Iraq crisis: Iran to step in to defend Baghdad from Sunni extremists and prevent collapse of Iraqi state

Revolutionary Guard to help defend Baghdad from Sunni extremists; Top cleric calls on Shias to take up arms; Reports of mass executions as two more cities fall to Isis rebels; Militias fill vacuum as security forces refuse to fight

Patrick Cockburn
Saturday 14 June 2014 12:56
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remove part of the soil barrier on the Iraq-Syria borders and move through it
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) remove part of the soil barrier on the Iraq-Syria borders and move through it

Iran is moving to stop the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) from capturing Baghdad and the provinces immediately to the north of the capital.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is taking a central role in planning and strategy in Baghdad in the wake of the disintegration of the Iraqi army in the country’s north, an Iraqi source has told The Independent.

With the Iraqi army command completely discredited by recent defeats, the aim of the IRGC is to create a new and more effective fighting force by putting together trustworthy elements of the old army and the Shia militias. According to the source, the aim of the new force would be to give priority “to stabilising the front and rolling it back at least into Samarra and the contested areas of Diyala”. The Iraqi army has 14 divisions, of which four were involved in last week’s debacle, but there is no sign of the remaining units rallying and staging a counter-attack.

Militants driving pick-ups with machine guns in the back have captured two towns, Jalula and Sadiyah, in the mixed Sunni-Shia-Kurdish Diyala province. Both have been the scene of bloody sectarian fighting in the past and Sadiyah is only 60 miles from Baghdad. Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions without offering any resistance after being given an ultimatum that they must hand over their weapons if they wanted to leave unharmed.

The Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, told the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, by phone that “Iran will apply all its efforts on the international and regional levels to confront terrorism.” Iraq, with its long common border with Iran and a 60 per cent Shia majority, is Iran’s most important ally, more important even than Syria. The Iranians are horrified by the sudden military collapse of their ally and the prospect of a viscerally anti-Shia quasi-independent Sunni state emerging in northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria. This would create problems for Iran in Syria where it has been struggling with some success to stabilise the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

The leading Shia clerics in Iraq are likewise anxious about the future of Iraq as the first Arab state to be ruled by Shia since the days of Saladin (in the 12th century). The senior cleric, Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbaklai, who normally represents the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shia spiritual leader in Iraq, said at Friday prayers “that citizens who can carry weapons and fight the terrorists in defence of their country, its people and its holy sites should volunteer and join the security forces”.

The US, Britain and their allies such as Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf might object to further Iranian involvement in Iraq. On the other hand, Washington’s only effective alternative policy would be air strikes, but even these may not be enough to put down what is turning into a general uprising of the Sunni community in Iraq, which is five or six million strong and mainly concentrated in the north and west.

It is becoming clear that Isis is not the only Sunni militant group involved in the Sunni insurgents’ multipronged offensive that was carefully co-ordinated. Among those engaged are the Jaish Naqshbandi, led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, former members of the Baath party, the Mukhbarat security services and the Special Republican Guard. It is these groups, rather than Isis, which captured Tikrit.

Mr Maliki has blamed “a conspiracy” for the army failing to fight and, though he produced no evidence, it is possible senior Sunni officers in the Iraqi army were involved in a plot. Some 80 per cent of the senior officers in Saddam Hussein’s army are estimated to have been Sunni and Mosul was famous as the home of many of them. Saddam traditionally picked his defence minister from Mosul.

Isis fighters are the shock troops of the Sunni offensive but are also part of a broad anti-government coalition, the unity of which may be difficult to maintain if Isis gives full range to its bigoted anti-Shia ideology and starts destroying their mosques, churches and other religious monuments. Some leaflets circulating in Mosul insist that women should not leave the house unless absolutely necessary.

The victories of Isis over superior forces in such a short space of time will greatly increase its prestige and its appeal to the Sunni not only in Iraq but in the rest of the Muslim world. It has also captured military equipment including at least two helicopters. Government forces have made some air attacks – such as one against a mosque in Tikrit yesterday – but not enough to prevent the advance of Isis, whose commanders are eager not to give their enemy time to reorganise. Intoxicated by unexpected success the Isis fighters will be difficult to stop.

For the moment, the government in Baghdad appears paralysed, Mr Maliki having failed to assemble a quorum in parliament to give him emergency powers. But even if such powers had been secured it is not clear how far they would enable him to tackle his main problem, which is that security forces are refusing to fight.

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