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Briefing - The New Rules of the Game in Iraq

Commentary, 18 June 2014
Middle East and North Africa
Based on interviews in Iraq, some leaders, particularly in Kurdistan, suggest that Iraq ‘post-Mosul’ can never recover to what it was ‘pre-Mosul’ and, far from being a retrievable situation, the future of Iraq is one of conflict and division.

Based on interviews in Iraq,  some leaders, particularly in Kurdistan, suggest that Iraq ‘post-Mosul’ can never recover to what it was ‘pre-Mosul’ and, far from being a retrievable situation, the future of Iraq is one of conflict and division.

  almasalah com

Erbil, Kurstistan, Iraq – A new mantra has taken hold among the Kurdish leaders of Iraq: ‘there is Iraq pre-Mosul, and Iraq post-Mosul’. The meaning of this is clear, and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani’s point is very well made. Whether ISIS succeeds in capturing Baghdad and starting a sectarian civil war of catastrophic proportions, or consolidates its hold in its ‘new’ state spanning Syria and Iraq (in what is the Al-Jazira region), or is ultimately defeated by some combination of US and Iranian intervention in support of Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq, the rules of the game of Iraqi politics will change.

These new rules will have little option but to acknowledge the reality of sectarian and ethnic based political life in Iraq, and to move away from the illiterate reading of Iraq’s political sociology as being capable of generating cross-cutting communal linkages.

Iraq has experienced the policies of the Maliki government having deepened ethno-sectarian differences in Iraq in the run-up to the takeover of Mosul. It has also witnessed the raw brutality of ISIS committing acts of sectarian extremism on an industrial scale. And now Kurds are moving quickly to consolidate their region and move towards declaring independence if ISIS were to succeed in destroying the Iraqi government. Western powers need to consider what ‘post-Mosul Iraq’ will be, and the distinct possibility of the state collapsing into three entities.

This analysis considers two elements of the current crisis – the rise not only of ISIS but of Sunni Arab opposition toward the Government of Iraq, and what could be the final crystallisation of the Kurdish state-building project that has been ongoing in Iraq since 1991.

The Origins of ISIS and the Sunni Alliance

Who, or what, is ISIS and where did it come from? Media reports on 10 July could perhaps be forgiven for early suggestions that ISIS somehow came from nowhere, such was the seeming speed of the ISIS takeover of what is a city of significant proportions.

However, ISIS did not suddenly appear. The genesis of the organisation can be traced to the previous incarnation of extreme Salafist Islamism in Iraq, during the ‘first’ sectarian civil war of 2007-8. Then, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi led the highly capable and effective Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), otherwise known as Al-Qa’ida Iraq (AQI) due it accepting the overlordship of the Al-Qa’ida leadership of the late Osama bin Laden and his subsequent successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Among the ranks of ISI at this time was one Ibrahim al-Badri, otherwise known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who would, after the evisceration of the leadership of ISI by the US military, rise to become the emir of ISI. From 2008 onwards, ISI did not evaporate. They lay low in Iraq, continuing to operate albeit in a more limited way, at least until the leaving of Iraq by the US at the end of 2011.

During this time, the Sunni Arabs, who had accepted the promises made by the US on behalf of Prime Minister Maliki began to realise that these promises were hollow. Not only were they not included in the government or security services, but their details were now held by the security agencies of the state. And they found themselves not only marginalised by what they saw as an Iranian-backed Shi’a dominated government with a sectarian agenda, but targeted as previous, and perhaps future, threats to the security of Maliki’s regime.

Already, interests were beginning to realign between those Sunni Arabs that had been reconciled by the US to the government of Iraq, and those that had been irreconcilable, including al-Baghdadi and his cohorts, and ferociously attacked by US forces. Operating at the same time as ISI were the powerful remnants of the military and security services of Saddam’s regime – including the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, and the Special Security Organisation. Importantly for what would happen on 10 June  2014, these organisations had recruited heavily from the governorates of Ninevah, Salahadin, and Anbar, with the city of Mosul being of particular importance due to the location there of many centres of elite training and instruction for Saddam’s loyalists.

The uprising in Syria provided the heavily beaten ISI an opportunity to re-establish itself as a potent military organisation and to operate in an environment that would prove to be easier than that of Maliki’s Iraq. Syria would also give what was now ISIS the opportunity to enhance its funding base, by tapping into Syria’s limited but available oil reserves at Deir az-Zur and Hassekeh, and give a further recruiting base among Syria’s Sunni Arab community – part of which had shown itself to be willing to fight alongside ISI in Iraq against US forces.

Rising to the leadership of ISI was Abu Bakr. His background is opaque, but it seems that he was born in Samarra in 1971 and had reportedly served in the Iraqi army before 2003. He earned a doctorate in Islamic Studies from the University of Baghdad, and rose up the ranks of Zarqawi’s ISI after 2003, gaining a reputation for being a fearsome leader, strategist, and for exercising extreme secrecy.  Held by the US in Camp Bucca for four years, some have pointed to this period as important in his radicalisation; however, Abu Bakr probably did not need assistance in this area, such was his reputation beforehand. 

He also has seemed to learn from the mistakes of Zarqawi: by distancing ISIS from Al-Qa’ida in 2013, Abu Bakr made his organisation more attractive to Sunnis opposed to the regime but unwilling to engage with the foreigners of Al-Qa’ida. It also facilitated an alliance with former Ba’thists on the basis of Iraqi nationalism. Furthermore, for such an important, successful, figure, Abu Bakr remains an enigma. Not for him is the penchant for public pronouncements of other Al-Qa’ida leaders. Rather, his aura has been projected even further by the intense secrecy that surrounds him.

How Mosul Fell

But to explain Mosul’s rapid collapse needs an acknowledgement of other forces at play in addition to ISIS. Before 10 June, ISIS forces stood at no greater than 3,000 guerrillas spread across Syria and Iraq. Yet they had made inroads into Mosul for months beforehand, leveraging taxes for protection or insurance against the future and operating a significant black economy in the city that was readily apparent to the authorities, even though they could do little about it.

Sleeper cells certainly existed as well, which rose up when the military columns of ISIS attacked from their bases in Hassekeh in Syria, and from Anbar in Iraq. But this is not only an ISIS insurgency; it is a broader based insurgency drawn from many constituencies of Sunni Arabs, all united in their enmity towards the Maliki government and what they see as a Shi’a regime. According to residents fleeing from Mosul, three distinct organisations took control of the city – ISIS, the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, and the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order (Jaish Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandiyya, or JRTN).

While ISIS quickly took control of the city and imposed its control swiftly, the Military Council, composed of former officers from Saddam’s military, and the JRTN, which also has strong Ba’thist links, balanced the jihadist rhetoric of ISIS. A deal seems to have been struck between ISIS and its Ba’thist partners, with the new governor being former military offer Colonel Hashem al-Jammas, and with ISIS withdrawing its non-Arab fighters soon after the fall of the city. How durable this opportunistic alliance proves to be will be a telling factor in the weeks ahead.

Mosul Emboldens ISIS

If ISIS were limited in size before Mosul, they were expansive after Mosul. ISIS finances were certainly much improved, with their wealth now estimated to be in the realm of over $1 billion, and now possibly more with the capturing of the Baiji oil refinery giving them the ability to further expand their black-market oil activities. But, in the short term, it is their expanded recruitment in the cities they have captured and the sheer amount of modern weaponry which should make those who stand against ISIS worry.

Consider the fall of the Iraqi Security Forces in Mosul as a case in point. Some 200,000 US-supplied soldiers belonging to the II, IV, VII, and XII divisions, along with two special police organisations all fled ahead of the ISIS advance, leaving behind untold amounts of vehicles, weapons, and ordnance. They captured helicopters, and have the pilots to fly them, and also modern artillery pieces as well. This pattern has been repeated in Tal Afar, Tikrit, and every place that ISIS has captured since Mosul.

Gains for Kurdistan

Meanwhile, further north, the Kurds moved quickly to not only protect their border by taking over bases abandoned by the Iraqi Security Force (ISF), but to expand into areas of the disputed territories with Kurdish majorities – and most notably Kirkuk. The Kurds moved exceptionally quickly following the ISIS attack on Mosul. Having had warned the Iraqi government of the threat posed by ISIS for several weeks before, the Kurdish leadership and Peshmerga command had been on alert for heightened instability in the disputed territories.

As such, when the ISF collapsed in Mosul and then in Kirkuk, they were in a very strong position to move quickly to take over the positions evacuated by the ISF at their Dijla Regional Command to the west of Kirkuk – ironically established by Prime Minister Maliki to put the Kurds under pressure – and to annex the Kurdish dominated districts of Kirkuk governorate into the KRG-administered region.This also happened in Ninevah governorate, with the Peshmerga occupying Kurdish-dominant areas outside Mosul city – including the strategically important Mosul Dam, and further to the south into Diyala province.

Following these moves, the territorial extent of the Kurdistan Region had increased by some 40 per cent and had brought into the region virtually all of the territories they had claimed as theirs by right, the resolution of which had been legislated for in the Constitution of 2005 in Article 140, but had never been implemented by the Government of Iraq. This territory included what the Kurds referred to as the ‘Heart of Kurdistan’ – the city of Kirkuk – and the three oil producing domes of the Kirkuk oil field complete with the infrastructure of the northern oil and gas industry.

From being a seemingly unattainable dream for the Kurds, the ownership of Kirkuk happened in a matter of hours. Yet, in the midsts of the jubilation of securing Kirkuk, the reality that the Kurdistan Region now had a 1000km border with the ISIS/Ba’thist dominated areas to the south quickly dawned as being a problem of significance for the future.

Conclusion – Three Zones of Control in Iraq

What does the future hold? Some academic analyses still suggest that not only do great swathes of moderation still exist in Iraq, but that, somehow, Western powers need to support the emergence of a non-sectarian political platform in Iraq to quash the message of ISIS and the reaction of the Shi’a militias

In the same breath, it seems, so too should the Kurds lay down their ethno-nationalist rhetoric and, for some reason, sacrifice what they have gained for the wider interests of Iraq – an entity in which the Kurds feel obliged to participate in, rather than being willing partners. These positions are put in a heartfelt way, but are banal when confronted with the sheer brutality of the ISIS assault, the constant policies of sectarianism pursued by the Maliki government, and the unbridled aspirations not only of Kurdish leaders, but of the Kurds as a whole themselves.

Instead of pointing to the possibilities of reconciliation, it would seem to be more rational for policymakers to look towards a future that would see Iraq’s three zones of control – Kurdistan, the ISIS/Ba’thist/tribal dominated region, and the Shi’a dominated south as a reality. The question that remains open is what will the nature of the engagement be between these zones?

Kurdistan, for now remains stable and safe, but will have much to do in order to truly secure its border against either ISIS, or a post-Mosul Maliki government that has survived and then seeks to re-impose its authority not only over Sunni areas, but in the disputed territories that the Kurds now believe are theirs. Between the ISIS and Shi’a regions, the situation is far less clear. ISIS could, of course, stay out of Baghdad and consolidate their hold in Anbar, Ninevah, Salahadin, Diyala and parts of Kirkuk.

In so doing, they would then exist in an uneasy stand-off between Baghdad and Erbil, but would be able to consolidate their position, grow their forces, and continue to develop their position in Syria – perhaps taking advantage of their strength at a later date. But this seems unlikely. With ISIS forces already at Baquba, an attack on Baghdad seems imminent. This can only produce a sectarian civil war of catastrophic proportions, as Baghdad is now largely Shi’a-populated, and is home to the stronghold of several Shi’a militias, particularly in the north-east sector of Sadr City. It is this scenario that has led to some leaders, particularly in Kurdistan, to suggest that Iraq ‘post-Mosul’ can never recover to what it was ‘pre-Mosul’ and, far from being a retrievable situation, the future of Iraq is one of conflict and division.


Gareth Stansfield
Senior Associate Fellow

Professor Gareth Stansfield is a Senior Associate Fellow with special reference to the Middle East and Islamic world. He is professor of... read more

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