Iraq: The History Lesson

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March 18, 2021: Earlier in the month the government agreed to undertake reforms of how it audits financial activities, and that that led to calls for more fundamental reforms over how Iraqi accountants and auditors are trained and monitored. The cause of all this was demands by the IMF (International Monetary Fund), after a late 2020 corruption investigation, that Iraq develop a more credible set of financial controls and audits. The IMF documented how, especially since 2016, Iraq has provided falsified economic data to justify IMF approval for more loans. Previous demands for audit and accounting reform were met with more Iraqi deception. In late 2020 Iraqi was hoping that, despite past misbehavior, the IMF would help bail the government out of its growing budget deficit crises. In response to that an IMF audit team completed a ten-day examination of the economic situation on December 10th and reported that Iraq has the same problems it had for several years, only worse and that the solution was not more multi-billion-dollar loans but internal reforms that address the widespread corruption. Earlier audits had found that corrupt officials were responsible for $400 billion of government funds stolen or misappropriated since 2003. The corruption is no secret. In 2020 Iraq ranked 160 out of 180 nations in international corruption rankings compared with 162 in 2019. The nations near the bottom of this list are the most corrupt and also tend to be suffering from civil disorder, rampant criminal activity and rebellion or Islamic terrorist activity. In a region known for corruption, Iraq was long considered one of the worst offenders.

Iraq remains the country with the most Islamic terrorist activity, especially from ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). That makes sense when you consider ISIL dates back to 2004 when one of the smaller factions in the Iraqi branch of al Qaeda declared a caliphate in western Iraq. This was part of (captured in 2003, executed in 2006) Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's “Plan B” if his government was overthrown by internal (a Shia uprising) or external (Iranian or Western invasion) forces. Saddam had begun preparations for this in the 1990s when he suddenly got religion. The long-time secular Saddam became a devoted Moslem and cultivated like-minded Sunni Arab tribes in western and northern Iraq. He had like-minded Sunni Arab officials in his government and armed forces encouraged to become more religious and made nice with the various Sunni Islamic terrorist groups given sanctuary in Iraq. By late 2003, about the time Saddam was captured, Plan B was operational against the American and British occupation forces as well as any Shia Arabs who “collaborated.” Plan B got a lot of Iraqis killed and by 2007 even Sunni Arab Iraqis had turned against it. This caused many Iraqi Islamic terrorists to flee to Syria, where the Assad government long provided sanctuary for Islamic terror groups in return for no attacks against Syria or Syrian allies. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011, it was led by members of the (75 percent) Sunni Arab majority against the Shia Assad clan government that depended on other minorities to keep them in power. The foreign Sunni Islamic terror groups resident in Syria turned against their host and the Iraqi al Qaeda faction turned out to be the best organized and most powerful of the rebel groups. In 2013 the Iraqi al Qaeda rebranded themselves as ISIL. That weakened the rebel forces as ISIL spent a lot of its time fighting other Islamic terror factions who refused to “join” the new Islamic State.

Since 2014 five nations (Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan) have accounted for most of the terrorism-related deaths. That list has recently changed with Syria and Pakistan replaced by Somalia and Mali (including neighboring Sahel states). The largest source of Islamic terror deaths during that period was ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant), a more radical faction of al Qaeda that originally developed in Iraq and is currently the most radical practitioner of Islamic terrorism. Islamic terrorism continues to be, as it has been since the 1990s, the main source of terrorism-related deaths, accounting for about 90 percent of the fatalities. The remainder of the terrorism-related deaths are ethnic (often tribal) conflicts in Africa and Asia. Purely political terrorism accounts for a fraction of one percent of all terrorism-related deaths and are vastly outnumbered by terrorism deaths inflicted by common (often organized) criminals.

Eroding Iranian Influence

Iranian efforts to increase its influence in Iraq while also inflicting serious damage on American troops and military contractors in Iraq is not working. This increased violence is the after-effect of the Americans killing Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in early 2020. The Americans had figured out that Soleimani was a, if not the, key Iranian leader responsible for the Iranian military efforts in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. If anything, the Americans underestimated the importance of Soleimani because Iran had no one with the leadership and organizational skills, as well as the trust of so many Iranian and foreign leaders, to replace him. Even the Iranians were surprised at how important Soleimani was and how impossible it was to replace him quickly, if ever.

One of the key services Soleimani provided was to get the Iranian moderates and radicals to cooperate, or at least not slide into open conflict with each other. “Moderate” Iranians is a term that has to be qualified. These are members of the senior leadership, all of them approved by the Council of Guardians (twelve senior Shia clerics) who have become divided into mutually antagonistic factions. The moderates are those who want to put Iran’s interests first and concentrate on the economy and reducing the poverty that is visibly turning more Iranians against their government, Islam and all the foreign wars the radicals have dragged Iran into. These “realists” are also nationalists and often called “moderates” by foreigners. The radicals, including many (it used to be most) Council of Guardians members found that Soleimani was a key factor in keeping rivalries between radicals and moderates from spinning out of control. With Soleimani gone those tensions are growing in obvious ways. For example, Iran-backed groups in Iraq (and elsewhere) have been getting more contradictory commands from the Iranian government, or even from Quds Force leaders. In the past Soleimani was able to prevent most of this confusion even though day-to-day decision making in the Council of Guardians could shift from pro-moderate to pro-radical. Without Soleimani the radicals are losing ground in Iran and the foreign wars Iran is deep into. While the radicals believe they are on a Mission From God and answerable to no earthly criticism, the moderates represent a growing majority of Iranians, especially more senior clerics, who see moderation and pragmatism as the only thing that will save Iran from destroying itself.

One of the things all Iranians can agree on is that for thousands of years Iran was often its own worst enemy. It was internal squabbles that weakened the mighty Persian empire 2,500 years ago so that the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great (for you-know-what) could to the impossible and conquer the Persian (Iranian) Empire. Same situation 1,500 years ago when the Arabs, inspired by a new religion (Islam) did the impossible and conquered the Persian (Iranian) Empire. At that point the Iranians were still recovering from the Greek conquest. Many Iranians believe Iran has not recovered from the Arab conquest and the Islam is more at fault than the Arabs. Many Iranians now believe that without the internal squabbling Iran could have avoided damage done by the Greek, Arab, Mongol and Western invasions. The moderates pay attention to history and the radicals don’t. But when radicals do look closely at the past they often become moderates and that is now the moderates are winning.

Another reason is demographics. The generation that lived through the 1979 revolution and subsequent ruinous war with Iraq is no longer the majority. The current generation sees religious dictatorship for what it was, a coup by the Islamic radicals that were part of the movement that overthrew the monarchy and used the Iraqi invasion as an excuse to replace the promised democracy with a religious dictatorship. The senior clerics and IRGC leaders know this is a threat because opinion polls have shown, for several years now, more Iranians are abandoning Islam and many are secretly adopting other religions or no religion at all. The clerics can label this as blasphemy, a crime punishable by death if done openly. Iranian use of denial is not restricted to the current government but is a national survival trait that makes sense in many situations. Fewer Iranians are showing up at mosques or religious schools. If pressed by a local cleric they plead poverty and the need to work more just to feed their families. The local clerics understand there is a lot of truth to this and that Islam is losing a lot of believers for very practical reasons. This is reported to senior clerics and eventually reaches the Council of Guardians. This group of elderly Shia clerics appear, on the surface, as wise and caring holy men. The reality is that the “Guardians” preside over a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy and Iranians are out in the streets calling them out on this.

March 17, 2021: In the north (Erbil province) t he U.S. led air coalition bombed ISIL bunkers and tunnels in the Qarah Gogh Mountains. Thinly populated mountain regions are often used as ISIL base areas. Northern Iraq has lots of those, especially near the Turkish and Iranian borders. These mountain bases provide training, storage (weapons, ammo, fuel and other supplies) and production (of bombs, landmines and other improvised weapons) facilities. Once trained and equipped the ISIL recruits are sent south in small teams led by one or two veterans. Cities are favorite destinations, especially Kirkuk, Mosul and Baghdad. Replacements are desperately needed because all three of these cities have developed better capabilities to detect and kill or capture operatives. The ISIL violence in these cities has killed a lot of civilians, some of them ISIL supporters. Friends and kin of these victims often lose their enthusiasm for the group and some become informants (preferably anonymous) for the security forces. Identifying yourself when calling in a tip means that a corrupt army or police commander can make a lot of money selling your name to ISIL.

March 15, 2021: Outside Baghdad (the Balad airbase) five rockets landed inside the sprawling facility, but caused no injuries or damage. Airbases and airports are large and easy to hit targets for unguided rockets. These targets consist of a lot of unoccupied (by people or structures) areas for the rockets to land in. The Baghdad airport, the largest in the country, consists of 14 hectares (35 acres) of enclosed (fenced in) space. Airbases and airports are currently favorite targets as Iran-backed groups are urged to kill or wound American military or contractor personnel, who often work or live on or adjacent to these large fenced and guarded areas.

In the north (Harkurk region) near Mt Qandil, a remote area near the Turkish and Iranian borders, Turkish commandos crossed the border into Iraq to search a PKK base that had been hit with several Turkish airstrikes and apparently abandoned. The commandos found that the survivors of the airstrikes have indeed gotten away and did not take a lot of ammo, weapons and other equipment stored in bunkers. This area has long harbored PKK hideouts and some of them are equipped with hidden explosives rigged to explode if not turned off or disarmed by someone entering a hiding place. The Turks usually bring engineers or commandos trained to detect and disarm these bombs.

March 14, 2021: In the north (Diyala Province) ISIL used explosives to bring down or damage electricity distribution towers. This caused reduced availability of power in the province for several days while repairs were made. Attacks like these are popular with ISIL because they are low-risk for the bombers and reminds everyone that ISIL is still active. Since the majority of people in the province are already anti-ISIL, these mass-punishment attacks are seen as worth it. ISIL also spends a lot of time and effort discovering who is particularly hostile to their cause. Former ISIL members and supporters are another favorite target as are civilian and government leaders (military and political) who are particularly effective against ISIL. These anti-ISIL informants often provide enough information for the military to locate the rural ISIL bases and that leads to numerous airstrikes, often by the Americans, who keep at it until they are convinced a particular base is gone. This is often confirmed by Iraqi and American troops visiting the area to look for useful information or ISIL personnel (dead or incapacitated) who are still in the area. These can often be ID’d using the biometric ID kits the Americans have been using for over a decade. Iraqi troops often have the biometric gear which allows them to add ISIL members (dead or alive or just suspected) into the database originally created by the Americans. This database evolved into a worldwide resource containing biometric data (electronic fingerprints, iris scans and often a DNA sample on millions of known or suspected Islamic terrorists. This has been a key tool in tracking the dispersal of Islamic terrorists after ISIL control over territory in Iraq and Syria by 2017.

March 13, 2021: In the south ( Qadisiya province) Ashab al Kahf, an Iran backed Islamic terrorist group took credit for an attack on an American supply convoy approaching the provincial capital. Some vehicles were damaged by roadside bombs but there were no casualties. Ashab al Kahf was created in 2019 but did not become particularly active until after the Americans killed Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. Iran loudly and openly called for vengeance but so far has been unsuccessful. Iran is spending a lot of cash and other support on groups like Ashab al Kahf in an effort to inflict some significant hurt on the Americans. These efforts, especially the roadside bombs and use of unguided rockets, does produce civilian casualties and damage to civilian or government property. This costs Iran popular support in neighborhoods where these losses occur. Despite that, Iranian desperation breeds attempt after attempt.

March 6, 2021: ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) appears to have undertaken an unofficial and unilateral truce with China. That means no more attacks against Chinese in Moslem countries and no more public criticism of Chinese mistreatment of the Moslem Uighurs in northwestern China (Xinjiang province), an area the Uighurs and many Moslems refer to as East Turkistan. The ISIL move was practical, as in there was little chance of success in attacking China or Chinese. Another factor was that Iran, long open to cooperating with Islamic terrorists who were helpful, depends on China for key economic support. What happened in Xinjiang while ISIL was building its “caliphate” in eastern Syrian and western Iraq was scary, and ISIL members don’t scare easy. China came to be viewed as an even more dangerous foe than Russia and even hardcore ISIL backed off from including China on their target list. This applies to Moslem majority governments in general, which criticize real or imagined persecution by Infidel (non-Moslem) nations. But not China. While most Western nations criticize Chinese persecution of Uighurs there is little criticism from Moslem majority nations. The main reason is assumed to be economic as China is a major importer of oil from Moslem states and a major source of imports, including high-tech stuff and even weapons. China will sell to anyone who can pay and that appeals to many Moslem majority nations who are unable to get some Western weapons because of fears about how it will be used. An example of this is armed (with laser guided missiles) UAVs. The U.S. refused to sell these to many Moslem states because of fears they would be used against civilians. No problem with the Chinese, who now dominate the market for UAV exports to Moslem nations.

March 3, 2021: In western Iraq (Anbar province) an Iran-backed militia launched at least a dozen 122mm unguided rockets at the al Asad airbase. This sprawling facility is on the Euphrates River some 200 kilometers west of Baghdad. Al Asad airbase is where over a thousand American and NATO troops have been stationed since 2015. Many of the incoming 122mm rockets were intercepted by the American rocket-defense systems but some hit the base, doing no damage. One American contractor had a fatal heart attack while in a bomb shelter. This is a common type of casualty when civilians are involved and make it to a shelter. The attack was unusual because it used the larger 122mm rocket and were fired from an improvised launcher hidden in the false bottom of a dump-truck that was later found, abandoned with the truck-bed be raised and the launch tubes empty. The 122mm rocket has a longer range (20 kilometers or more) than the smaller 107mm rocket usually used for these attacks. The 107mm rocket weighs 19 kg (42 pound) each and is 84 cm (33 inches) long rocket. This rocket has a range of six to ten kilometers and 1.35 kg (3 pounds) of explosives in its warhead. The 107mm design is very popular with guerillas and terrorists because of its small size and portability. The 122mm rocket is three meters (1o feet) and delivers a 20 kg warhead.

The U.S. was ready to carry out an airstrike on an Iran backed militia but was called off at the last minute when it was discovered that women and children were brought into the base to act as human shields. This is a favorite Iranian defense technique against airstrikes by nations that will recognize human shields as a legitimate reason to not attack. Human shields don’t work when Arab, Russian, Iranian or Turkish warplanes are attacking and most of the time Israel will not call off attacks either, especially against someone who is firing at Israeli civilians.

February 25, 2021: In the west (Anbar province) across the Syrian border (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike by two F-15E fighter-bombers used seven smart bombs against an Iran-backed militia facility and largely destroyed it. This was not a very important facility and was in an isolated rural area. There was at least one death and four wounded. This indicates how little used this place was. The facility was used to support the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah, an organization that is meant to become as powerful in Iraq as the original Lebanese Hezbollah has been since the 1980s in Lebanon. The U.S. holds Kataib Hezbollah responsible for recent rocket attacks on American bases and embassy in Iraq. Iran denies responsibility but the rockets used were made in Iran. The air strike was near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Iran is seeking to provide a safer environment for its Iraqi militias. Inside Iraq Kataib Hezbollah is subject to attack by security forces and pro-government militias. In eastern Syria the biggest threat is Israeli airstrikes and the occasional American one. For that reason, the Americans warned Israel the day before that there going be U.S. airstrike, to ensure an Israeli airstrike was not scheduled to take place at the same target or another one in the area. The is the first American airstrike in Syria since a new U.S. government took power that had indicated it would no longer such American airstrikes in Syria.

 

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