Iraq: Fear And Loathing Prolong the Slaughter

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May 13, 2015: ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) has shifted its offensive operations to Syria and is mainly concerned with holding onto Mosul when and if the promised government offensive to take the city happens in the next three month. ISIL forces in Iraq are mainly on the defensive now. ISIL still stages terror bombing attacks and occasional raids. But these operations are mainly to assist recruiting and fund raising and terrorize. The coalition providing air support for Iraqi forces continues to cause heavy losses and hamper the movement of ISIL forces. In Anbar a coalition of soldiers, police, and militias (mainly local Sunni but also Shia from southern Iraq and Hezbollah from Lebanon) are holding back ISIL in most areas and pushing them back in some. ISIL has been kept out of the major cities (Ramadi and Fallujah). Anbar remains contested by ISIL and the government. ISIL still holds some smaller towns, but these have become dangerous places for them because of the air raids and attacks by hostile local tribesmen.

In the north (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul) ISIL forces keep attacking the oil refinery at Baiji (200 kilometers north of Baghdad). ISIL captured parts of it in April after two weeks trying to capture the refinery. This effort eventually failed, with heavy losses but not before occupying parts of the refinery compound. By late April more ISIL forces arrived and tried again. This battle continues. In late November 2014 ISIL forces were driven away from the refinery which they had besieged for over a month. Since then ISIL has continued to stage attacks, all of which have been repulsed. The Beiji refinery can process 320,000 barrels of oil a day and that represents more than 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 of ISIL. The Iraqi Army recently recaptured Tikrit and continues moving north. But until ISIL is cleared out of Baiji a major advance on Mosul will not be practical.

The government revealed that another large arms import deal is being negotiated with Russia, this one worth $3 billion. This follows the success of a 2012 deal worth $4.3 billion and the prompt delivery of most of an emergency order in 2014 for a billion dollars of weapons to deal with an upsurge in Islamic terrorist activity. For a short while Iraq cancelled the 2012 deal because of accusations in Iraq that the deal included hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes for the politicians and officials who negotiated the purchase. The Russians are known to be compliant when it comes to including bribes in export sales. Western countries have laws against such things, but the Russians consider it just another cost of doing business. This cancellation was quickly reversed for reasons unknown. Iraqis like to buy Russian for many reasons. Iraqi troops have used Russian weapons since the 1960s and are comfortable with them. While many Iraqis prefer the more capable and expensive American stuff, the U.S. has more rules governing arms exports and what the buyer can do with the stuff. These restrictions bother many Iraqis, giving the Russians an edge they often exploit successfully.

While the Kurds are the most effective Iraqi fighters, they also have their problems. Kurdish popular sentiment strongly favors an independent Kurdistan and the current Kurdish leadership openly promises a vote on independence “in a few years.” But the Kurds also have internal problems which the pressures of war have made worse. The biggest problem is that the Kurds in northern Iraq have long been split by clan loyalties. This has been a major reason why the Kurds were never able to create their own country. Despite efforts to unite, the Kurds continue to squabble. This is happening again as the two main Kurdish political parties in the north, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) are moving in different directions again. The two parties agreed to unify in 2006 and that has largely worked. But with more foreign aid coming in the PUK accuses the KDP (which holds most top leadership positions) of taking more than their share. To make this worse Iran is offering direct aid to PUK and, according to the KDP and many in the PUK, trying to divide the Iraqi Kurds. There are other divisions, like the PKK (separatist Turkish Kurds) and similar groups in Syria and Iran. Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran have always sought to keep the Kurds divided and less capable of forming a Kurdish state out of the portions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran the Kurds have lived in for centuries. Despite that since the early 1990s Iraqi Kurdistan has effectively been autonomous and far more stable and prosperous than the rest of the country. Attempting to establish a separate Kurdish state would bring problems not only with Iraq (which probably couldn't do much about the matter anyway), but also with Turkey and Iran, both of which have restive Kurdish minorities. Normally Syria would protest as well, but currently Syria is torn apart by civil war. Speaking of which, a decade ago the two Kurdish parties were openly discussing declaring independence in response to a Sunni-Shia civil war in Iraq. That war never happened, largely because the Sunni minority was not strong enough and still aren’t.

At that time (2006) the Kurds probably had some of the most capable military forces of any of the factions in Iraq, and that included the government. The PUK had some 40,000 militiamen, and the KDP nearly 60,000. In addition, between them the two groups have about 50,000 reservists as well. Most of the militiamen were (and still are) armed and trained as motorized light infantry, and organized into brigades of 5,000-8,000. Several "armored" brigades are either in existence or being formed, equipped with Russian tanks, APCs, and artillery. There is also a small, but effective artillery force. In addition to these forces, there were an estimated 15,000-20,000 Kurds in the Iraqi Army or National Police, and a further 10,000 or so working for private security organizations. Since 2006 the unified Kurdish military has remained at about 100,000 with a larger but with a larger and better equipped reserve. But because of all that autonomy talk the Shia Arab controlled Iraqi government has quietly and unofficially blocked delivery many arms bought for use by the Kurds. The U.S. has always urged upgrading the military equipment of the Kurdish forces but has also supported the Iraqi government. That means it is up to that government to distribute weapons it buys and since Mosul fell in mid-2014 the Kurds have been getting louder about their weapons shortages. While the U.S. still refuses to ship weapons directly to the Kurds some other NATO countries have done so. But most of the weapons the Kurds need are still being held by the Iraqi government.

There are other sources of friction between Kurds and Arab Iraqis. The big one about Kurdish control of Kirkuk province. There was supposed to be a referendum in Kirkuk in 2007 to decide if it should become part of the Kurdish autonomous areas or remain “Arab”. Kirkuk is about 83 kilometers south of the current Kurdish capital Erbil and nearly 300 kilometers north of Baghdad. The Arab controlled national government kept delaying the referendum in Kirkuk because they thought they would lose. That’s because for over a decade Saddam Hussein had deliberately driven Kurds from Kirkuk and brought in poor Sunnis from the south to take the place (and homes) of the departed Kurds. After 2003 the displaced Kurds returned and there has been violence between Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk ever since. Many of these recent Arab migrants left since 2004 and Kirkuk is believed to be a majority Kurd city again. Most of the non-Kurds in Kirkuk would rather be ruled by the more efficient and less corrupt Kurdish government of the north than the Arab dominated national government. The Shia Arab government in Baghdad is not happy with the fact that it does not control the Kurdish north but despite the ISIL threat still stalls in giving the Kurds their share of oil revenue and foreign military aid. Western nations are more sympathetic to allowing the Kurds to freely pump, ship and sell the oil on their territory (which, technically, the national government in Baghdad controls). In the past the Baghdad bureaucrats have used that legal status to block Kurdish attempts to sell their oil. Now more Western countries are willing to ignore the protests from Baghdad and do business with the Kurds in the north. 

ISIL has set up an “Islamic State” in eastern Syria and western Iraq and this “Caliphate” seeks to be more Islamic than anyone else and as a result people are starving and dying from lack of medical care and much else. This is not unusual in strife torn areas, even when there is lots of foreign aid available. But ISIL is worse because they will not accept any aid from non-Moslem charities and even those NGO (non-government organizations) charities that pass the religion test are heavily “taxed” and regulated by ISIL officials. As a result much aid does not get to where it is needed and even then much is diverted to ISIL as taxes and fees. This is a trend that has been developing for some time and has caused growing opposition from those living in the Islamic State. This despite the fact that since mid-2014 ISIL is believed to have murdered over 2,200 captives and local rebels in Iraq and Syria.

May 12, 2015: A government effort to arm and train Sunni tribesmen in Anbar was not well received by the wary Sunnis. This was evident when the government offered to train 6,000 tribesmen but only about a thousand signed up. The tribesmen are willing to take weapons and equipment but Shia militia leaders and their political allies are often able to block this. The Sunni tribes are wary of the Shia militias as many are backed by Iran and are again (as they did in 2006-8) executing unarmed Sunni civilians. The government recognizes this but needs more armed men in Western Iraq (Anbar) and has sent some Shia militiamen there. The government tried to soften the impact of that on pro-government Sunni militias by including some Lebanese Shia from Hezbollah. These are known to be more disciplined and less of a threat than Iraqi Shia militiamen, but the pro-government Sunni tribesmen are still unwilling to work too closely with armed Shia. The Sunni tribesmen are particularly concerned about the growing Iranian influence in the Iraqi government and security forces. Sunni politicians continue to point out that the Iraqi government says one thing to the United States about doing things for the Sunni Arabs but in reality nothing changes. At the same time the Shia majority want stronger security measures to prevent Sunni Islamic terrorists from attacking Shia civilians. The number of these attacks (usually with suicide bombers on foot or in vehicles) has declined but still occur. And then there’s stuff like Hezbollah troops in Anbar accusing American warplanes of providing support for ISIL forces. No proof is provided and accusations like this are blamed on growing Iranian influence in Iraq.

May 11, 2015: In Mosul anti-ISIL rebels ambushed and killed the ISIL commander in charge of training. Mosul and its suburbs contain two million people and ISIL has had problems maintaining services, the economy and security. While many locals support ISIL, most are indifferent or hostile to ISIL.

In nearby Kirkuk, which is held by the Kurds, a roadside bomb killed a Kurdish brigade commander and two of his bodyguards. Kurdish forces now control 90 percent of the territory in Kirkuk province and are fighting to regain the rest from ISIL control and then continue on to Mosul. The Kurds took control of Kirkuk in June 2014 after ISIL took Mosul and successfully defended Kirkuk against several major ISIL assaults. May 10, 2015:

May 8, 2015: Sloppiness by guards enabled a prison break at a facility 50 kilometers north of Baghdad. Some 40 prisoners escaped, including nine held on terrorism charges. Six guards and 30 prisoners (most of them in for terrorism) were killed during the breakout.

May 6, 2015: Soldiers repulsed an ISIL attack on an abandoned oil field near Tikrit. The city, while free of ISIL forces, is still largely empty as most residents are still wary of returning.

May 5, 2015: Two small rockets landed in the Green Zone of Baghdad. This is nothing new but it is increasingly rare. Iraqi security personnel took over all security for the Green Zone back in 2010. This ten square kilometer (four square mile) sanctuary in downtown Iraq was long a sanctuary for Americans and senior Iraqis. Most Baghdad residents wanted the Green Zone, and the way it disrupted major traffic patterns, eliminated after the Americans left. But rich and powerful Iraqis wanted to live in the Green Zone, as protection from criminals and terrorists (both of whom murder, kidnap and rob the rich). So the Green Zone lives on, under Iraqi management. Since 2010 there have been occasional rockers or mortar shells fired into the Green Zone. It is a large target, with a lot of open space, so there are rarely casualties.

The U.S. offered $20 million in rewards for information leading to the capture or killing of four senior ISIL leaders. These included Abd al Rahman Mustafa al Qaduli (a former al Qaeda-in-Iraq leader who joined ISIL in 2012), Abu Mohammed al Adnani (the official spokesman and “face” of ISIL), Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili (a senior combat commander) and Tariq Bin al Tahar Bin al Falih al Awni al Harzi (commander of all suicide bombing operations as well as forces in northeastern Syria).

 

 

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