Iraq’s government appears powerless to defend against Islamists’ advance
ISTANBUL — The long-predicted dissolution of a centrally controlled Iraq ruled from Baghdad appeared closer to reality on Thursday as radical Islamist fighters advanced through the country with little interference from what remained of Iraq’s disintegrating security forces.
Only militias tied to Iraq’s feuding religious and ethnic groups mounted serious resistance to the southward push by fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who now appear to be supported by an ad hoc coalition of Sunni Muslim tribes and militant groups opposed to the Shiite-dominated central government. With the lone exception of a helicopter assault on an insurgent position north of the central city of Tikrit, Iraqi army and security forces continued to abandon their posts whenever confronted by ISIS.
The collapse of central authority also was evident in Baghdad, where the Iraqi Parliament failed to muster a quorum to consider a request from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for a declaration of a state of emergency. Al-Maliki responded in a statement read on state television by accusing Sunni political parties of conspiring to destroy the state. In recent days, al-Maliki, who also serves as the defense minister, has blamed the same parties for the army’s massive desertion in the face of the ISIS offensive.
“Iraq’s future at this point is being shaped by conflict rather than by a viable political system. No one really knows where it’s going,” Salman Sheikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, said in a telephone interview from Beirut. “The long-term impact could be quite cataclysmic, not just for Iraq, but for the entire region.”
The prediction that Iraq would one day descend into an ungovernable space of feuding ethnic and religious groups was first made when U.S. forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Now that it seemed to be happening, many found it difficult to grasp the unfolding reality.
In Washington, President Barack Obama told reporters that the United States was considering all options to aid the Maliki government, Defense Department officials said there was no speedup in the previously set schedule for the delivery of military equipment, and Congress seemed slow to grasp that the ship had likely sailed on hopes that al-Maliki could somehow save the situation.
“In Iraq, hopefully this is a wakeup call for Prime Minister Maliki, who has practiced exclusive politics, contrary to U.S. counsel,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. “He needs to engage immediately in a multi-pronged approach to address the ISIL threat, which includes a commitment to political inclusion, targeted security operations against ISIL targets, and a pledge to protect all Iraqi citizens.”
Vice President Joe Biden, in a conversation with al-Maliki, offered the same advice, according to a White House summary of the call. “The vice president underscored that it will be critically important for all of Iraq’s communities to reach a lasting political accommodation and to be united in order to defeat their common enemy,” the summary said.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon announced that civilian contractors in Iraq as part of the U.S. military assistance program had been evacuated. The announcement said staffing remained unchanged for U.S. government employees at the U.S. Embassy.
Across Iraq were scenes that seemed unreal to those who’ve closely followed the ins and outs of that country’s byzantine politics.
The Kurdish Regional Government in Irbil announced that its highly trained militia, the peshmerga, had taken complete control of the city of Kirkuk, which has long been a point of competition between its Arab and Kurdish residents, after the mostly Arab government security forces had fled. The move makes the Kurds’ long-sought goal of control over the city a reality.
“The whole of Kirkuk has fallen into the hands of peshmerga,” Kurdish spokesman Jabbar Yawar told Reuters. “No Iraqi army remains in Kirkuk now.”
In Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, whose fall late Monday was the beginning of ISIS’ rapid march, Islamic State fighters held a parade to show off the military equipment they’d seized when they captured military bases and weapons storehouses, according to local residents who spoke with Reuters.
The news agency said residents reported that the parade included Iraqi tanks and American-made Humvees as it passed through what had been the main government complex in western Mosul. Unconfirmed reports from the scene said two Iraqi Army transport helicopters overflew the city — apparently piloted by ISIS fighters. U.S. officials in Washington said they were still trying to determine what U.S.-provided weapons had fallen into ISIS’ hands.
The parade was followed by the distribution of an ISIS leaflet that proclaimed that a new form of government had come to Mosul.
“Who are we? We are the soldiers of ISIS,” said the leaflet, whose grandiose title mimicked the declaration of the Prophet Muhammad that is considered the beginning of Islamic history. “We took on our shoulders bringing back the glories of the Islamic caliphate and stop oppression against our brothers and to cut the Shiite snake that reached the necks of the people.”
The leaflet outlawed unauthorized gatherings under penalty of death, ordered people not to communicate with the government in Baghdad and warned women to dress modestly and stay at home.
“You have tried secular rule: monarchy, republic, Baathist, Safavids,” the leaflet said, referring to the Baath party of Saddam Hussein and the Safavid dynasty that ruled Iran, Iraq and other areas from the 16th to the 18th centuries. “Now is the era of the Islamic State and the reign of Imam Abu Bakr al Quraishi,” an alternative name for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.
In the majority Sunni Muslim town of Samara, where the bombing of a Shiite shrine in 2006 triggered a bloodletting that killed thousands, the timely arrival of Shiite militia fighters from Baghdad, 70 miles away, appeared to have stopped a major push by ISIS fighters early Thursday to capture the town, according to Iraqi television reports based on residents interviewed by telephone.
There was speculation that an ISIS capture of Samara and a threat to the al-Askari mosque, one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred shrines, would prompt Iran, which has been an ally of the Maliki government, to send troops. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in a nationally televised speech on the situation in Iraq, raised the possibility of intervention to defend the Iraqi government.
“For our part, as the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran . . . we will combat violence, extremism and terrorism in the region and the world,” he said. “(ISIS) is an extremist, terrorist group that is acting savagely.”
But there were no confirmed sightings of Iranian troops, despite widespread reports that they’d arrived in the country and even had helped Iraqi security forces recapture Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, which fell to ISIS on Wednesday. Tikrit remained under ISIS control Thursday, residents said.
Mohamed Qassim said the city was quiet save for a lone Iraqi army helicopter that briefly flew overhead, and a demonstration by some men from a nearby village who marched through town carrying a poster of Saddam Hussein. “I saw no Iranians, no clashes in the areas, and it’s very calm,” Qassim told McClatchy by telephone.
Speaking by instant messaging from Lebanon, a Hezbollah commander, who does not have permission to speak to journalists and asked not to be named, said that for the time being his group would continue to focus on protecting the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Lebanese border with Syria from insurgent groups. But he said he expected many of the hundreds of Iraqi fighters currently aligned with the regime in Syria to return home to face this new Sunni threat.
With the U.S.-funded and -trained security forces in collapse, Iraqi leaders also called for citizens to take up arms to defend their neighborhoods — an invitation, many believe, that will result in the kind of bloodshed that dominated Iraq during a bitter Sunni-Shiite conflict that reigned there from 2006 to 2008. It was uncertain how the call would be greeted.
Powerful Shiite cleric Muktada al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia vexed American troops for years, said Wednesday that he would order his mostly disbanded fighters into battle only to defend Shiite holy sites and not the government. But a slew of other Shiite militias currently loyal to the government are stepping into the fray.
Asa’ib al Haq, or the League of Righteousness, deployed its fighters, trained and equipped by Iran and their Lebanese allies Hezbollah, into key areas around Samara and Baghdad in an effort to halt the advance, while the Badr Brigades, a militia commanded by the mainstream Badr Organization political party of Hadi al Amiri, sent fighters to Shiite areas in preparation for any ISIS push into Baghdad or key population centers.
Security experts said they expected those efforts to prevent ISIS from capturing Baghdad. “The retreat is not likely to spread to predominantly Shiite areas such as Baghdad,” said John Drake of the British AKE security company, which has long operated in Iraq. “This is where the security forces will muster. Local residents are also already taking up arms to join militia groups to defend the city.”
Contributing to this story were Mohammed al Dulaimy in Columbia, S.C., Mousab Alhamadee in Istanbul, and Hannah Allam, Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef in Washington.