Fighting continues in Anbar province because ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) continues to resist the relentless government advance. At the end of 2015 Iraq declared Ramadi, the capital of Anbar (which is most of western Iraq) back under government control. Despite that declaration Iraqi troops are still slowly moving through parts of the city where ISIL planted lots of booby-traps and landmines. These explosive devices were meant to “punish” the disloyal (to ISIL) population of the city and cause maximum losses to advancing troops and Shia militia. The militias are letting the soldiers use their training and special equipment to find and clear the explosives. ISIL tried to maintain a small force of gunmen in Ramadi to delay the removal of bombs and mines but that effort has largely failed. Meanwhile Iraqi troops and militia have moved past Ramadi and are advancing deeper into territory controlled by ISIL for a year or more. So far over half the Anbar territory ISIL occupied a year ago is back under government control. Nationwide ISIL has lost more than half the territory it controlled a year ago. This includes much of the ISIL controlled territory in the north. Here Kurdish and Iraqi Arab forces advanced closer to Mosul all through 2015.
So far ISIL counterattacks have slowed but not stopped the advance in Anbar or around Mosul. ISIL has to stop the Anbar advance or it will find its Iraq and Syrian territories cut off from each other. This would be a major problem for ISIL and make the Islamic terrorists easier to defeat. Because of this ISIL is bringing in more men from Syria and even from Mosul to try and halt the government advance in Anbar. This has been very costly for ISIL because the government forces (including the Iran backed Shia militias) have learned how to handle ISIL tactics. Thus troops or militiamen at checkpoints usually prevent car bombs from reaching them by firing on vehicles that will not stop when ordered. Attacks by ISIL gunmen tend to fail because the Iraqi forces are alert at night and often have night-vision devices as well. In addition the Iraqi military has artillery and air support from Iraqi and American aircraft. This makes it difficult for ISIL to move fighters around Anbar or assemble large attack forces.
In eastern Anbar, where most of the population is, the towns and cities have to be cleared of ISIL men who are hiding among ISIL supporters and planning terror attacks. Local Sunni leaders have organized militias that can go into neighborhoods and discover who the ISIL supporters are and make arrests, or identify the suspects who got away. The identities of these suspects is passed to the intel services which maintains a database of such suspects, making it harder for these people to survive in government controlled territory.
North of Anbar, in Salahuddin province ISIL has been losing ground since mid-2015 and the same tactics used to clear ISIL out of Anbar are being used. The government has made it clear that once all of Ramadi and all of the Syrian border in Anbar is under government control again the most effective units will be moved from Anbar to the outskirts of Mosul in preparation for the mid-2016 offensive there. .
Many ISIL members are sensing this danger and desertions are up while veteran troops in contact with ISIL find the enemy less effective and apparently demoralized. ISIL is depending more and more on suicide bombings to demoralize and dissuade the Iraqi troops and militias. This is not working.
Now that the Iran sanctions are being lifted the Iranians can allocate more resources to the many wars and insurgencies the country is involved in. Iran proclaims that all this mayhem is merely fellow Shia trying to defend themselves from Sunni aggression. In many cases this is true but over the centuries Iran has always extracted a high price for such protection. The Iraqi Shia are feeling that pressure, with local pro-Iran Shia militia leaders making it very clear that their main loyalty is to Iran, not the Iraqi government.
Iran applies pressure in other ways. For example the Iraqi government has become less enthusiastic about needing more American and NATO troops in Iraq. The government also announced that Saudi Arabia should not even consider sending troops into Iraq to fight ISIL. The Saudis did not suggest this but are planning to send troops into Syria. The Saudis have no border with Syria but Jordan and Iraq, which both have borders with Saudi Arabia, do. Thus Iraq is making it clear that Saudi forces are not welcome in Iraq even if they are just passing through. Jordan is another matter and has become an ally of the Saudis. Iran is very hostile to a Saudi led coalition of ground troops going into Syria to fight ISIL and help overthrow the Assad government. Iran is also behind the increasingly aggressive and autonomous behavior of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias that are assisting the army in the fight against ISIL. The Shia militias are also taking control of territory in urban and rural areas, displacing the police and local government. Because of that by late 2015 Iraq government saw more American troops as saviors. At the end of 2015 there were several thousand American troops already in Iraq and more (most of them Special Forces) on the way. The government has apparently made it clear to Iran (which is very hostile to U.S. forces in Iraq) that some American troops were essential. The presence of American troops also makes it less likely that Iran will attempt anything too ambitious (like invading or backing a takeover by Shia militias) and everyone knows that. Iran appears to have convinced Iraqi leaders that American troops come and go while Iranian forces are always next door. Most Iraqis are more concerned with Iranian meddling than anything the Americans might do. At the same time Iraqis are wary of the other Gulf Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia. For example the Saudi ambassador to Iraq suggested that the Iran backed Shia militias in Iraq should stand aside and let the Iraqi Army deal with ISIL. That comment was widely condemned by Iraqi Shia clerics and politicians. The Shia politicians running Iraq have to move carefully because Iran, Saudi Arabia and America are making demands, often contrary ones, on Iraq.
One reason for the recent ISIL setbacks is that the American led air campaign has become much more effective. While the number of warplanes used over Syria and Iraq has not changed much since the bombing campaign began in 2014 the ROE (Rules of Engagement) has. Thus the number of weapons “released” has gone way up. There were 269 weapons used in August 2014 and this rose to 1,888 in December 2014 then to 2,823 in July 2015. By the end of 2015 it was over 3,000 a month and headed for 4,000. The increased weapons count correlated with the growth in ISIL deserters and civilians who escaped ISIL territory reporting higher casualties from air strikes. The U.S. gradually loosened up its ROE in 2015 and accelerated this after October when Russian warplanes began operating in Syria. The Russians had a much less strict ROE and their air attacks were doing far more damage to ISIL and other rebel groups despite the heavy use of human shields by ISIL. All this led to more dead civilians but the amount of damage done to ISIL increased so much that in the last year ISIL manpower in Iraq and Syria has declined about 20 percent.
Iranian War Criminals
While ISIL atrocities against religious minorities gets some publicity, and recognition as war crimes, the similar atrocities by Iran backed Iraqi Shia militias have gone largely unpublicized. That is changing but not fast enough to slow down the killings. The United States and most European governments had adopted the attitude that Christians in Iraq have not been singled out for attack but now the growing mountain of evidence has led a growing number of Western governments to at least admit that Christians and other non-Moslems are under heavy attack from ISIL and Iraqi Shia (usually sponsored by Iran) militias. In 2014 ISIL atrocities against religious minorities like the Yazidis and Christians was noticed by the world media but that attention was temporary and the plight of Christians in Syria and Iraq was largely ignored. The Yazidis were a frequent target because many Moslems, and some Christians, consider the Yazidi pagans and devil worshipers. The Yazidi are Kurds who practice a pre-Christian religion related to the pre-Islamic Zoroastrian religion once common in Iran before Islam and now only found in India. The Yazidis are considered pagans by ISIL and to Moslems pagans must either renounce their beliefs or die. The Kurds have always gotten along better with Yazidis, Christians and other minorities and many of those people fled to the Kurdish north. In 2015 it was the Kurds who recaptured Yazidi territory from ISIL.
Atrocities against Christians is again newsworthy because the Iraqi Shia militias are increasingly attacking Christians in Baghdad. The militias are trying to drive all Christians out of Baghdad and Iraq. The militias are also out to make some money as they systematically seize the homes, businesses and other assets of the departed Christians and sell them off or trade them for something they need. The Iraqi government does nothing save for an occasional press release condemning this behavior. These press releases are to placate foreign aid donors who threaten to reduce aid if the atrocities do not stop. So far few aid donors have acted on these threats. In Baghdad the Shia militia want to emulate ISIL, which has, for the first time in history, killed or driven all Christians from Mosul. Some of these Shia militia have also been accused of going back to their use of death squads against Sunni civilians. There has been some of that but not as much as in 2006-8. That round of sectarian murders was only ended by the forcible disbanding of the Shia militias. This time around the government is so eager to mobilize over 100,000 Shia militiamen that these men are being put on the government payroll (for about $500 a month). Over 10,000 members of the Salam Army (formerly the Mahdi Army) refused to take the pay (but took the weapons and equipment) insisting it was their religious duty to fight. Unlike 2008, there are now several new Shia militias, but the basic idea is the same; to defend Shia from Sunni Islamic terrorist attacks. While some of the militiamen have recent military experience, what makes the militias superior to the Iraqi Army and police is that these Shia gunmen are as fanatic as ISIL and better led than most army and police units. What the government is hoping for is another collapse of the Sunni Islamic terrorist organizations. The last time that happened, in 2007, there followed a sharp drop in violence (about 70 percent nationwide versus 2006). This was widely accepted as proof that the Sunni Arab terrorist organizations had collapsed in defeat. The main reason for that was that most of the Sunni Arab tribes had turned against the terrorists, and al Qaeda, which was responsible for most of the suicide bomb attacks. This time around the government is trying to impose more discipline on and control over the militias. There is also talk about letting the militias be permanent, if they behave. But what is actually happening is that the Shia militias are increasingly becoming Iranian controlled.
The Hidden Menace
Most Iraqis don’t get much, if any, exposure to the Islamic terrorism that catches most of the headlines. All Iraqis do share one problem; pervasive corruption. This has always been a major economic, social and political problem in this part of the world. Most Iraqis realize that even when the Islamic terrorism has been eliminated there will still be the corruption. That has led to a growing anti-corruption movement. Since late July 2015 thousands of pro-reform Iraqis have been demonstrating in Baghdad and other cities every Friday to encourage the government to take more action against corruption. The reforms involve eliminating thousands of senior level positions in the government that exist mainly to enable politicians to steal and enforcing existing laws against corruption. The government responded by making some changes that made it more difficult (but not impossible) for corrupt officials to steal and generally muck things up. The people want more of this, and less corruption in general. So far all the government has not done enough and that inaction keeps the demonstrators coming. The people demand more action and these demonstrations may be the start of a sustained anti-corruption movement. What makes these demonstrations so effective is that they have the support of the two top Shia clerics; Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the younger, more radical and pro-Iran Ayatollah Sadr. This clerical support makes the demonstrations impossible to ignore but so many top officials are corrupt that it is difficult to get enough of them removed to persuaded to act with more integrity to make a difference. Corruption has been endemic to this region for thousands of years, but now there is democracy and widespread realization that progress is impossible with the current levels of corruption.
February 13, 2016: In the north (outside Tikrit, 170 kilometers from Baghdad) an Iraqi F-16 used smart bombs to destroy a house where local ISIL leaders were meeting. At least five ISIL leaders died. Iraqi intelligence has established informant networks inside ISIL controlled territory and the emphasis is on quickly reporting high-value targets (like where weapons, fuel or ammo are hidden or where key people are gathering). Iraq has a growing number of aircraft and helicopters that can use laser guided missiles or smart bombs and these are being quickly dispatched to high-value targets.
February 5, 2016: Turkish warplanes used dozens of smart bombs and missiles against PKK targets in northern Iraq. These attacks are becoming more frequent because Turkish UAVs now patrol the area regularly. For the Turks it is imperative that the Kurds in the region must not be allowed to unite and create a Kurdish state. This is what armed Kurdish rebels in Turkey (PKK), Syria, Iraq and Iran are fighting for.
February 1, 2016: Iraqi casualties from ISIL inspired violence has remained at a lower level for the fifth month in a row. In January 849 Iraqis (security forces and civilians) died, down 13 percent from 980 in December. This is also down 39 percent from January 2015. So far in 2016 most (57 percent) of the dead are civilian the rest include Iraqi security forces, including army, Kurds and the many Sunni and Shia militias. Low January and December deaths are part of a trend because there were 888 dead in November, 714 in October and 717 in September. This decline in deaths (from earlier in 2015) is mainly because the government has improved the leadership in the security forces and one result of that is fewer friendly casualties. In August 1,325 Iraqis died, 1,332 in July, 1,466 in June and 1,100 dead in May. The increase after May was largely because the government began its promised June offensive a little late but still 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. Another factor is the difficulty obtaining accurate data on casualties in ISIL held areas. Thus the actual Iraqi total deaths since late 2014 are probably 20-30 percent higher once you include ISIL losses. The death toll for all of 2015 was about 13,400, compared to 15,600 in 2014. That’s still 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 killed by Sunni Islamic terrorists. Despite an expected increase in combat casualties in mid-2016 when the attack on Mosul begins the total 2016 deaths are expected to be at least 20 percent lower than 2015. While 2015 was 14 percent less deadly than 2014 both years were much less than the worst year. That 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 2015 death toll was 55,000, which was down 38 percent from the 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 69,000 dead (down 24 percent from 91,000in 2014) for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll has declined in both Iraq and Syria because ISIL has become less effective and in Syria there is a lot more war weariness. Most of the rebels and government forces in Syria are just playing defense and even ISIL has been less active in attacking compared to 2014.
Between ISIL and Iran backed Shia militia activity in Baghdad that city accounted for 35 percent of all deaths in January and 61 percent of civilian deaths. Most of the Baghdad civilian deaths were from ISIL terror attacks, meant to get media attention and terrorize the Shia population. A growing number of the civilian deaths in Baghdad (and nationwide) are caused by Shia militias killing suspected Sunni terrorists or simply encouraging Sunnis and non-Moslems to get out of Baghdad (and Iraq).
Intelligence analysts have noticed that in the last year ISIL strength in Iraq and Syria has declined about 20 percent (to some 20,000 members) while in Libya strength has doubled to 6,000. The losses in Iraq and Syria are from casualties, desertions and fewer foreign volunteers. There is less of that in Libya because there are very few air attacks and less combat. Moving even more men to Libya is difficult for ISIL because it is more expensive to get people in and out of Libya and there are fewer income producing opportunities in Libya. Building up the Libya operation is apparently seen as vital by ISIL leadership because of the increasing possibility that ISIL will be crushed in Iraq and Syria.