Our worst fears are coming true. The seizure of Mosul first and Tikrit later by Sunni rebels in Iraq represents a devastating blow to the sovereignty of the country. It has shattered any hope that President Nouri Al Maliki would succeed in holding ground and recover lost balance, and it’s a victory for sectarianism in a region which is reeling under Sunni-Shia divisions.
In developments that stunned the world, insurgents who have been fighting the Maliki government overran the city of Tikrit, known as Saddam’s home town, and closed in on the biggest oil refinery in the country. The fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, is a blow to Maliki’s attempts to defeat the militants, who have seized territory in Iraq over the past year following the withdrawal of US forces. The fall of Tikrit compounds his woes, and militants were reported saying that even they were surprised at their success, and the ease with which Maliki’s forces were defeated.
The fall of these cities shows that Iraq is sliding into a civil war and could even lead to the splintering of the state. Even if the militants consolidate and expand the gains, they will not be able to rule the country as the Maliki government is expected to fight back and recover the lost ground. A full-scale sectarian war is likely with Shias, who are the majority in the country, expected to rally behind the Maliki government.
It’s an undisputed fact that Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is responsible for the current chaos. He has proven himself as a short-sighted leader by refusing to take all sides with him, especially the Sunnis who felt isolated and ignored under his rule. He has been ruling more as a Shia leader by promoting his Shia base. The feeling of alienation among Sunnis exacerbated after the 2010 election in which they participated in huge numbers only to find that the government that was formed later didn’t have their participation in a real sense.
The Sunni insurgency could have been avoided if Maliki had followed a policy of inclusiveness and engaged with the Sunni neighbours of Iraq, who felt that the prime minister was moving exclusively in the Iranian sphere of influence.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an offshoot of Al Qaeda which is spearheading the current insurgency, enjoys good support in the Sunni-dominated areas. The swift collapse of the security forces indicates that they were weak, despite their huge numbers.
In the coming days or perhaps weeks, Iraq might face a humanitarian crisis of the magnitude Syria has gone through. Fighting will intensify as the Maliki government will attempt to recapture the cities. And if his forces use heavy arms in the operation, it will lead to huge civilian casualties, further worsening the crisis.