Iraq: Good For Now, Bad For Later

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March 7, 2017: Inside Mosul ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) forces are shooting on sight any civilians who try to leave. At the same time ISIL fighters have been ordered to keep civilians away from the wreckage of buildings just bombed because they were used by ISIL That’s because ISIL knows local civilians are still able to get information out of the city and ISIL does not want the attacking forces to know how effective the air or artillery strikes are. By early March 4,000 people a day were getting out of Mosul and nearly 210,000 had fled the city since the offensive began in October 2016. But over half a million civilians remain in Mosul and ISIL seems intent on preventing the attackers from finding out what is going on in ISIL controlled Mosul.

Actually, it’s not a secret. Intel analysts, taking all available data (refugee reports, prisoner interrogations, Internet chatter, aerial surveillance and captured documents) are pretty certain that ISIL has shifted most of its personnel into or towards Syria and the ISIL capital Raqqa. From there ISIL is trying to get a lot of their veteran operatives out of Syria. ISIL leaders are telling their followers to prepare for setbacks and a shift to clandestine operations (and lots of terror attacks) rather than administering territory. This is not great for morale since a lot of people joined ISIL by answering a call to live and work in an Islamic State. The state is disappearing and the new ISIL announcements appear to be one response to that because ISIL can either try to catch and execute all the recent ISIL recruits deserting or let them go with instructions on how to continue the battle back home. This worries Western nations who have noted lots of their Moslem citizens going to Syria to join ISIL. Rather than being killed in combat (or executed for deserting) these foreign volunteers are now encouraged to go home and continue the fight. Not all who return are full of fight and some go to work for the police (often when the alternative is prison) to catch the true believers before they can do some damage.

For the troops and militia seeking to liberate Mosul this could be very good news because it means the current rapid advances (especially in the southern portion of west Mosul) are not part of a deception (to lead complacent attackers into a trap) but confirmation that ISIL is not going to use a lot of their dwindling fighters to make a bloody last stand in Mosul.

Iraqi commanders have apparently accepted this new assessment and are making the most of it. Foreign advisors (especially the Americans who call in air and artillery strikes) have been allowed, since the end of 2016, to operate as close to the fighting as they thought practical. As a result the guys calling in the smart bombs and artillery are delivering this firepower as quickly as they would for American troops and the Iraqi special operations personnel (many of them trained by Americans) are taking advantage of that to use all that firepower like the Americans do. That means warning civilians in the area to get out and then blasting any opposition they encounter. Refugees report that the ISIL defenders are terrified of these tactics because few who are on the receiving end survive to report details. With all this this in mind Iraqi forces continue to advance into west Mosul and now expect to control the entire city by the end of April rather than the end of the year. ISIL can still inflict casualties; mainly using suicide bombers and hidden explosives (mines and booby traps), but it is obvious that ISIL has pulled their best fighters and battlefield commanders out of Mosul. With on-call air and artillery fire the diehard ISIL fighters can be quickly eliminated by the advancing Iraqis.

The Agony Of Anbar

In western Iraq (Anbar province) the tribal militias are taking advantage of the fact that ISIL is less able to threaten them with force. That means the tribal gunmen now go looking for a fight confident that they will probably win it. The tribesmen are now able to visit many remote areas where ISIL had long prevented anyone from getting near. This new freedom has led to the discovery of several suspected but never located ISIL facilities in remote areas. This includes rural compounds used for bomb making or training. Some of these, especially the ones devoted to supporting bomb attacks in cities, are only being discovered now that tribesmen are able to revisit remote areas ISIL had sealed off for a year or two. But this newfound freedom to travel is not without risk. ISIL has been using “intimidation teams” (or “death squads” according to the locals) to attack civilians (especially unarmed ones) trying to leave rural areas still technically controlled by ISIL. These ISIL teams tend to back off if fired on and are apparently under orders to concentrate on intimidation not confrontation. These teams are also useful for obtaining information. The information is generally not good, at least according to those teams that check in. A growing number of these teams just disappear and ISIL leaders suspect some of those teams deserted rather than fought to the death. Iraqi media have been reporting more ISIL surrenders in Mosul.

Suspicious Minds

Despite being allies, Turkey and Iran are now feuding in the media over public accusations by senior Turkish leaders that Iran was attempting to destabilize Syria and Iraq in order to increase Iranian influence in those countries. While many people in those countries, both pro and anti-Iran, would agree, the official Iranian line is that their military efforts in Syria and Iraq are simply to help fight ISIL. Turkey is largely Sunni and has been trying to improve its relations with all Moslem majority nations in the region since 2000. That is proving difficult with the growing struggle between Shia (led by Iran) and Sunni (led by Saudi Arabia). Turkey has tried to stay out of this conflict but that is proving impossible.

ISIL Attrition

The U.S. believes that ISIL currently has only about 12,000 armed members in Syria and Iraq. That means ISIL has lost about 40 percent of the armed personnel it had a year ago. About half the ISIL fighters appear to be in Iraq where about 2,000 are defending Mosul while the rest are in smaller concentrations along the border trying to keep roads open to Syria. A thousand or more are in still smaller groups in or near cities to plan, prepare and carry out terror attacks.

In Syria ISIL is under heavy pressure and being forced, by advancing government and rebels forces, to concentrate around Raqqa, the ISIL capital and largest city in eastern Syria. While there are few new recruits for ISIL in Iraq the situation is different in Syria. As the rebels continue losing ground in Syria many of the most fanatical rebels are joining ISIL. Many of the less fanatical rebels are quietly deserting the cause and trying to get out of Syria. Foreign recruits are not as abundant as they used to be because hostile governments control all the borders of Syria and Iraq and are, for the moment, very strict with their border control. Those tight border security not only keeps new recruits out, the bad news about ISIL and what happens to foreign recruits means fewer foreign recruits are coming. This blockade has also sharply cut (by at least half) income from smuggling out oil, antiquities or whatever. That means ISIL has less cash to buy (on the black market) essential supplies (like food, ammo, weapons) or pay key staff. Being on the defensive means there’s a lot less loot. ISIL has been trying to move key people (and their families) out of Syria and Iraq since early 2016 and that has become increasingly difficult. Even getting key people moved fr0m Mosul to Raqqa (where the final battle will be) is becoming more dangerous and difficult. Soon it will be impossible because Iraqi forces have surrounded Mosul and the few routes still available are dangerous and often not usable at all. Morale is declining as well and paranoia among the leadership (about who is still trustworthy and who is not) is causing problems. More ISIL members are accused of deserting (or preparing to) or, even worse, being disloyal (backing rival leaders or providing target information to the enemy). Thus there are more executions which hurts morale even more because a growing number of those executed are innocent. This sort of thing is common in situations like this and speeds up the disintegration of the organization, at least in Syria and Iraq. Survivors will go on to help form the next outbreak of Islamic terrorism a cycle that has been around for over a thousand years.

In Syria Aleppo back in hands of the government the war is concentrating on destroying ISIL, which is now rapidly shrinking. A year ago over 2,000 foreigners a month were joining ISIL in Syria. That is down over 90 percent and falling. In both Syria and Iraq more painfully accurate attacks (usually from the air) are killing key ISIL personnel and important facilities (headquarters, ammo storage, training areas, bomb building workshops). In part this is because it is more dangerous to travel, especially across borders. That’s because the professional smugglers are generally anti-ISIL and now assist the government or their own tribe militia, to stage ambushes, usually at night, for ISIL movements. ISIL leaders are a particularly lucrative target because these men usually have more expensive electronics and weapons with them. The government and Americans also pay cash for valuable and timely tips. Another reason for more dead leaders that there are more deserters and refugees are available for questioning and the U.S. has moved in additional aerial ELINT (electronic intelligence collecting) aircraft and satellites. Improved data analysis software has increased the quantity and quality of potential targets. ISIL and al Qaeda are openly (via the Internet) complaining about the loss of so many veteran senior people. Fear is a two way street and ISIL is increasingly on the receiving end.

Safety In Scrupulous Screening

Although Iraqi forces screen civilians who got out of Mosul (over 200,000 have left so far) over half of them heading north to the safer Kurdish controlled areas. The Kurds screen again and so far have identified over 2,000 possible ISIL members among the refugees trying to get into Kurdish territory. Iraqi forces are concerned about their inability to screen as carefully as the Kurds and refugees already report ISIL preparations to leave “sleeper cells” behind. A growing number of these sleepers are being encountered in east Mosul neighborhoods that were already screened and cleared.

Iran And The Americans

The U.S. is not happy with how Iraq has quietly disbanded the “Iran Section” in the Iraqi equivalent of the CIA. This organization was set up after 2004 with $3 billion in American cash and CIA trainers and advisors. Since the American troops left in 2011 Iran has pressured Iraqi officials to shut down the Iran Section and in early 2017 that was quietly done as the last few hundred personnel assigned to the Iran Section were fired or transferred. This has many Iraqis worried. While about 60 percent of Iraqis are Shia most of them do not want Iraq dominated by Iran. The security forces are now dominated by Shia but many of those generals do not want any of the 80-100,000 or so Iran backed Shia militia fighters 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 planning to use his anti-corruption campaign in Baghdad as justification for an armed takeover of the government. In response a lot of Shia pro-government militias are forming. This reinforces the point that most Iraqis, including most Iraqi Shia, do not want to be dominated by Iran. All this has led to more controls being placed on what the pro-Iran Shia militias are allowed to do. Currently that means staying out of Mosul and behaving in Anbar (where pockets of ISIL resistance still exist).

Oil

Iraq, as a founding member of the OPEC oil cartel, had agreed to reduce its oil production by over 1 million barrels a day to help increase the world price for oil. But instead Iraq production increased three percent so far in 2017. Iraq has ten percent of the world's oil reserves and these recently increased by 10 billion barrels. That makes 153 billion barrels, which more than a third larger than it was after the resumption of oil exploration a decade ago. Iran has reserves of 158 billion barrels, Saudi Arabia 266 billion and Venezuela 300 billion. These four nations have the largest reserves which are about 60 percent of the world total. What is keeping the world oil price low is fracking. That new American technology is making much more oil and gas available and it is expected that the U.S. and Canada will soon have “proven reserves” equaling a third of the current world total. The fall in oil prices since 2013 (from over $100 a barrel to as low as $30) has cut foreign currency reserves to $49 billion. In mid-2016 the reserves were $53 billion.

March 6, 2017: In the northwest (Mosul) advancing troops reached another of the five bridges over the Tigris River that separates east and west Mosul. The first such bridge was seized a week earlier (the 27th). Although all five bridges have been destroyed it is important to capture the eastern side because it allows engineers to examine the damage more carefully and see if any unexploded bombs still remain in the wreckage.

March 5, 2017: In southwest Mosul Iraqi forces continue to advance and reported that troops could see (from upper floors of buildings) downtown Mosul. There is not a lot of resistance and apparently ISIL forces are under orders to withdraw to the city center. West of Mosul fighting flared up in Tal Afar.

March 2, 2017: In Mosul ISIL launched a night counterattack on advancing Iraqi forces. This took place during a storm, which limited American air or artillery support. The Iraqi troops defeated the attackers, who withdrew before daylight.

In February 392 civilians and 26 police were killed by Islamic terrorist related activities compared to 382 civilians and 21 police in January. The civilian deaths were down about one percent from December. Nearly half (49 percent) of the civilian deaths were in or near Mosul (Nineveh province), Baghdad suffered nearly as many dead while Salahaddin province (between Baghdad and Mosul) and western Iraq (Anbar province) amounted to less than ten percent of the losses. Most of the deaths in Nineveh province were related to the effort to drive ISIL out of Mosul. Baghdad was usually where most civilian deaths took place and it still a major target for suicide bombing efforts, usually in Shia neighborhoods. ISIL has largely been driven out of Anbar in the last year but because Anbar has a lengthy Syrian border and is south of Nineveh province, it remains active. As usual there was few if any civilian deaths in the Kurdish north or the Shia dominated south (Basra).

Data on military losses stopped being provided in December. This apparently had to do with fear of how bad it would be for morale (and the prospects of reelection for politicians) if the extent (higher than expected) military losses have been since late 2016, when the offensive against ISIL went into high gear. The government did continue to report civilian losses. For 2016 total civilian deaths were 6,878, which was less than 2015. In early December it was revealed that terrorism related deaths rose in November, especially for the security forces. Overall losses in November were 2,885 dead which was 61 percent more than October. Most of the 1,959 November deaths among soldiers, police and militia were from the fighting in and around Mosul. These losses were more than triple security forces deaths in October, when there 1,792 Iraqi deaths (civilian and security forces) from terrorist (mainly ISIL inspired) violence. The government underestimated the public outcry over the losses among military personnel involved in the Mosul campaign. Total deaths for 2016 were expected to be 10-20 percent lower than the 13,400 in 2015 but instead the 2016 losses were 5-10 percent higher. Losses in 2014 were15,600. Until 2013 when 8,900 died, the Islamic terrorist problem seemed under control. It wasn’t and since 2014 it has been an uphill struggle. 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.

March 1, 2017: In northwestern Mosul Iraqi forces took control of the last major road out of Mosul. Sneaking in or out is still possible but high speed movement in or out on a good road is no longer an option for ISIL.

February 27, 2017: In the north (near Kirkuk) four bombs went off along an oil pipeline that was shut down for maintenance. In the northwest advancing forces reached a one of the five bridges over the Tigris River that separates east and west Mosul.

February 25, 2017: In Mosul ISIL apparently fired a shell that contained some kind of deadly chemical. Twelve civilians were found to be injured by this and were moved to Kurdish territory for better care and closer examination. It was soon revealed that ISIL was again using the crude mustard gas that has been showing up a lot more since 2015. In late 2015 Russia revealed that its chemical warfare experts collected mustard gas samples from a dud shell fired in September 2016 by ISIL forces in Aleppo. The Russians also found evidence of ISIL shells filled with chlorine. ISIL is believed to have used chlorine and mustard gas bombs and shells at least 60 times in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

February 24, 2017: Iraqi warplanes, for the first time, hit ISIL targets inside Syria. The airstrikes were in Boukamal and Husseibah, two Syrian towns on the Iraqi border that have long been controlled by ISIL. Iraq made these attacks because ISIL continues to carry out terror bombings against civilians in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq (especially Shia religious shrines and Shia neighborhoods). In Mosul advancing troops have taken the first territory in west Mosul. This includes the airport in southwest Mosul, taken after two days of fighting.

In the southwest (Anbar) a large ISIL force attacked some of the Iraqi troops guarding the Karameh Border Crossing (the main route into Jordan). Using a suicide car bomb and gunmen attacking from several directions fifteen Iraqi soldiers were killed but the attack was repulsed. ISIL has been unsuccessful in establishing a presence in Jordan.

February 22, 2017: In the Kurdish north local and American intelligence analysts both noted increased Iran intel activity in autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq. Iran will only admit that it is interested in keeping track of Iranian Kurds in Iraq, especially members of PJAK (the Iranian Kurdish separatist group long based in Iraq). In 2016 the Iranian artillery fired on suspected PJAK camps in Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. In mid-2016 Iran 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.

February 21, 2017: In the far north, on both sides of the Turkish border Turkish air strikes hit PKK bases and killed at least 17 PKK members.

February 19, 2017: The army resumed its offensive to take Mosul. In west Mosul that was announced by more than twice as many airstrikes at day. That comes to as many as a hundred airstrikes a day, about half of them by American warplanes. In the last few days thousands of leaflets had been dropped on west Mosul warning that the battle was resuming and providing advice on how to deal with the advancing Iraqi forces. The attack force had halted at the east bank of the Tigris River on February 7th to give the troops a rest and bring up supplies and reinforcements as well as time for clearing explosive devices and rubble blocking roads. This is the second halt in the offensive, which began in mid-October. The advance was resumed in mid-December and that one ended when ISIL was driven from Mosul east of the Tigris River. The offensive will resume in about a week or so with troops eventually crossing the river in boats (or helicopters) to establish an enclave on the west bank so combat engineers to create temporary bridges over the Tigris.

February 15, 2017: U.S. intelligence believes ISIL has lost at least 60,000 personnel since mid-2014. The late 2016 estimate was 50,000 and the sharp increase is largely because of the recent offensives to take Mosul (and a similar attack in Syria on ISIL held parts of Aleppo). ISIL leadership has taken heavy losses and the U.S. believes ISIL is done and that by the end of 2017 will be much less of a presence. Precise data on ISIL losses is hard to come by but that is less of a mystery as more ISIL territory is taken and more deserters and prisoners can be interrogated. The U.S. is also deliberately going after ISIL leaders in Iraq and Syria with commando raids to grab documents (usually on laptops, smart phones, and USB drives) that accompany these men. Compiling all the captured data gives the most accurate estimates of enemy losses. This means that since 2013 (when ISIL first appeared) the group has lost over 60,000 personnel to combat, disease, accidents and desertion. Most of the losses have been suffered in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It’s believed that ISIL currently has only about 15,000 fighters available, mostly in Syria and Iraq. There are a few thousand more in northern Libya, eastern Afghanistan and Egypt. In all five countries ISIL is under heavy attack and ISIL recently lost its only major Libyan base (the coastal city of Sirte). Defending the city cost them the loss of some 3,000 personnel (dead, captured and deserters).

February 13, 2017: In the north, near the Syrian border Iraqi warplanes bombed ISIL targets in the town of al Qaim. The air force reported about 13 ISIL leaders and over 60 ISIL fighters died when a compound was hit where ISIL was sheltering a convoy of vehicles from Raqqa carrying the ISIL leaders to Iraq.

February 11, 2017: In Baghdad a large demonstration by pro-Iran Shia turned violent as the people tried to force their way into the Green Zone. Seven were killed and over 300 wounded as police fought to halt that move. In the past pro-Sadr demonstrations had gotten into the Green Zone. Later someone fired several rockets into the Green Zone.

 


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