Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2014-06-16 07:14:34 Published on Jun 16, 2014
There is no doubt that the roots of today's problems lie in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. But the blame for what is happening today must be shared equally between the Americans and the Iraqis, primarily the Shia leadership of al Maliki.
Militants onslaught: Iraq, US should equally share blame
"On June 11, hundreds of Sunni militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the al-Sham (ISIS) captured Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home city. Iraqi forces simply abandoned their posts and ran away, shedding their uniforms and weapons. Subsequently, the ISIS captured Samarra. Fallujah and Ramadi had come under their control earlier. Half a million refugees have fled to the Kurdish areas adjacent to Mosul and to the Shia dominated South.

The ISIS has threatened to capture Baghdad and it appears that Iraq is disintegrating. Iraq is now divided into three mutually antagonistic regions-the Shia south-east leading to Basra and the Persian Gulf, the Sunni north-west bordering Syria and the Kurd-dominated north-east, bordering Iran and Turkey. The ISIS, itself has a chequered history.

It is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who was as associate of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who was killed in an American drone strike in 2006. He was affiliated to the al Qaeda, but was so violent that he was rebuked by Ayman al Zawahiri, the number two in al Qaeda. So it is not a surprise that earlier this year, the al Qaeda formally dissociated itself from the ISIS. The ISIS has been ruthless in targeting government forces in Syria and Iraq, but it has been equally brutal in dealing with fellow Islamist groups, torturing and beheading their personnel and assassinating their leaders like Dr Hussein al Suleiman, the leader of Ahrar al Sham. Al Baghdadi was held in a US prison camp in Iraq till 2009, when he was released.

But the real strength of the ISIL lies in their rear base in Syria which has honed them into a highly motivated and effective fighting force. Some estimates say that they number just a few thousands, much smaller than the poorly led and motivated Iraqi Army. Indeed, there is every chance that the conflict in Syria and Iraq can merge into a great regional war pitting the Sunnis, aided by Saudi Arabia and the rich Gulf emirates, and the Shias, aided by Iran.

In a more immediate sense, the violence today goes back to 2006-2007 when the Shia-dominated Iraqi government of Nouri Kamal al-Maliki took on the Sunni militias and marginalised the Sunnis. The US troop surge of 2007 halted this civil war, but only temporarily till the US withdrew in 2011.

This allowed al Maliki to continue his policy of marginalising the Sunnis, the country's vice president, a Sunni, was sentenced to death in absentia for leading death squads, and there was a general crack-down in Sunni dominated areas. In 2013, as many as 9,300 people died in the violence, mainly through car bomb blasts. Last month nearly 800 people died, the highest so far.

Pressure is building up on Barack Obama to re-enter the Iraqi quagmire. A novel feature this time around, is Iran's declaration that it would assist the United States if it chose to intervene. Policy makers in Washington are clueless about the ISIS' true strength and capabilities and are, therefore, not sure how to respond. In late May, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel met with Arab counterparts in Jeddah, where there was agreement that ISIS and other Islamic fighters in Syria and Iraq posed a threat to the entire region. But no plan on how to counter those groups emerged from the meeting.

Faced with an assault on the capital city, the people of Baghdad have rallied to resist the invasion, bolstered by the call of Shiism's biggest leader, Ayatallah Ali al-Sistani. The ISIS has now captured most of the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq and so, their going will not be easy any more. Not surprisingly, their 320 km movement in three days, which brought them within 100 km of Baghdad, has now stalled.

Given the nature of the terrain, American air power can make a difference. But the question before the Obama Administration is whether they should get involved again. For the time being, the US has ordered an aircraft carrier to move from the north Arabian sea to the Persian Gulf.

But all this will not change the ethnic equations of the region. Given the vicious sectarian conflict that has been going on, the only option may be to divide Iraq into its three ethnic/sectarian components. But even this may not be possible as long as the Syria continues to fester.

There is no doubt that the roots of today's problems lie in the 2003 American invasion of Iraq that took place under false pretences that it was somehow linked to 9/11, and shattered the sectarian and ethnic peace in the country which was held together by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Even more delusional was the belief that the sectarian divisions could be overcome by democracy and capitalism fuelled by oil revenues. This was the kind of super power syndrome peddled by the Bush Administration and its allies.

But the blame for what is happening today must be shared equally between the Americans and the Iraqis themselves, primarily the Shia leadership of al Maliki. By his sectarian approach to governance, he has thrown away all the chances of restoring the multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian Iraqi state as a single unit.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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