Iraq’s chronic disease of sectarianism has flared up again with the blood-soaked advance of ISIS (“Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham”, meaning Iraq and the Levant) and allied Sunni groups, who have seized the major city of Mosul and a number of other towns in the past few days. The Shiites, understandably alarmed, are mustering for a counterattack but may have a lot of difficulty retaking Mosul, a Sunni-dominated city where many people are apparently fed up with the Shiite-dominated national government. The Kurds, who are mainly Sunnis but have a distinct identity because they are not Arabs, have taken advantage of the general disorder to seize control of their historic capital of Kirkuk.
America is making some ambivalent noises about airstrikes and perhaps deploying some special forces whose very special mission will be to do anything but actually fight, while staunchly Shiite Iran has already sent in the formidable General Ghasem Soleimani of the Quds Force to help push back the Sunni militants. Especially with Soleimani in the middle of things, the Iraqi government may end up resorting to the slow and brutal but undeniably effective tactics that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has been using to turn the tide against the largely Sunni insurgency in his own country: surround rebel districts in Mosul and elsewhere, and then proceed to starve them and pound them with artillery and crude airstrikes until resistance crumbles.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki does, of course, have options other than simply trying to crush the Sunnis. One would be to pursue some kind of national reconciliation, as a Stanford-based “Middle East analyst” called Larry Diamond is quick to point out:
He added that unifying Iraqis across sectarian lines to repel the militants starts with government.
“I think the only way it can truly be stopped is by constructing a broadly inclusive government in Baghdad that Iraqis of all types want to fight for,” he said.
That sounds unrealistic considering the savagery of the recent fighting in Iraq, the parallel civil war taking place next door in Syria, and the general atmosphere of Sunni-Shiite tension in the Middle East. Maliki’s only real alternatives may be to either fight tooth and nail or allow the Sunnis to set up an autonomous enclave similar to the one the Kurds have already established, effectively partitioning the country along sectarian lines. This strikes me as an entirely reasonable outcome in principle, and one that could work well even for the Shiites if it meant they no longer had to deal with a powerful and rebellious Sunni minority inside their borders. The difficult part might well be ensuring that a faction saner than ISIS ended up in control of the Sunni enclave.
Whatever happens next, history is on the march in Iraq, and we live in interesting times. In Canada religion is a fairly well-domesticated beast, but in parts of the world – the Middle East and Africa in particular – it seems to retain its power to fuel conflict of the most uncompromising kind. I would argue that this is especially true of the hardline brand of Sunni Islam espoused by ISIS and similar groups, who remind me of Cromwell’s Puritans at their worst. I won’t be sorry if Soleimani and Maliki manage to crush ISIS for good.