Iraq at the Abyss

MATTHEW SCHWEITZER — The United States must pressure Maliki to enact political changes to prevent further disaster, that is, if Iraq has not already fallen into the abyss. 

On 10 June Younis watched soldiers stream past his home, shedding uniforms and weapons onto the dusty ground. Military vehicles burned in the next street. The Iraqi flags painted on their armored doors were covered by dark blast marks.  “Maybe one day, when I am out of Iraq, I will tell you what happened here,” Younis cries, speaking over a crackling phone line from a road along the Nineveh-Erbil border near Iraqi Kurdistan. His house was destroyed by mortar fire. “I am too afraid to say anything today. My family is still there. It is horrible,” he says.

This phone connection, like thousands across Mosul, has since gone silent.

Younis is amongst the half-million refugees fleeing Mosul after the Sunni Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) won sweeping victories against the Shia-dominated federal military. One NGO in northern Iraq has called this exodus “one of the largest and swiftest mass movements of people in the world in recent memory.”

Iraq’s second largest city, of 1.8 million, is dissolving. Mosul, once known as the “city of the officers” for the number of army elite living in beautiful homes alongside the Tigris, has been abandoned to militants.

Iraq is no longer poised on the brink of civil war; such a conflict has already begun. With the loss of Mosul compounding an unresolved situation in al-Anbar province, the government in Baghdad is calling on citizens to take up arms, not in defense of the state, but in self-defense. Moqtada al-Sadr, the influential Shiite leader who led the once-feared Mahdi army, has called for the formation of units to defend religious sites across Iraq. All able-bodied men have been urged to fight in the North, but mostly Shia answered this call. These groups will be unacceptable to the country’s Sunni Arab minority, who are already deeply mistrustful of the Shiite-led government.

For Younis, this wariness was confirmed on Tuesday. “The soldiers had no desire to defend anyone,” he declares. After a few seconds of static silence, he says: “this is not my country.”

The shockwaves of the ISIS advance will shake the sectarian violence, already at an all-time peak since the US pullout in 2010, into high gear. The fear Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias have of each other has worsened in recent months. As Brookings’ Ken Pollack writes in the Wall Street Journal, “Iraq’s growing crisis is not due to the civil war in Syria or the infiltration of terrorist fighters from abroad,” but this normalized terror that underscores the everyday reality for Iraqi citizens.

Yet this episode in the ongoing national tragedy is particularly terrifying. Militants in Mosul have captured weapons from fleeing Iraqi troops, most of them American-made. Almost overnight, a disorderly band of fighters has transformed into the most professional military force in the immediate region. ISIS now controls a swathe of territory reaching from Aleppo to Fallujah in the south, and from Raqqa to Mosul in the north. Militants have seized key oil pipelines and are closing in on pumping points in Baiji.

Fighting has been reported in Samarra, just 70 miles north of Baghdad.

Ahmed, a professor at Baghdad University, speaks in a half-whisper: “I am absolutely terrified of the siege I know will come. The government cannot stop this attack. Normal Iraqis must look to God to save their own lives now, even in the capital.” In a city already torn apart by internecine violence, the specter of civil war like that the bloodletting in 2006-2007 is too much for some to bear. “I must go now,” Ahmed says, “it is time to pray.”

In the face of the ISIS advance, Shiite self-defense militias have begun to mobilize. Iran, which has trained and equipped Iraq’s Shiite fighters over the last decade, may amplify its support in the face of an enemy quite literally at its gate. The fighting in Syria has come home, for Tehran, to its Iraqi backyard. On 12 June, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marzieh Afkham declared her country’s intention to “to stand with the people of Iraq.” Her rhetoric belies a far sharper reality for the Shiite communities at the end of Iranian aid channels.

Despite these pledges, Shiite mobilization remains haphazard and uneven. Without the core military leadership functioning properly, a coordinated response from Federal Iraq seems unlikely.

Only the autonomous Kurdish Peshmerga militia, independent of Baghdad, provides any immediate hope for confronting ISIS in an even fight. Peshmerga, whose name means “those who face death,” have been ordered into a series of new checkpoints along the roads between Erbil, the Kurdistan region’s capital, and Mosul. Kurdish officers are on edge. Many guns have been confiscated at these new gateways. The price of automatic weapons has dropped, as deserting Iraqi soldiers sell their guns along the border.

“There is no law, everybody has their own law in the form of a gun,” Younis says.

Yet Kurdish politicians are wary to send soldiers outside their autonomous region. Rancorous relations between Erbil and Baghdad, which soured in recent months over Kurdish oil deals with Turkey, have so far precluded a concerted military response in Mosul by Kurdish forces.

Where do these development leave Iraq, as the early summer months bring suffocating temperatures and even more suffocating fear?

With an uncertain political composition – Maliki is struggling to break a post-election Parliamentary gridlock – the country could be heading toward a disaster far greater than it has seen in recent decades. The deeply divided political parties have shown no sign of compromise since election results were announced in mid-May. This gridlock amplifies many Iraqis’ perception of Prime Minister Maliki as a dictator, further deepening the country sectarian divisions at a time of immense stress.

Maliki’s effective consolidation of power, used to arbitrarily oust political rivals and transform the Army into a sectarian force, has terrified Arab Sunni and Kurdish communities, who have come to mistrust the entire Shiite bloc. As a result, Iraqi Kurdistan is edging towards independence, and Sunni populations are warily welcoming back the Salafi extremists ousted in 2007-2008.

As US policymakers debate action in the face of militant advances, they should pressure the Prime Minister to abandon his authoritarian trajectory. A national unity government that includes Kurds and Sunnis at high ministerial posts, although unwieldy, could assuage sectarian fears and bring disparate elements back into the federal conversation. Other constitutional amendments to restructure Iraq’s executive and legislative structures – such as placing a two-term limit on the Prime Minister – would further regularize the power balance in Baghdad between competing groups.

Above all, and as is being proved on the Plains of Nineveh this week, the Iraqi army must be de-politicized. To form a truly national army will take sacrifices by all parties. Yet the result will be a pluralistic force capable of representing the population against appropriately foreign threats.

A military in which average Iraqis, regardless of sect, feel invested will prove a far stronger and, despite Maliki’s fears, more loyal fighting force than that which disintegrated this week. American advisors in Iraqi units, along with concerted effort by Washington to push for the commission of competent – not politically loyal – officers could help achieve this goal.

Average Iraqis are desperate, above all, for a sense of safety that they have rarely ever felt. Many people across the country today glorify Saddam Hussein’s regime for the stability it brought. These memories of an impossible past are testaments to a simple need for a secure home. Any entity that fulfills this desire will have immense support. For its own sake, international negotiators must ensure that this is a government in Baghdad.

Iraq is sagging under the weight of its own hatreds and terrors. Yet these nightmares should shock the international community out of its slumber. As ISIS consolidates gains across Syria and Iraq, the violence could tear an already porous and amorphous region asunder. The ramifications are global. United States intelligence reports have indicated that ISIS may be planning attacks against American and Western targets from its new safe havens along the Syria-Iraq border.

For those at the sharp end of this broad political and military tragedy, however, the most poignant acts are being played along the roads, at the checkpoints, and in the smoke-choked streets of a disintegrating state. From the chaos of recent events it is important to listen to these, the nakedest of human cries.

“My house, my family, my everything, is gone. There are bodies on the roads. I am a refugee in my own home,” Younis weeps, “I swear to God, I don’t know if this will ever end until I die.”

He begins another sentence, but the line cuts out into staccato silence.

***

MATTHEW SCHWEITZER is the editor of the Post-War Watch.

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