Iraq: Affordable Corruption And Disruption

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May 27, 2021: A new voting fraud scandal was exposed when it was discovered that some political parties had managed to buy thousands of non-biometric voting IDs. These are used to sway close elections. The only solution to this sort of fraud is to change the law and require all voters to have a biometric ID, which includes an electronically recorded fingerprint as well as a photo. With enough money, especially from Iran, a lot more of these non-biometric voter ID cards can be obtained. Biometric cards are nearly impossible to fake and the most serious impediment to voting fraud in a country notorious for such illegal activity. Iran-backed groups in Iraq have, next to ISIL, been the biggest threat to voter registration, especially when it involves biometric IDs. For that reason, the 2021 elections allowed some areas to accept non-biometric Ids.

The voter registration problems are one reason the anti-corruption/bad government protests continue, despite the continuing assassination of protest leaders. This has been going on since the protests began in 2019. So far, the death squads have killed over seventy people. While some arrests have been made, no one has been prosecuted because those arrested had powerful friends in the government who could block prosecution and get the suspects set free, usually without even identifying them. Most of these killings take place in areas where Iran-backed militias are active. These militias are also trying to disrupt or cancel the upcoming national elections and Iran has had some success at this. Back in January the June national elections were officially delayed until October for “technical reasons.” Chief among these was implementing measures to ensure the voting is free and fair. Iran has been the main supporter of efforts to disrupt or corrupt the elections process, seeking to prevent the election of anti-Iran candidates. There are a lot more anti-Iran candidates this time and Iran has less money for bribes. Lacking cash, Iran is forced to rely more on cheaper methods like threats and violence. This approach is usually avoided because it creates more anti-Iran opposition. Iran is not the only offender; other neighbors will seek to use cash to get “cooperative” candidates elected. This time around Sunni Arab oil states are the usual suspects but those foreigners are not trying to take control of Iraq, just keep the Iranians out and strengthen a fellow Arab oil state facing Iranian aggression.

The corruption is real and the government recently revealed that an audit of international cash transactions, especially money leaving Iraq that was not related to paying for imported imports, indicated that corruption had cost Iraq at least $150 billion since 2003. That much money equals the Iraqi GDP in a good year.

In part because of a recent corruption audit, the government has agreed to an EU financed plan to create new laws and auditing groups to be transparent and then conduct periodic audits, whose results would also be available to the public. These changes have long been demanded by a growing number of Iraqis as well as foreign providers of financial and other aid. The government believes it has enough votes in parliament to get the new laws passed. The prime minister will sign them into effect.

Cheap Tricks

The continued lack of cash and growing anti-Iran attitudes in Iraq have led Iran to reorganize its pro-Iran militias. Most of the Iraqi militiamen have been dismissed, or asked to work without pay. The small percentage of militia members who remained loyal were offered jobs in smaller, better armed and equipped units. These are the ones keeping the assassination and intimidation program going. Iran has given these Iraqis a license-t0-kill, which means if you get caught Iran will get you out and prevent prosecution. What Iran desperately needs in Iraq is more cash and Iran is trying to make a deal with the new American government to lift economic sanctions. So far that effort is not making much progress but eventual success remains a possibility.

Iraq officially backed Hamas in its recently ended war with Israel, the second one since 2014. The 15-day 2021 war was even more costly to Hamas, and less damaging for Israel than the 51-day war in 2014. Hamas called it a victory because they were still alive and in control of Gaza when it was over. Most Arab and Western donors to the Palestinians have reduced or cut aid to Gaza because of continued Palestinian corruption, violence against Israel and refusal to make a peace deal. Hamas has been the worst offender in this area and started both wars with a massive use of rockets against Israeli civilians. Iraq’s support for the Palestinians is all theater and little in the way of substance. Many opportunistic Moslem politicians worldwide still blame all bad things on Israel while many of them trade with Israel on the side because that is economically (or militarily) advantageous. A growing number of Arab Gulf oil states are establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, which has given the Arab alliance against Iran a member with a track record of producing weapons that can defeat anything the Iranians have and is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Israel is currently the only Middle Eastern nation with nuclear weapons and the only one that designs and builds space satellites and launches them on Israeli designed rockets. In part because of the increased Iranian threat, Arab states found they have more in common with Israel than fellow Moslem majority state Iran.

The only thing all Middle Eastern nations have in common is their relationship with ISIL, an Islamic terror group which is at war with everyone, but has been least effective against Israel and Iran. Iraq, which saw a third of its territory occupied by ISIL from 2014 to 2016, still finds Iran-backed Iraqi militias the most effective force, except for the Iraqi Kurds, against ISIL. Beyond that the Iran-backed Iraqi militias are a very obvious threat to Iraqi democracy and the Iranians make no secret of their desire to control Iraq the way they have long done in Syria. Iraq is one of the most corrupt nations in the Middle East and Iran exploits that to buy influence when intimidation or a shared ideology (some Iraqis are fans of religious dictatorship) are not enough.

May 26, 2021: In Baghdad security forces arrested Qassim Musleh the commander of the 13th PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) brigade. The dawn arrest was ordered by the prime minister, who had compiled well-documented charges of Musleh supporting Islamic terrorism and Iran. Musleh was also responsible for attacks on American forces in Anbar, often while the U.S. troops were housed in Iraqi military bases. The 13th Brigade has long been accused of causing more problems in western Iraq (Anbar Province) where the PMF is supposed to be fighting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and any other Islamic terrorists in the area. There aren’t many ISIL men left in Anbar but there are a lot of Sunni Arabs who oppose Iran and the 13th brigade is composed of and led by Iraqi Shia Arabs who believe Iraq should be more like Iran, which is currently a corrupt religious dictatorship. Most Iraqis want no Iranian influence at all but because Iran helped create the PMF in 2014, to deal with the IISL threat after the Iraqi security forces collapsed under ISIL pressure. The PMF, along with Iraqi Kurdish militias and a growing force of Iraqi special operations trained by the Americans, plus an American led air support coalition defeated ISIL in Iraq and liberated all ISIL controlled territory in Iraq by 2017. The Kurds and PMF both contributed about 100,000 armed men. The Kurds were more effective and not seeking to take control of the government. The 25,000 Iraqi special operations troops were part of the NATO effort to select and train select Iraqi volunteers for intensive training to be effective troops loyal to the Iraqi government. Retraining the rest of the security forces meant ten times as many personnel and were in the elite special operations units. There were not enough reliable recruits available for that and the biggest problem was tribal and religious leaders who pressured recruits to remain loyal to tribe and religious faction, not Iraq, The Iraqi government planned to eventually integrate most of the PMF fighters into the military. Soon after 2014 the PMF were being paid regularly and wore army uniforms with shoulder patches identifying which of the 67 PMF brigades they belonged to. In 2014 most PMF brigades were loyal to or at least on good terms with Iranian influence. Five years later the PMF was no longer dominated by pro-Iran brigade officers. At that point Iran realized they were in trouble. At the same time the government was being pressured by the United States to crack down on Iranian weapons shipments being allowed to cross the border into Syria at guarded border crossings. The weapons shipments are often hidden from view by legitimate cargo, but it does not take much effort to reveal that deception. These weapons shipments are guarded by Iran-backed PMF members. The 13th brigade was often involved with this. There are fewer of these pro-Iran militiamen because their primary reason for being in an Iran-backed militia is the extra pay. The PMF brigades are paid by the Defense Ministry as if they were another part of the armed forces. The additional pay from Iran is increasingly necessary to keep militiamen at least nominally in the service of Iran. The 2018 resumption of economic sanctions on Iran forced cuts of about fifty percent on what Iran spent on PMF militias. Apparently, further reductions were imposed. In part that is because all those billions of dollars going foreign wars rather than to the needs of the Iranian people caused a lot of problems for the Iranian government. Corruption and mismanagement by the Iranian religious dictatorship crippled the economy even before all the revived American sanctions hit with full force in 2018. The longer those sanctions are in effect, the fewer pro-Iran PMF militiamen there are in Iraq. Iran has never been very popular among Iraqi Shia Arabs and Iran has become less popular since 2014 when the Iranian offer to help form Iraqi Shia militias to deal with ISIL. That help turned out to be an opportunity for Iran to build its own pro-Iran Shia militia force and use it to threaten the elected government and any foreign (especially American) troops in Iraq. The threats backfired and Iran is on the defensive in Iraq. With less cash for bribing key people and paying militiamen Iran is less able to influence events in Iraq. Worst of all, Iranian influence is declining to the point where pro-Iran gunmen are seen as an internal criminal problem rather than an historically troublesome neighbor.

Now the dreaded armed confrontation has occurred in the heavily guarded Baghdad Green Zone. After the arrest of Musleh earlier today, some pro-Iran PMF men who were in the Green Zone on legitimate business (security for the PMF headquarters) promptly went rogue and surrounded the prime minister’s headquarters. That was followed by the arrival of loyal army units who surrounded the PMF men blocking access to the prime minister's headquarters. Apparently, the goal is to have this settled by negotiation rather than a firefight. This will not end well for Iran, the only question is how much power and influence and porter Iran will lose over the PMF. This is not the first such arrest of Iran-backed militia leaders. In 2020 the government arrested about twenty members of Kataib Hezbollah, a coalition of pro-Iran PMF militias that Iran is trying to turn into an Iraqi version of the Iran-controlled (since the 1980s) Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iran was able to force the government to back off in 2020, but that left the government more determined to suppress the Iran-backed militias that the Iraq government was forced to support.

May 24, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) two more rockets were fired at the Assad airbase, the largest airbase in Iraq and long shared with American troops. Like previous such attacks, the unguided rockets landed in an unoccupied area of the base, causing no injuries or damage. It is assumed the targets were the few American troops still based there to support Iraqi forces fighting the remaining ISIL groups in the province. ISIL is more of a threat north of Baghdad but some ISIL remain in Anbar where they try to disrupt use of main roads connecting Iraq to Syria and Jordan. By the end of the day the government agreed to transfer to the custody of the PMF headquarters, where he is to be held for trial. Iran is pulling all the strings it has left to make this mess go away but it gets more difficult each time.

May 23, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) and northwest (Muthanna province) Iran-backed militia attacked American supply convoys with roadside bombs, wounding several Iraqi soldiers guarding the convoys and damaging two trucks.

May 22, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were apparently some casualties as well among the Syrian and Iraqi pro-Iran militiamen who guard such Iranian facilities in Syria.

May 21, 2021: In the last week Iraqi counterterrorism efforts killed seven Islamic terrorists, arrested 81 suspects, found and disabled 87 roadside and other bombs as well as raiding 18 Islamic terrorist camps or buildings used as bases. Many more (76) weapons/equipment storage sites were found. These are hidden away in separate locations to avoid discovery. Captured Islamic terrorists often reveal the locations in order to reduce or avoid punishment. Civilians who come upon the hidden caches can also expect a reward for reporting these stockpiles, instead of just taking the stuff for their own use or resale. These hidden supplies are a favorite technique throughout the region and some remain hidden for decades after those who hid the stuff are killed or flee the region. The hot/dry climate and lots of uninhabited areas for hiding places makes such caches popular. ISIL is currently the owner of most of these caches, although smugglers also hide smuggled goods near both sides of borders because it is safer and more convenient than having one smuggler take the goods from an inhabited area in one country to an inhabited area in another. Usually two or more smuggling groups are involved, as it reduces the risk of discovery and arrest. The widespread availability of GPS devices makes it easier to record and pass on a precise location.

May 20, 2021: In the north (Kurdish controlled Dohuk province) Turkish F-16 jets attacked two vehicles carrying a group of PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) gunmen. The vehicles were destroyed and all passengers killed. These attacks take place several times a week and the only casualties are Iraqi troops and civilians. Turkey has more ground troops on both sides of their Iraqi border and there are casualties every week as smugglers and PKK forces try to cross the border in either direction. Turkey announces all such operations, especially when it involves PKK forces. Iran threatens to carry out similar attacks and occasionally does so but never takes credit for them. These attacks are strictly for the benefit of Iran and, as is often the case, at the expense of Iraq.

May 9, 2021: In southern Iraq (Karbala province) Iranian agents assassinated Ihab Jawad al Wazni, a prominent Shia leader of the growing anti-corruption and anti-Iran movement in Iraq. Wazni also organized mass demonstrations against Iranian influence in Iraq. Iran was warned that if they had Wazni killed, as Iran has already done to other prominent anti-Iran Iraqis, there would be consequences. By the end of day, the Iranian consulate in Karbala (where major Shia religious shrines are) was surrounded by angry Iraqis and access to the consulate blocked.

May 3, 2021: Turkish security forces reported that a senior ISIL (Islamic State in the Levant) “military commander” had been captured in an Istanbul suburb. He was carrying a fake passport. The man is being identified by his codename, Basim and is an Afghan who directed training for ISIL fighters in Syria and Iraq. Basim also served on the ISIL senior command council and has been in hiding since 2017. Turkish media reported he is being interrogated by MIT (National Intelligence Organization).

April 30, 2021: Turkey announced that the security forces plan to build a new military base in northern Iraq’s Metina region (inside Iraqi Kurdistan). The camp location is a mountainous area near the Turkish border. The position would cover routes from the Qandil Mountains used by PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) separatists. An estimated 5,000 Turkish military and security force personnel are currently deployed in Iraq. The Metina base announcement follows reports that on April 23 Turkish Air Force F-16s and helicopter gunships attacked PKK targets in Metina and neighboring areas. Turkish special forces commandos were also involved in the operation. The operation continued through April 28.

April 20, 2021: Iranian efforts to increase its influence in Iraq while also inflicting serious damage on American troops and military contractors in Iraq is not working as planned. Iran is still broke but is now hopeful of getting the Americans to lift 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 views about. What most Iranians do agree on is problems with their own government, a ruthless religious dictatorship that has so far resisted all internal and external efforts to reform or overthrow it. This increased Iranian violence in Iraq and elsewhere is also an 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.

When Soleimani was killed outside the Baghdad Airport, 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 their 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.

 

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