Questions have arisen as to just how ISIS could take Mosul, Tikrit, and Bayji, and now Taji as well, according to Rudaw, while hardly firing a shot. While conspiracy-mongering is par for the course in the Middle East, making Maliki’s claims of betrayal sound initially suspect, names are beginning to come up that make the matter a little clearer.
Rudaw has reported that refugees coming out of Mosul are saying that several of Saddam’s Baathist officers are now in charge in the city. Al Akhbar has named General Abboud Qanbar, Lt Gen Ali Ghaidan, and General Mahdi al Ghazzawi, all former Baathist officers, as being complicit in handing over Mosul to ISIS. Al Akhbar claims that upwards of forty senior officers in the Iraqi Army were involved in abandoning their positions to ISIS.
Just how accurate these assertions are remains to be seen. Rudaw has said that nine of Saddam’s former generals accompanied the attackers, while three who were with the new Iraqi Army changed sides.
With the dismantling of the Saddam-era Iraqi Army following Saddam’s overthrow, many of the Baathists were known to be working with the insurgency. While the Baath party externally was generally secular, it was predominantly Sunni, and upheld the Sunni domination of the country. One of the grievances that has led to so much of the Sunni-Shi’a bloodshed in recent years has been the shift in the balance of power from Sunni domination to Shi’a. The increasing rapport between Baghdad and Iran further exacerbates the situation. It should come as no surprise that Sunni Baathists would ally with a group that takes Sunni hatred of Shi’a to its logical conclusion.
Mirroring the civil war in Syria, Iraq is a central battleground in the centuries-old Sunni-Shi’a feud. It also is part and parcel of Iran’s attempt to become the regional power. The Wall Street Journal has reported at least two Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps battalions have deployed to defend Karbala, Najaf, and Baghdad, and eyewitness reports have put Qods Force in Mosul. Iran has invested considerable capital making Iraq an Iranian partner with the US withdrawal, along with Syria and Lebanon. They cannot afford to have both Syria and Iraq fall out of their orbit.
A question to which there is no answer at the moment is what role do the Saudis play in these events? Especially at the urging of Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia has provided considerable support to Sunni Takfiri groups in Syria, and by extension, in Iraq. While Bin Sultan swore that he wasn’t deliberately supporting Al Qaeda, some of his other actions tend to belie his claims, especially his threats to Russia concerning Chechen terrorism at the Winter Games in Sochi last year. While Bin Sultan is no longer the Saudi intelligence chief, the Saudi support for Takfiri rebels in Syria does not appear to have slackened.
The Saudi military is almost entirely geared toward fighting Iran. The training schedules revealed in the leaked Britam emails last year (the ones that were legitimate, not the “smuggling chemical weapons into Syria” fakes) show this clearly. The Saudis have steadfastly refused to send an Ambassador to Iraq under Maliki, as they see, correctly, that Maliki is Iran’s man. They have worked against the Iraqi government as much as possible without overt action.
On the other hand, the Saudi royal family has long faced threats from Al Qaeda, being seen by the hard-core Wahhabis as being too decadent and too close to the West. They walk a fine line, and so far have managed to keep their balance, supporting the Takfiris elsewhere and therefore keeping the Salafist wrath away from their own doorstep. How comfortable they would be with a Takfiri state right on their own border is questionable, leading to the question of whether this was the result of deliberate Saudi support, or unintended consequences? There isn’t an answer to that at the moment, at least not discoverable by open-source methods.
The Kurds, in the meantime, are in the middle, as always. The Peshmerga appear to be the best prepared for this, as they moved quickly to secure Kirkuk and other villages in Diyala, even clashing with Iraqi SWAT to do so. Al Akhbar reports that Barzani initially has refused to take part in the fighting, saying that the Peshmerga only defend Kurdish and mixed areas, but they say that US pressure has drawn out an agreement for Peshmerga fighters to assist in attempting to retake Mosul. So far, Al Akhbar is the only source for this report; Rudaw hasn’t mentioned it, and the overwhelming opinion in Kurdistan appears to be in favor of defending their own territory while leaving the Arab areas for the Arabs to sort out.
With the Iraqi Army apparently no longer trustworthy, Maliki’s government has begun recruiting a popular paramilitary defense force, apparently along the lines of the Sahwa militias. According to Al Akhbar, they are willing to take anyone who is willing to fight the jihadists. How well that works out remains to be seen.
The overall situation in Iraq and the Levant is complex and fluid. Doubtless the best analysis we can muster here is incomplete. A great deal remains to be seen.