Iraq: Looming War of Shiite, Kurdish, Extremist-Sunni Militias

By Juan Cole

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] is apparently keeping control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city of 2 million, and advanced to take Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, where they held a huge Sunni prayer session.

It has been pointed out by a number of commentators that ISIS (also sometimes called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL) is probably too small an organization of cadre fighters actually to have accomplished all this by itself. Sunni tribes and townspeople appear to have joined in the attacks on the Iraqi military, which, ran away.

Since the military is largely Shiite and had been lording it over local Sunnis as though they were an occupied and humiliated population, it isn’t any wonder that they fled in the face of a popular uprising against them. They couldn’t have stood against so many hostile Sunnis. (There is a parallel to the Taliban withdrawal from Kabul in late 2001, long before they would have had to do so on purely military grounds As Pushtuns in a large hostile Tajik city, they had to worry about a popular massacre of the occupiers; this had happened in Mazar in 1997). But it is also the case that the new Iraqi army is green, whereas ISIS has been involved in fierce guerrilla war for two years and is way ahead on tactics.

Spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Adnan called for its fighters to advance on Baghdad. He addressed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an incompetent screw-up who had squandered a historic opportunity for his “people” [the Shiites?] by his misrule of Iraq.

The ISIS militants were stopped 70 miles north of Baghdad by regime air strikes on Thursday morning according to the Iraqi government. But a BBC correspondent is cautioning that the Iraqi government is frequently overly optimistic. ISIS is still trying for the oil refining city of Baiji, which they had held on a number of occasions during the period of American military occupation. They also want Samarra, a largely Sunni city that is the site of a major Shiite shrine with associations with the messianic Twelfth Imam whom many Iraqi Shiites expect to return, as Christians expect the return of Christ. An attack on the Golden Dome in February 2006 kicked off a Shiite-Sunni civil war.

Although PM Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, has asked for US air strikes on ISIS, the White House is declining to intervene so directly but is pledging to help the Iraqi army up its game.

Since the central Iraqi army is doing so poorly, Iraqis are mobilizing ethnic militias. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, is pledging that the Kurdistan Peshmerga militia will cooperate with the Iraq army in keeping Kirkuk out of ISIS hands and recovering Mosul. And, indeed, the Kurdistan Peshmerga paramilitary seized Kirkuk on Thursday morning.

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and his colleagues in Najaf, the seat of Shiite religious authority, issued a statement roundly condemning the Iraqi political class for its divisions and wrangling and calling on them to unite to protect Iraqi citizens from the terrorist groups that had taken over Ninevah Province (i.e. Mosul and environs). Sistani also expressed condolences for the Iraqi troops killed by ISIS fighters and pledged the religious authority’s support to the Iraqi army in this struggle. It is more or less a declaration of Shiite jihad on ISIS.

Meanwhile other members of the Shiite establishment are pledging a war of militias. The leader of the The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), Sayyid Ammar al-Hakim, said that there is no place in Iraq for ISIS extremists, and pledged that he will be the first to volunteer to go to the front to fight them. ISCI has a paramilitary, the Badr Corps, with close links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. It had largely been absorbed into the Iraqi army and Interior Ministry, but the use of the word “volunteer” suggests that Ammar may be thinking of reviving it.

Likewise, Shiite clerical leader Muqtada al-Sadr has offered to create “Peace Brigades” to fight what he called Sunni terrorists and “undisciplined militias” and to protect Shiite shrines and Christian churches from ISIS militants. He attacked al-Maliki implicitly for having provoked the crisis.

Shiite militias could be more effective than the Iraqi army. In Syria, it was Lebanese Hizbullah intervention that allowed the regime to recover Homs from Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. Militias are after all oriented toward guerrilla tactics. And, you can bet that master strategist Qasem Sulaimani, head of Iran’s Jerusalem (Quds) Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, is planning out a counter-guerrilla war as we speak.


Related video:

Reuters: “Sunni insurgents make Iraq gains as army flees Mosul”

28 Responses

  1. Thanks, Professor Cole, for once again analyzing this crisis and putting it in perspective. But I just wonder if Iraq will be able to survive as a nation at this point or it will eventually break apart into three partitioned states of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Hope you’ll address this question soon in one of your future articles.

    • I look at this picture of seemingly well-financed militias, rebel forces, whatever you choose to name them, and I can only find one country, a Sunni country, that afford to finance this kind of uprising against a Shia government.

    • us kurds have been wanting to separate for decades now! This is the prefect time to do it.

  2. In Syria, it was Lebanese Hizbullah intervention that allowed the regime to recover Homs from Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

    Actually, it was months and months of missiles, barrel bombs, artillery, and a blockade of food and medical aid that did the trick. It is rather sad that Juan does not understand this. He should try to see the documentary “Return to Homs”.

  3. So the Kurds have taken Kirkuk. Are they going to hold their long-promised plebiscite? Will Baghdad let them keep it? To me, this is as big a development as the fall of Mosul and Tikrit.

    • Agreed. With the Kurds already pumping and selling their own oil, control of Kirkuk would seem to leave no basis for their participation in national politics, in which case independence becomes the reasonable step.

    • It could be bigger. What will Turkey do when the Kurds keep Kirkuk under their control?

      What happens if the Kurds in Syria link up to the Kurds in Iraq?

      12 million Kurds in southern Turkey. Plus, four million more in Iran.

      Iraq has broken apart like Humpty Dumpty.

      “All the Kings horses and all the King’s men.”

  4. So much for the Neocon strategy of sowing chaos as a means of maintaining U.S./Israel supremacy over the Middle East.

  5. How strong is the iraqi army now compared to its state just before the 03 invasion?

  6. GUNmen need, er, GUNS. Wonder where this merry band of splinterheads got and is getting theirs?

    link to

    Will anyone do an inventory and tote up the cost of all the sh_t these “jihadists” acquired by conquest just now? If for no other purpose than to procure a bunch more materiel from our great Contractors?

    ISIS/ISIL or whatever they are needed a pretty good set of arms to embark on this little venture in the first place, didn’t they? You don’t fill up the supply chain and deploy for something like this in a couple of days, and these dudes don’t manufacture their own on the necessary scale. link to Wonder where those came from?

    In the meantime, our geniuses in the foreign-policy-ery and sneaky-pete-ery are doing what they know best how to do, “arranging” the “covert movement” of lots and lots of weapons via “corridors” and “partners” to “moderates” in contiguous parts of one large land mass that on the map has little narrow porous lines that demarcate “nations” as defined by other Big Players in other conflicts, where the Krupps (who have moved on to more sophisticated names like “General Atomics” and games like invading Notagainistan) made out like bandits, selling weapons to most sides (“we” are doubling down on that, by “providing training” and “promoting interoperability,” all stuff that costs Real Money and what’s the return on THAT investment, again? “Stability” and “Security?” And doing so to both “sides,” once again.

    And gee, was this rather large war-scale offensive a complete effing surprise? Where is the effing worldwide see-all NSA and where is the CIA and the DIA, and all that crapload of satellite and ELINT espionage and World Situational Networkkk-Centric Interoperatigavitable Batattlespace Awareness stuff “we” the taxpayers are paying out the nose for, with our money and “Freedom (TM)” and the loss of peace of mind that we might have that there will be enough of everything (including un-drowned, un-burned, un-cooked arable land) to go around for our old selves and our grandkids and those people on the other side of all the arbitrary lines and tribal frontiers that are penciled in on the indivisible surface of the only planet we can currently screw up? Did none of that, or the “ass-ets” our Great Rulers might be supposed to have left in place on the ground in that arbitrary demarcated landspace called Iraq(notanationanymore), pick up on the mounting of this operation? One might almost think it was “Excellent! All part of my grand plan!” Or maybe “OOOPS, look what’s coming, how can I cover my a__ on this FUBAR?”

    By the way, great job of “training the wogs,” you generals and colonels and on down the line — they too now know the strategy of the “withdrawal operation — A planned retrograde operation in which a force in contact disengages from an enemy force and moves in a direction away from the enemy.” — link to” “Run away! run away,” link to , ain’t in the Dictionary… Wonder if the Afghan National Army, or all those random “forces” our Combat Commanders are juicing up in AFRICOM will show the same staunch resolve, or strike off on their own, like so many SWORDmen did during the 14th Century……

    What the Beltway Bobbleheads think about all this: link to blahblahI’msoseriousDoofusery… ISIS/ISIL is “a very malevolent terrorist group and one that we’re increasingly focused on.”? Hey, Dix, it’s a freakin’ HORDE, far as I can see, with the static charge of a looming dust storm, that draws ever more GUNmen to the vision of “taking over” and “being as bossy as I want to be and taking whatever I want and making everyone kowtow and say ‘Uncle’ or get shot or beheaded because I can,” drawing in the worst of the human mess, turning them loose from all the bonds and limits that otherwise bind and restrain us, liberating them to be GUNmen. There’s a Genghis among them, you can bet on it — what are the “civilized,” weakened by our Imperial idiocies, going to be able to do about it, or is it just another turn of the great Wheel of History?

    • While badly written, insightful, especially about how a horde could move so quickly and so armed as to suspect significant help form arms dealers and a major gov.

  7. Iraq was never meant to be as the English set it up..a three state division Kurds,Shiites and Sunnis is likely the final and best outcome for peace in the area….

    • Only two problems with that. Iraq has oil and that oil is not evenly distributed geographically. Divorce is easy, it’s division of the property that makes things nasty. The other problem, the countries neighbors have their own interests and they would likely do everything they could to disrupt any peaceful partition of the country (assuming that was even possible). The Turks most certainly don’t want to see any independent Kurdish state come out of Iraq.

  8. If I am not mistaken Kirkuk was/is a point of contention between Erbil and Baghdad? Will they return control of the city to Baghdad or attempt to absorb it into Kurdistan? How would al-Maliki and the Iraqi Parliament respond?

    On another note, I have been perusing the comments sections of various news sites and the Iraq War supporters and anti-Muslim bigots are out in full force. Apparently the current crisis is the result of psychopaths and a fundamental flaw in the Muslim character; a wonderful gift was bequeathed to the Iraqi people but they preferred to slaughter each other because democracy and freedom and liberty are anathema to Muslims. Within this narrative the US/UK invasion and occupation, shock and awe, Abu Ghraib, the Battles of Fallujah, assassination squads, stoking sectarianism, disbanding the army, government corruption and incompetence, etc. have no relation to current events.

  9. Some Iraqi Sunnis are vets too. The Shia-led army, who have/had Sunni recruits, patrolled the areas due to the likelihood local/foreign terrorists hiding there, who regularly bombed public areas, particularly Shia gatherings besides on Kurds, many Sunni, or aligned pro-govt Sunnis.

    Other marginalized groups elsewhere who suffer injustice, don’t make reactionary self-justified ‘burn the world’ aggression and team up with religious extremists fashionable. ISIS stated the obvious on Maliki, authoritarian and corrupt. The govt and the army were clearly clueless on how to deal with perpetual resentment against them where the Sunnis could never reconcile with losing power and Iraq was now Shia-led. Unable to reason, the govt responded with sectarian heavy handedness (though chasing a Sunni politician and attacking a protest, seems more like a deliberate initiative than response).

    Its more revenge than an uprising with no Sunni moderate FSA in sight. If local Sunnis joined Sunni extremists, that would mean an entire belligerent population, rather than just a few. Even if soldiers were scared of the ferocity of Sunni Jihadists, 30,000 strong fleeing 1,000 ISIS fighters seems shameful, unless local support. At least the Kurds were brave. And we were earlier worried about elections boycott by Sunnis and no elections in Anbar’s unrest.

    If a Sunni cleric supports Pak’s Sunni dominated national army fighting local/foreign Sunni militants (done selectively and not urgently) is it termed as declaring Sunni Jihad? If Euro nations oppose ISIS, then is it a Christian Crusade? Is it a Sunni Kurd Jihad? Phrasing it as ‘Shiite Jihad’ gives false impression (there is perception, history and nature of the edict, but the religious term is hi-jacked by Al Qaeda types, and seen that way). Sistani has tried to quell sectarianism since US occupation and perpetually is drawn to help. The declaration supports the national army (not militias) and opposes ISIS, made up of Sunni Islamists or extremists, not against Sunnis, or all Sunnis, but since many are supporting a terrorist outfit its become an uncomfortable reality.

    The Syrian spillover has turned into a new Iraq turnover, which will draw in Iranians, and perhaps even Pakistanis showing up for both sides, though there might be more recruits for ISIS thanks to the Gulf and sheer size of Sunni radicals globally.

  10. Um, hmm. Er, mmm, yes, well, uh, ahem . . . if we hadn’t gone in in 2003 isn’t it true this would likely not be happening? Shouldn’t someone be held, uh, like, responsible? Say Dick “we know where the weapons are” Cheney? Or George “30,000 more or less” Bush? Or Condi “in the form of a mushroom cloud” Rice? Or Colin “here are pics of the porta-potties – oops, I meant weapons labs” Powell? Hello . . . hellooooo – is there anybody out there?

    Look, I hate to sound like a pinko blaming Nixon for every damn thing, but is it not true that this disaster can be laid directly, if not squarely and precisely, at the feet of the SOB who now paints nude pics of himself in the shower?

    Oh, so let me get this straight: I’m a poor shlub who farms and if I do 38 in a 25 and get ticketed my insurance goes up and I get fined. That would present me with some hardship. But a bunch of m***********s who f**k up a country of 20 million get book deals and speaking engagements and editorial space in the most prestigious papers in the country. Gee, maybe I should go into genocide and ethnic cleansing – seems a more profitable and safe line of work, and you don’t get mauled by roosters or roll your tractor.

    One more thing – can we at least deport William Kristol to ISIS that we was so instrumental in creating?

  11. This has nothing to do with internecine fighting. The enemy of
    my enemy is my friend. The Iraqi people have had enough
    of putting up with their national rapist, us and are going to burn everything American to the ground and take their country back.

  12. I with so and so earlier… why, given our massive intelligence capability, does this seem like a surprise? Or haven’t we been paying close enough attention to the absolute muddle in Syria and bought to much of the media’s (yes, you NPR and other supposedly ‘progressive/liberal’ voices) vibe that Assad is the bad guy and anybody fighting him must be alright?

  13. Long term consequences? The Kurds will probably be getting their own state, and rightfully so. Turkey will not like it, but I don’t think they will come into Iraq to fight pesh merga on their own turf. Kurds are the toughest guys in the mix. Also, Erdogan and Ankara will be a mess of finger pointers for some time. Lastly, Kurds will not put up with ISIS – Al Queda 2.0/ Taliban style rule.

    ISIS had the element of surprise and exposed Shia government failures, but the Sunni psychos are about to run into stiff resistance from a majority population with effective militias and absolute will to fight. Once free of the Sunni boot, those Shiites will not be going back under again. Support from Iran will only harden the resolve. Probably seeing the effective and final bonding of the Shia state to Iran as well.

    Also who knows what US will ultimately do or how effective it will be, (we’re going to be getting pretty busy with Vladimer in Europe and the pivot to the China Sea). Regardless, whatever the effect, it can only be a negative for ISIS. Weapons and drones at best. Certainly not American soldiers with Barack still around, nor should their be. One trillion dollars, The Great Recession and plenty of dead and wounded Americans, way too high a price for lighting that match. Just another great result we can thank George and his know it all, draft evading, chicken hawk cronies for.

    In the end, my guess is the unnatural British map called Iraq is over. Three states

    • “Three states.”

      Does the Kurdish state include the four million Kurds in Iran and the twelve million in Turkey? That’s a huge area.

      When the U.S. first invaded Iraq, the Turkish foreign minister warned the Kurds not to take control of Kirkuk or in his words “there will be bloodshed.”

      Turkey will not let a large part of their country become part of Kurdistan and probably won’t let the Kurds have Kirkuk.

  14. So it’s all over for serious American ambitions in the Middle East. It was always an unnatural presence, inherited from British criminals.

    Hope the Zionists who exhausted US resources to do their dirty work for them enjoy the replacement that they have only themselves to blame: the growing extremist empire of the Saudi stooges stretching from Anbar to Bahrain. You’re on your own, guys.

  15. The Iraqi army has fled, but so, apparently, have tens of thousands of Sunnis. ISIS and its imposition of sharia law are not universally embraced..

  16. I would like to Personally Thank George W Bush Jr and visionary Dick Cheney for this unprecedented DISASTER. The utter waste of American Lives for what now and predictably was for NOTHING, and lastly the 3 Trillion Dollars flushed into that enormous Cesspool called the Middle East.

  17. “Enter Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman– the Iraq experts!” By James North – link to

    And we can depend on the mainstream media – the military-industrial complex-Wall Street public relations department – to provide the American people with more, similarly “experienced” commentators.

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