The Islamic State nears Baghdad

The Feast of Saint Therese of Lisieux

What is going on here?  The Islamic State appears to be advancing on the Baghdad Airport and nobody cares.  Rear Admiral John Kirby acknowledged (you have to scroll down quite a bit to get to the point where he actually talks about Baghdad in response to a reporter’s question) the presence of Islamic State forces within five miles of Baghdad International Airport but seemed rather dismissive of the whole thing.  Oh, the Iraqis will take care of it; they are actually a lot better than you think.  This seems to be the mantra coming out of Washington.  Do they really believe this?

My own personal opinion is that Baghdad would be a tough nut for the Islamic State to crack.  It is an urban megalopolis filled with several armed militias that are populated by people who would be overwhelmingly hostile to the Islamic State and its ideology.  And the forces of the Islamic State don’t seem nearly sufficient numbers wise to capture and control a city that big.  And one would think that a massive wave of air strikes combined with the complete and rabid hostility of Baghdad’s Shi’ite population would stop any advance of the would be caliphate in its tracks.  Maybe this is what the White House and the Pentagon are thinking?

But one would also have to think that the Islamic State has taken this into account.  So what is going on here?  Probably more than meets the eye, as is usual in these cases.

First of all the Islamic State seems to be a far more formidable organization than a lot of people want to give it credit for.  An organization that can manage the siege of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) in the far north of central Syria on the Turkish border, while at the same time conducting an advance on the Baghdad International Airport 350 miles away as the cruise missile flies and maintaining a fight against the Kurds on the northern stretch of what used to be the Iraq/Syria border while all the time being under threat of US airstrikes throughout their entire theater of operations is not a pushover.

And then there is the strange deer in the headlights posture of the government of the most materially powerful nation in the world: the United States of America.  Its air campaign against the Islamic State has hardly been what one would call devastating; its Secret Service can’t seem to stay out of its own way when it comes to protecting the American President; and now there is a case of Ebola in of all places Dallas, Texas.  Maybe all of the decades of moral insanity in American society have now begun to take their toll, maybe not.  Who knows?

I don’t know what the Islamic State’s plans for Baghdad are.  My opinion is that they would love to find some way to take out the airport and to put the city under some sort of siege and/or drive a significant portion of Baghdad’s population out of the city through terrorism.  But I could be entirely wrong.  Who knows what they are going to do?  But after almost two months of US airstrikes in Iraq and a couple of weeks of those same airstrikes in Syria the initiative clearly remains with the Islamic State and that is not a good thing.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.  And join the Rosary Confraternity!

Take this for what it is worth…

The Feast of the Holy Archangels Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael

There have been a string of troubling reports in the last week or so coming out of Iraq about its army and their fight against the Islamic State.  Now there is another report coming out of the UK that the Islamic State is again advancing around Baghdad.  I am not certain that Canon Andrew White, who is cited in that report, is actually in Iraq right now.  His blog reports that he went back to the United Kingdom in early September for medical treatment and was in the United States on a fundraising trip as recently as ten days ago.  So there may be some hyperbole in his report of 1,000 Iraqis killed and the Islamic State being within a kilometer of Baghdad.

Still the United States has been conducting airstrikes in Iraq for more than a month now and the Islamic State does not seem to have been seriously crippled by them.  None of the cities they took over in June, Mosul or Tikrit, or even Fallujah have been retaken by the Iraqi army nor does the fighting capacity of Iraq’s armed forces seem to have significantly improved at this time.  There is also the rather amusing report that the first British strike mission on Iraq returned to its base on Cyprus with weapons still intact.  The Defence Ministry statement seemed to vacillate on the question of whether the Tornadoes were on an ‘armed reconnaissance mission’ or simply couldn’t find anything worth shooting at.  It is important to remember that the men fighting for the Islamic State either spent years fighting the US in Iraq or have been trained by those who did.  While the military prowess of the United States and its allies is formidable and could wipe the floor with the Islamic State if it was deployed to its full potential (which it hasn’t been and likely won’t be anytime soon), these men have been up against it before and won’t be so easily cowed by it as they once might have been.

Still Baghdad would be a tough nut to crack for the Islamic State, and I wouldn’t expect them to launch a great onslaught against it anytime soon.  It is a great metropolis and the population is mostly Shi’ite and therefore incredibly hostile to them.  There likely course of action would be to strengthen their hold on areas around the city and to disrupt communications as much as they possibly can while massacring any outlying and isolated Iraqi army units they can find in order to strike terror into the population.  I suspect that their goal for now is to do what they can to completely cut Baghdad off from the north while putting themselves in a position to effect some sort of a siege on the city.  Whether they will be successful is an open question at this point.

And just to remind everyone the border between Syria and Iraq still is open and is being erased.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.  And join the Rosary Confraternity!

A barren stretch of desert and the end of a world

For most of the first three quarters of the twentieth century this was the failed dream of Arab nationalists like Gamal abd al-Nasser: to undraw the borders of the former Ottoman Empire that the European powers who dismantled that empire drew after the First World War.  Today it might actually be happening.  The militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام) have now seized the great bulk of Iraq’s border crossings with Syria (the Kurds in the north now hold one) along with Iraq’s one border crossing with Jordan along with the town of Rutbah that sits astride the highway leading from Baghdad to the Jordanian border.  The Iraqi government, has now effectively lost control of its western border regions and after taking the al-Qa’im crossing yesterday and the al-Waleed crossing today the militants whose operations straddle both sides of the Iraq/Syria border have, for the moment at least, erased that border.

The Iraqi commanders in Baghdad announced that their forces had conducted a ‘tactical retreat’ from the border crossings and were regrouping for an assault to retake them.  We shall see.  If the ISIL can hold their gains then they will have transformed this barren stretch of wasteland (save al-Qa’im in the Euphrates valley the Iraqi/Syrian/Jordanian border runs through one of the most inhospitable deserts on earth) into the birth of a whole new Middle East and possibly a new world.

It isn’t just a matter of a few border crossings or even a few cities falling into the hands of marauding Islamic militants.  There has been a progressive breakdown of central authority in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003 and a massive breakdown of central authority in Syria since the revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s regime started in 2011.  Prolonged absences of trust in or respect for or fear of the central government followed by a sudden onslaught such as the ISIL just launched have a way of permanently changing things.  It is doubtful that either of the regimes in Baghdad or Damascus possess or will possess any time soon the strength or the resources to remove the ISIL from the scene and to erase what they have done in the last two weeks.  ISIL is a more formidable force than anyone seems to have realized.  After their first victories in Mosul and Tikrit when the road to Baghdad seemed open they didn’t take it like everyone (myself included) thought they would.  Instead they have focused on securing their flanks in Diyala and Anbar provinces and eliminating the Iraqi/Syrian border to gain them freedom of movement and to show that they could in fact destroy that border which has always been one of their goals.  They will of course have to move on Baghdad at some point in order to dismantle the Iraqi state as the world has known it for the last 80 years.  If there is any kind of central government in Baghdad there is always the great possibility that it will regroup and destroy them, but if that goes away then there will be very little threat anymore to the existence of ISIL.  And then they could move on Damascus.  Time will tell but the earth is moving under our feet here.

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and for the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim people.

Shock and Awe 11 years on: a meditation

A personal moment here: I have been musing on Iraq a lot lately and, forgive me, I am a Catholic and Catholics who choose to study and learn the Faith and its history have an annoying habit of developing very long memories.  Looking at this video of the ferocious start to the United States’ military campaign in Iraq almost a dozen years ago now along with all of the hoohah that went along with it and pondering the state of Iraq and the entire Middle East today I cannot help but recall Polybius’ rendering of Scipio Aemilianus’ words in what should have been his moment of supreme triumph as he watched Rome’s great enemy Carthage being destroyed on his own order:

 

Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies. 2 After being wrapped in thought for long, and realizing that all cities, nations, and authorities must, like men, meet their doom; that this happened to Ilium, once a prosperous city, to the empires of Assyria, Media, and Persia, the greatest of their time, and to Macedonia itself, the brilliance of which was so recent, either deliberately or the verses escaping him, he said:

A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,

And Priam and his people shall be slain.1

3 And when Polybius speaking with freedom to him, for he was his teacher, asked him what he meant by the words, they say that without any attempt at concealment he named his own country, for which he feared when he reflected on the fate of all things human. Polybius actually heard him and recalls it in his history.

All nations and all peoples come to ruin, most by their own hand in some form or another.  Only the Catholic Church will still remain at the end.  Aemilianus’ thoughts about Rome’s future proved accurate enough in time, and I do not think that the authors of the attack on Baghdad will have to wait nearly so many centuries to have the same fate visited on our cities as this:

ἔσσεται ἧμαρ ὅτ’ ἄν ποτ’ ὀλώλῃ Ἴλιος ἱρὴ
καὶ Πρίαμος καὶ λαὸς ἐῠμμελίω Πριάμοιο

Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Antioch, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient status as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome; for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.

The Turn of Tikrit

The forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant ( الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام) continued a rapid advance south of Mosul today seizing the city of Tikrit (95 miles north of Baghdad) and large parts of the city of Baiji (120 miles north of Baghdad).  Heavy fighting was also reported in the Shi’ite holy city of Samarra (about 60 miles north of Baghdad).  This onslaught means that the ISIL has effectively cut off the highway that runs north of Baghdad through Tikrit, Samarra, and Baiji to Mosul.  Any Iraqi reinforcements sent by the central government in Baghdad will have to fight their way through these cities to wrest Mosul out of the Islamic state’s control.  The only immediated threat to the city at present is the Kurdish peshmerga militia dug in on the east bank of the Tigris River.  Whether the Kurds will seek to intervene on Baghdad’s behalf is doubtful but the possibility shouldn’t be entirely dismissed since the rapid ISIL advance may begin to pose a threat to the stability of the Kurdish region.

It is difficult to imagine the ISIL launching a sustained assault on Baghdad (an urban metropolis of many millions) simply due to their lack of numbers, but this group has proven themselves to be determined, resourceful, audacious, and extremely cunning so I really wouldn’t put anything past them.  And it should be noted that the rapid collapse of Iraqi forces in Mosul and the surrounding region allowed a mass of armored vehicles and even some military helicopters to fall into the hands of ISIL which will aid them greatly in any push on Baghdad.

The world is changing.  I do not know what the end result of this chaos in Iraq will be.  ISIL could advance too far too fast and find themselves vulnerable to counterattack (they seem to have a long exposed flank to the east of Highway 1), but maybe they won’t.  And the longer they can sustain these gains the harder it will be to dislodge them.  And since their ideology to which they are ruthlessly committed is to destroy the borders of the Middle East drawn up by the European powers after the First World War and to replace it with a unified Islamic state this will, if accomplished, create a whole new world.

In any case pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries on Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries on Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome and for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.