Iraq: Recycling Ancient Alliances

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June 29, 2021: In the last week Turkey has increased its artillery attacks on suspected Turkish separatist Kurds in northern Iraq. For over a month Turkey has been building a new military base in northern Iraq’s Metina region, inside Iraqi Kurdistan. The camp location is in a mountainous area near the Turkish border. This base makes it easier to monitor routes from the Qandil Mountains used by PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) separatists. About 5,000 Turkish military and security force personnel are currently deployed in Iraq. The forces are supported by artillery on the Turkish side of the border and airstrikes by Turkish Air Force F-16s and helicopter gunships. Turkish special forces commandos often find PKK bases and call in the airstrikes or, if close enough to the border, artillery fire. Turkey is seen as an ancient enemy of modern Iraq but also a major opponent to Iranian expansion into Arab lands.

Because of Iran, Iraq is caught in the middle of a growing Shia/Sunni confrontation. The Shia form of Islam has been around for over a thousand years and has always been a minority, currently about ten percent of Moslems. Shia Islam was particularly strong in Iran, where it has been the dominant religion since the 18th century. As powerful as the Iranians were, they could never conquer the larger number of Sunni Moslems. This was particularly true because the Turks conquered most of the Arabs and created an empire that lasted until 1918. After the 16th century Turkish victory over Iran in modern Iraq, the Sunni Turks have relied on the Baghdadi Sunni Arabs to help run things. The Iranians never did become powerful enough to defeat the Turks. The Turkish Empire was dissolved after World War I (1914-18), because the Turks were on the losing side and the empire was weak anyway. At that point the Iranians found themselves up against much more powerful forces from the West. This made Iranians very angry. In the 19th century Iran saw its empire shrink to its present size after losing Azerbaijan and chunks of western Afghanistan and southwest Pakistan because of Russia, Britain and an independent Afghanistan defeating them. This was a humiliation that is not forgotten. The Shia clerics who rule Iran now see an opportunity to expand the empire by subverting and rolling over the oil-rich Gulf Arab states. This is being presented as a religious dispute, wherein Iran seeks to impose its superior Shia form of Islam on the largely Sunni Arabs. If it were just the Iranians and the Arabs the Arabs would lose, but the Arabs have cultivated powerful allies over the centuries including Greek, Roman and Turkism empires before Britain and the U.S. showed up to help keep the Iranians out. Undeterred, the Iranians keep trying. This time, building nuclear weapons and sponsoring terrorism throughout the region, and even farther afield. This is supposed to work but probably won’t, but the Iranians keep at it anyway.

Although Turkey and Iran cooperate to keep the Shia Assads in control of Syria, this is seen as an unnatural alliance not likely to last. Syria is majority Sunni Arab while the Assads represent a Shia Arab minority and coalition of other minorities that have ruled Syria since the 1960s. Since 2000 an Islamic political party has dominated Turkish politics and the Turks have sought to resume their pre-2018 role as the dominant Islamic power in the Middle East. That is not working out but Iraq sees the Turks as potential allies in confronting Iranian aggression. This is complicated by Turkish obsession with Kurdish separatism that is found among Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds are Sunni, but not Arab. Ethnically the Kurds are Indo-European and have long worked with Arabs, especially after Islam became the dominant religion in the Middle East in the seventh century.

Iraq and other Arab states are seeking help from the United States to improve air defenses against Iranian ballistic missiles and UAVs used as cruise missiles. The Americans point out that the most successful weapons against the Iranian missiles and UAVs have been developed by Israel, which now has diplomatic relations with the UAE and other Arab states are considering doing the same because Israel is the most technically advanced country in the region and a primary target for Iranian aggression. Israel has also been the most successful at fighting back against Iran. This is popular in Arab countries, as is the Iranian inability to retaliate against Israel. Not only that but Israel, although majority Jewish, has a population where the majority is quite literally Arab, or Semitic. When founded in the late 1940s, over half the population consisted of local Semites, either Jews forced out of Arab countries where they had lived for over a thousand years, or Arabs who did not flee the newly created Israel when surrounding Arab nations declared war on Israel and told Arabs living there to leave until Arab armies could wipe out the Jews. That never happened and it took four failed attempts to convince Arab nations that the Israelis could not be defeated militarily. Today 20 percent of Israelis are descendants of Arabs who did not leave after Israel was founded. Most are Moslem, with the remainder Christian. The Jews whose ancestors came from other Arab states in the 1940s and 50s were later diluted by the arrival of more European, American and Russian Jews, but the majority of Israelis still resemble their ancient ancestors who were identical to their Semitic neighbors and spoke Aramaic, an ancient version of Arabic still spoken by a few Arab and Christian minorities in the region. Two thousand years ago Hebrew was a related language used for religious occasions and few Jews knew it. When modern Israel was founded, Hebrew was revived as a national language that all Jews could accept. But half of Israelis still speak some Arabic and a minority still use it at home and among other Jews from families that never left the region when the Romans killed, enslaved or dispersed the Jewish population after yet another rebellion against Roman rule. The Middle East is one part of the world where old customs never entirely disappear and are often revived.

June 28, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) there was an American airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Syria. There were apparently casualties among the Syrian and Iraqi pro-Iran militiamen who guard such Iranian facilities in Syria. At least four Iraqi PMF gunmen died, These airstrikes are regularly carried out by Israel but in this case the U.S. wanted to respond to recent rocket and UAV attacks on American troops in Iraq by Iran-backed Iraqi PMF militias. In a rare move, apparently to placate Iran, Iraq issued a public criticism of the American airstrike.

June 27, 2021: Leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Iraq met in Baghdad to discuss terrorism, economic development and the continuing problems with the Palestinians. This was the first time an Egyptian leader visited Baghdad since the 1990s, when Egypt withdrew its ambassador to protest Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Iraq has been improving its economic, diplomatic and military relations with Sunni Arab countries in an effort to resist Iranian aggression. Iran is at war with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt over Saudi control of the most holy religious shrines in Mecca and Medina. One thing Arabs can agree on is resistance to Iranian control of anything belonging to Arab states.

In the southeast (Maysan province) gunmen in a vehicle shot dead a leader of a militia loyal to Muqtada al Sadr. It was unclear who the gunmen worked for. Sadr has made enemies with Iran-backed PMF militias as well as some local tribal leaders. Sadr was once a pro-Iran cleric but has openly turned against Iran since mid-2015, when thousands of pro-reform Iraqis began demonstrating in Baghdad and other cities every Friday to encourage the government to take more action against corruption. Those demonstrations continue although their intensity varies over time. The demonstrations were most intense in southern cities like Basra and Mayan, the capital of Mayan province which borders Iran.

Among the more obvious changes demanded was eliminating thousands of senior level positions in the government that exist mainly to enable politicians to steal. That met a lot of resistance as did efforts to enforce existing laws against corruption. The government initially responded by making some minor changes. The people demanded more, and less corruption in general. The government resistance to actual change is what keeps the demonstrators coming. The people demanded more action and these demonstrations were the start of a sustained anti-corruption movement. What makes these demonstrations so effective is that they have the support of the two top Shia clerics; Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the younger, more radical and pro-Iran Ayatollah Sadr. This clerical support makes the demonstrations impossible to ignore but so many top officials are corrupt that it is difficult to get enough of them removed or persuaded to act with more integrity to make a difference. The persistence of the demonstrators has had an impact and each year more officials are prosecuted for corruption. There is still a lot of corruption but there is more risk involved for those to continue stealing.

Corruption has been endemic to this region for thousands of years, but now there is democracy and widespread realization that economic progress is impossible with the current levels of corruption. The problem with corruption is that it is a difficult addiction to quit, especially for those benefiting from it for the first time. Post-Saddam democracy meant more corruption because democracy means more people must be involved. The government payroll, long monopolized by the Sunni minority (less than 20 percent of the population) is now monopolized by the Shia majority (60 percent of the population) with as little as possible passed along to the Kurds who are 20 percent of Iraqis. The famously inept and obstructive Iraqi civil service has grown from a million under Saddam to over six million. While eliminating corruption, or just curbing it substantially, would do wonders for economic growth and the quality of government services, it would deprive thousands of politicians of fortune-making opportunities and seriously cut the income of many affluent Iraqi families.

To put this into perspective, Iraq is one of the 20 most corrupt nations in the world according to recent international surveys that rated 180 nations. Iraq is the 18th worst now, the same as it was back in 2012. The worst aspect of this is that most Iraqis now know more about how the corruption works and many of the financial details.

June 23, 2021: In Baghdad Iran-backed PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) has backed down so far after the army commander told them they could not hold a military parade in Baghdad to honor the founding of the PMF in 2014. Iran wants this parade to happen to assert Iranian support and local military power in Iraq. The pro-Iran PMF forces have backed down so far, while Iran exerts diplomatic and local pressure on the Iraqi president to overrule the army chief. Pro-Iran Iraqi politicians are rare, but Iranian intimidation and bribes have compelled a lot of Iraqi officials and politicians to at least make public statements of support for pro-Iran PMF brigades. This compelled or rented support has been less effective since the American revived economic sanctions on Iran for cheating on the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions. This was made worse when Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani was killed by the American in early 2020. Soleimani was a key leader in the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which is 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 in Iran and Iraq after 2019 by killing thousands of protestors and jailing many more in Iran. 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.

General Soleimani was the Iranian responsible for looking after pro-Iran paramilitaries throughout the region and the Lebanese Hezbollah was considered the crown jewel of that collection. For the last decade Soleimani spent most of his time in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq cultivating and expanding these Iran-backed militias.

Soleimani joined the IRGC soon after it was formed in 1979. Soon after that Iraq unexpectedly invaded in an effort to seize some Iranian oil fields while Iran was distracted by the chaos of the recent revolution against the monarchy. For a young guy, Soleimani played an important role in the war, rapidly promoted because he got things done. Soon Soleimani was a division commander while still in his 20s. The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988 with a stalemate. Iran considered this a defeat and veterans of the war like Soleimani never lost their dismay over that “defeat” and hatred of the Iraqi Arabs who inflicted it.

The Quds Force was also created during the 1980s, as a special operations and intelligence collecting unit within the IRGC. By the 1990s Soleimani was spending more of his time with Quds and in the late 1990s he became its commander. This meant he reported directly to the senior clerics who ruled Iran. Soleimani proved very effective at organizing non-Iranian groups to attack American or Israeli targets overseas. Eventually there were some Quds operatives identified as behind these attacks and that led to Soleimani’s role in all this becoming common knowledge in Israeli and Western intelligence agencies. Soleimani tried to stay out of the news, as heads of covert operations agencies tend to do. That was normal but what really endangered Soleimani was being increasingly mentioned by name as by foreign press as the chief of the Iranian dirty tricks department. In 2017 the Iranian government decided to run with that and openly declared Soleimani a national hero. Soleimani let it go to his head and was soon boasting that he was untouchable as far as foreign enemies were concerned. At the same time Soleimani was increasingly hated in Iran and Iraq. Soleimani was in charge of dealing with internal dissent in both countries and was soon recognized as responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranian and Iraqi opponents of the Iranian government. There was some public rejoicing after Soleimani’s death in Iraq but not in Iran, where such celebrations had to be held covertly. Soleimani may be dead but the homicidal enforcers he commanded are still around and they are angry about the American blowing their boss to pieces and their inability to properly respond to that. That was because the IRGC had no one with Soleimani-level skills to replace him. That coming when QUDs was coping with a 50 percent budget cut (because of the renewed sanctions) hurt Iran in ways they would rather not discuss in public.

All these IRGC losses are being felt most in Iraq where more and more Iraqis, including senior politicians, are resisting Iranian moves to exert more control over Iraq. This has led to a growing number of setbacks for Iran. In late May Iraq, for the first time, sought to jail and prosecute a major Iraqi PMF commander wh0 did whatever Iran needed. Security forces arrested Qassim Musleh, the commander of the 13th PMF brigade. The dawn arrest was ordered by the prime minister, who had well-documented evidence 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. The response to the Musleh arrest was another defeat for Iran, which ordered thousands of armed pro-Iran PMF militiamen to surround portions of the high-security Baghdad Green Zone where the president lived and worked. Not wanting to risk fighting in the Green Zone, Musleh was released and Iran lost a lot of what little local support it had left in Iraq. That loss was confirmed within a week when the army chief blocked the PMF parade in Baghdad. Iran cannot afford to take many more defeats like this in Iraq.

June 22, 2021: The U.S. seized three websites used by Kataeb Hezbollah to promote its pro-Iran message to Iraqis and the Arab speaking world. This seizure was part of a larger operation that did the same to 33 Iranian news sites owned and operated by the IRGC in Iran. All these sites used an American hosting service, because the U.S. hosting services are the most efficient and resistant to hacker disruption. Because Hezbollah and the IRGC are internationally recognized terror organizations their assets, once located, can be seized. Kataeb Hezbollah is an Iranian effort to create an organization similar to the original Lebanese Hezbollah. This American move was in response to the rigged (as they traditionally are) presidential election in Iran that put Ibrahim Raisi, an infamous mass-murderer and recognized war-criminal, into office. Putting Raisi into such a public position is another example of how desperate Iran is to make clear to opponents in Iran, Iraq and elsewhere what they are up against.

June 20, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) another rocket was 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. The last such attack, in late May saw two rockets used. 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. Pro-Iran PMF units in Anbar devote most of their time to attacking or threatening local Sunni tribes that oppose any Iranian presence or control in Iraq.

June 18, 2021: The U.S. announced it was moving eight of its Patriot air-defense batteries from the Middle East. These batteries are currently stationed in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq and were sent from the United States to reinforce defenses against Iranian missile threats. The U.S. is withdrawing its Patriot batteries as part of a plan to pull nearly all U.S. troops from the Middle East. The new government in the U.S. is also trying to negotiate a resumption of the 2015 treaty that lifted economic sanctions on Iran in return for assurances that Iran would halt its nuclear weapons program and reduce its threats to other countries in the region. Iran cheated and as the evidence piled up the previous U.S. government revived the sanctions in 2017.

Withdrawing the Patriot units will mean about a thousand fewer American personnel in the Middle East. Each Patriot battery is manned by about a hundred troops and contains a radar, plus four launchers. The launcher is designed to use both the smaller PAC 3 missile as well as the original and larger PAC 2 anti-aircraft version. A Patriot launcher can hold sixteen PAC 3 missiles versus four PAC 2s. A PAC 2 missile weighs about a ton, a PAC 3 weighs about a third of that. The PAC 3 has a shorter range that was originally 20 kilometers but the latest version can do 35 kilometers. The larger PAC-2 can reach 160 kilometers. Saudi-owned Patriot batteries use both PAC 2 and 3 missiles but only began receiving PAC 3 missiles in 2018. Kuwait and several other Gulf nations also own Patriot batteries and have been buying more missiles and batteries.

June 15, 2021: In Baghdad security forces detected and shot down two Iranian UAVs, one of them loaded with explosives and apparently on an attack mission. Iran trucks in the UAVs broken down and in crates identified as commercial cargo. The regular use of these UAVs by pro-Iran PMF units is yet another reason why the Iraqi government wants to put these PMF units out of business.

June 14, 2021: In Baghdad armed (with explosives) UAVs were used to attack an American base outside the airport. There were no casualties.

June 13, 2021: In Baghdad some pro-Iranian PMF units held a small rehearsal for the larger parade commemorating the anniversary of the founding of the PMF. The government has been successful at prohibiting the larger parade but the rehearsal was an opportunity to show off recently received Iranian weapons, including UAVs that can be armed.

June 12, 2021: In the south a roadside bomb was used to attack am American supply convoy from Kuwait. Some trucks were damaged and three of the non-American surety personnel with the convoy were wounded.

June 11, 2021: Turkey believes recent airstrikes in northern Iraq killed Selman Bozkir, a senior Kurdistan PKK leader who had established himself in the Iraqi-run Makhmour refugee camp. The camp holds about 12,000 Kurdish refugees and is in northern Iraq about 180 kilometers south of the Turkey-Iraq border. The airstrikes apparently occurred on the 5th and/or 6th. These long-standing refugee camps eventually turn into towns with permanent structures, paved roads and still surrounded by a fence with access controlled, often only in theory, by security forces supplied by the host country. In the case of Makhmour that means Iraqi Kurds, who have been autonomous since the early 1990s and are still assisted by the Americans to remain autonomous. Refugee camps are often hideouts for all manner of outlaws who use money, muscle or ethnic connections to maintain the secrecy of their location inside the camp. The Turks believed they found the location of the building where Bozkir was living in the camp and killed him in the airstrike, which they claim killed only three people. It sounds like the Turks used one of their armed UAVs for this attack and to confirm the location and identity of the target. Turkey has, for years, been demanding that Makhmour be cleared of illegal occupants, especially PKK members. That is hard to do and the Turks know it because they have millions of Syrian Sunni Arab refugees in refugee camps. Although these Turkish camps are only five to nine years old, many have become home for Islamic terrorists and criminal gangs.

June 10, 2021: The U.S. offered cash rewards of up to $3 million for useful information on planned or past attacks on Americans in Iraq. This is mainly directed at Iran-backed PMF units, which have been responsible for most of the attacks on Americans and Iraqis since 2014. These reward programs are successful even though most of the details of successes have to be kept secret to protect the informants and their families. Since the 1990s the U.S. has improved this rewards program with new ways to get the news of the rewards to the people best able to act on it, as well as developing ways to get informants and their kin out of harm’s way. It’s much easier to make the program work in Iraq, where a lot of Iraqis support American efforts to eliminate foreign, especially Iranian, threats to Iraq.

In Baghdad three armed (with explosives) UAVs were used to attack an American base outside the airport. There were no casualties.

In central Iraq (Saladin, or Salahuddin, Province) Iran-backed Iraqi militia fired three rockets at the Balad Air Base, causing no casualties.

May 29, 2021: In the northeast, across the border in Iran’s West Azerbaijan Province IRGC troops clashed with some separatist Kurds crossing the border from a camp in northern Iraq. The IRGC killed two of the intruders and forced the others to flee back into Iraq. In doing this the Kurdish separatists left some weapons and equipment behind.

 

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