Over the last 6 days, Iraq has seen the rapid escalation of the Daash insurgency. Daash is the local name for what you might see described in the western press as ISIS or ISIL. Having come across the pourous border from Syria, this Sunni militia has had control of the Anbar province, more or less, since the early part of 2014. Whilst the province is majority Sunni, the local sheiks didn’t want the Sharia law that was coming with Daath. Initially they agreed to fight them with the Shia government of Prime Minister Maliki (as they did with the Americans during The Surge). However, that policy failed and the government is tackling the problem with barrel bombs dropping on the cities of Fallujah and Anbar. Of course this tactic has created many civilian casualties and deaths.
Mosul, further north in the province of Nineveh, has been a very dangerous place for a long time. Rumblings of Daash influence have been reported for many months – record shop owners being told to close their stores, this strict interpretation of Islam similar to that of the Taliban. On Friday 8th June 2014 they began an attack on the administrative buildings of the city, and by Tuesday 10th they were in control of the west of the city including the army base that was deserted, first by the commanders who appear to have had prior warning of the attack and then the lower ranks. The majority of these soldiers are Shia from Baghdad, Najaf, Basra and elsewhere in the south. Here is a photo of them queuing outside Iraqi Airways in Erbil today, Thursday 12th, desperate to fly home.
Those flying to Najaf, a city of especial Shia signifance for its Imam Ali Shrine, might be advised to go elsewhere – Daash has stated its intention to march on that city as well as the other Shia pilgrimage city of Karbala and have surrounded the city of Samarra, the site of the Askari shrine. They also believe that they will have Friday prayers in Baghdad tomorrow.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that up to 80 Turkish citizens are being held hostage by Daash, with Turkey calling on its NATO allies to respond. Add to this offers of help against the Sunni Daash from Iran and Assad in Syriad, and there’s a confusing mishmash of offers and demands.
I had coffee with a friend from Mosul today. He has bought his family to live with friends in Erbil (those not sponsored are having to live in temporary camps outside city limits until they are verified to not be Daash). He is happy to be here, and I asked him about Mosul. “Everyone is happy”, he said, “because now Iraq army gone. I had six years in Mosul, when I came there from Baghdad. Now Erbil is home.” What about Daash, what are they like? “They don’t hurt people, but Sharia. No good.”
On their way down to Baghdad and Samarra, Daash attacked the city of Kirkuk, a place almost always described as ‘problematic’, ‘disputed’ or ‘strategically important’. It’s been coveted by both the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government for years, mostly because of the oil and gas reserves. It’s ethnically diverse, with Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds and until yesterday was guarded by both federal and Kurdish peshmerga forces. As with Mosul, it seems that the Iraqi army fled. However, the peshmerga are a much more highly trained outfit, who have the common cause of their homeland. KRG has always seen Kirkuk as part of their territory and it appears that Daash chose not to fight this battle, which now leaves the peshmerga allegedly in total control of the city. This could be significant.
Since the beginning of this year, Baghdad has refused to release the 17% of the national budget owed to the Kurdistan Region. Public sector workers have gone unpaid or are working on greatly reduced salaries. The argument is about whether KRG has the right to sell its own oil. The constitution of Iraq is argued back and forth and Kurdish politicians bang the independence drum before elections, whilst everyone accepts that this can’t happen for a few years, at least. The oil wells are new, and the pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan has only just opened – two million barrels have filled two tankers, which have struggled to find buyers, although rumours abound daily.
The violence in the south, the apparent disinterest of Daash moving towards Kurdish territory and the strength of the peshmerga, coupled with the confidence that comes with a growing economy are bound to lead to speculation about the possibility of independence. For now all that matters is that the region is safe.
This is a fluid situation, that has moved extremely quickly. Only a fool would make strong predictions about the following days, weeks and months.