Safin Hamed / AFP / Getty Images

After insurgent gains, Iraqi government mulls dwindling options

ISIL insurgents have captured swathe of land that stretches from the Syrian border to the western gates of Baghdad

The hard-bitten fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL) are marching towards Baghdad unabated, seizing cities, raiding U.S.-stocked government armories and leaving hundreds of freed prisoners in their wake. Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, had already fallen to the Al-Qaeda-inspired insurgency when Tikrit — best known as the birthplace of Saddam Hussein — met the same fate on Wednesday

By sundown, ISIL was closing in on Bajii, site of the country’s largest oil refinery, and still no one seemed willing or able to stop them.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who many blame for fanning the sectarian flames that fueled ISIL’s precipitous rise, so far appears unable to stop the march. His security forces, better suited for keeping the peace than batting down a resilient, well-armed insurgency like ISIL, have cowered. In some cases, soldiers have abandoned their posts hours before ISIL rolled into town.

“It’s quite amazing the rapidity with which they’ve fallen apart,” said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “It just goes to show that ISIL knows what it's doing, but more importantly, that everybody else doesn’t.” 

Maliki has vowed his government would “not allow Mosul to be under the banner of terrorism,” but he has offered little else at this point besides weapons for those citizens who volunteered “to defend the homeland and defeat terrorism.” 

Meanwhile, as many as 500,000 citizens have fled Mosul for refuge in northern Kurdish lands, in an upheaval that Aram Skakaram, the Iraq director of Save the Children, described as “one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in the world in recent memory.” 

A screen grab from Al Baraka News claims to show ISIL fighters driving through a freshly bulldozed dirt wall that marked the Syrian border with Iraq.
Al Baraka News

Though sectarian violence has been on the rise all year, the last time Iraq faced a focused insurgent campaign of this magnitude was in 2007-08. Iraq’s army, then facing an uprising by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, ultimately emerged victorious thanks to U.S. aerial firepower in a campaign centered on the southeastern city of Basra. 

“This time it has none of that support,” said Matthew Henman, an Iraq expert with IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, in London. “ISIL is building up momentum and the security forces are melting away.” 

Perhaps the Iraqi army should have been better prepared. ISIL, which flies the black flag of Al-Qaeda but is more accurately described as a splinter group, has been active in Mosul for years. 

As its name would suggest, the group’s explicit goal is to establish an Islamic caliphate that spans Iraq and Syria, and they very much consider their exploits part of an effort to lay the groundwork for a future, functioning state. Many in Iraq have warned of a possible incursion deep into Iraqi lands ever since the group infiltrated the rebel movement against the Assad regime in neighboring Syria and began to declare tiny territories under its control.

In Syria, ISIL fighters have grown battle-hardened and attracted funding and recruits who pass easily across the porous border into Iraq. But ISIL has also vaulted to prominence in predominately Sunni regions of Iraq, because, while tacit support for the hardliners is largely absent, palpable hostility toward Maliki’s Shia-dominated government is not. 

“There’s such a depth of anti-government feeling that some Sunnis aren’t worried about the army being kicked out and alternative control being established,” said Henman. “They’re happy to see the government getting a bloody nose over this.”

Maliki, who has an uneasy relationship with the United States, has pleaded for the United Nations and Arab League to step in, while speaker of parliament Usama al-Nujaifi (whose brother is governor of Nineveh province, where ISIL has taken charge) has asked the U.S. to do the same. The White House said in a statement that it supported a “strong, coordinated response to push back this aggression,” but has made no promises yet.

Maliki might also count on his ally Iran or the Lebanese Shia militias of Hezbollah, both of which have sent forces to fight on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, to help drive back the Sunni insurgents. The involvement of Iran or Hezbollah, of course, would pose an awkward situation for the U.S., which has accused Iran of fighting proxy wars in Iraq.

As Iraq waits with bated breath for diplomatic gears to set in motion and sectarian allegiances to prove their mettle, analysts say Maliki’s best hopes in the short-term rest in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. Most suspect the Iraqi prime minister is currently bogged down in urgent negotiations with his Kurdish partners, perhaps offering to renegotiate the distribution of Kurdish oil revenues, which are shared with the rest of Iraq, in exchange for eleventh-hour assistance from the Kurds’ elite peshmerga fighters. 

With or without Kurdish help, most analysts believe the Iraqi army will ultimately confront ISIL, and that it is just a matter of where they will draw the line. But if push comes to shove, Maliki could find himself mobilizing loyal Shia militias to take action in support of the country’s underpowered security forces. 

That could be a trap, said Henman.

“ISIL wants the government under enough pressure that it has to deploy sectarian militias, because that plays right into their narrative of defending the Sunnis of Iraq against the Shia government,” he said. “You might see the moderate Sunnis, the Awakening Councils and the like, unwilling to side with Maliki and the Shias in a sectarian conflict.” Full-blown civil war could be just around the corner.

Whatever happens in Iraq, ISIL will be keen on ramping up its campaign in Syria’s easternmost province of Deir e-Zour, said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an ISIL expert with the Middle East Forum, a think tank in Washington, D.C. Securing that province would link the insurgents’ recent gains in Iraq to their expanding presence in Syria’s chaotic northeast, a staging ground for future attacks.

Perhaps to illustrate their disregard for the Syria-Iraq border, which has become increasingly meaningless as both regions straddling it descend into lawlessness, ISIL combatants this week have circulated images of their comrades in Syria literally bulldozing the decrepit walls that demarcate the two countries.

The text below the images, broadcast by ISIL-affiliated Al-Baraka news, read: “Smashing the Sykes-Picot border” — a reference to the dividing line between French-mandate Syria and British-mandate Iraq, established under a 1916 agreement.

The message was clear: So long as ISIL maneuvers freely in the political vacuum of rebel-held Syria, Iraq is vulnerable.

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