Kirkuk province's Kurdish governor Najim al-Din Omar Karim, wearing a bullet-proof vest and holding a helmet in his hand, listens to a commander of the Peshmerga forces as their troops were being deployed on the main road between Kirkuk, Mosul. (AFP photo)
This is the stuff of nightmares. An al Qaeda affiliate is taking over major cities in northern Iraq. Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) overran Mosul on Tuesday, sparking the exodus of half a million Kurds living there.
The ISIS is now in control of Falluja, the oil refinery town of Bayji, and Saddam Hussein’s stronghold, Tikrit. The Sunni extremist group is reportedly moving towards Baghdad from both the north and west. Iraqi forces are failing to put up a fight, fleeing in places and leaving behind a huge cache of weapons. The ISIS created havoc in the Syrian civil war in recent years. Its energies have now been directed to the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict in Iraq, which has ravaged the country since the US invasion in 2003. The Americans invaded the country and left hastily, leaving the Shiiite majority that suffered under Saddam, a Sunni, in charge. Analysts believe that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made matters worse by openly backing the Shiite majority in the sectarian conflict, thus setting the stage for a Sunni counter-reaction through ISIS.
This development has a huge bearing on the future of Iraq and the region. ISIS is expected to continue its surge in Sunni areas, where the invasion is said to enjoy a measure of popular support. There is a fear that Iraq, in time, will effectively splinter into three parts controlled by the Kurds, Shias and Sunnis. It remains to be seen if Mr Maliki and the Iraqi forces will take the fight to non-Shia areas and retake lost cities.
The US has termed the situation as “extremely serious” but it is not clear if Western nations will take steps beyond exporting weapons and urging Iraqi forces to fight. The Obama administration is facing criticism for failing to leave a troop presence in Iraq that could have ensured stability. But Washington will be wary of getting drawn again into a Sunni-Shiite conflict. Instead, it may oddly hope that Iran tackles this crisis. The US must, however, do what it can to prevent the break-up of Iraq. It is the least it can do for a country irrevocably scarred by its ill-conceived invasion.