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How an ISIS attempt to free prisoners in Baghdad could spiral into something much worse

Recruits for an Iraqi Shia militia.
Recruits for an Iraqi Shia militia.
(Ali al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On Thursday, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISISlaunched two attacks inside Baghdad, targeting a prison and the headquarters of a major Shia militia group. On Friday, there were more attacks — dozens of Iraqis were killed by car bombs targeted at a Shia mosque and heavily Shia marketplaces. These too were most likely ISIS operations.

Although this shouldn't be taken as a sign that ISIS is about to conquer the Iraqi capital, but it's still pretty awful news. It proves that US airstrikes haven't seriously disrupted the group's ability to launch attacks around the country, let alone hold territory. And it may set off a long-feared round of ethnic cleansing inside Baghdad, a horror in its own right that would paradoxically strengthen ISIS.

A weak group couldn't have launched this attack

ISIS attacks Baghdad September 18

VBIED means Vehicle Born Improved Explosive Device, or car bomb; the S in SVBIED stands for suicide, indicating a driven explosive vehicle or car bomb detonated by someone inside it. (Institute for the Study of War)

The Thursday night attacks in Baghdad were highly coordinated. According to the Institute for the Study of War's Ahmed Ali, who tracks ISIS' military campaign in Iraq very closely, this was "the first infantry-like, complex, and penetrating attack in Baghdad city by ISIS since the fall of Mosul in June of this year."

ISIS car bombs, mortars, and suicide bombs hit two targets: the Adala Prison in northern Baghdad, and offices belonging to the Badr Organization, one of the most powerful — and radical — Shia militia groups fighting ISIS. The idea, according to Ali, was to break into the Adala prison. That's a classic ISIS tactic: the group built up a large portion of its strength during a 2012-2013 campaign that broke inmates out of several weakly guarded Iraqi prisons and recruited them to the ISIS cause. Not incidentally, the attack failed.

This isn't the first move in a campaign to take Baghdad. It's not aimed at taking and holding targets, or seriously softening up the Iraqi government's heavy defenses for a later assault. "The attacks will not likely divert great deal of resources of the [Iraqi Security Forces] and Iraqi Shia militias," Ali writes.

However, the attacks do demonstrate the severe limits of America's air campaign against ISIS. While US airstrikes have helped local forces push ISIS back in some parts of Iraq and limited its ability to mass its forces for ground offensives, they haven't fundamentally disrupted the group's ability to launch attacks from its core territory in northwest Iraq. Launching a wave of terrorist attacks inside Baghdad isn't easy.

Beware ethnic cleansing in Baghdad

Baghdad Change

A map showing ethnic cleansing directed against Sunnis in Baghdad during the American occupation. (BBC)

The really worrying thing about these attacks isn't what they tell us about ISIS. It's what they portend for ethnic violence inside Baghdad.

One of the most important, and most underplayed, stories of post-2003 Iraq is the ethnic cleansing of Baghdad. The capital was a locus of sectarian violence during the Iraqi insurgency, a problem for which the Shia militias developed a horrific solution: kill or push out the Sunnis. The above map shows the effects of the campaign: from 2005, when it began, to 2007, Shia militias forced Sunnis out of mixed neighborhoods and the capital altogether. This created, in prolific Iraq blogger Joel Wing's words, "a segregated and Shia dominated capital."

Baghdad's remaining Sunnis are by no means immune from a replay — and that's why the ISIS attacks on Shia institutions are so worrying. The Badr Organization was one of the leading militias in the 2005 to 2007 ethnic cleansing campaign; targeting it and Shia mosques/marketplaces seems almost deliberately designed to inflame Sunni-Shia tension in the capital. If these attacks continue, the likelihood that Shia groups decide that Sunni communities need to be destroyed rises — both because such communities might host ISIS operatives and also out of sheer, brutal revenge.

That the slaughter of Baghdad's Sunnis would be a humanitarian catastrophe is obvious. Less obvious is that it would work to ISIS' benefit. The group's strength in Iraq depends on Sunnis believing that the government is too Shia to be trusted. That means ISIS wants the war to be as sectarian as possible, a goal it pushes by wantonly killing Shias and Iraqi minorities.

Shia murder of Sunnis in Baghdad fits the ISIS script to a tee. Shia militias are deeply bound up with the Iraqi military, and Sunnis would see their actions as representative of what life under government rule promises. The worse life for Sunnis in Baghdad becomes, the better-off ISIS is.

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