IRBIL, Iraq: Iraq appeared closer to its long-predicted disintegration on Thursday as Kurdish leaders ordered steps to hold a referendum “as soon as possible” on self-rule for their oil-rich territory, and Islamist extremists improved their military position by seizing additional territory across the border in Syria.
US military officials, offering their first public assessment of the situation, said it will take decades to subdue the threat now posed by the Islamic State (IS), which seized Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, on June 10, then raced southward 200 miles, coming to within an hour’s drive of Baghdad before its advance was halted. On Sunday, it declared an Islamic caliphate on the land it controls in Syria and Iraq.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington that the Islamic State’s rapid advance had “stretched” its resources. Still, he said he believed that the world community would have to wrestle with the organization for “a generation or two.”
He also labeled as “bleak” the future for a united Iraq unless there is reconciliation between Sunni Arabs, who have supported the Islamic State’s advances, and majority Shiite Arabs, who run the country’s government. Dempsey said Iraq’s political leaders, an apparent reference to embattled Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have to find a way “to separate Sunnis” from the Islamic State, with whom they’ve partnered “because they have zero confidence in the ability of Iraq’s politicians to govern.”
He said the United States’ first task “is to determine whether we have a reliable Iraqi partner that is committed to growing their country into something that all Iraqis will be willing to participate in.”
“If the answer to that is no, then the future is pretty bleak,” Dempsey said.
Successes of Islamic State
The impact of the Islamic State’s success in Iraq became clear on Friday in Syria, where Islamist fighters took over five towns in the Deir el Zour region without a fight. The development allowed IS to secure its rear flanks, where it had been battling other Syrian rebel groups, and gain control over much of Syria’s oil and natural gas production—an economic boon for an organization that already has seen its coffers filled with booty captured in Iraq.
The IS was able to make its startling advance in Syria after the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s official Syrian affiliate and a bulwark of the movement to topple the government of President Bashar Assad, abandoned its positions in Deir el Zour, the capital of the province by the same name, and Abu Kamal, another Syrian city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors violence in Syria.
The observatory said that the withdrawal came after powerful Sunni tribes that previously had supported Nusra endorsed the caliphate that the Islamic State had declared over the weekend. Nusra has fought a bitter battle with the IS over tactics and strategy in Syria.
Unconfirmed but credible reports in local media accounts also said that multiple units previously aligned or directly controlled by Nusra had defected and sworn allegiance to IS and its new caliphate.
Videos posted on the Internet said that tribes in the towns of Mayadeen, al Ashara and Burqas, all longtime allies of Nusra, had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. A tribal leader in one of the videos even referred to the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as “Caliph Ibrahim,” the name he was given in the Islamic State’s announcement of the new caliphate.
“The clans of the city of Ishara, and the villages around it . . . and all of the factions in these areas . . . announce before God that they will cease fighting with the Islamic State,” the tribal leader said.
An anti-Assad activist in Deir el Zour, Abu Abdulla, said that IS’ access to heavy weapons it seized in Iraq had been key to local officials’ decision to quickly pledge allegiance to the group. He said that in one town, Shehail, local officials on Wednesday met with rebel groups, including Nusra, and agreed to surrender.
“They decided to avoid more bloodshed in what would have been a losing battle,” he said in an interview conducted by Skype.