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Is Iraq imploding?

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • July 07, 2014

    Yes, Iraq is imploding and unless a miracle happens we shall have to write the obituary of Iraq as a state to be succeeded by a Kurdistan, a Shiistan, and one or more Sunnistans. The Kurdistan will be more or less tranquil; the Shiistan will be more or less a protectorate of Iran; and the Sunni area will be a zone of contention.

    The required miracle is obvious: A reconciliation between US and Iran; conclusion of an agreement on the nuclear issue and simultaneous lifting of sanctions on Iran; a joint effort by US and Iran to replace Maliki, Prime Minister since 2006, with support from both, by a Shia leader acceptable to the Kurds and the Shias; a national decision to revise the constitution to grant to the Sunnis the autonomy that the Kurds enjoy; and a commitment by the Shia leadership to create a truly federal Iraq.

    Such a miracle is unlikely to occur. Therefore, it follows that Iraq is at present inexorably moving towards dissolution. In any case, even after that miracle occurs, it will be a difficult, if not impossible task to recover in full the territory under the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and its associates.

    Let us look at the big picture. The government in Baghdad has lost control over a stretch of territory to ISIL. ISIL has declared a ‘caliphate’ claiming territory from Aleppo in northwestern Syria to Diyala in northeastern Iraq; the Iraqi army built by US at a cost exceeding $ 20 billion melted away as an armed group of a few thousand urban guerrillas approached Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city; the Iraqi army ran away leaving the US-made weapons and uniforms; a good part of the civilian population fled. Mosul fell on June 20th. Later, Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birth place, fell. So far the government forces have not succeeded in recapturing any significant territory from the rebels. Maliki asked US for F16s to use air power against the rebels. The US has not dispatched any planes; it believes that unless Maliki is replaced by a less divisive leader there is no use taking any military action in support of an unpopular government. For obvious reasons going back to the ill-starred 2003 invasion and occupation under President George Bush and the subsequent disastrous management by the occupiers, there is no question of sending US troops back to Iraq as combatants. President Obama has sent drones, some armed, and about 800 military advisors, ostensibly to show support to the government in Baghdad, but basically to secure the US Embassy, the largest in the world. At any cost, President Obama wants to avoid a repeat of the humiliating flight by helicopter of US Ambassador from a falling Saigon in 1975. It is unlikely that Baghdad might fall as Saigon did.

    Let us note some of the significant points. First, Iran is already militarily involved in Iraq to shore up the Maliki government; General Quassem Suleimani, chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, has been to Baghdad; Tehran has given back to Baghdad some planes that way back in 1990-91 Saddam Hussein had sent to Iran for safe keeping. Iran will not let Baghdad fall, but it is not clear whether it will sacrifice its men in order to recapture lost territory. Second, Russia has sent aircraft to Iraq and Maliki might be able to bomb the rebels. But, such bombing might not have a decisive impact on the ground. Third, the Kurds have seen an opportunity to push their case for independence; they might arrange for a referendum they are sure to win. Israel has endorsed an independent Kurdistan; the first shipment of oil from Kurdistan sent through Turkey reached Israel recently; Israel has cultivated the Kurds in Iraq since the 1960s. Fourth, the ‘caliphate’ with its capital in Raqqa in Syria in their control since March 2003 has been acting as a government there so far without harshness excessive enough to alienate the population in any significant manner. This might change as ‘caliphate’ comes under threat as any regime under military threat tends to be repressive. Fifth, the appeal by the new ‘caliph’ for support and obedience from the entire Moslem world will invoke a response from some young men posing a security threat to different countries. Sixth, there might be a competition among the militant groups to outdo each other in carrying out terrorist attacks. The US has already tightened security measures for civilian flights to that country. Seventh, Iraq has reportedly called back 30,000 men it sent to Syria to fight for President Basher al-Assad. Eighth, though there is no likelihood of any attack on Saudi Arabia by the ‘caliphate’ the authorities there are worried that some of the Saudi young men with the ‘caliphate’ might come back and carry out attacks.

    The question as to how and why Iraq finds itself in such an existential crisis has been much discussed in US and elsewhere. The errors of judgment the neo-cons under President George Bush are being understood except for Dick Cheney and a few others. Briefly, the neo-cons were confident that they could dismantle the state of Iraq and build a new one to their design. They disbanded the army built up under Saddam Hussein and dismissed the civil servants who were members of the Baath party. Maliki put his cronies in top positions in the army and elsewhere without any regard to their lack of professional qualifications and experience. US deliberately chose not to build up an Iraqi air force as it believed that it would be there for years. Hence, the US and Maliki bear the primary responsibility for the deplorable of state of Iraq. It is wrong to blame President Obama as US troops could not have remained in Iraq indefinitely. Obama was prepared to leave a small force, but Maliki did not agree to grant immunity to them.

    Do the US, Iran and other powers want a united Iraq? In 2005-06 Joe Biden had produced a plan to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions that was endorsed by the Senate in a non-binding resolution 72vs 23. Obviously, such autonomy might eventually lead to formal separation. Iran too might not mind a Shiistan under its protection. Saudi Arabia might welcome a division as in its view it is better than Iran’s having the whole of Iraq under its influence.

    However a note of caution is called for. The conventional Western narration about Iraq’s being an artificial creation of the British who put together the three vilayets of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul is historically flawed. In the first three centuries of the Ottoman rule, it was the vilayet of Baghdad that ruled over what was known for centuries as the Arabian Iraq; Mosul became a vilayet in 1879 and Basra in 1884. In 1920, Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds rose up against the British.

    For India the developments in Iraq and its implications for the region are a matter of deep concern. India had reason to welcome the Arab Spring as it meant a march towards democracy. But, India witnessed with disquiet when the Arab Spring lost its way with the exception of Tunisia. The reasons for India’s concern are obvious. Over 7 million Indians are in the Arab countries, mostly in the Gulf which is currently more or less tranquil. The evacuation of a few thousand from Iraq has thrown up problems. The oil prices have shot up with its adverse impact on the economy. There have been reports of one or two Indians with the militant jehadi groups. There is a security threat as the ‘caliphate’ has mentioned Kashmir as a cause to fight for. Thus, there are adverse implications for India’s economy and security if the present trends of violence and extremism continue. India has no means of influencing the course of events that can affect it adversely.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India