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#4574, 23 July 2014

West Asia

Can Iraq's Disintegration be Prevented?
KP Fabian
Former Indian Foreign Service Officer

At present, it is difficult to see how the ongoing implosion of Iraq can be stalled and reversed. The world  started taking note of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its leader  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has been declared as ‘caliph’ of an  ‘Islamic State’  claiming sovereignty over a stretch of territory from Aleppo in north-western Syria to Diyala in north-eastern Iraq only when Mosul fell on June 20. But, his forces had taken over Raqqa, Syria, in March 2013, and Falluja, Iraq, in January 2014.

ISIL, a breakaway group from al Qaeda in Iraq, is basically a part of the Sunni Resistance to the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq.  The US had made unsuccessful, half-hearted, and not always judicious attempts to build an Iraq that could accommodate the three main groups: the Shias, the Sunnis, and the Kurds. But, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who took office in 2006 with support from the US and Iran   carried out a policy of alienating the Sunnis and the Kurds. His reckless partisan policies created the conditions for the emergence of a formation called Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) to grow and derive support from the Sunni population.

Once the situation in Syria was found favorable, the ISI extended its operations to Syria and changed its name to the ISIL. Levant essentially comprises Syria, Jordan, pre-Israel Palestine, and Lebanon.

The ISIL has approximately $2 billion, weapons mainly of US origin, and many of their men are in US army combat uniforms, even with interceptor body armour. They have Humvees and Black Hawk helicopters. Their manpower comprises young men from Chechnya, UK, France, Jordan and elsewhere who have joined them, reminiscent of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.   

While the ‘caliphate’ might not have the strength to take over Baghdad, the fact remains that it will be enormously difficult for the government in Baghdad,  under al-Maliki or his successor, to recapture the territory already under the control of the ‘caliphate’. This means there is already a Sunnistan in Iraq with a part of Syria also in it.

The Kurds spread across Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran number about 30 million. They have their national ambitions. Saladin the Great who fought the Christians during the Crusades and captured Jerusalem in 1187 was a Kurd. After World War I, the Kurds were promised autonomy under the Treaty of Sevres (1920), but it was never implemented. Following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, the US imposed a no-fly zone in Iraqi Kurdistan enabling the Kurds to progressively assert independence from Saddam Hussein’s central government in Baghdad. Under the US occupation, Iraqi Kurds gained further and the current constitution provides for virtual autonomy. There is much tension with al-Maliki who has withheld money from the regional government that dug a pipe line to Ceyhan in Turkey to sell oil, without permission. The first tanker reached Israel recently.

Since the 1960s, Israel has been cultivating the Kurds and now Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly endorsed an independent state for Iraqi Kurds. They might hold a referendum soon on independence.

The main reason the US has sent military to Iraq is to ensure safety of its embassy. US President Barack Obama does not want a repeat of the humiliating helicopter escape of its ambassador from Saigon in 1975.  If Baghdad witnesses carnage with Sunnis and Shias killing each other, it will reflect badly on Obama’s performance as commander in chief. The US might not mind a disintegrated Iraq in the long run. Iran too might conclude that it is not worth sacrificing men and money to retain Iraq as a single entity. Thus, Iraq might have a Kurdistan, one or more Sunnistans, and a Shiistan. The Shiistan will remain Iran’s protectorate.

The Arab Spring, when it started in 2011 as a move towards democracy, did not affect India’s interests adversely. India had reasons to welcome a move towards democracy. But when the Spring lost its way, except in Tunisia, and political instability with civil war fuelled by extremist violence and ideology set in, India realised that it had reasons to worry on many counts.

First, there are over 7 million Indians in the Arab world, most of them in the Gulf where currently there is no political instability. The difficulty in arranging for evacuation of 44 nurses from Kerala held up in Tikrit is an example of the problems to be confronted from time to time. India did arrange for evacuating 176,000 of its nationals from Kuwait and Iraq in 1990-1991. Second, the oil prices have shot up forcing an increase in petrol prices, boosting inflation. Third, the worsening Shia-Sunni tension can have an adverse impact on the two groups who have hitherto lived in peace in India. There are reports of some young Shia men wanting to go to Iraq. The government should be able to prevent them from going.

India has no means of influencing the course of events in Iraq or Syria, but that is not exactly India's fault as external intervention has so far only aggravated the crisis. There are about ten thousand Indians in Iraq with the majority in Kurdistan and Basra. Fortunately, there is no immediate danger to them.

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