While the international media has reported on the surge of violence that has plagued many parts of Iraq including Samarra, an Iraqi city lying directly north of Baghdad, few have actually described the true nature of the clashes. Samarra, which is a predominantly Sunni city, finds itself once again in the middle of a violent storm as Islamic militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have attempted to seize control of the city and purge it of all Shia residents.
Human rights groups including Shia Rights Watch and representatives of the Imam Shirazi Foundation have been monitoring the situation very closely and are concerned that the authorities and the international community have failed to grasp the sheer magnitude of the threat to city’s residents including its large Shia community. Security forces posted in and around the city recounted how armed militants travelling in a large convoy simultaneously assaulted checkpoints in the east and west of the city to break through the city’s defences.
To better understand what is happening in Samarra it is key to look at ISIS’ recent movements in the immediate region. Over the past few weeks ISIS militants have moved against Fallujah and Ramadi, which are located within the so-called Sunni Triangle.
With ISIS in control of several areas, the group is clearly attempting to carve a Sunni buffer zone within Iraq, a springboard of sorts from which to plan further attacks against the central government. In Mosul, ISIS militants have targeted Shias. No longer a simple terror group with limited reach or ambitions, ISIS seeks to establish itself as a sovereign entity and it wants to use Iraq as the cornerstone of its Islamic Caliphate.
Residents in Samarra, who remember only too well the 2006 and 2007 violence when radicals targeted the Al-Askari Mosque, have said to be beside themselves with fear as ISIS has declared war on their community. Again Islamic militants are covering the city, calling on people to join their Jihad against the government and instil fear. Imam Sharazi’s office has confirmed that over 400 ISIS militants, all heavily armed have entered Samarra, sending waves of panic across the city.
As many as 54 people have been killed over the past few days and scores more have been injured. Hundreds of residents have already fled the city, hoping to find refuge in nearby cities and villages where ISIS has little reach. By targeting Samarra, ISIS seeks to deliver a blow at the heart of the Shia community, a warning of sorts of the type of targeted violence the group wants to carry out.
But Samarra is refusing to bow to terror. Already local residents have organized themselves into civilian militia, keen to back the efforts of the Iraqi armed forces. Nearby villages have flocked to Samarra to offer their support. Many have vowed to protect the Al-Askari shrine, whether Sunni or Shia for the sake of national cohesion.