Fate of Iraq hangs in the balance

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By : Jamal Doumani

In the wake of the stunning blitzkrieg by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), whose militants last week struck at and occupied a string of Sunni cities north of Baghdad, the issue of whether Iraq is heading for a sectarian breakdown was pressed home by many a commentator around the world. Iraq hangs in the balance, they asserted. Iraq on the path to dismemberment. Iraq to be partitioned. And so it went.

Truth be told, this issue came to the fore in early January this year when radical militants, who later morphed into ISIL, seized control of Fallujah and Ramadi, two important cities in Anbar province and proceeded to set fire to police stations, free prisoners from jails and capture weapons left behind by fleeing soldiers. For the United States — which had withdrawn its troops from the country at the end of 2011— that was a bitter pill to swallow. Anbar, after all, held grave historical significance for the US, as the place where American troops, in a campaign aimed at “pacifying” Fallujah and freeing it from insurgent control, suffered their greatest losses.

Nearly one-third of the American soldiers killed in the Iraq war died there, in battles that involved the bloodiest street-to-street, house-to-house combat that Americans had faced since Vietnam. The eight-year war in Iraq may have been “dumb,” as President Obama identified it a while back, but it was a very costly war indeed for Americans in blood and treasure: At least 4,500 soldiers lost their lives there and more than $1 trillion was squandered on what neocons at the time pathetically called “democratization.” It now appears that these neocons, who harbored delusional notions about nation-building, have had their eclipse, and the theocons from ISIL, who harbor equally delusional notions about a reconstituted caliphate, have had their day.

If this leads to an all-out civil war, pitting Sunnis against Shiites, a war that will surely tear the country asunder, it should be put at the door of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, a polarizing Shiite politician whose sectarian agenda marginalized — not to mention angered and humiliated — Sunnis and effectively destroyed the Iraqi people’s trust in their national army, national institutions and national identity.
The fundamental reason the Iraqi Army was reluctant to engage ISIL’s shock troops, with its soldiers abandoning their weapons, stripping off their uniforms and fleeing their positions, was that we’re talking here about a military force constituted not as a national army, but as a military entity equipped largely for internal security purposes, to shore up and protect Al-Maliki’s government from internal strife. The prime minister put people loyal to him in command positions who made decisions based on sectarian and tribal ties. Corruption was rife in the political arena — an arena monopolized by his cronies — as it was in the military, which had access to a lot of sophisticated weapons but little morale.

And it did not take much for the ISIL to capitalize on Iraqis’ (especially Sunnis) widespread disillusionment with the government. For how else would you explain the fact that 30,000 professional Iraqi soldiers in Mosul buckled under and fled so ignominiously, after dropping their weapons and their uniforms, when confronted by a much smaller number of ISIL militants, reportedly a mere 800? And the people who must live down the disgrace of it all are the commanders, who fled first, leaving their men to fend for themselves. If there had been public trust in the army before, that trust now evaporated. And there is no way that Al-Maliki can effect Sunni-Shiite reconciliation any time real soon — even if he wants to, which he clearly does not — or glue Iraq back together again, regardless of how many more Apache helicopters, drones and tanks the US sends him. The Rubicon has already been crossed, as it were.

Iraq as we have known it in our lifetime will survive for now, as a polity, but it will be living on borrowed time. The chasm between Sunnis and Shiites has widened dramatically, and the natives in the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq are, as Dr. Moreau would have put it, restless, imbued as they are with irredentist ambitions and hopes for an independent Kurdistan.

All the pity — for it was not always like that. Iraq in its glory days, at one time in history, was a pluralistic society where Arabs and Persians, Sunnis and Shiites, Muslims, Christians and Jews, lived and prospered together, during the “golden age of Islam” in the 8th Century, in a polity whose achievements in the arts, literature and science were as significant as the Roman Empire’s had been in the 2nd Century. And just as Gaza once was a Byzantine port of great wealth, so Baghdad was the sophisticated multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-religious capital of a commonwealth of nations that ruled over lands stretching from North Africa to Western India.

Now that legacy appears forgotten as Iraq, poised to go to war against itself, experiences what one might call Post-Traumatic Shock-and-Awe Disorder, an affliction that will be responsive to treatment only when cool heads prevail and genuinely democratic principles are insinuated into the public debate. Neither Al-Maliki’s parochially minded cohorts, nor ISIL’s delusional hotheads appear to have any intention of steering Iraq clear away from the bleak future that awaits Iraqis, all Iraqis.

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