Monday 16 October, 2017 Update: Iraqi Forces Retake Control of Kirkuk

Members of Iraqi federal forces enter oil fields in Kirkuk, Iraq

Following the Kurdish independence referendum last month it was expected that a subsequent clash between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments would likely take place in or around Kirkuk. The Iraqi government does not consider the oil-rich city to be part of the autonomous Kurdistan region. The Kurdistan Regional Government has a different take entirely on the matter and Kurdish voters in Kirkuk were allowed to take part in the referendum.

On Monday, the confrontation materialized when Iraqi forces moved into Kirkuk and, according to Iraqi government statements, seized key objectives from Kurdish forces including K-1 Air Base, and the Baba Gurgur oil and gas field. Reports of clashes between Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga troops conflicted with official Iraqi claims about the Peshmerga withdrawing from Kirkuk without fighting.

The Kurds had controlled Kirkuk since 2014 when the Iraqi army collapsed and ISIS was seizing control of vast stretches of Iraqi territory. With Iraqi forces back in Kirkuk it would appear that Kurdish dreams of an independent state in northern Iraq are all but dead. Not that there was ever going to be a realistic chance for a Kurdish nation-state to be formed. Iraq was having none of that. Fearful that the referendum by the Kurds would be the first step towards an eventual breakup of Iraq, Baghdad has moved decisively to prevent that from happening.

The United States, close allies with the Kurds, as well as Iraq, played no role in the Kirkuk operation. There is still lingering anger over Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, refusing the US offer to preside over negotiations with Baghdad if the Kurds called off the referendum. Washington continues to sit quietly and do nothing, allowing Barzani’s political situation to deteriorate. There is some desire within the Beltway to hasten his political demise, and officially end the Barzani era in Kurdistan. From the State Department to the Pentagon and Langley, more influential voices are coming around to the notion that Kurdistan’s future will be better without Barzani in control.

Monday 10 July, 2017 Update: Mosul is Liberated

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The campaign to liberate Mosul has come to a successful conclusion. The iron grip that ISIS once held on the northern Iraq city has been lifted. The city and its inhabitants are free following a drawn out nine-month long effort. The Iraqi army, and its coalition allies paid dearly for every street, and neighborhood secured. ISIS understood all to well that this was the endgame in Mosul.  Its fighters there accepted their fates and fought with the ferociousness of cornered animals, because that is more or less what they were. Some fighters and senior ISIS officials made it out of Mosul before it fell back into Iraqi hands, but the majority elected to stay on and battle until the bitter end.

Today is a day of celebration for Iraq. Mosul represents a turning point in the war against ISIS, as well as being a watershed moment in the history of post-Saddam Iraq. The Iraqis bore the brunt of the campaign to liberate one of its major cities. The simple reality that Iraq controls Mosul right now is astounding when one considers that a few short years ago ISIS was making seizing territory right on the outskirts of Baghdad.

In the aftermath of the Mosul campaign, what happens now? Iraq’s government and army have made major strides since those dark days, but they still have a long road ahead of them. Suicide and car bombings have become a regular part of life for Iraqis. Periodically, ISIS launch coordinated bombings that inflict large numbers of casualties and erode the rock of stability that Iraq is trying to carve out for itself. Will a battlefield victory against ISIS translate to better security and less attacks? Or will the opposite hold true?

Then there is the matter of Iran. Iranian influence within the borders of its one-time rival has been extensive and will likely last in the post-ISIS era. Tehran’s intentions remain unclear, but given Iran’s actions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, it is safe to assume that it is plans to maintain a significant presence in the region for some time to come. The United States and Saudi Arabia are wary of Iran’s moves in the area to say the least. The nightmare scenario for both nations is to see Iraq gravitate closer to Tehran and ultimately wind up as a vassal state to Iran one day.

 

Thursday 16 February, 2017 Update: ISIS Bombings In Iraq & Pakistan

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ISIS has claimed responsibility for a pair of bombings that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people in Iraq and Pakistan today. In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded at a used car marketplace in the Bayaa neighborhood in the southern portion of the city. The death toll right now sits at above 50 with an even larger number of wounded. It is the deadliest attack so far this year in Iraq, a nation that is no stranger to large-scale terrorist attacks. Recently, the number of bombings in Baghdad has been on the rise. On Wednesday, a suicide car bomb attack in the Sadr City area left 11 dead. The neighborhood where today’s the attack took place is no stranger to bombings either. On Tuesday, a car bomb in the same area killed 4 people.

A suicide attack in Pakistan targeted a popular Sufi shrine in the town of Sehwan. The shrine is one of the most revered in Pakistan. Thursday was a sacred day for Muslims to pray there and the shrine was crowded at the time of the attack. At least 72 people were killed and that number will possibly rise as time goes on. Since last Sunday, Pakistan has experienced six suicide attacks, resulting in the deaths of over 100 people. The attacks in Pakistan provided a sharp reply to statements by the civilian and military authorities suggesting Pakistan had defeated the militants there.

Monday 16 May, 2016 Update: Bloody Weekend in Iraq

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Yesterday, as the weekend came to a close in Baghdad, the sounds of explosions were heard around the capital city. Five bombings on Sunday left thirty people dead along with a larger number injured. The largest attack came at a natural gas plant outside of Baghdad. Three car bombs were exploded at the gates of the plant. Militants and suicide bombers then charged the plant, engaging security forces and destroying gas tanks. Iraqi security forces managed to repel the attack, but not before a significant amount of damage was done.

Another attack was a car bombing in a southern Baghdad suburb that left seven people dead. The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for all of the attacks.

Yesterday’s attacks were part of an increased wave of ISIS strikes and bombings across Iraq this past week. It began last Monday a suicide bomber exploded a minibus in Baqubah killing thirteen. The activity climaxed on Wednesday when three separate car bombings in Baghdad killed 93 people and wounded over 170.

Iraqi government officials, as well as their counterparts in the West, believe the ISIS attacks are in response to setbacks in Iraq and Syria. The caliphate has been facing increased military pressure lately and has lost large swaths of territory on the ground. In spite of this ISIS is still capable of launching high profile attacks in Iraq and the attacks are coming at a time when the nation is quite vulnerable to terror attacks. The government there is beset by political deadlock and a number of security, economic, and humanitarian challenges.

Bottom Line: As ISIS faces setbacks and defeats on many fronts, it still has teeth and is capable of lashing out.

The Legacy Of Desert Shield Part I

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Twenty five years ago today, the United States launched Operation Desert Shield. The purpose of the operation was audaciously simple: defend Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi invasion. On August 2nd, 1990, Iraq invaded and quickly overran Kuwait. The speed of the Iraqi offensive alarmed Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, as well as Washington. Almost overnight, Kuwait was occupied and a large Iraqi force sat on the conquered nation’s southern border with Saudi Arabia. All that stood between the Iraqi army and oil fields of Saudi Arabia was the poorly trained Saudi army. It would not last long in a fight if the Iraqis came south. The notion of Iraq controlling Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves was unacceptable to the US. Offers of assistance were made to the nervous Saudis, and after a lightning round of negotiations in Riyadh, King Fahd opened the doors of the Kingdom to US military forces.

Beginning almost immediately after the meeting, the United States started moving forces to Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries. The first US combat units arrived in Saudi Arabia within 24 hours of the orders being issued. The first wave consisted of elements of the 2nd Brigade/82nd Airborne Division, and the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing from Langley AFB. A small force that would not be able to do much to stop a determined Iraqi drive on the oil fields and eastern ports of Saudi Arabia. A lot of help was coming behind this initial force, though. As the weeks progressed, large numbers of US and allied troops, aircraft and warships converged on the Middle East. It was the fastest and deployment in US history. Within two months, the US had deployed a force large and powerful enough to ensure a successful defense of Saudi Arabia.

By mid-October, the strategic goal of the US was moving from defending Saudi Arabia to the potential liberation of Kuwait. Yet the force that had been built up was not going be enough to retake Kuwait by itself. More combat power would be needed for the offensive option to be credible. The US moved to double the combat power it had available in the region. By January, two US Army corps, two thirds of the Marine Corps, dozens of fighter squadrons and seven carrier battlegroups were deployed and prepared for war.

The rest, as they say, is history. Operation Desert Storm commenced on January 17, 1991, hours after the UN deadline for Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait had passed. By the end of February, Iraq had been decisively defeated on the battlefield and Kuwait liberated. But Saddam, though weakened, remained in power. It became apparent rather quickly that a long term US military presence in the region was going to be necessary to ensure the stability of the Middle East and the security of US allies there as well. When the fighting ended, US military planners were already examining the lessons learned from Desert Shield and speculating how they could be applied in the future.

One lesson towers above the rest in both military importance and significance to US foreign policy in the past twenty five years: A permanent US forward presence is essential for regional stability and security. The US military presence in the Middle East since 1990-91 has served to influence the political and military policies of nations across the world in both positive and negative ways. It has certainly played a key part in everything from the rise of Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to the downfall of Saddam Hussein. For that reason alone, it is worth looking very closely at how the US military presence in the Middle East evolved after Desert Storm.

Desert Shield was launched from a standing start. The fact of the matter is that when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States was caught with its pants down. There were no permanent bases in the region. Fortunately, there was an infrastructure in place to accommodate a US buildup if it were ever necessary. Saudi airbases had been designed and built to accept a large number of US combat aircraft in the event of a crisis. However, the amount of US military power in the Persian Gulf region on 2 August, 1990 was minimal. The US military footprint in the area had historically been very small to that point. Had Iraq decided to double down on its Kuwait gains, the lack of US forces in the area could have been disastrous for the Saudis, and ultimately for the West.

After Desert Storm, for the rest of the 90s the US maintained a large forward presence in and around the Persian Gulf area. From Prince Sultan Air base in Saudi Arabia, US warplanes flew patrols in support of Operation Southern Watch. Airbase facilities in Kuwait were upgraded and opened for American use and the NATO airbase at Incirlik, Turkey was optimized for aircraft flying Operation Northern Watch patrols. A carrier battlegroup was almost always in the vicinity. Prepositioned material for two US Army heavy brigades arrived in the region. One set was placed in Saudi Arabia, the other in Kuwait.

The increased US presence in the region was welcomed by its regional allies. The number of troops was far less than it had been in 1990 and 1991, but still large enough to help ensure the security of the Gulf States. However, from Saudi Arabia to Yemen, the seeds of hate were already being sewn beneath the surface. Having American forces in their nations forced regional leaders to walk a fine line to placate the more extremist elements of their societies.  The fact that US forces continued to use Saudi Arabia for operations enraged many Muslims. One of those people was Osama Bin Laden, a wealthy Saud who was enraged by the US decision to remain in the Middle East. He used this as a flag to rally the increasing numbers of followers of his extremist beliefs. America’s military presence in the Middle East indirectly contributed to the 1998 US embassy bombings in East Africa and later the September 11th 2001 attacks in New York and Washington DC.

Part 2 of this piece will be published on Monday. In it, we will take a look at how the increased US military presence in the Persian Gulf was essential for reprisal strikes against Iraq in the 1990s as well as Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in the early years of the 21st Century.