The situation in Iraq is passing from being a cause for American reflection on its own actions there in the 2003-2011 period to a reason for serious thought about the future in that part of the Middle East.
What is occurring is that a force calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is assuming control through successful military action of the Sunni Muslim heartland, including the cities of Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi, Samarra and Tikrit and most of Anbar and Nineveh provinces. The primarily Shiite Iraqi government forces of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, trained and equipped by the United States, have not yet mounted a successful defense to contain or roll back the ISIS forces.
As of Thursday Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, was some 70 miles away from advancing ISIS forces. They have adequate mobility and arms, thanks to assets U.S. forces left behind for use by Iraqi national forces.
The al-Maliki government has asked for new U.S. military support, drones for reconnaissance and intelligence and air strikes to try to hold back the ISIS forces. Kurdish forces have taken control of the important hub of Kirkuk, probably successfully denying it to the ISIS but raising the specter of impending, at least de facto, division of Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish domains.
The ISIS is made up of Sunni Islamist extremists from both Iraq and Syria, supporters of the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein, including members of that government’s armed forces, and other Sunni militias, including some who were on America’s payroll when the United States attempted to bring Iraq’s Sunnis under control during the occupation through the so-called Sunni Awakening.
First, given the current trend of events, unlikely to be changed even by the level of U.S. military intervention that could be contemplated, is the likelihood that the ISIS will take Baghdad. Second, it is likely that the ISIS will stop with that, not trying in the short run to master either the Shiite South or the Kurdish North. Third, it is likely that the United States, working with contacts developed with Sunnis during the occupation, could do business with the ISIS, in spite of its radical components, potentially creating a useful bridge to that element in the region.
The critical point at this juncture is that the United States not jeopardize the future by trying to plug the holes in the al-Maliki regime’s sinking ship. With all the advantages America gave it and him, his regime has failed miserably to govern a multicultural Iraq in such a way to prevent it from dissolving.