Iraq: The Anbar Offensive Succeeds So Far

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July 28, 2015: While there is heavy fighting in Anbar, ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is also busy up in Mosul where for the last week the ISIL security forces carried out a major operation against the real or imagined opposition in the city. So far this has led to over 400 arrests and nearly 200 executions. Most of the victims are current or former government employees. The Iraqi government still pays the salaries for most civil servants in Mosul and although these people now take orders from ISIL, many are not trusted by their new masters. Iraq is also threatening to stop paying the salaries because ISIL is taking more and more of the payroll for other uses. This is one reason for the growing resistance to ISIL among government employees. That has led to the current crackdown, which is expected to terrorize most anti-ISIL civilians into a more compliant state-of-mind. In general the Mosul population is fed up with ISIL but the offensive to capture Mosul has been put on hold so the security forces can go after ISIL in Anbar.

The growing number of ISIL men captured, or deserted, have provided a timelier and more detailed picture of how ISIL is run and what internal problems the organization faces. Discipline problems are increasing and senior leadership reacts violently to disagreements at any level. Thus even senior ISIL leaders have been publicly executed recently and a growing number of lower ranking members have been killed (often for running away from the enemy or some lifestyle violation). This has caused many more ISIL men to desert. These former ISIL men report that ISIL leaders are paying more attention to going after “disloyal” members and providing better protection for the senior leadership. Intelligence analysts also note that a large portion of senior ISIL leaders once worked for Saddam Hussein. As a result ISIL military organization is very similar to Saddam’s “Republic of Fear” of the 1990s. This includes having something every successful dictatorship requires; a "regime maintenance" force. For ISIL this is the Shield of Islam, a brigade of carefully selected (especially for loyalty), well-armed, well trained and well led men. The Shield of Islam protects ISIL leadership from unruly or dissenting ISIL members as well as hostile action by anyone else. Having such a force handy has long been the key survival strategy for any security conscious dictator. Thus Saddam Hussein had his Republican Guard, a force that was filled with the best paid, best armed Sunni men in the armed forces who were, above all, loyal to Saddam.

The fighting in Ramadi is currently about cutting the ISIL defenders off from reinforcements and supplies. Then, sometime in August, government forces will move into the city itself. The attack force contains at least 3,000 Iraqi troops that have been reorganized and retrained by American advisors. Thousands of other Iraqi troops are in units the American advisors consider “well led” (by reasonably competent and reliable officers). Corrupt and incompetent officers have been the fatal weakness of the Iraqi military for generations. Changing that has not been easy, especially in light of the culture of corruption that still thrives in Iraq.  But American trainers are so confident in the latest group of officers and NCOs they have screened and retrained that they are requesting that units led by these men be assigned American ground controller teams to call in air strikes. American political leaders consider this too risky but are being pressured by senior American military leaders who believe it would be a prudent and very productive move.

The battle for Fallujah continues as government forces surround the city and cut off supplies to the ISIL garrison. The problem is that the army, and militias do not always cooperate. There are local Sunni tribal militias and Shia militias from eastern and southern Iraq. ISIL takes advantage of these divisions to break the siege, but given the number of government forces now involved that is more and more difficult. In the last week alone over 200 ISIL men have died fighting the surrounding government forces. While the government forced don’t cooperate, they all seek out and destroy ISIL mines and roadside bombs.

Kurdish forces in the north report that they have recovered an ISIL 120mm mortar shell that did not explode and upon further examination was found to contain mostly chlorine and just enough explosives to disperse the chlorine. Similar shells have been found in Syria indicating that ISIL is willing to use chemical weapons. Then again so is the Assad government in Syria. In all these cases the deadly chemical is chlorine, a commonly used chemical that is nevertheless poisonous for anyone who swallows or inhales enough of the stuff.

The current (year to date) death rate of Iraqi security forces is about 1,500 per 100,000 per year (a standard measure of such things). It is unclear exactly how many troops, police and pro-government militia are actually available as the usual (for thousands of years) practice in this region is for commanders to inflate the number of armed men they command and pocket the money they receive for the missing “phantom” troops. One reason so many Iraqi officers and government officials wanted all American troops out of the country as soon as possible in 2010 was because those foreign troops would often go and count the number of troops actually present and then report the real number. That was almost always less (often a lot less) than the official number. It appears that there are only about 300,000 actual armed and more-or-less willing to fight men available to the Iraqi government. This include the Kurds. Compare the current Iraqi death rate to that of the 11,500 peacekeepers currently in Mali, most of them in the north. The Mali peacekeeping force is composed of about a thousand French troops with the rest African troops and is suffering a death rate of 240. That’s higher than the 2013 American rate (200) in Afghanistan (that peaked at 587 in 2010). The peak years in Iraq (2004-7) for American losses also saw rates of 500-600. Iraqi forces suffered a higher rate back then but not as high as it does now. In 2007-8, foreign troops in Afghanistan lost about 300-400 dead per 100,000 troops. That went up to nearly 500 by 2009 and was about the same in 2010. In Iraq, from 2004-7, the deaths among foreign troops ran at 500-600 per 100,000 per year. Once al Qaeda admitted defeat there in 2008, the U.S. death rate in Iraq dropped to less than 100 dead per 100,000 troops per year by the time U.S. combat troops were gone in 2011.  The death rate for U.S. troops during Vietnam, Korea and World War II was over 1,500. It was even higher for German, Russian and Japanese troops in World War II. Places like the Middle East and Afghanistan are often described as stuck in the past. When it comes to combat losses, Iraq and most other nations in the region are several generations behind the West.

Meanwhile the UN is calling for donor nations to provide half a billion dollars to pay for refugee assistance inside Iraq. The donors are not coming forward, mainly because of the rampant corruption that cripples aid efforts inside Iraq. The UN has been unable to deal with this problems and asks donors to ignore that and provide the money. The donors see other countries, with less corruption, where aid money would do more good and are staying out of Iraq.

July 27, 2015: Soldiers and militia captured the Ramadi University compound south of Ramadi. This compound was used as a base and headquarters by ISIL forces. Iraqi special operations troops led the way. The battle for the university compound began two weeks earlier and the U.S. led coalition has provided nearly a hundred air strikes since then. Sunni and Shia militias surrounded the university compound and ISIL was unable to reinforce the 2,000 fighters defending the university complex. The government blocking forces were less successful in stopping surviving ISIL fighters from fleeing the university compound. In large part this was because the ISIL men dropped their weapons, dressed like local civilians and slipped out at night.

July 26, 2015: In eastern Turkey the Turkish government held PKK (local Kurdish separatist rebels) responsible for an attack on a military convoy that left two soldiers dead and four wounded. Turkish leaders saw this incident as one too many and ordered air strikes against PKK bases in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. The Turkish attacks on the PKK end a 2013 ceasefire between PKK and Turkey. In the last few days there has been more PKK violence in southeast Turkey and the Turkish security forces have responded with more raids and arrests. This comes after Turkey decided, on the 24th, to join the air campaign against ISIL in Syria. This includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase. The objective of Turkish efforts in Syria is to create a safe zone in Syria along a 110 kilometers long portion of the Turkish border. This safe zone will make it possible for Syrians fleeing ISIL to obtain aid in Syria rather than heading for refugee camps in Turkey. This new arrangement has the Turks working with the PYD Kurdish rebels of Syria while being at war with the PKK Kurdish rebels in Turkey. All this is largely because of the growing ISIL activity in Turkey, including a July 20th suicide bomb attack in eastern Turkey that killed 32 Turks (most of them Kurds). The bomber was believed to be a Turkish Kurd working for ISIL.

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 once more moving apart. 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.

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.

July 22, 2015: In eastern (Shia) Baghdad two ISIL car bombs killed 26 and wounded over a hundred.

The PKK took credit for the murder of two policemen in eastern Turkey. PKK said this attack was revenge for Turkish government cooperation with ISIL. Most Kurds do not agree with this and believe the Turks are more concerned with the separatist goals of PKK (to establish a Kurdish state consisting of areas from southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran and northeastern Syria).

July 18, 2015: Saudi Arabia announced it had halted ISIL plans to carry out several major terror attacks. The Saudis said that over 400 terrorist suspects were arrested recently, many of them known to be pro-ISIL.

July 17, 2015: A huge ISIL car bomb went off in a marketplace 30 kilometers northeast of Baghdad leaving over a hundred dead and many more wounded. Most of the victims were Shia. Shia dominated police went looking for local Sunnis who were the usual suspects while Shia militias just went and kidnapped many prominent local Sunnis. ISIL carries out these attacks in part to trigger open warfare between Shia and Sunni.

July 16, 2015: The government closed the border crossings with Jordan because ISIL was bringing in a lot of money by charging trucks using those crossings a “tax” (in return for not attacking the trucks or stealing the cargo).

July 12, 2015: The government announced its long delayed offensive in Anbar (western Iraq). The main objectives are two ISIL held cities (Ramadi and Fallujah).

July 10, 2015: A prominent Iraqi Shia cleric openly accused the West of creating ISIL and continuing to support ISIL violence against Shia in Iraq and elsewhere. Many people in the Middle East, Sunni and Shia, believe this.

 

 

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