26.06.2014 Author: Alexander Orlov

The continuing battle for the future of Iraq

3453453The militant group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) together with other Sunni factions are continuing their offensive on several fronts. On June 25 militants captured a large Iraqi airbase in the city of Yathrib, 90 km north of the capital, in addition seized 3 oilfields (production capacity of approximately 28 thousand barrels per day) in the region of Adjil, 30 km east of Tikrit and 130 km north-east of Bagdad. Simultaneously, the Iraqi military began to prepare for the defense of the city of Haditha (240 km north-west of Baghdad) in the province of  Al Anbar. The main object of this village is that it has the largest hydroelectric power station on the Euphrates River. If the militants were to capture it, then they would be able to seriously disrupt power supply in many parts of the country.

In actual fact, Sunni insurgents are not only advancing, but they are thrashing the Iraqi army and capturing large swaths of territory in northern and western Iraq from Ninawa to Diyala. Day after day they approach closer to Bagdad forcing thousands of residents to flee and those who choose to remain are hording water and supplies. The main question now is can a centralized Iraqi state be maintained? But for now, the main battle for Bagdad is yet to be fought. Reports are already beginning to surface that small groups of insurgents, more than 1.2 thousand, have already entered the capital and, as soon as their numbers exceed 3 thousand, plan on simultaneously striking key government targets such as the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and the American Embassy in addition to other key installations within the “green zone”. And externally, supporting their advance are large forces of Sunni insurgents from 3 or 4 sides. If this occurs, Bagdad is doomed and there’ll be a bloodbath.

It is becoming increasingly clear that, whatever the outcome of combat operations in Iraq after the arrival of 300 U.S. military advisers, weapons and Shiite groups, the best case scenario for the country is that it survives as a confederation. In just 2 weeks the delicate balance by which it has remained a unified state has been virtually destroyed; the Sunnis in the north and west of the country began their uprising and the Kurds occupied area of Kirkuk, a center for oil production in northern Iraq. And from the point of view of the Kurds, there is no going back. Kirkuk has the largest oilfields in the country and is not a part of Kurdish autonomy. For the Kurdish population, Kirkuk is their historical homeland and they wish to return it to its previous status as capital of Kurdistan, moving it from Erbil. Thanks to the region’s huge oil reserves, the Kurds can achieve full economic independence from Baghdad and it, of course, would likely be returned to its previous administrative and political structure. As the Prime Minister of the regional government of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nachirvan Barzani, recently announced, “I do not believe that Iraq will ever be the same, it’s almost impossible”. And then he added that the best possible solution for Iraq under the current situation would be a confederation, of which there will be a Sunni autonomous region similar to the one that already exists for Kurdistan.

Modern-day Iraq, which appeared in 1920 under the mandate of Great Britain and gained independence in 1932, has always been up to present day a centralized state. However, after the American occupation of Iraq, Sunni were expelled from all influential positions in the government, police and the army. The originator of this policy is the current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and who is currently being harshly criticized, including from the United States and Saudi Arabia.

According Ruba Husari, Managing Director at Iraqi Insight, one of the country’s largest analytical centers dealing with the Iraqi problem, “the Americans destroyed the political foundations of the country, but it is precisely Maliki who will go down in history as the politician who completely ruined it.” Tony Blair, Prime Minister of Great Britain in the era of anti-Iraqi aggression against Saddam Hussein in 2003, also believes that the causes of the current crisis lie in the inherent intolerances of the Maliki government towards other ethnic groups in Iraq. It was Maliki who did not use the opportunity to create a cohesive Iraq.

It is just all these figures, as well as many Western analysts, who were stubbornly silent on the fact that it is the American occupation of the country as the main cause for the schism in Iraq along ethnic and religious lines. And now the moment has arrived to determine Iraq’s future; will it be a federation or confederation or will it disintegrate into three parts? The internal borders that existed under Saddam Hussein have changed a lot and it is very possible that in the near future they will again be legislated.

In this regard, Tehran is trying to provide the Iraqi government the urgent military assistance, but for the moment without military intervention. The Iranian leadership has limited its assistance to about two thousand “Al-Quds” troops of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard to protect Shiite shrines. At the same time Iran continues to increase the provision of technical and logistical support to the Iraqi military in addition to support for intelligence gathering. On June 24 at the Al-Rasheed Airport in Bagdad, Iran established a support base for Iranian drones carrying out reconnaissance missions over Iraq. On the very same base Iranian support crews are located. Iranian transport planes are now flying missions twice a day to Baghdad; and for each flight 70 tons of weaponry and military equipment is delivered. Electronic reconnaissance is intercepting radio transmissions from the commanders of the group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Although an increase in the Iranian contingent has not yet happened, on the border with Iraq there are ten divisions stationed ready and to support the government of Nouri al-Maliki in the event of an imminent threat to Baghdad or to the Shiite shrines in the country. Military support to Baghdad includes Syria whose air force stroke at ISIS positions in the north-western provinces of Iraq on June 25.

After a visit to Iraq by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on June 26, he travelled from Brussels for meetings in Paris with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Jordan, to inform them of the results of his trip to Iraq and to discuss the worsening situation in the country, as he had done with the Foreign Ministers of the EU. At the same time, American support for the al-Maliki government has all but ended.

The process for finding a solution to the Iraqi issue includes Moscow, which supports the preservation of Iraq’s territorial integrity where several Russian companies have conducting business and have existing contracts, chief among them is the contract to develop the oil fields of the South (Lukoil) and in the center of Kurdistan (Gazprom Neft). The Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, Sergei Lavrov, discussed ways of resolving the situation in Iraq with the leaders of Saudi Arabia during his working trip to Jeddah on June 20-21. For two days he met with the Crown Prince, Salman Abdulaziz, the heir to the Crown Prince, Muqkrin Abdulaziz, the Foreign Minister, and Saud al-Faisal, the Minister for the National Guard and with the son of King Mutaib. However, nothing is known of what was discussed between Mr. Lavrov and the Saudi representatives.

Ultimately, the outcome of the ongoing armed conflict in Iraq and the fate of this country will be decided neither in political meetings nor in the role of external actors, but on the battlefield between Sunni militants and Shiite government forces.

Alexander Orlov, political scientist, expert in Oriental Studies, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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