“This is a regional problem, and it is going to be a long-term problem,” said US President Barack Obama in his concluding remarks to a policy statement made last week on the crisis in Iraq. He vowed that the United States would not be “dragged back” into military action in Iraq.
While much has been reported about the sudden collapse of the Iraqi forces and the stunning fall of key cities and communities across Iraq to Sunni rebels, fewer headlines have been written to put the dynamics of the geopolitical earthquake unleashed by the new developments in the perspective of Iraq's overall catastrophe and its larger implications for the Middle East and the Arab Gulf region.
Iraq is being torn apart, and by calling it a “regional problem” Obama is trying to distance himself, his administration and the United States from the ravages of the civil war that is underway and the tragic partitioning of Iraq, which is fast becoming a reality.
To understand how all this came about, it is necessary to go back to the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 and the toppling of the Sunni-dominated regime of former President Saddam Hussein.
Obama and his predecessor, George W Bush, bear special responsibility for the disaster befalling Iraq by invading the country, destroying the state apparatus and social fabric, and exiting it nine years later without securing it or leaving an effective and credible government in place.
The list of the US mistakes in Iraq during the occupation is long and shameful, the most despicable of which was giving free reign to sectarianism by effectively creating a governing system based on confessional politics that did not help Iraq to hold together as a unitary state.
When Obama decided to pull out US troops from Iraq, he left security in the hands of an incompetent Iraqi military that was unprepared to deal with domestic and foreign threats.
The blame for this fiasco also lies with Iraqi leaders who are lacking a collective vision to unite the Iraqi people. They are ineffective, power-greedy and driven by sectarian politics. The new political class installed by the Americans has resorted to violence to either maximise their gains or to stop the other side from doing so.
Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, in particular, takes special blame for behaving like a dictator, excluding other groups from power, and using the army, police forces and militias to terrorise his political rivals. His insistence on having a third term in office despite strong opposition by his opponents, including Shias, has further polarised Iraq's already fragile political system.
The humiliating collapse of Iraq's security forces and the fall of a string of cities into the hands of Sunni radicals spearheaded by fighters of the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has marked a stark failure for Al-Maliki's government forces, largely due to his leadership style based on sectarianism, nepotism and corruption.
Nearly 100,000 government soldiers in four army divisions could not withstand a few hundred badly trained and ill-equipped rebels. Other units lost control of vast territories, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk to Kurdish forces, who annexed them to the now de facto Kurdistan state in northern Iraq.
One reason for the humiliating defeat is the army itself. Despite spending billions of dollars on Iraq's security apparatus, the army and the security forces have displayed weakness and incompetence. The army's rank and file is inefficient and badly trained. Soldiers lack morale, equipment, weapons and intelligence. Their commanders, mostly political appointees or people who have bought their posts sometimes with hundreds of thousands of dollars, are corrupt and fraudulent.
Another major factor behind the crisis that has climaxed in the new round of the civil war has been the high expectations of Iraq's three major communities, Shia, Sunnis and Kurds, who have failed to take the right path and make the necessary compromises to resolve post-invasion problems and challenges.
The conflict has revealed what many Iraqis have been hiding for years behind the empty slogan of “a democratic and federal Iraq,” while maintaining a maximalist, uncompromising and secessionist agenda.
Shia leaders have failed to reach out to Sunnis or to integrate them into a new decentralised political system that would create a true participatory democracy. This has eventually led to the alienation of the Sunni community and its loss to radicals.
The list of Shia mistakes paints a bleak picture of how they have failed to build a functioning state, making Iraq into an even more miserable place.
Many Sunni leaders have been wrong too, especially for boycotting or not participating fully in the post-Saddam political process and resorting to attempts to overthrow the new Shia-led regime.
The Sunni areas' submission to radicals and alliance with ISIL, which is hell-bent on killing Shias and aims to create an Islamic state, has fanned communal discord. The seizure of major cities, triggering a fully-fledged civil war, may turn to be their biggest strategic blunder.
Gruesome pictures of bloodthirsty ISIL terrorists butchering hundreds of Shia soldiers during the current stand-off will do more harm to the Sunnis than standing up against Al-Maliki's policies of exclusion and discrimination.
As recent events began to unfold, the Kurds showed political opportunism and exploited the tumult to seize control of vast areas of Iraq, including the strategic northern oil city of Kirkuk and other towns, some of them only 100 kilometres away from Baghdad.
Agencies have reported how Kurdish forces, known as Peshmerga, have deceived Iraqi army troops in these areas, claiming to offer help only to overrun their camps and expel them to Baghdad.
They later plundered their bases and made off with everything from weapons to air-conditioning units, armoured vehicles and mattresses, in scenes reminiscent of Peshmerga forces and Kurdish parties pillaging Iraqi army camps and other government installations following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
With Kurdish oil already being sold independently from Baghdad, the seizure of Kirkuk and other parts of Iraq by Kurdish leaders may be part of a calculation that Kurdish independence will come out of the collapse of Iraq.
But as a result of their strategic weakness, being landlocked and squeezed between two giant neighbours of Iran and Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds may end up paying a higher price for their secessionist adventure.
This writer has warned for years that Iraq has been moving steadily towards disintegration. The way the United States ran the invasion and occupation was indicative of its intention to drive Iraqis into a corner where partition was their only option. That hour has now come, and the long-feared nightmare of the dismemberment of Iraq has now materialised.
Meanwhile, as the Iraqis are now plunged into a bloody and probably prolonged civil war, their country is falling apart and new national borders are being drawn in the Middle East.
Videos posted on the Internet this week showed ISIL fighters removing frontier posts with neighbouring Syria and tearing up passports after their invasion of Mosul. The new Middle East border lines are being redrawn by terrorist groups, which are bent on carving out an Islamic caliphate or state across the region and maybe beyond.
Worse still, as the new Sunni uprising in Iraq has shown, there is an alliance being carved out between Sunni radicals and Baathist pan-Arabists, which if it stands the test of time will serve as a force of example for the rest of the Arab countries and put into action the merging of Arab nationalism with religious extremism.
This is how the break-up of Iraq will wake the genie from the bottle and unleash a geostrategic volcano that will remap the region and redefine its nation states.
It is for this reason that Obama was wrong when he characterised the Iraq crisis as merely a “regional problem,” because what will rise from the ashes of the volcano will erupt across the whole Middle East and probably beyond.
The author is an Iraqi writer living in Egypt
This article was published in Al-Ahram Weekly