As Islamists take Mosul, time is running out for Baghdad

At a time of economic and social failure, while Shias are being killed almost daily, time is running out for political change in Iraq, says Alan Philps.

For two years pundits have been predicting that the Syrian civil war will sweep away the borders drawn in the region by Britain and France at the end of the First World War. The capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday by a transnational group of jihadists brings this prediction one step closer to reality.

The black flags of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) now fly over Mosul, a city with a proud history that sits astride the main route from Baghdad to Turkey. The Iraqi army, beneficiary of some $14 billion (Dh51.4bn) in US support, abandoned the city under the onslaught of the jihadists, with soldiers leaving their weapons and uniforms behind as they fled.

The lack of leadership of the rebuilt Iraqi army is not the only surprise. The stunning lack of intelligence that this daring attack was about to happen is just as damning.

ISIL is known as the most ruthless of the jihadist groups fighting the regime of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad. So cruel are its tactics that the Al Qaeda leader, Ayman Zawahiri, has disowned it. Far from reducing its support, this act only seems to have confirmed the view of youths looking for a fight that Zawahiri is a tired old man and that the true heir to Osama bin Laden is the shadowy ISIL leader, who goes by the name of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

From their base in the eastern Syrian town of Raqqa, they have spread back into Iraq to fight the Shia-led government. For months they have been fighting the Iraqi ­army in the Euphrates towns of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar province, and now they have taken Mosul, in the north. It was unclear yesterday who held Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.

ISIL’s ideology of destroying the colonial borders has a special resonance for Mosul. Under the original Anglo-French carve-up, Mosul was going to be under French influence and thus part of Syria. That changed when Britain decided it wanted the oil reserves, so Mosul became part of Iraq. The machinations of the colonialists seem less clever now.

As the jihadists try to advance towards Baghdad, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, is faced with his biggest challenge – one aggravated by the fact that he has yet to form a new government after parliamentary elections in April. If he cannot drive the jihadists out, Iraq will fall apart. The south and the east will be a rump Iranian-backed Shia state, the west will be a jihadist enclave encompassing the desert regions of Syria and Iraq. As for the Kurds of northern Iraq, they will seek to wrest whatever advantage they can from the wreckage, with the aim of achieving de facto independence.

The stakes are so high that Mr Maliki has to throw whatever he has at ISIL. At the moment, the Iraqi army is in shock. The units that have been fighting in Fallujah are exhausted and depleted by desertions. The strike forces he seems to be reaching for are the militias formed of the majority Shia population. But by raising the sectarian element of the conflict this would only hasten the collapse of the ­Iraqi state.

Mr Maliki does not have time to choose between military action and rebuilding sectarian cohesion. Nor can he rely on decisive action from the United States. Washington can hardly allow a jihadist mini state to prevail in the desert, but President Barack Obama made it clear only last month that the US will no longer be the world’s policeman.

Is it too late to hold Iraq together? Many signs point to a Yugoslav scenario where ethnic and sectarian divisions tear the country apart.

Clearly the ISIL fighters could not have taken Mosul without the support of other disaffected groups. The Iraqi army has come to be seen by many as no less an occupation force than the Americans were. In ISIL propaganda, and in the view of many Sunnis, Mr Maliki has turned the Iraqi army into a resented tool of Shia hegemony.

The sectarian impulses of Mr Maliki and the indiscriminate actions of the army in Anbar province have fuelled the Sunni insurgency. If Mr Maliki’s only recourse is ramping up the sectarian element in his counter-attack, then the country’s fate would seem sealed.

Yet it is not too late. The shock of the loss of Mosul may be so strong that the political class is forced to unite to save the country. ISIL may have overstretched itself: it can be dangerous for a guerrilla force to capture and hold a city, as the Chechen separatists found in the ruins of Grozny. Even more so if their only way to govern is to impose a reign of terror.

It is important to remember that fate can change quickly in war. Before its strike into Iraq, ISIL seemed to be on the wane in Syria, having been driven from some of its strongholds by local groups angered at its cruelty and intolerance.

As for the city that is their latest prize, a decade ago it was the scene of the “Mosul miracle” when David Petraeus, then a major-general, made his name by pacifying the city with counterinsurgency tactics supported by generous cash handouts. But that “miracle” did not last beyond the general’s stay in the city. In 2005, a previous jihadist insurgency in Iraq was defeated when the US marines, taking advantage of tribal rivalries, paid some 50,000 local people grouped in the so-called Awakening Councils to drive the jihadists out.

As in 2005, the focus now will be on the traditional tribal leadership, who are well aware that their influence will be snuffed out if the jihadists prevail in the Sunni heartlands. What is lacking now is American boots on the ground and dollars in hand.

The Americans have made it clear that not much help will be forthcoming unless Mr Maliki moderates his Shia triumphalism and shows the Sunnis that they are part of an inclusive Iraq. But at a time of economic and social failure, while Shias are being killed in almost daily bombings around the country, time is running out for such a change.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter: @aphilps

Published: June 12, 2014 04:00 AM


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