The Iraqi disease

Iraq’s new prime minister may succeed in forming a government, but he will have to operate within narrow bounds, writes Salah Nasrawi
With a constitutional deadline fast approaching, efforts to form a new government in Iraq have hit a snag amid rising sectarian tensions and a continued struggle for power. The impasse comes as government forces battle to slow Islamic State (IS) advances into Sunni-populated areas of the country.
The difficulties in creating a new government underscore the deep gulf between Iraq’s political groups. Ethno-sectarian conflicts and IS threats are tearing the war-ravaged nation apart more than 11 years after the US-led invasion.


On 11 August Iraq’s President Fouad Masoum nominated Shia politician Haider Al-Abadi as the new prime minister, replacing incumbent Nuri Al-Maliki, who agreed to step down after weeks of struggle to stay in office for a third term.


Al-Abadi has 30 days to form a new government before he can formally take office. The new, all-inclusive government will be tasked with ending Iraq’s political conflicts, putting an end to IS threats and trying to put the country back together.


His nomination was welcomed across Iraq, including by Sunnis and Kurds who called on Al-Abadi to form an inclusive government that would end Al-Maliki’s legacy of government failure. His divisive and authoritarian rule is seen as being largely responsible for the present quagmire.


US President Barack Obama, whose administration pressured Al-Maliki to step aside, has called Al-Abadi’s appointment a “promising step forward” and pledged assistance to his partnership government. Al-Abadi also won endorsement from Saudi Arabia and Iran, two Middle East rivals pitted against one another in Iraq.


Iraq’s political stalemate stems from the post-Saddam Hussein ethno-sectarian political system that effectively split parliament into three hostile fronts and created communal divisions.


The power-sharing formula orchestrated by the US occupation authority and empowering majority Muslim Shia and ethnic Kurds has infuriated the minority Arab Sunnis who ruled Iraq for 80 years, triggering a violent Sunni uprising to press for a return to the old system.


But although Al-Abadi has promised to form a partnership government, many Iraqis believe that the political challenges remain the same. The key point is how to provide the glue that will hold Iraq together by treating its divergent communities on equal terms.


Indeed, Al-Abadi’s efforts to form a national-unity government have already stumbled over Iraq’s many communal vested interests. The question of how to show the Sunnis and the Kurds that he is ready to break away from Al-Maliki’s divisive and authoritarian style of governance is at the centre of Al-Abadi’s problems in forming the new government.


Some Sunni members of Iraq’s parliament pulled out of the coalition talks this week after a grotesque attack on a Sunni mosque. Scores of Sunni worshipers were killed during a raid on a rural mosque in Diyalah, east of Baghdad, on Friday following an attempt to assassinate a local Shia leader.


The lawmakers said they were protesting against what they characterised as state-backed retribution against the Sunni minority in response to the IS-led insurgency that has seized huge swathes of the country since June.


Several Sunni groups have put tough conditions on their backing of the new government. The National Alliance, a Sunni bloc that has the allegiance of most Sunnis in the parliament, has listed a set of conditions for it to participate in the government, including annulling the de-Baathification law introduced after the US-led invasion.


Among other grievances, Sunnis want to see their inclusion in key ministries such as defence, the interior, and foreign affairs as well as the national security and intelligence departments.


They also want to see a set of measures for the Sunni provinces, such as halting military operations against insurgents and reactivating local police forces to carry out security duties.


An alliance of Sunni tribes opposed to Al-Maliki said in a statement that Al-Abadi would not bring the real change they wanted to see before they would put down their weapons. Some tribes insisted that they would not fight against IS insurgents unless they saw progress in their provinces.


Meanwhile, the country’s Kurds have also set conditions for their participation in the government. At the top of their demands is that the new government should not challenge the de facto annexation of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other territories captured after the IS thrust.


The Kurds are also demanding the return of eight months of state revenues withheld from them over a dispute on oil exports. In addition, they want the government to endorse independent oil exports from the Iraqi Kurdish region. They want Baghdad to fund their Peshmerga forces and supply them with weapons from the central government.


Kurdish negotiator and outgoing foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari was quoted by Al-Sharqiya television on Monday as saying that Al-Abadi must make written commitments to implement these demands within a specific time framework.


Zebari said the Kurdish delegation negotiating with the government would insist on guarantees from “Iraq’s friends” that the forthcoming government would implement the Kurdish demands.


Some Kurdish officials have threatened a referendum on independence in the Kurdish region if Al-Abadi does not accept these pre-conditions.


If Al-Abadi is not able to move swiftly in forming a national unity government, one reason will be that these Sunni and Kurdish conditions are beyond what he is able to accept.


Like Al-Maliki, Al-Abadi is haunted by the Shias’ traumatic past and the present-day atrocities by Sunni extremists. The Shias fear that pro-Saddam elements will return to power if they make concessions such as allowing former army officers back into key government, security and military posts.


Al-Abadi also cannot take the risk of releasing the tens of thousands of Sunnis who have been charged with terrorism. He will be reminded that the thousands of IS militants who have been butchering Shias, including their leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, are former detainees who were released by the Americans or people who have escaped from jail.


 The IS-led seizure of territories has consolidated the opinions of hard-line Shia who are opposed to the inclusion of Baathists and Sunni insurgents in the government or giving them an amnesty.


These groups have been growing and becoming more ruthless, especially as a result of the larger role they have been playing with the security forces in combating the IS-led Sunni insurgency. Shia militias have also been intimidating or harassing Shias who do not agree with their extremist policies.


On Monday, Baghdad Shia resident Sana Talekani wrote on her Facebook page that armed men had killed her cousin because he was married to a Sunni woman. She said the men, presumably belonging to a Shia militia, sprayed her cousin with bullets from machine guns while he was walking to his home in a busy Baghdad neighbourhood.


The rise of the Shia militias, with their shadowy connections, highlights the challenge Al-Abadi will face from within the Shia community if he goes too far in accommodating Sunni insurgents in the government and the security forces.


There are also signs that Al-Maliki may be stirring up trouble for Al-Abadi and that he may exploit any leniency toward Sunni insurgents in order to decry threats to the Shias and use these to agitate the Shia street against Al-Abadi.


Last week Al-Maliki showed he was ready to play such a spoiler role when he called on Al-Abadi to reject any “preconditions” in his attempt to form a government. “Setting pre-conditions before the formation of the government will damage the political process,” Al-Maliki said in his weekly address to the nation.


Al-Abadi is also unlikely to give in to the Kurdish conditions. On Monday he told reporters that the problems with Kurdistan should be solved “according to the constitution,” a formula also used by Al-Maliki to avoid resolving outstanding problems with the Kurds.


Iraq’s lingering political crisis should be viewed in the context of its ethno-sectarian political system. The quota system, introduced to achieve consensus, has turned Iraq into a dysfunctional country ruled by a sectarian and power-greedy political class.


The problem is also one of leadership. Iraq’s challenges are diverse, and they need visionary and efficient leaders to tackle them. Iraq’s leadership has a record of failures, the roots of which can be traced to the past and lingering echoes of mistrust.


Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq’s political elite has failed to display the leadership qualities needed for transformation and reconciliation. Al-Abadi is no exception, regardless of his trumpeted, but untested, qualifications and his career in government and parliament in the post-Saddam era.


Iraq’s malaise, compounded by unabated communal strife, is largely due to such deep-seated problems. The country’s political elite has failed to fill its leadership role in the transitional period.


Al-Abadi, coming from the same ethnic and sectarian backgrounds as the rest of Iraq’s leaders, cannot be expected to display the skills and vision needed to pull Iraq out of the abyss.

Can IS be defeated?

It will take more than a new government in Iraq and US military prowess to stop IS, writesSalah Nasrawi
In July 2011, as US combat troops were preparing to leave Iraq, Al-Qaeda put up a spectacular show of force in the heart of Baghdad. Its militants attacked a military checkpoint, killing 16 soldiers and setting their bodies on fire. In a final flourish, the attackers briefly planted IS’s black flag.
In the months after the US withdrawal, the terror group carried out more brazen strikes against government buildings in Baghdad, including key ministries and prisons. In one guerrilla-style assault, in July 2013, it freed some 500 of its senior members from the high-security Abu Ghraib prison.
The bold attacks were a clear sign of the failure of the “surge” in US troops. The so-called surge was a counter-insurgency measure taken by the Bush administration to support troop withdrawal from Iraq. Al-Qaeda sought to take advantage of the security vacuum to gain a foothold in the country. After the Americans left, the country would be policed by incompetent Iraqi security forces.
At that time, the Obama administration, which started a disengagement policy in Iraq disregarding what might follow, insisted that the US army was leaving Iraq secure and that the US-trained and equipped Iraqi security forces were capable of bringing peace to the war-torn country.
The truth is that Iraq was not only becoming less peaceful but that it was also being driven into a deeper security vacuum. This was due to the political stalemate largely caused by the failure of the US-backed Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki to pursue political reconciliation to end the Sunni insurgency. He needed to win over the Sunnis in order to pit them against Al-Qaeda.
The war-torn country soon reached a political impasse. Sunnis launched a nationwide protest in 2013 demanding an end to what they perceived as their marginalisation and mistreatment by the Shia-led government. The protest movement evolved into a rebellion which IS exploited to expand its presence.
Al-Maliki refused to begin a sectarian rapprochement. His government’s policy of excluding Sunnis enabled the brutal terrorist group to gain more grassroots support from Sunnis. It was marriage of inconvenience. The group continued its vicious warfare and set up the next stage in the cycle of violence to topple the Shia-led government.
Militarily, government efforts to defeat the group have not produced results. The group has asserted its leadership, changed its wider strategy and maintained momentum in preparation for an overall thrust to capture more territories and threaten Baghdad.
That trend continued until 10 June when the Islamic State (IS) seized the Iraqi city of Mosul in a lightning attack. The Iraqi army quickly collapsed. Declaring itself an Islamic caliphate, IS seized more assets and large swathes of land in four provinces and advanced toward Baghdad.
IS also pushed back Kurdish Peshmerga forces and overran several more cities in northern Iraq, including Sinjar, a Yazidi minority stronghold, and advanced to the provincial Kurdistan capital, Erbil.
Analysts in the western media who have been weighing in with scenarios on the best approaches to confront IS and end this intractable war are now suggesting that any strategy to defeat the terror network requires both government effort and US involvement. This strategy should include both political and military components in order to fight what has become a large-scale insurgency movement.
On the political level, they argue, a new all-inclusive government must be rapidly formed relations restored between Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni populations. Militarily, they suggest, Iraq should be supplied with sophisticated US weapons, air force support and, probably, with boots on the ground.
They also believe it will take broader regional and international support, including a multilateral political approach and a robust military effort and coherent battle strategy to destroy IS.
This may look like proper strategic thinking, but looking more deeply into the suggestions, including an inclusive government and the need for US military support, they seem like forgone conclusions that do not amount to policy recommendations.
Haven’t we heard such things from the self-proclaimed Iraq experts and media pundits time and time again since the Iraqi conflict began following the US-led invasion? Is it not because of the flawed US policies in Iraq and the failures of Iraq’s post-invasion governments that the country has fallen into the present morass?
There is a great deal of naivety, to say the least, in assumptions that omit key elements in Iraq’s lingering crisis and reproduce short-term fixes that are divorced from reality and lack a larger political vision.
The post-10 June developments have brought a whole new set of challenges to the table. Iraq is now politically and geographically divided along ethno-sectarian lines, with each of its three main communities controlling its portion of the land.
More than two-thirds of Iraq is now under the control of IS-backed Sunni insurgents and independence-seeking Kurds. This has created new realities on the ground and fundamentally changed the equation, a factor that the Sunnis and Kurds will use to improve their position against the Shia majority in any settlement of the crisis.
It means that the communal struggle in Iraq is no longer about state largesse or even about political participation, but is rather about the communities’ futures in a united Iraq. The larger problem that any effort to end the current crisis must address is Iraq’s survival as a state and not merely the redistribution of power and wealth.
Let’s assume that the Iraqi factions successfully formed a new unity government tomorrow and enough incentives were provided to the Kurds and Sunnis to remain in Iraq. Even then, who could guarantee that the centrifugal forces tearing Iraq apart could be stopped?
A closer look at the post-10 June landscape reveals that the Sunni political elite involved in the political process and negotiating the new government deal is out of touch with its constituencies, now mostly under the control of IS and other Sunni insurgents.
It is true that some Sunni tribal leaders have expressed a willingness to work with the new government, under certain preconditions, to redress their grievances. But they will first have to convince other Sunni factions and tribes to be open to the idea of compromise.
Another task will be to confront IS, which holds a tight grip on their provinces. Important Sunni factions seem unwilling to do this because their ultimate objective is to restore their supremacy in Iraq and not to share power with the Shia.
The Kurds say their participation in the new government will only happen if they are allowed to control the territories they have seized during the current crisis, have the right to sell oil independently, and the ability to receive weapons directly from abroad.
With regard to possible US military intervention to fight IS, Washington has already started air strikes and provided weapons to roll back gains made by IS. But its commitment to a long-term involvement and to sending troops to fight the terror group remains in doubt.
Indeed, the prospect of US involvement in a large-scale war against IS seems out of
the question. So far, Obama has said there is no US military solution to the crisis. And there are no signs that a man who won his presidency on a promise to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will change his mind.
In the final analysis, what is being sought is an illusionary, short-term stability that would not stop Iraq from disintegrating into three separate entities. Some spin doctors advocate dividing Iraq into different ethno-sectarian regions, a plan proposed by US Vice-President Joe Biden in 2006, as the only solution left to end Iraq’s sectarian conflict.
While this strategy would spell the end of Iraq, a wishy-washy counterterrorism approach will not defeat the IS, or even eliminate its threat to other countries in the Middle East, and even beyond

Kurds benefit from IS rise


The IS thrust in northern Iraq may help the Kurds turn the threats to their enclave into political gains, writes Salah Nasrawi
The decision by US President Barack Obama to launch airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State (IS) following its advance into Kurdish-controlled territories has raised eyebrows, particularly after Washington’s reluctance to use force when IS militants seized nearly one third of Iraq in June and threatened Baghdad.
Obama said he authorised the use of force to protect Americans, safeguard Christians and members of other minorities who have fled for their lives, and press Baghdad to form an inclusive government to end the political crisis. But his message was loud and clear: the US would protect the independence-seeking Kurdistan Region.
As questions are being raised about Obama’s airstrikes strategy in Iraq, the Kurds, who are in a tug-of-war with Baghdad, seem to be the only beneficiaries of the US military’s return to Iraq two years after the troop withdrawal and Obama’s pledge to avoid direct military involvement in the beleaguered nation.
A little background may be necessary to put into perspective the conclusion that the US military intervention has come primarily to support its Kurdish allies or, as was bluntly put by Obama himself, to “stop the advance on [the Kurdish capital] Erbil.”
When the jihadists of the Islamic State captured Mosul in June and made headway into other Sunni-dominated cities in western Iraq, Kurdish leaders, at loggerheads with the Shia-led government, were quick to blame the Iraqi security forces for the advance which had rattled the violence-ripped country and threatened to tear it further apart.
To further discredit the Iraqi security forces that had failed to withstand the IS offensive, Jabar Yawar, secretary-general of the Kurdish Peshmarga forces and a key Kurdish spokesman, claimed that some of the 200,000 retreating Iraqi forces had joined the jihadist rebels.
Though the collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul stunned the world, the reason Kurdish leaders trumpeted its defeat was to portray the Baghdad Shia-led government as being incapable of protecting Iraq in the face of creeping danger, a pretext they later used to justify their seizure of large swathes of land in three provinces, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani also moved swiftly to ask the Kurdish parliament to establish an electoral commission and set a date for a referendum on independence, vowing that the newly acquired territories would be defended by Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Such was the feeling of triumphalism that Kurdish leaders boasted that the Peshmerga, meaning those facing death in Kurdish, were a formidable force that would rather die in defence of the newly acquired territories than surrender.
What may seem to be Kurdish bombast and political opportunism drew criticism from Shia politicians who charged the Kurdish leadership with complicity in the IS capture of Mosul and with exploiting the Iraqi army’s defeat to grab territories and break away from Iraq.
In a fiery statement, outgoing prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki accused the Kurdish Regional Government of failing to “provide an example of patriotic partnership” by hosting leaders of the Sunni insurgency and IS terrorists in Erbil, the Kurdish capital.
In protest, the Kurdish leadership ended all participation in Iraq’s national government, and the outgoing Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari put the blame squarely on Al-Maliki, saying the prime minister and his security officials were to blame for the rise of the Sunni Muslim insurgents.
In their turn, many Iraqi Shia politicians capitalised on the Peshmerga’s retreat to ridicule the fighters, who pride themselves on being a well-armed, trained and battle-tested force, for failing to fight the less-experienced IS fighters. They accused them of abandoning hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis and Turkmens to the terrorist group.
What seemed to be blame-trading and mud-slinging has now turned into grand political farce. Both the Baghdad government and the Kurdish leaders have failed to deal with the IS danger, paving the way for the group’s rise and now to a new American military adventure in Iraq that may escalate the sectarian and ethnic strife that afflicts the country.
With IS increasing its gains and keeping its murderous machine in motion, the noisy debate between Baghdad and Kurdistan may have abated. Simplistic analysis has tried to use the Arabic proverb “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” to explain the present convergence as a matter of necessity and one that could lead to a breakthrough in Iraq’s lingering governmental crisis, also a prerequisite set by Obama for further military assistance to Iraq.
But the core of Iraq’s problems today is the crisis triggered by IS control over vast Sunni territories and the Kurds’ declaration that they intend to go for independence after capturing large swathes of land.
Not everyone is convinced that Obama’s two-pronged strategy of pursuing airstrikes on IS and pushing for the formation of an inclusive government in Baghdad will restore stability and stop Iraq’s dramatic descent into the abyss.
Most analysts agree that the US bombings of IS positions are ineffective and cannot hold off the extremists who are now slaughtering people or forcing them into submission. They wonder how limited airstrikes on IS artillery, or the few hundred advisers earlier dispatched to Iraq, can fix something that couldn’t be fixed with the hundreds of thousands of US troops that were in the area for over a decade.
The other stated goal of the operation, to help protect minorities, can also hardly be expected to save these hundreds of thousands of people and help them return to their towns and villages that are now under IS control.
The point to remember here is that the United States and the West waited for a long time to move to protect the Yazidis and Christians weeks after IS started its carnage of the minorities in Nineveh, while the Kurdish Peshmerga stood idle or abandoned their posts and fled. In fact, the Christians, Yazidis and Shabaks have now become hostages to the Kurds, who claim that their towns and villages belong to Kurdistan and have long been exercising a policy of Kurdisation to change their religious and ethnic identities.
The goal of protecting US diplomats and other personnel in Iraq through airstrikes on IS positions is not even worthy of discussion. If Washington was simply concerned about its staff’s well-being, it could evacuate them. But they are there largely to implement US policies in Iraq and are needed there despite the risk.
As for Obama’s instance on ending Iraq’s governmental crisis in order to provide sustainable military assistance, the prospect seems unpromising even after Iraqi President Fouad Masuom nominated Haider Al-Abadi as the new prime minister.
With Al-Maliki refusing to step down, the country’s power struggle could be further intensified, worsening the IS threat and the country’s sectarian conflict.
With two-thirds of Iraq now out of Baghdad’s control, the time has passed for any new government, which will be formed by the same corrupt politicians, to stem the IS advances, let alone to stop Iraq plunging into further political chaos.
It should be asked of Obama’s pledge of military action in Iraq whether it can prevent the country from falling apart or whether it is simply the last act in a process of disintegration triggered by the US-led invasion in 2003.
By all accounts, what the Obama administration has done so far, in the words of Rudaw, a Kurdish news outlet close to Barzani, is to boost world support and recognition of the Kurdish Region.
“The liberation of the Kurdistan Region was also achieved by the international reaction to the crimes of Saddam Hussein against the Kurds in 1991,” wrote Ako Mohamed, the director of Rudaw Tuesday.
Two developments are also worth watching here. First, the American airstrikes have helped the Kurdish forces reclaim a few towns from the Islamic State, and second the United States has also started arming the Peshmerga.
While it is not clear if all the Christians, Yazidis and Shabak will consider returning to their homes under the looming danger, the US military involvement will clear the way for the Kurds to consolidate their control of these territories. The greater weapon supplies will, meanwhile, facilitate the long-feared fragmentation of Iraq.
For many years the Kurds have lamented the fact they had “no friends but the mountains” as they fought successive Iraqi governments for autonomy. Now, with the Americans at hand and at a decisive moment in their long-awaited independence, they have a mighty friend with global reach at their side.
But the question remains of how long this will prove to be the case.

Iraq’s Sunni dilemma

The bloody takeover of their cities by Islamist forces has sparked soul-searching among Iraqi Sunnis, writes Salah Nasrawi
In an opinion article in the New York Times last month, two Iraqi Sunni leaders wrote that America’s support for the Iraqi Sunnis was crucial and urged the US administration to appoint “a senior American official to reach out to Iraqi Sunni leaders in and outside the country.”
“Despite the horrors of our recent history, we can pass through this difficult period, with help from our American friends,” wrote Rafe Al-Essawi, a former deputy prime minister and minister of finance, and Atheel Al-Nujaifi, governor of the now jihadist-controlled Nineveh province.
The awkward yet passionate appeal reflects a dramatic shift in Sunni politics since the US-led war in 2003. At that time, the minority Sunnis considered the American occupation as the end of their decades-long rule over the country and the beginning of a new era under the majority Shia.
Soon afterwards, Sunnis, marginalised by the newly empowered Shia political groups, launched an armed resistance against the US troops and the post-Saddam Hussein regime.
While most Sunnis supported the insurgency, some moderate Sunni politicians reluctantly joined the US-backed political process in the hope that it would end their isolation and secure their people an equal share of the power and national wealth.
Much had changed some ten years later. With the US withdrawal, Sunnis started a massive anti-government protest movement. Their efforts for effective Sunni political participation had been stalled by the increasingly authoritarian Shia prime minister, Nuri Al-Maliki.
The insurrection turned into a rebellion to push for the Sunni demands, bringing a new bunch of disfranchised local Sunni groups into the debate and signifying an intensification of Iraq’s sectarian politics.
Despite their ideological and political differences, Sunni rebels (including Baathists, secular nationalists and groups affiliated with the Al-Qaeda offshoot group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) came together against their common enemy — Iraq’s majority Shia. ISIS considers the Shia to be apostates who deserve to be killed.
But the seizure of major Sunni cities by ISIS jihadists in June may have changed all that. Horrific crimes and extreme measures imposed by the Islamic State (IS), as declared by ISIS, have alienated many Iraqi Sunnis.
Following their capture of Mosul and the declaration of a mediaeval-style caliphate, the militants imposed strict Islamic Sharia law in the city. They banned smoking and forced women to wear loose clothing and full-face veils. They also established Islamic courts that were ordered to apply their extreme interpretation of Islam.
The group issued orders to Christians to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or leave. Almost all Christians who lived in Mosul, the descendants of a centuries-old population, have left. Their property has now been claimed by IS.
The seizure of Yazidi-populated towns this week and the forcing of hundreds of thousands of their inhabitants to flee threatens ethnic cleansing of the area after the expulsion of the Christian and Shia minorities.
The extremists also started the systematic destruction of landmarks in the Sunni cities they controlled, including tombs that were believed to be the biblical prophets’ burial places and dozens of shrines, mosques and churches.
In addition, Islamic State militants destroyed statues of poets, blew up bridges, threatened dams and took over key oil infrastructure.
Moreover, they carried out summary executions of government employees they deemed disloyal to them. Among the atrocities committed by the group was the execution of hundreds of soldiers in the newly captured cities.
Since the capture of the towns, the Islamic State has released many shocking videos showing scenes of mass executions of Iraqi soldiers and others who dared to resist them.
The graphic footage of atrocities has spread fear of future attacks, while also triggering a Shia backlash. As the advance continues, the Shia response is becoming more aggressive and has prompted reprisals.
Reports by human rights groups in recent weeks have documented the kidnapping and killing of Sunni civilians throughout Baghdad and other provinces in recent weeks.
Based on eye-witness accounts and medical and government sources, they report that Shia militias have killed hundreds of Sunnis in villages and towns around Baghdad.
Some of the murders are so gruesome that they are raising the spectre of full-blown sectarian warfare. In Baquba, an ethnically and sectarian mixed town northeast of Baghdad, gunmen believed to be members of a Shia militia last week hung the bodies of 15 Sunnis from electricity poles in a public square.
The incident shows the methods the Shia militias are using to frighten Sunni sleeper cells from joining the jihadists’ brutal campaign and creeping into Baghdad from Sunni-populated satellite cities surrounding the capital.
Last week, Reuters news agency reported that Iraqi Shia militias had drawn up hit lists of suspected Sunni insurgents in the “Baghdad belt” to be kidnapped, executed and hung in public because they considered them a threat to the Shia.
With jihadists taking one town after another and inching closer to Baghdad and other Shia-populated centres, the Sunni offensive has also invited Iranian intervention. There have been numerous reports of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards fighting in Iraq to help counter the threat posed by IS.
A London-based newspaper reports that a heavily armed Iranian military force arrived at Sulaymaniyah International Airport in the autonomous northern Kurdistan region of Iraq this week en route to Kirkuk to help defend Shia shrines from Sunni militant attacks.
Quoting an Iraqi Kurdish security official, the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat reported on 31 July that the Iranian contingent was granted access to Kirkuk province by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls Sulaymaniyah.
However, IS’s savage onslaught over the last two months and Shia reprisals have heightened the problems faced by Iraqi Sunnis as they weigh how to respond to Iraq’s existential crisis as the nation falls apart.
Indeed, Sunnis have been rattled by the rapid gains of the Islamic State and the threat its brutality presents to the future of the Sunni community. But the more important and immediate question is whether the Sunnis can put together a coordinated plan for their future in a united Iraq.
The Sunnis seem to be divided over what strategy they should adopt as IS’s brutal onslaught rips up the union. On the one hand, there are the die-hard Saddam loyalists who seem hell bent on keeping their alliance with the IS terrorists to end of Shia rule.
Last week, Saddam’s former deputy, who now leads the Iraqi Baath Party, Izzat Al-Douri, hailed IS and Al-Qaeda fighters as heroes. “God bless the Ansar Al-Sunna. In the forefront of these groups are the knights of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,” Al-Douri said in a recorded statement.
Saddam’s army commanders are believed to form the backbone of IS strategists, while senior officers are playing a key role in the fight against the Shia-led government.
On the other hand, moderate Sunnis who want political and peaceful means to end their community’s exclusion by the Shia-led government accuse the IS of pushing Iraq into a sectarian abyss in which the Sunnis could be the losers.
Much of the Sunni Arab population in Mosul and other cities has become increasingly resentful of the abuses exercised by IS and believe that the terrorist group will turn against them after finishing with the Shia.
Osama Al-Nujaifi, former speaker of the Iraqi parliament and brother of the governor of Mosul, said this week that he was forming armed “brigades” to fight IS and liberate Mosul. Tribal leaders in several other Sunni cities have made similar pledges.
Sunni armed groups have already clashed with IS militants over the destruction of the tombs and shrines in Mosul. In other places they are joining government forces to fight the group.
For all the blood and misery in Iraq, Sunnis now have a chance to exercise political wisdom to save the country from further chaos. Having made their point, they could return to the negotiating table, this time with a stronger position to secure their demands and end their marginalisation.
Every Iraqi and friend of Iraq should press them to do so. The nasty strategy of IS and other extremists, eliminating the Shia and other minorities and imposing their brutal style of rule over the country, is not a good option.
It is not too late for the Iraqi Sunnis to show that they have heard this advice. (see p.