Where will Iraq go from here? During his recent parleys with Iraqi and regional leaders as well as western allies, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to convey US thinking on the matter. The first and foremost message was that the US would not let the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) run havoc in Iraq and become the hub of terrorism in the region, posing a threat not only in the Middle East but also to the US. As President Obama told the West Point military academy graduates in a recent address: “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to the US at home and abroad remains terrorism.” However, to confront this, the US would like to “more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold”. At the time of his address, ISIL’s advance into northern and western Iraq had not been envisaged. And now that it has happened, and considering that terrorism is a major threat, the US would need to tailor its counterterrorism strategy to deal with perhaps the greatest terrorist threat that might emerge over time. We are talking here of the potential of a vast swathe of Iraq and Syria becoming the operational headquarters of a movement that even al Qaeda regards as vicious.
The new caliphate and the Islamic caliphate, as proclaimed by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, if it manages to consolidate and expand its hold, and with its own economic and military assets, might become a magnet for militants from all over the world. Baghdadi has indeed asked Muslims all over the world to rally around the new caliphate as the dawn of a new Islamic era in which they can hold their heads high. He personally gave a sermon to this effect at a Mosul mosque.
Not surprisingly, with the ISIL challenge and a good part of Iraq and Syria under their control, the Iraqi government approached the US for military help but, in the light of its past bitter experience, Washington apparently is not keen to rush in, though they have sent a small contingent of special troops reportedly to evaluate the Iraqi military and protect the US embassy in Baghdad. Whatever the role of this new contingent, said to be between 300 and 500 strong, the US would seek to rally regional countries in its efforts to contain and isolate ISIL. There are some problems here. First, some of the regional countries, like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf kingdoms, have been funneling money and arms to different militant outfits in Iraq and Syria, including ISIL operating on both sides of the Iraqi and Syrian border. After the proclamation of the Islamic state, the caliphate and Baghdadi’s direct appeal to the Muslim masses, ISIL is now emerging as a possible threat to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. No wonder that Saudi Arabia has reportedly moved 30,000 troops to its border with Iraq. The threat from the new Islamic state should become the basis for a regional coalition.
This is easier said than done. Ever since the clerical revolution in Iran in 1979, these countries have regarded Shia Iran as their major threat and enemy, sharing this perception and strategy with the US. And suddenly to change that course and focus on ISIL as their primary concern and threat will not be easy. Saudi Arabia and its regional allies have been nurturing these militant outfits from at least the time of the Syrian insurrection, if one discounts the original al Qaeda. A good number of original al Qaeda operatives had their baptism in or from Saudi Arabia. Much of the money to propagate and fund madrassas (seminaries), where some of the hardline militants have emerged from, has come from Saudi Arabia and its fellow Gulf neighbours. And now all this might come back to haunt the Saudi kingdom.
While regional cooperation/collaboration to confront ISIL is yet to emerge, pressure has been mounting for Maliki’s replacement as prime minister and the formation of an inclusive unity government. That would mean sharing power with the Sunnis who have been at the receiving end of sectarian killings by the Maliki government. Indeed, the Sunni tribal militias, mobilised and financed by the US in 2007 and 2008, played an important role in crushing the then-powerful al Qaeda insurrection in Iraq. And there was an expectation that they would be integrated into the new Iraqi national army. Maliki saw to it that this would not happen. His removal as prime minister will be a step in the right direction. It is not just the Sunnis but the Kurds also have found him an obstacle in the way of their political aspirations.
The Kurds already have virtual autonomy but are now heading for separation. The Kurdish army has occupied much of the oil-rich Kirkuk region and plans to keep it. Maliki is also facing calls for his replacement from some within the Shia ranks, as from Muqtada al-Sadr who has emerged from political hibernation, as if calling for the inclusion of Sunnis in a new unity government. Even as all this was going on, ISIL upped the ante by declaring an Islamic caliphate. This declaration of the new caliphate is designed, among other things, to create a global centre for Islamic militants to supersede al Qaeda’s role as the legitimate authority for such groups around the world. The point to make is that the situation in Iraq is highly complex and not given to any easy solution, if there is a solution at all.
To further complicate the picture, there are all sorts of external factors. The US is already there in a limited role, so far. The Iraqi government is seeking further US involvement by way of air strikes on ISIL positions. They want US military hardware and equipment. The Maliki government has also bought some Russian military aircraft for aerial strikes on ISIS territory and Russian technicians are reportedly training the Iraqis to operate them. Maliki welcomed the bombing of ISIL positions across the Syrian border by the Bashar regime. Iran undoubtedly will play an important role against the ISIL. How will all this play out in the end is anybody’s guess but to think that the removal of Maliki and the formation of a unity government will be a game changer is an oversimplification. The fault lines in Iraq between the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds are too deep to be bridged with political games.
Saudi Arabia, other Gulf monarchs and Turkey must be deeply worried about the turn of events in Iraq, and likely will make their own moves at some point in time. Whatever the internal and external permutations and combinations against the ISIL, it has established strong roots in both Iraq and Syria. Any aerial bombardment will certainly do some serious damage to the ISIL but the resultant civilian casualties, mostly of the Sunni population, are likely to make them even more popular. The mess in Iraq is not easy to fix and likely will make the region even more combustible.