A terrorist group that al Qaeda has deemed too radical and unpredictable now controls the second largest city in Iraq as of Tuesday, commanding the airport, government headquarters, and prisons, in a dramatic turn of events that Iraqi officials are calling a threat to the entire region.
Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — seized control of Mosul, the capital of northern Iraq, after six days of heavy fighting against Iraqi security forces. Iraq’s speaker of parliament, Osama Nujaifi, told reporters in a televised news conference that the militants have taken over the entirety of the city, along with several villages and a military air base south of Mosul. This means, according to reports, ISIS now has control of some military aircraft and helicopters.
“What happened is a disaster by any standard,” Nujafi said. “The presence of these terrorist groups in this vast province … threatens not just the security and the unity of Iraq, but the whole Middle East.” Nujafi also scorned the performance of Iraq’s military during the ISIS assault. “When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it an easy prey for the terrorists,” he said. Photos of the aftermath of the takeover show Iraqi uniforms strewn on the road out of Mosul, abandoned as they fled.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in a nationally televised press conference urged parliament to come together immediately and declare a state of emergency. Should two-thirds of the body approve such a measure, under Iraq’s constitution, al-Maliki will be granted “the necessary powers that enable him to manage the affairs of the country within the period of the state of emergency and war” for the next thirty days. “Iraq is undergoing a difficult stage,” al-Maliki said during the press conference, acknowledging that militants had taken control of “vital areas in Mosul,” and saying the public and government must unite “to confront this vicious attack, which will spare no Iraqi.”
Residents told the Associated Press that gunmen “overran police stations and several prisons, setting free detainees who were seen running in the streets in their yellow-jumpsuits.” ISIS fighters were previously bolstered in such jail breaks, including a massive attack last year on the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. In that assault, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 detainees are said to have escaped, adding the manpower necessary to carry out the large-scale attacks the group has been undertaking in Iraq since.
The Abu Ghraib raid inspired enough confidence in ISIS’ leaders that in the following months the group managed to take control of the central Iraqi city of Fallujah, home to some of the most intense fighting during the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The Iraqi Army has for months now struggled to dislodge the group from their strongholds in the city, but to no avail. In March, ISIS closed the gates of a dam on the Euphrates to flood the area, impeding Iraqi security forces’ attempts to retake the town and forcing them to use imprecise long-range artillery. That shelling, along with the alleged use of barrel bombs — unguided empty oil barrels filled with explosives and shrapnel and dropped from airports — in civilian areas has in itself killed scores even as thousands flee the area.
ISIS hasn’t abandoned its traditional tactics in its new attempts to control and hold territory. Car bombs in Iraq continue to detonate with alarming frequency, including a wave that exploded across Baghdad on Saturday. More than 60 people were killed in those bombings, which ISIS took credit for, in mainly Shiite districts. The very next day, another car bombing killed another 40 people. As of the end of May, more than 4,000 people had already been killed in Iraq in this year alone. This puts 2014 on pace to shatter last year’s record as the deadliest year in Iraq since the end of the U.S. war.
Mosul is on the border with Syria, including area that the United Nations was considering using to channel aid to the thousands displaced during that country’s civil war, and making it strategically important to the militants now in control. ISIS originally formed out of an alliance between Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and jihadist groups in Syria two years ago as the Syrian civil war was entering its current, deadly phase. Though the group originally tried to mask its brutality through civilian outreach such as a day filled with ice-cream and tug of war competitions, that facade has since fallen away. Among the tactics the group reportedly uses for intimidation purposes within Syria: crucifixion.
The group has also spent the last year fighting against not just the Syrian government, but also fellow jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra. The latter is core al Qaeda’s preferred group in Syria and the fight between the two has led al Qaeda leadership to officially disavow the group. ISIS “is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,” al-Qaeda’s General Command said in February. The group is also feuding with Iran-backed terrorist group Hezbollah — the latter of whom is Shiite, while ISIS is Sunni — having detonated car bombs in Lebanon targeting neighborhoods where Hezbollah is strong.
Though al-Maliki has appealed for international help in combating the insurgents, it’s uncertain what can be done considering the reluctance of a demoralized Iraqi Army to engage against ISIS. The United States in December sent Hellfire missiles and surveillance drones in support of Iraq’s security forces, but since then Congress has opted to hold back attack helicopters and other weaponry due to a belief that al-Maliki would use them against domestic political enemies rather that terrorist groups. In addition, “ISIS fighters have already been seen riding round in U.S.-supplied Humvees in other areas they control, and much of the weaponry captured in this latest battle is likely to be American,” the Washington Post reports.
Police in Kirkuk, to the southeast of Nineveh province where Mosul is located, reported on Tuesday that jihadists had managed to seize several areas in the province. “The militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) overran the Hawijah, Zab, Riyadh and Abbasi areas west of the city of Kirkuk, and Rashad and Yankaja to its south,” AFP reported Iraqi Col. Ahmed Taha as saying. Meanwhile, photos of U.S. made Humvees being sent to aid ISIS members in Syria have begun to surface online: