Iraq: Going Through Some Needed Changes

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September 18, 2015: In Iraq the Shia militias, many of them with Iranian advisors, are increasingly being seen as a problem by the new Iraqi government and Iraqis in general. The previous Maliki government had long worked closely with Iran but lost power because Maliki and his allies would not do anything about the corruption that is largely seen as the main reason ISIL made such rapid advances in 2014. Iraqis are discovering, as the anti-corruption efforts now accelerate, that a lot of that corruption, especially in the military, was encouraged, and sometimes paid for, by Iran. This has caused public opinion among the majority Shia Arabs in Iraq to turn against Iran. Another reason for that is the Iran supported (and often armed and paid) Shia militiamen are seen as fanatics and undisciplined who are mainly loyal to Iran.  These Shia militiamen are largely motivated by revenge (for years of Islamic terrorist attacks on Shia civilians) and their Iranian advisors encourage that. The Iran backed Shia militias are now seen as a potential threat to the Iraqi government. While the Shia militiamen have less training they are more fanatics and undisciplined. To the Americans the biggest risk is the Shia militiamen terrorizing (kidnapping, murdering, looting and so on) Sunni civilians in areas ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) is driven out of.  The Americans realize that the key to regaining control of Anbar is gaining the support of the Sunnis (who comprise nearly all the Anbar population).

Iran is not happy with this new attitude. It got worse recently when Iraq got its first few F-16s into service. While being used mainly for attacking ISIL on the ground, the F-16s can also use air-to-air missiles and the Iraqi pilots can go after Iranian cargo aircraft transiting Iraqi airspace on their way to Syria and force them to land or turn back. Iraq could never do this before and Iran was able to pretty much use Iraqi air space for these flights without any fear of the transports being threatened. Iraq has always tolerated this Iranian use of Iraqi airspace to rapidly supply the Assad government in Syria. Iraq did this despite constant pressure from the United States to block the Assad aid. Now the Iraqis are paying more attention to their American allies than their Iranian neighbors.

The Iraqi Army and Shia militias continue advancing slowly against ISIL in central (towards Mosul) and western (Anbar Province) Iraq. The advance is so slow that there are doubts about any progress at all and some accusations that ISIL is actually in more areas now than at the beginning of the year, despite thousands of air strikes. The main problem is the difficulty in obtaining accurate data about what is happening on the ground. As the government gains access and then control of more territory more is revealed about what is going on there. Turns out that in late 2014 the government abandoned a lot more territory than ISIL took control of. This sort of chaos is common in Iraq and the region. A lot of it has to do with the culture of corruption. This highlights another problem. As ISIL has become less of a problem (stalemated or put on the defensive) this year another revolution has appeared. This uprising is about the endemic corruption that has long crippled Iraq (and the region). The popular anger about the corruption has been growing for decades and became a real threat once democracy was introduced in 2004. Now there are regular (usually Friday, the start of the “weekend” in Moslem majority nations) and the government has been forced to act. In addition to firing hundreds of corrupt officials the government has also rushed to be more frank, prompt and honest in reporting the state of the war with ISIL. That means admitting that problems exist. The military leadership is still a mess as is that portion of the military responsible for keeping the fighting troops supplied. The government never liked to admit that the military was corrupt and incompetent, but the Iraqi people can find detailed reports of this on the Internet and in a growing number of Iraqi media outlets. It is no longer forbidden to report the unpleasant truth. It can still be dangerous, especially if you talk about Iran backed Shia militia. The upshot of more information is the confirmation of what American advisors and trainers have been saying for over a decade; it takes time to find and train competent officers. An even more unpopular bit of advice was warnings about the impact of corruption. It is now generally accepted that once the Americans left in 2011 the unsurprisingly corrupt Iraqi politicians began replacing competent officers with more corrupt ones who were believed more concerned with politics than in running an effective army. That was the major reason why ISIL advanced so quickly in mid-2014. Most Iraqis now accept this rather than the usual “it’s all because of a foreign conspiracy” excuse that is so popular throughout the region. All this openness and honesty does not solve the leadership problems in the military and government, but does allow a fix to proceed more quickly. There is still some resistance to replacing incompetent officers, usually from politicians who sponsored those officers. There is still fear of another civil war between Shia political factions and politicians feel safer if they “own” a few senior commanders. That is an ancient tradition in this part of the world and such long-standing practices are not easily changed.

Meanwhile ISIL is also having leadership and morale problems. Popular resistance in ISIL occupied areas, especially Mosul and western Iraq, is growing despite ever more arrests and executions. In Mosul there are apparently dozens (at least) of executions each week. Some of the victims are ISIL members accused of failure, misbehavior, bad attitude or trying to desert. Sources in the city report that a growing number of ISIL men are fleeing the city, often semi-officially by claiming they are needed in Syria. Civilians can still get in and out of the city because ISIL needs trade with the outside to survive in this huge metropolis. Intelligence analysts can take large numbers of reports and sift through them to determine what is true and what is rumor or lies. This is easier to do with computerized databases and special software. In addition the Americans have brought back their aerial electronic monitoring capabilities, which adds more data to the pool and makes it even easier to separate fact from fiction. In 2011 the more astute Iraqi commanders tried to convince their political bosses that the loss of these intel capabilities (the Americans would take it all with them) would be dangerous. The politicians were not convinced then but most are now.

A lot of the results of this intel collection and analysis are not released. This is done to prevent the enemy from figuring out exactly where a lot of the intel is coming from and how it is analyzed. If you know that you can more effectively deceive the intel effort. Many of the ISIL leadership are former officers in the pre-2003 Iraqi military and know how this stuff works (often courtesy of Russian military schools).

The intel also shows that the same opportunities for destroying Sunni Islamic terrorists are available now as they were in 2007. Back then the Americans convinced the Shia controlled government to make deals with Sunni tribes to get Sunni support to crush Sunni Islamic terror groups. Many Shia opposed this (and many still do) but it worked then and after the Americans left the Shia politicians dismantled the rewards (jobs, political opportunity and money) that were part of the deal. History is repeating itself with most Sunnis now hostile to the Sunni Islamic terrorists (ISIL this time instead of al Qaeda in 2007). ISIL is even more unpopular with most Sunnis than al Qaeda was back in 2007. But the Sunnis feel trapped between ISIL savagery and Iran-backed Shia militias and politicians who feel they are engaged in a war between Shia and Sunni. While most Iraqi Shia want no part of this enough of them do, and belong to Iran supported militias, to give credence to Sunni fears. The American military advisors are trying to get American diplomacy behind an effort to persuade the Iraqi government to make a convincing offer to the Sunnis and get another 2007 going.

Meanwhile ISIL shows signs of collapsing from a combination of internal disputes and declining morale. In rural areas the locals are increasingly organizing armed militias and waging guerilla, or open warfare with ISIL. This may seem suicidal but the tribes have centuries of experience with this sort of thing and when they detect that the “occupier” is stretched thin and vulnerable, the tribal militia becomes a popular and effective option. ISIL understands this and informally grants autonomy in these situations. There is a downside as if ISIL makes another resurgence and becomes capable of suppressing the autonomous tribes the retribution can be brutal. This has already happened a few times in the last year in eastern Syria and western Iraq. But the tribes are always attuned to what is going on in their territory and more tribes are detecting a decline in the ISIL ability to crack down on disobedient tribes, especially heavily armed and determined one.

The Iraqi Army has about 10,000 troops in Anbar and nearly as many Shia militiamen. The main problem with this forces is the lack of good leaders and troop support (maintenance and logistics). These are the things the Kurds have taken care of but that the Arab Iraqis still have problems with. Thus the Iraqi Arabs are much less effective against ISIL than the Kurds or Western troops. The American advisors have convinced the Iraqi generals that an advance is possible but only if carried out slowly and methodically, using the few units with competent leaders (battalion and brigade commanders) to lead the way. There is still a shortage of reliable unit commanders.

The U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Anbar to train and advise Iraqi soldiers, police and pro-government tribal militias. Most of these troops were at al Asad airbase (in eastern Anbar) but more are being west, closer to ISIL occupied Ramadi and the main ISIL forces. Iraqis handle security for these bases but American troops take part in the fighting when needed. More American troops are being seen out in the countryside with Iraqi troops. There are about 5,000 ISIL gunmen in Anbar and most of them were originally recruited from local tribes. These constant defeats at al Asad and in the two major cities (Ramadi and Fallujah) have been bad for morale, and many, if not most of the local hires have deserted and taken 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 tribesmen (especially those on the ISIL payroll) were 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. In the meantime ISIL makes what it can of the fact that they still occupy Ramadi and the Iraqi Army advance is not moving much at all. American officials say they believe Ramadai will be retaken by the end of the year. Such claims are often based on intel that is not available to the public. But sometimes these claims are just wishful thinking. There’s a lot of that going around.

In the north the Kurds continue to push south but are hampered by a shortage of troops. The problem is that protecting Kurdish controlled northern Iraq requires a lot trained and reliable people and takes priority. There is a long border and ISIL is always trying to get in or at least cause casualties among the border guards. One reason for the Kurdish success is that their military leaders look after their troops and don’t expose them to needless danger.

September 15, 2015: Iraqis are alarmed at recent media reports that Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani recently made a second visit to Moscow. This comes after Iran and Russia insisting that a July 24th visit by Soleimani to Moscow did not happen. During the July trip Soleimani was said to have met with Russian defense officials and left after two days. Since 2007 Soleimani has been under numerous sanctions, including ones that are not being lifted by the July 14th Iranian peace deal. Soleimani was not supposed to be able to travel to Russia and Russia knows it. But Russia and Iran simply deny the visits actually happened, the same way Iran denies that Soleimani has spent time in Iraq supervising the creation and use of pro-Iran Shia militias.

September 7, 2015: Several hundred Turkish troops entered northern Iraq in pursuit with some PKK Kurdish separatists believed involved in a roadside bomb attack in Turkey the day before that killed 16 soldiers. The Turks have been fighting the PKK again (after a ceasefire collapsed) since late July. So far about 200 people have been killed, nearly a hundred of them Turkish soldiers and police.

September 3, 2015: Iraqi F-16IQ fighter-bombers carried out their first combat missions against several ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets. This comes 16 months after the F-16IQ made its first flight. Four F-16IQs arrived in Iraq in July so that Iraqi pilots and maintainers could undertake final training in preparation for the first combat missions. The F-16IQ is a custom version of the single seat Block 52 F-16C and the two-seater F-16D. Iraq has 36 F-16IQs on order. The F-16IQ is similar to American Block 52 F-16s except they are not equipped to handle AMRAAM (radar guided air-to-air missiles) or JDAM (GPS guided bombs). The F-16IQ can handle laser guided bombs and older radar guided missiles like the AIM-7.

September 2, 2015:  In Baghdad 17 Turkish construction workers and their Iraqi (Kurdish) translator were kidnapped by a Shia militia. The kidnappers demanded that Turkey stop the flow of ISIL recruits into Iraq, halt the flow of Kurdish oil via Turkey and do something to end the ISIL siege of several Shia villages in Syria (near the Turkish border) in exchange for the hostages. On the 11th the kidnappers released a video of the prisoners pleading for help from their government. On the 16th two of the Turks were released in Basra, near the Kuwait border. The Iraqis government says it is negotiating to get the rest of the Turks released. Meanwhile the two major Shia clerics in Iraq have condemned the kidnapping and apparently helped the government make contact with the previously unknown Shia group responsible. There are many radical Shia Iraqis who are hostile to Sunnis (for all the al Qaeda and ISIL violence against Shia) and Kurds (for not being Arab and for not obeying the Shia government).

 

 

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