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How did Sunni insurgents gain momentum in Iraq?

June 10, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
Known as ISIS or ISIL, a Sunni militant group has taken over parts of the northern city of Mosul, a strategic hub for Iraq’s oil industry, as well as a gateway to Syria. Judy Woodruff is joined by Laith Kubba of the National Endowment for Democracy and Kimberly Kagan of the Institute for the Study of War to discuss the larger impact of the takeover on Iraq and its neighbors.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on what this takeover means for Iraq, for the region and beyond, I’m joined by Laith Kubba. He’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy. And Kimberly Kagan, she’s president of the Institute for the Study of War.

And we welcome you both.

So, Kimberly Kagan, let me start with you.

We know these insurgents have been creating havoc for some time, launching attacks. How important is this particular attack, taking over the city of Mosul?

KIMBERLY KAGAN, Institute for the Study of War: This attack that the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, or the Levant, has launched on Muslims is incredibly important, because it is the beginning of a campaign and a push beyond Mosul into the areas toward Baghdad that the Islamic State of Iraq wants to govern.

It seeks to establish an emirate or a state and govern terrain inside Iraq, as well as governing the terrain inside of Syria, in Raqqa, where it has announced the beginning of its emirate. I believe Mosul will be its new capital.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Laith Kubba, how do you see it? And why is this happening now? How is it that this insurgent group has gotten to this level of where they can wreak this kind of chaos in the country?

LAITH KUBBA, National Endowment for Democracy: Well, over the last two years, I think they have been growing steadily.

All the signs were there. Nobody wanted to read them. They moved from being an offshoot, a terrorist group — and there, people might think we can live with terrorist groups and the skirmishes they create, but this has become an army of 10,000 to 15,000, very well-equipped with rocket launchers, some air missile — missiles, and they are so coordinated

I think they have become a magnet for more soldiers to join them. This latest attack, not only one attack — it’s coordinated attacks on five cities in Iraq — has given them immense momentum and credibility, and they’re going to become a serious threat to the region.

I’m not really sure if they can hold territory for long, but certainly they have achieved their objective in saying, we’re a force, and I think hundreds will join them, and this is going to become a regional problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kimberly Kagan, how did they get to this to have this capability? Because it wasn’t the case when the U.S. pulled out of Iraq.

KIMBERLY KAGAN: The Islamic State of Iraq is no longer a terrorist group. It is an army.

It is an insurgency, and it has grown in its capabilities inside of Iraq by really fielding an army, by freeing prisoners that were held in Iraqi prisons, by testing the Iraqi security forces, by taking control piecemeal.

And if we try to confront it as a terrorist organization, we will misunderstand its nature. It is an insurgency. It is fighting for terrain, and it has really come of importance as Prime Minister Maliki started to exclude Sunnis from his government and create resentment among the Sunni population in Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s what I want to ask you about, Laith Kubba. What is the role of the Maliki government, in that this is happening under their noses?

LAITH KUBBA: I think there are two elements here.

There is one element — the emergence of ISIS is very much a product of what is going on in Syria. But I think…

LAITH KUBBA: But I think the failure of politics in Baghdad and the failure certainly of the Iraqi army is a direct result of what’s going on in Baghdad.

Bear in mind, the prime minister is the commander in chief. He’s been prime minister for eight years. Iraq is an oil-producing country. And its army could not stand their ground in front of hundreds of attackers? Just think of a country that managed to keep Iran at check for eight years, where the same country now is not capable of keeping an insurgency at check?

I think, for Iraqis, this is an evidence that something is fundamentally wrong in the way their country is governed. Even the electoral process that is repeated over and over again is not producing a good government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kimberly Kagan, what’s to stop them, ISIS, or ISIL, depending on what you call them, from just going — doing what they want and taking over any territory they want?

KIMBERLY KAGAN: I think that the organization has momentum.

The organization has aimed for a year to dissolve the Iraqi security forces and has named a campaign, the soldiers’ hardest campaign, that it’s been conducting for a year with that goal. I think that the Iraqi security forces are breaking and will continue to break, even though Prime Minister Maliki has declared a state of emergency.

And the only question now is, are they able really to defend Baghdad and its environs? And will they be able to mobilize, as they already have, Shia militants grouped backed by Iran and trained by Hezbollah that have fought in Syria in order to defend the Shia areas of Baghdad and south of Baghdad that Maliki relies on?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what we are looking for, some kind of showdown around Baghdad?

LAITH KUBBA: Well, just to emphasize the point, Iraq, Iraqis expect a state with an army, not militias that are sponsored or sent to Syria to fight or called upon to defend a city.

Iraq should have an army, and I think it’s a sign of how far things have gone to see militias roaming trying to defend cities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Less than a minute, but both of you — Laith Kubba, to you first.

Effect on the region? Why does this matter in the broader region? You have got the civil war going on right next door in Syria. The effect on countries in the area?

LAITH KUBBA: The fact that this army now controls territory, so well-equipped and so capable and with momentum, I would worry about Jordan, because that’s a very soft front. They can push there any time. And this group now is increasing in numbers and sophistication.

They’re going to be there for a long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, the same question I asked a minute ago, what’s to stop them from just marching and going where they want?

KIMBERLY KAGAN: Well, I certainly hope that the Iraqi security forces can stop them, but, realistically, what we see now is a safe haven that has developed in Iraq and Syria from which Islamist militants can both launch attacks and train foreign fighters and send them out, and also govern terrain and oppress people.

That is precisely the kind of safe haven that this administration and its predecessor have stated that the United States will not tolerate in the region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that of course raises questions that we will be continuing to look at and want to ask about in the days to come.

Kimberly Kagan, Laith Kubba, we thank you both.

LAITH KUBBA: Thank you.