FPI Fact Sheet: The Growing Crisis in Iraq and the Middle East

June 19, 2014

As the crisis in Iraq and the Middle East grows, the Foreign Policy Initiative hopes that policymakers, lawmakers, reporters, and the public find the fact sheet below informative.  For more information, please visit FPI’s continually-updated resource page and accompanying timeline on the crisis in Iraq.

I.  Key Background on the Conflict in Iraq

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a terrorist movement that grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), now controls vast areas across Iraq and Syria.  As NBC News reported on June 18th:  “According to U.S. officials and to Iraq analysts based in New York, Washington and elsewhere in the United States, ISIS and other militant groups held firm control over a number of Iraqi cities on Wednesday, including Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, Tal Afar and Rawa. Militants partially held Baiji, Ramadi, Saadiyah, Jalawla, Al-Qa'im and Haditha.”

  • Leaders of this al-Qaeda offshoot have directly threatened the United States.  As U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran and Iraq Brett McGurk said back on February 5th:  “Were there any doubt, moreover, of the threat [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] and his network--now with approximately 2,000 fighters in Iraq--presents to the United States and our interests in the region, his [January 21st] statement said this in its concluding paragraph: ‘Our last message is to the Americans. Soon we will be in direct confrontation, and the sons of Islam have prepared for such a day.  So watch, for we are with you, watching.’”
  • This week, ISIS terrorists attacked Iraq’s largest oil refinery.  As Reuters reported on June 19th:  “The sprawling Baiji refinery, 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, was a battlefield as troops loyal to the Shi’ite-led government held off insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and its allies who had stormed the perimeter a day earlier, threatening national energy supplies.”
  • On June 17th, ISIS terrorists took control of the Iraqi town of Mutasim.  As Reuters reported on June 19th:  “The group’s advance has only been slowed by a regrouped military, Shi’ite militias and other volunteers.  But on Tuesday, Sunni fighters took the small town of Mutasim, south of Samarra, giving them the prospect of encircling the city which houses a major Shi’ite shrine.  A local police source said security forces withdrew without a fight when dozens of vehicles carrying insurgents converged on Mutasim from three directions.”
  • On June 16th, ISIS terrorists seized the Iraqi city of Tal Afar.  As The New York Times reported on June 16th:  “The insurgents, an alliance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and the vestiges of loyalists to the Saddam Hussein government that was ousted by the Americans a decade ago, took over the city of Tal Afar, according to Iraqi security officials and residents, sending both Shiite and Sunni residents fleeing.”
  • On June 11th, ISIS terrorists seized the Iraqi city of Tikrit.  As the Associated Press reported on June 11th:  “Al-Qaida-inspired militants pushed deeper into Iraq's Sunni heartland Wednesday, swiftly conquering Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit as soldiers and security forces abandoned their posts and yielded ground once controlled by U.S. forces.”
  • On June 10th, ISIS terrorists took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.  As the Institute for the Study of War’s Jessica Lewis and Ahmed Ali wrote on June 11th:  “The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Northern Iraq has conducted extraordinary, well-designed, rapid military operations that have gotten them from Mosul to Baiji in four days.  ISIS launched an attack upon Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from June 6-9, ultimately seizing the city as the security forces dissolved without staging major resistance.”
  • In January, ISIS terrorists seized large portions of the Iraqi city of Fallujah.  As the Washington Post reported on January 3rd: “A rejuvenated al-Qaeda-affiliated force asserted control over the western Iraqi city of Fallujah on Friday, raising its flag over government buildings and declaring an Islamic state in one of the most crucial areas that U.S. troops fought to pacify before withdrawing from Iraq two years ago.”

ISIS’s goal is to establish an Islamic extremist state in Iraq and Syria.  As the Institute for the Study of War’s Jessica Lewis and Ahmed Ali wrote on June 11th:  “ISIS intends to establish an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria.  ISIS seeks to take control of Iraq’s northern provincial capitals in order to bring them into its Islamic state, which they announced in April 2013 had materialized in ar-Raqqa, Syria.  In order to take control of these urban centers, ISIS has to drive the ISF out.”

  • The al-Qaeda offshoot is reportedly moving captured military equipment from Iraq into Syria.  As The Washington Free Beacon reported on June 17th:  “Syrian and Iraqi terrorist forces obtained significant numbers of tanks, trucks, and U.S.-origin Humvees in recent military operations in Iraq and those arms are being shipped to al Qaeda rebels in Syria, according to U.S. officials.  U.S. intelligence agencies reported this week that photos of the equipment transfers were posted online by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as ISIS, the ultra-violent terror group that broke away from al Qaeda but shares its goals and philosophy.”
  • ISIS’s resurgence was aided by the vacuum of authority in Syria.  As the Washington Post reported on June 10th:  “The fall of Mosul to the extremists on Tuesday, after the apparent collapse of Iraqi security forces there, offers only the latest example of the extraordinary resurgence of the militant organization in the past 2½ years, aided to a large extent by the vacuum of authority in neighboring Syria.”

Iraqi Shiite militants in Syria, who are fighting for the Assad regime, are now fearful that ISIS will gain further territory in Iraq and are returning to fight in their home country.  As the Wall Street Journal reported on June 17th:  “The mobilization away from Syria started in late December when antigovernment forces seized Iraq’s western Anbar province, but has recently gained pace as militants have taken more territory, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.  Fighters from Hezbollah are filling the vacuum left in Syria by the withdrawing Iraqi militias, according to Syrian rebels and an official close to the Lebanese militant and political group.”

  • Fighters from Hezbollah, a terrorist organization based in Lebanon, are mobilizing to replace Iraqi militias in Syria.  As the Institute for the Study of War’s Isabel Nassief wrote on June 16th:  “A source close to Lebanese Hezbollah said the group has called for a general mobilization, announcing that 1,000 fighters are to be sent to Syria from Lebanon to defend the Sayida Zeinab Shrine in Damascus and replace Shi’a Iraqi militia troops, particularly from the Abu Fadl al-Abbas brigade who are returning to Iraq.  This movement of troops could create a deficit in the regime’s forces, exacerbating its manpower challenge.  Early indications of this include rebel gains in Mleiha, in the Damascus suburbs, and Rankous in the Qalamoun region.”

II.  Iraqi Security Forces

Iraqi Security Forces reportedly abandoned posts in June 2014 when the city of Mosul was attacked by ISIS militants.  As The New York Times reported on June 12th:  “Four of Iraq’s 14 army divisions virtually abandoned their posts, stripped off their uniforms and fled when confronted in cities such as Mosul and Tikrit by militant groups, principally fighters aligned with the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, the officials said.”

  • U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraqi military and police personnel in Mosul “lost faith” in Iraq’s central government.  As General Dempsey said on June 18th:  “They did that because they had simply lost faith that the central government in Iraq was dealing with the entire population in a fair, equitable way that provided hope for all of them.”

Associated Press described Iraqi Security Forces in June 2014 as “riven by sectarian discontents, corruption and a lack of professionalism.”  As the Associated Press reported on June 17th:  “The breakdown is rooted in multiple factors.  Even after the United States spent billions of dollars training the armed forces during its 2003-2011 military presence in Iraq, the 1 million-member army and police remain riven by sectarian discontents, corruption and a lack of professionalism.”

  • ISIS’s violent campaign in northern Iraq has “fractured” Iraqi Security Forces in the northern provinces.  As the Institute for the Study of War’s Jessica Lewis wrote on June 11th:  “Iraq’s territorial integrity is in question. The Iraqi Security Forces have fractured in the northern provinces.  ISIS is putting military pressure on Kirkuk and the Kurdish region and may be trying to drive a permanent wedge between Kurdish and Arab Iraq.”

The United States spent approximately $25 billion to train and equip Iraqi forces.  As The New York Times reported on June 12th:  “The United States spent about $25 billion to train and equip Iraq’s security forces and provide installations for these forces from the start of the war until September 2012, according to a report by the special inspector general on Iraq.  And Iraq has spent billions of dollars of its own money since then to acquire or order F-16 fighter jets, M-1 battle tanks, Apache helicopter gunships, Hellfire missiles and other weapons.”

  • During the Iraq War, depoliticizing the Iraqi Security Forces was a top U.S. priority.  The Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack wrote on June 14th:  “The greatest impact of these American efforts with the ISF in 2006-2009 were to depoliticize it, both to modestly increase its combat effectiveness and to make it professional, apolitical and therefore accepted as a stabilizing force by all Iraqis.”

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki undermined the credibility of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) by promoting sectarian loyalists rather than capable, apolitical military officers.  The Brookings Institution’s Kenneth Pollack wrote on June 14th:  “beginning in 2009-2010, he began to remove the capable, apolitical officers that the United States had painstakingly put in place throughout the Iraqi command structure.  Instead, he put in men loyal to himself, often because they had been the ones passed over or removed by the Americans.  The result was a heavily politicized and far less competent officer corps.”

  • Iraqi military personnel and civilians view the country’s central government in Baghdad as discriminating against certain populations.  As the Washington Post reported on June 17th:  “The territory that the Islamic State has captured has an overwhelmingly Sunni population, where resentment is high against al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government because of what they see as discrimination against their communities. Sunnis in the armed forces are hesitant to be seen fighting for al-Maliki, and Shiite troops deployed in Sunni areas feel isolated and vulnerable amid hostile territory.  Morale in the military is already low in a battle against a Sunni insurgency that has grown the past two years, with desertions rife, particularly by Sunnis.”

III.  Iran’s Destabilizing Influence in Iraq

Iran is reportedly offering to provide Iraq with spies and irregular units.  As The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reported on June 16th: “U.S. and senior Iraqi officials tell The Daily Beast that Iran is now offering the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki its army, its spies and highly trained irregular units from its revolutionary guard corps to root out the Sunni insurgency that now threatens Baghdad.”

  • Members of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC-QF) were recently sent to Iraq.  As the Wall Street Journal reported on June 16th:  “An Iranian soldier from Quds Force, the elite overseas branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed in Iraq fighting Sunni extremists, reported news agencies affiliated with Iran’s government on Monday.  Alireza Moshajeri, referred to simply as ‘pasdar’ or ‘fighter,’ marked Iran’s first reported casualty in what is shaping up to be a Sunni-Shiite sectarian war next door, reported the news agencies.”
  • IRGC-Quds Force commander Gen. Qassim Suleimani—whom The New York Times described as “the mastermind of Iran’s strategy in Iraq when Iraqi Shiite militias trained by Iran fought American troops”—recently flew to Baghdad to advise Iraqi officials.  As The New York Times reported on June 13th:  “Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the shadowy commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, flew to Iraq this week with dozens of his officers to advise the country’s beleaguered leadership about how to blunt the advance of militant forces on Baghdad, American officials said Friday.  In meeting with General Suleimani, the Iraqis are hosting the mastermind of Iran’s strategy in Iraq when Iraqi Shiite militias trained by Iran fought American troops.  The general is also the current architect of Iranian military support in Syria for President Bashar al-Assad.”

The U.S. State Department warns that Iran has “trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups.”  The State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2013 notes:  “Despite its pledge to support Iraq’s stabilization, Iran trained, funded, and provided guidance to Iraqi Shia militant groups.  The IRGC-QF, in concert with Hizballah, provided training outside of Iraq as well as advisors inside Iraq for Shia militants in the construction and use of sophisticated improvised explosive device technology and other advanced weaponry.  Similar to Hizballah fighters, many of these trained Shia militants then use these skills to fight for the Asad regime in Syria, often at the behest of Iran.”

  • Iranian-backed Shia militia groups were directly responsible for killing U.S. forces in Iraq.  The State Department noted in 2011:  “Iran was responsible for the increased lethality of some attacks on U.S. forces by providing militants with the capability to assemble explosives designed to defeat armored vehicles.”
  • Iranian-backed Shia militia groups “orchestrated the cleansing of Sunnis from several Baghdad neighborhoods,” according to the Associated Press.  As the Associated Press reported on June 15th:  “Iraq’s Shiite militias attacked U.S. forces during the eight-year American presence in the country.  They also were in the lead in the Sunni-Shiite killings of 2006-07, pushing Iraq to the brink of civil war.  Their death squads targeted radical Sunnis and they orchestrated the cleansing of Sunnis from several Baghdad neighborhoods.”
  • Iranian-backed groups fought alongside Assad and Hezbollah in neighboring Syria.  As the Associated Press reported on June 15th:  “More recently, Shiite militias have been battling alongside the forces of President Bashar Assad and Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah against mostly Sunni rebels and militants in neighboring Syria.  Some of them have returned home to Iraq — first to fight Sunni militants in Anbar province, and now on Baghdad’s northern fringes and in Salahuddin and Ninevah provinces.”

Iranian-backed Shia militias operating on the ground in Iraq will deepen Iran’s influence in Iraq.  As the Associated Press reported on June 15th:  “Their enhanced role in the fight against the Sunni militants will deepen Iran’s influence in Iraq, giving the non-Arab and mostly Shiite country a role similar to the one it plays in Syria.  Tehran has thrown its weight behind Assad’s government in his struggle against mostly Sunni rebels and militants from al-Qaida-inspired or linked groups.”

  • The return of Iranian-backed Shia militant groups could further stoke sectarianism in Iraq.  As the Associated Press reported on June 15th:  “The emergence of the militias as a legitimate force enjoying the support of the Shiite-led government and the blessing of the religious establishment poses a threat to Iraq’s unity, planting the seed for new sectarian strife and taking the regional Shiite-Sunni divide to a potentially explosive level.”

Iran has used Iraq as an important operational base to aid dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria.  As the Wall Street Journal reported on June 12th:  “Syria’s conflict has turned Iraq into an important operational base for Iran to aid another ally, the Assad regime, which is dominated by an offshoot of Shiite Islam.  Shiite militia trained by Iran, weapons and cash have flowed from Iran to Syria via Iraq.”

  • Iran has invested resources in Iraq in order to expand the so-called “Shiite crescent—stretching from Iran to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.”  As the Wall Street Journal reported on June 12th: “Iran has invested considerable financial, political and military resources over the past decade to ensure Iraq emerged from U.S. war as a strategic partner for the Islamic Republic and a strong Shiite-led state. The so-called Shiite crescent—stretching from Iran to Iraq, Lebanon and Syria—was forged largely as a result of this effort.”

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