June 25, 2020: As many expected, Iranian influence inside Iraq has waned since an American airstrike in January killed
Quds commander Qassem Soleimani, along with the commander of the Iraqi Katab Hezbollah and several other key Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders. Iran was unable to replace Soleimani with a man of similar stature and influence. This was made worse by the growing financial crises inside Iran. When Esmail Ghaani, the new Quds commander, made his first visit to Iraq he, like Soleimani, crossed the border with impunity. Things went downhill from there. Iraqi supporters of Iran expected Esmail Ghaani to bring lots of cash for Iraqi commanders to reinforce the alliance with and obedience to Iran. Ghaani didn’t have any cash and passed out some cheap jewelry. Ghaani went back to Iran and reported that he had made progress. That turned out to be overly optimistic because they next time he tried to cross the into Iraq, he was stopped by border guards and told he, specifically him, had to apply for a visa first. Once Ghaani got back into Iraq he found that the reports of declining PMF morale and evaporating support for Iran were true. Again, Ghaani did not have any cash to pass around to encourage his followers.
Iraqis are also aware of similar anti-Iran sentiments in Lebanon. Inside Iraq Katab Hezbollah is now openly accused of working for Iran to achieve Iranian control over Iraq. More and more Iraqis are turning against Iran-backed groups in Iraq, where local media are less intimidated by pro-Iran militias and are openly mocking things like the Iranian practice of creating fictitious pro-Iran militias via the Internet. This is typical Iranian propaganda and once had a large following in Iraq. As Iran uses more violence in its efforts to gain control over Iraq, more Iraqis lose their long-held illusions about Iranian goals in Iraq. The growing popular anger in Iran against the religious dictatorship also sends a message to Iraqis that even Iranians don’t trust or like the Iranian government. Both Iranians and Iraqis are defying the Iranian government thugs in both countries and tearing down or defacing posters and billboards promoting the Iranian government and its policies. In Iraq many local governments are banning pro-Iran posters. Worse, the payroll for PMF militias, which are now technically part of the military, is often late or short for PMF militias still believed loyal to Iran. Without someone like Soleimani to organize a suitably scary response, the Iraqi government does not back off and keeps applying economic and other pressure on PMF militias to act like they are Iraqi, not agents of Iran.
The reduced support for Iran within the PMF crippled the Iranian attack plan against American forces in Iraq. This effort began in October and has included nearly 40 attacks so far. Few of these efforts did any damage and caused even fewer casualties. General Soleimani was trying to fix that when the American got to him in January with some Hellfire missiles. Iran expected the death of Soleimani would trigger more anti-American anger among Iraqis. Didn’t happen. Most Iraqis saw Soleimani as more of a threat than the Americans. Iran was next door and forever threatening. The Americans were far away and had left once before, in 2011, and had to be asked to return in 2014 to deal with the ISIL invasion. The Americans are again eager to leave, the Iranians are not. Most Iranians want less money spent on subverting Iraq and more spent on building the Iranian economy and raising the standard of living. That is not a priority with the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) and its Quds Force that specializes in destabilizing other countries, like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The Turkish Invasion
Turkish airstrikes and ground attacks have been a problem along the northern border for over a decade. The cause is the PKK, an organization of Turkish Kurds fighting to create an autonomous Kurdish region in eastern Turkey. Iraqi Kurds tolerate the PKK presence in remote areas of the north, and sometimes in populated areas where the PKK helped with the fight against ISIL. The ISIL threat faded several years ago and now PKK presence anywhere in the north is considered a target for Turkish airstrikes or raids by Turkish troops.
A week ago, Turkey began its largest ever campaign against the PKK in northern Iraq. The Turks consider the current operation a continuation of a smaller cross border offensive that began at the end of May. Turkish warplanes, armed UAVs and artillery hit 500 targets from border areas of Dohuk province (on the Syrian border) to Hakurk, the mountainous region where the borders of Iraq, Turkey and Iran meet. There were also airstrikes against a refugee camp outside Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish north. Iran cooperated in this operation by attacking PKK and local Iranian Kurd separatists found inside Iran opposite the Iraqi Hakurk region.
The Iraqi Kurds asked the PKK to get out of Iraq. For a long time, the Iraqi Kurds had tolerated the PKK presence with the understanding that the PKK would not be violent inside Iraq and would stay away from Iraqi Arab and Kurd population centers. Over the last decade, the PKK has increasingly violated that understanding and the Turkish attacks have become more frequent and intense. Iraqi Kurds will not go to war with the Turkish Kurds but now the PKK accuses Iraqi Kurds of supplying the Turks with information about where PKK camps are. There is no proof of that but more damage is done to the PKK-Iraqi Kurd relationship.
The Arab world has noticed that Turkey is actively fighting Arabs in Libya, Syria and Iraq and ready to get involved elsewhere as well. Centuries of Turkish rule over Arabs ended a century ago when the Western allies defeated the Ottoman Empire. Western nations have not had an easy time working with the new Arab states and now better understand the old Turk sayings; “don’t involve yourself with the affairs of the Arabs.” The current Turkish government seems to have forgotten about that but many Turks have not so the current Turkish government may not be able to keep up their wars against Arab nations indefinitely.
Back in April Iraq had 1,621 covid19 cases and 83 dead. That was 41 cases per million population and two dead per million. Two months later and its 913 cases per million and 33 dead per million. Iraqi medical experts know a lot of covid19 infections and deaths are going unreported and often unnoticed. The virus mainly kills the elderly and anyone with existing medical problems. A covid19 death can easily be mistaken for pneumonia. Known covid19 infections and deaths are mainly an urban thing and Iraq has several large cities where the virus has settled in.
Covid19 experience throughout the region varies. In Iran, there have been 2,531 cases per million people and 119 deaths per million. In Turkey it's 2,273 cases and 60 deaths per million. In Kuwait, it is 9,809 and 79. In Saudi Arabia, it's 4,806 and 40. In the UAE it's 4,666 and 31. Syria is unknown. There is some covid19 there but no one has any clear idea how much. In Lebanon it's 241 cases and 5 deaths per million. In Israel it's 2,397 and 33. Israel has the best public health system in the region and one of the best in the world. Israel also has the most effective medical research in the region and has taken the lead in analyzing covid19 and coming up with effective treatments. What is known is that identified cases are not as important as confirmed deaths. That is a true indication of how far the virus has spread. It is also now known that for most of the population covid19 is no more of a than a bad strain of influenza, like the one that came along as recently as 2018, and not as lethal as flu strains that showed up in the late 1950s and 60s. Where covid19 does the most damage is among those already ill with serious afflictions. This means many of the elderly. Protect the most vulnerable and you limit the covid19 death rate enormously. Wealthier nations have better medical care and larger populations of older people who are being treated for many afflictions that covid19 can turn into a fatal condition. Most of the covid19 deaths so far have been among the most vulnerable, not the general population. The implications of that are not still sinking in with policymakers.
Among the large industrialized nations with good public health, several have suffered over 500 deaths per million so far. These include Britain (636), Spain (606), Italy (573) and Sweden (516). Several industrialized nations have done much better, like Germany (107), Canada (225) and the United States (375). Even the death data from industrialized nations is not entirely accurate because not all suspected covid19 deaths are checked for the presence of the virus. Hospitals in industrialized nations find a lot of sickly people showing up claiming to have covid19 turn out not to have it. They have something similar or nothing at all. It’s a common reaction during well publicized epidemics. Even during the annual influenza season hospitals and doctors are visited by a lot of people who think they have the flu but don’t. These are complex diseases in more ways than most people know or will admit.
June 24, 2020: Mustafa Al Kadhimi, the new (since May) prime minister was formerly (until April) the director of national intelligence. He held that job for nearly four years and knows more about what is really going on inside Iraq than just about anyone else. That’s one reason he got the job of prime minister, after a prolonged political struggle in which Iran sought to put someone they owned into the job. Iran overestimated how much influence they had bought, coerced or inspired among Iraqis. Iran is not giving up and much of the violence in Baghdad is caused by Iran and throughout the country, Iran still has loyal followers, many of them armed and willing to be dangerous towards whatever Iran decides is a threat. This comes at a cost; fewer Iraqis are willing to support Iran. The new prime minister knows better than anyone in Iraq how much Iran has corrupted the Iraqi military, especially the PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) militias. Once largely pro-Iran, the PMF loyalties have been shifting back towards Iraq or different tribal, ethnic or religious groups inside Iraq. The government still controls the money and Kadhimi is using that to determine who he can depend on.
June 23, 2020: The Finance Minister reports that the lower oil prices and quarantine restrictions caused by covid19 have made it impossible to meet the monthly payments to 4.5 million government employees, 2.5 million retirees and a million welfare recipients. The money was not there and borrowing would not cover the shortfall. Pay rates would have to be cut and long-delayed reforms undertaken. This would include eliminating those who were being paid several times, usually fraudulently. For example, a retiree might still have one or more government jobs. The eight million payments were not going to eight million individuals. Many paychecks, no one is sure how many, go to one person, usually a senior official who controls multiple jobs and secretly collects the monthly payments for himself. The armed forces were long considered the worst offender in this area but the Americans introduced biometric IDs when American aid was paying for most of the defense budget. That made it much more difficult to create phantom soldiers. But not impossible and the government is wasting billions of dollars a year paying people who do not exist. Reducing the phantom payroll would be a major political and legal undertaking and it is not a sure thing that the newly elected and selected government could get it done.
June 22, 2020: In Baghdad, several rockets landed near the main airport but there was no damage. This was the sixth such attack in two weeks. This is part of an Iranian campaign against
The airport complex contains areas where American troops are based as well as a diplomatic compound. The airport itself has been closed since mid-March as part of the covid19 quarantine.
June 19, 2020: In the north, near the Turkish border Turkish airstrikes and artillery fire inside Iraq left five civilians dead. One Turkish soldier was killed after Turkish troops were landed by helicopter near a suspected PKK (Turkish Kurd separatist) base. There were some PKK casualties and the Turks claim at least four PKK men died. This was all part of a Turkish offensive into northern Iraq that began on the 17th. Once more the Iraqi government protested the Turkish “invasion” but was unable to do much more.
June 17, 2020: In Baghdad, four rockets landed in the Green Zone but there was no damage.
In the northeast
(Kurd run Erbil/Arbil province) Iranian artillery hit suspected Kurdish separatist targets. This time Iraq suspected the Turks and Iranians were coordinating their cross-border operations against separatist Kurds. Iran and Turkey both denied any coordination while insisting their attacks on Kurdish “terrorists” inside Iraq were justified because Iraq would not deal with the problem.
June 15, 2020: In Baghdad, several rockets landed near the main airport but there was no damage. June 14, 2020: North of Baghdad U.S. and Iraqi security efforts led to the seizure of a truck rigged to fire multiple rockets. During the raid, two rockets were fired from the truck but landed in an uninhabited area.
June 13, 2020:
Outside Baghdad, two rockets hit Camp Taji, a joint Iraqi-American military base but caused no casualties.
The UN declared Iran was definitely behind the September 2019 UAV attack on Saudi oil facilities and was smuggling weapons to Shia rebels in Yemen. Those weapons are used to attack Saudi Arabia and shipping in the Red Sea. All this was documented in the UN final investigation report, which also noted that Iran has set up similar UAV assembly operations in Iraq and Lebanon. Both of these countries have Iran-backed militias called Hezbollah.
June 7, 2020:
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), another Israeli airstrike damaged an Iran base and killed at least twelve Iranian mercenaries while also destroying a lot of explosive material (rockets and ammo). Iran has noted that nearly all Iran-controlled Iraqi militia reinforcements moved to Syria are hit by an Israeli airstrike within days of their arrival. That is one reason these gunmen are moved to one of the Iranian bases in Deir Ezzor province that have some protection. That means bunkers, underground barracks and other well-protected facilities. These new arrivals do suffer some casualties from the airstrikes, usually including a few dead as well as many more wounded. Iran is unsure how the Israelis are obtaining knowledge of these new arrivals, as well as when new shipments of rockets and other weapons from Iran arrive. These shipments are also hit, usually with spectacular results as the stuff explodes in the warehouse or bunker it was stored in.
June 4, 2020:
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), the U.S. supported SDF (Syrian Kurds) launched a week-long operation to eliminate known or suspected ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) factions operating near the Iraqi border and in the Badia desert. This has become a favorite operating area for ISIL because the main road from western Syria goes through this desert on its way to Deir Ezzor province and the Iraq border. ISIL uses the road for smuggling people and supplies and wants to prevent others from doing the same. The SDF assembled a force of 6,000 fighters, many of them tribesmen from the area that have been calling for a major crackdown on ISIL in Deir Ezzor. The tribes are under growing pressure, and attack, by ISIL. The Islamic terrorists want the tribes to cooperate and often use murder and kidnapping compel compliance. The Iraqi Army is participating in the campaign as is the United States with air and intelligence support. Several other NATO countries work with the Americans on these efforts to eliminate these ISIL remnants.
June 1, 2020: In the northwest (Kurdish run Dohuk province), the main border crossing with Syria was closed to passenger traffic but not commercial (mainly truck) traffic. This was done to halt the large number of people coming from Syria who are infected with covid19.
May 31, 2020:
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province), an airstrike, possibly Israeli, hit a convoy of armed men near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Three vehicles were damaged and five Iranian mercenaries were killed.
May 26, 2020: Iraq confirmed that Moataz Al Jubouri had indeed been killed by a recent American airstrike in eastern Syria. It took a few days to get a DNA confirmation. The U.S. had offered a $5 million reward for information on where Jubouri was but it is unclear if that was what revealed his location for the airstrike. Iraqi officials praised Iraqi CTF (counter-terrorism force) and the PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) militias for their role in locating Jubouri, who was the third senior ISIL leader killed this month. He was the ISIL “governor of Iraq” and in charge of organizing attacks outside of Iraq and Syria. The use of the PMF has one shortcoming; the inability to track down Iran-backed terrorists. Many PMF militias are pro-Iran and the PMF leadership has divided loyalties. Aside from that the CTF/PMF cooperation regularly locates ISIL groups that are then hit with an airstrike or ground attack. Currently, this is costing ISIL over a hundred men dead or captured each month, plus the loss of hideouts, stockpiled supplies and access to suppliers of weapons and other equipment because of the risk of arrest. Despite these losses, ISIL continues to be active. There are plenty of angry (at Shia and Iranian persecution) and unemployed Sunni Arab men who see joining ISIL as a reasonable career choice. ISIL still has plenty of cash. Efforts to disrupt the ISIL international financial system have made progress but have not seized most of the millions ISIL got out of Iraq and Syria after 2017. ISIL also raises a lot of money locally via looting, extortion and donations from wealthy and pious (or scared) Sunnis throughout the region. There is more pressure on ISIL in Iraq and some ISIL activities have moved to eastern Syria. This has long been an ISIL practice, to move between Iraq and Syria depending on where the counter-terror pressure was least.