Could Isis take Iraq’s capital?

Despite the media’s focus on the sectarian dimension of Iraq’s current crisis, the reality is more complex.

Gung-ho: a boy brandishes a gun from a van taking volunteers to join the fight against jihadists in the north. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images
Gung-ho: a boy brandishes a gun from a van taking volunteers to join the fight against jihadists in the north. Photograph: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

When Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul, fell to jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) on 10 June, the sense of fear and confusion was palpable in Baghdad. There was a noticeable difference in the capital’s traffic the following morning; fewer civilians left their homes, and there were more military patrols and checkpoints.

By 11 June, Iraqi forces had lost control of Tikrit, another provincial capital to the north of Baghdad, and with skirmishes breaking out to the west and south of the city, too, residents were painfully aware of the front line moving closer to home. As the New Statesman went to press, the city of Baquba to the north-east of Baghdad was still being contested and the town of Tal Afar, close to the Syrian border, had almost completely fallen out of government control.

There are still unanswered questions about how several thousand Isis fighters were able to make such rapid gains. Some national army units were ordered to withdraw; others say they received no orders at all and decided to flee as the fighters arrived. Whatever the orders from above, the fall of these cities to Isis would not have been possible without a large degree of local support from civilians and other armed groups, including supporters of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. In Baghdad, friends wondered if this was less an Islamist insurgency, and more an uprising.

Many people in Mosul and Tikrit hate the government troops and view them as an occupying force, rather than a national army, in part due to their heavy-handedness. Likewise, many of the soldiers who fled Isis advances decided that these cities, in which they were always unwelcome, were not worth dying for.

The various armed insurgent groups might have competing ideologies – on paper, at least, the Ba’athists are anathema to the Islamists and vice versa – but they have found a common enemy in the central government. In the coming months, the ties between these insurgent groups will inevitably unravel, and when fighting breaks out it will be just as bloody as the infighting between various rebel groups in neighbouring Syria. We could see fighting between Sunni groups even as both fight the Shia-led Iraqi government.

In the face of such a brutal and unconventional enemy, the government of Iraq has relied on Iranian-backed Shia militia groups to act as semi-official paramilitary forces. These ideologically driven militias assist, and sometimes even spearhead, Iraqi army counter-terrorism operations. Shia militias were deployed in force on the outskirts of Baghdad on 11 June (they had already been active there). Iran’s shadowy general Qassem Soleimani, head of the elite Quds Force, visited Baghdad the same day, boosting the morale of the Shia militia fighters and doing the rounds with various Shia politicians – Iraq held its first general elections since the withdrawal of US forces on 30 April and the various blocs are still negotiating the formation of the next government.

Despite the media’s focus on the sectarian dimension of Iraq’s current crisis, the reality is more complex. During Friday prayers on 13 June, Iraq’s leading Shia religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, declared through his official representative that Iraqis should join the armed forces to fight terrorism. This was widely portrayed as a call to arms for Shias to fight Sunnis, but that isn’t quite true.

I met with Ayatollah Sistani at his office on 14 June. The narrow alleyway off one of Najaf’s oldest streets leading to his office was packed with people lining up to visit him, as well as dozens of private security guards. He told me that his fatwa to fight Isis was not just about protecting Shias or Shia religious sites. It was about defending a nation and its people. “Isis are a threat to Sunnis, too,” he said. The same day, the ayatollah issued a statement on his website urging Iraqis to exercise self-restraint and to refrain from armed activity outside the state’s legal framework – a not-so-subtle reference to militias.

It is worth noting that some Sunni fighters are also joining the resistance against Isis. Anti-Isis Sunni tribal forces are fighting alongside the Iraqi army in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Iraq’s large western province of Anbar, as well as other provinces to the east and north of Baghdad.

On 15 June videos surfaced, documenting the massacre of dozens of Iraqi soldiers by jihadists in Tikrit. A New York Times employee said that Sunni soldiers were given civilian clothes and sent home, while Shia soldiers were summarily executed by Isis. Yet the head of the Sunni tribal fighters in Samarra who are fighting Isis says that Sunnis were also killed in the atrocity. We may never know the truth.

Iraq may be suffering from sectarian polarisation, but that is not the only force driving this conflict. What happens next will largely depend on the conduct of the Shia militias, and on whether Isis is able to pull off another spectacular attack that will force ordinary people – not the organised militias – to pick up their weapons and join the fight.

Hayder al-Khoei is an associate fellow at Chatham House

Tags:Iraq