Emboldened by their consolidation of territory across Syria and Iraq, jihadists with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have launched a successful assault on Iraq’s third largest city, Mosul.
Iraq’s armed forces decided against resistance, entire units abandoned their posts and barracks and left their vehicles, weapons and even uniforms behind.
Many residents in Sunni-dominated Mosul were hostile towards Iraq’s Shia-dominated army because they were harshly treated. The decision by army units to flee en masse may indicate they felt that Mosul, where they were considered occupiers, was not a city worth dying for.
The attack comes with the backdrop of a growing insurgency across several provinces neighbouring Baghdad.
ISIS jihadists already control the city of Fallujah, in the restive western province of Anbar, where the militants enjoy increasing freedom of movement.
Mosul’s takeover is likely to have further devastating security consequences for the rest of the country, given the vast material and financial gains ISIS has made.
In addition to this, several prisons were broken into and between 2,000 and 3,000 inmates have been freed, providing ISIS with a vast pool of new recruits.
The Iraqi government’s response to this new crisis indicates a sense of desperation in Baghdad.
Prime Minister Maliki has asked parliament to agree to a state of emergency, giving the commander-in-chief of the armed forces even more power than he already has. Maliki has also called for an emergency session of parliament, scheduled for tomorrow.
There are now reports that Shia militia fighters, already fighting alongside government forces, are preparing to move up north to confront ISIS and protect Shia minority communities living in the Sunni-dominated north.
Militia recruitment centres have also opened in Baghdad and the south where volunteers are applying in their hundreds to support Iraqi security forces.
These efforts, as well as the escalation in sectarian rhetoric, will only add to the sectarian polarization of the current conflict in Iraq.
In Baghdad, the government has recognized that the conventional armed forces are unprepared and unwilling to confront the jihadists. In response to this it is increasing efforts to recruit more ideologically-driven Shia militias, who are able to fight an unconventional enemy through unconventional means.
The current jihadist onslaught leaves the United States in an awkward position. With US-made military vehicles and weapons being paraded by jihadists in Mosul, policy-makers will be questioning the effectiveness of providing Baghdad with even more military hardware that may end up in the hands of the very people they want to defeat.
Iraqi security officials have asked for missile-equipped drones in the past and the US has consistently refused these requests. Now, however, the US may be more willing to offer such equipment. However, many in Baghdad are frustrated at the slow speed of American military assistance.
Iraq’s government has little choice but to rely even more heavily on the Russians and Iranians – who are more willing to provide logistical, financial and immediate military assistance, as seen in Syria.
Though Maliki has built his reputation on his ability to confront militants – both Shia and Sunni – and the loss of Mosul represents incompetency of the highest magnitude – the current lapse in security may benefit him politically. Iraq’s most influential Shia religious authority, Ayatollah Sistani, issued a strongly worded statement supporting the armed forces in their war against terrorists. He called on all politicians to unite in order to confront this threat and to protect Iraqi citizens. Even Maliki’s main Shia political rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, issued a statement in support of the armed forces in their “sacred” war against terrorism. As rival politicians close ranks and unite to confront the common enemy, it will give Maliki even more momentum as the government formation negotiations continue.
The conflict in Iraq, sectarian as it may be, has not spilt onto the streets in terms of an open Sunni-Shia conflict, as witnessed during the civil war of 2006-2007. But the current jihadist gains, as well as the government’s response, will make such a conflict more likely.
A large section of the Sunni population in the country believes that they are not getting a fair deal in post-2003 Iraq, and an increasingly large section of the Shia population believes that they are being disproportionately targeted in terrorist attacks. The rising fear in both communities could easily explode if there is another spectacular trigger.
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