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January 22, 2021

Who will win Iraq?

The events of these days in Iraq give the measure – although partially – of the extraordinary complexity of the situation in the Middle East. An extremist group allied to Al-Quaida, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), active in Syria until now, but rejected because of its fierce radicalism by the other radical groups involved in the fight against the Assad regime suddenly and massively got involved in Iraq, where it launched an offensive at the beginning of last month (June 9). ISIS conquered almost without opposition Mosul, the largest town of Northern Iraq, then pressed the offensive toward Kirkuk and Baghdad. The circumstances of this ISIS offensive must be narrated because they explain its spectacularly rapid success, as well as the national and regional complex that favoured it. It is estimated that some 30,000 troops and security forces of the Baghdad regime were present in an around Mosul, but they mass-defected when just hundreds (thousands?) of Jihad warriors appeared in the area, abandoning the town to the assailants. What followed was a massive exodus of the inhabitants throughout the region. Confronted with this sudden offensive, the Kurdish military forces from the northern autonomous regions advanced on Kirkuk, a known oil centre, which is a target of their claims, in order to prevent ISIS from conquering it. The ISIS forces moved on toward Baghdad, where the government led by Nouri al-Maliki asked the Parliament – which did not meet in session – then the government to grant him unlimited powers in order to counter this threat. In a statement delivered Friday (June 13), US President Obama pledged his support to the integrity of Iraq, but mentioned that he will not dispatch ground troops to this country, to stop the ISIS offensive. Hours later, an aircraft carrier was sent to the Persian Gulf that can unleash the American air force throughout the whole Iraq.

Analysts promptly revealed the extreme importance of these events that took place in just 2 days. Especially as Turkey, confronted with the arrest of its consular staff by ISIS forces at Mosul, demanded NATO to enforce article 5 of the Washington Treaty, as it considered itself the target of an aggression. The analysts revealed essential matters of the Iraq dossier after the withdrawal of the military forces from this country at the end of 2011. First, they mentioned that this withdrawal of American forces – as well as that of the others that formed the multinational coalition in this country, including Romanian troops – took place after the founding of a well-equipped and trained Iraqi army had been formed, numbering some 200,000 people, as well as a police force amounting to half a million people. So, the crumbling of the Maliki regime’s forces when assaulted by just several thousands of jihad combatants came as an unexpected shock. Second, the analyses mentioned that the Maliki government did not enforce an adequate policy aimed at including the national political forces over the last two years, with respect to securing a peaceful and predictable political climate in the country, excluding mainly the Sunni forces from the buttons of power. As Marc Lynch recently wrote in the Washington Post: “U.S. officials, along with most Iraq analysts, have spent the last half-decade urging Maliki to seek a real political accord, but he had little interest in their advice. /…/. When U.S. troops were fighting his war and securing his rule, he consistently refused to make the political accommodations that his U.S. advisers pushed upon him. After U.S. troops left, he enjoyed sufficient political strength and military security to strike the kind of political deal that could have consolidated a legitimate Iraqi order. Instead, he moved to consolidate his personal power and punish Sunni political opponents”. This explains the fact that ISI – the spearhead of Sunni jihad struggle – had unexpected victories in the North last week. Third, it was stressed that the anti-Sunni sectarian policy of the Maliki regime, plus the ISIS advance on Baghdad has the potential of toppling the pro-Shiite regime and – even worse for the entire situation of the Middle East – of splitting Iraq in three. It is evaluated that, besides the quasi-independent Kurdistan in the north, the central Sunni part and the southern Shiite part might split too, which would mean the end of this country’s independence and the failure of a 9-year (2003-2011) military and economic effort made by the USA and the international community. One should also remember that before World War One, when present-day Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire, its territory covered the area of three administrative districts, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra, each with a relative ethnic and religious homogeneity.

The recent events of Iraq sparked a large-scale debate in the USA on this dossier. Especially as, on one hand, Washington is interested to preserve the integrity of this state, while on the other the Obama administration enforces a policy of disengagement from the foreign military commitments specific to the years of liberal interventionism. Besides these realities, there is taking shape what an analyst called “thinking the unthinkable” in Iraq: as the goals pursued by both Iran and the USA in Iraq are getting increasingly similar, a possible cooperation between Tehran and Washington should not be ruled out. An Iranian high dignitary declared, under the protection of anonymity, that his country (led by a Shiite theocracy) “is so alarmed by Sunni insurgent gains in Iraq that it may be willing to cooperate with Washington in helping Baghdad fight back”. Tehran already announced that it will send arms and advisors to the government, but not troops, for now, while the comment in Washington was: “Clearly, we’ve encouraged them in many cases to play a constructive role.” In the words of the aforementioned analyst (Daniel W. Drezdner): “It is a grotesque situation/…/ The one thing that I’m pretty sure the United States is not going to do is occupy Iraq again.  /…/. Washington can tolerate an ISIS statelet in the heart of the Middle East and hope that, eventually, the terrorists alienate Iraqi Sunnis as in the past. Or, U.S. policymakers can decide that the enemy of its enemy is its friend in Iraq. /…/ What’s the bigger threat — an ISIS that can hold a significant swath of territory, or an Iran that would like to carve out a sphere of influence stretching across the Levant?”

The situation is evolving each day and remains open to any scenario: either Maliki’s resignation and the forming of a government capable to secure the inclusion of political components representative for Iraq (unlikely, with Iran being very interested to maintain the influence in Baghdad); or a robust counter-offensive that would stop the advance of jihad combatants, as Maliki remains the leader of Iraq and possibly conducts political reforms (unlikely again); or the division of the country in the three components mentioned previously (which would imply a large-scale regional conflict); or the strong pressure for solving the crisis in Syria, where ISIS has its basis, will generate a political process in Iraq as well (possible, but very hard to implement, as it would imply an American intervention in Syria); or an American intervention, an “Iraq war 2.0.” (unlikely again, given the opinion of the American public): “The American public does not want another Iraq war. Let them sort it out themselves. We do not need to get involved in another country’s affairs, especially this one’s. Does our leadership really think that their actions will bring stability to a region that has been handed down through religious empires since the dawn of civilization?” – a reader posted on the website of CNN, commenting an article about this crisis, with the comment gathering the highest number of ‘likes.’


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