Even before the Tuesday morning assault into Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, by hundreds of militants affiliated to Al Qaeda, the Iraqi security forces were stretched thin across the country.
Last week, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the breakaway Al Qaeda faction that has solidified a presence in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, swept into Samarra in a renewed attempt to spark widespread sectarian conflict. While the Iraqi army was quickly dispatched to the city and managed to reclaim neighborhoods previously taken by ISIS fighters, the operation sent shockwaves in the hearts of Iraq’s political officials and once again raised the question of whether the country’s security is at all better since American troops left in 2011.
In yet another reminder of how potent militancy in Iraq has become — and how ineffectual the Iraqi government’s response to terrorist attacks has been — the Sunni extremist group took a large swath of Mosul with little to no army resistance. Banks were looted of what are rumored to be millions of dollars in stolen funds, military checkpoints and police stations were taken, civilians were forced to flee to the Kurdish regions of Iraq and the city’s residents awoke to new overlords.
To add insult to injury, the militants freed thousands of prisoners after claiming the city, many of whom are rumored to be former Al Qaeda fighters sure to rejoin the ranks of the insurgency.
Sensing how dire the situation has become, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke on national television, declaring a state of emergency for the entire country in an effort to expand the powers of the armed forces, cut down on vehicular traffic and reduce the amount of time that civilians will be allowed on the streets.
The speaker of Iraq’s parliament, Usama al-Nujayfi, used the latest ISIS advance as an opportunity to reiterate his claim that the central government under Maliki is either incompetent in its job or does not take the threat of terrorism seriously. “What happened was a disaster, based on all measures,” he said.
As if Iraq’s security forces needed another challenge to their authority, the growing power of the Islamists in the north and their easy takeover of Mosul reinforce the view held by some lawmakers in the United States that their nine year investment in Iraq — despite the loss of over 4,500 soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars in reconstruction aid and security assistance — is quickly losing value.
Indeed, the fact that Iraqi soldiers simply dropped their weapons, discarded their uniforms and fled from their positions without putting up a fight suggests that the army is unprepared, underequipped, demoralized — or doesn’t believe it’s worth fighting for what is becoming a widely despised government.
That the Iraqi army will likely muster the will and manpower to stem the ISIS advance and retake Mosul is beside the point. Even if they are forced to fall back, the insurgents have demonstrated to the entire world that the Iraqi government is not only struggling to keep its citizens safe but is finding it hard to even perform the basic functions of a governing power.
The Iraqi security forces are now stretched along three major fronts — the area between Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar Province, Mosul in the north and Baghdad in the center — where terrorists have deployed suicide bombers to crowded markets and mosques and killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians. Maliki’s campaign promise to keep Iraq unified, along with his reputation as a law and order politician — a mantra he has sought to maintain since his accession to the prime minister’s office in 2006 — is proving to be farce.