Iran, seeing its authority threatened in Iraq by the growing number of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian forces in Syria and Iraq, is demanding that Iraq expel U.S. forces (5,000 military, several thousand contractors). This is a dangerous move because the majority of Iraqis want the American troops to stay as insurance against an Iranian takeover of Iraq. Both Iraq and Iran have, until now, avoided confronting this issue. Israeli airstrikes have changed that and many suspect that was one reason for the Israeli airstrikes in Iraq. For one thing such attacks make Iran look weak because Iran cannot even detect the Israeli aircraft or UAVs. Then there is the issue of how did the Israelis know which of the hundreds of pro-Iran PMF (Popular Mobilization Force) bases were the ones containing targets worth attacking. The Israelis obviously have good information about that is going on in Iraq and that also makes Iran look bad since IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) experts helped establish these storage sites. Iran is forcing Iraq to choose and threatening civil war if the Iraqis do not comply with Iranian demands. Everyone wanted to avoid such a confrontation because it could create chaos in Iraq that could develop into something Iran could not handle.
In response to the three airstrikes this month, remaining storage sites for Iranian weapons are being secretly moved, at night, to new locations. If this does not make a difference than Iran has to face the fact that their pro-Iranian Iraqi allies are not as pro-Iran as they appear. This is part of another trend; t he reliability of the Iran-backed PMF militias is deteriorating as the leaders of the 67 PMF brigades demonstrate divided loyalties. That means more of these brigades, although pro-Iran and receiving weapons and other “aid” from Iran, can no longer be considered under Iranian control. What divides these brigades is the debate over who to blame for these mysterious attack on pro-Iran PMF brigade bases. Among other things the attacks demonstrate that Iraq is unable to defend its own air space. That is a known issue but never considered critical because NATO warplanes have been operating from Iraqi bases since 2003 and they provide air defense for their bases and most of Iraqi airspace. The Americans have proposed Iraq purchase the Patriot air defense system, which has been in the region protecting U.S. forces for several decades. The Iraqis know it works. Iraqis are less enthusiastic about accepting the Iranian offer to have Iraq protected by an expanded Iranian air defense equipment. The Iranians use Russia systems, either bought from Russia or illegal copies. Even many pro-Iran PMF militiamen are less pro-Iranian when it comes to Iraqi air defense.
The PMF was created, with Iranian help, in 2014 after the Iraqi army fell apart. That was triggered by an unexpected ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) 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 it had failed to curb corruption, especially the kind that weakened and demoralized the armed forces. 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. This paid off. By late 2016 parliament passed (after much Iranian pressure) a law making the PMF a part of the armed forces. These militiamen were already on the government payroll (for about $500 a month). Now the militia leaders were demanding a share of the military budget and enough money (nearly half a billion dollars to start with) to build their own bases. That did not happen but the PMF had taken over many former U.S. bases. This reminded all Iraqis what the Iranians were up to. The signs were already there. By 2015 there were about 100,000 of these largely Shia militiamen and they were already a contentious issue in Iraq. In early 2018 the PMF were supposed to become subject to direct military control. As a practical matter that did not happen with over half the brigades and the reason was Iranian influence. Now that influence is showing signs of rapidly eroding.
The PMF Paradox
The 2016 laws providing pay and other benefits for the PMF also included rules making it mandatory that non-Shia militia be included if they were of proven loyalty. There were plenty of those and by the end of 2016 about a quarter of the PMF were Sunnis. A smaller number were Turkmen, Christian and other minorities ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) wanted to wipe out. More than half the militias were always Shia. Much publicity was given to instances where Shia militias massacred Sunni civilians and the use of many Iranian trainers and military advisors by some (at one point most) of the Shia militias and the Iran connection in general. But most of the PMF just concentrated on defeating ISIL and once that was accomplished by 2018 Iraq realized that the pro-Iran PMF units were a threat to the Iraqi government. It’s getting close to another 2011 crackdown on Iranian militias but this time the Iranians are better prepared for that and it won’t be so easy this tome. But most Iraqi believe the crackdown will happen and it will succeed.
That confidence reflects the fact that 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. Part of this came about because of the pro-Iran PMF militias in Iraq. By 2016 most Shia Arab politicians in Iraq tended to feel they are expendable to the Iranians, who are, quite naturally, more concerned with taking care of Iran, than Iraq, in all of this. Blood is thicker than religion.
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).
There are constant reminders of the Iranian threat, which is considered equal, or even worse than the Sunni Arab Islamic terrorism attacks on Shia. For example in September 2017 a leader of one of the PMF Shia militias went public (for the first time) with his belief that his men would start killing American troops once ISIL was no longer a threat in Iraq. That was not a surprise to many Iraqi Shia. In August 2017 s enior Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr called on the Iraqi government to dismantle the Iran backed Shia militias and incorporate loyal (to Iraq) members into the armed forces. The Iraqi prime minister (a Shia), wants to dismantle these Iran backed Shia Arab militias with more care and take more time doing it. Two years later this hostility to Iran has grown and Iran sees this as another potential defeat for its militarized foreign policy.
In part that is because Iran has sent hundreds of IRGC officers, most of them from the Quds Force (similar to the U.S. Special Forces, but which specializes in supporting Islamic terrorists not fighting them) and even more enlisted IRGC personnel to Iraq. Dozens of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria and Iraq since 2012. These IRGC personnel are seen by most Iraqis as hostile foreign agents.
This can be seen by the fact that since ISIL was defeated (even before mid-2017 when Mosul fell) the number of Shia religious and militia leaders who openly supported Iran was declining. More Iraqi Shia are doubting Iranian intentions towards Iraq and believe Iran ultimately wants to control the Iraq government or even partition Iraq and annex the largely Shia (and oil rich) south. At the same time Iranian efforts to discourage Iraqi Kurds from obtaining more autonomy are unwelcome with many Arab Iraqis who see this as another example of Iran treating Iraq like a subordinate, not an ally.
Adding to the fears are reports that Iran backed (and sometimes led, officially or otherwise by Iranian officers) Shia militia are ignoring earlier promises and entering liberated areas of Mosul and seeking “disloyal” civilians who can be arrested and perhaps murdered. 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 quite open popular opposition inside Iraq, but the Iranians tend to think long-term. The Iranians like to pretend that they have a l0t of support in Iraq. They do have some, but it is declining, as it usually does after it is no longer useful for Iraq.
All manner of Iraqi leaders (government, military, religious) are becoming more aware of how Iran wants to dominate and control Iraq and most of these Iraqis, and their followers, don’t like. Iraqis have seen how Iranian control operates in Lebanon (since the 1980s) and Syria (since 2014) feel that Iraq has a choice, whereas the Lebanese and Syrians did not. While some pro-Iran Iraqi leaders call for attacks on Americans in Iraq that is not supported by most Iraqis, who see the Americans as a form of defense against several foreign threats (Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey). Many Iraqis also take satisfaction in how the Israelis quietly take apart Iranian military capabilities, including operations inside Iran. The Israeli 2018 raid that made off with large quantities of Iranian documents was particularly impressive. Other Arab states in the region agree, which is why Arab states long considered diehard foes of Israel are now openly referring to Israel as an ally. Iraqis are divided on going that far, but as time goes on there is less, not more, support for Iran inside Iraq.
August 28, 2019: American officials, responding to Iraqi accusations that some of the recent explosions in PMF bases were the work American forces, pointed out that Iraqi troops have been notoriously sloppy when it comes to details like maintenance and storing military supplies. The PMF personnel are even worse and this could be the cause of some of those explosions in warehouses where newly delivered Iranian weapons were stored. It gets extremely hot in Iraq this time of year and ammo stored in aboveground warehouses, rather than partially underground bunkers, are more liable to spontaneously explode because of the heat. Experienced military personnel take precautions and avoid many such accidents. American officials also like to point out a generally lax Iraqi attitude towards maintenance and storage of equipment. Unless foreign contractor personnel are involved, maintenance of aircraft, ships or vehicles often deteriorates to the point where most of the equipment is not working. While all this is true, recent PMF base explosions were the result of Israeli airstrikes.
August 26, 2019: July was a record month for oil revenues; which were over $6 billion. This was the result of 110 million barrels exported at an average price of $60 a barrel.
August 25, 2019: In the west (Anbar province) an unidentified (probably Israeli) UAV attacked a pro-Iran PMF convoy, killing six militiamen, including a PMF commander. The pro-Iran PMF leaders blamed Israel. The attack took place near the Syrian border, which the PMF convoy was apparently going to cross. The Americans deny any involvement and the Israelis say nothing about airstrikes in Israel but did reveal that a recent attack in Syria was to halt an Iranian UAV attack on Israel.
In the north (Kurdish controlled areas), Turkish troops who crossed the border got into a gun battle with PKK forces. Three Turkish soldiers were killed and seven wounded.
August 24, 2019: In the north (Kirkuk province) ISIL fired several mortar shells at a football (soccer) field near a Shia shrine, killing six civilians gathered there and wounding nine others. Further north in Kurdish controlled areas, Turkey began another major operation against PKK camps and bases on the Iraq side of the border. There were similar major operations up there in May and July.
An Israeli airstrike outside of Damascus Syria hit an Iranian base that was described as preparing Iranian UAVs equipped with explosives that were going to be used for an attack on Israel. It was believed that Iran had resorted to this tactic because Iran was desperate for a win against Israel, which was continuing to attack Iranian targets in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq with impunity and without suffering any losses. Iran backed Shia rebels in Yemen had used the explosives equipped UAVs for attacks on Saudi Arabia, with some success. These UAVs do less damage than ballistic missiles but are more difficult to detect and intercept. The Saudis have adapted but one of the many UAVs launched for each attack can still get through from time to time. Israel has detected and shot down these UAVs, launched by Hezbollah from Lebanon. But the small, low flying UAVs remain difficult to detect and intercept so the Israelis, like the Saudis, find it easier to bomb the bases the UAVs operate from.
In Iran a senior Shia cleric declared that Iraq must confront the Americans over U.S. support for Israel and recent Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq. This declaration has no legal force and is meant to encourage pro-Iran Iraqis to expel or attack American forces in Iraq. Most Iraqi Shia clerics and politicians either remained silent or openly criticized this call to force the Americans out.
August 20, 2019: Some 70 kilometers north of Baghdad, another apparent airstrike on a PMF base, this one next to Balad Air Base (where Iraqi F-16s are stationed). Once more a storage site full of Iranian weapons was destroyed. American contractor and military personnel work at Balad in support of the Iraqi Air Force and witnessed these attacks.
August 16, 2019: The government ordered all foreign aircraft operating over Iraq to inform the Iraqi government about each of their flights. No more blanket permission to fly in Iraq. Despite this NATO aircraft still provide air support for Iraqi troops while Iran often sends transports through Iraqi airspace to make deliveries to Syria or Iran. Iraq also accused Israel of using its new (F-35) stealth warplanes to evade Iraqi air control radars and make these attacks. The reality is that Israel is probably using air-to-ground missiles fired by warplanes in Syrian airspace or long-range UAVs. Iraq later clarified that its new rules did not apply to American warplanes carrying out airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces or using American helicopters to evacuate casualties.
In the northeast (Quandil Mountains, where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey form a triangle) Turkish artillery and airstrikes were used against suspected PKK bases. The Quandil Mountains, has long been the site of PKK camps.
August 15, 2019: A British court in Gibraltar agreed to allow the Iranian tanker Grace 1 to go free because of assurances its cargo of Iraqi oil would not be delivered to Syria in violation of sanctions. The tanker had been seized on July 4th by British commandos because of evidence that was transporting Iraqi oil to Syria. The Iranian super tanker was there to resupply after a long voyage around Africa. Britain claimed the tanker was breaking sanctions by transporting two million barrels of Iraqi oil to Syria for Iran. This was part of an enormous (and expensive) Iranian effort to get the Syrian government the oil it needs to continue fighting rebels and Islamic terrorists. The tanker was acting suspiciously as it avoided travelling via the Suez Canal and instead took the longer and much more expensive route around Africa. The Egyptians would have carefully scrutinized the tanker if it had used the canal. The U.S. promptly issued a warrant for the seizure of the oil on the Grace one, plus $995,000 as part of a forfeiture (of Iranian assets) so satisfy American financial judgements against Iran. The Gibraltar court refused to hold the Iranian tanker any longer and now the tanker, renamed Adrian Draya-1 and its registration changed to Iran, plans to move to Greece. The U.S. plans to ask Greek courts to allow execution of the American warrant. On the 20th Adrian Draya-1 left Gibraltar. The oil was later sold to an unnamed buyer.
August 13, 2019: The government has allowed more than 13,000 police personnel in Nineveh province to get their jobs back. This area includes Mosul, where most of the 24,000 provincial police were fired after ISIL takeover of Mosul and most of the province in 2014. Most of the police fled the province and of the several thousand who remained over 700 were captured and executed by ISIL. Some police joined ISIL but many more remained and became part of the resistance. The mass flight of police and soldiers are largely attributed to corrupt and incompetent commanders. Iraqi officials were eventually persuaded that most of the police who fled were basically good cops and given the shortage of experienced police in and around Mosul, accepting the fired police back into the force was a good idea. Many of the former police have been trying to get their jobs back. Corrupt police commanders are still a problem.
August 12, 2019: South of Baghdad, another mysterious airstrike hit a PMF base (at the former U.S. Camp Falcon) used by a pro-Iran PMF brigade. There were loud explosions as Iran-supplied rocket and ammo storage areas blew up.
August 11, 2019: Some 80 kilometers northeast of Baghdad another pro-Iran PMF base suffered several explosions.
August 6, 2019: Israel revealed that it is also assisting in the American led effort to provide security for ships in the Persian Gulf. Israel will provide intelligence and other assistance. Yesterday Britain announced that it would join with the U.S. to provide warships to escort shipping into and through the Persian Gulf. Earlier South Korea also agreed to contribute a destroyer to participate in the effort. Iraq later announced that it would not join any international effort to protect access to the Persian Gulf if Israel were involved. This announcement was a favor to Iran which, otherwise, is seen as a threat to Iraq. Iran realizes that and both countries are pretending that they get along with each other. That’s a normal way to handle foreign affairs in the Middle East.
August 5, 2019: In the northeast (Quandil Mountains, where the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey form a triangle) Turkish airstrikes killed seven PKK members.
August 4, 2019: IRGC speedboats were involved in seizing another small tanker in the Persian Gulf. This Iraqi tanker was accused of smuggling Iranian fuel (sold very cheaply in Iran) to Arab countries where the fuel sold for a lot more. This fuel smuggling has been going on for a long time without any Iranian efforts to seize tankers. That has changed now as Iran seeks to portray itself as the policeman for the Persian Gulf. In effect Iran is reviving an old claim that the Persian Gulf belong to Iran, but only if Iran can assert that control. Iran announced that it is now in charge of dealing with all “maritime offenses” in the Persian Gulf. Desperate times sometimes call for outrageous measures.