Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki is ill-placed to offer any kind of leadership to counter the challenge posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

The fact that the extreme al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has captured the Iraqi city of Mosul, north-west of Baghdad, with minimal resistance has exposed several major problems. These result from the illegal U.S. and U.K.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as well as the policies of the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad, and now threaten civil war together with wider international consequences.

To start with, Iraqi forces in Mosul, the Nineveh provincial capital, were overrun very quickly on June 10; many abandoned their posts even though they outnumbered the attackers heavily. They said the ISIS forces were very well-equipped and trained, and ISIS even captured the Turkish consul-general and many of his staff in Mosul. The faction’s capture of Tikrit, only 140 km from Baghdad, was equally ominous, as Tikrit is the administrative capital of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar, which has a long border with Syria, ISIS’s geographical base and stronghold.

Second, ISIS itself continues to expand steadily, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose real name is Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri, but who has adopted a name suggesting Iraqi origins. It has the stated aim of establishing a Caliphate stretching from western Iraq to North Africa. It also has a reputation for such brutality that even al-Qaeda has repudiated some of ISIS’s methods. At least 5,00,000 people have fled Mosul and are making their way toward the self-governing semi-autonomous province of Kurdistan, one of the few stable regions in the country. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has spoken of a rapidly developing humanitarian crisis. Kurdistan’s Peshmerga militia report, however, says that they now hold the crucial city of Kirkuk and have had no engagement with ISIS forces.

Polarised society

The current situation could worsen very rapidly, and responsibility for the potential national catastrophe rests both with the Maliki government and the George W. Bush administration, which directly after the invasion dismissed 7,00,000 Sunni members of the Iraqi army, leaving them jobless and giving Sunni militias a recruiting ground. Mr. Maliki, who has been Prime Minister since 2006, has since banned Sunnis from becoming military officers, and Sunni civil servants who had been Ba’ath Party members are not allowed to return to their posts. In effect, Mr. Maliki has himself undermined even the fragile sectarian balance Washington had belatedly tried to create in the period leading up to the purported U.S. military withdrawal in April 2010. He has, furthermore, created special militias which have come to be as feared as Saddam Hussein’s dreaded special units. The terrible sectarian war which broke out after the 2003 invasion also polarised Iraqi society and created what amount to apartheid zones in which the Sunni and Shia communities respectively live.

Far-reaching implications

The international implications are potentially very far-reaching. Baghdad reportedly appealed for U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in May, but there has been no official comment from Washington on this matter, though more assistance including drone strikes and further training involvement is apparently under consideration. There seems to be no question now of direct military deployment, even though the U.S. has an estimated 30,000 troops in so-called lily pad bases in various parts of Iraq. In addition, the British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, perhaps mindful of Parliament’s August 2013 rejection of military involvement in Syria, has opposed British intervention.

Major regional powers, however, may not be so hesitant. The hard-line Salafist monarchy in Saudi Arabia has offered to release some of the al-Qaeda members it has imprisoned on condition that they fight for Sunni militias in Iraq. Riyadh is also very uncomfortable about improved U.S.-Iran relations. Iran itself has offered logistical support to Mr. al-Maliki, who, for his part, is taking advantage of Riyadh’s increased anxiety following the Geneva deal reached between Iran, the West and Russia in November 2013. He made no statement when mortar shells were fired into Saudi Arabia at that time, and had earlier criticised his southern neighbours for aiding insurgents in Syria.

That Mr. Maliki is ill-placed to offer any kind of leadership is beyond doubt; he is still trying to assemble a coalition government after the general election left no party even close to a majority in the 328-seat parliament, and only 128 MPs actually turned up to vote on his June 12 request for emergency powers.

Meanwhile, the uncertainties in Iraq are causing international oil prices to rise, not least because hitherto accessible oil fields in the northern provinces could be cut off if fighting starts there. In sum, Iraq now faces a power vacuum which could be extremely dangerous, and although the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed his shock at the recent events, it is highly unlikely that any proposal for intervention will be put to the U.N. Security Council. Yet if the international community seems not to want to intervene, others will very probably take over, and Iraq now faces not only civil war but potential disintegration.

arvind.sivaramakrishnan

@googlemail.com

More In: Comment | Opinion