Iraq on the Brink of a Ferocious Religious War
Iraqi forces and mainly Shiite Muslim volunteers arrive in the predominantly-Sunni Muslim city of Samarra, 124 kms from Baghdad on July 2, 2014, to protect a Shiite Muslim Al-Askari shrine as Jihadist militants of the Islamic State (IS) make advances
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The meltdown of American and British policy in Iraq and Syria attracts surprisingly little criticism at home. Their aim for the past three years has been get rid of Bashar al-Assad as ruler of Syria and stabilise Iraq under the leadership of Nouri al-Maliki. The exact reverse has happened, with Mr Assad in power and likely to remain so, while Iraq is in turmoil with the government’s authority extending only a few miles north and west of Baghdad.
By pretending that the Syrian opposition stood a chance of overthrowing Mr Assad after the middle of 2012, and insisting that his departure be the justification for peace talks, Washington, London and Paris have ensured that the Syrian civil war would go on. “I spent three years telling them again and again that the war in Syria would inevitably destabilise Iraq, but they paid no attention,” the Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told me last week. I remember in the autumn of 2012 a senior British diplomat assuring me that talk of the Syrian war spreading was much exaggerated.
Now the bills are beginning to come in, with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), declaring a caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria. He has called on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Islamic state and effectively denied the legitimacy of Muslim rulers throughout the world. No wonder Saudi Arabia has moved 30,000 troops to guard its 500-mile-long border with Iraq. There is a certain divine justice in this, since until six months ago the Saudis were speeding jihadists in the general direction of Syria and Iraq but is now dreading their return.
The success of Isis depends on its ability to win spectacular victories against the odds and not on its primeval and brutal ideology. Victory in battle is what makes it attractive to young Sunni recruits and it can also afford to pay them. It cannot sit on its laurels for long but needs to secure the territories it has taken and make sure that its Sunni allies – tribal, Baathist, former members of Saddam’s army – who joined it to fight against Mr Maliki will not find the new masters worse than the old and change sides. Isis has moved swiftly to prevent this by demanding that the allies swear allegiance to the caliphate and give up their weapons. But beyond that Isis must show that success at Mosul was not a flash in the pan. As Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi put it last week: “There is no deed better than jihad, so to arms, to arms, soldiers of the Islamic state, fight, fight.”
The Baghdad government is hopeful that the White House will ultimately use drones against Isis convoys even if it will not allow air strikes by fixed wing aircraft called in by American forward air controllers on the ground. Drones are particularly appealing to politicians because they appear to maximise damage to the enemy without American loss of life which might anger voters back home. It is true that roving Isis columns of trucks packed with fighters and heavy machine guns have proved effective so far. One Iraqi official compared them to “Arab raiders of old who would strike at caravans and then quickly withdraw”. But the core Isis military leadership is experienced Iraqi military professionals who will make sure their men don’t make easy targets. Even so, any American military action, however, limited will buoy up the faltering morale of the Iraqi army.
The US is pleased with the way drones have worked in Yemen and Waziristan against small groups of al-Qa’ida-associated groups. But these isolated gangs are not a serious threat compared with what is brewing in Syria and Iraq, where there will soon be tens of thousands of trained, well-equipped and fanatical militants under a strong central command.