IS tightens its sectarian rule as Iraq taps new president

Fouad Massoum was elected as Iraq's president while the jihadi group the Islamic State destroyed Christian shrines and imposed Islamic dress on women in the country's north.

By , Staff writer

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    People pick through the rubble of the destroyed Mosque of The Prophet Younis, or Jonah, in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, July 24, 2014.
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Iraq took another step on Thursday toward ending the political crisis that helped foster the rise of the Islamic State (IS) with the election of a new president. But the move is only one of many that must be taken to begin reversing the bounding gains made by the jihadi group in recent months.

Fouad Massoum, a veteran Kurdish politician, was elected to replace President Jalal Talabani, also a Kurd. The presidential post is largely a symbolic one, Reuters notes, but putting someone in place is an example of the kind of consensus that has been in short supply since the April parliamentary election. The election could be a step toward a greater US military role in Iraq. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said Thursday that the US is waiting to see what kind of government takes shape before getting any further involved.

Recommended: How much do you know about US-Iraq relations? Take our quiz.

“To precipitously take military action might gain some tactical advantage,” General Dempsey said at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado. “But it wouldn’t do much for us to build the kind of strategy that I think we need.”

The election of a speaker a couple weeks ago was similarly noted as a sign of progress. But The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy wrote at the time that without a strong military to give a new government enforcement capabilities, the election wouldn't mean much.

[W]hile Sunni Arab lawmaker Salim al-Juburi was the runaway winner of the vote, and maneuvering is underway to try to deny Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a third successive term in his post, there's no political scenario in Baghdad that could quickly address Iraq's true crisis: The collapse of its military. 

In fact, it hardly matters who takes the reins at this point. While it would be hard to find a candidate less popular than Mr. Maliki among the country's Sunni Arabs and its independence-minded Kurdish minority, building an effective military is a project of years, not weeks or months. 

IS's strength in northern Iraq, where in the last 24 hours it was reportedly destroyed a Christian shrine and imposed strict Islamic dress on all local women, also indicates why a vote in Baghdad is only a tiny step toward reversing the group's gains. 

The destruction of Jonah's tomb (Nabi Yunus) in Mosul, the burial site of a prophet, is the latest iteration of anti-Christian violence by the group. Agence France-Presse reports that men rigged the shrine with explosives in an hour Thursday, then blew the site up. IS has destroyed or damaged 30 shrines and 15 Shiite places of worship since it overran swaths of Iraq last month. 

The group also issued guidelines on how women in Mosul should dress, ordering that they cover their hands and feet, wear a full face veil and voluminous clothing that does not show the shape of the body, and they have banned the wearing of perfume, Reuters reports. Women have been told they can never walk without a male guardian, and shopkeepers were told to put face veils on their mannequins.

The guidelines are policed by "vice patrols" that answer to a "morality committee," according to Reuters. 

Mr. Murphy sums up its rule of terror, which gives exception to no group – not even fellow Sunnis:

Murder is their answer to anyone who doesn't share their twisted vision of their faith. They brand as apostates and worthy of slaughter fellow Sunni Arabs who are uncomfortable with beheadings and torture for breaches of the group's version of Islamic law. They reserve special hatred for Shiite Muslims, promising their own version of the Final Solution for them. And in areas under the control of IS (known as ISIS until recently), Christians were given a simple choice last Thursday: Pay a fortune in protection money, convert, or die.

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In Mosul – Iraq's third-largest city and now under the group's control – the Christians are all gone. In 2003, the city was home to about 40,000 Christians. By 2009, their numbers had dwindled to a few thousand. Since last Thursday, the remaining Christians fled.

But Murphy predicts that the Islamic State's brutality, which has so far cowed Iraqis into submission, will ultimately backfire.

The horrific reality of the jihadis vision of a "caliphate" couldn't be more clear – and that's one reason they'll probably ultimately fail. While Iraqis are terrified of IS for now, the IS brand of systematic brutality is likely to ultimately see the Iraqi Sunni Arab community it claims to protect and support turn on it, much as Sunni Arab Iraqis turned on its previous incarnation a few years ago.

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