The View From Baghdad as It Braces for ISIS Onslaught

Shiite volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s Sunni militants Ahmed Saad/Reuters

BAGHDAD—For a city awaiting the imminent arrival of an angry, powerful army of Islamist militants intent on wresting power from the government and wreaking revenge on the local population, Baghdad seems pretty normal.

In a faded hotel near the Tigris River, not far from where the infamous statue of Saddam Hussein was yanked down by American soldiers on April 9, 2003, symbolizing the end of his regime, a young Iraqi bride poses next to her new husband.

In a rooftop bar nearby, as the fierce sun sets, men gather to watch the World Cup on television and smoke shisha, the traditional water pipe. In another part of the battered city, a young family dines out with its children, ordering plates of rice and chicken as electricity flickers on and off.

As Baghdad succumbs to the reality that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has overrun large swaths of northern and western Iraq and chased away the nation’s army, the city’s residents are trying to retain as much normality as possible.

But it is not easy. On the streets are Shia recruiters, trying to enlist young men—like the aforementioned new groom—to come and fight, to defend their holy shrine. This sense of existential urgency comes in the wake of a fatwa call from the Shiites’s most respected religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The day after the wedding, tens of thousands of militiamen marched in the streets of Sadr City, the Shia stronghold in Baghdad, some in masks, some entirely in black, to demonstrate their force and solidarity.

Then, as the Iraqi heat rose by late afternoon, the bombings began. First, a bomb exploded in a market in the predominantly Shiite Zafaraniya area, killing four shoppers. Three hours later, two men were found dumped, handcuffed and shot to death. The victims were likely Sunnis, since Shiite militiamen control the area.

The immediate threat of an ISIS attack has passed as its forces mop up around the edges of their great advance, taking towns and borderland in the west of the country. But they will be back. In the words of one top Western diplomat, Iraq is in “total meltdown.”

That collapse of authority is affecting everyone on every level. Over the years, Iraqis have suffered one enormous trauma after the next. In Saddam era, Iraqis lived under constant surveillance and fear, as well as sanctions and bombing.

The country collapsed into full-blown war in the days following the April 2003 occupation by the U.S.-led coalition. Coalition troops continued to fight a bloody insurgent war before the last U.S. troops were pulled out in December 2011.

“The truth is,” says one former coalition officer who fought heated battles against insurgents in southern Iraq, “there was never a post-conflict situation in Iraq. We came here during a conflict. We left during a conflict. It never ended. As a coalition force, we failed.”

 In Africa and other parts of the world, an integral part of post-conflict resolution is disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR). But in Iraq, the rebuilding never quite got to that stage. While enormous sums of money were poured into the country to ease a transition to democracy, Iraq has never gotten a chance to develop past the conflict stage.

“It takes time to build new countries,” says one head of a nongovernmental organization (NGO). “It takes 10 or 15 years for governments to get used to the idea of human rights, rule of law and criminal codes.”

Iraq right now is a lawless place. In the days following Saddam’s fall, I went to jail cells where Shia dissidents had been taken. From one day to the next, they disappeared from their homes. In the cells, I saw pitiful scrapings on the walls, where some had scrawled desperate messages, sometimes in blood.

Now, it seems, the worse days are returning, as sectarian violence increases. But it is not Shias who are being targeted. In Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods, there is palpable fear and tension. The Sunnis have been deliberately excluded and marginalized from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, and with ISIS terrorizing other parts of the country, Baghdad’s Sunnis fear being held accountable.

Every day there are more reports and rumors of deaths on both sides. There are grisly tales of executions, bodies floating in the Tigris, mass graves, disappearances and much-feared death squads.

“We cannot go back to that abyss again,” said one Iraqi engineer, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals and who, like many Iraqis, has lost family members to the sectarian violence. “Yet we are looking to the future, which looks more and more dark.”   

He added, “What I fear most now are the death squads. People are turning up again, dead and handcuffed. We know who did it, but we cannot say.”

According to private security officials operating in Baghdad, the Shia death squads, which operated with impunity at the height of the bloodletting from 2006 to 2007, are back. “The logic is, if ISIS does it to us, then we have to do it back to them,” one Baghdad resident told me.

The Waiting Game

With its main thrust gathering strength before its final push to Baghdad, ISIS is growing more powerful daily in Iraq, taking town after town and liberating prisons where Saddam-trained military officials were held and gathering them into the militants fold.

They are flush with money. When on June 10 they took Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province and Iraq’s second largest city, they raided banks and filled their coffers. They also seized huge supplies of U.S.-supplied arms, ammunition and vehicles.

No one in Baghdad can believe the speed with which ISIS has advanced, nor how quickly members of the Iraqi Security Forces have abandoned their posts and ran. With ISIS at the gates, Baghdad is awaiting its fate. “They are moving as fast as a storm cloud,” said one Baghdad resident. “Taking all in their path.”

Information-gathering is nearly impossible. The Shia-led government of al-Maliki is not even investigating the alleged executions of 1,700 Shia officers in Tikrit by ISIS, which the group proudly displayed on social media, part of a brilliant propaganda campaign designed to undermine morale in Baghdad.

To counter the militants’ barrage of fear, al-Maliki has raged against ISIS on TV. “One [broadcast] was like Hitler raging in his bunker,” recalled one unimpressed Western diplomat. Meanwhile, al-Maliki is unable to prevent ISIS from overrunning the Syrian-Iraqi border posts.

Eighty miles from here, ready to strike, ISIS is in great shape. It has military power, ample funds—after Mosul, it assembled $2 billion—and public backing. The militants are ruthless, slaughtering not only Shias but also Christians and other minority sects, including Alawis, the Shia offshoot that is the faith of Syria’s dictator, Bashar Assad.

ISIS has a particular hatred—though no one can give a clear reason why—for the Yazidis, whose faith is to follow the Peacock God but are often unjustly accused of being devil worshippers. (Yazidis have a mystical tradition and believe Lucifer was a fallen angel.)

ISIS enjoys the help of other Sunni militias, such as Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandia Order, or JRTN), sometimes known as the Naqshbandi Army, an underground Ba’athist militant insurgency group in Iraq.

ISIS also enjoys support from various local Sunni mujahedeen groups that do not share ideology but simply have grievances with the al-Maliki government. They have joined the fight against the government because they have come to feel disenfranchised since al-Maliki came to power in 2006, at a time when sectarian violence was threatening to tear the country apart.

The Sunni factions, while joined in a common loathing of Shias, have different motives. JRTN is largely composed of highly trained soldiers who want to see a restoration of the Baathists, the party and philosophy of the Saddam era. ISIS, on the other hand, wants to see an Islamic caliphate that stretches from the Mediterranean to Iran.

So what is ISIS’s next move? One often hears a scenario suggesting that ISIS is lying in wait outside Baghdad while sleeper cells of Sunni activists inside the city prepare the ground. The fifth columnists will then lead the ISIS forces to the center of Baghdad. “It will not be a full-frontal assault,” said one Baghdad resident who has worked for a Western NGO for years. “It will be a creeping but highly effective mission.”

According to one Baghdad security expert, the pro-government force preparing to resist the ISIS assault consists mostly of “highly emotional Shia militias that have sprung up in the wake of the Iraqi Security Forces disappearing and the humiliation at Mosul.” These include the Jaish al-Mahdi, also known as the Mahdi Army, Mahdi Militia or Mahdi Army, created by the Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in June 2003; Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the League of the Righteous; Kita’ib Hezbollah, Iraqi fighters funded and trained by Iran’s Quds Force; and the Badr Brigade, which fought against British troops near Basra in 2004. But it is questionable whether any of them are under al-Maliki’s control.

Three brigades of crack troops al-Maliki is known to give orders to are the 56th Brigade, known as the Baghdad Brigade, and the 54th and 57th brigades. All are on the radar of human rights groups.

So with the Kurds expanding in the north, ISIS advancing on Baghdad and a fragile government presided over by a prime minister who has lost the confidence of the president of the United States, can Iraq be kept from ripping itself apart? Is this the end of Iraq as we have known it, since its borders were drawn nearly a century ago?

The answer, at least in the short term, may come from a meeting of political leaders this weekend in Kurdistan, who will debate whether Iraq can be saved within its own borders as a multicultural entity. The debate is shaped by the experience of the last eight years, when al-Maliki not only failed to bring Sunnis into his government but managed to antagonize and alienate the Sunni population throughout the country.

The frightened residents of Baghdad, in these early summer days, are playing a waiting game. This week, Secretary of State John Kerry will fly into the city and meet with al-Maliki. It will not be a comfortable interview for the prime minister. Kerrys message will be blunt: The U.S. is not prepared to help the Iraq government militarily unless and until it represents all the communities of Iraq.

“People are afraid of the government not responding,” says Hanaa Edwar, secretary-general of al-Amal, a human rights group in Baghdad, who became famous when she strode into a televised government meeting and began haranguing al-Maliki. “We are very tired. And we are very disappointed.”

One Western NGO worker, who asked to remain nameless, says the future of Iraq is predictably bleak. “The one sure thing here,” he says, “is that everyone ends up in the mortuary.”

Zaab Sethna, a political consultant, offered a more concrete suggestion about the way ahead. “Maliki has to go,” he says. “Because there is no peace without the Sunnis. And there are no Sunnis with Maliki.