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“Iraq Has Already Disintegrated”: ISIS Expands Stronghold as Leaks Expose US Doubts on Iraqi Forces

Iraq remains on the verge of splintering into three separate states as Sunni militants expand their stronghold in the north and west of Iraq.

Iraq remains on the verge of splintering into three separate states as Sunni militants expand their stronghold in the north and west of Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared itself a caliphate last month and now controls large parts of northern and western Iraq and much of eastern Syria. Recent advances by ISIS, including in the city of Tikrit, come amidst leaks revealing extensive Pentagon concerns over its effort to advise the Iraqi military. Iraqi politicians, meanwhile, are scrambling to form a power-sharing government in an effort to save Iraq from splintering into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish states. We are joined by two guests: Reporting live from Baghdad is Hannah Allam, foreign affairs correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, and joining us from London is Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent and author of the forthcoming book, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.


NERMEEN SHAIKH: Iraq remains on the verge of splintering into three separate states as Sunni militants continue to maintain their stronghold in the north and west of Iraq. On Tuesday, Iraqi security forces were forced to abandon an effort to retake the city of Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Fighters aligned with the Sunni insurgent group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, seized Tikrit last month. Meanwhile in Baghdad, at least 27 people died Tuesday in a series of attacks including two car bombs. ISIS declared itself a caliphate last month and now controls large parts of northern and western Iraq and much of eastern Syria.

AMY GOODMAN: On the political front, Iraqi politicians are scrambling to form a power-sharing government in an effort so save Iraq from splintering into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish states. In the first step, Iraqi politicians named the moderate Sunni Islamist Salim al-Jabouri to be Iraq’s new speaker of the Parliament.

To talk more about Iraq, we are going directly to Baghdad to speak to Hannah Allam, foreign affairs correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. She has been reporting from Iraq for the last two weeks. She served as the Baghdad bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers from 2003 to 2005.

Hannah, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the latest that’s happening in Baghdad right now, as well as the choosing of the Parliament leader?

HANNAH ALLAM: Sure. Hi. Well, for a country on the verge of collapse, the capital feels deceptively calm. People are going out. They’re going about their business. The restaurants are packed at night. Families are out. You can’t even find a space at the parking mall. That’s not to say people aren’t terrified. They are. They’re not immune to the violence that we already are hearing about—assassinations, car bombings, a massacre just the other day in a compound of several women. So, you know, Iraqis are aware of these things. Baghdadi residents hear these things. But, unfortunately, they’ve become so, I guess, acceptant or resigned to such a level of violence that it hasn’t yet spiraled into the kind of bloodshed that would keep most Iraqis indoors. Unfortunately, they don’t doubt that that moment will come, and they see it as a slow escalation that could explode at any moment. So, there’s just really the sense of unpredictability, and people are terrified.

Then you have this parallel reality, sort of, of the political process, where, you know, the Parliament has been delayed two or three times now before meeting yesterday to decide on a speaker. And, you know, Iraqis throw their hands up and say, “Yeah, sure, what’s the rush when you’ve got the country on the verge of collapse?” And we’ve got the Kurds in the north moving toward greater independence. We have, you know, the Sunni militants of the Islamic State having seized up to half of the country. And people are really concerned about this sort of glacial pace of government formation. Yesterday was a sign that there was some movement towards easing the political deadlock, but there’s still a long way to go, especially about the future of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who Jabouri is?

HANNAH ALLAM: Salim al-Jabouri, he’s the youngest speaker of Parliament ever named in Iraq. He is a moderate Sunni Islamist. And his nomination was delayed for a while because there was some brokering behind the scenes. And the supporters, the State of Law bloc of Prime Minister Maliki, they wanted to trade their support for Jabouri’s nomination for the Sunni bloc’s acceptance or backing of a third four-year term for the prime minister. He was named, in the end, yesterday. Overwhelmingly, Parliament voted in favor of his post as speaker. But that doesn’t mean that there is yet a broader political deal that will form the kind of power-sharing government that the United States and most Iraqis would like to see to get the country out of this crisis.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hannah Allam, after the Islamic State took over such large parts of Iraq, the Maliki government made a call for volunteers to help the Iraqi military, since much of the Iraqi military abandoned their posts. Could you talk about some of the people who are volunteering, the Shiite militias who are patrolling Baghdad, who these people are, how many volunteers there are, and what the impacts of the ISIS takeover have been, and how close they are to Baghdad, in fact?

HANNAH ALLAM: Sure, sure. Well, at some of their positions, they’re only a few miles from the capital. That doesn’t mean that they would have an easy way in. They’re certainly protecting Baghdad, is the government’s priority. They know the implications of what it would mean to have a concerted ISIS attack on the capital. But there’s also, again, this element of unpredictability. Will the Iraqi forces that are now backed by all these tens of thousands of volunteers, will they be able to defend the capital? So far they haven’t made really any military gains in the north to recapture some of the territory that ISIS seized. At best, they’re only fending off a further encroachment. So there’s that.

Down in Najaf, even more important than the prime minister’s call to arms was the fatwa issued by the Shia highest authority in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. He issued a call to arms that asked all Iraqis to come and help in the defense of the nation. And he and his office and officials around him have stressed several times that that was not a sectarian call to arms, that it was a patriotic national duty. But that’s not how it’s been interpreted on the ground, and it’s not how it’s playing out on the ground. It has given religious cover to the remobilization of militias that the government spent—and the U.S. military, when it was here, spent—the past several years trying to disband. So we’re talking about groups like Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, which was a splinter group of the Mahdi Army trained by Iran, close ties to Iran, and several other Iranian-backed Shia Muslim militias. And then, on top of that, you’ve got tribes that are offering up tens of thousands of their members, and you’ve got these just ordinary teenagers, you know, and young men who are answering the call on religious grounds. So, it’s this hodgepodge of forces. They really sort of lack a central command. So far they’ve said that they would all play fair and answer to the government and work within the government structure. But that’s just simply not the case. There are just too many people with arms roaming around with disparate leaders.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, last month Democracy Now! interviewed former U.N. special envoy for Syria, Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi. He was previously the U.N. special representative for Iraq. He suggested that sectarianism in Iraq was fostered in the early years of the U.S. invasion and occupation.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: The impression one had was that the people that were preferred by the occupying powers were the most sectarian Shia and the most pro-Iranian Shia, so, you know, that Iran—that Iraq is now very, very close to Iran. Again, from the point of view of somebody who looks at things from outside, I have absolutely no knowledge of what went on in the high spheres of power in Washington. The impression we had is that these people were put in charge either out of total ignorance—and that is extremely difficult to accept—or intentionally. But the fact is, you know, that the system that was established was very sectarian.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hannah Allam, that was Lakhdar Brahimi, the former U.N. special envoy for Syria. He was previously the special representative, the U.N. special representative for Iraq. Could you comment on what he said and also on reports of the Islamic State’s violence and atrocities, really, against Sunni Muslims, in addition to Shia and Kurds?

HANNAH ALLAM: Sure. I think it’s important to note that the Islamic State is not doing this land grab, this insurgency alone. It has a lot of support, really crucial support, especially for holding territories that it seized, from, again, this mixture of former Baathists, ex-military and intelligence from the old regime, some tribes. And the reason they’ve been able to cultivate some support among those community—well, some are just, you know, against the whole political system that was established under the U.S. occupation. Some haven’t come to terms with the loss of their former power and prestige. But then there are a wide swath of Sunni communities who are simply fed up with the sectarian policies they’ve seen under this administration of Nouri al-Maliki. And I think we should point out he first ran on a platform that was considered nationalist. He went after Shia militias in the south, and people thought, OK, maybe this isn’t going to be as sectarian as we feared. Unfortunately, as most analysts or observers of Iraq could tell you, that has changed, and he’s pursued an increasingly authoritarian and sectarian agenda that has led to what we have now, which is this simultaneous Sunni uprising, that preceded the ISIS offensive of last month, and then on top of that you’ve got the ISIS offensive, that’s created these strange bedfellows that when they’ve worked together in the past, it hasn’t lasted very long because their ideologies and goals are so different. For now, they are working in tandem in some of these areas. But we’re already seeing signs of the fraying of that fragile alliance because ISIS has already targeted and executed former Baathists and a whole village of tribe—the Jabouri tribe, where they only suspected that they were forming a rival force. So, we are seeing now incidents of some Sunni pushback against ISIS, but I think it’s also important to remember that that does not equate support for the government of Nouri al-Maliki. They still have their set of grievances. They’d still like to see this sectarian political system abolished. And for now, you know, ISIS is turning out to be the means to that goal, in their eyes.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to continue to talk about this after break. Hannah Allam is foreign affairs correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. She’s been reporting from Iraq for the last two weeks, but has been there for years covering Iraq. Her most recent piece talks about how Baghdad residents are trying to maintain a semblance of normal life as the conflict approaches Baghdad. We will also be joined by Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, just back from Iraq. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guests are Hannah Allam, who is in Baghdad, Iraq, right now, and Patrick Cockburn also joins us from London. He’s the Middle East correspondent for The Independent. He just returned from 10 days of reporting in Iraq and has a new book just coming out called The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. Patrick, you, in your latest piece, say that as much of the world attention is focused on the bombardment of Gaza, that ISIS has captured much of eastern Syria. Can you explain?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, I mean, the caliphate that they declared so recently has just got a lot bigger. And rather amazingly, the world hasn’t paid much attention, because of Gaza. They have attacked towards Deir ez-Zor, which is a big province with a lot of oil wells in eastern Syria. They probably hold about 98 percent of it now. There’s a bit of the capital city which is held by the Assad government, but otherwise they’ve routed the opposition, Syrian opposition, Assad, from themselves. And they’ve also launched another offensive towards one of the Kurdish enclaves right up on the Turkish border—there are about half a million people there—to Kobani. They’re using—I was talking to people in the enclave yesterday, and the ISIS have about 5,000 fighters there, but they’ve also got tanks and artillery that they captured in Iraq. They’re driving around in American Humvees, also captured. And they’re putting a lot of pressure on. So they’re really taking the whole sort of eastern side of Syria, to the east of the city of Aleppo. And they probably will advance towards that in the future. But it’s a major success for them, following their takeover of Mosul and northern and western Iraq, and rather surprisingly, given publicity after the fall of Mosul, that this really hasn’t gathered much attention in the rest of the region or in Europe or America.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patrick Cockburn, Hannah Allam was speaking earlier about the support that ISIS, or the Islamic State, has among disenfranchised Sunnis who feel that they were marginalized under the Maliki government. And you’ve suggested, in a piece you wrote earlier, that you feel that ISIS, or the Islamic State, is likely to get much more mass support than al-Qaeda did. Could you explain why that’s the case, given that they are so—have been so brutal?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, they’re also victorious. I mean, they’re the vanguard of the Sunni community. You have five or six million Sunni in Iraq, and oppressed by the government, feeling persecuted, and they may not like the methods employed by ISIS, but, one, there isn’t much they can do about it, but ISIS so far has delivered victory. I think down the road they’re going to find they’ve made a pact with the devil, that they can’t get rid of ISIS, that their areas become impoverished, that this is an extraordinarily pathologically violent movement. But for the moment, the ISIS movement is attracting a lot of young Sunni. They get paid. And they also feel that they’re joining a victorious army. And the same is true in eastern Syria. They’re recruiting people from the other rebel movements. So, nothing is really succeeding like success.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about who Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is and talk about the declaration of the caliphate and what that means?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Al-Baghdadi comes out of the al-Qaeda movement. There’s some evidence that he was in Afghanistan. He joined with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who set up al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time of the American U.S. invasion. It was against the occupation, but it was, above all, against Shia. It’s a deeply bigoted movement, very sectarian. It’s somewhat similar to Wahhabism out of Saudi Arabia, but its method was the suicide bomber, and its targets were often civilians. So he’s come out of that. He was in jail under the Americans for a bit. He took over al-Qaeda in Iraq when it was at a very low point in 2010. But, above all, what made him the success that he is now is the start of the revolt in Syria, the Sunni revolt there, which destabilized the situation in Iraq, and the fact that al-Maliki, the prime minister of Iraq, successfully alienated the whole Sunni community, so they were willing to unite. These very different movements and groups that you’ve described were willing to unite under the banner of ISIS. Maybe they want to get rid of them in future, but they’ll find that that’s real difficult.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to go back to Hannah Allam in Baghdad. Hannah, could you talk about the U.S. military advisers who were sent to Iraq last month and Major General Dana Pittard, who is overseeing this advisory effort? What exactly are U.S. military advisers doing there? How many are there? Could you say a little about that?

HANNAH ALLAM: Sure. There are a couple of hundred U.S. military personnel in country. They are trying to decide what the U.S. role should be, going forward.

I should note that when the U.S. was preparing to withdraw and wanted to tout all its successes in training and equipping the Iraqi army, press access was great. There were plenty of spokespeople around. In 2010, I did an imbed along the Iranian border. And you’d hear rank-and-file soldiers say, “We’re not sure that our Iraqi counterparts are ready. We are worried about corruption. We’re worried about” all the things that have since come to light in the collapse last month. However, that wasn’t the vision or the outlook that you got from Washington at the time. They said, “Training is on track. We are going to be able to turn this thing over to the Iraqis, and everything will be fine.” Now, I’ve asked for an interview with Major General Pittard here, and I was told that all press inquiries must go through the Pentagon in Washington, even though I’m just a couple of miles from the U.S. advisers who are in the Green Zone.

So, you know, the Pentagon assessment of this, there have been leaks from that, and it’s shown that there are very deep concerns that even if there is a decision to advise these forces in a more meaningful way, going out with them, trying to rebuild them, there are—only half of the operational units are able to even accept that kind of help from the U.S., and only about half of the forces are operational. Certainly, they melted away in the north. And there’s also a great fear of infiltration among the forces, according to the Pentagon, and that’s a fear that’s on both the Shia militia side, with the Iranian-backed militiamen infiltrating the security forces, as well as Sunni insurgents.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, do you see Iraq disintegrating, dividing into three parts? And also, what is the role of Saudi Arabia in all of this?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, Iraq really has disintegrated already. I mean, it’s still called Iraq. It may go on being called Iraq, but if you’re in Baghdad, particularly if you’re a Shia, or you’re anybody in Baghdad, you can’t move far north or west of the city without being in ISIS-controlled territory where you might be killed. And if you’re in ISIS-controlled territory, you can’t move to Baghdad or you can’t move into the Kurdish-controlled area, which has just expanded. So it really has disintegrated. I mean, it’s always rather amazing that people talk about, you know, we’re on the edge of disintegration. I mean, it’s a fact. It’s already happened.

The role of Saudi Arabia, I think, has been crucial in the past, that Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies, also Turkey, but above all Saudi Arabia, has never really accepted a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. They have given support to jihadis in the past. Private donors in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere have supported these movements. These days, they may be regretting it. I mean, there was always a division in Saudi policy between those like Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who was formerly ambassador in Washington and head of Saudi intelligence, who had a very forward policy for supporting jihadi movements in Syria, and those who in Saudi Arabia said, “No, no, no, this is a disaster. We’re supporting the people who basically want to get rid of the House of Saud and to remake the Middle East.” Now it’s the latter group who seem to have turned out to be right, but it may be too late, that ISIS is very strong now. It doesn’t need the money. It doesn’t really need the weapons, as it’s captured so many weapons inside Iraq. And it’s advancing on all fronts. And it has created—it’s established the caliphate. So, it’s really questioned the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy and of all the other governments in the region. So I think the Saudis are very much regretting their policy in the past, but there isn’t much they can do about it at this stage.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Patrick Cockburn, do you think that the Islamic State is going to advance onto Baghdad?

PATRICK COCKBURN: I think that they don’t necessarily have to try and take Baghdad, which is difficult. It’s a city of seven million people. The majority are Shia. But there are various things they can do they haven’t done yet. There are big Sunni enclaves. Those could rise up. And some of them are very close to the center of the capital. They could have a car bombing campaign, suicide bombing. We’ve had bombs today. But they could increase that many times over. Or they could try and encircle the capital, cutting the roads to the south, or Sunni towns and villages south of Baghdad. So there are a whole range of things they can do.

One of the things that I find most chilling and impressive is that they haven’t done it yet. As Hannah was saying, you know, after the initial panic, after the fall of Mosul, life in Baghdad sort of in some ways has a curious normality about it. But that means that nobody has pressed the button yet on the ISIS side to unleash violence on Baghdad. And that really underlines the degree of command and control and good organization that ISIS has in parallel with being a ferocious and fanatical organization.

AMY GOODMAN: Hannah Allam, there was a report in the Washington Free Beacon earlier this month that ISIS leaders are on a U.S. kill list. Given the Pentagon’s leaked doubts about the capacity of the Iraqi army, that the U.S. is advising, do you expect these U.S. strikes to start happening in Iraq?

HANNAH ALLAM: I think it’s still too early to tell. I think there are some very, very serious concerns among U.S. military leaders about getting back involved, you know, getting involved again in this conflict. So, I think it’s still too soon to tell. As I understand, these assessments are ongoing in Washington, as well as from advisers here on the ground. And so far, what they have done is ramp up U.S. surveillance along key routes, in particular, Airport Road, the road to the Baghdad International Airport, which of course would be key for any mass evacuation effort, for security of the capital. Also, Airport Road, from some of the ISIS positions, is a route through which you could, if you cross that, go straight to the Green Zone, the heart of the government power and home to the U.S. Embassy. So, those are very strong concerns they’re weighing.

AMY GOODMAN: Hannah, as we wrap up, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed concern about the number of European and U.S. citizens going to fight in Iraq and Syria. Are you seeing that?

HANNAH ALLAM: Well, we certainly see the videos. ISIS definitely likes to put these videos out of fluent English speakers or Europeans who have committed to this cause, and in, I think, part to send a message of terror to the West, that we can recruit there, and also to drive recruits and say that “this is a caliphate for all Muslims; here in this caliphate, it’s a land where we don’t see race and nationality. What’s important is the Muslim nation.” And by Muslim, they mean Sunni. They exclude Shia from this and, in fact, mark them for death as heretics. So, that is part of the recruitment drive. And it certainly is chilling to governments in the West, particularly if they see any sort of return flight of these—of some of these volunteers from Western countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Hannah Allam, we want to thank you for being with us, foreign affairs correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. She is reporting from Baghdad, Iraq. And we also want to thank Patrick Cockburn, who just returned from Iraq, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His new book, that is coming out in a few weeks, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll look at the Iran nuclear talks. Stay with us.

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