Iraq: The Fears Factor

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February 18, 2021: The financial situation is very bad, so bad that it has the attention of senior government officials as well as populist religious leaders who have supported the continuing public, and sometimes violent, protests again corruption and misrule in general. The government budget for 2021 includes a 20 percent deficit that is covered by expensive loans. Government income fluctuates depending on the sale price for oil and how much Iraq can produce. Because of the global covid19 recession the oil price fluctuated from $33 to $43 a barrel in 2020. Iraq had to cut production to about three million BPD (Barrels Per Day) for much of 2020 to maintain its membership in OPEC (the oil cartel) and to make up for several instances of overproduction since late 2019.

Iraq is more dependent on oil income than any other Gulf nation. Because of lower oil prices and lower oil demand the Iraqi GDP shrank eleven ten percent in 2020. The monthly government payroll is $4.5 billion and in 2020 oil income has only been able to cover about half of that. Much of the payroll spending is stolen and the government is under a lot of pressure to save money by making a serious effort to shut down the scams that steal as much as a third of the payroll costs. For most of 2020 the government was able borrow money to cover the monthly budget shortfall. But by late 2020 that the government was out of credit and millions of Iraqis were not getting paid on time. The situation improved a bit at the end of the year when oil price in December reached $48 a barrel.

The 2021 government budget avoided major spending reductions or reducing corruption and mainly depends on higher ($60 a barrel would be nice) oil prices to work. For too many Iraqi politicians that is seen as a more realistic solution than taking on the corruption problems involving who gets paid what by the government. Because of the continued corruption and deficit spending, recovery from the recession will take longer. GDP is expected to grow by 1.2 percent in 2021 and about four percent in 2022 and 2024. Before covid19, in 2019, GDP was growing at 4.5 percent a year. Continued reluctance of government officials to deal with corruption means the popular protests will continue.

Dealing with problems involving Iran or Turkey are also being avoided. Iranian sponsored violence in Iraq or interference in the economy are opposed by most Iraqis. This does not motivate Iraqi politicians to act and that is causing more and more popular discontent. That’s fine with Iran because a government collapse would provide Iran with more opportunities to expand it control in Iraq.

The Danger Below

A UN effort to count the number of landmines and other unexploded munitions still present in Iraq concluded that there are apparently 50 million of these items, most of them unexploded or unfired munitions as well as bombs and explosive traps left behind by ISIL in northern and western Iraq. Efforts to remove those items only were not sufficient to clear them any time soon. Only 33,311 were removed in 2020. A few percent were along the Iranian border where the 1980s war was fought.

February 16, 2021: In the north (Nineveh Province, 120 kilometers west of Mosul) PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) remain in Sinjar, which is also dominated by the Kurdish Yazidi faction. The Yazidi were particularly hated by ISIL which tried to wipe the group out. ISIL failed, in large part because support for the Yazidi from Kurds Iraqi, Turkish and Syrian Kurds as well as the American military. For that reason, the Yazidi tolerate the continued presence of PKK. This angers Turkey, which now threatens to send in ground forces and lots of airpower to occupy Sinjar if the Iraqi government does not remove PKK from Sinjar and northern Iraq in general. Turkey added that they would act without warning. With that degree of motivation Iraq has sent two Iran-backed PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) militia brigades to Sinjar as well as an army brigade. Most Iraqis, including the Kurds, want the 100,000-man PMF force disbanded but so far pro-Iran and bribed-by-Iran Iraqi politicians have blocked that move.

Since 2018 PKK has been moving some of Qandil headquarters operations westward to Sinjar. Turkey has been trying to persuade the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurds to prevent this. There was some cooperation but the PKK continued to be active in and around the Qandil base area as well as Sinjar. Since 2019 Turkish troops and airstrikes have increased their attacks on PKK bases in and around Mount Qandil, a remote area near the Turkish and Iranian borders that has long harbored PKK hideouts and served as a supply source for PKK operations in eastern Turkey. The Turkish attacks involve lots of airstrikes by F-16s, helicopter gunships and missile-armed UAVs along with 155mm artillery for targets within 20 kilometers of the Turkish border. This has been supplemented by ground troops (mainly special operations forces) advancing up to 50 kilometers into Iraq to confirm the damage and collect intel material. Because this is such a remote, and thinly populated, area the Iraqi government does not protest too vigorously. The PKK have proved resilient and operations like this slow PKK down but after decades of fighting PKK survives and rebuilds. Turks, Iranians and Arabs have been fighting the Kurds for centuries.

February 15, 2021: In the north (autonomous Kurdish provinces) someone fired about two dozen 107mm rockets at the Erbil (Kurdish capital) airport complex and fourteen of them landed in populated areas. This facility is heavily guarded but unguided 107mm rockets have a max range of ten to twelve kilometers and the American C-RAM rocket defense is short range and there mainly to defend the Patriot anti-ballistic missile battery. The airport has a heavily patrolled eight kilometers security zone around it to make rocket and mortar attacks more difficult, or at least much less accurate. Several of the rockets hit areas containing American troops and civilian contractors. One contractor was killed and eight others wounded. Five of the wounded were Americans, including a soldier. The contractors are recruited worldwide even though most work for American firms. Awliya al-Dam, a minor Shia Islamic terror group claimed responsibility. Smaller Islamic terrorist groups often stage attacks like this to get publicity. This helps them with recruiting and fund raising. It also increases efforts to find and destroy them. Another complication is that nearly all Shia Islamic terror groups in Iraq are taking orders from Iran. Such groups have been responsible for attacks on American troops in Iraq for over a decade.

Kurdish counter-terror forces immediately began tracking down those responsible for this attack and the next day found the truck from which the rockets were launched. The rockets used were the variants of the original Russian B-12 rockets. These are manufactured by many nations in the region, especially Iran. The B-12 is a 107mm, 19 kg (42 pound), 107mm (4.2 inch) diameter, 84 cm (33 inch) long rocket that is very popular with terrorists. This rocket has a range of about six to ten kilometers and 1.35 kg (3 pounds) of explosives in its warhead. The BM-12 with the longest range is a Chinese variant which has a smaller warhead and larger rocket motor. This version is supposed to have a range of about 12 kilometers. Similar variants are available from several nations. The longer-range variants are even less accurate but that does not matter if the target is a large community, military base or airport. Normally fired from a launcher, in salvoes of dozens at a time, when used individually it is more accurate the closer it is to the target. This 107mm design is very popular with guerillas and terrorists because of its small size and portability.

February 11, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) another airstrike hit a convoy of trucks carrying Iranian weapons as it passed through the Al Bukamal crossing into Syria (Deir Ezzor province). There were several large explosions, made possible by the munitions carried in the trucks. The attacking aircraft could not be identified but were believed to be Israeli and part of a campaign to cripple Iranian efforts to build up a large force in Syria that would be capable of launching thousands of guided and unguided rockets into Israel.

February 10, 2021: In the far north (Duhok Province) Turkish air and ground forces carried another attack against PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) Turkish Kurdish separatist camps and positions in the hills. There were over forty airstrikes (against fifty actual or suspected targets) with ground troops following up to confirm damage and seize an prisoners or useful documents. At least 33 PKK members died, including two known leaders. A larger number of wounded and unwounded PKK got away.

Outside there was another roadside bomb attack made on an American supply convoy. There were no casualties and not much damage.

February 8, 2021: Next door Syria is falling apart because cash shortages. This means more trouble for Iraq. For example, at the end of 2020 the Assad government ordered the military to reduce costs by having most military units return to lower peacetime (pre-2011) levels of readiness. Syria is not at peace but the Assads cannot afford to keep most of the military combat ready. The cutbacks are dictated by the sharp reduction in financial support from Iran. The American economic sanctions have, since 2018, greatly reduced the amount of money Iran could spend on its foreign wars. Iran-backed groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen are all feeling the impact. Iran is hoping the new American government will relax the sanctions. While the Americans are now saying nice things about Iran, the sanctions are still in place and enforced. In Syria that means the troops have less ammo and fuel for patrols and combat. As was the case in peacetime, more soldiers and officers were given leave, to spend a few weeks visiting families or even taking a vacation.

February 7, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) the army carried out a series of raids on ISIL camps near the 599-kilometer border Anbar shares with Syria. The Iraqis revealed that the targets had been found using tech supplied by the American led counter-terrorism coalition. The tech apparently consisted of hidden night-vision digital cameras and detected anyone crossing at night and transmitted the data to a UAV high overhead which could use its more powerful sensors to track the border crossers to their destination. The Iraqi army wants to expand the use of this tech and replace cameras discovered and removed or destroyed by smugglers, Islamic terrorists or even some civilians looking to make some money. Such cameras have long been available as a commercial product for people living in rural areas curious about what kind of wildlife is near them. Researchers also use such cameras to detect or simply count rare species in the wild. The more expensive commercial wildlife cameras have wireless communications but most simply save any photos or video the camera took to a memory ship after the motion detector was triggered by nearby movement.

February 1, 2021: In Baghdad and other cities the attacks on liquor stores that began in early December 2020 continue. The worst of these attacks use explosives but some of these fail because they are discovered before they go off (or fail to go off) and are safely removed. In response pro-Iran or Islamic conservative policemen closed many other liquor stores for bogus “violations. Turkish manufacturers and wholesalers provide most of the alcoholic beverages for the Iraqi market. Since the campaign against liquor stores began liquor imports from Turkey fell 50 percent during a period of peak demand because of New Year and Christmas, which is celebrated by many non-Christians in Iraq. Technically alcohol is only supposed to be purchased and consumed by Iraqi Christians and this tolerance has been observed since Iraq was founded after World War I. Before that Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire which was always considerate of its non-Moslem subjects, thereby earning their loyalty. Since 2003, clergy representing the Shia majority have preached against any tolerance or special accommodations for non-Moslems. This is the old Moslem curse of clergy getting into “who is more Islamic” feuds with clerical and secular rivals. It’s another form of corruption since many of these outspoken clerics will modify their message if the price is right.

January 27, 2021: The main problem in Iraq is corruption and it is believed to have cost the government over $300 billion since 2003. That’s just the losses to the government budget. Overall, more than half a trillion has been stolen from commercial and government organizations since 2003. Government budgets have declined since 2014, when oil peaked at over $100 a barrel. It is now about a third of that because of increased production in the U.S., which is again an exporter of oil, and reduced global demand. Iraq has always been one of the most corrupt nations on the planet. The extent of this corruption c an be seen in the international surveys of nations to determine who is clean and who is corrupt.

In 2020 Iraq ranked 160 out of 180 nations in international rankings compared with 162 in 2019. Corruption is measured annually in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/13, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.

The current Iraq score is 21 (versus 20 in 2019) compared to the least corrupt nation in region, nearby UAE (United Arab Emirates), which ranked 21st out of 180 nations. The current UAE score is 71 (same as 2019) compared to 61 (61) for Israel, 15 (15) for Yemen, 67 (69) for the United States, 33 (35) for Egypt, 25 (26) for Nigeria, 44 (44) for South Africa, 40 (39) for Turkey, 53 (53) for Saudi Arabia, 33 (30) for Ukraine, 47 (45) for Belarus, 56 (58) for Poland, 80 (80) Germany, 65 (65) for Taiwan, 40 (39) for Turkey, 40 (41) for India, 30 (28) for Russia, 61 (57) for South Korea, 42 (41) for China, 18 (14) for North Korea, 36 (37) for Vietnam, 85 (85) for Singapore, 74 (73) for Japan, 37 (40) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 31 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (26) for Bangladesh, 25 (26) for Iran, 19 (16) for Afghanistan, 28 (29) for Burma, and 25 (28) for Lebanon.

Iraq’s corruption score has changed for the better since the 2012 when it was 18. Unfortunately, Iraq hasn’t improved enough to make a major difference.

January 26, 2021: The issue of Iraq’s instability continues to trouble Turkey. It’s not an afterthought. Iraq still provides a haven for the PKK. Turkey calls the PKK a terrorist organization, for good reason. The PKK began as a Marxist revolutionary group created supported by the USSR (Russia) during the Cold War. Turkey is willing to trade with Iraq, especially with the autonomous northern-Iraqi Kurds. Iraqi-Kurds are seen as more reliable trade partners than the Arab Iraqis who dominate the national government. Part of this is ethnic prejudice stemming from the apparent (to the Turks) corrupt and self-destructive ways of the Iraqi, and especially the dominant Baghdadi Arabs. These ancient prejudices still resonate. The Turks see the Iraqi Kurds as easier to deal with, in part because northern Iraq (from Kirkuk to the current Turkish border) used to be part of the Turkish homeland according to the Ottoman Empire. The victorious allies took Kirkuk province away from post-Ottoman Turkey because the area had oil and without it the Turks would have to import oil and be less of a future threat to outsiders. The Turks have not forgotten their lost province, and that irritates Arab Iraqis.

January 23, 2021: In Syria and Iraq Iran is trying to organize local versions of the Lebanese Hezbollah. In Syria this process has just for started with the formation of the Sayyida Zaynab Brigade. To do this Iranian spends a lot of money on hiring Syrian mercenaries who are deemed likely to become loyal and reliable true believers in Iranian goals. The same thing is underway in Iraq. Both efforts depend on lots of cash incentives, especially at the beginning. To pay for this Iran has reduced the budget for bribes and less-special mercenaries.

 

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