The government has two terrorist problems, one it can talk about and another that must be discussed quietly. The obvious Islamic terrorists are ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). They are a threat and are kept alive by the desire for many Sunni Arabs to restore their control over the country that they enjoyed until 2003. The Sunni Arabs are only about 20 percent of the population and when they were in charge dominated senior government jobs and the professions in general. The Sunni Arabs also made sure that most of the oil wealth went to make the Sunni Arabs the most affluent Iraqis.
Since 2003 there has been a democracy, a form of government condemned as un-Islamic by ISIL and many other Islamic radicals. Worse, democracy favored the Shia Arab majority (60 percent of Iraqis) such that the Shia now dominate the government. The Sunni Arabs have lost most of their power and income. While the Shia Arabs united to keep a Shia dominated government in power, they were divided by religious and political issues. This gave rise to the other Islamic terrorism that must be spoken about carefully and quietly. That is the effort by Iran to establish religious and paramilitary groups loyal to Iran in addition to or rather than an independent Iraq. The Iranians are now depending on their most loyal militias to fight the Americans and their own government as part of a proxy force. Iran does not want to openly go to war with the Americans or the Gulf Arab oil states, but does want to use violence to weaken and embarrass the Americans. This is what Iran did after the U.S. and Britain invaded in 2003 and overthrew the hated (especially by Iran) Saddam Hussein.
At the time many Iranians joked that it would be nice if the Americans invaded Iran and deposed the unpopular religious dictatorship that had misruled the country since the 1980s. That did not happen the Iran's religious dictatorship blamed the Americans for stirring up trouble among Iranians. This led to Iran providing sanctuary for Sunni Islamic terrorists in Iraq (secretly, because that was and is unpopular with most Iranians) and encouraging pro-Iran Iraqi Shia Arabs to attack the Americans (as “hated invaders”) using weapons supplied by Iran. It was later estimated that this Iranian sponsored violence was responsible for the deaths of at least a thousand Americans between 2005 and 2011. This was classic “proxy war” where Iran got away denying it had anything to do with supporting terrorist violence in Iraq. Actually the Americans went public with their evidence in 2007 but Iran continued to deny its complicity. The Iraqi government was not fooled and when American troops left in 2011 the Iraqis shut down, with some force, the active Iranian militias and terrorist groups in Iraq. The Iranians backed off and wanted for another opportunity.
That opportunity came when 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. The creation of the PMF was an admission by the Shia government that had failed to curb corruption, especially as it weakened the military. Iran rushed in with trainers and advisors for the new PMF groups and that did indeed help. But at the same time, Iran took control of many of these militias. This paid off. By late 2016 parliament 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 massacred Sunni civilians and the use of many Iranian trainers and military advisors by some (at one point most) of the Shia militias and the Iran connection in general. But most of the PMF just concentrated on defeating ISIL and, once that was accomplished by 2018, most Iraqis realized that the pro-Iran PMF units were a threat to the Iraqi government. It’s getting close to another 2011 crackdown on Iranian militias, but this time the Iranians are better prepared for that and it won’t be so easy this time. But the crackdown will happen and it will succeed.
That’s because 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. At the same time, Iraq doesn’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 to, or even worse than, the Sunni Arab Islamic terrorists. For example, in September 2017 a
leader of one of the PMF Shia militias went public (for the first time) 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 senior Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate their 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 instead of 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 mid-2017 when 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. This is unlikely because of popular opposition inside Iraq, but the Iranians tend to think long-term. The Iranians like to pretend that they have a lot of support in Iraq. They do have some, but it is declining, as it usually does after it is no longer useful for Iraq.
Iran Takes A Beating
During the first two weeks of May Iran suffered several major economic setbacks that Iranian leaders had not expected. The worst one was China, a major customer for Iranian oil, announcing it would comply with the American sanctions and halt Iranian oil imports as its 180 day import waiver expired. Until mid-May China had not made it clear how it would react, and is still indicating that it could keep changing its policy. The Chinese decision was enforced quickly and Iranian tankers in transit or waiting to unload at Chinese ports were told that their cargo would not be accepted. This was a major blow for Iran as China was Iran’s largest oil customer. China was buying nearly half a million barrels a day and was willing to pay in barter, thereby avoiding the American banking sanctions. China has lots of items for barter, including high tech goods that Iran needed. Now all that was gone.
This bad news came at the same time that European allies were admitting that their new financial system, designed to get around American economic sanctions and allow payment in hard currency, was not working and not likely to. The Americans were able to block such schemes and the Europeans, like the Chinese, were not willing to go total outlaw against the United States.
The immediate Iranian response was very hostile with threats to shut down all ship traffic in the Persian Gulf and attack American diplomats and military personnel in the region, mainly in Iraq where these Americans were most vulnerable. Iran gave its European allies, especially the ones that are still abiding by the 2015 treaty that lifted sanctions, 60 days to provide Iran with meaningful relief from American sanctions. If that does not happen Iran threatens to take some vague “strong measures.”
Iranian leaders feel pressure on all sides. There are still popular protests against the religious dictatorship and its corrupt ways, and these protests are persisting and increasing. Iran threatens to use military and terrorist (IRGC led) forces to shut down all oil exports from the Persian Gulf if all Iranian oil exports are blocked. That is considered unlikely because it would be a declaration of war by Iran, and even the elderly clerics who have ruled Iran since the 1980s have made it clear they understand their military is more mirage than real. It is also obvious to all Iranians that an actual war would destroy Iranian oil production and export facilities and much else. It would take years to repair that damage and there is no good outcome for Iran if there is war in the Persian Gulf.
Iran also threatened to resume its nuclear weapons program (which it still insists never existed) but that is not likely because the program is expensive and doing so invites special operations type attacks (the Stuxnet hack, Israeli assassinations inside Iran and so on). Iran won’t maintain the “we will build nukes” threats unless they get a useful (and not harmful) response. The Europeans might want to submit but they have nothing to offer. The Russians also have little to offer and the Chinese have removed themselves for the time being. Iran is alone and does not like it at all.
May 20, 2019: In the west (Anbar province), a convoy of 60 American military vehicles, escorted by helicopters, entered Iraq from Jordan and drove to the Ain al-Assad Airbase, the largest American bases in Iraq.
May 19, 2019: In Baghdad, a rocket was fired into the Green Zone, the well protected area where foreign embassies and key government offices are located. This rocket landed about a thousand meters from the American embassy but it was unclear of that embassy was the target. The rockets are unguided and there is lots of open space in the Green Zone. This 10 square kilometer (four square mile) sanctuary in downtown Iraq was long a sanctuary for Americans and senior Iraqis. Most Baghdad residents wanted the Green Zone and the way it disrupted major traffic patterns, eliminated after the Americans left. But rich and powerful Iraqis wanted to live in the Green Zone, as protection from criminals and terrorists (both of whom murder, kidnap and rob the rich). So the Green Zone lives on, under Iraqi management. Since 2010 there have been occasional rockets or mortar shells fired into the Green Zone. It is a large target, with a lot of open space, so there are rarely casualties. This rocket was fired from areas controlled by an Iran-backed militia. Iran officially condemned the rocket attack although it was later announced that fragments of the rocket had been collected and it was Iranian made and commonly used by groups Iran supports throughout the region. That’s proxy war.
In the southeast (Basra), a bus carrying militiamen was attacked by a roadside bomb, killing seven passengers and wounding 26. ISIL was suspected.
May 18, 2019: In the northeast (
Diyala province), ISIL set fire to wheat and barley crops, destroying about 200 hectares (500 acres). This sort of thing is increasingly common in Diyala, as are other forms of ISIL violence. ISIL counts on kidnapping and extortion activities (which sometimes involved non-lethal violence). These “operations” are important because they raise money and keep locals in line. This increase in activity shows how effectively ISIL has established base areas to operate from. Most of the bases are in the Hemrin Mountains, which extend from Diyala through northern Salahuddin province and into southern Kirkuk province. ISIL terrorism is often very selective with little or none of it falling on known “friends of ISIL” (those who pay or provide recruits).
In the west (Anbar province), troops found and destroyed an ISIL training camp in a remote area. The camp personnel fled at the approach of the troops, leaving behind weapons, ammo and explosives.
May 17, 2019: The commander of the Iranian IRGC alerted all his forces (mainly those who are armed and on the payroll) in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen to prepare for war with the West. This is because Iran is now in a lot more trouble back home. The IRGC is not declaring war, just rattling the saber to see what happens. In addition to killing people, the IRGC likes to make threats.
May 15, 2019: In the north (Kirkuk province), ISIL forces killed nine policemen in two attacks.
May 14, 2019: The American military commander in the Persian Gulf area raised the threat level for American forces under his command. This meant all non-essential diplomatic personnel were to leave Iraq until the area became less risky. A British general assigned to the American led air coalition in Iraq pointed out that current security measures employed by American and Western forces in Iraq were adequate. Two days later the British government increased the threat level for the 1,400 British military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq.
May 9, 2019: One of the most pro-Iran groups in Iraq is the Hezbollah Nujaba. Currently, it consists of under 10,000 militiamen, most of them involved with neighborhood defense and not much else. But the group wants to become an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hezbollah and that is encouraged by Iran and the original Hezbollah. This is of great concern for Israel because groups like Hezbollah Nujaba could control remote and thinly populated areas of western Iraq. From these desert areas, they could launch short-range Iranian ballistic missiles at Israel. This is similar to what the Iranian backed Shia rebels have been doing in Yemen against Saudi Arabia. Israel believes Iran has already installed ballistic missiles in southern Iraq, where they can reach Israel. Iraq is investigating the claim and willing to shut this down because it might involve Iraq in a war with Israel and that is not seen as a good thing.
May 5, 2019: ISIL still considers Iraq their homeland, where the organization was created in 2006 and eight years later achieved unexpected success. That did not last and four years later ISIL was once more a collection of small groups of terrorists and unarmed supporters. The official war plan is to continue and expand the terror attacks and recruiting. This will lead to local government becoming demoralized and weaker so that a resurgent ISIL can once more have territory it controls and can call the Islamic State. This is an ancient plan and has been in use for over a thousand years. This is one of the more lasting aspects of Islam, a word that literally means “submission.” The question has always been submission to who on earth. Allah (God) requires righteous followers to rule the Islamic state. The problem has always been and continues to be, who shall be in charge. Islam is a decentralized religion and none of the many sects, factions and schools of theology have been able to agree on a solution to this problem. As long as there are Moslems willing to kill (and get killed) to assert their claim, the violence will go on. This is bad news for Iraqis living in areas where ISIL still has local supporters. In areas north of Baghdad and south of Kirkuk there are a lot of ISIL supporters and armed ISIL men who terrorize the region with their death squads (to kill informers and any who openly oppose them) and extortion (“taxes” to support the cause).
April 29, 2019: ISIL leader and founder Abu Bakr al Baghdadi appeared in a new video, the first such video in five years. Baghdadi is shown in humble surroundings, along with several weapons. He is dressed plainly, as a warrior should be. He commanded his followers to keep fighting and believing that ISIL would ultimately prevail. The video contains details of recent events and serves mainly to show that Baghdadi is still alive and well enough to speak to his followers.
April 28, 2019: The commander of the IRGC met with Iraqi militia leaders loyal to Iran and discussed methods for attacking Americans that could not be traced back to Iran. This “proxy war” is a favorite technique of the IRGC, which realizes that if you take credit for an attack, or carry it out in a way that makes it easy to determine who was responsible, there is more likely to be effective retribution. IRGC has been using such proxy attacks against American forces since the 1980s but covering your tracks has become more difficult because the Americans eventually figured out what was going on and how to pin the proxy attacks on Iran. Many Iraqis are willing to help trace attacks back to Iran because Iran is trying to use such subversive tactics to gain control over Iraq.