Insurgents Continue Advance Toward Baghdad
The Iraqi insurgents that scored a major victory earlier this week in Mosul are moving closer to the Iraqi capital:
BAGHDAD — Sunni insurgents pressing toward Baghdad were reported on Friday to have fanned out to the east, taking two towns near Iraq’s border with Iran, further splintering the country into hostile fiefs and raising the stakes in a perilous regional crisis.
The capture of the towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla came a day after Kurdish forces further north seized on the accelerating rout of government troops to take over the oil city of Kirkuk, long contested between Iraqi Kurds and the country’s Arab leaders in Baghdad.
The Kurds control a semiautonomous region and have long eyed independence. The Kurdish moves on Thursday presented Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki with a twin challenge from Kurds and from Sunni militants to restore Iraq’s cohesion and his government’s authority in face of the apparent disintegration of the American-armed Iraqi Army and the worst security crisis since the American withdrawal in 2011.
Kurdish troops had also moved into Jalawla to secure their political party offices before the Sunni militants aligned with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took over the town, news reports said, but there were no immediate reports of casualties. The town is in ethnically mixed Diyala Province — a tinderbox region bordering Iran that controls one approach to Baghdad through the town of Baquba, 20 miles north of the capital.
Other accounts said the militants, riding in pickups mounted with machine guns, had entered the two towns late on Thursday, encountering no resistance from government troops, who abandoned their posts as they had done elsewhere during the insurgents’ lightning campaign, which began on Tuesday with the capture of Mosul.
Since then, the militants seem to have been emboldened by the capture of American-supplied military equipment left behind by government forces as they withdrew.
The insurgents have pledged to march on Baghdad, and even to strike at Shiite holy cities further south. The sprawling Iraqi capital, with its large population of Shiites, is likely to prove a more daunting operation than the militants’ advance across a Sunni heartland with little sympathy for the central government.
For its part, Mr. Maliki’s administration seems bewildered by the insurgent advance. It was unable even to muster sufficient numbers in Parliament to vote on the prime minister’s call for a state of emergency that would provide him with the authority to order curfews, restrict movements and censor news reporting.
On Friday, however, an spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying: “We put in place a new plan to protect Baghdad.”
“The plan consists of intensifying the deployment of forces, and increasing intelligence efforts and the use of technology such as observation balloons and cameras and other equipment,” General Maan said.
The insurgency has sent hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing, particularly from Mosul.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, many of the people fleeing Mosul say that they prefer the militants to the government in Baghdad:
ERBIL, Iraq — After Islamic extremists swarmed his city this week, Saad Hussein fled here with his wife and six children. But after one night, he was on his way back home to Mosul, hearing that things were quiet there.
“What can we do?” said Mr. Hussein, at a checkpoint on the road from Erbil to Mosul. “You have to depend on your God.”
Another man stood nearby, his two small sons tugging at his belt. He had left Mosul and was waiting to enter Erbil, about 50 miles to the east. “We don’t know what will happen in the future,” said the man, Ahmed Ali, 31. “The government is not there. It’s empty.”
As many as 500,000 Iraqis fled Mosul this week after the city was besieged by the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, many of them Sunnis who seemed less fearful of the beheadings and summary justice that the group is known for than of their own government and the barrage it might unleash in an effort to take the city back.
That many Sunnis would prefer to take their chances under a militant group so violent it was thrown out of Al Qaeda sharply illustrates how difficult it will be for the Iraqi government to reassert control. Any aggressive effort by Baghdad to retake the city could reinforce the Iraqi Army’s reputation as an occupying force, rather than a guarantor of security.
Many of those who fled said they were terrified of possible airstrikes and indiscriminate shelling that they have seen, in news reports, against insurgents in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, which has been out of government control for more than six months. Some, saying a rumor had been swirling through the local population, even worried that the Americans would be back to bomb their city. And most said the militants in Mosul had not terrorized the population and were keeping a low profile, with a small number of men in black masks staffing checkpoints.
“We are afraid it will be the same situation as in Falluja and Ramadi,” said a municipal worker who gave his name only as Abu Mohammed, for fear of losing his job. He was referring to the two cities in Anbar that have borne the brunt of government airstrikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians.
A woman nearby, asked if the militants were harming people, waved her hands in the air and said: “No, no, no. On the contrary, they are welcoming the people.”
Comments like these represent a stark repudiation at the grass-roots level of the governing style of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, and his policies that over the years have alienated the Sunni population.
“Maliki wants to end the Sunnis,” said Ahmed Hussain, a police officer in Mosul who abandoned his post after seeing the army leave. “Can you tell me how many Shiites are arrested on terror charges? Almost all those in prison are Sunnis. He is targeting us. I want to go back to Mosul, but we are afraid we’ll see another Falluja.”
Each security sweep that rounds up innocent Sunni men in the name of fighting terrorism has deepened resentment in the Sunni population toward the government, especially the Shiite-dominated army.
“They are not the Iraqi Army; they are the militia of Maliki,” said Abu Mohammed, 49. He also complained about corruption, which is endemic in the army and the police.
Reactions like this, as well as the numerous reports of the Iraqi Army essentially giving up the fight in the face of the advancing ISIS forces seems to lay out in the open the real problem that Iraq is facing. From the very beginning when the United States took upon itself the task of creating a post-Saddam united Iraq, the open question always was whether such an endeavor was even possible. Iraq itself, after all, was largely a fiction created by the British Foreign Office out of a portion of the mandate granted to the United Kingdom by the League of Nations after World War I when the Ottoman Empire’s territory was carved up by the victors. For most of its history, the various ethnic groups that make up Iraq were held together by a strongman of one form or another, the last of them being, of course, Saddam Hussein. At no point before 2003, though, was Iraq a democracy in any sense of the word, and the ethnic tensions that did exist were largely suppressed.
That was no longer the case after 2003, though. With Saddam gone and the Kurds and Shiites now suddenly free in any era when nationalism is a much stronger force than it had been in Iraq in the past, it was always an open question whether or not the three major ethnic groups could exist together peacefully. Some Americans, including our current Vice-President, even went so far as to assert that we should encourage the idea of Iraq being broken up into three separate nations that each of the major ethnic groups would control on their own. While that idea had its own obvious downsides, such as the fact that there would no longer be a single strategic counterbalance to Iran at the gateway to the Arabian Peninsula, it did recognize the fact that Iraqi democracy would not succeed if the various ethnic, religious, and political factions in the country didn’t want it to exist.
As the accounts quoted above, as well as numerous other reports that have come out over the years, indicate clearly is that the Sunni population in Iraqi clearly doesn’t have any trust in the government of Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim who has surrounded himself with members of his own group to the exclusion of Sunnis and has, as noted above, engaged in a police campaigns against the Sunni population. Whether those allegations are true or not, and even regardless of whether or not the government in Baghdad is justified in cracking down on Sunni militants, the important point is that there no longer seems to be any sense of national unity among the Sunnis (and, of course, the Kurds have always longed for a state of their own even before the 2003 invasion.) If that’s an accurate reflection of the political situation in Iraq, then it isn’t clear to me how a unified and democratic Iraq can continue exist. Either it falls apart in some way or another, or a strongman takes control and imposes order from above. Neither of those are very palatable outcomes, obviously, but if Iraqi people don’t want to live together in a democratic state then nobody can force them to do so.