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Iraq: One month in and no way out?

Militias patrol Iraqi capital's streets and army presence is heavier than normal. But how long can this situation last?
Last modified: 10 Jul 2014 18:31

A few days ago I was looking out across Baghdad from the rooftop of Al Jazeera's bureau here in the Iraqi capital. Things seem calm but there's an eerie atmosphere. Militias patrol the streets, the army presence is much heavier than normal and helicopters fly overhead more often. 

Baghdad‎ has been spared much of the violence that has hit the northwest of the country as the offensive by the Islamic State group has slowed and become entrenched.

I am about to do a live broadcast when I hear a dull but loud thud. Instinctively I both duck and swing my body around to see where the noise has come from.

In the distance I see black smoke rise - the indicator of a car bomb explosion.

Then I hear two cracks of gunfire as a battle breaks out. 

While the eerie calm is shattered for a while things soon get back to normal, which is to say uneasy. But how long can this situation last?

Iraq's toughest crisis

Today, July 10, marks the fall of Mosul and a month into Iraq's toughest crisis since US and coalition forces left. The responsibility for the bombing in Baghdad has been claimed by the Islamic State group and they promise more to come. Iraq is looking for a way out of this crisis but what that way out is, divides opinion. 

Politically, Iraq is paralysed. No government has been formed and the disagreement on who should staff the key positions of prime minister, president and speaker of the house is unlike‎ly to resolved anytime soon. A political solution is key if this crisis is to be managed.

Furat al-Shara is member of the Shia ISCI party, whose big concern is that Iraq has splintered irreparably along sectarian lines under Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, and that change is needed.

"The only way out of this crisis is by consensus and opinion, by listening to all opinion. Far too long people have acted in self-interest," he says. "Now is the time to work in the national interest."

It's a very polished political thought that hits all the right notes including unity, consensus and dialogue. Yet many in Iraq, particularly Sunni politicians, aren't convinced by those words.

Hamid al-Mutlaq says there is only one solution to the problem and that involves not just Maliki but those who support him also. But not just the resignation of all of the Maliki government: "It's time to exclude all those with blood on their hands, who are financially corrupt and are controlled by foreign agendas," he says.

The Kurdish north, which has long been semi-independent, has drawn its line in the sand. It's looking to ask its people to vote on a fully independent state referendum. That made Maliki react in fury, accusing the Kurds of harbouring terrorists, and plunging relations to an all-time low.

Divided state of Iraq

Shia. Sunni. Kurd. This is the state of Iraq, and only a political agreement will produce a leader that all sides have faith in. That in turn will allow for one way out the crisis. Right now the only real consensus opinion seems to be that Maliki must go, a view dismissed by his party who point out that they did win the popular vote in the April 30 elections. Beyond politics and you get to the military aspect.

The Islamic State and the other Sunni rebels are in a fight, with very different goals.

‎Let's take the Sunni rebels first. They are made of several groups, among them former Sadam Hussein loyalists and Sunni tribes from Anbar province. They have one real goal: they want regime change, and many of them are only fighting under the Islamic State banner as a flag of convenience. Sunni tribal leaders are aware of this, so moves are being made by the tribes to unite the Sunni rebels.

Faleh al-Issawi is the deputy head of the provincial council of Anbar, an influential group. In a public statement, he has asked all the Sunni rebels to join toghether to fight the Islamic State.

Realistically the support of the Sunni rebels and the Sunni tribes is the only way Iraq will defeat the Islamic State but they ‎are in disagreement over tactics, and whether to fight if Maliki remains in power. Once again, politics comes into play.

If the Iraqi government can reach out to the rebels in conjunction with the tribes, it is likely that some sort of accord can be reached that will give the Sunnis a unified voice.

It is a longshot as few Sunni tribes have any faith that the Sunni politicians can make headway with the Maliki-led government ‎in Baghdad.

"All the Sunnis are in agreement. Things can change if Maliki goes," Sunni MP Hamid al-Mutlaq says.‎

For the Islamic State group, this is all just bickering and of little consequence to the long-term plan of uniting the Muslim world under its black flag. They are on a miss‎ion from God and divine right paves their way. This is an incredibly well-financed, disciplined and experienced fighting group. The religious motivation makes them the most formidable of foes.

Defeating them will take a solution that must encompass Iraq and Syria and require religious leaders to speak out against the group's credibility.

A real challenge

This is where things start to get complicated. The international community wants to rid Iraq of the Islamic State group and is willing to intervene, provided Iraq gets its political act together. In Syria, though, bombing their hideouts and safe havens isn't a option as it helps Bashar al-Assad stay in power, a position that the US and others find untenable.

So the Islamic State group rules its territory without a real challenge.

When a group like the Islamic State doesn't care about borders, then should the international community care? Should we be looking at the entire region for a solution? In the context of Iraq and Syria, clearly what happens with one affects the other, and in turn the whole of the Middle East.

At a religious level, with the idea of the caliphate the Islamic State group has grabbed attention. All over social media, the caliphate is being praised. It's a powerful idea, uniting all Muslims and ending all the Muslim world's woes. Type in caliphate into the micro-blogging site Twitter and you'll see the kind of support the idea has.

Fighting the idea is equally important as any military action if the Iraqi government's aim is to defeat the group. After all, ideas can never be defeated with Hellfire missiles and AK-47s.

A month on, and Iraq finds itself at a stalemate both politically and militarily. The Islamic State's march has slowed but it still control huge swaths of Iraq's northwest. Skirmishes and air attacks are now the dominant tactic.

Politically the country is in limbo, with accusations and counteraccusations being the order of the day. A way out will involve four factors: political stability; military planning; a real workable, strategy on Syria; and regional cooperation.

Clearly that isn't as easy as it sounds. Iran and Saudi Arabia have competing agendas based in religion and played out through politics. Turkey is watching closely and is cautiously backing the Kurds.

Iraq is at its most fractured, and back on the roof of the bureau I look out across the city. I can hear the call to prayer faintly above the noise of Baghdad.

It's a call that unites Iraq and sometimes feels like it's the only thing that does.

Follow Imran Khan on Twitter at Ajimran