NOURI al-Maliki, Iraq’s tough-guy prime minister, bears much responsibility for the security collapse in Mosul and surrounding areas in the face of this week’s hard-driving Islamist military offensive. But others must take their share of the blame, including the Obama administration, which appears once again to be asleep at the wheel.

The antagonistic attitude of Maliki’s Shia-led government towards the Sunni minority in central and eastern Iraq lies at the heart of the current crisis. Sunnis in Anbar province, which includes the flashpoint cities of Falluja and Ramadi, have long complained the government in Baghdad ignores their interests and concerns.

Following an upsurge in sectarian, inter-communal violence that gathered pace through 2013, when the UN says more than 8,800 people died, Maliki ordered an army offensive in Anbar on December 23 (using units from the Shia south). He claimed all those backing the Sunni protest movement were, in effect, part of Al Qaeda.

The prime minister apparently hoped to assert his authority before the general elections in April. But his heavy-handed tactics only served to unite more moderate tribal leaders — who famously backed the US military “surge” in Anbar in 2007 — with the Islamist hardliners.

“Most tribes issued calls to arms and demanded the withdrawal of all federal armed forces from the province. Heavy fighting soon followed, the army withdrew personnel from all cities, and convoys of heavily-armed ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) militants streamed into Ramadi and Falluja,” said Brookings analyst Charles Lister.

Despite losing de facto control of Anbar and a subsequent loss of votes in the elections, Maliki has spent recent weeks trying to stitch together a coalition government to keep him in power for a third consecutive term. ISIS spent the time expanding and strengthening its position in neighbouring Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital. Thus the ISIS takeover of the city and surrounding towns and villages was sudden but hardly a surprise, according to regional analysts. It had been in the making for months.

Despite Maliki’s claims, ISIS is separate from and to some extent a rival to Al Qaeda, whose affiliates it has clashed with in Syria. Veteran commentator Patrick Cockburn said: “ISIS has taken over from Al Qaeda as the most powerful and effective extreme jihadi group in the world. It now controls or can operate with impunity in a great stretch of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria, making it militarily the most successful jihadi movement ever.”

Maliki’s divisive politics have made a big contribution to this outcome. Following the 2011 Sunni uprising in Syria, “peaceful demonstrations [by Iraqi Sunnis] from the end of 2012 won few concessions, with Iraq’s Shia-dominated government convinced that the protesters wanted not reform but a revolution returning their community to power. The six million Iraqi Sunni became more alienated and sympathetic towards armed action by ISIS,” Cockburn said.

The chaotic flight of Iraqi security forces as the militants closed in on the centre of Mosul has raised understandable concerns about the government’s grip on other parts of the country. Predictions by opponents of the American-led Iraq invasion in 2003 that Iraq could end up being split three ways between its Shia, Sunni and Kurdish areas now look closer than ever to being realised.

This collapse reflects badly on the Obama administration, which signed a series of security pacts, including a strategic framework agreement, with the Maliki government when US troops finally left in 2011. The idea (in a worrying echo of Afghanistan) was that Washington would help Baghdad to build an effective, well-trained national army.

Since then, however, the US has been busy turning oil-rich Iraq into a lucrative market for American arms sales while doing nothing much, in practical terms, about the looming Islamist threat. These advanced weapons were intended to bolster government forces. Now some of them could soon fall into the hands of the Islamists.

“Our shipments have included delivery of 300 Hellfire missiles, millions of rounds of small arms fire, thousands of rounds of tank ammunition, helicopter-fired rockets, machine guns, grenades, sniper rifles, M16 and M4 rifles to the Iraqi security agencies,” the White House said this week. In January, Congress gave a green light to the sale of 24 Apache attack helicopters in a deal valued at $6.2 billion. This US policy of arming the locals is now looking dangerously inept, to say the least.

A recent offer by Iran, an ally of Iraq’s government in the region-wide Shia-Sunni standoff, to help Maliki combat extremism highlighted the extent to which outside forces have taken advantage of the growing security vacuum in Iraq and Syria. Tehran’s involvement is galling for Washington, which fought (in theory at least) for eight years to create a unified, pro-western democracy in Iraq despite subversive Iranian meddling.

But Obama has made it clear, most recently in his West Point speech, that he is against sending troops back to combat theatres in the Middle East, or anywhere else for that matter — a position enthusiastically applauded in Tehran. The bottom-line message from Washington to the hapless Maliki, as to Syria’s pro-western opposition groups, is that when push comes to shove, as it did this week, you are on your own.

—By arrangement with the Guardian

Published in Dawn, June 13th, 2014

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