Iraq: Sadr Shock


May 24, 2018: It may be a while before Iraq has a new government, which is nothing new. The May 12th elections were controversial and more than half the members of the outgoing parliament want to annul the results. They have until June 30th (when their terms expire) to do so. There is some evidence that despite (or because of) the new electronic voting system there was some vote manipulation. The current parliament may also be upset over suspected Iranian efforts to increase control over Iraq.

The real reason for the unexpected elections results is popular anger at corruption. One thing that united all Iraqi voters was anger at the persistent and crippling corruption. Moqtada al Sadr, who was the unexpected winner, had been openly and actively anti-corruption for years and that was why his victorious coalition contained so many non-Shia groups (including communists, who are anathema to Iran). Despite that many Iraqis (and foreign allies) believe Sadr is secretly allied with Iran because the Sadr family has long had ties with Iran and members of the Sadr clan often took refuge in Iran. But that was because the Sadrs were respected Shia clerics and Iran was where the best schools and scholars were. Yet the Sadrs, like most Iraqi Shia Arabs, are Arabs and Iraqis first and that has been proven time and time again. Moqtada al Sadr has seen up close and frequently how a Shia clerical dictatorship works in Iran and was not impressed. He largely kept quiet about this but it was no secret that Sadr did not want a religious dictatorship in Iraq, mainly because it would make the country even more difficult to rule.

Sadr also noted that Iranian Arabs (and Arabs in general) are despised by most Iranians. Meanwhile, Iraq will demonstrate, over the next few months (or more) why it is considered the most dysfunctional country in the Middle East. Iraqi politicians will argue and negotiate in a lengthy effort to for a governing coalition and then for that coalition to select a prime minister and all the subordinate ministers.

Sadr is often described as anti-American but he is generally anti-foreigners in general but is willing to work with other nations if it helps Iraq. Thus there was a recent visit by Sadr to Saudi Arabia to meet with Saudi leaders. The Saudis had long supported the Sunni minority rule in Iraq because it worked and helped contain Iran. With that Sunni minority government gone and not likely to return anytime soon Sadr believes the Saudis still want an Arab government in Iraq that will help keep Iran out of Arabia. Sadr and the Saudis agree on that as do the majority of Iraqis (including most Kurds and Sunni Arabs).

Iran has not given up on Sadr and still refers to him as a friend and brother. Sadr says nice things back but it is what Sadr does that counts and that won’t be clear until the new government is formed. This might not happen until the end of the year.

The Wars Continue

The war against ISIL continues but most of the fighting is now taking place near the Syrian border. This is mainly happening west of Mosul and further south in Anbar Province. A growing number of ISIL men are abandoning the Syrian base areas, in part because these are under heavy attack by Kurdish forces and American airpower. But the Iraq/Syria border is also increasingly difficult to get across and has become a “kill zone” where ISIL personnel are the main target. Meanwhile, ISIL has had some success in establishing themselves in Kirkuk province. This may well be temporary because if Iraq and the Kurdish government in the north settle more of their differences Kurdish security forces could return to Kirkuk province and restore order (eliminate ISIL and any other terror groups). That might not happen until the end of the year or sometime in 2019 so for the moment, ISIL is making the most of their opportunities in Kirkuk.

The American campaign against ISIL in Iraq and Syria continues, especially the intelligence collection and air strikes. American forces in Syria and Iraq work with their local counterparts to search for and attack remaining ISIL personnel and a lot of this action is taking place close to the Syrian border. The SDF (Kurdish led Syrian Defense Force rebels) are handling the ground operations against two known areas in eastern Syria (Deir Zor province) where ISIL is known to occupy two areas in the Jazeera desert. Much of eastern Syria is desert, interspersed by some river valleys and oases. The Jazeera desert, because of its proximity to the Iraqi border, has always been a favorite hideout for smugglers and, since 2003, for Islamic terrorists operating against targets in Iraq. Now that is reversed with American aircraft (and recon satellites) monitoring the area for targets. These are hit by American and Iraqi warplanes and the SDF coordinates its operations with the Iraqis to prevent any friendly fire. ISIL leader and founder Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is believed hiding in one of these Jazeera desert enclaves, apparently close enough (within 30 kilometers) of the Syrian border to quickly move (or try to) into Iraq is it appears his exact location becomes known to the SDF or the Assads.

The American anti-ISIL coalition still carries out several air strikes a day (in Iraq and Syria) and these are often against major targets. The Iraqi airstrikes are infrequent but since April they have been happening, in cooperation with the coalition aircraft that normally control airspace in that part of Syria. ISIL no longer controls any territory in Iraq but Syria is another matter with several remote areas in Syria known to be under ISIL control. The Americans work their own intelligence sources to find and attack targets. After that some data is shared with the Iraqi government (not too dependable), the SDF Kurds in Syria (more reliable) and some Western allies.

ISIL considers itself strongest in Iraq and Syria where there are still a lot of Sunni Arabs who feel oppressed by the local government (in both cases governments dominated by Shia Arabs). ISIL also declared victory over the Americans because the United States has announced (more than once) that it is leaving Iraq and Syria once ISIL is eliminated. ISIL interprets that to mean the Americans are declaring victory and running away no matter how many ISIL are still active in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey is still fighting in Syria and Iraq. Currently, Turkey asserts that it will pursue PKK and PYD Kurds into Syria or Iraq without asking permission from the governments of either country. This annoys the Iraqi government but at the moment it is considered preferable not to oppose the Turks. There is still no Assad government control on the Syrian side of the border. That degree of control is coming but currently, independent factions (SDF in northern Syria, Iranian mercenaries further south) more or less control the Syrian side. But the Assads can still grant permission to Iraqi forces to cross the border when it comes to dealing with mutual foes like ISIL.

In northern Iraq Turkish warplanes and artillery continue to hit PKK targets in the Kurdish north, killing over fifty PKK members a month. There are some Turkish ground troops in northern Iraq, but these are there mainly to collect intelligence. The Turkish operations against PKK in northern Iraq are still minor compared to their Turkish operations in northwest Syria.

May 23, 2018: In the northeast (Erbil province) Turkish artillery fired from inside Turkey at suspected PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) camps inside Iraq. There were no Iraqi casualties but villagers could hear some of the explosions. Erbil is part of the autonomous Kurdish north and this Turkish behavior has become normal since Turkey and PKK went back to war in mid-2015.

May 22, 2018: In the north (Kirkuk province) ISIL gunmen murdered another village leader. ISIL does this to intimidate rural Iraqis into tolerating the ISIL presence and not report ISIL activities to the security forces. ISIL does not control territory in Kirkuk but it apparently has a growing number of people in rural areas intimidated.

In the northwest (outside Mosul) American and Iraqi airstrikes destroyed a complex of ISIL bunkers and tunnels that had been secretly reoccupied by at least ten local ISIL members. American and Iraqi intelligence detected the presence of this “sleeper cell” and bombed its base. Ground forces followed up to collect intel and dispose of any unexploded ammo and terrorist bombs. Nineveh province, which contains Mosul is still suffering from ISIL terror because the Syrian border is nearby and large groups of ISIL gunmen try to sneak across the border (going either way) and are ready to fight their way through if necessary. This part of the Syrian border is most heavily used by remaining ISIL forces, some of them based in Syria, often less than ten kilometers from the border. Iraqi troops have orders to shoot anyone who tries to cross the border illegally at night. Despite the active defense of the border ISIL continues to cross the in both directions and, until recently, tolerated the losses. Apparently most of the crossings are not detected because ISIL personnel are arrested in Mosul who report they crossed the border several times recently. U.S. supported Kurdish forces in Syria are now seeking to destroy these ISIL base areas and the border security is becoming more formidable.

May 15, 2018: The Iraqi Central Bank is adhering to American sanctions on Iraq by imposing restrictions on Iraqi banks the Americans have shown to be handling cash transfers to Hezbollah and IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps). IRGC operates in Iraq and Syria while Hezbollah is just in Syria and Lebanon.

May 12, 2018: In a surprise (but not unexpected) upset the winner of the parliamentary elections was the Sadr coalition, which won control of 17 percent of the seats in parliament. Sadr is thus able to take the lead in trying to form a coalition government. His main opponents are pro-Iran politicians and the much larger group of corrupt politicians. Moqtada al Sadr has come a long way since 2011 when as a Shia leader and senior cleric Sadr was threatening violence against any American military and police trainers who remained in Iraq once U.S. combat troops withdrew by the end of the year. Sadr’s Mahdi Army was defeated by Iraqi forces in 2008 and he was forced to flee to Iran. Sadr returned just before the U.S. troops pulled out and pro-Iranian terror groups become more active. Since then Sadr has been more bluff (and bluster) than real threat, especially to the Americans.

Iran is still controlling Iraqi Shia terrorist groups and Sadr has become more of an Iraqi nationalist than Iranian puppet. By August 2017 Sadr was calling on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate loyal (to Iraq) members into the armed forces. The Iraqi prime minister (a Shia), wanted to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it. This caution was the result of the (then) upcoming May 12th elections. That vote was expected to be a very concrete example of how much political clout Iran has gained in post-ISIL Iraq. Iran has worked hard to line up political support in Iraq. That Iranian effort failed because at this point Sadr was seen as an opponent of Iranian influence efforts in Iraq. Sadr is also opposed to the Iraqi Shia groups that remained loyal to Iran. One of the things that hurt support for pro-Iran candidates was video on the Internet that purports to show millions of dollars in cash seized at the Iranian border. The money was meant for pro-Iran Iraqis running in the parliamentary elections. Finally, Sadr himself did not run for office and instead served as the administrator, and chaplain, for his coalition.

May 11, 2018: Iraqi officials released details of the recent capture of five senior ISIL leaders (four of them Iraqis), including one who works directly with supreme leader Baghdadi. Also captured was data on ISIL bank accounts, including passwords. The capture was made possible by cooperation between Iraq and SDF (Kurdish led rebels in northeast Syria). Also involved was a sting operation using the favorite ISIL communications app; Telegram.

May 7, 2018: Jordan has agreed to continue the close cooperation with Iraq on border security and the war against ISIL. This cooperation has made Jordan off-limits (for the most part) to ISIL and forced ISIL to rely on Syria alone because the Saudi border was also well protected.

May 6, 2018: Iraqi warplanes carried out more airstrikes against ISIL targets on the Syrian side of the border.

May 4, 2018: One of the new members of parliament from the Kurdish north was a member of PKK. This was a first and will cause some diplomatic problems between Iraq and Turkey.

May 3, 2018: In April 68 civilians and policemen died due to Islamic terrorist violence. All but four of these were civilians. The deaths are down from March when 104 died. That was up a bit from the 91 killed during February and 19 percent of the dead were police. About a third of the deaths occurred in Baghdad. Terror related civilian deaths in Iraq were higher in January (115 dead). Most (78 percent) of the January deaths occurred in Baghdad. The increased casualties are disappointing because the deaths hit a new low (69) in December 2017. With 35 percent of the deaths in Baghdad an old pattern continued. In October when 114 civilians were killed. Most (63 percent) of this violence was equally split between Baghdad (long a Sunni Islamic terrorist target) and Anbar province.

The government has still not resumed reporting casualties among the security forces (military and militias). Civilian deaths were higher (at 196) in September and declined steadily for most of 2017. During the last four months most of the civilian deaths occurred because the victims were near an unexpected suicide bomber attack. Soldiers and police usually can spot and stop suicide bombers but this often means the suicide bomber will set off his explosives before he can he shot dead or captured alive. At that point the bomber is often near civilians who became the casualties instead of the security forces. The government says the January Anbar casualty data will be released once all the data can be collected. With the decline in Islamic terror related deaths other forms of violence are now getting more, long overdue, attention. At the top of the list is tribal feuds. Tribal politics has long been a major factor in Iraqi society, especially the largely Sunni tribes of Anbar and the six major Shia tribes of Basra (the southern province).

May 2, 2018: Representatives from Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian Kurdish groups met in Iran to hear Iranian proposals for how it would be more beneficial to accept Iranian support instead of the American backing Kurds have come to prefer. The Kurds cannot ignore the Iranians but apparently still prefer the Americans.




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