Last week, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) moved within striking distance of Kirkuk, the oil-rich province bordering Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. It pushed into villages populated by the country’s Shia Turkmen minority, stopping just short of the capital and within mortar range of Taza Khurma 20 km to the south, overwhelming a force of volunteer fighters. The fighting was short but intense.
According to survivors, it was a massacre. ISIS fighters, inured to a brutal and unforgiving brand of Islam that considers the Shia heretics, slaughtered the villagers. It’s still unclear how many lost their lives; dozens of men, women and children are still missing and bodies can still be seen scattered around the farm fields in Basheer, the town nearest to Taza Khurma, five kilometres farther south.
Sadly, the massacre could have been prevented. Locals were expecting an ISIS advance into their villages. Volunteers from the Shia Turkmen population had taken up positions around the wheat fields, supported by the well-armed Kurdish militia, the peshmerga. “But when ISIS finally came,” says Haji Adnan Asy Musa, a 48-year-old from Basheer who commands a group of about 500 volunteer fighters, “the peshmerga ran away.”
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That left the hapless Shia Turkmen irregulars to fend for themselves. Haider Abdul Hussain, 34, a slim, wild-eyed farmer, says villagers, many of them former soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s army, attempted to stand their ground, but it was futile. “They are experienced fighters with powerful weapons,” he says of the ISIS militants, from an undisclosed location in Kirkuk City where he has sought shelter. “They are fearless in a way that we cannot be. They want to die.”
That mythos has left the local volunteer force demoralized—a far cry from the early days of the ISIS advance when Shia men, young and old, took to the streets throughout Iraq, including Taza Khurma.
Iraq’s most powerful Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had commanded his followers to take up arms, as had many other religious and community leaders. Thousands heeded their calls, flooding into makeshift training centres in Najaf and Karbala. It was as if ISIS had reawakened the Shia penchant for self-sacrifice, a trait passed down from Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and the third imam in Shia Islam, who refused to pledge allegiance to the caliph of the Sunnis, Yazid I, in 680 CE. He was beheaded.
The bravado and eagerness Iraq’s Shia exhibited in the early days of the ISIS offensive was inspiring, though many feared their fervour augured a new era of sectarian bloodshed. Now that zeal has melted away—as have any hopes that ISIS’s terror campaign might be stopped and Iraq pieced back together again. The militants have taken root. And a dangerous mix of fear and uncertainty remains.
“Mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy,” Sun Tzu, the great Chinese military strategist wrote more than 2,000 years ago. “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” Those words ring eerily true under ISIS’s terrifying mystique. It infects everyone, from everyday Iraqis trying to make sense of the threat that emerged like a storm out of the western deserts to those fighting it.
ISIS moved virtually unchallenged through most of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated areas in the north and west. On June 10, it swept into Mosul, a city of some two million guarded by what was supposed to be the Iraqi army’s most experienced soldiers. It fell without a fight. ISIS beefed up its arsenal and then steamrolled through other parts of the country. Town after town fell.
The ISIS propaganda machine capitalized on those easy victories, claiming divine sanction and support, advertising the weapons it acquired (including a missile reportedly captured in Syria), and displaying its brutality on social media, including beheadings and summary executions. Its tactics have succeeded with devastating precision. Fear and trepidation reign the closer you approach the front lines. And here in the north of the country, the front line is never far away.
In Taza Khurma’s main Shia mosque, small groups of volunteer Shia fighters lounge, escaping the intense summer heat and the threat of mortar rounds fired daily from ISIS positions in Basheer. Posters depicting Imam Ali, Hussein’s father, adorn the walls alongside pictures of Ayatollah al-Sistani. There is a hushed silence that dominates here, and even the fighters debating what to do next do so in whispers. “We need the government’s help,” says Ali Sadiq Jaffer, a 29-year-old farmer from Basheer. “They’ve sent soldiers to Mosul, Tikrit and Diyala, but nothing here. We are completely alone.”
Jaffer’s commander, a stalky and greying man well past his fighting prime, says that the bodies of their dead family members are rotting where ISIS militants gunned them down during the massacre. On June 30, the volunteer fighters attempted to go collect them but were driven back by mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire. “We lost 50 men that day,” he says. “Some were killed, others were captured and we presume they are dead. We’ve seen pictures of some of their bodies posted on the Internet.”
The defeat has taken whatever shred of courage that was left among the volunteers and devoured it. The group of men in the mosque, some barely out of their teens, cycle through feelings of anger and despair: anger at the Kurds and the central government for abandoning them and despair over the prospects for the future. “The Kurds only care about protecting themselves and their territory,” says Musa, a commander of Shia Turkmen. “They can taste independence and that is all they are concerned with. They have the forces to go and clear ISIS out of Basheer but they refuse to do it.”
Making the situation worse, he adds, the Kurdish leadership in Erbil, the regional capital, refuses to allow Iraqi army forces to enter Kirkuk, despite the fact that the province remains technically outside the Kurdistan autonomous region. But in the chaos of the ISIS advance, the Kurds quickly moved in and annexed Kirkuk, a region they have coveted for decades. Under their control, it is the Kurdish forces—the peshmerga—who rule, and they refuse to engage ISIS or let the Iraqi army come in and do it.
Consequently, Taza Khurma has turned into a ghost town. Families have fled to the relative safety of Kirkuk City. The few who have stayed behind are young men left to protect empty homes and shuttered markets, along with the local police force, whose plainclothes officers bundle off any suspicious person they come across for interrogation at one of the heavily fortified police stations.
“We feel like we’re living in a jail,” says Mustafa Yawer, a 30-year-old engineer who has remained in Taza Khurma. “We’re afraid that at any moment ISIS fighters could come and kill us. We’re surrounded by them.”
Nothing speaks more clearly of this siege mentality than the offices of the Badr Organization in Kirkuk City. The Badrists have a long history of supporting the Shia of Iraq, dating back to the Iran-Iraq war, when its brigades were set up and trained in Iran. Since the fall of the Saddam regime, the Badr militia has acquired a reputation for brutality exacted on Iraq’s Sunnis, particularly during the civil war in the mid-2000s.
But now, the Badrists in Kirkuk are also feeling the heat. Their forces were in Taza Khurma to support the local Turkmen volunteers when ISIS attacked. They could do little to beat the militants back, however, and the result has been confusion in its ranks. Barbed wire and blast walls greet visitors at its Kirkuk compound. “Kimse yok!” barks an armed guard in Turkish. “No one is here! The entire leadership has gone to Baghdad for consultation.”
A representative from the Kirkuk chapter of the Iraqi Union of Journalists says the leadership has gone to meet Hadi al-Amiri, Iraq’s minister of transportation and the current head of the Badr Organization. “They’re looking for help,” he says, requesting anonymity because he has not been cleared to talk to the media. “The defeat on June 30 was a big blow to them and they need to figure out how to proceed now.”
Amiri’s office could not be reached for comment, but if indeed the Badr Organization’s leaders are in the Iraqi capital, then something more substantial than a ragtag gang of volunteers may be in the works. Additional militiamen are unlikely considering the Kurdish stance on outside fighters entering Kirkuk. Better weapons is the probable request from the Badr leaders, though it is doubtful the Kurds would allow even that.
Kirkuk is already a city bristling with weapons. When the Iraqi army retreated in the face of the ISIS advance, it abandoned the Kaiwan military base 20 km north of the city. Before the Kurdish forces could take control there, it was looted. Many of those weapons have turned up in ad hoc streetside gun markets where groups of men haggle over assault rifles and pistols as well as night-vision goggles and body armour.
“We’re preparing ourselves for the worst,” says one potential buyer, a Chaldean Christian who says his family is terrified of ISIS taking Kirkuk and slaughtering its Christian minority. “All of my neighbours are doing the same.” The likelihood of that happening is extremely low considering how thoroughly Peshmerga forces have the city locked down, but people are not taking any chances. ISIS is generating a level of fear that borders on hysteria.
For its part, ISIS is basking in the glory of its victories. On June 30, it announced it had set up a new Islamic caliphate encompassing areas it controls in Syria and Iraq, and named its leader, Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi abandoned his relative anonymity and took to the podium for a sermon during Friday prayers at the grand mosque in Mosul on July 4. Whether it was Baghdadi himself remains unclear, but video footage appears to show a humble if somewhat emotionless man reaching out to his followers. “It is a burden to accept this responsibility to be in charge of you,” he says, wearing all black, including the black turban usually reserved for those who claim direct lineage from the Prophet Muhammad. “I am not better than you or more virtuous than you. If you see me on the right path, help me. If you see me on the wrong path, advise me and halt me. And obey me as far as I obey God.”
Locals in Mosul say the speech was a carefully constructed spectacle, with Mosul’s residents ordered to attend and prevented from leaving. Nonetheless, it sends a clear message and reinforces the sense that ISIS is in control and unstoppable.
The reality, however, is much different. The wave of militants that flooded into Iraq in early June was cloaked in a veil of rumour and hearsay. It projected an image far more grandiose than the force behind it. Since then, ISIS has been strengthened by the hardware it has amassed from the retreating Iraqi army. The militants have consolidated their positions while Iraq’s leaders have stood, dumbfounded, laying land mines and occupying key strategic positions. Retaking lost ground will be difficult. The battle for Tikrit and other parts of the Sunni heartland rages on and the standoff in Taza Khurma perpetuates the illusion that the militants are unbeatable.
Sun Tzu would be proud.