Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al–Maliki declared a state of emergency June 12 after a powerful militant group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) rampaged out of its fortified positions, taking implicit control of the northern Iraqi province of Ninevah.
During a press conference June 13, the Iraqi Prime Minister said without a hint of irony that Iraq is passing through a “difficult stage”. He reached out to the Shiite Iraqi community to form grassroots paramilitary factions to combat the militants.
In the past few days, fighters from the Sunni jihadist group also captured the Iraqi cities of Mosul – the country’s second largest city – and Tikrit and have vowed to march on Baghdad.
Tens of thousands of refugees have fled the two cities and Iraqi troops are reportedly regrouping for a potential counteroffensive.
US President Barack Obama has said “all options are on the table” for a potential US intervention in Iraq. American strike aircraft based from US aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf have been put on alert.
Mr Maliki says he needs expanded powers from the state of emergency to combat the militant threat. But the complete failure of intelligence and lack of speedy policy preparation has put hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens in needless danger.
ISIS is now engaged in a major offensive spanning the porous borders of Iraq and Syria.
The group took over the city of Fallujah earlier this year and, after pushing Iraqi security forces back a number of times, have largely secured the city under their control. In recent weeks, ISIS also defeated their jihadist rival in Syria – the al Nusra Front – and conquered the northern reaches of non-Kurdish Iraq.
The militant group, led by al qaeda alumni Abu Bakr al–Baghdadi, split from al qaeda earlier in 2014 in a highly public argument over the ideological direction of the jihadist movement’s goals.
With the latest offensive in Iraq, Mr Baghdadi has now confirmed an anticipated eclipse of al Qaeda’s second–in–command Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri and established himself as the pre-eminent Sunni militant figure in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
Mr Zawahiri retains operational control over the Yemen, Somalia and sub–Saharan franchises of al qaeda, but his power and influence has diminished significantly since the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Mr Baghdadi was imprisoned by US forces in Iraq in 2005 but was released in 2009. He took over ISIS in 2010. Since then he has repaired and strengthened ISIS’s fighting capabilities and expanded the group’s remit into Syria against Mr al Assad’s regime.
The ISIS group, in its early form, was once controlled by the horrific Abu Musab al–Zarqawi, when it was called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
Mr Baghdadi has attracted the verbal support from affiliate jihadist groups in Turkmenistan, Iran and Afghanistan who all shifted allegiance to him in April earlier this year.
Israeli Ambassador to New Zealand Yosef Livne says the ISIS movement is a worrying sign for the region. Every country in the Middle East is affected by the latest offensive.
“The ISIS goal is different to other militant groups in the Middle East. These other groups want to realise specific goals, such as the removal of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
“But ISIS want to control a vast area of the Middle East and beyond to bring it under the control of an Islamic Caliphate (a political–religious state) ruled by them or likeminded jihadists.”
He says the group poses a serious threat to the stability if Iraq and other countries and Israel will be monitoring the situation very closely.
The loss of Mosul is a significant blow to the Iraqi government and raises grave concerns that the decaying security situation has moved beyond the abilities of a weakened Iraq state to manage.
The militant group has clearly terrified the Iraq army and police units. Reports from the ground in Mosul suggest Iraqi army servicemen are removing their uniforms before being overrun by ISIS fighters and leaving their weapons behind. Heavy weapons and US–supplied equipment have been captured by ISIS fighters.
ISIS now implicitly controls hundreds of square kilometres over an enormous region spreading from Raqqa in Syria, to Mosul in northern Iraq and to Fallujah in the heart of Iraq. Fallujah is only 69 kilometres from the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
It is now very clear that Western powers have almost no control over what happens in Iraq and are effectively non-players despite what Mr Obama says.
Mr Maliki is in control of Iraq with a heavy support base in the Iranian leadership. Both Mr Maliki and much of Iran are Shiite muslims. It is now possible that Iran may choose to covertly intervene behind Iraqi troops to push ISIS back from the two northern cities if and when Baghdad chooses to strike.
Once the Iraqi army moves to counter ISIS, the country could experience a renewed wave of terror as ISIS and sympathiser Sunni groups launch suicide attacks in Baghdad and elsewhere in response.
With the Iraqi army struggling to hold back the ISIS tide, the well equipped and motivated Kurdish army (Pesh Merga), based near the occupied militant cities of Mosul and Tikrit, is the only military force capable of and willing to take on the militants.
Ultimately, if ISIS is allowed to consolidate their positions in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, there is no reason to assume they will stop there. Militant forces become much more difficult to root out once they become established.
Turkey is reportedly already considering its own options to destabilise the group, but it will face considerable legal and logistical obstacles. Egypt, Jordan and Israel are also aware they may need to confront ISIS sooner rather than later.
The United States may insist that Iraq allows their aircraft overflight for possible airstrikes in support of an Iraqi army counteroffensive. US jets will be crucial to the success of a counteroffensive because the Iraq Airforce is almost nonexistent.
If ISIS continues to repel sustained attempts to retake Mosul or Tikrit, or captures further Iraqi or Kurdish towns, then the group will grow bolder. A victory will also exacerbate the background alliance switch of other jihadist groups from around the world away from al qaeada to behind ISIS as the new leading edge of the jihadist movement.