“Next Stop Baghdad”
Three weeks after ISIL captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, the Sunni Jihadist organization continued to stage significant, coordinated attacks against key pieces of Iraqi military and civilian infrastructure. From al-Qaim to Tal’ Afar, the war in Iraq has expanded to include six Middle Eastern countries with direct involvement (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon) and countless ethno-sectarian militia groups (Jaysh al-Mahdi – Shi’a, Jabhat al-Nusra - Sunni, Asaib ahl al-Haq – Shi’a, the Mahdi Army – Shi’a, among many others). The conflict is still in a phase of moderate escalation as different interest groups assert themselves ahead of what could be a long, protracted campaign. Asymmetric and spectacular attack preparations remain a high priority in areas of strategic importance, namely the Baghdad International Airport and western diplomatic infrastructure in Baghdad city. A June 26th successful suicide IED attack on the predominantly Shi’a Muslim neighborhood of Khadimiya, about three miles north of Baghdad city center, confirms ISIL can call upon so-called ‘sleeper’ agents to carry out devastating attacks in the capital. A larger offensive on Baghdad could be next.
An Expanding Ethno-Sectarian Conflict Between Sunni and Shi’a
Despite Secretary of State Kerry’s June 26th warning to Middle East nations to “avoid heightening sectarian tensions” by taking military actions in Iraq, multiple countries are aggressively affecting the conflict through direct and indirect military engagement. Saudi benefactors have recently channeled lethal materials to Sunni tribal fighters and, by association, ISIL jihadists across al Anbar and Ninawa provinces at the strategically important H2 airfield. In response, Syria’s Air Force has flown several sorties of SU-24 Fencer aircraft in western and northern Iraq over the past two weeks. These bombing runs reportedly left dozens of people dead and more than 100 wounded – most of them Iraqi civilians. Multiple sources suggest this is an indication of the tight operational sync between Shi’a military headquarters in Tehran, Damascus and Baghdad. An Iranian-led ‘Shi’a coalition’ will fight Sunni jihadism with every asset and ally available.
Tehran has likely replicated in Baghdad the same command and control procedures it established last summer for Bashar Assad’s army in Damascus, Syria. Media reports received over the past couple weeks indicate senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander Qassem Soleimani, based at an undisclosed HQ in Baghdad, is the chief military liaison for most Shi’a-aligned combatants in Iraq. In addition to organizing the rapid recall of Iraq’s Shi’a militia fighters and coordinating an advise-assist mission, Soleimani can also be credited with directing combat operations to fortify Baghdad and the protection of Shi’a holy shrines. Soleimani’s tactical expertise, experience and command authority are unmatched; he is possibly the only military leader who can stop the surging extremists.
Complementing the military task force headed by Soleimani, radical Iraqi Shi’a leader Muqtada al-Sadr vowed last week to “shake the ground” under Sunni Islamists overrunning parts of the country. In the mid-2000s, Sadr was perhaps one of the loudest and most influential voices lobbying to expel western military forces from Iraq. His militia, the Mahdi Army, has more of a stomach for fighting than Iraqi Security Forces after years of battle with British and American soldiers. Speaking from the Shi’a shrine city of Najaf, al-Sadr ruled out US intervention in Iraq and criticized the meetings Iraqi commanders were holding with US military advisers who arrived in Baghdad. Sadr’s speech came after his Mahdi Army militiamen paraded in the Baghdad suburb of Sadr City. Galvanized by their leader, the Mahdi Army have likely deployed to Shi’a holy sites around Baghdad in order to protect them from ISIL incursion.
Conversely and in addition to indirect backing from the Saudi Kingdom, ISIL is receiving support from a powerful sectarian Sunni group and former rival – the al-Nusrah Front (ANF). Although many analysts were initially skeptical of the partnership, a growing body of reports indicates ANF leaders recently promised their fighters and ideological allegiance to ISIL. It is undetermined if this is only an agreement between local fighters or if it is part of a wider partnership. Additionally, LiveLeak and YouTube channels used by extremists have posted videos hailing the agreement as a victory and a step forward. If true, the union means a significant boost to ISIL’s combat power and a temporary re-alignment with al-Qaeda prime, which has staunchly supported ANF and its forerunner, Jabhat al-Nusra, through the Jihadist campaigns in Syria and Iraq. In temporary union with former Ba’athists, ANF and Sunni tribal leaders, ISIL will continue to successfully assault ISF military positions and attack Shi’a militias. At first blurred, the boundaries between the war in Syria and ISIL offensive in Iraq are effectively nonexistent.
A Tenuous Security Environment and the Likelihood of Future Conflict
Although Baghdad remains under control of the Government of Iraq and its Shi’a-affiliated militant groups, the overall security situation continues to deteriorate as the threat environment grows more ambiguous. News media outlets highlight the possibility that Iraqi Shi’a elements may intend to target interventionist US Forces in Baghdad. These reports point to a growing threat of Shi’a extremist groups targeting US forces conducting advisory missions in Iraq. The dynamics of American intervention become more problematic with threats coming from both sides.
The prospect of an ISIL offensive against Baghdad has become real. Two instances of Shi’a targeting – suicide-vest attack in Khadimiya on June 26th and mortar fire on the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra on June 30th – suggest ISIL is already trying to exploit sectarian fault lines in and around the capital city. As militants maneuver into positions around Baghdad from western Anbar and northern Iraq, the initial phases of an assault remain unclear. However, an historical assessment of significant al-Qaeda attacks suggest ISIL may start by liberating ‘reinforcements’ from one of the city’s prisons. On 21 July 2013, ISIL marked the end of a year-long campaign titled “Breaking the Walls” with coordinated suicide assaults against two Iraqi jails, Abu Ghraib and Taji, killing 26 policemen and freeing more than 500 prisoners , Long War Journal reported. Militants used vehicle-borne IEDs to initiate the attack, before employing rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire from supporting units. Although Abu Ghraib prison was closed in April 2014 and its couple-thousand inmates re-assigned to prisons across Iraq, a spectacular attack on the facility formerly known as Cropper Prison (Karkh Prison) – in close proximity to the Baghdad Diplomatic Support Center – or a similar site in Taji, could swell ISIL’s numbers into the thousands. They only need to hold part of Baghdad for a short period to achieve their strategic goals of disabling al-Maliki’s regime, while causing a mass exodus of foreign diplomats and aid workers. The attack would represent the collapse of Iraq’s security and governance institutions.
ISIL Will Attack Baghdad and Sectarian War Will Continue to Expand
Both sides of this conflict – expansive Sunni and Shi’a coalitions – have committed mass killings, executions and other horrible atrocities against their respective oppositions. Any manner of peaceful resolution is practically unattainable. Flush with cash and bolstered by tactical gains from ar-Raqqah, Syria to Mosul, Iraq, ISIL is entrenched across a swath of terrain that straddles two countries and nearly 300 miles of borderland desert. Its ability to rapidly challenge, overrun and exploit previously held Iraqi army bases has created an inertial momentum that will soon propel ISIL into western Baghdad. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the charismatic and ideological commander of the organization who is widely accepted as a self-styled successor to original Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) Emir Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is the unchallenged leader of a new era in the ‘Global Jihad’. Unlike Zarqawi, however, Baghdadi is from Iraq – born in As Samarra, roughly 100 miles north of Baghdad – and committed to fulfilling its moniker: to create an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria for the greater “eastern Mediterranean littoral between Anatolia to Egypt.” The overthrow of Shi’a governance is absolutely necessary to the existence of a true Caliphate.
What started as a war in Iraq is now a sectarian conflict that knows no boundaries, only interests. Amidst ever-changing alliances and newly involved regional players, the ultimate conclusion is still unknowable. One thing we can predict: the conflict that has divided the Middle East may soon breach Baghdad’s city limits and demand a coalition response as committed and effective as ISIL itself.