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Analysis: ISIL exploits escalating divisions in Iraqi society

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces significant challenges in bridging societal divisions if his government is to combat the rising power of ISIL
ISIL fighters have captured Mosul in Iraq (AFP PHOTO/YOUTUBE/ARBEEN UNIFIED PRESS OFFICE)

The capture of Mosul by militants, Iraq’s second largest city, represents a grave deterioration in the country’s security and exposes the depth of division among its people, according to a number of analysts.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized Mosul on Tuesday, with soldiers of the Iraqi army throwing away their uniforms and abandoning posts, leaving the militant group in control of large swathes of the country.

“Even by Iraq’s standards, this is quite a serious development,” said Hayder al-Khoei, associate fellow of Chatham House. “The armed forces fled without putting up much of a fight in Mosul, leaving behind weapons, vehicles and ammunition."

“Perhaps most dangerous are the reports of between two and three thousand prisoners being released by ISIL in Mosul, which will have a devastating knock-on effect in terms of security," Khoei added.

Fareed Sabri, a former spokesperson for the Iraqi Islamic Party 2006-08, says the loss of Mosul represents a total collapse of the army, federal police and local security services.

“This has happened mainly because the security forces are corrupt and have been treating the local people very badly, due to the sectarian division between the mainly Shia forces controlled from Baghdad and the Sunni population of Mosul,” he said. “This doesn’t justify the terrorists coming into the city, but the reality is the army quickly lost control to just a few hundred ISIL fighters and this exposes the fragility of Iraq under Nouri al-Malik’s stewardship."

“This is a proper failed state," he added.

State of emergency

Prime Minister Maliki, who is struggling to form a government following elections in April, has called for parliament to declare a state of emergency and arm citizens who he said should fight back against ISIL.

“The government is desperate, they really don’t know what to do,” Khoei said. “The prime minister’s call that citizens should now take up arms is deeply troubling. He has said the government plans to arm them and the likely recipients will be the Shia militas."

“The most powerful Shia militia has released a statement saying it is ready to defend Iraq, so the escalation of rhetoric is extremely dangerous," he added.

While there are reports hundreds of thousands of people have fled Mosul in the wake of ISIL’s takeover, Sabri says those who remain fear that the Iraqi army will bombard the city as it has done in Fallujah, which militants seized last year.

“The people of Mosul are now most frightened of a similar scenario playing out as in Anbar province, meaning the Iraqi army will station themselves outside the city and begin indiscriminately shelling the area,” he said. “I believe the destruction of this city and its infrastructure will likely begin in earnest.”

Parliament will convene on Thursday to decide on the state of emergency, in the wake of calls for Maliki to resign as prime minister. Khoei says while the government has been slow in responding to the crisis it is highly unlikely Maliki will resign.

“The decision to hold a meeting in two days time is indicative of the absolute incompetence and failure of the government,” he said. “Maliki won’t resign, this will make him feel is more needed now than ever,” he added.

“Maliki sees himself as the only man who can deal with this.”

Murky constitution

It isn’t clear what a state of emergency will mean for Iraq, with experts saying the law is unclear.

“The constitution doesn’t give any guidance as to what a state of emergency means,” said Zaid al-Ali, analyst and author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future. “It sets out some of the procedures that need to be followed, such as the president and prime minister making a joint proposal to parliament, which can only approve the request with two-thirds of members voting in favour."

“One of the problems is, however, the constitution doesn’t say what powers are granted to the prime minister during a state of emergency," he said. "All it says is he will have ‘sufficient measures’ to deal with the situation.”

Maliki could be seeking the declaration as means of waiving judicial scrutiny of his security services, who have been accused of arbitrarily detaining and torturing prisoners, Ali said.

“One thing Maliki doesn’t have is a blank cheque from the courts and legal system, which theoretically have oversight of the security services meaning he is supposed to follow all the rules about detention and due process,” he said. “He could be given the power to suspend all of this in a state of emergency."

“Or, it could a ploy to gain more time to form a government, something he has failed to do since the announcement of April’s election results.”

Potent force, tensions rising

While the government are in a state of disarray the real winner today is ISIL, who are emerging as a potent force in Iraq according to Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

“This is a very grave situation. ISIL controls almost 50 percent of Iraq today, including two of its largest cities,” Gerges said. “This gives ISIL prestige, with many young Sunnis now looking to the group saying ‘wow, this is the way to go’."

“ISIL is the new name, it is al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

ISIL, which has fighters battling the Assad regime in Syria, wants to establish an Islamic caliphate transcending national borders and seeks to implement a very conservative interpretation of the Sharia. After taking control of Anbar province in Eastern Iraq last year, it is now seeking to expand its powerbase in a country racked by divisions among its Sunni and Shia communities.

Iraq commentator Khoei believes that while Sunnis have long since felt marginalised by Maliki’s government, tensions have been rising among the Shia community due to ISIL’s recent successes.

“A large proportion of Sunni people feel they are not getting a fair deal,” he said. “It is worth bearing in mind, however, that there is rising anger on both sides, as the Shia are feeling much more threatened by the jihadists who they view as targeting them,” he added.

“For now it hasn’t spilled over into an open sectarian conflict but these developments are going to make that more likely, especially if the Shia militias begin to respond in kind.”

The LSE’s Gerges says ISIL are weaving themselves into the fabric of Iraq’s Sunni community, exploiting divisions that have significantly widened in recent years.

“I’m not suggesting all Sunnis in Iraq support ISIL, but a sizeable segment do, in particular among the officer core of the Saddam Hussein army that was suspended by the Americans,” he said. “This can be evidenced by the fact their fighters are not amateurish, they are skilled, motivated and deadly."

“This is all about localism. ISIL is embedded within a relatively supportive community that feels alienated, excluded and marginalised by what they perceive as a sectarian-led government," Gerges said.

Possible regional spread 

ISIL is becoming increasingly strong and influential, posing a problem that could affect the entire region, he added.

“ISIL now controls a contiguous area traversing Iraq and Syria, trafficking arms and fighters, and this gives them space and the opportunity to make new recruits,” Gerges said. “They have spread beyond Iraq and Syria, with elements present in Lebanon, Jordan and I would not be surprised to hear there are some branches in Libya."

“They are the most extreme jihadist organisation, in fact, ISIL gives a good name to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawari. This is the reality.”

Gerges believes Turkey is nervous about the rise of ISIL and, while Maliki will be given time to sort out the problem independently, should he fail, external actors may involve themselves in the situation.

“Maliki is expected to sort this problem on his own. We are not on the verge of Turkey or Iran sending military assistance to Iraq, but if they don’t bring it under control in a few weeks, then maybe some countries will get involved,” said Iraqi commentator Zaid al-Ali. “This could be either overt or cover operations. It isn’t clear at the moment.”

In Iraq, at least, the government are unlikely to win a decisive military victory against ISIL without addressing seemingly intractable societal divisions.

“This is no doubt a military solution alone cannot solve this crisis,” said Khoei. “The Americans learnt this the hard way in 2007, when they only managed to turn the tide against the jihadists by concentrating on offering local communities security and hope."

“The best army in the world couldn’t defeat them, so there is absolutely no chance the Iraqi army can implement a military solution on its own," he added.

Only a sustained and well thought out approach will deal with the ISIL problem, according to Gerges, who says Maliki must empower the Sunni community to give them a larger stake in society, something he has so far failed to do.

“Maliki called for a reconciliation conference in Anbar on 15 June and no one accepted his invitation,” he said. “This situation has been escalating, with an accumulation of grievances, and this is a climax of what has been happening over the past year."

“This is where the danger lies," Gerges said. "Every victory for ISIL brings more recruits, publicity and stature.”