When Islamic militants swept into the western Iraq city of Mosul this week, Ammar al-Tayee was relieved to see soldiers flee for their lives.
The 30-year-old medic used to spend hours at army checkpoints and got fed up with the Shiite-dominated military insulting residents of the mostly Sunni city, he said.
“Life is stable now,” al-Tayee said by telephone two days after the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda splinter group, took over his city. “The gunmen haven’t hurt anyone and I feel safe away from the grip of the government.”
Such grievances among Iraq’s minority Sunni population against the Shiite-led government have offered the militants, known as ISIL, the opportunity to secure a base inside Iraq as well as the territory they control in Syria. The group’s fighters took over Mosul and other Iraqi towns this week, as violence escalated 11 years after the U.S.-led invasion to depose Saddam Hussein.
“Every acre of territory that ISIL seizes control of, particularly in its homeland, now gives it added leverage and power to recruit and train individuals to carry out attacks not just inside of Iraq but in foreign countries,” Kohlmann said.
ISIL has lured fighters from the region with a call for holy war. The group has been active in Syria, especially since April 2013 when it was split from the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, part of a Sunni-dominated insurgency that has been trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad for three years.
In Syria, it has influence from the town of al-Bab in the northern Aleppo Province to al-Busayrah 260 kilometers (162 miles) away in the east, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been documenting the violence through local activists.
ISIL has forced Islamic law on the population under its control, amputating the hands of robbers, crucifying or cutting the heads of those they determine as criminals and banning the display of underwear or mannequins in shop windows, which are deemed un-Islamic, said Abdurrahman.
In Syria, ISIL’s base has been undermined after the group alienated other Islamists. Iranian-backed Shiite groups from Lebanon and Iraq have sent fighters to help Assad, limiting ISIL’s ability to make more progress on the ground.
An enclave in Iraq would give ISIL a more secure base, according to Kohlmann, who said there’s “very compelling” evidence that individuals are being trained by radical groups for attacks in Western countries. He said the May 24 attack at the Brussels Jewish Museum in which a former fighter in Syria is the prime suspect, was “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Dawoud Salman, who lives in Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and runs a dairy distributing milk, said by telephone that the city is under total militant control and that their leaders have told residents they plan to leave a number of fighters in the city and advance south.
The main target is Baghdad’s Green Zone, a complex that is home the prime minister’s office, parliament and foreign embassies, and that once it’s captured, “Iraq would be liberated from the Shiite government,” Salman said residents were told by fighters. Most of the militants were from local Muslim and tribal groups, in addition to ISIL, he said.
They’ve established checkpoints across the city and carry out patrols, using vehicles that were left behind by Iraqi forces, and were seen protecting banks and public properties in the city. They have also used mosque loudspeakers to urge state employees to go back to work, and said they were not going to harm the residents, Salman said.
The success of the militants reflects the treatment of the Sunni minority in Iraq, said Bartle Bull, a partner at Northern Gulf Partners, an investment firm in Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, came to power in 2006 at the height of the sectarian conflict after the U.S. invasion. He marginalized some Sunni politicians and tribes that had fought off Muslim extremists in western Iraq in a campaign that started in 2007.
“The current government has been terribly divisive, especially with the Sunnis,” Bull said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday. “The biggest implications of this are on the government formation process. Will Maliki stay or go is much more important for the long term.”
ISIL had already been carving out a base in western Iraq along the border with Syria before this week’s developments. It seized the western city of Fallujah in January, and the government hasn’t been able to retake it.
“There’s a feeling that there’s sectarianism instead of citizenship in this country, that the state belongs to its ruler and not its people,” Noureddin Qablan, vice chairman of the Nineveh provincial council in Mosul, said by phone.
U.S. President Barack Obama said part of the challenge in Iraq is that the politics of Shiites and Sunnis, as well as the Kurds, is “either going to be a help in dealing with this jihadist situation or it’s going to be a hindrance.”
“And frankly, over the last several years, we have not seen the kind of trust and cooperation develop between moderate Sunni and Shiite leaders inside of Iraq, and that accounts in part for” some of the weakness of the state and then carries over into their military capacity, Obama said yesterday.
It’s not clear if ISIL will head into other cities. In a recording posted online, a man identified as the group’s spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, vowed to march on Baghdad and take over the southern Shiite cities of Karbala and Najaf, home to the holiest shrines for Shiite Muslims.
Clashes continued today between the two sides in Tikrit and in the surrounding countryside. Militants seized the town of Jalawla in the east after security forces abandoned their posts, the BBC reported today, citing officials it didn’t identify.
To push further and set up a separate entity, the group will need a large force and will have to dominate Iraq’s Sunnis, said Kamran Bokhari, vice-president for Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor. The government, as well as Turkey, Iran and possibly the U.S., would likely respond to prevent that, he added.
“It’s too early to reach the conclusion that they will be able to set up an emirate,” Bokhari, co-author of Political Islam in the Age of Democratization published last year, said from Toronto. “That is their intent. But is it their capability? We just have to see.”
In Mosul, medic al-Tayee said ISIL “hasn’t done anything so far to scare people or turn them against it.”
He worries that this could change or the government would pound his city to force ISIL to surrender. “It’s the fear of the unknown that’s making us nervous,” he said.
(An earlier version of this story corrected the size of the Sunni population in the fourth paragraph.)