Iraq: Job Security A Matter of Life Or Death

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November 8, 2015: The Iraqi Kurds are still feuding with the Iraqi Arabs. Despite the national emergency since mid-2014 the Arab dominated national government is holding back cash and weapons for the Kurds and pressuring the United States not to send weapons and equipment directly to the Iraqi Kurds. The few hundred American troops working with the Kurds tell their superiors that one way to speed up the defeat of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is to ignore the Iraqi government and give the Kurds the weapons and equipment they need. With that the Kurds agree that they would be able to take part in a successful offensive to drive ISIL out of Mosul and northern Iraq. The Kurds made it clear that they would concentrate on Mosul and not go after pro-ISIL Sunni tribes around Kirkuk, which is what the Iraqi government feared. The Kurds control Kirkuk and admit they plan to keep it. The Kurds have also announced that they consider Mosul Arab, not Kurdish (like Kirkuk) and will not stick around after their forces have helped drive ISIL out. Despite these assurances the Iraqi Arabs will not relent until the Kurds surrender much of their autonomy. The Kurds will never do that because the Arab officials are far more corrupt and far less effective than the current elected Kurdish ones. Many Arabs agree with that assessment but most Arab politicians do not. This is mainly because the less corrupt and more efficient Kurdish show it is possible for there to be a much more effective government in Iraq. But that would mean many, if not most, of the current Arab politicians would be out of a job.

The Iraqi Kurds do have some serious internal problems. Chief among these is the PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) based in northern Iraq. The PKK not only refuse to leave Iraq but also insist on stationing many of their armed members alongside Iraqi Kurdish forces facing ISIL. This makes it impossible for Turkish warplanes to bomb PKK forces deployed like that. Meanwhile Turkish warplanes continue to seek out and bomb PKK bases in more remote areas of Kurdish Iraq. Turkey went to war with the PKK in late July because of the growing PKK violence inside Turkey. These incidents were seen as a violation of the 2013 ceasefire with the PKK. The Kurdish government of northern Iraq agreed with the Turkish attacks on the PKK, accusing the PKK of being arrogant and troublesome. While the PKK still calls for an independent Kurdish state made up of majority Kurd portions of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the largely autonomous Kurds of northern Iraq refuse to go along. For a while many in the PKK agreed with the Iraqi Kurds and were willing to settle for more autonomy in Turkey. But the radical PKK factions refused to go along and the 2013 ceasefire began to fray. While the Iraqi Kurds continue condemning the PKK they have not tried to expel the PKK fighters by force. The Turks are unwilling to send ground troops into northern Iraq and seemed content to keep bombing the PKK there. This the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs tolerate, especially since the Turks are now also bombing ISIL in Syria. Turkey joining the air campaign against ISIL in Syria includes letting American fighters launch strikes from a Turkish airbase. There has been more PKK violence in southeast Turkey and the Turkish security forces have responded with more raids and arrests. The Turks will win this fight, as they have in the past, and the Turkish Kurds will suffer the most casualties in the process. The Turks have arrested over 1,500 PKK members so far although most were later released. The Turkish army and air force have killed nearly 2,000 PKK members since July and lost nearly 30o troops and police. The PKK has lost a lot of popular support in in northern Iraq because of the PKK police of, in effect, using Iraqi Kurds as human shields. But the PKK retains enough popular support to back Kurdish troops forcing PKK out of Iraq into Syria.

In addition to being on good terms with the Turks the Iraqi Kurds have also accepted weapons and ammo supplies from Iran. This angers the United States but the Kurds point out that in wartime you take help from wherever you can get it.  Cooperating with the Iranians against ISIL is not so easy for the Americans. That’s because Iran still openly, loudly and frequently considers the U.S. its main enemy (after, or before, Israel depending on the occasion) and the U.S. is well aware of the fact that while American troops were fighting Sunni terrorists in Iraq from 2003-11 some 14 percent of American combat deaths were caused by Iranian explosives or weapons. The U.S. has already reduced its aid to the Iraqi government because of how close Iraqi officials are getting with the Iranians. Currently the U.S. believes Iran has about a thousand military personnel in Iraq and about twice as many in Syria. The Americans fear Iran is seeking to take over in Iraq and many Iraqis agree with that suspicion.

The War At Home

Corruption continues to be a source of popular discontent in Iraq, despite, or because of the threat from ISIL. Government incompetence became very visible in the first week of the month as heavy rains caused flooding and all manner of accidents due to the corruption and sloppy work the government tolerates when it comes to building and maintaining infrastructure. For example some sixty people died of electrocution because of the ineffectual way the electrical distribution system was built. Buildings collapsed and roads and bridges failed more because of poor construction than all the rain and flooding.

The War In The West

ISIL is on the defensive in Anbar and making greater use of suicide car bombs, landmines and roadside bombs to keep Iraqi troops from advancing. The Iraqi troops have learned, from costly (in casualties) experience how to deal with these ISIL tactics but it does show down the advance. ISIL is particularly dismayed at how much better Iraqi forces are at spotting and destroying (usually with machine-gun or mortar fire) suicide car bombs before they can get close enough to do any damage. Iraqi warplanes have also become quite good at spotting suicide vehicles and destroying them before they get to a target. Word is getting around within ISIL that the suicide bomber job is no longer a sure ticket to paradise but instead an ignominious death without any opportunity to kill the enemy.

ISIL is facing growing military pressure from within. There are a lot of cell phones in ISIL occupied territory (especially Mosul) and more potential recruits worldwide have Internet access. That is a bad combination because the pictures of ISIL Holy Warriors murdering fellow Sunni Moslems, especially women, spreads fast and the impact is quickly felt by the terrorist leaders. It’s not just one incident either, but several massacres of Sunni Arab tribesmen in eastern Syria and western Iraq over the past few months along with more and more public executions of Sunnis in occupied Mosul. To the young Moslem men who provide most of the support (and manpower) for ISIL, such misbehavior can no longer be dismissed as a rare event or staged Western propaganda. While the air attacks have made it more difficult for large convoys of ISIL gunmen to attack and conquer new territory, an even larger problem is the need for using these gunmen to deal with rebellious Sunni Arabs. This has led to counterattacks by some tribal militias, especially in western Iraq and ISIL losing control of towns and villages. The terrorists are being terrorized. Another reason for the growing unrest in the ISIL “Islamic State” is the incompetence of the Islamic terrorist leaders at running an economy. ISIL wants everything done in conformance of their vision of what Islamic law demands. This means no modern currency or banking practices. This makes it difficult for the economy to function and the ISIL subjects are suffering from high unemployment and growing shortages. Many civilians are broke and selling what few possessions they have left just to eat. ISIL offers to take children (11 and up) into their care but parents know these kids are being trained to fight or serve as suicide bomber. ISIL recently executed dozens of these kids who tried to leave the program once they figured out what it was really about. Details of all the misery among the civilian population is getting out along with the cell phone photos. This causes more popular support in Iraq for an offensive. The offensive is actually happening, but on a small scale. There are not enough competent (and reliable) officers available yet to speed things up.

The War In Arabia

The Saudis are keen on maintaining a dominating influence in Iraq, which is a largely (80 percent) Arab country that is majority (60 percent) Shia. The religious angle puts Iraq in an awkward position. The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised) but also don’t want to be dominated by their Sunni Arab neighbors and especially not by their own Sunni Arab minority (which created ISIL and has been a major supporter of Islamic terrorism since 2003). The Shia dominated Iraq government also has problems with its Kurds, who are Sunni but not Arab. The Iraqi government has been trying to get the Kurds to obey the Arab majority and since 2014 has been using Arab control over most oil income for that. The Kurds have not been sent their share of oil income for over a year and as a result the Kurds have not been able to pay their own excessive force of government employees. Many have not been paid in months and are demonstrating more frequently and violently. Kurdish participation in the fight for Mosul is expected to involve some financial relief from the Iraqi government but so far the Iraqi Arabs have not been willing to pay up.  This strained relationship between the Arab Iraqi government and the non-Arab Kurds shows you the kind of problems any ruler in the region has, especially if the ruler is corrupt and inefficient.

Iranian hopes for turning Iraq into a satellite state has another problem; the United States. The Iraqi government has backed away from recent anti-American (and pro-Russian) statements. This came after the United States threatened to withdraw military aid and let the Iraqis depend on Russia and Iran instead. While Iraq receives weapons from Iran and Russia, these do not match the higher quality (and more effective) stuff the Americans can provide. Moreover, if the Americans leave so does major protection against problems with Sunni Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The government is also wary of the Shia militias Iran has helped organize, train and advise. Some of these militias are loyal to Iraqi Shia clerics who want Iraq to be ruled by a religious dictatorship, as Iran is. Most Iraqi Shia do not want that and the government makes sure these Shia militias get paid on time and are well supplied. These militiamen are not the best troops Iraq has but their fanaticism and enthusiasm makes them more effective than the average Iraqi soldier. Meanwhile these militiamen have sometimes turned on anti-Iran Iraqi demonstrators, beating up the otherwise peaceful Iraqi civilians. This just increases the tensions and is a major reason why Iran is less of a threat to Iraq than most foreigners (especially in the West) fear.

The U.S. also has a problem with the terror tactics used by the Iran backed Shia militias fighting alongside Iraqi army units. The Shia militias have a “take no prisoners” policy and will even execute (often by beheading) ISIL leaders (including women) they capture. The U.S. feels that it would be better to interrogate all ISIL prisoners and Iraqi military intelligence officials agree. So do some Iranian military advisors. But the Iran backed Iraqi militias depend on enthusiasm and fierce hatred of ISIL to make up for lack of military training and experience. This inexperience and lack of discipline can be dangerous for nearby Iraqi Army troops. This was seen on October 25th when lax discipline by base security led to ISIL suicide bombers carrying out successful attacks that left 25 soldiers and militiamen dead and 34 wounded.

The recent rain storms and overcast weather led to a dip in air strikes. Nevertheless the American led air coalition has carried out over 7,800 air strikes (64 percent in Iraq and the rest in Syria). The growing number of Syrian and Russian air strikes do not follow the restrictive American ROE (Rules of Engagement) and have been more effective. There are accusations from within the American intelligence community that political leaders are hiding the truth about how the restrictive ROE are crippling the air offensive against ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Another reason for the greater success of Syrian and Russian air strikes is that they have air controllers on the ground to make sure the right target is hit. The American political leadership forbids putting American air controllers on the ground despite the fact that American military commanders believe that the chances of these U.S. troops getting killed or captured is an acceptable risk because it would mean more effective air strikes. Currently the American ROE is obsessed with avoiding any civilian losses from air strikes and ISIL exploits this by regularly using human shields. The locals realize this is counterproductive because the longer ISIL remains operational the more death and misery they bring to the millions of civilians they control.

November 1, 2015: The ISIL inspired violence has remained at a lower level for the second month in a row. In October 714 Iraqis (security forces and civilians) died, compared to 717 in September. Deaths for these two months equals what is was for the entire month of August, This decline is mainly because military operations against ISIL are stalled. On the plus side ISIL activity seems to be stalled as well, in part because ISIL is now more intent on dealing with the new Russian threat in Syria. In October most (88 percent) of the dead were civilians killed in terror attacks. That pattern of civilian deaths has been the norm. In August 1,325 Iraqis died, which was almost identical to the 1,332 Iraqis killed in July. That was down slightly from June (1,466) but still higher than 1,100 dead in May. The increase since May 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 700-800 a month in June, July and August) but during the last two months have fallen sharply. 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. Unless there’s a big jump in fatalities during the last two months of the year 2015 will turn out to be nearly 20 percent less than 2014. 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 and it looks like the combined (Iraq and Syria) deaths will be close to 100,000 in 2015.  

Some Iraqi officials still believe 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 eventually made yet another comeback. ISIL will still be around in 2016. In Iraq ISIL violence has forced over three million Iraqis from their homes.  American military advisors are less optimistic about how fast ISIL will be defeated mainly because the Iraqi army and police still have so many incompetent (and often corrupt) officers. Fixing that situation takes time and there is no way to speed it up dramatically. Iraqi and Western politicians and media pundits have a hard time understanding that reality. ISIL losses are believed to be higher than those for the security forces but there is no precise data available or if there is it is kept secret to prevent ISIL from finding out how it was obtained.

October 29, 2015:  At a guarded camp outside the Baghdad airport, sixty rockets landed during a night attack. This left 23 members of the People's Mujahideen Organization of Iran (PMOI), or Mujahideen Khalq, dead. Also killed were three Iraqi policemen. PMOI is a secular (Marxist) organization that has long (since 1965) opposed the monarchy and later the clerical groups that now dominate Iranian politics. Saddam Hussein provided sanctuary for the Mujahideen Khalq in 1986 and let over 3,400 stay at Camp Ashraf, near the Iranian border. The Khalq was disarmed by U.S. forces in 2003. America and Iraq refused Iranian demands to arrest and return most members of Mujahideen Khalq to Iran for prosecution for terror attacks Khlaq made in Iran while working from their Iraqi base. Since 2003 there were several raids on Camp Ashraf and in 2012 most residents were moved to the more secure “Camp Liberty” near the Baghdad airport. An armed group invaded their previous camp in 2013 and killed about fifty of a hundred hard core Khalq members who had refused to move from Camp Ashraf. The Iraqi government says the 2013 deaths were the result of an internal dispute while Khalq representatives insist it was a raid, probably by Iraqi soldiers or pro-Iran terrorists. There have been several hundred Khalq deaths during these pro-Iran militia raids since 20o3. There were two attacks on the new camp in 2013. Iran has always denied involvement with these attacks, which appear to be carried out by pro-Iran Iraqi Shia militias. One of those militias soon took credit for the latest attack. The U.S. and the UN have long been seeking countries willing to take PLOI members as political refugees. But since PMOI members are dedicated leftist terrorists no one is eager to accept them.

October 25, 2015: For the first time Iraqi F-16s bombed Ramadi, the ISIL held capital of Anbar province. Iraqi F-16IQ fighter-bombers carried out their first combat missions against ISIL targets on September 3rd. This came 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.

October 22, 2015: In the north (50 kilometers south of Kirkuk) an American commando was killed while accompanying a largely Kurdish team of operators during a raid on an ISIL prison. The American soldier was there mainly to observe but he got involved when he spotted some ISIL gunmen getting into position to fire on some of the Kurdish commandos. There were no other friendly casualties and 69 Kurdish soldiers help prisoner (and scheduled for execution) were rescued. This was the first such commando operations against ISIL since May. This raid (which required American air support) was in response to Kurdish requests based on intel they had received about the location of their captured troops and the imminent execution. The raid was considered a success and the Kurds are eager to carry out more such raids into ISIL territory.

 

 

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