ISIS, born from an al Qaeda splinter group and supported by many Sunni factions, made fierce advances in Iraq last year by taking over Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, and also the important cities of Fallujah and Tikrit.
Early this year Isis lost Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, and failed to take the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani in a 134-day siege despite suffering heavy losses. This led to belief that military situation had stabilized and Isis was on the retreat. But now that Ramadi, the provincial capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, has fallen to Islamic State, the group’s hold on a huge chunk of Iraq is tightening.
The US-led anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out air strikes in Iraq and Syria and training Iraqi security forces, but the Obama administration has been reluctant to commit any troops to the ground fight. The US administration had announced the opening of a new base in Anbar Province, an Islamic State stronghold, with an additional 450 American troops, bringing the total in Iraq to 3,550 — the size of a typical Army brigade.
The Iraq’s new 250,000-strong military, army, was trained by US army as part of $25 billion military aid to the Iraqi military before and after the US withdrawal, which also included M1 tanks, Apache helicopters, and F-16 fighter jets. Yet under Nouri al-Malaki, Iraq’s prime minister from 2006 to 2014, the Iraqi army has not been professionalized. They remained poorly trained, poorly led, and have traditional top-down and centralized command structure that stifled innovation and initiative. Over the past several months they’ve begun anew, training more than 9,000 Iraqi troops, with 3,000 more in the pipeline. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said: “While training can give troops the skills needed to prevail on the battlefield, training can’t teach will”.
As Iraqi forces struggle on the battlefield, aides said Mr. Obama would consider establishing a series of outposts where American advisers would work with Iraqi troops and local tribesmen. The bases would be run by Iraqis, and Americans would still not engage in ground combat, but they would play a more active role closer to the front lines.
But the strategy Obama is employing is likely doomed to fail given the circumstances, according to Michael Pregent, a terrorism analyst and former US Army intelligence officer in Iraq. “You can send more American advisers, but until they’re training Sunnis they’re not going to make a difference in the fight against ISIS.” Arming and training Sunnis to defend their own territory is the only viable way to beat back Islamic State advances in these areas. However, “Baghdad is deciding who gets trained by the Americans,”
Iran, most powerful foreign actor in Iraq, with an extensive trade and intelligence network and with one of the most effective military forces in the Middle East has not sent its forces yet. However It has sent military advisers, but its contribution has been to mobilise Iraqi Shia militias, such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq, to fight the Sunni jihadists of ISIS. However US oppose the employment of Shia paramilitaries like Hashd Shaabi, which it sees as being under Iranian influence. The US has said that Iranian-backed militias will be denied air support and intelligence
Shia militias have also been accused of committing atrocities against Sunni civilians as they battle ISIS, a Sunni terror group. “Iran is also telling Baghdad to not allow Americans to arm and train a Sunni force because [the Sunnis] will become a problem in the future,” Pregent said.
ISIS fighters themselves are Sunnis, and the tension between the two groups is a powerful recruiting tool for ISIS. ISIS is fighting to form a hardline Sunni Islamic state “Caliphate” carved from Iraq and Syria, while controlling Iraqi oil and power facilities. They have unilaterally declared statehood in Syrian and Iraqi territories under its control and declared the group’s leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, as the new caliph of the Islamic State and the leader of Muslims everywhere.
“The Shia militias believe if they kill ISIS they’re going to heaven, and ISIS believes if they kill the Shia people they are going to go to heaven,” Sangawi declares. “They fight over religion, not for land,” Brigadier General Mahmoud Sangawi told The Daily Beast
The current crisis is the outcome of Maliki’s failures, both political and military; the regime has been corrupt, authoritarian, and incompetent. The Shiite-dominated government is accused of fostering sectarian tensions by marginalizing Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Kurd minorities—and allied closely with the Shiite government in Iran. They believe Iran, backed by its allies, wants to build a Shi’ite crescent from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon.
Iraq’s parliament approved a new government last September, headed by Haider al-Abadi as prime minister, in a bid to rescue Iraq from collapse, with sectarianism and Arab-Kurdish tensions on the rise.
Iraq’s Kurds have done well since 2003, and full control of Kirkuk and the vast oil deposits beneath it, they have become the most prosperous and stable region in the country. The de-facto autonomous status of the Kurdish entity in the north is now officially recognized by Iraq’s new constitution as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Since the summer of 2014, the Kurds have increased their territory by 40 percent, most notably around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a key-area for the energy security of Kurdistan, Baghdad, and the wider region.
The Kurds, crucial players, have demonstrated a will to fight that matches the Islamic State’s, now they need the help of the United States needs to help them win. They need better equipment and weapons to fight the Islamic State that has seized large weapons from the Syrian and Iraqi Armies. Kurdish leaders say they would accept a federated Iraqi state if they were given autonomy in political, economic and security matters.
The non-extremist Sunnis have sided with—or tolerated—the jihadists because of their shared hatred of the Maliki regime and the Iraqi military, which Sunnis in Mosul considered an occupying force. ISIS governance model of strict rule, terror, and the creation of infrastructure has found favor among some residents “Isis with all its brutality is more honest and merciful than the Shia government in Baghdad and its militias”.
The number of displaced people in Iraq has already crossed 2.7 million since the beginning of last year. Thousands of families fleeing mainly from Ramadi have headed towards Baghdad, 80 miles east, where many are sheltering with locals. Fabio Forgione, head of Médecins San Frontières in Iraq, said that many of those fleeing are suffering from respiratory tract infections and chronic diseases and are traumatized by witnessing savage violence. But as Sunnis fleeing the Sunni jihadists to a Shia-majority city, the fugitives are regarded with suspicion.
Perhaps the Iraq is appearing to be moving to division into three different zones: the government controlled one (Shiite-majority), the ISIS controlled one (Sunni-majority), and Iraqi Kurdistan (Kurdish-majority).