Is it still possible to salvage if not Iraq, at least Baghdad? Sunni Muslim troops, led by ISIS (now the so-called Islamic State, or IS) and fighting against the Iraqi government, have virtually surrounded Baghdad. Iraq's largest province, al-Anbar, is almost totally occupied by anti-regime forces. Only a portion of Fallujah remains outside of occupation by the IS-led forces. After the IS took over the city of Hit, regular Iraqi units fell back into a defensive posture at al-Asad, the largest military facility in Anbar. Several key population centers to the north and northeast have also fallen, and there is still heavy fighting around the oil refineries of the northern city of Baiji.
IS's gains north of Baghdad last month prompted U.S. aircraft bombing sorties. Since June, the central government also has lost ground east of the capital; Diyala Province barely remains under Shia control. After the collapse of government forces in Hillah, south of the capital, and IS's mid-June seizures of Iskandariyah and Mahmoudiyah, barely six miles south of the Baghdad, routes to Iraq's Shia heartland have also now been jeopardized.
Islamic State fighters receive a pre-battle briefing and sermon before their attack on Samarra, 125km north of Baghdad.
While the fall of the capital is certainly not imminent, IS's strategy appears clear. Opposition forces will likely continue to tighten the noose around Baghdad in an attempt to create a sense of isolation. IS will avoid, for now, any large-scale assault on Baghdad for three reasons: it does not have the manpower; Shia militias outnumber enemy forces and will fight zealously to keep the Shia in control of the capital; and a major attack might cause remaining U.S. ground forces to become actively involved in the conflict.
One indicator that American forces might join the fight in a more serious way, if Baghdad appeared truly threatened, was the Pentagon decision on October 12 to employ Apache Attack helicopters against IS forces when they approached Baghdad International Airport. This week, on November 8, U.S. President Barack Obama also approved sending up to 1,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq, although stressing that that "would not be in combat." The increase would raise the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to just under 3,000, or about eight times fewer than likely needed to re-salvage Iraq.
Meanwhile, fighting has come within two miles of the capital, with IS taking Abu Ghraib.
At present, the IS-led Sunni coalition appears determined to inculcate a feeling of despair among the capital's Shia citizenry. The daily suicide bombing attacks in Shia neighborhoods must be taking a psychological toll. The suicide bombers are foreign fighters, mostly from North Africa. In the past few months alone, they have killed hundreds of Shia citizens. The operational planners of these assaults apparently know the layout of the capital, a familiarity that suggests they may have been former Baath Party military officers under the reign of Saddam Hussein.
The daily roadside bombs and car bombs are adding to the concern that the security situation in the capital is spiraling out of control. Moreover, there can be little doubt that some within the Sunni neighborhoods are giving logistical and intelligence support to the encircling IS. That intelligence certainly appears to have been available in the October 14 targeted killing of Baghdad's pro-Iranian commander of the Badr Brigade, Ahmad al-Khafaji. Additional pro-Sunni elements probably have established a network of safe houses to support enemy infiltrators.
The day that the fate of Iraq as a united state irrevocably turned toward disintegration occurred in December 2013, when the largely Shia security forces stormed the Sunni protest camp in Anbar Province's capital of Ramadi. Not even those tribal sheikhs who may have hoped for reconciliation with the Shia-led regime could reverse the process of permanent alienation. After former Iraqi Vice President Nouri al-Maliki's fall from power on August 14, newly installed Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has fared no better. Moreover, he seemingly has even less influence within the governing Shia coalition than al-Maliki originally possessed. He has moved too slowly, it seems, to reach out to Sunnis. Furthermore, with IS at the gates of Baghdad, the new administration did not name a new Minister of Defense and Interior until October 17.
The goal of IS's siege strategy may be to create enough chaos in Baghdad to cause a mass exodus of its Shia population southward to the Shia provinces of Najaf and Karbala, thus ceding Baghdad to the Sunnis by default.
Dr. Lawrence A. Franklin served on active duty with the U.S. Army and as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, where he served as a Military Attaché to Israel.