The large and violent anti-government protests that have been going on all month are scaring both the Iraqi and Iranian governments. The new (since 2018) prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi was supposed to be the politician who would do something about the rampant and persistent corruption that is making Iraq unlivable for more and more Iraqis. Mahdi said he would try to take on the corrupt officials that dominate parliament and the bureaucracy but could not prevail quickly. Mahdi was a compromise candidate for the prime minister and needs the support of many pro-Iran or very corrupt Iraqi politicians. The corrupt officials made it very difficult just to form a government and compromises had to be made about who got what ministry to get it gone. The result, so far, has been more of the same corruption and mismanagement. The average Iraqi, especially the young and unemployed, are not happy with this.
While all this was reported in great detail in Iraqi and Western media, the long-suffering people of Basra, the second largest city and the only major city with a Shia majority, continued to suffer from too much unemployment and pollution along with not enough electricity, clean water and municipal services in general. Large and violent protests in Basra have been going on since mid-2018 but seemed to be fading after a year. That was actually a pause as the angry Basrans waited to see if the new government could actually make a difference. The verdict was rendered on October 1st and the violence quickly spread to Shia dominated east Baghdad and Shia, and some Sunnis in other towns and cities. The riots escalated and spread in large part because of the violence used against the demonstrators by the security forces and Iran-backed PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias. After the first week of violence, there were about 4,500 casualties, 157 of them fatal. The violent efforts to quell the unrest did cause protest frequency, size and intensity to decline for a few weeks. But the anger remained. The army blames the Iran backed PMF for the gunfire and the use of snipers against demonstrators. The government never ordered the use of weapons but the chatter among pro-Iran Shia was that the pro-Iran PMF militias were ordered to halt the rioting any way it could. That did not work out as hoped and created more anger and kept the demonstrations going and growing. After the first week, the army was pulled out of many urban areas, leaving the police to cope with the continuing protests. Now the army may have to be brought back in if the large scale protests resume tomorrow.
The government has multiple crises with another drama taking place next door in Syria. The Kurds have agreed to withdraw from a 30 kilometer deep “security zone” policed by the Turks. This has triggered a large scale movement of Syrian Kurds into Kurdish controlled northern Iraq. The Iraqi government is not opposing the influx of Kurdish civilians (and unarmed fighters) into Iraq but has protested the thousand American troops who are accompanying them. This is because the government can extract favors or cash from Iran and the Americans by doing this. While some of the protestors want all the American troops gone most Iraqis have done the math and realized that Iraq is much better off with the Americans, whose presence encourages the Iranians to behave.
The Shia Uprising
While the current unrest in Iraq is mainly about corruption, there is also an anti-Iran undertone. The Iranians have taken advantage of the many corrupt government officials in Iraq. In fact, Iranian “advisors” rely on corrupt Iraqi officials to survive and thrive. For this reason, one thing the rioters and the government could agree on was how important it was to retain American troops in Iraq. This would discourage Iran from trying to take over the government by force. Elections and opinion polls show Iran is losing support in Iraq and the Iranians are desperate to turn that around and do dangerous things as part of that effort. Iraqi government efforts to stop the verbal threats to American facilities and forces, as well as the actual violence, are hampered by the fact that while a shrinking minority of Iraqis support, Iran those supporters still occupy key political and security force jobs. This is why the army was accused of opening fire on protestors although most Iraqis believe the shooters were pro-Iran PMF, who also wear army uniforms. The entire PMF is seen as another form of corruption and that was confirmed when the 2019 military budget was announced it showed a quarter of the budget was going to the PMF, which is supposed to be part of the army but still answers to the Interior Minister rather than the Defense Minister. The army has still not recovered from the beating it took in 2014 from ISIL
(Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant)
and years of corrupt commanders. In 2014 most soldiers deserted and the army had to be rebuilt. Army strength is currently under 100,000. The PMF has 150,000. The best trained and most reliable Iraqi troops are the 10,000 or so special operations or counter-terrorism forces belonging to the army or national police. There are also about 40,000 border guards and 150,000 facilities guards who protect key facilities. These include oil fields, refineries, utilities, and major government headquarters facilities. The facilities guards are notoriously corrupt and many of them are full or part-time gangsters. Iraqis fear a lot of the corrupt security forces personnel work for Iran or anyone who will pay them. The national police also has thousands of “riot police” trained to deal with large scale and violent protests without getting a lot of people killed. That less-lethal reputation of the Iraqi riot police, and the fact that many of the soldiers are Shia and conscripts, are why so many Iraqis believe the Iranians must be behind the many protestor deaths during the first week of October.
Next door in Syria the Turks finally made their move into Kurdish controlled northeast Syria. The Americans soon brokered a ceasefire that allowed the Kurds to withdraw from the 30 kilometer deep Turkish controlled “security zone” the Turks had always insisted they would impose across their entire Syrian border. The new security zone contains some prisons and camps where ISIL members and separately, their wives and children are held. Some of these ISIL prisoners got free before the ceasefire took effect and most appear to have headed for the Iraq border. The Kurds were having problems getting countries these ISIL prisoners were from to take them back. Now Iraq is willing to take its citizens and prosecute them. The government in more distant (especially European) homelands are also suddenly more cooperative. About 2,000 of the ISIL prisoners are from European nations and those countries are willing to pay Iraq to prosecute and imprison or execute European ISIL members.
Iraq has alerted and reinforced its security forces on the border and ordered them to kill or capture any escaped ISIL prisoners trying to enter Iraq. The Kurds had asked, without much success, for more help, especially financial, to deal with all the ISIL personnel they had captured. Moslem and non-Moslem nations were not eager to take back their citizens who had joined ISIL and were now Kurdish prisoners. The Turks will be more forceful and may turn many unwanted ISIL members to the Assads, who will kill most of these ISIL members as well as many of their wives and children. That’s how the Assads deal with Islamic terrorists who oppose them and ISIL was definitely an enemy of the Assads. There are already many nations who want to prosecute the Assads for war crimes because of this policy of murdering anyone who opposes them, including women and children. Syria was a nasty mess before the civil war, during the civil war, and now at the end of the civil war it is worse. Now you know why Turks a century ago and today don’t want to get involved with Arab affairs. Turkish leader Recep Erdogan is going to get a sharp reminder of that.
Autonomous Kurds were always seen as a threat to Turkey because many Turkish Kurds want autonomy and some want an independent Kurdish state incorporating Kurds and territory from Iraq, Syria and Iran. Naturally, this is opposed by Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Turkey is the most active in using force to oppose Kurdish separatism and that has been Turkish policy, and a popular one with most Turks, for decades. This has created hostile relations with Syria and Iraq, because Arabs and Turks have a long and unpleasant relationship. Syria and Iraq were part of a Turkish empire for centuries until 1918. The Turks still tend to treat the Arabs with disdain and the situation with Syria and Iraq is typical. Since 2011 Turkish troops have operated across the border in Syria and Iraq with impunity as they attack Turkish Kurdish separatist bases in Syria (not so much) and Iraq (still there). Now the Turks are trying to apply a more extreme solution to their problems with the Syrian Kurds.
American military (mainly Special Forces) working with the Kurds always pointed out that most Americans were opposed to supporting the Kurds in a “war of unification” against Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq so the Kurds could have their long-desired Kurdistan. Iraq was a special situation because American and British troops found the Saddam government was having a hard time regaining control of the Kurdish north after the 1990 Gulf War. In came Americans and British military advisors and air support and Kurdish northern Iraq were autonomous. The current elected Iraqi government is not happy about their autonomous Kurds but has been told by the Americans that if Iraq wants help in keeping the Iranians out, Kurdish autonomy (but not independence) must be respected. That was not the kind of a deal the Americans could arrange for the Iranian, Turkish or Syrian Kurds. The Kurds point out that they provided the ground troops for the successful war against ISIL and that means the Americans owe them. The U.S. military advisors respond that ISIL was more of an immediate and direct threat to the Syrian Kurds than to the United States or the West. The U.S. provided training, weapons, advisors plus massive artillery and air support for the fight against ISIL. The Kurdish “you owe us” angle does not carry a lot of weight in the United States because most Americans see supporting Kurdish nationalism as an endless, expensive and futile military commitment. The Kurds don’t have to agree with the American view but they have to learn to live with it because it is the reality.
The best the Americans can offer at this point is threats of economic and diplomatic sanctions if the Turks treat Kurdish civilians badly. The Turks don’t like that kind of restriction and they may not get a chance to prove they can or will abide by it. Establishing the 30 kilometers security zone was thought to be the easy part. It wasn’t. Moving millions of Syrian Sunni Arab refugees into the security zone was always going to be the riskiest aspect of the Turkish plan and cause of long-term problems. Now the plans for the Syrian refugees are on hold.
October 23, 2019: Because Iraqi officials were not consulted on the matter the U.S. plans to move the thousand troops based in Syria to Iraq will not be possible. Iraqi ordered those troops to leave Iraqi within four weeks. This can probably be negotiated and in the meantime, the thousand American troops can operate from existing American bases on the border, but the troops meant to leave Syria will have to stay on the Syrian side of the border. In issuing this “leave in four weeks” order Iraq gains some goodwill from Iran but also earns more hostility from the United States, which is continuing to pressure Iraq about its rampant corruption, especially when it comes to American aid.
October 22, 2019: In the north (Samarra 125 kilometers from Baghdad), a large military operation to go after ISIL got off to a bad start when ISIL gunmen ambushed a police convoy, killing the two senior generals of the 4th Police division and four bodyguards.
Russia and Turkey agreed to jointly patrol the 30 kilometers deep security zone Turkey has established inside Syria along the entire Syrian border. Turkish forces entered this area on the 9th after American troops withdrew. The Syrian government has agreed to go along with this for now.
October 21, 2019: The results of a government ordered investigation were leaked and revealed unpleasant details of what happened during the violent protests during the first week of October. Most embarrassing was the number of civilians killed (149) and the fact that 70 percent died from rifle bullet wounds in the head or chest. This indicates the use of snipers and the government never ordered the use of lethal force, nor did any senior police or army commanders. Most (65 percent) of the sniper deaths were in Baghdad, where the violent protests broke out shortly after the first took place in the southern city of Basra. Over 75 percent of the protestor wounded were in Baghdad. The snipers were believed to be from the Iran-backed militias because Iran had demanded that the protests, which were anti-corruption and anti-Iran, be suppressed as quickly as possible. There were rumors that the snipers were Iranian.
The security forces were blamed for poor leadership and dozens of guilty commanders were identified by name and will probably be dismissed. Corruption and incompetence in the security forces, which are dominated by pro-Iran politicians and commanders, is now widely known to be a major reason for the rapid advances of ISIL in Iraq during 2014. Iraqis were told that this would not happen again but their elected leaders appear to have lied, in addition to remaining corrupt and incompetent. Iran is known to encourage and exploit this corruption and that’s why the riots were also anti-Iran. Eight soldiers or police died as well, none from rifle fire and usually because their commander lost control of them and individual policemen found themselves isolated and at greater risk. In addition to the deaths during the first week of violence, there were also over 4,200 wounded, including 300 police and soldiers. The protests tend to peak each week on Friday and Saturday, the weekend in Moslem countries.
October 20, 2019: Moqtada al-Sadr, the most prominent and powerful Iraqi Shia religious leader, publically called for the anti-government protests to resume at their previous intensity. The police and army violence against the protestors during the first week of October had reduced the number and intensity of demonstrations. Sadr believes large peaceful protests are the most effective way to motivate Iraq’s notoriously and incorrigibly corrupt politicians to change their ways or else.
October 18, 2019: Desperate to avoid another major outbreak of public protests the government announced new procedures to control, regulate and justify the escalating arrests of people thought to be leading or encouraging the public protests. The police and soldiers have made thousands of arrests in the last two weeks, often with the arresting officers or soldiers not identifying themselves and not revealing any cause for the arrest. These arrests have caused more anger, especially since they did not reduce the media chatter criticizing the government. Then there was the recent realization by the security forces that the protests were largely “leaderless” and that there were no key leaders to arrest. Military and police intelligence report that public anger has increased over the last ten days and the protests seem likely to resume.
October 17, 2019: The United States negotiated an end to the Turkish offensive in Syria by persuading the Kurds to pull their forces out of the 30 kilometer security zone voluntarily. The Turks agreed to halt their operations for 120 hours so the Kurds can complete their withdrawal in peace. This also led to a massive movement of nearly 300,000 Kurdish civilians from the zone. About ten percent of them entered Iraq. Iran does not back this agreement but is in no position to block it. Meanwhile, there is ISIL and the Syrian Kurd run prison camps for captured ISIL members as well as their wives and children. These camps have largely remained intact. There were some escapes but many of those escapees were quickly killed or captured. ISIL is hated by almost everyone in the region and has been reduced to a scattered Islamic terrorist group in parts of Iraq and Syria.
October 15, 2019: In the north (Sulaimani Province), a Turkish UAV used missiles to kill two PKK leaders hiding out in the Mount Azmar area on the Iraq side of the border. It took a week for PKK to confirm the deaths. This was the first use of armed Turkish UAVs inside northern Iraq.
October 13, 2019: Iraq has sent more troops to its Syria border, especially in the north where that border is mostly with Kurdish controlled Hasaka province. This is mainly to block any ISIL members from getting into Iraq after escaping a Kurdish prison. Most of the American troops being withdrawn from Syria are being moved to the Iraqi border, most of them on the Iraqi side. The violence may have decreased but the popular anger has not. The politicians don’t need election results to tell them they are all in big trouble.
October 9, 2019: The government ordered three days of mourning for the many (over a hundred) demonstrators killed between the 1st and 7th. Some Iraqis blame their own soldiers and police for the deaths while others blame Iran. The government has ordered an investigation and promised to release the results before the end of the month.
October 6, 2019: The United States announced it was pulling its troops out of northeast Syria. This has been the plan since early 2019, but many American politicians thought the U.S. would never take the American troops out of Syria despite the fact that the announced intention to do just that. But first, a deal had to be reached with the Turks on how the Kurds would be treated in the 30 kilometers deep security zone the Turks had long planned to establish on the Syrian side of the entire border with Turkey. The Kurds were defiant about that as long as they had the thousand American troops with them. But with those U.S. troops leaving they were forced to fall back on discussions it had with the Assads and the Russians about post-war operations. The Turks and Russians have major potential problems with the remaining ISIL forces in Syria and the Syrian Kurds are the most effective force to use against ISIL. So the Kurds have some leverage with the Assads, the Turks and Russia. Iran is another matter as everyone would rather see Iranian forces withdrawn from Syria. Going much further than 30 kilometers south of the border (at least on a permanent basis) is not part of the Turkish strategy. Another complication was that the Kurds were maintaining prison camps for captured ISIL fighters and their families. The Kurds need help in dealing with the growing number of these captives. Kurds ended up with over 50,000 prisoners who are held in a large refugee/prison camp and various governments are being asked to verify who is a citizen of where. The UN has been asked to take custody of those found to be stateless. Iraq has agreed to take about 30 percent of the refugees and prosecute those who are suspected of ISIL crimes. That process was slower than expected. There are still over 40,000 of these prisoners at the al Hol camp. Many of the ISIL wives are obviously still active ISIL members and many were caught smuggling weapons into the camp when they were searched before entering. These ISIL women are terrorizing other camp residents and seeking to intimidate the camp guards. The Kurds need help paying for the camp and want the nations these people came from, including Syria, to claim and take custody of them. All of the camp residents claim to be non-Syrian but for many of them that is unclear. Recently the ISIL leader released an audio message in which he urged all ISIL members to assist in getting the ISIL men, wives and children out of the SDF camps.
October 4, 2019: The massive and violent protests have spread from largely Shia east Baghdad to the center of the city and police and soldiers used force and firepower to prevent the crowds from getting into government compounds.
October 2, 2019: Iraq officially criticized Iran for recent comments by the Iranian ambassador about how Iran would attack American forces in Iraq if Iran felt the Americans were a threat to Iran. This was another reminder that Iraqis see American troops as an asset and Iran as a threat.
October 1, 2019: In the south (Basra province), the annual anti-corruption/anti-Iran protests began. Most of the protestors are young Shia men angry over the Shia dominated government's inability to manage anything, especially basic services (water and electricity supplies) or do much to curb rampant corruption. These protests are encouraged, and often organized by
senior Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr. This year the protests were organized by the young protestors themselves using social media. This year Iraqis are angry with Iran over their attacks on Saudi oil facilities and Iranian efforts to launch such attacks from Iraq. The protestor response was a call for Arab unity in the face of Iranian aggression. Not what Iran wants but this year Iraqis are particularly loud in reminding Iran that they are seen as a threat to Arabs more than the protector of Shia Arabs. Iraq further angers Iran by refusing to attack or hate the Americans. The reasons for that are simple. Compared to Iran the Americans have been far more helpful to Iraq (in fighting terrorists and aiding reconstruction) than Iran. Best of all, the Americans have proved they have no desire to occupy or control Iraq. The logic of that is simple for Iraqis and Arabs. The Americans are far away while Iran is next door. The Americans have, for several generations, concentrated by buying Arab oil and selling Arabs whatever they want. Iran, in contrast, is seen as seeking to control Arab oil as well as the Islamic holy places in Saudi Arabia.
September 30, 2019: In western Iraq (Anbar province), the border crossing at Iraqi Qaim/Syrian Bukamal (Deir Ezzor province) was officially reopened. The crossing had officially closed in 2012 as rebels battled the Syrian army for control. Possession changed hands several times but the area remained a combat zone and had not quieted down sufficiently until early 2018 to consider an official reopening. The border crossing controls a main route up the Euphrates River Valley through Syria and into Turkey. This crossing is one of the several Iranian land routes through Syria to the Israeli border and Lebanon. This route is under constant attack by Israeli airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.