Iraq’s future hanging in balance, says Kerry

Way forward depends on choices made ‘Not next week, not next month, but now’

US secretary of state John Kerry  says the crisis is “a moment of decision for Iraq’s leaders and . . . a moment of great urgency”. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AP Photo

US secretary of state John Kerry says the crisis is “a moment of decision for Iraq’s leaders and . . . a moment of great urgency”. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AP Photo

Tue, Jun 24, 2014, 01:00

Iraq’s “very future” will be determined in the coming days, the most senior US diplomat, John Kerry, said yesterday as he urged the country’s feuding leaders to form a government and confront the jihadist surge splintering the country.

Promising “intense and sustained” support to Iraq, the US secretary of state said the crisis was “a moment of decision for Iraq’s leaders and . . . a moment of great urgency.” Mr Kerry said each of the three officials he met, Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki, parliamentary speaker Osama Nujaifi and prominent Shia leader Ammar Hakim, had committed to nominating leaders by July 1st.

With the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, now in control of an 800km stretch of the border between Iraq and Syria, and advancing towards the country’s most strategic areas, Mr Kerry said: “The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks. Not next week, not next month, but now.”

One-third of Iraq lost

Iraq’s army again folded over the weekend in the face of the insurgent threat, pushing into the border areas. It has now yielded most of western Iraq to Isis. The capitulation renews pressure on Mr Maliki, who is also commander-in-chief. He has seen more than one-third of the country slip from his control in less than two weeks.

Mr Maliki faces a tough task to assemble a coalition from Iraq’s disparate groups, whose enduring divisions make nation-building fraught. The large, expensive army he leads has repeatedly cracked under the jihadist threat, exposing sectarian fault lines across Iraqi society – which many claim had been widened by Mr Maliki’s refusal to empower the country’s Sunnis.

Mr Maliki has pleaded with Washington for US military support, acknowledging Iraq does not have the means to tackle Isis, which has pledged to oust Iraq’s Shia power base and end the country as a unitary state. Mr Kerry, and US president Barack Obama had been urging unity over the past week, and appeared to condition airstrikes on Iraqi leaders first finding a consensus. Mr Kerry’s comments in Baghdad suggest political compromise – and military action – are both fast drawing near.

US aid

The US has already deployed two aircraft carriers to the northern Gulf and has sent special forces troops to Iraq – some of whom will act as forward spotters for airstrikes.

Ahead of meeting Mr Kerry, Mr Nujaifi said only the implementation of a federal system of government could hold Iraq together. “A federal system is a solution,” said Mr Nujaifi, who is from Mosul – the first city to be overrun by Isis earlier this month. “It is constitutional and even the Shias are starting to come around to it.”

The jihadists have advanced from Anbar province in the west to the Haditha dam in central Iraq, the epicentre of the country’s electricity grid. Iraqi reinforcements have been rushed to the area and the dam appears to be at no immediate risk of falling. However, Isis has continued to out-think and outmanoeuvre the Iraqi military, despite its vastly inferior numbers.

Some Isis cells are now on the eastern outskirts of Baghdad. However the capital would be heavily defended if it was attacked. “I don’t think they need to take Baghdad anyway,” Mr Nujaifi said. “It is not so important to them given what else they could get their hands on.”

Isis was thought to have 6,000 members before it seized Mosul and Tikrit, but is believed to have recruited heavily over the past week. Foreign fighters based in Syria have crossed the border to aid with the Iraq push. – (Guardian service)