Lightning fast: that is how the sudden resurgence of Iraq’s insurgency is being described this week. In a matter of days, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the radical jihadist group that emerged from what was supposed to be the collapse of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), has overrun Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, swept into Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit and is now threatening to lay siege to Baghdad itself.
Iraq’s army appears to be collapsing, and the horror of another sectarian war pitting the Sunni minority against the politically and economically dominant Shia, of the kind that traumatized Iraqis during the mid-2000s, is on the verge of reigniting. During Friday prayers, Shia clerics, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, Iraq’s most influential religious figure, called on citizens to arm themselves against the rising tide of Sunni extremism. Tens of thousands are reported to be heeding their calls.
Since 2008, when it seemed Iraq’s deadly internal divisions had been bridged, Iraqis have witnessed a slide back toward the kind of violence they had hoped was behind them. Here are three key factors that have brought Iraq back to the precipice:
1. The collapse of the Sahwa movement
Back in 2008, there was a lot of backslapping going on in Washington. American war planners were congratulating themselves over the success of their Iraq surge strategy, which began in 2007 and injected more than 20,000 additional troops into the Iraqi theatre, primarily in al Anbar province, the heart of the insurgency.
What very few were talking about was the parallel strategy of co-opting Sunni opposition groups in al Anbar to fight against radical jihadists aligned with al-Qaeda in Iraq. These groups called themselves the Honourable Resistance and claimed to be fighting against the U.S. occupation for the rights of the Sunni minority, not for AQI’s vision of a new Islamic caliphate. The U.S. exploited these ideological divisions, which had been festering for years as the increasingly brutal tactics of the jihadists alienated their allies in the Resistance.
The Sahwa, or Awakening, movement was born and was arguably a more potent force than the additional U.S. troops deployed in Anbar. Within months, Sahwa forces had wrested control of key strategic cities like Falluja and Ramadi away from the jihadists and turned the tide in other parts of Iraq.
When U.S. forces drew down and ultimately left Iraq at the end of 2011, responsibility for the Sahwa was shifted to the Iraqi government, dominated by Shia leaders who looked askew at armed Sunni militias in their midst. Slowly, they began to dismantle the Sahwa, in some cases even arresting its leaders. By 2012, the militias had been decimated.
Last year, the Iraqi government began to acknowledge its mistake and attempted to re-establish the Sahwa. But by then it was too late. Years of corrupt leadership had turned Iraq’s Sunnis against the central government. Some of those former Resistance fighters and Sahwa members, including former officers in Saddam’s defunct national army, are now reported to be fighting alongside ISIS.
2. The war in Syria
As if Iraq didn’t face enough problems internally, the war across its western border in Syria has created a new gathering place for radical jihadists from around the world. Thousands have flooded into the country, including fighters from Europe and even Canada. ISIS has grown rapidly as a result and now, according to experts who are tracking radical groups, it represents the most powerful al-Qaeda-inspired movement in the world.
Recent events have precipitated the return of ISIS fighters to Iraq: in-fighting between radical groups in Syria has put these hardcore radicals on the back foot. Disagreements between the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri have led to a coalition of Islamist groups in Syria who now oppose ISIS activities. As a result, ISIS fighters are pouring back into Iraq, strengthened in numbers, weaponry (courtesy of sponsors in the Gulf states) and experience. They are organized and ruthless, and bring a reputation for brutality and fearlessness with them that has shaken members of Iraq’s fledgling army.
3. The weakness of Iraq’s security forces
The speed with which the Iraqi army abandoned their posts in both Mosul and Kirkuk, the oil-rich city in Iraq’s northeast, raises the question: how unified are they? In Mosul, the army outnumbered the invading ISIS fighters 40 to 1. Their retreat is stupefying unless you consider the fact that concerns have lingered for years over their ability to remain a cohesive fighting unit. Tensions between Sunnis and Shia have surfaced often enough to raise the spectre of disintegration.
It is still unclear if any of the Sunni soldiers actually switched sides and joined the militants in Mosul and Kirkuk. But the initial reports are disturbing: many of the retreating soldiers left their weapons behind. If we are witnessing the collapse of the Iraqi army along sectarian lines then this is truly a make-or-break moment for Iraq.
What happens now?
An Iraq in three parts—a Kurdish north, Sunni centre and Shia south —is the nightmare scenario. Turkey would never countenance a fully independent Kurdish region, particularly one strengthened by the Kirkuk oilfields. An independent Sunni region would simply be a gift to ISIS. And an independent Shia south would quickly become an Iranian client state, which both the U.S. and Israel would never allow.
For the moment, it looks as if Iraq will limp along, broken but still whole. The goal now will be to prevent another bloody civil war, and in the process prevent the death of potentially tens of thousands more innocent Iraqis.