US attempt to salvage Iraq might be too late
By : Osama Al Sharif
More than two weeks have passed since fighters belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stormed the northern Iraqi city of Mosul extending their control over the governorates of Nineveh, Salahuddin and Al-Anbar. Armed Sunnis and former Iraqi Army officers associated with the defunct Baath party have assisted them. The forces of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki have retreated forcing him to fire senior officers and calling on volunteers, predominantly Shiite, to join in what is quickly turning into a sectarian feud.
The United States is sending 300 military advisers to Iraq and is mulling over pleas to launch airstrikes against ISIL, which now controls large swaths of the desert between western Syria and eastern Iraq. US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad on Monday and called on Iraqi leaders to rise above their differences and form an inclusive and representative government in order to end political squabbling.
But it is not clear if Al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term, will bow to US and domestic pressure to step down. Major Shiite and Sunni leaderships do not support his attempt to form a new government. They see him as part of the problem that has weakened the state, raised sectarian tensions and made Iraq one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Al-Maliki enjoys the support of Tehran and even though he had asked for US intervention, his critics say that he remains loyal to Iran. The latter has rejected US meddling in Iraqi affairs. Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused Washington of trying to control Iraq. Kerry has said that Washington is not responsible for what is happening in Iraq and that only Iraqis can choose their leaders. But President Barack Obama has admitted that Al-Maliki’s policies have marginalized the country’s Sunni minority.
It is a messy situation and unless Al-Maliki gives in and allows for a new political process to be launched, the sectarian fault lines will be magnified. He is yet to admit that ISIL is not working alone and that there is a genuine Sunni rebellion taking place in Iraq. In fact, there is little credibility to reports about the activities of ISIL in most Sunni provinces. Tribal leaders in Al-Anbar have denied reports that ISIL was in control of the border crossing with Jordan. They say that Sunni fighters belonging to local tribes are in control of most of the governorate. They accuse Al-Maliki of deliberately tarnishing their revolt by associating it with ISIL.
On the other hand, ISIL does exist and it has been locked in a vicious struggle against Syrian rebels in Der Al-Zour and Al-Hasakeh. It is composed of thousands of Arab and foreign fighters who follow a radical brand of Islam. They claim they are fighting infidels and want to create an Islamic state in Sunni areas in Syria and Iraq. The presence of foreign fighters, mostly from European countries, has raised alarm bells in Europe. But legitimate questions remain unanswered about the group’s finances, their access to weapons and vehicles and the fact that they have made such a quick progress in northern Iraq.
If they do spearhead the Sunni rebellion against Al- Maliki, as most reports suggest, then it will be a matter of time before they clash with the local population who have cheered them only few weeks ago. ISIL represents an alien form of Islam, one that is fixated on jihad and on implementing strict Shariah rules. It is a ruthless group that would not hesitate to kill anyone who does not approve of its tactics or ideology.
Its presence close to Jordan’s eastern border has put Amman on alert. The authorities have said that they have the military capability to repulse any attempt by ISIL to cross into Jordan. The regional and international threat of ISIL has changed the political standing of many countries on the Syrian crisis. The rise of a new enemy has altered strategic views and may have given the regime of President Bashar Assad a much-needed lifeline to survive the present ordeal.
Al-Maliki is trying to do the same; present himself as a man ready to fight terrorism, but there is little chance that his gambit will succeed. What is at stake today is the territorial integrity of Iraq. Eight years on, he has failed to deliver peace and harmony to the beleaguered Iraqis. To defeat ISIL the Iraqis need to be united and rally behind a leader who shuns sectarian politics.
The US denial of responsibility in what is happening in Iraq today is absurd to say the least. The Americans supported Al-Maliki’s controversial second term. Their hasty withdrawal in 2011 left him to carry on with his divisive and authoritarian policies. Their support of the distorted political power-sharing formula in Iraq has alienated the Sunnis and drove them to extremism. Now the US wants to salvage Iraq by correcting the faulty policies of the past. It just might be too late for that.