“We can’t beat them. We can’t. They are well trained in street fighting, and we’re not,” an Iraqi army officer told Reuters on Tuesday after the city of Mosul fell into the hands of Al-Qaeda-inspired fighters. “They’re like ghosts: They appear to hit, and disappear within seconds.”
The specter of Al-Qaeda, however, is real. Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have been visible in Iraq’s second largest city for years, coming out in full strength after U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011. For at least the past year, elements of the ISIL have been running an extortion racket in Mosul, targeting trucking companies and taxing local businesses for “protection” — further bolstering their financial independence from other armed groups.
The war in Syria has boosted ISIL ranks; fighters unable to battle Syrian government forces easily cross the border into Iraq, forming part of the suicide bomber army inflicting dozens of bombing attacks. The number of dead this year now resembles those during the worst civil war days of 2006 and 2007. In May alone, nearly 800 people were killed.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki campaigned on the strength of his security forces and his ability to confront and defeat armed groups. But Fallujah, the city he lost control of earlier this year, was out of reach during the April national elections. Now with Mosul, a great swathe of territory stretching from near Baghdad in Abu Ghraib to the northwestern border with Syria has slipped from his hands and those of his security forces.
To some, the fall of Mosul was only a matter of time. Sunni politicians have roundly criticized Maliki for his alleged targeting of their community, which they say added to Sunni-Shia tensions. Sunni politicians have had their offices raided, and Maliki’s government issued arrest warrants and even sentenced former vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi to death in absentia.
The north was never fully subdued, as the U.S. military discovered itself when it held several towns for years. Gen. David Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division into Mosul in 2003 and tried to institute civilian leadership, beginning with city council elections. The division was a poster child for cooperation with local communities, and Petraeus implemented the same strategy on a larger scale under the 2007 surge when he assumed U.S. military command of all of Iraq. But less than a year after Petraeus left Mosul, the city descended into violence. It was where Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay were discovered and killed in the summer of 2003, and along with nearby Tikrit, Hussein’s hometown, the cities were hold-outs against the emergence of Shia dominance in Iraq’s national politics.
Crucial to the economy because of its role as a petroleum hub, Mosul has sustained repeated attacks on its oil pipelines and highways, through which trucks must pass to go north to Turkey. Al-Qaeda fighters have exploited the weaknesses of a badly trained and highly sectarian army and police force by moving in and dominating the local economies.
When he visited Washington last year, Maliki asked the government for added weaponry to curb the open rebellions. The U.S. has dispatched aircraft, helicopters, surface-to-air missions and patrol boats, and there are drones and Hellfire missiles on their way. But American lawmakers fear providing Maliki any additional aid, afraid he may also use it against his political opponents.
But, in many ways, Maliki is just responding to events and changing alliances in the region. Iraq, like Syria and Lebanon, has become a proxy battleground for Iran, which supports the Assad regime, and Saudi Arabia, which backs the Syrian rebels. Riyadh fears Iran’s growing power in the region if international sanctions on Tehran are further eased – especially if Iran is able to bring about a settlement in the Syrian conflict.
With opposing forces in his own backyard in Syria, Maliki has few choices. An ally of Iran, he’s called on “friendly governments” for help. In Washington, the State Department said it was “deeply concerned about the events that have transpired in Mosul,” in a statement issued Tuesday. The Obama administration, it said, supported “a strong, coordinated response to push back this aggression,” which includes Maliki’s Kurdish partners in the north.
The United States, the statement said, “will provide all appropriate assistance to the Government of Iraq … to ensure that these efforts succeed.”
The statement was not specific about what kind of aid that might be.