Iraq: The Other, More Important, War


September 2, 2015: The fighting, mostly against ISIL, left 1,325 Iraqis (security forces and civilians) dead in August, which is almost identical to the 1,332 Iraqis killed in July. That was down slightly from June (1,466) but still higher than 1,100 dead in May. The increase since May 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 700-800 a month in June, July and August). 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. Some Iraqi officials still believe 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 eventually 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.  American military advisors are less optimistic mainly because the Iraqi army and police still have so many incompetent (and often corrupt) officers. Fixing that situation takes time and there is no way to speed it up dramatically. Iraqi and Western politicians and media pundits have a hard time understanding that reality. ISIL losses are believed to be higher than those for the security forces but there is no precise data available or if there is it is kept secret to prevent ISIL from finding out how it was obtained.

In the north the Kurds continue to push south but are hampered by a shortage of troops. The problem is that protecting Kurdish controlled northern Iraq requires a lot trained and reliable people. There is a long border and ISIL is always trying to get in or at least cause casualties among the border guards. One reason for the Kurdish success is that their military leaders look after their troops and don’t expose them to needless danger. This is frustrating for the thousands of armed Yazidis who have allied themselves with the Kurds. While the Kurds led an advance that recused several hundred Yazidis near Mount Sinjar in late 2014 the Kurds have not retaken the main Yazidi town of Sinjar. The reason is that the town would be easy enough capture but would require over 4,000 Kurdish troops to defend and the Kurds have not got the personnel for that right now.

The Iraqi Army and Shia militias continue advancing slowly against ISIL in central (towards Mosul) and western (Anbar Province) Iraq. The Iraqi Army has about 10,000 troops in Anbar and nearly as many Shia militiamen. The main impediment here is the lack of good leaders and troop support (maintenance and logistics). These are the things the Kurds have taken care of but that the Arab Iraqis still have problems with. Thus the Iraqi Arabs are much less effective against ISIL than the Kurds or Western troops. The Iraqis are paying more attention to their American advisors and the government has hired an American firm (DynCorp) to begin upgrading combat support services. The American advisors have convinced the Iraqi generals that an advance is possible but only if carried out slowly and methodically, using the few units with competent leaders (battalion and brigade commanders) to lead the way. The Shia militias, many of them with Iranian advisors, are more of a problem. While the Shia militiamen have less training they are more fanatics and undisciplined. To the Americans the biggest risk is the Shia militiamen terrorizing (kidnapping, murdering, looting and so on) Sunni civilians in areas ISIL is driven out of.  The Shia militiamen are largely motivated by revenge (for years of Islamic terrorist attacks on Shia civilians) and their Iranian advisors encourage that. But the Americans realize that the key to regaining control of Anbar is gaining the support of the Sunnis (who comprise nearly all the Anbar population). This worked in 2007 but back then there were not Iranian backed Shia militias to worry about.

Starting in September the government implemented a new security system for Baghdad to reduce the ISIL terror attacks, especially against Shia neighborhoods. Most of the civilian deaths (and about a quarter of all terrorist related deaths each month) occur in Baghdad. That is embarrassing, not to mention a political liability. The new government was elected partly on the belief that security would be improved in Baghdad. What happens with the new measures in September will show how serious and effective the new government is.

The government also admits that the ongoing battle with ISIL near the oil refinery at Baiji (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul 200 kilometers north of Baghdad) is crucial. Security forces have been unable to keep ISIL away from the refinery. The ISIL attacks generally involve suicide car bombs and gunmen. These attacks are usually repulsed within a few hours. ISIL seems willing to suffer as many as several hundreds of casualties a week with these attacks. 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 refinery 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. 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.

Despite ample use of terror (mass kidnapping, public executions and beatings) ISIL continues to face resistance from civilians in occupied areas. Worse, news and often pictures of some of the popular opposition gets out and counters ISIL propaganda about how swell life is under ISIL rule. There are growing acts of violent resistance to ISIL rule involving gunfire, bombs and sometimes just knives. ISIL never considers less violence in response to opposition, but always more. Thus ISIL is now blowing up mosques (believed to be centers of resistance) as well as churches. In addition to attacks from occupied populations ISIL men also have to worry about growing violent disputes between ISIL factions. At least two of these clashes have occurred in the last month, leaving at least thirty dead and many more wounded. These disputes usually don’t get out of control but are usually over loot, women and power. While ISIL has about a hundred former Iraqi military officers (from the Saddam era) in their high command, there are many smaller units (“battalions” of several hundred men or “companies” of 50-100 men) led by younger men with no officer training but a talent for leadership. These guys tend to improvise and develop an unrealistic assessment of their own power and capabilities.

Then there is the continuing problem of the Arab dominated Iraqi government recognizing Kurdish control of Kirkuk province. There was supposed to be a referendum in Kirkuk in 2007 to decide if it should become part of the Kurdish autonomous areas or remain “Arab”. That vote never took place and the Kurds want it to happen. Kirkuk is about 83 kilometers south of the current Kurdish capital Erbil and nearly 300 kilometers north of Baghdad. The Arab controlled national government kept delaying the referendum in Kirkuk because they thought they would lose. That’s because for over a decade Saddam Hussein had deliberately driven Kurds from Kirkuk and brought in poor Sunnis from the south to take the place (and homes) of the departed Kurds. After 2003 the displaced Kurds returned and there has been violence between Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk ever since. Many of these recent Arab migrants left since 2004 and Kirkuk is believed to be a majority Kurd city again. Most of the non-Kurds in Kirkuk would rather be ruled by the more efficient and less corrupt Kurdish government of the north than the Arab dominated national government. There are problems with that as well. The largest non-Kurd group is Turkish (Turkmen, Turks from Turkmenistan in Central Asia not Turkey) and the Turkmen are not united. They are divided by politics (although most favor alliance with the Kurds), religion (Sunni, Shia and Catholic). The inability of the Turkmen to unite is exploited by the Shia Arab government in Baghdad. The national government is not happy with the fact that it does not control the Kurdish north but despite the ISIL threat still stalls in giving the Kurds their share of oil revenue and foreign military aid. Western nations are more sympathetic to allowing the Kurds to freely pump, ship and sell the oil on their territory (which, technically, the national government in Baghdad controls). In the past the Baghdad bureaucrats have used that legal status to block Kurdish attempts to sell their oil. Now more Western countries are willing to ignore the protests from Baghdad and do business with the Kurds in the north. 

Some members of the American led coalition providing air support are openly questioning the tactics and procedures being used. There are accusations from within the American intelligence community that political leaders are hiding the truth about how the restrictive ROE (Rules of Engagement) are crippling the air offensive against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Another problem with the use of more ground control teams is the American political leadership wanting to put more of them on the ground while American military commanders believe that the risk of these U.S. troops getting killed or captured outweighs the benefits of more precise air strikes. That’s because the ROE is obsessed with avoiding any civilian losses from air strikes and ISIL exploits this by regularly using human shields.

Meanwhile the United States and Britain have very quietly brought in more special operations troops to fight ISIL in the “ISIL Homeland” of western Iraq and eastern Syria. The American and British commandos in Syria 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.

The Turkish government has declared martial law in southeastern Turkey and is regularly bombing PKK (local Kurdish separatist rebels) bases in northern Iraq. Turkey went to war with the PKK in late July because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. While the PKK still calls for an independent Kurdish state made up of majority Kurd portions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the largely autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq refuse to go along with that. For a while many in the PKK agreed with the Iraqi Kurds and were willing to settle for more autonomy in Turkey. But the radical PKK factions refused to go along and the 2013 ceasefire began to fray. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK fighters based in remote areas. The Turks are unwilling to send ground troops into northern Iraq and seemed content to keep bombing the PKK there. This the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs tolerate, especially since the Turks are now also bombing ISIL in Syria. Turkey joining the air campaign against ISIL in Syria includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase. There has been more PKK violence in southeast Turkey and the Turkish security forces have responded with more raids and arrests. The Turks will win this fight, as they have in the past, and the Turkish Kurds will suffer the most casualties in the process.

The Turks are now also unofficially at war with some of the Syrian Kurds. 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. While that is a popular idea among Kurds it is not as high on the agenda as is surviving the ISIL threat. Many Kurds believe that the Turkish government is secretly aiding ISIL in order to weaken the Kurdish forces.

Meanwhile the Turkish offensive against the Kurds since late July has killed over 800 PKK members and wounded even more. Most of the dead were victims of Turkish air strikes on PKK camps in northern Iraq. The ground operations in south eastern Turkey have resulted in at least fifty Turkish soldiers and police dying. Police have questioned several thousand Kurds and arrested over 500. 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.

Another reason the Iraqi Kurds are angry at the PKK is because of suspected PKK involvement in damaging the pipelines that carry oil from Kurdish controlled wells to Turkey for export and sale. This is the main source of income for the Iraqi Kurdish government in the north and damage (from bombs or drilling holes in the pipeline to steal oil) have cost the Iraqi Kurds over $500 million since July. The PKK denies any involvement but the Iraqi Kurds say they have evidence that proves otherwise.

The Iraqi economy in general has suffered greatly from the increased ISIL activity. While oil exports are still high (about 3.3 million barrels a month) the much lower oil price and increased security costs has forced the Iraqis to borrow (against future oil revenues). Higher unemployment, from the firms shut down or forced to cut back because of ISIL activity has also stoked public anger.

August 31, 2015: Kurdish military authorities accused ISIL of again using a rocket with a chemical warhead. This happened north of Mosul where an ISIL rocket landed and released a lot of yellow smoke near Kurdish troops. One Kurdish soldier fell sick from the smoke and was hospitalized. The Kurds are collecting evidence for the UN and American chemical warfare experts to examine. The U.S. Department of Defense has examined similar evidence from other recent rocket and mortar attacks and believe that ISIL is creating primitive chemical weapons by filling mortar shells and rockets with potentially lethal industrial chemicals. This includes some mustard agent but the most common chemical used is chlorine. 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 type of chemical weapon is more of a terror device than a weapon that will injure a lot of people. Given the ISIL fondness for terrorizing their opponents it is possible ISIL is using primitive chemical weapons like this rather than in an attempt to cause more casualties.

August 28, 2015: For the fifth Friday in a row thousands of pro-reform Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad to push for government action against corruption. The reforms involve eliminating thousands of senior level positions in the government that exist mainly to enable politicians to steal and enforcing existing laws against corruption. The government responded by making some 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 general. So far all the government has not done enough and that keeps the demonstrators coming. The people demand more action and these demonstrations may be the start of a sustained anti-corruption movement. What makes these demonstrations so effective is that they have the support of the two top Shia clerics; Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the younger, more radical and pro-Iran Ayatollah Sadr. This clerical support makes the demonstrations impossible to ignore but so many top officials are corrupt that it is difficult to get enough of them removed to persuaded to act with more integrity to make a difference. Corruption has been endemic to this region for thousands of years, but now there is democracy and widespread realization that progress is impossible with the current levels of corruption.  

August 27, 2015: ISIL released another torture porn video, this one showing four Shia militiamen tied up and suspended over a fire and burned to death. These videos serve a dual purpose. First they attract the kind of recruits ISIL is looking for (suicidal and depraved religious fanatics willing to do anything) and second they terrify many of the people ISIL is fighting as well as civilians in ISIL occupied territory. The downside of this is that these videos enrage some of the people fighting Islamic terrorism and discourages some Islamic terrorists from becoming allies of ISIL.

In the west (Anbar) an ISIL suicide car bomber attacked a military convoy and killed two generals and several other soldiers. The generals were involved in leading the offensive against ISIL in Anbar. ISIL is an avid user of assassination.

August 18, 2015:  In the north (outside Mosul) British SAS commandos directed a laser guided bomb on a vehicle carrying the ISIL second in command (Fadhil Ahmad al Hayali) and a senior ISIL publicist. A former officer in Saddam’s army, Hayali was in personally in charge of logistics, especially moving supplies and gunmen between Syria and Iraq. Western counter-terror experts have come to understand that going after terrorist leaders works.

August 16, 2015: The government announced the first major step to curb corruption. This involved a sharp cut in senior government positions and reducing the number of senior officials by a third. This was done by eliminating three deputy premier positions and four entire ministries. Four more ministries were eliminated by merging them with others. The popular consensus was that this was a good start but not nearly enough to make a serious dent in the problem.





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