Families arrive at a checkpoint next to a temporary displacement camp on June 13, 2014 in Kalak, Iraq. Thousands of people have fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by ISAS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) militants. Many have been temporarily housed at various IDP (internally displaced persons) camps around the region including the area close to Erbil, as they hope to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region.
Credit: Dan Kitwood

DENVER — Iraq is collapsing. The Middle Eastern nation, where nearly 4,500 American lives were lost and nearly one billion dollars were spent from 2003-2011 to oust a dictator and rebuild a nation, is approaching chaos, perhaps even “failed state” status.

The deterioration in Syria and the invasion and spread of extremism in northern and western Iraq is putting the “cradle of civilization” under the control of the Middle East’s most militant, ruthless and vile Islamic extremists.

They proffer no future for the region’s inhabitants other than oppression under the guise of rigid adherence to Sharia law.

Extremist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — expelled from Al Qaida because of its extreme militancy — have seized Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul and took possession of Ninewah Province, after taking Fallujah and Ramadi just west of Baghdad late last year. They quickly moved south to Samarra and Tikrit, capturing both cities with little government resistance. They also seized Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji. The militants have made no secret of their objective: Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has promised a counterattack. But the ease with which ISIS fighters took these major cities and the shocking capitulation of the US-trained Iraqi army troops and police raise serious questions about Maliki’s leadership and the army’s capability.

Popular Iraqi Shia leader Moqtada Al Sadr is now calling for Shia militia groups, quiescent since the 2006-2008 struggles against US and Iraqi forces during Iraq’s own civil war, to prepare to defend Shia shrines and neighborhoods in Baghdad and the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad.

There are several potential outcomes of the current fighting in Iraq.

First, Iraq’s Kurds will not remain idle. They have too much at stake, including a flourishing economy, political stability and the prospect of growing income from increased oil production. Expect their security forces, the Pesh Merga, to stand their ground to defend not only Kurdistan but also large Kurdish minorities in adjoining areas, like Kirkuk, where lies one of Iraq’s largest untapped oil reserves. The Kurds of Iraq may also decide that now is the time to declare their independence from Baghdad.

Second, Iraq’s long-predicted partitioning may now occur. If the Kurds decide to go their own way in the north — an ill-advised but not implausible move at this juncture — it would lead to the division of Iraq. Sunnis would take the north and west and Shia the east and south. Vice President Joe Biden proposed just such an approach in 2006. Only, unlike in his plan, each would seek independent state status.

Third, Turkey, a member of NATO, will not sit this out. With hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees already living in Turkey, it cannot absorb tens of thousands more refugees from Iraqi. Moreover, a sizeable Turkish minority lives in the northern provinces of Iraq now occupied by or under threat from ISIS, and they will ask for Turkish help. Turkey, probably more than any other bordering state with the exception of Iran, now has substantial economic interests in Iraq, including in Ninewah, Samarra and the autonomous Kurdish region.

Fourth, the security threat to Turkey may prompt Turkish military action and a NATO Article 5 request, which would require NATO nations, including the US, to aid Turkey. The presence of extremist ISIS forces on Turkey’s southern border alongside the threatening militants on its border with Syria presents a potentially grave security threat to Turkey, which could be seen as “a threat to all NATO members.”

Turkey’s armed forces may begin to mobilize along its exposed southern borders and Turkish air force strikes against militant positions in Iraq are likely.

Finally, Iran will not remain quiet. If radical Sunni ISIS maintains its momentum toward Baghdad and threatens Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad and Iraq’s Shia south, expect Iran to send forces to back Iraq’s. Maliki may even seek Iranian intervention. Such a move would confirm the Sunni-Shia war that has been brewing in Syria and has threatened Iraq since the US occupation.

The dispatch of Iranian forces to Iraq would likely morph into a semi-permanent Iranian troop presence in southern Iraq, especially if there is no attempt to expel ISIS from Iraq’s north and west. To remove ISIS from all of Iraq, Iran would need to commit significant numbers of Iranian troops, presenting one of the greatest ironies in recent Middle Eastern history, American occupation forces replaced by Iranians.

What is not certain is how the US and its allies will respond, absent an Article 5 declaration by NATO.

The rapid rise of ISIS and growing strength of its and other extremist forces in Iraq and Syria were inevitable once the US decided to withhold substantial backing for democratic opposition forces in Syria.

The field opened to the rush of Sunni and Shia militants that now control much of Syria’s north, east and significant portions of the south. Moreover, ISIS has never made a secret of its intentions; it’s in its name, “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”

The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011, prompted by the US administration’s urge “to end the Iraq war” now appears precipitous if not irresponsible and foolhardy. The US and its Arab allies now face the threat of a far more destructive Sunni-Shia war.

Quick and decisive action is now needed to contain that threat. And the Obama administration may not be able to avoid committing military forces, however modest, this time. It is clear that Baghdad is not capable of defending the country on its own.

Gary Grappo is a retired senior Foreign Service officer from the State Department. He has served in the Middle East, including as US ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, Head of Mission of the Jerusalem-based Office of the Quartet Representative, and Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the US Embassy in Baghdad.

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