Commentary

Turmoil in Iraq

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Iraq is reeling after an unexpectedly rapid takeover of large swaths of its territory by ISIS militants, who now find themselves in control of Fallujah and Ramadi, and large parts of Anbar and Ninevah provinces. While regional observers try and come to terms with the inability of the Iraqi state to put up any sort of credible defense against the militants, others are looking beyond Iraq, fearing the carve-out of a Sunni dominated region covering parts of Syria and Iraq. The situation is serious enough that it obviously has US, Iran, and regional leaders concerned.

The first task most observers have been preoccupied with has been to isolate the causes of the seeming collapse of the Iraqi state, wondering who is at fault. For the most part, observers are blaming  the current state of affairs on the direct result of the divisive and discriminatory policies pursued by Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s government. For example, the Peninsula’s (Qatar) editorial page unhesitatingly states that: “It’s an undisputed fact that Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is responsible for the current chaos. He has proven himself as a short-sighted leader by refusing to take all sides with him, especially the Sunnis who felt isolated and ignored under his rule. He has been ruling more as a Shia leader by promoting his Shia base. The feeling of alienation among Sunnis exacerbated after the 2010 election in which they participated in huge numbers only to find that the government that was formed later didn’t have their participation in a real sense.”

The theme of Sunni discrimination is also picked up by the Saudi Gazette (Saudi Arabia), which, in a recent editorial takes the Iraqi PM to task for excluding “the country’s Sunni minority from power. His judicial pursuit of former Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi on charges of involvement in death squads could not have been better designed to alienate Sunni politicians. Ignoring the lessons that the U.S.-led coalition learnt to their own cost as well as the immense price in Iraqi blood, Maliki went out of his way to alienate important Sunni tribal leaders, who had once supported Al-Qaeda in the fight against occupation.”

Arab News’ (Saudi Arabia) Abdulrahman Rashed wonders whether Al Maliki is the victim of bad advice from some of his closest advisors, but then decides the prime minister must ultimately take responsibility for his own actions: “Is Al-Maliki the victim of his consultants? Some of his ministers say that Maliki’s advisers underestimated the gravity of the situation and encouraged him to involve the army without the local support of residents of provinces, which Al-Qaeda seized. Whether it’s his corrupt consultants or his convictions, arrogance and insolence, Al-Maliki is totally responsible for the security failure and the chaos threatening the country.”

The problem now is that, given the lack of credibility of the government and the lack of confidence in Mr. Maliki, few think that it will be an easy to claw back the territory controlled by the militants. A recent Gulf Today editorial puts it this way: “What is worrying is the inability of the Iraqi government to swiftly bring the situation under control. While Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki’s request to parliament to declare emergency rule makes sense, his suggestion that the government would provide weapons and equipment to citizens who volunteer to fight against militants is absolutely absurd and only exposes the weaknesses of the administration. A disturbing question that arises in one’s mind following Maliki’s suggestion is: If citizens are expected to protect themselves from militants, what is the role of the government and its security forces?”

But that begs the question, if not the government, then who? Will the United States step in? It seems unlikely, and if it does, not with the necessary force that is required to defeat the militants: “What is needed at this point of time is a coordinated effort from Iraq and its neighbors to push back this aggression. The million-dollar question is would the West, especially the United States, risk stepping into the quagmire of another civil strife that is sectarian in essence or keep looking the other way round as they did in the case of Syria? No rocket-science is required to find an answer, and Iraq has to gear itself up on its own for a full-fledged offensive against the militants.”

There are also those who agree with the recommendation advanced by the Oman Tribune staff in favor of a compromise between the government and the militants: “There is only one way out for Maliki if he wants Iraq to return to peace. That is by giving in to some of the demands of the insurgents. This means talks that will result in a meeting of minds after both sides make compromises on crucial issues. With the Kurds growling over the rights to the oil produced in their territory, the situation can deteriorate and Maliki can lose more ground in the weeks ahead....In the bargain, Iraq will face a grim future with the fears of many about a disintegration of the country becoming true. All right-thinking Iraqis would want to avoid such a situation but the ball is in the court of the prime minister.”

But Iraq is not the only loser here. What is taking place in Iraq is having and will continue to have important consequences for the region as well as for U.S. interests in the Middle East. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Ron Ben-Yishai is one of those who see the expansion of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria as bringing the “Middle East to the brink of chaos…. The complete route at Mosul is a humiliating blow to the Americans and President Barack Obama's policies. The city of Mosul and the Nineveh Province were the last part of Iraq the Americans took over in 2007. At the time, Washington claimed that it's seizure of Mosul paved the way for peace and democracy in Iraq....The takeover of Mosul is a blow not only for the government and parliament, which have a Shiite majority, but also a blow to Iran that backs the Shiite government in Iraq.”

And judging from President Barack Obama’s recent statements, the U.S. establishment is keenly aware of those consequences. Similarly, in Iran there is great concern about what is taking place in Iraq, with the Iranian government, according to a Tehran Times report, coming out with a strongly worded statement against ‘terrorist attacks’ in Mosul and other cities: “Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham has strongly condemned terrorists’ brutal attacks to the Iraqi city of Mosul in the northern province of Nineveh....Afkham stated that terrorism poses threat to the entire world and said the international community should rush to the help of the Iraqi people in the current critical situation. She expressed hope that people’s and security forces’ counterattacks against terrorists would restore security in the crisis-hit cities in Iraq.”


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