Perhaps the most important victory so far by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the extremist group tearing through Iraq, was not overwhelming the much larger Iraqi military or even seizing vast areas of northwest Iraq, including the major city of Mosul. It was convincing regular Iraqis that have come under ISIS rule to trust them.
"We have no problems, no blasts, no assassinations. We now feel the freedom. We are now in safe hands," a 42-year-old car mechanic from Mosul told the Financial Times' Borzou Daragahi and Erika Solomon of life in ISIS-controlled Mosul. While many residents of this city fled when the extremist group took over, fearing a severe Taliban-style government, things may have actually improved for most people there, and some who fled are returning. "Many of those interviewed said they preferred life now in the besieged city," the reporters write of their phone interviews with Mosul residents.
ISIS looks like it might be winning the battle for Iraqis' hearts and minds in the Sunni areas it has seized, and this could be enormously bad for Iraq's crisis. It could make ISIS more powerful and more resilient in the mostly-Sunni northwest. Maybe worse, it could increase the possibility of the crisis spiraling into all-out civil war.
One of the drivers of the conflict is that Iraq's government, which is dominated by the country's Shia Muslim majority, has badly mistreated the Sunni Muslim minority based in the north. ISIS, who are Sunni extremists, have risen in part by exploiting Sunni resentments against the government, and by linking up with local and national Sunni armed groups. So by actually improving life for the mostly-Sunni population of Mosul, ISIS is making people there more likely to support ISIS's takeover, more likely to resist any efforts by the Iraqi army to retake the city, and less likely to help the army uproot ISIS.
Mosul residents told the Financial Times that ISIS sacked alcohol shops and tore down a church that was under construction, but that otherwise personal freedoms have been unchanged. Their one complaint was the lack of electricity, which they blamed on the central Iraqi government, and said they were cheering on ISIS to seize a nearby refinery to fix the issue.
The trick that ISIS has pulled off here is seizing Mosul but not ruling it directly. The group appears to have handed authority for the large city over to local, tribal, Sunni armed groups. Those groups share ISIS's hatred of the Iraqi national government, so they're happy to help oust the Iraqi army, but unlike ISIS they are not as fixated on imposing extremist Islamism. "There is no ISIS in Mosul," a 58-year-old Mosul resident told the Financial Times. "The ones controlling city are now the clans. The power is with the tribes."
All of this strengthens ISIS. They get a base of popular support, an arrangement that makes local Sunni armed clans happy, and because they're not busy running Mosul they have more fighters to throw at the front lines.
This could also increase the risk of Iraq's crisis becoming a full-blown civil war, which is remote but real. A report out on Friday by the International Crisis Group warns that civil war, while not inevitable, could "be triggered by a disproportionate Iraqi Shiite and Iranian response that would cause Sunni ranks to close around the jihadis." In other words, if the Iraqi government is too aggressive in re-taking northern cities like Mosul, and too aggressive in putting down any pro-ISIS fighters there, that could actually convince more Iraqi Sunnis to take up arms against the government.
There is a silver lining to all this, though. Because ISIS is not controlling Mosul (and presumably other cities) directly, but instead working through local armed clans, that makes ISIS reliant on those clans. If ISIS and its other Sunni allies splinter or begin infighting, as disorganized insurgent coalitions often do, they will become much less effective and the Iraqi government would have a much easier time overtaking them.
Maybe more importantly, the Iraqi government will have to make some gains in the fight for Sunnis' hearts and minds, which it is losing very badly right now. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has convinced Sunnis that his government is bad for them; this is part of why the US and Iran are pushing for a new leader. If a new leader does come in, and he can persuade Sunnis that they would be better off by supporting reconciliation and peace, that is one of the most important things that Iraq can do to overcome ISIS's gains there.