The crisis gripping Iraq escalated rapidly in the past 48 hours with a re-energised Islamic State – formerly Isis – storming new towns in the north and seizing a strategic dam as Iraq's formidable military force, the Kurdish peshmerga, was routed in the face of the onslaught.
The loss of the Mosul dam, the largest in Iraq, to the insurgents was the most dramatic consequence of a days-long militant offensive in the north, which has sent tens of thousands of refugees, many from the Yazidi minority, fleeing.
In one captured town, Sinjar, the Islamic State executed dozens of Yazidi men, and kept the dead men’s wives for unmarried jihadi fighters. Panic on Thursday spread to the Kurdish capital of Irbil, long considered a safe haven, with civilians flooding the airport in a futile attempt to buy tickets to Baghdad.
As chaos tore through northern Iraq, political intrigue unfolded in Baghdad, with political leaders meeting late into Thursday night in the fortified Green Zone to choose a replacement for prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia who has become an increasingly divisive figure. US officials have worked to engineer his ousting, believing he is incapable of establishing a national unity government acceptable to Iraq’s main minority groups, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
US officials have implied that more military aid would be provided if Iraq’s political class chose a new leader.
As Iraqi leaders, the country’s top religious authorities and top Iranian officials, who wield considerable power within Iraq, pushed for al-Maliki’s removal, he was refusing to step aside Thursday night. Even those within his own State of Law bloc were demanding that he leave.
‘No to Maliki’
“Everyone is saying no to Maliki now,” said a member of parliament from State of Law, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the discussions. “He’s rejected by all parties.”
If al-Maliki were to step down, he has reportedly demanded immunity from prosecution for himself, his family and his inner circle, and a massive security detail, paid for by the state. Given the number of enemies he has accrued over his time in power, and the well-documented instances of human rights abuses, torture and extrajudicial killings under his watch – not to mention wide-scale corruption at the highest levels of his government – many believe he would be immediately under threat of arrest or assassination, were he to leave office without guarantees of immunity and protection.
“Maliki knows if he steps down, virtually he is a dead man,” said Ali Khedery, a former US official in Iraq, who over the years has advised five US ambassadors and several US generals, and was once close to al-Maliki.
Adding to the sense that the country was rapidly coming apart, suicide attackers struck twice in Kazimiyah, a Shia district in Baghdad that is home to an important shrine, killing nearly three dozen people. In Kirkuk, a northern city long divided between Arabs and Kurds that is now under Kurdish control, two explosions struck near a Shia mosque, killing 11 people and wounding more than 50 others.
After the Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, on June 10th, the militant group vowed to march on Baghdad. But its rapid advance south toward the capital stalled in the face of newly mobilised Shia militias and volunteer Shia fighters determined to protect Iraq's capital and the holy Shia cities of Najaf and Karbala.
The Kurds had tried to seize on the chaos and protect their borders and consolidate their autonomy, while staying out of Iraq’s broader civil war. The peshmerga were considered well-armed and well-motivated, determined to protect their Kurdish enclave in the north.
The latest fighting has shown that even the peshmerga are not up to the fight with the Islamic State. Kurdish officials have complained of a lack of ammunition and begged US diplomats for more weapons. But the United States, so far, has held off on significant arms shipments to the Kurds, fearing it could undermine the central government in Baghdad.
Now, the Kurds have been battling a group of militants from the Islamic State who are using powerful US weapons they took from the battlefield, left by the Iraqi army.
“They are literally outgunned by an ISIS that is fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of US military equipment seized from the Iraqi army who abandoned it,” said Khedery, referring to the Islamic State.
In recent weeks Khedery has become an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s policy in Iraq, especially its past support for al-Maliki, and the US government’s lack of direct support to the Kurds.
Kurdish fighters have a long history of resistance to central governments in Iraq and Turkey, and among Kurds a storied reputation as mountain fighters. But since the end of the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, after which they received years of air cover from the West in their enclave in northern Iraq, they have transitioned from resistance to standing security forces.
Kurdish forces have proved adept at providing local security in Kurdish autonomous zones but less capable at independent military operations. Their successes have often included Western support, including from the CIA and the US Special Forces. But they are not trained, equipped or organised for large-scale independent operations, for integrating fire support into their ground operations or for countering aggressive insurgent bombing campaigns.
Those deficiencies were apparent in fighting in recent days, as the Islamic State captured several towns over the weekend and continued its march north.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul, said in a telephone interview after fleeing that the Islamic State secured the dam after what he called an “organised retreat” of the peshmerga. In a statement issued on a social media account believed to belong to the Islamic State, the group claimed it had captured the dam and vowed to continue its offensive northward as it consolidates control and continues to realise its goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate that bridges the borders of Syria and Iraq.
“Our Islamic State forces are still fighting in all directions and we will not step down until the project of the caliphate is established, with the will of God,” the statement read. The dam, which sits on the Tigris river and is about 30 miles (48km) northwest of Mosul, provides electricity to Mosul and controls the water supply for a large amount of territory.
A report published in 2007 by the US government, which had been involved with work on the dam and spent nearly $30 million (€22 million) on repairs, warned that should it fail, a 65ft wave of water would be unleashed in northern Iraq.
Stuart W Bowen Jr, the former special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, who oversaw the 2007 report on the dam, said the Islamic State could use the dam as a weapon of war, but that it could also use it as a means of finance, by extorting money in exchange for water or electricity.
The Islamic State has already used Iraq’s water supply as a weapon. Earlier this year it seized control of the Fallujah dam, in Anbar province, and flooded a vast area that sent thousands of refugees fleeing, submerged hundreds of homes and several schools and interrupted the water supply to southern Iraq.
Ammar Jassim, a 35-year-old resident of Fallujah, fled the city earlier this year not because of the fighting but because of the flooding. “We lost everything,” he said. “It was a water invasion.”
If the Mosul dam were to be damaged, “it would be like a tsunami coming down the Tigris,” said Azzam Alwash, a prominent environmentalist and engineer and the founder of Nature Iraq, a non-profit group.
The Islamic State is also battling for control of the Haditha dam, Iraq’s second-largest, which is also in Anbar province. As of Thursday, it was still under the control of the Iraqi security forces and allied tribal fighters. – (New York Times service)