Iraq: It Is Happening Again


July 21, 2014: ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) is attracting a specific type or recruit (Islamic fanatics, especially the young, especially teenagers, who are not good for much beyond being suicide bombers) and that is becoming a problem. Many of these recruits are foreigners and foreigners are particularly unpopular in Iraq, especially if they are armed and looking to kill Iraqis. This has contributed to the growth in local resistance to ISIL. In Iraq and Syria the Sunni tribes and secular Sunni groups (like the Baath party in Iraq and secular political groups in Syria) are now openly opposing ISIL. These anti-ISIL Sunni groups kept quiet as ISIL strove to take control of western Iraq earlier this year, and especially after ISIL grabbed Mosul and most of northwestern Iraq in June. But as ISIL began imposing their lifestyle rules the resistance began to become tangible. What was really annoying was ISIL sending out groups of religious zealots (some of them armed women) to attack women for not wearing a covering up properly or being out without a male relative as an escort. ISIL also punishes anyone caught drinking alcohol or smoking in public. Watching videos or popular TV shows (like the World Cup) is forbidden as is the use of drugs or playing musical instruments or most sports. In other words, most forms of “fun” are forbidden. ISIL members are expected to rely on sex with their wives (up to four), eating and listening to live or recorded sermons by acceptable Islamic preachers for entertainment. Tormenting and killing infidels (anyone not Moslem) and heretics (especially Shia) is also encouraged.

These extremist policies always backfire. In the past, especially in the last ten years, these lifestyle rules have, time after time, quickly led to pushback, which then led to the fanatics being defeated. Some Islamic fanatics noted this pattern. This included Osama bin Laden and most of the al Qaeda leadership. Bin Laden had, for the last five years of his life urged his followers to adopt a more pragmatic approach towards violence (especially killing fellow Moslems) and strict lifestyle rules. This was justified by referring to the more tolerant approach of the earliest Moslem rulers. After all, groups like ISIL are justifying their harsh approach by interpreting Islamic scripture a certain way and confusing ethnic customs (like restricting the dress and movement of women) with scripture based rules. Bin Laden believed al Qaeda had to either be more flexible or perish. ISIL leaders do not agree with this heretical outlook. For ISIL it’s our interpretation or else.

Bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders had noted the sharp decline in support from Moslems as al Qaeda fanatics killed more Moslems in Iraq and other countries. It was the indiscriminate nature of the violence, especially the use of bombs that disgusted so many Moslems. The frequent Islamic terrorist use of mass murder using knives and guns did not help either. This sort of thing has killed over 6,000 Iraqis so far this year and Iraqis are comparing it to the similar horror suffered during 2005-7. The violence not only angers all Moslems, but especially anyone ISIL has serious religious issues with (like Christians, Shia and other Islamic sects that are considered heretical by Sunni conservatives). These groups flee or, worse for ISIL, stand and fight. This includes the Kurds and some other ethnic minorities not noted for their Islamic conservatism. As these determined opponents become more numerous and get organized the Islamic radicals like ISIL find themselves beset on all sides by more armed opposition than they can handle. That crushed al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007 and it is happening again, with Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda (and the leaders of the main factions like those in North Africa and Yemen) all denying the legitimacy of the new ISIL caliphate. The armed pushback is beginning with organized Sunni groups fighting ISIL in all areas that ISIL claims to control. Tribal and Shia militias are getting organized and are particularly effective on defense (keeping ISIL out of specific places the militias are from). Without a certain amount of local support, or at least neutrality, ISIL cannot control a lot of territory. ISIL depends on fear, and when the fearful start shooting back ISIL has a major problem. In the last few weeks more and more ISIL attempts to grab more territory in northern Iraq has been thwarted by local militias, often backed by soldiers and the few combat aircraft (bombers and helicopter gunships) the air force has operational.

While these militias lack offensive ability that is being taken care of by hundreds of American and Iranian military advisors now working with the Iraqi Army. The Iranians are more effective because they speak Arabic and take direct control of Iraqi Army units. The American Special Forces troops also speak Arabic but are not allowed to directly control units and must advise and persuade the many Iraqi officers who got their jobs because of their loyalty to Shia politicians, not their military skills or leadership ability. With better leadership the Iraqi troops are quite effective. As the old truism goes, “there are no bad troops, just bad officers.” Most Iraqi troops are Shia and, like all Iraqis, they don’t like being ordered around by foreigners. But in addition to speaking the same language the Iranian officers are Shia and, like their American counterparts, experienced and recognized as more competent than the Iraqi officers they replaced. The problem with the Iranian and American advisors is that they may be too few in number to quickly turn the situation around.

So far this year ISIL has shifted more of its attention to Iraq, where it believes it has more opportunities because the Shia led government there is considered less competent (there is some truth to that). In Syria the Assad forces are taking advantage of the ISIL shift as well as the continuing battle between ISIL and all the other rebels. This has significantly weakened the rebels, to the point where a government offensive to regain control of Aleppo appears to be succeeding. The Syrian civil war, now in its fourth year, has left over 170,000 dead so far. The current fighting is killing over a thousand people a week. The Syrian government seems to consider ISIL an ally as in some parts of the countries the ISIL is killing more rebels than the nearby government forces are. The ISIL gains in Iraq mean that the Assad government is no longer the main ISIL target in Syria. This also means that the Saudis and Iranians have to pause their growing Sunni-Shia feud because both countries have more to fear from ISIL Sunni Islamic terrorism than from each other. Western nations know they are already on the ISIL radar and are cracking down on ISIL fund raising and recruiting in the West.

While Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states are officially opposed to ISIL, their intelligence and police agencies report that over 5,000 young men from the Arab Gulf states are currently fighting for ISIL. About 75 percent of those are from Saudi Arabia and these Gulf Arabs make up nearly a third of the front line ISIL strength. Moreover, most of the foreign cash contributions for ISIL come from the Gulf Arabs. As it has for over a thousand years the allure of a united Islamic state (the caliphate) still appeals to young Moslem men. Older Moslems know better (that the caliphate never worked as intended and why). Until Moslems figure out how to deal with this deadly fantasy the bouts of Islamic terrorism will continue to periodically deliver death and destruction on the Moslem world.

July 18, 2014: In Mosul ISIL clerics announced (often from the loudspeakers outside Mosques used to broadcast the call to prayer and important sermons) that all Christians must either convert, pay a special tax (an old Moslem custom for infidels) or leave the city. Most Christians began to flee, many for the Kurdish controlled north. Many Sunnis are also fleeing, since ISIL is also picking up former officials (and military officers) of the pre-2003 Saddam Hussein government. It is believed most of those picked up are being executed and buried in secret locations because most never return to their homes.

A suicide bomber who killed five people in Baghdad was later identified as an 18 year old Arab immigrant from Australia who had left home a year ago to join Islamic terrorist groups in Syria.

July 17, 2014: Saudi Arabia sent another 2,000 troops to help guard its 850 kilometer long border with Iraq. This frontier is already pretty secure, with a ten kilometer wide security zone containing a fence and trench and monitored 24/7 by video cameras and sensors. The reinforcements are to increase the ability to quickly attack any ISIL effort to breach the barrier and get Islamic terrorists into Saudi Arabia. A major goal of ISIL is to destroy the Saudi monarchy and take control of the oil and holy places. While ISIL has some fans in Saudi Arabia, most Saudis are decidedly hostile to ISIL. Many Saudis don’t like their monarchy either, but most Saudis have no doubt that ISIL would be worse.

July 16, 2014: The army effort to take Tikrit and troops retreated. The attack began on June 26th with troops attacking ISIL gunmen holding Tikrit, a Sunni city of 250,000 160 kilometers north of Baghdad. This is the hometown of Saddam Hussein and the source of many of his most loyal followers. By the 29th the troops had driven ISIL men from the center of the city but ISIL kept sending in reinforcements and the soldiers never did gain control of the outskirts. Even though most of the population fled the fighting there were enough pro-ISIL civilians still in town to give the Islamic terrorists support. Tikrit always was a stronghold of Sunni nationalists and never really accepted the post-2003 elected Shia government. Apparently the government decided that Tikrit could be dealt with later and that the troops were better used to support Iraqis who actively opposed ISIL.

July 15, 2014: The Iraqi parliament agreed on who would be the new speaker of parliament. The candidate is a Sunni, which is in line with the long-accepted compromise to allocate key jobs to different religious or ethnic groups. The Kurds will have the presidency and a Shia will be prime minister. It’s that last job where the deadlock remains. Incumbent Nouri al Maliki has been running things since 2006 and has presided over a corrupt government where plundering the vast oil income has become the primary activity of senior politicians. Maliki has got this all organized so he has lots of wealthy and powerful supporters who do not want Maliki replaced with someone else that will probably replace all the Maliki cronies with a new crew of crooks. So far the greed has trumped concern for national survival, at least at the top. Most Iraqis are opposed to all the corruption and the inept government it produces. But most Iraqis prefer to blame foreigners (American, Iranian, Saudi and so on) for this sorry situation rather than take personal responsibility and do something about it. It’s a Middle Eastern curse that has so far resisted most reform efforts.

July 14, 2014: ISIL backed off on its threat to flog anyone caught watching the World Cup final game (Germany won over Argentina). This was an embarrassment for ISIL leadership, which has the support of conservative clerics for this sort of thing but less enthusiasm from the rank and file.

July 13, 2014: Turkish Kurds, including members of the Turkish Kurdish armed separatist group PKK, are going to Kurdish controlled northern Iraq to help Iraqi Kurds maintain the new borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. These new borders now incorporate two oil fields the Iraqi Kurds recently occupied. Many Kurds in the region (in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria) see the possibility of northern Iraq becoming an independent Kurdish state. Many Iraqi Kurds like the idea, but all the surrounding nations (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria) are hostile to it and make it clear that a landlocked Kurdistan will be subject to blockade and the threat of invasion. Because of that threat Iraqi Kurdish leaders are discouraging talk of independence. So far the political and economic autonomy has worked pretty well and the neighbors tolerate it.

July 12, 2014: In the west (Anbar) several thousand tribal militiamen joined the small army garrison to repulse an attack on the town of Haditha by ISIL. Although ISIL claims to control all of Anbar there are many towns and rural areas that are actually controlled by heavily armed tribal militias, often in cooperation with soldiers and local police. This sort of local resistance to ISIL is becoming common in majority Sunni areas throughout Iraq. In Baghdad a local Sunni group attacked a brothel in a neighborhood with a lot of Sunni. The raid left 25 women and at least eight men dead. Brothels have been attacked before, by both Shia and Sunni religious groups, but not with this many dead.

July 11, 2014: Kurdish troops took control of two oil fields outside Kirkuk, a city the Kurds seized in June. Kirkuk had long been a Kurdish majority city, until the 1980s when Saddam Hussein decided to punish the Kurds by forcing many out of Kirkuk at gunpoint and bringing in poor Sunni families from the south to replace the Kurds. Since 2003 the Kurds have been trying to force the Arabs (Sunni and Shia) out of Kirkuk and thanks to ISIL they finally got the opportunity. To the dismay of most Iraqi Arabs (80 percent of the population) the Kurds have made it clear they now have Kirkuk and will not be giving it up.

July 10, 2014: The UN announced that as far as their nuclear experts knew the nuclear material recently seized by ISIL in a former Saddam era weapons facility was too low-grade to be useful for anything and that’s why the stuff, along with some other chemicals, were left there (until the Iraqi government decided to spend a lot of money to properly dispose of it).

July 9, 2014:  In the north (Amiri) Iraqi troops and local Turkmen militia repulsed an ISIL effort to take the town. The defenders were backed by some air force attacks on the ISIL men and at least fifteen of the attackers were killed before the rest withdrew.

The government responded to criticism that they had abandoned a force of several hundred troops trapped in a refinery 240 kilometers north of Baghdad. The government revealed that there were 1,500 troops inside the refinery and were being resupplied by air. The ISIL men surrounding the refinery are not attacking because ISIL wants to capture the refinery intact and use it to produce petroleum products.





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