From ISI to ISIL to IS

By  Asif Haroon Rajagaza3

Despite world protests, the US led forces invaded Iraq in March 2003 on concocted charges that Iraq’s ruling regime was in possession of WMDs and was connected with al-Qaeda. The prime motivation to annex Iraq was oil, but the other compelling reason was Israeli security concern. Tel Aviv viewed Baathist Iraqi armed forces under Saddam Hussain as the biggest strategic challenge to its security and a bottleneck in the path of its ambition to establish ‘Greater Israel’. Destruction and occupation of Iraq in May 2003 which led to sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis caused over one million deaths, displaced two millions outside Iraq and 2.7 million inside Iraq and made 870,000 children orphans.

Notwithstanding the fact that Saddam Hussain was a ruthless dictator, none can deny that he had kept ethnically diverse Iraq (45% Shias, 30% Sunnis and 26% Kurds) united and economically and militarily strong. Today Iraq is rived in sectarian/ethnic war and is at the verge of splitting into three States of Kurds, Sunnis and Shias. Iraq urgently needs another Saddam type leader to re-unite the country. Current leadership in USA admits that Iraqi venture was a mistake. Hillary Clinton has admitted in her book ‘Hard Choices’ that she was wrong in voting in favor of Iraq war.

War in Iraq was primarily against Iraqi Sunnis since Iraqi Shias in the south and Kurds in the north had been befriended. While the Shias and Kurds were empowered, 5-6 million Sunnis were sidelined and the Sunni heavy well trained/equipped Baathist Army disbanded in 2003 and in its place a new force called Iraqi National Army (INA) was raised essentially for counter terrorism purposes. $ 20 billion was spent to train/equip 800,000 strong INA. Prejudiced Nuri-al-Maliki’s Shia regime installed by the US in 2006 not only continued with the policy of marginalization of the second largest ethnic sect after Shias despite the fact that they had ruled Iraq for centuries but also ruthlessly persecuted them. Deprived of power and subjected to gruesome repression, several militant Sunni groups sprouted in Iraq to wage a guerrilla war against the occupation forces and the US installed regime. Al-Qaeda joined the fray and soon became the leading resistance group. Jihadist Salafism found fertile ground among the Sunnis of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Iraqi Sunni groups Ansar al-Sunna and Iraqi Islamic Army fought the occupation forces from August 2003 onwards. Suicide car bombs were extensively used. Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), initially known as Jamaat al Tawhid wa al-Jihad under Abu Masab al Zarqawi swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden in 2004 and became an affiliate of al-Qaeda. The group’s name was changed to Tanzim-e-Qiadat al-Jihad fi Bilal al-Rafidayn. In January 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq merged with several groups under Mujahideen Shura Council.

Zarqawi for unknown reasons organized bombing of both Sunni and Shiite mosques/Imabargahs. Bombing of one of the holiest Shia shrine al-Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006 triggered sectarian war. Zarqawi was killed in June 2006, but CIA and Mosad kept pouring oil on sectarian conflict which peaked in 2006-07. In response, Moqtada al-Sadr established Iraqi Shias Army of 50,000 fighters. Inflammation of sectarian conflict between Iraqi Shias and Sunnis became the root cause of rise of ISI, later called Islamic State of Iraq & Levant/Sham (ISIL/ISIS).
ISI was formally formed on October 13, 2006 under Abu Abdullah al-Rashid Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri. It claimed authority over Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahuddin, Ninawa and parts of Babel. After the two leaders were killed in an operation in early 2010, ISI was taken over by 43 years old battle-hardened Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in April 2010. He was declared a terrorist by the US in October 2011. Massive use of force coupled with assistance from Sunni tribes helped the NATO in regaining control over Fallujah and forcing ISI to go underground.

Reportedly the ISI fighters proceeded to Jordon where after receiving training and arms in camps, they proceeded to Syria in 2011 and took part in the raging civil war. On April 9, 2013, ISI’s name was changed to ISIL/ISIS. Levant (Sham) envisages territories of Jordon, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Kuwait, Cyprus and southern Turkey. In the same month, Al-Nusra Front leader Abu M. al-Jawlani didn’t agree to Baghdadi’s proposal of merging his group into ISIL. Al-Zawahiri who wanted Baghdadi to accept Jawlani as Emir of new Sunni Emirate in Syria also opposed the merger and in October he ordered disbanding ISIL and put Al-Nusra in-charge of Jihad in Syria. When Baghdadi paid no heed, in February 2014 al-Qaeda disavowed any relations with ISIL. Whereas Syrian Free Army of Syrian rebels and al-Nusra Front want overthrow of Asad regime, ISIL want to establish its own rule on conquered territory. Al-Qaeda aspires to change the US run international order to Islamic system. In June 2014, branch of al-Nusra Front in Syrian town of al-Bukamai pledged allegiance to ISIL.

After capturing Al- Barakah, Al-Kheir, Deir Ezzor, Ar-Raqqah, Al-Badiya, Halab, Idlib, Hama and the coast in Aleppo province in Syria, the ISIL, also called Da’ash, crossed into Iraq and captured Fallujah in Anbar province in January 2014. All efforts by INA to retake Fallujah failed. The ISIL Jihadists after consolidating its hold over Fallujah, launched a major offensive on June 9, 2014 and within weeks captured five provinces in northern and western Iraq that are Sunni inhabited. Tikrit, the home town of Saddam, and Mosul with a population of two million people and defended by 30,000 troops were also captured.

The entire defensive structure built by Maliki regime to save northern and western Sunni dominated regions from the onslaught of Sunni militants crumbled. Soldiers ran helter-skelter leaving behind huge dumps of arms, ammunition, explosives, equipment, heavy guns, vehicles, rations and clothing stores, UH 60 Blackhawks and other helicopters, cargo planes. The military equipment captured by the ISIL fighters included AN/PVS-7 night vision goggles, MI6 rifles, M4 carbines, M203 grenade launchers, M60 and 240 machine guns, RPGs, surface to air stinger missiles, MI98 Howitzer artillery guns, Ack Ack guns, SP guns, scud missiles, T-55 and T-72 tanks, AMZ Dziks, MT-LB, Humvies, MII3 APCs, recovery vehicles. Large amount of cash was also seized by the militants and today it claims to be in possession of over $2 billion. 3/4th of the cash was seized from Mosul. Two senior most Army officers Gen Ali Gardan and Lt Gen Abu Qambar and several other senior officers resigned from their posts.

On June 29, the ISIL chief Baghdadi was declared Caliph and leader of Muslims everywhere. They have asked the Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to their chief, called as ‘Caliph Ibrahim’. The current span of Islamic caliphate called Islamic State (IS) extends from Aleppo in northern Syria to Diyala in Iraq. This stretch of territory is under complete control of IS which includes second largest city of Mosul and largest Baiji oil refinery near Baghdad. Today, IS has become the strongest Jihadist group both militarily and financially in Syria and Iraq as well as the world over. Abu Bakr has become a serious challenge to al-Qaeda Chief Ayman al Zawahiri who till recent was the leading militant leader. IS has 3-6000 fighters in Syria including 3-4,000 Jihadists from Europe, USA, Caucasus and Turkey and up to 6000 fighters in Iraq. Among the foreigners, about 1000 Jihadists are from Chechnya and 500 from Britain. It is predicted that more would join in coming months. The IS/ISIL comprise of fighters belonging to Jaish al-Fateheen, Jund al-Sahaba, Katbiyan Ansarul Tauhid  wal Sunnah and Jaish al Taifa al-Mansoora.

After series of debacles, INA launched a counter offensive on June 28 to regain Tikrit. Fighting went on in Tikrit for some days but the offensive petered out in the face of stubborn resistance. ISIL/IS is known for its harsh interpretation of Islam and violence and follows al-Qaeda ideology, which emerged from Muslim Brotherhood ideology. It aims at establishing Salafist model Islamic State initially in Iraq and Syria and later expanding it. Strict Shariah laws have been enforced in captured territories. While captured Shias are being killed, Christians were given the choice to either convert to Islam, or pay Jiziyah, or exit. Even 20 Sunni Ulema disagreeing with the ideology of IS or refusing to pledge allegiance to the caliph were murdered. In Samarra, 1000 Sunnis were killed. After destroying the holy shrine of Prophet Yunus (AS) on July 24, the Nabi Shiyt shrine in Mosul was also dynamited on July 26th. The IS leadership has vowed to head for Najaf and Karbala and destroy sacred shrines. The IS is operating on the pattern of Changez Khan to strike terror into the hearts of the people and make them flee.

Nuri al-Maliki re-elected to office in April 2014 for third term has become highly unpopular and the US, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kurdistan President want him to step down. Even Ayatollah Ali Sistani has urged for a change of political leadership. The US wants to once again jump into the cauldron of Iraq but its weakened military and economic capacity coupled with series of setbacks it has suffered have become major restraining factors. Like al-Qaeda, which it has not been able to wipe out; it is now faced with a bigger monster in the form of ISIL but is helpless. Rather than rushing large numbers of troops as it had done in 1991 and again in 2003, the US has sent only 575 Marines and 300 military advisers to Baghdad. The token force is meant to beef up security of US Embassy in Baghdad and its mercantile interests and not to save Iraq from splintering.

The Iraqi Kurds in the north aspiring to establish independent Kurdistan took control of oil producing Kirkuk and vowed to fight the IS fighters. Shia militias in Iraq at the call of Moqtada al-Sadr are uniting to fight the IS. They are also killing captured Sunni militants. Their aim is not the preservation of united Iraq but to protect holy shrines of Shias and southern Iraq. Same is the objective of Iran. The latter has supplied military equipment and drones to support embattled Iraq. Syrian air force has also joined the fray by striking IS militants inside Iraqi territory.

Till the emergence of ISIL now morphed into IS, Israel was viewed as the foremost threat to the Arab States. The security spectrum has now changed and ISIL/IS is being viewed by myopic Muslim leaders as a greater threat. As long as ISIL was fighting the security forces in Syria, Israel was quite content since the iron was cutting the iron. Now that ISIL has grown into a big monster and has published a map of its future caliphate which includes Israel as well, Tel Aviv changed course and expressed its willingness to jointly fight the common enemy. It suggested establishing a joint HQ to confront the challenge.

The idea is impractical and ridiculous in the backdrop of unresolved Palestinian dispute. For the Muslims, Israel and not ISIL is the common enemy. However, it is strange that Israeli ongoing brutal offensive against Gaza has failed to divert the Islamic lava towards Israel. None of the known Jihadist groups has fired a single bullet against US military or Israeli forces. ISIL has not killed a single American since its creation in 2006. It is unfortunate that the visionless Muslim leaders are least bothered about the Indo-Israeli intrigues aimed at weakening Muslim Ummah by creating misgivings and inflaming sectarian war to divide the targeted Muslim countries into smaller States. For the achievement of this goal, the schemers support rebel groups within each target country and also stoke sectarianism. In all the restive Muslim countries, Muslims are fighting with Muslims.

Taking advantage of the turmoil within the Arab world, the Israelis are carrying out genocide of the people of Gaza since July 8, 2014. While he US led west support Israeli barbarism under the flawed plea of self-defence, the OIC and Arab League have so far not taken any concrete steps to halt Israeli terrorism. Most are against democratically elected government of Hamas since the US and Israel considers Hamas a terrorist outfit. Before it is too late, leaders of the Muslim world must shun its petty differences and get united to confront the challenges posed by the Zionists backed by the west or else be prepared to lose freedom, dignity and honor.

The writer is a retired Brig, defence analyst/columnist/historian/war veteran, member Executive Council PESS, Director MEASAC Research Centre and Director Board of Governors TFP.

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