When ISIS fighters smashed through northern, central and eastern Iraq this week, knocking over city after city in three days – June 9 -11, they showed the world a new breed of Al Qaeda, savage terrorists with high military capabilities.
The first shock was the fall of Iraq’s second city, Mosul on June 9, into the hands of the Al Qaeda’s Islamist State of Iraq and Syria, followed the next day by the Baiji oil refinery and power center of Baiji, then Hawajah and Tikrit. Thursday the Islamists said they were ready to march on Baghdad, 170km away but have halted at Samarra. (Click HERE for enlarged map)
Their previous conquests were Baquba, East Samarra, Fallujah and parts of Ramadi, capital of the western province of Anbar, taking in much of Iraq’s Sunni heartland.
For the most part the million-strong Iraqi army collapsed and scattered in the face of the advancing Islamist juggernaut.
This Islamist blitz in Iraq has changed the face of the Middle East in more ways than one:
1. The conquest of Mosul alone was Al Qaeda’s most strategically important victory in its 27 years of existence.
2. It brought ISIS and its chief Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi closer than ever to realizing their ambition to found a vast independent Islamic state stretching from Al-Raqqah in north-central Syria to the southern edge of Baghdad, some 750 kilometers away.
Al Qaeda gains its first high-value real estate
No single military force in the vicinity can hope to beat down the tens of thousands of Al Qaeda fighters controlling this territorial expanse, already dubbed by some military and counterterrorism experts “The Black Hole of the Middle East.”
While rival branches of Al Qaeda are at loggerheads in some places – in Syria, for instance, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have battled it out – in Iraq, the two groups work in harness.
The jihadi army also has a large foreign component of 12,000 Muslims from the US, China, Europe, Russia and Asia.
(See DEBKA Weekly 638 of June 6, “Europe Jittery over ‘Blond Islamists’ – Western Agencies Grope in the Dark without Databases or Technology.”)
The real estate Al Qaeda-Iraq has captured in the last few days is immensely more valuable than any other Al Qaeda assets. It lies in the heart of the most fertile regions of the Middle East, rich in water and oil – in contrast to Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP)’s haunts in the deserts of Yemen or Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM)’s stamping grounds in the Sahara and Sahel.
Al Baghdadi fights for a caliphate, but also threatens America
3. Without admitting this openly, the leaders of Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia are uneasily conscious of the Al Qaeda threat lurking in Iraq, on top of Iran’s nuclear aspirations. Tehran too is looking nervously over its shoulder across the border.
Al-Baghdadi’s predecessor, the terrible Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, led Al Qaeda’s war of terror in Iraq from 2002-2007, until he was cut down by US bullets. But then, the US military was present in Iraq as a buffer that kept the Islamist menace at bay from its neighbors. Al-Zarqawi declared he would defeat the Americans in Iraq – against the will of Al Qaeda boss Ayman Zawahiri.
But Baghdadi is different: He wants it all. He is fighting to win an Islamist state that straddles Iraq and Syria, with one hand, while vowing to hit the US in America and the West on European soil, with the other. And nothing so far has stood in his way.
Osama Nujaifi, Speaker of Iraq’s parliament and prominent Sunni politician, described the desperate situation in Mosul on Tuesday at a news conference in Baghdad:
"When the battle got tough in the city of Mosul, the [Iraqi] troops dropped their weapons and abandoned their posts, making it easy prey for the terrorists," he sad. "Everything is fallen. It's a crisis. Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region."
Kurds offer asylum to fleeing Sunni officials, former oil rivals
No one knows who ordered thousands of Iraqi soldiers to quit Mosul Monday night, abandoning their weapons and military vehicles. By Tuesday, the city administration had collapsed and mountains of weapons, including missiles, artillery and hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles were dumped ready for Al Qaeda to collect.
Local government and Sunni officials, whose escape route to the western Anbar was blocked by the Islamists, sought safe haven in Mosul’s eastern district which is home to a large Kurdish population and long protected by the Peshmerga army sent over from Irbil by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
In an ironic twist, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s greatest adversary for control of the country’s oil – the Kurds – is now the only group able to offer asylum to the fleeing Iraqis. Around three-quarters of a million refugees have fled Mosul since June 7, with only what they could carry, landing a fresh refugee problem on the region.
(For more details on the bidding for Iraq’s oil, see a separate item in this issue).
While Al Qaeda’s clean sweep of Mosul was a shocker, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources say it had been on the cards since January, after its capture of Fallujah in western Iraq and parts of Ramadi.
Since March, three Iraqi Army divisions, including the elite Presidential Republican Guard, have been in position opposite Fallujah. None struck out against Al Qaeda forces in the town, opting instead for scattered, ineffectual bombardments from a safe distance.
US gains in Iraq erased by Al Qaeda blitz
The strides made by the Islamists in the past six months – and this week in particular – have wiped out with lightening speed the gains made by America in its eight-year Iraq war, and made naught of the US effort to endow the country with a stable government and a military capable of curbing Al Qaeda. Those gains, achieved at a cost of 4,500 lives and $1.7 trillion in national treasure, have been erased in a few short months.
As we write this, ISIS forces are expanding the Iraqi areas under their control north, west and east of Baghdad up to and including a large stretch of northern Syria. From those strongholds, they send gangs of suicide bombers into Baghdad to terrorize the population with exploding cars across the city, including the central area abutting on the Green Zone seat of government.
One exploded in Baghdad’s Shiite Sadr City Wednesday killing at least 16 people.
Al Qaeda’s partial occupation of the central Iraqi town of Samarra and its thrusts into sections of Baquba and the eastern Diyala Province near the Iranian border, are beginning to pose a real military threat to Shiite Iran.
(See a separate item in this issue on Iran vs. Al Qaeda).
Getting a grip on Iraq’s eastern and western borders
Al Qaeda’s occupation of Fallujah and Anbar tightens its grip on Iraq’s borders with Syria and Jordan.
In the first hours of Iraq’s national emergency, the Obama administration appeared to pin its hopes on the Al Qaeda catastrophe spurring the rival Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders to come together and pool their resources for repelling its lightening thrust. This hope was echoed Wednesday in a desperate appeal by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
But DEBKA Weekly’s Al Qaeda and Iraq watchers seriously doubt Iraq’s squabbling leaders are capable of burying their differences and investing in a common national army capable of defeating Al Qaeda and lifting the sense of doom and crisis enveloping the country.
It is more likely that the Sunnis and Kurds will seek separate local truce deals with Al Qaeda, which the Islamists will exploit to full advantage to promote their caliphate in the heart of the Middle East.
ISIS has never launched an offensive this expansive in Iraq. It is very possible that it could fall prey to the over-exuberance normal for a military seeing success beyond its dreams.
ISIS could be over-extending itself, in that case, making it vulnerable to rapid counter-offensives or even to the rise of angry citizenry in its rear areas—a phenomenon that we have already begun to see to some extent in Mosul and that is well-known in ISIS’s main Syrian base in ar-Raqqa.
But ISIS has also conducted sophisticated, multi-phased maneuver campaigns in Deir ez-Zour, Syria, showing it is capable of integrating deception operations with movement in order to seize its objectives.