Iran, US scramble to respond as prospect of Iraq breakup looms

Can Iraq's central government regain control of its lost territory?

In this still image posted on a militant Twitter account on Wednesday, June 11, 2014, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, militants parade down a main road in Mosul, Iraq.

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As the prospect of Iraq's breakup looms, regional and world powers are scrambling to respond.

Baghdad has lost control of a large patch of both northern Nineveh Province and western Anbar Province to insurgents that include the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), as well as former Baathists and other Sunni Arab Iraqis who view the central government as their enemy.

President Barack Obama is considering air strikes to support the beleaguered government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and yesterday said all options are on the table. "I don’t rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter," he said.

The Iranians, who along with the United States support the Maliki government, have also expressed alarm. Reuters cites an unnamed "senior" Iranian official as saying that the country is even willing to consider coordinating military assistance with the US. 

"We can work with Americans to end the insurgency in the Middle East," Reuters quoted the official as saying. "We are very influential in Iraq, Syria,  and many other countries."

For now, the southward advance of the Sunni Arab insurgents appears to have stalled. Mosul, one of Iraq's largest cities, was overrun earlier this week as demoralized and incompetent Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts and uniforms in droves, and insurgents easily took Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, well south along the Tigris River.

But Iraq's military has put up more of a fight as the insurgents have drawn closer to major Shiite population centers. Insurgent efforts to take the Shiite shrine city of Samarra, south of Tikrit and about 70 miles north of Baghdad, were rebuffed, Agence France-Presse reports.

While the units in northern Iraq were mixed Sunni and Shiite, contributing to the high rate of desertions there, troops closer to Baghdad and the southern Shiite heartland have a more uniform sectarian makeup and are more supportive of Maliki's government. They also are fighting for something they feel is "theirs."

Lt. Gen. John N. Bednarek, who runs the US office in Baghdad that oversees training and weapons deliveries to the Iraqi military, offered a grim assessment of the Iraqi Army in a closed hearing of the US Senate's Armed Services Committee yesterday, according to The New York Times.

He said "that some of the Iraqi soldiers who guarded the Green Zone in the capital had come to work wearing civilian clothes under their military uniform, according to one senator. The implication was that the troops were prepared to strip to civilian attire and flee if they came under heavy attack."

The paper summarizes its interviews with US intelligence and military officials this way:

The stunning collapse of Iraq’s army in a string of cities across the north reflects poor leadership, declining troop morale, broken equipment and a sharp decline in training since the last American advisers left the country in 2011, American military and intelligence officials said Thursday.

...“They are crumbling,” said James M. Dubik, a retired American lieutenant general who oversaw the training of Iraqi forces during the so-called surge of thousands of United States troops into Iraq in 2007.

“There are pockets of proficiency, but in general, they have been made fragile over the past three to four years, mostly because of the government of Iraq’s policies,” General Dubik said. “They’re losing confidence in themselves and in the government’s ability to win. And the government is losing confidence in them.”

That loss of confidence could be seen in Maliki's calls for the arming of civilians this week and today, in a statement from the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered preacher, in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala. Sistani's representative, Abdel Mahdi al-Karbalai, said "citizens" should arm themselves and fight to protect Iraq. After Friday prayers, some Shia mosques in Baghdad were broadcasting a call to arms over their loudspeakers.

Iraq's long-open sectarian wounds, exacerbated by Maliki's policies over the past five years, were what made the fall of Mosul so easy. A Bloomberg interview with a Mosul resident captures a sentiment  that many there have been expressing to reporters.

When Islamic militants swept into the western Iraq city of Mosul this week, Ammar al-Tayee was relieved to see soldiers flee for their lives.

The 30-year-old medic used to spend hours at army checkpoints and got fed up with the Shiite-dominated military insulting residents of the mostly Sunni city, he said.

“Life is stable now,” al-Tayee said by telephone two days after the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda splinter group, took over his city. “The gunmen haven’t hurt anyone and I feel safe away from the grip of the government.”

The Washington Post worries that Iraq could be on a path to sectarian reprisal killings on the scale of 2006-07 when tens of thousands were killed, many civilians whose only crime was belonging to the wrong faith.

Iraqi officials said tens of thousands of volunteers had answered a call to join the ranks of the crumbling security forces and repel advances by heavily armed fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as the group seized the towns of Saadiyah and Jalawla north of the capital.

Iraqi state television showed the new unpaid conscripts scrambling to get on packed army trucks at recruitment centers after a call from the Shiite-led government. The mobilization of the irregular forces, as well as Iraq’s notorious Shiite militias, to battle the radical Sunni Muslim insurgents threatened to plunge Iraq into large-scale sectarian bloodletting.

Though it seems unlikely that insurgents, particularly since they include the jihadis of ISIS, who view Shiites as apostates that deserve death, will be able to advance into the Shiite majority areas of the south, the partition of the Sunni majority areas of Iraq in the west and north, once unthinkable, now seems possible.

Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite politician and former Baathist whose nationalist, rather than sectarian, view of the Iraqi state made him popular with many Sunnis and whose bloc won the most votes in the 2010 parliamentary election, told CNN that the outlook is very grim.

"They have nothing to fight for. Absolutely”, says Allawi. “They [Sunnis] have been disenfranchised, they have been oppressed, the situation has been getting out of control gradually. The forces of extremes have been thriving in Iraq, they [militants] have frankly been killing one thousand people, on average, a month and the government was unable and is still unable to do anything about it".

Amanpour asked if we are seeing the end of Iraq as we know it.

"Probably", replied Allawi. "It depends how it's going to be handled. But I think we are moving to a Syrianization kind of situation".

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