Iraq’s largest Christian town falls to Islamic State

Iraqi and Syrian towns and cities seized by the Islamic State and its allies. Map created by The Long War Journal. Click to view larger map.

The Islamic State has taken control of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian town, and other surrounding towns in an advance eastward into an area formerly held by the Peshmerga, the military force of the Kurdish Regional Government.

“Qaraqosh, Tal Kayf, Bartella and Karamlesh have been emptied of their original population and are now under the control of the militants,” Joseph Thomas, the archbishop of the Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah, told AFP. Qaraqosh (or Bakhdida on the map) has a Chaldean Christian population estimated at 50,000.

The Islamic State advanced into the towns unopposed, according to reports. The Peshmerga, which is considered to be a well-organized and hardened force, withdrew from the towns rather than fighting the Islamic State. The Peshmerga have controlled towns and villages east of Mosul since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The Islamic State’s eastward advance puts the terror group about 20 miles from Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako told AFP that the Islamic State’s advance has created a “a humanitarian disaster” and that more than 100,000 Christians have been forced to leave their homes. “The churches are occupied, their crosses were taken down,” and more than 1,500 documents have been destroyed, he said.

The Islamic State previously issued an ultimatum to Christians in Mosul that they convert to Islam, pay a tax, or be killed. Thousands of Christian families fled Iraq’s second largest city after the Islamic State issued their directive. The Islamic State has also been destroying Christian, Jewish, and Muslim shrines, churches, and mosques in Mosul. Among the religious sites destroyed by the jihadist group are the tomb of Jonah and an accompanying mosque, and the tomb of George.

The Islamic State’s Ninewa Division released a statement on Twitter, claiming it had taken control of 17 towns, villages, and military bases in Ninewa [the list, translated by The Long War Journal, is below]. The Islamic State said it is in full control of the Mosul Dam.

The jihadist group also released a statement on its Twitter account noting that it “launched a ‘big invasion’ yesterday, Aug. 6, on locations of the ‘apostate Kurds and those loyal to them.'” The group said that a German suicide bomber known as Abu Osama al Almani launched a “truck bomb filled with 5 tons of explosive material on a Peshmerga brigade in the Ali Rash/al-Hamdaniya district: 20 people were killed and many were injured.” Another Libyan known as Mu’awiya Al-Libi killed “tens” of Peshmerga fighters in an attack on another Peshmerga unit in the same area. The jihadist group listed other attacks in Ninewa, and claimed to have captured “four Peshmerga soldiers, including a deputy officer.” The Islamic State’s claims could not be verified.

The Islamic State’s gains east of Mosul are part of a larger push by the group to consolidate its control over Ninewa province. Last weekend, the Islamic State took control of Sinjar, a town with a large Yazidi minority; Zumar; and two oil fields. The jihadist group also was reported to have seized control of the Mosul Dam, which generates power and controls floodwaters on the Tigris River. Kurdish officials denied that the Islamic State took the Mosul Dam, but today, reports have emerged that the dam is now under the jihadist group’s control.

The Islamic State’s advances in the north over the past week constitute the group’s first major gains after a blitzkrieg offensive launched on June 10 in conjunction with allied groups that put it in control of Mosul, Tikrit, and a number of cities and towns in Salahaddin, Ninewa, and Diyala provinces. That offensive stalled on the outskirts of Samarra, just north of Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Islamic State controls most of Anbar province and much of northern Babil province. The fighting has largely stalemated as Iraqi forces backed by Shia militias, including many supported by Iran, have failed to regain lost ground but have held most areas under their control.

Across the border in Syria, the Islamic State has taken control of most of Deir al Zour province and has made gains in Homs province as well. Large areas of Raqqah, Hasakah, and Aleppo provinces are also under Islamic State control. Two weeks ago, the Islamic State overran a Syrian army artillery base in Hasakah and seized a large quantity of heavy weapons, including artillery pieces, a tank, and Grad rocket launchers, as well as stockpiles of RPGs, AK-47s, anti-tank rockets, and ammunition.

The Islamic State, which was previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham, declared the establishment of its caliphate on June 29, and appointed Abu Bakr al Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim. Baghdadi appeared for the first time in public at a mosque in Mosul on July 4.

The declaration of the caliphate is controversial in jihadist circles and among Islamic State allies such as the Baathists and other insurgent groups in Iraq. Several al Qaeda affiliates as well as well-respected jihadist ideologues have denounced the Islamic State’s announcement as premature and said the group did not properly consult leading clerics and jihadist groups. Al Qaeda disowned the Islamic State in February after the group refused to follow Ayman al Zawahiri’s orders to reconcile with the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.

List of areas the Islamic State claims it controls after this week’s offensive in Ninewa, from its Aug. 7 statement on Twitter:

1. All of Sinjar municipality and the areas belonging to it.

2. All of Talkif municipality and the areas belonging to it.

3. All of al-Hamdaniya municipality and the areas belonging to it.

4. All of Makhmour municipality and the areas belonging to it.

5. Zammar township and all the villages belonging to it.

6. Rabee’ah township and all the villages belonging to it.

7. Bartala township and all the villages belonging to it.

8. Karam Lays township and all the villages belonging to it.

9. Al-Kweir township and all the villages belonging to it.

10. Wana township and all the villages belonging to it.

11. Large areas in Filfeel township.

12. Large areas of Ba’ashiqa township.

13. Some of the al-Shalalat areas in Mosul.

14. The Sada and Ba’wiza area of Mosul.

15. The oil-rich ‘Ayn Zalah area.

16. The strategic Mosul dam.

17. The large Tumarat base.

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  • Stephanie says:

    So, so sad.
    Where is the administration on this????

  • Mike in San Diego says:

    This is bad. There is no way for any of the countries in the middle east to stand up to IS. Maybe Israel can, but all the Muslim states are vulnerable. It took 100,000 US troops to turn ISI back last time. And I’m pretty sure we are not going back in to help.
    The media needs to show the average American the atrocities that IS commits. Once they see the brutality of the killings maybe then they will wake up to the threat.
    IS must be stopped and their followers must be kept out of USA.

  • Mike E says:

    Pathetically weak response by the USA so far

  • Ayamo says:

    Kurdish sources claim the damn has indeed not been seized by the IS. Nevertheless, the pace of their advance – even when it’s apparently halted at Samarra – is staggering …

  • Birbal Dhar says:

    This is becoming like Bosnia Part 2. I’m hoping the west are giving military supplies to the Kurdistan administration, otherwise the only secular democratic state in the middle east apart from Israel may not survive much longer. I think it’s about time now the west should recognise Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent state.

  • Paul D says:

    Which country looks after the interests of the christians in the middle east?

  • James says:

    My question pertains to the Mosul Dam. What if it did fail? Who would suffer more, the jihadists, or the legitimate Iraqis in those areas?
    We know that the jihadists are in control of Mosul and surrounding areas. We know that they are clustered in areas along the Euphrates river and other low lying areas. We know that the Yazidis have fled to the high mountainous areas. We know that Mosul is devoid (at least for the most part) of any legitimate Iraqi civilians.
    Seriously, who would suffer more from a catastrophic collapse of the Mosul Dam? We know that from previous studies conducted by US ACE that the question isn’t IF the Mosul Dam will fail but WHEN will it fail since it is so defective anyways.
    Seriously, I say let the dam be broken.
    The dead jihadists may very well far outnumber the innocent Iraqi civilians (if any) swept up in the resulting deluge. It could prove to be the worst thing to happen to these nut cases since the Flood.
    Then we (and the international community) may as well rebuild it.

  • Boghos L. Artinian says:

    It dumbfounds me that one hundred years after the genocide of Christian Armenians by the Ottomans, the same is happening again to Christians of the Middle East while the world still just watches, unable or unwilling to change the course of events.
    Boghos L. Artinian

  • Mueller says:

    Horrible things happen throughout the world, and they always need to be condemned. However, where there is no threat to US interests, no military action should be taken.

  • allang says:

    There’s a delicate issue here. ISIS is fighting Shiite Hezbollah in Syria to a stand-still, and at the same time is able to advance south to blitzkrieg Iraq. The unstable Iraqi military is supported by Iranian-backed Shiite militias. One strategy could be to allow the Islamic State and Iranian proxy militias fight-it-out and degrade one another enough. So as to diminish Iranian influence in Iraq. The Iranians need a good military lesson about non-intervention in the region. And the Islamic State may be brutal & bloodthirsty enough to do it for us…

  • Eric Sykes says:

    The threat posed by ISIS is massive, not only damaging to the security and sovereignty of Iraq and Syria, but on a global scale. Both the Obama Administration and the intelligence community screwed the pooch on this one by grossly underestimating ISIS. President Obama himself was quoted as comparing ISIS to a “j.v. basketball team”. We really need to step up our bombing efforts in Iraq.
    I think it is about time Americans put aside our reservations about being in Iraq and embrace the fact that we should go back. I AS A US ARMY VETERAN AM WILLING TO PUT MY LIFE ON THE LINE ONCE AGAIN AND GO BACK TO IRAQ.

  • Constantinopole says:

    “The Iranians need a good military lesson about non-intervention in the region. And the Islamic State may be brutal & bloodthirsty enough to do it for us…”
    Exactly this kind of thinking started all this butchery. Hey, let’s arm jihadis via Benghazi and let them loose in Syria, because we have a great plan of removing Mubarak and Assad and put the muslim brotherhood in power.
    And 100-200-300.000 Christians in ME + some millions in Egypt are just collateral damage, hoping “they will do it for us”
    They will do it for themselves, as they did it circa 1400 ago when Iran (Persia) and the Christians (Byzantium) were fighting each other. muslims conquered them both.

  • Colm Barry says:

    As allany above says and I read “… such as the Baathists …” the whole situation is rather unclear. Are not the Syrian ruling party Baathists? And are not many ISIS fighters mercenaries from Syria too? The more this unfolds the less it makes sense, esp. that such a powerful group could emerge literally from nowhere (or Western intelligence services should have known) and captures and destroys more sites faster than the original Islamic conquest did including the fall of Byzantium. If these areas were under Muslim control for centuries, at the height of Islamic scholarship and no ruler then thought it “necessary” to destroy these shrines, then this ISIS group is truly a mystery or a mirage that stands for a completely different strategy than publicly advertized. The “Western” community is a failure when it comes to helping those really in need: q.v. the Armenians in Turkey, recently Srebrenica and Darfur, the Kurds in Iraq against Hussein and on and on. we rather man the investigative teams that later dig up the mas graves and provide forensic evidence and put nup the few survivors who manage to reach our borders.

  • t cantwell says:

    I see on your map entry for Baqubah, you attribute the murder of 44 prisoners to ISIS. I read conflicting accounts attributing the deaths to Shia militia moving in to Baqubah to defend it following collapse of security forces further up Route 3. I consider it far more likely that the latter is true. The militia would have reason to kill prisoners especially if they feared being overrun.
    Any idea who is in the old MEK camp at Asraf above Khalis? There was a huge ammo dump up there and an IA BDE HQ.


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