Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared a state of high alert in Iraq on June 10 and asked parliament to approve a state of emergency as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militant group seized most of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. This marks a serious downturn for Baghdad’s monthslong attempt to contain the group in the Fallujah and Ar Ramadi region, where the militants seized territory at the beginning of the year.
The rapid seizure of Mosul demonstrates a new capability for the militant group in Iraq, where highly mobile light forces using technicals — pickup trucks with medium to heavy arms mounted on them — can cover territory quickly and mass to overwhelm the enemy’s weak points. This will strain Iraqi security forces, which are already struggling to control a restive western Iraq. Regaining Mosul could require the Kurdistan Regional Government’s security forces, known as the peshmerga. a situation that could aggravate the ongoing struggle centered on the Kurdish region.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant reportedly overran the west bank of Mosul with hundreds of fighters. Resistance seems to have ended quickly, with Iraqi army and police units abandoning their equipment and positions. The militants now control the provincial government headquarters, security bases and the airport, along with equipment that was left behind. They also were able to free as many as 1,500 prisoners, who could swell the group’s ranks rapidly or at least add to the current chaos.
Late last week, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant launched another round of violence in western and northern Iraq over several days. Militants stormed Anbar University, taking more than 100 students hostage, and mounted raids using technicals in As Samarra and Mosul. In all three instances, Iraqi security forces reacted relatively quickly and the militants withdrew. Violence in any of these places is quite common. The most notable element of these attacks was the use of technicals in rapid raids — similar to tactics used in Syria, but much less common in Iraq, where the militants have preferred ambushes, improvised explosive devices, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and small teams.
Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga have been fairly successful in protecting the core Shiite region and Kurdish territories. Attacks by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are on the rise in Iraq, but they largely have been limited to Sunni regions where the militants can try to garner support from residents in areas bordering the other regions. The Syrian civil war, while drawing militant manpower from Iraq, has also slowly empowered the Islamic State in Iraq in the Levant by expanding the group’s sources of supplies and other resources, including captured Syrian army equipment. The militants’ ability to mass quickly and overwhelm Iraqi security forces and seize territory in different areas of Iraq threatens to overstretch the Iraqi forces’ already tenuous military capability in the Sunni regions.
Baghdad is facing the possibility of losing control of large swathes of western and northern Iraq. As a result, the government will implore the international community for assistance and rapid arms sales. (Many deals are in the works but have been slow to materialize.) The loss of Fallujah and Ar Ramadi prompted the United States to accelerate its response, which included the sale of small arms, ammunition and Hellfire missiles. The United States is also training Iraq’s special forces in Jordan, and the first F-16s for Iraq will be delivered before the end of the year. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s expanding presence will hasten further cooperation.
The loss of Mosul and the potential for Iraqi security forces to be stretched too thin opens up another avenue for potential, albeit unwelcome, cooperation from the Kurdish peshmerga. Mosul sits at the heart of the oil-centered territorial struggle between Baghdad and Arbil. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s official boundaries are three provinces to the east and north of Mosul, but the regional government’s control has spread into other areas, including just outside Mosul.
Using the peshmerga to retake Mosul could curb the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s expansion, but a stronger peshmerga presence in Mosul further complicates the ongoing confrontation between Baghdad and Arbil. The governor of Mosul escaped the takeover by fleeing to Dohuk in the Kurdish region, and Mosul’s authorities have formally called on the peshmerga to help them.
Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani has not given the official order for peshmerga forces on the outskirts of Mosul to move into the city center, where militants are entrenched. It is unclear whether Barzani is trying to coordinate with Baghdad on a security response or is more concerned with the high risks associated with engaging the militants in densely populated areas. Although the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is a common threat for Arbil and Baghdad and leaves space for security cooperation in Mosul, the eventual outcome for Baghdad could be loss of control over the city.
Moreover, although the militant group continues to threaten the region, its actions remain relatively restricted to Iraq’s Sunni territories, and there is a difference between taking part of a city and controlling territory well enough to reap its resources. As long as Syria provides refuge and resources for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the militant group can continue to destabilize this region, but seizing territory in Iraq will be more difficult than it was in Syria. The group’s ability to reach further into Iraq and disrupt the southern oil regions remains elusive, and the United States — along with Iran — will support Baghdad in protecting those areas. Iraq probably will reach equilibrium, and the Sunni regions will become the battleground for the militants on the one hand and Baghdad and Arbil on the other. However, while the conflict in Syria continues, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant will be hard to eliminate.