Iraq: The Lessons Of History Ignored


April 12, 2015: Prime minister Abadi made it very clear that he had requested American air power to be used at Tikrit to support Iraqi Army units attacking the city. Abadi said he did this even though Iran told him that the Iranian supported Shia militias, which comprised most of the manpower attacking Tikrit, would withdraw. Abadi was not happy with how the Shia militias were taking all the credit for the advance on Tikrit but were unable to advance into the city center. The Shia militias refused American air support and Iran was not able to supply it either. Abadi saw this as part of an effort by Iran to eventually make Iraq a puppet state and Abadi knew that most Iraqis, including most Shia Iraqis, did not want that. Abadi was told by his Iraqi and American military advisors that with U.S. air support the few ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) defenders and their defenses (mainly a lot of roadside bombs and booby traps) could be overcome. The Iraqis have lots of American trained bomb disposal experts and commanders familiar with how to work with American air support. Thus Abadi won a double victory (over Iran and ISIL) at Tikrit. Neither of the losers took it well. Abadi also won support from Iraqi Sunnis for standing up to Iran and for ordering the army to halt the looting (by criminal gangs and some Shia militias) and revenge murders that followed the army occupation of the city.

American intelligence analysts, based on surveillance photos, electronic intercepts (of Internet, radio and cell phone discussions), captured documents and prisoner (and deserter) interrogations, believe that ISIL is now definitely on the defensive in Iraq, despite recent major attacks in Anbar. Although foreign volunteers continue to get to ISIL held areas in Syria and Iraq most of them have few useful skills (combat and otherwise). Meanwhile ISIL is suffering heavy losses (from combat and desertion) among its experienced fighters and specialists. There are growing discipline and morale problems that the senior leadership have few good solutions for. Executing commanders who do not win and lecturing the others is a short term solution that makes things worse in the long term.

ISIL also has financial problems. Iraqi offensives this year have cost ISIL over 90 percent of the oil production facilities it controlled. This oil was transported via truck to Turkey where criminal gangs bought it at a large discount and sold it on the black market. This provided most of the regular cash income ISIL could depend on. Now ISIL has to increase its extortion (of cash from populations it controls) and looting (of whatever they can get their hands on). While ISIL is destroying (as blasphemous) many ancient artifacts, some of the choice (and portable) ones are being spared and sold via the black market. There are many criminal gangs in Iraq and adjacent countries who specialize in that sort of thing.

Despite all the fighting in Iraq, most of the country is at peace and losses have been less than several other countries. This does not show up in a recent survey of the security situation worldwide. This produced a list of the most dangerous countries as of early 2015. These were (starting with the most dangerous); Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Ukraine and Egypt. Studies like this are done mainly to find the least violent nations. This provides investors and tourists with useful information. Iraq is considered the most dangerous because it is where ISIL came from and where most of the leadership is from. That scares away foreign investors more than the actual violence. In March about 1,200 Iraqis died from terrorist related violence. That’s about nine percent more than February (1,100 dead). That in turn was about 20 percent less than January, when nearly 1,400 died. So far this year about 55 percent of the victims have been civilians. The death toll for all of 2014 was about 15,600. That’s a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. Previously the worst year was 2007, when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the death toll was 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 91,000 dead during 2014 for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll in Syria continues to rise, even as it is declining in Iraq. A growing number of Iraqi officials are optimistic that ISIL will be crushed in Iraq by the end of 2016. It’s happened before (like in 2007-8), but then the Sunni fanatics make yet another comeback.

Foreign trainers (from NATO mainly) have already put about 5,000 Iraqis through a selection and military training program and another 5,000 are undergoing this training. This program is expected to have over 20,000 troops ready by June for the offensive to take Mosul. The U.S. led coalition will provide air support and controllers on the ground to call in the strikes. At Tikrit and Kobane it took about a dozen air strikes a day to turn the tide of battle. About five times as many troops will be involved in the Mosul campaign and it is unclear if the coalition will have enough aircraft to increase the number of air strikes to support all the additional troops.

A growing number of Iraqi and Kurdish officials are accusing Iran of sending thousands (some claim 30,000) of their citizens (military age males) into Iraq as “tourists” who then join a Shia militia. Some of these militias are believed to have entire units (of a hundred or so men) composed of Iranians who don’t even speak Arabic. The Iraqi government is reluctant to officially investigate this because Iranian aid in the fight against ISIL has been substantial and quite useful.

April 11, 2015: Government officials in Anbar province (western Iraq) complained that several ISIL convoys recently arrived from Mosul with over 1,500 armed ISIL reinforcements. The officials wanted to know why these convoys were not spotted and attacked from the air. There was no immediate response of the U.S. led coalition supplying air support.

In the north (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul) ISIL forces again attacked the oil refinery at Baiji. This attack failed, with at least 20 ISIL dead, even though one of the three of the suicide bombers who led it managed to detonate his explosives near one of the gates. In late November ISIL forces were driven away from the refinery which they had besieged for over a month. Since then ISIL has continued to stage attacks, all of which have been repulsed. The Beiji refinery can process 320,000 barrels of oil a day and that represents more than a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. Clearing ISIL out of this area also isolated the ISIL held town of Tikrit, which is due north of Baghdad and is full of Sunni Arabs and Saddam admirers who have had enough ISIL. The Iraqi Army recently recaptured Tikrit.

In another move to enhance their reputation among the more radical Moslems ISIL declared that only Iraq and Syria are truly Islamic and that all other Moslem majority countries are not. This makes it possible to justify killing Moslems who are now, according to ISIL, not really Moslems but heretics and pretenders. This offends most Moslems and makes ISIL more hated. Self-destructive behavior has always been typical of Islamic radicals, which is why none of these movements have lasted long. But because most Moslems tolerate this strain of religious thinking it has periodically flared up into Islamic terrorist activity that kills mostly other Moslems before it is put down (often with great loss of life). Although this is all historical fact, Moslem historians tend to avoid discussing this subject.

April 10, 2015: In the north (Salahuddin province) ISIL executed four of its senior commanders for fleeing with their subordinates during recent battles with Iraqi troops. ISIL has long applied this ancient practice to punish and encourage its leaders. Not just battlefield commanders but administrators as well. Corruption has led to senior administrators recently being executed. This practice fell out of favor in the West after World War II. During World War II Russia (led by noted mass murderer Joesef Stalin) regularly executed officers of all ranks who failed to get results on the battlefield. As one 18th century French wit noted, this sort of thing “encouraged the others.” It also encouraged many capable but less suicidal men to avoid command positions in the military.  

In the west (Anbar province) ISIL forces attacked the provincial capital (Ramadi) seizing two neighborhoods on the outskirts. This was more than just a counterattack in response to recent government advances. This attack involved more manpower and skill that previous attacks, which Iraqi Army commanders found worrisome. Until now ISIL rarely showed much discipline or imagination during their numerous attacks on government held cities in Anbar. As a result these attacks have largely failed. At the beginning of the year there were about 5,000 ISIL gunmen in Anbar and most of them were recruited from local tribes. These constant defeats while attacking the two major cities (Ramadi and Fallujah) have been bad for morale, which means more of the local hires desert. The locally recruited ISIL men are also unhappy with the ISIL policy of kidnapping tribal elders and killing them or holding them for ransom (money or cooperation from tribal chiefs). A lot of the local tribesmen working for ISIL are related to some of the elders kidnapped or murdered by ISIL and that bad treatment is not appreciated. ISIL needs some victories in Anbar but is having a hard time making that happen. This has led to some mid-level leaders openly criticizing the ISIL high command. Internal criticism is not the only problem ISIL faces as the Islamic terror group is not doing well anywhere so far this year. It is believed that ISIL brought in reinforcements from Syria or northern Iraq for this latest attack.

April 9, 2015: A week after all organized ISIL resistance in Tikrit stopped, troops are still searching for bombs (over a thousand have been found and disabled so far) and the dozens of ISIL fighters who have hidden in homes and apartments determined to die fighting. This clearing process is going street by street and is expected to take a few more weeks to complete.

April 8, 2015: In the west (Anbar province) government forces continued pushing ISIL forces away from Ramadi. The government has been using some Shia militia forces in Anbar, which is unpopular with the largely Sunni Arab population of Anbar.

In the north (Mosul) ISIL arranged to turn over to Kurdish forces 216 Yazidi civilians they had held since last August. Most of these Yazidis were women, children and elderly men. Many were ill or disabled and this is seen as the main reason for releasing them. Some Kurds believe the local ISIL commander is trying to score some points in the event that ISIL is defeated and he gets captured. Many Moslems, and some Christians, consider the Yazidi pagans and devil worshipers. The Yazidi are Kurds who practice a pre-Christian religion related to the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion common in Iran (and now only found in India). The Yazidis are considered pagans by ISIL and to Moslems pagans must either renounce their beliefs or die.

April 6, 2015: Kurdish and Iraqi Arab officials met and agreed that Kurdish and Iraqi Army units would cooperate in driving ISIL out of Nineveh province (where Mosul is located). It was not clear if the Nineveh force would include Iran supported Shia militias. The Kurds are hoping that this cooperation will get them more and better weapons. The Arab dominated Iraqi government continues to block foreign efforts to supply the Kurds with the weapons they need and the Iraqi Arabs refuse to supply the weapons they have agreed to provide. It irks the Kurds that ISIL has captured more weapons (and modern ones at that) from the Iraqi Army than the Iraqi government is willing to provide to their Kurdish allies. Meanwhile Turkey has ordered its emergency services officials to prepare for a lot of refugees (300,000 or more) fleeing from this fighting. It is expected that several hundred thousand of the refugees will flee for the nearby Turkish border.

In the north Kurdish troops arrested a Yazidi militia leader and charged him with trying to obtain weapons from Iran via an Iran backed Iraqi Shia militia. The Kurds (who are Sunni but not fanatic about it) fear Iran as do most Iraqi Arabs (including most Shia). This is one of the few things Iraqi Kurds and Arabs agree on.

April 3, 2015:  The Iraqi government responded quickly to Sunni Arab complaints from Tikrit that some of the Shia militiamen were looting and even killing Sunnis suspected of collaborating with ISIL. The government ordered more soldiers and police into Tikrit to enforce orders for the Shia militias to leave. Criminals caught looting would be shot on sight if they did not leave the city or surrender.

April 1, 2015: In Tikrit Iraqi forces (mostly soldiers assisted by some Shia militias) took the last ISIL stronghold in the city. Although there were still some ISIL forces holding out in the city the government declared Tikrit liberated. Iraqi commanders credit five days of American air strikes as the key to the success of the final drive on Tikrit. Using the same tactics employed at Kobane (in Syria) to assist Kurdish forces, the American smart bombs and missiles quickly destroyed ISIL strongpoints or stretches of road or ground thought to be full of bombs and mines. These tactics not only killed ISIL defenders but demoralized the others, which led to most of the remaining ISIL forces fleeing the city. These tactics are not new and actually go back to World War II when self-propelled heavy artillery and fighter-bombers using unguided (“dumb”) bombs to quickly destroy any enemy resistance were found to be highly effective. In late 2001 this tactic was updated with the use of GPS guided smart bombs (and the older laser guided ones) against Taliban forces. This worked so well that after about a month the surviving Taliban defenses fell apart and the survivors fled.

March 31, 2015:  In Tikrit Iraqi forces advanced to all areas of the city. There was still some ISIL resistance.

March 29, 2015: In Tikrit Iraqi forces reached the center of the city. Iraqi troops suffered 17 dead and 100 wounded in the last three days fighting their way in from the outskirts. The low casualties were largely due to the air support (which included a few sorties from Iraqi aircraft firing Hellfire missiles). Iraqi troops counted far more dead ISIL men, most of them killed by the smart bombs and guided missiles. ISIL had prepared elaborate defenses using remote controlled bombs and mines along with captured ATGM (anti-tank guided missiles) to discourage the use of armored vehicles to lead the advance. These defenses could be blown apart by one or more smart bombs.

March 26, 2015: At the request of the Iraqi government American warplanes began providing air support for Iraqi troops advancing on Tikrit. In response to this the Iran supported Shia militias pulled back, not wanting to cooperate with the Americans (which Iran still denounces as the “Great Satan” and calls for a united Moslem effort to destroy the United States.) Some Shia militias rejoined the offensive after it was obvious that it was going to succeed.

Iraqi police finally shut down a major ISIL bombing operation which, it turned out, was responsible for 52 bombings in Baghdad during the last year. This all began in 2014 when police got lucky and spotted a leader of the group and had him followed for six months. That led to the identification of over 30 other people in the organization as well as several locations they operated from. In March police organized a special taskforce to shut down the bombing operation and within 72 hours arrested 31 members of the group, seized several locations they operated from and several dozen vehicles. These included ten cars rigged with explosives for suicide or remote control bombings. Also seized were bomb making materials as well as completed suicide bomb vests. Propaganda videos, financial and personnel records and numerous other documents were also found and taken.

March 25, 2015: In Iraq pro-Iranian militias pulled back from Tikrit and allowed the Iraqi Army to bring in American airpower to break the ISIL defense of the city. The fanatical but poorly trained Shia militias had taken the lead in the assault on Tikrit and made some progress. But more formidable ISIL defenses inside city eventually halted the militias. Iran refused to cooperate with army units if American air power were called in. The U.S. air strikes worked and the army advanced, much to the chagrin of the Shia militias and Iran.

March 23, 2015: Iraq admits that its forces are stalled on the outskirts of Tikrit. ISIL has built formidable defenses that artillery and rocket fire have not been able to completely destroy. Iraqi Army commanders are pressing the government to ignore the Iran backed Shia militias (who refuse to work with the Americans) and request U.S. air support. Many Iraqi officers and troops know how effective such support can be, often because these Iraqis worked with that air support before the American troops left in 2011.

March 22, 2015: The U.S. said it believed Iranian assistance to Iraq (to resist ISIL) is really an attempt to build support for an Iranian style religious dictatorship in Iraq. Most Iraqis, including most Shia Arabs, oppose this. But Iranian aid for Shia militias, ostensibly to fight ISIL, also creates a pro-Iran force that could eventually attempt a coup.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close