An Iraqi army colonel said Saturday that Iraqi security forces have readied a counter-offensive against militants north of Baghdad, after Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki announced that the cabinet had authorised "unlimited powers."
Jihadists pushed towards Baghdad Friday after capturing Udhaim, a town 90 kilometres north of the capital, in a lightning three-day offensive the Iraqi government has failed to stop.
US President Barack Obama said he was exploring all options to save Iraq's security forces from collapse as US companies evacuated hundreds from a major air base.
Fighters from the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Daesh) seized the town of Dhuluiyah Thursday. ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed Al-Adnani promised that the battle would "rage" on to Baghdad and Karbala.
The Iraqi city of Tikrit fell Wednesday to militants while Iraqi security forces repelled an assault on the highly sensitive city of Samarra. A day ealier, two other strategic locales fell under Daesh control: Mosul and areas in Kirkuk.
The domino effect that is taking place in Iraqi cities is a critical test for the Shia-led Baghdad government with security forces forced to flee in face of a spectacular show of strength.
With television footage of Sunni militants sweeping across Iraq this week, critics of former President George W Bush's decision to invade in 2003 said the offensive offered yet more proof of the war's unsuccessful outcome.
For both supporters and opponents of the war, the virtual collapse of the Iraqi army on the battlefield in the face of fighters said to be inspired by Al-Qaeda has come as a shock. The US, some claim, still has leverage in Iraq. Will it use it?
How did this happen?
When militants first seized control of Mosul, many were taken by surprise, confused at how the jihadists were able to control the second largest city in Iraq in the blink of an eye.
Fannar Haddad, author of Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity and lecturer at Queen Mary University of London told Ahram Online that the fall of Mosul is an indictment of both the Iraqi government's dysfunction and inefficiency, and of the world's complacency towards ISIL's meteoric rise since its inception.
“While ISIL have been very active in Ninevah province and in Mosul I do not think anyone expected them to have the audacity to try to storm a city of Mosul's size. But alas, as of Tuesday, a new precedent has been set,” Haddad added.
Mohamed Ali Harissi, deputy bureau chief of AFP Baghdad, is not surprised by the target, but is suprised at how quickly it was taken. Harissi told Ahram Online: “Militants have been launching daily attacks against security forces in the last few months. But it was surprising and shocking how quickly the security forces were defeated by a few hundred of gunmen. No one in Iraq expected ISIL to control a whole province like Nineveh.”
Karl Sharro, a blogger and writer on Iraqi politics, agreed that the ISIL attack and quick takeover was unexpected, especially by the Iraqi government.
Prime Minister Al-Maliki travelled to Samarra for a security meeting Friday, also visiting a revered Shia shrine in the city, which was bombed by militants in 2006, sparking a sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis that killed tens of thousands.
Maliki, a Shia, said that "the cabinet granted the prime minister, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, unlimited powers" to combat the militants, in a statement posted late Friday on his website.
“The clearest illustration of their rapid expansion is the speed with which Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions in haste and did not offer any serious resistance,” Sharoo said.
AFP reported Wednesday that the group said in a statement posted on Twitter that it was in "complete control" of all entries and exits to Nineveh, which it seized the day before, and that it "will not stop this series of blessed invasions."
“What is certain is that ISIL and its sympathizers have exploited the political grievances among Sunnis in Iraq to launch this offensive and they have very likely attracted many fighters who don't necessarily share their ideology but are more concerned with the marginalisation of Sunnis,” Sharro adds.
ISIL redrawing the map of Iraq, in a matter of days seizing Mosul,Tikrit and Baiji (Photo: Snapshot from Reuters video)
Can ISIL extend control over other Iraqi cities?
As ISIL gains increase, many worry over where and when the expansion will stop. “It seems likely that they will proceed south and try to maintain their control over the west and northwest,” Sharro adds.
How close to Baghdad they can get is the big question for the coming days, although any major offensive in that direction will leave them open to attack by government forces.
“There is no chance, of course, that they will control all of Iraq, not least because of the demographic makeup of the country and the opposition they will find in Shia and Kurdish areas. So that is an unrealistic possibility,” Sharro concludes.
Joel Wing, Iraq analyst at Musings on Iraq, says that on 10 June ISIL moved south after taking Mosul. “Their ultimate goal is to march towards Baghdad,” Wing asserts.
The international community response
The few past days have put Iraq back into turmoil and present a serious threat for the United States and the region. The international community has expressed grave concern regarding the situation in Iraq. The European Union and the Arab League on Wednesday urged democratic forces in Iraq to unite against ISIL.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon strongly condemned Tuesday terrorist attacks across Iraq. The Security Council swiftly convened to discuss the crisis in a sign of growing international alarm at the fast-moving situation.
Turkey, on the other hand, pledged Wednesday to retaliate if its 48 citizens kidnapped by jihadists in northern Iraq are harmed. Members of the jihadist group seized the Turkish consulate in Mosul and kidnapped the head of the diplomatic mission along with 48 staff.
Turkey received prior warning of the attack on its consulate in Mosul, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Friday, defending Ankara's decision not to evacuate.
Many claim that though the US withdrew ground forces from Iraq in 2011, it still has leverage in Iraq. Others are wary. “As for US leverage, I am sceptical as to its extent and the administration's willingness to use it,” Haddad says.
Analysts agree that external assistance or intervention is more likely to come from Iran rather than the United States — an eventuality in the Iraqi context that could do more harm than good.
On Thursday, AFP reported that Washington was mulling air strikes as Iraqi militants advance towards Baghdad, “Washington is considering several options for offering military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes," a US official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Resorting to such drones used in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a highly controversial programme would mark a dramatic shift in US engagement in Iraq, after the last American troops pulled out in late 2011.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US was committed to "working with the Iraqi government and leaders across Iraq to support a unified approach against ISIL's continued aggression."
Haddad told Ahram Online that he believes there is no current plan to send US troops back into Iraq, where around 4,500 American soldiers died in the bitter conflict. Wing told Ahram Online that US Representative Brett McGurk is currently in Iraq right now.
The Americans are likely to increase their supply of weapons and munitions to Iraq. The problem is that will not ultimately help if morale or willingness to fight on the part of Iraqi security forces is absent.
“If ISIL pushes closer to Baghdad, Iran will likely be sending in more covert aid to the militia groups it supports,” Wing concludes.