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Michael-Eisenstadtt-283x150-279x148The Rise of ISIL: Iraq and Beyond (Part II) 

Michael Eisenstadt

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy 

July, 2014


The rapid capture of large swathes of northern Iraq last month by a relatively small, lightly armed force of Sunni Arab militants fighting under the banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—now known as the Islamic State (IS)—has altered the strategic landscape of the Middle East. The successor to al- Qaeda in Iraq, the IS has ridden a wave of resentment felt by Iraq’s Sunni Arabs at the exclusionary, sectarian policies pursued by Iraq’s Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The rise of the IS was greatly facilitated by Syria’s civil war, which enabled it to establish a base of operations in eastern Syria and to transform itself into a lightly armed, mobile force with thousands of experienced fighters (including thousands of freed prisoners and foreign volunteers). Over a year ago, the IS began shifting resources back to Iraq, operating openly in the western part of the country, launching a suicide bombing campaign focused on Baghdad that heralded its return, and early this year seizing control of several towns in Anbar province, including Fallujah.1 

The IS capture of Mosul and large parts of northern Iraq, then, is part of a multiphased plan to establish an Islamic state that extends from Lebanon to Iraq. The next big target for the IS is Baghdad.

But the IS is not likely to replicate these spectacular military achievements in the Baghdad area. If the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were seen by many locals in northern Iraq as an army of occupation, in Baghdad it is defending home turf and can rely on the support of thousands of Shiite militiamen that have been mobilized to fight the IS, as well as most of the population. Despite a number of additional gains since the fall of Mosul (Tal Afar, al-Qaim, and Tikrit, among others), IS efforts to take the cities of Samarra and Baquba, north and northeast of Baghdad, respectively, and to move on the capital seem to have stalled. 

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