Too late, Mr. Al-Maliki
By : Shiraz Hasan
The speed at which the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have captured one town after another in Iraq since Tuesday has shaken not only the authorities in Baghdad but also decision makers elsewhere. A newspaper cartoon went so far as to show US diplomatic staff evacuating the Baghdad compound of the American Embassy by helicopter, in a reminder of the flight of Americans from Saigon in the 1970s.
Political scientists and historians are trying to make sense of the melting away of Iraq’s regular army before a ragtag group of multinational fighters armed at best with light weapons. Nobody expected soldiers trained by the American military and armed with the latest weaponry to flee the battlefield.
The scenes of Saddam’s “feared Republican Guards” quietly changing into “jalabiyas” from their military uniforms at the sight of invading US forces in 2003 look like being replayed.
An Iraqi army rife with cronyism and divided on sectarian lines is no match to a group of people fired with religious zeal who regard even death in the battlefield as victory. The fighters are also aided by former Baathists and a section of the population alienated by the policies of the current government.
Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has threatened to raise his own religious militia to counter the pan-Islamic fighters, but he does not have time on his side.
NATO has made it clear it is not interested in saving Al-Maliki’s government. The public mood in America is definitely against another military involvement of uncertain duration in the Middle East.
Although the US has been resisting repeated requests from the Al-Maliki government for the last two months for limited airstrikes on the bases of fighters inside Iraq, President Barack Obama may be forced to do so to keep the fighters from knocking at the gates of Baghdad.
But that will only be a temporary measure.
The fighters are unlikely to be content with the control of a few towns and provinces of Iraq. They are aiming to take the whole of Iraq, including the autonomous Kurdish northeast, and merge it with the vast tracts of Syria where they rule supreme. Although the Kurds have taken advantage of the weak central authority by capturing the disputed oil town of Kirkuk, they will be forced to fight in time with the emerging power to retain their homeland, and autonomy.
The worst nightmare of Iraq — a three-way division of the land of the two rivers between the Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — seems to be coming true. If Iraq and its neighbors are to be spared another decade of turbulence, a political solution is urgently needed.