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Insurgents Continue Advance Toward Baghdad

Iraq Map

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.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    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,

    Doug? How hard were you laughing when you wrote this and however were you able to correct the spelling? HILARIOUS!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I strongly suspect that prolonged civil war, which some have drolly referred to as the “best case scenario” is the most likely scenario. Shi’a Arabs are unlikely to surrender Baghdad willingly to ISIS. IMO Baghdad will be Ground Zero of a bloody, destructive, length battle while the Kurds consolidate their gains in the north.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  3. 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

    There was no way that Iraq could have ever been a counterbalance to Iran post-invasion.

    Iran has over twice the population of Iraq and the United States decided to completely disband the Iraqi military post-invasion (the Iraqis still don’t even have a functional Air Force now).

    The only thing that was keeping the Iranians in check was the fear of Saddam and his (nonexistent) chemical weapons. It was Saddam’s chemical weapons that managed to secure a status quo ante bellum peace settlement in the Iran-Iraq War.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  4. @Dave Schuler:

    In such a scenario, I’d expect that the Kurds will just go about creating their own nation-state whether anyone likes it or not

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  5. @Timothy Watson:

    Not an unfair point, perhaps, but it goes without saying that a united Iraq would serve as a more likely counterbalance than a Balkanized Iraq

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Exactly. Which I suspect has been their plan all along.

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  7. Tillman says:

    Isn’t the real issue not Iraq per se, but how ISIS is spilling over from the Syrian war? They control a swathe of Syrian territory as well.

    Hilariously, it’s exactly this kind of warfare our military is suited for.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  8. C. Clavin says:

    Meanwhile fools like McCain want to wash their hands of any accountability for this 11 year debacle. And of course he also wants to commit forces to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and Libya for perpetuity. But no school lunches for you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  9. President Camacho says:

    I will personnaly write a check to pay for McCain and any other politician who wants to pick up a weapon and battle back ISIS in Iraq, Syria, or any other hellhole in the ME. Take Rummy and Wolfiwitz, Bremer, Condi, and all those other geniuses as well.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  10. CB says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    In such a scenario, I’d expect that the Kurds will just go about creating their own nation-state whether anyone likes it or not

    The Turks will not like it one bit. Better hope that peace accord keeps moving forward, or else the only angle of this worthy of any optimism could itself go up in flames..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  11. Tyrell says:

    While military intervention is clearly undesirable and not feasible, it is very important that there be stability . Turmoil and uncertainty could have economic repurcussions and possible negative effects for the US and world markets. Diplomatic channels and solutions must be used.

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  12. Mu says:

    Nothing will change as long as we pretend that all the money flowing from Saudi-Arabia and the Emirates to ISIS is “private money” and not state sponsored terrorism. The US is so afraid of offending the sheiks that after Saudis committed 9/11 we invaded Afghanistan, and when a secular regime took out one of the emirs we got his country back for him.

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  13. C. Clavin says:

    For everyone who loves to bash Joe Biden…exactly what he said needed to happen back in ’08 is going to happen now…only with much more violence than had we done it in the first place.
    You are going to end up with Shi’a, Sunni, and Kurdish States. It’s just going to take a bloodbath to get there.
    Question for all the Hawks in the 110th Keyboard Regiment…if we are to intervene…who’s side are we on? Maliki and the Shi’a…who are aligned with Iran? The Sunni’s, who Maliki has purged from the Iraqi Government? The Kurds? Turkey won’t like that at all.
    Bush and those guys really screwed the pooch. And anyone who thought this was a good idea in the first place…should not be allowed to even think about this…much less opine.
    Many of us saw this coming 11 years ago.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  14. stonetools says:

    @CB:

    The Turks will not like it one bit. Better hope that peace accord keeps moving forward, or else the only angle of this worthy of any optimism could itself go up in flames..

    Actually I hear that that Turkey is on good terms with the Iraqi Kurdish government, so they may be OK with an independent Kurdistan. I see the end game here as de facto partition. Kurdistan, Sunni Arabstan ( west and central Iraq) and Shiastan ( South and east Iraq). THere will be lots of migrations and ethnic cleansings, as the populations shuffle to the new borders, and maybe some border flareups, then after 5 years, a cold armed peace. That’s not Fairy Gum Drop Land, but it’s better than constant civil war. Our interest in the fight? To keep the oil flowing, and to prevent any spillover into Turkey.
    Other problems? There will be less pressure on Russia and Iran. In fact I can see all kinds of reasons for Turkey and Iran to work together to prevent the conflict from escalating.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  15. CB says:

    @stonetools:

    Yeah, the PKK and Turkey are in talks, and aside from a few flareups near the Syrian border, they’ve generally both been quiet. For that reason, I’d worry about the pressure a renewed Iraqi civil war would put on both parties, and what it could mean for rapprochement.

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  16. Ron Beasley says:

    A long read but a good one by Adam L. Silverman, Cultural Adviser at the Army War College.
    http://www.balloon-juice.com/2014/06/12/more-on-iraq/#more-154797

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  17. Stan says:

    My mother used to chide me, very gently, about my life in academia. It’s not the real world, she said, it’s the ivory tower, shielded from life’s harsh realities. Au contraire, I replied. Academia is tough. Write good papers in high prestige journals, bring in big bucks in sponsored research, get good course evaluations, see students through to their PhD’s, and you get a nice raise and a light teaching load. Do none of the above and you get no raise, courses to teach at the other end of the campus, and appointment to the library committee. Now look at our neoconservative foreign policy experts, the geniuses who urged us on to war with Iraq. We had two enemies in the Mideast who hated each other, and so we went too war with the weaker one. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant. We fought one of the dumbest wars in history at the urging of Charles Krauthammer, Max Boot, John McCain, and Lindsay Graham. The columnists in this stellar group are still writing columns and the politicians are still appearing on Sunday talk shows. Historians will look back at this period with dazed incomprehension. How could we have been so stupid?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  18. Scott says:

    I’ve said it in the space in the past but I’ll repeat it. Iran is a more natural ally for the US than the Saudis. It looks like this mess in Iraq is pushing us to at least be temporary allies. I also think that Assad in Syria, loathsome as he is, is better for US interests than a fake radicalized “democratic” Syria. We need to get our knee-jerk emotions about Iran in check and be realistic and ruthless about our interests.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  19. Tyrell says:

    Too bad General Allenby and Colonel Lawrence aren’t around. They could straighten things out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  20. Ron Beasley says:

    I understand that Iran has sent 2 battalions of their Revolutionary Guard (Quds) into Iraq. This is a case where US and Iranian interests overlap and I would guess we are sharing intelligence with Iran.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  21. Rob in CT says:

    @Tyrell:

    Excellent snark!

    Oh, wait, you’re not joking are you?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  22. Gustopher says:

    If Czechoslovakia couldn’t be held together because of nationalist tensions, what hope does Iraq have?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  23. Lyle says:

    @Scott:

    The US should just let Iran do this alone. Let the mullahs get bogged down fighting a new war in Iraq. Turkey & the Saudis can join in too. Lebanon is about to explode which will be Iran’s problem too.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  24. JohnMcC says:

    @Tyrell: The mention of T E Lawrence tickled an elusive memory stored somehow in my aged grey matter. Thank you, dear Tyrell.

    Here are Lawrence’s own words about the British post-WWI experience of losing an entire army after it was trapped in Baghdad by an insurgency based in Fallujah. From the Sunday Times of 2 Aug 1920.

    “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere and incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.”

    The British experience in “Mesopotamia” has lots of lessons that no one has learned. We were led into this place by fools and would be greater fools to return.

    A brief synopsis can be found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/18/opinion/the-last-iraqi-insurgency.html

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  25. stonetools says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    Obama to Rouhani:

    ” You know you should really stop supporting Assad and creeping toward a nuclear weapon. But enough about that! We need you to help tamp down this Sunni surge in Iraq . Also could you work to keep the price of oil stable so the Russians don’t get too pushy in Europe and our allies in western Europe don’t crap their pants over energy supplies. We’ll work with you on sanctions to make sure they don’t pinch too hard.
    Also keep your client in Lebanon on a tight rein and help us keep a watch on the Taliban and al-Qaeda on your other border. Thanks in advance.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  26. @Rob in CT: Next he’ll be wanting Major-Generals Charles Townsend and Charles George Gordon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  27. Mu says:

    @Gustopher: Czechoslovakia was cobbled together when the original Czech state had 55% Czech and 45% German nationals. making it Czechoslovakia dropped the German percentage to 30%, looking better on paper. It was just as artificial as Yugoslavia.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  28. stonetools says:

    @Timothy Watson:

    While we are wishing for the impossible, let’s have back the good old Ottoman Empire. They really knew how to keep order.
    “Ok apart from maintaining order over a troublesome part of the world for 500 years, what have the Ottomans ever done for us?”
    “Brought peace?”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  29. dazedandconfused says:

    @Tillman:

    Isn’t the real issue not Iraq per se, but how ISIS is spilling over from the Syrian war? They control a swathe of Syrian territory as well.

    They are just returning from a party that didn’t go real well.

    http://www.duffelblog.com/2012/12/syria-to-host-iraq-war-reenactors/

    Western Syria proved to be too tough for them.

    The speed and organization is really quite impressive. They must have been planning and preparing for this for quite some time. I noticed this is the month Iraq was to take delivery of their first real planes, and wonder if that is what ISIS used as a deadline. Do it before they have an air force.

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  30. Eric Florack says:

    To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready … would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al Qaeda. It would mean that we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we’d allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.

    W, 2007.

    Huh.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  31. beth says:

    @Eric Florack: You know, W ought to step back into the spotlight and defend that if that’s what he still feels. Let him tell the American people how many more servicemen and women should have died defending Iraq – 100, 200, 2000? How many more years should we have stayed there – 10, 20, 50, 100? Let’s hear some more from this military mastermind.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  32. bill says:

    @Stan: because none of us is as dumb as all of us? aren’t these some of the brightest lights from the senate back then? of course, that was all before they were against the war…. speaking of which, when was the last time the ivory tower liberals approved of “war” anyway? they’ve distanced themselves from the reality that man is still mainly an animal. meanwhile, russian tanks are rolling into the ukraine……not our problem though, the civilized leaders will come to a non-violent solution i assume?!

    Bayh (D-IN)
    Biden (D-DE)
    Breaux (D-LA)
    Cantwell (D-WA)
    Carnahan (D-MO)
    Carper (D-DE)
    Cleland (D-GA)
    Clinton (D-NY)
    Daschle (D-SD)
    Dodd (D-CT)
    Dorgan (D-ND)
    Edwards (D-NC)
    Feinstein (D-CA)
    Harkin (D-IA) Hollings (D-SC)
    Johnson (D-SD)
    Kerry (D-MA)
    Kohl (D-WI)
    Landrieu (D-LA)
    Lieberman (D-CT)
    Lincoln (D-AR)
    Miller (D-GA)
    Nelson (D-FL)
    Nelson (D-NE)
    Reid (D-NV)
    Rockefeller (D-WV)
    Schumer (D-NY)
    Torricelli (D-NJ)

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  33. An Interested Party says:

    they’ve distanced themselves from the reality that man is still mainly an animal. meanwhile, russian tanks are rolling into the ukraine……not our problem though, the civilized leaders will come to a non-violent solution i assume?!

    You can usually tell when a person has never fought in a war by how quickly he wants them to be waged…those who have actually served are usually far more cautious about such things…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  34. Lounsbury says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    Not Baghdad, districts north.

    The demographic weight favours the Shia militias in the end (as is already manifesting.

    Regrettably the combination of American occupation incompetence and fuzzy-minded messianic/transformative thinking (and lack of realism re Iranian influence) and Maliki-type Shia particularist politics have made this more or less inevitable – particularly given Syria.

    Not inevitable from the start, but given the development of facts in the past decade, now inevitable that the regions with a strong Shia-Sunni divide Levant / Mesopotamia are going to go through a bloody Lebanese style civil war, with similar demographic/ethnic divides.

    As with the Lebanese case, only domestic exhaustion will stop it.

    The only direct international interests are:
    (i) not seeing hydrocarbon production destroyed
    (ii) not seeing the Takfiri lunatic wing of the Sunni world take over (as they are also the sorts that are inclined to take terror to the West – in contrast with the Shia who are largely inclined not to).

    Other than that, you’re best served not making the same mistakes as you did under Bush ibn Bush.

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  35. Lounsbury says:

    @Mu:

    This is at best historically illiterate.

    Primo generally the geographic territory of Czechoslovakia was pre-independence, Austro-Hungarian, not Germano-Prussian. The German speakers, essentially in Bohemia, were never “German nationals” unless one adopts the pernicious racialist falsehoods of Nazi ideology. They were, of course, mostly properly previously German speaking citizens of the Austrian crown.

    Secundo, the Czech – Slovak amalgamation (or more properly, Bohemian, Moravian and Slovak) was hardly ‘artificial’- any more than the construction of a pan-German-speaking naitonal identity out of Germanophone Catholics and Protestants was. Slovak and Czech speakers certainly had different cultural histories arising from their different histories – the Czech parts being more developed and better ruled, but their differences were not objectively greater than differences within the German-speaking areas (either linguistic or cultural).

    The union failed for largely particular political motives, not from anything “artificial” as such.

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