Iraq: That is Something New


April 20, 2021: Over the last few days several senior Sunni Arab politicians were arrested and several more are being sought. All the suspects are banned from leaving the country. That means the men being sought may seek to hide in Iraq until they have arranged for a safe exit. This crackdown was anticipated but no was sure when. Since 2014 the government has been under growing pressure from voters and foreign donors, especially the Americans, to actually do something about the chronic and epic corruption. Currently Iraqi remain in the top twelve percent of most-corrupt countries. In the 2020 Transparency International Corruption survey Iraq ranked 160 out of 180 nations. Iraq ranked 162 in 2019. International corruption is measured annually 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), one of the worst in the region. Not all Middle Eastern countries suffer from high corruption. The least corrupt nation in region, nearby UAE (United Arab Emirates), ranked 21st out of 180 nations followed by Israel at 35. The territory that has been Iraq since the 1920s has long been part of one empire or another and noted for its corruption. 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. Massive public demonstrations against corruption over the last two years have forced the government to take some action. The recent arrest of a Sunni Arab party leader and his brother (also a member of parliament) was a dramatic move. If this crackdown is to continue, a senior Shia Arab politician has to be arrested next. The Sunni Arab minority (about 20 percent) historically monopolized the most damaging corruption because previous foreign rulers of the region (the Turks for over four centuries, then the British for about a decade) put the Sunni minority in charge as the Sunni Arabs were the wealthiest, best educated and most influential group in Iraq. When the Americans introduced democracy after 2003 the Shia Arab majority (60 percent) took control of the government and proved to be more corrupt and less effective rulers. Initially continued corruption was not an issue because the Shia had been treated badly during centuries of Sunni rule and the British left the Sunni in charge if they could, “maintain order.” Many Shia initially believed it was their turn to plunder the country. That attitude soon faded when the Shia realized that most of the plunder stays with the family of whoever took it. Life did not improve for most Iraqis and eventually most Shia and Sunni Arabs found they did have one thing in common. Over the last decade more Iraqis, including the wealthy and powerful, have come to agree that reducing corruption would be good for all Iraqis. For a long time, it was believed the eliminating corruption was impossible because various ethnic, religious and tribal ground could not work together without corruption. That attitude has changed, especially once the international corruption surveys showed that the UAE was more successful economically and politically because of its low corruption levels. This is true worldwide; the least corrupt nations are the wealthiest and most peaceful. The most corrupt are considered “failed states” and barely maintain their national identity.

Reducing corruption is difficult and eliminating it entirely is impossible. Keeping corruption levels low is a constant struggle. Iraqis are witnessing that difficulty in action. The recent arrests of powerful politicians previously seen as immune from prosecution was only possible because the government resisted requests, threats and bribes from other politicians to back off. That was because if the recent arrests stick, and no one “mysteriously disappears” and then shows up in a safe foreign exile, all corrupt politicians have to worry. As has happened in other corrupt nations where the clean government crowd gained enough power to crack down, the corrupt politicians and businessmen will become more cooperative with each other to resist and dismantle the anti-corruption movement. If successful, the anti-corruption campaign will generate a lot of resistance, some of it visible as more media outlets are paid larger bribes to try and discredit and disable the crackdown. These media campaigns always have some success by limiting the punishment for some corrupt politicians and leaving them and their supporters in a position to make a comeback. Reducing corruption is a marathon, not a sprint which means the effort does not get thorough media coverage all the time. Until recently it was difficult to discover how others in the region, like the UAE and Israel, managed to do it. Part of the reason is that international corruption surveys are a relatively recent thing, only becoming practical after the Cold War ended in 1991 and dozens of communist nations were now free to report corruption and try to do something about it. After 1991 there was global news access because of satellite communications and then the World Wide Web. You can’t deal with a problem unless you can identify and openly talk about it. That discussion becomes international on a personal level and that is something new. Corruption is no longer regarded as a permanent part of the culture. As more and more nations reduce the corruption and visibly proper as a result, it becomes known worldwide, not just to locals and a few neighbors and perplexed foreigners.

The Iranian Problem

Iranian efforts to increase its influence in Iraq while also inflicting serious damage on American troops and military contractors in Iraq is not working. Iran is still broke but is now hopeful of the Americans lifting their sanctions. This is being disrupted by continuing Israeli efforts to derail the Iranian nuclear weapons program that Iran tells the world they do not have but the average Iranian knows it is real and have mixed feelings about it. What most Iranians do agree is a problem is their own government, a ruthless religious dictatorship that has so far resisted all internal and external efforts to overthrow it. This increased Iranian violence in Iraq and elsewhere is the aftereffect of the Americans killing Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in early 2020. The Americans had figured out that Soleimani was a, if not the, key Iranian leader responsible for the Iranian military efforts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. If anything, the Americans underestimated the importance of Soleimani because Iran had no one with the leadership and organizational skills, as well as the trust of so many Iranian and foreign leaders, to replace him. Even the Iranians were surprised at how important Soleimani was and how impossible it was to replace him quickly, if ever.

One of the key services Soleimani provided was to get the Iranian moderates and radicals to cooperate, or at least not slide into open conflict with each other. “Moderate” Iranians is a term that has to be qualified. These are members of the senior leadership, all of them approved by the Council of Guardians (twelve senior Shia clerics) who have become divided into mutually antagonistic factions. The Moderates are those who want to put Iran’s interests first and concentrate on the economy and reducing the poverty that is visibly turning more Iranians against their government, Islam and all the foreign wars the radicals have dragged Iran into. These “realists” are also nationalists and often called “moderates” by foreigners.

Soleimani was a key leader in the IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps), the smaller but more fanatic army that keeps an eye on the regular military and Iranians in general for any disloyalty or rebellious intentions. The IRGC suppressed internal unrest over the last two years by killing thousands of protestors and jailing many more. Soleimani commanded the Quds Force, which deals with foreign wars and governments that resist Iranian influence. When Soleimani was killed he was in the company of several senior Iraqi militia leaders that were loyal to Iran. These men were killed by the same missile that got Soleimani and their loss made Iranian threats and violence less effective in Iraq. Soleimani was missed elsewhere because he provided similar coordination for factions in nations where Iran had military or paramilitary operations. This includes Iraq as well as Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories elsewhere. Iranian rulers are losing its foreign wars as well as control of Iran itself because of the sanctions and the loss of key enforcers like Soleimani. Getting the American sanctions lifted is a do or die situation,

April 19, 2021: Britain has removed Iraq from its list of nations that are likely to facilitate money laundering. Britain is one of the centers of international banking and finance and, along with the EU (European Union) and the United States depend most on the international financial system and have taken more and more measures to screen foreign nations that want free access to this network. Nations on the watch lists have found that reducing local corruption is the easiest way to get off those watchlists and stay off.

April 18, 2021: Outside Baghdad (the Balad airbase) five rockets were fired at the airbase and two landed inside the sprawling facility, wounding two Iraqi soldiers. Airbases and airports are large and easy to hit targets for unguided rockets. These targets consist of a lot of unoccupied (by people or structures) areas for the rockets to land in. The Baghdad airport, the largest in the country, consists of 14 hectares (35 acres) of enclosed (fenced in) space. Airbases and airports are currently favorite targets as Iran-backed groups are urged to kill or wound American military or contractor personnel, who often work or live on or adjacent to these large fenced and guarded areas. No one immediately took credit for this attack. Most of the recent attacks have been carried out by Iran-backed Iraqi militias.

April 17, 2021: Turkey confirmed that it supports Iraq’s “Sinjar Deal” to rebuild Iraq’s second largest city Mosul as well as agree to ensure Iraq’s territorial unity. Turkey intends to help rebuild and improve Mosul’s infrastructure, which was badly damaged during the war against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). The Sinjar Deal was first agreed to in October 2020 when Iraq’s central government and the autonomous Kurdish KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) told the Turks they would cooperate. The deal may eventually lead to the removal of PKK (Kurdish Turkish separatists) rebels from the Sinjar and perhaps the KRG. The PKK established a base in Sinjar in 2014. It also facilitates the return of displaced Yazidis to their homes. Turkey believes the deal will also help “eradicate” ISIL fighters in the region.

April 15, 2021: In Baghdad, a car exploded in an industrial area of a Shia majority neighborhood. The driver was killed and a nearby civilian was wounded. Apparently, the man worked for a Shia militia and was transporting explosives that apparently went off by accident. This is a common occurrence when militias and Islamic terror groups use untrained men and unsuitable vehicles to transport explosives.

April 13, 2021: In the north (Nineveh Province, 120 kilometers west of Mosul) an Iranian cruise missile struck a Turkish training center near the town of Bashiqa. A Turkish soldier and a local civilian were killed. The Turks have been there since 2015 to train local Kurds and Yazidis who were fighting ISIL forces that had occupied nearby Mosul and about a third of Iraq since 2014. The Iraqi government, dominated by Shia Arabs, protested the Turkish “occupation” but never attacked the Turks, who helped the autonomous northern Iraq Kurds play a key role in taking Mosul back from ISIL by 2017 and keeping Kurdish controlled areas free of ISIL presence. The Turks are still there to keep PKK from establishing themselves in northern Iraq, especially town of Sinjar, which has long been dominated by the Kurdish Yazidi faction. The Yazidi were particularly hated by ISIL which tried to wipe them 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 angered Turkey which, since early 2021, has threatened to send in troops and use lots of airpower to occupy Sinjar if the Iraqi government does not remove PKK from Sinjar and northern Iraq in general. Turkey keeps reminding the Iraqi government that this invasion would occur without warning. Iraq has already sent two Iran-backed PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) militia brigades to Sinjar as well as an army brigade. That did not impress the PKK, which is still there. The Iraqis don’t want to fight the Kurds or Turks.

Since 2018 PKK has been moving some of its forces and base operations from northeastern Iraq (near 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 Turks have been attacking the Qandil with more and more airstrikes and occasional incursions by Turkish troops. Along with this the Turks have been trying to persuade the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurds to keep the PKK out of the Sinjar area. There was some cooperation but the PKK continued to show up around Sinjar and terrorizing the local Yazidis to tolerate PKK presence. Since 2019 Turkish troops and airstrikes have increased their attacks on PKK forces wherever they are in northern Iraq.

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. Mount Qandil is such a remote, and thinly populated, area the Iraqi government does not protest too vigorously. Sinjar is close to Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. 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 and still have no solution to the Kurdish nationalism which seeks to establish a Kurdish majority state from portion of eastern Turkey, northeast Syria, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran.

Elsewhere in the north (Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish north) another Iranian attack employed an Iranian UAV used by an Iran-backed Iraqi militia that drooped one or more bombs and missed the U.S. military compound that was apparently the target. This was the first- time pro-Iran Iraqi militias have used Iranian UAVs for this kind of attack. Iranian media claimed the Erbil attacks was directed at a suspected Israeli Mossad base near Erbil. No such base exists although Israel and the Kurds have quietly cooperated to deal with common threats, like Islamic terrorists and Iran. Most Iraqis knew of this cooperation and kept quiet because such covert Israeli assistance was seen as beneficial and something Iran was very angry about.

April 12, 2021: In the northeast (Diyala Province) an Iraqi F-16 carried out an airstrike on an ISIL base in the Hamrin Mountains near the Iran border. Most Iraqi F-16s have been unable to fly, much less carry out airstrikes, because of corruption and that has become another issue for the anti-corruption movement.

April 11, 2021: In the north (Saladin, or Salahuddin, Province) Iran-backed Iraqi militia used a roadside bomb against an American supply convoy headed towards a nearby base. The attack caused no casualties. Attacks like this have been occurring for years but less frequently since 2019.

April 10, 2021: Higher oil prices, devaluation of the Iraqi currency (the dinar) by 20 percent and some cuts in spending have enabled Iraqi foreign currency reserves to increase from $51 billion in late 2020 to $60 billion in early April. These reserves are essential to pay for imports. They were as high as $77 billion in 2013 before oil prices fell and ISIL seized a third of the country in 2014. Reserves fell to $45 billion in 2016 and have been increased since then to $68 billion in 2019 before declining in 2020 because of covid19 and the worldwide recession.

March 28, 2021: In the north (Saladin and Diyala provinces) a major counter-terrorism operation against ISIL has pushed most of the active Islamic terrorists into more remote areas where they will have a more difficult time carrying out attacks and obtaining new recruits. This shift is visible because of the large number of ISIL hideouts and safe houses that have and continue to found. Some of these places contain clear evidence of recent evacuation, like dead bodies of men carried away from a nearby clash with security forces. These wounded men often die later because of a lack of medical care. The bodies are usually then moved and left somewhere else to try and conceal the fact that the deceased, often a local, was not working for ISIL. With security forces in close pursuit, the usual procedures don’t apply and dead bodies as well as weapons and equipment are left behind. The security forces report collecting a lot of ISIL weapons as well as communications gear, ammunition and commercial quad-copter UAVs. These relatively inexpensive drones have become a popular item with Islamic terrorists but when fleeing a threatened camp or safe house the priority is on getting out and carrying only what won’t slow you down or be difficult to conceal. Getting most of the surviving ISIL personnel out of populated areas is nothing new, the next phase involves keeping them out there and this often proves more difficult than putting them there in the first place.

March 23, 2021: Turkey is once again practicing disruptive diplomacy and it is having an impact on several Turkish neighbors, including Iraq. Turkey recently expressed regret that Azerbaijani territory is divided. This was a shot at Iran’s religious dictatorship. What was once southern Azerbaijan is now under Iranian control and Iran wants to keep it that way. The area has many ethnic Azeris and the Azeris are a Turkic people, so Turkey tried to improve its pan-Turkic reputation. Turkey was seen as less loyal to fellow Turkic people when they bowed to Chinese pressure by agreeing to an extradition treaty that targets Uighur (Chinese Turkic Moslems) activists be allowed in. Turkey has a sizeable Uighur community of about 40,000. Meanwhile some diplomats and analysts believe that a Turkish confrontation with Iran’s Shia religious dictatorship is coming. Such a confrontation with Iran could take place in Iraqi Kurdistan (autonomous northern Iraq). Iran supports Turkish separatist PKK terrorists who have been fighting the Turkish government since the early 1980s. The PKK still has bases in northern Iraq, in the border triangle area of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. PKK has supply sources in Iran. Syria is another place Turkey and Iran could clash, or at least have a more serious clash than they have already had. In February 2020 Iranian-backed Iraqi PMF militias began to attack pro-Turkish rebels in northwestern Syria (Idlib), but Turkey and Iran avoided a direct confrontation. Turkey opposes the Iranian nuclear weapons program and Iraqi links with America and the other Arab states in the Arabian Peninsula.




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