The ousting of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to have energized the Iraqi government and finally forced the factions to face reality and unite.
A joint Kurdish, Iraqi army, and US operation to retake the Mosul Dam from Islamic State is the most visible manifestation of this newfound drive for more unity. And there is news that Sunni tribesmen have pledged to support the new government of Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi, and say they will join the fight against Islamic State.
I suspect the Sunnis will have very little patience with the new government, but recognize the threat to them from Islamic State is as grave as the danger the terrorists pose to Bagdhdad.
Tribal leaders and clerics from Iraq’s Sunni heartland offered their conditional backing on Friday for a new government that hopes to contain sectarian bloodshed and an offensive by Islamic State militants that threatens to tear the country apart.
One of the most influential tribal leaders said he was willing to work with Shi’ite prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi provided a new administration respected the rights of the Sunni Muslim minority that dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Ali Hatem Suleiman left open a possibility that Sunnis would take up arms against the Islamic State fighters in the same way as he and others joined U.S. and Shi’ite-led government forces to thwart an al Qaeda insurgency in Iraq between 2006 and 2009.
Yet amid the signs that political accords were possible in the fractious nation, some 80 members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority were “massacred” by Islamic State insurgents, a Yazidi lawmaker and two Kurdish officials said on Friday.
Abadi faces the daunting task of pacifying Iraq and particularly the vast desert province of Anbar. It forms much of the border with Syria, where the Islamist fighters also control swathes of territory.
Sunni alienation under outgoing Shi’ite premier Nuri al-Maliki goaded some in Anbar to join an Islamic State revolt that is now drawing the United States and European allies back into varying degrees of military involvement in Iraq to contain what they see as a militant threat that goes well beyond its borders.
The United Nations Security Council blacklisted the Islamic State spokesman and five other militants on Friday and threatened sanctions against those backing the insurgents, giving U.N. experts 90 days to report on who those people are.
While Abadi continues to bring the fractious Baghdad politicians together and form a government, the joint mission to retake Mosul Dam is in full swing. In what are described as “massive” air strikes, US planes attacked dozens of Islamic State positions near the dam.
“The attack has started from the eastern side of the dam,” said Mahmood Haji, an official with the Kurdish ministry of interior, who said that the nearby villages of Telskuf and Batnaya were back under Kurdish control. He said Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, and Iraqi counterterrorism forces, had reached the “borders” of the dam, but roadside bombs planted by the militants were slowing their progress. Brig. Gen. Azad Jalil, a pesh merga commander based near Mosul, confirmed that the ground offensive had begun. Mobile phone networks in the area were down.
Kurdish forces have gone on the offensive since U.S. airstrikes began in the area on Aug. 8, following a major rout of their forces, including at the dam. However, they have still struggled to maintain control of the more than 600-mile-long border they share with the extremists, with Islamic State seizing Jalula from Kurdish forces last week.
U.S. jets and drones carried out a total of nine airstrikes near the dam and the Kurdish city of Irbil on Saturday night, U.S. Central Command said in a statement. The strikes destroyed or damaged four armored personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and an armored vehicle, it said.
Al-Abadi has his work cut out for him, but with Sunnis and Kurds offering their support, there’s a real chance he will succeed in setting up a unity government that can face the challenges posed by Islamic State.
As for America, make no mistake; we are back in another Iraq War. We may debate whether this action was inevitable or not. But President Obama appears to have ordered an escalation of our involvement, as the Navy and Air Force carry out nearly 100 missions a day. Special Operators are almost certainly on the ground already, lasing targets and offering counsel to the Peshmerga.
The big question mark is what will the Islamic State do if they’re about to lose the dam? Will their nihilistic, bloodthirsty mindset unleash a humanitarian and economic catastrophe with the destruction of the dam? Are they that crazy?
Yes, they are. But the destruction of the dam would also mean the destruction of much of the territory they already control. Whether their bloodlust is more powerful than their self-interest will be revealed soon.