ISIS blitzes Baghdad to stoke sectarian war
BEIRUT - There is a gut-wrenching sense of déjà vu amid the wave of suicide bombings the Islamic State (ISIS) has unleashed across Baghdad in recent weeks, killing about 600 people, almost all of them civilians, and wounding hundreds more.
It is the third such terror onslaught on the Iraqi capital in a decade and its aim is to trigger sectarian warfare that will divert the US-backed Iraqi Army from its drive to recapture the northern city of Mosul, taken by ISIS in June 2014 and its most treasured prize.
This barbaric strategy was devised and put into action by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian street thug-turned-Islamist who created ISIS’s forerunner, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2013.
“Zarqawi’s plan was to seize control of the outer provinces and Baghdad’s Belts or key areas surrounding the capital,” explained analyst Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal, which monitors global terrorism.
“The ISI would then use its bases in the belts to control access to Baghdad and funnel money, weapons, car bombs and fighters into the city. The ISI also planned to strangle the US helicopter air lanes by emplacing anti-aircraft cells along known routes in the belts around Baghdad.”
Zarqawi’s campaign in 2006 wrought great damage and destruction but it fell apart after he was killed in a US air strike on one of his hideouts north of Baghdad in June of that year. Indeed, US forces only learned about the Baghdad belts strategy when they found a crude, hand-drawn map of the plan on his body.
Jihadists sought to resurrect the strategy in 2013-14 in a drive to encircle Baghdad before mounting a major assault on the city. Then, as now, this should not have come as a big surprise. In 2014, ISIS’s war minister was no less than Nasser al Din Allah Abu Suleiman, one of ISI’s top leaders when the plan was drawn up.
The current assault on Baghdad, particularly on Sadr City, a rundown district in eastern Baghdad that has long been a Shia stronghold, strongly suggests the presence of ISIS sleeper cells inside the capital.
Sadr City was the vortex of murderous jihadist assaults in 2006-07 intended to trigger reprisals against Sunni and ignite sectarian warfare. That seems to be the intent in the latest wave of attacks as well.
ISIS is increasingly using coordinated suicide bombings in its current onslaught against civilians in Baghdad, as it is having to do in Syria and other parts of Iraq as its caliphate comes under increasing pressure from US-backed forces, and in Syria, Russian air power.
Safa Hussein al-Sheikh, a veteran of Iraq’s sectarian conflicts who is the Baghdad government’s deputy national security adviser, said by committing these atrocities ISIS aims “to spread out the security forces so it can get superiority in numbers in one particular sector”.
He estimates that despite its setbacks, ISIS can muster 20,000- 30,000 hardcore fighters, supported by another 40,000-50,000 personnel who are less experienced and ideologically committed. Sheikh estimates that 85% of these operate in Iraq.
The Americans are concerned that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will put regime survival above the national interest and reinforce security around the capital, shifting the focus away from massing forces to recapture Mosul, the ISIS nerve centre in Iraq.
US Army Colonel Steve Warren, the US military spokesman in Baghdad, acknowledged on May 13th that the push on Mosul, launched on March 24th, depends on Abadi’s government not withdrawing forces from that front to beef up Baghdad’s security.
He estimated that about half the Iraqi military’s combat forces are deployed around the capital, where Abadi is hanging on by his fingernails against a popular uprising against a corrupt and inept government made up of rival leaders who have plundered the country since the Americans poured in billions of dollars in aid funds after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, a failure of the state that ISIS is also exploiting to the hilt. However, there is no let-up in the attacks.
Suicide bombers still get through — although that may have a lot to do with the army still using British-made ADE-651 explosives-detection wands that were proven to be useless three years ago.
Iraq specialist Michael Knights, who recently visited Baghdad, noted that the capital’s perimeter runs for 70km “and sits at the centre of a network of eight trucking highways that bring potential bomb-carrying vehicles into Baghdad from every point of the compass… (T)he adjacent rural districts — the Baghdad Belts — are the key to the problem… If bombers need to be sure of passage, they learn how to bribe their way through checkpoints,” he said.
If ISIS can sustain its blitz — and experts such as Knights say there is no reason they cannot — Abadi will be under intense pressure to pull in more troops to counter bombings that are primarily targeting civilians in Shia-dominated quarters of the city, predominantly the densely populated Sadr City and the ancient northern district of Kadhimiya, at whose centre stands one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines, and to head off a sectarian bloodbath.
Sadr City, a teeming slum of about 2 million, largely poor Shias, people long neglected and shunned by the corruption-riddled patronage system that controls life in Iraq, is explosive because resentment is already high and easily ignited. The crisis has been worsened by the prospect of economic calamity because of the collapse in oil prices that slash the salaries of Iraq’s bloated state sector — 7 million people on a payroll that costs $4 billion a month.
Sectarian conflict is clearly one of the primary objectives of the ISIS bombing campaign, as it was in 2004-07, when al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s forerunner, controlled much of the Baghdad Belts and were able to operate a network of car-bomb factories inside the capital and terrorise the Shias, who responded with atrocities of their own.
ISIS and those who lead it are skilled in exploiting sectarian differences to their advantage and the latest iteration of Zarqawi’s Baghdad Belts plan may well succeed — particularly if Abadi’s government, already teetering on the brink of collapse, finally disintegrates, more than likely marking the end of an Iraqi unitary state.