The Bloody Rise of Isis in Iraq


Events in Iraq are not always what they seem: take two occurrences over the past year illustrating the difference between appearance and the reality in Iraq. The first event took place outside Fallujah after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), formerly known as al-Qa’ida in Iraq, aided by tribal militias, took over the city in January. This was a body blow to the Iraqi government since Fallujah is only 40 miles west of Baghdad and was famously stormed by US Marines in a bloody battle in 2004.

But soon after Isis had retaken it three months ago, a reassuring video was circulated on Twitter and Facebook by government supporters. It had some narrative in Iraqi Arabic, was shot from the air and showed insurgents being targeted and eliminated by air-launched missiles. This was morale-raising stuff for the Iraqi government and to those loyal to it, but unfortunately it proved to be a fabrication and after a few hours someone noticed that the video had been shot in Afghanistan and it is of American drones or helicopters firing missiles at Taliban fighters. It is doubtful if Iraqi airpower is capable of carrying out such attacks.

But such deceptions are not all on the government side. In December 2012 the arrest of the bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Finance Minister, Rafi al-Issawi, by the government led to widespread but peaceful protests in Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq, Sunni Arabs making up about a fifth of Iraq’s 33 million population. At first, the demonstrations were well-attended, with protesters demanding an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community. But soon they realised that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was offering only cosmetic changes and many stopped attending the weekly demonstrations.

In the Sunni city of Tikrit, capital of Salah Ad-Din province, 10,000 people had come to rallies at first, but then the number sank to 1,000. A local observer says: “It was decided that all mosques should be shut on Fridays except for one, forcing all the faithful to go to the same mosque for Friday prayers. Cameras eagerly filmed and photographed the crowd to make it look like they were all protesters and would beam the images back to the Gulf, where their paymasters were fooled (or maybe they weren’t) into thinking that the protests were still attracting large numbers.” The eyewitness in Tikrit cynically suggests that the money supposedly spent on feeding and transporting non-existent demonstrators was pocketed by protest leaders.

The two stories illustrate an important political truth about contemporary Iraq. Neither the government nor any of the constitutional political movements are as strong as they pretend. Power is divided and these divisions have helped al-Qa’ida in Iraq to re-emerge far stronger and more speedily than anybody expected. Its jihadist militants are still in Fallujah where they reportedly have 300 to 500 men armed with high-powered sniper rifles on its outskirts. The political winds are still blowing in their favour and peaceful protests are languishing.

“Belittled, demonised and increasingly subject to a central government crackdown, the popular movement is slowly mutating into an armed struggle,” reports the International Crisis Group. “Many Sunni Arabs have concluded that their only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms.”

The government might have got away with its confrontational approach before 2011, after which the Arab Spring took the form in Syria of a revolt by the Sunni majority. With the Syrian rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and  the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf and Turkey, the sectarian balance of power in the region is changing.

Previously, the Iraqi Sunni had been resentful but largely resigned to the Shia-Kurdish domination of Iraq established since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. They were fearful of a renewed onslaught by Shia militias and Shia-controlled security forces which had driven Sunni out of much of Baghdad in the sectarian civil war of 2006-7.

A US embassy cable in September 2007 said: “More than half of all Baghdad neighbourhoods now contain a clear Shia majority. Sunnis have largely fled to outlying areas or have been concentrated into small enclaves surrounded by Shia neighbourhoods.” To a great extent, this remains true to this day.

Many Iraqi Sunni felt they had no alternative but to revert to armed struggle and they were encouraged by two regional developments: the Sunni-Shia conflict is intensifying as is the hot and cold war between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies backed by the US, in confrontation with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon, who in turn are backed by Russia.

Iraq has long suspected the hidden hand of Wahhabism, the variant of Islam espoused by Saudi Arabia, as being behind many of its troubles. But it was only this month that Mr Maliki, in an interview with France 24 television, put the blame squarely on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, saying that “these two countries are primarily responsible for the sectarian, terrorist and security crisis in Iraq”.

He added that allegations that he was marginalising Sunnis was broadcast by “sectarians with ties to foreign agendas, with Saudi and Qatari incitement”. His accusations were angrier and more direct than before, alleging that Riyadh and Doha are providing support for the militants, including “buying weapons for the benefit of these terrorist organisations”.

How much truth is there in Mr Maliki’s accusations?  A proportion of aid from the Gulf destined for the armed opposition in Syria undoubtedly goes to Iraq. Turkey allows weapons and jihadist volunteers, many of them potential suicide bombers, to cross its 500 mile-long border into Syria and inevitably some of the guns, fighters and bombers will go to Iraq. This is hardly surprising given that Isis operates in both countries as if they were one. Since mid-2012, violence has increased sharply, with 9,571 Iraqi civilians killed in 2013 and 2,006 in the first two months of this year, according to Iraq Body Count. A senior US administration official, speaking last August and quoted by Jessica D Lewis of the Institute for the Study of War, said: “In the [past] two years, we’ve had an average of about five to 10 suicide bombers a month, in 2011 and 2012… We’ve seen over the [past] 90 days the suicide bomber numbers approach about 30 a month, and we still suspect that most of them are coming in from Syria.”

A blind spot for the US and the Western powers has been their failure to see that by supporting the armed uprising in Syria, they would inevitably destabilise Iraq and provoke a new round of its sectarian civil war. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq, as it was then known, was at its lowest ebb in 2010. It had been vigorously pursued by the Americans, was under attack from the Sahwa or “Awakening” groups of anti-al-Qa’ida fighters, mostly drawn from the Sunni tribes. It had lost many of its veterans, who were dead or in prison, and survivors were unpopular among ordinary Sunnis because of their general bloodthirstiness, killing even minor government employees who might be Sunni. Above all, they had failed and up to 2012 many Sunnis were hopeful of extracting at least some concessions from the government without going back to war.

The spectacular resurgence of al-Qa’ida in Iraq came through a well-planned campaign, an important element of which was systematic attacks on the prisons. Known as the “Breaking the Walls” campaign, it involved eight separate attacks to free prisoners, culminating in a successful assault on Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons in July 2013 in which at least 500 captives, many of them experienced fighters, escaped. The attackers poured 100 mortar bombs into the jails and used suicide bombers to clear the way as inmates rioted and started fires to confuse the guards.

There were escalating attacks on Iraqi security forces by Isis all over Iraq last year. An assault by government forces on a peace camp at Hawijah, south-west of Kirkuk, on 23 April killed 50 people and injured 110, alienating many Sunni, including powerful tribes. Ill-planned government counter-offensives, which often mean detaining and mistreating all Sunni men of military age, are counter-effective. Sporadic shelling of Fallujah and Ramadi by government forces in Anbar forced some 500,000 people out of 1.6 million in the province to flee to safer places where they often live rough or whole families are crammed into a single room.

All along the upper Euphrates river, food is scarce and expensive and many schools have closed. The most important Sunni religious leader in Anbar, Abdul Malak al-Saadi, who had previously counselled moderation, says the April parliamentary elections are illegitimate. Election posters are torn down a soon as they are put up.

There is some uncertainty about the degree of control Isis has over Sunni areas, depending on whether or not it wants to advertise its presence. Its grip over Iraq’s third-largest city, Mosul, is probably more important than its position in Fallujah but gets little publicity because of an assassination campaign against local media appears to be aimed at concealing this: five journalists have been killed since October and 40 have fled to Kurdistan and Turkey.

Mukhtars, the most important of the government’s representatives, who are also community leaders, are being killed off, forced to flee or to co-operate with Isis. Minorities  such as the Yazidis and Christians are being targeted to drive them out of Mosul. Isis has enough authority to levy taxes on everybody from people selling food on the street to construction and mobile-phone companies.

The surge in Isis’s control in Sunni Iraq has happened at speed over the past year, but there is no sign of an effective government counter-attack. The slaughter of Shia civilians continues, with a suicide bomber in a minivan packed with explosives killing 45 and wounding 157 people at the security checkpoint at the entrance to the largely Shia town of Hilla, south-west of Baghdad, on 8 March. Government security is incapable of finding and eliminating the hideouts where these devastating vehicle-born bombs are rigged.

Speaking early last year, Dr Mahmoud Othman, the veteran MP, said that “about half the country is not really controlled by the government”. Asked why Iraq’s 900,000-strong armed forces are so ineffective against Isis, another politician, who did not want to be named, said: “This is the harvest of total corruption. People pay money to get into the army [so they are paid] – but they are investors not soldiers.”

This may be a little harsh, but there is no doubt that Isis is stronger than ever before, controls much of Sunni Iraq and can carry out its murderous operations anywhere in the rest of the country.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of  Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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