Shakir Waheib, a senior member of the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), left, next to a burning police vehicle in Iraq's Anbar Province. (AP Photo)
What is happening in Iraq now is essentially the Shia-Sunni war that has gone out of hand. From Saddam Hussein’s death in 2006 and since America’s establishment of a weak government in Baghdad, the sectarian differences between Shias and Sunnis have come to the front.
A Shia Iran’s influence over Iraq has got many of the countries in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, with a Sunni majority, uncomfortable.
Many, especially Riyadh, see Iraq PM Nouri al-Maliki as a Tehran man. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a breakaway al Qaeda faction that has set its goal at establishing a Sunni Islamist state in West Asia and that is anti-Shia should be seen in this context.
The ISIS came to prominence during the takeover of Fallujah in January and the following month Washington recognised ISIS as a terrorist group. Nevertheless, it has been overtly and covertly been supported by pro-Sunni groups in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries. The funding of radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra have given the ISIS more firepower.
Read: John Kerry says US open to Iran talks, air strikes in Iraq an option
On June 10, the ISIS captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq. It has descended — and at an alarming pace — from the northwest of the country and is taking town after town, reaching about 60 miles from the capital Baghdad. Such has been the pace of its advancement that by the time the international community took notice and condemned it the ISIS had made great progress.
The ISIS has also taken control of Tikrit. Earlier they had taken control of Ramadi and Samarra—two important towns. PM Maliki has failed to bring even a semblance of democracy and governance in Iraq and there are groups that see the advance of ISIS as a reply to his misgovernance. The Mosul takeover has further weakened Baghdad’s influence in the northern regions. This has given the Kurds an advantage in its standoff with the Maliki government.
US in Iraq
US President Barack Obama has, in a White House statement, said that the US will not be sending troops to Iraq. He calls it a “wake up call” for Iraqi leaders to iron out their mistrust and sectarian differences and demonstrate a willingness to join hands for the Iraqi people. Obama has said that the US will help only if the local leaders are showing progress. However, in a move that can change the dynamics of the events unfolding in Iraq US aircraft carrier (USS George HW Bush) has arrived in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has come in for some severe criticism for his ‘responsible withdrawal’. In 2011, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton claimed that the “responsible withdrawal” of the US from Iraq would be replaced by Washington’s biggest diplomatic programme since the Marshall Plan. Nothing actually happened.
Kori Schake, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, recently wrote: ‘The president is so spooked by the prospect of "a third American war in the region" that he has compromised our security to prevent it. He ought to have understood that he wasn't starting a third American war in the region — he needed to finish the first one.’
Read: West evacuates staff, US-Iran talks broached
Threat to India
Unrest in West Asia is bad news for the region and India in multiple ways. First, if the violence breaks out into a full-fledged war it will affect the millions of Indians working in the region (Some estimates say that there are about 18,000 Indians in Iraq).
Second, if the ISIS manages to topple the Maliki government and capture Baghdad it will be an inspiration for the many splinter groups of al-qaeda in the region and world over.
Third, unrest in the region will affect oil prices and given the economic climate a war is in no one’s interest. Fourth, there are ominous signs of similarities between the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The war on terror brought the US to Iraq and Afghanistan. After giving it a semblance of democracy the US withdrew from Iraq. The local government has not been able to check terrorist organisations. If the same script is seen in Afghanistan, India will have reasons to be concerned.