Eye on Iraq: Are We Witnessing the Start of a Shiite-Sunni Regional War?

Who Are They?

The Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIS) was established from an al-Qaeda linked group in Iraq. Consisting of 3,000-5,000 fighters, this militant army has been led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who is identified as a battlefield commander and tactician. A large swath of Syrian territory in the eastern portion of the country is under their control. Bases were established by the ISIS in the western desert of Iraq from which to wage war in Syria. The jihadists had already subdued Ramadi and Fallujah and by Wednesday, June 11, had easily taken Mosul (it’s greatest triumph yet) and Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s hometown).

What Happened?


The New York Times reports that army commanders from the era of Saddam Hussein joined forces with ISIS to defeat the Shiite-led Iraqi government. Many of Saddam’s senior officers are reported to have come from Mosul. Inexplicably, yet perhaps a related event, Iraqi forces fled the fight in Mosul, abandoning equipment and uniforms. Individual reports on the ground from the common soldier indicate that they were commanded to do just that from their officers.

Panic ensued and 500,000 people fled. Among those are the area’s Christians. Open Doors states that hundreds of Christian families fled the fighting since Monday morning. One need only look to the ISIS behavior in Syria to see why as they levied a protection tax and engaged in multiple crucifixions. Open Doors reports that ISIS wishes to establish an Islamic caliphate in western Syria and eastern Iraq devoid of Christians. 

However, the roots go back all the way to the end of the Iraq War and a fateful decision to outlaw Baath party members from positions of power and influence. See "Iraq is on Fire" among the sources listed below for more information on that part of this story.

Image source

What is Being Done to Stop The Advance to Baghdad and to Reverse Militant Gains?

Air strikes are being conducted by the Iraqi air force in both Mosul and Tikrit. The Iraqi army is engaging the enemy in Tikrit under that air support. Reports are that there are heavy clashes there.

Other reports indicate that Iraqi forces have slowed the advance to Baghdad at the city of Samarrah, 68 miles from Baghdad. Yet other reports state that the militant army has bypassed Samarrah and seized Dhuluiya, northwest of the Iraqi capital. Obviously, events on the ground are moving at a rapid pace.

To add to the intrigue, Prime Minister Maliki requested emergency powers to deal with the crisis but couldn’t get enough parliamentarians to show up to have a vote. It remains to be seen if there has been a lot more coordination in the Iraqi military and among Sunni leaders, including in parliament, that are indicative of a coup of sorts which would make this crisis much worse than it already seems. The Sunnis have regularly complained about representation in the government and actions by the government against its people.

The government of the semi-autonomous region of the Kurds in the north of Iraq has mobilized their forces. Defenses have been fortified along their borders and oil-rich Kirkuk is under their control. Media reports suggest that the ISIS is loathe to engage the Kurdish forces.

Iran has sent Revolutionary Guard troops to aid the Iraqi government. Two battalions of the Quds Forces are involved. Both the Iranian and Iraqi governments claim that 85% of Tirkirk has been recaptured. The Islamic Republic of Iran has also promised to help defend Baghdad and the two Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala which have been specifically named in threats from the ISIS. Troops along Iran’s borders are on alert. If more forces are needed, it has been suggested that Iran would redirect Iranian forces in Syria to the fight in Iraq.  06/16 update: Iran has sent 2,000 troops to Iraq. Major General Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, had arrived in Baghdad to oversee the defense of Baghdad.

The President of the United States has stated that all options are on the table including military action. The only exclusion has been ground troops. A hint at what may come is the inclusion of ISIS in Syria in the president’s remarks. What has happened on the ground in Iraq may give the Obama administration the justification it may feel it needs to engage militarily against ISIS in both countries. The question is whether such action could benefit Assad and would the United States either refrain from action there as a result or seek to act against Syrian troops or bases as a counterbalance? The U.S. may decide to act only if ISIS forces gather or move across the border from Syria into Iraq.

A wild card in this whole scenario is NATO member Turkey. The government there has complained that its consular staff in Iraq has been taken hostage by the militants. Considering Turkey’s interests, its anger at this event as well as its proximity to the action, it seems logical to expect some kind of movement from the Turks.


Iran Deploys Forces to Fight al Qaeda-Inspired Militants in Iraq
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Forces Helped Iraqi Troops Win Back Control of Most of Tikrit, the Sources Said

Iran sends troops into Iraq to aid fight against Isis militants

Iraq Battles Islamists in Saddam’s Hometown, 80 Miles From Baghdad

Iraq conflict: All options open to fight insurgents - Obama

Iraq is on fire

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