Iraq: ISIL Seeks A New Gimmick

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March 22, 2015: The Iraqi offensive to take Tikrit (a Sunni Arab city 125 kilometers north of Baghdad) is basically an Iranian operation. The offensive began on March 1 st and is halted outside the city center to allow most of the civilians to get away and avoid the bloody and destructive final battle.  Another, less publicized reason for the halt is to try and get the poorly trained and led militiamen and soldiers better prepared for operations in the most built up areas of the city. There are also leadership differences, mainly between militia and army leaders. The militiamen are more fanatic and pro-Iran and are accusing the army units of being too timid. Going in the troops were told there would be heavy casualties and that was generally accepted. The 27,000 man force has suffered about 15 percent casualties (dead, wounded and missing) since March 1 st . During that advance some 8,000 square kilometers of territory was cleared of ISIL gunmen. Hundreds of ISIL men were killed and these men often fought to the death.

The Iraqi soldiers and militiamen feel they are winning but losses were obviously going to be a lot higher inside the town center. The army wants to be methodical and slow and get the Americans to provide air support, especially helicopter and AC-130 gunships, which experienced Iraqi officers have seen used with great effect during urban combat. The militia leaders want to trust in God and charge ahead in an effort to panic the remaining ISIL men into fleeing. Calling in American air power is seen as weakness. Even the Iranian advisors are divided on this although the Iranians see the army as less loyal to Iran and too influenced by the Americans. The experienced Iranian advisors also know that too many casualties among even the most fanatical troops soon leads to bad morale and all sorts of other problems. Iran learned this during the 1980s war with Iraq although the official line was that these heavy losses among fanatical but poorly trained troops was heroic and necessary. More insightful Iranian military leaders blame the inability of Iran to decisively defeat Iraq back then to demoralization suffered by Iranian forces because of the suicidal attacks by fanatic troops inspired mainly by radical clerics rather than well thought out tactics and some training.

The experienced Iranian advisors (and Iraqis who had combat experience) expected heavy losses but the reality of all this came as a shock to many of the young troops. These troops have now seen combat and are not as cocky and confident as they were before this battle began. The Iranian advisors and trainers are finding they have much more attentive students as they put troops through refresher training on how to fight in urban areas and deal with booby-trapped road barricades (an ISIL favorite). Professional troops (especially the Americans) would get through these things with minimal casualties in minutes. But for untrained troops without special equipment each of these barricades can take most of a day and dozens of casualties to deal with. To reduce this sort of thing Iran plans to support the final advance with heavy artillery fire (using army howitzers and lots of rockets and truck mounted rocket launchers loaned by Iran). The Iranians expect ISIL is ready for that and has instructed its fighters who survive the barrage to hide in the rubble and act as snipers or, for those equipped with suicide bomb vests, to use the rubble to get close enough to the advancing troops to detonate and cause some casualties. There appear to be fewer than a thousand ISIL fighters opposing the final advance but all seem ready to fight to the death. The Iraqi government, at the urging of some Iranian advisors, are again quietly pressuring the Americans to provide air support for the Tikrit operation. The Iranian Air Force does not, despite their official propaganda, have the same kind of smart bombs and missiles the U.S. possesses, nor the kind of gunships the Americans use. Such precision air support would help to quickly clear ISIL obstacles. The U.S. is still reluctant to do this as it would require putting American ground control teams in close proximity with Iranian advisers and that is seen as something that would not translate well once the mass media got ahold of it. Yet not providing air support also benefits Iran because Iran can make the point that they are a more reliable ally than the Americans who are withholding air support at the cost of Iraqi lives.

Most of the attacking troops are Iraqi Shia militia organized, trained, armed and advised (in some cases led) by Iranian officers. A senior Iranian general (head of the Quds Force, officially an international terrorist organization that organizes pro-Iran armed groups outside Iran) is on hand to supervise the operation. No American air support is being used and the Americans say that is because Iraq did not request any. The real reason for no U.S. air support is the fact that this is an Iranian operation and if American smart bombs and missiles were used the Iranians would blame the Americans for any civilian casualties. Fears that there would be a lot of civilian casualties were eliminated as most of the 200,000 residents of Tikrit (nearly all Sunni Arabs) have fled. This is the hometown of Saddam Hussein, who is still considered a hero here. Iran considers Saddam Hussein a war criminal and arch enemy of Shia Moslems.

The advance was slow but steady, thanks to Iranian training and supervision. That did not prevent lots of casualties. ISIL deployed lots of mines, remotely detonated bombs, oil wells set on fire and snipers to hinder the advance and cause casualties. The Shia forces have found mass graves of Shia (or Sunnis working for the government) slaughtered by ISIL. There is fear that the Shia troops and militia will do the same to Sunni gunmen and civilians. Officially the Iraqi government is against the murder of Sunni civilians, but that tactic is what led to the collapse of the last Islamic terror offensive in 2008. Since then the Sunnis have maintained their disdain for Islamic terrorists and fear of another round of Shia reprisal killings. So this time around there is official prohibition of retaliation against Sunni civilians and an understanding among many (but not all) Shia that these mass murders are counterproductive this time around. But many Shia are still angry at the continued Sunni Islamic terrorist violence against them and commit enough attacks on Sunni civilians to keep the situation in the news.

Iranian officials have repeatedly assured Iraqis and the West that Iran will not send combat units to Iraq. The rumors that Iranian combat units are in Iraq are largely because there are so many individual Iranians who have volunteered to fight ISIL. While Iranian Arabs might not be noticed the ethnic Iranians often look like Europeans and are easier to spot before you hear their accent. While Iran encourages Shia from anywhere (including Iran) to come volunteer to defend the Shia holy places in southern Iraq, there do not appear to be any Iranian military units in Iraq. However it is known that such a possibility was discussed in Iran as the only alternative if ISIL seemed ready to seize and destroy these Shia holy places.

The attack on Tikrit (which ISIL has held since mid-2014) began March 1st when 27,000 troops and militia advanced in three columns. After three days the attack force has moved into the suburbs of Tikrit and recaptured some villages. The main battle will be in Tikrit itself and casualties began to mount as the attackers slowly closed in on the city center. American advisors say most Iraqi troops are not yet ready to handle large-scale urban warfare. The militias are trained for a more primitive style of combat that means taking a lot more casualties to advance. Iran has trained these guys to think of this as a religious war, of Shia against fanatic Sunnis who see Shia as heretics to be murdered on sight. Iran has trained the militia to see this as a very personal battle in which death is martyrdom and as much a reward as victory. The problem is that ISIL trains their people the same way so many U.S. advisors and Iraqi Army commanders expected an epic bloodbath made even more horrific by mass murder of Sunni civilians. Neither has occurred although casualties were heavy and there was a lot of verbal abuse directed at Sunni civilians. ISIL did not put that many gunmen into harm’s way and the Iranian advisors taught the militiamen to at least be careful, cautious and keep moving forward. Iran has supplied artillery (usually rocket launchers) and some armored vehicles (plus mechanics to get Iraqi ones operational). Iran believes that eventually ISIL will lose Tikrit and the Shia will have bragging rights and positive press for a while. Iran will take credit and that will put more pressure on Western nations to get moving with an effort to take Mosul.

North of Mosul the Kurds see signs that ISIL is falling apart. The ISIL forces the Kurds are facing are obviously suffering desertions and are increasingly less effective in opposing Kurdish attacks. The Kurds have a good informer network in the north and despite the disruptions ISIL has caused in the north the Kurds are still getting a lot of useful intel. Thus they know that ISIL is suffering more desertions. There have been more executions of ISIL men trying to leave the group. There is also growing friction between foreign volunteers and the locals ISIL men. That’s because the foreigners are more violent and cruel while the local ISIL recruits are often being asked to abuse members of their own tribe or at least people they can identify with. All the ISIL members are dismayed at the reverses the group has suffered in the last few months. That includes about a quarter of the territory (55,000 square kilometers) ISIL grabbed in June 2014 and the following months. It has also been obvious to everyone in ISIL that the people they rule increasingly hate them and are often fighting back. ISIL gunmen now have to worry about people shooting at them or even setting off bombs. The “Islamic State” ISIL established was supposed to be some kind of paradise but it turned out to be far less than promised. ISIL leaders seem to be panicking and ordering even more horrible retribution against people who openly oppose ISIL. Then there are the losses, especially because of coalition (mainly American) air strikes. These are believed to have killed nearly 9,000 ISIL men so far and the constant presence of these aircraft overhead makes travel, or gathering a lot of ISIL men in one place, dangerous and bad for morale.

The Kurds also have pretty convincing proof that ISIL has taken chlorine gas canisters from water purification plants (or other industrial sites) and brought them to the front lines to use as chemical weapons (when the wind is blowing in the right direction). This use of chlorine was first seen a century ago during World War I although chlorine was soon replaced by more harmful chemicals developed purely as weapons. But chlorine is effective if those it is used against do not have protective masks (like those available in places where chlorine is used for all sorts of things besides water purification).

The Kurds advancing south towards Mosul and the Shia militias and soldiers moving north of Baghdad against Tikrit are both facing the problem of what to do with collaborators (with ISIL). The advancing troops find many locals who lived under ISIL rule for nearly a year. Those who were able to flee are quickly returning and soon find out who collaborated (not everyone did) and demand that the Iraqi (or Kurdish) government do something to punish the guilty. The government has very loudly ordered the army and militia to not kill collaborators no matter how guilty they appear to be. But especially in areas under Iraqi control, the judicial system is slow, even when it is functioning. Locals fear that there will eventually be vigilante justice, especially when collaborators were involved in the deaths of locals. That sort of retribution has been the custom around here for thousands of years. What the government wants to avoid is Shia (or even Sunni) militias rounding up actual or suspected ISIL supporters and simply killing them in groups.

ISIL still controls most of Anbar province (most of western Iraq), at least most of the time. ISIL is also on the defensive in Anbar but they are now dealing with soldiers and tribal militias that are much more attentive to security and most ISIL suicide bombers (on foot or in vehicles) are getting killed before they can do much damage. ISIL has to move carefully during the day and avoid gathering in large numbers, all because of the American air power. The U.S. now has nearly 2,000 troops in Anbar to train and advise Iraqi soldiers, police and pro-government tribal militias. Most of these troops are at al Asad airbase. That has led to numerous ISIL attacks on the base and surrounding areas. Since ISIL rarely shows much discipline or imagination with these attacks they have largely failed. Iraqis handle security for the base but a few times American troops have been able to take part in the fighting. There are about 5,000 ISIL gunmen in Anbar and most of them were recruited from local tribes. These constant defeats at al Asad and in the two major cities (Ramadi and Fallujah) have been bad for morale, which means more of the local hires desert and take with them useful information on where ISIL stores its weapons and other important stuff. More of these sites are being bombed even though they are, from the air, just another building with nothing special going on around it. The locally recruited ISIL men are also unhappy with the ISIL policy of kidnapping tribal elders and killing them or holding them for ransom (money or cooperation from tribal chiefs). A lot of the local tribesmen working for ISIL are related to some of the elders kidnapped or murdered by ISIL and that bad treatment is not appreciated. ISIL needs some victories in Anbar but is having a hard time making that happen. This has led to some mid-level leaders openly criticizing the ISIL high command. Internal criticism is not the only problem ISIL faces as the Islamic terror group is not doing well so far this year.

Iraq kicked all but a thousand or so American troops out of Iraq in 2011. After Mosul fell a new Iraq government told the Americans that the 2011 decision was a mistake and could you please come back. The United States has sent in several thousand specialist military personnel and even more contractors, but not regular combat troops. Iraqis understand that the U.S. forces were expelled in 2011 partly because these men and women constantly exposed corrupt practices. Foreign diplomats then used that information to annoy Iraqi leaders with demands to curb the corruption or see foreign aid cut. Even in 2011 many Iraqis knew this and spoke up about it but the corrupt officials declared it was a matter of national honor to expel the meddlesome foreigners and that was that. Now that 2011 government has been replaced by a new crew who talk about being nicer to the Americans and less accommodating to the corruption.

March 21, 2015: West of Mosul ISIL gunmen tried to attack a Kurdish headquarters but were repulsed with heavy losses. The inability to get through Kurdish security has been a source of great frustration for ISIL. For a while ISIL had a winning combination with Islamic terrorists willing to die and a carefully cultivated (via grisly videos released on the web) reputation for savagery. This worked against most Iraqi soldiers and police who would flee when a few dozen ISIL gunmen showed up. This never worked against Western troops, or against the Iranians or the better trained and led Kurds. Now it isn’t working against many militias, especially self-defense groups who have nowhere to run. All this has been very bad for ISIL because of the large number of inexperienced new recruits they now use. Most of these new guys are willing to die, but in a gunfight they don’t know how to be useful and frequently just get killed. That demoralizes their fellow newbies and that is leading to plunging morale, more desertions, jailing and execution of deserters and even more ISIL wondering what happened to the good old days. People no longer fear ISIL and they are increasingly quick to kill ISIL men on sight. Don’t they want to be saved by joining the new religious dictatorship that ISIL says will solve all the problems of corruption and bad government. It’s all so confusing now and ISIL leaders are scrambling to create a new gimmick to stave off looming defeat.

March 19, 2015: ISIL revealed a video of Islamic terrorists beheading three captured Kurdish soldiers. The Kurdish leadership went on the air and vowed that these deaths would be avenged, and they probably will be. It just got more difficult for ISIL men to surrender to Kurds and survive captivity.

March 17, 2015: Iraqi Air Force aircraft dropped two million leaflets on Mosul telling residents that the Iraqi Army was preparing to come and drive ISIL forces out of the city. That offensive is three months away and some ISIL men from Syria who brought in their families are sending them back to Syria. It’s a bad sign when a noticeable number of ISIL men and family members have fled Tikrit, where the city is being surrounded by an Iranian led offensive that mainly uses Shia militias plus some army troops. Mosul residents who have not fled the city now regret it. ISIL has become increasingly strict with the population and now forbids anyone to leave the city for any reason (unless they are ISIL or have ISIL permission). Smugglers are expensive and don’t always succeed. ISIL has shut down cell phone service although residents have found that at night they can sometimes get a signal if they go up on the roof of tall buildings. So information about life in Mosul still gets out. The Iraqi government still pays civil servants in Mosul and that brings in about $16 million a month. Food is trucked in from Syria and is expensive. The local economy is in bad shape and residents can see growing dissention between Syrian and Iraqi members of ISIL as well as declining morale and confidence among the Islamic terrorists. A growing number of familiar ISIL faces have disappeared from the city, indicating desertions and fleeing to Syria with permission.

March 14, 2015: Iraqi media has been playing up the aid Iran is providing to defeat ISIL. This makes Iraqis more eager to do business with Iran. That is important for Iran because of a new agreement between Iran and Russia signed today. The two countries worked out details and agreed to form a joint supervisory board for a joint bank which would enable Iran to evade sanctions, at least with Russia, by gaining access to the Russian banking system. While this subterfuge could expose Russia to more international banking sanctions, Russia apparently sees that coming anyway and is seeking to build a separate international banking system for outcast nations. Iraq has become an unofficial member of this new banking system with a growing number of Iranian firms establishing themselves in Iraq. Afghanistan is also a growing trade partner but because Afghanistan relies so much on Western aid to stay solvent, Iran cannot get as involved in manipulating the Afghan economy to help Iran beat the sanctions. If China can be persuaded to join this arrangement it will be a formidable competitor for the existing international banking system. That said there are numerous pitfalls to get around before reaching that goal. Despite the growing Iranian presence and influence in Iraq most Iraqis don’t trust Iran and don’t want to get too entangled with their non-Arab neighbor. Although Iran and most Iraqis share a common religion (Shia Islam) they are otherwise quite different. Iranians are Indo-European people who have long been the regional superpower. The Arabs have, for thousands of years been frequent victims of Iranian aggression. With the rise of Islam in the 7th century Arabs were in charge for a few centuries but Iran eventually regained in dominant position in the region despite now having the same religion as the Arabs. These tensions were intensified when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran (during another Iranian civil war) in an attempt to seize Iranian oil fields just across the border. That invasion not only failed but led to nearly a decade of fighting that left over half a million dead. The war ended in a stalemate. Most of the Iraqi dead were Shia conscripts who willingly went to war against their fellow Shia because ethnicity was stronger than religion and still is. Moreover, most Iraqis want nothing to do with the religious dictatorship that runs Iran. ISIL is unpopular for the same reason as ISIL promotes a Sunni religious dictatorship.

March 12, 2015: In Anbar province ISIL detonated explosives under an army headquarters outside the city of Ramadi and killed 40 soldiers. The 1,500 meter long tunnel apparently took a month to dig and was never detected by the nearby Iraqi troops.

March 10, 2015: South of Tikrit ISIL blew up a section of the only major bridge across the Tigris River in the area. This was done to slow down the advancing soldiers and Shia militia. There is another bridge available to the east of the city that is still intact. The loss of bridges over the Tigris will slow the advance but not stop it.

March 8, 2015: For the third time in a week ISIL used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to destroy ancient ruins that, for thousands of years, had attracted local and foreign tourists. Iraq blamed the coalition for not providing aircraft to attack the ISIL bulldozers and prevent the destruction of these national treasures.

 

 

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