. This is especially true of Sunni Arabs and Kurds. The growing number of murdered Iraqi politicians is attributed to Iranian death squads, Iran denies this but it is something the Iranians do everywhere. There are about 150,000 armed members of the PMF who are being paid by the Ministry of Defense (at about half the rate of soldiers and police). The PMF is demanding pay parity with the troops but this would cost about a billion dollars a year and the budget cannot support it. Meanwhile, most pro-Iran PMF units are stationed in areas with lots of Sunni Arabs (Anbar, Salahuddin and Nineveh provinces) and ISIL activity. This includes Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq is in Nineveh province and still largely ruins and badly served by PMF militiamen.

All this Iranian interference increases the risk of civil war in a country that has a minority of the Shia majority willing to use violence to support Iran. Pro-Iran PMF militias take orders from Iran and that is increasingly unpopular with Shia and Sunni Iraqis. Iraqi leaders have been subjected to a lot of pressure from Iran to ignore the American sanctions. Iran pointed out that complying with the sanctions would hurt the Iraqi economy. That pressure caused Iraqi leaders to comply with the more immediate threat (Iran) even though they realized that most Iraqis preferred the Americans to the Iranians. After all, when Iraq asked the Americans to leave in 2011 they did. Iraq has sought exemptions to some of the Iran sanctions because otherwise the Iraqi economy would suffer and the U.S. has been granting most of these requests. Iraqi economists and financial experts have made it clear that the Americans have a lot of options and many of them involve going after individual pro-Iran Iraqi leaders, especially those who are the most corrupt. Sanctions on individuals have proved very effective and Iraq has a lot of eligible targets.

The Kurds are one minority that has avoided problems with the PMF or domination by Iran. The Kurds also make the most of the fact that they are on good terms with the Americans who remain in northern Iraq. While the Americans are withdrawing their 2,000 troops from Syria they are apparently planning on stationing many of them in Iraq, along the Syrian border to protect Iraq from continued ISIL attack. Some will augment U.S. forces in the Kurdish north but most will be in more dangerous parts of the border. The most dangerous portion of this border is that from the Jordan border about halfway to Mosul. Here there is a joint (PMF/Army) control zone at the Qaim border crossing. American units from Syria are establishing outposts south of Qaim in areas controlled by pro-Iran PMF and these PMF units are hostile to the American presence. That puts these PMF units in a precarious position because they are already working among a hostile Sunni Arab population, which exists on both sides of the border. The Americans are there mainly to deal with ISIL but if an Iran-backed PMF units get in the way, the Americans have orders to shoot back. So far the pro-Iran PMF leaders have made a lot of threats to attack Americans but have not acted, apparently because their Iranian controllers do not want to risk a fight they might lose.

Despite being a formidable military force, or perhaps because of it, the Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Iran Turkey and Syria are again under pressure to back off from efforts to create an independent Kurdish state. The last few decades have given Kurds hope that their time may have finally arrived. Since the early 1990s the Iraqi Kurds have been autonomous (originally with British and American help) and they had always been more effective soldiers than the Iraqi Arabs. Some things, however, do not change. The Kurds still suffer from tribal and clan divisions as well as corruption, but to a much lesser extent than the Arabs. Thus a disproportionate number of Western trainers were sent to the Kurds in Iraq and Syria when effective allies in those areas were needed. The Kurds are considered reliable enough to work with Western commandos and protect ground control teams (that can call in air strikes). Kurds regularly assist the American and British commandos in carrying out their most dangerous tasks; reconnaissance inside hostile territory. But the Kurds have not got the manpower for large scale operations. And that’s why they were pushed out of Kirkuk province in late 2017 by more numerous Iraqi Arab soldiers and PMF militiamen. Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran are also under attack and the Kurds have not got the numbers, or cash, to deal with all their hostile hosts.

The Big Picture

Worldwide, Islamic terrorism-related deaths have fallen by over 50 percent since 2014, when there were 35,000. Global deaths hit 19,000 in 2017 and under 14,000 for 2018. Since 2014 five nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan) have accounted for most of these deaths. The largest source of Islamic terror deaths during that period was ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a more radical faction of al Qaeda that currently is where the most radical practitioners of Islamic terrorism are found. Islamic terrorists continues to be, as it has been since the 1990s, the main source of terrorism related deaths, accounting for about 90 percent of the fatalities. The remainder of the terrorist related deaths are ethnic (often tribal) conflicts in Africa and Asia. Purely political terrorism accounts for a fraction of one percent of all terrorist related deaths and are outnumbered by terrorism deaths inflicted by common (often organized) criminals.

While Iran does not suffer many Islamic terrorist deaths internally it is certainly responsible for sustaining a lot of the Islamic terrorist violence throughout the region. While the Iranian $7 billion military budget seems low compared to $20 billion for Israel, $7.2 billion for Iraq, $8 billion for Pakistan, $15 billion for the UAE and $30 billion for Saudi Arabia much more is spent to support violence in other countries. Most of the money spent to support violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen is found in non-military portions of the national budget. A major reason why Iranians have been protesting since 2017 is the popular realization of how much is being spent to support violence outside of Iran, instead of spending it to improve the lives of Iranians.

January 26, 2019: In the northwest (Duhok province), local Kurds, led by the families of civilians killed by recent (January 23rd) Turkish airstrikes at suspected PKK Turkish Kurd separatists) positions, swarmed into one of the eleven Turkish military bases and outposts in northern (Kurdish controlled) Iraq. The protesters did some damage before being forced out. One of the protesters were killed and ten wounded by the Turkish troops in the base. Normally the Turkish troops and local Kurds get along. But this peace implies that Turkish military operations will not harm innocent (not associated with the PKK) local civilians. Generally, the Turks manage to do that, but not always and when civilians are killed there is unrest.

January 25, 2019: In the south (Basra), the weekly anti-corruption demonstrations resumed. There was no violence this time. The demonstrations began in July 2018 to protest the lack of infrastructure investment that has resulted in water and electricity shortages.

Much to the displeasure of Iran, so far this month the Iraqi leader has met with the king of Jordan in Iraq, the first time the Jordanian had been in Iraq since before Saddam was overthrown in 2003. Later in the month, the Iraqi leader spoke with the Saudi Crown Prince on the phone for the first time. Jordan offered military and intel cooperation to improve security along their mutual border as well as economic opportunities. The Saudi Leader offered economic aid and any other joint projects the Iraqis might be interested in as well as cooperation with mutual security needs. Iran doesn’t like to be reminded that Arab Shia will ultimately be Arabs first and Shia second. Iran helps with that continuing to treat their own Arab minority badly.

January 24, 2019: The parliament finally approved a national budget for 2019. The $112 billion budget is 27 percent more than 2018 but does not include expected allotments to rebuild Mosul and the provinces of Nineveh, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk and Salahuddin that suffered the most damage from three years of fighting ISIL. It is generally agreed that $88 billion is needed for reconstruction. It is also generally understood (but not publicized) that much of any reconstruction money would be stolen by corrupt officials. Concentrating on paying government workers including two years back pay for Kurdish forces plus some new government jobs, is seen as a more effective use of the money. It is not considered polite to bring up the corruption angle but everyone knows it exists and is the biggest obstacle to reconstruction. Potential donor nations, both Western and Moslem know it as well. Reconstruction doesn’t happen until commercial organizations do it or there is a major civil disorder (as is currently going on in Basra) to force the issue. Because of donor and lender wariness, it is difficult to handle large budget deficits. The 2019 budget is based on shipping 3.88 million BPD (barrels per day) and sell it for $56 a barrel. The world price of oil remain low because the United States and Canada continue to produce more oil and natural gas. The American state of Texas, which by itself used to be a major global oil producer and has regained that status, producing 4.6 million BPD. That total is exceeded only by Russia and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. is again a major exporter of petroleum and natural gas.

January 23, 2019: The government ordered the Special Forces to take over security in Kirkuk province from the Counter-Terrorism Agency which has been handling it, unsuccessfully, since the army and PMF forces pushed Kurdish forces out in late 2017. The Kurds had kept ISIL and other Islamic terrorists out of Kirkuk (and the rest of the Kurdish administered north) and, as expected, Iraqi Arab forces were not able to handle security as effectively. The Special Forces troops are more effective and also get along better with the Kurds (and Americans and so on). The Special Forces troops were not sent into deal with Kirkuk security because the Special Forces took the lead in the battle to take Mosul from ISIL. In doing so the Special Forces units suffered about 40 percent casualties. It has taken over a year to rebuild the battered Special Forces battalions. This included giving many of the troops some much needed leave while many wounded troops who wanted to return to duty needed time to heal. American Special Forces troops assisted with the retraining and rebuilding. While excellent troops, there aren’t many Special Forces troops (less than 15,000 organized into three brigades).

January 21, 2019: In the west, PMF artillery fired at ISIL targets in Syria, killing or wounding over 40 of the Islamic terrorists.

January 15, 2019: Iraq confirmed that there had been a reduction in foreign troop strength in Iraq. At the start of 2018, there were 11,000 foreign troops in Iraq, many of them involved with fighting ISIL forces along the Syrian border. A year later there were about 24 percent fewer foreign troops in Iraq and that number is expected to decline. That number does not include Iranian troops, mainly with the IRGC who provide training and tactical advice to the many pro-Iran Shia militias. There are not many (a few hundred) of these IRGC personnel and they are not considered combat troops. Iraq still wants some NATO troops in Iraq to make it more difficult for the Iranians (mainly the IRGC) to attempt a takeover of the government.

January 13, 2019: Israel encouraged Iraq to more forcefully call for Iran to get out of Iraq as Israel confirmed what was widely known, that Israel has been regularly carrying out airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria. During those comments, it was revealed that these air strikes involved some 2,000 smart bombs and guided missiles as well as some short range ballistic missiles in 2018 alone. There were thousands of air, missile and artillery strikes at Syrian targets in 2017 and 2018 when the decision was made to make an all-out effort against the Iranian military buildup in Syria. This effort has been considered a success because it has cost the Iranians a lot of money as the destroyed weapons often included large rockets and guided missiles which are not cheap, even in Iran. In addition, hundreds of Iranian or Iranian allied military personnel were killed or wounded. Worse, Iran has not been able to respond. All this has encouraged Turkey and Syria to openly consider asking Iran to get out of Syria. This is an even more humiliating defeat for Iran. But Iran is believed more willing to give up Syria than Iraq, which is worrisome for the Iraqis.

January 7, 2019: Some of the American troops leaving Syria are joining some other U.S. troops from Anbar province to take over the K1 base in Kirkuk province. K1 had long been used by American troops who supported Kurdish forces. The Iraqi government wants the American troops back in Kirkuk to help deal with the growing ISIL problem there. The American forces will be joined by Iraqi Special Forces at K1. Some of the PMF units told to leave were pro-Iran but they appear to be obeying the order.

December 31, 2018: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), Iraqi F-16s attacked a compound where some 30 ISIL leaders and their associates were believed to be meeting.

December 30, 2018: Syria has given Iraq permission to make attacks against Islamic terrorists in Syria at any time without prior permission. Iraq has already been doing this, especially when they had intel about where ISIL forces were gathering and needed to carry out an air strike quickly. Iraqi ground forces (pro-Iran Iraqi militias) sometimes moved across the border in response to Syria based ISIL forces attacking or regularly crossing into Iraq.

 

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