This week an Al Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, seized the Sunni dominated cities of Mosul, Iraq’a second largest city, and Tirkut, Sadaam Hussein’s ancestral home. The militants are now marching on Baghdad and have been reported to be about 100 miles north of Baghdad and have vowed to take the city to “settle accounts.”
The Islamic State aims to create an Islamic emirate spanning both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. It has been able to push deep into parts of the Iraqi Sunni heartland once controlled by U.S. forces because police and military forces melted away after relatively brief clashes.
Two senior intelligence officials told The Associated Press that an armed group led by al-Douri, the Naqshabandi Army, and other Saddam-era military figures joined the Islamic State in the fight. In Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit that was overrun by militants Wednesday, witnesses said fighters raised posters of Saddam and al-Douri. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
The involvement of Saddam-era figures raises the potential to escalate the militants’ campaign to establish an al-Qaida-like enclave into a wider Sunni uprising. That could only further the momentum toward turning Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic divisions in to a geographical fragmentation.
The Islamic State issued a triumphalist statement declaring that it would start implementing its strict version of Shariah law in Mosul and other regions it had overrun. It said women should stay in their homes for modesty reasons, warned it would cut off the hands of thieves and told residents to attend daily prayers. It told Sunnis in the military and police to abandon their posts and “repent” or else “face only death.”
In the north, Kurdish security forces took over the strategic northern oil city of Kirkuk after government troops fled.
In Kirkuk, truckloads of peshmerga fighters patrolled the streets, but sporadic clashes continued between Kurdish forces and Isis gunmen on the outskirts of the city. A Kurdish minister responsible for regional security forces survived a bomb blast as he drove to the city after visiting peshmerga units in the surrounding region, AFP reported. [..]
About 500,000 people have fled Mosul, home to 2 million, and the surrounding province, many seeking safety in autonomous Kurdistan.
Isis’s spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, said on Thursday that the group’s fighters intended to take the southern cities of Kerbala and Najaf, which hold two of the holiest shrines for Shia Muslims. [..]
Reports from Iraq have painted a confused picture of a rapidly developing situation with fighting reported in a number of key locations on Wednesday night and on Thursday, including on the outskirts of the city of Samarra, where government officials said Isis fighters had been driven back.
According to Army Staff Lieutenant General Sabah al-Fatlawi, quoted by Agence France-Presse, “elite forces” backed by air strikes pushed back a “fierce attack by Isis fighters who then bypassed the city heading towards Baghdad”.
Complicating the picture of the past few days were emerging suggestions that other Sunni insurgent groups, including Ba’ath nationalists, supporters of the executed Saddam, had played a role in the series of stunning setbacks for the Iraqi military.
The sudden collapse of the Iraqi army has raised international concerns about a rapidly widening regional crisis that has implications for Iraq’s powerful neighbours, Iran and Turkey.
This afternoon President Barack Obama said that he is watching this situation closely and is concerned
Speaking in the Oval Office after meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott of Australia, Mr. Obama said: “Iraq’s going to need more help. It’s going to need more help from us, and it’s going to need more help from the international community.”
The president said his national security team was working “around the clock” to determine the most effective aid. The United States, he noted, has given the Iraqi government military equipment and shared intelligence with it. [..]
“I don’t rule out anything,” Mr. Obama said, “because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter.”
The reality: there is very little that Obama can do. This was dumped on his desk when he was elected. The Iraqi government insisted that all American troops leave.
The real shame of it is that the people who created this crisis, George W. Bush and Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney, are war criminals Obama refused to hold accountable. The current crisis lies squarely at their feet and the members of Congress who voted to allow the illegal invasion in 2003.
It is an indictment of the George W. Bush administration, which falsely said it was going into Iraq because of a connection between al-Qaeda and Baghdad. There was none. Ironically, by invading, occupying, weakening and looting Iraq, Bush and Cheney brought al-Qaeda into the country and so weakened it as to allow it actually to take and hold territory in our own time. They put nothing in place of the system they tore down. They destroyed the socialist economy without succeeding in building private firms or commerce. They put in place an electoral system that emphasizes religious and ethnic divisions. They helped provoke a civil war in 2006-2007, and took credit for its subsiding in 2007-2008, attributing it to a troop escalation of 30,000 men (not very plausible). In fact, the Shiite militias won the civil war on the ground, turning Baghdad into a largely Shiite city and expelling many Sunnis to places like Mosul. There are resentments. [..]
I hasten to say that the difficulty Baghdad is having with keeping Mosul is also an indictment of the Saddam Hussein regime (1979-2003), which pioneered the tactic of sectarian rule, basing itself on a Sunni-heavy Baath Party in the center-north and largely neglecting or excluding the Shiite South. Now the Shiites have reversed that strategy, creating a Baghdad-Najaf-Basra power base.
Mosul’s changed circumstances are also an indictment of the irresponsible use to which Sunni fundamentalists in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Oil Gulf are putting their riches. The high petroleum prices, usually over $100 a barrel, of the past few years in a row, have injected trillions of dollars into the Gulf. Some of that money has sloshed into the hands of people who rather admired Usama Bin Laden and who are perfectly willing to fund his clones to take over major cities like Aleppo and Mosul. The vaunted US Treasury Department ability to stop money transfers by people whom Washington does not like has faltered in this case. Is it because Washington is de facto allied with the billionaire Salafis of Kuwait City in Syria, where both want to see the Bashar al-Assad government overthrown and Iran weakened? The descent of the US into deep debt, and the emergence of Gulf states and sovereign wealth funds is a tremendous shift of geopolitical power to Riyadh, Kuwait City and Abu Dhabi, who can now simply buy Egyptian domestic and foreign policy away from Washington. They are also trying to buy a Salafi State of Syria and a Salafi state of northern and western Iraq. [..]
PM Nouri al-Maliki can only get Iraq back by allying with nationalist Sunnis in the north. Otherwise, for him simply brutally to occupy the city with Shiite troops and artillery and aerial bombing will make him look like his neighbor, Bashar al-Assad.