Iraq at risk of Syria-like chaos as political and military fightback stumbles
Iraqi forces struggled to regain ground lost last month to jihadist-led militants and politicians remained divided Monday despite mounting pressure to unite and agree on a new leadership.
Nearly a month after militants led by the group now calling itself the Islamic State (IS) swept through northern Iraq, plunging the country into one of its worst crises in years, the prospect of either a military or a political solution still looked distant.
Iraqi forces have regrouped after the debacle that saw some soldiers abandon their positions, weapons and uniforms as militants conquered Iraq’s second city of Mosul and advanced to within about 80 kilometres (50 miles) of the capital Baghdad.
The government has received fighter jets from Russia and Iran, intelligence from Washington and enlisted the help of Shiite militias it once shunned or fought to strike back at the loose alliance of IS fighters, other jihadist groups and former Saddam Hussein loyalists who now control swathes of territory.
It has for more than a week attempted to wrest back the Sunni stronghold of Tikrit seized by IS fighters in their lightning onslaught last month but has so far failed to achieve a breakthrough.
According to analysts, a dearth of intelligence in Sunni areas — due largely to distrust of the Shiite-led authorities among minority Sunni Arabs — and a lack of combat experience have hamstrung Iraqi forces.
– ‘Collateral damage’ –
“The army and the police are seen as sectarian… and therefore the Sunni community doesn’t provide support or, crucially, intelligence to the security forces,” said John Drake, an analyst at the AKE Group security company.
“If you don’t have good intelligence on the ground, your strikes are not precise, they involve collateral damage and casualties … making everything worse,” he added Drake.
While most observers have argued that Baghdad was not about to fall, violence and suicide bombings have continued.
The latest struck a cafe in a predominantly-Shiite neighbourhood in western Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least four people and wounding 12, according to security and medical officials.
An IS-linked Twitter account on Monday posted a picture purported to be of the suicide bomber, apparently a Lebanese national, posing in front of the black Islamic flag before his operation, holding a sword and surrounded by assault rifles and rocket launchers. The authenticity of the image could not immediately be verified.
Despite omnipresent war propaganda in Iraqi media and tough talk from government and military officials, forces loyal to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are still looking for a major victory on the ground.
The Islamic State appeared to be brimming with confidence however.
– Sudden public appearance –
A few days after declaring the restoration of the caliphate, nearly a century after the last one died with the Ottoman empire, the group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi stepped out of the shadows to deliver a Friday sermon in Mosul’s largest mosque.
Analysts have described the sudden public appearance by the self-proclaimed “caliph” — second only to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri on the US most wanted list — as a daring stunt reinforcing Baghdadi’s status as the new strongman in the world of global jihad.
The offensive has exacerbated ethno-religious tensions in Iraq and deepened divisions in its already fractious parliament.
More than two months after elections Maliki’s camp won comfortably, parliament has yet to begin the process of choosing the country’s top three officials, which according to an unofficial deal are split between the Shiite Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.
Deputies had been due to kick start the political process last week by electing a speaker but the Council of Representatives’ opening session ended in chaos, with MPs trading heckles and threats before some of them eventually walked out, forcing an adjournment.
The interim speaker had suggested the chamber reconvene on Tuesday for a fresh attempt at yanking the country out of political limbo.
Despite telling AFP in a 2011 interview he would not seek a third term, Maliki vowed last week he would not bow to mounting international and domestic pressure to step aside and allow a broader consensus.
The UN’s top envoy in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said last week Iraqi politicians should treat the planned July 8 session as a deadline for the election of a parliament session or risking plunging the country into “Syria-like” chaos.