ISIS propaganda mural pointing out its adversaries. Note the curious absence of the American flag.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, popularly known by its acronym ISIS in the English speaking world has been on a roll since its surprise attack on Mosul, northern Iraq’s most important metropolis. The Iraqi armed forces, initially caught off guard by ISIS’ speedy offensive, are now fighting back against the black-cladded militants in defense of their homeland. Though recently released ISIS propaganda videos are dominated by shots of advancing ISIS militants shouting cries of victory in jubilation, the situation on the ground speaks otherwise. As ISIS shock troops sped towards central Iraq atop of their all too familiar Toyota Hiluxes, they met stiff resistance and were halted as early as June 12 during clashes near Samarra, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s hometown. In the subsequent days, ISIS was again beaten back in several locations by Iraqi forces. Such signs, yet to be picked up by the global media, perhaps adumbrate the weakening of the ISIS blitzkrieg and an imminent new stage in the ongoing conflict. The ISIS leadership, despite being shrewd and calculating, had committed two grave errors in its latest offensive that are possibly going to prevent their men from seizing any place of strategic importance beyond the Samarra frontline.
First and foremost, ISIS failed to open a western front in Anbar province. Whether it is due to the lack of manpower or strategic considerations, the absence of a concentrated eastwards thrust towards the priced capital of Iraq implies that ISIS is quickly losing the chance to pull off a military envelopment upon Baghdad. This means the forces of the central government, reinforced by newly formed Shia militias, would have the opportunity to confront ISIS’ frontal jab head on in a more predictable sector of Baghdad, and would likely achieve a victory in the forthcoming fight.
Map of Baghdad by sectarian composition.
Second, ISIS tirades against Shia Islam are only serving to incentivize Iraqi Shias to rush towards the firing line with the imprimatur of their religious leaders. In his latest harangue, the official spokesperson of ISIS, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urged “ISIS members to push on through Baghdad and into Karbala and Najaf”, cities of utmost religious significance to Shia Muslims. Such statement of extreme hubris is especially alarming given the documented evidence of barbaric treatment of Shia Muslims by ISIS militants. While the goal to conquer Baghdad may be considered political and directed towards the secular regime headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the ambition to sack Najaf and Karbala threatens the very authority of a much greater power axis, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. For more than two decades Ali Sistani has been the most venerated spiritual leader of Shia Islam. The bearer of the title al-marja al-akbar or the “greatest object of emulation”, the Grand Ayatollah is commonly recognized as a paragon of virtue who wields enormous clout over the actions of Shias worldwide. The impetuous statements made by ISIS may be interpreted as an outright threat against the Najaf power center. Not surprisingly the corollary of such recklessness was Sistani’s June 13 promulgation of a fatwa calling for Jihad, an order faithfully heeded by tens and thousands of zealots from Iraq and beyond, thus unleashing the Shia leviathan that ISIS simply cannot subdue singlehandedly.
So what is the likely trajectory of the Iraqi internecine strife in the coming weeks? The differences between Maliki and Sistani were publicized today, but an intra-Iraqi Shia conflict is unlikely to develop since ISIS poses a much greater danger that must be defeated. If the government troops could hold the line at Samarra and hopefully eject ISIS fighters out of Baiji, it will likely compell the Islamic state to focus on consolidating its grip over Sunni-dominated northern Iraq instead of bullheadedly pushing towards Baghdad. In spite of the fact that ISIS still carries heavy momentum at the moment, the lack of a western front and a prematurely declared war against arguably the most powerful man in Iraq, Ali Sistani may well be the double jeopardy needed to stymie ISIS’s strategic objective of unseating the Baghdad government, and furthermore forcing the group into assuming a defensive posture.
(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)
 Bill Roggio, “ISIS’ Advance Halted at Samarra,” The Long War Journal, accessed June 19, 2014, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/06/isiss_southward_adva.php#.
 “ISIS Urges ‘March to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf,’” ITV News, accessed June 19, 2014, http://www.itv.com/news/update/2014-06-12/isis-urges-march-to-baghdad-karbala-and-najaf/.
 Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani Succession In Iraq Not Just About Piety,” Huffington Post, accessed June 20, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/07/grand-ayatollah-ali-al-si_n_528102.html.
 Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Spiritual Leader of Iraq’s Religious Majority Calls for Citizens to Take Up Arms Against Rebels,” Slate, June 13, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2014/06/13/iraq_sistani_cleric_calls_shia_to_defend_government.html.
 “Iraq’s Top Cleric Increases Pressure on Al-Maliki – US News,” US News & World Report, accessed June 20, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2014/06/20/army-militants-regrouping-in-iraq-refinery-attack.