The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) has continued its spectacular advances in Western Iraq. It seized more Sunni Muslim majority towns near the capital Baghdad, as well as all the country’s western border crossings.
Isis, which recently seized Iraq’s second city, Mosul, has been noted for sectarian brutality and the massacres of Shia prisoners.
This week Isis overran the strategic northern town of Tel Afar. The city, with its majority of ethnic Turkomans who are Shia Muslims, had been a national symbol of the national resistance to the Western occupation. Its population has fled in fear.
The central Iraqi state is melting away, along with the authority of the sectarian Shia dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki.
The key to the Isis success is that it has been able to exploit a growing rebellion among Sunni Muslims who were marginalised during the US occupation.
Isis and Sunni rebels are now poised for an assault on Baghdad that could trigger a new and bloodier phase of sectarian fighting.
Over the weekend tens of thousands of Shia Muslims answered a call to arms by Moktada al-Sadr, the rebel cleric who fought the West’s occupation, and is deeply critical of Maliki.
His supporters pledged to oppose any US intervention to shore up the beleaguered Iraqi army, vowing to defend the capital themselves.
Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which rose to prominence during the 2004 national uprising, degenerated into anti-Sunni sectarian violence in 2006. There are growing fears that the polarisation by Sunni and Shia sectarian forces will lead to the break up of Iraq.
Isis also threatens the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
Meanwhile the full implications of the Isis gains are now being felt inside Syria. Isis and the Syrian regime have trapped Syrian rebels in the key eastern city of Deir el-Zour. Isis is using weapons captured from the Iraqi army to reverse recent losses.
The return of Isis threatens to cut off Syrian rebels in Aleppo, and has accelerated the collapse of many rebel strongholds—most recently the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.