Progress against ISIS in Iraq?

Last week, we heard that American airstrikes had broken the siege of Islamic State head-choppers against the Yazidis in Iraq, but then on Saturday came reports of another bloodbath, like this one from the Washington Post:

Islamic State militants drove into the village of Kocho, about 15 miles southwest of the town of Sinjar, on Friday, following a week-long siege in which the al-Qaeda inspired group demanded that residents convert to Islam or face death, said the reports, which could not be independently verified.

The men were rounded up and executed, while the women were taken to an undisclosed location, according to Ziad Sinjar, a pesh merga commander based on the edge of Mount Sinjar, citing the accounts of villagers nearby. Six men were injured but survived, and managed to escape to a nearby village where they are being sheltered by sympathetic local Sunni Iraqis, he said. One of them told him that 84 Yazidi men were lined up and shot and that more than 300 women were taken away.

Yazidi activists and Kurdish officials said at least 80 men were killed and hundreds of women taken away after the fighters entered the village shortly after 1 pm on Friday.

???The villagers had received local assurances that they were safe,??? said Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq???s former foreign minister who is now working closely with the Kurdistan Regional Government. ???Maybe they killed them in revenge for the setbacks they have suffered from the air strikes.???

The original calculation of American planners was that the Kurds and their respectable peshmerga fighting force would keep ISIS at bay, but as a harrowing account at Reuters from a survivor of last week’s genocidal purge of the Sinjar region contends, the Kurds fell back before the ISIS advance… and evidently left behind even more heavy equipment that could be added to the Islamic State’s arsenal:

U.S. air strikes against Islamic State positions and vows by Kurdish commanders to recapture Yazidi villages provided no reassurances.

It’s easy to see why.

Ten days ago, Ali and his fellow villagers were suddenly surrounded by Islamic State militants with machine guns at night. They had long beards. Some had face masks and Arabic writing on the sides of their heads.

Absent from the scene were Kurdish peshmerga, or “those who confront death”, fighters who had held parts of the north and were seen as the only force that could stand up to Islamic State after thousands of U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers fled their advance, leaving them with heavy weapons including tanks

Suddenly the men began digging ditches – soon to become mass graves.

“We did not understand. Then they started to put people in those holes, those people were alive,” said former grocery shop owner Ali, 46, pausing to weep.

“After a while we heard gunfire. I can’t forget that scene. Women, children, crying for help. We had to run for our lives, there was nothing to be done for them.”

It was not possible to independently verify these accounts.

Some of the Yazidis escaped with the help of Turkish and Syrian Kurdish fighters. But similar scenes are reported in several parts of the north.

Every stage of a conflict involves morale and willpower, including the initial moments of a military encounter.  If progress really is being made against ISIS, it should pay dividends in terms of encouraging the Kurds, Iraqi government troops, and the new Kurd-trained Yazidi fighting force to stand their ground.  But it will take sustained and unambiguous progress to dispel the wave of fear ISIS currently drives before it.

The weekend brought happy news that American airstrikes helped Kurdish forces retake the strategically vital Mosul dam, but then ISIS popped up and said “oh no they didn’t!” and the latest report from the New York Times is a bit less euphoric:

The commander of the ground forces working to reclaim the dam, Iraq???s largest, said that there was still fighting along the edge of the compound, where a separate and smaller dam is. The main dam, however, was in government control, he said, as was a strategic hill located above the smaller dam, where an estimated 70 militants fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria were still dug in.

???I am hopeful that in the next few hours we will retake the entire area,??? said Mansour Barzani, the ground forces commander, early Monday evening. Mr. Barzani, the son of Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, was stationed with his command team in front of the dam, where wisps of smoke from earlier airstrikes curled skyward.

But even after the militants had been routed, Mr. Barzani warned, it would still take hours to clear the facilities of mines. Since the operation began Sunday morning, Mr. Barzani said, the presence of mines laid by the militants has hampered the progress of Kurdish pesh merga forces, Mr. Barzani said.

As of midday, no photographs or videos had been released showing the security forces inside the dam. The Kurdish military was barring the news media from the area and keeping residents from returning to villages nearby.

It might not be a swift a march to victory as originally advertised, but it all sounds like progress in the right direction.  It would be good news to learn that ISIS’ swagger disappears rapidly when confronted with a serious military opponent and a shower of precision-guided U.S. bombs.  Unfortunately, we’re in a race against Iran to retake Iraq from the Islamic State savages, and another Reuters report suggests Iran is pretty well established with “boots on the ground.”

In early July, hundreds of mourners gathered for the funeral of Kamal Shirkhani in Lavasan, a small town northeast of the Iranian capital Tehran. The crowd carried the coffin past posters which showed Shirkhani in the green uniform of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and identified him as a colonel.

Shirkhani did not die in a battle inside Iran. He was killed nearly a hundred miles away from the Iranian border in a mortar attack by the militants of the Islamic State ???while carrying out his mission to defend??? a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, according to a report on Basij Press, a news site affiliated with the Basij militia which is overseen by the Revolutionary Guards.

Shirkhani???s death deep inside Iraq shows that Iran has committed boots on the ground to defend Iraqi territory.

At least two other members of the Guards have also been killed in Iraq since mid-June, a clear sign that Shi’ite power Iran has ramped up its military presence in Iraq to counter the threat of Sunni fighters from the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that seized much of northern Iraq since June.

Iranian clerics have said waging jihad to defend Iraq and its Shiite holy shrines from the Islamic State caliphate is “obligatory.”  Interestingly, a State Department officer quoted by Reuters suggests that Iran “overplayed its hand” in Iraq by backing the departed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his No Sunnis Allowed government, leveraging the influence it gained in the more sinister quarters of Iraq from a decade of backing local insurgents against American forces.  In that way, the Iranians set the stage for the advance of ISIS.

The problem is that Iran has plenty more cards to overplay:

A high-level Iraqi security official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media said Iran had now mobilised up to 20,000 Iraqi militiamen from groups it funded and trained.

The fighters are spread south from Samarra to Baghdad and down into the farming communities south of the capital, the official added.

Several thousand Iraqi fighters were also brought back from Syria where they were helping defend the government of president Bashar al-Assad, the same official said. Some have now joined units of security forces from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence. Some of the groups were deployed since the spring with the blessing of Maliki, and put under a military chain of command, as the Iraqi security forces first struggled fighting in western Iraq and in Baghdad’s rural hinterlands.

In addition, there are dozens of members of Lebanon’s Shi’ite militia Hezbollah in Iraq, sources familiar with the group say. Hezbollah militants have been fighting in Syria to support Assad for more than two years. Their presence in Iraq now is a sign of the broader regional dimensions of the conflict which has pitted Shi’ite Muslims against Sunnis.

It is a mark of just how savage a threat ISIS poses that even gentle Pope Francis has endorsed the use of force to stop them, although as the Associated Press reports, he was very particular about calling for an international force that would be carefully circumscribed to remove all possibility that it might become a “war of conquest.”

On Iraq, Francis was asked if he approved of the unilateral U.S. airstrikes on militants of the Islamic State who have captured swaths of northern and western Iraq and northeastern Syria and have forced minority Christians and others to either convert to Islam or flee their homes.

“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Francis said. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”

But, he said, in history, such “excuses” to stop an unjust aggression have been used by world powers to justify a “war of conquest” in which an entire people have been taken over.

“One nation alone cannot judge how you stop this, how you stop an unjust aggressor,” he said, apparently referring to the United States. “After World War II, the idea of the United Nations came about: It’s there that you must discuss ‘Is there an unjust aggression? It seems so. How should we stop it?’ Just this. Nothing more.”

His comments were significant because the Vatican has vehemently opposed any military intervention in recent years, with St. John Paul II actively trying to head off the Iraq war and Francis himself staging a global prayer and fast for peace when the U.S. was threatening airstrikes on Syria last year.

But the Vatican has been increasingly showing support for military intervention in Iraq, given that Christians are being directly targeted because of their faith and that Christian communities which have existed for 2,000 years have been emptied as a result of the extremists’ onslaught.

With all due respect to the Pope, successful military actions are rarely such clinical affairs, and they cannot be run from the floor of the U.N. General Assembly.  Previously the Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq was asked about the commencement of U.S. airstrikes, and said “it’s good when you’re able to at the very least remove weapons from these people who have no scruples.”  Alas, one must remove those weapons by prying them from a good many cold, dead fingers.  And defensive actions designed entirely to halt the advance of the Islamic State aren’t likely to be good enough, especially since they won’t last in perpetuity.  These characters need to be rolled back, and that’s going to be an ugly fight.  The United Nations does not have a very good history of springing into action and winning such battles.