Iraq crisis: Opinion from the experts – what's happened and what's next?

The Independent spoke to a range of experts on the region and asked how the current crisis came about and what must happen now

Sir Ming Campbell

Last week, Sir Ming was with The Intelligence security committee, an annual visit to the US where he met with agencies and legislators from both  the Congress and the senate.

“If the Americans were to think that there was some activity or action which was going to directly impinge upon their interests then obviously in these circumstances a military intervention might come up the agenda. But, Obama’s problems are on the left and on the right. The left who were really opposed to military action against Iraq whilst the right are isolationist and for Obama to find any kind of public consensus over military action would be very difficult indeed. He’s got a big election in October and risks losing the senate, in which case his next two years will be total stalemate. Domestic American politics will be as influential as any kind of strategic view.

"Maliki couldn’t get enough MPs to declare a state of emergency so he’s got no authority, or not much and so the questions for the Americans is 'are you going to intervene and support someone who doesn’t have authority and may be gone very shortly.' Not only is your intervention blunted but so too is your credibility. The alternative however is far far worse, I can imagine there are a lot of cold towels being wrapped around heads in the both the pentagon, the state department and indeed the White House.There are only bad options and some are worse than others.

"Iraq is an issue that simply refuses to lie down. Here in Britain, the Chilcot inquiry looks as if it is closer to publication, albeit with some restrictions. But for the United States, the problem may be even greater. Only the US has the resources to make any kind of impact on events in Iraq, but I had the clear impression that there was no suggestion of military intervention, although President Malaki has publicly invited the United states to provide air strikes. The American position still appears to be that all options are on the table but that doesn’t cover for finding it difficult to reach any clear view on what should be done. As of now, all the options in relation to Iraq are poor and some of them are even worse. The survival of the Malaki government must be in considerable doubt and for the American ,it would be deeply damaging if they were to support a government which may well be on the way out.

"There is one wild card which is the close relationship between Iran and the Shia-led government in Iraq which might prompt Tehran to consider giving genuine military assistance, but that of itself would raise further problems for the US.

"The reality is that the United Kingdom is not in any position to take independent action but the Americans would no doubt like to believe that they would have at least political support from the UK for any action which they might take, but I’m convinced that the extent of any action would be the supply of equipment and weapons, possibly intelligence but the probability of American air strikes is very low indeed.

Isis have got the winds in their sails but we just don’t have enough assets. If the Americans do anything, they always want to think that we’re with them. In any event, I couldn’t see any party or combination of parties agreeing to anything, look what happened over Syria. If Maliki can’t  stabilize this to the extent that the army will even take Isis on then they’ll be toast."

 

Joseph Willits

Joseph Willits works for the Council for Arab-British Understanding, (Caabu).

"Death and destruction have been normalised in Iraq. The international community has forgotten and failed Iraq. Even the events of the last few days have not stirred the moral obligation the West has towards Iraq. If an Isis takeover cannot propel Iraq’s breakdown into the British political consciousness, then what can?

"We should not try to diminish what has happened with the Isis takeovers of Mosul and Tikrit as anything but war. This is not a crisis, an uprising or an incursion, rather a full scale war. It has largely gone unnoticed that before al-Qa'ida inspired splinter group Isis made these significant advances, nearly 1,100 people had been killed in violence in Iraq in May 2014 alone – the figure for the whole of 2014 has now risen beyond 4,500. Yet Iraq remains a political non-issue.

"Iraq has become a by-word for failure, disenchantment, exploitation and shame; failed by Iraqis, regional players and the international community alike. From the sceptre of the 2003 invasion and the anticipation of the continually delayed Chilcot inquiry, the seriousness of Iraq’s problems have been consistently avoided and deliberately forgotten. The power vacuum inside Iraq, worsened by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s sectarian regime, is further intensified by an international community that abdicates responsibility. Despite the invasion and the devastating implications of it, Iraq shame is a convenient excuse for inaction, a useful state of being for political establishments to wash their hands of a bloody mess. Western military intervention would be a clumsy reflex reaction to a war that has long been forgotten. Military action is not the only mechanism to counter years of Iraq neglect. It would also endorse a Maliki administration that has fed off sectarianism and neglected Iraq’s Sunnis and other major constituencies.

"A political solution of all regional players, that includes Iran, is urgently needed. All of Iraq’s representatives must be supported by the international community to achieve a solution not influenced by sectarianism. International assistance of any form must be dependent on guarantees of an inclusive pluralistic approach to politics in Iraq that respects the needs and aspirations of all communities rather than one grouping.

"As predicted, simultaneous chants of 'I told you so' versus 'it was the right thing to do' with regards to the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, are dominating the British political debate. One thing is certain, the hundreds of thousands who have fled Mosul to Kurdistan in recent days, and those in the midst of their country imploding, won’t be engaging in this very British way of discussing Iraq."

 

Hayder al-Khoei

Hayder al-Khoei is an associate fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

"The West cannot afford to allow the democratic process and territorial integrity of Iraq to collapse at the hands of thousands of extremist jihadists hell-bent on destroying the country.

"Extremist jihadists – mainly belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq al-Sham, a group too extreme even for al-Qa'ida – have made a series of spectacular assaults on a number of cities in Iraq’s Sunni heartland.

"There has been little to no will from the Shia-dominated armed forces to fight back in areas that they were not welcome in. Conversely, Iraq’s Sunni Arab community in the north effectively welcomed the jihadists with open arms.

"Whilst the West must continue to press the Iraqi government to make serious reforms to stop the systematic abuses being carried out across the country, it should also provide Baghdad with immediate counter-insurgency relief to turn the tide against the extremist jihadists. Isis must not be allowed to consolidate their gains or expand any further.

"Whilst Americans in Washington are scratching their heads, the Iranians are already on the ground helping to boost the morale of Iraqi forces preparing to confront the terrorists. Whatever differences Iran and America may have across the Middle East, Isis is a common enemy and Iraq is uniquely placed as a country where their interests can, and should, converge.

"The West can play a constructive role in bringing Iraq’s different communities together to negotiate a political settlement. However, jihadists who have a twisted interpretation of Islam can play no part in this. Nor can fascist Baathists who want a return to the pre-2003 order.

"If the West does nothing, more and more ordinary Iraqis – not organized armed groups and militias – will start picking up their weapons to defend themselves and their communities. As we have already seen before in Iraq, this will drag the country down a path that few people want to go.

"Iraq is not Syria. There is already a democratic process in place and the overwhelming majority of its people have no desire to see the state collapse. It is far from perfect but the political process needs to be strengthened - not weakened - by the international community.

"If the West doesn’t have the stomach for military intervention in Iraq it could do the entire region a favour by putting more pressure on its allies, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, to stop the endless supply of funds that terrorist groups receive from these countries."

 

RT Hon Ann Clwyd

Ann Clwyd is the MP for Cynon Valley and served as special envoy to Iraq on human rights 2003-10.

"On Sunday, along with five colleagues from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, I was due to head off to Iraqi Kurdistan. We are in the middle of writing a report on the relationship between the UK and Kurdish Regional Government. It looks as though we might have to rewrite our terms of reference!

"Prime Minister Maliki should have got his act together after the election but he didn’t. He now needs to get key actors in place. The head of the Army has cleared off. There is no head of administration. Mr Maliki seems to be fulfilling all functions!

"The US and UK have in practice disengaged from Iraq. They took their eyes off the ball. At least now they should give the Iraqi Government help to protect key strategic areas such as damns, oil fields, and help police the borders. Immediate humanitarian aid is needed for those 500,000 refugees and more who have fled cities like Mosul is essential. It is extremely hot in Iraq right now and whole families with the very young and very old need help.

"Yesterday, I met with women MPs form all over the world who have been discussing violence against women in war. Already we hear women are being raped and threatened with Sharia law by the Isis terrorists in Iraq. The UK invested human lives and much money in liberating Iraq from Saddam. We have a continuing responsibility to help the people of Iraq rebuild."

Frank Ledwidge

Frank Ledwidge, a writer and barrister, commanded a small unit in Iraq tasked with looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Has appeared as a TV commentator military affairs.

"After the fiasco in Iraq, the slow motion car-crash of Helmand and the anarchy of ‘free’ Libya, it is clear even to retired generals peeping from behind their defence consultancies to opine on Iraq that military  ‘intervention’ (i.e. invading, bombing) in civil war does not end well. 

"Besides, there is more than enough military power in Iraq to deal, at least temporarily, with the rag-tag Isis militias; and let’s be clear that’s what Isisis- ragtag. The trouble is that the military power concerned is not the very well-equipped Iraqi Army (the one we trained).  Rather it is the Kurdish Pershmerga and our former enemies the Shi’a militias.  The effectiveness of an Iraqi Army of course, or lack of it, is reflective of the viability of Iraq itself- and it is concerning the viability of Iraq that the difficult decisions will need to be made.

"The ‘West’ could have a real positive effect on the Middle East.  This would require understanding that a lasting solution may be radical, including some redrawing of the borders we imposed nearly a century ago and some concessions to adversaries.  In an ideal world with a confident, realistic and strong western understanding of its long-term objectives, potential and indeed limits- in other words a strategy- there would be negotiations moving towards a grand settlement. This must include Iran, the Kurds, Syria, Russia and, unfortunately, the grotesque gaggle of Western armed and sustained monarchies on the Arabian peninsula who bankroll Isis and their like.

"Unfortunately in this, the real world there is no strategy, no vision from the ‘West’. Instead we are entirely beholden to a United States foreign policy driven more by its own domestic politics than any concern for the continuing suffering of the people of the region into whose affairs the US, with its supine cohorts, regularly intrudes.  We can expect more years of chaos before there is a realization that deep and lasting political initiatives will be required to bring it to a halt. "

 

Gareth Stansfield

Gareth Stansfield is al-Qasimi Professor of Gulf Studies at University of Exeter. Lived and worked in pre-regime Iraq, and served as a Senior Political Adviser to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).

"The situation in Iraq today is unprecedented. Even at the height of the civil war of 2006-8, the integrity of Iraq was not threatened, nor was the legitimacy of the Iraqi state itself. Now, with a vast swathe of territory under the control of Isis, from Mosul to the Sunni Arab dominated towns north of Baghdad and to the west around Fallujah, and with the Kurds in the north advancing into Kirkuk to bring previously disputed territories into their autonomous region, Iraq has been divided into three clear zones of control: the Kurdish-dominated north; the Sunni Arab areas between Baghdad and Mosul, dominated by the jihadist Isis with their pre-2003 Ba’thist allies from the regime and former elite military units (including the Special Republican Guard); and Shi’a-dominated Iraq stretching from Baghdad to Basra in the south.

"Baghdad is now threatened by Isis in its bid to remove what it sees as the domination of the Shi’a and their Iranian supporters, although the ultimate, stated, aim of the leader of ISIS, Ibrahim al-Badri (otherwise known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Abu Dua) is to destroy the Shi’a holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and who is to say that the strategically minded ISIS leader would not be minded to attack the southern oil-rich governorates via Anbar, thus bypassing the heavily populated areas of Baghdad and the mid-Euphrates?

"In the north, the Kurds have moved quickly and firmly not only to protect their border from Isis, but to bring in the oil-rich disputed regions of Kirkuk under their control. With the Kurds now in full control of the three oil-producing domes of Kirkuk, and the entirety of the Kirkuk oil and gas infrastructure, with Kurdish peshmerga and security flooding into the region, the resolution of the disputed territories – which has for so many years been such a dangerous issue in Iraq – has seemingly been resolved by a straightforward military occupation at a time of Baghdad’s incapacitation. This new reality will prove to be durable, and it should be expected that Erbil will continue to advance its bilateral oil sales to Turkey, making the Kurdistan Region an independent state in all but name.

"In this situation, the UK has very few, if any, levers to pull. With little political clout to use in Baghdad, and with no military forces of any size anywhere near the theatre, even if the UK government were minded to intervene, the options to do so in any meaningful, interventionist, way are non-existent. Rather, the UK now needs to engage in the speculative world of horizon-scanning – getting a sense of who the new actors, stakeholders, and interests will be going forward, perhaps in a ‘post-Iraq’ setting. Indeed, even if the integrity of Iraq is maintained, it now seems clear that power, in all of its forms, will now be very much regionalized to those best placed to project it – to the Kurds in the north, whatever manifestation of an ISIS regime may emerge in the ‘Jazeera’ region, and whichever stakeholders emerge from among the Shi’a in Baghdad, the holy cities, and Basra. This is a new and unpredictable world, but one in which the old rules of the game – of working directly with Baghdad in the vain attempt to uphold Iraq’s territorial integrity – need to be radically rethought."

 

Fawaz A Gerges

Fawaz A Gerges holds the Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is author of several books, including 'The New Middle East: Social Protest and Revolution in the Arab World'.

"Far from a surprise, the current crisis in Iraq has been in the making for years. At the very heart of the fierce struggle raging in the war-torn country is a broken political system, one  based on muhasasa or distribution of power along communal, ethnic and tribal lines, and put in place after the US invaded and occupied the country in 2003.

"Although the US bears responsibility for Iraq’s current predicament, the post-Saddam Hussein ruling group is as responsible, if not more so. After eight years in office and monopolizing power,

"Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has delivered neither reconciliation nor security and prosperity. Under his watch, a sectarian and ideological rift has deepened and widened, particularly with Sunnis Arabs who feel excluded and disfranchised by what they view as al-Maliki’s sectarian-based policies.

"It is no wonder then that al-Qa'ida factions — or the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Greater Syria) known by its Arabic acronym, “Daish” — has revived and found shelter and even hadaneh shabiyaa or social base among dissatisfied Sunnis. Daish or Isis is a manifestation of a spreading Arab Sunni (tribal) insurgency against al-Maliki’s sectarian authoritarianism.    

"In the long-term, the most effective means to deny Isis its power base is to bridge the deep rift in Iraqi society by establishing an inclusive national unity government. There is an urgent need to reconstruct the dysfunctional political and social system along new lines of citizenship and the rule of law as opposed to dividing the spoils among Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. Neither reconciliation nor institution building would occur without a new social contract.

"A small force of few thousands militants, Isis’ strength stems more from the state’s impotence than its own fighting capabilities. In contrast, the Iraqi security forces which number hundreds of thousands are riven with corruption and lack professionalism, command-and-control and unifying national ideology. Isis’ surge shows in stark terms the failure of state building in Iraq.

"While in the short term, efforts by Iraq and its regional and international allies must focus on stopping the bleeding of the state forces, as well as Isis military advance, the challenge facing Iraqis revolves around the restructuring of their institutions and reconciling with one another."

 

Zenonas Tziarras

Zenonas Tziarras is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick, and expert on foreign policy and conflict analysis .

"The unfolding situation in Iraq is at least partly a product of the 2003 US-led invasion, which opened up the “Pandora’s Box” of the region’s sectarian divisions. In addition, it is a result of Western tactical and strategic miscalculations with regard to Syria’s civil war. Although the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), formerly the Islamic State of Iraq, emerged from within Iraq, it was reinforced and empowered by Western and regional pro-Western (e.g. Turkish) “corridors” of humanitarian, logistical, and other support in Syria. Thus it has been serving as a Western proxy against the Syrian regime.

"Now, both the West and its regional allies are eager to contain what they have helped grow. A real Islamist threat which advances rapidly in Iraq and Syria and can very well challenge the regional balance of power, threaten Western interests in the region, as well as shake global economy and energy security.

"In this context, United Kingdom, as one of the leading powers that were involved in Iraq, is expected to have a say in how the West (the US in particular) will try to manage the crisis. However, its decisions are not expected to diverge from but rather remain in coordination with the U.S. line of action.

"Among other options, the US and UK can consider limited involvement with air support and targeted air strikes against Isis – as Baghdad has requested – as well as direct or indirect (through regional allies) logistical, military support to the Iraqi government. The deployment of ground forces is not an option. Another is the direct or indirect support of Iran which is expected to play a big role in helping Baghdad – after all, US and Iran have been on a reconciliation track for a while. One of the best options might be the (parallel) support of Iraqi Kurdish forces (Peshmerga) – one of the best military forces currently in Iraq.

"These are plausible and not mutually exclusive scenarios. To be sure, the stakes are too high for the US, the West, as well as for actors such as Turkey, Iran, Israel and even Russia. Therefore, they must not and will not stay indifferent."

 

Dr Glen Rangwala

Dr Rangwala is a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, an expert on Middle East politics especially the Levant, political debate, state-building processes and international law in politics.

"In the areas taken over so far by Isis, the hold and legitimacy of the Iraqi government has been weak, almost non-existent, since the civil war wound down in 2008. What Isis have done is brought the various local truces to an end: political groups in Mosul, Tikrit and Diyala province have had to choose between Isis and the return of the Iraqi army, and it’s instructive to see that many of them have chosen to side with the militants rather than a government they see as externally-imposed and fundamentally malign.

"The challenge for external actors is not to make a terrible situation even worse. Direct military action may provoke a wider Isis-led alliance, in which one part of Iraq’s population is radicalised even further. Support to Iraq’s government would need to be tied to building a more inclusive, more accountable body, one that all of Iraq’s population can see as legitimate. In the wake of the recent national elections, the potential for a broad-based coalition to form is there.

"One major role is in humanitarian assistance. It’s been largely unsung, but Britain’s help to Syria’s refugees has been extensive and well-focused. It has helped preserve political stability in Jordan and Lebanon, and saved many lives. A similar approach is needed in Iraq.

"There is another flashpoint waiting in the wings. Kurdish forces have now fully taken over the divided city of Kirkuk. It’s the first time in 90 years that the Kurdish parties have sole political and military control over the city, which they see as their historic capital, their ‘Jerusalem’. They will not be willing to leave. It cannot but provoke a reaction, and become a rallying cry for its Arab population. The long-promised referendum on Kirkuk’s status has been delayed for seven years. External mediation may be necessary to prevent the long-standing grievances over disputed areas between the autonomous Kurdish region and the rest of Iraq from drawing the Kurdish forces into a protracted three-way conflict.

 

Rodney Wilson

Rodney Wilson is a retired professor (retired) in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham Uni, expert in Islamic economics and finance.

"My view is that the United Kingdom should not get involved in Iraq again. Public opinion would not stand it, and it would further antagonise British Muslims. Getting involved would be more of a threat to British security than doing nothing. Furthermore, as in Syria, there is no 'good' side in Iraq. The government of Iraq is totally corrupt and it supports sectarian discrimination.

"William Hague should discuss the situation with other EU foreign ministers, in particular what can be done about the European jihadists, including British nationals, who are fighting with the rebels. They need to be identified so that when they return to the United Kingdom and other EU countries they can be monitored, and if necessary charges brought against them through the legal system.

"The other priority for the Foreign Office should be protecting British nationals who are legitimately in Iraq for business or family reasons. If the situation deteriorates further there should be plans in place to ensure the safe evacuation of all British citizens who wish to leave.   "

 

Louise Fawcett

Louise Fawcett is Associate Professor of Politics at Oxford, and author of books and articles on the Middle East.

"It is all too easy to forget that the departure of foreign troops from Iraq only a year or so ago, was accompanied by a chorus of ‘never again’s.  The high cost of the war was uppermost in everyone’s minds as was the sense that the decision to fight had been ill-judged.  Investigations into the legality of the war continue.   It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that we have been caught ‘napping’, to coin a phrase that is already popular among commentaries on the current events.  Nobody wanted another intervention in Iraq and the default position was to hope for the best and therefore ignore some quite hard facts on the ground about the fast unraveling security situation.  This hoping for the best, has now given way quickly to fearing the worst in the light of the Isis advance and the apparent debility (and this has surprised many) of the Iraqi army. 

"What to do now? There are two starkly opposing options: to learn from the past and stay out.  Getting things badly wrong in Iraq once was enough; we are unlikely to do better the next time.  This has been the lesson of repeated interventions in the Middle East and should never be forgotten.  Action should be therefore be restricted to moral suasion, humanitarian assistance and support of a non-military kind.  On the other hand, if, as other voices argue, we left Iraq too early and bear a burden of guilt for so doing, do we not then have a responsibility to act to prevent further slaughter and contain unrest? Is the moral imperative of action more compelling? To this second option, the very real and present danger of getting things wrong again remains. It is important here to recall the increasing criticism and doubts expressed as to the capabilities of the current Iraqi regime headed by President Maliki; the fears of a more strident authoritarianism, coupled with, for the West and its allies, the anxiety presented by the perceived growth of Shi’a influence in the region.  Further Iraq is not alone in presenting a vision of uncertainty and turmoil in the region.  There are other Iraqs.  Any policy taken on Iraq today will have immediate repercussions and implications for the wider region, which is already facing immense challenges, not least in Syria.  The longstanding and extensive external penetration of the region has not hitherto yielded good outcomes; there is little reason to believe that these can be corrected by a further act of military intervention."

 

Colonel Richard Kemp

Colonol Richard Kemp served in Iraq 2005 and headed Iraq assessments team for the Joint Intelligence Committee 2004-2006.

"The current dire situation in Iraq became inevitable when the leaders of Britain and the United States abandoned the country with indecent haste, their decisions dominated by electoral rather than strategic considerations. Left entirely to their own devices the Iraqi army discarded the Coalition counter-insurgency techniques that had isolated insurgents and brought violence down to record lows.

"Al-Qa'ida extremists remained intent on fomenting civil war in Iraq. The Army’s heavy-handed tactics combined with Al Maliki’s political and economic policies served to alienate the Sunni minority. This played right into al-Qa'ida’s hands, leading to a progressive upsurge of violence since the US left in 2011. The opportunities presented by civil war in Syria gave even more power to al-Qa'ida’s elbow in Iraq.

"Iraqi forces in the north of the country, where al-Qa'ida have achieved their bloody successes in recent days, were largely demoralized Sunni troops whose loyalty to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad proved insufficiently strong to make them stand and fight.

"The al-Qa'ida offensive seems to have been blunted by a combination of stronger Shia-dominated forces and the formidable Kurdish Peshmerga, who are now preparing an offensive to re-take lost territory. This may eventually contain the current flare-up but it will only be a temporary and partial fix.

"US air power is needed to pulverize al-Qa'ida in Iraq as it has done in the Pakistan tribal areas. But air power cannot be used in isolation. Western intelligence networks need to be re-established and special forces deployed to deal with targets that cannot be hit from the air. Military advisers need to be re-attached to Iraqi forces to coordinate their actions with Western strike operations, and to encourage them to re-adopt the successful counter-insurgency strategy abandoned when the US left.

"All of this is no doubt unpalatable to President Obama who has already ruled out deployment of ground troops. It is equally unpalatable to our own Prime Minister who did not have the stomach for any meaningful reaction to Syrian use of chemical weapons.

"But there are other alternatives. The first is to stand by and watch as Iraq descends into bloody civil war in which al-Qa'ida consolidates its position across Iraq as well as Syria, and from which it can present an increasing threat to Western interests in the region and beyond. The second is to yield ever more influence in Iraq to the destabilizing forces of Iran and Russia. According to rumour, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Force troops have already been sent by Iran to the aid of their ally Al Maliki as they were sent to the aid of their Syrian ally Al Assad."

Colonel Lieutenant Richard Williams

Colonel Richard Williams led the SAS during the Iraq war in undercover operations.

"We need to know a lot more. It’s a bit disappointing that we know so little but that reflects the fact that our intelligence optics has not been over this part of Iraq in ways that it used to be, because it’s been diverted elsewhere. We really don’t know very much and that’s surprising considering what Edward Snowden’s told us. The reality is that we only know where we look and for some reason we weren’t looking here.

"Angelina Jolie and friends demanded that drones and other capabilities went in to loom for the schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria but that’s not a threat to the United Kingdom and the United States, this potentially is. If the threshold of drones deployed to Nigeria were if Angelina Jolie asked for it, then I think we’re probably beyond the threshold now of deploying drones and other things into the region to improve our ability to understand what’s happening.

"This is not something we can just leave the Iraqis to solve. I doubt very much that Baghdad is going to fall… We probably don’t need to do anything really quickly to stabilize the situation  and so it’s probably better that we sit and understand it a bit and then enable a much more precise targeting of (Isis leader) al-Baghdadi and his friends, which hopefully is combined with the type of political outreach that Malaki should be doing should start to stabilize things. It certainly isn’t (because they very rarely make a positive difference), the deployment of conventional forces, the army etc into the region because they just provide targets. It’ll be, counter terrorist advisory services into the area which will involve discreet elements of our armoury, American armoury and anyone else who wants to get involved who thinks it’s important.

"As long as Iraq doesn’t collapse and becomes run by al-Baghdadi, which isn’t going to happen, we can afford to take a bit of time. The only problem with taking time is, is if there’s a vacuum because we’re not going there and having serious engagement with Malaki and the only people he can turn to is the Iranians for his salvation, that might not be the perfect solution. We’ve probably got to move very quickly to engage with Malaki, offer him real alternatives to simply turning to the republican guard in Iran for protection.

"We crippled al-Qa'ida in Iraq from 2005-10 but it took that amount of time. It required a sustained effort.

"We’ve got to be very robust. al-Baghdadi’s ambition is to not just set up a caliphate that attacks the Middle East but attacks us. Lee Rigby x1000 or whatever it is, that’s what they’re trying to do. You don’t need to invade the country and have thousands of troops die and have a very unpopular war and then the Chilcots afterwards to do something about that, but what you can’t do is let it slide. What you’ve got to do as a government is very clearly state to the country, 'we are going to assist the Iraqis in suppressing al-Qa'ida within western Iraq in ways that free the Sunni population and in ways to secure the United Kingdom” because you’re going to have a link what happens in Iraq and what happens here. With respect to al-Qa'ida, inaction has generally been punished. Actions have had consequences but the consequences are arguably, and I suppose the jury is out on this, less than inaction.

"There was an impression that the Iraqis believed and that the world believed that people under Abu Musab al-Zarkawi are some kind of super men, the Ghengis Khan of this world that have an absolute authority and control over a population by political argument, it’s not the case, it was by intimidation and you’ve got to smash that and everything else collapses. There’s a slight difficulty as Syria is alongside. If the local Sunni had to make a deal with al-Baghdadi because they’re so pissed off with Malaki, there’s nothing else they can do, you’re going to have to prove that al-Baghdadi isn’t as strong as he is and you’re going to have to offer something good.

"You’re not going to solve this in a couple of months with a couple of drone strikes. This is going to be, like a lot of the Middle East which is effectively a failed region, this is going to be ongoing business for a long time, like what’s happening in Ukraine, it’s going to be going on for years, so we shouldn’t expect quick results.

"This is a question of constant relentless pressure to produce a political outcome that is sustainable, but that constant relentless pressure could last for years. We’ve got to get involved in it so we know what’s going on because it is a direct threat to the UK. Al-Qa'ida guys, British passport holders or whoever it is are going to come wheeling back here with their version of post-traumatic stress disorder and other general disturbances, are going to be chopping the heads off people here in the UK, I know that sounds alarming but we’ve seen it before and it’s likely to happen again. So we’ve got to be involved for that reason, we’re not occupying anything, we’re going into Basra or Helmand and telling the locals to accept our version of government, that’s not what we’re doing, this is the nature of conflict of our generation and you’ve got to decide which conflict you get involved with and which you don’t and it all comes down to you rather selfishly working out what’s in the national interest.

"The reason we are sending people to Iraq is to support the government, contain the situation because if the situation escalates, it will because it’s al-Qa'ida connected, threaten the UK directly, but our interests abroad and our interests in the Middle East.

"People don’t want there to be conflict, people don’t want people to be killed and all that other stuff but unfortunately it will happen if you do nothing.

"We’ve got to get the country out of its thinking where it’s 'if we go, we’re going to have a Helmand with RAF Brize Norton and Help for Heroes and all that, or we’re going to have a Basra with dead RMP’s'. The answer is we’re not going to have that, the French didn’t have that in Mali, we didn’t have that in Libya, although that wasn’t a perfect outcome.

"I don’t know if it will come out in Chilcot, but the first British offer to the Americans for their coalition that they were leading to remove Saddam Hussain, were special forces, Naval forces and air forces, and the Americans said 'we’ll take that, we don’t need any army'. The lobby for army involvement didn’t come from military needs in the theatre; it came from the wish for the army to be involved. Actually back in 2003, Britain was very sensibly under the leadership of Tony Blair and his government, trying to do the bare minimum and just imagine if that’s what we’d done, we’d have been in a much better position than we are now, so I’d see us doing the same thing.

"Being cautious is the right thing. We’ve got to be careful because there’s a lot of cynicism but if I was going to be involved in the debate now, I’d say, don’t be cynical about Iraq, our original plan didn’t involve one armoured division in Basra and for some reason that emerged. We needn’t have done what we’ve done so as we go forward, let’s for God’s sake not let the military lobby for involvement for defence structure purposes lead the debate. Let the Foreign Office, let the intelligence services, let the diplomats, let DIFID, work out what we need to do to make sure the country safe and do it. Whatever we do, don’t deploy people from Horse Guards Parade go and be targets in Iraq, it doesn’t work.

Sir Dominic Asquith

Deputy UK special representative in Baghdad, director for Iraq at the Foreign Office in London and ambassador to Iraq from 2006 - 2007.

ISIS's advances through the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq didn't come out of the blue.  Indeed, when I was in northern Iraq in February, very senior Sunni Arab and Kurdish leaders were deeply concerned at ISIS's prominent role in Mosul.  ISIS had already established its areas of control in Syria.  It's very name advertised where it intended to operate. 

Moreover, the deep disaffection on the part of the Sunni Arab community of Iraq with years of a federal government in Baghdad that appeared determined to exclude and dismember its leadership provided no local resistance to ISIS.  Even in 2006/7, US forces had found Sunni tribal leaders willing to partner them against Al Qa'ida.  It is a measure of how over the past eight years sectarianism has become institutionalized, particularly in the security apparatus, and of the deficiency in leadership that the Iraqi army failed to resist ISIS. 

The implications are complex and varied.  For Iraqis, most glaringly for the federal government leadership, this is a defining moment: build consensus, make the necessary (and genuine) concessions and govern in the interests of all Iraqis, otherwise the sectarian and separatist forces will dismember the country, producing decades of violence. 

For Iran there is a key decision to make about who in their view will be most likely to keep the country together - if that indeed is their objective.  The past eight years has witnessed an inexorable unraveling of the country.  

For the West, the options are deeply uncomfortable.  The violent rupture of Iraq must be prevented if possible.  For that, ISIS in Iraq has to be beaten militarily and Sunni Arabs persuaded that their interests are best served by allowing ISIS operatives no haven.  Iraqi Arab and Kurdish forces ought to be capable of achieving the first without Western military intervention. 

But if such Western intervention is required, there must be a non-negotiable requirement that addresses the second condition - that those who thereafter run the federal government and its institutions explicitly commit themselves to govern in the interests of all Iraqis, not the majority.  Without that commitment, nothing the West does will keep the country together as clerics compete to commit their respective adherents to eternal martyrdom.   

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