The rapid advance across Iraq by Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL), the Syria-based extreme Sunni militia, to the point where its forces are only 60 km from Baghdad, has caused a serious humanitarian crisis and reopened several questions that are central to the future of West Asia. Over half a million people have fled Iraq’s western province, Anbar, for the northeastern province of Kurdistan; the refugees need food and shelter urgently, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is already involved. In addition, images apparently showing ISIL summarily executing captured Iraqi soldiers have been posted online; the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Navi Pillay, states that if confirmed the executions would constitute war crimes. Secondly, ISIL has caused panic in the Iraqi army, sections of which have fled leaving behind tanks and other heavy weaponry. Thirdly, the United States and the United Kingdom, which led the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, now face contradictions they themselves have created.

A key reason for this situation is that in 2003 the invaders abolished Iraq’s public and civic institutions, in the deluded belief that all Iraqi officials were fanatical Saddam Hussein followers. Almost immediately, extreme Sunni and Shia leaders started a savage civil war, dividing Iraqi society and enabling al-Qaeda to establish a powerful presence where it previously had none. Matters were then exacerbated by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s sectarianism; he sacked 700,000 Sunnis from the military and banned substantial numbers of Sunnis from civilian public-service posts. Widespread corruption and brutality on the part of government militias have made things even worse; some Mosul residents say that ISIL has brought renewed stability and an end to fighting, bomb explosions, and looting. Moreover, two allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have been funding and possibly arming ISIL with a view to overthrowing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; Riyadh and Doha might also seek to remove Mr. al Maliki’s Shia-dominated government. Above all, the British and American lies about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in 2003 now mean military intervention will not be tolerated by the public in either country. President Barack Obama is sending 275 troops to protect U.S. embassy staff in Baghdad, but he is on a slippery slope. As their entire political strategy towards the region collapses, and despite the harm done to Iran by western sanctions, Washington and London are finally seeking Iran’s help. They are doing so for instrumental reasons, but a constructive response from Tehran could be an immense contribution to regional peace.

More In: Editorial | Opinion