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The Middle East
Iraq Circles the Drain

Another Iraqi military base has fallen to ISIS. Control of the base, to the east of the city of Hit, which was captured by ISIS yesterday, gives the Islamic State near uncontested control of Anbar province, as well as a major jumping off point for any move on Baghdad. Bloomberg news reports on the fallout:

[ISIS] fighters are battling Iraqi forces in Abu Ghraib, 18 miles (29 kilometers) from Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone that houses embassies and government offices.

The town of Haditha is “completely besieged” by Islamic State militants and will fall within days without U.S. action to prevent it, Faleh al-Issawi, the deputy head of Anbar provincial council, said by phone late yesterday. He said the jihadists control 80 percent of Anbar province

The article then goes on to argue, however, that Baghdad itself is less threatened than it might appear:

Baghdad will be better defended than Iraqi cities such as Mosul, seized by Islamic State after it routed the Iraqi army during a lightning advance across the north in June[….]

“There is simply no way, for instance, Daesh could storm the large, combative Shiite militias that are awaiting in the Iraqi capital, and which enjoy unconditional state backing, from both the local government and Iran,” [Peter Harling, senior Middle East and North Africa adviser at the International Crisis Group] said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

Perhaps, but we are more than a little skeptical of this assessment. It’s worth underlining that these “large, combative, Shiite militias” are primarily Iranian-backed death squads, more practiced in terror and torture than in defending a major city. Amnesty International has released a 28-page report today detailing mass kidnapping, and summary execution of civilians by these militias, which have been granted operational impunity by the Iraqi government. Amnesty:

One government official explained that militias “mostly … kidnap Sunnis, because the victims can easily be labelled as terrorists and nobody is going to do anything about it”. At a checkpoint north of Baghdad, Amnesty heard a member of the ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia say: “If we catch ‘those dogs’ [Sunnis] coming down from the Tikrit area we execute them”

Nor should the actual Iraqi army provide much comfort to those watching Iraq disintegrate. CBS News cites a figure of 60,000 Iraqi troops assigned to defend Baghdad, but given the rampant corruption in the Iraqi armed forces, the official numbers on paper are one of the least important facts about the defending forces. As Haaretz noted in June, a large portion of the Iraqi army is made up of “ghost soldiers” who appear in the official troop count but pay their commanders a portion of their salary in return for being excused from duty. Graft has always been rampant in the post-Ba’athi Iraqi military, with officers stealing not only money and equipment, but even reportedly food and water from their soldiers during ISIS’ June blitz. These factors, while perhaps attenuated, are still very much at play today.

And the chances for turning things around look ever-more remote. Graft and favoritism at all levels of government have stretched Iraq’s finances to the breaking point, as the Financial Times reports today. Even though the country is comparatively awash in money, marshaling these resources is proving next to impossible due to the reassertion of traditional Shiite tribal patronage networks under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The end result: there is less and less evidence of any entity that can be meaningfully called the nation state of Iraq.

That’s not to say that ISIS is about to engage in a pitched battle for Baghdad; given the strategy it’s pursuing, that’s unlikely. But at the same time, we hope no planners and strategists in Washington are actually feeling confident in Baghdad’s prospects at this stage in the game. There is a lot to be nervous about.

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  • Don Schilling

    there is less and less evidence of any entity that can be meaningfully called the nation state of Iraq.

    Was there really ever? A made up cobbled together mishmash drawn on a map after WWI, it was never more than a holding cell for three tribes that shared only their hatred for the ‘others’. As much as it pains me to say it, Biden may well have been right. We should have chopped it up with a section for each of the tribes, and a sort of DMZ with per-capita shared revenues from the major oil fields. Maybe if each group felt they had something to lose, and therefore a stake in the outcome, they might have defended themselves against the barbarian horde now knicking on their doors.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Why would it pain you to say that Biden might have been right?

      • Tom

        Because Biden is usually wrong.

  • jeburke

    I get the feeling that everyone is grasping for some reason why ISIS won’t take Baghdad, or can’t, or doesn’t want to. My take is that it’s insane to believe that an outfit that calls itself the Islamic State and is headed by a guy who has already proclaimed himself to be the Caliph doesn’t have the conquest of both Baghdad and Damascus as goals that yield in importance only to Mecca and Medina.

    As for their ability to do so, while Damascus is safe for the moment, due to the Assad regime’s resilience, the defense of Baghdad by the Iraqi security forces and Shia militias might well be swept aside in a new ISIS offensive. ISIS is consolidating gains, reviewing strategy and tactics, organizing its forces, and laying in munitions and other resources. At some point, it will strike.

    • Maynerd

      Assad’s regime is only resilient because Hezbollah, Iran, and Putin’s Russia prop up the despot.

      Ironically Iraq is being propped up by anti-US Iran and of course the feckless US – go figure.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The best strategy that the West can now embrace is that of “Divide and Conquer” where the west sits back and encourages the Sunni Jihadists to focus all their resources on killing the Shiite Jihadists and vice a versa. We don’t want to pick a side in this fight, as both sides are vile, both sides want the imposition of shariah law which legalizes the murder, rape, pillaging, and enslavement of anyone the Jihadists want to call infidels or apostates.

  • Arkeygeezer

    I think that we should pull our people out of Bagdad before we have another Saigon on our hands. Maybe we could replace them with the planners and strategists from Washington who do not believe that Bagdad will fall to the Sunni’s.

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