Top Iraqi Cleric Calls for New Government

Mideast Iraq
Iraqi Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant below a portrait of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in Baghdad's Sadr City, Iraq, June 18, 2014. On Friday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, called for a new effective government in Iraq. Khalid Mohammed—AP

Pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki

Iraq’s top Shi’ite spiritual leader called Friday for a new “effective” government, increasing the pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he tries to beat back an assault by Sunni militants in northern Iraq.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani made the comments at Friday prayers a day after President Barack Obama said he would deploy military advisers and called on Maliki, a Shi‘ite in office since 2006, to create a more inclusive leadership. The Prime Minister’s critics say his favoritism toward Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, long oppressed under Saddam Hussein, has given rise to the renewed insurgency by the Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Al-Sistani’s comments, delivered by a representative in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, all but blamed Maliki for the crisis that began last week when militants seized Iraq’s second largest city and much of the north, the Associated Press reports.

“It is necessary for the winning political blocs to start a dialogue that yields an effective government that enjoys broad national support, avoids past mistakes and opens new horizons toward a better future for all Iraq,” said the Grand Ayatollah, who is deeply revered in Iraq. His call to arms last week prompted thousands to volunteer to fight ISIS, a group that split off from al-Qaeda, AP reports.

Al-Maliki’s bloc won parliamentary elections on April 30. The new parliament is supposed to meet by June 30 to pick a new speaker and president; they in turn would ask the leader of the largest bloc to form a new government. But it’s unclear if al-Maliki will be willing to step aside.

On Thursday, Obama said he would deploy up to 300 Green Berets to advise and train Iraqi troops, but he said “only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together.”

Iraqi officials have called for U.S. airstrikes against the militants, but Obama has so far declined.



Kurdish Fighters Mull Whether to Defend Iraq

The Peshmerga fighters are waiting to see what comes next


Jabar Yawar runs his pointer along a map of Iraq, indicating the territory now controlled by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“We are sharing a thousand-kilometer border with the terrorists,” said Yawar, General Secretary of the Ministry of Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces alarmed by the ISIS gains. “Right now the Peshmerga just want to defend and strengthen this line and stop the terrorists from entering Kurdistan.”

As ISIS militants advanced, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts, and the Peshmerga quickly moved in, filling the security vacuum and laying easy claim to contested lands. So far ISIS has made no threats on the Kurdish territory, but it’s not clear if that’s a recognition of the Kurdish claim, or an unwillingness to open new front in their offensive, particularly against the capable Peshmerga fighters. The Peshmerga battled Baghdad and Ankara for national recognition and territory for decades. Many in the West recognize the Peshmerga from images of their female recruits with military fatigues, long braids and Kalashnikovs training in the mountainous region between Iraq and Turkey.

Years of combat against large, if not well-trained armies, and ingrained nationalism fueled by decades of oppression, left the Kurds with a strong fighting force.

“There is great national soul inside our fighters,” Yawar said, adding that retired soldiers have been asking to reenlist to fight against ISIS.

Today, there are many young recruits lingering outside Yawar’s office at the Peshmerga ministry building. Most have never seen combat, as the Kurdish fighters haven’t been in a proper war since they fought the Iraqi army more than a decade ago.

Still the 200,000-strong force might be the best chance to fight ISIS, as the U.S.-built Iraqi army remains ineffective.

Even with internal political dissent, the Peshmerga are a source of national pride among the Kurdish population. In a shop in Erbil, a group of men watch their forces maneuver in the desert against ISIS on a Kurdish TV channel. The soldiers in camouflage fly their sun-crested Kurdish flag against a patriotic soundtrack.

“I’m Peshmerga,” said Wali Mustafa, smiling. Like many here, he fought with the Peshmerga when they were a less formal force. “The Iraqi government needs the Kurds now,” he said. “We don’t have to prove anything, but this is definitely an opportunity.”

But officials in the Kurdish administrative center of Erbil say they won’t be quick to join Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s fight. Erbil warned Baghdad about the impending assault on Mosul and the northern province, according to sources in the Kurdish government, but there was no action from the capital. Once ISIS entered the city, there was a call from Baghdad requesting Peshmerga assistance, but at that point it was declined. So far, there has been no official request for Kurdish forces to cross their newly-held border.

“We are not a force that takes requests,” said Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir. He is the Head of the Department of Foreign Relations for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—essentially a complicated title for a man who heads-up foreign affairs for an entity which is not a formal state, but looks and acts like one. “How could al-Maliki ask for this when he has not respected the Peshmerga forces. … They were supposed to be paid, trained and equipped by the federal [Iraqi] government as part of the national defense system, but they have been ignored.”

For the last six months, Baghdad held the purse strings of the KRG, failing to transfer the 17 percent of the Iraqi budget Erbil is mandated under the constitution. Further, Baghdad objected to independent Kurdish oil sales.

“Before June 10 there was already an atmosphere of mistrust between Erbil and Baghdad,” said Hoshang Waziri, an Iraqi political analyst. “You can’t reduce it to one issue, but a big part was the Kurdish acting like there was no central Iraqi government, but still saying ‘give us our 17 percent’.”

Wazir said both sides have resorted to finger pointing in the current crisis, with the Kurds blaming Baghdad and Baghdad claiming the Kurds are using the instability to their advantage.

But Kurdish affection for Washington is strong—even on Kurdish military compounds, young fighters wear “US Army” shirts bought in a local market. Still, while the U.S. has been a longtime ally, Kurdish leadership has been burned before, supporting American objectives and getting little in return. In 2003, the Peshmerga fought alongside American forces, running Saddam Hussein’s army out of the north and taking important cities including their aspirational capital, Kirkuk. But the Kurds left Kirkuk shortly after, at the Americans’ request.

Bakir says he feels Washington sides with Baghdad over Erbil.

“We did everything to support the political process in Iraq that was initiated by the Americans, but unfortunately in return we were not rewarded,” Bakir said.

Beyond security and American let-downs, Bakir said his people are not willing to support tyrannical rule from Baghdad. He said American airstrikes alone will not solve Iraq’s crisis. “The point is we don’t have democrats in the country,” he said, “we don’t have democracy yet in Baghdad.”

TIME 2016 Election

Rand Paul Doesn’t Blame Obama For Iraq Crisis

Rand Paul
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., speaks during an event at the University of Chicago's Ida Noyes Hall in Chicago on April 22, 2014. Andrew Nelles—AP

Paul also took a shot at former Vice President Dick Cheney for his pro-Iraq War stance

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul is firing back at his party’s interventionist wing, saying those who supported the Iraq war “emboldened Iran,” while freeing President Barack Obama of blame for the current crisis in Iraq.

In a Meet the Press interview airing this Sunday, the 2016 presidential hopeful and libertarian icon responded to an op-ed by former Vice President Dick Cheney criticizing Obama’s handling of the situation in Iraq.

“I think the same questions could be asked of those who supported the Iraq War,” Paul said. “You know, were they right in their predictions? Were there weapons of mass destruction there? That’s what the war was sold on. Was democracy easily achievable? Was the war won in 2005, when many of these people said it was won? They didn’t really, I think, understand the civil war that would break out.”

Paul added that he doesn’t blame Obama for the ongoing turmoil in Iraq, but he questions whether the President has a solution to the crisis, during which Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have seized vast territory and pushed the Iraqi military back to the outskirts of Baghdad.

“And what’s going on now—I don’t blame on President Obama,” Paul said. “Has he really got the solution? Maybe there is no solution. But I do blame the Iraq War on the chaos that is in the Middle East. I also blame those who wer for the Iraq War for emboldening Iran. These are the same people now who are petrified of what Iran may become, and I understand some of their worry.”

Cheney this week launched the Alliance for a Strong America, a group dedicated to pushing back against Obama’s foreign policy as well as the GOP’s libertarian wing. Paul’s critique could apply equally well to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who apologized for her vote for the Iraq War in hew new book, “Hard Choices.”

Meet the Press Moderator David Gregory noted that Paul is not a “Dick Cheney Republican” when it comes to American power in the Middle East.

“What I would say is that the war emboldened Iran,” Paul replied. “Iran is much more of a threat because of the Iraq War than they were before—before there was a standoff between Sunnis and Shiites. Now there is Iranian hegemony throughout the region.”

Watch the video of the exchange above.

TIME The Brief

Pope vs. Pot: The Holy Father Says ‘No’ to Marijuana Legalization

Welcome to #theBrief, the four stories to know about right now—from the editors of TIME


Here are the stories TIME is watching this Friday, June 20.

President Barack Obama announced the U.S. will be deploying special troops to Iraq to advise Iraqis on fighting against militants.

The House of Representatives approved an amendment that would curb NSA ‘backdoor’ spying on Americans, primarily regarding Internet search histories, emails and chats.

Supporters of marijuana legalization now have a powerful opponent: the Pope.

And finally, what happens when you put a man covered in Mentos and drop him in a tub of Coke? Thanks to these guys, now we know.

The Brief is published daily on weekdays.


Pictures of the Week: June 13 – June 20

From Iraq’s eternal war and Spain’s early Word Cup exit, to a deadly double twister in Nebraska and Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s submarine ride, TIME presents the best photos of the week.



TIME World Cup

Saturday’s Argentina-Iran World Cup Game Will Bring Back a Lot of Pain

(FILE) Firemen and policemen search for
Firemen and policemen search for wounded people after a bomb exploded at the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association community center in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994. ALI BURAFI—AFP/Getty Images

When the two teams meet on Saturday, many Argentines will remember the deadly Buenos Aires bombing of 1994, which killed 85 and was blamed on Iranian terrorists

This World Cup, thus far, has lacked the geopolitical frisson that can make the games particularly compelling. The Americans, for example, haven’t played Russia or North Korea (which didn’t qualify for this year’s tournament).

But for many Argentines, Saturday’s game against Iran — which should be a cakewalk for Messi & Co. on the pitch — will be fraught with off-field tension.

On July 18, 1994, terrorists bombed the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA, in Spanish) community center in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people. Nearly 200,000 Jews live in Argentina, giving the country the seventh-highest Jewish population in the world, behind Israel, the U.S., France, Canada, the U.K. and Russia. A probe by Argentine prosecutors concluded that Iran bore responsibility for the attacks, and in 2007 Interpol issued notices calling for the arrest and possible extradition of five Iranian leaders, including Ahmad Vahidi, the country’s former Defense Minister under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“Watching the game can’t help but bring back painful memories for many of us,” says Claudio Epelman, executive director of the Latin American Jewish Congress, who knew two people who perished in the bombings.

“I love soccer, and I try to put politics outside of this match,” says Ariel Isaak, who as a high school student rushed to the rubble to help in the AMIA rescue effort. (“Nobody knew what to do,” Isaak says, recalling that nightmarish day. “Nobody knew what to say. It was like being in a war, without the soldiers or generals.”) Isaak’s girlfriend — now his wife — lost her best friend in the attacks. “I know the [Iranian] players in the game are not the ones who put in the bomb,” says Isaak, who now owns a private security firm in Buenos Aires. “I just want to see justice.”

In early June, the World Jewish Congress wrote a letter to FIFA head Sepp Blatter asking for a minute of silence before the Argentina-Iran game to recognize the 85 victims. But the organization says it has not received a reply from FIFA, and a FIFA spokesperson did not respond to TIME’s request for comment.

Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, notes that Tehran has far bigger distractions than the AMIA case right now (most notably the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, the Sunni insurgent group now rampaging through Iraq and threatening the stability of the region).

“The government has consistently refused to accept responsibility [for the AMIA attack], saying it’s never been proven in a court of law,” says Milani. “There’s no reason to expect an overt response from the government now. And this is not a government known for showing remorse for past sins.”

Can the bad blood be set aside for the sake of a soccer match? “Soccer is one of those things that tend to eclipse this type of controversy,” says Milani. “But at the same time, I can’t imagine a team from the Islamic Republic of Iran, once it takes the field, being free from the shadow of the government in Tehran. So it works both ways.”


Iraq Breakup Made Easier by Turkey’s Détente With Kurds

Peshmerga fighters provide security at the last checkpoint outside of Mosul which is currently under control of ISIS militants, on June 14 in Mosul.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters provide security at the last checkpoint outside of Mosul on June 14. Sebastiano Tomada—Getty Images

The neighbor that a decade ago was most intent upon keeping Iraq together is now allied with its most ardent separatists—the Kurds—removing a key obstacle to the dismemberment of Iraq as Sunni Muslim extremists gain territory

In March 2003, U.S. troops parachuted into Iraq’s north and took up positions in the most fraught conflict then going in that part of the country: A looming battle between Turkey and the Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey had 200,000 troops to its southeastern border, fearing not the armies of Saddam Hussein but the aspirations of an ethnic minority that openly pined for independence – and was angling to use the US invasion of Iraq as an excuse to declare it. Turkey feared an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would enflame the separatist passions among its own Kurdish minority, a situation so fraught that the Pentagon set up a special command specifically to deal with it. Its stated mission: “deconfliction.”

Eleven years later, Iraq’s Kurds have finally acted on their plan – sending forces to take the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, known as the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and declaring the end of Iraq as the world now knows it. And what did Turkey do? Wish them well. “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of entity they are living in,” a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party told a Kurdish news outlet.

The transformation of Turkey from enemy to key ally of Iraqi Kurdistan is almost complete, removing a key obstacle to the dismemberment of Iraq as Sunni Muslim extremists gain territory in a nation ruled by a sectarian Shiite Muslim government.

No longer does Turkish nationalism serve to hold Iraq’s borders in place with pressure from the north. Instead, a country founded in 1924 as perhaps the world’s fiercest assertion of the nation-state – “Devlet,” which means “state,” is a first name in Turkey –- has aligned itself with a separatist movement dressed in the clothes of a sovereign nation. The Kurdistan Regional Government, formed after the U.S. invasion, has its own flag, prime minister, military, oil wells, border checkpoints and foreign minister.

“It’s a fact that the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq is the best ally of Turkey in the Middle East,” says Dogu Ergil, a political science professor at Istanbul’s Fatih University who specializes in what Turks call “the Kurdish question.” “Once it was a formidable potential enemy, because Turkey feared a basically independent Iraqi Kurdistan would be an attraction center for the Kurds of Turkey. But it proved that it’s not so, and Iraqi Kurds could be the best economic partners of Turkey.”

Trade between Turkey and Iraq’s Kurdish region stands at more than $8 billion a year, twice the business Turkey does with the entire rest of Iraq. And the figure will rise as the Kurds pump oil across Turkey via a pipeline to a Mediterranean port, a physical tether between the newfound allies built despite Baghdad’s strenuous objections. “But as we see, “ Ergil notes, “Baghdad is a paper tiger.”

The relationship works both ways, says Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Kurds are also pivoting to Turkey. In Iraq they made a decision around 2007 that they would rather have Turkey as a long term protector than the Arabs.”

That decision transformed a longtime threat into a protector, but Turkey’s security situation was also improved by the deal. Kurds are an ethnic group that Woodrow Wilson once promised a nation of their own, but ended up divided instead among others — Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Once seen as a threat to the sovereignty of each (but especially Turkey, which has the most Kurds), they now are acting as a buffer. Because their turf abuts the Turkish border in both Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish region provides a barrier of sorts, insulating Turkey from the worst effects of the fighting, including flows of refugees. The checkpoints where hundreds of thousands of Iraqis fleeing Mosul, which was overrun by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on June 10, stood at the entrance to Iraqi Kurdistan, not Turkey.

“If not for the Kurds, Turkey would neighbor ISIS,” says Cagaptay. “I think this has added a political element to the Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.”

The improved relationship extends to electoral politics. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year announced a peace deal with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, Turkish Kurds who had fought a separatist war for decades. According to leaked documents, as part of the bargain Turkey’s largest Kurdish political party agreed to back Erdogan’s bid for a more powerful presidency, cementing his hegemony in a reworked constitution.

“But the new approach to Iraqi Kurdistan has reached beyond Erdogan to Turkish elites,” notes Cagaptay. “You see it in the thinking of diplomats at the foreign ministry, in the spy chief.” Whatever challenges lay ahead for Kurds gaining acceptance in Turkish society–and those challenges are substantial—the transformation of Ankara’s foreign policy could alter the the entire Middle East.

“What is really shifting right now is Kurdish reality on the ground in Iraq and Syria,” Cagaptay says. “They’re using the civil war as an opportunity window to have Turkey recognize their de-facto independence.”


Satellite Photo Shows Smoke Billowing From Contested Iraqi Refinery

A satellite view shows smoke billowing from the key oil refinery complex in Baiji on June 18, 2014.
A satellite view shows smoke billowing from the key oil refinery complex in Baiji on June 18, 2014. USGS/NASA/Getty Images

The refinery was overrun earlier this week by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militant group

A satellite photo handed out by the U.S. Geological Survey Thursday shows a plume of smoke billowing from a large oil refinery in Baiji, Iraq that provides much of the region’s fuel for electricity and transportation. The image was taken Wednesday.

The Baiji plant, which lies about 130 miles north of Baghdad, was overrun by insurgents and allies of the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Tuesday as part of their lightning offensive through the Sunni heartland toward the capital. The plant shut down as a result of the fighting, which prevented workers from doing their jobs.

Exactly who’s in control of the sprawling complex after two days of intense fighting remains unclear. An Iraqi military spokesman claimed Thursday that government troops had pushed the militants to retreat and were in control, but workers who escaped the siege said militants were still patrolling part of the grounds. Footage aired on Al-Arabiya appeared to show ISIS’ signature black flags flying above the refinery, signaling it could still be in charge.



Life in Mosul Gets Back to Normal, Even With ISIS in Control

Demonstrators chant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16, 2014.
Demonstrators chant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16, 2014. AP

Residents of the Iraqi city say little has changed since the takeover, as the militants aim to gain the trust of the Sunni population

Two weeks ago, Governor Atheel Nujeifi oversaw the city of Mosul and its surrounding province of 3.8 million people. Today, he’s holding meetings on the eighteenth floor of a luxury hotel in Erbil, some 50 miles away from Mosul.

His security detail sits at the end of the hall, his eyes locked on Nujeifi’s door, and a handgun tucked under his shirt.

“They have made maybe ten attempts on my life,” said Nujeifi, who left Mosul with his entourage of 20 armed guards when militants under the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took the city on June 10.

The group now controls swathes of Syrian and Iraqi territory including two major Iraqi cities, Mosul and Tikrit, and have launched an offensive to take over the country’s largest oil refinery. Initially, hundreds of thousands of people fled Mosul, but within days many residents returned to the city to live under the rule of a group so radical even Al-Qaeda distanced itself from the fighters. And to many, it’s a distinct improvement.

“Do you know how it was in Mosul before ISIS came? We had bombings and assassinations almost everyday. Now we have security,” said Abu Sadr, who asked to be identified by a nickname, from his home in Mosul’s Hay Al Sukar neigbourhood. “I’m going to work, going to the market, like normal, and people are coming back to the city.”

According to Abu Sadr it is basically life as usual in Mosul. There is little of the tyrannical Islamic Sharia enforcement the group’s name has become synonymous with. Abu Sadr has seen Pakistani, Afghani and Syrian fighters amid the Iraqi ISIS recruits, but says the fighters have yet to adorn the city with their signature black flag. They fly them only above their checkpoints, which some residents say are fewer than the army had there, two weeks ago.

“The streets are a bit quiet, some people are staying inside,” he said.

That doesn’t mean things are easy under ISIS control. The internet has been cut and residents complain of limited fuel and water, and 22 hours per day without electricity, while temperatures hit above 110 °F. “Since June 10, no fuel has come into Mosul,” Nujeifi, the city’s governor, says. Lines are now forming outside petrol stations in the adjacent Kurdish territory, as Mosul residents come to buy fuel and return.

ISIS has tried to nominate a new governor from among the ranks of old Baathist officers, but no one was willing, according to Nujeifi. “They all refused because they know there is no future with ISIS,” he said. “They are not able to run the city by themselves.”

But for many in Mosul who despised the rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government from Baghdad, a lack of services is not the most important thing. “We don’t have water or power but we have security,” said Omar, who came to Erbil from his native Mosul on Tuesday, a week after ISIS took the city. The streets of Mosul are calm, he said, and he only left for his job as a chef at this hotel in Kurdish Erbil. “They are not making any problems with the local people. ISIS only came for the army.”

The army didn’t stay. Iraqi troops abandoned their posts leaving a trail of weapons and uniforms. This week ISIS posted a series of gruesome photos online, claiming the mass execution of 1,700 Iraqi soldiers. The photos could not be verified, but came amid a wave of documented killings of army, police and civilians connected to al-Maliki’s government.

Some say this is a taste of what is to come in Mosul, and other places where the black flag of ISIS now flies. “ISIS has only been 10 days in Mosul…wait six months,” interjects Hassan, a Syrian from the city of Raqqa, standing at the hotel. “At first they make you love them, but wait.”

ISIS seized control of Raqqa in 2013, after the city was captured by Syrian rebels. Hassan says the first months were relatively normal. But soon ISIS imposed strict Sharia law, mandating conservative dress and prayer and burning piles of cigarettes, which are seen as sinful. Those who broke the rules received public lashings.

“I think we are all waiting for the other shoe to drop,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. That it hasn’t dropped yet may be less a matter of ideology than one of resources, he says. If ISIS wants to build its Islamic caliphate from Mosul to Raqqa, it will need more than just the few thousand fighters it’s estimated to have in Iraq.

“They have made some remarkable gains, but they are still really few in number and trying to control an enormous amount of space,” says Pollack. “And they have a lot of competition in the form of the other Sunni militant groups and the Sunni tribes.”

In Syria, ISIS now fights both the government of Bashar Al-Assad and other rebel groups. Facing the Sunni tribes of Iraq, and their latent military power, would put their new gains at riskso in places like Mosul, ISIS is staying on its best behavior. This approach seems to have brought them into a cautious alliance with the Sunni population that was disenfranchised for years by al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government. But at some point ex-Baathist nationalism and ISIS’s Islamic aspirations may clash.

“ISIS alone is never going to be able to hold this territory, never mind conquer more,” said Pollack. “Right now they are minding their Ps and Qs because they are trying to recruit and trying to expand their control.”


An American Attack on ISIS in Iraq Could Mean Retaliation Back Home

Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint belonging to Iraqi Army outside Beiji refinery some 155 miles north of Baghdad, June 19, 2014.
Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint belonging to Iraqi Army outside Beiji refinery some 155 miles north of Baghdad, June 19, 2014. AP

For the moment, the militant group has focused on expanding its reach in Syria and Iraq. But U.S. attacks could bring its gaze Westward, and with thousands of foreign jihadis among its ranks, it has the ability to exact revenge.

As fighters affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group seized Iraq’s biggest oil refinery on Wednesday, the government formally asked the White House to respond to the miltants’ threat with airstrikes. The Obama administration has so far hesitated to do so, troubled by the lack of good intelligence on the ground and uneasy about the impact military force might have on a brewing conflict with deep sectarian overtones — though President Barack Obama announced Thursday the U.S. is sending 300 special forces to Iraq in an advisory, non-combat role.

But there’s another issue worth considering: the threat of violent blowback against the U.S. at home. For the moment, ISIS, which has fighters in Syria and Iraq, is focused on expanding its territory on both sides of the border. But an American attack on ISIS could turn the group’s wrath Westward, and it already has the means to retaliate on American shores.

Between an estimated 10,000 to 11,000 foreign fighters have joined the fight against President Bashar Assad in neighboring Syria, some 3,000 of whom have passports that allow them unfettered access to the U.S. and Europe. Most Westerners fighting in Syria say they want to defeat Assad and build a new nation based on the laws of Islam, but their governments fear they could be radicalized and persuaded to return home to attack Western targets.

While there have been several arrests of Europeans, Australians and Americans accused of fighting with or attempting to fight with terrorist groups in Syria, so far no plots against the West originating in Syria have been discovered. (The gunman accused of killing 4 at a Jewish museum in Brussels on May 24 had recently returned from fighting in Syria, but he appears to have been previously radicalized). But that could change rapidly if the United States attacks ISIS fighters directly: In January, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi warned “Jews and crusaders” against encouraging more moderate groups to take on his organization in Syria: “Very soon you will be in direct confrontation, Allah permitting.”

ISIS fighters from across Europe are bringing in new recruits via social media, causing great concern. According to security officials from several European nations, about 400 British, 100 American and 700 French combatants, among others, have already joined the fight, turning what some may consider a distant war into an immediate threat at home.

“No one should be in any doubt that what we see in Syria and now in Iraq in terms of ISIS is the most serious threat to Britain’s security that there is today,” Prime Minister David Cameron told journalists Tuesday. “The number of foreign fighters in that area, the number of foreign fighters including those from the UK who could try to return to the UK is a real threat to our country.” Cameron also warned Parliament this week that British fighters in Syria and Iraq pose “a greater threat to the UK than the return of foreign jihadists or fighters from the Afghanistan or Pakistan region.”

And the threat isn’t just to the UK. British citizens, of course, can easily travel to the U.S. There are now volunteers in Syria from almost every country in Europe, according to a recent report by the Soufan Group. In early June, Spanish authorities discovered a cell of Islamist militant recruiters in Melilla who they said had been sending volunteers to join insurgencies from Mali to Syria.

It’s unclear just how many Westerners, if any, joined ISIS on its blitzkrieg through northern Iraq, though at least two Danes and a Frenchman died in ISIS offensives in the north of the country earlier this year. There have been accounts of foreigners among the ISIS troops taking Mosul in last week’s attack, but most were described as having North African, non-Iraqi Arab or Chechen accents. ISIS’s Iraq campaign, which utilized the tactics of conventional war rather than guerilla-style suicide attacks, may have required seasoned jihadis over untrained but committed novices from the West.

In a way, though, that doesn’t matter. ISIS, whose regional ambitions are reflected in its name, does not acknowledge the border that divides the two wings of its campaign. An attack on ISIS targets in Iraq is the same as one on ISIS targets in Syria. If Baghdadi or one of his lieutenants calls for revenge on the West, he is likely to find many willing — and able — volunteers.

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