Iraq crisis - the great unravelling: US and Iran need to work together fast, as the barbarians are at the gate

Sunni militants seized more towns on Sunday as the crisis in Iraq deepened, the Baghdad government desperately tried to fight back, and the West agonised over how to respond to the crisis. Where next for the country whose fate has the gravest implications for those both within its borders and beyond?

Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned against US intervention in Iraq, but US officials suspect that Iran wants to use its cooperation in political changes in Baghdad to extract concessions in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Independent has learned that US officials have told Iraqi leaders that the Iranians are linking their agreement to the departure of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seen as being under Iranian influence, to greater flexibility by the US in talks on the level of uranium enrichment permitted to Iran.

“The main dispute in Iraq is between those who want Iraq to join the US camp and those who seek an independent Iraq,” said Khamenei, in words that could be interpreted as supporting the political status quo here. He added: “The US aims to bring its own blind followers to power.”

The next few weeks are likely to prove decisive in determining the future political leadership of Iraq as Maliki, Prime Minister since 2006, seeks a third term in office despite recent disasters that have seen him lose control of the north and west of his country.

Speaking during a trip to Cairo today, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, said America wanted the Iraqi people to find a leader that represented all the country’s communities and is “prepared to be inclusive and share power”.

There is no sign of the offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isis), which has turned into a general Sunni revolt, coming to an end. Isis has ceased to make spectacular gains north of Baghdad, but is mopping up towns previously under government control in the giant western Sunni province of Anbar.

There were reports yesterday that Isis had taken two key border crossings: al-Waleed and Turaibil on the Syrian and Jordanian borders respectively. In the last few days Isis and Sunni tribal forces have also taken al-Qaim on the border with Syria; Rutba, a truck-stop town on the main highway to Jordan; Rawah and Anah on the Euphrates. This brings the armed opposition close to the dam at Haditha which the Iraqi army says it has sent an extra 2,000 troops to defend. Sunni rebels control dams on the upper reaches of the Euphrates, which gives them the capacity to flood or deprive of water the Shia heartlands in the southern half of the Mesopotamian plain.

The mood in the Iraqi capital continues to be panicky. There were trucks leaving the city piled high with the belongings of people seeking safety elsewhere. There is a big traffic jam outside the passport office as people look for travel documents. Prices in the markets have shot up because Baghdad receives much of its food supplies from Turkey and the north and Isis have cut the roads.

Probably untrue government propaganda on television creates a vacuum of information rapidly filled by rumours. The latest is that there will be a government offensive aimed at retaking Salahudin province starting on 29 June.

Residents of Isis-held towns and cities like Baiji and Tikrit fear a government counter-offensive may use tactics similar to those employed by the Syrian armed forces and launch an indiscriminate bombardment against Sunni population centres. 

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Iraq has effectively broken up and some people are on the wrong side of the line. One family in Baghdad recently got a message by phone from their son Najim, 22, who is in a unit of the Iraqi army which has fallen back from Mosul city to villages outside. Najim said he was literally starving and needed money to buy food from village stores. His family sent him about £100.

Iraq has not only been at war but its three main fragments – Sunni, Shia and Kurdish – are at war with each other or think they might be at any minute. The government and predominantly Shia forces are engaged in a full-scale conflict with Isis and the five or six million-strong Sunni Arab community who make up a fifth of the population.

The Kurds have taken advantage of the crisis to take territory disputed with the Arabs. But the Kurds are only intermittently at war with Isis, which wants to concentrate its forces against the Baghdad government. As a result, in a city like Baquba, the capital of the Shia-Sunni-Kurdish Diyala province, different parts of the city are held by Isis, the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga (soldiers).

Iraqis see themselves as being the playthings of foreign powers and, particularly, of the US and Iran. Washington and Tehran have a complex record of open confrontation combined with intermittent and covert cooperation in Iraq. Both countries wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein and were glad when he went. Both supported the Shia-Kurdish government that replaced him and opposed the Sunni revolt between 2004 and 2008. But the US and Iran have also competed to be the predominant influence in Iraq with unfortunate results for the country.

Maliki is a product of this strange relationship. He was appointed by the US in 2006 but was also a man who Iran could get on with. After the 2010 election he served a second term as Prime Minister because of his acceptability to Washington and Tehran.

At election time, Maliki has been prepared to play the sectarian card as the communal chief of the Shia faced by a Sunni counter-revolution. Discrimination and persecution alienated the Sunni community but until 2011 there was nothing much they could do about it. However, it is always dangerous to humble any of Iraq’s communities because they will wait for their moment to strike back.

The Sunni of Iraq found the balance of power in the region turning in their favour after the revolt of the Sunni in Syria from 2011. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey were prepared to give financial and military aid to the Syrian rebels and this reignited the rebellion in Iraq. Isis, as its name implies, straddles the border and has created a sort of proto-Caliphate that reaches from the Tigris River to the outskirts of Aleppo.

Washington and Tehran are horrified by this new development but are finding it difficult to cooperate to stop it. Since the US supports the Syrian opposition and the Syrian opposition is dominated by Isis and al-Qa’ida groups, the Iranians wonder if the US might not be complicit in the Isis blitzkrieg that destabilised Maliki and his Shia-dominated pro-Iranian government.

In reality, the differences between the US and Iran in Iraq, Syria and over Iran’s nuclear programme cross-infect each other so negotiations on all three topics are bound to be inter-related. But cooperation with Iran remains politically toxic in the US. When Mohammad Nahavandian, chief of staff to Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, suggested last week that nuclear talks and the Iraqi crisis were connected, the State Department rejected any linkage.

Probably, in the long term the US and Iran could work out some semi-secret accommodation on Iraq. The problem is that a high degree of cooperation is needed immediately because the barbarians, in the shape of Isis, are at the gates of Baghdad.

Cooperation is needed to see Maliki depart as Prime Minister when the Iraqi parliament meets and the installation of a new and effective Iraqi government. Khamenei is suggesting this would be a pro-Iranian prime minister being replaced by a pro-American one and this should therefore be resisted by Iran.

In practice, any new Iraqi leader will have to get on with Americans and Iranians. Whatever happens Maliki will have to go after the humiliating defeats of the last fortnight.

“The Iranians argue that the first priority is to defend Baghdad and later deal with the leadership question,” says one Iraqi observer who did not want his name published. Another priority is to prevent Iraq being engulfed in a sectarian civil war much like that in Syria. Maliki is demonstrably not the man to stop this happening, but the longer he stays the more it becomes inevitable. It may already be too late.

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