Most Iraqis agree that Iran is a toxic neighbor that, in its current state (an increasingly unpopular religions dictatorship) is a toxic force obsessed with controlling Iraq and the Iraqi government. Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but specializing in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them) and even more lower ranking IRGC personnel to Iraq. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. These IRGC personnel are now seen by most Iraqis as hostile foreign agents. What the Quds Force does get credit for is its leading role in organizing the PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) militias in 2014. This came in response to the corrupt armed forces created by the elected Iraqi government falling apart in the face of the ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) advance. The ISIL force was much smaller and less well armed than the Iraqi security forces they encountered. For the Shia majority in Iraq this ISIL advance was their worst nightmare. Quds stepped in where corrupt Iraqi Shia army and police commanders had failed and turned the poorly armed and trained Shia Iraqi militias into a force that could halt the ISIL advance. But these militia could not drive ISIL out of Iraq. That required newly trained (by American and foreigner military specialists) special operations units supported by American and Iraqi artillery and air power.
Another humiliation was the effectiveness of the Iraqi Kurds, who were not Arab and largely Sunni but very anti-ISIL and opposed to any terrorism. When the Sunni minority was in charge before 2003 the Kurds were persecuted more savagely than Shia Arabs in part because the Kurds were ethnic cousins of Iranians and Europeans. The Iraqi Shia see the Kurds as a threat to Shia domination of Iraq (via democracy) by the Iraqi Shia Arabs. The Kurds are not nearly as much of a threat as the Sunni Arab minority and only want to be left alone via autonomy. The Iraqi Sunni Arab minority had run Iraq for centuries and considered that domination as their right. Iranians have always seen Arabs as inferior and the Kurds as ungovernable. These are ancient attitudes are not easily changed. Iraqis or Iranians who have migrated to a place like the United States find that it takes several generations to completely dilute enough of the religious and ethnic animosities that make the Middle East so toxic and hard to govern. After centuries of Moslem cultural isolation it came as a shock, in the mid-20 century, as Western films and TV became widely available in the Middle East. Suddenly there as exposure to a different way of doing things that did not depend on religion but did demand much less corruption and a lot more tolerance to other ethnic and religious groups. Watching these two systems for several generations has made it clear who has a better life. Even the popular Middle Eastern custom of blaming local problems on foreign influence is losing support. As the Western saying goes, “we have met the enemy and they are us.” Cultural attitudes are slow to change because conservatives see such change as a disaster, not an opportunity. That is what has kept Islamic terrorism in support of Islamic fundamentalism alive for over a thousand years. Dealing with that beast is dangerous and frustrating as this is a stubborn belief that has a lot of support within the core teachings of Islam. Most Moslems now agree that some change is needed but that is not enough to solve the problem. It takes time and during that process the violent religious conservatives will be doing what they have always done; kill and terrorize Moslems who disagree with them.
The Quds Factor
These ancient and persistent animosities are the main reason why the Quds Force continues to attract local supporters in Iraq, even though everything the Quds Force does is destructive to the well-being of Iraqis. The Iraqi Shia need allies to deal with the Iranian threat and the best source of support has been the West, which is much less influenced by ethnic and religious animosities. That makes these foreigners primary targets for the local troublemakers. That is at the root of a key problem in Iraq; the reluctance of the Iraqi government to admit the extent of its Iran problems and take action. There is no doubt that the Shia government can do this as they suppressed the pro-Iran militias once before, starting in 2008 after the Sunni Arab uprising (via Sunni Islamic terrorism) had been crushed. Instead of concentrating on keeping the Islamic terrorism down and the Iranians out the Shia government embraced destructive corruption which weakened the security forces and angered most 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 as is suppressing Islamic extremism. There is more corruption and Islamic extremism at play in Iran and is why Iran is a major threat to Iraq. The collapse of the Iranian religious dictatorship is seen as a major goal in Iran 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 1970s and the communist states of Europe in the 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. Which is what most Iraqis and their Western allies are enduring.
Recently the U.S. is more frequently holding the Iraqi government responsible for its failure to observe the terms of agreements that brought the Western forces to Iraq. Iran is now openly at war with these Westerners, correctly seeing them as a major factor in supporting counter-corruption activities and upgrading the Iraqi security forces. Iraqi leaders protest that confronting Iranian forces inside Iraq is dangerous and Westerners point out that this comes with the job. You cannot just sit in the presidential palace of parliament and get rich via corrupt deals. You either take care of the foreign threat or you become part of the foreign threat.
Iraq has slipped into an unofficial civil war between pro and anti-Iran factions. Iran has used force against anti-Iran protesters, responsible for most of the 800 protesters killed since the protests began in October 2019. These deaths have exceeded the casualties caused by Islamic terrorists. Half the deaths have been in Baghdad and Iraqis know Iran is a big fan of shooting protesters. In the same time period over a thousand protesters in Iran were killed. The Iraqi government is in chaos because the parliament contains a mix of pro and anti-Iran members plus a lot of members who are pro-Iran only because they are being bribed or intimidated by Iran. The parliament has called for the departure of all American troops but only the prime minister can approve that and make it law and at the moment there is only an interim prime minister because parliament is deadlocked in selecting a new prime minister. The stalemate is influenced by Iranian pressure but the major disputes are about corruption and who gets to control the most lucrative (for thieves) ministries.
Iranian efforts to expand their control in Iraq and Syria are not producing the desired results. This is causing more anti-government activity inside Iran. Iran is hard hit by covid19, in part because the government dismissed the virus as a threat. Now the Iranians are claiming, along with China and Russia, that virus is actually a biological attack by the Americans. Such government sponsored conspiracy theories no longer gain a lot of popular support. This is particularly true with the way the virus was handled in Iran, where leaders ignored what neighboring countries were doing to limit the damage while Iranian leaders urged their followers to operate as usual. That backfired because many of the early Iranians with the virus, or killed by it, have been members of the government of their most loyal supporters. This had an impact on Iraq, where Iran-backed groups urged the followers to emulate Iran. As the virus hit Iran hard more Iraqis were ignoring the Iranian propaganda and becoming more actively anti-Iran.
Despite the much reduced budget for operations in Syria, the Iranian Quds Force officers in charge convinced their bosses back in Iran that more cash was needed in Syria to prevent the Iranian effort there from collapsing. The cash has apparently come though because the Iranians have increased the pay and benefits for many of the mercenaries, including the local Syrian Sunni militias it has been recruiting. The Syrian economy is still a mess and good jobs are hard to come by. While being an Iranian merc can be dangerous the Iranians tell the new Syrian recruits that they want them to keep doing what they have always been doing; protecting their own town or neighborhood.
While covid19/coronavirus is not a major problem (compared to Iran) inside Iraq, the virus is just getting started. So far there have been several hundred confirmed cases but less than three percent are fatal and those victims tend to be elderly or someone already very weak from illness. The covid19 threat has not eliminated the anti-corruption protests but the crowds are smaller and dressed to resist spreading or catching the virus.
The economic impact of the global pandemic is already being felt. There is a global slowdown in economic activity that means lower oil prices. This has been made worse by Russia and Saudi Arabia no longer cooperating in efforts to reduce production and increase the world oil price. The result of this is low (headed for $20 a barrel) oil prices not seen in decades. Currently oil sells for $26 a barrel and that is half the price used to draw up this year’s government budget. This means less money for the government spend (or steal) and more Iraqis suffering lower standards of living.
Oil revenue makes up 90 percent of the budget and the other major source is tourism .One of the hardest his domestic industries is tourism. The Shia shrines in the south are popular with Shia worldwide and their visits, and spending, had grown to account for eight percent of GDP and most of that money stays with the Iraqis who earned it. The low oil prices has cut Shrine visits by more than half. Iranian visitors are down by about 80 percent. The government is pressuring senior Shia clergy to order the pilgrims to stay away but not all these clerics are willing to do that. The biggest threat is the low oil price because Iraq only has enough cash reserves to deal with one year of the cheap oil. It is unclear how long the Saudis and Russians will maintain the high production that creates the low prices. The goal is to eliminate the North American fracking industry but the Saudis and Russians don’t seem to understand that bankrupting current fracking firms won’t eliminate them. If all else fails, so will economic myths.
The lower oil prices and covid19 have both hit Iran much harder. Iran has smaller cash reserves and the virus has infected at least 25,000 and killed about 1,500. Many in Iran believe the actual number of those infected is over 50,000 because the current deaths indicates a much higher death rate than in neighboring nations with similar conditions. One thing is unquestioned, the high number of deaths, he highest in the region.
March 23, 2020: In the north (Diyala Province) the Iraqi air force carried out several strikes against ISIL targets. In 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 are now seen 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. For example a year ago ISIL set fire to wheat and barley crops, eventually destroying more than 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres). This sort of thing has become 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). ISIL still attacks Kurds in Kirkuk but prefers to go after police and PMF militias. .The Iran-backed PMF units are the most hated by ISIL as they are also fanatics, anti-ISIL fanatics and resistant to bribes and intimidation. So are the Kurds and autonomous northern Iraq the Kurds are in charge and ISIL does not waste efforts trying to change that.
March 20, 2020: As part of the effort to deal with the covid-19 pandemic all U.S. troops movements to and from Iraq have been halted for 14 days. After that new troops coming in will be quarantined for 14 days after arrival. Other nations have imposed similar restrictions. Foreign troops in Iraq have halted training as well. So far less than one percent of American troops in Iraq have tested positive for the virus.
March 19, 2020: In the west (Salahuddin province) in ISIL fired six mortar shells into a town it had attacked three days ago. The latest attack wounded three people.
March 17, 2020: In Baghdad three rockets were fired into the Green Zone and landed near the American embassy complex. There was no damage or casualties in the embassy.
March 16, 2020: Outside Baghdad someone fired rockets at the Basmaya military base, apparently in an effort to kill Spanish troops based there to train Iraqi forces. Iran-backed Iraqi groups want all foreign troops, except the Iranians, out of Iraq.
In the west (Salahuddin province) in a town market ISIL set off a bomb concealed in a motorcycle. Six people were wounded. This was the first ISIL attack in this town since 2017.
March 14, 2020: Outside Baghdad over at least 33 107mm rockets hit Camp Taji, a joint Iraqi-American military base. The rockets caused no injuries and it was believed the Iran backed PMF militiamen were responsible. This is the 23rd such attack on American bases in Iraq since last October.
March 13, 2020: In the north, near the Turkish border, a Turkish attack on PKK forces killed at least eleven of the Turkish Kurdish separatist rebels. Airstrikes and some Turkish troops on the ground were involved. Turkey continues to conduct air and ground operation in northern Iraq to find and destroy PKK facilities in the area. There are several of these operations a month. The Iraqi government protests and the local Iraqi Kurds stand aside.
March 12, 2020: In Baghdad six roadside bombs went off mostly in Shia neighborhoods. Seven civilians were wounded. ISIL was believed responsible.
The U.S. Army has successfully tested the Israeli Iron Dome systems it purchased recently for evaluation. Shortly after that the army decided not to buy any more Iron Dome batteries because Israel refused to supply the Iron Dome source code. The U.S. said the source code was essential for integrating Iron Dome into American air defense networks. The Israelis pointed out that the U.S. has been much less successful at keeping secrets than Israel. One solution to this problem is to have the Israelis do the necessary source code modifications. For the moment that proposal has not been accepted. The U.S. Army wanted to use Iron Dome in places like Iraq where American bases are being hit with rockets fired by Iran-backed Iraqi militias.
March 11, 2020: Outside Baghdad (Camp Taj) Iran-backed militia fired twenty rockets at NATO forces there. Two Americans and one British soldier were killed. The Katab Hezbollah, an Iran-backed groups based on the Lebanese Hezbollah, took credit for this attack. The next day the U.S. carried out airstrikes on five Katab Hezbollah facilities. One the airstrikes was across the border in Syria killed 26 PMF men, who are increasingly showing up in Syria, despite Iraqi laws that prohibit that.
In the southeast (Maysan province) an angry mob burned down the headquarters of an Iran-backed militia. The anger was over the militia killing two local critics of the militia. All involved here are Shia as are most people in the province, which borders Iran.
March 10, 2020: The government ordered nationwide shutdowns of businesses and public gatherings as well as international air travel. This will last until the end of the month or slow the spread of covid19. This included cancelling meetings (for prayer or whatever) at mosques and schools. So far fewer than 200 Iraqis have tested positive for the virus and there have only been about a dozen virus related deaths. In Iran there have been a hundred times more people who tested positive for the virus and at least a hundred times more virus related deaths.
February 16, 2020: In Baghdad three rockets were fired into the heavily guarded Green Zone and landed near an American military headquarters, which is not far from the U.S. embassy compound. These rockets, apparently fired by Iran-backed militiamen, caused no casualties. This was the 19th such attack since last October.
In the eastern Syria (Hasaka province) a convoy of 55 American military vehicles (trucks and combat) were seen entering from Iraq and heading west towards an unidentified destination. This could be just a supply run for the few American troops left in Syria as well Syrian Kurd allies.