Iraq: Another Radical Proposal

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March 22, 2022: Iraq, like Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf Oil states are very angry with the Americans because they are offering to not only rejoin the 2015 treaty but to modify the terms to make it easier for Iran to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Worse, the United States is considering taking the Iranian IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) and its Quds Force off the list of known terrorists. This all about the 2020 presidential elections in America, which put into power what is now recognized (by numerous polls) as the most unpopular and inept American president ever. One reason for this unpopularity is the current American policies towards Iran and reduced support for Arab resistance to Iranian violence. This has driven many Gulf Arab oil states, including Iraq, into an economic alliance with Russia to drive up the price of oil. This policy makes it easier for Iran to smuggle more of its heavily discounted oil to customers. That plan survived the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and even more economic sanctions.

Inside Iraq, Iran has a more serious problem with the obvious shift in Iraqi government attitudes about Iran. Iraqi presidential elections in late 2021 were heavily influenced by powerful Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, who regards Iran and Iraqi government corruption as the most serious problems facing Iraq. Most Iraqi voters agreed with Sadr, who demanded 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’s efforts to clean up some of the corruption has made visible progress. Less corruption is often measured by international organizations. For example. in 2021 Iraq showed continued progress in reducing corruption. Since 2014 the government has been under growing pressure from Sadr voters and foreign donors, especially the Americans, to actually do something about the chronic epic corruption.

Currently Iraq remains in the top twelve percent of most-corrupt countries, but is visibly climbing out of that hole. In the 2021 Transparency International Corruption survey Iraq ranked 157 out of 180 nations. In 2020 that was 160 and 162 in 2019.

Transparency International measures corruption on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The nations with the worst score are currently Syria (score of 14), South Sudan (12) and Somalia (12). The least corrupt nations are currently Denmark and New Zealand, each with a score of 88. Iraq had a score of 23 in 2021, up from 21 in 2020, 20 in 2019, 17 in 2017-18 and 16 in 2013.

A Radical Effort

Political relations between the Shia Arab dominated federal government and the autonomous northern Kurds remain tense but both sides are making an effort to improve that. To accomplish this both sides must overcome long-standing differences and disagreements. There are several issues. Kurdish separatism is found among Kurdish minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds are Sunni, but not Arab. That is an issue in Shia Arab dominated Iraq. 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. But in the 20th Century European governments, having destroyed the Ottoman Turk empire that had ruled most Arabs for centuries, took over and promised to restore Arab autonomy and help the Kurds establish the Kurdish state all Kurds had long desired. Both Arabs and Kurds were disappointed with the new political order. The new Arab states were poorly run and there were many wars and insurrections. It was hoped that Arabs would unite around the goal of establishing socialist states and when that failed, the destruction of Israel became the new unifier. Neither approach worked, nor did the Kurds get their own state. Blaming the Europeans didn’t work either and now, many failures later, the Iraqi Arabs and Kurds are trying something radical; getting along for betterment of all and a unified Iraq.

March 21, 2022: In the north (Kurdish controlled Dohuk province) ISIL attacked an army checkpoint, killing one soldier and wounding the other.

March 20, 2022: In the north (Nineveh province) soldiers found and destroyed two ISIL weapons storage sites that contained rockets and mortar shells. commander in charge of provincial operations and one of his assistants. ISIL is still very active in Nineveh and so are the security forces which have inflicted heavy losses on ISIL in this province in 2022.

March 18, 2022: The commander of U.S. CENTCOM (Central Command), who manages all American forces in the Middle East, confirmed that the United States considers Iran the major threat in the region. The U.S. backs Israeli efforts to attack Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq. Iran often attacks American forces in retaliation. The improved diplomatic, economic and military relations between Israel and the Gulf Arab states since 2020 is mainly about the Iranian threat that both Americans, Israelis and Gulf Arabs face. Because of the increased cooperation between Arabs and Israel since 2020 Israel became part of CENTCOM instead of EURCOM (Europe). The main reason Israel was long part of EURCOM was that Israel had better relationships with European nations than its Middle East neighbors. Even Iraq, long one of the most virulent critics of Israel, has mellowed and come to admit that Iran was a larger threat and Israel was useful in diminishing that threat. For that reason, Iraq wants the few (about 2,500 trainers and advisors) American troops in Iraq to remain as long as Iran is a threat. The Shia Arab majority in Iraq also knows that the Kurdish minority (about 20 percent) has long sought and accepted Israeli military assistance and benefited from it.

March 17, 2022: In central Iraq (Saladin, or Salahuddin, Province) Iran-backed Iraqi militia fired four rockets at the Balad Air Base, causing no damage or casualties. The base contains many Iraqi Air Force aircraft as well as American military advisors and contractors.

At the same time a Kurdish military commander reports that a major counterterror operation north of Saladin Province against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in late 2021 had apparently crippled the terrorists to the extent that ISIL attacks in Saladin and surrounding areas are down 95 percent. Elsewhere in Iraq arrests of ISIL members are up as are defections from the group and difficulty recruiting new members. Outside of areas where Kurdish counterterrorism is active, ISIL is still quite active.

March 15, 2022: Iraq is hosting, for the fourth time, another round of peace negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. These talks do not appear to be making much progress but it is an ancient cust9m in the region for feuding parties to stay in touch. In the same spirit the Iranian Quds Force command, despite the recent Iraqi elections, is still able to visit Iraq for discussions with religious leader Sadr as well as Kurdish leaders in the north.

March 14, 2022: The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a major cause of accelerating inflation in Iraq. It’s all about world wheat exports. Some 30 percent of this comes from Russia and Ukraine and most of that will be unavailable for a year or longer. Middle Eastern countries are hardest hit because they have the greatest dependence on food imports. At the start of the year the Iraqi inflation rate was 5.6 percent and that is expected to double in 2022.

March 13, 2022: In the north, Iran launched a dozen cruise missiles at targets in or near E rbil, the capital of autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq. Some of the missiles landed near the American consulate but caused no damage or casualties. Other missiles did hit buildings and the damage was substantial for the palatial home of a wealthy Iraqi Kurd. Iran later took credit for the attack, explaining that it was directed at a mythical Israeli Mossad Base near Erbil. The mansion, used by the wealthy and influential Iraqi Kurd and his family, was demolished when no one was home. The bombed-out ruins were open for the media, who took lots of pictures. Iran had no explanation why their guided projectiles seemed to land randomly, except on the mansion. Iran said the attack was revenge for an Israeli airstrike in Syria last week that killed two senior Quds Force commanders. Kurdish officials speculated that the attack was made at a time when no one was in the mansion and avoiding any casualties was an objective, so the attack would serve as a warning rather than something demanding a retaliatory attack. The Kurds believe the attack was more about Iran reminding everyone that Iraq is subordinate to Iran and foreigners as well as Iraqis must remember this.

March 8, 2022: In the south (Dhi Qar province, 375 kilometers south of Baghdad) there was another roadside bomb attack on an American supply convoy from Kuwait. As with most of these attacks, there were no casualties or damage to the convoy.

March 4, 2022: Iraq is now allowing Iraqis stranded in Kurdish detention camps because they had a family member who fought for ISIL and was either killed or captured and placed in a Kurdish high-security camp. Many of the Iraqis in the detention camps were never ISIL supporters, just related to one and the U.S. and their Syrian Kurd allies have long urged Iraq to screen these civilians to determine which ones could be allowed back into Iraq. That screening process has been under way in 2022 and nearly a thousand Iraqis have been cleared to leave the camps and return to Iraq. More will follow. Some of the civilians in the detention camps still support ISIL and many of them get violent in their support. Iraq is reluctant to take these Iraqis back and prosecute them for crimes they committed in Syria, and they pay to imprison them. In Iraq and the Middle East there is an ancient tradition of killing or driving hostile populations away and not taking them back.

March 1, 2022: The Saudis have been more successful in Iraq, where national elections in 2021 revealed much less support for Iran despite increased Iranian threats and financial promises Iran could not keep. The Yemeni Shia cost a lot less to support and their smaller budget has survived several reductions of cash available for foreign wars. Those IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) operations in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are much more expensive.

Iran has been seeking ways to regain its influence in Iraqi politics and so far, has been unsuccessful. Iran initially responded with a failed assassination attack on the Iraqi prime minister plus rocket and mortar attacks on the American embassy and the remaining U.S. troops. Most Iraqis want some Americans to stay, more economic activity with Arab neighbors and an end to Iranian meddling in Iraq. Iran has other problems that must be tended to, including growing economic problems and domestic unrest because of that. Iraq is now a lower priority, but one Iran will eventually return to once Saudi control of Mecca and Medina is replaced by Iranian management. This is seen as impossible by most Arabs and non-Moslem nations that depend on oil produced in Arabia and Iran.

February 28, 2022: In the north (Kurdish controlled Dohuk province) Turkish F-16 jets attacked several sites believed to be occupied by PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) gunmen. These attacks take place regularly, with PKK targets hit at least three times in the last week. Turkey also has 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.

February 26, 2022: The Shia dominated government of Iraq protested the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Across the border in Shia dominated Iran only a minority of Iranians protested the Russian invasion of Ukraine and did so outside the Russian embassy. This protest was technically illegal but more accurately represented the attitudes of most Iranians. Enthusiastic Iranian media support for the Russian invasion was criticized by many senior Iranian officials because the media sounded like it was just repeating the Russian justification for the invasion as self-defense against NATO expansion. Some Iranian government officials point out that Russia has claims on portions of Iran and Iran could be next on the Russian list of self-defense invasions. Both Iraq and Iran have long been customers for Russian weapons.

February 22, 2022: In the west (Anbar Province) a roadside bomb was used against an American supply convoy from Kuwait. There was no damage or casualties. ISIL took credit for the attack. So far this month ISIL has suffered major losses in Anbar from Iraqi air strikes and ground operations. This has included the death of the commander of all ISIL forces in Anbar. Convoy attacks using roadside bombs is a low-risk way to remind everyone that ISIL is still around. The Iraqis are taking advice from the Kurds up north, who have kept ISIL out of their territory and quickly detected any new efforts to set up operations in Kurdish territory. So far this year Iraqi Arab forces in Anbar have been successful using the Kurdish methods.

February 19, 2022: In the northwest (Nineveh province) the army is deploying more troops, including construction engineers, to tighten security all along the Syrian border. The additional troops bring with them night vision equipment and construction equipment to dig three-meters (to foot) deep trenches along the border to stop vehicles. The Iraqi troops will also use UAVs equipped with night vision to patrol the border. This is all about dealing with the continued ISIL activity on both sides of the Syrian border. This has long been a problem, especially the ability of ISIL personnel to get back and forth across the border. The official crossings cannot be used because they are guarded by large garrisons and those entering or leaving Iraq are scrutinized. Most of the border is thinly populated and can be crossed by people on foot or in vehicles, especially four-wheel drive trucks or SUVs.

February 14, 2022: In southern Syria (Daraa and Suwayda provinces plus Damascus) over a thousand Iranian mercenaries arrived to help deal with locals protesting the Assad government and Iranian presence. The mercenaries were nearly all foreigners from Lebanon (Hezbollah), Iraq (PDF militias) and Afghanistan (mercenaries). These reinforcements traveled from eastern Syria (Raqqa and Deir Ezzor provinces) and used multiple routes to avoid Israeli airstrikes.

The local violence against Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces cause over fifty dead and wounded each month and has remained fairly constant for three years. This is part of the undeclared war between Iranian and Syrian forces going on there since 2018. Anonymous assassins use pistols and hidden bombs to kill those who work, or worked for, government forces or Russian and Syrian backed local militias. Russian and Assad forces openly drive Iran-backed groups and individuals out of the area. There is no open violence because Iran, Syria and Russia are still officially allies. Iraqi gunmen returning to the area is another matter because it was Iraqi Sunnis who came to Syria in 2013 and founded ISIL Now Iran is bringing Iraqi Shia radicals to cause more murderous mischief.

Near the Israel border Russian and Syrian pressure has prevented Iranian attacks on Israel. Russia and Syria have also been checking locals to see if they are Lebanese Shia using stolen uniforms rather than Lebanese Shia wearing authorized Syrian army or police uniforms. This border security operation is a big deal for Syria and Israel and a major embarrassment for Iran, which is why Iran has not cranked up its usual media outrage to complain. Israel will sometimes fire on Iranian forces operating in Daraa, especially near the Israeli border. Israel also shares intel with Russia and Syria about Syrian officers who are secretly working for Iran. The Iranians pay well, and in dollars. Israel will sometimes release evidence of this to the media, so that Iranians back home have another reason to oppose Iran’s foreign wars. Negotiations have been underway between Iran and Russia/Syria for over a year but are not making much progress. The covert Iranian violence is just another incentive for Syria to get the Iranian agents out of the area.

February 13, 2022: In the north (Erbil) two Iranian Shahed-136 UAVs were shot down by American forces. These two UAVs were apparently part of an effort to strike back at Israel for a recent airstrike in Syria that destroyed a large number of Iranian UAVs stored at a Syrian airbase. The two Shahed-136s launched towards Israel are small, delta-shaped aircraft with a wingspan of 2.5 meters (eight feet). Each one weighs about 200 kg (440 pounds) and is powered by a small diesel engine and carries a small warhead of about ten kg (22 pounds) and an infrared seeker to enable it to hit targets precisely after traveling about 2,000 kilometers at about 180 kilometers an hour. Guidance is GPS, with a specific location entered before launch. Shahed-136 is a cruise missile, not a reconnaissance UAV. Shahed-136 is launched via a catapult and Iran has developed tractor trailer launchers that store five Shahed-136’s on their catapults. For launch the trailer body is raised to a 45-degree angle and the roof retracted so the five UAVs can be launched in rapid succession. With these trucks Iran can secretly launch Shahed-136 swarms at a target. Shahed-136 entered service in late 2020 and has been exported to Iran-supported forces in Yemen for long-range attacks on targets selected by Iran. Because the Shahed-136 is small and flies low it is difficult to detect. The Israelis and Americans have developed radars that can detect such targets, which is why Iran publicized its secret swarm launcher truck in 2021. Swarm attacks are more difficult but not impossible to stop.

 

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