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Iraq on the Boil

( Before reading on I would suggest reading this article to understand some of the terms used below -Link )

Some springs end up being terrible winters. And so it is with the Arab Spring. 3 and half years after the wave of revolution spread across the relatively inert MENA (Middle East and North Africa), the ferment refuses to die down.

The ISIL has declared an Islamic Caliphate in the areas held by it
Country after country, dictatorial regimes began to disintegrate like packs of delicately balanced cards. Syria too joined the bandwagon and began witnessing growing insurgency against its authoritarian leader Bashar al-Assad. Among the rag-tag coalition propped up against the Government was the ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). Like an infestation, the organization began to spread its roots and soon, it began to carve out a stronghold for itself in the Raqqa province of Syria.

The ISIL was ignored by many for a long period of time.Even the seizure of the Iraqi town of Falluja too garnered the extremist organization little media attention. It was only after the fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that the threat posed by the ISIL was taken heed of. With the passage of time, the rebel group has only expanded its sphere of influence and seized large swathes of territory.

The ISIL is estimated to command 10,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria. When juxtaposed to the size of the Iraqi army, the numbers seem insignificant. But what is worrisome is the absolute disintegration of the Iraqi army in large stretches of the country. The ISIL has just sweeped into towns without encountering any resistance, like a hot knife melting butter. The Iraqi army seems incapable of and unwilling to counter the insurgents.

The Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s dispensation itself has indulged in brazen sectarianism, doling out patronage to Shiites and harassing the minorities. His Government has made no effort at national reconciliation and has instead, worked to widen the chasm between the various sectarian groups. The move has reaped the ruling party a rich political harvest but the counter-productivity of these actions are fully visible today.

First, a look at Iraq’s demographic equations - the country has a population composed of 60% Shia, 20% Sunnis and 20% Kurds (an ethnic group which has long been persecuted across the Middle East). The Kurds have been enjoying regional autonomy in Iraq since some time now and their homeland of Iraqi Kurdistan is today the most stable region of all, untroubled by internal conflicts or sectarian strife (more on them later). For long, the Sunnis formed the ruling class and lorded over the majority Shias. The tyrannical Saddam Hussein – the Iraqi dictator toppled by the USA in 2003 – was a Sunni from the secularist Baath party. In the aftermath of the US invasion and the introduction of democracy, a Shia leader Al-Maliki was handed over the reins.

Al-Maliki purged Sunni Muslims from government posts (in the guise of de-Baathification); going back on a commitment to integrate Sunni militias (which had been used by the USA to defeat the Al-Qaeda within Iraq) into the state army. Even Saddam’s army was dissolved without rehabilitation of the officers and the soldiers.

The repercussion - A majority of these soldiers and militias went on to join rebel groups like the ISIL. The ISIL ranks are supposed to have been filled in by sympathizers of the Baathist party. A substantial number of Sunni tribes, disillusioned with Maliki’s ways too have endorsed the rebel group. Besides substantial local support, another factor has also worked for these insurgents - the complete collapse of the Iraq-Syria border. They can take refuge from one side in the territory of the other.

For its part, the Iraqi government has requested that the United States conduct air strikes against key militant positions across northern Iraq. Ironically, Washington sees the use of drones against ISIL as a step too far (though the ISIL was expelled from the al-Qa’ida fraternity in February 2014 for being too extremist and vicious!) and has refused to act decisively so far. Lets not forget that the ISIL has already expressed its desire to establish its 'Islamic Caliphate' across the Middle East (Jordan and Saudi Arabia have already begun militarizing their borders heavily).

Perhaps, Obama has not learn from his mistakes as of yet. The complete withdrawal of US forces was an event completely of Obama’s making. The US Commander in Iraq had suggested a body of 14,000-18,000 troops to be left behind but Obama’s reluctance saw the entire force being withdrawn. Today, the Iraqi army is unable to combat an irregular militia, forget a professional army of a neighbouring country.

The USA also failed to provide adequate support to the moderate sections of the Syrian Opposition. The civil war was unnecessarily prolonged and extremist elements like the ISIL have been its sole beneficiaries. Through his dilly-dallying (i.e his strategy of doing nothing and naively hoping that everything works out well), Obama has thrown the entire Middle East into a state of sectarian strife.

The USA is also guilty of having failed to rein in Maliki and preventing him from indulging in cronyism. After having invaded the country to seek out and destroy the WMD’s Saddam had allegedly amassed, the least the USA could have done as a moral responsibility was to return Iraq to its normal state of affairs. The USA sat on its hands even when the Iraqi Government led the country to a spectacular economic failure.

A prolonged state of uncertainty and war will have disastrous effects on the world. Iraq is the second biggest oil producer in OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) and such instability will lead to inevitable oil price rise. The global economy may go into a rough phase with three major oil producers in trouble – Syria, Iran and Iraq. The country of Iraq may also undergo a three-way split. The possibilities are endless and none seem favourable. The longer the Iraqi cauldron simmers, the more catastrophic the consequences will be.

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