Iraq: How ISIL Rolls

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January 20, 2015: Iraqi leaders continue complaining that the West, especially the U.S. is not doing enough to deal with ISIL  (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).  This is not helped by the widely popular (in the Islamic world) conspiracy theory that ISIL is an invention of the United States. In response to these appeals Western leaders are not particularly sympathetic and press Iraqi leaders to get their own house in order (less corruption and internal feuds over money or ancient disputes). Many Iraqis are comfortable with the culture of corruption and willing to excuse a lot of problems as being the result of foreign (Western, Iranian, Saudi, whatever) interference. Now a lot of Iraqis understand what is really going on, but they have a hard time winning elections or mobilizing a lot of public support. It’s this Iraqi minority that the Westerners try to work with, but there are not enough of these Iraqis and many of them would rather just emigrate.

While ISIL is increasingly on the defensive the Islamic terrorists see the Kurds in the north as their biggest threat. For the last few months the Kurds have been driving ISIL forces farther away from Kurdish territory and closer to Mosul. To the east the Kurds have control of Kirkuk and, to the consternation of the Iraqi government, seem intent on keeping it. That may not happen with the other great city in the north; Mosul. ISIL has brought most of its Iraq manpower (up to 20,000 men) to Mosul to both police it (the natives are not very uncooperative) and defend it from the Kurds. Yet without more help from the Iraqi Army, the Kurds do not believe they can take the city. The Kurds also point out that if they had help from Iraqi troops the Kurds could not take control of Mosul as they did Kirkuk.

The problem Iraq still has is a shortage of effective officers. While you can train effective troops in a few months, effective officers take a lot longer. There is no way to speed it up appreciably. Just telling someone they are an officer does not work. The officer either knows how to effectively organize and lead troops in combat or they do not. At present too many Iraqi officers do not. ISIL, on the other hand, has a lot of Saddam’s veterans. While these guys may have fought in lost (1991. 2003) or stalemated (the 1980s) wars, they do have the experience as officers. ISIL does not have a lot of these experienced leaders but it does have enough to make a difference. The Shia led Iraq government had to start from scratch in 2004 to build a new army where Shia could be most of the officers. But corruption and migration have made it difficult to train and retain good officers. The effort right now is to get rid of all the corrupt officers, as well as the inept ones who mean well but still have a job mainly because they are well connected politically. Good officers who quit or were forced out are being enticed to return. Some of these men have since emigrated and many of those who remain do not believe the government is sincere about its reform efforts. Many of the Western advisors, especially those with prior experience in Iraq, have their doubts as well. In addition to the officer shortage there is still a shortage of support (supply, maintenance, medical and so on) units for the troops. Corruption has also crippled the availability of those essential services. Meanwhile the less corrupt and much more effective Kurdish troops in the north need more weapons and supplies. Little of the stuff the Iraqi government gets is passed on to the Kurds who can do a lot more with it. The Arabs still do not trust the Kurds and vice versa. 

Meanwhile the air attacks are having an impact. Not just in casualties caused to ISIL (over 5,000) but also in forcing the Islamic terrorists to change the way they operate. ISIL now accepts the fact that they cannot operate in the open and refugees from ISIL held areas report that ISIL is abandoning checkpoints and even fortifications that are open to the sky and shifting to bunkers or anywhere that will keep their men from being seen from the air. When this does not work ISIL tends to suspect local spies (which they can do something about) rather than better surveillance technology (which is harder for them to comprehend and deal with.) ISIL has also noted that the air strikes have become more effective against ISIL supply vehicles and storage sites. While ISIL tries to make their passenger and cargo vehicles look like typical civilian traffic the Western intelligence efforts have been increasingly successful in detecting which vehicle belongs to ISIL and destroying it. That appears to be the result of the aerial intel effort monitoring where ISIL stories its supplies and nothing the vehicles that go in and out. It’s reached the point that if ISIL spots a UAV circling a warehouse or compound where supplies are stored they will either try to get the stuff moved or just stop using that location and abandon it.

There are reasons for Arabs to remain concerned. Iran is gaining power and influence in neighboring Iraq, a largely (80 percent) Arab state. A recent agreement gives Iran more influence in the Iraqi security services (by supplying a lot of training and advisors for combat and non-combat units). This has led to Iraq arming (with recently arrived American weapons) Shia militias organized by Iran. Iraq has also spent over $10 million in the last year on Iranian weapons. Many Shia militias are basically very pro-Iran and believed to be more loyal to Iran than elected Iraqi leaders. These militias were recruited, trained and sometimes led by Iranian officers and have proved very useful in fighting. The U.S. supplied Iraq with $300 million worth of weapons in 2014 and only a few percent of that appears to have found its way to Iranian influenced Iraqi units. That, however, was enough to cause much angst in the United States.

In 2014 American troops began returning to Iraq. By early 2015 there were over 3,000 American troops in Iraq and about as many contractor civilians. Most of the contractors take care of supply and service tasks, in effect running bases used by American troops and government officials. Some of these civilians are armed. Then there are the PSC (Private Security Contractors). A lot of them were used in Iraq after 2003 and continued to be used in Afghanistan and Iraq to guard bases, convoys, embassies, and anything or anyone the Islamic terrorists want to attack. In Iraq PSC strength peaked in 2009, with 15,279 PSC personnel. By 2013, after nearly all American troops had left, there were still over 3,000 PSCs there, mostly protecting embassy personnel and foreign aid officials. Another 3,000 such civilian contractors were doing non-combat jobs. At that time the U.S. employed about 18,000 PSC personnel worldwide. The 11,000 or so in Afghanistan not only provide security but also train Afghan police and assist in destroying opium and heroin production. All this PSC activity gets little media coverage and even less interest by reporters regarding the ancient origins of PSCs (and military contractors in general) and how the United States had been using them for centuries.

The majority of Iraqis did not want the U.S. troops to leave in 2011, but their leaders did not agree because the Americans were always pestering the politicians and officials to be more efficient and less corrupt. Iraqi troops now believe the Americans leaving allowed the Iraqi politicians to destroy the pretty efficient army that had been built between 2003 and 2011.

Crime in Iraqi has greatly increased since the ISIL offensive in 2014. Security forces are spending less time on law and order and more on fighting ISIL or just protecting themselves. All sorts of criminal activity has increased. Victims are easier to come by in part because over two million people were forced to flee their homes in 2014. This includes a growing number of Sunni tribesmen and their families, sometimes fleeing cross country with wives and children to escape the increasingly harsh ISIL rule.

The fighting with ISIL is mostly about skirmishes not large battles. That’s partly because of the airpower ISIL has to deal with but also because ISIL is composed largely of amateurs. True, these are amateurs willing to die but also eager killers who simply do not have the skills to carry out effective large scale operations. So ISIL attacks wherever and whenever it can and the Kurds, Iraqi troops and pro-government (largely Shia) militias have to adapt.

January 19, 2015: In the west (160 kilometers west of Ramadi) Iraqi troops and American aircraft worked together to kill at least 60 ISIL gunmen including a senior leader in that part of Iraq.

Elsewhere in Anbar civilians in ISIL occupied Fallujah sent cell phone pictures of anti-ISIL flags and banners being raised in Fallujah (which has been largely occupied by ISIL for a year). Iraqi troops have surrounded Fallujah since ISIL took over and control most of what goes in or out. Much of the population has fled but some have stayed and now there is an anti-ISIL guerilla movement operating inside the city. This year Iraqi troops have been shutting down ISIL activity outside the city and recently detected and cleared over 200 roadside bombs around the city.

January 18, 2015: In Mosul ISIL gunmen arrested (or “kidnapped”) 25 Kurds who the Kurdish leadership fears will be threatened with death unless Kurdish troops make some concession. That is how ISIL rolls.

The most powerful political and religious leader in the country, Moqtada al Sadr, urged all Shia militias to work more closely with the army. Sadr leads the largest religious party in the country and has long been openly pro-Iran and in favor of establishing a religious dictatorship in Iraq. But he does not want Iran dunning the country. Sadr continues to thrive because many Iraqis are afraid that democracy will never work in an Arab state. Corruption is too much a part of the culture. The Islamic conservatives, who are the loudest opponents of corruption, consider democracy un-Islamic and call for a religious dictatorship. But many Iraqis, especially those who have lived in the West, or have kin there, know that democracy and much less corruption is how the West became more prosperous and safer. The problem is how exactly do Arabs go about making democracy to work, and quickly. The traditional way is to take several decades to reduce the corruption and improve the legal system. This approach is not very popular in the Arab world who want quick results. Meanwhile clerics like Sadr take advantage of the situation. Sadr is famously anti-American, but also a shrewd politician and as corrupt as they come. He works for the government in return for financial support (legal and otherwise.) He is also popularizing the belief that ISIL was created by the Americans to hurt Arabs in particular and Moslems in general. Many Iraqis are buying into that.

January 17, 2015: In the north ISIL released over 300 Yazidis held near Sinjar (north of Mosul). Those let go were the old, ill and very young (infants). ISIL considers the Yazidis pagans. It was with Yazidis that ISIL reintroduced slavery (of non-Moslems, especially “pagans” like Yazidis) into Iraq. This may appall many in the West, but slavery still exists in many parts of the Arab world. To placate foreigners most Arab nations have outlawed slavery, despite the fact that it still exists and with much local support.

Since December Kurdish fighters have been pushing ISIL out of the Sinjar area. 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 fled and 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.

January 14, 2015: In Fallujah ISIL took 172 civilians hostage and threatened to kill them if anti-ISIL activity in the city did not stop.

January 12, 2015:  Russia revealed that it had sold Iraq a billion dollars’ worth of weapons in 2014. Not all of this has been delivered yet. Germany and Sweden have pledged more aid to Iraq, specifically the Kurds in the north (who are seen as more reliable, effective and less corrupt than the Arabs in the south). Both countries are sending trainers as well as weapons. Meanwhile Iraq continues to spend a lot more on American weapons. Iraq recently ordered another 170 American M-1A1 tanks. In 2008 Iraq had ordered and received (by 2010) 140 M-1A1 tanks, 21 M88A1 armored recovery vehicles and 60 M1070 tank transporters (which can also carry supplies or other vehicles.) Iraq was not be the first Arab country to operate the M1 tank. Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia already operate over 1,600 of them, and Egypt has built hundreds of them (mainly using components imported from the U.S., but with some locally made parts). Iraq receives the M-1A1 version. All the other Arab users have at least some of the latest model (M1A2 SEP). Corruption in the Iraqi Army led to Iraqi M-1 crews being poorly trained and led. So far Iraqi troops have lost (or abandoned) at least 40 M-1s to enemy action or panic. At least one Iraqi M1 was destroyed by a Russian ATGM (anti-tank guided missile). The Iraqis promise they will do better with their new batch of M-1s.

January 11, 2015:  This year the government pledged to reduce kidnappings in Baghdad by 90 percent. With that the police announced the arrest of a major kidnapping gang in the city (which suffered over 2,000 kidnappings in 2014). For most residents of Baghdad the kidnappers are seen as more of a threat than ISIL. Then there are the other crimes. Today a gang dressed in military uniforms robbed a Baghdad bank of $1.5 million.

January 9, 2015: In the north ISIL managed to carry out a surprise attack in Gwer, a town 30 kilometers southwest of the Kurd capital of Arbil and kill at least 30 Kurdish troops (about three percent of all Kurdish losses since mid-2014). The attackers were driven off and pursued, losing over 60 men and many more wounded. Kurds blamed Iraqi Arab troops for abandoning checkpoints and allowing the ISIL force to get near Gwer. That sort of sloppiness by Iraqi Arab soldiers has been a problem in the past and for that reason the Kurds are reluctant to work closely with Iraqi Arab troops.

January 5, 2015: On the Saudi border four Saudi Islamic terrorists coming from the Iraq tried to snaek across the border and attacked a Saudi patrol that came to investigate. The intruders killed three border guards, including a senior general. Two of the attackers were wearing explosive vests, which they used. The four dead attackers were not claimed by ISIL. Investigators gained enough information from the four dead to arrest three other Saudis and four Syrians living in Saudi Arabia. Within two weeks Saudi Arabia changed the rules of engagement for its border guards on the Iraq and Yemen frontiers and ordered them to shoot on sight anyone refusing to obey orders (to stop, for example) at crossings or caught trying to sneak across the border. This could cause problems with some of the Bedouin tribes living near the border, where tribal members have been smuggling for generations and tribal leadership tolerates a lot of it (especially if they are getting a percentage). But the Saudis know that Islamic terrorists will exploit these relationships if they can. In any case the new border fence is being augmented with more barriers and sensors and over 30,000 personnel are now stationed on the Iraq border.

January 3, 2015: In the northwest border guards caught three armed Afghans trying to cross into Iraq to, as the captured men later admitted, join ISIL.

January 1, 2015: The death toll for all of 2014 was about 15,600. That’s a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. Previously the worst year was 2007, when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the death toll was 76,000. That’s over 91,000 dead in the two countries where ISIL is most active.

In the largely Shia southern city of Basra three local Sunni clerics were killed when their car was ambushed. This alarmed pro-government Sunni everywhere because there has been a growing number of attacks on Sunni in government controlled territory.

December 31, 2014: Western intelligence believes that an air attack on a meeting of ISIL leaders in Mosul killed several of those leaders and at least fifteen ISIL personnel altogether. Meanwhile the Iraqi Army reports killing a senior ISIL leader outside Fallujah.

Iran and Iraq signed a military cooperation agreement that will lead to more Iranian training operations in Iraq and expanded use of Iranian advisors for Iraqi military and police commanders. The two nations also agreed to increase trade and economic cooperation.

 

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