BAGHDAD/DUBAI: The militants dismantling Iraq’s borders and threatening regional war are far from united – theirs is a marriage of convenience between extreme religious zealots and more pragmatic Sunni armed groups.
For now, they share a common enemy in Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom Iraq’s Sunni minority accuses of marginalizing and harassing them.
The question looms over who will triumph: The Al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which aims to carve out a modern-day caliphate, or myriad Iraqi Sunni armed factions, who fight based on a nexus of tribal, family, military and religious ties, and nostalgia for the past before the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Many experts and Western officials believe ISIS, due to its internal cohesion and access to high-powered weapons and stolen cash, will overpower its Sunni rivals.
They point to the lessons of Syria’s 3-year-old civil war, where a unified ISIS leadership entrenched itself as the force to be reckoned with in eastern Syria. They warn that even the Sunni revolt against Al-Qaeda during the last decade in Iraq would not have succeeded without the decisive punch of American firepower.
Cracks are already showing in the loose alliance in Iraq, suggesting the natural frictions will inevitably grow.
In the town of Hawija, ISIS and members of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, which includes former Iraqi army officers and is rooted in the ousted Baath Party, fought turf battles from Friday to Sunday when ISIS demanded a pledge of loyalty from its rivals, according to locals. At least 15 people were killed before the clashes ended in stalemate.
Such confrontations could become the new reality without a swift political resolution to the crisis that began two weeks ago when ISIS stormed Mosul, seizing it in hours and then dashed across northern Iraq grabbing large swaths of land.
According to a high-level Iraqi security official, ISIS has about 2,300 fighters, including foreigners, who have led the speedy assault from Mosul through other northern towns, including Hawija, west of oil-rich Kirkuk; Baiji, home of Iraq’s biggest refinery; and Saddam Hussein’s birthplace Tikrit.
The high-level official said that as ISIS has raced on from Mosul, other Iraqi Sunni groups have seized much of the newly gained rural territory because ISIS is short on manpower.
The different groups appear to be following ISIS’ lead in the bigger communities it has captured such as Tikrit and Baiji. But as the new order settles, the security officer predicted: “They will soon be fighting each other.”
Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security expert with good contacts in Gulf Arab governments, also expects friction to grow. “How long can this honeymoon last?” he asked. “ISIS is not acceptable among the people, either socially or politically.”
If the alliance does fracture, battles could drag Sunni regions of Iraq into a state of permanent internecine war.
A Sunni politician sketched out the future.
“[ISIS] will take a stand in favor of [its] Islamic law, and the people of the region will refuse because they will want to protect their rights,” said Dr. Muhannad Hussam, a politician with the nationalist Arabiya list. “I am afraid for the Sunni areas. They will be burned. No one will win.”
He said that other insurgent groups, even if unable to defeat ISIS, would eventually adopt guerrilla tactics and still be able to hurt ISIS, regardless of the jihadists’ superior arms. “They can fight as gangs, not as a military.”
“They are tied to the land, and ISIS is not. ISIS can’t fight an enemy from all sides.”
For now, the front rests on two strong pillars: the groups’ common membership of the Sunni minority and a conviction that Sunnis have been marginalized and persecuted by Maliki.
Both factors have helped ISIS win the cooperation if not the hearts of war-weary Sunni communities. Many of ISIS’ current partners initially collaborated with its parent organization Al-Qaeda before revolting between 2006 and 2008, disgusted by its extremists’ agenda.
Then, when they rebelled against Al-Qaeda, they were bolstered by U.S. firepower, winning promises of reconciliation with Maliki, who then failed to deliver on those pledges and oversaw a crackdown in the face of militant threats.
As violence has exploded in the last two years, ISIS has seized on such communal grievances.
ISIS has multiple internal strengths – ruthlessness, self-funded wealth estimated in the tens of millions of dollars from sophisticated extortion rackets, kidnap ransoms, smuggling of oil and other goods, diplomats and counterterrorism experts say, and eye-catching social media skills.
It also has open lines of communication to support bases in Syria. Its bastion in the town of Raqqa gives it proximity to Turkey, a conduit for foreign recruits, as well as access to oil reserves, which it sells. They have tapped similar markets in Iraq.
Its achievement in dismantling much of the border drawn by European colonialists nearly a century ago is a source of prestige in the transnational community of Islamist sympathizers that provides a steady flow of foreign recruits.
And yet, although seemingly self-sufficient in material terms, ISIS recently has consciously teamed with other Iraqi factions – by partnering with them, or by choosing not to hunt them down over past grudges or eliminate alternative voices.
These militias include the Islamic Army, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mujahedeen Army, the Rashidin Army and Ansar al-Sunna, and bring together Islamists, military veterans, tribal figures and professionals, marginalized after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Another leading group is the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, a Baathist offshoot created by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former lieutenant of Saddam’s.
ISIS coexisted with such factions first in the vast desert areas west of Baghdad, where tribes rose up in late December, and then in the sudden advance this month in the north.
The Sunni revolt against Maliki in the desert cities of Fallujah and Ramadi since early this year allowed ISIS to enter urban areas and seize ground.
In Mosul, ISIS has mostly tolerated the different factions. Its members brag they are converting their fellow fighters. “Other groups are pledging loyalty,” one pro-ISIS fighter claimed.
An Islamic Army member said the equation was simple: “The people of Mosul are fed up with the oppression of Maliki’s forces.”
In Tikrit and Baiji, where militants are laying siege to Iraq’s biggest refinery, a similar dynamic is in play. ISIS has the best arms, while tribal fighters, including members of the Islamic Army and Mujahedeen Army, are bolstering ISIS’ numbers in the offensive on the Baiji refinery, a second Iraqi security official said.
Anna Boyd, an expert on Al-Qaeda at IHS risk consultancy, said that ISIS’ decision to partner with other groups over the past year suggests its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is conscious of the pitfalls of factionalism.
Aware of its fractious reputation, ISIS in Syria has attempted “soft power” initiatives – aid provision and community activities – to present a more acceptable face, but its brutality has largely left a legacy of violent clashes with Islamist and mainstream Syrian rebel groups.
Now, in Iraq, Baghdadi’s solution may be to keep raising the levels of violence against Shiites to goad Iran to intervene and compel other Sunni factions to cling with him.
Such a development would attract more recruits from Gulf states, where ISIS’ gory video messages are believed to have an attentive audience on Twitter. “The risk is that, despite its tendency to feud with other Sunni groups, its military gains … are such that they will inspire support for [ISIS] beyond Iraq and Syria,” Boyd said.
ISIS is careful to keep an upper hand with its Sunni peers.
Upon the capture Sunday of the town Al-Alam, just outside Tikrit, an ISIS leader touring the area was asked why the group had bothered to seize the Sunni community.
He explained the town fell in a broader strategic region, where other armed factions also held sway, and ISIS needed to impose some cohesion.