The crisis in Iraq

Anil Gupta
Iraq is back in news again. It jumped into head lines  last week when a realatively smaller islamist irregular group stormed into, one after the other, Iraqi towns in the North-East of the country with the much larger Iraqi Army giving little or no resistance at all. To illustrate in Mosul, second largest Iraqi town, the odds were 40:1,ie, 3000 Iraqi troops pitted against 800 irregulars.  This on Friday sent the stock exchanges crumbling in many countries. Iraq is the second largest supplier of crude oil after Saudi Arabia and has the world’s fifth largest proven reserves and pumps an average of about 3.5 million barrels of oil per day. Can rest of the world including India remain a mute spectator to the happenings? Is it a harsh reminder of shape of things to follow in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US and allied forces by the end of 2014, only six months away? Is Iraq heading towards disintegration?
Iraq- The Nation
Iraq is bounded in the North by Turkey, East by Iran, South by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, West by Jordan and Syria. Its population is divided on ethnic and sectarian basis. Arabs and Kurds form the two major etnic communities with Arabs being 80% and Kurds 17%, the others account for three percent. Arabs are further divided into Shias(48%) and Sunnis(32%). Kurds are hundred percent Sunnis. Kurds have their own autonomous area under control in the North-East called Iraqi Kurdistan and do not pay much heed to the government in Baghdad. They have their own milita as well. The Kurds since long lay their claim to Kirkuk, a town on the fringes of area under their control, as their capital city. While Kurds dominate the North and North-East, Sunnis are concentrated in the middle and Shias dominate the South. Prior to Gulf War II, Sunnis held all important posts of power and government under all powerful Saddam Hussein and his kins belonging to a sunni tribe- al Bu Nasir of Tikrit. Post the US withdrawal in 2011, the goverment is under the control of Shias, that has alienated the Sunnis.
Iraq was a house of cards when the Americans left in 2011. The Shia-Sunni rift, that brought the nation to the brink of a civil war, had been left simmering and the pot continued to boil. The issue of Kurd nationalism was also left un resolved. As an icing on the cake, the reins of the government were handed over to an unpopular Shia Nasri al Maliki, who also turned out to be ineffective. The Shia led central government is partisan and has failed to provide the basic amenities like water and electricity to the citizens let alone health and education. It has not only alienated the Sunnis but almost forced them to rebel against theShia-led government and US trained Iraqi military. The military interestingly is a Shia-Sunni mix. This alienation of the Sunnis is being exploited by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/Levant (ISIS OR ISIL)-a Sunni terrorist group.
ISIS is a product of Iraq War or commonly referred to as Gulf War II. It is essentially a version of Al Qaeda in Iraq. It was formed in 2004 and split formally with Al Qaeda in 2014. Post killing of Osama Bin Laden, a number of splinter groups have emerged in place of a unified outfit like Al Qeda. These groups are driven by local political and sectarian dynamics and have given rise to ” Salafi Jihadists”- violent proponents of an extreme form of Islam. They are harsh and coercive.
ISIS wants total failure of the Shia-led Iraqi government. ” They want to establish  a Caliphate based on medieval Sunni Islamic principles across Iraq and Syria”, said General Ray Odierno, former US military commander in Iraq. Their avowed aim is to: find a hardline Sunni Islamic State in Iraq and part of Syria. Today ISIS holds a fair amount of territory in both Iraq and Syria-roughly equivalent in size to the European nation Belgium. Sunnis form the backbone of the ISIS fighters.
Analysis of Current Crisis
The fighting between the Iraqi Government and the terrorist outfit ISIS is tearing Iraq apart.  the fight is very complicated because its again brought to the fore the fragility in Iraqi nation. The Kurds so far have not joined hands with the ISIS but are busy consolidating their hold over areas in the North and North-East.
In a speedy offensive in the North, a small number of ISIS terrorists captured Mosul, an oil rich and second largest city of Iraq. It then captured Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein and Baiji, a significant oil town. In addition a number of smaller communities, as well as military and police bases in the North-East have fallen after meeting little resistance from the Iraqi security forces. The Kurds moved in speedily into Kirkuk to take control and protect it, after Iraqi military abandoned it. The Iraqi forces are regrouping around Baghdad. The house of cards seems to be collapsing rapidly.
” Citizens who can carry weapons and fight the terrorists in defence of their country, its people and its holy sites should volunteer and join the security forces to achieve this holy purpose,” said Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalaie, a representative of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Another Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Shia militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq vowed to defend Shia holy sites. ” He who sacrifices for the cause of defending his country and his family and his honour will be a martyr,” commanded the Grand Ayotallah. The current crisis has the potential of turning into a sectarian war. The causes that led to the current situation are:-
* Pre mature withdrawal of US forces in 2011.
* Faulty selection of Maliki as the Prime Minister to head Shia dominated central government.
* Highly partisan and ineffective central government that failed to carry along the Sunnis and Kurds.
* While the Iraqi Army is well equipped, it lacks motivation. The troops are not loyal to the present government. There is Shia-Sunni divide in the Army also. The Sunni soldiers are deserting and unwilling to fight the ISIS.
* The crisis in Syria provides safe bases and easy access to heavy weaponry to the ISIS terrorists.
Impact on India
Two-thirds of India’s crude oil requirements are met through import. Any crisis in the Middle East effects suply of oil to India and adds to our import bill substantially thus effecting our economy. It also effects our growth rate and industrial production. Alarm bells have been sounded but the panic button is yt to be pressed. “We are watchful and cautious. We are hopeful that Iraq crisis will blow over. There is no need to panic as far India is concerned- I don’t see any immediate reason for panic,” said Arvind Mayaram,the Union Finance Seretary.
A recently circulated video warns of caravan of terrorists coming from Afghanistan to”liberate Kashmir.” It also carries a message read by Maulana Asim Umar, a senior leader of al-Qaeda’s Pakistan cell asking Kashmiris “to emulate their brothers in Syria and Iraq and wage a violent jihad against India”. The authenticity of the video needs to be established but it should nevertheless raise the tentacles of Indian  security forces and the State administration. The threat from Afghanistan, post US withdrawal scenario, in any case is giving sleep less nights to the security apparatus.
Is trifurcation/ disintegration of Iraq on the horizon? The answer in my view is negative. “My national security team is looking at all the options to help the Iraqi Government. However, return of ground forces to Iraq is ruled out,” announced US President Barack Obama. Is US military intervention answer to resolve the present crisis. The answer is once again negative. Is divided Iraq in the interest of the international community and the immediate neighbourhood? Once again the answer is a loud “NO.” A divided Iraq will be too weak and provide safe havens to radical terrorist outfits.
In my view, the ISIS is not strong enough to last. It lacks leadership and political backing. Its “harsh and coercive” style of functioning would prove to be their downfall and soon alienate the Sunni population as well. It would not be able to make much headway towards Baghdad and Shia dominated areas in the South. Iraqi Army backed by elite Irani troops would decimate the irregular, ill trained and poorly equipped ISIS fighters.
ISIS may be replaced by more normal Sunni leadership that would like Iraq to remain a united country. A weak government in Baghdad has always given rise to divisive forces. There is a need to show the door to Maliki led partisan government and install a more progressive and balanced government in Baghdad that would not allow Iraq to become a ground for Shia-Sunni sectarian war.
( The author is a retired Brigadier, political commentator, security and strategic analyst )


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