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Iraqi government is the weak link in the anti-IS coalition

03 October 2014

AP

Safety first: Iraqi Shiite militia fire at Islamic State militants, 43 miles south of Baghdad

Safety first: Iraqi Shiite militia fire at Islamic State militants, 43 miles south of Baghdad

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 themselves.

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 prayers."

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 fighters.

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 White wrote.

"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."

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