It is a matter of time before the Iraqi Islamic State (IIS) is militarily defeated and stripped off lands it controls in Iraq. However, this does not mean a permanent defeat of IIS. We have lessons to be learnt from Fallujah, Ramadi, and Mosul. The underlying causes of the rise of the Iraqi Islamic State are not tackled yet.
Iraqi Arab Sunnis are still marginalised, unlawful imprisonment of terrorism suspects’ families including women and children continues, and corruption is systematic. Militias are much stronger now committing atrocities similar to those of the IIS. The Green Zone Government is still a closed circuit for those ‘elite’ who came with the US invading tanks. Maliki is still in power (Deputy of the Iraqi President). Iran has a strong paramilitary presence in Iraq. The Iranian presence is a proven recipe of ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq.
Unless the root causes of the rise of IIS are tackled, the next group to rise after IIS will be much harder to tackle. The next armed group to rise after the Islamic State in Iraq would blend more into the Arab Sunni fabric utilising tribal and sectarian rift lines. Most probably, the next rise would be the advent of the Great Middle East War Sunnis Vs Shi’a.
Rise of IIS
The Iraqi Islamic State is a hybrid byproduct of al-Qaida in Iraq which was active during the US invasion of Iraq. The nucleus of IIS consists of ex al-Qaida members who found themselves leaderless after the collapse of al-Qaida global network (when Osama Bin Laden was killed in May 2011). The Syrian civil/sectarian war provided a fertile ground for ex al-Qaida extremists to rise again. Arab Gulf States’ funding gave al-Qaida fighters a golden opportunity to re-group in Syria to fight Assad regime. They kept close contact with their counterparts in Iraq. The crisis in Syria echoed loudly in Iraq on both sectarian and political lines providing recruiting material for the newly formed IIS. The systematic corruption plaguing the Iraqi Army helped IIS to purchase different types of weapons from corrupt officers in Iraqi Army. The details of these shadowy corrupt sales are yet to be uncovered.
The Iraqi Islamic State is different from the Syrian Islamic State (SIS). This distinction is important to better understand the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The Iraqi Islamic State is led by ex al-Qaida extremists. However, IIS real power comes from the wider spectrum of armed groups already operating in Iraq. There are many armed groups actively fighting against the Iraqi Government and its militias. These groups are not necessarily related to IIS. However, they found in the Iraqi Government a common enemy to fight. Armed groups including the Military Councils in Iraq have already decided not to challenge IIS. The justification was to let IIS clash with Iranian-backed militias in the hope that both would engage in a war of attrition.
On the other side of the Iraqi borders, the Syrian Islamic State (SIS) has a different layout and a different network of armed groups operating under its umberlla. SIS started with a small group of ex al-Qaida fighters who were already in Syria. In the course of the Syrian civil war, fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and al-Nusra Front joined SIS. The dynamics of the conflict in Syria is substantially different from those of Iraq. The Syrian Islamic State (SIS) is not the subject of this article. For detailed information on SIS, you can visit Aymenn Jawed Al-Tamimi’s blog http://www.aymennjawad.org
Right after the Iraqi Army fiasco in Mosul, analysts and commentators scrambled to news media outlets to answer the question: “How Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has risen?” Analyses covered time periods before and after the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2010-11. Commentators seem to agree on the fact that Maliki Government contributed massively to the rise of IIS. The application of Debaathification, sectarian policies, rise of Iranian-linked militias, and targeting of prominent Sunni politicians are among the main criticisms levelled against Maliki Government. In addition, corruption scandals have been a characteristic of Maliki Government during its two terms. Corruption inside the security system in Iraq has been a pressing topic for both media and the Iraqi Parliament. Some Government officials and Members of Parliament accused Maliki Government’s Minister of Defence of selling weapons to ISIS! The accusations are still debated today on local Iraqi channels. The new Iraqi Parliament promised to form committees examining evidence of officials’ involvement in selling weapons to IIS.
In response to the fall of large parts of Mosul, Saladin, and Anbar provinces, the US Government insisted that Maliki should not stay as a Prime Minister in the new Government even though Maliki had enough votes qualifying him to stay in power. The US made its support for the Government of Iraq conditional: Maliki must go first before the US help Iraqi Government in its fight against IIS. After numerous meetings with Iraqi officials, US Department of State officials nominated Dr Haidar al-Abadi to become Prime Minister of Iraq.
The removal of Maliki and placement of Abadi made it clear to both Iraqis and the world that democracy in Iraq is still very fragile. The latest elections in Iraq were plagued with fraud, corruption, and misuse of the justice system/Debaathification. During the elections, cities like Diyala were battlefields against IIS. However, election results showed that Iraqi Parliament Speaker, Dr Salem al-Jibouri, received hundreds of thousands of votes there. Evidence of mass-bribes to voters was documented in Southern cities of Iraq as well. Elections results showed that Maliki received approximately 700 thousands votes in Baghdad alone. Ironically, the Iraqi election showdown ended in a US-tailored Government which does not reflect the outcome of the elections.
In the meanwhile, the Iraqi Army was falling apart only to open way to Iranian-linked militias to take lead in the fight against IIS. During this power vacuum period where the US was trying to enforce changes in the political system in Iraq, Iran stepped up its support to both Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Iran has been sending fighters, warplanes, drones, military advisors, weapons, and extending political support to help its allies in the Green Zone Government. Evidence of Iranian military presence in Iraq is abound. Major General Qassim Sulaimani, who is the Commander of the Quds Force, led major battles in Iraq against IIS in Amerli, Jurf al-Sakhar, al-Sa’dyia, and Jalawla among many other less know operations.
The Coalition forces, led by the United States of America, have launched a major military operation against ISIS using almost exclusively airstrikes to weaken ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. The airstrikes campaign aim was to repel IIS attacks against Erbil in Northern Iraq and to help Yezidis beseiged in Sinjar mountain. The airstrikes campaign is mostly focused now on embattled Kobane in Syria on the borders with Turkey. However, Coalitions jet-fighters are also assisting Iraqi forces/Iranian-backed militias, and Peshmerga in Anbar, Jalawla, South of Kirkuk, North of Mosul, and Saladin.
I wonder what analysts and commentators say about the Coalition strategy against IIS today? The Coalition strategy is not to tackle the root causes of the rise of IIS. It seems that the strategy of the Coalition is to militarily defeat IIS and preserve the political status quo in Iraq with a new face, namely, newly appointed Prime Minister Dr. Abadi.
In fact, militias became much stronger after the Coalition airstrikes against IIS. A couple of weeks ago, US advisors and militias fighters were stationed at the same military base in Anbar. The US Army provided air supportrt for the Iranian-backed militias in different parts of Iraq. Iraqi Government is still using Debaathification to marginalise Iraqi Arab Sunnis and exclude them from any political participation. Most Iraqis affected by the Debaathification law are either executed or sentenced to exile. Corruption is a major problem in Iraq which has left Iraq’s budget of 2014 with 7 billion USD only out of the allocated approximately 163 billions USD.
It might be surprising that my article does not assign a big role to the Kurds in the conflict with IIS. Despite claims by the ex Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) supported IIS in its early days, there is no evidence to support his claims. In fact, the very existence of the KRG prevented IIS from expanding. The IIS war is not with the KRG. The KRG became involved for the wrong reasons. IIS did not attack Kurdish areas until [IIS claims] Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) facilitated passage for Iranian forces and Iraqi militias to attack IIS South of Kirkuk. IIS has no declared ethnic agenda against Kurds.
Iraqi Islamic State seems far from a military defeat. The Iraqi Army, Iranian-backed militias, and Kurdish Peshmerga made some progress in Baiji, Amerli, Jalawla, and North of Mosul only to lose other towns in Anbar province. The Coalition air-strikes are effective in halting IIS progress but have as to date failed to defeat it.
Arab Sunni are highly skeptical of the new Government in Baghdad especially after the dramatic rise of Iranian-backed militias. In addition, videos on Youtube showing brutal sectarian revenge killings against Arab Sunnis by militias like Asai’b Ahl al-Haqq (AHH), Bader Brigade, and other Iranian-backed militias make Arab Sunnis prefer to stay under IIS than facing certain death under sectarian Iranian-backed militias.
Kurds are fighting to secure areas they claim to be part of their ‘Kurdistan’. These areas include Kirkuk, Northern parts of Diyala, and Northern parts of Mosul. Peshmerga will not take a major role in liberating Mosul, Saladin, or Anbar provinces.
The US/Coalition do not seem ready to send boots on the ground. Sending troops to Iraq now would only exacerbate the situation. Other Arab states cannot send troops to Iraq because of the tense sectarian environment engulfing Iraq/Syria conflicts.
Unless the US-led Coalition adopts a strategy to effect a balanced power-sharing Government in Baghdad, the conflict in Iraq is going to stay for years to come.
Muhanad Seloom is a graduate from Bangor University, University of St. Andrews, and University of Exeter. His MA/PhD research focuses on the label ‘terrorist’ and its effects on conflict resolution within ethnic/sectarian context.