The takeover of Mosul and Tikrit, the Baiji oil refinery, Iraq-Syria border towns, and the push for Baghdad by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is another example of the unending sectarian strife that the West Asia has witnessed for political gains.
The extremists, numbering a few thousand, claim to be the flagbearers of the resentment felt by Iraq’s Sunnis at the exclusionary policies of Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki. ISIL set in motion its Iraq plan about a year ago (Fallujah and Anbar) after gaining in prominence, resources and confidence by participating in Syria’s civil war, where it met with limited success. The al-Qaeda offshoot is now threatening to push to the southern regions dominated by Shiites, whom they consider “infidels”.But any serious bid on Baghdad is more likely to backfire and the ISIL is aware of it, particularly due to the demographics. Unlike Syria, Sunnis are a minority in Iraq (about 25 per cent). Though Sunnis are a majority in some parts of the west and north, they are a small section of Baghdad’s population.
The third major strand of Iraqi politics and society – Kurds – are Sunni. But they support the government in this conflict because it guarantees them economic and political autonomy in their strongholds, which was denied by Saddam Hussein’s erstwhile Sunni regime. Importantly, this approach is also their best chance to advance their ultimate goal of an independent Kurdistan. Currently, Kurdish forces are resisting ISIL and controlling oil-rich Kirkuk.
Together, ISIL’s gains mean that the already-tense sectarian divisions within Iraq and the region have become acute. Iraqi Shiites and militias, especially the Mahdi Army, have been further energised by Iraq’s spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s fatwa urging them to take up arms against ISIL.
To blame the West, primarily the United States, for the goings-on would not be wrong. The US-led invasion in 2003 was illegal, its exit in 2011 was premature, and its role in between was lacklustre. The combined price tag of half-a-million Iraqi and 4,500 American lives and $4 trillion has yielded ISIL, thus exposing Washington’s misadventure.
Equal blame should be apportioned to the backers of ISIL, which believes that “improving the condition of the people is less important than the condition of their religion,” and propagates violence to achieve its goals.
However, it is the Maliki government that is most responsible for failing in its mission and opportunity to build an inclusive Iraq, after Saddam’s ouster. Maliki denied secular Shia Ayad Allawi and his Sunni coalition a chance to form the government in 2010 despite the latter winning more seats than his own coalition. Maliki also systematically purged the Sunni military officers of the secular Baathist regime, forcing them to take ISIL’s side. Though late, Ayatollah Sistani has now indirectly blamed Maliki for the mess and urged a new “effective” government.
Such a change is possible when parliament, elected in May 2014, meets in July to decide a new government. Washington – which has deployed 300 military advisers to protect US interests in Iraq and help Baghdad counter ISIL – has offered further unspecified support on the condition that the next government should have adequate Sunni representation and Maliki opts out of the top job. Maliki, however, has rejected calls for a national salvation government.
These developments are panning out amid reports of Tehran assisting Baghdad against ISIL, Iran-US talks to tackle the crisis, and the unhappiness of the Sunni-ruled, six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Simultaneously, Shia Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has opposed any US intervention, and accused Washington of “seeking an Iraq under its hegemony and ruled by its stooges”.
In this backdrop, US President Barack Obama is correct in hesitating to intervene in Iraq, as he did in Syria, as he has been since his presidential campaign in 2008. The May 2014 pronouncement “Just because we have the best hammer (military) does not mean that every problem is a nail,” is an important admission in Obama’s continued attempt to repair the US economy and refashion foreign policy.
It is indeed ironic that the very country that Washington and the GCC bloc blamed for instability in the West Asia – Iran – is currently being approached to deal with the ISIL menace. This US ‘pivot to Persia’ – which is good from a long-term regional security architecture perspective – could formally confer hegemonic status to Iran, thereby undermining the GCC bloc’s concerns.
Nothing wrong with Iran-US talks, except that if it goes ahead without taking the GCC governments and the other Arab countries into confidence, it will be another recipe for trouble.
Moving ahead, while Baghdad may not be in danger, the Iraqi army is likely to suffer more losses and be unable to retake lost ground. Though a temporary lull is likely during Ramadan, a protracted battle is on the anvil with heightened sectarian tension and bloodshed, both in Iraq and the neighbourhood. Economically, since most of the oil wells are in the south, disruption of production and major spike in oil prices is unlikely.
Despite resistance, it is possible that Maliki will form an inclusive government that may assuage the Sunnis, but his job appears shaky in the medium and long terms. And, Iran and the United States may covertly back Baghdad against ISIL, much to the annoyance of the smaller GCC countries. However, it is important to note that any solution in Iraq will impact the Syrian impasse, thus complicating the resolution process.
Irrespective of how this crisis turns, Iraq would become a federation, looser than it has been during the last decade, of three entities – Shia, Sunni and Kurdish, with the possibility of even disintegrating in future.
The best thing to happen after this crisis blows over would be for Iraq to remain united with a new inclusive power-sharing mechanism. The worst thing, and one that should be avoided, would be to keep Iraq geographically united and politically polarised as before through external military intervention.
(The writer is a UAE-based political analyst on Gulf affairs and, most recently, co-editor of “A New Gulf Security Architecture: Prospects and Challenges for an Asian Role”)