Al-Baghdadi’s ISIL redraws Mideast map

By Ameen Izzadeen
Iraq is in the midst of mayhem and bloodshed. It has been so for the past few months though in April the Nouri al-Maliki government managed to hold general elections.
With the attention of the world’s big powers and the western media being focused largely on the wars in Syria and Libya and the elections in Egypt, Iraq escaped their radar and hardly made the news, though more than 4,000 people have been killed in violence so far this year. In May alone, more than 800 Iraqis were killed in bomb blasts that have become a regular feature. In this week’s battles, as the Sunni rebel fighters belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (meaning Syria) captured Iraq’s second largest city and key oil centre, Mosul, and Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein, hundreds were killed and more than 500,000 fled their homes in what is seen as a never-ending humanitarian crisis, a legacy of the US war for Iraq’s oil.
As the sectarian violence — another legacy of the US invasion — continued after the withdrawal of US combat troops in December 2011, the Maliki government believed that its military could restore normalcy. But when he found Iraq’s Shiite-dominated military was unable to bring the situation under control, he pleaded with the United States in December last year to supply advanced weapons such as Hellfire missiles to fight the Sunni rebels. The missiles did arrive as in terms of a defence agreement between Iraq and the United States, Washington is required to help Iraq if its sovereignty is threatened by internal or external forces. But the violence did not end.
This week, world powers were in for a rude awakening when ISIL fighters in surprise attacks captured the two key cities and prepared to advance towards Baghdad. They have also been controlling Fallujah and parts of Ramadi for the past six months or so. Carrying black flags which proclaim in white letters that there is no god but Allah, ISIL members scored lightning military victories which now threaten to trigger a major war with regional powers such as Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and probably the US being drawn in.
The US State Department said on Wednesday that Washington was deeply concerned about the events and added that the situation posed a threat to the entire region.
The latest fighting in Iraq comes amidst political chaos with Prime Minister al-Maliki struggling to form a government after the April elections produced no clear victor. Accused of being sectarian, his Shiite-dominant government is partially responsible for the current state of affairs as it took little or no measures to effectively address the grievances of the country’s Sunni minority.
Instead of taking corrective measures, al-Maliki has invited international support to defeat the ISIL, a jihadist group which derives its strength from Iraq’s Sunnis. A New York Times report said yesterday that al-Maliki had secretly asked the Obama administration to consider carrying out airstrikes against ISIL positions. But the report also said Iraq’s appeals for a military response had so far been rebuffed by the White House because President Barack Obama did not want to open a new chapter in Iraq after declaring famously that the war in Iraq was over.
The developing crisis in Iraq should not be viewed in isolation. It is linked to the crisis in Syria where the US together with its regional allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, is seeking to topple the Bashar al-Assad regime. The US in recent weeks has indicated it may send sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons such as shoulder-held missiles to Syrian rebels. But such weapons eventually end up with ISIL which is the most dominant rebel group in Syria.
Analysts say the ISIL was able to defeat the US-trained Iraqi troops, including commandos, in Mosul this week because of the sophisticated weapons that had fallen into its hands during fights in Syria with rival rebel groups such as the US-armed Free Syrian Army. Many of the FSA members have since deserted post or joined ISIL. With the ISIL emerging as the most powerful rebel force in Syria, it is believed that the Saudis have favoured the group over the moderate secular groups which the US seeks to prop up with funds and arms.
The ISIL, which was initially an al-Qaeda franchise, is led by the much feared and elusive Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He insists that the rebels in Syria could defeat the Assad regime only if they unite under the ISIL banner. Many small jihadi groups joined the ISIL. But Jabhat al-Nusra, another al-Qaeda’s franchise, refused. This has led to a clash between the two groups. But the ISIL success in Iraq this week is likely to see many Nusra fighters switching camps.
According to a Time magazine cover story in December, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri who is believed to be in hiding somewhere in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region tried to make peace between ISIL and al-Nusra, but failed. He ordered that ISIL leave Syria and return to Iraq. But al-Baghdadi refused. An angry al-Zawahiri ordered the disbanding of the ISIS. Al-Baghdadi in response told al-Zawahiri: “I have to choose between the rule of God and the rule of al-Zawahiri, and I choose the rule of God.”
Al-Baghdadi, the new face of Islamic radicalism, was born in 1971 in Samara, Iraq. He has a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad. Joining the al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he fought the US troops in Iraq. After al-Zarqawi was killed in 2006, his successor Abu Ayub al-Masri died in 2010 and a subsequent leader died shortly thereafter, al-Baghdadi rose to become the leader of the AQI. Under his leadership, the AQI emerged stronger with a series of success stories, chief among them being the attack on the heavily guarded Abu Ghraib jail where the crème of the AQI fighters had been detained. Al-Baghdadi freed them all and transported them in pickup trucks from the Abu Ghraib prison to Syria. Their arrival in Syria changed the ground situation in favour of the ISIL. Al-Baghdadi claims he controls a force of 100,000 fighters — but western intelligence groups believe it is around 10,000.
Jessica D. Lewis, director of research at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War and author of the recent report on the al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq, says, “al-Baghdadi has military momentum; he has taken terrain in Syria and he has established a governance system. He is the one conducting the war that all the foreign fighters (jihadis) are seeking. He is calling the shots and will be a major player in al-Qaeda going forward.”
Yes, with this week’s capture of Mosul and Tikrit, the ISIL has redrawn the map of West Asia. It has taken control of the Iraq-Syria border where there are neither Iraqi soldiers nor Syrian soldiers. On both sides of the border are ISIL fighters. On the Syrian side, they even control the oil-rich areas.
The ISIL is trying to carve out a Sunni state from Iraq which is 60 per cent Arab Shiites. Its 40 per cent Sunnis are divided almost equally between the remaining Arabs and the Kurds. As ISIL takes control of city after city in the Sunni West, it wins more recruits including former members of the banned Baath party which Saddam Hussein led till his capture in 2003. Also joining ISIL are Sunni groups which were once armed by the US to fight the Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor of the ISIL. These groups feel let down by the Maliki government which they accuse of being sectarian. Latest reports indicate that ISIL fighters are moving towards al-Baghdadi’s hometown, Samara, which houses a famous Shiite shrine. Reports indicate thousands of Shiite fighters from the south are rushing to Samara to defend the shrine which ISIL commanders threaten to destroy if its defenders refuse to lay down their arms.
With rebels eyeing the capture of Baghdad, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies may support the creation of a new Sunni state incorporating parts of Iraq and probably the whole of Syria, a Sunni majority country with a pro-Shiite President, because the emergence of the new state will check the rise of Iran as a regional power whose influence now expands from Teheran to Beirut across Baghdad and Damascus.
The question that now arises is: As ISIL rebels consolidate their positions and advance towards Samara, which is just 120 km north of Baghdad, will the United States intervene on the side of the Maliki government?
Non-intervention by Washington may indicate that it is endorsing a Saudi script for a new Sunni-dominant state. But Washington may come under fire for not taking action to prevent the formation of a jihadist state which will be anti-American and anti-Israel. If a new Sunni state is carved out of Iraq, the Kurds in Iraq’s north may also see it as an opportunity to declare independence, even at the risk of drawing opposition from Turkey which is beset with its own Kurdish separatist question. Reports yesterday said Kurdish paramilitaries known as Peshmerga made use of the chaos in the country to capture the oil-rich northern Iraqi town of Kirkuk, which the Iraqi government has refused to cede to the Kurds. The federal army withdrew without a fight.
On the other hand, if the US helps the Iraqi military to defeat the ISIL, it will only strengthen the Assad regime in Syria and antagonise the Saudis. Meanwhile, Iran says it will not stay neutral if Iraq, a close ally, is threatened. For Iran, the stability of Iraq is imperative for economic gains. Apart from growing bilateral trade, Iran seeks to build a pipeline to the Mediterranean via Iraq and Syria to take its gas to European markets. President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday that Iran, a predominantly Shiite nation, would combat terrorism by Sunni extremists in neighbouring Iraq, while some reports said Iran has dispatched a military unit to Iraq to fight ISIL rebels advancing towards the capital.
The worsening situation in Iraq seems to prove former Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa right. Just before the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, he warned that a US war on Iraq would “open the gates of hell”. Two and a half years after the US has ended its combat operations in Iraq, the gates of hell remain wide open.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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