DEVELOPMENTS in Iraq in the coming days will start to determine
whether the international coalition formed to contain and defeat
the jihadist forces of Islamic State (IS) there has the capability
to achieve its goals. The past week has revealed potential
weaknesses in several areas - throwing doubt over the proposed
parts to be played both by international forces and the Iraqis
The United States and some European countries continue to
conduct air strikes in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, however, the most
recent focus has been on Baghdad: reports early in the week
indicated that IS forces were approaching the capital. The
jihadists are said to be 40 miles from the city's centre, but they
are clearly much closer to its fringes.
Canon Andrew White of St George's, Baghdad, in a social-media
post on Monday, wrote: "The Islamic State are now within ten
kilometres (six miles) of entering Baghdad. Over 1000 Iraqi troops
were killed by them yesterday, things are so bad. . . All the
military air strikes are doing nothing."
On Tuesday, Canon White said that the latest he had heard was
that "the further advance of IS towards Baghdad appears to have
been halted. . . So we live in hope. . . We seriously need your
The inability of US-led air strikes to stop IS making gains on
different fronts in Iraq and Syria is one of the signs of potential
weakness in the coalition confronting the jihadists. Another is the
failure of the Iraqi army thus far to resist the advance of IS
Canon White said that he gained an insight into attitudes within
the Iraqi armed forces when he asked one of the soldiers, sent by
the government to protect him, what he would do if he saw IS
coming. "He told me he would take off his uniform and run," Canon
"So I asked if he took seriously his role as a soldier to fight
and protect his people, and he assured me he did not. He told me he
just did it because he needed the money."
Aside from the apparent military weaknesses of the coalition,
another concern surrounds the ability of the newly formed Iraqi
government, under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, to create a
cohesive political atmosphere that will bring all Iraq's religious
and ethnic communities into a joint front to tackle the IS
challenge. Two key steps are still awaited.
First, Mr Abadi has yet to convince those Sunnis who are
inclined to support IS that they have a part to play in governing
Iraq. For this reason, Sunni tribal leaders have held back from
announcing an uprising against IS - which is considered to be a
vital ingredient in the defeat of the jihadists. Sunnis complain
that they continue to be targeted by Shia militias, and army
artillery strikes are still hitting civilian areas.
Second, despite the severity of the crisis facing Iraq,
politicians in Baghdad cannot agree on who should hold two highly
sensitive ministerial portfolios: defence and the interior. Mr
Abadi has resisted demands from some Shia groups that a commander
of the Iran-backed Badr Brigades militia, Hadi al-Ameri, should be
the next interior minister.
But, equally, the Shia-dominated parliament rejected Mr Abadi's
own suggestions for the two posts - a Sunni for defence and a Shia
for interior. Until this matter is resolved to the satisfaction of
the Sunnis and Kurds, it unlikely that the country will unite
around the new leader. Nor will Saudi Arabia and other Arab states
within the coalition back the Baghdad government by using their
political and financial influence to help win over Iraq's Sunni
tribal leaders to the anti-IS cause.
Unease about the wisdom of employing air strikes to defeat IS
has also been expressed by Bishop Sarhad Yawsip Jammo of the
Chaldean Catholic Church in the United States, in remarks quoted by
an Iraqi news agency last week. "I'm not in politics or the
military," he said. "I speak from a human point of view. The
strategy seems to work when you target militants in the desert, but
when you drop bombs on cities you will hit people. If you damage so
many people, you must reconsider your methods."
Against the fragile backdrop of Iraq today, and concerns about
the future of Christians and other minorities there, Bishop Jammo
sought to keep alive his community's voice. He expressed the view
that Iraq "should stay together with a federal structure and more
autonomy for Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds. Christians can play a role
here, because they would be a soft joint between the groups. They
have no ambition to control others."
Also speaking up last week for Christians in the Middle East was
King Abdullah II of Jordan. Addressing the United Nations in New
York, he denounced violence committed by Muslims against
Christians. "The teachings of true Islam are clear," he said.
"Sectarian conflict and strife are utterly condemned." He
emphasised that "Arab Christians are an integral part of my
region's past, present, and future."