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How has Daesh managed to advance into Baghdad?

The security situation in Iraq has been on the agenda of the international community since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Following the American-led invasion, stability in the fragile country has been an on-going objective of world powers, ironically by treating it as a political toy, with no understanding, or even consideration, of the sensitive domestic situation. After more than a decade of its fate being decided by the same forces which contributed to its destruction — “democracy”, security, oil and imperialism — Iraq has now fallen into the hands of sectarian militias and ethnic conflict. Despite very clear signs that Western policies in Iraq were only making Iraqis less safe and their country less secure, the world powers persisted with their approach and ignored the increasing localisation of military power, until this factor began to threaten them directly.

Sectarian militias are nothing new in Iraq. When the Iraqi army was disbanded by the US in 2003, an act for which George Bush admitted in 2007 he couldn’t remember the reason, military power quickly became localised. After the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussain maintained the strongest army in the Middle East, which kept Iraq as a regional superpower up until the invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Immediately afterwards, Iraq’s ground forces were reduced to 23 divisions and its air force was cut back to fewer than 300 aircraft. Although weaker, it was still functioning as a military force, so the complete dissolution of the army after the US invasion made Iraqi civilians feel the need to arm themselves in the face of the many war crimes being committed against them. Furthermore, the construction of new social and security institutions were also based on perpetuating sectarian politics in Iraq.

The disbandment of the army not only created a security gap, but also many military and security officials who were suddenly redundant, either because they were loyal to the old regime, or because they were Sunni Muslims. This increased the insecurity felt by Sunni tribesmen, which prompted them to resort to forms of localised militarism. One of the means for this was to form an alliance with the Al-Qaeda off-shoot that we now know as Daesh.

Along with shaking-up the military, the post-Saddam Iraqi government did nothing to ensure social cohesion in their multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. It saw diversity as a threat in the so-called new democracy. Soon after the government was elected, accusations of electoral fraud arose; protests were suppressed quite brutally by the authorities. The head of the students’ union of the University of Mosul, Qusay Salahuddin, for example, accused the United Iraqi Alliance of cheating and being Iranian agents; he disappeared on 22 December 2005 and his corpse was found a week later.

The security vacuum left as a result of the Iraqi government’s corruption and the influence of external forces has contributed to the growth of Daesh from an insignificant Al-Qaeda splinter group to a threat to the international community. Despite a multi-lateral coalition being formed to beat the terrorist organisation, with strategies ranging from air strikes to drones to arming local militias, defeating Daesh remains a conundrum for policy-makers and military strategists. Despite such efforts to defeat it, how has Daesh managed to advance into Baghdad?

“It’s simple,” said Dr Muhanad Seloom, a counterterrorism expert and Iraqi specialist. “They walked 18km from their Garma base at night, with their weapons, and reached Abu Ghraib in the morning. They took no transportation so no satellites picked up the heat from any vehicles, and they managed to arrive unnoticed and unharmed.” The truth is, Daesh were never far away from Baghdad in the first place; its advance should not be a shock.

There has been a specific urgency about liberating Iraqi Kurdistan and arming the Peshmerga militias, along with the Iraqi army and Shia militias. The main problem with this strategy is that it only empowered one sect of one religion, which is not a viable solution; this is demonstrated clearly by the fact that the Iraqi army has formed an alliance with Shia militias, armed them and enabled them to commit atrocious human rights abuses in Sunni areas. In Iraq’s eastern province of Diyala, Shia militias which are allied with the Iraqi army have conducted atrocities against civilians at a shocking level, such as kidnappings, summary executions, looting and sieges.

The Iraqi state institutions have refused to accept internally displaced people (IDPs) from Sunni areas. By May 2015 there were over 180,000 from Ramadi alone who were refused entry into Baghdad. The vast majority of those fleeing Ramadi were accused automatically of being Daesh affiliates, because of their Sunni identity, and were not let in unless they had a sponsor inside the capital. They were left to decide which death they wanted, either by going back to Ramadi and being killed by Daesh, or dying as a result of their displacement. The third option was to go back and join Daesh, solely in order to survive.

While air strikes do sometimes put Daesh at a logistical disadvantage, it is clear that the group is able to adapt to them; defeating them is not about aerial bombardment and arming whoever is deemed to be an ideological enemy of Daesh at the time.

“There are no Sunni militias,” explained Dr Seloom. “None of the Sunni tribes who want to fight Daesh are armed and when they are faced by Shia militias, they are left defenceless.”

The fight against Daesh is more ethno-sectarian than western policy makers would like to admit and their policies in Iraq are fuelling this strife by enhancing extremism. In the eyes of Seloom and many other Iraqis, the sect or the ethnicity of the government does not matter; it is its willingness and ability to represent and protect all Iraqis and to treat them as one which is important. If the corruption and incompetence of the current Iraqi government and army persists, there is thus little prospect of defeating Daesh and no hope for peace.

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