A jihadi blitzkrieg has seized most of Iraq’s Sunni-majority towns in the last week, accompanied by the predictable horrors: mass executions of POWs by ISIS, massacres of Shi’ite civilians, bomb attacks. But in Mosul and elsewhere, they have found unlikely allies in the local population, writes Feurat Alani in Orient XXI: the officer corps of the Saddam-era army, foolishly disbanded by the American occupiers, and officials of the Baathist regime.
After the fall of Fallujah and Ramadi, it is now the turn of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, along with a dozen or so smaller towns, to fall into the hands of armed groups.
Iraq’s ongoing crisis-political, sectarian, and now territorial, is intensifying. The prime minister’s seat is wobbling, and he has called on parliament to declare a nationwide state of emergency.
On the outskirts of Iraq’s second largest city, on the road toward the Kurdistan region’s capitol of Irbil, the last army vehicles are departing under a shower of stones. The area’s inhabitants are enraged not at the collapse of the security forces but “at all of those years of humiliation at roadside checkpoints by the soldiers of our own country,” says Abu Hamza, a resident on the phone from Mosul.
On one hand, the humanitarian disaster: hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing the city amid feared violence.On the other, the arrival of the thuwwar (‘revolutionaries’), taken for liberators by some.
Already, the media narrative is being spun, telling of a city that has been captured and subjugated, taken hostage by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL or ISIS, depending on transliteration: DAESH in Arabic]. In part, this is true.
But once again, as was the case in Fallujah last year, the reality is more complex. The situation in Mosul differs from Fallujah, due to Mosul’s strategic location. But like Fallujah, the city of Mosul was in the past an inexhaustible source of high-ranking military officers and senior officials for Saddam Hussein’s Baath party.
The city is also situated in a very oil-rich region, near the city of Kirkuk, site of the country’s second most important oil reserves. Mosul is geographically close to Syria and Turkey as well. For all of these reasons, it was a vital command center for the Baghdad government under the previous regime.
Today more than ever, it is a strategic city for anyone who seeks to weaken the country’s central government: it straddles the crossroads between the Islamist-ruled portion of Syria, and a Kurdistan that is increasingly distant with the capital, and a Turkey that is on high alert. It is likewise a perfect laboratory for whoever has ambitions to seize control of Baghdad.
As far back as 2004, the American general David Petraeus was trying out what he called his ‘war for the hearts and minds’ in Mosul. A strategy which ended up being more successful with the media that on the ground, but it nonetheless earned him a reputation as an expert in counterinsurgency among the Americans. The general certainly was able to break up the cycle of violence that had been launched by the Bush administration; he chose dialogue over the use of force, saying that “a school notebook is more4 effective than a gun.”A local police department was installed. But even as Petraeus was packing to leave Iraq a few months later, lauded as a hero by the White House, that very same local police department was defecting to the ranks of the insurgents.
If the recent seizure of Fallujah had been a powerful and symbolic message by the thuwwar, it was above all a test for the Iraqi army under Nuri al-Maliki’s direction. The Iraqi prime minister, convinced at the beginning that he would win this battle of Fallujah, used a dismissive tone, calling them “Al-Qaeda terrorists.”
A few weeks later, though, he changed his tune, beginning negotiations with tribal members even as he bombarded the city with barrel bombs. This situation permitted him to gain the largest share of votes in the last parliamentary elections and tighten his hold on the security apparatuses of the state. But for the thuwwar, the message was clear: the Baghdad regime would not be taking on the Fallujah insurgents on the ground.
With this in mind, the conquest of Mosul takes on a different meaning.
Al-Maliki’s description of the insurrection as an amalgamation of ‘members of al-Qaeda and Baathists’ has become a reality. Groups of insurgents, formerly rivals with opposing ideologies, are now cooperating with one another in Mosul and across Ninevah province. Contrary to what is commonly believe, ISIS is not doing this alone.
Abu Imad, a fighter who is a member of a large tribe with branches in Mosul and Tikrit, was present when the Iraqi army fled the country’s second-largest city. He says the conquest of Mosul was carried out with members of the old Iraqi army. It was they who advised the seizure of the city’s airport, the local television office, and the provincial seat of government. “Mosul has a lot in common with Baghdad,” he says. “It is a large city where all of the religious sects live together. The only difference with Baghdad is that it has a heavy population of former regime officials. In Maliki’s eyes, it distills all of the ghosts and fear of the old regime. He knows it; this is only the beginning, the seizure of the entire Ninevah region will set off the domino effect that will pull down Baghdad.”
Members of tribes, and former insurgent groups like the Islamic Army in Iraq, as well as the Naqshabandi Sufi order headed by Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri-former vice president of the Iraqi Revolutioanry Command Council, and Saddam Hussien’s right-hand man-are all said to be collaborating with ISIS. According to numerous Mosul residents, the black banners of ISIS were raised over all of the local police commissariats and the posts abandoned by the Iraqi army, but at the city’s entrance, portraits of Saddam Hussein and Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri wave over Mosul. This is an open alliance. ISIS pickup trucks are circulating through Mosul calling on old-regime functionaries to take up their old posts. A new ‘governor’ has even been named: Azhar al-Obeidi, a former general in the Iraqi army. And a military parade to show off an arsenal: tanks, armored vehicles, and three helicopters, was organized on June 12 by ISIS and the officers of the old Iraqi army. According to one military expert in Mosul, the display could not have taken place without the expertise of the former Iraqi military officers just recruited by ISIS.
In the face of the current Iraqi army’s collapse amid mass desertions, the recently reelected prime minister appealed to the Iraqi people to volunteer to combat the insurgents, promising them arms to ‘save Iraq.’ An admission of weakness, and one which opens the doors to the creation of new militias. But behind the scenes, the prime minister is in talks with the Kurdish regional government to launch a counteroffensive with the help of the Kurdish Peshmerga army. On the table in these negotiations: a new division of profits from oil drilling, long a sore spot between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad.
For its part, the White House says that “The United States will stand with Iraqi leaders across the political spectrum as they forge the national unity necessary to succeed in the fight against ISIS.” An anonymous American official told AFP that the Obama administration is considering various option to support Baghdad, eventually including drone strikes. But there will be no American troops sent to Iraq, state Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Feurat Alani Translated from French by International Boulevard
18 Jun 2014