Iraq: What Now?


An Assessment by The Henry Jackson Society

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is an al-Qaeda offshoot which now controls a state the size of Jordan, spanning eastern Syria and northern Iraq. On 29 June, it declared this territory an Islamic caliphate, and the group’s emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as its caliph. ISIS immediately demanded that other groups swear loyalty to them and rebranded itself as the Islamic State.

Why Does The Caliphate Matter?

The existence of a caliphate is key to both violent and non-violent Islamist groups. They aspire for the creation of dar-al-Islam (land of Islam), which would institute sharia law and provide leadership, security and unity for Muslims around the world. The caliphate was to be run by one leader, who has historically been seen as a successor to Islam’s Prophet Mohammed. The first caliphate was established in the 7th century, after Mohammed’s death, and subsequently subsumed large swathes of territory in Muslim-majority countries. The last caliphate – the Ottoman Empire – was dissolved in 1924, which continues to be a source of grievance for extremist groups.

Most Muslims will reject the ISIS declaration of a caliphate, although it could attract a new wave of jihadis. This will in part depend upon how key jihadi theologians interpret ISIS’ actions. While most are yet to speak out on it, one who has, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, has rejected the ISIS declaration and labelled them ‘deviants’.


Who is the New ‘Caliph’?

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was born in Samarra, Iraq, in 1971. He attended university in Baghdad, gaining a doctorate in Islamic Studies and History, and formerly served as an Islamic teacher.

There is conflicting information about much else in al-Baghdadi’s past. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he is thought to have overseen religious courts in Qaim, northwest Iraq, accusing local citizens of supporting the Iraqi government and coalition troops. He was believed to have kidnapped and publicly executed individuals and even entire families; recruited fighters (mainly from Saudi Arabia) and funnelled fighters from Syria into local terrorist cells.

In October 2005, the Department of Defense announced that it had ‘likely’ killed al-Baghdadi in an air strike (something specifically referred to in a President Bush speech though an assessment deemed faulty by the US by December 2006). Yet also in 2005, al-Baghdadi was also supposedly captured by US forces and jailed. During this time he is thought to have been recruited into al-Qaeda in Iraq, being released in 2009. This contradicting information about al-Baghdadi has yet to be resolved.

Following the death of two Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, which was what ISIS was known as then) leaders in a US airstrike in April 2010, al-Baghdadi became the ISI’s emir, the first Iraqi to hold this position. In April 2013, al-Baghdadi rebranded his group as ISIS, claiming dominion to also operate in Syria. This contributed to their eventual expulsion from the al-Qaeda network in early 2014.

Al-Baghdadi currently has a $10m bounty on his head, making him one of the most wanted terrorists in the world.


Didn’t the West Leave a Safe and Secure Iraq Behind?

President Obama previously claimed to have withdrawn US troops ‘responsibly’ and ‘ended the war’ in Iraq. However, this was not the case – violence in Iraq has remained at a consistently high level, even if media coverage of this violence has not.

There was a time when the prospects for Iraq were more optimistic. The Iraqi insurgency – of which al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI, the group that would eventually become ISIS) was a key component – carried out thousands of deadly attacks in Iraq following the US invasion. Yet in late 2006/early 2007, the US began to work closer with the Sunni tribes (who despised the brutality of AQI), paying them to maintain security locally. This coincided with a ‘surge’ of US forces. ISI was subsequently crushed. With the tribal groups committed to keeping ISI in check, civilian deaths plummeted and the overall security situation improved exponentially.

However, the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq removed not only a military check against ISI, but a political check on the sectarian leanings in Baghdad. The US had previously acted as a key mediator in Iraqi internal affairs, but troop withdrawal reduced US political leverage. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began to marginalise the Sunni tribes, removing them from security forces and stopping payments to them. Competent military commanders who worked with the US were removed in favour of Maliki loyalists.

With the US military presence gone – and the Obama administration largely disengaged from affairs in Iraq – a fresh wave of sectarianism emanated from the Maliki government. For example, Tariq al-Hashemi, the Sunni Vice President, fled to Turkey after being accused of being a terrorist and was subsequently sentenced to death; approximately 150 bodyguards and staff members of Sunni finance minister Rafie al-Issawi were arrested; several Sunni women were arrested in an attempt to gain intelligence on their husbands; and the army was purged of certain Sunni officers.

Such actions fostered greater resentment, enabling ISI to co-opt a level of support from former Baath party and sympathetic tribal groups. The latter were alienated to the extent that they began to allow ISI greater room to operate. The group was further energised by the jihadist conflict taking place to their west in Syria, in which ISI would begin to play an increasingly decisive role.

In January 2014, an increasingly powerful ISIS took over Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. In June, it took Iraq’s second city of Mosul. A host of other towns fell, as Iraqi troops abandoned their positions in the face of the ISIS advance.


What Does This Have to Do With Us?

As ISIS imposes strict sharia law in the territory it controls, there are obvious humanitarian concerns in Iraq. Yet there are also security and strategic interests at stake.

A)    ISIS already has a focus on the West

Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union’s counterterrorism coordinator, British Prime Minister David Cameron and former CIA Director General David Petraeus have all warned of ISIS attempting attacks in Europe and beyond. Indeed, ISIS already has connections to previous attacks in Europe.

  • The perpetrators of the June 2007 attacks in London and Glasgow had the telephone numbers of ISI members on their mobile phones. One of the plotters – a British doctor – had previously fought in Iraq.
  • In 2010, a senior ISI operative admitted to Iraqi forces that ISI was preparing to carry out an attack in the West at the end of that year. Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, an Iraqi-born militant, subsequently committed a suicide attack in Stockholm, Sweden. He is thought to have trained with ISI in Mosul for three months prior to the operation.
  • In June 2013, the Iraqi defense ministry announced that it had arrested a Baghdad cell planning to manufacture chemical weapons and smuggle them into the US, Canada and Europe.
  • In June 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen whom French intelligence agencies believe joined ISIS in Syria in 2012, shot and killed three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. His gun was wrapped in an ISIS flag.

ISIS now controls a large amount of territory, from which it can attract new recruits and providing aspiring jihadists with training for attacks both in Iraq and beyond. Such a safe haven developing is clearly a significant security concern.


B)    If we don’t intervene, Iran will be allowed unchallenged influence

If the West remains by the sidelines in Iraq, its strategic competitors will fill the vacuum. China and Russia, for example, are already investing heavily there. Yet it is Iran that has the largest stake in Iraq.

Iran aspires for regional hegemony and to expand its influence in Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon. When the US military was operating in Iraq, Iran was training, arming and funding both Shia and Sunni militias within Iraq in order to destabilise the country. It now aims to stoke sectarian tensions and reduce national cohesion, uniting Iraqi Shiites behind Iran as a political bloc. Iran wants a weak, fragmented Iraqi government comprised of key figures sympathetic to them. The US military withdrawal was a key step toward achieving those objectives.

Any new Iranian offers to mediate disputes should not necessarily be regarded as an act of goodwill, as it is often they who are a key force behind creating these disputes in the first place.


C)    The nature of our previous involvement means we have an obligation

The US and the UK led a military intervention to depose a dictator from Iraq, leading to thousands of jihadists fighting Western forces there. While these jihadists were temporarily defeated militarily by the US ‘surge’, the West became increasingly disengaged from Iraq – militarily and politically. This allowed Maliki’s dictatorial tendencies to come to the fore and his sectarian policies have created huge problems in Iraq. Rather than ignore this, the West have a moral duty to be proactive in helping Iraq shape a secure, democratic future.


Is a military response needed?

ISIS is a hugely ambitious and aggressive group that will not willingly relinquishing its newly claimed territory. Furthermore, the Iraqi military appears incapable of reclaiming it.

Therefore, there is a role for a US-led military response. Since President Obama has ruled out introducing US ground troops, there will need to be a reliance on aerial power. High value targets within ISIS – with al-Baghdadi being the top priority – could be targeted by US drone strikes, as could ISIS supply routes. However, this is dependent on three key factors:


  • Having the intelligence in place for such attacks. Special Forces are now operating in Iraq, who can help provide some of this intelligence. Yet they will be trying to rebuild relationships lost after the US troop withdrawal in 2011. There will be especially significant trust issues regarding the tribes, who had previously been abandoned by the US and then repressed by Maliki.
  • That this is done to weaken ISIS, not strengthen Maliki. Opinion in Iraq is increasingly hardening against Maliki staying in his position, and the US should not be seen to be taking Maliki’s side in domestic political wrangling within Iraq.
  • The US remains committed to assisting Iraq both militarily and politically. Disrupting the terrorist cells in Iraq needs to be done on a regular basis, not just when groups like ISIS get so strong that they control large amounts of territory. So too does the need to build up democratic institutions and harness civil society’s faith in them. At present, very little money is committed to democracy and governance assistance causes in Iraq. The US needs to show greater political commitment to prioritising democracy promotion.



Western disengagement from Iraq facilitated an authoritarian government emerging that was closely tied to Iran. This undid much of the good work of the ‘surge’ and led to the revival of jihadism in Iraq.

Now, ISIS poses not only a great threat to the region, but also the West. As a result, the West must once again deepen its involvement in Iraq both politically and militarily. If it has good enough intelligence, it can carry out aerial strikes against high value targets and against the supply routes between towns that ISIS uses. However, the US cannot be seen to be strengthening an increasingly weak Maliki, and must remain (at best) non-committal on his future.

Iran will remain highly interventionist in Iraq, seeking to shape a government pliant to its objectives – this is something the West must also remain cognisant of, no matter Iran’s overtures about playing a constructive role in Iraq.



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