The terror group ISIS has occupied vast portions of Syria and Iraq in the hopes of establishing a caliphate. The jihadists’ success lays bare Iraq’s disintegration and could ignite yet another civil war between Shiites and Sunnis in the country.
Masoud Ali, a tall, friendly man with a beard and green eyes, was a taxi driver in Mosul until a few days ago. He likes the desert, and he loves his wife and his yellow Nissan. He never paid much attention to politics until now. “Inshallah,” he says. Whatever happens is God’s will. But then fighters with the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” or ISIS, overran the city of two million.
An evening curfew has been in force in Mosul since last Monday, says Ali. He and his family heard gunshots near their apartment on Tuesday, and when Ali looked outside, he saw a dead body lying on the street. Then the rumors began. “They’ve occupied all government buildings and the airport,” said a friend. “The power station and the water works, too,” a neighbor added. There were television reports of banks being robbed, the release of thousands of prisoners and the confiscation of oil wells. A day later, Masoud Ali loaded his family into his car and stepped on the gas. As they drove away, they could see police uniforms and abandoned military vehicles in the ditch. Government troops, most of them Sunnis, had surrendered to the Sunni ISIS fighters.
Ali, like most residents of Mosul, is also a Sunni. He had heard the mayor calling for the citizens of Mosul to defend themselves against ISIS. “But why should I have defended myself?” he asks. “For the Shiite government? For Prime Minister Maliki, who oppresses the Sunnis?” He shakes his head. “The conflict has escalated because people in Iraq don’t like the government anymore.”
Now Ali is standing in a tent outside the city of Erbil in the country’s Kurdish north, Iraq’s newest refugee camp. It’s time for Friday prayer, but instead of resting his forehead on the ground to pray, he presses it against the forehead of a child. His four-month-old son Mohammed is lying on a tarp, surrounded by cans of powdered milk, fresh cucumbers and plastic water bottles. He is crying because he has a fever.
There wasn’t even enough time to pack a suitcase, says Ali. “We left in a panic. We just wanted to get out.” He fans his son’s head with a scarf and blows air across his nose, hoping to provide some relief from the unrelenting desert heat. He keeps rocking his child back and forth, as if to shake off the experiences of the last few days.
New refugees arrive everyday, with some coming on foot. On their way in, they pass only a short distance from Ali’s tent. Cars are lined up for miles at the Chasar checkpoint, a one-hour drive from Mosul on the road to Erbil. Dust rises between the wheels and thousands of plastic bottles and bags litter the ground. Up to 800,000 people have already left Mosul, with about half coming to Erbil Province. They feel safe there, in territory controlled by the Kurdish regional government.
A New Civil War
These days Erbil is one of the few cities north of Baghdad where calm prevails. The Kurdish regional government has an estimated 200,000 men, known as Peshmerga, and they are the best-trained combat force in Iraq. They are also the only force in the country that has been able to slow down the jihadists. The Peshmerga also secure borders, cities and oil wells around Kirkuk against the advancing Islamists, as well as defending the Kurdish population and its interests.
More than a decade after the American invasion, Iraq is facing the prospect of a new civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. In contrast to 2006 and 2007, when fighting between the two religious groups claimed thousands of lives, the Americans are no longer there to intervene though Washington has, in recent days, beefed up its presence in the Persian Gulf and dozens of troops are now in Baghdad to defend the US Embassy there.
The advance of the ISIS forces is not the reason for the country’s collapse, but rather a consequence of it. With the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the Sunni Islamist army, which fought and gained strength inthe Syrian civil war, has achieved its greatest success to date. From Mosul, it continued to advance southward and on Tuesday, ISIS forces advanced to Baquba, only 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Baghdad, before retreating.
Within a short period of time, ISIS has managed to unseat Al-Qaida as the world’s most vicious terrorist group. It hasn’t launched any attacks in the West yet. Instead, it aims to establish a 7th-century style caliphate in the Middle East. The organization, comprised of up to 15,000 fighters, including many young Europeans, is still a long way from being a state. Nevertheless, it now controls a cross-border region the size of Jordan.
ISIS’s advance into Iraq didn’t come as a surprise. The offensive has apparently been in the works for more than a year and the extremists captured the Iraqi city of Fallujah in January. In Mosul, they have been exacting a “jihad tax” from the population for months in addition to committing political murders and suicide bombings.
ISIS’s rapid success notwithstanding, the force which occupied Mosul was likely no more than 1,000 soldiers strong. Potentially only a few hundred continued southwards. There was no need for more. The Sunni minority, which controlled the country under former dictator Saddam Hussein, has increasingly been marginalized under the Shiite leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in recent years. Indeed, most Sunnis are not standing in the way of the advancing ISIS fighters, allowing the radicals to do as they please. And militias of former Saddam supporters, such as the Naqshbandi group, are joining them. Last week, Sunni militias occupied Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, where they raised flags bearing a likeness of the former dictator.
The country’s lack of cohesion prompted the Iraqi army to largely dissolve when faced with pressure, despite the roughly $25 billion (€18 billion) the United States spent to arm Iraqi troops and the years of training they received to fight Islamist extremists.
In Mosul, two divisions — a total of 30,000 soldiers — fled from the roughly 1,000 ISIS fighters, even though the army is vastly superior in terms of arms and equipment. In recent years, the Iraqi government has bought F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters and M-1 tanks. Tikrit saw two divisions disband as well.
The fact that Sunni soldiers and policemen are avoiding confrontation with the advancing ISIS is reflective of a population that tends to see the Islamists as the lesser evil when compared to the hated Shiite central government. Only primarily Shiite divisions have remained loyal to the Maliki government. But even they are increasingly merging with Shiite self-defense groups forming in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
On Friday, the highest-ranking Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called upon his fellow Shiites to take up arms against ISIS. More than 30,000 volunteers reported for duty in Baghdad to help defend the city.
There has been much talk in recent days about two men who have long been dead. In 1916 Mark Sykes of Britain and Frenchman François Georges-Picot divided the Middle East into French and British zones of influence. They drew the artificial borders between the countries of Iraq, Syria and Jordan, borders that, for the most part, still exist today. The dividing lines forced Kurds, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites into shared nations.
This fragile order, which paid no attention to tribal history and religion, has long fueled regional conflict and is now in the process of crumbling. Indeed, the ISIS wishes to eliminate the borders as currently drawn. The group posted images online of members tearing down border fortifications between Syria and Iraq.
Ironically, it was the 2003 American invasion that destroyed the region’s fragile balance. In Iraq, the Sunni minority of dictator Saddam Hussein, which constituted only 20 percent of the population, ruled the Shiite majority. When Saddam was overthrown, the Sunnis were deprived of their power. Similarly, in Syria, the dictatorship of the Alawite Assad clan suppressed tensions between the two religious groups for decades. Today’s bloody civil war is the result.
Steady Influx of Radicals
Starting in 2013, ISIS developed a reputation in Syria for being the most brutal and successful jihadist group around. It is also known to be exceedingly secretive. In its “emirate,” which stretches from the cities of Bab and Manbij in eastern Aleppo Province, through the provincial capital Al-Raqqa and into the eastern province of Hasaka, the fanatics ruled with terror and increasingly grotesque decrees. In Al-Raqqa, those who remain outdoors or who dare to keep their shops open are at risk of losing their lives. Hairdressers have been forced to blacken the images of women on packages of hair dye. Music is no longer allowed at weddings, and at livestock markets in the region, the genitals of goats and sheep must now be covered with rags.
ISIS has been spreading through northern Syria since last spring, drawing on a steady influx of radicals from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Europe and even Indonesia. From the very beginning, the group appeared to be pursuing a dual strategy. On the one hand, there were the foreign jihadists, who came to the region lacking local knowledge or military experience — and were sent to the slaughter at the front.
On the other hand, the apparently Iraqi leadership of ISIS planned its resistance in a professional way, forming small cells housed in secret apartments and recruiting Syrian informants, often former regime spies. Rebel commanders, local officials and other influential people were kidnapped or murdered, enabling ISIS to take control of entire towns and cities.
The Iraqi leadership of ISIS, which is said to consist mainly of former officers and officials from Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, is highly secretive, such that ordinary fighters are only familiar with their local “emir.” In addition to the local units, a special force consisting of about 100 Iraqis and Tunisians was formed early on. The group is in charge of abductions, murders and attacks, and it acts independently. It is likely responsible for many targeted killings of rebel commanders outside the territory controlled by ISIS, as well as for kidnappings.
ISIS has no lack of weapons and munitions, partly the result of its recent captures of modern arms from the Iraqi military. But the group would also appear to have plenty of funding, even remains unclear where the money comes from. It profited for a time from the sale of oil to the Assad regime and it presumably received millions from Paris and Madrid in ransom payments for kidnapped French and Spanish citizens in April. It is also thought that the group might have secured as much as $420 million from the Iraqi central bank during its recent foray through Mosul.
ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi likewise remains in the shadows. He was allegedly born Awad Ibrahim al-Badri in the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971, and he claims to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. He was reportedly a preacher during the US invasion and, for a brief period afterwards, participated in the Islamist uprising. In 2005, US troops detained Baghdadi and incarcerated him in the Bucca prison camp, where he reportedly came into contact with Al-Qaida. After his release, he joined the terrorist group and became the leader of its Iraqi offshoot in 2010. Three years later, he assumed control of ISIS and had a falling out with Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Americans have since placed a bounty of $10 million on his head.
Reign of Terror
It is unlikely that ISIS will be able to permanently occupy a large amount of territory in Iraq. The rules it imposes on the population are too draconian and its reign of terror too violent. Last week, its supporters boasted of having executed thousands of Shiite soldiers.
“But ISIS is the catalyst for the next civil war in Iraq,” says Michael D. Weiss, a US expert on the Syrian terrorist group. Such a conflict could ultimately result in the current territory of Syria and Iraq being divided into a Kurdish, a Sunni and a Shiite state.
There are, however, still Iraqis, like Abdul-Jabbar Ahmed Abdullah, who believe in the continued existence of their country. Abdullah is a political science professor in the Sunni stronghold of Baghdad and a respected analyst. Last week’s escalation was “completely predictable,” says Abdullah. Since the overthrow of Saddam 11 years ago, “all attempts to developed functioning institutions in Iraq have failed.”
Abdullah holds Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responsible for the problems. He sees the premier as a religious zealot who is only interested in the dominance of his religious group and his own political survival.
Maliki’s behavior, says Abdullah, is marked by a “deep mistrust of everything and everyone,” from the Kurds in the north to his fellow Shiites in the south. He is deeply hostile to the Sunni bloc in the middle of the country, says Abdullah. Under Saddam, Maliki was ostracized as a member of the opposition, and he was forced to go into exile to save his life. The fact that he found refuge in Syria and Iran explains his close relationship with the mullahs in Tehran and his support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus.
His government aligned itself with the Americans when it seemed expedient. “Only Iraq’s interests are important to us,” Maliki said in a March interview with SPIEGEL in his sumptuous office in Baghdad. Maliki swept aside the accusation that he marginalizes the Sunnis with a wave of his hand. Conflict between religious groups is part of “a perfectly normal political process,” he said. Besides, he added, each party had “received the share it earned based on its election performance.”
The Symbolism of Mosul
When asked about US President Barack Obama’s admonition, during Maliki’s last visit to the White House in November 2013, that he seek reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites, the premier scratched his beard and made it clear that he was not taking instructions from the United States. “I already advocated national reconciliation before Obama even became president,” Maliki said.
The capture of Mosul also has great symbolic meaning, because it marks the end of a 10-year development. In the years after the invasion, the Americans sought to turn Mosul into a model city, achieving calm there by virtue of free spending and a massive troop presence. The first free local elections in Iraqi history took place in Mosul in 2003 and 2004, organized by a then unknown US general, David Petraeus, who commanded 23,000 men in northern Iraq in early 2004. But then, in 2007, the occupying force was suddenly reduced from 9,000 to 3,000 troops, leading to the complete erosion of an already precarious security situation.
President Barack Obama, who came to office in 2008, had always felt that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake and wanted to withdraw US troops as quickly as possible. Indeed, for the last two-and-a-half years, there hasn’t been a substantial US military presence in the country at all. The withdrawal was widely as it was taking place, but now many experts are criticizing the move for having come too soon. In Washington, Republicans are accusing Obama of doing nothing to prevent Islamist advances in Iraq.
In fact, Obama could soon see himself forced to support the Iraqi government militarily. He said last week that his administration is considering all options but has ruled out the deployment of ground troops. But air attacks or the use of drones do not seem out of the question. On Friday evening, Obama announced that he could imagine providing military support as long as Maliki is willing to make political concessions to the Sunnis. “Ultimately it’s up to Iraq as a sovereign nation to solve its problems,” Obama said.
‘We Will Die for Kurdistan’
Nevertheless, a strange coalition could emerge. Last week, Iran sent out feelers regarding a joint response with the US to the situation in Iraq and the two countries held brief talks on the issue on Monday. Their shared interest is clear: curbing Sunni extremism. Still, both sides said after the talks that military coordination was not in the offing. The US may also opt to support other Syrian rebel groups that are fighting ISIS, despite their misgivings.
Masoud Ali, the refugee in the camp outside Erbil, misses his city and wants to return to Mosul as soon as possible. “I want peace,” he says, and yet he knows that peace will remain elusive for now. He doesn’t trust ISIS, but he also fears an attack by government troops. He speculates that Maliki could use aircraft to bomb Mosul.
The Kurdish Peshmerga have built a base a few hundred meters from Ali’s tent. They use the Kurdish flag as their symbol: red, white and green with a sun in the middle. Aras Muhammad is wearing the flag on the right sleeve of his camouflage uniform, along with sunglasses and a purple beret. He is carrying a Kalashnikov. “We will die for Kurdistan,” he says. “A Peshmerga never thinks of himself, but only about protecting others. He doesn’t run away. He is strong.” The Peshmerga are sending fighters to Mosul to safely remove families from the city. They are also protecting the refugees outside Erbil.
During the day, water from a fountain sprays onto wooden benches lined up on the central square in Erbil, next to a bazaar where sticky sweets are sold. An old man with a deeply wrinkled face is sitting on one of the benches. He is furious. He doesn’t want to tell us his profession or his name. All he wants to say is that the United States is to blame for his country’s disintegration. He shouts his words and waves his cane in the air. “The Americans shouldn’t have simply left,” he shouts. “They brought my country to the breaking point.”