It’s been three weeks since the U.S. threatened to bomb pro-Iran Iraqi militias unless Iraq eliminated the threat first. The American position was that Iran was at war with Americans in Iraq and said so frequently and publicly. All the major Iraqi Shia religious leaders have called for the disbanding of all PMF (Popular Mobilization Forces) militias, in part because Iran was rapidly turning the entire PMF into an Iraqi version of the Lebanese Hezbollah organization called Kataib Hezbollah. Founded in the 1980s with Iranian help, the original Hezbollah still takes orders from Iran and has dominated Lebanese politics for over three decades. Most Lebanese want Hezbollah gone but a heavily armed militia with enormous economic power in Lebanon is difficult to disband. Iraqis want Kataib Hezbollah gone and cannot understand why their prime minister does not act. Fear probably has a lot to do with the delay. In Lebanon Iran had several senior Lebanese politicians assassinated for being too openly hostile to Hezbollah. The personal danger for the Iraqi prime minister is based on fact, not just speculation.
The new prime minister (Mustafa al Kadhimi) is decidedly hostile to Iran. He has already ordered the removal of many pro-Iran commanders in the security services and disbanded some units that were dangerously pro-Iran. Kadhimi went to the U.S. in late August to meet with the American leader and discuss improving U.S.-Iraq relations. Such a meeting was important because Kadhimi is the first post-Saddam (2003) prime minister that is not heavily influenced/controlled by Iran.
Iran still has enough loyal (to Iran) Iraqi militias to be a threat to the Iraqi government. Most Iraqi politicians and voters want less Iranian influence. Iran wants fewer foreign troops in Iraq. That is a point of contention because Iraqis realize the foreign troops offer some assurance that Western and Arab states would actively assist Iraq if Iran sought to take control via a civil war or invasion. Civil war is the more likely option, but only in an emergency, such as Iraq appearing to succeed in disbanding all the pro-Iran militias. At the moment Iran is willing to halt all violence by Kataib Hezbollah if the government agrees to have all foreign troops leave Iraq, except for Iranian advisors. This sort of thing is seen by Iraqis as an expression of Iranian contempt for Iraq and confidence that Iran will turn Iraq into another Lebanon.
Even before the current crises, Iran had ordered its associates in Iraq to use terror, as in kidnapping and assassination, to extract cooperation from Iraqi officials. This includes uncooperative PMF leaders. Reduced support for Iran within many PMF militias crippled the Iranian attack plan against American forces in Iraq. This Iranian campaign began in October and has included over fifty attacks so far. Few of these efforts did any damage and caused even fewer casualties. General Soleimani, commander of Iranian terror operations in Iraq, was trying to fix that when the American killed him in January 2020. 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. After all, Iran was next door and forever threatening Iraq. 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 (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) invasion. The Americans are again eager to leave, the Iranians are not. Back in Iran most people 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.
Even before the current crises, the Iraqi leader apparently took the American complaints seriously and began a series of crackdowns on the pro-Iran groups. The crackdown continues, despite protests and threats from Iran. Iraq recently sent senior officials to Iran to ask them to order the Iran controlled PMF and other militias to cease their attacks on the Americans. The Iraqis pointed out that if the Americans followed through with their threats to attack Kataib Hezbollah the Iraqi economy would collapse within weeks because of losing American financial support and within a few months there would be chaos and possibly civil war, all because of Iranian efforts to disrupt and control Iraq.
The Iranians claimed that they were not responsible for the attacks on Americans. This was the Iranian way of telling the Iraqis that Iran would not be intimidated by the Americans. In other words, Iran welcomed economic and political collapse in Iraq because it would make it easier for Iran to impose more control on Iraq and Iraqi oil. This response reminded the Iraqi officials that Iran was not their friend but their potential conqueror. That has been the Iranian attitude towards Iraq for thousands of years. Yet after the Iraqi Foreign Minister visited Iran recently, the attacks on Americans sharply declined, indicating that Iran did not want that much chaos. The Iranian attacks will probably continue, but carried out more carefully to avoid blame falling on pro-Iran Iraqis. That’s a common tactic for Quds Force planners when they need to be stealthy.
After suppressing Iran-backed militias in 2008, the government did not concentrate on keeping the Islamic terrorism down and the Iranians out. Instead the Shia government embraced destructive corruption which weakened the security forces and enraged a growing number of Iraqis. The destructive impact of that became obvious in 2014 and is still a problem. There is cause for optimism. In Iraq and throughout the region, reducing corruption is seen as an important goal in itself as well as playing a role in reducing support for Islamic extremism. There is more corruption and Islamic extremism at play in Iran, which is why Iran is a major threat to Iraq. The collapse of the Iranian religious dictatorship is seen as a major goal for most Iranians and the rest of the world. Dictatorships are difficult to remove from power because such governments threaten major destruction and loss of life for the entire nation if there is an uprising. The alternative is to wait, often for decades, for the corruption and mismanagement to anger even government loyalists. That’s how the Iranian monarchy lost power in the late 1970s, as did the communist governments of Europe in the late 1980s. Waiting for the internal collapse can be painful to watch and even more painful to live within. That’s how these things work out and there is no known way to predict when the major changes will occur. In the meantime, the best you can do is deal with the expensive symptoms and side effects. Until the American September ultimatum, that was what most Iraqis and their Western allies are putting up with.
The Culture Curse
A growing number of Iraqi Arabs recognize that the destructive aspects of Moslem culture seen in Iran and are willing to try and deal with it. That is still difficult in Iraq, where religious disagreements often lead to murder, all in the name of God. This shift in attitudes expresses itself in most Iraqis opposing Iranian efforts to turn Iraq into an Iranian puppet state that will serve as a front line in the Iranian effort to dominate all of Arabia. To that end most Iraqis want the 5,200 American and 1,000 other foreign troops to stay. Not just for help in dealing with Islamic terrorism, but in keeping the Iranians out. The U.S. plans to reduce its Iraq force to 3,500 by the end of 2020 and NATO forces are also shrinking. For over a thousand years Western governments have avoided involvement with Moslem, and especially Arab affairs. The current mess in Iraq is nothing new and it is only the internationalism of Islamic terrorism (via new electronic media and the relative ease of illegally migrating to the West) that forced the West to get involved.
October 12, 2020: In the west (Anbar province) the local commander of the ISIL assassination squad was captured after a ten-hour pursuit. In Iraq ISIL depends on intimidation to gain cooperation from local leaders and the ultimate intimidation threat is assassination. The ISIL Anbar kill squad has a reputation for efficiency and its leader was the main reason.
October 11, 2020:
In the west (Anbar province) near the Tanf (on the Syrian side)/Walweed (on the Iraqi side) border crossing someone on the Syrian side opened fire on the Iraqi border post, killing one Iraqi border guard and wounding two others. The Americans have controlled the Syrian side since 2017 while a pro-American Iraqi militia controls the Iraqi side. This is one of the three main Syria/Iraq border crossings and controls access to the main Baghdad-Damascus highway. The crossing is near where the borders of Jordan, Syria and Iraq meet.
October 10, 2020: It’s been a year since the large anti-corruption and anti-Iran demonstrations began. The Iranian response was to order some of its Kataib Hezbollah snipers to start killing demonstrators. That had worked in Iran when large scale demonstrations recently broke out. Unlike Iran, the public outrage at these tactics could not be contained in Iraq and as more details of the Iranian sniper tactics emerged Iran was forced to halt the killings. Iran never admitted what it had done, which made the public angrier. That anger has reemerged on this anniversary. Iran still murders its enemies in Iraq, but does it more discreetly.
October 8, 2020: In Baghdad the government ordered pro-Iranian PMF militias out of the main airport. These militias gave Iran control of the airport and to ensure that one of those militias was a detachment from Kataib Hezbollah. These are the PMF brigades that want to create an Iraqi version of the powerful Hezbollah force in Lebanon.
October 7, 2020:
The Turkish parliament extended for one year the permission for the use of air strikes against PKK (Kurdish separatists) camps in northern Iraq. Parliament first approved this in 2007 and has extended the arrangement annually ever since. Iraq protests against these attacks but is helpless to halt or even oppose them. This year Turkey has used its F-16s less often for the airstrikes in northern Iraq and instead sent in their armed (with smart bombs and guided missiles) Bayraktar UAVs. These are similar to the American Predator. Bayraktar has been used in Syria for several years and began showing up in Libya last year. Now Bayraktar is a common sight in northern Iraq.
October 6, 2020:
In the northeast (Duhok province) a Turkish airstrike hit a suspected PKK (Turkish Kurdish separatists) camp in a rural area. Locals heard several explosions.
October 5, 2020: Outside Baghdad three rockets were fired towards the main airport. One rocket landed in a residential area outside the airport while two rockets landed inside the large airport compound. The rockets were aimed at the military section of the airport but did not do any damage. The enclosed airport compound covers 14 hectares (35 acres) in addition to several large military compounds nearby.
October 4, 2020: The government has not been able to the pay September salaries for most of the eight million recipients of monthly government payments and now the October payroll is due. This crisis was not a surprise. In June the Finance Ministry warned 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 for long. 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. Another lucrative cost-cutting target is the size of payments for senior officials, including retired ones. These people often get several hundred thousand dollars a year each and over a hundred thousand dollars a month when they retire.
The end was near when it was reported that oil export income in August was $3.52 billion, versus $3.49 in July. Oil sold for $43 a barrel compared to $40 in July and $34 in June. Iraq has to cut production to about three million BPD (Barrels Per Day) for the rest of the year, from the 3.8 million BPD in August. This being done to maintain its membership in OPEC (the oil cartel) and to make up for several instances of overproduction since late 2019.
Iraq is more dependent on oil income than any other Gulf nation. Because of lower oil prices and lower oil demand the Iraqi GDP is expected to shrink at least ten percent in 2020. The monthly government payroll is $4.5 billion and so far, this year oil income has only been able to cover a third of that. Until September the government managed to borrow money to cover the monthly shortfall. But now the government has run out of credit and millions of Iraqis are not getting paid. The lower oil prices are expected to persist into early 2021, if not longer.
September 30, 2020:
In the northeast (Erbil province) six rockets were fired at an American base near the Erbil city airport. Three rockets were intercepted by anti-rocket systems and the other three fell into empty land. The rockets were fired from a non-Kurd area in nearby Nineveh province where a pro-Iran PMF brigade is known to operate. Erbil city is the capital of the autonomous Kurdish north.
September 29, 2020: South of Baghdad another American military convoy was attacked by a roadside bomb. There was no damage or casualties.
September 28, 2020: In Baghdad a rocket attack aimed at the airport killed six civilians when one of the rockets landed in a residential area outside the airport. Those rockets landing in the airport caused no damage or casualties.
September 20, 2020: The American government told the Iraqi president that if the Iran-backed PMF militias were not brought under control the United States would close its embassy and carry out airstrikes on 80 targets associated with Iran-backed groups (mostly PMF) in Iraq.
September 14, 2020:
In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian weapons being stored near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. There were ten deaths (two Syrian, eight Iraqi), all of them pro-Iran militiamen. This is the third Israeli airstrike in Deir Ezzor province this month.