Iraq: Fixing The Rot At The Top

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July 10, 2015: Iraqis are somewhat encouraged by the fact that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) appears to be on the defensive and its forces are being pushed back around Mosul and in Anbar. The government recently admitted that Ramadi was lost in May because the general in charge was incompetent and a coward and ordered troops out of the city despite explicit orders to stand and fight (mainly because he had far more troops in the city than ISIL had in the area). Since then several senior officers have been fired or retired. Not as many as American advisors suggested but it was seen as a start. Iraqi commanders admit that they need better training and officers but it will take some real and sustained effort from the government to make that happen. So far the government does not appear willing to make a major move against the corruption and cronyism that currently cripples the military. This problem is a cultural thing common throughout the region. ISIL suffers from it as well, but unlike most governments in the region ISIL punishes, usually by execution, senior officials caught misbehaving. That helps keep the new recruits coming and maintains some popular support outside of areas actually ruled by ISIL.

The Kurds are making the most of their air support and ground combat capabilities by continuing to advance towards Mosul and quickly destroy any ISIL attempts to “invade” the Kurdish north. In contrast to Arab Iraqis the Kurds are disciplined and led by competent and respected (by the troops) officers. In contrast the Arab Iraqis still have problems with their officers. Attempts to eliminate the bad officers runs into political problems as too many of the “dirty” officers have political sponsors. This comes back to the fact that corruption in general, especially in the government, remains a major problem. There are also corrupt officials in the Kurdish north but the Kurds have managed to keep their army (the “Peshmerga” or “those willing to die”) relatively free of corruption. But for cultural reasons (the Kurds are Indo-European, like the Iranians, rather than Semites, like most Iraqis) it is difficult to get Iraqis enthusiastic about copying the Kurds.

Anbar province (most of western Iraq) continues to be a major battle zone as ISIL holds on to most of two major cities (Ramadi and Falluja). Currently a lot of the fighting is around Falluja, where since the beginning of the month over 10,000 soldiers and Shia militia moved in to cut the few supply routes ISIL forces in the city still have. ISIL took most of Falluja in January 2014 but was prevented from advancing further or taking control of the entire city and its suburbs. Fallujah is important because of the crucial geographical position the city has occupied for nearly 3,000 years. Only 60 kilometers west of Baghdad, Fallujah is the gateway between the desert-like region to the west and the densely populated Tigris-Euphrates river valley to the east. The local Sunni tribes have cooperated with the government efforts to clear ISIL out of Fallujah but only if that was done without destroying the city. That has turned out to be a slow and tedious process as ISIL continued to control some neighborhoods. In order to maintain the cooperation of the Sunni tribes massive use of artillery was ruled out. For over a year the government has used airpower (aircraft and helicopters armed with Hellfire missiles) and groups of soldiers and allied tribesmen to take out ISIL positions one at a time. This worked in theory but in practice there were never enough reliable troops or aircraft available to make it work. Meanwhile many residents of Fallujah left their homes until the fighting is over.

Pro-government tribesmen are increasingly hostile towards ISIL because of violence and disruption to life in Anbar these religious fanatics have brought with them. In turn ISIL has become more brutal towards uncooperative Sunni tribes and that has made it possible for ISIL to keep moving supplies and more gunmen into the city. For most of the past year the Anbar fighting has shifted elsewhere. But now Falluja is the main battleground again and ISIL is not running away. The attacking force is having a hard time completing its encirclement of the city. The pro-government Sunni tribes have been largely pushed aside as the Shia militias don’t trust them. The U.S. led coalition is providing air support, relying mainly on ground control teams assigned to the more reliable army units.

The government has sent a smaller (about 5,000 soldiers and militia) force to encircle Ramadi and set the stage for retaking that city as well. The distrust between the pro-government Sunni tribes and the Shia militia is even greater around Ramadi, an area that has never had as many Shia residents as Falluja. Despite this mistrust the Sunni tribes appear to be convinced that siding with ISIL is not an option. Like their fellow Sunni tribesmen in Syria, the enmity between Sunni tribesmen and ISIL is getting worse, mainly because ISIL believes public executions and other punishments are the best way to handle any popular resistance.

The one bright spot in all this is that the Sunni tribesmen are willing to be trained and work for the Americans. Training is one thing but the Americans are working with the government to form all-Sunni tribal units staffed with a lot of American advisors (and a few Shia officers) to guarantee the loyalty of the trained and heavily armed Sunni soldiers. At the moment the government will not supply the Sunni militias with much more than small arms and ammo. The government has the same attitude towards the Kurds and the Americans go along with that to maintain some leverage with the government. Meanwhile other NATO nations and even Gulf Arab states are supplying the Kurds with heavy weapons (artillery, some armor) but not as much as could be provided if the Iraqi government allowed deliveries by road (rather than flying it in). The government will allow non-military aid for the Kurds and recently an Arab donor trucked in a lot of vehicle fuel that the Kurds were in need of. A lot of this distrust with the Shia dominated government has to do with fear of Iran, which has long had it in for Sunnis and Kurds.

An example of the determination of ISIL can be seen in the north where ISIL forces keep attacking the oil refinery at Baiji (on the Tigris River between Baghdad and Mosul 200 kilometers north of Baghdad). ISIL has been fighting here since mid-2014 and despite being defeated and pushed back many times, keeps returning with suicide bombers and mobs of suicidal gunmen. Most of the ISIL offensives have been repulsed but the security forces are so far unable to push the Islamic terrorists far enough away to restart operations. 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 recaptured Tikrit earlier in the year and continued moving north to reinforce forces defending Bajii. Until ISIL is cleared out of Baiji a major advance on Mosul will not be practical.  

Meanwhile more Iraqis (Shia or otherwise) are uneasy about the growing power of the Iran backed Shia militias. While technically subordinate to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, the Shia militiamen are more inclined to just take orders from their Iranian advisors. This is leading to more confrontations and clashes between security forces and the militias. These disputes are most frequently over Shia militias seizing property (often unoccupied) for their own use. Some militias have demanded supplies (even ammo and weapons) from the military. News of the few such incidents has spread widely and Iraqi officials often have to appeal to their Iranian counterparts for help. The word from Iran sometimes is that the advisors are from the Revolutionary Guard (the Quds Forces) and these guys will even defy Iranian officials on occasion.

Iraq is becoming a major drain on Iranian resources but unlike Syria, Yemeni rebels and Lebanese Hezbollah the Iraqis can pay for the Iranian help. It is believed that Iraq has quietly (and illegally) paid Iran over $10 billion so far for Iranian help in fighting ISIL. This has had some unpleasant side effects. For example American advisors in Iraq admit that their effort to recruit and train 24,000 Iraqi soldiers and police by June for the Mosul operation has not been successful. Only about 37 percent of the required recruits were obtained. This is in large part because Sunni and Shia leaders urged young men stay away from the American training effort. More Kurds were willing to join but many of them were already committed to defending the Kurdish controlled north. While it not considered politically correct for Iraqi Arabs to join the security forces, militias are another matter. Sunni Arab militias tend to be based on tribal affiliation or the need to defend your town or neighborhood. Same with the Shia Arabs, who also have the option to join pro-Iran militias organized by Iraqi Shia clerics and Iranian Quds Force operatives. Another element in all this is the dismal performance of the Iraqi security forces. Who wants to join an outfit that is regularly and easily defeated. To make matters worse Western trainers and advisors find themselves more welcome with Sunni tribal militias than with Shia ones, who are heavily influenced by Iran which does nothing to hide its anti-American attitudes.

Yet the Shia Iraqis and Kurds do have some reason for concern. ISIL continues to carry out terror bombings and assassinations in Baghdad and even largely Shia areas because some Sunnis will help. Even with all the abuse ISIL has inflicted on uncooperative Sunnis, there is still a significant number (ten percent or more) of Sunnis who believe in Islamic radicalism and its fondness for violence.

The effort to rebuild the Iraqi Army is showing more progress on paper than in reality. By early July five army brigades and one special forces battalion had completed the program. The brigades have less than half the number of soldiers required and the shortage of competent officers is even higher. Still, these five brigades are considered more reliable than most of the other 40 brigades.

July 8, 2015: An Iraqi court has convicted and sentenced to death 24 Iraqi ISIL members for participating in executions of Shia soldiers captured when ISIL took Tikrit in 2014. Police have the names of 604 other ISIL members identified as participating in atrocities that left nearly 2,000 soldiers, police and civilians murdered in Tikrit.

July 6, 2015: An air force Su-25, returning to base, accidentally dropped a bomb while making its landing approach. The bomb landed in a residential area destroying three homes and killing twelve civilians. Further investigation found that the bomb release was the result of equipment failure. The pilot was experienced and had never have any problems before. In December 2014 Russian-made Su-25s, flown by Iraqi pilots, began making attacks on ISIL targets. In late June 2014 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 took 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. Iraq has about ten operational Su-25s and Iranian personnel help with maintenance and training. Iran also uses the Su-25 and sent Iraq another seven of them in 2014.

July 3, 2015: Iraqi military aircraft dropped leaflets into Mosul telling the population that the army would soon approach to drive ISIL from the city. The leaflets also announced a new radio station that would regularly supply information to civilians in Mosul about the campaign to liberate the city and what residents should do to keep themselves safe.

July 1, 2015: Not surprisingly deaths from combat and terrorism were up in June, to 1,400 (compared to some 1,100 in May). This increase is largely because the government began its promised June offensive a little late but still in June. Fighting increased around Mosul and in Anbar and deaths among the security forces (including pro-government militias) more than doubled (from 366 in May to about 800 in June). Since January (when nearly 1,400 died) monthly terrorist related deaths were usually 1,100-1,200 a month. This is because most of the ISIL violence was of the terrorist, not military, variety. Until June about half the victims were civilians. 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 in 2014. That’s over 91,000 dead during 2014 for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll in Syria has risen more sharply than in Iraq. A growing number of Iraqi officials are optimistic that ISIL will be crushed in Iraq by the end of 2016. It’s happened before (like in 2007-8), but then the Sunni fanatics make yet another comeback. The big campaign now is against ISIL and nearly 5,000 have died since ISIL took Mosul in mid-2014 and about three million people have been forced from their homes.  

 

 

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