Iraq: Momentary Gains for a Jihadist Group


Video Transcript:

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham, ISIS, an al Qaeda-related group that is a principal extremist actor in the Syrian civil war and ongoing Iraqi insurgency, seized parts of Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq on Jan. 3. Rather than viewing this as a fundamental power shift between ISIS and Baghdad’s security forces, however, it should be seen as a temporary victory.
Tensions between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes of Anbar province have been simmering through most of last year and boiled over on Dec. 30 when President Maliki ordered a Sunni protest camp to be dismantled by security forces. The arrest of a local senior Sunni politician led to clashes severe enough to prompt Maliki to withdraw security forces from the region in an effort to de-escalate the situation. It was this security vacuum that ISIS used to seize territory in both cities.
It is one thing to grab territory, especially if it is predominantly uncontested, and quite another to hold it against a concerted military operation mounted by the Iraqi security forces. Sources in Iraq claim that roughly 300 ISIS fighters remain in Ramadi while 800 or so are entrenched in Fallujah. While the urban terrain will give ISIS fighters a serious combat boost as the established defenders against the better equipped Iraqi security forces, they won’t have the numbers or ability to hold indefinitely.
ISIS survives in Iraq by being an insurgent group, avoiding direct confrontation and hiding and moving through the population. This territory grab in Ramadi and Fallujah gives them an address, alleviating the Iraqi security forces of one of their most difficult missions of just finding ISIS. Now they can actually concentrate force, and if executed correctly, degrade sizable chunks of combat power in detail.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops and their allies at the end of 2011 and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war next door has given ISIS the ability to rebound into a capable regional actor, but at the same time their aggressiveness has them overcommitted, outgunned and alienated on multiple fronts. Other rebel groups in Syria have started serious infighting with ISIS recently after they became disillusioned with their actions and have attacked several units despite the advantage this gives to the Assad regime.
This leaves the recent Fallujah and Ramadi seizures likely to be temporary at best. The only serious complicating factor for the Iraqi security forces is moderating their use of force so as not to antagonize the Sunni tribes further. While these tribes might covertly support ISIS or turn a blind eye to their actions against the Maliki government, they do not want to be drawn into an open civil war. Many of the tribes in Anbar have already come out in support of the government forces, with just a few throwing their lot in with ISIS.
ISIS’s ultimate goal is to destabilize Iraq to the point where they can accomplish their ultimate aim of a regional Islamic Emirate. They can only accomplish this if they can unite a sizable portion of the Sunni population into a sectarian civil war through their own actions or by provoking the Shiite government into actions that accomplish the same. Without this, they will come up short.

Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq?

The U.S. contemplates sending military aircraft and possible ground troops to rescue the Yazidis, as more American military advisers arrive in Iraq to help plan an evacuation of the displaced people.

Photo of displaced Iraqi Yazidis demonstrating demanding more aid.

Displaced Iraqi Yazidis demand more aid at the Bajid Kandala camp in Kurdistan on August 13, 2014.

Photograph by Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty

Avi Asher-Schapiro

for National Geographic News

Published August 9, 2014

For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshippers by many Muslims—including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq—the Yazidis have faced the possibility of genocide many times over. Now, with the capture of Sinjar and northward thrust of extremists calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Iraq’s estimated 500,000 Yazidis fear the end of their people and their religion. In less than two weeks, nearly all the Yazidis of Sinjar have fled north, seeking refuge in Kurdish territory, while thousands remained trapped in the rugged Sinjar mountains, awaiting rescue. “Sinjar is (hopefully not was) home to the oldest, biggest, and most compact Yazidi community,” says Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Göttingen. “Extermination, emigration, and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion,” she adds.

The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages.  Outside of Sinjar, the Yazidis are concentrated in areas north of Mosul, and in the Kurdish-controlled province of Dohuk. For Yazidis, the land holds deep religious significance; adherents from all over the world—remnant communities exist in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere—make pilgrimages to the holy Iraqi city of Lalesh. The city is now less than 40 miles from the Islamic State front lines.

Map of Yazidi

As the Islamic State continues to swallow up more Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are being forced to convert, face execution, or flee. “Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth,” warned Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.

While the advance of the militants constitutes a grave threat to Yazidis, persecution has been a painful historical constant for the small religious community almost since its formation.  “This dilemma to convert or die is not new,” says Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidism at Exeter University.

A Misunderstood Religion

The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq’s sectarian mosaic. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq’s predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was what part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims. While some Yazidi practices resemble those of Islam—refraining from eating pork, for example—many Yazidi practices appear to be unique in the region. Yazidi society is organized into a rigid religious caste system, and many Yazidis believe that the soul is reincarnated after death. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local pre-Islamic beliefs.

Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.

“To this day, many Muslims consider them to be  devil worshipers,” says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics the University of Vienna. “So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions,” he adds.

The Yazidis are not the only religious minority threatened by the Islamic State. Thousands of Christians have fled Mosul since the extremists captured the city in early June. For now, religious minorities are finding refuge in Kurdish territory in the north. But the Islamic State is capturing villages just a few miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil. With the security of Kurdish territory in doubt, the U.S. launched air strikes on Islamic State positions late last week.

Organized anti-Yazidi violence dates back to the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, Yazidis were targeted by both Ottoman and local Kurdish leaders, and subjected to brutal campaigns of religious violence. “Yazidis often say they have been the victim of 72 previous genocides, or attempts at annihilation,” says Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago who is in Dohuk interviewing Yazidi refugees.  “Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity,” he says.

Isolated geographically, and accustomed to discrimination, the Yazidis forged an insular culture. Iraq’s Yazidis rarely intermarry with other Kurds, and they do not accept religious converts. “They became a closed community,” explains Khanna Omarkhali, of the University of  Göettingen.

Iraqi Yazidi people who fled their homes in Sinjar, enter Iraq from Syria at a border crossing in Faysh Khabur in Dohuk Province, northern Iraq, Aug. 9, 2014.

These Yazidi people, who fled their homes in Sinjar, wait at a border crossing on August 9, 2014.
Photograph by Adam Ferguson, The New York Times/Redux

Victims of Hussein’s Regime

Yet, as Kurdish speakers, Yazidis often share the same political fate as Iraq’s other Kurds. In the late 1970s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched brutal Arabization campaigns against the Kurds in the north. He razed traditional Yazidi villages, and forced the Yazidis to settle in urban centers, disrupting their rural way of life. Hussein constructed the town of Sinjar, and forced the Yazidis to abandon their mountain villages and relocate in the city.

After the United States toppled Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds were given an autonomous region in northern Iraq known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But Sinjar, along with many border regions at the edge of the KRG, remains an area of dispute between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad. The KRG claims Sinjar as Kurdish, while Baghdad still considers the area under its control.

As ISIL sweeps through the Yazidi homeland, Kurds throughout the region are rallying to defend the embattled religious minority. This week, Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey crossed into Iraq and joined with the KRG to push back ISIL and secure a safe passage for the Yazidis out of Sinjar. Some Yazidis are even fleeing into war-torn Syria, seeking the protection of Syrian Kurds in the north.

For now, these Kurdish fighters are the only thing standing between the Yazidis and the Islamic State. As he has continued his work with Yazadi refugees, Matthew Barber says that a general panic has set in as hundreds of thousands of new arrivals from western Iraq flood Yazidi villages outside Dohuk, seeking shelter behind Iraqi Kurdish lines. “The Yazidis are terrorized,” he says. Refugees are now calling the mass exodus from Sinjar the 73rd attempt at genocide.

With the help of U.S. air support, the Kurds vowed to retake Sinjar in the coming days. For the Yazidis the stakes are especially high. “It’s difficult to see how Yazidism could exist if they all left northern Iraq,” says Allison. “The struggle is truly existential.”

Iraq: Germany To Send Arms To Iraq

August 20, 2014 | 1711 GMT
The Bundestag approved the shipment of arms from Germany to Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State in Iraq, Bloomberg reported Aug. 20. The government’s approval negates Germany’s post-WWII doctrine against shipping arms to countries involved in conflict. Soon after the German government’s decision, Italian legislators reportedly approved the shipment of weapons to Kurdish peshmerga in northern Iraq.


Iraq: Kurdish Ministers Rejoin Iraqi Government

August 20, 2014 | 1018 GMT
Kurdish ministers who had suspended their participation in the Iraqi government have rejoined the administration, Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd who is Iraq’s outgoing foreign minister, said Aug. 20, Reuters reported. Outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki angered Kurdish leaders by accusing them of harboring terrorists after Islamic State militants launched an offensive in June.


Iraq: Anbar Government Seeks Approval For Restoration Of Iraqi Officers

August 20, 2014 | 1132 GMT
Provincial officials in Anbar announced Aug. 20 that the province is acquiring preliminary approval to reinstate 200 officers of the former Iraqi military, Shafaq News reported. The Anbar provincial council is currently awaiting approval for the reinstatement of about 1,500 army and police officers who were removed during de-Baathification efforts, the leader of the council said.


In Iraq, the United States and Iran Align Against the Islamic State

In Iraq, the United States and Iran Align Against the Islamic State

August 20, 2014 | 0919 GMT


Since June, a great deal of international focus has been on Iraq, where the transnational jihadist movement Islamic State took over large swaths of the country’s Sunni-majority areas and declared the re-establishment of the caliphate. Despite the global attention on the country, especially given U.S. military operations against the Islamic State, U.S.-Iranian cooperation against the jihadist group — a significant dynamic — has largely gone unnoticed. A convergence of interests, particularly concerning the Iraqi central and Kurdish regional governments, has made it necessary for Washington and Tehran to at least coordinate their actions. However, mistrust and domestic opposition will continue hampering this cooperation.


Their 35-year-old mutual enmity notwithstanding, the United States and Iran have cooperated against a common jihadist enemy in the past, such as when they worked together to topple the Taliban regime following the 9/11 attacks. Relations quickly soured again when U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration declared the Islamic republic a part of the “axis of evil” and when controversy over Tehran’s alleged nuclear weapons program broke out in 2002. However, these tensions did not prevent the two sides from cooperating again in the U.S. move to effect regime change in Iraq in 2003.
For Iran, Washington’s decision to topple Iraq’s Baathist government was a godsend; it turned Tehran’s biggest national security threat into a major geopolitical opportunity. The Iranians did everything they could to facilitate the ouster of the government led by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In these efforts, the United States’ Iraqi partners — for instance, the Shia and Kurds — had long been proxies of Iran. These two communities, which had been disenfranchised for decades under a Sunni-dominated order, received support from Washington and Tehran, first to topple the old order and then to form a Shia-dominated state in which the Kurds had considerable autonomy.
Throughout the nearly nine-year U.S. military presence in Iraq, Iran and the United States engaged in a long, complex game of cooperation and competition. At one point, back-channel talks were insufficient, and Tehran and Washington engaged in direct public talks about the future of Iraq’s post-Baathist republic. Now, as the state jointly fashioned by the Americans and Iranians faces its greatest challenge since the end of the Sunni insurgency in 2007, it is only natural that the two powers join forces once again to meet the common threat. Tehran and Washington’s concerns about the Islamic State transcend Iraq’s borders and include common interests elsewhere in the region. The ongoing process of rapprochement facilitates such joint action. Thus, the geopolitical context for U.S.-Iranian cooperation is quite favorable.
The principal negotiators who engaged in back-channel diplomacy in Oman after the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the Islamic State were Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, and Jake Sullivan, adviser to U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. The United States and Iran worked behind the scenes to replace outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Washington and Tehran hold responsible for the political crisis in Iraq. Tehran and Washington have also been working together to ease tensions between the Shia and Sunnis, as well as between Baghdad and Arbil. That said, Washington and Tehran know that managing political feuds among Iraq’s three principal ethno-sectarian groups, while necessary, will not be sufficient. The Islamic State poses a military threat to Iraq, and neither the Iraqi military nor the Kurdish peshmerga forces are in a position to fight back. Effective operations against the Islamic State will require Washington and Tehran to support their common allies in Iraq and engage in direct military action.
Although they are working together, Washington and Tehran cannot be seen as openly cooperating. The administrations of U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani already face considerable domestic opposition to their difficult negotiations over the nuclear issue, but the problem goes beyond that opposition. There is genuine mistrust between the two countries that limits the extent to which they can cooperate against the Islamic State — especially in the areas of military and intelligence. Neither side wants to reveal its assets or processes to the other.
This mistrust makes it very difficult, for example, for the Quds Force — the overseas arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security to work comfortably with the U.S. military’s Central Command and the CIA. This is why the two sides are likely to be coordinating their respective moves instead of working closely together. In fact, Stratfor has learned that Washington and Tehran agreed on the limited force the Quds Force has deployed in Iraq’s Diyala province to fight alongside Kurdish peshmerga forces against the Islamic State.
While the United States deployed several hundred military advisers to Iraq after Mosul fell to the Islamic State, the Quds Force has long maintained a presence in Iraq — one that it has been reinforcing since the rise of the Islamic State. Because U.S. and Iranian military personnel are working with the same set of Iraqi actors, the two sides occasionally step on each other’s toes. Enhancing the Iraqis’ capacity to face the threat requires that U.S. and Iranian personnel accommodate each other to avoid such a situation.
Though the Iranians have been running a limited number of air sorties in Iraq, the bulk of Tehran’s efforts will be ground-based, whether they involve actual troops engaged in combat and supporting Iraqi forces or the mobilization of militias. The United States will largely be engaged in air operations, given the domestic aversion to sending in ground troops. This works well for both sides; the Iranians do not have the air assets that the Americans do, and having the Iranians focus on ground operations serves the United States’ interests.
This does not mean that either side will get comfortable with this working relationship. However, the situation in Iraq is driving the United States and Iran toward cooperation. There are many reasons why this is likely to remain a tactical arrangement, especially when it comes time to confront the Islamic State in Syria, where the two countries’ interests do not align.


Iraq: President Obama Says Mosul Dam Retaken From Islamic State Militants

August 18, 2014 | 2117 GMT
U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters Aug. 18 that U.S. warplanes helped Iraqi Special Forces retake the Mosul Dam from Islamic State militants, The New York Times reported. The dam provides electricity to Mosul, and U.S. officials feared the militants could have blown up the dam and flooded parts of Iraq.


The Islamic State Loses Ground in Iraq

August 18, 2014 | 2315 GMT


Kurdish peshmerga forces have launched a counteroffensive into areas north of Mosul, taking back several villages and securing Mosul Dam after protracted fighting throughout the weekend. The move follows three weeks of efforts by the peshmerga forces, backed by international support, to readjust their security presence to blunt several Islamic State incursions into Kurdistan Regional Government-held territory on several fronts, including a drive aimed at the region’s capital, Arbil. To the south of these operations, Iraqi forces working with Anbar tribal militias were able to reassert complete control over the city of Ramadi.
Both Iraqi and Kurdish security forces are beginning to reassert territorial control, but their success depends on support from foreign actors and/or Sunni tribal elements. As this drive continues, the Islamic State’s ground operations in Iraq will likely undergo notable reversals.


So far, U.S. airstrikes have been the most direct support for operations against the Islamic State. The United States conducted nine airstrikes on Aug. 16, 16 on Aug. 17 and 15 on Aug. 18 — a slight increase in the number of airstrikes per day seen previously — concentrating on the area near Mosul Dam to aid the peshmerga in regaining control of the dam. U.S. Central Command continues to cite humanitarian reasons for the airstrikes, noting that the Mosul Dam is key infrastructure and drastic humanitarian consequences could occur if the Islamic State sabotages it.
In addition to U.S. air support, several countries have agreed to send more weapons to Kurdish forces. At first, weaponry for the peshmerga was sent only through Baghdad to avoid the sensitive issues of sovereignty and oil disputes in the north inherent in arming the autonomous Kurds. As the Islamic State made further gains into the Kurdistan Regional Government’s territory, the United States — with Baghdad’s permission — began arming the Kurds directly. Soon afterwards, spurred by the humanitarian crisis near Sinjar, several other Western countries including the United Kingdom, Canada and France announced intentions to give the Kurds military support. This support has helped stabilize the Kurds’ military situation and seems to be slowly turning the tide against the Islamic State. However, this aid will also likely unsettle Baghdad as it gives the Kurds’ more military capability.

Iran Sends Limited Support

Moreover, unconfirmed reports emerged Aug. 16-17 in both English- and Arabic-language Iraqi press citing “an informed source” that claimed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force had moved troops and armored vehicles into Iraq’s northeastern Diyala province, where Kurdish peshmerga forces have struggled to manage increasing Sunni militancy. The original reports claim that Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps forces entered Iraq via the Kurdish bastion of Khanaqin, which is located only 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the Iranian border on a key north-south highway near one of the largest Iraqi-Iranian border crossings.
The incursion is reportedly meant to shore up peshmerga defenses around the Kurdish-majority city of Jalawla, where Islamic State militants and their Sunni allies recently forced fighters loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to withdraw. There has not yet been a noticeable shift in the battlefield around Jalawla, but any Iranian operation likely would still be in its early stages. Diyala remains one of the weakest links in peshmerga defenses, and the potential for increased Islamic State activity so close to the Iranian border is worrying for the leadership in Tehran.
Stratfor sources within the Iranian military apparatus were able to confirm that an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operation was indeed underway in the northern border area with Iraq. If the reports are true, such an operation would by necessity remain limited, with the immediate goal of assisting the peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (a group with which Iran retains close security ties) in regaining control of key population centers along the border and preventing jihadists from threatening the western regions of Iran. One source even claimed the operation was undertaken with implicit approval from Washington, which has similar interests in preventing a Kurdish collapse and containing Islamic State militancy. Other Stratfor sources in government and security positions in Iran have neither confirmed nor denied the allegations.
Iranian leaders are aware that if they push too far, they risk uniting the region’s Sunni Arab militants against Iranian security forces and collapsing the ongoing negotiations with Iraq’s Sunnis to reintegrate into Baghdad’s political system and turn against the Islamic State. The further Iran moves from Khanaqin, the deeper it moves into areas with sizable Sunni Arab populations and the more likely it will face a greater militant threat. Moreover, the Turks will watch events in Diyala cautiously and could consider building up their military presence in northern Iraq to counter potential Iranian advances.

Progress with the Sunnis

More important was the announcement that 20 to 30 tribes from the Sunni-majority Anbar province have decided to join the Iraqi military’s offensive against population centers controlled by Islamic State and Sunni Arab fighters. Tribal elements in Anbar proved key to containing al Qaeda activity in the late 2000s. This decision came even though Anbar’s tribes have been particularly resistant to accommodation with Baghdad recently — especially the Dulaym tribe, the largest in Iraq. In the past few months, Sunni Arab tribes in the north, such as the Obeidis and Jubouris, have made occasional announcements that they would confront Islamic State forces, but no action of this size and scope has been announced before. Over the course of three days, the Iraqi army and its newfound tribal allies have been able to challenge Islamic State fighters in territory stretching from Haditha in the northeast to the historically restive city of Ramadi, the latter of which fell under Baghdad’s control completely on Aug. 16 after months of siege.
The sudden breakthrough in Sunni-Baghdad cooperation is linked to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to step down on Aug. 14 — a minimum demand for Sunni Arab negotiators seeking greater autonomy in exchange for expelling foreign jihadists and entering the political community. Much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab leadership has reacted positively to the incoming prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. Moreover, there have been numerous exchanges between Sunni and Shiite political figures — including a meeting between Iran’s ambassador to Iraq and Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni leader and the head of the Muttahidoon Coalition, on Aug. 16. Yet these same Sunni leaders have been quick to point out that there are still gaps in the two sides’ negotiating positions. Ultimately, 20 to 30 tribes (especially in a province where they are dwarfed in size by the Dulaym tribe) is not a force large enough to launch an uprising against Iraq’s jihadists. However, the announcement represents a key step toward greater security cooperation in exchange for concessions from Baghdad.
Both Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have had recent victories on the battlefield against Islamic State fighters. Their success has been contingent upon the help of other forces, and if this trend continues both Baghdad and Arbil will continue to succeed in their territorial counteroffensives. However, the Islamic State is far from defeated. Its militants are capable, mobile, entrenched in several major cities and numerous small villages across a vast area, and still have Syria as further security. Thus the Iraqis’ and Kurds’ success against the Islamic State will be measured in reductions of the threat to the core Shiite and Kurdish territories but not its full elimination.


Iraq: France, U.K. Say They Will Directly Support Kurdish Fighters

August 15, 2014 | 0902 GMT
France will increase its support to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq after a phone call between French President Francois Holland and Iraqi President Fuad Massum, The Local reported Aug. 15. Hollande confirmed the imminent delivery of military equipment. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron also said he is prepared to supply weapons directly to Iraqi Kurdish forces, The Guardian reported.


Iraq: Sunni Leaders Would Join Government Under Conditions

August 15, 2014 | 1353 GMT
Iraqi Sunni tribal and religious leaders involved in the uprising against outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Anbar and other provinces are willing to join the new administration under certain conditions, spokesman Taha Mohammad al-Hamdoon said Aug. 15, Reuters reported. The group compiled a list of demands to submit to incoming Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-abaci.


Iraq: Peshmerga Fighters Retake Key Dam

August 18, 2014 | 1000 GMT
Kurdish fighters have taken back Mosul Dam from Islamist militants, AP and Rudaw reported Aug. 18. Peshmerga forces moved to retake control of the dam as U.S. fighter planes carried out airstrikes on Islamic State positions.