Iraq: The Two Front War

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August 17, 2016: In the north the Kurds have been on the offensive around Mosul and have used their better training and leadership, as well as American air support, to appear unbeatable to many of the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters facing them. Not only are ISIL defenders being defeated and destroyed, with little visible loss to the Kurds, but details of these defeats have circulated throughout the ISIL forces defending Mosul. This has led to more desertions including leaders of units. This last item requires swift, strong and public response from senior ISIL leadership and that’s what happened. In the last week there have been several public executions of ISIL field commanders who deserted, often while with units under attack by the Kurds. In the past these executions have caused a momentary decline in desertions but that was mainly because those thinking of deserting sought a less risky way of doing it.

Those fighting the Kurds north of Mosul were particularly disheartened to hear of the recent loss of Manbij in northern Syria. The attackers in Syria were mainly Kurds doing there what they appear to be doing outside Mosul. While ISIL worships the past, they don’t seem to be learning much from it because the Kurds and their American air support took advantage of ISIL inflexibility in Syria at the Kurdish town of Kobane in early 2015. The heavy ISIL losses at Kobane hurt ISIL morale but did not persuade ISIL leadership to avoid making the same mistake again. Like Kobane (a historically Kurdish town near the Turkish border) ISIL is obsessed with Mosul. While ISIL never managed to take Kobane, they are determined not to lose Mosul. Historical experience is against them once more.

The outskirts of Mosul has become a place ISIL fighters go to and never return from. Although they are told they will not be attacking they are not told that they will provide target practice for artillery and an international coalition of warplanes assisting the Iraqi Air Force. Iraqi troops have adopted the same slow but successful and safe tactics the Kurds have long used. Scout thoroughly, use aerial surveillance as much as possible and call in air or artillery strikes as soon as you have located ISIL fighters. Iraqi Army troops often have M1 tanks with them that use their 120mm cannon to destroy ISIL bunkers or even sniper hiding places. The downside of this is tremendous property damage. But in the long run that is easier to repair that than live with bitter memories of poorly trained and led troops being slaughtered because of government fears that well trained troops might become a threat. This is a common problem in the Middle East and even the elected government of Iraq was influenced by it. But now the Iraqi leaders are more influenced by the increasingly visible public anger at continued corruption, mismanagement and gridlock in parliament. Add to that the ISIL threat and suddenly the coup threat from competent Iraqi soldiers shrinks considerably. The improved tactics and leadership are cutting Mosul off from ISIL reinforcement and gradually lowering the morale, numbers and effectiveness of the defenders. Iraqi government assertions that they will retake Mosul by the end of 2016 may actually happen.

There has been little good news lately to encourage ISIL fighters or their leaders. With the recent loss of Ramadi and Fallujah in western Iraq and Manbij in Syria ISIL is now desperately trying to retain control over some of the roads crossing the Iraq/Syria border. Without control of those roads ISIL cannot quickly move anything between Iraq and Syria. Mosul is basically cut off from the outside world and Raqqa, the largest city in eastern Syria and the ISIL “capital” is also being surrounded. Losing control of so many roads means it is easier to concentrate a very large force against ISIL defenders in a town or military base and quickly defeat the defenders no matter how fanatic they are. This is what the current Kurdish advance is mainly about.

The Mosul Timetable

The Kurdish offensive outside Mosul is a clear indication that the final battle is beginning. That’s because the Kurds take a lot of casualties (by their own standards) when actively attacking ISIL defenders in the dozens of villages outside Mosul. The Kurds made it very clear over the last year that they would not start their offensive until they were assured that the Iraq government forces south of the city were ready and able to do the same. The Kurdish advance is described as a “shaping operation” to deny ISIL use of key roads for moving their forces or supplies.

The Kurds have found that their security measures still work well and ISIL attempts to take back areas recently lost of the Kurds nearly always end in a lopsided defeat for the attackers. ISIL still depends on suicide bomber (on foot or in vehicles) but the Kurds and other Iraqi security forces have learned how to spot the suicide bombers and kill them before they get close enough to do much damage. The ISIL gunmen that accompany the suicide bombers usually attack anyway and are shot down by the now very alert defenders. These defeats don't do much for ISIL morale either.

Iran Gets Up To Speed

Iran makes no secret of its desire to become the dominant foreign influence in Iraq. It uses religion, aid, diplomacy, threats, bribes and illegal drugs to get that influence. The last item is methamphetamine (“crystal meth” or “speed”) a synthetic narcotic that is manufactured in Iran and smuggled into Iraq with the help of bribes to Iranian and Iraqi border police and coast guards. Unlike opium and heroin from Afghanistan, meth can be made locally and since 2014 it has become a popular business opportunity for many unemployed but technically adept Iranians. The government has been finding and destroying dozens of meth labs each month and executing a growing number of those caught making or distributing the drug. That has not slowed it down because meth is cheaper and faster acting than opium and as a stimulant has legitimate uses for people who have to stay alert for long periods at work. So far not a lot of Iraqis are setting up meth labs but that will change as more Iraqis learn how to do it. Currently about three percent of Iranians are addicted to meth, opium or heroin and Iraq is catching up with that as well.

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.

While Iraqi Shia appreciate Iranian support against ISIL, they are constantly reminded that this support comes with dangerous conditions. Case in point is the need for air support during the upcoming battle to push ISIL out of Mosul. Iraqi military leaders know that American air support is crucial to the success of Iraqi forces in talking Mosul. The Americans have offered substantial air support during the final assault on Mosul. The U.S. led air coalition over Iraq and Syria has been averaging about a hundred attacks (using either a guided missile or smart bomb) a day in June and July. About a third of that is in Syria but more will be switched to Iraq when the fighting is heavy inside Mosul. The Americans have brought in more ground controller teams to operate with Iraqi forces and provide timely air strikes. At its peak there will probably be several hundred guided missiles and smart bombs a day used in Mosul. Iran-backed Shia militia refuse to use American air support at the same time the Iran is pressuring Iraq to allow these Shia militias to play a major role in the Mosul battle.

Many in the Iraqi government army leadership do not want any of the 100,000 or so Iran backed Shia militia involved in retaking Mosul. The Iraqi Shia that control the Iraqi government and military do not trust Iran and believe the Iran controlled Shia militias are being prepared to support an armed takeover of the current Shia controlled government. Many of the Shia militia are from Baghdad and there are growing fears that Shia cleric Ayatollah Muqtada al Sadr, an open fan of the Shia religious dictatorship in Iran, is believed planning to use his months long anti-corruption campaign in Baghdad as justification for an armed takeover of the government.

August 16, 2016: In the far west (Anbar) ISIL attacked a border guard base on the Jordan border. The pre-dawn attack was repulsed but eight Iraqi soldiers and one civilian were killed and 17 soldiers wounded. The attack began with heavy mortar fire which apparently caused most of the Iraqi casualties. Several ISIL attackers appear to have been killed but the ISIL force took their dead and wounded with them as they retreated.

Kurds operating north of Mosul confirmed that among the enemy they had killed recently was Abu Ahmed al Shami, the ISIL Minister of Media and ISIL chief spokesman.

August 11, 2016: In the northeast (Erbil province) Iranian artillery fired several dozen shells are rural areas on the Iraqi side of the border. It is believed the Iranians were (for the second time this year) firing on suspected PJAK (the Iranian Kurdish separatist group based in Iraq) camps in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. Iran recently launched another offensive against PJAK operating on both sides of the border. Dozens of civilians fled the area where the shells were landing but there were apparently no casualties.

August 10, 2016: In the west (northwestern Anbar province) a joint force of American and Kurdish commandos raided a village (Qaim) near the Syrian border and killed the senior ISIL official in charge of natural resources (like oil). The raiders would have preferred to take the guy alive but ISIL leaders rarely cooperate. The other objective of the raid, seizing ISIL documents, apparently did succeed.

August 8, 2016: in western Iraq (Anbar province) local officials announced that only about 30 percent of the province was still controlled or threatened by ISIL forces and urged Anbar refugees to return to their towns, villages and city neighborhoods as soon as they received word that ISIL was gone. The rest of the province is supposed to be ISIL free by the end of 2016. Several hundred thousand civilians have already returned home after they were assured that ISIL fighters and bombs had been cleared out of their recently liberated homes. Ramadi, Fallujah, Hit (or “Heet”) and other urban recently fought over often contain mines and hidden bombs left by ISIL, which the security forces are supposed to find and disable. Iraqi soldiers and Shia militia continue to drive ISIL out of towns and villages in Anbar, where ISIL is trying to maintain a presence if only to support terror attacks in Shia population centers (especially Baghdad) to the east.

August 7, 2016: In the north (outside Kirkuk) the local ISIL field commander (Mohamed Nassif al Hosh) died when a bomb, planted under his car, exploded while he was on the road. The Kurds and American Special Forces have helped organize and equip an anti-ISIL resistance in ISIL occupied areas of northern Iraq. This is mainly to collect information on what ISIL is up to and provide target information for air strikes. In this case a remote control “sticky” bomb was placed underneath the car and then detonated when the ISIL leader was inside it.

In the west, at the town of Tanf on the Syrian border, FSA (Free Syrian Army) rebels defeated an early morning ISIL attempt to regain control of the border crossing that connects western Anbar province with largely ISIL-held eastern Syria. ISIL used a suicide car bomber (and one on foot with an explosive vest) supported by over a dozen gunmen. The bombers were unable to get close enough to the FSA men before detonating. The FSA return fire they drove off the ISIL gunmen. The FSA forces here are based in Jordan, where they have the support of Jordan and the United States. Holding Tanf is, for all practical purposes, part of the preparations for liberating Mosul. Iraqi Shia militias are defending some of the border posts on the Iraqi side and have also been successful in defeating recent ISIL attacks.

August 4, 2016: In Egypt the government reported that the security forces had killed Doaa Abu Ansari, the head of ISIL in Sinai. Most Egyptians are skeptical because Ansari has been reported as killed several times in the past but always shows up again. There were about 45 people killed in the several days of raids, air strikes and searches for Islamic terrorists in Sinai. Some of the dead may indeed have been ISIL members, but more proof is needed to convince people that Ansari is really, really dead. Other recent reports indicate that the head of ISIL in Afghanistan and Pakistan was also killed. These losses further weaken ISIL boasts that they are on a Mission From God that succeeds because of the spiritual connection. But how do you explain the many failures?

August 1, 2016: Iraqi deaths from terrorist (mainly ISIL inspired) violence increased 15 percent (to 759) in July. This comes after a 23 percent decline (to 662) in June. The July losses are closer to what they were in May ( 867). Civilians accounted for most of the deaths because ISIL is losing on the battlefield and concentrating on terror attacks against civilians, mainly in Baghdad. That’s where 68 percent of the deaths took place in July and most of the dead there were Shia civilians. That’s a major change from the past as civilians accounted for about half the June and May deaths, which was down from 55 percent in April and the 60 percent that had long been the norm. This shift came from increased attacks by the security forces on ISIL, better security to deal with ISIL terror attacks on civilian or military targets and, finally, the diminishing strength if ISIL after nearly a year of defeats. Electronic chatter confirms what ISIL deserters and prisoners report about low morale and fewer recruits. At least a third of the May deaths are believed to be the result of the offensive against ISIL forces in Fallujah that began on May 22nd and ended on June 26th. There were no major battles in July but in early August the advance on Mosul began.

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. 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.

 

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