Crisis in the Middle East

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Iraq has disintegrated. Little is exchanged between its three great communities – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – except gunfire. The outside world hopes that a more inclusive government will change this but it is probably too late.

The main victor in the new war in Iraq is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) which wants to kill Shia rather than negotiate with them. Iraq is facing a civil war that could be as bloody as anything that we have seen in Syria and could go on for years.

The crucial date in this renewed conflict is 10 June, 2014 when Isis captured Iraq’s northern capital, Mosul, after three days’ fighting. The Iraqi government had an army with 350,000 soldiers on which $41.6bn (£25bn) had been spent in the three years from 2011, but this force melted away without significant resistance.

Discarded uniforms and equipment were found strewn along the roads leading to Kurdistan and safety. The flight was led by commanding officers, some of whom rapidly changed into civilian clothes as they abandoned their men. Given that Isis may have had as few as 1,300 fighters in its assault on Mosul this was one of the great military debacles in history.

Within two weeks those parts of northern and western Iraq outside Kurdish control were in the hands of Isis. By the end of the month the group had announced a caliphate straddling the Iraq-Syria border.

People in Baghdad are used to shocks after years of war, massacres, occupation and dictatorship, but when Mosul fell they could feel the ground shifting under their feet. Soon Isis fighters were only an hour’s drive north of a capital in which the streets, normally choked with traffic, grew quiet as people stayed at home because they thought it too dangerous to go out.

This was particularly true of Sunni districts such as al-Adhamiyah on the east bank of the Tigris River, where young men rightly believed that if they passed through a checkpoint they were likely to be arrested or worse. People watched television obsessively, nervously channel-hopping as they tried to tease out the truth from competing propaganda claims.

The sense of crisis was made worse by the main government channel broadcasting upbeat accounts of the latest victories, though the claims were seldom backed up by pictures. “Watch enough government television and pretty soon you would decide there is not a single member of Isis in the country,” said one observer.

The political geography of Iraq was changing before its people’s eyes and there were material signs of this everywhere. Baghdadis cook on propane gas because the electricity supply is so unreliable but soon there was a chronic shortage of gas cylinders because they come from Kirkuk and the road from the north had been cut by Isis fighters. To hire a truck to come the 200 miles from the Kurdish capital Erbil to Baghdad now cost $10,000 for a single journey, compared to $500 a month earlier.

There were ominous signs that Iraqis feared a future filled with violence as weapons and ammunition soared in price. The cost of a bullet for an AK47 assault rifle quickly tripled to 3,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $2. Kalashnikovs were almost impossible to buy from arms dealers, though pistols could still be obtained at three times the price of the previous week. Suddenly, almost everybody had guns, including even Baghdad’s paunchy, white-shirted traffic police who began carrying sub-machine guns.

 

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