Islamic State on the Move With Baghdad Still Gridlocked

by Wayne White

Forces of the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, have lunged toward two strategic dams earlier this month, one in the north and the other west of Baghdad. The northern offensive drove Kurdish forces from areas they had protected, showing how vulnerable Iraqi Kurds could be in the face of more sweeping attacks. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s battle for political survival has delayed a more coherent, unified Iraqi response to the military threat posed by the Islamic State. Certain gains from this Sunni extremist group while Baghdad remains adrift politically would increase the potential for greater foreign military involvement.

The Islamic State has tried for weeks to get its hands on the Haditha Dam complex near Fallujah, Iraq’s second largest reservoir. To their credit, Iraqi troops have so far fought well in fending off the militants; Baghdad was able to reinforce its Haditha garrison at one point with 2,000 more troops. Nonetheless, the garrison is mostly isolated deep within Islamic State-held territory.

On Aug. 1, the Islamic State launched its heaviest attack to date toward Haditha. The assault almost broke through government lines. However, late in the fighting, Sunni Arab tribes from the area massed against the Islamic State to prevent the dam from falling to the group. These tribes depend on the dam, and they were not prepared to let go of such an important asset.

It is, however, doubtful that the Islamic State would simply destroy the dam (or one near Mosul that it may have seized). Blowing up the dams to spite downstream Shia would flood large Sunni Arab areas under Islamic State-control — hardly desirable as the group tries to win more Sunnis over to its side. The Islamic State may wish instead to manipulate dam power flows to benefit areas under its control, deny power to Shia areas, and, yes, occasionally alter water flows to damage government held areas downstream.

Challenging the Kurds

Seemingly in parallel, the Islamic State lunged for the Mosul Dam (Iraq’s largest) in the north on Aug. 3, which Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) occupied when it took control of extensive areas around the KRG’s perimeter to head off the militant threat. In addition, Islamic State fighters took Sinjar on Aug. 2, two smaller towns, and an oilfield. These locales were in Kurdish hands too, although isolated along the Syrian border far west of the KRG and hard to defend. Both sides claim to have the dam, but local residents told the AP on Aug. 7 that the Islamic State now holds it. The group also struck the other end of the KRG perimeter near the Iranian border, but was repulsed.

The Islamic State realizes KRG forces are spread thinly trying to cover a perimeter hundreds of miles long, so it can mass its forces at selected points to overwhelm local defenses. And the Islamic State’s re-conquest of mixed areas taken over by the Kurds in June could play well among Sunni Arabs concerned by KRG ambitions.

Excessive praise for the Peshmerga capabilities tends to be misplaced. The Peshmerga (literally, “those who face death”) mainly consists of militia-style light infantry against which the Islamic State can use heavy weapons seized from fleeing Iraqi forces when Mosul fell. In fact, the Peshmerga have an iffy track record against heavily equipped or fanatical opponents.

In 1991, after crushing much of a Shia rebellion in the south, Saddam Hussein’s well-equipped forces easily pushed aside Peshmerga units, driving over 2 million Kurds into Turkey and Iran. Then, in 2002, prior to the US invasion of Iraq, the Peshmerga twice tried to dislodge a small pocket of Ansar al-Islam (extremist Kurds and some al-Qaeda fighters who had eluded US forces in Afghanistan). In both instances, large Peshmerga assault forces were stopped cold by small numbers of less well-armed fanatics. Lastly, the Kurds faced little of the Sunni Arab insurgency’s wrath during 2003-08, so Kurdish Peshmerga saw little recent combat from which it could have drawn much needed military experience.

The KRG did seize large quantities of heavy weapons including tanks, other armored vehicles, and artillery from Saddam’s demobilized army after the US invasion in 2003. Little was done to incorporate them into Peshmerga units. Worse still, one of the two dominant Kurdish factions, the Popular Union of Kurdistan (PUK), sold a large quantity of this equipment to the Iranians.

The Secretary General of the KRG ministry overseeing the Peshmerga, Jabbar Yawar, declared on Aug. 6 that the Peshmerga would switch from defense to offense; Islamic State positions were attacked that day. The KRG is now receiving some limited air support from Baghdad and fighters from the Syrian Kurdish community, which has had considerable success in fending off the Islamic State. Nonetheless, KRG forces remain dangerously overstretched, and it lost more towns to the Islamic State in predominantly Christian areas under Kurdish protection on Aug. 7.

Yazidi Humanitarian Crisis

Iraq’s latest humanitarian crisis is associated with the fall of Sinjar, where Iraq’s small Yazidi community lives. Yazidis are members of an obscure sect often incorrectly labeled “Devil worshippers.” The Islamic State sees them as infidels, and there have been reports of executions.

Most Yazidis from Sinjar have taken refuge in mountains around the town, but the Islamic State has been trying to secure the heights to seize them. In an Aug. 5 Iraqi parliamentary session, a Yazidi deputy made an impassioned plea to save her people from genocide. Fortunately, some of the Yazidis from Sinjar were reportedly rescued over the past 24 hours.

Political Uncertainty in Baghdad

Maliki has remained adamant that he will not step down as a prime ministerial candidate despite opposition from key ally Iran, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and even some former Shia supporters. Despite his reduced chances of prevailing, Maliki clearly does not care that his stand has postponed fielding a fresh new crisis government to marshal Iraqi forces against the Islamic State.

Last week, US officials began meeting in Erbil with Sunni Arab officials and leaders from Islamic State-occupied areas to help fashion a Sunni Arab alliance against the group. US officials admitted, however, that the American strategy would not make much headway as long as Maliki remains prime minister.

Constitutionally, Maliki is on solid ground. As the head of the parliamentary list that garnered the most votes in elections earlier this year, he should be given first crack at forming a government.

The deadline for giving the go-ahead to someone is only days away. So, Iraq’s new president, Fouad Massoum, might as well ask Maliki to try and form a government (even if Maliki fails). Although time consuming, this move appears to be the only way to force Maliki to step aside. That might happen in a parliamentary session today.

Fragile Military Situation

Although it has so far been largely checked farther south, now that the Islamic State has shown interest in hitting Iraq’s Kurds in the north, it will probably make additional gains up there. And until there is a new government in Baghdad, Iraq will remain unable to mobilize its full potential to check or drive the Islamic State back.

Should the Islamic State concentrate its scattered forces for a major, focused offensive, it could jeopardize all Kurdish holdings outside the KRG (including Kirkuk), or even thrust into the KRG to throw Kurdish forces off balance. It might overwhelm isolated Iraqi government garrisons in Haditha, the refinery complex in Taiji, or Samarra with its highly sensitive Shia mosque/shrine. Similarly, the failure of most of the surrounded Yazidis to avoid capture followed by a massive Islamic State-atrocity against them would generate a huge wave of international outrage. Even additional territory in the vicinity of Baghdad could fall to an especially robust assault by the Islamic State.

The worst-case scenarios noted above would place Turkey, Iran and the US in particular under more intense pressure to take direct military action against the Islamic State. For example, would Tehran allow Samarra to fall to the group after Iranian senior officers have been sent to help organize its defense?

Photo: Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar arrive at Dohuk province, August 4, 2014. Credit: Reuters

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. What do you think of the President’s announcement today?

  2. Every time the media addresses ISIL in terms that are “glorious” to them..fear, strength, capturing.. etc. we are contributing to their membership. A total media black-out would be a wise decision .

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