Overnight in Iraq, the al-Qaida splinter group ISIS overtook large parts of Mosul, one of the country’s most populous cities. According to various media reports, insurgents overran government buildings, TV stations and military bases, forcing Iraqi soldiers and police to apparently flee their posts.
While the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is responsible for most of the violent attacks in Iraq, analysts say this one is significant.
NPR’s Deb Amos spoke to Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center who specializes in counterterrorism and insurgencies. He said this is the biggest operation undertaken by ISIS “in terms of scale and significance” and that it highlights the precarious situation of Iraq’s central government.
“I think it sends an extremely significant message to the Maliki government in terms of ISIS’s intentions and its capabilities,” Lister said. “But it also sends a message to the United States. The U.S. government has been a fairly strong supporter of the Iraqi army’s abilities to fight against terrorism in Iraq. And they have not, so far, proven themselves entirely capable of pushing back against ISIS’s advances. So, now that ISIS has taken control of the city of Mosul, I think that will raise significant questions in Washington, D.C., over what the strategy should be in terms of continuing … to back the government in Baghdad.”
The Associated Press has a bit more context:
“The militants’ push comes as Iraq’s embattled Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, struggles to hold onto power following parliamentary elections in late April that left him with the most seats but short of a majority needed to form a new government outright.
“Many Iraqi Sunnis feel they have been marginalized under al-Maliki’s leadership over the past eight years in power and see him as too closely aligned to Shiite conservatives and neighboring Shiite powerhouse Iran.”
The Washington Post reports that as the militants moved into Mosul, Iraqi forces fled and in some instances took off their uniforms.
The paper quotes the speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Osama Nujaifi, as saying that the whole city is now controlled by ISIS.
“Everything is fallen. It’s a crisis,” he said during a televised news conference. “Having these terrorist groups control a city in the heart of Iraq threatens not only Iraq but the entire region.”
Nujaifi appealed for international help to try to retake the city.
Update at 7:40 p.m. ET.
NPR’s Alice Fordham, reporting from Beirut, tells All Things Considered: “This is clearly going to require a reassessment on whether the Iraqi government is capable, even now as it fumbles its way toward government formation not very quickly since a national election in April.”
Update at 10:01 a.m. ET. More On Mosul:
NPR Middle East editor Larry Kaplow sent us this explainer on Mosul and ISIS:
Mosul has been in conflict frequently since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was where Saddam Hussein’s sons Oday and Qusay took refuge and then were killed in a firefight with U.S. troops. The city was a stronghold of the early insurgency and then was largely brought under control by Gen. David Petraeus, in what was a formative operation in his development of the counterinsurgency strategy he would later implement around Iraq. A key to the success was his willingness to work with Hussein’s former officials and Sunnis in general to bring governance back to the city.
But Mosul would later — after the U.S. troop presence was reduced — fall back into chaos, with insurgents capturing police stations and government buildings.
The civil war in Syria, nearby, provided Syrian safe havens for Iraqi militants within ISIS who are going back and forth to Mosul and Iraq generally. They play on the city’s restive mix of mostly Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds who have staked out competing claims to areas of the surrounding province.
Also, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is widely distrusted in Mosul, and Iraqi forces are accused of widespread abuses against Sunnis. That all makes fertile ground for militants claiming to be fighting against Shiites. But NPR’s Alice Fordham reported this spring about the extensive extortion rackets militants use to raise huge sums of money for the war in Syria and other operations.
ISIS is a group so extreme that even al-Qaida leaders have tried to distance themselves from it. Its advance in Mosul raises questions about the American strategy in Iraq. The U.S. has been supplying arms and aircraft to the Iraqi government. But critics say the U.S. needs to pressure the Iraqi government to reach out more to Sunni areas and end practices like torture and the frequent use of the death penalty.
The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is also in negotiations now for a third term, following parliamentary elections in April. A defeat in Mosul could hurt Maliki’s chances of holding office.