Iraq: Iranian Irritants

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September 26, 2019: The government, and Iraqis in general, are particularly keen to retain American troops in Iraq, to discourage Iran from trying to take over the government by force. Elections and opinion polls show Iran is losing support and the Iranians are desperate to turn that around and do dangerous things as part of that effort. Iraqi government efforts to stop the verbal threats to American facilities and forces as well as the actual violence are hampered by the fact that while a shrinking minority of Iraqis support Iran those supporters still occupy key political and security force jobs.

Recent Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Iraq make Iran look weak because Iran cannot even detect the Israeli aircraft or UAVs. Then there is the issue of how did the Israelis know which of the many pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) bases were the ones containing targets worth attacking. The Israelis obviously have good information about what is going on in Iraq and that also makes Iran look bad since IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) experts helped establish these storage sites and security measures to guard them and keep secret what goes on there.

Iraq has every reason to distance from Iran, which is broke because of sanctions and eager to export terrorist violence to their more prosperous neighbors. That would certainly include Iraq, which has had two straight months of record oil revenues of at least $6 billion a month. In July that was the result of 110 million barrels exported at an average price of $60 a barrel. In August that was 112 million barrels at $57 a barrel. Iran is exporting less than 20 million barrels a month and getting a much lower price because the oil must often be smuggled and that drives up shipping costs and the risks of a shipment being seized. Moreover, Iran has more twice as many people as Iraq.

In response to the three airstrikes in August, remaining storage sites for Iranian weapons were secretly moved, at night, to new locations. This did not make a difference and Iran has to face the fact that their pro-Iranian Iraqi allies are not as pro-Iran as they appear. The attacks continued in September and so far there have been more attacks and the accuracy in target selection was still there. The reliability of the Iran-backed PMF militias is deteriorating as the leaders of the 67 PMF brigades demonstrate divided loyalties. That means more of these brigades, although pro-Iran and receiving weapons and other “aid” from Iran, can no longer be considered under Iranian control. The Iraqi government has been removing or remoting senior PMF officials who are pro-Iran.

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. At the same time Iraq doesn’t want to be dominated by their Sunni Arab neighbors and especially not by their own Sunni Arab minority, which created ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) 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 terrorist attacks on Shia. In 2017 leaders PMF Shia militias were apparently told they could openly express the belief that their 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. Two years later this hostility to Iran has grown and Iran sees this as another potential defeat for its militarized foreign policy. Recently Moqtada al Sadr went to Iran to confer with Iranian Shia clerics and told them of the Iraqi Shia attitudes (largely negative) towards Iranians, especially the IRGC.

In part that is because Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but specializing in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them) and even more enlisted IRGC personnel to Iraq. 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.

This can be seen by the fact that since ISIL was defeated (even before mid-2017 when 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.

Adding to the fears are reports that Iranian-backed (and sometimes led, officially or otherwise by Iranian officers) Shia militia are ignoring earlier promises and entering liberated areas of Mosul and seeking “disloyal” civilians who can be arrested and perhaps murdered. 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, like the one that has existed in Iran since the 1980s. That is equally unlikely, because of quite open popular opposition inside Iraq, but the Iranians tend to think long-term. The Iranians like to pretend that they have l0ts of support in Iraq. They do have some, but it is declining, as it usually does after it is no longer useful for Iraq.

All manner of Iraqi leaders (government, military, religious) are becoming more aware of how Iran wants to dominate and control Iraq and most of these Iraqis, and their followers, don’t like it. Iraqis have seen how Iranian control operates in Lebanon (since the 1980s) and Syria (since 2014) feel that Iraq has a choice, whereas the Lebanese and Syrians did not. While some pro-Iran Iraqi leaders call for attacks on Americans in Iraq that is not supported by most Iraqis, who see the Americans as a form of defense against several foreign threats (Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey). Many Iraqis also take satisfaction in how the Israelis quietly take apart Iranian military capabilities, including operations inside Iran. The Israeli 2018 raid that made off with large quantities of Iranian documents was particularly impressive. Other Arab states in the region agree, which is why Arab states long considered diehard foes of Israel are now openly referring to Israel as an ally. Iraqis are divided on going that far, but as time goes on there is less, not more, support for Iran inside Iraq.

September 25, 2019: in the north (Sulaimani Province), Turkish warplanes carried out an airstrike against a suspected PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) camp. At least two civilians were wounded. Turkey has had ground troops in this area, usually close to the border but often 20 kilometers or more inside Iraq, since May. The Turks want to shut down PKK bases and camps in Iraq. They have had some success, claiming at least 400 KPKK dead since late May, but the PKK is still up there in the hills.

In the United States, the annual UN meeting of world leaders took place. With the American, Saudi and Iranian leaders present the Iraqi prime minister made very public his opposition to anyone (especially Iran) using Iraq as a battlefield for a proxy war against someone else. This was aimed at Iran, which is the foreign nation most actively trying to control what goes on inside Iraq and has been using propaganda, persuasion, threats and violence to get what it wants. The Iraqi warning was also meant for Israel, whose airstrikes against pro-Iran forces in Iraq are increasing. Yet Israel, more than anyone else, is acting in self-defense because the main goal of the Iranian government since the 1990s has been to destroy Israel. Iran has attempted many attacks against Israel or Israelis since then. Some have succeeded but fewer and fewer as the years go by. The Iranians are not pleased by their failure in this area. Also discussed at the UN, but less openly, was the recent Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities and efforts to launch some of those attacks from Iraq. The Iraqis apparently blocked that effort, so the recent attack on Saudi Arabia was launched from Iran.

September 23, 2019: In Baghdad, two rockets were fired towards the American embassy compound but fell short. Police quickly found the launch site but the culprits had fled. This was probably Iran backed PMF again and Americans continue pressuring the government to control these rogue militias or face cuts in foreign aid.

In the north (Sulaimani Province), two Turkish soldiers were killed when a PKK roadside bomb went off when the Turkish supply convoy passed by.

September 22, 2019: In the west (Anbar province), an unidentified aircraft, possibly a UAV, attacked a pro-Iran PMF base about 30 kilometers from the Syrian border. These attacks are more frequent and while Israel is the main suspect there is no definitive evidence from the bomb or missile debris or from efforts to get a closeup photo of the aircraft. Israel will not discuss the matter.

September 20, 2019: In Karbala (100 kilometers southwest of Baghdad), an ISIL bomb left in a bus went off about one kilometer before it reached a checkpoint to the city, which is popular with Shia pilgrims because of all the Shia shrines there. The explosion killed 12 and wounded five. Al Qaeda and ISIL frequently try to attack in areas popular with Shia pilgrims.

In the north (Diyala Province) a tractor set off a landmine, wounding three farmers.

September 19, 2019: In the north (Kirkuk province), a roadside bomb went off when a police vehicle passed, killing one policeman and wounding three.

In the northwest, across the border in Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was apparently another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Five pro-Iran militiamen were killed and nine wounded. This border crossing is vital for the Iran-to-Mediterranean land route. This road is essential to supporting any Iranian military expansion in Syria and Lebanon. Israel has bombed it before and will apparently continue doing so. That is what will also to happen to the new military base Iran is building here on the Syrian side of the border. The base is not complete yet but will be soon and expected to be occupied by the end of 2019. At that point, the Israeli airstrikes usually begin.

Saudi intel officials announced that debris found at the Abqaiq facility indicated that Iran used 18 UAVs and seven Ya Ali air launched cruise missiles to attack two Saudi targets. The Ya Ali has been around since 2014 and has a range of 700 kilometers. The UAVs and cruise missiles were flying preprogrammed flight paths using GPS. The flight path carefully followed a course that avoided areas covered by Saudi Patriot system radars, which see in a 120 degree arc, not 360 (all around). The attack force would move along the Iraqi coast and stay off the Persian Gulf, because that body of water is under constant surveillance by the United States Navy and Air Force. The attack force then proceeded south of Abqaiq and turned around so that the attacker appeared like they have just arrived from Yemen. Not all the UAVs and cruise missiles hit targets. Over a third of them for one reason or another, missed.

September 18, 2019: The Iraqi government ordered Iran backed PMF militias away from the Saudi border.

Germany is extending its military training operation in Iraq and the Kurdish north for another year. The number of German troops involved will be reduced by about 100 soldiers, to 700.

September 16, 2019: In the east (Deir Ezzor province) an Israeli airstrike hit a pro-Iran PMF near the al Bukamal crossing into Iraq.

ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi issued his first recorded message since April. The 30 minute audio recording cited areas in the Middle East and elsewhere (like Mali) where ISIL was still active. He also urged his followers to free ISIL wives and their children who are held in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq and his followers appear to be working on that. Baghdadi is believed to be hiding out in eastern Syria or western Iraq. Security forces from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Russia and just about every nation in the world are looking for him. So Baghdadi spends most of his time hiding from all those who want him dead or alive. That search has captured or killed more and more of his key associates, including several killed this year in Syria or Iraq.

September 15, 2019: The government ordered merger of PMF and Defense Ministry weapons and ammunition storage sites has been completed. After a series of explosions at PMF weapons warehouses, the Defense Ministry found that this was largely caused by sloppy handling of ammo. Also at issue was the presence of many PMF ammo storage sites in urban areas. The Defense Ministry stores ammo in well-guarded and well managed rural sites. This new policy gives the Defense Ministry control over PMF weapons and ammo. Any PMF ammo storage sites that remain are illegal and subject to seizure. Some pro-Iran PMF units are believed to possess illegal storage sites. The Defense Ministry also denied permission for one pro-Iran PMF brigade to establish its own “air force” of quadcopter and fixed-wing UAVs. This same PMF brigade has had its weapons warehouses hit by Israeli airstrikes recently. As a result, it is definitely illegal for any PMF to possess any Iranian UAVs although the commercial ones used by Iraqi troops and militia are tolerated, mainly because the Islamic terrorists and bandits use them as well.

September 14, 2019: Down south, across the border in Saudi Arabia Yemeni Shia rebels claim responsibility for an air attack in Saudi Arabia where the Abqaiq oil processing facility (the world’s largest) and a nearby oil field were damaged by multiple explosives equipped UAVs. This attack was well planned and hit key facilities within the sprawling oil processing center. The Iran-backed Yemeni Shia rebels quickly took credit for the attack but few people who knew about how these Iranian UAVs operated believed the Yemeni rebels. Although those rebels have been using similar UAVs for similar attacks since 2018, one like this, so far from northern Yemen and so precise and carefully planned, was beyond the capabilities of the Shia rebels. For one thing, the Saudis have developed methods for detecting and destroying these UAVs that were operating in Yemen and it is unlikely that a formation of a dozen or more could travel 1,400 kilometers over Saudi territory without being detected. Later analysis of the debris indicated that over 20 UAVs or cruise missiles were involved and the Americans provided photographic evidence that the UAVs came from the north (as in from Iran), not the south. Kuwait also reported detecting a number of UAVs passing over their territory before the Abqaiq attack.

The Yemeni rebels claim to have used their Samad-3 UAVs, which has the range to hit Abqaiq and has been used by the Yemen rebels since 2018. The Samad-3 is basically an Iranian Ababil UAV with a new name. This UAV would take about five hours to get from Yemen to Abqaiq. For a while, it was suspected the UAVs came from southern Iraq because there was one pro-Iran PMF militia that boasted of launching UAV attacks on Saudi Arabia from western Iraq (Anbar) and was suspected in an earlier UAV attack. But that PMF unit was no longer in a position to launch any UAV attacks and evidence indicated the UAVs were launched from western Iran and passed over Kuwait to reach Abqaiq. Iran denies this but this sort of attack is typical for Iranians, who prefer to use third-parties (or “cutouts”) to make such attacks and then deny any responsibility. This approach works less well now because Iran has used it so often and several entities (the U.S., the UN and others) have compiled evidence leading back to Iran as the source of numerous assassinations, bombings and aerial attacks. Iran is taking advantage of the fact that no one wants an all-out war in the Persian Gulf and believes it can continue attacks like this without serious repercussions. Iran is already under intense economic sanctions so they believe they are not vulnerable to any serious retaliation. The Ababil attack did not have much impact on the world oil market as there was plenty of extra supply to fill in while Ababil was repaired. The Americans did impose new financial sanctions on Iranian banks and financial services in general and will more vigorously enforce existing sanctions on Iranian banks. In other words, the Americans are now going after all Iranian foreign financial activity. This will cause Iran problems. Worse, what Iran wants is an actual retaliatory military attack by the Americans, so the unpopular Iranian religious dictatorship can get more popular support inside Iran. This also reduces popular support for Iran among Iraqi Shia Arabs. These Iraqis were initially attracted to installing an Iranian style government in Iraq, but given the string of failures and defeats Iran has been suffering the past few years, Iran no longer seems worth following or emulating.

September 10, 2019: In Karbala (100 kilometers southwest of Baghdad) an Islamic terrorist bomb went off at a Shia religious ceremony, killing 31 and wounding over 100.

North of Mosul, U.S. warplanes dropped 38 tons of smart bombs on Qanus Island in the Tigris River. The island is 16 kilometers from an airbase used by American troops. The island has long been a rest stop for ISIL personnel moving between Iraq and Syria and has been bombed before. About 25 ISIL men were killed this time and the reason for the large number of bombs used is to clear landmines and explosive traps ISIL uses to defend the transit camps from attack.

Britain accuses Iran of violating a written agreement to not sell the oil its tanker Adrian Draya-1 was carrying, to Syria. Iran recently announced it had found a customer for the Adrian Draya-1 oil cargo but would not say who. The Americans say they have photographic and electronic evidence that the customer was Syria, despite efforts by Iran to conceal the transfer of oil via the Syrian offshore oil transfer terminal. This all began earlier in southern Spain where a British court in Gibraltar agreed to allow the Iranian tanker Grace 1 to go free because of written assurances its cargo of Iraqi oil would not be delivered to Syria in violation of sanctions. The tanker had been seized on July 4th by British commandos because of evidence that was transporting Iraqi oil to Syria. The Iranian supertanker was there to resupply after a long voyage around Africa. Britain claimed the tanker was breaking sanctions by transporting two million barrels of Iraqi oil to Syria. This was part of an enormous (and expensive) Iranian effort to get the Syrian government the oil it needs to continue fighting rebels and Islamic terrorists. The tanker was acting suspiciously as it avoided traveling via the Suez Canal and instead took the longer and much more expensive route around Africa. The Egyptians would have carefully scrutinized the tanker and its paperwork if it had used the canal. The U.S. promptly issued a warrant for the seizure of the oil on the Grace one, plus $995,000 as part of a forfeiture (of Iranian assets) so satisfy American financial judgments against Iran. The Gibraltar court refused to hold the Iranian tanker any longer and the tanker renamed Adrian Draya-1 and with its registration changed to Iranian, said was going to Greece. Adrian Draya-1 left Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean where it moved towards Syria. On September 2nd the tanker turned off its AIS tracker (a violation of international law) and was eventually spotted off Syria. But there were no aerial or satellite photos of the actual unloading of the oil. The Americans will not reveal the exact nature of their evidence or how they obtained it, apparently to prevent Iran from knowing how their tanker had been tracked. With that knowledge, the Iranians could more easily come up with ways to avoid such detection.

September 9, 2019: In the east (Deir Ezzor province), an Israeli airstrike hit a new pro-Iran PMF base near the al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were about twenty dead and much property damage. Israel did not take credit. The next day there was another airstrike across the border in Iraq (Anbar province) that hit a weapons warehouse, which caused a large secondary explosion.

September 4, 2019: In the northwest, across the border in Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was apparently another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq.

 

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