BAGHDAD – Using its own version of soft and hard power, the Islamic State is crushing resistance across northern Iraq so successfully that its promise to march on Baghdad may no longer be unrealistic bravado.
While conventional states try to win hearts and minds abroad before necessarily resorting to military force, the jihadist group is also achieving its aims by psychological means — backed up by a reputation for extreme violence.
The Islamic State, which in June captured a vast stretch of territory in the north — including the largest city, Mosul — used this strategy when its fighters met armed resistance from the town of al-Alam for 13 days running.
They kidnapped 30 local families and rang up the town’s most influential citizens with a simple message about the hostages: “You know their destiny if you don’t let us take over the town.”
Within hours, tribesmen and local leaders caved in to save the families. The black flag of the Sunni militants, who are bent on overthrowing the Shiite-led Iraqi government, was soon flying over government buildings and police stations in al-Alam.
Weeks later, only a few masked gunmen guard checkpoints surrounding al-Alam at night, so comfortable is the Islamic State in its control through fear.
“One hundred percent of people are angry that the Islamic State is here but there is nothing we can do,” said a scared resident who spoke by telephone on condition of anonymity.
Similar accounts of victories by the Islamic State, which has also seized territory in neighboring Syria during the civil war there, are repeated across other towns and villages in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad.
Hostility to the jihadis in some of the majority Sunni areas — where from 2006 to 2008 local people fought al-Qaida in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor — has not stopped them from taking and holding territory.
Breaking the will of local populations has allowed the relatively small force to surge south, focusing their fight most recently on battlefields just 70 km (45 miles) outside of Baghdad.
The fighters have boosted their arms and equipment along the way, making the seizure of weapons and vehicles a condition of deals struck with communities they have coerced into submission.
U.S. military and Iraqi security officials estimate the Islamic State has at least 3,000 fighters in Iraq, rising toward 20,000 when new recruits since last month’s blitzkrieg are included.
Some Sunni communities still refuse to make common cause with the Islamist hard-liners. But anger with Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has encouraged some Sunni armed groups to stick with the Islamic State since they seized Mosul on June 10, according to officials and tribal leaders.
“(The Islamic State) has become the face to this uprising or insurgency,” said Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdish region’s National Security Council.
Other groups opposed to Baghdad have joined the Islamic State, attracted by its recent successes. “They believed in the concept of the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Barzani said.
Some allied Sunni armed groups have taken control of communities initially beaten into submission by the Islamic State, said Sunni Sheik Wissam Hardan, a veteran anti-al-Qaida fighter. “(The Islamic State) is depending on sleeper cells they have to hold the areas, and the Islamic Army, Mujahideen Army and the Naqshbandi are now waving the same flag and cooperating,” he said.
Sunni fighters with extensive experience fighting first American forces and then al-Qaida appear to be putting aside ideological differences with the Islamic State, at least for now, to pursue a common goal.
The militants remain far outnumbered by government forces, which have been bolstered by as many as tens of thousands of Shiite militia members plus ordinary volunteers who responded to a call to arms by Iraq’s most influential cleric.
But the presence of militias has helped the Islamic State as armed Sunni factions close ranks against the hard-line Shiite groups, whom they accuse of carrying out sectarian killings.
The battered state of the Iraqi military and the growing Sunni-Shiite sectarian divide have also benefited the Islamic State as it challenges Baghdad’s control of towns such as Dhuluiya, just a couple of hours’ drive from the capital.
When Islamic State gunmen roared into Dhuluiya in a long convoy of trucks and stolen military vehicles, they went to local leaders of the Jabour tribe with a message: Join us as fighters or stay at home and out of our way.
“We have no problem with you, our main goal is to take Baghdad,” they supposedly told the community leaders, according to several residents.
That goal did not sit well with the people of Dhuluiya, many of whom had resisted the U.S. invasion in 2003 but later joined the Americans in fighting al-Qaida. About 2,000 locals volunteered to fight alongside the police to keep the militants from overrunning the town and stealing weapons and vehicles.
Control of the town has changed hands several times during weeks of fighting between the militants and the police, joined by locals and occasionally government reinforcements.
“I have no faith in the government forces,” said a resident who joined the police for a while but gave up last week. He sent his wife and three children to a nearby village and is staying with his brother to protect their shops.
An estimated 1,000 men, many of them volunteers who joined government forces only recently, arrived last week from the Shiite holy shrine city of Samarra to reinforce the locals fighting alongside the police. But the resident said they were no match for the jihadis. “I know they are not capable of fighting the Islamic State,” he said.
When the Islamic State fighters melted away temporarily, the government forces and volunteers pulled out too, heading back south to the battlefield around Samarra, thus encouraging the return of the militants.
“They are not making any progress while the Islamic State is moving fast,” the man said.
Residents that have not fled the violence seem increasingly resigned to the idea that Dhuluiya will fall to the militants.
A new, particularly punishing phase of the Islamic State’s campaign appears to have begun over the weekend. Writing on an affiliated Twitter account on July 19, the Islamic State wrote that it was hitting the town and the “apostate” residents still there with 82- and 120-mm mortars.
Local police said militants fired 50-60 mortar rounds at the town overnight the same day, killing a woman and child.
The Islamic State has taken a similarly heavy-handed approach to quell opposition elsewhere in Salahuddin province.
Further north in the village of Zowiya, wedged between the Tigris River and a small mountain range, the Islamic State launched a daylong ground assault backed by heavy shelling last week, all but leveling the community after locals tried to mobilize.