Iraq, ISIL and the region’s choices

Shashank Joshi and Aaron Stein write: Can ISIL defend its gains? Most likely, yes. In Mosul it seized large quantities of US-supplied military equipment, reportedly stolen over $400m in Iraqi currency from the city’s banks, and freed thousands of prisoners, many of whom are likely to join the insurgency. Its ability to hold out for over four months in the western city of Fallujah, forcing the government to resort to indiscriminate shelling in the absence of sufficient airpower, is an indication of ISIL’s defence capabilities. However, it remains unclear how much assistance ISIL has also received from outside.

ISIL’s military offensives were almost certainly facilitated by smaller militant groups such as the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, an organisation of former Baathist Iraqi army officers. As ISIL gains strength, it may command the loyalty of more such combat-proficient groups, thereby increasing its reach; it may also find conflicts of interests with these allies of convenience, particularly if it persists in its brutal behaviour.

What is ISIL’s next step? Although it is already seeking to expand its territorial reach beyond Tikrit, its ability to capture the capital itself should not be exaggerated. Whereas the government had neglected the defence of Mosul, Baghdad is better prepared. The capital also has a much larger portion of Shia Muslims than Mosul, Kirkuk, or Tikrit, so that ISIL will lack the same degree of tacit or informal support in many areas.

The greater short-term danger is that ISIL will enter Samarra, a city housing holy Shia sites whose bombing in 2006 by ISIL’s earlier incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, catalysed a nationwide civil war. For ISIL, catalysing sectarian violence by provoking Shia reprisals would not only serve its ideological objectives but also push vulnerable Iraq Sunnis into its arms. [Continue reading…]

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