In most of Iraq, especially Baghdad, the last four months have been the most peaceful since early 2014. There is still Islamic terrorism activity in Anbar province and other areas near the Syrian border but that has not, as in the past, spread to major cities like Baghdad and Basra. There are still regular public protests in Basra over the lack of infrastructure and basic services (like collecting garbage on a regular basis and basic police services). The federal budget still concentrates on salaries for a lot more government employees than are needed and fringe benefits for corrupt politicians. Moreover maintaining that budget is dependent on oil prices remaining above $55 a barrel and production being close to four million barrels a day. Meanwhile, Iraq is desperate for foreign help for reconstruction.
Foreign aid for reconstruction is only available in token amounts because the government is still unable to halt the massive theft of foreign aid. What is available continues to face blatant and often violent attempts to steal the aid. Neighbors are willing to provide large investments, which are not free and can be protected by diplomatic and other threats. Thus Turkey is pledging $5 billion in investments that can be protected via the usual military and economic threats. That tends to persuade the corrupt Iraqi officials to look elsewhere for something to plunder. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are increasing trade connections. Jordan is perpetually broke but can provide low tariffs and transit fees for Iraqi goods. Saudi Arabia has a lot more cash and has promised investment and trade. To that end, the Saudis are building a new border crossing and restoring major access for the first time since 1990 (when Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait and threatened to move into Saudi Arabia as well). The Saudis are seeking to provide Iraq with an economic alternative to Iran, which took advantage of the closed Saudi border after 2003 and greatly increased trade with Iraq (both legal and illegal). Many Iraqis, including most Shia Arabs, prefer that. The new border crossing will also include a hospital and university, to provide health and educational aid to Iraq.
No one is sure how many ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) members have fled to Iraq during the last six months as ISIL controlled territory in eastern Syria shrank to a small part of a border town that is surrounded by Kurdish SDF rebels. Iraq believes that as many as a thousand ISIL members have made it across the border since late 2018. This information was obtained from those who were killed or captured during the crossing. That intel indicates that these ISIL survivors included a lot of senior personnel and apparently a large quantity of cash and other valuables (gold and other portable high-value loot). There have been more ISIL attacks on civilians in Anbar Province and between Anbar and Mosul. There have been more energetic security efforts by local militias to defend their towns and villages, especially with ISIL using more suicide bomber attacks in addition to the kidnappings and assassinations.
The local militias are also part of an effort to defend Sunni Arabs from Iran backed PMF (Peoples Mobilization Forces) who serve as security forces in most of the Sunni Arab parts of Iraq that the PMF helped free of ISIL control. The United States is demanding that the Iraqi government disband or discipline armed pro-Iran groups in Iraq (especially if they are PMF) that use violence against Iraqi civilians and threaten to do the same to foreign troops. The NATO forces, particularly the Americans, can defend themselves from PMF violence but the Sunni Arab civilians being policed by PMF militias have less attractive options. The best way these civilians can fight back is to form armed militias and tolerate continued ISIL recruiting and operations in their neighborhoods if those ISIL groups leave civilians alone. The new arrivals from Syria are inclined to terrorize local civilians into cooperating with ISIL.
This is why ISIL continues to operate in Anbar and Kirkuk even though the local Sunni Arab tribes led the fight against ISIL in Anbar and Kirkuk was free of ISIL problems when the Kurds ran local security. That ended in late 2017 when the government used PMF as well as regular troops to drive the Kurds out of Kirkuk province and replace them with pro-Iran PMF. The Kurds are still better at keeping ISIL out of Kurdish controlled areas. That means ISIL concentrates more effort on terrorizing areas where there is no Kurdish security in charge.
Iran backed PMF militias are also having trust issues. A growing number of PMF members are losing belief in the superiority of the Iranian Shia religious dictatorship. Over a year of increasing popular protests against the Iranian government has not gone unnoticed. Iran has ordered that the Iraqi PMF units purge their ranks of members who appear to have lost their willingness to do whatever they are ordered to do (like trying to overthrow the Iraqi government or attack Iraqi or foreign troops). This includes attacks on PMF units that were never (or no longer) controlled by Iranian advisors or reliable Iraqi Shia Arabs.
The Anbar Treasure Hunt
In Anbar, there is also something of a treasure hunt for the rumored ISIL cash and valuables moved out of Syria. There is supposed to be over $100 million worth of this stuff but so far it is only a rumor. None of this loot has yet been found or if it has no one is admitting it. If there is a lot of ISIL “treasure” in Anbar it is not being made available to recent ISIL arrivals from Syria. These armed refugees quickly turned to banditry to sustain themselves. Kidnapping for ransom has long been a staple of Islamic terrorist financing. The downside is if this kidnapping threat does not terrorize the locals (as intended) it is energizing local resistance. This is what is happening in Anbar and is turning an armed Sunni Arab population against ISIL in a lethal (for ISIL) fashion.
The local Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar would rather be fighting the Iran backed Shia PMF. Those PMF units have other problems. Iranian efforts to get all foreign (especially Turks in the north and NATO, especially American, all over) out of the country are running into a lot of resistance from Shia Arabs. A majority of Iranian Shia Arabs always opposed Iranian domination of Iraq and now that majority is growing and preparing to a possible civil war with Iraqi Shia Arabs who support Iranian domination even to the extent of establishing a religious dictatorship like Iran has had since the 1980s. Iran is at a disadvantage here because back in Iran a growing number of Iranians are calling for the end of the Iranian religious dictatorship. At the same time, that same Iranian government continues to persecute its own Arab minority, as it has done for centuries. The true treasure of Anbar may be a decisive defeat of pro-Iran PMF forces there.
February 25, 2019: In the west (Anbar province), the local government admitted that it had paid ISIL $300,000 ransom to free 30 civilians the Islamic terrorists had kidnapped for ransom. The security forces tried and failed to find and rescue the captives and ISIL threatened to start killing the captives if the cash was not delivered. ISIL has already carried out the death threat in other recent kidnapping cases. The largely Sunni Arab population of Anbar resents the pro-Iran Shia militias that are supposed to be fighting ISIL but seem to spend a lot of time terrorizing the local Sunni Arabs, especially the tribal militias that are fighting ISIL.
February 24, 2019: In eastern Syria, the Kurdish SDF has captured some 500 Iraqi ISIL members. At least the SDF believes they are Iraqi (based on accent, mainly) and is seeking to get Iraq to take all of them and prosecute. The U.S. is helping with this effort by providing biometric identification equipment that generates ID data compatible with what the U.S. and Iraqis have on known ISIL members. So far 280 of these SDF ISIL members have been confirmed as wanted for terrorist activity and Iraq is willing to take and prosecute them. This is not an attractive prospect for these ISIL captives because Iraq will execute ISIL members found guilty of murder and other serious crimes. NATO nations are also seeking to have Iraq prosecute ISIL prisoners who came from NATO countries (including the U.S.) and committed crimes that Iraq knows about. Iraq is willing to do this because they know that European courts will be much easier on ISIL members. That often means a short jail sentence and then these killers are back on the street again and may well return to Iraq. France recently persuaded Iraq to accept and prosecute 13 Frenchmen who had joined ISIL. Iraq already has hundreds of ISIL captives from foreign countries and is prosecuting all of them, including some ISIL wives who also committed atrocities. Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces are arresting a lot more suspected ISIL members near the Syrian border, especially in Mosul, which is still seen as a good hideout for ISIL men who know their way around the city. Many of the ISIL members now fleeing Syria had fled to Syria in late 2018 as Iraqi forces followed up on the liberation of Mosul from ISIL rune in 2017. The returnees include many notorious ISIL leaders who responsible for a lot of death and destruction in Iraq. These are sought and often found among the new faces showing up in Mosul and surrounding areas.
February 22, 2019: The United States has agreed to keep a small (a few hundred) force of peacekeepers in Syria after most of the current 2,000 advisors and Special Forces troops are withdrawn. The peacekeepers would make it more difficult for Iranian or Turkish forces to misbehave without risking intervention by American forces in neighboring countries. This is a relief to Iraqi Kurds, who still have plenty of such American assistance in northern Iraq and have been told that there will always be some American troops in northern Iraq “as long as it is necessary.”
February 20, 2019: In the west (Anbar province), American troops continue to occupy positions just across the border in Syria at the Tanf border crossing. This key crossing is near the Jordan border. With the American forces present, there is a 55 kilometers “deconfliction zone” on the Syrian side maintained by American forces. Any unwelcome military forces (Russian, Syrian and Iranian) are banned from entering this zone without permission and occasional violations have all been met with lethal force. The unwelcome are unhappy about this and have expressed their feelings by not allowing supplies to reach the American run refugee camp within the zone. Most of the 50,000 Syrian refugees are women and children and the U.S. has to bring in all the supplied from Iraq.
February 11, 2019: In southern Syria (Golan Heights), Israeli tank fire destroyed what turned out to be an Iranian observation post near the Israeli border. Two Iranians died in that attack. Apparently as a result of this attack and several recent airstrikes on Iranian bases in Syria Iran has pulled back its forces from the Israeli border. These forces are being moved to bases closer to the Iraq border, making it easier to move them into Iraq if necessary. If Iran sets up missile launchers in Iraq aimed at Israel the Israelis would bomb them and the Iraqis now it do not want to get involved in that sort of thing. Syrian army forces could be seen coming in to replace the departed Iranian troops. The official Iraqi policy is to oppose such Israeli airstrikes against Iranian bases but the reality is they would have plenty of incentive to not do so.
February 4, 2019: In the north (Duhok province), Turkey reopened a key border crossing it had closed for 13 days because of an upsurge of PKK activity in the area.