News / Middle East

Divergent Visions Could Split Iraq's Sunni Revolt

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014.
Reuters

The militants dismantling Iraq's borders and threatening regional war are far from united - theirs is a marriage of convenience between ultra-hardline religious zealots and more pragmatic Sunni armed groups.

For now, they share a common enemy in Shi'ite Islamist Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom Iraq's Sunni minority accuse of marginalizing and harassing them.

But each anticipates they will square off someday over the future shape of Iraq's Sunni territories.

The question looms over who will triumph: the al-Qaida splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which aims to carve out a modern-day Caliphate, or myriad Iraqi Sunni armed factions, who fight based on a nexus of tribal, family, military and religious ties and nostalgia for the past before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Many experts and Western officials believe ISIL, due to its internal cohesion, and access to high-powered weapons and stolen cash, will overpower its Sunni rivals.

They point to the lessons of Syria's three-year-old civil war, where a unified ISIL leadership steam-rolled other groups and entrenched itself as the force to be reckoned with in western Syria. They warn that even the Sunni revolt against al-Qaida last decade in Iraq would not have succeeded without the decisive punch of American firepower.

Cracks are already showing in the loose alliance of ISIL and fellow Sunni forces, suggesting the natural frictions that exist between the jihadists and other factions will inevitably grow.

In the Iraqi town of Hawija, ISIL and members of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, which includes former Iraqi army officers and is rooted in Iraq's ousted Baath party, fought turf battles from Friday to Sunday when ISIL demanded their rival pledge loyalty to them, according to locals. At least 15 people died before the clashes ended in stalemate.

Friction may grow

Such confrontations could become the new Sunni reality if there is no swift political resolution to the crisis that began two weeks ago when ISIL stormed Mosul, seizing it in hours and then dashed across northern Iraq grabbing large swathes of land.

The charge, which saw the army abandon positions en masse, has defined the dynamics between ISIL and the other insurgents.

According to a high-level Iraqi security official, who specializes in Sunni militant groups, ISIL has about 2,300 fighters, including foreigners, who have led the speedy assault from Mosul through other northern towns, including Hawija, west of oil-rich Kirkuk; Baiji, home of Iraq's biggest refinery; and Saddam Hussein's birthplace Tikrit.

The high-level official told Reuters that as ISIL has raced on from Mosul, the north's biggest city which they dominate, other Iraqi Sunni groups have seized much of the newly-gained rural territory because ISIL is short on manpower.

The different groups appear to be following ISIL's lead in the bigger communities it has captured like Tikrit and Baiji.

But as the new order settles in Iraq's Sunni north, the high-level security officer predicted: “They will soon be fighting each other.”

Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security expert with good contacts in Gulf Arab governments, also expects friction to grow.

“How long can this honeymoon last?” he said. “ISIL is not acceptable among the people, either socially or politically.”

If the rebel alliance does fracture, battles could drag Sunni regions of Iraq into a state of permanent internecine war.

A Sunni politician sketched out the future.

“ISIL will take a stand in favor of [its] Islamic law, and the people of the region will refuse because they will want to protect their rights,” said Dr. Muhannad Hussam, a politician with the nationalist Arabiya list.

"No one will win"

“I am afraid for the Sunni areas. They will be burned. No one will win.”

He said that other insurgent groups, even if they could not defeat ISIL, would eventually adopt guerrilla tactics and still be able to hurt ISIL, regardless of the jihadists' superior arms. “They can fight as gangs, not as a military,” he said.

“They are tied to the land and ISIL is not. ISIL can't fight an enemy from all sides.”

British Defense Minister Philip Hammond, touring Gulf Arab states to discuss Iraq, told reporters in Qatar on Wednesday ISIL could lose control of Sunni areas if local people could be persuaded to withdraw the tacit support they were giving it.

Some Gulf Arab countries had been sending messages to moderate Sunni leaders in Iraq about a political solution, he said without elaborating.

For now, the front rests on two strong pillars: the groups' common membership of the Sunni minority, and a conviction that Sunnis have been marginalized and persecuted by Maliki.

Both factors have helped ISIL win the cooperation if not the hearts of war-weary Sunni communities. Many of ISIL's current partners initially collaborated with its parent organization al-Qaida before revolting between 2006 and 2008, disgusted by its ultra-hardline agenda.

Then, when they rebelled against al-Qaida they were bolstered by U.S. firepower, winning promises of reconciliation with Maliki and his Shi'ite-led government. But Maliki failed to deliver on those pledges and security forces continued to carry out mass arrests in the face of militant threats.

As violence has exploded in the last two years, ISIL has seized on such communal grievances.

Looting, smuggling

ISIL has multiple internal strengths - ruthlessness, self-funded wealth estimated in the tens of millions of dollars from sophisticated extortion rackets, kidnap ransoms, smuggling of oil and other goods, diplomats and counter-terrorism experts say, and eye-catching social media skills.

It and other groups have looted and dismantled captured Syrian factories and sold off the equipment, the diplomats said.

It also has open lines of communication to support bases in neighboring Syria, where it is a powerful force in that country's civil war. Its bastion in the town of Raqqa gives it proximity to Turkey - a conduit for foreign recruits - as well as access to Syrian oil reserves, which it sells. They have tapped similar markets in Iraq.

Its achievement in dismantling much of the border drawn by European colonialists nearly a century ago is a source of prestige in the trans-national community of Islamist sympathizers that provides a steady flow of foreign recruits.

And yet, self sufficient though it may be in material terms, in Iraq in recent months it has consciously teamed with other Iraqi factions. It has drawn strength by partnering with them, or by choosing not to hunt them down over past grudges and mainly resisted the urge to eliminate alternative voices.

Such militias include the Islamic Army, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mujahadeen Army, the Rashadeen Army and Ansar al-Sunna. These formations bring together Islamists, military veterans, tribal figures and professionals, who were marginalized after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Another leading group is the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a Baathist offshoot created by Ezzat Ibrahim al-Duri, a former lieutenant of Saddam's.

ISIL co-existed with such factions first in the vast desert areas west of Baghdad, where tribes rose up in late December, and then in the sudden advance this month in the north.

The Sunni revolt against Maliki in the desert cities of Fallujah and Ramadi since early this year allowed for ISIL to enter the urban areas and seize ground. Since then they have fought the Iraqi government in Anbar, sometimes on the same side and other times in competition with their Sunni cohorts.

In Mosul, the north's biggest city, ISIL has mostly tolerated the different factions. Its members brag they are converting their fellow fighters.” Other groups are pledging loyalty,” one pro-ISIL Sunni fighter claimed.

An Islamic Army member explained the equation was simple: “The people of Mosul are fed up with the oppression of Maliki's forces.”

ISIS aims to provoke Iran

In Tikrit and Baiji, where militants are laying siege to Iraq's biggest refinery, a similar dynamic is in play.

ISIL has the best arms, while tribal fighters, including members of the Islamic Army and Mujahadeen Army, are bolstering ISIL's numbers in the offensive on Baiji's refinery, a second Iraqi security official said.

Anna Boyd, an expert on al-Qaida at IHS risk consultancy, said that the decision by ISIL to partner with other groups over the past year suggests that its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is conscious of the pitfalls of factionalism.

Aware of its fractious reputation, ISIL in Syria has attempted 'soft power' initiatives to present a more acceptable face. It has run charity events and provided food and medical aid, sometimes putting on tug-of-war contests in town squares.

But its brutality has also left a record of infighting. In Syria ISIL initially formed alliances of convenience with other rebels but by late 2013 felt strong enough to attack several rival factions including the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate.

Now, in Iraq, Baghdadi's solution may be to keep raising the levels of violence against Shi'ites to goad Shi'ite power Iran to intervene and compel other Sunni factions to cling with him.

Such a development would attract more recruits from conservative Sunni Gulf Arab states, where ISIL's gory video messages are believed to have an attentive audience on Twitter.

“The risk is that, despite its tendency to feud with other Sunni groups, its military gains ... are such that they will inspire support for ISIL beyond Iraq and Syria,” said Boyd.

ISIL is careful to keep an upper hand with its Sunni peers.

Upon the capture Sunday of the town al-Alam, just outside Tikrit, an ISIL leader touring the area was asked why the group had bothered to seize the Sunni community.

The ISIL leader explained the town fell in a broader strategic region, where other armed factions also held sway, and ISIL needed to impose some cohesion. “We are working on coordinating our works and unifying these groups,” he said. 

You May Like

Tunnel Bombs Highlight Savagery of Aleppo Fight

Rebels have used tunneling tactic near government buildings, command posts or supply routes to set off explosives; they detonated their largest bomb this week under Syria's intelligence headquarters More

Sierra Leone Launches New Initiative to Stop Ebola Spread

Government hopes Infection and Prevention Control Units, IPC, will help protect patients and healthcare workers More

UN Official: Fight Against Terrorism Must Not Violate Human Rights

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says efforts by states to combat terrorism are resulting in large scale rights violations against the very citizens they claim to defend More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: meanbill from: USA
June 26, 2014 7:43 PM
MY OPINION? -- The intelligence of the US (CIA) Intelligence Department is non-existent, and they completely ignore the most obvious realities of what's happening in Iraq, and continue dreaming up unrealistic paranoid schizophrenic visions on their own personal bias opinions, instead of the simple realities on what's happening in Iraq...

A FACTUAL FACT? -- The (ISIL) "Emir of the Believers" al-Baghdadi demands the (Bay'ah) the oath of allegiance be given to him, (in the name of Allah), that Sunni Muslims in conquered towns and cities, and the captured and surrendering Iraqi troops must give, (and once given, they must obey him, and summit to him, and not make war on him, as long as it does not disobey the laws of Allah)..... and that's why the (ISIL) Sunni Muslim army continues to grow and grow, and cities and towns summit so quickly.... The Sunni Muslim oath (Bay'ah) once given, in the name of Allah, to the "Emir of the Believers" al-Baghdadi, cannot be retracted or disobeyed, until he is killed or dies..... (And the unrealistic dream of the US and NATO countries that these Sunni Muslims will return and fight for the Shia led Iraq government is total madness)...

NEXT? -- The "Emir of the Believers" al-Baghdadi appoints leaders and Judges (Qadis), with the qualifications, that they be free, sane, adult, trustworthy, and a Muslim, and they administer Islamic instant justice against the infidels, impure Muslims, and others.... (and the decisions of the Judges (Qadis) is final, and irrevocable).... Some call it terrorists acts, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, but the Sunni Muslim judges (Qadis) decisions, are completely legal under Sunni Muslim Islamic law.....

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boyi
X
Jeff Seldin
March 05, 2015 2:36 AM
A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Volunteer Gauge-Watchers Help Fine-Tune Weather Science

An observation system called CoCoRaHS is working to improve weather science, thanks to thousands of volunteers across the country who measure precipitation in their own backyards, then share their data through the Internet. VOA's Shelley Schlender reports.
Video

Video NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Muslims Radicalized Online

Young Muslims are being radicalized ‘in their bedrooms’ through direct contact with Islamic State or ISIL fighters via the Internet, according to terror experts. There are growing concerns that authorities and Internet providers are not doing enough to counter online extremism - which analysts say is spread by a prolific network of online supporters around the world. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video African Americans Recall 1960's Fight For Voting Rights

U.S. President Barack Obama and thousands of people will gather in the small southern U.S. city of Selma, Alabama, Saturday, March 7th to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic voting rights march that became known as “Bloody Sunday." VOA’s Chris Simkins traveled to Alabama and introduces us to some of the foot soldiers of the voting rights struggles of the 1960’s.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More