Remember Iraq? While the world’s attention has been diverted by the Malaysian plane shot down in eastern Ukraine and Israel’s assault on Gaza, things haven’t got much better in Iraq (or Syria for that matter, but that’s another story.)
It seems like just the other day that militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were said to be on the verge of over-running Baghdad. So where are they now?
One week ago, Christians living in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul were forced to leave, convert to Islam, or face execution by ISIS militants — but on the plus side, a report that the group had ordered women and girls in the city to undergo female genital mutilation appears to have been incorrect. Still, the violence continues. Figures from the UN indicate that nearly 900 Iraqis have been killed this month alone, and 5,500 were killed between between January and June of this year.
“It feels to me as though they’re in a regrouping stage right now,” Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says of ISIS. “They certainly made rapid gains across parts of Iraq and now they’re trying to both hold ground that they have gained. And you’ve seen them imposing harsh, extreme measures in territories they hold. There’s report of destruction of Christian monastery in Mosul, and making non-muslims evacuate the area,” Coleman tells Newsweek.
The Associated Press reported the militants, who recently shortened their name to Islamic State (IS), had ordered shop owners to cover up mannequins in shop windows, both male and female, with black veils, on the grounds that depicting the human form in statues or artwork goes against a strict version of Shariah law.
Women in militant-controlled areas are also being forced to wear the full veil, and have been told they cannot walk anywhere without a male guardian, according to Reuters. Insurgents were reported to have blown up the tomb of the Prophet Jonah in Mosul, a site that both Christians and Muslims consider holy, according to NPR, in an attack captured on video.
ISIS has effectively expelled Mosul’s 1,600-year-old Christian community this week, and only a few families, including people who cannot move, remain, Rita Izsák, the UN’s special rapporteur on minority issues, told Newsweek.
The UN estimates that more than 300,000 people in total have been displaced to the Kurdish region, where Kurdish peshmerga forces have been fighting back against ISIS.
U.S. and Iraqi security officials estimate that the Islamic State has 3,000 fighters, but that could be as high as 20,000 when taking into account new recruits. Over the past two months, ISIS has picked up armaments, fleets of trucks and Jeeps (although Coleman says there are questions over the amount of gas they have to fuel them), and cash (but not the $400 million that was reported). It has secured territory in northern Iraq and Syria (CNN has a helpful map of towns and cities with ISIS presence.)
But reports that militants of the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate across parts of northern Iraq and Syria, were making their way to Baghdad appear to have been premature. Coleman notes that the seat of government is guarded by many more troops, with better equipment and training, not to mention the support of Iran. Intelligence and military advisers reportedly working with the government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are making sure the important Shia cities don’t fall to ISIS.
“I think the idea that they were ready to move on Baghdad was probably an exaggeration,” Coleman said. “There’s a fair amount of them trying to hold the territory they’ve captured.”
Erin Evers, Iraq researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Newsweek that while IS (or ISIS) militants are fewer in number than some other armed groups on the ground, they make up for it in terms of their branding acumen.
“They’re really brilliant in terms of how to use social media and get their message across,” Evers said. “Because they do have this religious and ideological motive, they distinguish themselves by what they do. None of the other groups would force minorities out of Mosul, would force them to pay taxes, would force them to kill Shia.”
Despite their successes, there has fighting between the Islamic State and some of their Sunni tribal allies, who Coleman says were instrumental in the militants’ earlier rapid advance.
“I think the Sunni population is feeling embattled from all sides. You’ve got a group of Sunnis certainly in the areas where ISIS has made the most gains, that have felt for years disenfranchised by the Maliki government,” Coleman said.
“The problem is, [IS is] fighting alongside a number of other Sunni armed groups with a wide array of ideological bases. They all share the same goal, in that they want to otherthrow the current government, but their ultimate goal differs very, very widely. The world is not really getting an accurate pictures of those groups’ power on the ground.”
Sunnis who do not abide by the strict interpretation of Islam set forth by ISIS are also subject to human rights abuses.
“There’s a lot of disgruntlement at the state of affairs from their perspective of what’s happened over recent years with the Shia-led government, which has not been an inclusive government by any means, it’s been a very sectarian government,” Coleman said. “There’s been enormous resentment building up. The fact that many of these Sunni tribal leaders are willing to throw their lot in with ISIS, I think is an indication of how disgruntled they felt.”