Turmoil abounds in Iraq. On Monday, the al-Qaeda affiliated group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) led an takeover of Mosul – the country’s third largest city. It is the latest in a series of attacks by the group, which have also been in control of the city of Fallujah since January.
Much of the Northern Iraqi province of Nineveh, where Mosul lies, has been controlled by ISIL for several months, but their takeover of the city now leaves huge swathes of the north under the formal control of radical Sunni groups.
Reports on Tuesday indicated that ISIL was continuing to seize further territory in the Shi’a-dominated Kirkuk province – suggesting that sectarian violence is once again a prominent aspect of Iraq’s socio-political landscape.
The situation is understandably being painted as bleak. Nineveh’s governor spoke of a disaster that poses a serious threat to the unity of Iraq. On a more pragmatic level, there are serious concerns about the high numbers of Iraqi military who fled Mosul when the siege began, and the amount of abandoned weaponry which the Islamists have acquired as a result of this.
Civilians are pouring out of Nineveh and into the Kurd-controlled territory in northern Iraq, an exodus which is proving as chaotic due to the absence of humanitarian assistance and the buckling of the military’s presence in the region.
The Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has responded by appealing to parliament to implement a national state of emergency, in order to allow him to drive out the “terrorists” who are slowly gaining ground. It is thought that this would impose curfews and heighten the powers of the army and police, with a view to eradicating the ISIL presence and re-establishing state control.
This request has been met with ambivalence, both from within Iraq’s ruling class and in the form of heightening disenchantment with al-Maliki among the public. Since the parliamentary elections in April, he has struggled to form a coalition government amidst heightening violence – many have already lost much of their faith in the Prime Minister. Moreover, his failure to successfully end the ISIL occupation of Fajullah is doing little to bolster his claims that he will execute a prompt and uncompromising response this time.
"It is a painful reminder that Iraq still has a long way to go, and the future of the state remains irresolute
Whilst a state of emergency may in principle enable al-Maliki to respond to events in Mosul decisively and authoritatively, his critics claim that bestowing sweeping and less regulated powers onto the already-controversial Prime Minister will not necessarily increase his ability to act effectively against the Islamist aggressors, and could lead to a situation in which he is reluctant to give them up.
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Additionally, opponents are pointing to the fact that al-Maliki’s government was unable to prevent the takeover from occurring in the first place, and that many of their troops have abandoned the city – leading to high levels of anti-establishment sentiment among the general public there.
There are indeed valid questions to be asked about the efficacy of providing an already precarious government with heightened powers – especially one who’s best effort to date appears to be an offer to arm citizens who are willing to fight ISIL. Over the coming days and weeks, al-Maliki faces an acute challenge: he must negotiate a route which both effectively responds to ISIL’s seizure of territory, and assuage his opponent’s fears that he is an incapable or unscrupulous leader.
In the absence of a solid administration and public support, the route by which he might make an assertive and co-ordinated response remains elusive, but the tactics he utilises to attempt to reassert control will be telling.
This is due to the fact that this episode – and the tensions it elucidates – is illustrative for understanding the continuing weakness and precariousness present in Iraq at a number of different levels. For the fledgling state, the ability of small militant groups to seize cities acts as a painful reminder that the government is unable to retain a handle on territory and claim authority over the legitimate use of force.
Below the veneer of democracy, rising sectarian tensions and growing disenchantment with al-Maliki point towards an uncertain and disjointed future for Iraqi politics – the state and those who run it cannot yet claim to act as guarantors of peace and order, and many are reluctant to see them wield excessive levels of power.
The presence of ISIL, then, is unlikely to be diminished overnight. Whereas the insurgent activities of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula which blighted Saudi Arabia in the early 2000’s were largely brought under control by the ability of the state to assert itself over and against Islamist groups, forcing them into neighbouring countries, the same cannot be said here. The Iraqi state and government possess neither the reach nor the popularity to act as a convincing universal alternative to factionalism and violence.
The focus in the immediate future must remain fixed on providing relief to those fleeing Mosul, and on the state reasserting some guise of control and authority. In order to address these current issues, though, the government must work to build bridges with the Kurdish authorities in the north, and begin to encourage a level of rapprochement between Sunni and Shia populations which will allow the state to function normally.
However, it will not be enough for al-Maliki and his government to simply solve this crisis as a singular, anomalous event. Rather, it is a painful reminder that Iraq still has a long way to go, and the future of the state remains irresolute.
The current turmoil sheds light on the wider problems the state will need to address if it is to succeed in rebuilding a post-Ba’athist and post-conflict Iraq. The scars run deep, and while it would be imprudent to suggest that these considerations ought to detract any attention from the suffering and displacement caused by recent events, it is not unwise to broaden our perspective and question the underlying issues this crisis throws up, and how they could begin to be remedied.