11. Will Baghdad Fall?

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The front page of yesterday’s French paper Le Figaro was emblazed with the words ‘Irak: Les Djihadistes aux Portes de Bagdad’ – the Jihadists are at the doors of Baghdad. I picked it up on the way to work at the Iraqi embassy in Paris. The situation in Iraq is beyond strained: Mosul, Tikrit and Kirkuk have all gone and if Baghdad falls, then Iraq, for all intents and purposes will be a failed state, run by no one in particular save a terrorist organization that is now richer than some counties. As of yesterday morning, ISIS were 60 kilometers away from Baghdad, driving in American Humvees (oh the irony) having already seized a helicopter. There have been clashes 30 miles north of Baghdad between the Iraqi government forces and militants in the city of Baquba but so far the Iraqi military forces are holding off the militants.

In real terms, president Nouri al-Maliki has given no reaction, having failed to achieve a quorum in parliament imposing a state of emergency or to get permission to ask the UN for drone strikes. He has made no statement on the loss of Mosul, Kirkuk or Tikrit.

On Thursday, the Kurds symbolically captured Kirkuk, the ethnically polemical (but oil-rich) enclave in Iraq, as local people looted military bases with many rejoicing the gains made. Kurdistan and its Peshmerga (Kurdistan’s troops) are so far one of the few groups able to hold off ISIS. However in my opinion, they are naively overconfident that they are safe and are using the turmoil in Iraq as a means to obtain more land and autonomy – admittedly a crucial debate that needs to be had but a reaction not helping the current situation. Tensions go back as far as Saddam’s Iran-Iraq War and though the history of bloodshed should neither be forgotten nor overlooked, the situation is one that commands unity not distance.
As for the fall of Tikrit, events there are terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. Tikrit was Saddam’s home-town and swathes of former Ba’ath Party members were among those who seized control. Some even wore their old Saddam army uniforms. A local resident described that there were no black ISIS flags in sight, only Saddam and Ba’ath Party songs. And thus another player has thrown his hat into the ring – that makes ISIS, Shia militia, the Ba’ath Party, the Iraqi military and Kurdistan, not to mention the growing presence of Iran, the potential return of America and nameless factions from Lord knows where all fighting in the conflict.

Moreover, it’s important to remember that the crisis is not about Iraq anymore – not that it ever really was a bordered conflict. It involves the West and, crucially, other states in the region, including Iran, Turkey and Syria. Yesterday Obama said that there were ‘short-term, immediate things that will need to be done militarily – and that our national security team is looking at all the options.’ But he has since said that the US will take several days to decide what action to take however the deployment of troops is not an option. He also, hypocritically, stated that any American involvement ‘has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences’ yet again demonstrating a real lack of understanding about Iraq’s history and peoples. Meanwhile, everyone’s favourite Republican John McCain decided to share his two cents too saying ‘there is a group of people…including myself who predicted every single one of these events because of a American lack of reliability and American weakness’. Yeah I could have predicted all of these events too, except it wasn’t when Obama chose to pull out in 2011, eight years after occupation, it was when Bush chose to invade in 2002. Where were his words of wisdom then? Moreover in a drastic turn of events, Iran is so alarmed by ISIS gains that it’s expressed a potential willingness to work with Washington to retaliate, a senior Iranian official told Reuters. Not surprising, really, as ISIS has declared that after Baghdad, Tehran is next. On Thursday, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani stated Tehran would not tolerate any violence in the region.

The latest showdown pivots around the historically pertinent city of Samarra. As the crisis is moving away from the North of the country to South, the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra is becoming the de facto focal point. In 2006, it was the bombing of a holy Shia shrine in Samarra that catapulted the country into a sectarian war that cost my extended family at least three deaths. Iranian proxies have supposedly intervened and Shia militias have gathered to safeguard the restored shrine from another attack. How Samarra is handled will be a good indicator of ISIS’ overall strategic plan, as well as an evaluation of its capabilities. The Institute for the Study of War writes that: ‘if ISIS means to continue a blitzkrieg offensive toward Baghdad it will likely need to bypass Samarra to maintain momentum and conserve forces.’ Assuming they don’t, Samarra should be bracing itself for a battle. Which is a pity, really, as UNESCO have named it a World Heritage Site, with architecture dating back to the Abbasid Caliphate.

As for Baghdad, my cousins tell me the streets are deserted and terrifying silent. Locals, my family included, have been stockpiling supplies sensing ISIS at the gates. I remember my uncle showing me a room filled with tinned goods and bottled water in 2004 – measures he took to feed his family during the weeks of shelling in March 2003. Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric has issued a call to arms to defend Iraq whilst ISIS took to social media to ensure Baghdadis that they were approaching and they’ve have been handing out flyers in an attempt to win hearts and minds – a mission, I’m sorry to say – that isn’t falling on deaf ears with some Iraqis feeling that ISIS might be the ones to deliver stability. This reaction, though demoralizing is not hard to comprehend: local Iraqis are fatigued by the inefficiency and lack of clear progress from those in charge. The solution, however, is not to divide the nation along ethnic lines as Ranj Alaadin suggested for the Guardian – a man who has already earned by contempt for his poor coverage of the Iraqi Elections – nor to write Iraq off as a lost cause. Fundamentally there are two goals at play here: the short-term aim of halting ISIS and the bloodshed they bring, a mission that, at this point, I believe can only be solved by the sword. And the long-term dream of stability and prosperity, one that might be harder to achieve but possible nonetheless. For now, though, keeping Baghdad safe is the first priority. Then we can start to rebuild the land that was once the beacon of civilization.

Follow the Guardian’s live feed of the ongoing conflict here.

First published on Infita7 on June 14th 2014, here.

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