Iraq: Bankruptcy Diplomacy

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May 26, 2020: Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Iraqi militia based on the Lebanese Hezbollah, has called for its members to begin operations inside Saudi Arabia in an effort to bring down the ruling Saud family. Kataib Hezbollah is the most pro-Iran militia in Iraq and has been active in Iraq since 2003 after the U.S. removed the Saddam Hussein government. Kataib Hezbollah grew enormously after 2014 when the Iraqi government allowed the formation of more militias to oppose the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) invasion. Kataib Hezbollah is deliberately modeled on the original Lebanese Hezbollah that was created in the 1980s, with the help of Iran, to protect Lebanese Shia during a 1975-90 civil war. Hezbollah's military and political power grew since the 1980s due to financial and military aid from Iran. Much of this aid came in from neighboring Syria, which became an Iranian ally in the 1980s. Hezbollah is increasingly unpopular in Lebanon, where they exist as a separate military and political entity that constantly tries to impose its will on the entire country. That is difficult because Hezbollah only has the support of about a third (the Shia portion) of the population and even the Lebanese Shia are growing tired of Iranian domination and interference.

Iraqis are aware of these developments in Lebanon and Kataib Hezbollah is accused of working for Iran to achieve Iranian control over Iraq. The head of Kataib Hezbollah was killed along with Quds commander Qassem Soleimani back in January. Now the United States is offering a $10 million reward for information about the location of Mohammad Kawtharani, the senior Lebanese Hezbollah in Iraq, where he coordinates Iranian support for and control of Kataib Hezbollah. More and more Iraqis are turning against Iran-backed groups in Iraq, where local media are less intimidated by pro-Iran militias and are openly mocking things like the Iranian practice of creating fictitious pro-Iran militia via the Internet. This is typical Iranian propaganda and once had a large following in Iraq. As Iran uses more violence in its efforts to gain control over Iraq, more Iraqis lose their long-held illusions about Iranian goals in Iraq. The growing popular anger in Iran against the religious dictatorship also sends a message to Iraqis that even Iranians don’t trust or like the Iranian government. Both Iranians and Iraqis are defying the Iranian government thugs in both countries and tearing down or defacing posters and billboards promoting the Iranian government and its policies. In Iraqi many local governments are banning pro-Iran posters.

Iran has taken note of this and has recently decided to reduce the use of violence by pro-Iran militias against Americans or ant-Iran Iraqis. There seem to be some doubts and uncertainty within the small circle of Iranian clerics that rule Iran. Official Iranian policy is still the expulsion of American forces from Iraq and Syria, the destruction of Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian States as well as the overthrow of Saud family rule in Saudi Arabia.

Faltering Finances

As bad as the economic situation is in Iraq, it is worse in Iran. This is having side effects. So far in 2020 Iranian losses from Israeli airstrikes in Syria have been so severe that Iran cannot afford to keep replacing missiles and structures lost to these attacks. Iranian mercenaries and Iran backed militias in Syria are responding to the continuing Israeli airstrikes by moving to better protected locations. The units involved are near the Iraqi and Israeli borders as well as Aleppo. Iran continues to repair airstrike damage and expand facilities near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Storage areas on the Syrian side of the border are being built underground. This may not prove very effective because Israel has plenty of “ground-penetrating” bombs and even exports them. None of these “bunker buster bombs have been used against Al Bukamal yet. The Israelis usually wait until such new facilities are completed and full of weapons before attacking them. This way the maximum, and most expensive, damage is inflicted. Despite the greater distance from Israel the Israelis keep bombing Al Bukamal and this can be seen clearly from the Iraqi side of the border. The Iranians would like to build some of these facilities on the Iraqi side of the border but Iraq has banned that. The Iraqi ban works because it is pointed out that storage sites on the Iraqi side would get hit by American and Israeli airstrikes. The Americans would admit to their air attacks while a number of “unknown attacker” airstrikes would be Israeli.

The Al Bukamal 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. Financial problems have caused Iran to cut back on support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and pro-Assad Iranian mercenaries in Syria. Iran sees this as a temporary setback but most Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese and Israelis would like to make it permanent,

May 25, 2020: Iraq and Saudi Arabia are currently the two largest oil exporters in OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and together produce over 16 million barrels a day, most of it for export. These two nations can force world oil prices up if both reduce exports. Iraq rarely agrees to that because of heavy dependence on oil income. The two largest non-OPEC states, the U.S. and Russia, together produce 25 million barrels a day, but the U.S. consumes most of the 15 million barrels a day it produces. Russia often cooperates with the Saudis in trying to control oil prices but in 2020 has been reluctant to do so. As a result a Saudi-Iraq coalition is the best hope of boosting prices and the Saudis are willing to help out Iraq economically if Iraq will cooperate in an effort to boost oil prices.

May 24, 2020: With oil prices under $30 a barrel Iraq is calling on Arab Gulf oil states to give or lend Iraq billions of dollars to keep their government operating. Iraq is more dependent on oil income than any other Gulf nation. But because of lower oil prices the Iraqi GDP is expected to shrink nearly ten percent in 2020. In April the government got $1.4 billion in oil revenue. The monthly government payroll is $4.5 billion.

The 2020 government budget is $135 billion but taxes, mainly on oil income, fall short by $40 billion. The amount most ne obtained elsewhere. The Gulf states are willing to help, but only if Iraq can reduce the Iranian operations in Iraq and control the corruption. Most Iraqis agree with both of these demands but there are doubts that the current Iraqi politicians can deliver. Despite a year of violent anti-corruption protests and national (parliamentary) elections that have most politicians denouncing corruption, not much has changed. It’s not that Arab states cannot reduce corruption because several Gulf states have. The UAE is now less corrupt than Israel and Saudi Arabia is carrying out reforms. So why not Iraq? Unless the Iraqi politicians can demonstrate real change the Arb oil states are reluctant to provide the emergency cash. If Iraq cannot get the loans it will not be able to pay salaries and pensions that a fifth of the population depends on. Most of the salary and pension payments are actually bonuses or adjustments. A lot of this is bribes and outright theft. So how the government actually makes the cuts, if no loans are obtained, will reveal how serious the current politicians are about reducing corruption.

May 23, 2020: In the north (Kurdish controlled Dohuk province) Turkish F-16 jets again bombed a group of PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) gunmen who had established themselves in a Christian Kurd village. The Kurdish airstrikes are usually against targets just across the border in Kurdish Iraq. Turkish troops will still briefly cross the border and then return to Turkey. Troop incursions are not as frequent as air or artillery strikes but they are a regular occurrence along this border. In some months there are about one of these airstrikes a week. Most of the time there are only one or two a month. The Iraq and Kurd government insist there are few or no PKK left in Iraq. The Turks are not convinced and insist that Iraq ensure there are no PKK bases in the north. PKK does still operates up there and that’s why Turkish troops sometimes cross the border to collect more evidence of that. Turkey claims to have killed 1,400 PKK and Islamic terrorists so far in 2020, mainly during cross border operations in northern Iraq.

May 22, 2020: U.S. intelligence convinced their Iraqi counterparts that a man Iraqi police had recently arrested was not the new ISIL leaders who replaced ISIL founded Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Since the late 2019 death of Baghdadi in Syria Iraqi security forces have been looking for senior ISIL officials in Iraq. When Baghdadi was killed the American commandos also captured a lot of ISIL documents detailing senior ISIL officials and that made it easier to identify these key ISIL personnel and hunt them down. There is one common problem, most of these senior ISIL officials use an alias and a fictional biography. This makes them harder to find and provides some protection for their families. The Baghdadi documents made it easier to ID these guys or at least find out where they usually operated and what their special skills were.

May 20, 2020: In the north (Saladin, or Salahuddin, Province) security forces and Iraqi intelligence detected and dismantled an ISIL terrorist network. This organization was responsible for attacks further south, in Shia majority areas but its base of operations was in Sunni majority Salahuddin Province.

May 16, 2020: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) another Israeli airstrike hit the Iranian weapons storage near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were several large explosions, not all of them missile warheads. At least seven Iranians (or Iranian mercenaries) were killed.

May 13, 2020: In the north (Kirkuk province) more locals are calling for the autonomous Kurds that control most of northern Iraq be returned to power in Kirkuk. In 2017 the national government used a force of soldiers and pro-Iran PMF militias to drive the Kurdish forces out of Kirkuk. This province, and its oil wells, were claimed by the Kurds in defiance of the national government. The Kurds took complete control of Kirkum in 2014 when approaching ISIL forces threatened to take Kirkuk and it was the Kurds who prevented that and led the effort to drive ISIL out of Mosul and northern Iraq. Until 2017 the more effective Kurdish counter-terrorism efforts kept ISIL and other Islamic terrorists out of Kirkuk. But once the national government decided to force the Kurds out of Kirkuk the security declined and ISIL became a regular presence.

In the autonomous (since the early 1990s) Kurdish provinces to the north ISIL were unable to operate. Since their defeat in 2017, surviving ISIL forces have established base areas to operate from in the area between Baghdad and the Kurdish controlled north. Most ISIL bases are in the Hemrin Mountains, which extend from Diyala through northern Salahuddin province and into southern Kirkuk province. ISIL terrorism is often very selective with little or none of it falling on known “friends of ISIL” who pay “taxes” or provide recruits. ISIL still attacks Kurds in Kirkuk but prefers to go after police and PMF militias. .The Iran-backed PMF units are the most hated by ISIL as they are also fanatics, anti-ISIL fanatics and resistant to bribes and intimidation. So are the Kurds of autonomous northern Iraq. The national government is still trying to work out a deal with the Kurds to improve security in Kirkuk province without making that province part of the autonomous Kurdish region.

May 10, 2020: The French carrier De Gaulle is in the Persian Gulf and its aircraft are carrying out airstrikes in Iraqi against ISIL targets. NATO, mainly American, warplanes are still based in Iraq and regularly attacking ISIL targets.

May 1, 2020: In the north (Salahuddin, Province) elements of two PMF brigades were attacked by over a hundred ISIL gunmen in four different locations. The attacks were repulsed and the ISIL attackers took their dead and wounded with them. The PMF lost ten men.

April 24, 2020: In the north (Kurdish controlled Dohuk province) about a thousand Turkish troops entered Iraq in trucks and armored vehicles and went after PKK camps in the remote Haftanin Valley north of the provincial capital Dohuk. The Turks believed there were several hundred PKK gunmen hiding in the valley and encountered gunfire as they advanced. The Turks on the ground had air support and the PKK men concentrated on slowing the advance. The PKK camps were abandoned and the PKK personnel fled through the forests to camps in other valleys in the area near where the borders of Turkey, Iraq and Iran meet. When it was all over one Turkish soldier had been killed, three wounded and at least twelve PKK fighters killed and many more wounded. The retreating PKK force took their wounded, and possibly some of their dead with them. Much equipment and some documents were left behind in the abandoned camps.

Turkey has shut down most PKK activity in eastern Turkey and Syria. So far in 2020 most (77 percent) of the Turkish attacks on PKK have occurred in northern Iraq, mainly in the autonomous Kurd areas.

 

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