As the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadist group tears through towns abandoned by the Iraqi military, reports warn the government’s forces are close to total collapse. In light of this failure, Shia fighters loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr await orders to take on ISIS directly.
The Washington Post reports this week that the mission to rehabilitate the Iraqi army is a difficult one, as 300 U.S. troops sent by the Obama administration arrive to fulfill an advisory role to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Tens of thousands of Iraqi troops are believed to have deserted, while most who remained in what are now ISIS-controlled territories were killed in mass executions, leaving the army in what one official describes to the paper anonymously as “psychological collapse.”
The troops that have been killed or deserted have been replaced by volunteers that the Post notes have only had days of training in some instances, with little if any experience in real-world combat. In contrast, the ISIS jihadists they will face have, in many instances, spent years fighting in the Syrian civil war and are now being imported into Iraq to do the same.
In addition to losing soldiers, the Iraqi army has been left with significantly fewer leaders in power. Prime Minister Maliki fired a number of high-level military officials last week in response to the mass desertion that allowed ISIS to take over major cities like Mosul and plunder their banks, military arsenals, and civilian resources.
The absence of the Iraqi military has allowed for other paramilitary groups to fill the void. Pivotal to the safety of Baghdad has been the Kurdish Peshmerga force, which has controlled the main roads to Baghdad and refused to allow passage to the capital for ISIS forces. They may soon be joined by a significant force of Shi’ite fighters loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has called for Iraqis to fight ISIS and the Sunni jihadist threat.
In Baghdad, a force of tens of thousands staged a parade to rally Shi’ites against ISIS, displaying their weaponry and declaring loudly their intention to keep ISIS away from the capital. Those marching in the parade chanted for cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to approve of their plans to enter battle with ISIS. The Mahdi militia, while an enemy of ISIS, also previously attacked American soldiers while the U.S. maintained troops in the country.
Al-Sadr, while preaching strongly against ISIS, has made clear he does not want the United States involved in retaking the nation from the Sunni group. Clerics loyal to al-Sadr have warned that the Mahdi army will turn on America if they enter the nation to fight ISIS, while al-Sadr himself has called for Shi’ites to defend holy sites in danger of destruction from ISIS attack. The introduction of Shi’ite Mahdi forces to a conflict involving Kurdish troops, Iran, Syria, and potentially the United States could only escalate the violence, leaving little room for the United States to operate and ease tensions.