Iraq is on a precipice from which it may never recover. The fall of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, to forces ostensibly from the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), may simply be the tip of the iceberg. What has happened in Iraq increasingly appears not simply to be a binary struggle between government and insurgent, but rather a more complicated problem that may be impossible to fully unravel.
I drove from Tikrit through Beiji to Mosul earlier this year, and into Syria along the same roads ISIS and other insurgents now use. Even then, government control over Mosul was tenuous. Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints on the outskirts of town urged me and my driver to reconsider my trip because Mosul was not safe; they relented only because a local vouched for me. After all, while Tikrit was home to former President Saddam Hussein and his immediate entourage, Mosul was the hometown of much of Saddam Hussein's officer corps. It still is. As I continued on to the Syrian border, a special security agent at a checkpoint separated me from my taxi driver and another man accompanying us to ensure that I was there of my own free will. A senior security official in Baghdad subsequently told me that was standard protocol. It also reflects, however, the lawlessness of that area.
While Americans focus on the shock of al Qaeda flags over Mosul, Iraqis describe a more complicated scene. One Iraqi reported that insurgents in Mosul told his brother that they were not al Qaeda, but rather veterans of Saddam's army. Rumors are rife throughout Mosul and Tikrit that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam Hussein's vice president and the most senior official of the previous regime who evaded American capture, has returned from Syria and is leading renewed insurgency.
While many diplomats and analysts remember Saddam as a brutal but secular dictator, the reality was more complicated. After Operation Desert Storm drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991, Saddam found religion. He inserted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) on the Iraqi flag and actively courted more radical Islamists. In 2000, three years before the U.S.-led invasion, Islamist vigilantes terrorized unveiled and professional women in Baghdad, beheading several for "prostitution" and allegedly shirking more conservative Islamist precepts.
The U.S. military discovered this the hard way in 2003. After the initial invasion, Gen. David Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division he commanded took charge of Mosul. Rather than purge senior Baathists, Petraeus empowered them. Former Baathist Gen. Mahmud Muhammad al-Maris, for example, was assigned to lead Iraqi Border Police units guarding the Syrian border, and he picked another former Baathist, Gen. Muhammad Kha'iri Barhawi, to be the city's police chief.
Petraeus explained his strategy at the time: "The coalition must reconcile with a number of the thousands of former Ba'ath officials…giving them a direct stake in the success of the new Iraq." The result was false calm, good for Petraeus' carefully crafted image, but shortsighted. Barhawi reportedly used his position to organize insurgent cells comprised of Islamist and Baathist insurgents working hand-in-hand. In November 2004, he effectively handed the keys to the city to them. Just as occurred this week, they burned police stations, emptied prisons, and forced tens of thousands of Moslawis – as residents of Mosul are called – to flee. Only a decisive American military assault restored calm.
The reality in Mosul, Beiji, and Tikrit is that the enemy is not simply al Qaeda, but a coalition of forces dedicated to the eradication of both democracy and Shiite power in Iraq. With American and U.N. officials pressuring long pressuring Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki to reverse de-Baathification and to empower former regime officials, what happened earlier this week seems an eerie repeat of events of a decade ago.
Both the Kurds and neighboring states may have poured fuel on the fire, not realizing the conflagration they would spark would so quickly burn out of control. Reports from Mosul suggest the insurgents used Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles in their assault. Because the Kurdistan Regional Government had purchased Kornets from Bulgaria, their alleged use has sparked rumors across Iraq that the Kurdistan Regional Government might have "leaked" weaponry to the insurgents in order to weaken al-Maliki as he seeks to build a coalition to ensure a third four-year term, something many Kurds find anathema. If true, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani was too clever by half, as Mosul's collapse has saddled him with tens of thousands of displaced persons for which to care. That said, an al Qaeda-affiliate separating Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad may lead Barzani and many Kurds to reconsider whether they should not simply declare independence.
Should an independent Kurdistan arise out of the ashes of northern Iraq's fall to insurgents, the Turks might have no one to blame but themselves. With ISIS taking several dozen Turkish diplomats, intelligence agents, special forces, and their families taken hostage in Mosul, Turkey may be experiencing Islamist blowback despite having allowed ISIS fighters and other Islamist militants unfettered entry into Syria. If so, Turkey now learns a lesson that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and even pre-civil war Syria have previously learned: Play with al Qaeda and get burned.
Reversing Mosul's fall will not be easy. U.S. rhetoric about providing the al-Maliki government with intelligence and perhaps aerial support is just that – rhetoric. After all, if the United States and Iraqi central government had good intelligence with regard to the insurgency, they would not have been caught flatfooted in the first place. It is easy to suggest supporting Iraqi counterterror efforts with American drones or even manned flights, but it is far less certain where the United States would base such platforms and, again, how they could develop actionable intelligence absent assets on the ground. After all, Mosul is an urban environment, and the insurgents are dressed no differently than remaining civilians.
The Iraqi government could theoretically retake Mosul, but not with precision: It would be a Pyrrhic victory achieved by decimating the city, the equivalent of treating brain cancer by cutting off the patient's head. But with ISIS and former Baathists rallying "volunteers" for an assault on Baghdad – and Iran preparing to intervene should the insurgency continue to spread – it is not only Iraq on the precipice. The only hope may be a full-fledged and joint Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga assault on Mosul. It won't be pretty: Moslawis have not forgiven the peshmerga for the looting in which they engaged in 2003. Yet sometimes there are no good options, although perhaps the bad can be blunted if the current crisis and its peak into a dystopian future encourage reconciliation among Iraq's mainstream politicians. If not, not only will Iraq become Syria 2.0, but the ensuing storm could engulf other regional states like Lebanon and Jordan.
Iraq is at the precipice. The coming week will decide whether it climbs down, or falls.