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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Events in Iraq strengthen Iran's position.

On October 14, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) announced the commencement of a military ground offensive in the direction of Baiji and the strategic Baiji Oil Refinery.  Possession of the refinery has been contested since the initial early successes of the Islamic State (ISIS) in its invasion of Iraq.  This particular military initiative is being conducted in close cooperation with the Iranian-backed Shi'a militia Kata'ib al-Imam Ali, with a number of recognizable Iranian military advisers directly involved.  The announcement of this effort came as a bit of a suprise as beforehand the priority of the Haider al-Abadi Administration had been the recapture of Ramadi City and the defeat of ISIS in Anbar Province.

Early reports from Baiji indicate that the ISF and the Kata'ib militia have made impressive gains against ISIS positions.  A number a small, strategic communities to the west of Baiji have been recaptured, and The refinery itself has been returned to Iraqi government control.  We repeat these reports with a word of caution: the Iraqi press has a tendency to produce over-optimistic battlefield reporting, especially in the early stages of a new ISF offensive.  ISIS has been on the run in Baiji before, only to return quickly with stronger forces.  The Baiji Refinery has consistently been the site of heavy fighting because of its strategic value.  Additionally, the Iraqi people have expressed great interest in this particular contested location, which increases its importance from a public morale perspective.  During the next week, the actual success of the ground offensive in Baiji will become clearer.  If indeed the ISF, with strong support from the proxy militia Kata'ib al-Imam Ali, has reoccupied both Baiji City and the Refinery, it will constitute another victory for Iran over the United States in the effort to curry favor and influence with the Abadi Administration.

Because the United States was heavily involved in training the military units that are currently engaged in the effort to recapture Ramadi City, if the offensive fails, it will have a potentially catastrophic impact on U.S. influence in Baghdad.  Coincidentally, since the genesis of recent direct Russian military involvement in Syria, the Iranians have increased their visibility in Iraq.  In the past, the Iranians were content to limit their overt exposure to involvement with the Shi'a militias.  This has changed, as the Iranians,Russia and Iraq recently created a military coordination office in Baghdad, alongside offers from Moscow to the Abadi Administration to provide valuable intelligence  on ISIS.  The U.S. responded with a successful raid alongside Kurdish Peshmerga to rescue seventy Kurdish hostages from imminent beheading, but otherwise, the United States appears content to discuss cooperation with Russia regarding Syria, and to leave present military influence in Iraq to Iran.

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