ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria) began as Sunni Arab nationalists who lost their jobs, power and wealth when Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party were overthrown in early 2003. Saddam Hussein was a secular dictator, who tolerated Islamic terrorists if they attacked his enemies and behaved while hiding out in Iraq. After Saddam’s forces were thrown out of Kuwait in 1991 his policy changed and he declared that he was actually religious and he backed Sunni Islamic terrorist groups as long as they helped him keep the Shia Arab majority of Iraq under control. Sunni Islamic terrorists were willing to do this because Sunni conservatives consider Shia heretics worthy only of torture and death. The Iraqi Shia had staged a major rebellion against Saddam right after Saddam’s army get chewed up trying to hang onto Kuwait in 1991. That rebellion festered throughout the 1990s. Saddam and his key associates developed relationships with Sunni tribal leaders and Sunni Islamic terrorist groups, who had for decades been forced to keep their heads down. Once Saddam was out of power in 2003 the Sunni tribes and Islamic terrorists lost the financial and military support Saddam provided for over a decade. The Sunni Arab minority (about 20 percent of Iraqis) also lost control of the Iraq economy and all that oil money. This came as a big shock. Many of these Sunni Arabs wanted their wealth and power back and were willing to do anything to accomplish that task. That led to support for Islamic terrorist groups. The Sunni Arab minority in what is now Iraq has long dominated the area and feels that this domination is a right and a responsibility. They were always wealthier, better educated, more organized and prone to ruthlessness. By merging with Islamic terrorists they acquired the belief they had divine approval for their goals.
Sunni Islam is what the majority (over 80 percent) of Moslems believe and in Arabia itself (where Islam first appeared in the 7th century) the locals believe they are more Islamic than other Moslems. After all, the Koran was written in Arabic and all the founders of Islam were Arabs. For over a thousand years there has been a tradition of different factions in Arabia trying to be more Islamic than each other. One of those factions is the Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia. Wahhabis are very conservative and very hostile to non-Moslems and Moslems who are not Sunni. This meant little to the non-Moslem world until lots of oil wealth appeared in Arabia after World War II. Suddenly it became possible for Moslems to show how pious they were by funding Wahhabi missionaries going to other Moslem (and many non-Moslem) nations and to preach, establish Wahhabi religious schools and mosques and create the current Islamic terrorism problem. Billions was spent on this and the policy of getting the young boys into these free religious schools and turning many of them into hateful (of non-Sunni) Islamic religious fanatics led to a major outbreak of Islamic terrorism in the late 20th century. Saddam had kept this out of Iraq until 1991. Many secular rules of Moslem countries (like Syria and Libya) had also resisted the Wahhabi and regretted it when they ran into problems with Islamic terrorism.
After 2003 many Iraqi Sunnis were always certain they could regain power. They considered that the natural order of things, temporarily interrupted by evil and ignorant foreigners. They had history on their side. Even when the Turks controlled the area for centuries before the Turkish Empire fell apart after World War I (1914-18) it was the Sunni Arabs of Baghdad the Turks depended on to keep the Shia majority under control. The oil wealth and independence came in the 1930s and for the next 70 years the Sunnis did quite well for themselves. Losing it all in 2003 encouraged the Islamic terrorist groups to make common cause with the Sunni nationalists (including the Baath Party) to put Sunni Arabs back in charge. What was left unresolved was whether the new Sunni dictatorship would be secular (like Saddam) or religious (like neighboring Iran).
ISIL began as ISI (Islamic State in Iraq) after 2004 and was one of many Sunni Islamic terrorist groups operating in Iraq back then. By 2010 ISI was almost destroyed due to U.S. efforts, especially getting many Sunni tribes to turn against the Islamic terrorist groups. But after U.S. forces left in 2011 the Iraqi government failed to follow U.S. advice to take good care of the Sunni tribes, if only to keep the tribes from again supporting the Islamic terrorist groups. Instead the Shia led government turned against the Sunni population and stopped providing government jobs and regular pay for many of the Sunni tribal militias. Naturally many Sunni Arabs went back to supporting terror groups, especially very violent ones like ISI.
After 2011, as the Iraqi Shia were turning on the Sunni Arab minority, there was a rebellion against a minority Shia government in Syria, led by the Sunni Arab majority there. The Sunni tribes of western Iraq were linked by culture and sometimes family links with the Sunni tribes of eastern Syria. The rebellion in Syria got ISI thinking about forming a new Islamic Sunni state out of eastern Syria, western Iraq, Baghdad (historically the seat of Sunni power in the area, despite it now being half Shia) and Mosul. Actually this also includes Lebanon and all of Iraq, but this was kept quiet initially. This decision had ISI spending a lot more time and effort recruiting in western Iraq after 2011. ISIL was created in 2013 when ISI sought to become the dominant rebel group in Syria by persuading men, especially foreigners, from other Islamic terrorist groups fighting in Syria to join a new, united Islamic terrorist group called ISIL. This caused problems because of the harsh way ISIL treated civilians and anyone who opposed them. ISIL relished the publicity their atrocities received. But al Qaeda knew from bitter experience (in Iraq from 2006-2008) that the atrocities simply turned the Islamic world against you. The bad relations between ISIL and all the other Islamic radicals in Syria reached a low point in June 2013 when the head of al Qaeda (bin Laden successor Ayman al Zawahiri) declared the recent merger of the new (since January 2013) Syrian Jabhat al Nusra (JN) with ISIL unacceptable and ordered the two groups to remain separate. That was because the merger was announced by ISI/ISIL without the prior agreement of JN leadership. Many JN members then left their JN faction to join ISIL. JN leaders saw this as a power grab by ISI/ISIL and most of the JN men who left to join ISIL were non-Syrians. Many of these men had worked with ISI before and thought they were joining a more powerful group. A month later al Qaeda declared ISIL outcasts and sanctioned the war against them. By January 2014 this had turned into all-out war between ISIL and the other rebel groups in Syria.
That was not the first time al Qaeda has had to slap down misbehaving Iraqi Islamic terror groups and won’t be the last. But it’s not a problem unique to Iraq. It is a problem for Saudi Arabia because the Saudis finance al Nusra and some of the other Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria that are now at war with ISIL. To the Saudis such support is the lesser of two evils as ISIL is crippling rebel efforts to overthrow the Assad government. This is also part of the ideological war the Saudis (and most other Sunni Moslems) are fighting with Shia Iran (and its Shia allies the Assads and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon). Meanwhile the Saudis continue crushing the Sunni Islamic terrorists that try to attack them at home. This includes local members of ISIL. All this sounds somewhat bizarre, with Saudi Arabia funding missionaries that create Islamic terrorists who become uncontrollable and seem to overthrow the rulers of Saudi Arabia. Absurd it may be, but it is a familiar pattern in this part of the world where religion and politics have long been intertwined in absurd and tragic ways.
The Saudis have been dealing with Islamic terrorism within their borders since the kingdom was formed in the 1920s and were able to quickly defeat the 2003 al Qaeda offensive. At first al Qaeda terrorists appeared capable of doing some serious damage in Saudi Arabia. In 2003-4, they made four major attacks. These killed 68 people, including twelve Americans. But most of the dead were Saudis, and this turned the population against the terrorists. All the planned terror attacks since then have been aborted by security forces, usually via tips from Saudi civilians. Most Islamic terrorists have now fled the kingdom. Despite this a large minority of Saudis still support al Qaeda, but it's the majority who do not and that makes it nearly impossible for the terrorists to operate in their "homeland." Killing civilians will do that, and al Qaeda has not been able to figure out how to fight without shedding the blood of innocents. So the innocents are taking their revenge. Meanwhile there is still support for groups like ISIL inside Saudi Arabia and ISIL has been recruiting for Saudi men to go fight in Syria and Iraq.
Taking Mosul was crucial to the ISIL plan for regional and world conquest. Mosul was part of Turkey until 1918, when the victorious Allies took Mosul province, and its oil, away from Turkey (to prevent the Turks from financing an effort to rebuild their empire) and gave it to the newly created Iraq. In the 1980s Saddam Hussein, again feuding with the Kurdish majority in northern Iraq, killed or drove Kurds out of Mosul and invited poor Sunnis from the south to move in and take over. After 2003 the Kurds came back seeking to regain their stolen property and control of Mosul. The Sunni Arabs there did not want to give up their new homes as they would be destitute if they did so. So the fighting was vicious and the Mosul Sunnis were glad to get help from ISIL and other Sunni terror groups. But now most Mosul residents are feeling the impact of the ISIL take over as new lifestyle rules have been issued forbidding many things Westernized Iraqis take for granted.
The current ISIL offensive in Iraq is, so to speak, a mile wide but an inch deep. It worked more because of the demoralizing impact of corruption in the Iraqi government (especially the armed forces). The troops and police, most of them Shia, felt abandoned and mistreated (often not paid or provided with essential supplies because of corruption) by their own government. ISIL concentrated their terror attacks on the security forces, to the point where the losses from these attacks plus the bad leadership and poor treatment the soldiers and police suffered caused many of them to flee a large scale series of ISIL attacks. Because of this the main task of the returning American troops is to quickly measure the extent of damage done to the armed forces by three years or corruption and mismanagement. When U.S. forces were in Iraq there were American advisors at all levels of the armed forces. In addition to advice, these American officers and NCOs also reported incidents of corruption and the U.S. was able to take these complaints to senior members of the government and keep the stealing, and the negative impact on military performance in check. Once the Americans were gone the stealing was out-of-control and the security forces began to decline. It’s uncertain how long it will take to get things put back together. There are still some capable units, but not enough to take care of all that needs to be done.
The Sunni Arabs can’t defeat the Shia majority as long as the Shia are armed and have outside support (mainly from Iran and the United States and, quietly, Saudi Arabia). The U.S. also encourages the Sunni Arab Gulf States (especially Saudi Arabia) to oppose Iraqi Sunni Arab efforts to regain control of the country (as some form of dictatorship because the Sunni don’t have the votes to get elected.) The U.S. also restrains the Iraqi Shia from turning on the entire Sunni population, as happened from 2006-8 and drove a third of the Iraqi Sunni out of the country and nearly as many from their homes to get away from the Shia death squads. Despite what the United States and the West wants, events in Arabia follow a different rhythm. Right now the local support for ISIL is just not there except among the Sunni minority.
Meanwhile the ISIL advance was not a surprise to the United States. For over a year now Iraq has been negotiating with the United States for the return of some American intelligence units. This is something Iraqi leaders don’t like to discuss in detail, because to do so means admitting that the Americans were so successful at crushing the Islamic terrorists because the U.S. had technology (hardware and software) and skilled intelligence personnel capable of monitoring just about all wireless communications in Iraq, in addition to most of what happened on the Internet. Wikileaks and the later NSA leaks make it pretty clear how this all worked. The difference between how effective counter-terrorism operations were in Iraq (not so good) and Afghanistan (still very good) after 2011 is, to the Iraqi leaders, traceable to the decision to eject all U.S. forces after 2011. Despite Iraqi political resistance the U.S. resumed its intelligence efforts over Iraq more than a week ago. U.S. warplanes and UAVs from American carriers and Persian Gulf air bases have resumed reconnaissance flights over Iraq. Spy satellites have been moved into position as well. The intel specialists in the American embassy in Iraq are reactivating sources inside Iraq and seeking sharing arrangements with intelligence agencies of Iraqi neighbors.
Actually some American intelligence activity remained in Iraq after 2011 and the U.S. reported the growing anger among Sunni Arabs and the growing power of ISIL to Iraqi officials. But too many Iraqi leaders believed that they could cope. They were wrong but many of the Iraqi politicians at fault are not willing to surrender power despite their obvious shortcomings.
In the north the Kurds have mobilized thousands of reservists and increased security on the border between the autonomous Kurdish provinces and the rest of Iraq. The Kurds did advance south a bit and took control of Kirkuk and its oil fields. But the Kurds have not advanced to retake Mosul. Apparently the Kurds, and the Turks are waiting to see what the United States does to change the military situation.
June 23, 2014: The Iraqi government finally signed a status of forces agreement and hundreds of American Special Forces and intelligence personnel began moving to Iraq with a few reaching Baghdad and other parts of Iraq before the end of the day. Special Forces and SOCOM (Special Operations Command) personnel will provide ground controllers for American air strikes and advisors for Iraqi army and police commanders. The advice will include a better sense of who is where on the ground by virtue of American intel efforts. The American personnel are also there to report back to the U.S. a more accurate picture of what is going on. Even the Iraqi government is badly in need of better intel. For ISIL intel is less of a problem because many of their men are on a mission from God and victory is assured. ISIL leaders do make use of a network of informants they have long used to determine who to bribe or assassinate in the government and which criminal or Islamic terrorist group they could work with.
In addition to the status of forces agreement the U.S. also got a pledge from the Iraqi government to form a new government by July 1st. The last parliamentary elections were in April but, as usual, the members of parliament are deadlocked over who shall have what. Meanwhile the government limps along, which is a big help for ISIL and a major disappointment for the Shia majority who voted in April. The U.S. and many of Iraq’s neighbors want
incumbent (since 2006) president Nouri al Maliki replaced. Maliki’s party won the April elections, despite a dismal record of corruption, mismanagement and inability to halt the growth of ISIL. Maliki was the favorite because he used his control of the government to persuade voters and politicians (with bribes, jobs, promises or threats) to support his effort to gain enough members of parliament to form the next government and rule for another four (and a total of twelve) years. That has not happened because there is growing anger against Maliki, corruption and inept government. Before June 9th is looked like Maliki was on his way to putting together a coalition of 170 seats (52 percent of the 328 member parliament). Malikis own State of Law party took less than a quarter (92) of those seats but Maliki was willing spend what was required to buy some allies in parliament. Now it appears that Maliki will not be the new prime minister. It will also be difficult agreeing on who will replace Maliki.
What kept Maliki in power for so long was a growing economy. Before June 9th GDP was expected to grow by nearly six percent in 2014. That would have given the government expects over $145 billion to spend in 2014. This was to be a record budget and up 22 percent from 2013. There have been growing calls in Iraq for the government to build the kind of oil-fueled welfare state that exists next door in Saudi Arabia. But Iraq has more people and pumps less oil than Saudi Arabia, so there is more incentive for Iraqis to take any job and hustle in a way that Saudis have not had to for generations. But that’s not enough. Iraq has a more effective education system than Saudi Arabia but Iraqis with skills tend to flee the country because of the corruption and high crime rate. Not enough educated Iraqis, who occupy most of the management jobs, are willing or able to address the damage done by rampant corruption. Too many people are willing to gut an essential logistical or maintenance task in order to steal some money meant to get important things (like national defense) done. This is especially true in the government bureaucracies, and that includes the military. Some Iraqis understand how this works and want it changed but the officials in power are more interested in stealing. There’s a popular realization that the corruption is a key problem but so far there have not been enough senior government leaders willing to risk assassination and personal financial loss to move decisively against the problem. This corruption has a direct impact on the growing of Islamic terrorist violence because the stealing cripples the security forces by leaving the soldiers and police unpaid and unsupplied. If the Shia do not get organized they will see the better organized (even when it comes to corruption) Sunni minority once again be in control and the Shia will again be poor and living in fear of Sunni retribution for real or imagined misbehavior. The U.S. has told the Iraqi leaders that if they do not take effective action to deal with the Sunni Islamic terrorists the U.S. will do so and that will be at the expense of the Iraqi politicians who created the current mess. One unpleasant side effect of all this is that the U.S. is now under pressure to attack ISIL in Syria as well. While this could be construed as aiding the Assad government it isn’t because ISIL has been openly fighting other rebel groups in Syria since January. Everyone hates ISIL.
In Syria some of the Iraqi Shia Arabs who took the Iranian offer of regular pay, weapons and so on to go fight Assad forces in Syria are now leaving that job and returning to fight ISIL in Iraq.
Meanwhile Iraqi Shia religious leaders (especially Sadr and Sistani) have revived their militias. These were suppressed by the government before the Americans left in 2011. The understanding was that the security forces would keep the Shia population safe. This has not worked out, although the security forces have had some success in protecting Shia holy places and the Shia majority areas of the south. But the Shia in Baghdad and other parts of northern Iraq continued to suffer losses from Sunni Islamic terrorists. The government was keen to keep the Shia militias inactive because when these groups were at work they were undisciplined and often resorted to terror attacks on all Sunni Arab Iraqis. So far over 30,000 Shia militiamen are back on duty, armed and often in uniforms. Their first priority is to keep ISIL out of Shia majority towns, cities and neighborhoods. For groups like ISIL, the Shia militias are dangerous because many men join the militia for revenge. These men come from the numerous families who lost someone to Sunni Islamic terrorism or, before that, Saddams secret police. The Saddam thugs would often execute or mutilate Shia in public to create maximum terror. Those tactics ultimately backfired because of the culture of revenge in the region. For many Shia men there is a blood feud with not just Sunni Islamic terrorists but with Sunni Arabs in general. ISIL has not got a monopoly on mindless terror.
Today ISIL announced they had taken full control over the Baiji refinery south of Mosul (and 180 kilometers north of Baghdad). This operation produced a third of the refined petroleum products in Iraq. ISIL said it was turning control of Baiji over to local Sunni tribes, an act that cemented the loyalty of many Sunnis to ISIL. The refinery has been shut down since the 17th while ISIL and government forces fought over control.
ISIL regained control of the northern city of Tal Afar, where government forces resisted ISIL for a week before retreating. The government spoke, for the first time, of recent casualties to the security forces. No precise figures were given only a comment that “hundreds of soldiers” had been killed by Sunni Islamic terrorists. Combat deaths since June 9th are probably in the thousands with even more deserting after the rout of security forces in Mosul.
June 22, 2014: ISIL took control of three towns in Anbar province (western Iraq) and two border crossings (one with Syria the other with Jordan). In response Jordan sent more troops to its side of the border and shut down the crossing. Although Jordan is a Sunni Arab state it is quite hostile to Islamic terrorist groups and has one of the most effective governments and armed forces in the region.
Leaders of Saddam’s old Baath Party have surfaced pledging their support for ISIL. Baath is banned in Iraq since 2003 although it is still alive and well in Syria where the local branch has long been run by the Assad clan. While this announcement means little in military terms, it scares the hell out of Iraqi Shia, many of whom have long and horrid memories of Baath oppression.
June 21, 2014: In Anbar ISIL attacked the last major border crossing to Syria and destroyed the government forces that had long held it. The pro-government tribes that had long helped the troops keep control of the border crossing did not send reinforcements. Tribal leaders told the government that ISIL had ambushed some of the reinforcements and that ISIL was too strong in the area. The tribes are under pressure from ISIL to renounce their support of the government. The tribes are not happy with ISIL, who are seen as unpredictable and vicious. Some of the tribes are waiting to see what impact the Americans will have. These Anbar tribes took heavy losses fighting the Americans and then suffered even more at the hands of Islamic terrorist groups who accused the tribes of not being loyal or cooperative enough. It was American Special Forces that persuaded the tribes to turn against the Islamic terrorist groups and some old relationships appear to have been renewed in the last week or so.
June 20, 2014: ISIL gunmen took control of the old Saddam era chemical weapons factory at Muthanna (60 kilometers northwest of Baghdad). The plant has been shut for over a decade but some chemicals are still stored there although not in the right type or quantity to resume production of chemical weapons.
June 18, 2014: Iraq announced that it had asked the United States for air strikes against ISIL inside Iraq. The U.S. quietly responded that first the long-sought status of forces agreement must be signed. This, and working out other details of American participation, took five days.
ISIL took control of the northern city of Tal Afar. This town has a large Shia population and the government was pressured to send troops to push ISIL out. That effort failed.
Iran called for men to volunteer to defend Shia holy places in southern Iraq (the “birthplace” of Shia Islam) and over 5,000 have responded so far. Without any publicity Iran has sent more of its Quds Force trainers, advisors and commandos and Revolutionary Guard soldiers to Iraq, where Quds has long maintained a network of informants, supporters and local militia leaders. Iraqi and Iranian officials are working out how much assistance Iran will provide to help deal with the resurgent Sunni Islamic terrorists. The main problem here is the corruption and mismanagement of the Iraqi government that the Iranians have warned the Iraqis about that for years. This is an old problem. There is also a lot of corruption in Iran, but it is much worse in Iraq and this condition has existed for thousands of years. It’s one reason why the Iranians have long been the dominant power in the region. The Iranians understand that if you don’t put some constraints on the corruption it will render the military, and much of the government, useless. The Arabs have a hard time changing their traditions. The Iraqi Sunnis were somewhat better at controlling the corruption but they were a minority government ruling a Shia majority population and facing a powerful Iranian Shia state next door. That provided some incentive to shape up that the current Shia government of Iraq lacks.
June 17, 2014: The government fired three generals and ordered an investigation of how these three failed to defend Mosul. Another general, who could not be found, was ordered prosecuted for desertion anyway. The corrupt military leadership in Mosul caused the security forces to collapse. Money for food, ammunition and other essentials was stolen by senior commanders who thought they could get away with it. The culture of corruption in Mosul caused a crisis reverberating throughout the security forces. There is panic among some of the more corrupt commanders and suddenly troops are getting paid and supplies are showing up. But a growing number of senior officers are getting their families out of the country and preparing to follow themselves. No point in being a thief if you don’t live to spend it.
June 16, 2014: The U.S. announced it is sending 275 infantry to Baghdad to help guard the massive American embassy compound there. The U.S. State Department has officially warned Americans to get out, and stay out, of Iraq until the current crises is resolved. Many other foreign nations are doing the same.
June 14, 2014: The United States ordered an aircraft carrier task force into the Persian Gulf to support operations against ISIL.
June 12, 2014: ISIL continued moving south and took Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town and long one of the most pro-Saddam areas in Iraq. But the security forces, Kurds and Shia militias kept ISIL from going much further.
June 11, 2014: Iran openly offered Iraq unspecified “help” in dealing with the ISIL threat. The U.S. and Iran have apparently been in touch over the ISIL in Iraq issue. After 2003 there were several instances where Iran and the U.S. quietly cooperated in operations against Sunni Arab Islamic terrorist groups. But many more radical members of the Iranian government opposed this sort of thing and the cooperation ceased by the time the U.S. left Iraqi in 2011.
In Mosul ISIL seized the Turkish consulate and took 49 diplomatic personnel and family prisoner. Other Turks were also seized making for nearly a hundred hostages. The Turkish government promptly put a ban on Turkish media discussing the situation and sought to negotiate the release of the prisoners. Many Turks want the government to consider a military option but because of the new ban it is difficult to determine exactly what is going on. Two weeks later there is still no news.