By Manish Rai

With the news stories in the Middle East alternating between Egypt, Syria, Israel, Palestine it took many by surprise when the compass swung to Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria or ISIL/ISIS has been a growing part of the story but few anticipated the dramatic turn taking control of half of Iraq and many important cities and towns and a decent portion of Syria. And they are not only taking land and resources, ISIL have been spinning the PR and establishing their organisation. One aspect of ISIS’s success receives too little attention. Its prestige has been enhanced across the Sunni world, especially among young Sunni men in bordering countries. ISIS successes may already be having an impact in Syria, where its fighters have overrun the headquarters of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor province in the north-east of the country. ISIS has proved by its ferocity that it is difficult to dislodge once in power. In its Syrian capital at Raqqa on the Euphrates it publicly crucified young men who had started an armed resistance movement to oppose it. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a Sunni group, has grown powerful by exploiting Sunni discontent with Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.

But now Iraq not only facing the Sunni insurgency but a total state disintegration. In reaction to ISIS country wide offensive other rival militias displaying their strength as well for example in Sadr City, the stronghold of the movement led by Sadr. Twenty thousand armed men were paraded with heavy weapons such as machine guns, multiple rocket launchers and missiles as well as assault rifles. Sadr has pledged that this militia will only act in defence of the Shia shrines in Samarra, Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf, but the state’s inability to defend these holy sites illustrates how far its authority has withered in the past two weeks. Similar parades were held in the southern cities of Amarah and Basra, with the militants in Basra displaying field artillery pieces hauled by heavy trucks. The Shiite militias formed in response to the current ISIS offensive could represent a dangerous wild card in the new battle for Iraq. The Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to al-Sadr, battled U.S. troops and was blamed for attacks on Sunni civilians during the height of the country’s sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007. The same was true of several Iran-backed militias in the years prior to the American withdrawal in 2011. Last week, in the wake of the capture of the cities of Mosul and Tikrit by ISIS, al-Sadr has called for the formation of “peace brigades” to repel attacks on sites holy to Shiites across Iraq.

The prime minister, who has led the country since 2006 and has not yet secured a third term after recent parliamentary elections, also has increasingly turned to Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Shiite volunteers to bolster his beleaguered security forces. With reports that fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the terror group also known as ISIS, was some 40 miles from the gates of Baghdad, the country’s top religious and political leaders appealed for able-bodied men of fighting age to volunteer to defend the country. So the ground for bitter sectarian violence has been made. The militants rapid advance and the total collapse of Iraq’s security forces in the face of their assault in Mosul and a number of other smaller cities and towns have rocked al-Maliki’s government. As ISIS fighters neared Samarra, home to a revered Shiite shrine, al-Maliki took to the airwaves to call on volunteers to protect the city north of Baghdad. That was followed by Iraq’s top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appeal to people to join the military to protect Shiite shrines, a call that saw a massive outpouring of Shiite volunteers that raised concerns about the possible widening of the sectarian conflict. This violence has not been erupted all of a sudden but the Maliki government had sown the seeds of this sectarian violence since from its beginning. Al-Maliki’s “Shiafication” of the government agencies and Iraqi security forces has been less about the security of Iraq than the security of Baghdad and his regime.

Moreover intervention by Iraq’s neighbours is also making the situation even more worse. Iran is flying unarmed surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance. Syrian government aircraft bombed Sunni militant targets inside Iraq further broadening the crisis. This intervention by Syria and Iran is being done to not to protect Iraq but just to protect Shia regime of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s or just the shia interest in Iraq. This intervention is widening the Shia-Sunni divide in Iraq. On the other hand Iraqi Kurds are also seeing this chaos as the good opportunity to push forward their demand for separate Kurdish state. An independent country is a long-held goal for many in Iraq’s Kurdish minority, numbering about 6.5 million. Some Kurdish leaders see an opportunity in the rapid advance of the insurgents and the slow, disorganised response by the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The chaos in Iraq and the potential for its dismemberment has opened up a crack through which the Kurds can clearly see their long cherished dream glistening in the distance that of an independent Kurdistan. All this poses questions as to Iraq’s continued existence as a state. What we’ve got is Sunnis controlling Sunni territory, Shiites controlling Shiite territory, Kurds controlling Kurdish territory. So if Iraq has to survive as a state then there is a urgent need to make a national government in which every sect is given proper representation and power is shared with everyone rather then concentrating in hand of one group.

(Author is freelance columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region based in New Delhi and Editor of a geo-political news agency Viewsaround can be reached at manishraiva@gmail.com)