ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is taking a beating and losing ground. But ISIL retains one advantage; their members are willing to carry out suicidal missions. This is a problem because several hundred ISIL gunmen can get into stolen cars, SUVs, pickup trucks and a few military vehicles (hummers and even some armored ones) and suddenly attack a town. Led by one or more suicide bombers the ISIL convoy will usually catch local defenders by surprise and for a few hours or days declare they have captured a new town. But when the counterattack comes, on the ground and from the air, the ISIL men are slaughtered if they stand and fight and most of them tend to flee. The survivors declare the operation a victory and have video of their time in the town, usually along with pictures of executing a few captured soldiers, police or militiamen, to prove it. The reality of the situation does not matter much for Islamic terrorists and never did. ISIL depends more on illusion than reality. Like so many Islamic terrorist organizations before it, ISIL is mainly about unfulfilled promises rather than achieving anything lasting. ISIL is obsessed with show over substance. The government forces, local militias and foreign supporters are adapting and taking advantage of ISIL weaknesses. Thus the combination of new ISIL “victories” while the territory ISIL actually controls shrinks month by month.
The ISIL advance that began in June has not only been stopped but over the last few months Iraqi Arab and Kurdish forces have been pushing ISIL back. North of Baghdad the battle in Tikrit has intensified in the last few weeks, but the Iraqi Army/Shia militia force has recently captured the airport. The fighting has killed over 200 ISIL fighters on one day (the 28th) just with artillery and air strikes in northern and western Iraq. Iraqi forces have learned how to take advantage of their control of the air, especially by using the many single engine aircraft and helicopters of the air force to monitor the location of ISIL forces. This provides targets for artillery and mortars, forcing ISIL to move carefully and, of necessity slowly, to avoid detection. ISIL still has an edge in their use of suicide bombers on foot and in vehicles but the Iraqis have learned to quickly identify and fire on approaching suicide bombers. Over the weekend more than 400 ISIL dead were counted. This was more than three times what Iraqi government forces lost.
About half Iraqi
are in and around Baghdad while another third are in Anbar. Since the ISIL advance began in June about half the Iraqi army has deserted or been demobilized because of the shortage of effective officers. Many of the demobilized soldiers went and joined Shia militias, which now, along with pro-government Sunni militias, equal the number of soldiers on duty. The government wants to stage an offensive to retake Mosul but American and Iranian military advisors point out that it will be another month or two before these forces are ready for something as complex and dangerous as going after Mosul. ISIL is making preparations to defend Mosul and when shown photographic evidence of this the Iraqi leaders agree with their foreign advisors. Senior American advisors say it will take three years to completely eliminate ISIL. Some of these American advisors served during the 2004-8 campaign to destroy ISILs predecessor the ISI (Islamic State of Iraq)
and know what is involved
ISI was one of many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups operating in Iraq back then. By 2010 ISI was almost destroyed due to U.S. efforts, especially getting many Sunni tribes to turn against the Islamic terrorist groups. ISIL is led by many ISI veterans and they are making a lot of the same mistakes that doomed them a decade ago. One failing is the desire to keep lots of records. Many ISI and ISIL leaders were Saddam era bureaucrats and they knew that careful and extensive record keeping made it easier to run a large organization. That was a weakness when the enemy (the Americans) found that if they trained their troops to quickly exploit (translate and act on) captured records the Islamic terrorist organization would be rapidly taken apart. The American Special Forces, who perfected those raiding techniques, are back and are training their Iraqi counterparts to do this more frequently and effectively. The American trainers had shown the Iraqis how to do this sort of thing before 2010 but the corruption became so bad in the security forces after the Americans left in 2010 that a lot of useful techniques fell into disuse because commanders were more interested in getting rich and in doing their jobs.
Many of the non-Shia (Kurd, Sunni and others) militias fear that the Shia leaders will go back to their bad-old-ways after the ISIL crises ends. The newly elected Shia government says that will not happen the future will pay more attention to the needs of minorities (especially Sunnis and Kurds), but time will tell. Making the same mistake over and over again is an old tradition in this part of the world. After U.S. forces left in 2011 the Iraqi government failed to follow U.S. advice to take good care of the Sunni tribes, if only to keep the tribes from again supporting the Islamic terrorist groups. Instead the Shia led government turned against the Sunni population and stopped providing government jobs and regular pay for many of the Sunni tribal militias. Naturally many Sunni Arabs went back to supporting terror groups, especially very violent ones like ISI and then ISIL. Then as now, that support did not last.
Like they did in 2007, Americans are again arming and assisting Sunni tribal militias in the west (Anbar province). This assistance is reaching at least 50,000 militiamen. Most of the Sunnis in Anbar have lost any enthusiasm for ISIL and see these religious fanatics as a threat. ISIL responded by murdering members of the rebellious tribes. The dead included women and children, which enraged the tribesmen further.
Kurdish fighters continue pushing ISIL out of Sinjar (north of Mosul). Back in August Kurdish fighters, along with a few U.S. American Special Forces, rescued thousands of Yazidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar. But ISIL continued to control the surrounding area and the town of Sinjar. Most of the 90,000 inhabitants (Yazidis and other persecuted minorities) of Sinjar have fled but 8,000 Kurdish fighters began an operation on December 17th to retake the town and allow over 100,000 Yazidis still trapped in the area to escape. ISIL has fiercely defended the town but are being slowly pushed out. The air strikes make successful defense of the town difficult and the Kurds tend to take advantage of successful air strikes to advance.
Some 90 percent of the hundred-plus Western and Arab sorties over Iraq are reconnaissance (mainly) and support (AWACS and inflight refueling). About half the aerial effort is in Syria and half in Iraq. A lot of effort goes into tracking ISIL movements which forces ISIL to move slowly and deliberately to avoid detection. These efforts continue to fail, based on recon photos of dead ISIL fighters being removed from bombed buildings or the large number of ISIL dead (from bombings) found by Iraqi force who advanced soon after an air strike nearby. Captured ISIL include a growing number of fighters who are demoralized men who are not as optimistic about eventual ISIL victory as they were a few months ago.
ISIL has had more success killing civilians and in the last two months of the year it has killed at least 500 a month. About half the deaths were in the west (Anbar province) where men, women and children of rebellious Sunni tribes. In the rest of Iraq the civilian dead tend to be non-Moslems (or Moslems from sects ISIL considers heretical). About ten percent of these murders are ISIL members who have tried to quit the group. This is not allowed and the punishment for desertion of often execution.
ISIL is not the only major problem facing Iraq. The other one is the falling price of oil. That, more than the economic losses and extra expenses of dealing with ISIL have led to many cuts in the $103 billion budget for 2015. Some 18 percent of that budget is borrowed money and over seven billion dollars in payments are being delayed a year or more.
December 27, 2014: North of Baghdad (Samara) an ISIL sniper killed one of the Iranian officers (brigadier general Hamid Taqavi) advising, training and sometimes commanding Iraqi forces. Taqavi was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
December 25, 2014: North of Baghdad (outside Tikrit) Iraqi troops ambushed some ISIL vehicles headed for Mosul. Among the 23 dead Islamic terrorists were two known ISIL leaders. Earlier in the day, in the same area, the senior ISIL administrator was killed as well.
For the first time Russian made Su-25s, flown by Iraqi pilots, were seen making attacks on ISIL targets. In late June five Su-25s arrived from Russia. The Iraqis said they were using Iraqis to operate and maintain the Russian aircraft. But while Iraq had 66 Su-25s when Saddam was in power, only Sunnis flew and maintained those aircraft and those Su-25s last flew in the early 1990s when they were used to put down rebellious Shia. No Shia government today is going to let elderly Sunni pilots and maintainers anywhere near the newly acquired Su-25s. Thus it has taken six months to find personnel to maintain and operate these Russian ground attacks jets, which are roughly similar to the American A-10. The Su-25 has been used successfully for over a decade in the Caucasus against Islamic terrorists and local nationalist rebels.
In the west (Anbar) ISIL launched another attack to take the Haditha Dam and nearby villages. Iraqi soldiers and local militia defeated the attack.
The ISIL governor of Mosul was killed by an air strike some 30 kilometers south of the city. This is the second ISIL governor of Mosul to be killed in the last month.
December 24, 2014: South of Baghdad (Madain) an ISIL suicide bomber killed 26 Sunni tribal militiamen who had assembled to receive their pay. These attacks serve as a reminder (especially for the survivors) to pay attention to security. This is especially true for Sunni Arabs who are facing an enemy (ISIL) that contains lots of Iraqi Sunni Arabs who do not look or sound all that different than their intended victims.
December 22, 2014: In the north advancing Kurdish forces finally got into the town of Sinjar.
December 21, 2014: In the west, pro-government tribal militia drove ISIL fighters out al Wafa village outside Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. ISIL forces had taken al Wafa on the 13th in an unexpected attack in which they captured and executed 19 policemen. This is all part of an effort by tribal militias to curb ISIL power in Anbar. In October ISIL seized one of the few large military bases in the vicinity of Ramadi. By November ISIL controlled 80 percent of Anbar. The local Sunni tribes were then given weapons, ammo and air support and have been fighting to push ISIL back from Ramadi all through December.
December 20, 2014:
In the north (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul) ISIL forces advanced and again put the oil refinery at Baiji under siege. In late November ISIL forces had been driven away from the refinery. For over a month ISIL men had tried to capture the refinery but the Iraqi security force (soldiers, police and civilians) held out, receiving supplies via air drops and some air support. The Benji refinery can process 320,000 barrels of oil a day and that represents a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. Clearing ISIL out of this area also isolated the ISIL held town of Tikrit, which is due north of Baghdad and is full of Sunni Arabs and Saddam admirers who have had enough ISIL. The Iraqi Army has been fighting in and around Tikrit for over a month.
In the east (near the Iraqi and Turkish border) Kurdish fighters pushed Islamic terrorist rebels away from the border.
Iran announced that it would send troops into Iraq if the Shia holy places in southern Iraq were threatened by ISIL or any other anti-Shia group. This announcement was no surprise to anyone in the region, as the Iranians have always been touchy about the security of those sites. Iran tends to make such threats this time of year because it is when millions (a record 17 million this year) of Shia pilgrims come to these sites to celebrate the 40 day long Arbaeen festival. Over a million Iranians entered Iraq recently to do so. Iraq does not require visas for this, it just lets the pious Iranian Shia in. Iraqi Shia have also proved pretty competent at protecting these sites and the visitors since the Sunni dictatorship was overthrown in 2003. There have been some successful attacks, but fewer and fewer. ISIL has made threats but so far has not been able to deliver any spectacular damage. The recent warning points out that if ISIL gets lucky against the Shia shrines, Iran will come in and make them regret it. As fanatic as ISIL is a threat like that has weight. For thousands of years the worst nightmare for local Arabs was angry Iranian troops showing up.
December 19, 2014: In the north Kurdish forces advancing to Sinjar have made it possible for thousands of Yazidis, trapped in the area by ISIL for months, to escape.
December 16, 2014: The U.S. revealed that air strikes had killed three senior ISIL leaders in the last few weeks. It takes time to confirm who died in air strikes but the intel network inside ISIL controlled territory tends to eventually find out who got hit.
December 15, 2014: ISIL executed at least 150 women in western Iraq for refusing to marry ISIL fighters. ISIL recently distributed a document describing how to handle sex slaves (non-Moslem women or women from sects ISIL considers heretical). This document was basically a license to rape for ISIL men.