The US has ramped up delivery of weapons to the Iraqi forces ahead of an assault on Mosul. Some 25,000 Iraqi troops, backed by sectarian Shia militias and Kurdish Peshmerger fighters, are being prepared to lead an assault on the city in spring.
This offensive, backed by Western coalition air strikes, will bring disaster to the city’s overwhelming Sunni Muslim population. The Islamic State (IS, ISIS or ISIL) seized the city in a lightning offensive last summer. Isis, which has galvanised huge numbers of Arabs and Muslims, is an appalling sectarian movement that targets Shia Muslims, Christians and others. But for many Sunni Muslims the alternative is equally terrifying.
The appalling murders of those who fall into ISIS hands has received widespread coverage, but the fate of Iraq’s Sunni minority has been brushed over. Following the end of the US occupation of Iraq the Shia dominated government has been behind terrible persecution of Sunnis. Sectarian death squads have terrorised them, cleansing many Sunni families from the capital Baghdad and other cities and towns.
According to a report by Human Rights Watch (2015), “ISIS owes much of its emergence to the abusive sectarian rule of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki and the resulting radicalisation of the Sunni community. “With Iranian backing, Maliki took personal control of Iraqi security forces and supported the formation of Shia militia, many of which brutally persecuted the minority Sunni population. “Sunnis were excluded from select government jobs, rounded up and arbitrarily detained under new overbroad laws, summarily executed, and indiscriminately bombed.”
Isis was able to capitalise on the growing discontent among Sunnis and formed alliances with local organisations and tribes, many of which supported the 2007 US “surge” against its predecessor al Qaeda. The subsequent marginalisation of these forces created the conditions under which Isis, now better organised and more powerful, could fill the vacuum.
Isis has been able to draw in behind it thousands of Sunnis who were in revolt against the sectarian Iraqi government, and following a split from al Qaeda, it is recruiting followers from across the Islamic world. Every move to crush the movement has only succeeded in widening its appeal. The solution in Iraq is the end of the sectarian system left behind by the occupation. Since the emergence of Isis the Iraqi government has offered nothing to its Sunni minority. Instead it has unleashed its sectarian death squads.
The hugely unpopular Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has stepped down, but his replacement has invited foreign troops back onto Iraqi soil. The US has been slowly building up the number of its “advisers” to the Iraqi army. In June last year it sent 130 soldiers; by September this rose to over 1,200. This has now grown to 4,400, including some 1,000 elite paratroopers.
Coalition warplanes have carried out 16,000 air strikes since June of last year. They have targeted facilities, utilities and public buildings as part of the strategy of “denigrating” Isis controlled areas. Unknown are the number of ordinary Iraqis who have perished under the bombs. This incremental increase in “boots on the ground” means that the West is being dragged back into the Iraqi quagmire.
In Syria the movement is now in retreat. Isis lost the key battle for control of the Kurdish Syrian city of Kobane, but it has come at a huge price. The city was defended by Kurdish militias, but it was Western airstrikes that proved decisive in turning the battle. Kurdish militias are now threatening to carve ISIS territory in half after seizing a number of key villages in its offensive. For Syrian rebels, the retreat by ISIS has lifted the threat against many of its areas.
The movement was seen as working in hand with the Syrian regime to strangle the revolt that began in 2011. For Sunnis in Iraq the threat against Mosul, and other areas, will mean a return to the sectarian persecution. The continuing air strikes on Syria, and the coming offensive in Iraq, will only make the horror worse.