May 18, 2016

Iraq - Goals of the ISIS bombing campaign

Over the past few months, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of bombings in and around Baghdad - it has become almost a daily occurrence. The bombs include improvised explosive devices, car bombs and suicide vests.

As was to be expected, the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the all of the bombings. The attacks have killed over 200 hundred Iraqis, virtually all of them Shi'a Arabs - avowed enemies of the Sunni extremists of ISIS.

The bombing campaign represents a shift in tactics for the group and follows a series of battlefield losses for ISIS. As the Iraqi Security Forces (the catch-all term for the Army, national police, special units and Shi'a militias) regroup after dismal showings following the collapse of the units defending Mosul in 2014, they are beginning to retake territory from ISIS.

Much of that success is due to increased effectiveness of U.S.-led coalition airpower and effective targeting of ISIS leaders and facilities based on more accurate intelligence. This reflects the increased presence of American troops on the ground and development of better intelligence sources.

As the more effective military operations take their toll on ISIS, the group has fallen back, giving up territory in al-Anbar province and the Euphrates River valley. Their supply and communications lines used to move forces and resources between Iraq and Syria have been cut.

At the same time, Iraqi forces - this time with not only American airpower, but direct fire support from U.S. Marine field artillery and rocket launcher systems - have pushed north up the Tigris River valley. These forces are shaping the battlefield for the inevitable assault to re-assert Iraqi government control over Mosul and the northern parts of the country now occupied by ISIS.

According to U.S. officials, ISIS is no longer attempting to seize more territory in Iraq, or Syria for that matter. I agree with that assessment - the group is consolidating its defense of Mosul and limiting its offensive operations to re-establishing its lines of communications. This, however, is a losing strategy - they must find a way to stop the Iraqi forces' momentum at a time when U.S. and coalition support to the Iraqis is on the rise.

After almost two years, the now-constant air strikes - finally, the increased operations tempo I have been calling for - are taking a toll. Unless ISIS changes its strategy, it is only a matter of time before the resources available to the Iraqi government isolates and destroys it.

Hence, ISIS's renewed relentless bombing campaign. The number of attacks and the breadth of the areas being struck reminds us that the organization is still capable of inflicting large numbers of casualties, especially against relatively undefended targets. The targets ISIS has selected for this campaign certainly meet that description - markets, sporting event venues and any areas where large numbers of people gather.

ISIS has several goals in this bombing campaign. The ultimate goal, of course, it to create so much mayhem and resulting public outcry against the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi that the Iraqis reassess their military operations aimed at retaking Mosul. Taking a page from the basic guerrilla handbook, they are attempting to create "significant emotional events" - events that so traumatize the body politic that the people will demand the government change its tactics.

It has a small change of success, depending on how effective the bombing campaign becomes. The Iraqi people - more accurately, the Shi'a population of Baghdad and its environs who are the focus of the bombings - are already criticizing the government's seeming impotence to stop the attacks, and demanding increased security measures to protect them.

The government is vulnerable to this tactic, and ISIS is smart to exploit this vulnerability, The Iraqi government has finite resources in the security forces. These forces are spread thin trying to fight ISIS in the Euphrates valley and moving up the Tigris valley while at the same time providing security in the capital. The Shi'a population in and around Baghdad is more concerned with its own security than the eventual liberation of the Sunni areas around Mosul.

ISIS has forced the Iraqi government into a situation in which it has two choices: continue the military operations against ISIS and risk alienating the Shi'a population - its political power base in Baghdad, or pull forces back from the various combat fronts to provide better security in the capital, which in essence cedes territory to the terrorist group. Unfortunately, the Iraqis cannot do both.

May 4, 2016

OPINION - Obama press secretary Josh Earnest insults American killed in combat

This is a personal opinion piece.

I was offended and insulted by statements made by President Obama's press secretary Josh Earnest concerning the death of U.S. Navy SEAL Charles Keating IV. Petty Officer Keating died in combat in Iraq on May 3 - he was one of a group of SEALs assisting Kurdish peshmerga troops in their defense of an Assyrian Christian town north of Mosul against an assault by more than a hundred fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The SEALs were in the area as part of their mission to "advise and assist" Iraqi security forces in their fight against ISIS. According to the Obama Administration, the deployment of members of the U.S. armed forces to "advise and assist" does not constitute a combat mission, despite the fact that the units being provided advice and assistance are engaged in combat operations, and much of that assistance comes in the form of direct control of U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy airstrikes.

The Administration can spin that as it likes, but anyone with a modicum of common sense realizes that this is nothing more than political drivel to fit a narrative that American troops are not involved in combat operations. It fails the common sense test.

You can listen to Earnest's pitiful attempts to parse the difference between "combat" and "combat mission" in this video clip. I wonder if he actually believes his own words - then again, how would he know the difference? He, nor virtually anyone else on the White House staff, has ever worn a uniform.

"What I am trying to do though is to be as precise as possible with you and the American public about what exactly our Commander in Chief has asked our service members to do. Secretary Carter earlier today described this death as a combat death – that’s accurate. This is an individual who was not in a combat mission but he was in a dangerous place…and his position came under attack. He was armed, trained and prepared to defend himself. Unfortunately, he was killed…and he was killed in combat, but that was not part of his mission. His mission was specifically to offer advice and assistance to those Iraqi forces fighting for their own country."

Mr. Earnest, I realize your job is to spin reality into a form that fits a narrative dictated by your political masters at the White House, but the more you speak the less believable the words are. I suppose you have a tight definition that somehow explains that our pilots - of all services - flying over Iraq and Syria, many of them dropping ordnance on ISIS personnel and positions - are not "in a combat mission." How do you spin delivering ordnance as an "advise and assist" mission.

Additionally, on the day the Petty Officer Keating was killed, you began the daily press briefing with a detailed litany of the President's scheduled visit to Flint, Michigan, adding your remarks on the the death of an American sailor killed in action in Iraq only when specifically asked by members of the press. Your canned remarks appeared to be an afterthought. One has to wonder if you would have mentioned it at all had you not been prodded by a reporter.

“I can tell you the president has been briefed on this incident, and everyone here at the White House, including the First Family, extends our condolences to the family of the service member that was killed today in northern Iraq. This individual was the third U.S. service member killed in action since the beginning of Operation Inherent Resolve, and this service member’s death reminds us of the risks our brave men and women in uniform face every single day."

Rings hollow, doesn't it?

ADDENDUM: In memoriam.

May 3, 2016

Iraq - Muqtada al-Sadr flexes his political muscles

Al-Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr
Caption on right: Yes, yes to Iraq / Lower caption: Love of country comes from faith

In a demonstration of his political power, radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr engineered a huge demonstration on Saturday, April 30 inside Baghdad's heavily fortified and defended "Green Zone" (officially the International Zone).

Thousands of al-Sadr's followers moved blast walls and fences, pushed their way into the zone and entered several of the government buildings that constitute the seat of power of the Iraqi government. The zone is also the home of the huge American embassy as well as other foreign missions.

The ease by which the demonstrators entered the facility is telling. Iraqi security forces are perfectly capable of defending the zone and repelling the demonstrators, but there was little resistance from the guard force. Many of the demonstrators remarked that they were treated fairly by the soldiers and police as long as they did not pose a threat. Reportedly, the general in charge of security personally welcomed al-Sadr to the restricted area. Why was there no armed confrontation?

I suspect there was almost no violence because Muqtada al-Sadr and the demonstrators are demanding the same thing Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi has been advocating for months - the end of the rampant corruption and cronyism that permeates virtually every level of the Iraqi government.

The nonviolent demonstrations are a departure from al-Sadr's past. The cleric has a long history of violent confrontations with the Iraqi government, and his Iranian-trained and supplied jaysh al-mahdi (JAM, or Army of the Mahdi) was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American troops between 2004 and 2007. It was only the American "surge" of 2007-2008 that saw the demise of the JAM - al-Sadr assessed, correctly, that his thugs were no match for the newly-deployed U.S. Army combat battalions tasked with securing Baghdad. Al-Sadr fled to Iran.

The cleric remained in Iran for over three years, returning to Iraq in early 2011. Ostensibly, al-Sadr was in Qom to continue his Islamic studies and attain the title of ayatollah; he had been a hawjat al-islam prior. I suspect this claim was only for his followers, since he has not attained the title of either mujtahid (one authorized to issue fatwas, or religious rulings) or ayatollah. His return to the Shi'a holy city of al-Najaf, site of the martyrdom of the first Shi'a imam 'Ali (son in law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad), was greeted with almost uncontrollable revelry in the streets.

Why is this 42-year old such an influential figure in Iraqi politics?

Muqtada al-Sadr is a sayyid. Sayyid is the Arabic word for mister, or sir. However, in Shi'a Islam it denotes a person who is a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and Imam 'Ali. Sayyids are entitled to wear the black turban.

The Shi'a believe that leadership of the faithful should have been restricted to the prophet's bloodline, and al-Sadr clearly qualifies. His family lineage is traceable back to the sixth iman, Ja'afar al-Sadiq, and the seventh imam, Musa al-Khadhim. The shrine of the seventh imam is located in the northwest section of Baghdad, appropriately named al-Khadhimiyah. While Westerners sometimes dismiss the cache of direct lineage to the prophet, Iraqis do not. Coincidentally, the annual remembrance ceremony for the seventh imam is this week.

Muqtada al-Sadr is arguably now the key power broker in Iraq. When he called his followers back from the demonstration in the Green Zone, he issued an ultimatum to Prime Minister al-'Abadi that the Iraqi leader has until Friday (May 6) to effect changes in the Iraqi cabinet, replacing corrupt politicians with qualified technocrats. If that deadline is not met, the demonstrations will resume. Al-Sadr has further threatened to bring down the al-'Abadi government and force early Parliamentary elections - elections he can greatly influence.

Al-'Abadi should take Muqtada al-Sadr seriously. The firebrand cleric has proven that he can mobilize thousands of disciplined demonstrators and create problems for the Iraqi government - at a time when the government needs to devote its time and energy to the ongoing fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Of note, Muqtada al-Sadr flew to Iran this morning - is he there to get his marching orders? I guess we will find out when al-'Abadi does not meet the Friday deadline.