Iraq: Building Defenses Against Iran

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August 20, 2013: The government has responded to growing foreign pressure and resumed inspecting (for illegal weapons shipments) Iranian aircraft (by first forcing them to land) flying to Syria. Iran responded by calling this illegal and implying that there would be serious consequences if the Iraqis persisted. This appears to be all for show, as the Iraqi inspectors can easily be persuaded (by Iranian bribes or threats) to see nothing illegal. Iranian trucks full of military supplies still roll through Iraq and into Syria. What Iraq is more concerned about is Sunni terrorists moving weapons and bomb making materials into Iraq from Syria. Iraq has over 20,000 soldiers and other security personnel guarding the Syrian border, which is largely uninhabited and suitable for cross-country driving.

The government is swallowing its pride and openly trying to persuade the United States to provide counter-terrorism assistance. The fact that the U.S. no longer has counter-terrorism forces in Iraq is largely the fault of the Iraqi government. A prime reason for the current terrorism problem in Iraq was the refusal of the Iraqi government to let any U.S. troops remain in the country after 2011. By the end of 2011, there were fewer than a thousand Sunni terrorists (al Qaeda and diehard Sunni nationalists) active and the million or so people in the Iraqi security forces, who owned the streets. Terrorist violence was less than ten percent of what it had been four years earlier. Led by American intelligence and special operations forces, over 15,000 Sunni terrorists had been killed or captured by the time the Americans left. The Iraqis felt that all they had to do was keep up the pressure and the Sunni terrorists would disappear.

It didn’t work out that way. Since the Americans left the number of Sunni terrorists has tripled, as have the number of terrorism-related deaths. The Iraqi government underestimated the continuing anger, and skill, of the Sunni Arab minority and how critical the American intelligence and special operations forces were to curbing the violence. Many Iraqi generals had warned their government in 2011, that the American Special Forces and intelligence analysts could not be replaced by Iraqis, not for a long, long time anyway. These American capabilities were rare even in the West and had proved to be crucial in finding and eliminating Sunni terrorists.

Most Iraqis would prefer that their politicians just learn how to work together, rather than begging the Americans to come back and make it all better. The U.S. is tempted to help, if only to prevent a resurgent al Qaeda in Syria from growing and becoming more of a threat to nations in the region. The devil is in the details, especially when it comes to a Status of Forces treaty for U.S. troops. The failure of Iraq to agree to that meant all American forces left by the end of 2011. The major obstacle was Iraqi insistence that there be no immunity (that Americans who commit crimes in Iraq be tried under U.S., not Iraqi law). Immunity was necessary because of the high level of corruption and partisan politics in Iraq. Immunity clauses are a normal part of many Status of Forces agreements (that govern behavior and use of American troops in foreign countries). In some countries, where the local judicial system is not corrupt, American troops are subject to local law for crimes against locals. But Iraq does, and long has had, major problems with corruption. It's also very fashionable for Iraqis to blame everything (including Saddam) on the United States. Blaming others for your flaws and not taking responsibility is a popular approach to life in this part of the world. It's also why there is so little economic, political, educational, and cultural progress in so many Moslem countries. When you have students demonstrating for the right to cheat (as actually happened in Bangladesh) and adults openly supporting government corruption, you have to protect your troops. American diplomats in Iraq have the usual diplomatic immunity, and about 200 U.S. military trainers remained behind, as part of the American embassy staff (and thus have immunity) after the end of 2011.

Ironically, most Iraqis wanted some American troops to remain behind. While it's popular to excoriate U.S. troops as "invaders" and "occupiers," many Iraqis also saw American soldiers as "protectors." In general, Iraqis avoid calling American forces "liberators" (from Saddam and dictatorship), but there is an unspoken agreement that the Americans changed Iraq for the better but that it will take a while longer to fix the flaws in Iraqi character that allowed a tyrant like Saddam to take power and hold onto it for decades. Many Iraqis fear another Saddam (likely a Shia one) or invasion and conquest by Iran (of all or part of Iraq). But now they find that a resurgent al Qaeda has become a more immediate threat.

There are a lot more anti-government demonstrations these days and hardly any anti-U.S. ones. Iraqis see their government and politicians as hopelessly corrupt and often incompetent as well. Reforms to deal with that do not appear to be imminent. The U.S. believes the recent increase in Sunni Arab terrorist violence is largely the result of Iraqi al Qaeda being able to move their headquarters and training camps into eastern Syria. From there, the terrorist leaders can more safely plan and prepare terrorist attacks. Getting equipment and personnel across the border is not much of a problem and the largely Sunni Arab population of Western Iraq (Anbar) is generally willing to help.

August 19, 2013: The government executed (by hanging) 17 people, 16 for terrorist offenses. Sunni Arab terrorists tend to be most of those executed. So far this year there have been 67 executions compared to 129 for all of last year. Because of corruption in the prison system Iraq continues to execute lots of Islamic terrorists instead of sentencing them to long prison terms. The prisons are not secure, but graves are. Moreover, the families of the many Shia civilians killed by Sunni Arab terrorists get some comfort in seeing the mass murderers die.

August 17, 2013: A truck bomb went off in the port area of the southern city of Basra. Four people were wounded but there was no serious damage. The Sunni terrorists have not paid much attention to Basra in the past, largely because the city is nearly all Shia and the home of many Shia Islamic radical groups.

In the Kurdish north a newly constructed pontoon bridge has allowed over a thousand Syrian refugees a day to enter Kurdish controlled Iraq. Most of the refugees are Kurds. There are already over 150,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, most of them Sunni Arabs.

August 16, 2013: In the north the 970 kilometer long oil pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish coast was bombed again. This pipeline has been attacked several times a month all year long.

August 8, 2013: Al Qaeda set off a record 16 bombs against Iraqi Shia, killing 69 and wounding over 200. This was to “commemorate” the end of Ramadan.

August 7, 2013: Iraq turned to the U.S. for a complete integrated air defense system. While U.S. suppliers are difficult (sometimes impossible) to get bribes from, the Americans do make a lot of the best stuff and their air defense equipment is proven. In addition to existing orders for dozens of F-16 fighters, Iraq will buy 40 Avenger (similar to the Russian Pantsir already on order) vehicles, 681 Stinger MANPADS (MAN-Portable Air-Defense Systems) missiles, and three HAWK (similar to Patriot) batteries (with 216 missiles plus radars and control centers). Hawk has a max range of 50 kilometers and can hit aircraft as high as 14,000 meters (45,000 feet). Each battery has six towed launchers each carrying three of the 590 kg (1,290 pound) Hawk missiles. Ten additional surveillance radars are included as well as integration. This will make all the surveillance radars (military and civilian) combine their data at the national air defense command bunker from which overall decisions can be made. All systems can get target information from the integrated system and coordinate their efforts. The total price of all this is $2.4 billion and that includes training, support services, and the all-important integration. Iraq would eventually buy more Hawk batteries in order to cover all their cities and oil facilities. The latest version of Hawk can also handle short range ballistic missiles, which Iran has lots of.

While Iraq, and its Shia majority, are friendly to Shia Iran, most Iraqis are wary of Iran and get especially nervous when Iranian leaders casually talk of southern Iraq really belonging to Iran. At the same time Iran is acutely aware of how unruly its own Arab minority (a few percent of the population) can be. There are a growing number of terrorist incidents inside Iran traced to Iranian Arabs. Most Iran oil is pumped from the ancestral lands of these Arabs, who are bitter about how they receive little for all that oil. Iraqi Arabs see the Iranians doing the same thing with Iraqi oil if Iran ever managed to carry out their expansion plans.

Because of growing attacks by Sunni Arab terrorists, Iraqi oil shipments reached a 16 month low in July. Still, the government earned over $7 billion from oil shipped in July. Meanwhile, in the Kurdish north the Kurds have begun exporting oil to foreign customers via Iran (where it is trucked to an Iranian port and then off to foreign customers). 

 

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