The battle for the city is on, raising both the likelihood and the stakes of an ugly sectarian conflict as Shia militias rush to defend holy shrines that they fear ISIS’s Sunni jihadists will destroy:
Thousands of Shia fighters have rushed to the central Iraqi city of Samarra to defend two shrines that were blown up by insurgents eight years ago, triggering the sectarian war that almost destroyed the country. Convoys of fighters were seen being escorted north by Iraqi police trucks from Baghdad early on Friday and many have now reached the city where insurgents – led by the Sunni militant group the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (Isis) – were in control after a lightning strike south.
The volunteer Shia fighters were quickly assembled after Iraqi forces abandoned their positions in most of the area, leaving only a small number of troops to guard the Imam al-Askari shrines. Samarra is the fourth northern city to have all but fallen out of government control. The embattled prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, appears to have drawn battle lines further south in Taiji, hoping to defend Baghdad against insurgents who have occupied the north virtually unopposed.
How ISIS behaves in Samarra might give us a clue as to its endgame:
ISIS operations around Samarra during this phase of its northern offensive will be an important indicator of its ultimate intent and its estimate of its own capabilities. If ISIS means to continue a blitzkrieg offensive toward Baghdad it will likely need to bypass Samarra to maintain momentum and conserve forces. But Samarra is extremely significant in itself.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s destruction of the al-Askari Shrine in 2006 ignited the sectarian civil war that had been simmering before then. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will surely feel a great deal of pressure to prevent a repetition of such an event and may well attempt to concentrate forces to prevent it. Iraqi forces, militias, and Iranian proxies have long been in Samarra precisely to protect the shrine. ISIS could therefore attack the shrine for any of several reasons. It could seek to draw the ISF into a meeting engagement in hopes of defeating arriving ISF troops piecemeal. It could intend to destroy the rebuilt shrine to inflame the sectarian war even further. It could even find irresistible the prospect of fighting the actual Iranian forces and proxies thought to be in the city. Any or all of these conditions could lead to a major battle in Samarra, or the ISIS command might instead decide to bypass the shrine and continue south.
Last night, The Guardian’s live blog ran an account from one Samarra resident who seemed pretty happy to see the ISIS militants:
Everyone in Samara is happy with the fighters’ management of the city. They have proved to be professional and competent. We have water and power; there is a shortage in fuel because Maliki’s forces have cut the bridges between Samara and Baghdad. The fighters themselves did not harm or kill anyone as they swept forward. Any man who hands over his arm is safe, whatever his background. This attitude is giving a huge comfort to people here.
Four days ago, Maliki’s military dirty force raided Al-Razaq mosque in the city, brought a few locals whom they picked up from different parts in Samara and killed them in the mosque. What do you think the people feeling would be towards these military forces? We have lived enough years of injustice, revenge and tyranny and we can’t stand any more.