International Security

One Year Ago, I Was in Baghdad When ISIS Took Iraq


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July 02, 2015 15:26 EDT

Over a year has passed since the Islamic State stormed Mosul, and there is little to be optimistic about in Iraq.

One year ago, I was in Baghdad as the Islamic State (IS) overran Iraq. By that time, I had already spent seven long years of bombings, rocketing, shootings and mass killings inside the war-torn country.

Over the years, most of us tried to work normal jobs, but somehow, we always returned to Iraq in one form or another: contractor, oilman, security—it didn’t really matter, the skill set was transferable between each of them.

This is why none of us ever really left Iraq. Understanding terrorism and insurgency had become the only thing we were really good at. We had become fluent in the tactics and techniques of groups with names like IS, JRTN and MRTC—each having their own signature, their own trademark. And on June 10, 2014, we watched as IS overran most of Iraq’s Sunni provinces. Within 48 hours, a full-blown insurrection had developed only a mere 70 miles up the road from us in Baghdad.

For all the promises and ambitions, Iraq was never going to recover after the invasion of 2003. Certainly not in the way American politicians thought it could, or would; our cultures were never compatible, our religions too foreign and our styles of business not well-suited. The old sectarian hatred ran too deep.

And, once again, as the United States widens its involvement in Iraq, one inescapable fact must be remembered. Without the US invasion of Iraq, there would be no Islamic State. The disbanding of the Iraqi army, police and intelligence services, along with various political and military mistakes, allowed IS to thrive and metastasize in the chaos that followed Saddam Hussein’s removal—first as al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and finally, in its current form, as the Islamic State—or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

For those of us who had spent years in Iraq, IS was not something new, but a constant reminder of just how tenuous the balance of power had become in the Middle East after the invasion in 2003. Iraq had become a battleground for countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran to project their influence through religious, cultural and military means. Proxy groups and terrorist networks killed hundreds of thousands of civilians as a result.

After almost $2 trillion and 4,486 soldiers killed, US foreign policy landed right back where it began: in the middle of a conflict it could never win.

Black Flags on Humvees

None of us were really surprised when reports started circulating that places like Mosul, Tal Afar and Hawaijah had become occupied by insurgent forces. While IS was a crack fighting force, whose skills had been sharpened during a decade of war-fighting in Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi Security Forces also lacked any real motivation to stand and fight. The billions spent on equipment and training had become worthless once the army was divided along political and sectarian lines. The pictures of abandoned army barracks, discarded uniforms and insurgents riding on US Humvees—flying the black flag of the Islamic State—only confirmed this further.

What did surprise us was the organization, and ground game, which had been put in place to support the growing Sunni insurgency. Rather than being a spontaneous outburst of violence, this was a coordinated campaign, bringing together IS, anti-government tribes, former Baathists and jihadist adventurers under one de-facto command structure. Nothing like this had ever happened before, and there was little expectation that the Iraqi government could contain what was occurring. Everyone in Baghdad was preparing for the worst.

The foreign policy mistakes in Iraq have been truly remarkable. Some were made due to a naive confidence in American influence, others due to uncompromising political positions. Not accepting that Iraq and Syria were becoming a single continuous battlefield, as far back as 2012, was a perfect combination of both.

Due to a lack of unified policy, IS could extend its forward operations within striking distance of Baghdad, while connecting to a strategic axis that led right back into Syria. This ensured that a steady flow of fighters, finance and weapons could be facilitated with relative ease. Any significant military defeat could be simply managed by retreating back across the border, where one policy ended and another began. Only the US could conceive such a schizophrenic regional strategy. And yet one year later, as bombs keep falling and soldiers continue to deploy, no policy has been implemented to address this reality.

The March of War

The Islamic State continued to advance toward the capital on June 12, as the tension spreading throughout Baghdad was palpable and alive. No one was confident that the security forces could defend the city in the event of an assault. If the defenses were breached, law and order would have immediately broken down—mayhem would be the result. This was not an existential fear, but a near certainty, given the dissolution of the Iraqi army throughout the Sunni provinces, which bordered Baghdad to the north, east and west. Food and fuel prices had inflated almost 300% on the news that major towns such as Baiji and Tikrit were being occupied by insurgents.

If we had to evacuate by road, our only option would be to move south, through the “Triangle of Death,” an area renowned for its attacks against the US military during the darkest days of the US occupation. An intelligence review of this maneuver, at the time, read something like this: “A southern road move could result in a catastrophic incident, along with an inability to provide any support if an incident did occur.”

As we planned for an evacuation scenario, reports started circulating that an international security team had become stranded at the country’s largest oil refinery in Baiji. Their fate was unknown, but IS had closed in on all sides and prevented their evacuation.

Iraq is a country that should have never really existed and was only created as a result of a secret agreement between the British and French governments during World War I. Its national boundaries are artificial and do not conform to the tribal, ethnic or cultural makeup of the region. When insurgents captured the border crossings between Iraq and Syria, those boundaries were effectively erased, eliminating 100 years of colonial history. This had always been the ideological objective of the Islamic State, even before the conflicts in Syria and Iraq were indistinguishably conjoined. The idea of the “caliphate” is central to this, and we all knew that as the border dissolved, so too would the existing geopolitical reality in the Middle East.

When Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, issued a call-to-arms in defense of the state and holy places, we knew the security forces had lost the initiative. The government was failing to control the situation, and thousands of young men were now joining Shiite militias to fight against IS.

During the darkest days of the previous insurgency, Shiite militias murdered civilians and attacked US forces with near impunity. In 2007, the militias kidnapped five British citizens from the Ministry of Finance in Baghdad, killing all but one. The same groups were now mobilizing only a few streets over from us.

With support from Iran, the conflict would soon take on a permanent sectarian dynamic, making any kind of reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite almost impossible. Armed young men were openly roaming the streets of Baghdad, inspired by a religious mandate not subject to any government authority.

The Iraqi government started shutting down media and communications on June 13, and the assumption throughout the international community was that Iraq was on the verge of meltdown. These were desperate acts, which had also preceded government collapse in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Legislation was passed restricting national media from reporting on battlefield losses, and a memo started circulating from the government explaining the need to obstruct the Internet and social media.

We could no longer access Facebook, Twitter or YouTube in Baghdad. The conflict was being played out on social media, which was rapidly becoming one of our most valuable sources of information. IS fighters and civilians were posting real-time images and video direct from the battlefield. They were startling and brutal in their immediacy, some occurring only moments before being posted. Pictures would soon appear on Twitter documenting the mass execution of around 700 Iraqi soldiers. They were ordered to face down in a ditch, while militants indiscriminately fired into the mass of bodies.

The possibilities seemed endless for a conflict that combined the legacy of religious crusading with 21st century social media technology. The Middle East would never be the same because of it.

The Long Cycle of Violence Continues to Grind On

Before long, I was relocated out of Baghdad. By our estimates, at least 22 cities and towns had been occupied by insurgents in the space of 72 hours, and eight were still be contested. They had also secured six airbases, five pieces of national infrastructure and innumerable pieces of military hardware. Of the almost 200 fighting units of the Iraqi Security Forces, only 80 could be accounted for. The rest had either been abandoned, captured or scattered throughout the Sunni provinces.

On the day I left, the airport was a disorganized mess of people, everyone trying to board a plane for somewhere else. Soldiers lulled about in worn US military surplus, smoking and laughing, while trucks crammed with militia recruits headed north—most would be dead in days.

One year has now passed since the Islamic State stormed Mosul, and there is little to be optimistic about in Iraq. Victory can only come from politics and reconciliation, and a defeat of sectarian ideals, but this is unlikely, given the current state of affairs in the Middle East. The conflict in Iraq has been ongoing in one form or another since the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. For those involved, either Sunni or Shiite, this history will never be limited by the narrow politics of 2014, but connected to a deeper worldview that transcends things like national boundaries and international assistance.

US policy in Iraq never accounted for this, and it still doesn’t. For many years to come, Iraq will be one of the great political conundrums for policymakers because there will be little strategic gain for continued involvement. Nonetheless, the decisions made by the US government inflamed the old animosities, and now there is a real responsibility to ensure people are not slaughtered endlessly because of failed military adventures.

Even if the Islamic State should be defeated militarily, its ideology will continue to persist, and Iraq will still have militias, tribes, former regime types and armed factions to contend with. Each of which will fight to defend their own interests. The conditions have now been set for permanent instability, and like everything else in Iraq, the long cycle of violence will continue to grind on.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Sandis Sveicers /

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