The War Nerd: Islamic State is sulking on the edge of Baghdad

By Gary Brecher , written on October 2, 2014

From The War Desk


One thing you have to say for the Islamic State (IS) militia: Whatever its failings as a military force (see my last article) it still has an amazing knack for generating scare stories in the Western press. Last time I tried to show why the hype about IS’s advances on its Western Front (the Syria/Turkish border zone) meant a lot less than the panic headlines suggested. Well, no sooner did the noise about that front die down than we had a new panic on IS’s Eastern Front, with stories headlined “IS One Mile from Baghdad.”

Most of these stories came from idiotic right-wing sites like the comically mis-named American Thinker, which was naïve enough to ask, “Is Baghdad about to Fall to ISIS?”

But there were plenty of mainstream fools joining the panic, as I saw when I was fool enough to watch some of the BBC’s Lyse Doucet’s report from Baghdad.

There was Lyse, bouncing around in a Humvee, saying with a straight face that IS was advancing on Baghdad “…from 20 directions.”

Twenty directions? I mean, there was poor Franco, thinking he was being cute with his famous Fifth Column in the attack on Madrid, and the poor bastard didn’t even realize he was wasting 15 potential avenues of attack. Not that I know what those missing 15 directions are. Maybe they could bring on Stephen Hawking to explain it, because I’m pretty sure you’re going to need more than three dimensions.

The BBC is a little vague about distance and direction throughout Doucet’s report. At one point, she says IS is “sixteen miles away”; then, pointing across a scrub field, she says, “…The people of Baghdad still feel threatened, and you can see why.” Except you can’t. You can see a tree, way off there, but no tanks, no black flags, nuthin’. So she explains, “Islamic State fighters are about five miles away.”

Then Doucet interviews Ahmed Chalabi—I mean, he wouldn’t lie, would he?—who says IS is only “six kilometers away.”

To quote the smart-ass Clooney character in O Brother, Where Art Thou, “Well, ain’t this place a geographical oddity!” It’s as if IS is as close as you want it to be, as scary as you want it to be.

The truth here is much simpler. Yes, Islamic State forces are gathered on the Western edge of Baghdad. The non-news is…they’ve been there for nine long months. Islamic State captured Fallujah, which is 70 kilometers from the center of Baghdad, way back at the beginning of January 2014.

Since then, the only movement on the Baghdad front has been along the road from Fallujah to Baghdad, which has become a Sunni suburb, housing all the angry Sunni forced out of Baghdad proper.

So it’s ridiculous to pretend that movement along this road represents an advance for the Sunni Arabs whom IS represents in Iraq. Au con-friggin’-traire! The whole reason IS is stuck on the Western outskirts of Baghdad is that the city, which was once Sunni-majority, has been ethnically cleansed over the last decade—so that by now the only remaining Sunni neighborhoods are in the far West, on the road to Fallujah.

Islamic State isn’t looming over Baghdad so much as sulking outside it, in the final Sunni enclave — stalled out and dreaming of a return to the hegemony the Sunni held over the city ten years ago. And if you really think that Baghdad, which is now firmly in Shia hands, is like some damsel in distress, just waiting to be ravished by big, bad IS…well, you haven’t been following the record of the Shia militias which drove the Sunni out in the first place. Those Shia Iraqis may not be much when fighting in the open desert of Anbar Province—they certainly bugged out in a hurry last June, leaving all their expensive American equipment for IS to loot—but they are Hell in urban combat, as the US Army learned the hard way when it took on Moqtada’s Mahdi Army in Sadr City, the huge Shia slum in NE Baghdad.

It’s not even really a question of how far IS is from Baghdad. They could be ringing the doorbell, wedging one foot in the door, waving the key to the city—and they’re still not going to take it. What they’ll do, at best, is what they’ve been doing all along: Claw back some of the Sunni districts and try to hold onto them, without even trying to conquer turf belonging to the stronger competing tribes like the Shia. Not because they’re nice guys—they showed what swine they were when facing small, unarmed groups like the Yazidi and the Christians of the North Iraqi Plain—but because they’re just not strong enough to take on real rival tribes like the Kurds or the Shia.

And if you’re an Iraqi Sunni, none of this looks like an advance, or a victory. Remember, the Sunni Arabs were Saddam’s people; they ran the whole country until 2003, and kept power with extreme violence against Shia and Kurds. To give you just one example which, as they say, captures the feel of the era: Saddam’s Baathist Secularist security forces decided to murder an important Shia Imam, Mohammed Baqir Al-Sad, they made him watch his sister being gang-raped, then hammered nails into his forehead.

Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the dominant Shia militia in Baghdad over the past decade, is the son-in-law of Mohammed Baqir Al-Sadr. And it was Moqtada Al-Sadr’s name that the Shia hangmen shouted when they strung up Saddam.

So it would be safe to say that there’s some bad blood between Shia and Sunni, especially over turf rights to Baghdad. The result has been complete Shia victory.

Of course, the long view would be that the Shia triumph is only a natural reaction to decades of Sunni oppression. But let’s get real for a second—do you know anyone who talks that way, off-camera? It’s safer to assume—in every country, starting with your own—that the silent or sullen majority is deeply reactionary and tribalist, which is happy as long as it’s on top, and dates the start of all problems to the moment when the formerly oppressed groups start “making trouble.”

A lot of Iraqi Sunni see the current situation exactly like that. Many have been driven out of their old neighborhoods in Baghdad, experienced life as a despised minority for the first time, and are not taking it very well. For these people, Iraq as it is now, dominated by the Shia majority, looks something like the American South looked to Nathan Bedford Forrest and the men who joined his KKK: A country you used to control completely, and lost completely, so that now you have to resort to terror to get some of it back. The only difference is that Forrest’s KKK was all too successful at taking back the South. I don’t think the Sunni will be anywhere near that successful at regaining control of the whole of Iraq.

As I said in my last article, it helps to look at a map now and then. But this time you need to look at demographic maps, to see the sectarian fault-lines in Baghdad and its suburbs. The best set of maps showing the steady ethnic cleansing of the capital city was put together by a team of Columbia University demographers. Look at the sequence showing how neighborhoods changed their sectarian profile in Baghdad from 2003 (when the US invasion destroyed the violent stasis of the Saddam Era) to 2007.

When you look at the 2003 map, you see a clear pattern: Most Baghdad neighborhoods are mixed, with Shia, Sunni, and Christian living together. Not necessarily happily, or “at peace,” but together, cowed into coexistence by the security services’ monopoly on violence and terror.

You’ll also see that some neighborhoods were already sectarian enclaves under Saddam. The best neighborhoods of Baghdad, those with river views, like Adhamiyah and Karkh (now known as “The Green Zone”), were Sunni—plum ’hoods for Saddam loyalists, who were, with a few token exceptions Saddam’s fellow Sunni, often members of his Tikrit clan.

Now look at the big green grid off to the north-east of town, the one called “Saddam City.” This miserable district was a classic housing project, started with good intentions, in a patronizing way, during the JFK years.

It was supposed to provide decent housing for the swarm of Shia peasants who’d come to the capital looking for work, and was first called “Al-Thawra,” “Revolution.” The Shia poor were communist then, identifying by class as much as sect. But when Saddam’s Tikrit clique came to power in the late 1970s, sect became the dominant ideology, and the poor of “Saddam City” realized they were from the wrong sect, and that that had everything to do with their exclusion from the good life enjoyed by the Sunni in the nice neighborhoods.

So “Saddam City” began to think of itself as “Sadr City,” after the martyred imam, and to nurse a grudge that would explode after the US overthrew Saddam. By isolating all the Shia poor in one huge grid of high-rises, the Sunni regime had created a perfect environment for its future enemies, the people who would drive the Sunni right out of town—all the way to those dusty Western Suburbs where the BBC finds them so scary now.

You can see that happening as you go from the 2003 map to the 2006 update. Ethnic cleansing is becoming the norm; all those “Mixed” neighborhoods are being whittled down by the expanding sectarian enclaves. Above all, you see the Sunni vanishing from the East Side of town, with the once-Sunni neighborhoods of Rusafa now “mixed,” going Shia quickly.

By 2006 it’s clear that Sunni are fleeing Baghdad to the West, toward the militantly Sunni town of Fallujah and the deserts of Anbar beyond it. They were encouraged to do so by simple fear—but if that failed, the point was often made with anonymous death threats. When the threats failed to convince Sunni families to vacate, murder was common.

Now move to the last map, “2008.” You see that “Mixed” neighborhoods, one the norm in Baghdad, are almost extinct. Every street has a sectarian norm, one enforced with violence by private or (in many cases) the Shia-dominated Iraqi state. There are now only a few Sunni outposts east of the Tigris, and those few are shrinking fast, like Adhamiyah, always one of the more desirable addresses in Baghdad. It’s still Sunni red, but much smaller than it was in 2006, crowded by the Shia expanding from their base in Sadr City. And the pressure on Adhamiyah was so intense that the only way the American occupiers could think of to protect it was to construct a three-mile long, 12-foot high concrete wall around it (until Prime Minister Al-Maliki objected, on the grounds that such a monstrosity might give foreigners the wrongheaded idea that there was some degree of sectarian strife in his wonderful new Iraq).

The new Sunni base is far from the center of town, off to the west, in Al Mansour—which happens to be on the road to Fallujah, “City of A Thousand [Sunni] Mosques” and Ground Zero for Sunni resistance to the US occupation, as well as the post-invasion Shia-dominated Iraqi state.

Look at that sequence of maps—print’em and flip’em like animation stills—and you can see how Islamic State, which is now—like it or not—the armed wing of Iraq’s Sunni, ended up “within a mile of Baghdad.” In brief, they got there by starting out in total control of the heart of Baghdad, and getting kicked out, block by block, ‘hood by ‘hood, over the last decade.

And now every ignorant so-called journalist in the world is sobbing on air that they might, good heavens, make it back into town. It’s the most ridiculous thing yet in coverage of Iraq/Syria, and that’s no low bar to jump. Islamic State is led, for God’s sake, by a guy called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—“al-Baghdadi” as in “the guy from Baghdad.”

And its officer corps is made up of ordinary Iraqi Sunni Arabs with military experience, not those over-hyped foreign jihadis you hear so much about. For them, as for every Iraqi, Baghdad is the prize, the metropolis. So of course they’ll try to push back for some of the total control their sect had, back in 2003.

But it won’t be easy. That’s another ridiculous implication on these scare stories, this notion that Baghdad is just waiting in terror for the big, bad Sunni to sack it. Baghdad is a Shia city now—and not because they asked permission. They *took* it, street by street, and anyone who wants it back would have to take it the same way. Shia Arabs fighting for the ‘hood are a very, very different proposition from Shia Arabs jammed into an Army uniform and sent to fight under corrupt officers in the deserts of Anbar. These are the same people who drove the US Army out of Sadr City, and pushed their former masters clean out of town.

So Islamic State will be careful not to push too far along that road to Baghdad. They’re a very media-savvy group, and it suits them just fine to “threaten” the city for the benefit of the BBC and CNN. They may tiptoe to “within a mile,” or “a few kilometers,” or whatever number makes the best scare headline, but it would take a much crazier, and bigger, militia than IS to take the city back from its new owners.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]