World must unite to save Iraq from imploding

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 3:13am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 9:13am

Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is counting on the US to help repel Sunni Muslim insurgents carving up his country. The disaster of the American-led invasion in 2003 makes that unlikely and the best he can hope for is advice and limited military support. But it is not for the US or any other foreign government to aid or abet either side; Iraqis have to be able to determine their own fate. For that to happen, though, all countries with a hand in the crisis have to work together to broker a ceasefire from which talks can evolve.

It is a slim chance, but one that has to be taken before the opportunity slips away. Flush with seized weapons, cash and oil revenue, the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as Isis) are capturing ever-greater swathes of territory in their bid to create a Sunni nation bound by strict Islamic principles. They face little opposition - thousands of poorly trained Iraqi soldiers have deserted and the anti-Sunni policies of Maliki, a Shiite Muslim backed by Iran, have divided the nation. Sunnis, although a minority, are eager for revenge, and a rebellion that could tear through the region threatens.

ISIL's confidence comes from its gains in neighbouring civil-war-torn Syria, where it was backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. Maliki's misrule made breaching the Iraqi border from eastern Syria straightforward for the militants. Jordan and Lebanon, already affected by the Syrian conflict, are worried that they are the next targets. ISIL has not indicated such an intention, but the Levant, the state it wants to create stretching from southern Turkey to Egypt, comprises Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine as well as Iraq and Syria.

Such a state existed culturally until the end of the first world war, when Britain carved up the Ottoman Empire to prevent Russia and its allies from fomenting Muslim extremism in British-ruled territories. Those artificially created borders, although the cause of Muslim sectarian and tribal tension, have persisted. Redrawing the map is politically difficult, though, and governments can do nothing but ensure they rule fairly. In Iraq, as in Syria and elsewhere, the aim has to be unity.

ISIL's extremism and bid to export holy war threatens the stability of the Middle East. All stakeholders, including the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Russia, have to work for a truce. China, Iraq's biggest oil importer and the only country with good regional relations, has to be included. Only with a combined effort can Iraq be prevented from imploding.