Iraq: What Nightmares Are Made Of


December 28, 2021: It’s been eight weeks since Iran-backed militia tried to kill Iraq’s the pro-reform prime minister and failed. The backlash in Iraq was far greater than Iran expected so Quds Force commander, Esmail Ghanni was sent to Iraq to assess the situation and do damage control. Ghanni confirmed that support for Iran was rapidly declining after the Iran- sponsored violence against the results of October 2021 national elections, which saw most pro-Iran candidates defeated and reform minded candidates winning. The reforms are more about reducing corruption and improving the economy than Iran. The initial Iranian reaction was to order its followers in Iraq to stage protests against the election results and try to intimidate senior officials. This led to the November 7 assassination attempt on the Iraqi prime minister, which triggered a lot of anti-Iran reactions and made it more difficult for Iran to disrupt the growing trade relations between Iraq and its Arab neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis and other Gulf Arab oil states are also eroding Iranian influence in Syria by accepting the Assads back into the Arab League as an active member, which means Arab League states are providing investment and reconstruction money for Syria that Iran can no longer afford because of the revived economic sanctions Iran is trying to shed. General Ghanni was told that getting those sanctions lifted was more important than anything else, including local support for Iran in Iraq and Syria. Those sanctions have crippled the Iranian economy, which is run by a religious dictatorship and does not allow free elections. The majority of Iranians have seen their living standards decline during decades of religious rule and note that democratic Iraq is prospering. That has kept Iranians demonstrating against their own government, even though, or because, their government orders the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) to use lethal force to disperse the demonstrators.

General Ghanni told the remaining pro-Iran militias in Iraq to resume attacking the remaining American forces in 2022. This is risky because the Americans have pulled out most of their equipment and troops. About 2,500 were left behind at the request of the Iraqis and Kurds in the north. If the Iranian attacks on the Americans next month are effective, that is more likely to cause more calls from Iraq for more American military assistance against Iranian aggression. American warplanes remain in Kuwaiti and the UAE air bases, but further airstrikes inside Iraq must be arranged on a case-by-case basis. A more explicitly anti-Iran government apparently wants to negotiate mutual defense deals with the Americans, similar to the ones that so many Arab Gulf states already have.

This sort of thing is a nightmare for Iran, which is what Iraqis prefer. Iran expects less trouble in Syria, where Iran-backed forces have been increasing their attacks on the thousand or so American troops still in Syria, mainly to support the Syrian Kurds and continued operations against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

There are other Iraqi nightmares for Iran. There are growing calls for disbanding all the PMF militias organized in 2014 to fight the ISIL invasion that quickly took control of about a third of Iraq. Iran was active in organizing the militias, which had to do the work of the Iraqi security forces that surrendered or fled from approaching ISIL forces, even when the attackers were far fewer than the troops and police facing them. Iran gained control over many of these PMF units, which are now considered part of the armed forces. Back in 2014 corruption in the security forces produced low morale, missing weapons and training and commanders that were more interested in stealing than commanding. There was a repeat of this in 2021 when the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan. That gives you an idea of how firmly this culture of corruption is embedded in the Middle East. The anti-corruption effort in Iraq is not going to make Iraq corruption-free but Iraqis notice that the less corruption there is the more prosperous and safer the average Iraqi is.

The Impossible Dream

The battle against corruption is a major issue that makes it possible to carry out seemingly impossible reforms. For example, government income can no longer support the massive corruption that was long considered normal. The covid19 recession and lower oil prices meant that Iraq could afford to spend as much money as they wanted. The problem is that too much government payroll spending was stolen and in early 2021 the government was 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 bloated payroll. For most of 2020 the government was able to borrow money to cover the monthly payroll shortfall. By 2021 the government was considered a credit-risk and unable to borrow. Firing unneeded government workers was seen as political suicide. No more. This will cause some protests but not as many if something is not done about the corruption.

Fire In the North

There has been a lot more fighting in the Kurdish north. This comes from increasing activity by Turkish forces against PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) using bases in northern Iraq. The Iraqi government has agreed to work with the Kurds to reduce ISIL activity in the north. That is, between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish-controlled portions of northern Iraq. One of the things sustaining this violence is the pro-Iran PMF militias are often more hostile towards the Kurds than ISIL, and ISIL acts accordingly by concentrating their attacks on the Kurds. As the Iraqi government cracks down on outlaw pro-Iran PMF groups, the more loyal (to Iraq) PMF are more prominent in efforts to curb ISIL activity in the north.

Not all PMF are cooperating. The ones that dominate Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, are more interested in making money by controlling much of the smuggling between Syria and Iraq. ISIL controlled for more than two years and the city was liberated largely through the efforts of Kurdish forces and Iraqi special forces. There was a lot of air support using guided missiles and bombs. The Kurdish forces left Mosul to concentrate on the thousand or ISIL members still in northern Iraq and pro-Iran PMF militias took over in Mosul, as well as many other areas in northern Iraq the Kurds were still occupying. This was an effort by the Iraqi government to prevent the Kurds from expanding their autonomous territory. This caused more animosity between the Kurds and the Iraqi government. The pro-Iran PMF units took advantage of this situation because Iran backed the curbs on expanded Kurdish control in northern Iraq. Iraqis living in Mosul and other areas where Kurd and PMF forces still coexist note that the Kurdish autonomous provinces are still free of ISIL and other Islamic terror violence. The Kurds continue to assist in counterterror operations south of their autonomous provinces to keep ISIL too weak to make a major effort against the Kurdish controlled areas. The most corrupt PMF units up north are backed by Iran and that is also noticed. There are security problems in the north and Iran is responsible for a lot of that.

December 27, 2021: In the north (Nineveh province) someone fired a rocket at the main Turkish base northeast of Mosul. Elsewhere in the north (Duhok Province) Turkish artillery bombarded a town suspected of harboring PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) Turkish Kurdish separatist personnel. In the south (Basra province) a roadside bomb was used against an American supply convoy from Kuwait. One truck was damaged but the convoy kept moving. There were no casualties. This is the fourth such attack in two days. Yesterday there were three such attacks, one in the north (Saladin province), Baghdad and in the west (Anbar province.) Iran-backed militias are responsible for all these attacks and Iran has announced that there will be much more of this violence next month.

The primary cause of this violence is not the continued presence of 3,500 American troops in Iraq and Syria, where most are stationed in Kurdish controlled area that are very difficult for any type of terrorist to operate, but the loss of so many pro-Iran candidates in the October elections. Earlier today the Iraqi Supreme Court certified those election results, which was another setback for Iran.

December 24, 2021: In the south (Najaf province) the provincial governor was forced to resign because of failure to deal with corruption. The provincial capital is the Shia shrine city of Najaf. The Shia population of the province, and especially in the capital, have long demonstrated their dislike of Sunnis, especially Iraq Sunnis and Iranians, even though Iran is the largest Shia majority nation in the world. The militant Najaf Shia have managed to drive most Iraqi Sunnis out of the province. In 2019 Najaf protestors seized and burned down the Iranian consulate. The anti-Iran Shia protestors called the consulate a center for terrorism and Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq. That was no secret in Najaf and the surprising thing is Iran was not able to muster enough pro-Iran Iraqis to defend the consulate. That is apparently no longer the case as Iranian influence has declined further.

Najaf is one of the areas powerful Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr regards as threatened by Iran in addition to local government corruption. Sadr demands that all militias be disarmed and disbanded. This demand was aimed at Iran, which has used the militias to create a legal Iran-backed armed force in Iraq. Calls for disbanding these militias have been gaining a lot more support since 2017. The recent elections mean an even more anti-Iran government and sensing what that would mean for militias in general, most militias have announced plans to disband. Disarming is another matter. Despite that, Sadr efforts to clean up some of the corruption in Najaf province have succeeded,

December 23, 2021: North of Baghdad (Diyala and Nineveh provinces) counterterrorism forces arrested five key ISIL members as they tried to move between hideouts.

Elsewhere in the north (Saladin Province, some 200 kilometers north of Baghdad) a roadside bomb was used against an American supply convoy from Kuwait. There was no damage or casualties.

December 21, 2021: In the south (Babel province) a roadside bomb was used to attack an American supply convoy from Kuwait. There was another such bombing in the south, near Basra, in which one truck was damaged but there were no casualties. These attacks are 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

In Baghdad the Central Bank announced that the reparations owed Kuwait were finally paid off, when $44 million transferred to Kuwait to complete years of stop-and-go payments of the $52.3 billion debt that Kuwait had demanded and the UNCC (United Nations Compensation Commission) certified as reasonable in the early 1990s. 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 arrange a payment schedule 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. Iraq continued making payments and was expected to finish paying the debt in 2021 or 2022. Achieving this repayment improves relations with the Sunni Arab oil states in Arabia and makes it easier for Iraqis firms to do business in the rest of the Middle East. That goal is very popular with most Iraqis and makes Iran uncomfortable.

December 20, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) at the Tanf (on the Syrian side)/Walweed (on the Iraqi side) border crossing four explosions were heard in the American base near Tanf. The Americans have controlled the Syrian side since 2017 while a pro-American Iraqi militia controls the Iraqi side. This is one of the three main Syria/Iraq border crossings and controls access to the main Baghdad-Damascus highway. The crossing is near where the borders of Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet.

Elsewhere in Anbar (Ramadi) troops arrested a known ISIL tax collector who collected Zakat (obligatory charity donations from devout Moslems). For ISIL, the Zakat is not voluntary. In the case if the shepherds want to avoid attacks by ISIL, they must pay this particular Zakat collector when he comes around.

December 19, 2021: In Baghdad two rockets was fired towards the U.S. embassy in the Green Zone. One was shot down by the C-RAM anti-rocket system while the other rocket landed in an uninhabited area.

December 17, 2021: In western Iraq (Anbar province) the NATO coalition officially transferred the remaining coalition combat equipment and supplies at the al Asad airbase to Iraq. This sprawling facility is on the Euphrates River some 200 kilometers west of Baghdad. Al Asad airbase is where over a thousand American and NATO troops have been stationed since 2015. The U.S. and NATO agreed to withdraw all combat forces by the end of 2021 but Iraq requested the retention of 2,500 American troops to act as trainers and advisors. These will be stationed in small contingents at Iraqi and Kurd bases where needed most.

December 12, 2021: In the northeast (Diyala Province) the army and PMF militias have launched a major offensive to destroy known ISIL camps and capture or kill as many of the fleeing ISIL members as they can. While the security forces have been successful at keeping ISIL out of major urban areas, these Islamic terrorists remained active in rural areas between Baghdad and the Kurdish north. Kidnapping for ransom is a major source of income for ISIL out in the countryside. Because of this trend, overall terrorist and political deaths in Iraq continue to decline.

This offensive is largely taking place in the Hemrin Mountains, which extend from Diyala province through northern Saladin province and into southern Kirkuk province. In early 2018 it was believed that there were 500-1,000 armed ISIL members operating in the Hemrins and about the same in desert areas near the Syrian border from west of Mosul south to include Anbar province. Those numbers more than doubled by the end of 2018 and continue to grow in 2019 and 2020. Now the ISIL forces are diminished by constant airstrikes and aggressive ground patrols and raids. There are less than a thousand ISIL members in the rural camps and six separate army/PMF groups are simultaneously going after different camps, making it difficult for ISIL men from one captured or destroyed camp from moving to another one that is still operational.

December 11, 2021: In the north (Nineveh province), a Turkish airstrike hit a base allegedly occupied by a Yazidi Kurd militia aligned with the PKK. This Yazidi militia is known locally as the YBS (Sinjar Resistance Units) and its base is near Mount Sinjar.

Elsewhere in the north (Saladin Province) Iraqi F-16s carried out seven airstrikes on remote ISIL hideouts, in cooperation with Iraqi counter-terrorism forces, whose patrols had discovered the locations of these bases.

December 9, 2021: In northern Iraq three Turkish troops were killed during a clash with PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) gunmen based in the area.

Elsewhere in the north (Sinjar in Nineveh province) pro-PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) Iraqis demonstrated against the continued occupation by Iraqi Arab forces, who occupied the area in 2017 to punish the autonomous Kurds for proposing a referendum on Kurdish independence in the north. With the departure of Kurdish forces from the area in 2017, security was less effective and ISIL and PKK both were able to operate in the area.

December 8, 2021: In the north (Nineveh province) Turkish troops continue searching for Yazidi YBS gunmen near Mount Sinjar. There have also been clashes where the Turkish/Iraqi/Syrian borders meet. A UAV strike reportedly killed a senior YBS commander, Marwan Badal, yesterday. He was known to be a commander of PKK militias. Despite YBS activity in northern Syria and Iraq, most Yazidis want nothing to do with the PKK aligned YBS.

December 4, 2021: In the northeast (Diyala Province) Kurdish commanders discovered that ISIL had recently received reinforcements from Syria. These consisted of about 200 men belonging to the Jundullah faction of ISIL. The reinforcements took some losses getting into Iraq and the movement was organized by new ISIL leadership in northern Iraq. The Kurds have better intel than the Iraqi security forces and have persuaded the Iraq government to send more troops and support a major offensive against the known ISIL bases and temporary camps. The new ISIL leadership in the north has demanded more offensive attitudes from the surviving ISIL members and apparently this led to the increased ISIL violence up there.

December 3, 2021: Turkey and Iraq acknowledged their military chiefs of staff have discussed joint military cooperation between their armies. Cooperation includes joint exercises. Joint operations are a possibility. Turkey and Iraq already cooperate closely on counter-terror intelligence.

December 2, 2021: In the Kurdish north (Erbil province) ISIL attacked a village in the disputed territory that Iraq took from the Kurds in 2017. Nine Kurdish militiamen and three civilians were killed. ISIL retreated with their taking their dead and wounded with them. ISIL concentrates their attacks on the Kurds because the Iraqi forces, many PMF militia, can be bribed or intimidated while the Kurdish forces cannot.


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