International News

Sectarian Violence Escalates in Iraq: Jihadists Cripple Military, Thwart Government, Displace Peoples

by Thom Kilburn

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In recent months, Iraq has undergone the most widespread bloodshed and governmental instability in nearly a decade. Swaths of the country and surrounding regions have been under siege from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a jihadist militant group. At whatever cost, ISIL aims to eliminate all modern borders between Islamic Middle Eastern countries to establish a single Sunni-led Islamic state.

For context, ISIL’s origins can be traced to 2003, when it grew out of a response to the U.S. occupation. The group’s original form had the allegiance of al-Qaeda and other radical Sunni insurgent groups like the Mujahideen Shura Council, Jaysh al-Fatiheen and others. Over time, ISIL grew more formidable and appealing to jihadists due to its hand in the Syrian Civil War and the rise of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Under al-Baghdadi, ISIL recently acquired its current name: the Islamic State (IS). The militant group gained their current namesake in the wake of an ongoing attempt to establish and develop a caliphate, a system of rule that ended almost a century ago with the fall of the Ottoman empire. In a caliphate, regions across political boundaries become an Islamic state led by a supreme religious and political leader. Naturally, al-Baghdadi stepped up to the plate to fill this role.

The group’s violent insurgencies to accomplish this goal have peaked throughout June and July due to an influx of membership—al-Baghdadi called on Muslims from around the world to join the fight and offer their assistance in building an Islamic state in land that the extremists control in Syria and Iraq.

There are presently an estimated number of 10,000 soldiers fighting under the IS moniker who, in addition to attacks on government and military targets, have claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed thousands of civilians.

According to a United Nations (UN) report issued on July 1, the death toll of at least 2,417 Iraqis killed and 2,287 wounded in “acts of violence and terrorism” was the highest since April 2007. Amid this unimaginable carnage, Iraq is wading through another worsening crisis: the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Last month, the UN upgraded Iraq’s crisis to a level 3 humanitarian disaster—the most severe rating it has.

The UN and humanitarian NGOs are presently struggling to find a place to shelter, feed and care for the estimated 300,000 internally displaced people.

“We understand that many of these displaced civilians are currently under the hot sun in the open, and have extremely limited access to food, water and shelter,” UNHCR Senior Field Coordinator Andrei Kazakov said. “It appears that many are planning to move north to Duhok governorate. But in the meantime, we must get them the help they urgently need.”

While international response and aid have been slowly trickling into Iraq, IS continues to storm through the region, attacking governmental and military targets—giving rise to the ever-increasing death toll and number of displaced civilians.

In spite of numerous attempts to stifle the spread of IS’s influence, the Iraqi military force has fallen to the militant rebels in most combat situations.

The extent of the Iraqi army’s defeat became clear when, in early June, officials in Baghdad said that insurgents had gutted the main army base in the northern city of Mosul of weapons, released hundreds of prisoners from the city’s jails and may have seized up to $480 million in banknotes from the city’s banks.

“They are crumbling,” said James M. Dubik, a retired American lieutenant general who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces during the so-called surge of thousands of United States troops into Iraq in 2007.

According to American military and intelligence officials, the collapse of Iraq’s army in cities throughout northern Iraq reflect poor leadership within the Iraqi armies, declining troop morale, broken equipment and a decline in training since the last American advisers left the country in 2011. The officials gave accounts of army divisions abandoning posts, stripping off uniforms, and fleeing when confronted by militants in cities such as Mosul and Tikrit.

Hamad al-Mutlaq, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s defense committee, recently said, “I’m convinced that what happened in Mosul is deliberate negligence or there is an agreement between the parties because it’s impossible for an army to be unable to stand up to a group made up of hundreds of men.”

Mutlaq later said, “IS can’t have had more than a few thousand men versus two divisions made up of 30,000 Iraqi soldiers. This signifies that the army has been built on weak foundations. The Iraqi government is the one to blame and should be held responsible for this failure; it has been unable to build a healthy state and unable to defend it.”

Over recent weeks, the Obama administration has made little commitment to provide military aid to the worsening situation in Iraq. As of early July, there were 650 troops stationed in the country—470 of them to protect American personnel and property at the embassy and Baghdad International Airport.

However, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that none of the U.S. troops who recently arrived in Iraq will take part in battles, though they will be able to defend themselves.

“None will perform combat missions,” said Hagel.

Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that there is little to no likelihood that U.S. forces will be drawn deeper into the conflict. Any aid from U.S. forced depends on the Iraqi government developing a government that included Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites, Dempsey said—something that, in lieu of recent Iraqi parliamentary squabbles, may not happen easily or even soon.

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