The current Iraqi enthusiasm for battling corruption is hurting Iranian efforts to expand its influence inside Iraq. That’s because pro-Iran groups in Iraq have long justified outlaw behavior in order to serve their mentor Iran. Iran has, for decades, been seen as an outlaw nation and incorrigible supporter of international terrorism. This had brought unwanted (by Iran) to the pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias that were put in control of Kirkuk province after a surprise attack in late 2017 drove Kurdish forces out. The PMF militias have not been able to prevent the return of ISIL to Kirkuk (which was free of Islamic terrorists when they were in charge) in part because the PMF concentrated money making activities like looting homes and businesses (usually after driving the owners out of the province) and maintaining a lucrative oil smuggling operation that moved oil into Iran. The income from all this enabled the PMFs to increase the pay of their members and bribe officials to remain silent about whatever illegal behavior the militiamen were up to. Because of the recent national elections, a new government is being formed and Kurdish votes are being sought. The Kurds want something done with the outlaw PMFs put in charge of Kirkuk. Shutting down the outlaw PMF in Kirkuk would anger Iran but that would just make more Iraqi Shia turn against Iran, which likes to present itself as the defender of Shia interests everywhere. In Iraq, most Iraqi Shia (who are all Arab) see Iran as protecting Iranian interests in Iraq, even if that comes at the expense of Iraqi Shia.
This has led to Iraqi army commanders being more aggressive in dealing with Iran backed PMF units. Technically the army can order PMF units around but until recently the Iran-backed PMF would often ignore those orders. In some cases, PMF commanders would threaten army officers. Given the results of the recent elections (pro-Iran parties did poorly) and the growing popular unrest in Iran attitudes have changed. Iraqi army officers are not just ordering pro-Iran PMF units to back off but using force. So far this has not gone much beyond armed confrontations (which often work) and arresting (“kidnapping” according to pro-Iran Iraqis) PMF men who disobey army orders. Apparently, the anti-Iran election results have led to pro-Iran PMF commanders being advised (by Iran) to play nice with the army and back off. This is seen as temporary as there is no sign that pro-Iran PMF groups will cease to take orders from Iran. Iraqis believe the pro-Iran PMF units are backing off as part of an Iranian effort to persuade Iraq to oppose the renewed American economic sanctions on Iran. Iraqi leaders were under a lot of political pressure from Iran to ignore the American sanctions, if only because complying would hurt the Iraqi economy. That pressure caused some hesitation by Iraqi leaders until they realized that most Iraqis preferred the Americans to the Iranians. After all, when Iraq asked the Americans to leave in 2011 they did. Iranians are not very cooperative in that respect and for centuries have been trying to get its way in what is now Iraq.
Iraqi anti-government demonstrators were always angry at Iran. In part, this was because of the Iranian backed militias in Iraq, whose leaders often speak of imposing a religious dictatorship in Iraq and generally ignored all the corruption. Protestors in Shia majority Basra are also criticizing Iran for halting electricity exports in early July. Iran cut the electricity because corrupt Iraqi officials had not paid for much of it. Moreover, there was an electricity shortage developing in Iran. It was necessary for Iraq to import electricity because for a long time (the Saddam era) there were not many electric power plants in Basra because it was a Shia majority area and Shia were starved for resources during the Saddam era (when the Sunni Arab minority ruled). But after Saddam was overthrown in 2003 and Shia politicians gained power, corruption prevented the construction of power plants. Iran thought cutting the power, especially since they had a good reason, would increase the anger against the Iraqi government. But the protestors saw through the Iranian intentions and added that to the long list of reasons why Iraqi Shia do not like Iran. After a few weeks, Iran restored the electricity exports.
The two largest Shia coalitions (anti-Iran Sadr and pro-Iran Amiri) are seeking to form coalitions that would give them enough seats in parliament to form a government. Sadr is the favorite, in part because of his hostility to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. The Amiri faction controls pro-Iran PMF forces and is seeking to repeat the Iranian success in Lebanon with the creation of a Hezbollah type organization. Amiri has used violence against those who oppose this, secure in the fact that the police are controlled by a pro-Iran politician (who runs the Interior Ministry). These police are suspected of instigating political violence rather than containing it. Police are never around when groups hostile to Iran are attacked and police are the primary suspects in the recent warehouse fire that destroyed half the ballot boxes used in Baghdad. The fire makes it impossible to recount these disputed votes. All this contributed the outbreak of Shia protests in early July and now the Amiri faction is on the defensive as is its patron Iran.
The real reason for the disputed election results is the growing popular anger at corruption. One thing that united all Iraqi voters was anger at the persistent and crippling theft by government officials. 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 form 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-foreigner in general but is willing to work with other nations if it helps Iraq. Thus there was a July 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. The Saudis are also developing diplomatic and economic ties with Iraqi (and Syrian) Kurds. Even Jordan has sought to work more closely with the Iraqi Kurds even as Jordan and Iraq also agree to increase border security and cooperation in dealing with terrorism.
The Islamic State Shrinks, Disperses And Confuses
ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has gone guerilla and has no large base areas where it can operate openly. Yet many ISIL gunmen still have their families (wives and children) with them. These can hide in plain sight as refugees or live among pro-ISIL civilians. Such communities provide some support for the ISIL fighters but must remain unknown to police or the many (the majority) Iraqis who are hostile to ISIL. Guerilla tactics were always an ISIL staple, especially in Iraq where ISIL operated (as an al Qaeda offshoot) before it changed its name to ISIL. The name change was the result of the unexpected success of some of these Iraqi terrorists at establishing themselves in Syria. There the civil war was intensifying and the Assad government was losing. Now that ISIL has lost control (by early 2018) of Mosul and other Iraqi towns they have no choice but to start all over. As ISIL personnel are now generally in hiding it is difficult to get an accurate count. Official mid-2018 estimates were about 17,000 in Iraq. But that is the number of armed men ISIL had in Iraq by 2014. How can that be given the relatively low level of ISIL activity in Iraq since early 2018? The answer is that the official estimates include a lot of unarmed supporters, including family members. Captured ISIL members will often exaggerate the size of the group he belongs to as will ISIL members delivering threats to local civilians who the Islamic terrorists are trying to intimidate into compliance (not informing on ISIL). Cooperative civilians are immune to ISIL attacks so there is that. But the ability of ISIL to enforce the cooperation is often an illusion because ISIL tries to appear more omnipresent than they actually are. A population of cooperative civilians is essential for ISIL to survive as guerillas. The civilians not only provide some cover but are also a source of supplies (which ISIL strives to pay for, in order to build some loyalty.) This is all basic guerilla tradecraft that is made more difficult when there are a lot of cell phones around. That increases the risk of some angry (or not even local) civilian making a call to the police to report possible ISIL activity. ISIL leaders noted that a key factor in the loss of control in an area was the local civilians retaining some access to Internet and cell phone service as well as satellite TV receivers. ISIL (and other Islamic radicals) have long tried to control use of all three of these items but have been unable to completely eliminate them from populations they control. Once ISIL was driven out of an area the cell phone companies were eager to rebuild their cell phone and Internet service and as people in those areas of restored cell phone service became more confident that reporting on remaining ISIL activity would not get them killed the calls started coming. These phone calls have become more frequent and has led to the growing number of arrests or discovery of ISIL hideouts and the destruction of active ISIL terrorists. This has led to a decline in terror related deaths and more violent encounters between security forces and the many “sleeper cells” ISIL deliberately left behind when they lost control of an area. What has kept ISIL going are Sunni Arab areas where they still have some support, at least as someone who will fighting hack against the Kurds and Shia Arabs.
Early in 2018 ISIL increased its guerilla-type attacks and that decision is having an impact, especially in the area north of Baghdad (Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahuddin provinces). These attacks rarely involve bombings of populated areas (to kill civilians). ISIL has fewer bomb builders and suicide bombers (as well as the people who recruit, train and supervise suicide bombers carrying out their attack). Bombs for use against security forces. The guerilla tactics can be seen by the growing number of attacks, especial along the main roads north from Baghdad to Kirkuk and the border with the Kurdish controlled north. Attacks involving kidnapping and murder (mainly to terrorize the population into not interfering with or reporting on ISIL activity) are more frequent. In March there were seven of these attacks. That increased to 30 during May and 83 in June and so on. This increase shows how effectively ISIL has established base areas to operate from. Most of the bases are in the Hemrin Mountains, which extend from Diyala province through northern Salahuddin province and into southern Kirkuk province. Up to a thousand armed ISIL members are believed to be operating in the Hemrins and about the same in desert areas near the Syrian border from west of Mosul south to include Anbar province. ISIL is also trying to reestablish itself in Mosul and that can be seen by the continued arrests of known ISIL members in Mosul and surrounding areas.
August 23, 2018: In the west (Salahuddin province) Iraqi F-16s carried out airstrikes on recently discovered ISIL targets, killing seven of the Islamic terrorists and destroying two of their hidden base camps. The Iraqi airstrikes are complemented by American ones, which are still carried out in Syria and Iraq and involve coordination with Iraq to ensure both don’t go after the same target at the same time.
August 22, 2018: ISIL leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi issued his first recorded message in a year. The 55 minute speech admitted that ISIL had lost all the cities and major towns it controlled a year ago in the Syria and Iraq but urged his followers to continue attacking the enemy, which dozens of small groups of ISIL members have been doing with some success. Baghdadi had recently been reported killed (by an airstrike). These claims have been regular occurrences because so many people want the ISIL founder dead. Eyewitness reports from those who have seen Baghdadi in the last year report that he seems tired and dejected but still in charge whenever he met with his dwindling loyalists. Much like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, if you make enough enemies they will eventually catch up with you.
August 15, 2018: In the south (Basra) there was another large anti-government demonstration which turned violent as some of the protestors began destroying property. The police opened fire, killing one man and wounding more than a hundred others.
August 13, 2018: The government backed away from earlier assurances that Iraq would support the renewed sanctions America has imposed on Iran. The pro-Iran factions in parliament are demanding that Iraq ignore the sanctions but do not have the votes to make it so. At the same time the government cannot assure the United States that Iraq will be able to carry through on efforts to enforce the sanctions. Yet Iraqis who trade with Iraq cannot ignore the sanctions, if only because these sanctions, that are not fully in force until November, have already cost Iraqi traders a lot because it costs twice as much Iranian currency to buy dollars now. So anyone holding a lot of Iranian currency in March saw it lose half its value in dollars since then. Most Iraqis, including most Shia, have no problem with the sanctions hitting Iran again. Iran has not proved to be as good a friend as Iran always proclaimed it would be. Many Iranians now agree with that and are also demonstrating against the Iranian government.
In the west (Anbar province) police detected, found and killed or captured members of an ISIL cell that was planning a series of attacks in Anbar. Such ISIL groups have been carrying out attacks that target military personnel, including roadside bomb based ambushes attempting to kill key military leaders in Anbar. Some of these attacks have succeeded and some of the groups found and destroyed were planning attacks in Saudi Arabia as well.
August 11, 2018: In the northeast Iraq based Kurdish PDK separatists crossed the Iranian border and clashed with IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) troops in West Azerbaijan Province. PDK claims to have killed 12 IRGC men while the IRGC claims to have killed 11 PDK. The clash took place close to the Iraqi border (and Kurdish controlled northern Iraq) and the PDK men apparently crossed the border, traveling from their bases in northern Iraq. The battle went on for nearly five hours and it appears the PDK men retreated back to Iraq before dawn.
In the north (Mosul) two bombs were used to attack pro-Iran PMF militiamen. At least twelve died and as many were wounded.
August 10, 2018: The manual recount of the May 12 election disputed votes has been completed and there were minor changes in the outcome. This recount was approved by the Supreme Court which ordered the largest faction (led by Sadr) to try and assemble a majority coalition so that the new parliament can meet and begin the process of forming a new government.
August 8, 2018: A growing number of Iraqi politicians getting behind demands that Iran pays Iraq $11 billion in reparations because of all the terrorism Iran has supported in Iraq since 2003. This includes Iranian support for al Qaeda. In response Iran revived its own reparation claims, citing Iraqi responsibility for starting the 1980s Iran-Iraq War (by invading Iran and attempting to seize disputed territory including some oil fields in areas where most of the population consisted of Iranian Arabs) and is demanding that Iraq pay war reparations of $1.2 trillion. These reparations were part of the UN brokered peace deal (resolution 598) that ended the war in 1988. The exact amount of reparations was never settled. In 1989 it was about $88 billion, which was seen as a minimum. After Iraq was driven out of Kuwait in 1991 Iraq was hit with another bill for reparations to Kuwait and Iraq has been paying this one off in part because Kuwait is an Arab nation with a large minority of Arab Shia. There is less enthusiasm for paying Iran whose population if largely Indo-European.
August 6, 2018: In the northwest across the border in Syria (Deir Zor province), an American airstrike near the Iraqi border killed nearly 30 ISIL gunmen. Iraqi and American artillery were also involved in firing from the Iraqi side of the border. In Syria, Kurdish led SDF troops advancing on the Syrian side of the border to clear more territory of any ISIL presence. This makes it much more difficult for ISIL personnel to move between Syria and Iraq. SDF announced that it had cleared ISIL from the Jazeera Desert, an area near the Iraq border that, along with the Yarmouk Basin down south (near the Israeli and Jordanian borders) provided ISIL with its last two base areas in Syria.
In the south (Karbala) a weapons and ammo storage site for a PMF unit exploded. Since the site was in a populated area there were a lot (at least 20) dead and wounded.
August 2, 2018: In July 79 civilians died due to Islamic terrorist violence. Some 38 percent of the deaths occurred in Baghdad. Areas north of Baghdad (like Kirkuk) accounted for ten percent of the dead. In June 76 died and in May 95 which was an increase from the 68 April deaths. March, when 104 died had been the deadliest month so far in 2018. That was up a bit from the 91 killed during February. The government has still not resumed reporting casualties among the security forces (military and militias). Based on local reports the Islamic terrorists, mainly ISIL, are suffering much higher death tolls each month, in addition to nearly as many lost to arrest or capture.