Al Qaeda in Iraq, which calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-ISIS, had its eye on its next targets while the West was still in shock over the fall of the Sunni towns of Falluja and Ramadi, an hour’s drive from Baghdad. Those cities in western and central Iraq fell to Al Qaeda under the command of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi last week, with the help of local Sunni militias long alienated from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence and counterterrorism experts report that battles in other Iraqi cities, such as Mosul in the north – which have always been beset by Sunni tribes sympathetic to al Qaeda – are hardly the focus of Western front-page attention, although Iraq is fast falling prey to conflicting radical forces.
The pro-Iranian Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi army have little hope of warding off Al Qaeda encroachments because of three major weaknesses:
1) While large in size, the Iraqi army is slow-moving and cumbersome. It lacks the commanders and logistical infrastructure for conducting a drawn-out military campaign across vast areas such as the contested Al-Anbar Province of western Iraq.
2) It has no air force and its long supply lines are therefore exposed to attacks by al Qaeda and the small, nimble Sunni militias. They are familiar with every fold in the embattled area, which is terra incognita for the town-bred army officers from Baghdad and the South.
3) Al Anbar is also hostile terrain, since the local Sunni tribes prefer Al Qaeda rule to that of the detested Shiite prime minister. Their chiefs count on striking deals with al Qaeda for partnerships in managing their towns and villages which leave their traditional way of life undisturbed.
US special forces secretly entered Iraq from Jordan
The deliberate disinformation paid out daily by the Maliki government for raising morale, which portray Iraqi army forces and Sunni forces as advancing together, lacks popular credence.
Local inhabitants know that no Sunni militias are fighting with the Iraqi army. Just the reverse: Sunni tribal chiefs have advised Maliki to instruct his army to stay out of the areas they control or face attack. Only police forces will be tolerated in Fallujah and Ramadi – not the army.
For years, Iraqi police commanders reached secret deals with the local Sunni and al Qaeda leaders of Al Anbar, which set agreed limits to their authority and scope of operation. These ad hoc arrangements, which worked for up to ten years under American occupation, would now leave local armed groups free to deal with the Iraqi military.
Wednesday January 8, ten days after debkafile released its special video (US and Iran’s First Joint Military Venture: Fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq), some US news media evaluated the diplomatic and security options inherent in the collaboration between Washington and Tehran.
They missed the most recent developments: Small units of US special forces entered western Iraq from northern Jordan, where they are stationed to deter the Syrian army and Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra from invading the kingdom.
This was also a US attempt to place Al Qaeda Iraq forces in Iraq under military pressure and carve out a buffer zone along across its border to keep the Iraq war from spilling over into Jordan, where Al Qaeda could easily link up with adherents, especially in the Al-Zarqa area region.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdad intends to grab oil revenues in Iraq, like Syria
Tehran too took precautionary military steps. Small units of Iranian special forces have deployed in Baghdad to secure the Al-Maliki regime. Other units are posted to the largely Shiite cities of central and southern Iraq to safeguard them against sudden Al Qaeda lunges in their direction.
After his victories in the Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad, the ISIS chief is about to decide where to move next.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources define his options as either splitting his forces and diverting a part to Baghdad, or continuing to focus on central and northern Iraq, where he has already moved in on extensive terrain, including the routes of the big Iraqi pipelines running from southern Iraq to Kurdistan and on to Turkey.
In the capital, the ISIS, with substantial support expected in the Sunni neighborhoods, could generate a threat to al-Maliki’s regime, like the one which beset Bashar Assad in the days when Syrian rebels seized control of the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus.
But as in Syria, Al-Baghdadi appears to have set his sights first on Iraq’s oil infrastructure.
In Syria, Al Qaeda is selling oil from the oil fields it controls in the east, which has become its main source of revenue. Similarly, the ISIS chief has his eye on Iraq’s oil industry as a source of funding for the continuation of his jihad to overthrow al-Maliki and end Shiite rule.