Iraq: ISIL Was Easy, Iran Is Not

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November 21, 2017: Oil production from the southern oil fields averaged 3.5 million BPD (barrels per day). That is up 150,000 BPD from October. Earlier in 2017 Iraq, as a founding member of the OPEC oil cartel, had agreed to reduce its oil production by over a million BPD to help increase the world price for oil. Iraqi production hit a peak 3.51 million BPD at the end of 2016. But instead Iraq production increased in 2017, often to take advantage of the production cuts the Saudis had agreed to and were making.

The surprise Iraqi government attacks on Kirkuk in mid-October led to a 20 percent drop in oil exported from the north by the Kurds. The Kurds were exporting 500,000 BPD before October that that may be reduced to 300,000 BPD (or none at all) by the end of 2017. It all depends on negotiations between Iraq, the Kurds and Turkey. These discussions continue while Iraq asks for more foreign aid because even with all the oil income, it’s not enough to pay for all the damage done while fighting ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant).

Iraq has ten percent of the world's oil reserves and 2017 exploration efforts have that 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 about $48 billion, compared to $53 billion in mid-2016. The ISIL crisis has forced Iraq to be more prudent with its finances, and government operations in general. The Americans are no longer being blamed for all that goes wrong. Taking responsibility does indeed make it easier to deal with problems.

The Iranian Threat and Kurdish Questions

Some problems are particularly difficult to deal with. The Iraqi Kurds still control the northern provinces they have held since the early 1990s and are threatening civil (and guerilla) war if the federal government does not control (preferably expel) the growing number of Iranians (mainly Quds Force personnel) and curb the power of the Iran backed Shia militias. It’s not just the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs who fear the Iranian influence. Most Iraqis do, including most Shia Arabs.

The PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias were organized in 2014 after the Iraqi army fell apart in the face of the ISIL advance that took Mosul and about a third of Iraq in a few months. By late 2016 p arliament passed (after much Iranian pressure) a law making the PMF a part of the armed forces. These militiamen were already on the government payroll (for about $500 a month). Now the militia leaders were demanding a share of the military budget and enough money (nearly half a billion dollars to start with) to build their own bases. That did not happen and it reminded all Iraqis what the Iranians were up to. The signs were already there. By 2015 there were about 100,000 of these largely Shia militia and they were already a contentious issue in Iraq.

The 2016 laws providing pay and other benefits for the PMF also included rules making it mandatory that non-Shia militia be included if they were of proven loyalty. There were plenty of those and by the end of 2016 about a quarter of the PMF were Sunnis. A smaller number were Turkmen, Christian and other minorities ISIL wanted to wipe out. More than half the militias were always Shia. Much publicity was given to instances where Shia militias massacre d Sunni civilians and the use of many Iranian trainers and military advisors by some (at one point most) of the Shia militias a nd the Iran connection in general . But most of the PMF just concentrated on defeating ISIL.

Although the Shia Arabs feel an affinity with Shia Iran, the ancient (we're talking thousands of years here) Arab fear of the Iranians makes it possible for Shia and Sunni Arabs to make deals. And that's what Saudi Arabia, and the other Sunni Arab Gulf States, are doing with Iraq. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the neighborhood bully, and Iraq as an Arab, not an Iranian, asset. Part of this came about because of the pro-Iran PMF militias in Iraq. By 2016 most Shia Arab politicians in Iraq tended to feel they are expendable to the Iranians, who are, quite naturally, more concerned with taking care of Iran, than Iraq, in all of this. Blood is thicker than religion.

The Iraqi Shia Arabs don’t want to be dominated by non-Arab Iran (where Arabs are openly despised, especially the few percent of Iranians who are Arab) 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).

There are constant reminders of the Iranian threat, which is considered equal, or even worse than the Sunni Arab Islamic terrorism attacks on Shia. For example in September 2017 a leader of one of the PMF Shia militias went public with his belief that his men would start killing American troops once ISIL was no longer a threat in Iraq. That was not a surprise to many Iraqi Shia. In August 2017 s enior Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate loyal (to Iraq) members into the armed forces. The Iraqi prime minister (a Shia), wants to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it.

In part that is because Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them) and even more enlisted IRGC personnel to Iraq. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. These IRGC personnel are seen by most Iraqis as hostile foreign agents.

This can be seen by the fact that since ISIL was defeated (even before Mosul fell) the number of Shia religious and militia leaders who openly supported Iran was declining. More Iraqi Shia are doubting Iranian intentions towards Iraq and believe Iran ultimately wants to control the Iraq government or even partition Iraq and annex the largely Shia (and oil rich) south. At the same time Iranian efforts to discourage Iraqi Kurds from obtaining more autonomy are unwelcome with many Arab Iraqis who see this as another example of Iran treating Iraq like a subordinate, not an ally.

Adding to the fears are reports that Iran backed (and sometimes led, officially or otherwise by Iranian officers) Shia militia are ignoring earlier promises and entering liberated areas of Mosul and seeking “disloyal” civilians who can be arrested and perhaps murdered.

There are still over a thousand Iranians providing training, advisory and support assistance to the PMF Shia militias. The Iraqi government fears that these IRGC advisors and trainers are secretly building pro-Iran armed militias in Iraq. That’s simply not true because the IRGC is quite open about what they are doing to encourage Iraqi Shia to organize armed groups so they can work with Iran someday to impose the same kind of religious dictatorship in Iraq that has existed in Iran since the 1980s. That is equally unlikely (because of popular opposition inside Iraq) but the Iranians tend to think long-term.

Mosul Mysteries

Mosul has been liberated for over four months yet most of the heavily damaged (and fought over) areas of the city, especially on the west bank where the densely built “old city” district still smolders, are still largely seen as a combat zone. The Old City area contains the Grand Mosque where ISIL announced the formation of their “Islamic State” in mid-2014. In February 2017 Iraqi forces began their offensive to take western Mosul and four months later had driven ISIL out of over 300 square kilometers of the city. Along the way they verified (to varying degrees of accuracy) the death of nearly 1,400 ISIL fighters and disabled or destroyed over 900 vehicles (that had been rigged with explosives) and cleared over 800 landmines. The last month of fighting was largely in a two square kilometer area of the Old City where ISIL made a last stand. But once organized resistance was eliminated in early July it was discovered that a significant number of ISIL has stayed behind and were not fighting but remaining hidden in the ruins, often sustained by knowledge of where ISIL food and water was stockpiled and where the remaining landmines and booby traps are. Added to this there is the shortage of people who could clear the ISIL explosive traps and civilians rash enough to try it themselves usually failed and died in the explosion.

Iraqi forces have gotten very good at finding and removing ISIL mines and roadside bombs. The U.S. has been training Iraqis for this work since 2004 and soon Iraq had its own school that has been turning out a growing number of very effective EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) technicians. These men are essential if there is to be a rapid and sustained advance into ISIL held territory or urban areas ISIL has held for a while. Iraqi troops are also better at detecting and stopping ISIL suicide bomb attacks. Some still get through and those make the news but over 90 percent of ISIL suicide bomb operations against Iraqi troops fail. The growing failure of the roadside bombs and suicide bombers is also bad for ISIL morale. The Iraqi EOD were indeed key for the advance into Mosul and elsewhere. But the EOD forces took losses and the demand is so huge that it will be over a year before all of Mosul is “cleared.” In the meantime most of east (of the Tigris River) Mosul (which is more open and less built up) is largely cleared of explosives. But west of the Tigris it is another matter and now there are growing stories (but not much evidence) of mysterious and lethal ISIL “ghost” warriors who come out at night to check the mined wasteland these “sleeper agents” apparently inhabit. Night surveillance with thermal sensors has detected some live critters moving about but some could be animals, like wild dogs. Animals, especially dogs, have a sharp sense of smell that is now known capable of detecting explosives and largely avoiding explosive traps. In any event getting Mosul back in business is going to take longer than expected, just like everything else in this part of the world.

November 19, 2017: In the northwest (Mosul) a curfew was declared in a village south of the city after a dozen or more ISIL gunmen were encountered the night before. By dawn today five of the ISIL men were killed and the search was on by PMF militiamen for the rest. As part of this operation Iraqi troops found an ISIL bunker containing over 40 tons of weapons, ammo and explosives.

November 17, 2017: In the west (Anbar province) troops drove ISIL out of the border town of Rawa. This is the last large town ISIL controlled on the Syrian border. ISIL had occupied Rawa since 2014 and the Iraqi forces spent a week fighting in and around Rawa before the town was back under government control. The government had ordered that only Shia troops (army or Iran-backed militias) guard and patrol the 200 kilometer border Anbar shares with Syria. The Sunni tribes on both sides of the border have long been hostile to Shia. The pro-government Sunni tribes of Anbar are allowed to hunt down the few remaining active ISIL men in Anbar. The government made it clear it doesn’t care if the tribesmen take revenge on any ISIL they catch, but they would like to get any useful intel. The tribesmen generally complied, mainly because they were eager to check for civilians in Rawa for what they might know of missing kin. These chats also served as ID checks and opportunities to catch ISIL members pretending to be displaced locals. There were about 2,000 families trapped in Rawa and over a hundred ISIL members were trying to hide among them. Many of the ISIL men captured were cooperative and revealed the location of many (hundreds apparently) hidden bombs (landmines, roadside bombs and explosive traps in buildings.) Captured ISIL men as well as liberated locals also revealed many hiding places for weapons and other ISIL material. Also identified were ISIL members in the area that were unlikely to surrender and seemed determined to fight to the death.

Some of the remaining ISIL men in Anbar and to the north along the Syrian border have turned to banditry to survive. This includes one group that recently got $50,000 in ransom for the return of a kidnapped farmer. While it’s relatively easy to spot ISIL men from other countries for those who are Iraqi it’s possible to get by as a bandit, at least until you get caught.

In the northwest (Mosul) pro-government Sunni militiamen were accused of threatening journalists. PMF commanders tend to see any outsider as a potential enemy.

November 16, 2017: In the northwest PMF militia guarding the Syrian border west of Mosul clashed with several dozen ISIL gunmen attempting to cross into Syria. ISIL lost seven dead and one vehicle destroyed as the other retreated back into Iraq.

In the north, near the Turkish border, two days of fighting on both sides of the border between Turkish troops and PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) gunmen has left five soldiers and at least ten PKK fighters dead. The Iraqi government and local Kurds tolerate these Turkish incursions and airstrikes as long as they concentrate on PKK personnel hiding out in remote areas near the border. The Turks also launch airstrikes on PKK camps or concentrations they have identified in northern Iraq. The current fighting there were three airstrikes against PKK on the Turkish side of the border but none on the Iraqi side.

November 15, 2017: The U.S. revealed that since late October they had found and killed four more senior ISIL personnel in Syria and Iraq. Two of the confirmed kills took place in Iraq (Anbar, near the Syrian border) and the other two in eastern Syria. The latest four dead were known to deal mainly with ISIL recruiting, training and finance outside Iran and Iraq. Before that (from August to late October) 11 senior ISIL officials in Iraq and Syria had been killed and confirmed. Most of these were specialists in areas like weapons development, finance, media and transportation. This is why the ISIL program of arming commercial UAVs with explosives suddenly disappeared and why so many ISIL dead appeared malnourished while captured (or surrendered) ISIL fighters talked of growing shortages of food and all manner of supplies. Large stockpiles of these supplies are being captured in Syria and Iraq but the organization that once arranged for distribution of this stuff was in disarray, in large part because the few senior ISIL officials who knew how it worked had recently been killed (while the few others have disappeared and appear to have used their resources to get out of the region). Another purpose of this decapitation (going after key leaders) campaign was to reduce the number of ISIL fighters getting home, especially if they came from the West. It was also noted that these decapitation attacks were hurting ISIL media operations, which were once the most successful among many Islamic terror groups. As suspected the last of the ISIL media experts were in Raqqa because after that city was captured by Kurd led rebels two weeks ago, ISIL media activity took a sharp drop. It is believed that ISIL still has some media experts out there and that they are seeking a new base of operations.

Six Tu-22M3 bombers hit ISIL targets in eastern Syria, flying from Russian bases and then over Iran and Iraq on their way to and from the target. Tu-22s have been doing this since mid-2016. The Iraqis believe it best not to complain.

November 14, 2017: In the north (Kirkuk) PMF militias fired on each in a dispute over who would take control of neighborhoods Kurds had recently been driven out of. A Turkman militia got there first and was looting the recently vacated Kurdish homes and businesses. An Iran backed Iraqi Shia Arab militia ordered the Turkmen to leave, and since Turkmen had lived in this region for centuries while the Shia Arabs had not, the dispute escalated. In the last month nearly 200,000 (mainly Kurdish) civilians have fled Kirkuk, fearing this sort of violence.

Just south of Kirkuk city PMF forces encountered several dozen armed ISIL men and killed ten of them while losing four militia fighters. Many ISIL fighters (and some of their families) fled to remote mountain areas near the Iran border and the PMFare all over the place guarding checkpoints and conducting patrols and searches to find and capture or kill these ISIL refugees. Most will not surrender, because the Iraqis ISIL has tormented so much since 2014 often seek revenge.

November 9, 2017: In the west (Anbar province) unusually heavy rain exposed many hastily planted ISIL landmines and roadside bombs. Some of the landmines exploded prematurely as well. Advancing troops and pro-government tribal militias took that as a good sign. There were only about a dozen villages and one large town (Rawa) still controlled by ISIL in western Anbar and these expected to fall by the end of the month.

November 5, 2017: In the north the Kurds revealed that they had suffered about 60 dead (and 150 wounded) since the Iraqi government attacked the Kurdish forces in Kirkuk province on October 20th.

November 3, 2017: In the west (Anbar province) troops drove ISIL out of the border town of al Qaim and the major border crossings into Syria. 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. This areas was the scene of increasingly frequent and effective air strikes this year, apparently using accurate information supplied by locals who had been occupied by ISIL since 2014.

November 1, 2017: Terror related deaths in Iraq remained low in October with 114 civilians killed. Most (63 percent) of this violence was equally split between Baghdad (long a Sunni Islamic terrorist target) and Anbar province (where most of the remaining ISIL Islamic terrorists in Iraq remain). The government has still not resumed reporting casualties among the security forces (military and police). Civilian deaths were higher (at 196) in September and have been declining steadily for most of 2017. During the last two months most of the civilian deaths occurred because the victims were near a dialed suicide bomber attack. Soldiers and police usually can spot and stop suicide bombers but this often means the suicide bomber will set off his explosives before he can he shot dead or captured alive. At that point the bomber is often near civilians who became the casualties.

The Kurds in the north point out that the government refused to count the Kurdish civilians killed during the week of fighting that followed the government decision to use soldiers and Iran-backed Shia militias to stage a surprise attack on Kurds in Kirkuk province and especially in the provincial capital (the city of Kirkuk). Iraqi security forces kept journalists out but the Kurds gathered convincing evidence that several hundred Kurdish civilians were killed as over 100,000 Kurdish civilians fled their homes when it became clear the government force had orders (or just permission) to drive Kurdish civilians out of areas Kurds had moved into since mid-2o14 when Kurdish forces moved into Kirkuk city and nearby oil facilities to defend them from the ISIL advanced. The government forces had fled and the government declared the Kurdish advance and ability to stop ISIL as evidence that ISIL could be beaten. .

October 27, 2017: Iraq called a halt on its offensive against its autonomous Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq. In return the Iraqi government expects the Kurds to turn over control of border crossings (to Turkey and Syria) as the Kurds has already (before the Iraqi October 16 offensive against its Kurds) agreed to. This agreement allows the Iraqi forces to direct all their military forces towards the remaining ISIL held territory along the Syrian border. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia are believed to have persuaded the Iraqi government to call off the offensive but the details of that are not yet known. The U.S. led air coalition continued its airstrikes in Iraq along with support on the ground and extensive logistic, technical and intelligence support.

Iran denied that its military advisors in Iraq (especially those with PMF militias) are encouraging savage (technically war crimes) reprisals against Sunni Arabs, especially those associated with ISIL. Even the UN has recognized this and named some Iranian advisors or their local deputies as war criminals because the revenge attacks. The Kurds recently benefitted from this while fighting alongside Iraqi forces to drive ISIL out of Hawijah (their last urban stronghold) during September. It was obvious that ISIL personnel in the area believed that if they were captured alive by the PMF they could expect torture and death because ISIL had carried out most of its terror attacks against Iraqi Shia and even a few inside Iran itself. Surrender to the Kurds and your risk of torture and execution were much less and if you provided useful information things went even better for you. So the Kurds got most of the ISIL willing (and sometimes eager) to surrender. Iran has faced these accusations before and finds that “deny, deny, deny” works if followed up by adroit manipulation of international media and UN officials willing to quietly discuss the matter for a fee.

In the west (Anbar province) local pro-government tribal militia ambushed a large group of ISIL gunmen 40 kilometers southeast of the main border crossing at al Qaim. It was night but a brief gun battle left 25 ISIL men dead. Tribesmen chased after survivors who headed in the direction of Qaim, killing at least five more ISIL gunmen but losing two tribesmen as. The surviving ISIL men fled towards Qaim because that was where ISIL fighters in western Anbar were apparently ordered to assemble for a major battle and an effort to get some of the ISIL force into Syria. For ISIL fighters in Anbar there was no better place to head for.

October 26, 2017: The Iraqi and Iranian leaders met in Baghdad. Iranian media reported that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (the head of the religious dictatorship that has run Iran since the 1980s) told Haider al Abadi (the elected leader of Iraq) that the United States could not be trusted and praised Abadi for destroying ISIL, which Khamenei (and many others in the Middle East) believe was invented and secretly supported by the United States and Israel. Iranian media did not report on what Abadi said. Many Iranians (and Iraqis) believe this meeting was not a discussion but an opportunity for Iran to emphasize what the Iraqi Shia must do to survive. Iran apparently believes that the Americans will not assist the Kurds, something which is still unclear. Iraqi is believed waiting to see what the Americans and Saudi Arabia have to offer.

In the northwest PMF joined with Iraqi troops to attack one of the original (since the early 1990s) autonomous Kurdish provinces (Dohuk). The objective of the advance appears to be the Fishkhabour border crossing to Syria. This is also near one of the main border crossings to Turkey. But the crossing to Syria connects Iraqi Kurds with the Syrian province of Hasakah. This would make it more difficult for American troops who aid and advise the Kurds from moving between Syria and Iraq. Turkey wants this as well as Iran and the Syrian Assad government.

October 22, 2017: American and Arab officials from Iraq, Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf Arab states gathered in the Saudi capital for the first meeting of the Saudi-Iraqi Bilateral Coordination Council. This is part of an effort to enable Iraq to more easily participate in Saudi and Gulf Arab economic ventures. The Iraqi prime minister attended the meeting. The question of how to handle an increasingly ambitious and aggressive Iran was not an official part of the agenda but was a frequently discussed item between American and Arab officials. The American Secretary of State was trying to encourage Arab unity. At the moment Qatar and Iraq are increasingly dependent on Iran, as Syria has been since the 1980s. Iran is trying to expand its power and influence “for the good of Islam” as well as potential economic benefits to everyone. But Iran also proclaims (loudly and constantly) that America and Israel must be destroyed because, according the Iran, these America and Israel are the cause of all the woes in the Middle East. Most Arab states used to at least give lip service to that but attitudes have changed in the last two decades and now most Arabs see Iran as the threat while the Americans and Israelis are useful allies. Meanwhile American efforts to get Qatar and the rest of the Gulf Arab states to settle their differences are not progressing. Qatar grows closer to Iran but wants to avoid becoming too dependent on Iran.

 


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