Iraq: The Wars Grind Down

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September 19, 2017: The many wars in Iraq are ending, or so it is hoped. If peace finally does arrive it will end nearly four decades of fighting. This was a remarkably destructive, and avoidable, catastrophe that began in 1980 when Saddam Hussein decided to invade Iran. Everyone in Iraq is still trying to blame someone else for the decades of war. It’s always been popular, throughout the region, to blame outsiders for catastrophes like this. Eventually there is a realization that the cause is closer to home, and is often in just about every Iraqi home. This time around, as the four year war against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) ends, there is much less of the “blame outsiders” posturing. Even the Americans are not among the top foreign powers blamed for secretly seeking to destroy Iraq. Actually this time around the Americans are seen as welcome allies, if only because the Americans left when they said they would in 2011 but warned the Iraqis that if they didn’t mend relations between Shia, Sunni, Kurds and other minorities the would again come apart. The Shia dominated government very blatantly ignored that advice and got ISIL and a major Iranian effort to corrupt, intimidate and control the Iraqi government. Even before 2014 the Iraqi government was trying to persuade the Americans to return and help them out.

Now there is another round of revenge millings in areas controlled by ISIL for years. The Kurds are planning to hold an independence referendum on the 25th and a mounting chorus of threats from the Iraqi government and the neighbors has not yet persuaded the Kurds to cancel the vote. But the most dangerous dispute is within the Sunni Arab community, where most of the local support for ISIL came from. ISIL was brutal to Sunni dissenters and now the dissenters are back in charge and want revenge. So do Shia, Kurds, Christians and other minorities that suffered under ISIL rule but the worst of this revenge violence is coming from Sunni Arab groups who suffered under ISIL (for disagreeing with the goals or means ISIL employed). Grudges last a long time in this part of the world and ISIL left behind some epic feuds that will, if the past is any indication, take many generations to fade and become just another bitter memory.

Kirkuk and Hawijah

With the recent capture of Tal Afar (between Mosul and Syria) the last city held by ISIL in the north is Hawijah, which is 45 kilometers west of Kirkuk city. ISIL has occupied Hawijah since mid-2014 but it was isolated in July 2017 when Mosul fell. Hawijah has always been a stronghold of Islamic terrorism because it is a Sunni majority city of 100,000 in a region that is largely Kurdish and Shia Arab. In late May as it became clear that Mosul would fall ISIL announced that it had established secret headquarters in the north at Hawijah. This is in the center of Kirkuk province where Hawijah has been the main base for ISIL activity against the Iraqi Kurds, who control Kirkuk city and everything north of that. There has been fighting between ISIL factions in Hawijah in the months before Mosul fell because of a dispute over how the remaining ISIL members in Iraq and outside of Mosul would be organized. By May there were 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. Once Mosul was cleared of organized ISIL resistance in July the security forces moved to take Hawijah. There was panic among the thousands of ISIL supporters (most of them families of ISIL fighters) in Hawijah. One ISIL faction in Hawijah wanted to make a last stand in the city but noting the revenge killings in Mosul against ISIL supporters and family members of ISIL men, most people associated with ISIL in Hawijah sought to flee the city for wherever they could find safety. Many headed for the nearby dam on the Diyala River, where about a dozen villages were still controlled by ISIL. This was easier to reach than the other ISIL controlled territory on the Syrian border. ISIL leaders and fighters are not supposed to flee with the families and ISIL has released videos of ISIL leaders being executed for trying to leave Hawijah with the civilians.

The battle for Hawijah brought substantial Iraqi government forces into an area that has long been claimed by the Kurds. This is part of an ongoing problem with the Arab dominated Iraqi government recognizing Kurdish control of Kirkuk province. There was supposed to be a referendum in Kirkuk in 2007 to decide if Kirkuk should become part of the Kurdish autonomous areas or remain “Arab”. That vote never took place and the Kurds still want it to happen.

Kirkuk is about 83 kilometers south of the current Kurdish capital Erbil and nearly 300 kilometers north of Baghdad. The Arab controlled national government kept delaying the referendum in Kirkuk because they thought they would lose. That’s because for over a decade Saddam Hussein had deliberately driven Kurds from Kirkuk and brought in poor Sunnis from the south to take the place (and homes) of the departed Kurds. After 2003 the displaced Kurds returned and there has been violence between Kurds and Arabs in Kirkuk ever since. Many of these recent Arab migrants left since 2004 and Kirkuk is believed to be a majority Kurd city again. Most of the non-Kurds in Kirkuk would rather be ruled by the more efficient and less corrupt Kurdish government of the north than the Arab dominated national government. There are problems with that as well. The largest non-Kurd group is Turkish (Turkmen, Turks from Turkmenistan in Central Asia not Turkey) and the Turkmen are not united. They are divided by politics (although most favor alliance with the Kurds), religion (Sunni, Shia and Catholic). The inability of the Turkmen to unite is exploited by the Shia Arab government in Baghdad as well as Iran. The national government is not happy with the fact that it does not control the Kurdish north but despite the ISIL threat still stalls in giving the Kurds their share of oil revenue and foreign military aid. Western nations are more sympathetic to allowing the Kurds to freely pump, ship and sell the oil on their territory (which, technically, the national government in Baghdad controls). In the past the Baghdad bureaucrats have used that legal status to block Kurdish attempts to sell their oil. Now more Western countries are willing to ignore the protests from Baghdad and do business with the Kurds in the north.

The Kirkuk dispute took an unexpected turn when ISIL took Mosul in June 2014 and advanced into Kirkuk province with the intention of seizing Kirkuk city. By August 2014 American air support for the Kurds halted the ISIL advance towards Kirkuk about 40 kilometers southwest of the city. But ever since Kirkuk (population 400,000) had to be defended against ISIL counterattacks and that tied down a lot of Kurdish troops.

Meanwhile the tensions between the Kurds and the Arab majority was put aside (temporarily). As soon as Mosul fell to ISIL in 2014 the Kurds moved in and over the next three years demonstrated that they were the most competent and reliable military force in Iraq. By late 2016 the Kurds had driven ISIL back to the outskirts of Mosul. They were assisted by their main backer (the United States) along with a coalition of NATO and Arab countries who provided air support. The Kurds were better prepared for war and the oil money was very important to preserving their autonomy. Less corrupt than the Arabs, the Kurds are the one group in Iraq the West can depend on. Moreover the Kurds don't trust the Arabs. To make matters worse for the Iraqi government, Turkey backs, or at least tolerates, the Iraqi Kurds. The Turks don’t trust the Arabs either. Considering the current situation in Iraq, most Iraqis don’t trust Iraq either. Despite all that there is enough unity to defeat ISIL and keep the Iranians from getting too ambitious. Yet the fundamental problems with the Kurds and other ethnic and religious groups remain, as do the efforts by Iran to gain control over Iran. In addition here is the endemic corruption and unstable neighbors.

The Western Offensive

The other remaining ISIL battlefield is along the Syrian border. ISIL still holds a few major border towns and all of them are now under attack, sometimes from both sides of the border. In Anbar province (most of western Iraq) the center of anti-ISIL activity is in and around the town of Rutba (population 20,000), near the Jordanian border and 390 kilometers from Baghdad. ISIL has been active near this town since mid-2016 because the place lies astride a key road connecting Baghdad with Syria and Jordan. ISIL had been driven out of Rutba in early 2016 and tribal militias were largely in charge of local security since then. More soldiers and police were sent after the recent attack and local tribes sent in more militiamen as well. Rutba is near the border town of al Qaim, which is still held by ISIL, the last major border town held by the Islamic terrorists. Al Qaim is the scene of frequent and quite effective air strikes, apparently using accurate information supplied by locals.

ISIL has lost most of its territory in Syria and Iraq . Most ISIL personnel are trying to reach ISIL controlled portions of the Euphrates River Valley. This are goes from the city of Raqqa (which ISIL has lost nearly all of since April) to the Iraq border and into Iraq (the town of Rawa). ISIL also holds Iraq border towns of Anah and Qaim but all three of these towns are now being attacked from the Iraqi side of the border. That complicates things for ISIL fighters and their families since ISIL has apparently ordered all ISIL members that can to head for the Euphrates River valley for a last stand. Iraqi forces are concentrating on taking Rawa and other ISIL held parts of the Euphrates River valley in Iraq. With that done ISIL will be left with only scattered remnants of personnel operating as terrorists in Iraq and Syria and trying to rebuild with new recruits and financial supporters.

ISIL apparently still has over $100 million in cash hidden in banks (including informal ones like the halwa networks). ISIL was successful because it was able to hide a lot of cash in banks. Since 2010 most Islamic terrorists have preferred to use couriers for moving cash because using the international banking system had gotten too dangerous. So has the unofficial (and often illegal) traditional halwa (informal letters of credit) system. For the last year ISILs financial system has been under heavy attack and how successful that effort is may end up being more important than anything else ISIL is currently up to.

Since 2014 ISIL has concentrated on dominating the Euphrates River Valley, which stretches from the Persian Gulf to Turkey. Along the way this river valley passes next to or through Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and Raqqa. While Iraqi forces moved up the valley from the south the offensive from the north, towards Raqqa has been mainly the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) rebels. This organization is composed of Syrian Kurds and their Arab Moslem and Christian allies. Most of the SDF forces advancing on Raqqa are Arab, the rest are from various Kurd factions (including the YPG separatists). At the moment the only ones concentrating on Raqqa are the SDF, with support by Western and Arab air power and some commandos. Most importantly SDF has American support on the ground as well as from the air.

The success of this campaign (ISIL holds less than 20 percent of Raqqa now) and the recent loss of Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq have most everyone (including the United States) openly acknowledging that the “Islamic State” ISIL created in 2014 was out of business and would soon control no territory at all and be just another Islamic terror group hiding where it can and attacking when able. Many ISIL members are fleeing rather than fight to the death. Some are trying to switch sides, which is possible for those who belong via tribal militias persuaded (often coerced) to side with ISIL. Such divided loyalties among Sunni tribes was most common in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Yet at the same time Arabs in Iraq and Syria both expressed opposition to Iran expanding its influence and control in Iraq and Syria. This is nothing new.

One reason Saddam Hussein had some support from all groups in Iraq and from his Arab neighbors was his ability to keep the Iranians out. After Saddam was overthrown in 2003 many Iraqis (and most Arabs) feared that, without a tyrant like Saddam there would be no one to motivate Iraqis into blocking Iranian moves to occupy Iraq, or control its rulers. But now the Shia Arab Iraqi leaders (political and religious) appear confident that they can stand up to the Iranian threats. The is one thing all Iraqis can unite behind and apparently one of many reasons why Iraq is openly demanding that Iran back off while just as publically establishing economic, political and military links with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states in the region to oppose Iranian plans for expansion and domination of Arabia.

Women and Children

Since June, with ISIL losing control of Mosul and Tal Afar, security forces have arrested over a thousand foreign women who had married ISIL fighters and were now widows, or didn’t know where their men were (some had abandoned their new families). The foreign women were mainly from Turkey (nearly half), Tajikistan, Russia, Azerbaijan and China. There were smaller numbers from Europe but most of these left early on. Some of these women are guilty of crimes, like murder or helping to organize terror attacks. Questioning these women to find out who needs to be prosecuted has proved to be an excellent source of information on what ISIL has been up to in Iraq and what future plans are.

The government believes no more than 1,300 civilians were killed during the nine month battle for Mosul. So far some 3,000 bodies have been found in the rubble and most were positively identified as fighters or civilians. Most of these dead were, as expected, ISIL personnel fighting to the death. In addition to those killed during the battle for Mosul, since July there have been several hundred civilians killed in Mosul because of the death squads and the occasional ISIL bombing. ISIL never much concerned itself with avoiding civilian casualties and the three years of ISIL rule left thousands of civilians dead because of ISIL. There were a lot of public executions but even more civilians just disappeared after they had been detained by ISIL. Then there were the numerous “shoot on sight” situations where hundreds of civilians were killed trying to leave the city.

The problem with the many ISIL related deaths is that ISIL did not keep good records of those it killed deliberately, or due to callous indifference. The civilian deaths from three years of ISIL activity in Iraq may well be over 100,000 dead. Meanwhile deaths from Islamic terrorism violence in general are way down in Iraq. The UN reports that in August there were 125 civilians killed by terrorist violence outside of war zones. These numbers have been coming down each month for over a year.

In contrast the UN reported 241 civilians were killed during July. This only included those Iraqis in government controlled areas. The military has been reluctant to disclose its loss summaries but the Kurdish intelligence analysts estimate (largely from interviews with refugees from the city) that about 10,000 civilians a month died during the last four months of fighting in Mosul. That was a combination of ISIL executions and murders plus the tremendous firepower the Iraqi forces used to keep their own losses down. While the use of human shields had some impact on non-Iraqi (especially American) air strikes, Iraqi air or artillery attacks generally ignored the use of human shields. This was done because all the fighting was being done by Iraqi, mostly those belonging to the elite army and police special operations units. This troops felt they had to keep their losses down any way they could.

Meanwhile the impact of terror attacks in government controlled has been steadily falling, indicating ISIL was weakening throughout the country. After rising in March civilian (and police) deaths declined 42 percent in April to 317. About half those casualties were in or near Mosul (Nineveh province). Baghdad suffered 17 percent of the dead while Salahaddin province (between Baghdad and Mosul) and western Iraq (Anbar province) accounted for most of the remaining fatalities. The pattern was throughout 2017. Not surprisingly there have been fewer ISIL bombings in Baghdad and other usual targets because ISIL was in bad shape. Prisoners and deserters report low morale and panic among many of the less resolute ISIL members.

In July the government finally allowed the security forces commanders to discuss losses among the 100,000 soldiers, commandos (both army and police) involved in the months of fighting to regain control of Mosul. The military reported that it had killed about 25,000 ISIL members during the fighting. The government is still reluctant to release full data on casualties among the security forces. The U.S. did confirm that the elite Iraqi Counter Terrorism Force of about 20,000 personnel suffered about 40 percent casualties (dead, wounded and missing) during the nine months they were fighting in Mosul. The Americans had this data because the U.S. offered to assist in training replacements and they had to know who and how many had to be replaced.

Syria

Iraq’s problems to the west are not over just because the war in Syria seems to be winding down. Russia and Iran are pushing, with some success, the idea that Syrian civil war is over and the rebels defeated. Russian military commanders in Syria believe that the Assad government now controls 85 percent of the country. This is misleading since it includes Kurdish held territory and other rebel groups that the Assads and Russians consider “neutral” or pro-Assad. Nevertheless it is true that ISIL controlled territory is rapidly shrinking and that the 2011 rebellion against the Assads is fading away. Early on (like 2013) it was obvious that while most Syrians opposed the Assads they could not form a rebel coalition to defeat the minority Shia government the Assad clan had created to rule the nation since the 1960s. What destroyed the rebels was the proliferation of Islamic terror groups competing to lead the revolution and next government. Islamic radicals have, for over a thousand years, been unable to agree on which version of Islam should be used to rule the Islamic world. This is a dispute too many Moslems are willing to die for, usually while fighting other Moslems. As a result it has been very difficult to create democracies in Moslem majority nations because eventually Islamic radical groups will trigger very destructive periods of Islamic terrorism and general mayhem.

Most UN members agree with Russia and Iran that the Syrian rebellion has been defeated but there is still no widespread support for the Assads, which most UN members want to prosecute for war crimes. As long as Russia and China make their UN vetoes available the UN will not be able to make a serious effort to take down the Assads. Moreover, even with the Assads, the largely Moslem Syrian population has not demonstrated any willingness to try democracy. The United States has said it does not want to use its armed forces to fight the Assad government, even though the U.S. and most Western nations agree that the Assads are unfit to run Syria effectively and should be removed from power. So American forces will remain active in Syria until ISIL is eliminated and then, as the current thinking goes, withdraw. The Syrian Kurds and Turkish efforts in Syria may delay the American departure.

To further complicate the situation Iran and Russia have both signed deals with the Assads to establish military (mainly naval) bases in Syria. Then there is the fact that Iran openly calls for the destruction of Israel while Russia and Israel have often worked together, even during the communist period (that ended in 1991 when the Soviet Union did). Russia tries to maintain its alliance with Turkey and Iran while also remaining on good terms with Israel and the Arab oil states in the region.

However Israel remains openly hostile to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Turkey quietly agrees and Russia is seeking opportunities for itself but seems to dislike the Iranian long range plan. Israel is quite blunt about describing Iran as replacing ISIL as the new threat to just about everyone. Russia sometimes supports that openly and Israel keeps trying to improve relations with the unstable Turkish Islamic government.

In contrast the Sunni Arab states want the Assads gone and are more open in opposing Iranian plans for post-war Syria. Despite opposition from Israel, the Arabs, the Americans and even some Iranian allies Iran is determined to have a land route from Iran to Lebanon and military installations in post-war Syria. Israel has made it clear that it will, and can, make sure that does not happen. Turkey and Russia recognize that Israel is not only the stronger military power here but also has the most at stake. For decades Iran has called for the destruction of Israel and that does not sit well with Turkey and Russia because both nations have had clashes with aggressive Iranian ambitions over the past few centuries and see the current Iranian strategy as eventually taking down Turkey (for being Sunni and an ancient rival) and Russia (for not being Moslem and defeating Iranian attempts to expand in the 19th and 20th centuries). But at the same time Russia and Turkey will play Israel and Iran off against each other to do what is best for Russia or Turkey.

September 18, 2017: More Kurdish police and soldiers were sent to Kirkuk where ethnic violence broke out between Turkmen and Kurds over the September 25th Kurdish independence referendum. Kirkuk city, which is not part of the autonomous Kurdish area in northern Iraq.

In the west (Anbar province) airstrikes on ISIL personnel assembling in in the border town of Qaim were notably very effective, apparently the result to better intel from photo and electronic surveillance and pro-government Sunni tribes in the area. These same sources often quickly report the damage and losses today included over a hundred ISIL dead and wounded. That makes nearly 400 ISIL dead in Anbar during the last week from airstrikes alone. The dead today included Hussein Ahmed al Abdullah, a senior ISIL internal security official from Syria who operated on both sides of the border. Abdullah was in charge of the effort to detect, capture and execute disloyal civilians and ISIL personnel. He sometimes carried out the executions in public and personally took part. Abdullah was apparently responsible for recently detecting, arresting and executing several senior ISIL officials in the area. Many of these ISIL leaders have been deserting, often taking ISIL cash and valuables with them. One senior ISIL financial official in the area recently (about a week ago) succeeded in fleeing with what was described as the payroll for ISIL personnel in Anbar. That would be a lot of cash and its theft would further depress already low ISIL morale. It would also account for the increased enthusiasm for detecting and punishing faltering ISIL leaders before they made a run for it.

September 17, 2017: In the north (Kirkik province, near Hawijah) an ISIL attack on an American base was defeated. The two suicide bombers detonated their explosives far short of the base because the U.S. troops had detected them and opened fire. The other two attackers were gunmen and were also shot dead before they got close. Normally the gunmen would go through the main gate after the suicide bombers had destroyed it.

September 16, 2017: In the west (Anbar province) the army and Shia militias began a major offensive advance on the border towns of Anah, Qaim and Rawa. This involves seizing smaller villages ISIL holds on the road to these towns. The first success came within hours when Iraqi forces captured the town of Akashat, about 100 kilometers south of the of Qaim. Akashat had been a major base for ISIL but was apparently not defended because ISIL forces were concentrating in Qaim for a major battle.

September 15, 2017: In the north, outside Kirkuk, the senior ISIL leader (emir) for the Kirkuk area was killed by an airstrike on the house he was hiding in.

September 14, 2017: In the south (Dhi Qar province, 375 kilometers south of Baghdad) ISIL made a twin attack with a suicide bomber and gunmen on a restaurant and checkpoint where many Shia pilgrims (to Shia shrines in the area) congregated. Over 80 were killed, many of them visiting Iranians) and about a hundred wounded. It’s rare for such an attack this far south, which is mainly Shia. But that is what makes it an attractive target for Sunni Islamic terrorists.

In the northwest (Mosul) Shia militiamen were attacked by fifteen ISIL fighters, most of them apparently wearing explosive vests. The ISIL men didn’t last long with a dozen dying quickly from gunfire or their own explosives and three apparently got away. There are a few small groups of ISIL men left in Mosul and Tal Afar and since they will eventually be found and captured or killed, most seem to get organized and try to get out of die trying. The number of ISIL men encountered like this has been declining. In addition to clashes with the security forces there have a growing number of revenge attacks against families that supported ISIL. Many of these families have fled the area but enough remain to provide targets for the vengeful death squads that sometimes make daily attacks (usually inside the homes of the victims). Since these homes are also the favorite hideouts for the remaining ISIL fighters it increases the pressure on the remaining ISIL gunmen to try something desperate. Meanwhile police have also been looking for the ISIL supporters. First this was just to question them but now some of these families are being moved to special camps for their own protection.

September 9, 2017: In the far north Turkish PKK (Kurd separatist) rebels on the Iraqi side of the border fired some mortar shells at Turkish troops across the border. These caused no casualties but return fire from Turkish artillery left three PKK men dead. Earlier in the day PKK lost four men across the border to an airstrike by an armed Turkish UAV.

September 2, 2017: In the north (Samarra 125 kilometers north of Baghdad) three ISIL attackers, using gunfire and an explosive vest, attacked a power plant. All three attackers died, as did seven security personnel while another eight were wounded.

A leader of one of the Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias went public with demands that his men would start killing American troops once ISIL was no longer a threat in Iraq. The American noted that they has planned for this sort of thing and were prepared.

September 1, 2017: The battle to take Tal Afar ended after eleven days. Tal Afar has a much smaller population than Mosul (100,000 versus nearly two million). When the current offensive began on August 2oth there were only about 20,000 civilians left in the city and an unknown number of ISIL fighters. Unlike Mosul the Iraqi attack on Tal Afar moved a lot more quickly because it was known that ISIL morale was low and far fewer defensive preparations had been prepared. By the end of August some 2,000 ISIL fighters had been killed in Tal Afar. ISIL used at least fifty suicide bombers, 74 car bombs, 71 buildings full of explosive traps and over a thousand roadside bombs against the attackers. Nearly all these were disabled or destroyed before they could harm the 40,000 soldiers and militiamen moving into the city. These attackers lost 114 dead and 679 wounded. The speed and thoroughness of this offensive did not improve ISIL morale any as their defensive measure were largely ineffective. Iraqi media was quick to jump on that the military did not get in the way.

August 30, 2017: In the west (Anbar province) Jordan reopened its main border crossing (Jaber) with Iraq. This is a big deal because this crossing has been closed since ISIL seized control of Anbar in 2014 and cut Jordanian direct access to the Gulf oil states. Iraq has traditionally been Jordan’s major trading partner but that has been disrupted frequently since the 1990s because of Iraq invading Kuwait and the aftermath. With the Iraqi economy booming again reopening this border road is a big deal. There is still a problem with small groups of ISIL gunmen active in Anbar and especially along the highway from Jaber to Baghdad. Making the highway safe is key to carrying out a 2016 agreement to build an oil pipeline from Basra to Jordan. Jordan is now preparing to resume trade with Syria as well as the civil war their grinds down.

August 29, 2017: The U.S. added another senior ISIL official, Salim Mustafa Muhammad al Mansur, to its most wanted “global terrorists” list. Mansur was being described as one of the most senior ISIL finance officials and that he had recently been sent to Turkey to help rebuild ISIL’s international financial network. Mansur had most recently been the “financial emir or Mosul” but before the city was cleared of ISIL forces in July Mansur had already moved many of the ISIL portable assets out and shown exceptional skill in reorganizing the Mosul financial network to operate just about anywhere. This identified Mansur as one of the more capable ISIL financial managers and well worth hunting and down and capturing (if possible) or killing.

August 26, 2017: In the south on the Saudi border 430 kilometers west of Ramadi a roadside bomb killed one border guard and wounded four others as their vehicle patrolled the double fence that extends the length of the border.

 


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