Iraq’s sectarian quagmire


The re-election of Nouri al-Maliki a month ago to a third term as Iraq’s president was a sure sign of what was coming. His recipe of more of the same state corruption and incompetence and the entrenching of Shia rule said eloquently to the country’s alienated Sunnis that there was no place for them in the new Iraq. Most Sunnis do not support the jihadists of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) or their dream of an Islamic caliphate in the region, but most would not now lift a finger in defence of Baghdad and Maliki’s sectarian regime. Some powerful Sunni tribes have joined forces with the rebels.

Iraq’s parliament was meant yesterday to hold an extraordinary session to vote on declaring a state of emergency, but failed even to reach a quorum, a sign of that sectarian political dysfunction that has paralysed decision-making.

The advances made by Isis to within 90 kilometres of the capital and the seizure of Kirkuk by Kurdish forces, stepping into the vacuum as the Iraqi army appeared to dissolve in the city, means there is every possibility now that Iraq as a state will cease to exist, disintegrating physically and psychologically into mutually hostile sectarian ethno-religious enclaves. Kurdish forces are currently committed to upholding a unitary Iraqi state and supporting the government against Isis, but a prolonged standoff could see the Kurdish administration opt for independence.

The government could be left with just Baghdad and areas to the south while a potential replay of the ethnic and sectarian bloodbath of 2006-2007 which nearly tore Baghdad apart is on the cards.

The country’s second city, Mosul, and the city of Tikrit were apparently given up with barely a fight with some reports suggesting army commanders ordered their troops to hand over their weapons to rebels. Hobbled by low morale and corruption, the Iraqi army – 250,000 frontline troops , trained by the US at a cost of nearly $25 billion – is a symptom of that same dysfunction that infects the whole Maliki regime.

They are up against only an estimated 7,000-strong Isis, bolstered, however, by other groups, including local Sunni militants and Ba’ath nationalists. True to its brutal form in Syria where Isis controls substantial swathes of territory, there have been reports of summary executions of captured soldiers and civilians, and crucifixions of Christians, as the group establishes its version of Sharia law and consolidates its rule. Like in Syria it has quickly begun to establish revenue streams either through its own taxation by extortion or by seizing and exploiting lucrative oilfields. Yesterday it surrounded Iraq’s largest refinery in the northern town of Baij.

In just a few days the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency. Isis will not be easily dislodged and t here is a real danger that the conflict will draw in neighbours Iran and Turkey into the fighting.