Left high and dry by his former allies and much of his army, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has changed tack in his desperate fight against the Sunni Islamists trouncing through his country. The 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 12th Divisions of the Iraqi Army are virtually kaput and the Iraqi Parliament proved not only unable to provide political cures for the crisis, but incapable of an orderly debate before breaking up after less than an hour in session.
On July 2, the Iraqi Shiite prime minister ordered his tattered army to pull out of the country’s southwestern desert on the border with Saudi Arabia, as his disappointments kept on piling up.
Maliki had hoped Iran would prop up his Baghdad regime. But Tehran decided not to jeopardize the edge it had gained for the next round of nuclear talks that were due to start July 3, by sending large numbers of troops to Iraq and antagonizing Washington.
The Americans have also left Baghdad to manage on its own, turning instead to the Kurds to do their bidding in the region. (See a separate item on the Kurdish issue).
The Iraqi army’s retreat against the surging Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – now known by its self-declared title, the Islamic State (IS) – against little resistance, will have immediate effect on the next stages of the Iraq crisis, DEBKA Weekly’s analysts predict:
Maliki hopes Islamist threat to Saudis will pull in US troops
1. With Iraqi troops out of the way, IS Chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will be able to redirect his forces from the western Iraqi cities of Al Qaim and Ar Rutbah to the southwest and the Ar Ar crossing to Saudi Arabia. A successful grab of this strategic terminal will round off IS control of all Iraq’s border crossings with Syria and Jordan, posing a direct threat to those countries and their capitals.
2. Once in position on the Iraqi-Saudi border, the Sunni Islamists pose a direct threat to Jordan. The Jordanian army’s positions on the Iraqi border will be weakened by the exposure of its northern and southern flanks.
3. Maliki is clinging to the hope that the advancing IS menace to Saudi Arabia will force the Obama administration to change its tactics. Although the Americans have managed to stay out of military involvement in the frays in Syria and Iraq, the Iraqi prime minister calculates they will eventually have to send troops over to defend Saudi Arabia and its oil fields. The prime minister’s scenario moves forward in three stages:
4. When American boots touch Saudi soil, he anticipates Iran stepping in to stir up an insurgency against Riyadh in the oil-rich Shiite Eastern Provinces of Saudi Arabia. This will open up a second front.
A Shiite Iraqi state based on Basra oil
5. The sparse Iraqi forces remaining loyal to Maliki will then withdraw to the southern Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala and Iraq’s main oil town and only port of Basra on the Shatt al-Arab River. There, he will establish an Iraqi Shiite state, having relinquished Baghdad but kept control of the southern oil fields.
6. Like many Western and Middle East agencies, Maliki is painfully short of intelligence on IS, its numbers, movements and weaponry.
For his scenario to pan out, he is hedging his bets on the Sunni jihadis turning their attention away from the Iraqi army and fixing their sights on access to the Iraqi-Saudi border and the more valuable prizes of the crowned heads of the oil kingdom and Jordan.
Some Western circles have sought to minimize the danger posed by IS’s victorious march from the taking of Mosul in mid-June, by estimating its size as no more than a puny 3,000 to 5,000 fighters.
But DEBKA Weekly’s counterterrorism sources caution that this estimate is wide of the real numbers and cannot account for the jihadist movement’s immense territorial and strategic gains in less than a month.
Rolling in funds, Al Baghdadi steals the light from Zawahiri
IS has expanded at the same rate as Syria’s Islamist Al Nusra Front has shrunk, stunted by lack of funds and weapons for attracting recruits. IS has in contrast has enjoyed the support of the larger Al Qaeda organization, which has provided access to a vast reserve of funds, including around a billion dollars the jihadis withdrew early May from American banks in Mosul.
With this cash in hand, the Iraqi jihadist organization is pulling in new fighters all the time without making the effort of a recruitment campaign. Thousands of volunteers from around the world are flocking to the black flag, willing to take up arms for holy war with an assured pay check.
With the swelling of this intake, self-anointed Caliph al-Baghdadi issued a call on July 2 to all the world’s Muslims to come and fight for his new realm and wage holy war against the US and Iran.
IS successes in Iraq and Syria have also boosted its kudos within the Al Qaeda movement at large. Its ability to tap into a variety of funding sources and its alliances with Iraq’s Sunni tribal chiefs have made al-Baghdadi top dog in Al Qaeda, bumping off leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the influence of Al Qaeda Central.
Further detracting from Zawahiri’s standing and a shot in the arm for IS, Al Qaeda affiliates have come forward to swear oaths of allegiance to al-Baghdadi. In the past few days, the powerful Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) joined the ranks of al-Baghdadi’s loyal foot soldiers.