The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the latest and most dangerous relation of al-Qaeda, has stunned the world and Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki with unprecedented but well-planned military successes in Iraq, seizing first Mosul and now Tikrit and threatening to descend upon the capital, Baghdad, writes Abdel Bari Atwan.
Almost a million citizens have fled their homes in response, heading for the northern Kurdish enclave rather than Syria where ISIS equally has a stronghold.
ISIS released over 3,000 prisoners in Mosul, and seized control of the television stations, all banks, and military and security institutions. Apparently security personnel and soldiers offered little or no resistance.
This victory not only reflects the size and strength of the ISIS army (at least 10,000 under arms in Iraq) but also the immense fragility of the Iraqi state and its institutions. The military has sickened and shrunk, losing all its morale and will to live.
In Mosul, soldiers reportedly stripped off their uniforms, threw their weapons aside, set fire to their vehicles and fled on foot for Kurdistan. Their political leaders have failed to establish a state worth dying for.
Nineveh province was the first important strategic gain because it is close to the Syrian border and is the main gateway to the Kurdish autonomous area, and particularly the city of Kirkuk oil fields.
As vast swathes of the country fall into ISIS hands, the organisation is becoming – as we predicted in “After bin Laden: al-Qaeda the Next Generation” – a state actor with ambitions for an emirate across the entire Arab world, now taking root in Syria and Iraq.
Reports on the ground say that the Islamists have been joined by officers and men from the Iraqi state army and loyalists to the ancien regime (Saddam Hussein). This could boost their numbers into the region of a million.
In addition, they are armed with the very latest weapons and military technology. Many officers from Saddam’s Republican Guard, who were the elite and best trained of his troops, have been associated with al-Qaeda since the insurgency began in response to the US-UK invasion of 2003.
The Iraqi State stands at the threshold of a real disaster from which it will not easily emerge. The fault lies with her government which has squandered every opportunity at nation-building, reconciliation and the construction of an integrated Iraqi identity. This has offered huge opportunities for the infectious sectarian zeal of the jihadis.
Prime Minister al-Maliki held an emergency meeting on Thursday seeking to impose martial law and curfews. He also said the state would arm ordinary civilians and tribes to fight ISIS. But by militarizing the problem he risks an escalation into full scale civil war. His appeal is unlikely to succeed in any case: if trained soldiers did not consider the state he presides over worth fighting for, why would tribesmen, bank clerks and barbers?
Malaki is turning this way and looking desperately for back up. He is likely to send an SOS to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, to assist them in restraining ISIS but they are unlikely to help since al-Maliki refused advances by the Kurdish government for reconciliation and alliance by setting impossible conditions.
The Americans have been asked to send drones and even a full scale return of the invading forces, but, despite the fact that his nation can be roundly implicated in the utter chaos in Iraq, Obama would be reluctant to oblige, having lost 5,000 soldiers with 30,000 in the first adventure in Iraq, in addition to having spent $3 trillion in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The area ISIS already has under control contains some of Iraq’s best oil fields and threatens the stability of Kurdistan.
The United States has sown the seeds of destruction, not only in Iraq but in the whole region, and it is painful that the bulldozing invasion of Iraq and the dismantling of its civil structures and army, has ushered in vicious sectarianism and all the bitterness, fragmentation and instability that are its outriders.
ISIS and similar al-Qaeda linked groups have been the biggest beneficiaries of the creeping chaos America has created, and the failed states it has bestowed on Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
There is a strong possibility that ISIS will succeed in establishing an Islamic emirate across the Syria/Iraq border and use this as a springboard for attacks against America and European countries and regional interests in the near future.
Unlike al-Qaeda, ISIS has a strong Islamic and social incubator, tons of weapons and ammunition, and huge financial resources – controlling huge oil reserves in Iraq and Syria. Above all, many of the senior fighters have had more than a decade’s worth of experience in guerrilla and conventional warfare.