In the West (Anbar province) Iran has apparently ordered some of its most loyal PMF (Peoples Mobilization Forces) militias to use violence (bomb attacks, assassination)) against Iraqi army units that interfere with the movement of Iranian military supplies through Anbar into Syria. Iran controlled PMFs are also expected to prevent economic reconstruction in Anbar, which puts these PMFs at odds with most Anbar residents (who tend to be Sunni). Pro-Iran PMF commanders have moved slowly and as covertly as possible with this because most of the armed men in Anbar are hostile to these Iranian orders.
Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq have fallen way short of expectations. For the moment Iran is still trying to halt Iraqi political or military decisions that weaken Iranian power in Iraq. This slowed down the formation of a new government and effort to defeat the remaining Islamic terror groups in the country. Iran has political and military goals that clash with what most Iraqis want. Pro-Iran Iraqi politicians want to provide Iran with more access and influence over Iraqi government decisions. For the Iraqi security forces, Iran wants its PMF units to maintain their independence from Iraqi army control. That enables Iran to use Iraq for operations in Syria and against the Sunni states of Arabia (especially Saudi Arabia). Most Iraqis don’t want to be involved with the Iranian military goals in Syria (attacking Israel) or Arabia (fighting Saudi Arabia over oil and control of Islamic holy places.)
Most young Iraqis see no future in Islamic radicalism and terrorism, which has, for most of their young lives been more of a threat than a source of salvation. Down in Basra the ongoing riots and demonstrations are about basics, like clean water and regular electricity supplies. The Basra unrest has been going on since July and at least 40 protestors have been killed and many more wounded or arrested. Dozens have disappeared and feared dead. The protestors note that Iran backed militias are also involved in attacking the demonstrators. This, for many young Iraqis, confirms suspicions that Iran is not their friend. The government has promised to improve living conditions in Basra but that slow in coming.
Iraqi anti-government demonstrators were always angry at Iran. In part, this was because of Iran backed PMF militias, whose leaders often speak of imposing a religious dictatorship in Iraq and generally ignored all the corruption. Protestors in Shia majority Basra are also criticizing Iran for halting electricity exports in early July. Iran cut the electricity because corrupt Iraqi officials had not paid for much of it. Moreover, there was an electricity shortage developing in Iran. It was necessary for Iraq to import electricity because for a long time (the Saddam era) there were not many electric power plants in Basra because it was a Shia majority area and Shia were starved for resources before 2003 (when the Sunni Arab minority ruled). But after Saddam was overthrown in 2003 and Shia politicians gained power, corruption prevented the construction of power plants. Iran thought cutting the power, especially since they had a good reason, would increase the anger against the Iraqi government. But the protestors saw through the Iranian intentions and added that to the long list of reasons why Iraqi Shia do not like Iran. After a few weeks, Iran restored the electricity exports.
The current Iraqi enthusiasm for battling corruption is hurting Iranian efforts to expand its influence inside Iraq. That’s because pro-Iran groups in Iraq have long justified outlaw behavior in order to serve their mentor Iran. This has led to Iraqi army commanders being more aggressive in dealing with Iran backed PMF units. Most of the PMF units were formed in late 2014 to fight ISIL. Since then the PMF has been put on the government payroll, despite the fact that nearly half of them are also supported by Iranian cash and equipment. Since the government began paying PMF militiamen the PMF became part of the defense forces. Technically the army can order PMF units around but until recently the Iran-backed PMF would often ignore those orders. In some cases, PMF commanders would threaten army officers. Given the results of the recent elections (pro-Iran parties did poorly) and the growing popular unrest in Iran attitudes have changed. Iraqi army officers are not just ordering pro-Iran PMF units to back off but using force to make the PMF comply. So far this has not gone much beyond armed confrontations (which often work) and arresting (“kidnapping” according to pro-Iran Iraqis) PMF men who disobey army orders. Apparently, the anti-Iran election results have led to pro-Iran PMF commanders being advised (by Iran) to play nice with the army and back off. This is seen as temporary as there is no sign that pro-Iran PMF groups will cease to take orders from Iran. Iraqis believe the pro-Iran PMF units are backing off as part of an Iranian effort to persuade Iraq to oppose the renewed American economic sanctions on Iran. Iraqi leaders were under a lot of political pressure from Iran to ignore the American sanctions, if only because complying would hurt the Iraqi economy. That pressure caused some hesitation by Iraqi leaders until they realized that most Iraqis preferred the Americans to the Iranians. After all, when Iraq asked the Americans to leave in 2011 they did. Iraq is seeking an exemption to some of the Iran sanctions because otherwise, the Iraqi economy would suffer. Not American response to that yet.
The Mess Out West
Although Russia, Turkey and Iraq are technically allies with Iran in Syria the historical record shows Iran is usually the enemy of these nations and that has been the case for centuries, long before Israel came along in 1948. One thing everyone can agree on is the need to get rid of the remaining Islamic terrorist rebel groups in Syria. Most of these are currently surrounded in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. There are some ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) groups hiding out in eastern Syria but these are seen as much less of a threat than the tens of thousands of Islamic terrorists in Idlib. Despite the remaining Islamic terrorist threat in Syria everyone in and bordering Syria would like to see the Iranians go back to Iran and stay there. The few hundred Iranian troops and over 50,000 Iranian mercenaries in Syria are seen as a constant source of trouble. Iran realizes that their allies in Syria have, and will probably continue, to collaborate with Israel if an opportunity presents itself. Yet Iranian leaders fail to see the absurdity of this situation and despite widespread popular protest against the Syrian operations continues to operate like its forces in Syria are on the verge of destroying Israel.
ISIL forces in Syria and Iraq have been reduced to what could best be described as a violent criminal gang. ISIL still attracts new recruits because for those into defending Islam with extreme violence, ISIL is the gang to be in. If you don’t make a good impression right away you might not last long because new members are always needed as suicide bombers. Refusing such an honor is not an option. While ISIL’ current fundraising activities (extortion, kidnapping, robbery) can be handled like the ordinary criminal activities they are there is another aspect of ISIL operations that is quite different. Ever since 2016 there has been growing evidence that ISIL has moved several hundred million dollars’ worths of cash and portable valuables (gold, gems and art treasures) out of Iraq and Syria and the Americans are leading an increasingly effective effort to find and seize it, or at least freeze the assets so ISIL cannot use it. Kurdish police in northern Iraq recently carried out raids against branches of foreign (Persian Gulf Arabs) banks that were moving a lot of ISIL cash around. Meanwhile, the U.S. financial investigators have become quite good a keeping up or getting ahead of the latest schemes for money laundering and asset concealment. Finding most of that offshore cash is crucial if ISIL is to be prevented from planning and carrying out large-scale operations in Moslem countries or the West. As long as ISIL has some cash they will remain a threat and the more cash they have the more of a threat they can be.
October 24, 2018: The new parliament finally agreed on Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister but rejected 8 of his 22 ministers. Reasons given for rejections ranged from being tainted by working for Saddam (before 2003) or having some connection with corrupt behavior. Mahdi has worked with Iran in the past but is now considered wary of Iranian influence and intentions. In an effort to gain more public support he is moving government offices outside the Green Zone and directly addressing corruption issues. Overall Iran considers the elevation of Mahdi as a defeat.
October 23, 2018: In the west (Anbar), ISILs’ most expert bomb builder in Iraq was arrested, and three rifles and other weapons seized. The bomb builder had long been sought.
October 20, 2018: In the northeast (Diyala province), police arrested the ISIL second-in-command for the province.
October 19, 2018: In the north (Kirkuk province), police encountered three ISIL suicide bombers on a road and fired on their vehicles. One ISIL man managed to set off his bomb vest while the other two were shot dead before they could do so. Several days earlier in the same area, a policeman was killed and two wounded in a clash with ISIL.
October 18, 2018: In the west (Anbar province), ISIL attacked the headquarters of a special operations regiment based in Ramadi. Four soldiers were wounded and the attackers escaped.
October 17, 2018: In the northeast (Diyala province) a pro-Iran PMF militia patrol encountered a group of ISIL gunmen and killed five of them. One of the dead was Abu Zahi, a known ISIL leader that Iran believed organized the September 22 attack just across the border in Iran’s largely Arab Ahvaz province. The attack killed 25 people including several soldiers in the parade. ISIL took credit for the attack as did a local Arab separatist group. Iran made some arrests and apparently identified Abu Zahi as possibly the one who organized the attack.
In the far north (Duhok Province) Turkish F-16s bombed a PKK target just across the border in Kurdish Iraq. Turkey claimed that twelve PKK members were killed. Yesterday Turkish troops briefly crossed the border and then returned to Turkey. Troop incursions are not as frequent as air or artillery strikes but they are a regular occurrence along this border. In the last few months, there has been about one of these air strikes a week.
October 16, 2018: In the west (Anbar province), ISIL attacked a home in the border town of al Qaim killing one civilian and wounding another. Elsewhere in the area an ISIL roadside bomb killed one soldier and wounded two others. Qaim is also a major border crossing into Syria. Iraqi troops drove ISIL out of the Qaim in late 2017. ISIL held onto Qaim as long as it could because it was a key link in the main road from Mosul to Raqqa. This area was the scene of increasingly frequent and effective air strikes in 2017 using accurate information supplied by locals who had been occupied by ISIL since 2014. The continued ISIL violence comes from groups of ISIL Islamic terrorists hiding out in eastern Syria. While Iraq is largely united and has large and effective security forces Syria is still in the midst of a civil war and much of the country is still unruly, especially the east. This is largely the Euphrates River Valley (where most of the locals live) and the border areas (where Islamic terrorists with cash, guns and attitude can survive). ISIL had already prepared some rural areas along the border with tunnels and hidden bunkers stocked with supplies. These are now bases for remaining ISIL gunmen.
October 12, 2018: In the west (Anbar province) an Iman preached a sermon urging Moslems to fight ISIL. Several days later ISIL gunmen attacked the Inman in his home outside Rutba and murdered him. This was not unusual and is how ISIL discourages public criticism, especially from Islamic clergy. Despite that more Moslem clergy are openly criticizing ISIL, even in areas where ISIL is active.
October 9, 2018: In Baghdad and the Kurdish north police raided several banks and financial operations over the last four days. Also involved in the raids were officials from the American OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control). The raids uncovered evidence of activity by the al Rawi financial network and the Iraqi Afaq Dubai bank illegally moving large sums of money for ISIL. Within a week the U.S. imposed sanctions on the Afaq Dubai bank.
October 5, 2018: The new government finally came together. Iran failed to get its preferred politicians into key positions. In effect, the Iranians have some influence but are far from “controlling Iraq.” Now the new parliament has to agree on who shall have the senior political jobs.
October 2, 2018: In September 75 civilians died due to Islamic terrorist violence. That’s down from 90 in August. Some 40 percent of the deaths occurred in Baghdad while 20 percent were in Anbar province. The rest of the civilian casualties were in Nineveh province (including Mosul) and other areas north of Baghdad. In July 79 died compared to 76 in June and 95 in May which was an increase from the 68 April deaths. March, when 104 died had been the deadliest month so far in 2018. That was up a bit from the 91 killed during February. The government has still not resumed reporting casualties among the security forces (military and militias). Based on local reports the Islamic terrorists, mainly ISIL, are suffering much higher death tolls each month, in addition to nearly as many lost to arrest or capture.
October 1, 2018: For the second time Iran has fired Zulfiqar ballistic missiles from Western Iran at ISIL targets in Syria. This time six missiles were fired and the press release noted that three had names like; “Death to Israel,” “Death to America” and “Death to the Saud Family.” The point of these names was to remind everyone that from western Iran Zulfiqar missiles can hit American bases in Syria (most of which are near the Iraqi border). Not all these missiles made it to the targets 570 kilometers away, which is normal for Iranian ballistic missiles. These missiles can also hit the Saudi capital, although Iran has been trying, without success, to do that since 2016 by firing over a hundred ballistic missiles (with varying ranges) from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. All have been intercepted by Patriot air defense systems. If Iran could operate Zulfiqar from Iraq (dubious considering the current anti-Iran riots) the missiles could reach Israel and be intercepted by Israeli Patriot systems (plus several other air defense systems). The Iranian press release did not mention the failure or interception rates of Zulfiqar and similar Iranian ballistic missiles.
September 29, 2018: The United States announced that it is temporarily shutting down its consulate in Basra (southern Iraq) because of growing threats from local pro-Iran groups to launch a major attack on the consulate. The consulate has been subject to some recent rocket attacks and American intel indicates some pro-Iranian Shia militias in the area are being encouraged by Iran to be more aggressive.