by Peggy Faw Gish, 30 July, 2014
The call to prayer reverberates throughout quiet, almost deserted, morning streets of Suleimani, northern Iraq. It is the week of Eid al-Fitar, after the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and alms giving for Muslims around the world.
Many analysts of the current situation in Iraq had predicted that the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), renamed the “Islamic State” (IS) a month ago by the group (and also called, “Daash,” by the Kurds in the KRG) would make a major offensive on Baghdad before the end of Ramadan. Now some are saying it could happen during this week of Eid.
Jessica Lewis, a former American military intelligence officer with several years of service in Iraq, describes IS as capable of both guerilla style warfare and conventional warfare, and predicts it will attack soon, first the bases around the city and important government buildings.
The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank, that has been analyzing IS activity in Iraq, reports that the coordinated suicide attacks conducted around Baghdad in predominantly Shia areas on 19 July, demonstrate that ISIS has infiltrated highly coordinated sleeper cells into the city. Their analysts predict that the coming offensive, referred to by some as a “blitz,” will likely be in the form of guerrilla and terrorist offensive, rather than a huge conventional military attack. It would be intent on instilling chaos and fear and keeping the Iraqi government focused on defending the capital rather than mounting an offensive to retake Mosul and other captured territory.
Other journalists and local Kurdish Iraqis question IS’s ability to attack Baghdad now, seeing that recent IS advances in Iraq have slowed down but increased in Syria, where they are meeting stiff resistance, and that they are engaged in current battles with Iraqi forces north of Baghdad, trying to defend captured territory. One might question whether IS’s blowing up an important bridge, on Monday, over the Tigris River, north of Baghdad and west of Samarra, was a defensive move in the midst of fighting with Iraqi forces. Instilling fear and building a reputation of fear seems an important strategy. A recent example is the video (reported by Reuters on 29 July) that IS released, warning Iraqi soldiers to leave their posts and join them, or they would be rounded up and executed. Does that imply strength or weakness?
Kurdish and Iraqi news sources report almost daily skirmishes between Kurdish Peshmerga and IS fighters, somewhere along the front line between Kurdish controlled areas and IS controlled areas. Deaths from these battles are usually no more than a handful or two. So far, IS has not taken any substantial areas held by the KRG, though they do control some of Iraq’s oilfields and dams.
Meanwhile the Iraqi Central Government is trying to form a new post-election government, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resists internal and external pressures on him to step down, arguing that because his political bloc won the largest number of parliament seats in the April elections, he has the right to form the next government. Some Iraqis say that when Maliki goes, the Sunni tribal leaders and militias will no longer cooperate with, but will turn against IS.
Thankfully, some of the earlier claims made about IS’s demands and actions around the city of Mosul are now known to be false, such as reports that the Islamic State had issued a fatwa ordering women to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), that the Islamic State had burned down the St. Ephrem’s Cathedral in Mosul. The chief executive of the association of Iraq’s private banks has also confirmed that the story of IS raiding and taking more than $400 million and a large quantity of gold bullion from Mosul’s central bank is also false, that no raid occurred and that nothing had been taken. But my question is whether spreading these false reports is just one more sign of a bloated image—a sign of weakness?
These propaganda-like false claims, however, have been reported alongside many threats, atrocities, and destructive acts that still appear to be real. Our peace team has been seeing the effects of IS’s threats and presence has had on daily life of the people of Iraq. The fear is understandably real. It has been the reason for massive exodus of people from various religious and ethnic backgrounds who do not meet their demands. It is estimated that every day 70 or 80 families flee Tal Afar and Mosul either from threats from IS or to escape the bombing from Iraqi forces, and go to one of the displacement camps around Erbil, Duhok, or Sinjar, that are under the protection of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Last week human rights organizations in Iraq estimated that the number of people in Iraq, displaced by the crisis, reached 1,250,000 and is likely to rise.
Kurdish people we talk to in Suleimani are fearful of infiltration of IS cells into the KRG with those IDPs coming in, that could lead to larger IS attacks on them They worry about more crime coming into the area and about the economic strain on their communities of the influx of refugees from Syria and those displaced from other parts of Iraq.
“Of course, we are glad we may achieve an independent Kurdish state,” a Kurdish man, Hawar*, recently told our team, voicing some common sentiments held by Kurds in the KRG, “but we are also afraid. We hear horrible things about Daash. What if after they attack Baghdad, they turn around and come up and attack us. Will we be able to fight them off? This is a frightening time for all of us.”