Caliphate Under Pressure Is Islamic State in Trouble in Iraq?

Islamic State is pulling out of once-conquered towns and villages in Iraq and dissatisfaction appears to be growing among its followers. Predictions of the jihadists' demise, however, are likely premature.

By and


The trip from Baghdad to Tikrit remains extremely dangerous. There may be bombs planted along the road and snipers occasionally lurk nearby. As such, nobody knows for sure which car Iraqi Interior Minister Mohammed al-Ghabban is traveling. His convoy, protected by heavily armed soldiers, is heading north, driving by walls and schools where the black flag of Islamic State (IS) is still flying. And it passes through empty villages and past trenches that reflect the ongoing fighting.

The minister is headed for the front-line city of Tikrit, 180 kilometers (110 miles) north of Baghdad, from which IS has been forced to retreat in recent days. Ghabban, 53, is a wiry man in a simple police uniform. He was jailed at the young age of 18 during the Saddam Hussein regime and later joined the Iran-founded Shiite Badr Party. Tikrit is a place of some significance for him. This is where the hated dictator was born and it is not far from where he is buried.

The Tikrit water tower can be seen from afar: It too has been painted black and bears the white IS script. Tikrit used to have 260,000 inhabitants, but now it is a ghost town. Burnt-out vehicles dot the roadside, there is no electricity and the cell phone towers have been destroyed. But the Iraqi flag is once again flying over Alam Square. Behind it, on the main street, stand the men responsible for this victory: policemen, soldiers and, above all, Shiite militia members.

They have lined up hundreds of cartridges of mortar shells they say IS fighters fired during the battle for the city. An old police commander steps up to the interior minister and reports that his unit lost 60 troops during the fighting. But, he adds, the streets of Tikrit's Qadisiya district are littered with the corpses of IS fighters.

Map: IS controlled regions in Syria and Iraq.

Map: IS controlled regions in Syria and Iraq.

The atmosphere is euphoric and people would love to believe the interior minister's claims that the situation is improving, but the soldiers know that the recapture of Tikrit is only a minor victory in a prolonged war -- and even Tikrit has not really been liberated. In the center of town, a small group of IS fighters and their civilian hostages remains entrenched. Worse, they have mined the city, making further advances by the army too dangerous for the time being, says the commander.

The operation in Tikrit is the largest military offensive to date against IS, which has conquered large areas of Iraq since last year, often without meeting any resistance. By early March, the "caliphate" extended from the Turkish border to just 60 kilometers short of Baghdad. But since then it has begun to shrink along the edges.

The Influence of Shiite Militias

It is too early, however, to interpret the reconquest of parts of Tikrit as the beginning of the end for IS. The jihadists remain a formidable enemy and their temporary retreat from the city could just be a clever tactical move designed to spare fighters and military hardware -- and to inflame the bloody conflict between Shiites and Sunnis.

The liberation of Tikrit was, after all, led not by the army, but by Shiite militias. These militias are officially subordinate to the government and conduct joint operations with the army. They are ultimately, however, armed and commanded by Iranian General Qassem Suleimani. This makes the capture of Tikrit a double-edged victory, primarily for the West. It is a sign of hope, but the consequences could be disastrous.

Iraq's army has to be rebuilt after its routing last summer at the hands of IS troops, which is why the Shiite militias have assumed military control in Iraq. The army has only dispatched some 4,000 troops to Tikrit, compared to the militias' 20,000 men. (The international coalition under the leadership of the US was not involved until Thursday, when US jets attacked IS positions on request of the Iraqi government.)

The conflict between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites has been brewing for a long time. The former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, forced all Sunnis out of office and promoted the Shiite militias. His successor, Haider al-Abadi, pledged to put an end to such practices. Abadi has a reputation for integrity, but he apparently doesn't have enough power to choose his cabinet members. Interior Minister Ghabban, a member of the Badr Corps., one of the most notorious militias, would seem to indicate as much.

Furthermore, the new prime minister is dependent on Iran and its militias in the fight against IS. On the one hand, Iran is sending weapons, fighters and air support, and Iranian officers are training the army. Meanwhile, Iran's Revolutionary Guards are extending their influence in Iraq by way of the militias -- and their fight against Islamic State is creating a vicious, barbaric cycle. The bigger a threat the jihadists become, the more wanton the retaliation by Shiite troops, which in turn drives even more supporters into the arms of the IS.

'No Place In Our Society'

Many Sunni civilians in the areas captured by IS face a hopeless situation, threatened both by the jihadists and by radical Shiites. "Either they flee or they are killed," Sheikh Sayed Maher, of formation Asaib Ahl al-Haq, recently said while accompanied by an Iraqi army general. Talking about Sunnis who remain in the areas, he added: "We treat them like Daish." Daish is the Arab acronym for IS. There is a video in which fighters affiliated with Asaib Ahl al-Haq smile while holding severed heads in front of the camera. In the village of Barwana in late January at least 70 corpses of civilians were found, apparently executed by Shiite militias.

In Tikrit, Interior Minister Ghabban steps up to a hastily improvised lectern and gives a speech intended to motivate his troops. "This is just the beginning," he shouts. "We shall win one battle after the other. We shall free our country from Daish. We shall win!"

A journalist asks him: "What happens to those who have fought with IS and want to return?"

"These people have no place in our society," the minister replies.

The fight against IS has fueled renewed mistrust of Sunnis. A YouTube video, allegedly taken a few days ago at Kadhimiya Hospital in Baghdad, shows just how explosive the situation has become. It depicts a Sunni patient being beaten by a crowd with chair legs, bedside tables and broomsticks. The man didn't survive the attack.

Many Sunnis have fled to Baghdad to escape IS and the fighting. One of them is Hamada Zaleh Atija, a fruit grower from the town of Duluaiya, near Samarra, where he had 1,500 tangerine trees. Now he is standing in a long line for money in Sadr City, a Shiite district.

Atija belongs to the Buajil Sunni tribe. Many of his fellow tribesmen in the IS area have joined the jihadists. They mistrust the government, which discriminates against Sunnis and excludes them from public office and army positions. Back in 2007, they began to fight with the Americans against al-Qaida, but despite promises to the contrary, were never admitted to the Iraqi army.

But there are also other reasons for them to join IS. Iraqi journalist Saud Murrani explains that for the young men living in deeply religious villages -- where boys and girls are raised strictly separated from each other -- IS comes as a kind of liberation. He says it gives them an opportunity to acquire everything that they long for, including sex, influence and power, while simultaneously allowing them to see themselves as fighting at God's side.

Flogged in Public

Atija's cousin, for example, joined the IS. "He is a stupid boy," says Atija. "He loves fast cars and believes that the IS will make him rich."

A man named Husam is also waiting in line. He used to be a warehouse worker for the Oil Ministry in Tikrit. He lived in the "caliphate" for 22 days with his family before they managed to flee. During that time, there was only one rule, says Husam: "Allah." Everyone had to hand over their cigarettes. The first time anyone was caught smoking, they were given a warning; the second time, their little finger was broken; the third time, they were flogged in public. When IS radicals occupied the Oil Ministry in Tikrit, it fired all of the staff. Husam's wife, a history and geography teacher, was also no longer allowed to work.

Although the IS adheres to strict rules, its strategy is pragmatic. In the Syrian town of Kobani, the jihadists fought to the last man, but elsewhere they often quickly withdraw. The bloodlust they often stage in front of cameras belies the cool cost-benefit calculations that make them so successful.

The commander of the Badr militia, Hadi al-Ameri, reported in late January, for example, that his men had recaptured the northeastern Iraqi province of Diyala from IS. But, unlike the battle for Tikrit, there had hardly been any fighting. A bookkeeper for the IS explained what happened: "Hadi al-Ameri paid several million dollars for the withdrawal from Diyala." Sunnis who had fled Diyala, he said, were made liable for the sum paid to the jihadists. "They had to pay roughly $30,000 (€27,500) per village if they wanted to return," says the bookkeeper.

IS would hardly have been able to hold Diyala -- a Sunni-Shiite province -- because it shares a border with Iran. So the jihadists preferred totake the money and retreat. In the past, they've frequently withdrawn from areas for similarly pragmatic reasons, only to recapture them later on. Their current goal seems to be the consolidation of their territory, and this requires money and combatants, not unnecessary fighting.

Were the Iraqis able to drive IS out Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, in addition to Tikrit -- or even out of the country entirely -- it would represent a tough blow for the self-declared "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But it would hardly be the end of the organization since IS could withdraw to Syria at any time. Last week, in fact the jihadists evacuated to Syria all transportable machinery from a refinery near Baiji, in addition to the equipment from a sugar mill and a cement factory near Mosul.

Immeasurable Value

Aside from well-organized Kurdish forces, IS is under no real threat in Syria. Although Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is officially waging war on IS, the fighting is limited to oilfields and a small number of towns. And wherever there are Syrian rebel groups, IS is tacitly cooperating with the regime. Assad's army is neither able to defeat IS, nor would such a defeat be in the regime's interest. The horrifying Islamic group, after all, has proven itself to be an enemy of immeasurable value: Assad's atrocities and the more than 215,000 victims of the civil war have been largely forgotten due to the West's fear of the brutal violence meted out by IS jihadists.

Indeed, although the Kurds have been able to force back the IS in northern Syria, the jihadists have met with little resistance in the south. In December, IS units suddenly appeared in the province of Daraa on the Jordanian border, driving out of the desert in armored personnel carriers and SUVs. They had passed two of the most important air bases operated by the regime and crossed areas that were controlled by the Syrian army. No one stopped them.

The most severe blows against the terror state are currently being struck by the international coalition's targeted airstrikes against IS positions, convoys and heavy weapons. IS is no longer able to launch major attacks or make the kinds of troop movements they pulled off up to last summer. Even within the territory it controls, Islamic State is increasingly becoming invisible: The black flags that waved over every village until last fall have been taken down in many places, and in Mosul, they have instead been raised over the houses of families that have refused to swear allegiance to IS. Instead of moving about in conspicuous pickups and Humvees, they are now using commandeered taxis. Even the new IS license plates quickly disappeared again from their vehicles.

SPIEGEL sources from within the "caliphate" report that there is widespread dissatisfaction over the disastrous supply situation. There are shortages of electricity, drinking water and food, all indications that the IS is overwhelmed with the task of administrating its territory.

This dissatisfaction has not, however, led to open resistance. Unlike earlier terror groups, Islamic State exerts total control over its subjects. In Syria, former regime informants now spy for IS, and in Iraq, the group has an espionage network dating back many years. Indoctrinated children are often used as spies.

Pervasive Fear

Written permission is required for trips between towns or for journeys outside of "caliphate" borders, with travel beyond the territory recently having been restricted to the sick. Money transfers are monitored. Private ownership of weapons is prohibited. "We are afraid to speak even in our own homes or in our gardens," says an old Syrian man, who was allowed to visit his injured son in a hospital on the Turkish side of the border. "They have their ears everywhere. Nobody trusts their neighbor anymore -- everyone is paralyzed with fear." The paranoia within IS is so great that the jihadists have even killed dozens of their own people, either because they were suspected of espionage or because they refused to go into battle.

In early March, over 100 IS prisoners managed to escape the Syrian city of Bab; most of the escapees were Kurds. Two-thirds of them were recaptured shortly thereafter and most were shot. A small number managed to walk for several nights until they crossed the Turkish border and reached safety. One of them, a Kurdish farmer, still shakes with fear when he talks about his ordeal. He did not want to give his name because, although he escaped, his son did not.

"The torture was worse than under the regime," he says. "They tormented us with Bunsen burners until we confessed that we belonged to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party)." Then an airstrike damaged the iron bars in front of a window of their prison. "We very quietly pried at the masonry for three days and then fled in small groups." He was in the first group and his son was supposed to follow right after him. "But we heard shots behind us, so we just started running and didn't look back."

Islamic State is becoming increasingly brutal, but it still has its territory under control. The manager of an Internet café in Raqqa -- an IS-controlled city on the Syrian side of the border -- says: "When the foreign IS fighters come in, they open a new Facebook account, chat with friends or relatives, and then erase the account." Even the most loyal supporters are afraid.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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turnipseed 03/27/2015
1. Whose side are you on?
President Obama, a man with no experience in foreign affairs or any affairs, has decided in some areas of the Middle East to support the Shiite-Iranian side, and in other areas to support the Sunni-Saudi side. Does this make any sense? In a man of substance one could hope for a machiavellian plan here, but in the case of Obama one knows that he knows not what he does. Americans (not me, may I add) wanted a black president to show their lack of bigotry, but instead they got a man who encourages bigotry by his incompetence.
maus99 03/27/2015
2. On The Run
Is ISIS on the RUN ??? Well .... certainly not because of the COWARD Barack Obama ... or the GERMANS. They just sit there and watch people being beheaded after they said NEVER AGAIN after WW ll .....
skatty 03/27/2015
The Sunni-Shiite wars in the Middle East seem similar to the thirty years war between Protestant-Catholic in Europe, however Sunni-Shiite wars have been sponsored by the Holy CIA of the USA Empire, instead of Holy Roman Empire.
Harry Rogers 03/27/2015
4. Is
The caliphate is an historical process that is still being fought over by Boko Haram (no western books) in Nigeria and raises it's head often. The absolute violence and disregard for simple humanity is the major concern with the current fanatics. Stupidity knows no bounds as Einstein once said. They only people who can control the IS movement are those responsible and they all live in the Middle East. However as one minister said: "When in the Middle East we have trouble we call 911!"
wong.edward.5 03/28/2015
The war will be a prolong issue...
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