Is this Iraq's last chance to put itself right?

With Sunni extremists barely an hour's drive from Baghdad, Iraq's legislators find themselves in a power struggle over who will be the next prime minister. Still, Nahlah Ayed writes, this could be the troubled country's best chance to find out who their friends — and enemies — really are.

ISIS extremists on the doorstep, standoff over the next PM

Shia Iraqis loyal to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chant pro-government slogans and wave national flags, to show support Maliki, who is trying to cling to power despite internal and international pressure. (Associated Press)

At a Baghdad press conference back in the summer of 2006, an American major-general presented what appeared to be a double dose of good news for Iraq, at a time when things were particularly bleak.

"Today is a great day in Iraq," declared Maj.-Gen. William Caldwell, the spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq.

He announced that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the Jordanian-born militant who was the head of the murderous al-Qaeda in Iraq — had been killed in a U.S. airstrike a day earlier.

Responsible for countless suicide bombings and attacks against U.S. forces and Iraqis (especially Shia Muslims), Zarqawi, dubbed the "Emir of al-Qaeda" in the region, had been so wanted that the U.S. had offered a $25 million dollar reward for his capture.

The second piece of good news that Caldwell presented was that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had finally announced his choices for the key ministries of defence, interior and national security — a decision that had been repeatedly delayed by internal squabbling.

"Today, Iraq takes a giant step forward — closer to peace within, closer to unity throughout, and closer to a world without terror," Caldwell said, hopefully.

How long ago 2006 seems.

Maliki, the prime minister the U.S. favoured in forging Iraq's fledgling democracy, grew increasingly authoritarian over the years, consolidating his hold on power to the point where he alone held the key portfolios of defence, interior and national security for the past four years — a vice-grip on power that roiled lawmakers from all of Iraq's sects.

As for the so-called emir the U.S. invasion helped create, Zarqawi left behind an organization that many thought would wither without him, but which instead has morphed into a grotesquely potent force known as ISIS, which now claims to run an Islamic state straddling Syria and Iraq.

It is a force that is now fundamentally changing Iraq's always fragile alignments.

Another 'emir'

Since its fearsome landing in northern Iraq two months ago — nearly eight years to the day after its former leader was killed — ISIS has upended Iraq’s admittedly sorry status quo, as well as the calculus of its foes and allies alike.

For one, it forced a U.S. president loath to get militarily involved in Iraq to reconsider that reluctance.

Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community, a Kurdish speaking group with their own distinct religion, shelter in the mountains of Shikhan near Dahuk, about 430 kilometres northwest of Baghdad, fleeing the Sunni extremists known as ISIS. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed) (Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)

This past week, the group's violent campaign against Christians and Yazidis prompted Barack Obama to order both humanitarian aid drops and airstrikes, in the first significant U.S. operation in Iraq since its soldiers left in 2011.

The U.S. has also just reversed its reluctance to arm the Kurdish Peshmerga military directly, and announced yesterday it would provide heavy weapons to the only force in Iraq currently squaring off with the militant group.

In what has been described as perhaps the most telling sign of the overall U.S. failure in Iraq, Obama's limited campaign may be the first time U.S. warplanes have had to target U.S. equipment, stolen by ISIS from fleeing Iraqi forces in June.

Perhaps equally frustrating for the U.S. military is that ISIS today is light-years beyond that nascent group led by Zarqawi, which the U.S. managed to persuade many Iraqi Sunni communities to spurn just a few short years ago.

It is also vastly richer and more battle hardened than it was when it implanted itself in the midst of Syria's civil war — in spite of al-Qaeda's objections.

It is slicker, better at recruitment and is also now led by its own self-appointed "caliph," Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi national who was once, reportedly, a U.S. prisoner, held for four years in a holding centre in southern Iraq and then released.

A few years later, he became the new self-styled "emir" of ISIS. And in 2011, Washington announced a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture or killing.

A last chance?

The welcome ISIS seems to have received among some Sunni Iraqis, alienated by Maliki's government, has also prompted what many believe is a much-needed political shakeup.

Earlier this summer, Washington hinted — and many Iraqis of all sects agreed — that it was time for a more inclusive prime minister to replace Maliki, even though his Shia party had won the largest share of votes in the recent election.

Haidar al-Abadi, once Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's close ally, is now the man set to replace him, if only Maliki will step aside. (Associated Press)

Yesterday, the country's new president nominated Haidar al-Abadi, the deputy speaker and a former ministerial ally of Maliki, to be the next PM, infuriating Maliki, who was bent on serving a third term.

Maliki isn't likely to go quietly. Neither will ISIS.

But the fast-changing fortunes of both in recent days may present the best opportunity since 2003 for Iraq to try to right itself.

It will now be up to Iraqis themselves to contain any problems brought on by Maliki's refusal to cede power. And in the face of the ISIS threat, Iraq's feuding sects will be expected to return to a unity government, in what could well be a one last effort to keep the country together.

As for ISIS, the Kurds — indeed even the Iraqi forces — cannot fight them alone, at least in the short term. And likely not even if they unite.

So unless he's willing to leave a country that the U.S. has consistently failed to revive in the hands of a group that the U.S. has repeatedly failed to neutralize, Obama — loath or not — may well find his forces increasing drawn into this battle.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.


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