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Tragic collapse in Iraq

Jun 17,2014 - Last updated at Jun 17,2014

Although we’ve become accustomed to astounding political occurrences in the region, the latest developments in Iraq are by far the most spectacular.

It was hard to believe that the entire province of Nineveh and its capital, Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, could fall into the hands of a relatively small number of armed men in a matter of hours.

Not only that, but the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters, whose numbers are estimated at about 2,000, managed to resume their advance into Salahuddin province, taking control of Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, along with a number of other villages and towns.

The fighters are claiming the Iraqi capital of Baghdad as their target to end the sectarian rule of the US- and Iranian-backed regime of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. Their goal is to establish an Islamic emirate straddling the territories of modern-day states, starting with Iraq and Syria.

The swift collapse of the Iraqi army and police, which abandoned positions in Mosul en masse in the face of ISIL’s advance, left observers, including the US, stunned and scrambling for a strategy to save the Iraqi state from a total collapse. Now the US is reportedly ready to speak to Iran to cooperate towards that goal.

The puzzling question is how such a small number of irregular fighters could take and hold such vast territories, even if they met little resistance. How could they manage logistics, administration and services for these areas, as well as their own protection? 

One answer is, perhaps, that they rule by fear. ISIL published horrifying images of what it said were mass executions of 1,700 captured Iraqi soldiers — pure atrocities.

But another credible explanation is that even if the assault was initiated by ISIL, it was embraced by a large number of predominantly Sunni Iraqis who loathe Maliki’s sectarian rule, former Baathists persecuted for the last decade, and former officers in the Iraqi army that was dissolved by US occupiers after the 2003 invasion.

Judging from the situation in the Anbar province in west Iraq, which slipped out of the control of the central government in Baghdad months ago, it is hard to draw the line between the role of ISIL and that of the local tribes who embraced it, combating Maliki army’s attempts to regain control of the region.

Obviously there is strong and growing opposition to the Maliki government, mainly in predominantly Sunni regions. It is not unlikely, therefore, that an invading foreign force may easily find local supporters and allies.

But reasonable estimates of the forces needed for such a huge undertaking suggest that the supporting local forces are providing the greatest share of the war effort. Why should they, therefore, need a small force, which may include many foreign fighters, to lead their national struggle to correct the political direction in their troubled country?

If what is happening in Iraq were at least in part an Iraqi uprising against a ruthless sectarian dictator, it would be much easier for the world to understand the move and appreciate its intent, than understanding a foreign invasion by a fanatical group whose deeds in Syria were already so brutal and horrifying.

But the situation in Iraq has been deteriorating for years and now it may be difficult to prevent the country from breaking up.

Iraq did not yet manage to recover from the US-led invasion of 2003, which came after years of US-led bombing and sanctions, and before that the devastating Iran-Iraq war.

Instead of replacing dictatorship with democracy, as the US claimed it would do, the war destroyed what existing institutions there were without creating better ones.

Since the US-led invasion, Iraq has suffered endemic and escalating violence, nearly non-existent services, massive corruption and deepening sectarianism fuelled by the government.

The US also wanted to change the existing regional balance of power, where Iraq had a pivotal role, in a manner more compatible with Israeli designs as defined by the American neoconservatives. The result was totally adverse, with Iran — hated by Israel and the neoconservatives — emerging as the main beneficiary.

This is why the US must now go cap in hand to Iran for help to rescue the little that is left of its Iraqi “state-building” project.

There is no question that the war created the circumstances that are destroying Iraq. But that does not absolve Iraqi leaders from their responsibility for failing to replace the dictatorship with a functioning democracy, instead of seeing the fall of the former regime as an opportunity to pursue selfish interests and short-term personal and sectarian gains at the expense of the country and its people.

Only because the authority and indeed the standing of central government have been steadily diminishing, the country has become prey to opportunists, terrorists, invaders and foreign adventurers.

Iraq is not the only Arab country where chaos followed the ousting of ruthless dictators. The symptoms are similar and the outcomes are similar too.

Does that mean that only dictatorships work to keep order and stability?

Certainly not.

Let us hope the difficult times many Arab countries are facing are transitional. Let us assume that decades-long periods of despotic individual and corrupt rule could not be reversed in a short time.

But to get through these terrible times, maximum wisdom from leaders — something that has been in short supply — is needed.

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