The fall of Mosul to the so-called Islamic State group (called in Arabic Daesh) on June 10, 2014, startled the world. The spectacle of thousands of Iraqi army troops fleeing the city in the face of black-masked suicide bombers and the Muslim equivalent of biker gangs riveted attention on Iraq again, a country that had receded from the Atlantic world’s consciousness after the US withdrawal late in 2011. A few weeks later, the Daesh leader, who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a caliphate, putting himself forward as a successor of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II and his successor Sultan Mehmet V, who had also asserted themselves vicars of the Prophet before the Ottoman state collapsed in the maelstrom of World War I and a militantly secular modern Turkish republic abolished the caliphate by act of parliament in 1924. A frisson of terror went through Iraqis at the prospect that the movement might take Baghdad (now largely Shiite) and Erbil (the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government).
A year later, in many ways the US and Iraqi response is in some disarray. President Obama made waves Monday when he admitted that Washington and Baghdad still do not have a complete strategy for fighting Daesh. He is allegedly considering accelerating the US military training program for reconstituting the Iraqi army. The fall of Ramadi to Daesh in mid-May cast a pall on the campaign against it and raised severe questions about the competence and willingness to fight of the Iraqi army (or perhaps even the existence of the Iraqi army), as well as about the future of Iraq. While Ramadi’s loss was a major blow to Baghdad, which is only 78 miles away, it is a fiercely Sunni city in the midst of a fiercely Sunni province with direct logistical lines to Daesh headquarters in Raqqa, Syria. A dispassionate survey of the Iraqi Shiite government’s battle with Daesh would reveal that in two other provinces near the capital, Diyala and Salahuddin, it has had impressive successes, even if these have been attained only with the help of militiamen, Iranian advice, and Western bombing raids.
It is important to underline, however, that in the past year it has also become clear that Daesh was not invincible and could be contained, once President Obama authorized the use of the American Air Force and convinced allied air forces to lend support to those Iraqi forces on the ground willing to stand up to it. (Whatever he says, though, Obama’s policy of aerial intervention is mainly aimed at containment; he views the rollback of Daesh as a responsibility of locals). Likewise, Iran’s special forces, led by Qasem Solaimani, intervened crucially with strategic advice and logistical help. It was also important that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Shiites, issued a ruling calling on all Iraqis to join with the army in defending the Iraqi nation from Daesh. Sistani favors the Iraqi military, but his fatwa helped to galvanize the Shiite militias. Also important was that President Obama and other outside governments pressured the ruling Shiite Islamic Call Party (al-Da’wa al-Islamiya) to dump the abrasive and conspiratorial Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister, replacing him with Haydar al-Abadi, who has more social skills. Al-Abadi, however, is still a man of the Shiite religious right, and a more ecumenical leader would certainly do Iraq more good now.