Iraq: Gangsters and The Lost Provinces


August 31, 2021: Despite the Western news headlines proclaiming every violent death in Iraq a surge in violence, the number of terrorist related deaths has been way down since 2017. That was the year in which ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) power in Iraq was broken. Ever since then small groups of ISIL fighters survive in the north and west, mainly by avoiding the security forces and concentrating on raising money via extortion and kidnapping so they can rebuild and recruit. The fundraising has been more successful than the recruiting and ISIL in Iraq is evolving into another organized crime network. Gangsters tend to prefer a lower body count than terrorists.

In 2017 there were about a thousand terrorism related civilian deaths a month, with a somewhat smaller number of deaths among the Islamic terrorists and the security forces. In 2018 monthly civilian deaths fell to less than 300 a month. In 2019 it was about 200 a month and in 2020 less than a hundred a month. The 2020 deaths were partly the result of covid19 lockdowns and uncertainty about how bad the virus was. In 2021 the downward trend continues.

The Turkish Threat

ISIL and Iran-backed Iraqi Shia groups are both seeking to kill or expel foreign troops, mainly Americans and Turks. Currently the Turks are suffering most of the “foreign solider” deaths, in part because there are about twice as many Turkish troops as Americans in Iraq and most of them are deliberately seeking out PKK Turkish Kurdish separatists who have long used bases in northern Iraq. The smaller number of American troops in Iraq are there mainly to train and advise the Iraqi military.

Over the last decade Turkey has become more aggressive against the PKK presence in northern (Kurdish controlled) Iraq and northeast Syria. This includes stationing thousands of Turkish special operations and support troops in remote parts of northern Iraq. These Turks have plenty of air support, in the form of American made F-16s using smart bombs plus Turkish made helicopter gunships and armed UAVs. The Turkish air and artillery support often kills Kurdish civilians, not all of them PKK supporters. The Iraqi Kurd government complains loudly about Iraqi Kurds killed but are more subdued about PKK deaths. Angering the Turks too much stirs up Arab fears that Turkey might go from counterterrorism to annexation by invading and regaining possession of their Mosul province.

A century ago, after World War I, the victorious Allies dismantled the Ottoman Turk empire and that included making Mosul province, long considered part of the Turkish heartland, a component of the new state of Iraq. The post-Ottoman Turks fought a brief war with the Allies and reversed most of the Allied plans to take away parts of the Turkish homeland and form a smaller “Turkey” than the Turks were willing to accept. The ferocity and success of Turkish resistance caused the war-weary Allies to back off and the Turks got to keep most of their heartland.

The one exception was Mosul. Then as now much of southeastern Turkey is populated by the Kurdish minority. In Mosul province Ottoman Turks were the most powerful of many minorities, ruling Kurdish, Arab and various other minorities including non-Ottoman Turks. Western oil companies had discovered oil throughout the Arabian Peninsula before World War I broke out and Mosul Province turned out to have a lot of oil. The Allies were determined to deny post-Ottoman Turkey oil, just in case those old imperial ambitions returned. Most of the Turks were forced out of Mosul in the 1920s and have not forgotten. Nor have the Kurds, who were then persecuted by the Arab majority of Iraq.

A Kurdish state, uniting land and Kurds from Ottoman Turkey and Iran was one of the promised post World War I Allied reforms. Making that happen in the 1920s was prevented by opposition from Turks, Arabs and Iranians who were supposed to surrender land and population to make the Kurdish state happen. The Iraqis fear Turkish domination or annexation of the old Turkish province of Mosul rather than the Iranian threat to dominate Iraqi politics via the Shia Moslem beliefs Iranians and most Iraqis share. Shia Arabs are a minority in what the Turks call Mosul province and prefer it that way.

The Turks don’t have an ancient claim on Mosul, having created and ruled the area about 400 years before losing it a century ago. Iran has contested control of Iraq for thousands of years. Then there is the issue of the Ottoman, and Turks in general, relationship with Islam. Early Islam gained most of its converts in the Middle East and North Africa by force. Convert or die, sometimes slowly because of heavy taxes and economic restrictions imposed on non-Moslems who were too valuable to exterminate. The Turks, like the Mongols were different. Both groups adopted Islam when it suited their political needs. The Arabs have never accepted the Turks as religious equals and were much offended when the Ottomans decided their leader (the Sultan) should also be the Caliph (leader of all Moslems). The Turks bribed, intimidated or exterminated all Moslems who actively opposed this. To Arabs the Turks and Iranians are both seen as alien (non-Semites) and very dangerous. Based on the number of Arabs killed, the Turks are seen as the most dangerous threat. This is a major factor in Iraqi preference for Western allies, especially the Americans. As the founder of the Saudi dynasty observed in the 1940s, the Americans may be Western infidels, but they are far away and not as interested in ruling Arabs as they are in trading with them. Early on the Saudis sought some kind of alliance with the Americans, despite considerable religious and cultural differences.

Southern Disorders

Iraq’s Shia controlled government faces more dangerous threats locally; internal corruption and Iranian efforts to turn Iraq into a client state or unofficial part of the Iranian Shia Islamic empire. The current situation is that you have about 90 percent of Iraqis opposed to corruption, many of them very opposed. Since 2015, there have been repeated public gatherings that evolved into large anti-corruption demonstrations that continue. Many of these demonstrations are anti-Iran as well. While corrupt Iraqi officials and pro-Iran Shias are on the defensive, they are still a major factor in Iraq and Iraqis in general don’t want this to degenerate into another civil war. They just want less corruption, an improved standard of living and a major reduction in Iranian efforts to control Iraq.

The religious dictatorship in Iran is now dominated by the extremists, or “radicals”. Most of the extremist attitudes come from the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) who suffered greatly from the return of economic sanctions in 2017. Because of these sanctions the IRGC Quds force, which handles foreign wars and terrorism, saw its budget cut by half since 2017, forcing major reductions in Quds activities in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The IRGC was created in the 1980s to protect the new religious dictatorship and suppress, with violence, if necessary, local opposition to the new religious overlords. The IRGC has become increasingly assertive in backing radical solutions to problems and that has created a growing number of nationalist clerics, including some eligible to be one of the twelve senior Shia clerics who run the Guardian Council. The senior clerics 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. The IRGC believes force is the key to Iranian power and all Iranians must support that. Most Iranians do not support the IRGC and for over a decade have become increasingly open about that opposition. The IRGC has killed over a thousand of these protestors over the last few years. As a result of this the Guardian Council has blocked nearly all “nationalist” candidates from running in the latest national elections. This meant the new parliament and senior leaders were dominated by IRGC and Quds Force veterans, including several recognized as terrorists or guilty of war crimes.

August 30, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) a border guard was killed and another wounded. A roadside bomb and a gunman were used for the attack, which no one has taken credit for. ISIL is the usual suspect.

In the north (Kirkuk) ISIL gunmen killed a policeman during an attack on a checkpoint. The attackers also destroyed a thermal (night vision) vidcam used at that location.

August 29, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) fifty tanker trucks carrying vehicle fuel were allowed into Syria, where the fuel is being delivered to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Iraqi soldiers and border guards at the Al Bukamal crossing into Syria did not interfere because both sides of the border are dominated by pro-Iran groups. On the Iraqi side there are Iran-backed PMF militias. The Syrian side is controlled by the pro-Iran Syrian government and Iranian Syrian mercenaries. Israeli and airstrikes often hit the Syrian side, where there are a growing number of Iranian bases, which include warehouses for Iranian rockets and missiles trucked in from Iran via Iraq. Fuel trucks are usually not hit because that cargo is useful to civilians as well as Iranian controlled military personnel. The U.S. recently carried out a rare airstrike on the Iraqi of the crossing, in retaliation for an Iranian rocket attack on an American base. Iran wants all American troops out of Iraq but that is not going to happen as long as there is ISIL activity in Iraq. Even after ISIL is suppressed, the U.S. has made it clear it will maintain a force or military trainers and advisors in the autonomous Kurdish north.

August 28, 2021: In the south, neighboring Kuwait confirmed that a rocket fired from Iraq had landed in an uninhabited area of northern Kuwait. The day before there were Iraqi news reports of someone firing three unguided rockets at Americans based in Kuwait. There are six military bases in Kuwait where thousands of American military personnel are stationed, mainly to provide logistic support for American forces in Iraq as well as training and advisory services for Kuwaiti forces. Since the 1990s Kuwait has welcomed the United States using their territory as a logistics and air support center to support Kuwait in deterring Iranian or Iraqi aggression. Kuwait also allows their territory to serve as a mobilization base if U.S. combat units are needed in the region. Kuwait is one of the foreign locations where the U.S. stores pre-positioned weapons and equipment for an American combat brigade. Only the troops have to be flown in to have that brigade ready for combat. Kuwait also contains facilities to handle a lot more American troops in an emergency. Since 2015 as many as 12,000 American troops have been in Kuwait, mainly (and very openly) to discourage any Iranian (or Iraqi ISIL) threats.

Saddam justified his 1990s invasion and annexation of Kuwait as a way to eliminate unpaid loans the Kuwaitis were demanding repayment of as well as vague claims that Kuwait was actually a lost province of Iraq. In the 1980s Kuwait had loaned Iraq $20 billion to pay for the eight- year war with Iran. Saddam later declared the loans were actually meant to be donations to the Iraqi war effort against a common enemy.

After a year of Iraqi occupation an American led force drove the Iraqis out and Kuwait added up all the damage the Iraqis had done. The UN agreed that this was a valid debt. Since then, Kuwait and the UN have worked to get the debt repaid. A lot of Iraqis are unhappy about this but Iraqi leaders have backed repayment efforts. In late 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 additional time 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 in a few years. Achieving this repayment will improve relations with the Sunni Arab oil states in Arabia and make it easier for Iraqis firms to do business in the rest of the Middle East. That goal is very popular with most Iraqis.

August 27, 2021: Senior Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr announced he would support and participate in the October 10th parliamentary elections. This comes six weeks after Sadr declared he would not participate in those elections and was withdrawing support for the current government and any new government after the October elections. Sadr is a very respected and influential Shia cleric and he asked other Iraqis to follow his example. This was all about corruption and the refusal of senior politicians to do anything effective to deal with the problem. Sadr changed his position because he had received written assurances from senior politicians that they would implement a “charter for reform.” Sadr believes if these politicians again ignore public pledges to eliminate corrupt practices, many of them quite visible, publication of those written pledges would lead to larger protests and threats of violent revolution.

Sadr has also criticized the Iran-backed PMF militias as well as some local tribal leaders who are guilty of blatant corruption and, in the case of the PMF groups, working for a hostile neighbor that seeks to control the Iraqi government via corruption and threats. 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.

August 26, 2021: In the far north (Duhok Province) Turkish warplanes carried out another attack on PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) Turkish Kurdish separatist camps and positions in the hills and valleys of this sparsely populated region. As many as 5,000 Turkish military and security force personnel are currently deployed in Iraq. Fire support is provided by artillery on the Turkish side of the border and airstrikes by Turkish Air Force F-16s and helicopter gunships as well as the new force of armed UAVs. Turkish special forces commandos often find PKK bases and call in the airstrikes or, if close enough to the border, artillery fire.

August 24, 2021: In the north (Babel province) a roadside bomb was used to attack an American supply convoy from Kuwait. One truck was damaged but there were no casualties. In the south (Qadisiya province) there was a similar attack on another American supply convoy but there were no casualties or damage. There was also a similar attack on a convoy outside Baghdad. Three such attacks in one day were attributed to pro-Iran groups trying to inflict some damage on the Americans as well as get all American troops out of the country. Most Iraqis want some Americans to stick around, if only because it frightens and annoys the Iranians and ISIL. A bonus is the fact that Turkey wants to remain a member of NATO and that membership would be threatened if Turkish military operations in northern Iraq expanded into an occupation force.

August 21, 2021: In northern Iraq and northern Syria Turkish airstrikes killed seven PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) fighters.

August 15, 2021: In the far north (Kurdish controlled areas) four Turkish troops were killed in two separate incidents. One involved a hidden bomb and the other a firefight with PKK gunmen.

August 13, 2021: In the far north (Duhok Province) PKK fighters got close enough to a Turkish base to fire several mortar shells, killing one Turkish soldier. The Turks responded with airstrikes that killed at least three people near a suspected PKK camp.

August 9, 2021: The U.S. announced new sanctions on individuals and companies associated with Iran-backed armed groups in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. This makes it more difficult for these individuals and companies to do business, especially when it is traced to those militias. Ibrahim Raisi, the new president of Iran, has been appointing officials to senior posts who are already sanctioned by the United States. Raisi was an infamous judge and prosecutors during the 1980s and responsible for the execution of thousands of Iranian accused or suspected of disloyalty towards the then new religious dictatorship that had replaced the monarchy in 1979. Ever since then many Iranians refer to Raisi with uncomplimentary nicknames referring to his early career as a mass murder.

August 6, 2021: Turkey’s military and paramilitary security forces claimed they have neutralized (arrested) or eliminated (killed) 18,313 terrorists since July 2015. This includes Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) separatist rebels killed in Turkey and northern Iraq. Many of those rebel deaths were made possible by Turkey moving thousands of troops into northern Syria and Iraq.




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