I have just returned from a visit to Palestine and Israel. While the tense relations between the two remains a cause of concern and the Syrian conflict is spilling over to the wider region, what has dominated international headlines in recent days has been the sudden flare-up in Iraq.
Syria-based Islamic extremists under the banner of “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham” (ISIS) have captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in a whirlwind, as well as towns in northern and western provinces. They now pose a direct threat to Baghdad.
Government forces have put up little resistance. Few expected the Iraqi authorities to be in such disarray, or the sectarian tension to divide Iraqi society to such an alarming extent.
In the meantime, the Kurdish region has occupied oil-producing Kirkuk. As this northern region defends itself against ISIS onslaught, it is also exhibiting a greater penchant for independence.
Staring at a possible full-blown civil war, US Secretary of State John Kerry rushed to the country to urge Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to consider the greater good of Iraq and form a government that includes Sunni representatives.
Buffeted by an impatient America and an advancing ISIS, Prime Minister al-Maliki held his ground. He refused to dissolve his government and establish a “national salvation government” in its stead. He also insisted on advancing the political process according to the roadmap stipulated in the Constitution. The result is a country in civil war, on the brink of breaking up.
Iraq is a key player in the Middle East and a country endowed with rich resources. Of the many factors that have weakened the Iraqi state and rendered it powerless to stop the extremists and terrorists, the war in 2003 obviously stands out. Then, the US-led multinational force overthrew the Saddam government, disbanded the armed forces and tore apart the political and social fabric of Iraq. The democratic system imposed by and modeled after the US was ill suited to the Iraqi condition: sectarian and ethnic tensions have worsened, violence has spread, many Iraqi have been made homeless, and the society is in tatters. Given this poor state of affairs, it is hardly possible to organize an effective military.
But the tragedy does not end there. The Middle East has been engulfed by upheaval for more than three years. During this time, the US has led the effort to evict Bashar al-Assad from power and worked with regional partners to support the opposition. Syria has slid into civil war and fragmentation and become the hotbed of extremists and terrorists. Made up mainly of Al Qaeda operatives, they have established a stronghold in Syria and called publicly for the creation of an “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham”, a theocratic state and installation of al-Khilafah system. Influenced by radical Islam and trained for actual combat, nearly 20,000 fighters from at least 60 countries (including western countries) have joined the Syrian opposition. Half of Syria is now in the hands of these people, whose ranks and influence continue to grow. Some of the fighters have since returned to their home countries and become a menace there.
ISIS has chosen the timing of its assault very carefully: the al-Maliki government is in deep trouble due to the serious post-election divisions over the formation of a new government. Espousing an ideology built on extremism and violence, ISIS is a threat not only to Iraq, but also to regional and even global peace and tranquility.
Indeed, the alarming situation in Iraq should serve as a warning to the region and beyond that terrorism is still the most lethal enemy of the world. To fight terrorism, countries must adopt a comprehensive approach and work in coordination. We are all in it together.
First, the religious and political factions in Iraq must wake up to the extremist and terrorist nature of ISIS and work in concert to deal with it. They must put the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq before the interests of their own faction or community.
Second, recognizing the interconnection between the various regional hotspots, greater efforts must be made to seek the political settlement of the Palestine issue and the Syrian crisis to deny terrorists any breeding ground.
And third, Iraq’s neighbors must be made aware of the enormity of the terrorist threat emanating from an unstable Iraq. They must shelve whatever disagreements they may have and pitch in to fight the terrorists and preserve regional peace and stability. For the good of the region, this fight must not be delayed any longer.
Extremists and terrorists are the enemy of all mankind. The hotchpotch of militia – made up of ISIS elements, radical religious believers disillusioned with governments, prison escapees and foot soldiers who had fought in Syria – are able to wreck so much havoc in Iraq thanks to a host of enabling factors.
To solve the problem, he who has created it must take the lead. Aware of US responsibility, President Obama has been monitoring the situation very closely and is preparing to help the Iraqi government and Secretary Kerry has made a hurried visit to the country.
But to stabilize the security situation, the Iraqis themselves must show political sense. The security force must not be at the service of any particular sect or group; it must repair its reputation and rededicate itself to serving the Iraqi nation.
“A good cause attracts abundant support.” Ideally, with the help of the international community, the government and the opposition in Iraq will realize what is at stake and the security force will pull together to restore national stability and contribute to regional counterterrorism efforts. I am still holding out hope this will happen.
Wu Sike is a member on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and member on the Foreign Policy Consulting Committee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.