Iraq is collapsing as two major cities of Tikrit and Mosul have been taken over by a terrorist group called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). This ISIS Sunni militant group is more radical, militarist, authoritarian and unpredictable than al-Qaeda and more right wing religious fundamentalist than the Taliban. Nonetheless, it is an offshoot of both. Though currently described as a breakaway from al-Qaeda, it can merge with it any time. It is a spillover over from neighbouring conflicts especially Syria with designs on the region. The international community has reason to be worried because of the humanitarian crises, rise in oil prices, growing fundamentalism and terrorism. To tackle this root cause needs recognition.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could not get the required quorum to declare emergency since he heads a weak coalition in a highly polarised country. The Iraqi Army is demoralised but the Iraqi Kurds have been fighting back the ISIS as one of the groups opposing the Assad regime in Syria. The ISIS is well equipped with the latest lethal weaponry, stolen from captured military bases.
This Sunni militia as Robert Fisk, wrote in The Independent (UK, June 14, 2014) is funded and supported by the Saudi Wahhabis and Kuwaiti oligarchs. The Saudis had a policy of releasing imprisoned hardcore al-Qaeda to fight alongside such groups. The US supports the Saudi regime.
Iraq thus is a repeat of the Syria story, except that in Iraq the US opposes the ISIS rebels, but supports rebels in coalition with them in Syria. The US national security adviser Susan Rice said on CNN on June 7, that Washington was providing lethal and non lethal support to the Syrian rebels. This means supporting the same rebels for being ‘moderate’ in Syria, but opposing them for extremism in Iraq. The Iraq-US Strategic Forces Agreement allows for US intervention. But the US will not oblige until Iraq accepts conditions of internal inclusive politics and external distance from Iran.
The roots of the problem in Iraq are also the internal discrimination by the Maliki regime of the Sunnis, who have been ghettoised and excluded since 2003. For example 700,000 Sunni soldiers were dismissed from the Iraqi army, and others removed from government service, after the Americans left. Such exclusion on the basis of religion is sure grist for rising militias. Iraq has become rife and polarised with sectarian conflicts since 2003, where hundreds of thousands have lost their lives to terror and sectarian attacks.
In response to the current takeover by the ISIS, Iranian President Rouhani has kept his promise of helping its neighbour by sending 2,000 advance troops in what can become a crucial fight against terrorism. The head of the Iranian revolutionary guards the Quds is in Baghdad planning operations. The much revered Ayotollah Sistani has given a call to arms. The ISIS is at loggerheads with the Hezbollah, allegedly run by Iran. Iran will be crucial in closing this conflict.
Terrorism in Iraq is a post Saddam, post US 'liberated territory' phenomenon. Iraq has 30,000 American troops and lily-pad bases and yet terrorist attacks have increased. According to a RAND report, between 2011 and 2013 alone Jihadist groups grew by 58 per cent, their fighters doubled and their attacks tripled. Terror groups are expanding their base in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen.
The point is that the American war on terror has failed because it was a war to expand US interests in West Asia. A real war against terror would not have left Afghanistan and gone into Iraq in 2003, to topple a dictator that the US government disliked. It would have remained to stabilise Afghanistan. Similarly, the NATO backed by the US overthrew the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 on the grounds of humanitarian intervention and then departed. Libya today has escalating violence; its government is near collapse, and another civil war is possible as identity and sectarian politics are on the rise.
In other words, the wars have not worked and the countries where intervention took place were neither protected, stabilised nor liberated. Moreover, terrorist groups have realised that America can be defeated and it has no staying power, and that demonising Islam actually helps the terrorists' cause. The US is currently spending US$500 billion for its base budget. Even if one-fifth of that went into peace and human security of regions where there is fear of terrorism, it might be a better way to build international security.
In the current scenario, even though the Iranian and US interests have been at loggerheads, this is a time where there is a small window of opportunity that they come together to save Iraq. If they allow competitive geo-politics to prevail, it will be at the cost of the Iraqi people and international terrorism will grow.
This is the time to build on the 2013 Geneva deal reached among Iran, the West and Russia on Syria. Stabilising Syria is key to peace in Iran as Russia, China and India have argued. The recent elections in Syria showed that Assad still has support from the Alawites, the Shias, Christians, secularists, and some Sunnis. The western slogan that Assad must go should stop. The region needs stability, inclusive politics, basic rights, as opposed to regime change where one set of dictators is taken over by another or by militias and the people suffer even more. The dream that US-trained 'moderate' Islamists will fight both the regime in Syria and the Islamist militia including the ISIS is warped and unreal.
The late Christopher Hitchens called the al-Qaeda “partly a corrupt multinational corporation, partly a crime family, partly a surrogate for the Saudi oligarchy and the Pakistani secret police, partly a sectarian religious cult, and partly a fascist organization”. It is this body and its affiliates that need to be defeated by a Shia-Sunni alliance, regional Arab alliances. India should support any proposal that advocates this.
The author is professor with the school of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University