The crisis gripping Iraq rapidly escalated Thursday with a re-energized Islamic State storming new towns in the north and seizing a strategic dam as Iraq’s most formidable military force, the Kurdish peshmerga, were routed in the face of the onslaught.
The loss of the Mosul Dam, the largest in Iraq, to the insurgents was the most dramatic consequence of a dayslong offensive in the north, which has sent tens of thousands of refugees, many from the Yazidi minority, fleeing into a vast mountainous landscape.
In one captured town, Sinjar, the Islamic State executed dozens of Yazidi men and kept the dead men’s wives for unmarried jihadi fighters. Panic Thursday even spread to the Kurdish capital, Irbil, long considered a safe haven, with civilians flooding the airport in a futile attempt to buy tickets to Baghdad.
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As chaos tore through northern Iraq, political intrigue unfolded in Baghdad, with political leaders meeting late into the night in the fortified Green Zone to choose a replacement for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has become an increasingly divisive figure.
U.S. officials have worked to engineer his ouster, believing he is incapable of establishing a national-unity government acceptable to Iraq’s main minority groups, Sunni Arabs and Kurds. U.S. officials have implied that more military aid would be provided if Iraq’s political class chose a new leader.
As Iraqi leaders, the country’s top religious authorities and top Iranian officials, who wield considerable power within Iraq, pushed for al-Maliki’s removal, he was refusing to step aside Thursday night. Even those within his own State of Law bloc were demanding that he leave.
“Everyone is saying no to Maliki now,” said a member of Parliament from State of Law, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “He’s rejected by all parties.”
If al-Maliki were to step down, he has reportedly demanded immunity from prosecution for himself, his family and his inner circle and a massive security detail, paid for by the state.
Given the number of enemies he has accrued over his time in power and the well-documented instances of human-rights abuses, torture and extrajudicial killings under his watch — not to mention wide-scale corruption in his government — many believe that al-Maliki would be immediately under threat of arrest, or assassination, were he to leave office without guarantees of immunity and protection.
“Maliki knows if he steps down, virtually he is a dead man,” said Ali Khedery, a former U.S. official in Iraq, who over the years has advised five U.S. ambassadors and several U.S. generals, and was once close to al-Maliki.
Adding to the sense that the country was rapidly coming apart, suicide attackers struck twice in Kazimiyah, a Shiite district in Baghdad that is home to an important shrine, killing nearly three dozen people. In Kirkuk, a northern city long divided between Arabs and Kurds that is now under Kurdish control, two explosions struck near a Shiite mosque, killing 11 people and wounding more than 50 others.
After the Islamic State captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, on June 10, the group vowed to march on Baghdad. But its rapid advance south toward the capital stalled in the face of newly mobilized Shiite militias, and volunteer Shiite fighters determined to protect Iraq’s capital and the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala.
The Kurds had tried to seize on the chaos and protect their borders and consolidate their autonomy, while staying out of Iraq’s broader civil war. The peshmerga were considered well-armed and well-motivated, determined to protect their Kurdish enclave in the north.
The latest fighting has shown that even the peshmerga are not up to the fight with the Islamic State. Kurdish officials have complained of a lack of ammunition and begged U.S. diplomats for more weapons. But the United States, so far, has held off on significant arms shipments to the Kurds, fearing it could undermine the central government in Baghdad.
Now, the Kurds have been battling a group of extremists from the Islamic State who are using powerful U.S. weapons they took from the battlefield, left by the Iraqi army.
“They are literally outgunned by an ISIS that is fighting with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military equipment seized from the Iraqi army who abandoned it,” said Khedery, referring to the Islamic State using a term by which it is also known.
In recent weeks Khedery has become an outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s policy in Iraq, especially its past support for al-Maliki, and the U.S. government’s lack of direct support to the Kurds.
Kurdish forces have proved adept at providing local security in the Kurdish autonomous zones, but less capable at independent military operations. Their successes have often included Western support, including from the CIA and the U.S. Special Forces. But they are not trained, equipped or organized for large-scale independent operations, for integrating fire support into their ground operations, or for countering aggressive insurgent bombing campaigns.
Those deficiencies were apparent in fighting in recent days, as the Islamic State captured several towns over the weekend and continued its march north.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul, said in a telephone interview after fleeing that the Islamic State secured the dam after what he called an “organized retreat” of the peshmerga.
In a statement issued on a social-media account believed to belong to the Islamic State, the group claimed it had captured the dam and vowed to continue its offensive as it consolidates control and continues to realize its goal of establishing a caliphate that bridges the borders of Syria and Iraq.
“Our Islamic State forces are still fighting in all directions and we will not step down until the project of the caliphate is established, with the will of God,” according to the statement.
The dam, which sits on the Tigris River and is about 30 miles northwest of Mosul, provides electricity to Mosul and controls the water supply for a large amount of territory. A report published in 2007 by the U.S. government, which had been involved with work on the dam and spent nearly $30 million on repairs, warned that were it to fail, a 65-foot wave of water would be unleashed across areas of northern Iraq.
Stuart Bowen Jr., the former special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, who oversaw the 2007 report on the dam, said the Islamic State could certainly use the dam as a weapon of war, but that it also could use it as a means of finance, by extorting money in exchange for water or electricity.
The Islamic State has already used Iraq’s water supply as a weapon. Earlier this year it seized control of the Fallujah Dam, in Anbar province, and flooded a vast area that sent thousands of refugees fleeing, submerged hundreds of homes and several schools and interrupted the water supply to southern Iraq.
Ammar Jassim, 35, a Fallujah resident, fled the city this year not because of the fighting but because of the flooding.
“We lost everything,” he said. “It was a water invasion.”
The Islamic State is also battling for control of the Haditha Dam, Iraq’s second-largest, which is also in Anbar province. As of Thursday, the dam was still under the control of the Iraqi security forces and allied tribal fighters.