BAGHDAD — There’s an expectation here that there will be blood in the streets.
The U.S. Embassy on the Tigris River has been reinforced twice with extra troops. People here guess as to whether the explosion in violence will come in a day, a week or a month. But few think the violence won’t come.
Mistrust and anger between Sunnis and Shiites grows by the day. In a Shiite mosque, worshipers said that they want the Sunni areas where the ISIS militant group has established a foothold to be carpet-bombed.
“It should be like what the Russians did in Chechnya,” said one man.
Sign up for breaking news alerts from NBC News
He said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could borrow from Syrian President Bashar Assad and drop barrel bombs on Sunni extremists. The man, who described himself as a moderate, talked about turning Iraq into a Shiite-dominated state once and for all.
ISIS has directly threatened the United States, and several U.S. officials warn that the terrorist haven that ISIS has carved out here and in Syria is more dangerous than Afghanistan before 9/11.
That makes historical sense: This is a far more romantic and seductive place for a Muslim holy war than Afghanistan ever was.
A fighter who was with bin Laden at the time, and later spent years in U.S. custody in Guantanamo Bay, told me he never liked Afghanistan. It was cold. It was remote. The people were inscrutable. They spoke Pashto, an exotic language unknown to the Arab recruits. Afghanistan was always a backwater in the Islamic world.
However, Afghanistan did offer Osama bin Laden a few advantages: He had a willing partner in his host, the Taliban, similarly minded fanatics who had recently come to power. Pakistan, also friendly territory, was just over the border.
Islamic fighters had also just fought and won, with considerable U.S. help, against the Soviet Union. The militants felt invincible. But Afghanistan never captured the imagination of the wider Muslim world. The country was always far away and hard to reach physically and culturally.
Iraq and Syria are far more historically and symbolically rich for jihad. These are the lands where the early battles of Islam unfolded.
Damascus was the seat of the Ummayad Caliphate in the 7th and 8th centuries. Iraq was home of the Abbasid Caliphate, a golden age when the Muslim world was at the forefront of math, science and medicine.
Sunnis and Shiites started their intractable civil war in Iraq and Syria. The region is Arabic-speaking. It is in the center of the Middle East. It’s close to Jerusalem, which ISIS militants say in propaganda they dream of taking over.
For many foreign fighters, the jihad in Iraq and Syria is a commuter war.
It’s hardly surprising that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi announced last weekend the start of a new caliphate. This region is, and always was, the land of the caliphs. And today it is taut with tension once again.
Iraqi Sunnis aren’t talking about reconciliation any more than Shiites are. Ibrahim al-Shammari, the spokesman for the Islamic Army in Iraq, a militant group that fought U.S. troops, said even ISIS is preferable to Shiite domination.
He spoke via Skype from an undisclosed location that he said was in Iraq. His face was covered with a checked headscarf. Al-Shammari said Sunnis face an existential war of self-defense against the Shiite government that came to power after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
“We don’t support ISIS,” al-Shammari said. “We’re a group and they are a group, but when they (ISIS) fight against the Shiite forces, everyone rises up together.”
First published July 2 2014, 1:15 PM
Richard Engel is widely regarded as one of America's leading foreign correspondents for his coverage of wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years. Most recently, he was recognized for his outstanding reporting on the 2011 revolution in Egypt, the conflict in Libya and unrest throughout the Arab world.
... Expand Bio
Engel was named chief foreign correspondent of NBC News in April 2008. His reports appear on all platforms of NBC News, including "Nightly News with Brian Williams," "TODAY," "Meet the Press," "Dateline," MSNBC, and NBCNews.com.
Engel, one of the only western journalists to cover the entire war in Iraq, joined NBC News in May 2003. He previously worked as a freelance journalist for ABC News, most notably during the initial U.S. invasion of Iraq. He remained in Baghdad as NBC's primary Iraq correspondent until his appointment as senior Middle East correspondent and Beirut bureau chief in May 2006. Engel also covered the war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 from Beirut and southern Lebanon.
Prior to working for ABC News, Engel served as the Middle East correspondent for "The World," a joint production of BBC World Service, Public Radio International (PRI) and WGBH-Boston radio from 2001-2003. He has also written for USA Today, Reuters, AFP and Jane's Defense Weekly, a British publication in which he authored the magazine's in-depth profiles of Egypt, Yemen and al-Qaida.
Engel's work has received numerous awards, including seven News & Documentary Emmy Awards. In 2011, he was honored with the Daniel Pearl Award, the David Bloom Award and the Overseas Press Club Award in recognition of his coverage of the war in Afghanistan. In 2010, Engel received a Gracie Award for his work on "Unlikely Refugees," a "Nightly News" story about Afghan women who are treated as criminals for attempting to leave abusive marriages. Engel was honored in 2009 with the George Foster Peabody Award, an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Society of Professional Journalism Award for "Tip of the Spear," a series of reports from Afghanistan that focused attention on the hardships and dangers faced by American soldiers. Engel also received the 2008 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, the first ever given to a broadcast journalist, for his report "War Zone Diary." The one-hour documentary, compiled from Engel's personal video journal, gave a rare and intimate account of the everyday realties of covering the war in Iraq. In 2006, Engel received the Edward R. Murrow Award for his report "Baghdad E.R.," the first ever to win in the category "Feature - Hard News."
Engel has lived in the Middle East since graduating from Stanford University in 1996 with a B.A. in international relations. He speaks and reads fluent Arabic, which he learned while living in Cairo. Engel has also traveled extensively in the Middle East and can comfortably transition between several Arabic dialects spoken across the Arab world. He is also fluent in Italian and Spanish. He is the author of two books, "A Fist in the Hornet's Nest" and "War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq," which chronicle his experiences covering the Iraq war.