Iraq: Old City Turns Red And Dead

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June 19, 2017: In the north government forces have reduced ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) controlled territory to one crowded neighborhood in the “old city” district. This area contains the Grand Mosque where ISIL announced the formation of their “Islamic State” after taking Mosul in mid-2014. In February the Iraqi forces began their offensive to take western Mosul and since then they have driven ISIL out of over 300 square kilometers of the city. Along the way they have verified (to varying degrees of accuracy) the death of nearly 1,400 ISIL fighters. Along the way Iraqi forces disabled or destroyed over 900 vehicles that had been rigged with explosives and cleared over 800 landmines. Now there is only two square kilometers of the city held by ISIL.

The battle west of Mosul for Tal Afar was fought largely by the Iran-backed Shia militia and those militias are now on the Syrian border. With the main road from Mosul to Raqqa now blocked it is more difficult but not impossible to travel between Syria and Mosul. While the militias have established heavily armed checkpoint on the main roads, vehicles can still travel on dirt roads or cross country. Until recently the militias did not have the manpower to provide garrisons for all the towns in the area between Mosul and Syria so the fighting consisted of lots of heavily armed patrols looking for the many small groups of ISIL men still around. The militias are largely pro-Iran and thus refuse to work with American advisors or air support. But with about a few hundred ISIL fighters left in Mosul and about as many still lose in the surrounding Nineveh province and nearby provinces those ISIL men outside the city have to be chased down. After the Old City area of Mosul is taken in the next few weeks the army, and particularly the Iraqi special operations troops can be sent west of Mosul to deal with the remaining ISIL forces in Tal Afar and surrounding areas. The Iraqi army has air support and more specialists than the militias and are not likely to disobey orders, like the Iran backed Iraqi Shia militias often do.

The government is facing more aggressive pressure (from the Americans and Sunnis throughout the region) to reduce the Iranian presence in Iraq. A growing number of senior Shia Iraqi officials are openly and loudly backing this. While the Iraqi Shia Arabs are in favor of the Shia majority continuing to control the government they are resisting Iranian pressure (and occasional threats) to back Iran in its struggle to replace the Sunni Saudis as the guardians of key Moslem shrines and holy places in Saudi Arabia. Turkey recently came out openly demanding that Iran back off in Iraq and in general. While Russia and Turkey back Iranian efforts to keep the Shia minority (led by the Assads) in control of Syria, both oppose Iran expanding their influence in Iraq and Syria. The Americans and Israel are with Turkey and Russia on that point but the Americans want the Assads gone and the Israelis don’t much care who runs Syria as long isn’t another Iranian backed Islamic terror group like Hezbollah in Syria.

The Iraqi government is also struggling to stay out of the recent Saudi led effort to force Qatar to halt its support for Iran. Qatar denies the charge and at the center of the dispute is the accusation that Qatar is quietly backing Iran and Islamic terrorists. This is nothing new for Qatar. Back in late 2014 Qatar was criticized for its energetic efforts to supply Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria with weapons and ammunition. This criticism was based on video and items captured from ISIL. One video showed an ISIL man using a Chinese FN-6 shoulder fired surface to air missile to shoot down an Iraqi helicopter. The FN-6 was known to have been provided by Qatar to rebels in Syria. Other Chinese weapons and ammunition from Qatar have also been captured from ISIL. The Qatari stuff comes from items either captured by ISIL (which has been fighting other rebel groups all through 2014) or because many Syrian rebel groups had joined ISIL after ISIL took control of Mosul in mid-2014.

The latest accusation is all about a billion dollar ransom Qatar is accused of paying in April to al Qaeda and Iraqi Shia militias to obtain the release of 26 prominent Qataris kidnapped (by an Iran backed Shia militia) in southern Iraq at the end of 2015. The Qataris were there legally on a falcon hunt and appeals to Iran and Iraq to help resolve the issue failed. So the Qataris made a deal, mainly because eleven of the captives were members of the Qatari royal family. As part of the deal Iran did persuade their forces in Syria to release a number of al Qaeda captives. Most of the ransom money went to Iran or pro-Iranian Shia groups. Iraq now insists that the half billion dollar portion of the ransom meant for Iran and pro-Iran Shia militias did arrive in Iraq but remains in an Iraqi bank. The rest of the billion was apparently already delivered to various Sunni Islamic terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

The current chapter of the Qatar crises began on June 5th when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain cut diplomatic, economic and military relations with tiny Saudi neighbor Qatar. Ambassadors were expelled, borders were closed and Qatar was made to feel very unwelcome. Yemen and several other Moslem nations followed suit. The expulsion comes after years of criticisms regarding Qatari support for Islamic terrorism and the perception among Arab states that Qatar could not be trusted. Cutting ties with Qatar is partly retaliation against the Qatar based and subsidized al Jazeera satellite news network which often reports on real or imagined (depending on who you ask) bad behavior by Sunni Arab governments and their security forces. Al Jazeera does not criticize the Qatar government.

Qatar also openly supports Palestinian terror group Hamas, although Qatar recently ordered some senior Hamas leaders to leave Qatar for another sanctuary. Al Jazeera reporters have a hard time avoiding arrest (or worse) in Egypt and other Moslem states but they are often abused by Islamic terror groups as well. Qatar is also seen as siding with Iran in the current struggle between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. This sort of behavior is not uncommon in the region and the small Arab Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait and the member states of the UAE have survived for centuries using these methods. One could say Qatar has been too successful and the current unpleasantness is the price of that success. As is the local custom secret meetings will be held, demands discussed and agreements made. How long this takes will depend on how long Qatar can last without its usual providers of all the food and just about everything else. The expulsion cut off half of that immediately and a naval blockade would be disastrous. About 40 percent of imports came via Saudi Arabia.

Qatar does have local allies. Iran offered to ship food and other emergency supplies to Qatar and Turkey has offered to send 3,000 more troops to the small base Turkey already has in Qatar, along with a few hundred troops. Turkey is a major customer (over $700 million a year) of Qatari natural gas and Qatar has invested some $20 billion in Turkey. Qatar has assured the United States that the American bases and about 10,000 military personnel in Qatar were safe. Turning to Iran was obvious but Turkey is a more interesting case. Turkey is establishing a military base in Qatar to support Turkish peacekeeping and efforts in Africa (especially Somalia) and relations with the Arabian states. Turkey is less eager to get too close to Iran.

The Qatar dispute is bringing unwelcome publicity to a lot of Arabian customs and unsavory aspects of Persian Gulf politics. For Iraqis it is a reminder that while Iran may be the major defender of Shia Islam (most Iraqis are Shia) it is also an ancient threat to Arabs in general (Shia, Sunni or whatever). Iran is seen as being the big loser here but the entire incident does not reflect well on anyone.

June 18, 2017: Troops in Mosul began what is being called the final assault on the last ISIL held neighborhood; two square kilometers (200 hectares/500 acres) of the Old City. There are about 300 ISIL fighters left in this area and lots of landmines and hidden bombs. There are also as many as 100,000 civilians and ISIL forces are holding the civilians there by force, shooting any they catch trying to sneak out. In the last month nearly 100,000 have. Intel analysts questioned many of them and got a good idea of where the few ISIL fighters were based inside the Old City, how many there were and what they intend to do. One thing ISIL did was build a lot of hidden passageways, often by knocking holes in walls adjacent buildings. Since many of these buildings are ancient and fragile to begin with, these ISIL alterations make them more so. Thus the attack force cannot use a lot of firepower (like 155mm artillery and larger rockets or smart bombs). Hellfire missiles are the most often used airstrike weapon. ISIL knows they are going to lose Mosul and prefer to do it with as much death and destruction as possible.

June 17, 2017: In the Kurdish north some Turkish troops crossed the border overnight apparently to deal with a group of PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels) gunmen Turkish UAVs had spotted near the border. One of the UAVs attacked the PKK men with missiles, killing two of them. The surviving PKK men fled deeper into Iraq while the Turkish troops (probably commandos) apparently collected evidence and returned to Turkey before dawn. Such incursions are common, but rarely large scale and that is one reason why there are often not reported. The Iraqi government ignores it while the Iraqi Kurds stay out of the way.

In the southwest (Anbar province) Sunni tribal militiamen continued clearing ISIL fighters away from the Syrian border, particularly the main Baghdad-Damascus highway that crosses the border at the Tanf (on the Syrian side) Walweed (on the Iraqi side) checkpoint. The Iraqi army is in the process of clearing ISIL out of Anbar completely and sealing the border is part of that.

June 16, 2017: Russia revealed that it is in the process of verifying that one of their airstrikes in late May killed ISIL founder Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in Syria, along with several other ISIL leaders. Back in April Iraqi intel revealed that it had evidence Baghdadi had left Mosul for Syria in January or February and had not returned to Iraq since.

June 15, 2017: In the northwest (west of Mosul) several hundred members of an Iran-backed Shia militia crossed into Syria for a second time despite assurances by the Iraqi government that these pro-Iran militias would not enter Syria. As happened on June 2nd the Iraqi militiamen went back to Iraq after a few hours. In both instances the action was justified to deal with ISIL forces on the Syrian side that were firing rockets and shells into Iraq.

Another problem was that the Iraqi militiamen entered an area (Hasakah province) that has largely been under Kurdish control since 2012 and the Syrian Kurds warned Iraqis to stay out. This incursion apparently has more to do with the Iranian goal of establishing a safe (for Iranian arms shipments) land route from Iran to Lebanon. A major highway crosses the border in the area where the Iraqi Shia militia are operating, now on both sides of the border. The Iraqis did not advance far and most returned to Iraq.

In the west (Anbar) ISIL used explosives to bring down three electrical towers near Hit (or “Heet”) causing a blackout in large areas between the provincial capital (Ramadi) and the Syrian border.

June 14, 2017: In the northwest (Mosul) about a hundred ISIL gunmen made a surprise attack and after killing 11 policemen and five civilians occupied a mosque. An airstrike demolished the mosque and Iraqi troops moved in to confirm that the ISIL gunmen were there, and all dead.

In the west (Anbar) the U.S. moved two MLRS (228mm GPS guided rocket launchers) vehicles into Syria (a base near the Tanf border crossing). The Iraqi government has agreed to order Iran sponsored Shia militia away from the Syrian border and especially the main border crossings. On the Syrian side of the border American warplanes have attacked Iran backed Shia mercenaries who are there to keep the Assads in power and in this case to open a road from Damascus to Baghdad and the Iranian border.

June 13, 2017: In the north Turkish F-16s bombed several PKK camps in northern (Kurdish) Iraq over the last two days, leaving at least 15 PKK members dead. Most of these airstrikes take place in remote areas near the Turkish border.

June 10, 2017: In the northwest (Nineveh province) Iraqi Shia militias declared the western portion of the province free of ISIL forces, at least in occupied localities. The militias have not got the manpower to provide garrisons for all the towns in the area between Mosul and Syria so the fighting has consisted of lots of heavily armed patrols looking for the many small groups of ISIL men still around. The militias are largely pro-Iran and thus refuse to work with American advisors or air support. But with about half the 1,500 ISIL fighters left in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh province cornered in about three percent of west Mosul, the rest of those ISIL men have to be chased down. The army, and particularly the Iraqi special operations troops can now be sent west of Mosul to deal with the remaining ISIL forces in Tal Afar and surrounding areas. The Iraqi army has air support and more specialists.

June 9, 2017: Turkey openly criticized the Kurdish government of northern Iraq for their recently announced plan to hold a referendum in September to see if a majority of Iraqi Kurds wanted to set up a separate Kurdish state. Turkey plays an important part in this because the Kurds continue to pump and ship (via a Turkish pipeline) up to half a million barrels of oil a day. The Shia Arab dominated national government wants that to stop but has not got the military superiority make the Kurds back off. The main obstacle to the Kurds moving forward with the independence effort is internal divisions. Despite the apparent unity the Iraqi Kurds have long been divided by clan loyalty. The Kurdish north is currently dominated by the Barzani family. The Iraqi Kurds had long been divided into warring clans with the two largest of them led by the Barzani and Talibani families. Since the 1990s, the Barzanis have emerged as the most powerful clan and they are behaving more like a dictatorship (corruption, suppression of dissent, and rigged elections). Popular anger against this among Kurds is increasing. Despite that, Kurds living outside the autonomous area continue to move back to the Kurdish region. Even the Iraqi Army, which was rebuilt after 2003, with a core of experienced, loyal, and reliable Kurdish troops lost many of its Kurds. For the Kurdish soldiers leaving was mainly a matter of not wanting to get caught up in the war between Shia and Sunni Arabs.

The autonomous Kurdish government revealed that their armed forces (the Peshmerga) had suffered 11,000 casualties fighting ISIL (since 2014). Most (82 percent) of these casualties were wounds, although nearly 20 percent of those wounded were permanently disabled and 18 percent of all casualties were dead or missing. The fact that these Kurds were the most effective Iraqi troops in Iraq is not lost on anyone.

June 7, 2017: In Iran there was a rare ISIL attack in the capital as six ISIL men armed with firearms and explosive vests attacked the parliament (in central Tehran) and a shrine to religious leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (who established the current religious dictatorship) south of Tehran. All six attackers were killed but not before seven other people died and 43 wounded. It was soon discovered five of the dead ISIL men were Iranians who police knew or suspected had left the country to join ISIL. The five apparently returned to set up an ISIL branch in Iran and ISIL boasts that this is the first attack of many in Iran. The violence today did some damage to the Parliament building and the Khomeini Shrine but the Iranian government suffered a major loss of popularity with the public. The government had justified all the money and resources spent in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere as necessary to keep ISIL out. Until now they could say that effort had worked..

June 6, 2017: For the last week the remaining ISIL forces in Mosul have apparently been carrying out a “shoot to kill” order for any civilians caught trying to escape the remaining neighborhood ISIL controls. Over 200 of these killings were witnessed by ground forces or surveillance aircraft. It is estimated that there are only a few hundred ISIL fighters left in Mosul.

June 5, 2017: In Anbar Iraqi forces on the Syrian border could hear and sometimes see American airstrikes across the border in Deir Ezzor province. This is of interest to Iraqis because the Americans use an old Syrian military base near Tanf. Today some of those American airstrikes hit Syrian government forces (Iran backed Shia mercenaries) who had moved too close to the Tanf border crossing. This was the second such attack since late May and carried out after repeated warning (to the Russians, mainly) to remove those forces from the area. The first airstrike (May 20) was carried out because a convoy had entered a “de-confliction” zone the U.S. and Russia had agreed would be controlled by U.S. backed rebels who operate out of training bases in Jordan and near the Iraq border. The Iranian militia did not try to advance again for a while. But recently some did move forward and establish a camp within the zone. Iran backed Syrian Army forces have advanced to within 20 kilometers of Tanf and the U.S. wants to keep Iran backed forces away from the Iraq border to prevent Iran from established a road link from Iran through Syria and into Lebanon. An American backed Sunni tribal militia (Maghawir a Thawra or MAT) controls the Tanf crossing and an Iraqi tribal militia controls the Iraqi side. By March these two tribal militias have opened and maintained the border crossing for all non-military traffic. Vehicles are searched for explosives and the MAT militia admit they have American air power on call if they encounter any problems. MAT charges a fee for most cargo passing through and does not care where the cargo is going (to Assad or ISIL controlled territory). Apparently MAT will contact the Americans if they encounter vehicles that are clean but may be Iranians. Naturally vehicles carrying cargoes of weapons are not allowed.

June 4, 2017: In the northwest (Nineveh province) Iraqi Shia militias declared the border town of Baaj (160 kilometers southwest of Mosul, near the Syrian border) clear of ISIL forces and now occupied by government forces to keep it that way.

June 2, 2017: In the northwest (west of Mosul) several hundred members of an Iran-backed Shia militia crossed into Syria despite assurances by the Iraqi government that these pro-Iran militias would not enter Syria. The militiamen did not stay long in Syria.

June 1, 2017: The unofficial burqa ban in Mosul became official. Since November Iraqi troops have regularly demanded that women uncover their faces at checkpoints to verify they are not ISIL men seeking to evade security. That worked so well that more and more women dispensed with the face veil altogether. This was fairly common before ISIL took the city in mid-2014 and women were reluctant to abandon the face veil even when ISIL was driven out of parts of the city after the government offensive began in October. Women feared ISIL might return, but by early 2017 more Mosul residents changed their minds and more women went out regularly without the veil. Security forces will still encounter ISIL men wearing burqas, but avoiding checkpoints. Even those incidents are now rare and there seemed to be no popular opposition to a ban on face veils.

May 27, 2017: In northern Iraq (West of Mosul near the Syrian border) another IRGC officer was killed while advising (or leading) Iraqi Shia militiamen. Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012.

May 26, 2017: The U.S. revealed that it had confirmed the deaths of three senior ISIL leaders since March due to American airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Identifying exactly who was killed in airstrikes in enemy territory takes time and effort and that is usually considered worth it because the loss of senior people disrupts organizations like ISIL and such confirmations also verify the usefulness of some types of intelligence (informants, sensors, electronic monitoring and so on). All three of these leaders were foreigners (from Turkey, Algeria and another country that was not revealed). Most senior ISIL officials have fled to Syria but the one killed in Iraq, Abu Khattab al Rawi, was a combat commander (the other two were planners) and he was killed May 18 near the Syrian border at al Qaim. This was on the main road between Mosul and Raqqa, which was abandoned by ISIL on May 22nd because the area was being overrun by Iraqi forces.

May 23, 2017: ISIL announced that it had established secret headquarters in the north at Hawijah (50 kilometers south of Kirkuk city). Hawijah is in the center of Kirkuk province and has been the center of ISIL activity against the Iraqi Kurds, who control Kirkuk and everything north of that. There has been fighting between ISIL factions in Hawijah recently apparently because of a dispute over how the remaining few hundred ISIL members in Iraq and outside of Mosul would be organized. There are now two factions, one controlling Hawijah and ISIL forces in other northern provinces except for Nineveh, which is on the Syrian border and where Mosul is.

May 22, 2017: In the east, on the Iraqi border, ISIL pulled all its personnel out of the Iraqi border town of al Qaim and two other border towns the group had controlled since 2014. Qaim was special because it was the main border crossing between Iraq and Syria and increasingly hit with airstrikes and now ground forces as well. ISIL lost most other border towns already but held onto al Qaim as long as it could because it was a key link in the main road from Mosul to Raqqa. That link is apparently no longer considered essential because ISIL only holds a small (one or two percent) of Mosul and is about to lose that as well.

 


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