As much as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to paint a smiley face on his army’s fighting against ISIS warriors and Islamic Sunni coalition forces, the military and political situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate.
On June 23, Sunni soldiers took control of the largest oil refinery in the country in Baiji (200 kilometers from Baghdad). Divisions of government forces that had been guarding the plant put down their weapons and left, after which the refinery was occupied by the so-called “revolutionary Arabic tribes,” who have been attacking Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite central government. Army divisions, in accordance with incoming information, gave up the factory without a fight, which is located 40 kilometers north of Tikrit (the administrative center of the Salah-ad-Din province), after negotiations with sheik tribes’ military commanders.
Last week warriors of the extremist group “the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria,” which already controls several important regions in the country, tried to seize the refinery. However, the Sunni warriors insist they have no connections to terrorists, and claim the events going on in the country are a revolt or “a people’s revolution,” against al-Maliki’s administration. Included in their ranks are many former servicemen of Saddam Hussein’s army and officials of the toppled Ba’ath party, with their stated goal of overthrowing the Prime Minister’s government and establishing a power in Iraq that takes into account each of the country’s ethnic-confessional communities. According to representatives of the military command “revolutionaries of tribes,” Mosul, Tikrit, and several other cities and border check points are theirs, not under ISIS control. As Arabic television channels are saying, people are taking to the streets of Baiji in celebration of the “freeing” of the refinery.
It was in these conditions that US secretary of state John Kerry made a very quick visit to Baghdad, where he announced that Iraq’s fate can be decided in the next week and will depend largely on whether the state leaders can establish a new government by July 1st. “The key task today was getting an explanation from each Iraqi government leader on long-term steps to forming a new government. Prime Minister (Nouri al-Maliki) confirmed his intentions to do this by July 1st,” Kerry said during an unannounced visit to Baghdad. “It’s time for the leaders of Iraq to make a decision,” the secretary of state added. He noted as well that the US intends to provide “intense and sustained” support to Iraq in its fight against terrorists, however the fight will only be effective if “the government takes steps to unite the state.”
Meanwhile, the group “the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria,” with the support of Sunni tribes, as well as former warriors from Saddam Hussein’s army, recently took over several large cities in Northern and Western Iraq: El-Kaim, Rawa, Ana and Rutba. They occupied three security checkpoints (one on the border of Jordan and two on the border of Syira), as well, and are threatening to attack Baghdad. Iraq government powers are calling the events terrorist strikes at a time when many Arabic countries and organizations are calling this the exasperation of an inter-confessional resistance. Yesterday ISIS warriors seized almost 70% of the western province of Anbar and maintain control of the Nineveh and Salah-ad-Din provinces.
The crisis in Iraq due to successful ISIS attacks, which brought significant parts of the country under its control, forced the US to take urgent measures to save the western project of re-building Iraq’s government. After visiting Baghdad and Kurdistan, Kerry will on June 24th discuss the situation in Iraq with head European foreign ministers in Luxemburg. As British Minister of Foreign Affairs William Hague announced, “the E.U. supports the US’s position, wherein Iraq must achieve political consolidation and create a widely representative government with the participation of all main political powers,” while European partners are counting on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to formulate the new coalition government.
Islamists have taken yet another step towards creating a “jihadist state,” now that the borders with Jordan and Syria are under their control. It’s becoming an unfortunate situation for government forces and in the northern province of Nineveh, where Mosul, the country’s second largest city is located, as well as in the province of Salah-ad-Din, where ISIS troops have achieved control of the city of Al-Sharqat. Iranian commanders call the surrender of all new territory to Islamists “tactical retreats,” but local powers admit: the security forces’ military morale remains “very low,” they are deserting the battlefield, leaving their weapons and ammunition to the Islamists. On June 23rd Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that in one day alone, hundreds of government army soldiers have died in battle with the warriors.
The escalation of the conflict in Iraq has clearly demonstrated that the American project of re-building this government after the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime is undergoing a shameful fiasco. The Shiite regime that has come to power after the dictatorship has not managed to establish a stable use of billions in financial allocations, a stable long-term military presence, a stable arms supply, or a a stable way for US and NATO instructors to instruct national security forces. The ISISwarriors’ attack within days reversed the progress towards “democratic rebuilding” it took years to accomplish in Iraq.
The crisis in Iraq has forced the Obama administration to re-think its strategy. Americans’ tactical options are limited. On one hand, Washington cannot afford to remove itself completely and allow Nouri al-Maliki’s civil regime to fall to Islamists. On the other hand, the US is letting everyone know: repeating president Bush’s 2003 Iraq campaign is not an option. Carefully avoiding the military scenario, Barak Obama cannot even decide to enact airstrikes to Islamist areas, which Iraqi government leaders expect from him, and is for the time being prepared only to send military advisors to Iraq. Washington is not hiding its dissatisfaction with the current head of state, indicating that the breakout of the current crisis has been largely due to his policies and inability to reach an agreement with the Sunni minority. At the same time, the Obama administration refuses to consider the crisis in Iraq the result of American politics in the region. “The USA is not responsible for what happened in Libya, or what is now happening in Iraq,” John Kerry announced during his trip. Although everyone understands perfectly that the US secretary of state is boldly lying. Meanwhile ISISwarriors intend to realize their version of rebuilding Iraq, turning it into a “jihadist state.”
After visiting Baghdad, J. Kerry traveled to the north of the country in order to meet with leaders of the region’s Kurdish administration. He called upon them to take an active role during the period of forming a new government in Iraq. Meanwhile the fall of Iraq has begun in a practical sense. On the eve of J. Kerry’s trip, the president of the Kurdish Republic Massoud Barzani, in an interview with CNN International, suggested that “the time has already come for Kurds to decide their course.” While avoiding the word “independence,” Barzani still made it clear he is talking about Iraqi Kurdistan’s complete independence from Baghdad.
Strictly speaking, Iraqi Kurdistan has been in effect independent from the central Iraqi government for a long time already. Kurds have their own (essentially state) structures, including military structures. They have 80 thousand Peshmerga warriors (the Kurdish militarized structure). They are now supposedly fighting with ISIS warriors, although the reality is that Sunni troops could not have taken Mosul and Tikrit without their silent consent, and in exchange ISIS did not try to seize control of Kirkuk. In the above-mentioned interview, Barzani also announced that the city of Kirkuk (properly of Turkmenistan) “is undoubtedly a part of Kurdistan.” (Kirkuk in fact has never belonged to the Kurdish autonomous state – author’s note). The local Turkmen population is wary of Kurdish warriors staying in the city after the end of the national crisis and by force making it a part of Iraqi Kurdistan.
It’s true that the Turkmen population’s concerns are not unfounded. Barzani has recently been indicating in announcements that Kurds see oil-rich Kirkuk as their own ancestral land. If Iraqi Kurdistan declares independence from Iraq, the Turkmen people might unwillingly become citizens of a state governed by people who arranged the massive slaughter of Turkmen people in Kirkuk in the middle of the 20th century. In 1959 in the rich, oil-drilling city of Kirkuk during the celebration of the anniversary of the fall of the monarchy, a massacre took place against the Turkmen population, who made up the majority of the city’s population and controlled the business and commercial life of the city. Their houses and enterprises were confiscated and destroyed. The Democratic party of Kurdistan is considered the organizer of the slaughter, the chairman of which was Massoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa.
If events turn out this way, we will soon see not only an independent Kurdistan, but an independent Sunni state made up of 6-8 provinces of north, west and central Iraq with a primarily Sunni population. The main question now is who will control Baghdad, which historically has always been in the Sunni part of the country. Apparently, the fight for the Iraqi capital is inevitable. Much depends on whether or not Iran and the US will intervene in the Iraqi armed conflict with the involvement of large-scale ground and air forces. The US will clearly not go that far, and this means Tehran will have to make a tough choice – going into Iraq alone will be fraught with dangerous results for Iran’s security, as sponsors of the current Sunni revolt – Saudi Arabia, other Arab monarchies, and Israel – Washington’s primary strategic partners in the region – are decidedly against it.
Peter Lvov is a Ph.D of Political Science and a Columnist for the internet journal, New Eastern Outlook