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WHAT NEXT? Militants take aim at Iraqi soldiers after capturing a base in Tikrit.
Associated Press
WHAT NEXT? Militants take aim at Iraqi soldiers after capturing a base in Tikrit.

Laying siege from the shadows

Iraq | Saddam’s deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, may be key to understanding the lightning strikes and success of Sunni militants in Iraq

Issue: "Fighting fatalism," July 12, 2014

Twelve days after militants began a sweep through Iraq, putting the Iraqi army on the run while closing and desecrating churches in ancient Christian areas, many churches in Baghdad and across Iraq opened their doors on Sunday, June 22, as usual. They held special prayer services for the country in the midst of another—and perhaps the country’s most desperate—crisis. Despite threats and growing uncertainty about their future, Iraqi Christians in dwindling numbers remain intent to persevere.

The invasion that began in Mosul in June by terrorist forces once operating as al-Qaeda in Iraq feeds fears over how long churches will be allowed to operate—particularly in Nineveh province, once considered a sanctuary for Iraq’s embattled Christians and other minorities. There Mosul, the provincial capital, along with many towns, have been overtaken by ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (also known as ISIL).

But even as ISIS continued its assaults, displacing hundreds of thousands, the Council of Christian Church Leaders of Iraq issued a statement calling for a special day of prayer and fasting June 22 “for the unity of Iraq and the safety of its security and preservation of the lives and the blood of its sons.” 

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“For now everything is OK in our churches. But we don’t know what is happening in the next days,” said Mudafar Yousif, an assistant pastor at the Christian Missionary Alliance Church in Baghdad, one of the largest evangelical congregations.

“Ninety-nine percent of the Christians have left Mosul,” pastor Haitham Jazrawi of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Kirkuk told me as the terrorists moved into Iraq’s second-largest city. By the time the invasion was over, more than a half million Iraqis had fled altogether, some to the nearby Nineveh Plains, others to areas further north under Kurdish protection, and some to neighboring Jordan. Unlike in previous years of terrorist attacks—notably from 2006 through 2009—Mosul residents this time could not find refuge in Syria due to its civil war. But many Iraqis believe, despite the increased dangers, they will return to their homes once the violence abates. Jazrawi said, “We still believe that our Lord wants us to stay in Iraq.” 

Iraq’s U.S.-trained military forces melted in the face of the jihadist onslaught. Quickly, ISIS ordered via loudspeakers in Mosul for all women, including non-Muslims, to wear head coverings and not to leave their houses. In a 16-page document read from mosques, the gunmen declared Nineveh part of the group’s Islamic state and forbade alcohol sales, smoking, public gatherings, and entertainment. They outlawed any depictions considered idolatrous according to the Quran, and destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary in front of a church, statues of Arab poet Abu Tamam and musician Mullah Osman, and other landmarks.

At the same time ISIS called to action units in northeastern Syria, “to free it from the Syrian regime, the grandchildren of the Jews, the Zionist Kurdish PYD and the grandchildren of the Crusaders, the Christian infidels,” according to a manifesto posted to its websites June 17.

The militants threaten Muslims, too. In Mosul they designated one mosque to receive the “repentance of apostates,” meaning Shiites. Residents said fighters went door to door checking empty houses, demanding of residents the name, phone numbers, and religious affiliation of owners.

“These militants will return us and our country hundreds of years backwards, and their laws are the opposite of the laws of human rights and international laws,” Umm Mohammed, a 35-year-old teacher, told Middle East Online. “We live in continuous fear of being subjected to new pressures.” 

Within one week of capturing Mosul, ISIS fighters advanced more than 230 miles, mostly down the route of the Tigris River. They took Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, and linked up with militant forces that already had overtaken Ramadi and Fallujah—and killed at least 1,000 Iraqis in that time, according to the UN.

Less than 40 miles north of Baghdad, Iraqi troops exchanged gunfire with the militants on June 23 in Baquba, a leading flash point in the Iraq War, with a key battle against insurgents there in 2007 involving 10,000 coalition and U.S. military personnel. At least 40 Americans were killed in that offensive. Hundreds of Iraqis died at insurgent hands then too, among them 50 bodies dumped behind the provincial electric company offices, 25 killed in a bicycle bombing, 28 bodies dumped in a mass grave, and more.

Other key areas by late June continued to fall, including Tel Afar and its military airport in Diyala. All along the way ISIS forces looted banks, collecting millions in cash, and seized Iraqi (and U.S.-provided) military transports, weapons, and supplies. Gaining momentum and supplies, the militants on June 22 took important check points bordering Jordan and Syria. While Jordan maintained that it still controls its border with Iraq, Syria’s border in essence dissolved into militant control except for a small area controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the far north.

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