Iraq: Surrounded by Frenemies


May 17, 2023: Iraq is surrounded by Syria, Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, countries that are not always friendly. Iraq is oil-rich but economically poor. Corruption and government mismanagement resulted in an unemployment rate of 14 percent. Worldwide, this is surpassed only by South Africa (32 percent) and Nigeria (32 percent). Both these African countries also suffer from high levels of corruption. The most recent corruption survey has Iraq ranked 157 out of 180 nations. South Africa is at 72 and Nigeria at 150. While Iraq remains in the top twelve percent of most-corrupt countries, it is visibly climbing out of that hole. In 2020 Iraq’s rank 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 2022, up from 21 in 2020, 20 in 2019, 17 in 2017-18 and 16 in 2013.

Since Iraq became a democracy in 2004, reducing corruption has become more and more at the center of reform efforts. Iraq has long been infamous for its high levels of corruption. Before Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, the corruption was somewhat controlled by Saddam and his government. Saddam used the corruption to raise money and reward friends and punish enemies. Eliminating Saddam did not eliminate the corruption but did mean you could openly protest the corruption without risking arrest or execution.

Naturally, Iraq prefers to do business with other corrupt nations. Russia (137 out of 180 in corruption) is a favorite. Russia’s high level of corruption often results in problems with maintaining military equipment purchased from them. For example, because of the Ukraine War related sanctions on Russia, the Russian helicopter gunships Iraq depends on for many airstrikes have been gradually grounded because no spare parts can be obtained from Russia. Iraq instead used its American F-16IQ jets to carry out most of its airstrikes. The air force received 36 American built F-16IQ jet fighters between 2015 and 2020, In late 2015 Iraqi F-16IQs carried out their first combat operation (against ISIL in Anbar province). The F-16IQ made its first flight in early 2014. F-16IQ is a custom version of the single seat Block 52 F-16C and the two-seater F-16D. Iraq ordered 36 F-16IQs seven years ago. The F-16IQ is similar to American Block 52 F-16s except they are not equipped to handle AMRAAM (radar guided air-to-air missiles) or JDAM (GPS guided bombs). The F-16IQ can handle laser guided bombs and older radar guided missiles like the AIM-7.

Iraqi F-16s too have suffered because of corruption. When the F-16s are not heavily used, maintenance soon becomes a problem because cash allocated for F-16 maintenance suddenly dwindles as air force and defense ministry officials dip into the maintenance fund because the F-16s generally don’t have to fly much. For each hour an F-16 is in the air, it requires about $25,000 in operating and maintenance costs. Fuel alone accounts for over 20 percent of the cost. Pay and benefits for pilots and maintenance personnel is nearly as costly, especially if, like Iraq, you have to import expensive foreign contractors. These contract personnel become even more expensive if you want them to operate in a war zone. Replacement parts account for nearly as much as fuel. Some components, like tires and engines, wear out the more they are used. All components of an F-16 are subject to wear and tear and eventually need replacing if you want to avoid accidents or the inability to fly at all. At the moment the F-16IQs are needed and that means money allocated for operating them arrives on time and without any unexpected deductions by larcenous officials.

In addition to many American contractors, Iraq also hosts several thousand American troops. These are part of an effort to reduce growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Arabs see Iran as a major troublemaker in the region. The Turks, Americans and Israelis agree and are all doing something to keep the Iranians out. The Assads in neighboring Syria are somewhere in the middle when it comes to Iran. At the moment the Assads want closer relations with its fellow Arabs, have been able to gain re-admittance to the Arab League and are negotiating with Saudi Arabia for reconstruction assistance and commercial investments.

Keeping Iran out of Iraq is complicated by the fact that lots of pro-Iran Iraqis are already in Iraq and a growing number appear to be on the government payroll via the post-2014 deal that put all PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias on the army payroll. Technically this meant that the PMF units had to report to senior army commanders and obey orders issued by army generals. The PMF units took the payroll cash but refused to obey army commands or requests. Each year the PMF units demanded more money from the government. This cash was deducted from the army budget. This year PMF wants nearly $3 billion. The PMF claims that this is what it needed to about 200,000 PMF members and that number increases each year. The PMF claims that many are pro-Iran groups and will resort of violence if they are not paid. Anti-corruption groups claim that this is another form of criminal activity because the number of PMF members claimed don’t exist and most of this PMF budget is being stolen via a traditional “ghost soldier” scam. This is when large numbers of soldiers are claimed but do not exist and whoever controls the payroll and other expenses for these non-existent troops, can just steal the money. It is suspected that some of the ghost soldier cash going to the PMF is being diverted to Iran. This would not be the first time that cash from Iraqi corruption went to Iran, which is responsible for a lot of the corruption in Iraq.

May 16, 2023: In the north (Sinjar in Nineveh province) a Turkish UAV used a missile to kill three members of a local pro-PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) group. Turkey regularly carries out attacks like this in northern Iraq, especially around Sinjar.

May 15, 2023: In the autonomous Kurdish north (outside Kirkuk), security forces cornered two ISIL members hiding in some marshes and killed them. One soldier was wounded. There aren’t any organized ISIL groups left this far north and the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces want to keep it that way.

May 14, 2023: The U.S. has concluded that a March UAV attack on an American base in Syria, which killed a military contractor, was launched by an Iran-backed militia in nearby Iraq.

May 13, 2023: In the north (Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish north) Kurdish forces continue finding the hideouts of the few remaining ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups and trying to eliminate them. This is a tedious and frustrating process because there are enough Sunni Arabs living in the area to provide some cover and sanctuary for ISIL members. ISIL survives in Iraq by reverting to gangster mode. Kidnapping for ransom is a favorite activity and it works as long as ISIL avoids grabbing any0ne belonging to a well-armed and aggressive group that will respond with violence to ransom demands rather than paying.

May 11, 2023: North of Baghdad (Saladin province) ISIL attacked a police checkpoint but were repulsed with three of the attackers killed. One policeman died as well.

Iraq requested that Turkey allow Kurdish oil to resume using a pipeline through Turkey for exporting oil. This comes after Iraq won an International Court of arbitration ruling in March that declared it illegal for Turkey to allow 370,000 barrels of oil a day to move through a Turkish pipeline to a port where the oil can be sold to export customers and finance the autonomous Kurd government. Turkey gets a transit fee for use of the pipeline. Without the oil income the Kurds will have to surrender some of their autonomy to the Arab dominated Iraqi government. The Iraqi Arabs have never treated the Kurds well and under Saddam, the Kurds were constantly being attacked, in one case with chemical weapons. The Iraqi government and the Kurds worked out a new deal.

May 9, 2023: In the northeast (Diyala Province) an Iraqi F-16 airstrike killed two senior ISIL leaders.

Meanwhile, in the west (Anbar Province) security forces found and destroyed an ISIL hideout in remote areas of western Anbar. The hideouts are destroyed along with the munitions and equipment found.

May 8, 2023: In the northeast (Diyala Province) security forces found two ISIL hideouts that were used to store large quantities of weapons and ammunition. The hideouts and weapons were destroyed. These two locations were part of a larger ISIL network of weapons storage sites.

May 6, 2023: In the north (Kirkuk province) security forces found an ISIL hideout and killed several Islamic terrorists who were living there. Weapons and munitions were destroyed, along with the building.

April 19, 2023: In the autonomous Kurdish north, a Turkish airstrike killed six PKK (Turkish Kurd separatists) near the Turkish border. Iraq and the Kurds protest this cross border Turkish violence, which includes ground forces, because the Kurd separatists do have hideouts in Iraq and neither Arab or Kurdish Iraqis want to deal with the PKK and stand aside as the Turks attack.




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