Since the United States withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, the The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has steadily gained strength and recruited thousands of foreign fighters; it broke with Al Qaeda earlier this year and is now viewed as a leader of global jihad.
ISIS has taken over much of the Iraqi province of Nineveh. In the course of doing so, they have released thousands of jihadist prisoners, reportedly taken hundreds of people hostage and fortified their already strong territorial position in the region.
Fighting in Minbej, Syria, took place six months ago, but the methods the Islamists used so effectively in northern Syria helped set the stage for their blitzkrieg in Mosul, Tikrit and other important Iraqi cities this week. The group has already taken Tikrit and Mosul.
The new orders are apparently to march on Baghdad.
"Roll up your sleeves of seriousness. Do not give up one span of land that you have liberated," spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani says. "March to Baghdad... We have a score to settle."
ISIS wants to establish an Islamic caliphate, or state, stretching across the region. It has begun imposing Sharia law, that covers both religious and non-religious aspects of life, in the towns it controls. Boys and girls must be separated at school; women must wear the niqab or full veil in public. Sharia courts often dispense brutal justice, music is banned and the fast is enforced during Ramadan.
In both Syria and Iraq, ISIS is trying to win favor through dawa -- organizing social welfare programs and even recreational activities for children, distributing food and fuel to the needy, and setting up clinics. Having money matters, so ISIS first used extortion, such as demanding money from truck drivers and threatening to blow up businesses, then began robbing banks and gold shops.
Now it can also use cash reserves from Mosul's banks, military equipment from seized military and police bases and the release of 2,500 fighters from local jails to bolster its military and financial capability. The price it demands is enforcement of the strict Sharia code. There is no doubting the group's confidence and ambition.
(Tim Lister. "ISIS: The First Terror Group to Build an Islamic State?" CNN. June 12, 2014)
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"Its members are better paid, better trained and better armed than even the national armies of Syria and Iraq, Sheikh Hassan said.
"In areas that fall under their control, the jihadists work carefully to entrench their rule. They have attracted the most attention with their draconian enforcement of a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Shariah law, including the execution of Christians and Muslims deemed kufar, or infidels."
(Thanassis Cambanis. "Sunni Fighters Gain as They Battle 2 Governments, and Other Rebels." The New York Times. June 11, 2014)
"We should be worried. This, after all, is a group that was rejected ay al Qaeda because of its ferocity. Its mysterious leaders are far beyond the extremist pale, and that they seem to be consolidating a territorial base must be put at the forefront of international counter-terrorism policy.
"A frequently-referenced study into foreign fighters in 1980s Afghanistan concluded that about one in nine returnees went on to commit terrorism offences. That may not sound like much, but if one considers that there are an estimated 2,000 EU citizens fighting in Syria now (according to Europol, the European Union's law enforcement agency) it becomes a far more troubling statistic.
"Syria aside, ISIS's new dominance in northwestern Iraq will be the principal destabiliser of the region. If left alone, Nineveh will become a jihadist's playground, one that will welcome -- and train up -- any foreigner sympathetic to ISIS's ideology.
"Besides that, though, the world needs to act because of the terrible risk this runs for Iraq's Shi'ite population, a minority in Nineveh but still numbering in the thousands. ISIS has a fetish for anti-Shia sectarianism and is also reported to have targeted Christians. They are certain to perpetrate many more horrific offenses there if left unchallenged.
"The international community has a humanitarian and strategic prerogative to act against ISIS's most recent gains in Iraq; the Iraqi government needs as much support as it can get in challenging ISIS."
(Charlie Cooper. "How ISIS and Iraq Upheaval
Threatens the Wider World." CNN. June 12, 2014)
If we believe the severity of these threatening reports, it seems terror cells have developed into the most dangerous militant group in the world. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has thrived and mutated in the security vacuum that followed the departure of the last U.S. forces from Iraq and the civil war in Syria, and it aims is to create an Islamic state across Sunni areas of Iraq and in Syria.
What does the United Nations think should be done?
Of course, condemnation and ineffectual banter is the normal business of the U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly condemned the abductions and the seizure of Iraqi territory by the militants, urging "the international community to unite in showing solidarity with Iraq as it confronts this serious security challenge." Ban said, "Terrorism must not be allowed to succeed in undoing the path towards democracy in Iraq."
Iraq's ambassador to France called on the U.N. Security Council to approve extra military aid for Baghdad, including air and drone support, when it meets, Reuters reported. "We need equipment, extra aviation and drones," Fareed Yasseen said, when asked on France Inter radio what Iraq wanted from the Council.
What does the White House think should be done?
Of course, America calls for Iraqi leadership to rise up and stop the insurgency. White House spokesman Josh Earnest warned that the instability was rapidly becoming a humanitarian issue requiring a coordinated response by Iraq's leaders to halt ISIL's advance and wrest territory away from insurgents. Yet, the White House has pledged to stand by Iraq's leaders saying that the insurgents' actions in Mosul and its surrounding areas show "once again that these extremists seek nothing but death and destruction."
And, of course, the terrorist threat in Iraq is considered to be a threat to Americans and our other close allies. Earnest told reporters traveling with Obama that ISIL poses a "different kind of threat" to American interests than core Al Qaeda, which had repeatedly and publicly vowed to attack U.S. soil. Still, he said the U.S. was watching the threat from ISIL "very carefully" because the group has proven itself to be violent and willing to consider attacking U.S. interests and American allies.
The turmoil has revived a debate over whether President Obama should have left a small residual force after the 2011 American troop withdrawal. Yet, it’s an academic argument because the Iraqis refused.
What about Iraq's ability to stop the takeover?
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Mosul's fall must bring the country's leaders together to deal with the "serious, mortal threat" facing Iraq.
"We can push back on the terrorists ... and there would be a closer cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government to work together and try to flush out these foreign fighters," he said on the sidelines of a diplomatic meeting in Athens.
Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki -- who has been fiercely criticized for failing to stem a rising tide of violence and for implementing what are considered to be broadly sectarian policies under his Shiite-led government -- has asked parliament to declare a state of emergency that would give him the "necessary powers" to run the country — something legal experts said could include powers to impose curfews, restrict public movements and censor the media.
Maliki's government also has asked the U.S. for assistance in combating the militants. But many scholars say he shouldn't be surprised by the recent events because, more than anyone, he is to blame for the catastrophe. Prime Minister Maliki has been central to the political disorder that has poisoned Iraq, as he wielded authoritarian power in favor of the Shiite majority at the expense of the minority Sunnis, stoked sectarian conflict and enabled a climate in which militants could gain traction.
“These groups were unified by the same goal, which is getting rid of this sectarian government, ending this corrupt army and negotiating to form the Sunni Region,” said Abu Karam, a senior Baathist leader and a former high-ranking army officer, who said planning for the offensive had begun two years ago.
ISIS and spokesman Adnani slammed Maliki as a "liar" and nothing more than "an underwear salesman."
"What have you done to your people," Adnani says. "What do you know about policy, leadership, and military command?"
In the meantime, hundreds of young men crowded in front of the main army recruiting center in Baghdad on Thursday after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle the insurgents.
Analysts say the million-strong U.S.-trained Iraqi army greatly outnumbers the militants, but has failed to put up any serious resistance to the insurgents’ drive and mostly evaporated amid incoming attacks.
("Al Qaeda-inspired Militant Group Vows March on Baghdad After Seizing Northern Cities.
Fox News. June 12, 2014)
Why Should the U.S. Even Consider Getting Involved?
The Sunni militants continue their march through northern cities and towns, toppling fragile security forces and threatening to lay siege to the capital city of Baghdad. A Twitter account believed to belong to ISIS has claimed that the militants have executed 1,700 Shia soldiers in Iraq. Meanwhile the group has allegedly pardoned 2,500 Sunni soldiers. This cannot be independently confirmed, but the UN says it has received reports of summary executions.
There were reports that the main highway from the north to Baghdad was strewn with the decapitated bodies of government security forces, and that ISIS forces were driving and displaying captured armored vehicles.
(Hannah Strange. "Iraq Crisis: ISIS Militants Push Towards Baghdad."
The Telegraph. June 13, 2014)
Less than three years after pulling American forces out of Iraq, President Barack Obama is weighing a range of short-term military options, including airstrikes, to quell the al-Qaida inspired insurgency.
"We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold," Obama said.
Republican lawmakers and military analysts are urging the administration to get more involved -- President Obama appeared to open the door Thursday to the possibility of air strikes, but no decision has been made.
"The Iraqi government is far from perfect," Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, R-Calif., said. "But if we don't want to see an Iraq with large swaths of territory under militant control, and we shouldn't, we should answer Iraqi requests to target these Al Qaeda terrorists with drone strikes."
However, officials firmly ruled out putting American troops back on the ground in Iraq, which has faced resurgent violence since the U.S. military withdrew in late 2011.
The violence has already led to the evacuation this week of Americans -- mainly contractors and civilians -- from a major air base in northern Iraq where the U.S. had been training security forces. The State Department said Thursday that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is operating as usual.
Sources said "all western diplomats in Iraq are in trouble," and American allies are scrambling to put together an evacuation plan. Military officials said there are "not a lot of good options."
President Obama has been asked about oil. He says that if ISIS seized control of major refineries, that would be a major concern. The US is going to talk to other oil suppliers to try and ensure "a backstop," though, so far, there has not been disruption.
Executions by ISIS
I believe air strikes and new weapons are pointless if the Iraqi Army is incapable of defending the country. Security officials said ISIS fighters had control of two weapons depots holding 400,000 items, including AK-47 rifles, rockets and rocket-propelled grenades, artillery shells and mortars.
And, a senior U.S. defense official said Friday U.S. officials were seeing signs that Iranian fighters were engaged in Iraq, a development the source described as "concerning." But, it was not immediately clear how many troops were involved.
Billions of U.S. dollars invested in training and equipping Iraq's security forces are in danger of going to waste, not to mention the thousands of American lives lost in the nine-year war. According to an inspector general report issued last year, the U.S. government spent nearly $25 billion on "training, equipping and sustaining" the Iraqi security forces as of late 2012.
By the time U.S. forces withdrew at the end of 2011, Iraq's trained security forces numbered more than 930,000. That included a 200,000-strong army, in addition to Iraqi police and other wings.
In a relative instant, those who worked on that mission are watching those gains melt away.
Maliki reportedly purges the army of senior leaders and replaced them with "cronies and hacks."
Retired Gen. Jack Keane, Fox News military analyst and former Army vice chief of staff, said that several years ago, the army was "well-led and it was competent" -- but morale "began to systematically break down for the last three years" because of "ineffective leaders."
As American-trained Iraqi solders shed their uniforms and blend into the populace, another costly U.S. operation to establish a free country fades.
I believe most informed Americans knew the country would be caught in civil war after American troops left. Now we have left Iraq, we do not have the power to keep warring factions with different political and different religious objectives at bay. The U.S. helped establish Maliki as a leader who became unwilling to recognize key factions of resistance and attempt to create a country where all could live together. A civil uprising was inevitable.
The Wall Street Journal reported Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a response via his representative Friday:
"Given the current threat facing Iraq, defending the land, honor and holy places is a religious duty."
And, Maliki, himself, said Saturday:
"The Iraqi fighter is well known for his courage and valor, he has never been known to be defeated or deserted."
Duty? Honor? Courage? Valor? I think the verdict is still out for proof of Iraqi virtues. The people of Iraq must quell the violence. U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay warned Friday of "murder of all kinds" and other war crimes in Iraq, and said the number killed in recent days may run into the hundreds, while the wounded could approach 1,000.
This is horrible reality for the world. Yet, I believe the bloodshed can only be controlled by those fighting on the ground in Iraq -- not by foreign bombs and drones. I pray American troops will not be placed on Iraqi soil again. I pray America is through with all operations in Iraq.