ISIS Digs Heels Into Tikrit as Iraq Offensive Slows

A Sunni fighter who has joined Shi'ite militia groups known collectively as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), allied with Iraqi forces against the Islamic State, looks at an Islamic State flag and ammunition displayed in al-Alam Salahuddin province, March 15, 2015.
Thaier Al-ASudani—Reuters A Sunni fighter who has joined Shi'ite militia groups known collectively as Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization), allied with Iraqi forces against ISIS, looks at an Islamic State flag and ammunition displayed in al-Alam Salahuddin province, March 15, 2015.

Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militiamen struggle to make progress in Saddam Hussein's hometown

Correction appended

Although Iraqi forces have been waging war against ISIS in Tikrit for two weeks, the battle to drive the jihadists from the town has come to a stalemate. The militants remain stubbornly lodged there despite an assault from Iraqi security forces numbering in the thousands, along with 20,000 Shi’ite militiamen.

Last week Iraqi officials and leaders from Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of the mostly Shi’ite militias, boasted they would have control of Tikrit within days, but now their offensive is on hold even though the numbers are on their side.

“I’d be surprised if there was more than a thousand ISIS in there,” says Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, who completed several tours with the U.S. Army in Iraq. “Based on the numbers alone, they should have done it a long time ago.”

So why haven’t they? ISIS, which has controlled the Tigris river hometown of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein since it took over swathes of Iraq last June, has used those months to prepare for this battle. The militants are embedded in the town’s center, and the Iraqi-led fighters say they have used snipers and IEDs—improvised explosive devices—to create a dangerous fortress. While most civilians have fled, some still remain, making combat even more complicated.

“It’s street to street now,” says Karim al-Nouri, a spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces. He says the operation has already retaken 8,000 square kilometers from ISIS near Tikrit, and has not been stopped but merely slowed in its tracks. “Now we need to be more careful so we can have victory with less casualties.”

But neither the Iraqi national forces nor these Shi’ite militias are trained for this sort of offensive operation, says Harmer. The Shi’ite militiamen are capable and experienced fighters, many having fought the Americans during the Iraq war. But their role is usually to defend their own territory, not advance on other forces. “When you get right down to it, this is a super well-armed neighborhood watch group,” says Harmer. ISIS, on the other hand, is “used to this kind of warfare,” he says. “They are used to being outnumbered.”

The Iraqi army has reclaimed territory elsewhere with the help of the U.S.-led coalition and its air strikes, but those have been conspicuously absent this time. That may be because of the involvement of the Iranians in what has become the biggest offensive yet against ISIS in Iraq. Images posted online claim to show American Abrams and Iranian Safir-74 tanks side by side moving against ISIS positions in the Saladin Governorate, while Major General Qasem Soleimani, who coordinates Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, has been photographed on the battlefield.

Nouri, the Popular Mobilization Forces spokesperson, is coy about Iranian involvement, saying only that the Iranians have a planning and advisory role, and that there are no Iranian troops or weapons on the battlefield. “Of course if Iran wants to help us to fight ISIS they are welcome,” he says. “Anyone who wants to help us fight terrorism is welcome.”

Despite this entreaty, the U.S. said it had not been invited to provide air support when the offensive began. “Iraq is their country, it’s their military, their fight against [ISIS],” Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren told reporters in Iraq earlier this month. “They didn’t request support for it, and we didn’t provide support for it.”

But now that the advance on Tikrit has slowed, Baghdad has signaled American jets might be needed to help forces advance on Tikrit. But that will be hard for Washington, given Iran’s role in the operation.

“The U.S. cannot be in the position of actively supporting an Iran offensive,” says Harmer. “For all practice purposes the Shi’ite militias are functioning as a subset of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, or Quds force.”

Nouri says U.S. air strikes wouldn’t help much in the battle for Tikrit’s center. It would be technically difficult as the militants are embedded with civilians, and besides the U.S. has no one on the ground to call in the strikes. But what the U.S. could do is hit ISIS positions outside the town and convoys heading to Tikrit from places like Mosul, the largest city under control of ISIS and its base of operations.

Without that, there’s no telling how long the battle for Tikrit might continue. Nouri says it will be over within a week, but officials were saying that a week ago. What is clear is that the halting progress made so far will be giving some in Washington and Baghdad pause for thought. The Tikrit operation has been seen as a trial run for the eventual operation to retake Mosul, one that U.S. and Iraqi officials have suggested might happen as soon as the spring. But the longer this goes on, the less likely ISIS will be driven from its Iraqi stronghold any time soon.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated which group Christopher Harmer described as a “super well-armed neighborhood watch group.” He was referring to the Shi’ite militiamen.

TIME Middle East

Kurdish ISIS Recruits Threaten Identity and Security of Kurdish State

The Jaffar Mosque in the Daretu neighbourhood of Erbil where Imam Shawan preached before he left to join ISIS.
Rebecca Collard The Jaffar Mosque in the Daretu neighbourhood of Erbil where Imam Shawan preached before he left to join ISIS.

Some Kurdish Sunni Muslims prefer ISIS religious fanaticism to Kurdish nationalism

When Imam Shawan Kurdi disappeared in November, residents of his Daretu neighborhood of Erbil thought it was strange. The Friday before, Imam Shawan led prayers at the tiny Jaffer mosque but the next day, he, his wife and two daughters had vanished. Three days later, Kurdish intelligence confirmed that Imam Shawan had taken his family and two other young men from Daretu to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He is now in Mosul, the largest city under the control of ISIS.

Imam Shawan is among hundreds of mostly young Kurds to cross the frontlines and join ISIS, who have been in battle with Kurdish forces since June. The Kurds are losing young men to the extremists and in Erbil many talk about fathers and sons fighting on opposite sides. Like ISIS, Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but nationalism has long trumped religious identity here. Residents in Daretu aren’t keen to talk about how they lost one of their own to the militants, but when pressed, they say there were signs Imam Shawan was leaning to toward ISIS.

“He always talked about…how we had to do things the way they did in the time of the Prophet Mohammed,” says Mohammed Jamil, a 54-year-old resident of Daretu who prayed behind the Imam for a year.

Imam Shawan was paid by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the body that runs the semi-autonomous Kurdish territory of northern Iraq. Officials here began to worry their youth were being radicalized in Kurdish government-funded mosques and religious schools.

“One of my employees, his son joined ISIS, and he was a student in one of our schools,” says Salam Sidan, an advisor at the KRG’s Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs. Late last year Sidan’s ministry fired 80 government-paid religious teachers they felt weren’t “modern” enough for the job. “Some of the Imams and Mullahs were preaching that non-Muslims are infidels,” says Sidan. “It’s natural, in a place where you have 5 or 6 million people, you are going to have some voices calling the others infidels.”

Sidan stresses that the ministry is being diligent, ensuring new hires fit with the Kurds’ ideas of acceptance and tolerance. The ministry has no exact figures on how many Kurds have joined ISIS but Sidan’s estimates around one in 5,000, which would put the number as high as 1,000. Most of these men simply disappear, raising suspicions of family and neighbors. Some are never heard from again but others surface online. “You can’t hide anything with social media these days,” says Sidan. “Everything is on Facebook. And they post proudly that they joined ISIS.”

Some appear on social media encouraging their brethren to come join ISIS and threatening the Kurdish forces known as peshmerga. In one video, titled “A message to the Peshmerga,” a man who identifies himself as a Kurdish ISIS fighter promises attacks his own people. “By sword we will chop your heads and by Quran we will implement God’s rule, Sharia,” said the young man, standing with a motley crew of militants, a black ISIS flag flapping in the corner of the screen. He warns Kurds to stop supporting the “Crusader Coalition” referring to the US-led alliance that has been targeting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

The Kurdish ISIS fighters pose a serious threat to the security of the KRG. Kurdish speakers usually cruise through security checks with few questions and little searching. In November, a truck exploded in front of government buildings in Erbil. An ISIS-affiliated website posted a statement claiming the attack and saying it was carried out by a Kurdish recruit they called Abdel Rahman el-Kurdi and two others. “They were able to cross all these borders,” reads the statement. “And hit the heart of Erbil….We ask god to accept them as martyrs.”

But here they will not be accepted. Most families are ashamed that their kin have pointed weapons at fellow Kurds and intelligence officials have said those killed fighting with ISIS will not be allowed funerals in Kurdish territory.

Salar Salim contributed to this report


Iraq’s Battleground Dams Are Key to Saving the Country from ISIS

Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014.
Osama Al-Dulaimi—Reuters Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014.

U.S. airstrikes prevent ISIS from seizing control of Iraq's water supply—but now the Kurds control a major dam, complicating Iraqi politics

When militants in Iraq made their recent assault on Haditha Dam, it pushed the U.S. to strike in this part of western Iraq for the first time since August. The Iraqi national army and allied Shi’ite militia have been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for months in Anbar province, but until yesterday, Washington had shied away.

“The potential loss of control of the dam or a catastrophic failure of the dam—and the flooding that might result— would have threatened U.S. personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad, as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in statement Sunday, justifying strikes which seem to fall just outside of the American mission’s mandate.

The facility, wedged in the Euphrates River, is the country’s second-largest dam, and along with its big brother the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, it has been a strategic target of the expansionist Sunni militants. Over 95 percent of Iraq’s water comes from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, making it easy for anyone controlling those dams to put a stranglehold on the country’s water.

“If these dams—Mosul and Haditha— are outside of the control of the Iraqi state, it would be a national catastrophe,” says Shirouk al-Abayachi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and previously an adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources. “This is the ultimate danger.”

Given that ISIS’s stated goal is the end of the Iraqi state, to be replaced by a new, flourishing Islamic Caliphate, it’s no surprise that the terrorist group has focused on the country’s dams. The power to dry-out Baghdad and the Shi’ite farmlands south of the capital—along with the ability to provide water and the electricity produced by these facilities to their new subjects—could put ISIS in the driver’s seat.

“Military decision makers should take into consideration that these dams are the most important strategic locations in the country,” says al-Abayachi. “They should be very well protected because they affected everything—economy, agriculture, basic human needs and security.”

For all the talk that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was primarily about oil, even in the early days of the offensive, significant military resources were put into controlling water and electricity facilities. In fact, this weekend wasn’t the first time U.S. forces were employed to keep the Haditha Dam out of unwanted hands. In June 2003, the U.S. carried out air strikes near Haditha to allow collation forces to seize the facility from Saddam Hussein’s army. But while al-Qaeda—which essentially gave birth to ISIS—and other militant groups repeatedly targeted infrastructure in Iraq during the chaotic years that followed the invasion, none dared to attempt ISIS’s blatant grab for control of these resources.

From January to April this year ISIS used its control of the Fallujah Dam to flood adjacent lands, and cut water to south and central Iraq. But the impact was nothing compared to what the militants would be able to do with control of the Mosul or Haditha Dams.

However, ISIS may not be they only group that wants strategic control over the taps in Iraq. In February, as Baghdad halted transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, the Kurds shut off the water to Iraqi farmers from Kurdish-controlled dams.

“Let them endure a water shortage; that’s their problem,” Akram Ahmad Rasul, general director of dams and water storage in the KRG told the local news agency Rudaw of the farmers outside the Kurdish region.

Since then the stakes have been raised. Kurdish peshmerga fighters led the ground offensive to retake the Mosul Dam from ISIS, as Iraqi national forces had already proved they were incapable of holding the position. Now the Kurds control the dam, and amid the chaos in recent months, they have intensified their calls for complete independence from Baghdad. “If the Kurds keep control of the Mosul Dam…they will have about 80 percent of Iraq’s water, which is tremendous leverage for them,” says John Schnittker, who served as a U.S. advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. “They will essentially have a vital lock on the water supply for central and southern Iraq. It just leaves the government of Iraq in a very weakened position in negotiating with the Kurds.”

While the U.S. strikes seem to be the only way to keep these facilities out of the hands of ISIS militants, Schnittker said the attacks may have effects not necessarily intended by Washington. “The Kurds are in a really strong position to leverage Baghdad,” says Schnittker. “And my real concern is that the U.S. would be kind of complicit in a Kurdish land and water grab.”


The Enemy of My Enemy: Iran Arms Kurds in Fight Against ISIS

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands guard at the Bakirta frontline near the town of Makhmur, south of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan on Aug. 27, 2014.
Youssef Boudlal—Reuters A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands guard at the Bakirta frontline near the town of Makhmur, south of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan on Aug. 27, 2014.

As Tehran sends arms to aid forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, some question its motives

When Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif popped into Erbil yesterday, he announced Iran had joined—or perhaps beat— the U.S. in providing new weapons to Kurdish forces.

For months, the Kurds have been lobbying the international community for better weapons to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS). The U.S., France, Germany, among others, have pledged military support, but that has come slowly.

Now, it seems Iran beat them to the punch. “We asked for weapons and Iran was the first country to provide us with weapons and ammunition,” said Kurdish President Massoud Barzani in a press conference. That Iran apparently got weapons to the Kurds more quickly than the U.S. may be because of Tehran’s strategic interests in arresting the march of ISIS.

“Iran knows that if they don’t fight ISIS in Iraq today, they will have to fight them in Iran tomorrow,” said Hiwa Osman, an analyst and writer based in Erbil. The expansionist Sunni militants have clawed their way across Syria and Iraq, coming within 20 miles of the Iranian border.

Indeed, Tehran claimed to have had a direct hand in training Kurdish peshmerga. “When ISIS attacked Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish officials requested help from Iran, The Islamic Republic of Iran not only gave them guidance, but also organized and prepared their forces,” Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazl told Iran’s semi-official Mehr news agency.

Zarif, however, denied there had ever been Iranian boots on the ground, despite numerous reports to the contrary. “We do not have soldiers in Iraq, we don’t intend to send soldiers to Iraq,” he said, during his Erbil visit.

Kurdish officials, too, said Iran had merely provided material help. “We haven’t invited them to govern here, we just asked them for support,” said Sadi Ahmed Pira, a politburo member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Pira says so far they have just received light arms from Iran and that this support is welcomed and needed for the fight against the militants.

But some Kurds are skeptical about Iranian support. A man calling himself Hamid, an Iranian Kurd from near the border who has been living in Erbil for the last four years, says his people have no future in Iran. Iran has around 7 million Kurds within its borders and Tehran is uneasy about their desire for independence.

Hamid refused to give his real name, fearing repercussions from the Iranian government. “In Iran they just oppress us,” he said. “They don’t love the Kurdish people.”

On the streets of Erbil, some worry Iran is sending arms simply to boost its influence here and in the region, even at the cost of exacerbating Iraq’s sectarian divisions. “They are not doing this to support the Kurds or to defeat ISIS. Iran is sending weapons to make themselves stronger,” said Serdar Akgul, a 31-year-old Kurdish warehouse manager in Erbil, who believes Iran has used the conflict with ISIS to its advantage in Iraq. “This is Iran finding a way to benefit from all this bloodshed. And this going to badly impact the sectarian division.”

Baghdad may also view a stronger Kurdish alliance with Iran as a threat. The Kurds’ long-term objective is a Kurdistan independent of Iraq, and it looks as if they will come out of the conflict better armed, with stronger international influence and recognition than before.

Although the peshmerga initially faltered in combat with ISIS, they have proved themselves the most capable army in Iraq — though that is barely an achievement — and now see themselves as filling a vacuum left by the rapidly dwindling Iraqi forces. “If Baghdad is unable to provide security then they will have to tolerate the international community giving us the arms to do it,” said Pira.

Kurdistan already has strong economic relations with Iran and the Kurds have so far managed to juggle their alliance with the U.S., with close ties with their Iranian neighbors. And the U.S. now finds itself on the same side as another regional foe against ISIS, just as it has with Syria. American and Iranian weapons will be firing side-by-side in the hands of Kurdish peshmerga fighters.

“Our talks with the Americans is limited to the nuclear issue,” said Zairf in Erbil. “But we are prepared to talk at the international level with other countries and with the international community as a whole with regard to what is needed to be done in Iraq and in Syria and in this region.”

That may trouble the U.S. but Osman, the analyst, says that regional bonds are shifting. The regional and international dynamics are moving to more “natural” alliances than historic ones, he says. “The last alliance that ISIS will eventually break is the Gulf and America alliance. The Gulf states, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and others, are all remaining silent on the crimes of ISIS, just watching,” he said. These Sunni Gulf Arab states have long been some of the U.S.’s strongest regional allies against the likes of Syria and Iran, but those bonds are now being strained. “ISIS has created a new reality in the Middle East.”

With reporting by Kay Armin Serjoie


Why Iraq Is So Desperate to Retake Mosul Dam From ISIS

The militants could put a chokehold on millions of Iraqis' water supply — or destroy the dam and cause deadly, widespread flooding

Updated Aug. 17 2:44 p.m. E.T.

When Saddam Hussein built the Mosul dam three decades ago it was meant to serve as a symbol of the strength of Iraq and his leadership. He was following a tradition of big, but often ill-considered infrastructure projects in some Middle East dictatorships that seem more like a muscle-flex by a country’s leader than a project for the people.

Now that dam — the country’s biggest, holding back 11 billion cubic meters of water and producing over 1,000 megawatts of electricity — is at the center of a military struggle between Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which took control of the structure on Aug. 7.

Kurdish forces retook part of the dam early Sunday, the Associated Press reported, aided by U.S. and Iraqi air strikes. The Americans brought along some serious hardware to the fight; a combination of bombers, fighter jets, attack planes and unmanned drones, according to U.S. Central Command, conducted 14 strikes on Sunday and nine the day before. The show of force proves that the threat posed by ISIS control of the dam is finally being taken seriously.

“We told the Iraqi government a month ago that we needed to protect this strategic structure,” said Shirouk al-Abayachi, a member of the Iraq parliament for the Civil Democratic Alliance, and previously an adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources. “Any group manipulating this dam away from its original purpose is dangerous.”

Control of the dam gives ISIS the ability to do exactly that, and the consequences could be devastating. The group has several ways to leverage its control of the dam, say experts. “One of the things Saddam Hussein was really good at in his reign was choking off water supplies to Shi‘ites in the south,” said Christopher Harmer, who is a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, and who served several stints with the U.S. army in Iraq. “ISIS now controls the water flowing into Baghdad and to the agrarian areas south of Baghdad. They are in a position to impose a famine on the rest of Iraq.”

Alternatively, the militants could destroy the dam, sending a 60-ft. wave ripping down the Tigris River, washing away Mosul, a city of 1.5 million people, and days later flooding Baghdad with meters of water. ISIS is unlikely to do that while Mosul remains under its control. But it means that Iraqi forces must take control of the dam, said Harmer, before making a move on Mosul.

But even with U.S. military help, retaking the large piece of infrastructure will not be easy. The ISIS militant army, which a year ago seemed like a relatively small extremist faction in Syria, now controls swaths of territory both there and here in Iraq, as well as shored-up weapons and influence.

The fear now is that with control of water and electricity, the dream of creating a caliphate — or an Islamic state — is becoming closer to a reality for the extremists, famed for enforcement of strict Islamic law, beheadings and massacres.

“Al-Qaeda has always been just a terrorist organization,” said Harmer. ISIS broke off from al-Qaeda last year and has since promoted itself as the premier jihadist organization. “Al-Qaeda kind of, sort of, talked about establishing a caliphate sometime in the future, but they never had any stated ambition of taking over a state. ISIS is showing a differing level of ambition. ISIS has said, We are going to run a state and therefore we are going to provide all of the state services.”

Even if ISIS doesn’t use Iraq’s biggest dam as a weapon, its fragile condition means it still poses an enormous threat while in the militants’ hands. In September 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described it as “the most dangerous dam in the world.” The dam is built on an unstable bed of sand, slit and clay and requires daily grouting just to hold back the water.

“Iraq alone cannot deal with this. The Mosul dam is in a critical situation with ISIS in control,” said al-Abayachi. Just weeks of neglect could see the dam burst sending flood waters that could leave hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead in its path. “We need help from the international community.”


Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s Likely Next Leader, Has the World’s Toughest Job

Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014,
Iraqi Prime Minister's Office/AFP/Getty Images Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014,

With divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally stepping down, Iraq looks to a new leader. But can he knit his country back together?

Few in Iraq this morning were mourning the loss of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down Thursday night after months of domestic and international pressure.

“We are thirsty for change. We had this government since 2003 and still it’s not united. We want someone now who can unite Iraq,” said Ammar Al-Jaf, watching al-Maliki’s resignation re-run on television in his barbershop in Erbil. A Sunni who grew up in Baghdad, like many here, he says al-Maliki favored his own Shiite—sect and in so doing deepened divisions between the people of Iraq.

Even in refugee camps, filled with Iraqis who fled the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) in June, there were calls for al-Maliki to step down. Many displaced Iraqis said they fled because they feared being caught up in battles between Iraqi government troops and ISIS, but still preferred the rule of the Islamist militants to al-Maliki’s Shiite-first agenda.

File photo of Haider Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad
Ahmed Saad—ReutersHaider al-Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad in July 2014.

The hope now is that Haider al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker and the man named to replace al-Maliki, will be able to bring Iraq’s divided political factions together. “Al-Abadi promised to support dialogue with the Sunnis and said that he will consult Kurdish and Sunni factions,” said Sarmad al-Taee an Iraqi journalist and commentator. He argues that al-Maliki ran Iraq and his own Al-Dawa party with orders rather than discourse, alienating Kurds, Sunni and eventually his own Shiite sect.

This feeling of disenfranchisement among Sunnis may have helped ISIS claim, and hold, swathes of Iraqi territory. The well-armed Sunni tribes of Nineveh province and west to the Syrian border could have turned the tide against ISIS, but there was little incentive to fight for a government they felt has sidelined their needs for years. On top of that, many Sunnis and Kurds argue al-Maliki stacked what should have been a non-partisan, non-sectarian army with politically appointed, often Shiite commanders, turning the Iraqi national forces in to his own private militia. That army proved weak and thousands of Iraqi soldiers simply dropped their weapons and fled in June as ISIS fighters approached.

“In every country the military should be separate from the government,” said Al-Jaf. “But al-Maliki used the military to serve himself. The army should serve the country and the people. He filled all the military’s with high positions from his family.”

Now, there is heavy pressure from inside Iraq, regional leaders and the U.S. to dismantle the sectarianism that has fractured the country and left it vulnerable to ISIS. Al-Taee, who is from Basra, says many Shiite leaders now understand this and will push for more inclusive politics under the new government. “If al-Abadi doesn’t do this he will be considered weak and the other party leaders will sack him,” he said, noting that a failure on this front could cause the international community to withdraw diplomatic and military support. “The Shiites now know the importance of dialogue and they don’t want to make the same mistake as before.”

But it may be too late. The mistakes by al-Maliki’s government have further exacerbated the divisions in an already fractured country and may have made the disintegration of Iraq all but inevitable. Many here now talk of dividing the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish territories. Since the start of the crisis with ISIS sectarian calls to arms have intensified on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide. The task ahead for al-Abadi will not be an easy one.

“If he can build a strong Iraq and share equally with all the people of Iraq, the people will support him and we can defeat ISIS,” said Irfan Ali, an engineer from Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. Getting the Sunni masses and tribes back on board for a national government will be key. But even if the Sunnis give their support, Shiites and Kurds may be hesitant to provide them with arms to fight ISIS—worried about where those guns will be pointed once the militants are defeated.

For their part, the Kurds have kept their distance with the central government, and are now engaged with ISIS themselves. They have been in conflict with Baghdad for months over power sharing and oil exports resulting in the central government halting transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in January. “We have been clear that we are not just looking for a change in the faces in the government,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations. “We want a change in the power sharing arrangement and a more inclusive government.”

Amid the chaos created by the ISIS invasion, the Kurds have managed to secure contested territories, such as Kirkuk, and have inched closer to independence. Last month, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said that he will hold a referendum on Kurdish sovereignty, a decades-old goal of the Kurdish people.

It’s not clear what a new prime minister could offer the Sunnis and Kurds to bring them back into the political fold with Baghdad. But leaders in Iraq seem hopeful, though cautious. “This is the start of process,” said Bakir. “But we need to wait and see. We shouldn’t be too optimistic.”


ISIS Advance Turns the Spotlight on Weak Kurdish Forces

Caught off guard by the militants, Iraqi Kurdish fighters were forced to retreat

When thousands of ethnic Yazidis first became trapped on Mount Sinjar, the forces of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region seemed like their only hope. Known as the peshmerga, the 100,000-strong Kurdish army is widely considered to be the last capable force in Iraq. But according to some, these fighters didn’t exactly live up to their reputation.

“The peshmerga didn’t tell us to run away, they just left suddenly,” says Said Suliman, who fled Sinjar with 12 members of his family after the peshmerga pulled out of the area. They are now taking refuge in the Kurdish controlled city of Dohuk. “We just hope the peshmerga won’t run from here also.”

According to Suliman, it was Syrian Kurdish fighters, both men and women, who initially stepped in to save the Yazidis as the peshmerga retreated and before the U.S. stepped in. “They are our heroes,” he says. Like many, he first fled into Syria and then back into the Kurdish Iraqi territory during his escape from the mountains.

It may have been the element of surprise that allowed fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) to dispel the peshmerga so quickly.

Until two weeks ago, ISIS had made no claim or advance on the Kurdish areas. While there were skirmishes along the over 600 mile border which the Iraqi Kurds share with the extremist Sunni fighters, for months there was no full-on confrontation. ISIS said their sights were set on Baghdad, not the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and perhaps, because of that, they were caught off guard.

“The fact is they said they want to go to Baghdad and then they come to us,” says Halgord Hekmat a spokesman for the peshmerga in Erbil. “Of course it was bit of a surprise.”

But the Syrian Kurdish fighters knew ISIS as sparring partner. For over a year they have been fighting the Sunni militants inside Syria, where both groups now control territory.

“We are all Kurdish and its necessary when one part of Kurdistan has problem, we all help,” says Juann Ali, a Syrian Kurd who lives and works in Erbil. “In the end, we all have the same goal, to fight for Kurdistan.”

But in the last two decades there hasn’t been much opportunity to fight for that goal. The peshmerga forces were born of Kurdish resistance to Iraqi and Turkish domination, and for decades they defended their mountainous terrain, which stretches across Iraqi, Syrian, Turkish and Iranian borders.

“The Kurds developed a way of fighting based on fighting the Iraqi army in the 70s and 80s, and the Iraqi army sucked. They didn’t need to be that good. They were mostly just defending the mountains, and mountainous terrain is the best to have to defend,” says Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. “The peshmerga doctrine hasn’t really evolved much since then, but warfare has evolved.”

Hekmat says the peshmerga were also hampered by their outdated weaponry. The mostly light artillery carried by the peshmerga was easily challenged by the much more sophisticated American weapons ISIS plundered after Iraqi national forces fled their posts in June. Those forces were controlled by then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has now stepped down amid increasing domestic and international pressure to make way for a new leader in Baghdad.

The U.S. air support—on Thursday, President Barack Obama said American forces had helped break the siege of Mount Sinjar—has allowed the peshmerga hold the line against ISIS and create a humanitarian corridor allowing many of the stranded Yazidis to make their way off the mountain. But American strikes are not a sustainable defense plan for the Kurds, who seek autonomy over their affairs.

“We don’t have any weapons, only the weapons we took from Saddam after 2003,” adds Hekmat. “We are just asking for the weapons that every developed military should have to fight against terrorists.”

The Kurds have been asking for better weapons from the US and other international suppliers, and while the UK and France have shown some willingness, the peshmerga say they are still under armed.

“What they are looking for is everything. They want tanks, they want artillery but they also want machine guns, they want rocket launchers and they want mortars,” says Pollack. “They want anything they can get their hands on.”

While they may have insufficient weapons, the Kurds aren’t lacking in passion. The ISIS advance caught them by surprise—but the force has not crumbled.

“Now they are properly deploying the weapons they do have, and their morale has recovered and they are proving a much more formidable foe for ISIS,” says Pollack. “The peshmerga is not as bad as people thought a week ago, but they are also not good as people thought a month ago.”


The Yezidis—and the Kurds—Hope for U.S. Salvation in Iraq

Yazidi families from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014.
Moises Saman—Magnum for TIME Yazidi families from Sinjar arrive at the Fishkhabur border crossing between Iraq's Dohuk Province and Syria, Aug. 10, 2014.

With ISIS threatening Iraq's north, both the Kurds and the Yezidis are desperate for help—and it's not coming from Baghdad

In a small shop, four Yezidi men watch Kurdish peshmerga fighters perform drills on a local television station. Kurdish forces that have led the efforts to rescue over 50,000 ethnic Yezidis from Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq, where they have been stranded for the last ten days.

“The peshmerga are stronger than the Iraqi army,” says Tassin Qasim Assi, watching the Kurdish fighters. “The Iraqi soldiers are just there for the money.” Assi fled Sinjar, the Yezidi heartland, more than a week ago and is now taking refuge in Erbil with his family. He says he has faith in the Kurdish fighters, but that they need more support to fight the militant army of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

In recent days the world has been captivated by the plight of thousands of members of the unique Yazidi sect, which mixes elements of Shiite and Sufi Islam and Christianity, among others relgions. Yazidis have lived as a minority around the mountains of northern Iraq for centuries. They were little known to the wider world until recent images of Yezidi refugees, dehydrated and terrified, were shown around the world, which in part helped prompt recent U.S. airstrikes on ISIS to prevent what President Obama called “genocide.”

While many Yezidis don’t consider themselves Kurds at all, they are Kurdish speaking and have lived in areas held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). That gives the Kurds some responsibility for their fate. “We are not going to dictate who is a Kurd and who is not,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations. “The important thing is we are a tolerant society and protect all ethnic and religious minorities.”

Bakir says the Kurdish forces now battling the ISIS militants include his Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga fighters and Kurdish fighters from Syria, as well as some Iraqi national forces. But for the Iraqi national army the defense of the north and minority groups like the Yazidis is unlikely to be a major priority—especially with political parties grappling for power in Baghdad.

“The [Iraqi] army aren’t interested at the moment,” says Shatha Besarani who works for the Iraqi Women’s League. “The Shiites in the south are trying to have it all to themselves. They don’t care what happens in the middle and the north.” Her comments reflect what many in Iraq feel is Baghdad’s Shiite-first agenda. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been clinging to power despite calls from Sunni, Kurdish and even Shiite Iraqis for him to step down and make way for a more inclusive government. Moderate Shiite Haider al-Abadi seems set to take the spot, with endorsements from Iran and others, but al-Maliki has yet to fully give up power.

The political struggle in Baghdad has hampered the already-weak Iraqi army’s ability to fight the radical Sunni militants who now control swathes of the country. The national forces have already failed against ISIS in the field. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled their posts in June as the militants approached, shedding their uniforms and dropping their weapons—weapons that ISIS is now turning against them and the peshmerga. “We know about of the capability of the Iraqi army and air force,” says Bakir, suggesting that its limited ability isn’t adequate for the job. “And this is a huge operation.”

Bakir says the Kurds need military assistance to fight ISIS as well as humanitarian aid to help the Kurds deal with the more than one million Iraqis displaced by the fighting who are taking shelter in their territory. For its part the U.S. is sending in 130 new military advisors to help bolster Kurdish efforts to save the Yezidis and push back the militants. The UK has been providing humanitarian support in the form of airdrops and along with France promising arms support. “The air strikes boosted the morale of the peshmerga,” says Bakir. “But we need to properly arm and equip them to fight these terrorists.”

To the Yezidis, the world’s sudden focus on their plight hasn’t translated into enough international support to save them. Back in the shop the Yazidi men look at pictures they say are of their dead brethren, bodies lying in the desert near Sinjar. Adanan Khalaf, a 25-year-old Yezidi from Sinjar, thrusts forward his phone.

“Where was America?” asks Khalaf. “They are telling us to become Muslims or die.”

And while the calls for better arms for the peshmerga and military assistance are strong here, for many Yazidis, Iraq is no longer a place they can feel safe as one of the region’s smallest minorities.

“We want to go out,” says Assi. “Tell them we want to go America. Or we want to go to Europe. We can’t stay here.” —With reporting by Mirren Gidda/London

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