Iraq roared back into the headlines this week with news that a terrorist group successfully captured the second-largest city in the country. Since then, the militants allied with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — took another two major cities, Tikrit and Kirkuk, and managed to continue its hold on Fallujah. As the militants attempt to continue their momentum, here’s a look at the most worrying elements of the current crisis:
1. The current fighting will only strengthen sectarianism among Iraqis.
The post-Sadaam government in Iraq has been predicated on one main idea: a balance between Iraq’s Shiite majority and the minority Sunni and Kurds could be maintained and keep the country together. Sunni insurgents opposed to this concept have been plaguing the government since the days of the invasion and ISIS sustained itself in the years since through terrorizing Shiite communities. With their latest push to seize territory, however, ISIS has reopened old wounds. Kurdish forces on Wednesday took control of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk from ISIS, as peshmerga fighters, the security forces of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north, swept into bases the Iraqi army had previously vacated.”The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga,” said spokesperson Jabbar Yawar. “No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now.”
But the freeing of the city from ISIS presents problems of its own. Kirkuk is an oil-producing city, and a large one at that, one whose fate has been hotly contested between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Just yesterday, the Kurdish government told investors that Baghdad owes Kurdistan $6 billion for the last six months of its share in the Iraqi budget. The fate of Kirkuk after any eventually defeat of ISIS would help solve some of the money woes of the KRG, upping the chance for further strife between the Kurds and central government.
On top of that, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said on Wednesday that he was ready “to form peace units to defend the holy places” of both Muslims and Christians. In the years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, al-Sadr’s Madhi Army militia attacked coaltion forces and drove up tensions between the Shiite and Sunni communities. Whether or not al-Sadr forms his proposed “peace units,” it seems that Shiites are already calling up forces, which will likely concern the Sunni population. “Shiite militia leaders said that at least four brigades, each with 2,500 to 3,000 fighters, had been hastily assembled and equipped in recent weeks by the Shiite political parties to protect Baghdad and the political process in Iraq,” the New York Times reported. “They identified the outfits as the Kataibe Brigade, the Assaib Brigade, the Imam al-Sadr Brigade and the armed wing of the Badr Organization.”
2. The Iraqi Army we spent billions of dollars developing is falling down on the job and the U.S. may soon be pressured to step in.
The United States spent more that $20 billion in its efforts to train and equip the Iraqi security forces over the last decade. When confronted with ISIS’ offensive, however, military leaders instructed their troops to flee. In Fallujah, the Army has proved unable to dislodge ISIS from their strongholds, despite having superior numbers and access to aircraft. And on Thursday, ISIS posted a video on YouTube allegedly showing thousands of Iraqi soldiers captured in ISIS’ takeover of Tikrit. After the fall of Mosul on Tuesday, the government appealed to Iraqis to join in the fight against ISIS, leading to photos of crowds of men outside of recruitment centers in Baghdad. But given the lack of success the soldiers already serving have demonstrated, the new recruits’ effect is uncertain. Iraq’s parliament is also currently refusing to grant emergency powers to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, concerned that he will abuse them or not return them after the crisis has ended.
Though the last American soldier left Iraq on Dec. 18, 2011, Iraq is now asking for the U.S. to renew military action within its borders. According to the New York Times, al-Maliki “secretly asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against extremist staging areas.” Al-Maliki raised his request, the Times reports, with both Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of U.S. Central Command, and Vice President Joe Biden last month. In these conversations, al-Maliki “indicated he was prepared to allow the United States to carry out strikes using warplanes or drones.”
The U.S. has so far rebuffed these requests for direct intervention. “Ultimately, this is for the Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi government to deal with,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John F. Kirby said Tuesday. But President Obama on Thursday said, “I don’t rule out anything because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foot hold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter.” White House officials have since denied any chance of ground troops being used in Iraq, but drone strikes remain a possibility.
Amazingly enough, should the U.S. choose to intervene militarily, it would place America as an ally of Iran in fighting ISIS. The Wall Street Journal on Thursday reported that Tehran has deployed two battalions of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to take on ISIS. “Combined Iraqi-Iranian forces had retaken control across 85% of Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein, according to Iraqi and Iranian security sources,” the Journal said, adding that they were also “helping guard the capital Baghdad and the two cities of Najaf and Karbala.”
Upping the chance that the U.S. gets directly involved again, dozens of Turkish citizens are currently being held after ISIS militants stormed a consulate in Mosul. Turkey has promised to retaliate if any are hurt and as Turkey is a fellow member of NATO, should it call on the U.S. for support in its defense, the U.S. is bound to respond in some way.
3. No one has any idea what is going to happen next.
For months in its Iraqi exploits, the rebranded ISIS has stuck to the script of its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, setting off car bombs and other improvised explosive devices in Shiite-populated areas. This was extremely effective and highly lethal, leading to last year being the most violent year since the end of the U.S. war ended.
In January, however, something shifted. They captured and managed to hold Fallujah, despite heavy fire from the Iraqi Army. They’ve freed scores of their supporters from Iraqi prisions over teh last year. They stolen millions of dollars from Mosul’s banks on Tuesday. And they’ve begun recruiting throughout the cities they’ve captured, playing off of Sunni dissatisfaction with the rule of al-Maliki. And they still continue to fight on in neighboring Syria.
Despite setbacks in Tikrit and Kirkuk, ISIS still remains unchallenged in Mosul and continues to push south towards Baghdad. The odds of ISIS fighters actually capturing the capital remain slim. However, given that few would have predicted the stunning speed at which the militants have taken territory in the past days, it seems unwise to rule out any possibility. With the resources that are now in the possession of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the dream of creating a state carved out of Iraq and Syria could well be in the process of coming to fruition. Whether or not they actually manage to complete that plan depends on whether or not the Iraqi government pulls together for long enough to actually inspire their troops to fight back, whether the United States decides to intervene, and whether Iranian and Kurdish forces can turn the tide alone. It’s a lot of “whether”s for an extremely volatile situation.