Iraq Situation Report: May 30 - June 1, 2015 by: Theodore Bell and Patrick Martin - ISW
June 2, 2015: Strategy Page
A prominent Sunni politician and member of parliament is leading the effort to find out exactly who ordered the army to pull out of Ramadi on May 17 th and allow a much smaller force of ISIL fighters to enter and, after receiving reinforcements, take control of most of the city. Right after Ramadi fell the commander of the 25,000 troops guarding the city said he had been ordered to withdraw. Most of the troops in Ramadi belonged to the 7 th Infantry Division, which is based there. That unit had been reinforced by several thousand police and army commandos and special operations troops by early May. There were also a few thousand pro-government Sunni tribal militia. All these troops are still in Anbar, most of them just west of Ramadi.
Since May 17th the government has reinforced the army units outside Ramadi with Shia militia. Together these forces have retaken many military posts (fortified checkpoints and police stations) abandoned during the departure of the security forces from Ramadi in May. The unannounced withdrawal of army forces caused a panic among the thousands of police and militia fighters in the city and these forces tended to panic and depart quickly when they found out about the army retreat.
This rapid and unexpected loss of Ramadi by a much smaller force (government troops outnumbered nearby ISIL gunmen by ten to one) brought forth accusations by the U.S. and other Western governments that Iraqis did not have the will to fight. That was not true and the real problem, as it has always been, is leadership. As the old saying goes, “there are no bad troops, only bad officers.” In late 2014 The U.S. reported that most of the troops they trained before they left in 2011 had since left the military and many of the replacements were poorly trained (and even more poorly led) by corrupt Iraqi officers appointed by the recently (April 2014) replaced Maliki government. The U.S. believed that Iraq needed at least 80,000 trained and well led troops to deal with ISIL. American military evaluation teams were sent to Iraq in August 2014 to assess how much of the Iraqi Army was salvageable. It was discovered that only 52 percent of the 50 Iraqi combat brigades were worth training and supporting in the short run. The other 24 brigades had been rendered ineffective by Shia politics and officers who were too poorly trained, experienced or dedicated to hold these units together in heavy combat. The basic problem was bad officers, in particular officers more interested in politics and getting rich (via corrupt practices) than running an efficient army. This is not a new or unique problem in the Iraqi Army. Since 2011 the Shia politicians running the government chose politically reliable Shia officers over those who were merely competent at their jobs. That led to the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of a mid-2014 ISIL offensive. That should not have happened, but it did and will again unless the Iraqis put more emphasis on competence than political loyalty when selecting military officers. There was a similar pattern in the police, where some SWAT units and paramilitary police units (mainly counter-terror units) maintained their edge, but most were ruined by corrupt leadership. So while most Iraqis were angry with the foreigner accusations that Iraqis lacked the will to fight, they had to admit that too many Iraqi officers lacked the ability to lead.
The ISIL advance into Ramadi was such a surprise because ISIL has shown continued inability to defeat organized combat units. ISIL remains primarily a poorly trained force with much more experienced leaders. The ISIL combat leaders recognize the shortcomings of their gunmen and rely a lot on terror bombs and not always suicide bombs. ISIL has not got an endless supply of suicide bombers and you have to get men (and some women) to volunteer and those volunteers must have enough sense and presence of mind to carry out some simple but essential tasks to carry out the attack. When things are not going well (as they have not been for ISIL during 2015, at least until Ramadi fell) it is better to have your young terrorists plant bombs and then set them off remotely or via timers. There has been a lot of that since Ramadi fell because ISIL is still losing ground around Mosul and between Mosul and Baghdad. Even in Anbar the victory in Ramadi was followed within a week by a counteroffensive that has proved unstoppable. ISIL has been able to slow the advance, using a lot of bombs, but they have nothing that can stand and fight. Iran is trying to help Iraq with that, which makes many Iraqis and most Westerners nervous.
In late May the U.S. admitted that Iran has sent some of its artillery (truck mounted rocket launchers) deeper into Iraq to assist Iraqi troops fighting ISIL forces near the oil refinery at Beiji (200 kilometers north of Baghdad). This battle has been going on for nearly a year. The Iranian artillery units bring along their own UAVs to spot targets. ISIL captured parts of Beiji in April after two weeks of fighting. This effort eventually failed, with heavy losses but not before occupying parts of the refinery compound. By late April more ISIL forces arrived and tried again. This battle continues. In late November 2014 ISIL forces were driven away from the refinery which they had besieged for over a month. Since then ISIL has continued to stage attacks, often with suicide bombers, all of which have been repulsed. The Beiji refinery can process 320,000 barrels of oil a day and that represents more than a quarter of Iraq’s refining capacity. Clearing ISIL out of this area also isolated the ISIL held town of Tikrit, which is due north of Baghdad and is full of Sunni Arabs and Saddam admirers who have had enough of ISIL. The Iraqi Army recently recaptured Tikrit and continues moving north. But until ISIL is cleared out of Beiji a major advance on Mosul will not be practical.
Iranian artillery was first used against ISIL in late 2014 firing from inside Iran near the Iraqi border. That soon changed. While Iran insists that it has no combat units in Iraq, just trainers and advisors, mainly for pro-Iranian Shia militias, there are a lot of Iranian weapons showing up. At first these vehicles were never far from the Iranian border but definitely inside Iraq. American UAVs regularly patrol the border area and the Americans and Iranians have an unofficial agreement not to shoot down each other’s UAVs. The UAVs regularly note Iranian military vehicles entering Iraq. The Americans also have photo satellites regularly passing overhead that see this as well. Thus the Americans know that there have been several hundred Iranian M-60s and T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles operating with the Shia militias inside Iraq. There have also been a lot of Iranian truck mounted rocket launchers. The tanks and rocket launchers are supposed to have Iraqi crews but in fact most of the Iranian rocket launchers and armored vehicles were operated by Iranians although their mission was to support pro-Iranian Iraqi Shia militias. The Americans tolerate this as long as the Iraqi government does, especially since the Americans don’t want to send in troops to help the Iraqi army. While the Iraqis appreciate the Iranian help, they make it clear that the majority of Iraqi Shia do not want to become part of Iran and that Western and Arab allies of Iraq will join the fight against any Iranian moves to take control of Iraq. Not everyone believes this will dissuade the Iranians from making an attempt to annex Iraq. At the moment ISIL is seen as a serious problem for all Moslems and because of that there is an unusual degree of cooperation between Iran and nations (the West and Sunni Arab states) that are usually considered enemies. Iran is also sending armored vehicles and rocket artillery to Anbar province to help push ISIL out of Ramadi (the provincial capital of Anbar.) This apparently will involve, as will the Beiji operation, cooperation between American airpower and Iranian ground units. Until quite recently Iran was opposed to this.
Since August 2014 allied (mostly U.S. but also NATO and Arab) air strikes in Iraq and Syria have destroyed or damaged over 7,000 targets during over 2,500 separate attacks using mostly smart bombs and missiles. This did not turn out to be the wonder weapon against newly resurgent Islamic terrorists except under certain conditions. The big complaint from pilots of the warplanes and their commanders is that the ROE (Rules of Engagement) are so obsessed with avoiding civilian casualties that most targets are not hit because of the risk (often remote) that civilians might be hurt. ISIL knows this and when they move on the roads they strive to make themselves look like civilians. Thus only a quarter of the bomb equipped aircraft sent out are allowed to actually attack something on the ground. More Western ground controllers would improve the situation somewhat, but the largest number of attacks cancelled by the lawyers are inside ISIL territory, usually against vehicles carrying ISIL supplies or gun men along a road. Meanwhile the attacks that were cleared by the lawyers did do a lot of damage. This destruction included nearly 1,700 military vehicles (about 15 percent of them armored and half of them armed). The most common targets were buildings (1,800 hit) and combat positions (1,500 bunkers, trenches and so on). There were far fewer command posts, checkpoints, parking lots and assembly areas hit and destroyed or made unusable. Over 300 oil industry targets were destroyed or badly damaged since selling stolen oil on the black market was a major source of income for the Islamic terrorists.
The importance of ground controllers can be seen in the success of Kurdish forces in the north. Western nations trust the Kurds and Western troops have no problems (from betrayal, assassination or failure to fight) with the Kurds and that means the Kurds get plenty of ground controllers and air support. Because of this Kurdish forces continue to push back ISIL east and west of Mosul.
The loss of Ramadi has, so far, produced nearly 100,000 refugees as people flee the city and areas around it. The government is being criticized for not dealing with the refugees adequately. Nearly 200,000 people have fled Ramadi since ISIL began attacking the area around the city in April. In the last year nearly three million people have fled ISIL violence, especially in areas overrun (or threatened) by ISIL.
June 1, 2015: In the north (Salahuddin province) ISIL used a large suicide tank bomb and several gunman to attack a police base. This killed 33 police and militiamen while wounding 40 others. This is a rare counterattack by ISIL in Salahuddin province, where over a hundred Islamic terrorists a week have been dying in the last two months. Salahuddin is next to Anbar and ISIL has been having a hard time resisting government attacks here. ISIL even executed four ISIL unit commanders for failure to hold positions (to the death, as is ISIL custom).
In May some 1,100 Iraqis died from terrorist related violence. Since January (when nearly 1,400 died) monthly terrorist related deaths have been 1,100-1,200 a month. This is because most of the ISIL violence is of the terrorist, not military, variety. So far this year about half the victims have been civilians. The death toll for all of 2014 was about 15,600. That’s a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. Previously the worst year was 2007, when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the death toll was 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 91,000 dead during 2014 for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll in Syria continues to rise, even as it is declining in Iraq. A growing number of Iraqi officials are optimistic that ISIL will be crushed in Iraq by the end of 2016. It’s happened before (like in 2007-8), but then the Sunni fanatics make yet another comeback.
May 28, 2015: Another Iranian general (again a member of the Quds Force) was killed in southern Iraq while leading Hezbollah fighters against ISIL forces.
May 24, 2015: On the Syrian border ISIL seized control of the second of two major border crossings between Syria and Iraq. Iraqi troops moved south to a major crossing with Jordan that Iraqi forces still control. This came the day after Iraqi forces began moving back towards Ramadi and ISIL retreated.
May 23, 2015: North of Baghdad Iran backed Shia militias arrived to help push ISIL away from the oil refinery at Beiji. A few days later Iran insisted that it had no combat troops near Beiji but said nothing of their backing for the Shia militiamen there.
May 21, 2015: The U.S. imposed sanctions on a major Iraqi airline for helping Iran purchase and smuggle in second hand airliners.
May 20, 2015: The government replaced the head of police in Anbar province, in part because of poor performance of police in Ramadi.
May 19, 2015: In Iraq Iran-backed Shia militias were seen heading for Anbar province and the capital Ramadi, which was recently overrun by ISIL forces on the 17th. Ramadi is 120 kilometers west of Baghdad.