Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing to win the most popular support in Iraq. The Saudis are offering billions of dollars’ worth of economic investments, much of it aimed at improving the Shia south and the city of Basra. This is the heartland of the Iraqi Shia, who comprise about 60 percent of the population. Iraqi Shia live throughout the country but most are down south where they are very much the majority. Most Iraqi Shia are dissatisfied with Iraq’s Shia dominated parliament and government. Lots of government investment has gone to the south and much of it got stolen or paid for sub-standard work. The Saudis point out that they also have a corruption problem but have learned how to control it and are reducing the corrosive impact of corruption on their economy. They are obviously successful. In the latest global corruption survey Iraq was near the bottom (162 out of 180) of the rankings. Those at the top of the list have the least corruption. Down at the bottom are the more and most corrupt. The Saudis are at 52 and the UAE is at 21, ahead of the U.S. at 23 and Israel at 35. Iran is at 146. The Iraqis have been getting more advice and economic assistance (trade and investment) from the Sunni Arab oil states while all they get from Iran is offers of alliance, more Iranian military advisors and threats of violent retaliation if Iraqi politicians do not comply.
Iran has not got much to offer. Their latest proposal is a military/defense treaty with no Iranian cash attached. These Iranian treaties and aid packages used to include bribes for key politicians. Since the Americans revived their economic sanctions in 2017 and became the global leader in oil production, Iran had a lot less cash for their foreign subversion efforts. Iran still has many thousands of loyal and fanatic Iraqi Shia on their side but three years ago they had a lot more. Iran has not been able to improve the lives of Iraqi Shia and they have noticed. It has also been noticed that Iran has been trying to enrich Iranian manufacturers by driving Iraqi competitors out of business. No such threat from the Sunni oil states.
The Saudis and other oil-rich Sunni Arabs still have more to do. For decades the Suni Arab oil states supported Saddam Hussein, even though Saddam operated a brutal dictatorship that was particularly vicious towards the Iraqi Shia and Kurds. These two groups comprised nearly 80 percent of the population with Iraqi Sunnis about 20 percent. Saddam had the support of his southern neighbors because Iraq was the key to any Iranian invasion of Arabia. Since the 1960s Arabs feared such an aggressive move and a Sunni dominated Iraq was worth supporting.
To pay for that most Iraqi oil income went to the Sunni minority, and a lot of that paid for an army where most of the officers and senior NCOs were Sunni Arabs while over half of the troops were Kurds or Shia. To deal with any disloyalty or mutiny there was a separate force, the Republican Guard, to deal with any disloyalty. Another elite group were the secret police. Actually, there were several different secret police and intelligence agencies, so everyone could be periodically investigated to verify their loyalty. That is all gone since 2003 and for over a decade many Iraqi Sunni Arabs fought to get back what they had lost. That effort suffered a succession of defeats and now the remaining Iraqi Sunni Arabs are about fifteen percent of the population and trying to be more cooperative and less troublesome.
With the pro-Saddam terrorist threat much diminished the Iranians feel they have lost a valuable asset in Iraq. Trying to demonize the Americans never worked very well because U.S. troops took the lead in fighting the Sunni Arab terrorists and still do. Since 2014 most of that aid has been from the air, with over 13,000 airstrikes and many more surveillance missions. There are only 3,000 U.S. troops in Iraq right now and the American goal is to get them all out. Despite that Iran continues to insist that the Americans are the Great Satan and a dangerous enemy of Islam. Four decades of preaching that has not reflected well on Iran. This assessment is shared by most Iranians as well.
The U.S. and Iraq are deadlocked over how to move against Iran-backed Iraqi militias. In late September the U.S. threatened to bomb pro-Iran Iraqi militias unless Iraq eliminated the threat first. The American position was that Iran was at war with Americans in Iraq and said so frequently and publicly. All the major Iraqi Shia religious leaders have called for the disbanding of all PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) militias, in part because Iran was rapidly turning the entire PMF into an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hezbollah organization called Kataib Hezbollah. Founded in the 1980s with Iranian help, the original Hezbollah still takes orders from Iran and has dominated Lebanese politics for over three decades. Most Lebanese want Hezbollah gone but a heavily armed militia with enormous economic power in Lebanon is difficult to disband. Iraqis want Kataib Hezbollah gone now and cannot understand why their prime minister does not act. Fear probably has a lot to do with the delay. In Lebanon Iran had several senior Lebanese politicians assassinated for being too openly hostile to Hezbollah. The personal danger for the Iraqi prime minister is based on fact, not just speculation.
The new Iraqi prime minister (Mustafa al Kadhimi) is decidedly hostile to Iran and calls for easing the Iranians out and not giving them any justification to get more violent. Kadhimi had already ordered the removal of many pro-Iran commanders in the security services and disbanded some units that were dangerously pro-Iran. Kadhimi went to the U.S. in late August to meet with the American leader and discuss improving U.S.-Iraq relations. Such a meeting was important because Kadhimi is the first post-Saddam (2003) prime minister that is not heavily influenced/controlled by Iran.
Iran still has enough loyal (to Iran) Iraqi militias to be a threat to the Iraqi government. Most Iraqi politicians and voters want less Iranian influence. Iran wants fewer foreign troops in Iraq. That is a point of contention because Iraqis realize the foreign troops offer some assurance that Western and Arab states would actively assist Iraq if Iran sought to take control via a civil war or invasion. Civil war is the more likely option, but only in an emergency, such as Iraq appearing to succeed in disbanding all the pro-Iran militias. At the moment Iran is willing to halt all violence by Kataib Hezbollah if the government agrees to have all foreign troops leave Iraq, except for Iranian advisors. This sort of thing is seen by Iraqis as an expression of Iranian contempt for Iraq and confidence that Iran will turn Iraq into another Lebanon.
Kurds Crack Down
Since early 2020 Iran and Turkey have been cooperating in a military effort to get Kurdish separatists out of northern Iraq.
The current Turkish campaign began June 16 and is still active, more so than any previous campaign against PKK activity in northern Iraq. Turkey has established about 30 temporary bases on the Iraqi side of the border indicating that Turkish ground forces, which have already advanced more than 40 kilometers inside Iraq, will be there until the PKK isn’t. The Iraqi Kurds finally got the message and since early November have established checkpoints on roads going to areas where the Turks or PKK are operating. The Kurdish troops on checkpoint duty were told that the Turks will not leave until PKK is gone and the checkpoints are there to prevent supplies or weapons getting to the PKK, at least via the roads, along with known or suspected PKK personnel. The Iraqi Kurds long refused to do this to the PKK but now the Turks have forced the Kurds to decide; do you want endless Turkish air strikes and permanent Turkish special operations troops in your territory, or are you willing to help chase the PKK out of your territory. There was no publicity of the decision to cooperate and some of the Kurdish troops assigned to checkpoint duty were angry at the decision but there was not significant opposition.
The Turks consider the current operation a continuation of a smaller cross border offensive that began at the end of May. Turkish warplanes, armed UAVs and artillery hit nearly a thousand targets in a combat zone extending from border areas of Dohuk province (on the Syrian border) to Hakurk, the mountainous region where the borders of Iraq, Turkey and Iran meet. There were also airstrikes against a refugee camp outside Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish north. Iran cooperated in this operation by attacking PKK and local Iranian Kurd separatists found inside Iran opposite the Iraqi Hakurk region.
By November the June offensive killed or captured over 600 Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq. Troops raided over 500 locations, about 15 percent of them caves and seized a lot of weapons and equipment. Turkey declared that most of the ground (search and seize) operations were completed and Turkish troops would begin withdrawing. Some of the Turks did leave but a lot remained. The Turks warn that unless the Iraqi Kurds are more effective in keeping Turkish and Syrian Kurd separatists out, the Turks will be back.
The Iraqi Kurds have frequently asked the PKK to get out of Iraq. Yet for a long time, the Iraqi Kurds tolerated the PKK presence with the understanding that the PKK would not be violent inside Iraq and would stay away from Iraqi Arab and Kurd population centers. Over the last decade the PKK has increasingly violated that understanding and the Turkish attacks have become more frequent and intense. Iraqi Kurds will not go to war with the Turkish Kurds but now the PKK accuses Iraqi Kurds of supplying the Turks with information about where PKK camps are. There was no proof of that and now Iraqi Kurds are manning checkpoints to weaken PKK forces still in northern Iraq. All this does some major damage to the PKK-Iraqi Kurd relationship.
November 16, 2020: The UNCC (United Nations Compensation Commission) authorized another Iraqi payment (of $230 million) to Kuwait
for damage done to Kuwait oil fields during the 1990-91 occupation. That leaves $2.3 billion still to be paid before the entire $52.3 billion debt is satisfied. The UNCC also granted Iraq an additional year to complete payments. The UNCC assessed the reparations in the 1990s but Saddam Hussein refused to pay. Five years after Saddam was removed in 2003 Kuwait restored diplomatic relations with Iraq in return for Iraq working with the UNCC to pay off the reparations. In early 2018 Iraq resumed paying Kuwait reparations. Payments had been resumed earlier but were suspended in 2014 because of the ISIL invasion and the consequent cash shortage. If Iraq continues making payments it should be finished paying the debt by 2022.
November 14, 2020: In the north (Duhok province) Turkish artillery, on the Turkish side of the border fired on a suspected Kurdish separatist base that was close to a refugee camp. There was damage to the target but also panic in the refugee camp with hundreds of refugees fleeing. This was the second such Turkish attack in the last week.
November 12, 2020: In the north (Kirkuk) ISIL made two attacks on Iraqi forces. Two police officers were wounded during an attack on a checkpoint while another attack on a checkpoint also failed and some of these attackers were killed or wounded.
November 11, 2020: In the west (Anbar province) PMF forces continued their effort to find and destroy cross-border tunnels ISIL had been building to make it safer to cross the Syrian border.
November 10, 2020: Iraq is in the process of getting additional electric power from Saudi Arabia instead of Iran. New power transmission lines are being built into Saudi Arabia and will soon be able to import 500 MW from the Saudis.
October 19, 2020: Iran announced it was ready to sign military and security agreements with Gulf Arab states. No details were given. Details are very important, but so is the Iranian history with treaties and agreements. Iran tends to treat these documents as “subject to interpretation”. That means Iran will often reinterpret these deals without telling the other signatories. An example of this deceptive behavior can be seen in how Iran presents and then uses its annual defense budget.
The 2019 government budget was supposed to be $47 billion but that seemed optimistic if only because the Iranian currency has lost half its value (against the dollar, the benchmark for buying imported necessities) when the budget took effect. Another suspicious item was the unusually low $7 billion military budget. Compare this 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. Iran was expected to increase defense spending to $10 billion by 2019. Domestic unrest encourages Iran to report inaccurately lower defense spending. The government admits that only about a third of the defense budget goes to improving Iranian defenses the rest goes to secret projects, like supporting wars in Syria and Yemen as well as forces in Iraq and Lebanon.
It is obvious that the Iranian military gets little money because the navy is practically non-existent and the air force is an antique show. Yet the foreign wars are very expensive, as is the smuggling program to support ballistic missile, nuclear and other new systems development. The actual military spending is believed to be closer to $20 billion a year, most of it not even included in the official government budget. Despite all the smuggling and improvisation Iran is stuck with the oldest, least capable fleet of warplanes in the Middle East. Russia, which lost most of its conventional forces in the 1990s because of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, spent a higher proportion of its defense budget on maintaining their nukes.
October 17, 2020: In Iraq (Baghdad) a pro-Iran militia demonstrated outside the office of an Iraqi Kurdish political party. The Kurds were accused of helping the Americans kill Iranian Quds Force general Soleimani in January 2020.