ISIS militants on Sept. 17 detonated explosive charges to destroy the Citadel of Tikrit, birthplace of Salahaddin Ayubi (popularly rendered Saladin), one of the most important archeological sites in Iraq. Iornically, Saladin is a revered figure in Islam, who liberated much of Palestine from the Crusaders and recaptured Jerusalem for the Muslims in 1187. But ISIS charged that the place is revered as a shrine, and the fact that Saladin was Kurdish may have added to their intolerance of the site's veneration. Since seizing northern Iraq. ISIS have bombed many cultural, archeological and holy places of all the region's religions, including the tomb of the Prophet Younis in Mosul, the tomb of Baba Yadgar in Kakayi and other holy places of the Yazidis and Christians. (BasNews, IraqiNews, DiHA, PUKMedia, Sept. 17) ISIS is so extreme in its rejection of "idolatry" that it has even announced its aim to destroy the Kaaba, Islam's most sacred site. This may backfire and eventually lead to a Sunni uprising against ISIS in their areas of control. Meanwhile, cultural treasures are being lost every day.
The hope that a Sunni uprising will overthrow ISIS in their areas of control is daily given a boost by each new report of the organization's repression of the traditional "folk Islam" practiced by the common people of northern Iraq and Syria. Reuters on Sept. 13 reports the claim of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that ISIS militants have destroyed several Sufi shrines and tombs in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor—the latest in a string of such desecrations across their territory. In March, ISIS bombed the mosque of Ammar bin Yassir and Oweis al-Qarni in Raqqa, once a destination for Shi'ite pilgrims from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq. Destroying even sites revered by Sunnis is precisely the kind of overreach that even al-Qaeda warned its regional franchises against when they were in control of northern Mali last year. But the affiliate organizations didn't listen, and the local populace did indeed turn against them. Can we hope for a replay?
Iraq's new Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi issued a statement welcoming Barack Obama's announcement of a new campaign against ISIS. On the same day Obama gave his speech, Abadi met in Baghdad with US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss international support for Iraqi forces in the drive against ISIS. (BasNews, Sept. 12; Aswat al-Iraq, Sept. 10) While Abadi's government continues to be Shi'ite-dominated, there are signs of success in his efforts to forge a pact with Sunnis to resist ISIS. Sunni tribes in Salaheddin governorate have formed a council to mobilize tribesmen to retake the provincial capital of Tikrit from ISIS in coordination with Iraq's army. Significantly, the new command center established for the effort is in Auja, a district recently retaken from ISIS by Iraqi troops—and the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, who was buried there following his execution in 2006. (Azzaman, Sept. 12)
The Obama administration is preparing to carry out a campaign against ISIS that may take three years to complete, requiring a sustained effort that could last until after President Obama has left office, according to the New York Times, citing "senior administration officials." The first phase, an air campaign is already underway, with nearly 145 air-strikes in the past month. The Times says the aims are "to protect ethnic and religious minorities and American diplomatic, intelligence and military personnel, and their facilities, as well as to begin rolling back ISIS gains in northern and western Iraq." The next phase, to begin sometime after Iraq forms a more inclusive government, is expected to involve an intensified effort to train, advise or equip the Iraqi military, Kurdish forces and possibly Sunni tribal fighters. The final, toughest and most controversial phase is destroying the ISIS sanctuary inside Syria. This might not be completed until the next administration, some Pentagon planners are said to "envision a military campaign lasting at least 36 months." (NYT, Sept. 7)
We've noted reports that Iranian forces have intervened in northern Iraq to help fight ISIS, part of the Great Power convergence against the self-declared "Islamic State." Now Reuters reports that the commander of the Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, traveled to Baghdad in June to coordinate the military counter-offensive as ISIS seized the north of the country. According to the report, "The plan included the use of thousands of militiamen who were armed and trained by Iran as well as thousands of new recruits who had volunteered after Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a call to arms against ISIS in June." Iran has always been close to the Shi'ite-led regime in Baghdad, but now there also seems to be a rapprochement between Tehran and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), traditionally suspicious of each other. The Kurdish Globe reports that KRG President Masoud Barzani met with the visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif in Erbil on Aug. 26 to discuss coordinating the fight against ISIS. The independent Kurdish news site BasNews also reported Sept. 1 that an Iranian drone crashed in a village near the Iraqi Kurdistan town of Darbandikhan close to the Iranian border. Tehran's denials that it has forces fighting in Iraq seem increasingly transparent.
ISIS fighters massacred 700 Turkmen civilians—including women, children and the elderly—in a northern Iraqi village last month, a UNICEF official reports. Marco Babille, the UN Children's Fund representative in Iraq, said that fighters carried out the massacre in Beshir village (Sulaymaniyah governorate) on July 11 and 12. Speaking to Italian news agency ANSA, he said the information came from witnesses who had fled the village. Calling for a "humanitarian D-Day" for the 700,000 refugees estimated to have fled ISIS violence in northern Iraq, Babille said the international community should establish a "safe haven" protected by peacekeeping forces. He also called for a "systematic air bridge from Europe" to help Kurdish forces, who he described as "the only bulwark of human rights" in Iraq, giving shelter to displaced people irrespective of ethnicity or faith. (Turkish Weekly, Aug. 27)
A video posted by ISIS Aug. 28 purports to show militants beheading a Kurdish Peshmerga fighter in Mosul. The video, posted to YouTube, says the killing is a warning to the Kurdistan Regional Government to end its alliance with the United States. In the footage, 14 other Peshmerga fighters are shown wearing orange prison suits, urging Kurds to reject their pact with the US against the Islamic State. Three armed militants stand behind one alleged Peshmerga captive near Mosul's iconic mosque, one of them brandishing a knife as he threatens that the rest of the Peshmerga troops will die if the KRG-US alliance does not come to an end. YouTube immediately removed the video. The video release comes as Peshmerga forces have taken several villages from ISIS in the Zumar area (Nineveh). (Rudaw)
Thousands of Yazidi refugees who have fled the Sinjar region of northern Iraq have been denied entry into Turkey by military forces. The refugees, many of whom managed to flee north through the civilian corridors established by the PKK-aligned YPG militia, have been left waiting on the Turkish border near the Roboski crossing. Turkish soldiers have met any attempts to cross the border with force, according to a report in Turkey's Özgür Gündem. They are struggling to protect their children and ill from the sun under the shade of rocks and the sparse trees. They eat whatever food they can find and cooking is done in empty oil containers or cans. Many mothers have been forced to give birth on the road and some have declined to give their new children names out of fear for their future. (Rojava Report)