President Barack Obama on Monday notified Congress he was sending up to 275 U.S. troops to Iraq in the face of a militant takeover by al-Qaeda-linked forces that threatens the capital, Baghdad. Already, according to the White House, 170 U.S. troops are on the ground in Iraq and another 100 are on standby in the region.
The onslaught by terrorist fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), which began just over a week ago, has caught the Obama administration by surprise, even though linkage between jihadist fighters in Syria and Iraq—and their goal to create a radical Islamist regime across the region—has been plain. ISIS joined rebels in the Syrian civil war that began in 2011. Its fighters moved into Fallujah last December, controlling it and much of Anbar Province just west of Iraq’s capital this spring.
The launching of so small a contingent of U.S. forces into the country of 33 million as ISIS carves a wide swath across Iraq’s middle could prove too little too late—particularly for the already decimated Christian population centered in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and nearby Nineveh Plains.
Estimates are that a half million residents fled Mosul in under 24 hours starting June 10, as Iraqi army units refused to protect residents against the advancing ISIS contingents. The fighters continued south, taking some predominantly Christian villages and gaining control of Tikrit, along with Baiji, where one of the country’s main oil refineries is located.
Many Mosul residents fled to nearby cities under Kurdish control. One family that made it to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, said it took them 13 hours to complete what’s normally a one-hour drive. They left Mosul with their children after RPG fire hit two adjacent houses, setting them on fire. “We left the food and ran,” the wife and mother told World Watch Monitor. “We didn’t even stop for our shoes, we fled in our sandals! We just made sure to take our IDs and important papers. The children were very scared.”
Muslims and Christians fled together, but it will be harder for Christians to go back. Upon entering Mosul ISIS fighters declared that all women must be veiled and preferably not leave their homes. Hairdressers and any liquor stores were closed. Christian graves and ancient Assyrian artifacts (many dating from the first century) are to be destroyed, they announced. And as they have imposed in areas captured in Syria, Christians must pay a special tax if they will not convert.
“Every Christian prefers to stay in Kurdistan,” Abu Zeid, an engineer, told the Associated Press. He said he too wouldn’t be going back to Mosul. “It’s a shame because Mosul is the most important city in Iraq for Christians.”
Church officials estimate the Christian population in Iraq is below 300,000—down from more than 1 million before the 2003 invasion. Many have fled the country or moved north to the safer region of Kurdistan. Mosul, which sits on the Tigris River just outside Kurdistan, had been home to at least 10 percent of Iraq’s Christians. Repeated church bombings, kidnappings, and attacks on Christian residences lowered that number to 10,000, some say, and perhaps as few as 3,000 by last week’s onslaught. Now, said a number of Iraqis I spoke to, there are zero Christians in Mosul.
Elsewhere the brutal work of the jihadists continued, along with their crippling the already weakened government in Baghdad. To repel ISIS advances, Kurdish forces took control of Kirkuk, a show of power in contrast to retreats by Iraq’s army units. From Tikrit, ISIS fighters posted photos on the internet showing their capture and execution of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers. Some experts questioned the authenticity of the photos, but major news outlets concluded they were real and the U.S. State Department said they were a “horrifying and a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent.”
Importantly, in taking Mosul ISIS militants went after bank vaults and military supplies—experts say valued at $1.5 billion or more. That kind of infusion—considering that investigators put the cost of 9/11 attacks for al-Qaeda at $500,000—has the potential for a lasting expansion of the jihadists’ war beyond Iraq and beyond what a few hundred U.S. troops can combat.