Iran and ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) are, in effect, working together to keep Iraq chaotic and mired in violence and corruption. While Iran and ISIL seem like separate problems, they are, in practice, intertwined. The Iraqis are growing more aggressive in curbing
the Iranian backed PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias. The PMF was created 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. By 2018 Iraqis realized that the pro-Iran PMF units were a threat to the Shia dominated government. Iraqis also remembered that in 2011 there was a crackdown on Iranian militias and although the Iranians are better prepared for that, popular hostility towards Iran is greater in 2019 than in 2011. Iran pretends to be popular in Iraq but in fact, Iran is more feared than admired.
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. 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).
The pro-Iran PMF units maintain popular support by aggressively enforcing Shia efforts to reclaim property that had been taken from Shia during the decades that Saddam Hussein ran the country, and did so very much for the benefit of the Sunni Arab minority. Once Saddam was overthrown in 2003 Kurds and Shia Arabs began seeking the return of their stolen property. Most of the claims were for urban and rural property Shia and Kurds had been displaced from and replaced by Sunni Arabs from other parts of the country. For the Shia Saddam went further and seized Shia shrines (which Iraq is full of) and gave them to Sunni Arabs, who often tore down Shia religious structures and converted the land to secular uses. This angered Shia Arabs but there were so many of these former Shia properties in now Sunni majority areas that it was difficult to get them all returned. That situation was made worse when ISIL grabbed control of a third of the country in 2014. In areas where there were a lot of Shia, like Mosul, ISIL quickly and violently reversed the recent (since 2003) transfers of property from Sunni to Shia. This won ISIL a lot of Sunni support in Mosul, and smoldering anger from the displaced Shia. This was made worse by the fact that many of the properties in question were originally the sites of Shia shrines. Pro-Iran PMF militias deliberately back claims to get these “sacred sites” back under Shia control and often use intimidation or force to get it done. This puts the government in an awkward position because the government exists to see that such transfers are done legally, using the courts. The pro-Iran PMF leaders invoke a higher power (their version of Islam) to get it done quickly, without the risk of a judge or other official being bribed to let the Sunni Arab owner keep the property. In this way, Iran maintains popular support (from Shia Arabs) for the often lawless pro-Iran PMF units.
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. The Iranians like to pretend that they have lots of support in Iraq. They do have some, but it is declining, as it usually does after it is no longer useful for Iraq.
The violent and lawless behavior of the pro-Iran PMF units generates most support for ISIL in Iraq, mainly in areas where the pro-Iran PMF are active. Iran is fine with this because once Iran gains control of Iraq they have ancient and rather brutal ways to deal with unrepentant heretics (in this case Sunni Arab diehards). That is why the current religious dictatorship is so unpopular in Iran but the overthrow of religious rule in Iran is, at the moment, only a potential cure for the rogue PMF militia problems in Iraq. For the moment the Iraq government has a growing problem with the ethnic and religious violence the pro-Iran PMF units are creating. The government has been reluctant to crack down on the pro-Iran PMF units while the ISIL threat is still active. Iraqi leaders, like those in Iran, are also having problems with popular unrest over the pervasive corruption in both countries.
Iranian Indirect Strategy Implodes
Iran is aware that its extensive involvement in attacks on American troops before 2011 is well documented and that Iraqi and American leaders are ready to go after Iran if there is any more violence against Iraqi or American forces that can be directly linked to Iran. So Iran is making attacks that are not obvious, not for a while anyway. The recent anonymous rocket attacks on American bases is not a mystery because the rockets are usually launched from areas controlled by pro-Iran PMF militias. The defenses of American bases includes sensors that can locate where hostile gun, mortar or rocket fire is coming from.
Since the 1980s Iran has been trying to play the victim as it calls for the destruction of the United States and Israel (and now the Saudi rule over most of Arabia). This indirect aggression is an ancient tactic long practiced in the Middle East and particularly by Iran. In the age of persistent surveillance and crime scene analysis, remaining anonymous is virtually impossible. The American military has been using analysis of combat incidents since the 1960s and has a compelling collection of well documented fatal Iranian attacks against Americans. These date back to the 1980s (in Lebanon), yet Iran officially denies responsibility. As a result, the recent Iranian efforts to carry out anonymous attacks against tankers in the Persian Gulf or American troops in Iraq are quickly exposed. This puts pro-Iran Iraqis in an awkward position. Before the Americans showed up the local Arabs (even Shia Arabs) were the primary victims of direct and indirect Iranian violence. Iraq suppressed pro-Iran Iraqi groups even before American troops left in 2011 and are willing to do so again. For the moment Iran is pretending to back the Iraqi government even though this government works with the American troops and helps protect them against Iranian attacks. Iranian leaders want everyone to ignore that even most Iranians are fed up with all the deceptions of their own government since the 1980s. As has often happened in the past an Iranian dynasty collapsed because of growing corruption and misjudging the power and resolve of external enemies. Thus it is much more difficult for Iran to terrorize its neighbors and other foes when the primary threat to the Iranian government is the Iranian people. The Americans realize this and will not give the Iranian rulers the “American aggression” the Iranian leaders believe will save them from their internal rebellion. The American strategy is just the opposite with the increased use of sanctions on specific (and notoriously corrupt) Iranian leaders as well as Cyber War attacks on Iranian government military command and control systems. The Americans are going after the people and tools (computer networks) Iran uses to attack dissident Iranians as well as those designated as external enemies of Iran.
June 25, 2019: In the north (Kirkuk province), four federal police were killed by a roadside bomb. ISIL was suspected. This comes after a two-day operation, which ended yesterday, in which Iraqi commandos, supported by American airstrikes, tracked down and killed 14 ISIL members in Kirkuk province.
June 22, 2019: After three years of effort, and at a cost of $530 million, American and Italian engineers completed long-delayed repairs on the 3,600 meter wide Mosul Dam. This structure holds back 130 billion liters (32 billion gallons) of water and is dealing with record rains and stress that would likely have caused the dam to fail if this much water was present before the repairs were completed. In early 2016 Iraq hired an Italian construction firm, for nearly $300 million, to make needed repairs on the Mosul Dam, which lies astride the Tigris River. Italians, in cooperation a German firm, were involved in building the dam in the 1980s. In December 2015 Italy announced it was sending 450 troops to help Iraq guard the Mosul Dam from Islamic terrorist violence. Aside from the fact that an Italian firm is one of the owners of the dam and its 750 MW electricity generating plant, there is a humanitarian aspect to providing the dam with more security. This is the largest dam in Iraq and because of shoddy construction (because Saddam Hussein wanted it built quickly and cheaply) during the 1980s, the dam requires constant maintenance to prevent it from failing. If the dam did come down over half a million Iraqis could die from the flood and subsequent water shortages. The wall of water created by a dam collapse would be about five meters (16 feet) high when it reached Baghdad. The power generating plant would also be lost along with the credibility of the Iraqi government, which has long acknowledged that the dam is important but rarely comes through when troops are needed for security or money is required to make the constant (and essential) repairs. The deal with the Italian firm did not say when the repairs would begin but engineers who have seen the dam in 2015 reported that a collapse could occur soon.
June 21, 2019: In Baghdad, a Shia mosque in a largely Shia neighborhood was hit with an Islamic terrorist bomb, leaving seven dead and over twenty wounded. It was not immediately clear if the attack was via suicide bomber or a bomb planted in the mosque. Such attacks in Baghdad have been rare this year, especially against Shia mosques in largely Shia eastern Baghdad. No one took credit for the attack, which may indicate a feud or gangsters as the cause. Islamic terrorism is not the only reason a bomb goes off in Iraq.
June 20, 2019: After years of negotiations and delays the government announced it had worked out terms of a $53 billion deal for an American company to develop two new oil fields along with all the necessary infrastructure. This announcement turned out to be premature because there are still disagreements over how the American oil firm will be paid and how security will be handled. In both cases the problem is corruption, something the Iraqis like to play down but that foreign firms cannot ignore, especially when this much of their money is being invested. Chinese oil firms offered similar deals in Iraq, have also backed off because of the payment and security problems. The Chinese firms are considered fearless and they are, but the Chinese are not foolish and Iraq is always looking for well-funded, but foolish foreign investors. Oil exports are at record levels (nearly 3.5 million barrels per day), bringing in about $7 billion a month. But without the foreign investment, and technology, to develop new oil fields, the current production levels will decline.
June 19, 2019: Outside Baghdad, someone fired rockets into an American base. Similar attacks were made against oil facilities in the south (Basra). The chief suspects were Iran-backed PMF militias and the Iraqi government is putting pressure on these PMF units to behave or be disbanded. Iraq also repeated its demands that foreign forces in Iraq undertake no operations without Iraqi permission. This was directed at Iranian IRGC personnel, not the 5,000 American troops.
June 18, 2019: In the north (outside Mosul), a rocket was fired into a compound used by American troops. There were no casualties but there was some property damage
June 17, 2019: Outside Baghdad, someone fired three rockets into an American base, there were no casualties. Local police quickly found the rocket launcher but the person who fired the rocket had apparently fled immediately.
June 16, 2019: One of the more openly pro-Iran Iraqi militias is the Hezbollah Nujaba, which recently sent letters to some Shia politicians warning them that any Iraqi politician who supported the Americans against Iran, especially if there was a war between the two countries, would be the target of attacks by Hezbollah Nujaba. Kin of such politicians would also be subject to attack. This is why Hezbollah Nujaba is considered the most pro-Iran group in Iraq. Hezbollah Nujaba currently 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.
June 15, 2019: Outside Baghdad, someone fired three rockets into an American base, there were no casualties.
June 12, 2019: For more than a month Turkish troops and airstrikes have been seeking to shut down PKK bases in northern Iraq. Most of the action has been near Mount Qandil, a remote area near the Turkish and Iranian borders that has long harbored PKK hideouts and served as a supply source for PKK operations in eastern Turkey. In 2018 PKK tried to move its Qandil headquarters west to Sinjar (in Nineveh Province, 120 kilometers west of Mosul). Turkey has succeeded in persuading the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurds to assist in preventing this. With that accomplished this Turkish offensive against the Qandil base area is more of a threat to PKK. Since May the Turks claim to have killed about fifty PKK personnel and destroyed a lot of PKK equipment and long-used hiding places (buildings and caves). The numerous airstrikes (by F-16s and helicopter gunships) were accompanied by ground troops (mainly special operations forces) advancing up to 50 kilometers into Iraq to confirm the damage and collect intel material. Because this is such a remote, and thinly populated, area the Iraqi government does not protest too vigorously. The PKK has proved resilient and operations like this slow PKK down but after decades of fighting PKK survives and rebuilds. Turks, Iranians and Arabs have been fighting the Kurds for centuries.
June 10, 2019: In the northeast (
Diyala province), ISIL violence has led to the formation of several ethnic militias, as well as a growing number of criminal gangs. Another reason for the growing violence are the pro-Iran PMF militias, which the government is starting to see as a threat to the government equal to what ISIL poses. What is happening in Diyala is simply the worst example of what is happening in many parts of the country. In May ISIL set fire to wheat and barley crops, initially destroying about 200 hectares (500 acres). That was just the beginning, after several weeks of this there were over a hundred such fires, destroying over a thousand hectares of crops. 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). ISIL justified all the crop fires because so many farmers refused to pay their “taxes” to ISIL. A later investigation found that many, if not most, of the crop fires, were accidents (spark from machinery, a carelessly discarded cigarette or outright fraud). These “operations” are important because they raise money and keep the 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).
June 5, 2019: American airpower is still active against ISIL targets in Iraq. In the last month, 34 ISIL targets were hit from the air.