Iraq: Working Towards An October Surprise

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August 15, 2015: Without any publicity at all the United States and Britain have brought in more special operations troops to fight ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) in the “ISIL Homeland” of western Iraq and eastern Syria. In Iraq the U.S. has over a thousand special operations troops assigned to train and advise Iraqi forces (both army and pro-government Sunni tribal militias). Aside from their obvious military and cultural (many American Special Forces speak Arabic) advantages the Western troops also bring with them the ability to more accurately and quickly call in air strikes. This is one thing (aside from better training and leadership) that make the Kurds so effective against ISIL (and Islamic terrorists in general). For many Iraqi troops the quick availability of air support is something they remember from the time (pre-2011) before their corrupt government insisted all the foreign troops leave. While national pride was given as the reason for this the real objective was to get rid of the scrutiny American troops brought to the corruption. But now there is a growing popular opposition to the corruption, so letting the Western troops back in does not have as big a downside for the Iraqi government and might just save their corrupt asses. It’s the American and British politicians who do not want to admit they are sending troops back to Iraq, but that’s all about local politics in the West. In Syria the American and British commandos have apparently been operating together on raids, scouting missions and assisting the local Kurds and other armed anti-ISIL groups. One reason for keeping the commando presence quiet is that it is largely concerned with collecting more intelligence on ISIL. This means interviewing locals who deal with ISIL and observing ISIL operations in areas ISIL believes they are safe. The commandos want to make those areas less safe and, sooner rather than later, free of ISIL presence. Many of the locals agree with that.

ISIL sees Mosul under increasing threat, not just from Iraqi soldiers and Shia militias advancing from the south and Kurds from the north, but from the growing number of Mosul residents who are fighting back. So far this year ISIL has executed over 2,000 “rebels” in Mosul. Some were civil servants but most were simply citizens caught or suspected of resisting ISIL. The Iraqi government would like to drive ISIL out of Mosul by the end of the year but at the moment the emphasis is on Anbar.

The government offensive in western Iraq (Anbar province) continues, especially around the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. It is slow going because the government knows that heavy casualties among its forces is not just bad for morale but could lead to many desertions. As much as most Iraqis hate ISIL, they hate getting killed while serving under incompetent and corrupt officers. So, heeding their American advisors, the government is allowing the few competent officers the Americans were able to identify to get the job done and take their time doing it. Thus in July fewer than 500 members of the security forces (including the Kurds and militias) were killed. Meanwhile the popular resistance to ISIL in Anbar grows. ISIL cooperates in this by doing unpopular things. One of their more detestable acts was to shut down secular schools. In addition over 1,500 school buildings have been destroyed or badly damaged. So ISIL does not even try to replace the secular schools with religious ones. Many parents find this worth fighting against, especially with the oil fueled Iraqi economy continuing to grow. Without an education you can’t expect to get a big share of the new economy.

The operations to surround and take Ramadi and Fallujah continue, with the help of a growing number of local Sunni tribesmen. These guys can count and they note that since the government offensive began in June territory under ISIL control has shrunk. The U.S. points out that ISIL has also lost ground (over 5,000 square kilometers) in eastern Syria. When pressed, American officials admit that Ramadai and Fallujah will probably not be won before October, but perhaps sooner. ISIL morale is a volatile thing and may plummet unexpectedly and speed things up.

Turkey is redoubling its efforts to keep new recruits from getting to ISIL. But Iraq and Saudi Arabia also have to do more on their own borders with ISIL territory. Jordan is more effective in guarding its borders but people smugglers in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are making lots of money coming up with new ways to get their terrorist recruits into Syria. Despite heavy losses (from combat and desertion) ISIL still appears to have over 20,000 armed followers in Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. Department of Defense said it doubted that ISIL is using chemical weapons, especially mustard gas. The story going around was that this chemical weapon was part of some secret supply of mustard gas that the Assad government did not surrender. No one can present any conclusive evidence. The Americans also doubt that ISIL is having any success in manufacturing chemical weapons. What appears to be happening here is that ISIL is creating primitive chemical weapons by filling 120mm mortar shells with potentially lethal industrial chemicals. The most common chemical used is chlorine, but some shells have also been found filled with a grain fumigant and there are plenty of other noxious chemicals in areas controlled by ISIL. Chemicals like this can be lethal to humans in large quantities, but when used in a mortar shell or as part of a vehicle bomb the amounts victims might be exposed to only have temporary effects ranging from nausea to poor vision, problems breathing and so on. These are the symptoms reported by Kurdish fighters hit with these ISIL chemical shells. This has happened before. Since most of the ISIL leadership also belonged to the pre-2008 Iraqi al Qaeda movement they are apparently familiar with similar tactics used before 2008 and content to use this sort of thing simply to terrorize their foes. Back in 2006-8 there were over a dozen suicide bombing attacks in Iraq that featured the use of chlorine as part of the bomb. These were recognized as attempts to use chlorine as a chemical weapon. These efforts were unsuccessful, despite the fact that the first chemical weapon attack in modern history, in 1915, used 168 tons of chlorine gas. Then, as now, chlorine proved to be an inefficient chemical weapon and was quickly replaced by more effective ones in 1915. The Islamic terrorists of 2007 also noted the ineffectiveness of their chlorine use in bombs, and intel monitoring picked up lots of chatter about obtaining more powerful chemical weapons. Then, and now, there are still many people in Iraq, and most are Sunni Arabs, who know how to manufacture more lethal chemical agents (like mustard gas, which burns skin, eyes, or your lungs, if you inhale it). ISIL may be trying to revive the 2007 effort but there is more speculation than evidence involved. ISIL has not captured any chemical plants capable of manufacturing the deadlier World War I chemical weapons and building such a manufacturing capability from scratch is very difficult and likely to be detected. The chemical threat from ISIL is, however, no longer just theoretical.

In eastern Turkey the Turkish government continues its offensive against the PKK (local Kurdish separatist rebels). Turkey went to war with the PKK in July because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK and the Turks also ordered air strikes against PKK bases in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK based in remote areas. The Turks cannot force the issue as it is pretty obvious that the Iraqi Kurds have all they can handle with ISIL. In response there has been more PKK violence in southeast Turkey and the Turkish security forces have responded with more raids and arrests. This comes after Turkey decided, on July 24th, to join the air campaign against ISIL in Syria. This includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase.

The Syrian Kurds are suspicious of the Turks, in part because the Turks do not hide their belief that the Syrian Kurds are too closely allied with the PKK. Some Syrian Kurds (the PYD) are, or have been, allies with PKK but most Syrian Kurds would rather work with the Iraqi Kurds. Nearly all Kurds see the Turkish reaction as yet another attempt to crush the PKK while many Kurds see all this Kurdish activity against ISIL as an excuse to form a Kurdish state from parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey. While that is a popular idea among Kurds it is not as high on the agenda as surviving the ISIL threat. Many Kurds believe that the Turkish government is secretly aiding ISIL in order to weaken the Kurdish forces.

Meanwhile the month long Turkish offensive against the Kurds has resulted in 190 PKK targets claimed destroyed by air attacks in northern Iraq. These are believed to have killed nearly 400 PKK members and wounded even more. In Turkey police have questioned over 1,600 Kurds and arrested over 340. Turkey believes that most of the PKK who survived the air attacks in Iraq have fled to join Kurds in Syria or Iran. Those who remain refuse orders from the local Iraqi Kurd government to get out. The PKK leadership has apparently approached the Turks to negotiate but so far the Turks are not interested.

August 14, 2015:  ISIL carried out yet another major attack near the oil refinery at Baiji (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul 200 kilometers north of Baghdad). Local officials reported that this attack involved twelve suicide car bombs and over 200 gunmen. Like earlier efforts, this “offensive” was repulsed within a few hours. There were over a hundred casualties, most of them among the attackers. ISIL has been fighting here since mid-2014 and despite being defeated and pushed back many times, keeps returning with suicide bombers and mobs of suicidal gunmen. This year all these ISIL offensives have been repulsed but the security forces are so far unable to push the Islamic terrorists far enough away to restart operations. 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 of ISIL. The Iraqi Army recaptured Tikrit earlier in the year and continued moving north to reinforce forces defending Bajii. Until ISIL is cleared out of Baiji a major advance on Mosul will not be practical.  This is probably why ISIL keeps attacking, and suffering heavy losses.

Thousands of pro-reform Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad to celebrate government reforms most Iraqis have long demanded. The reforms involve eliminating thousands of senior level positions in the government that exist mainly to enable politicians to steal. The government made some other changes that make it more difficult (but not impossible) for corrupt officials to steal and generally muck things up. The people want more of this, and less corruption.

In Kuwait police, acting on tips, found 20 tons of ammunition (mostly) and weapons hidden in some homes near the Iraq border. Most worrisome was the presence of 144 kg (316 pounds) of explosives and over 200 grenades. These are for terror attacks and Kuwait suffered the last one in June. Interrogation of those using the buildings revealed that the stuff was smuggled in as part of an Iranian sponsored effort to create a large Shia terrorist organization in Kuwait. Iran was using Hezbollah operatives in Iraq to handle a lot of this. Iran has long supported Islamic terrorism among the Shia minority (30 percent) of Kuwait. This is especially true since Kuwait allows the United States to station over 12,000 troops in Kuwait, mainly (and very openly) to discourage any Iranian (or Iraqi) invasion threats. But Kuwait also has a lot of wealthy Sunni Arab families willing to fund Islamic terrorist groups, even those as extreme as al Qaeda or ISIL. Since 2014 Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the two major sources of Islamic terrorist funding, agreed that outfits like ISIL are a threat to even Islamic conservatives and must be destroyed. The Saudis and Kuwaitis have not been able to stop all the ISIL donations but have greatly reduced the flow of cash out and Islamic terrorists in. Most Kuwaitis are more concerned with their neighbors (especially Shia dominated Iraq and Iran) invading and that provides the police with more tips on possible terrorist activity. Iran will deny the latest revelations and keep on trying.   

August 12, 2015: American warplanes began operating out of the eastern Turkey airbase at Incirlik (150 kilometers north of Syria) to attack ISIL targets in Syria. In late 2014 the U.S. announced an agreement with Turkey to use Turkish bases (including Incirlik) to support the fight against ISIL. The next day the Turkish government denied that this was the case. While the Turkish parliament had approved such cooperation, the anti-American Turkish president had to agree to implement these new rules and until the recent PKK problems the Turkish president had refused to do so.

August 10, 2015: Iranian leaders are openly admitting that Iran is determined to do whatever it must to keep ISIL, or any other anti-Shia Sunni radicals away from the Shia holy places in southern Iraq. At present this means a large and growing Quds Force presence in Iraq and Syria. But if the holy places become threatened, military intervention is not ruled out.

August 7, 2015: Over 20,000 people demonstrated against corruption in Baghdad. This is the more visible evidence of growing demands for less corruption and more efficient government. The appearance of ISIL last year and the recent (quite normal) heat wave has generated a lot more enthusiasm for anti-corruption measures. The worsening electricity shortages have fed this sentiment and the government is trying to respond.

August 6, 2015: The U.S. announced it is sending 1,250 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division to Iraq to serve as trainers and advisors. The 10th was in Afghanistan and Iraq many times after 2001. 

August 2, 2015: In Russia a Mi-28N helicopter gunship crashed at an air show. One of the two crew survived (by ejecting) and reported that the cause was a hydraulics failure. This is the sixth crash of a Russian military aircraft in the last month. The other five aircraft could claim advanced age as a major factor. Russia is replacing its 250 Mi-24 helicopter gunships with 300 new Mi-28s. The Mi-28N is a much more complex aircraft than the Mi-24 and requires more skillful and better trained pilots. Russia has sold 14 Mi-28s to Iraq and 30 to Algeria. The first Mi-28s arrived in Iraq earlier this year and some are believed to have seen combat. But because of this accident Russia has ordered all its Mi-28s grounded until the exact cause of the accident was. This grounding will probably also be recommended for export models. Russia has been selling a lot of weapons t0 Iraq. In 2014 Russia exported nearly $15 billion worth of weapons. Nearly 70 percent of those sales were to three countries; India (25 percent), China (22 percent) and Iraq (22 percent).

August 1, 2015: The fighting, mostly against ISIL, left 1,332 Iraqis dead in July, down slightly from June (1,466) but still higher than 1,100 dead in May. The recent increase is largely because the government began its promised June offensive a little late but still in June. Fighting increased around Mosul and in Anbar and deaths among the security forces (including pro-government militias) more than doubled (from 366 in May to about 800 in June). Since January (when nearly 1,400 died) monthly terrorist related deaths were usually 1,100-1,200 a month. This is because most of the ISIL violence was of the terrorist, not military, variety. Until June about half the victims were 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 has risen more sharply than 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 made yet another comeback. The big campaign now is against ISIL, which took Mosul in mid-2014. All this ISIL violence has forced over three million Iraqis from their homes. 

In Mosul ISIL executed 19 women, apparently by burning them alive, for refusing to have consensual sex with ISIL men. The women had been captured in late 2014 and held captive ever since.

 

 

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