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Kurdish soldiers with the Peshmerga keep guard near the frontline with Sunni militants on June 25, 2014 on the outskirts of Kirkuk, Iraq.(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The West Cannot Simply Stand By

Naser Khader

The following text has been translated and adapted from an article first published in Oslo’s daily newspaper Verdens Gang. As always in such cases, questions about various subtleties of interpretation or style may arise, and interested readers may wish to refer to the original Norwegian version, available here.

The militant Islamists in ISIS have joined forced with Saddam Hussein’s top people. The West needs to step in.

The situation in Iraq is extremely serious and is evolving hour by hour. The population has begun to flee the capital, Baghdad, and there is no longer confidence in the ability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s corrupt and ineffective army to protect them, as the aggressive and successful Islamist al-Qaeda group ISIS marches on the city.

Enormous Areas

ISIS is an acronym for “The Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham”, a group which currently controls an area 1.5 times as large as Denmark. The group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has especially frightening plans for the future. Last year, he attempted to get the Syrian al-Qaeda group Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN) to join ISIS, but was rejected by JN’s Syrian leader Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani. The two leaders argued about which of the groups were “true” al-Qaeda, a discussion that led al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to personally weigh in on the side of al-Nusrah.

Al-Baghdadi reacted by leaving the al-Qaeda network. This is not to say that he is keeping his distance from al-Qaeda—quite the opposite. The current leaders are, according to him, too weak and passive. His goal is to become the leader of al-Qaeda himself.

Battling the West

Al-Baghdadi’s aim is to create a Muslim state, and he is currently searching for a stable base in the border area between Syria and Iraq from which to set up a caliphate spanning the whole Arabic and Muslim world. From there he will commence fighting the West, its values, and its allies in the region. In his view, the West has divided the Muslim world and infected it with incurable weakness. The West is also the reason that ISIS’s ambitions are global, as opposed to organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas whose primary goals are regional, and focused especially on Israel.

They Can’t Do It Alone

It is estimated that ISIS is made up of only between 5000 and 20,000 men, which creates questions concerning their ability to conquer and control these large areas in Syria and Iraq without support from local populations. But the resistance to ISIS in areas primarily inhabited by Sunni Muslims is not that extensive, and some Sunni Muslim tribes have already pledged their allegiances to ISIS. Iraqi Sunni Muslims continue to be in conflict—and occasionally in direct war—with the Shia-dominated central government. They are tired of Prime Minister Maliki’s willfulness and arrogance, and feel that he has excluded and worked against them during his time in office. The Iraqi Sunni Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi, was even sentenced to death in abstentia in 2012, after which he fled to Turkey. According to al-Hashimi, what we’re seeing now is a rebellion against the tyrannical Maliki by oppressed Sunni Muslims.

Unpopular Prime Minister

Maliki has in recent years developed into a kind of dictator. He has excluded many rival tribes from the political process in Iraq and ensured that their areas remain underdeveloped, seemingly as revenge for the many years of Sunni control under Saddam Hussein.

My Enemy’s Enemy Is My Friend

Parts of the Iraqi population are staying passive towards the growing number of jihadists in the country, and the war they are waging on Maliki’s army. As a result of this, among other factors, ISIS are marching towards Baghdad with little to no resistance. The Iraqi army, primarily made up of Shia Muslims, is corrupt, ineffective and poorly trained, and is gaining very little support from the Sunni Muslim parts of the population.

Dangerous Alliance

Along with the lack of resistance it’s encountering, ISIS has another advantage in the area. Signs point towards an alliance made between ISIS and many of Saddam Hussein’s former associates. Mustafa al-A’ali, previously a high-ranking officer in the Iraqi army, claims that a number of ISIS’s leaders were officers in Hussein’s ranks. The man who ISIS recently appointed governor in Mosul—Iraq’s second largest city, which they recently took—was a high-ranking officer under Saddam. ISIS also has ties with the former Prime Minister, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Posters of him and Saddam Hussein can be seen in their mutual hometown, Tikrit, which fell to ISIS just a few days ago. The alliance with Saddam’s former officers is important, because their knowledge of the area and expertise are indispensable to ISIS.

Must Be Stopped

The international community and we in the West cannot just sit idly by, passively thinking that this does not concern us. It does, partly because ISIS continues to gain control over oil fields, which might in turn affect oil prices, and partly because al-Baghdadi has global ambitions. He claims to have several thousand suicide bombers ready to attack Western targets, and if he gains the power to implement his plans, 9/11 will seem just a small event by comparison. That is why the West needs to interfere. ISIS must be stopped and their bases destroyed, better today than tomorrow.

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