Friday, 20th June 2014

There will be no quick fix in Iraq

The blame game began within hours of Sunni extremists taking Mosul. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki blamed members of the army for deserting, saying the seizure of the city was a “conspiracy”. Saudi Arabia blamed Iranian-backed Maliki, with information minister Abdelaziz Bin Mohieddin Khoja saying: “This would not have arisen were it not for the sectarian and exclusionary policies practised in Iraq over the past years”. Former British prime minister Tony Blair blamed the civil war in Syria (and definitely not the 2003 invasion of Iraq of which he was a primary architect). Writing in The Wall Street Journal on 15 June, L Paul Bremer, the former US governor of Iraq, tried to pin it on US President Barack Obama, who, he said, pulled US forces out of Iraq too soon.

It is clear that Shiite Maliki’s authoritarian rule has cultivated a sense of alienation among Sunnis so deep that many have been willing to assist extremists from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) as they push towards Baghdad. But it is also very clear that the occupation of Iraq by the US and its allies – both the manner in which it was conducted, and the sectarian militancy it unleashed – has played a critical part in the subsequent mire. For more than a decade, Iraq has been steeped in violence and disenfranchisement; the generation which is now letting ISIL in is made up of those who for ten years have been made to feel like onlookers in their own state. Those fighting alongside ISIL today are the same men who, as boys and young men, watched as US soldiers raided homes at dawn, ransacking property, blindfolding their neighbours, friends, cousins, fathers, loading them into trucks and driving away. They are the same people who have grown used to bloodshed, to explosions, to annual violent death tolls that reach into the thousands, and sometimes the tens of thousands.

If politicians are busy attributing blame (or exonerating themselves with astonishing self-delusion), it is not because they aim to hold individuals accountable for the crisis in Iraq, but because they are struggling to come up with a coherent response to it. ISIL’s frightening advances are not only hugely destabilising for the region, they have also taken foreign governments by surprise, despite numerous warning signs. (Lakhdar Brahimi, former United Nations envoy to Syria, told the BBC’s Today programme on 14 June that he had warned US officials about ISIL in Iraq specifically several months ago. “They were very polite… but I’m not certain how serious they have taken these warnings, whether it’s Americans or the Security Council or anybody else,” he said.)

There is, of course, no easy solution, and in the slipstream of the rapidly developing drama, it is not surprising that international leaders are floundering. Iraq’s deep problems have been years in the making, and will take years to mend, if indeed the divided communities can find the will to fix them. What foreign military options there are seem futile. An armed intervention will only temporarily suppress grievances that gain strength when they are pushed underground.

The only hope of getting rid of brutal groups like ISIL – which even Al-Qaeda has washed its hands of – is to choke their grassroots support by breaking down their vile sectarian logic. People must be given a stake in their nation, not just in their communities. This will take time – and time is inconvenient to most implicated parties who are busy trading blame. But only by fixing Iraq’s broken political system – one slow step at a time – can faith be restored in central institutions, and inter-communal violence once again become an aberration, not the norm.

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