Mosul quickly fell to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) in 2014 when the more numerous, but poorly led army and police defenders fled or surrendered. The poor leadership and low morale of the security forces was no secret in 2014 and it is no secret now. Mosul residents fear that the conditions that made that possible are returning. Critics, including recently elected reformist members of parliament, are demanding that new military and administrative leaders be installed in Mosul. This is needed to prevent ISIL from reviving its presence in Mosul. That revival is made possible by the poor leadership of security forces in Mosul as well as the chaos on the border as Iran backed Iraqi PMF (Peoples Mobilization Forces) militias cross the border into Syria despite being forbidden to by the Iraqi government. Much of the activity on the Syrian border is to prevent ISIL members from moving back into Iraq but in some cases, Iran appears to be ordering PMF militias to cross the border and help out Iranian mercenary forces in Syria.
Efforts to find the remaining ISIL fighters in Iraq has also uncovered much else. Over 200 mass graves (containing the remains of over 12,000 victims) have been found in Iraqi territory formerly controlled by ISIL. It is now estimated that ISIL killed at least 33,000 Iraqis during the three years it ruled much of Iraq. Many of these graves were near Mosul where a number of mass killings (of civilians and soldiers who had surrendered) were captured on video and used for propaganda. Most of the victims were civilians who would not cooperate. As territory was recaptured from ISIL more than dead bodies were discovered.
ISIL also deliberately left behind thousands of landmines and explosive traps. The extent of this problem was discovered in the last year as EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) teams began finding and disposing of all the unexploded shells, grenades and bombs that are always found in the aftermath of major fighting. EOD teams have dandled 16,000 explosive items so far in 2018 and project a much larger number of items still out there, many of them stuff ISIL deliberate left behind and rigged to detonate if disturbed.
Iran Has A Plan
The anti-Iran election results created some initial confusion among Iranian leaders but that is gone now and Iran is pushing Iraq hard to ignore the American sanctions and help Iran evade them. Iraq is cooperating, but not out of sympathy for or fear of Iran but because there is money to be made helping Iran out. This is a dangerous game because the Americans can respond by going after the Iraqi corruption in addition to invoking banking and other financial restrictions. At the moment most Iraqis see the Americans as the good guys and the Iranians as the bully next door, and often just down the street because pro-Iran PMF commanders are being more aggressive with the army and any Iraqis who openly oppose Iran. This risks civil war in a country that has a minority of the population willing to use violence to support Iran. Pro-Iran PMF militias take orders from Iran and that is increasingly unpopular with most Iraqis. Iraqi leaders have been subjected to a lot of pressure from Iran to ignore the American sanctions. Iran pointed out that complying with the sanctions would hurt the Iraqi economy. That pressure caused Iraqi leaders to comply with the more immediate threat (Iran) even though they realized that most Iraqis preferred the Americans to the Iranians. After all, when Iraq asked the Americans to leave in 2011 they did. Iraq is seeking an exemption to some of the Iran sanctions because otherwise, the Iraqi economy would suffer. No American response yet but Iraqi economists and financial experts have made it clear that the Americans have a lot of options and many of them involve going after individual pro-Iran Iraqi leaders, especially those who are the most corrupt. Sanctions on individuals have proved very effective and Iraq has a lot of eligible targets.
The Kurdish Collapse
The collapse in oil prices, the Arab dominated offensive in late 2017 to take Kirkuk province and continued refusal by the government to share oil revenue with the Kurds has torn the Kurdish political unity apart. The Kurds were always split into two clan-based factions but now there are more factions, most of them demanding less corruption and more unity. There is some satisfaction in noting that the Arab forces that took control of Kirkuk are unable to suppress the Islamic terrorist activity. The Kurds were able to handle that, but only when they controlled the province and for the Arab central government that is too high a price to pay to achieve peace in Kirkuk.
November 22, 2018: In Baghdad, the concrete blast walls surrounding the Green Zone were taken down, a process that may take weeks but in doing this the new government is keeping a campaign promise to “open up” the Green Zone. That means through traffic will be allowed (to eliminate a major cause of traffic jams since 2003). By the end of the year, the zone will be opened to the public even though security will still be maintained at high levels. Many Iraqi government operations are being moved outside the Green Zone.
Iraqi soldiers and police took over all security for the Green Zone back in 2010. Before that, it was handled by Americans and American contractors since the zone was established in 2003. This ten square kilometer (four square mile) sanctuary in downtown Iraq was long a safe zone for Americans and senior Iraqis. Most Baghdad residents wanted the Green Zone and the way it disrupted major traffic patterns, eliminated after the Americans left in 2011. But rich and powerful Iraqis wanted to live in the Green Zone, as protection from criminals and terrorists (both of whom murder, kidnap and rob the rich). So the Green Zone lived on, under Iraqi management. By 2016 the Green Zone also became the target of increasingly frequent and well-attended demonstrations protesting the inept and corrupt government. There were no casualties during the first incursion into the zone but that eventually changed when protestors got in and the guards used force to eject them. Most of the demonstrators who made the first incursions of the Green Zone were followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent and well connected Shia cleric. But after that many, more demonstrators joined the weekly anti-corruption protests and the continued efforts to do so in the Green Zone. These anti-Green Zone demonstrations were a very visible symbol of the changing attitudes of Iraqis that led to the new parliament and all its anti-corruption and anti-Iran members.
November 20, 2018: Iraqi F-16s again hit ISIL targets in Syria, destroying an ISIL base and a warehouse used for storing weapons and ammo in two separate attacks. At least 40 ISIL members were killed. Iraqi artillery units also fire across the border at ISIL forces spotted approaching the border.
November 19, 2018: America sanctioned four companies and many individuals involved in smuggling Iranian oil to Syria. This announcement was a warning to Iran that their illegal dealings with Iraq were also not as secret as the Iranians and Iraqis had hoped. Sanctions on Iraqi companies and individuals can be very effective and costly to the Iraqis involved.
November 17, 2018: In the south (Basra), another prominent local Shia cleric, Sheikh Wissam al Ghrawi, was assassinated outside his home. Ghrawi had recently called for Basra demonstrators to take up arms against the corrupt government because of continued failure to provide clean water and electrical power. This is the second such assassination since September when a local protest leader openly accused Iran of interfering in Iraq and was later killed by what were believed to be Iranian gunmen.
November 16, 2018: Israel is warning Lebanon and Iraq that Iranian use of their territory to upgrade unguided rockets with GPS guidance kits will result in Israeli airstrikes to destroy those operations unless local governments act. Lebanon is more of a problem because of its relationship with Iran and Syria. Hezbollah, a 1980s creation of Iran, is an autonomous military force in Lebanon and dominates local politics via terror and threats of violence against those who resist. Hezbollah, like its patron Iran, is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Iran is currently trying to turn Syria and Iraq into subject states similar to Lebanon. Most Syrians and Iraqis want to avoid this but it isn’t easy because Iran is clever, determined and fanatic about the “destroy Israel” thing. What complicates the situation in Syria is that there a lot of major players.
November 10, 2018: The United States granted Iraq a 45-day sanctions waiver so that Iraq can seek alternatives for the natural gas and electricity it currently imports from Iran.
November 9, 2018: In the far north (Duhok Province), Turkish F-16s bombed three PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) targets just across the border in Kurdish Iraq. Turkey claimed that fifteen PKK members were killed. Turkish troops will still briefly cross the border and then returned to Turkey. Troop incursions are not as frequent as air or artillery strikes but they are a regular occurrence along this border. In the last few months, there has been about one of these air strikes a week.
November 7, 2018: ISIL released a recruiting/morale building video on the Internet that detailed their operations for the last six weeks. The numbers seemed inflated, which isn’t unusual for Islamic terrorist press releases. Yet some of what the video claimed did correspond to reality. Thus ISIL reported that 80 percent of their attacks were occurring in Syria and Iraq. Nearly half of ISIL activity was in Iraq (and a few provinces at that) while nearly a third were in Syria (mainly in the east). Nearly all the attacks reported can be classified as terrorism. This reflects a known trend that began in early 2018 as ISIL increased its guerilla-type attacks and that decision has 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 are now used primarily 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, according to the ISIL video, about 200 in October. Most of these attacks did not involve violence but all involved threats. ISIL was counting kidnapping and extortion activities (which sometimes involved non-lethal violence). These “operations” are important because they raise money and keep locals in line. This increase in activity 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. In early 2018 it was believed that there were 5000-1,000 armed ISIL members 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. The main point of this is that ISIL is defeated but not destroyed. The main reason for that is the nature of ISIL which, alone of all major religions, demands extreme measures for those who try to leave Islam (death), Moslems or non-Moslems who criticize Islam (death) and trying to convert a Moslem to another faith (death). The list is very long and Islamic scripture also preaches justice and honesty but it also justifies being violent when “defending Islam” against real or imagined threats. All this is a problem that many prominent Moslems are now openly recognizing and seeking a solution for. That in itself is a brave and unusual act. Yet it is deemed necessary because many of the worst aspects of Islamic not only encourage terrorism but also limit academic, economic and social progress. Meanwhile, Islamic terrorism continues to mainly kill other Moslems. While Islamic terror groups preach the importance of killing non-Moslems it is also noticed that nations that are mainly non-Moslem tend to be better run, wealthier and more capable of halting of limiting Islamic terror activity. But in many Moslem nations, like Iraq, a large minority of the population continues to support Islamic terrorism as a cure for all problems real or imagined. So the Islamic terrorists tend to go where they are least unwelcome.
November 5, 2018: Adil Abdul Mahdi, the new (since October 25th) prime minister said that the PMF militias wound not be disbanded but would remain part of the security forces and on the government payroll. The government is currently spending $158 million a year on the PMF. The PMF reports to the prime minister, not the Minister of Defense. There are about 150,000 PMF militiamen organized into about 70 brigade-sized units. At least half the PMF have a degree of allegiance to Iran. The allegiance varies depending on how unpopular Iran is in Iraq.
November 2, 2018: In October 69 civilians died due to Islamic terrorist violence. That’s a record low not seen since 2012. That is part of a trend this year because there were 75 deaths in September and 90 in August. In July 79 died compared to 76 in June and 95 in May 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. In October about half the deaths occurred in Baghdad or Nineveh province (including Mosul). 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.
Other, more traditional, forms of violence have increased. One of the more visible is tribal feuds, especially in the south (Basra) and west (Anbar). This year casualties from these conflicts have averaged over a hundred a month. The tribesmen have plenty of weapons and increasingly use them when negotiations fail to solve disagreement ancient and recent.
October 31, 2018: In the west, on the Syrian border and Deir Ezzor province SDF (Syrian Kurds) forces halted their offensive against an ISIL stronghold near Hajin city and the Iraqi border. In response, Iraq sent over 20,000 more soldiers and militiamen to the Syrian border, especially the area near Hajin. The Iraqi reinforcements included artillery units that, using UAVs or helicopters as spotters, could hit ISIL targets in Syria that are 10 kilometers or more from the border. This is to discourage the ISIL forces from trying to establish themselves too close to the Iraqi border. The ISIL forces near Hajin are the last organized group of ISIL fighters in Syria and have been putting up stubborn resistance to the SDF. Further north Turkey has been firing on SDF forces near the Turkish border.
In the north, near where the Turkish and Iranian borders meet, Turkish F-16s carried out airstrikes against at several PKK camps leaving 23 PKK members dead. The Iraqi government and local Kurds tolerate these Turkish airstrikes as long as they concentrate on PKK personnel hiding out in remote areas near the border. The Turks regularly launch airstrikes on PKK camps or concentrations they have identified in northern Iraq. Most of these occur near Mt Qandil, a remote area near the Turkish and Iranian borders that has long harbored PKK hideouts.
October 30, 2018: In the north Iraqi and American ground and air operations killed at least 35 ISIL members in the mountains of Salahuddin province. The ISIL base attacked, and later seized, was an ISIL headquarters and five of the ISIL dead were known leaders with experience building bombs as well as organizing and carrying out bombing and other attacks. This base supported those operations in Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Nineveh provinces (including Mosul). Operations in northern Anbar were also supported from this base.