AFRICANGLOBE – Western officials fear Iraq is facing imminent break-up, as the jihadist takeover of the north seeks to carve the country into different religious fiefdoms.
Using their strongest language to date, diplomats warned that the “sheer scale” of the crisis could defeat belated efforts by the country’s fractious politicians to resolve it.
“We have used the word crisis about Iraq before, but this is the real thing,” a Western diplomat said. “There is no doubt about the scale of the threat that it poses to Iraq’s continued existence as a state, and it is also a threat to the wider region too.”
The diplomat also voiced doubts about the ability of Iraq’s politicians, including Nouri al-Maliki, the country’s Shia prime minister, to bury their sectarian differences.
While John Kerry, the US secretary of state, warned on Monday that greater unity was the only way to stabilise the country, the diplomat said the politicians were “trapped in a pattern that was hard to break out of.”
“Iraq’s political leaders now mostly realise the problems,” the diplomat said. “But has it translated into action yet? It has not.”
In a further sign of the West’s lack of confidence in Mr Maliki’s government, the diplomat disclosed that routine help for Iraq’s counter terrorism units was being limited because of “significant human rights concerns.”
He added that heavy-handed policing by Iraq’s Shia-dominated security forces had led to “systematic alienation” of the Sunni minority. As a result, some Sunnis had actively helped the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (Isis) to take over the cities of Mosul and Tikrit. “Isis could not have done this on their own,” he said.
The gloomy assessment of the chances of Iraq pulling back from the brink of civil war came in a day of see-saw gains and losses for the country’s security forces.
In the town of Baiji, 120 miles north of Baghdad, the Iraqi army claimed to have repelled an assault on a major oil refinery by Isis fighters.
Government troops also claimed to have retaken a border crossing with Syria, and fended off an assault on the western town of Haditha, a Sunni insurgent haven during the US occupation.
However, air strikes on Beiji town and the western border of Husseibah were said to have killed an unspecified number of civilians.
The militants countered with mortar attacks on a large former US base in the town of Yathrib, 60 miles north of Baghdad. They also skirmished with police around the villages in Diyala, a palm-groved farming province north-east of the capital that is home to a volatile mix of Sunnis and Shias.
An Isis claim to have kidnapped and killed Raouf Abdel-Rahman, the Iraqi judge who sentenced Saddam Hussein to death, was denied by both Iraqi security officials and a former colleague of the judge. The ex-colleague told reporters: “Friends of mine say he is still alive and well and living at a high security compound.”
Meanwhile, the pressure on Mr Maliki continued, with one of the two main leaders of Iraq’s semi-independent Kurdish north calling for him to step down.
Speaking during a visit to the region by Mr Kerry, President Massoud Barzani, said that Mr Maliki’s “wrong policies” were to blame for the current crisis, and that it was “very difficult” to imagine Iraq staying together in its current form.
Mr Barzani’s remarks will be taken as tacit confirmation that the Kurds will be unwilling to surrender their control of oil-rich city of Kirkuk, occupied by Kurdish peshmerga forces two weeks ago when the Iraqi army deserted it.
That will likely infuriate Baghdad, which sees the Kurds as having taken advantage of the security crisis to pursue territorial gains.
Separately, the United Nations gave its first estimate of the human cost of the crisis. It said that around 1,075 people – at least three-quarters of them civilians – had died in Iraq since the Isis assault began on Mosul.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN human rights office in Geneva, added that the figures “should be viewed very much as a minimum”.
By Colin Freeman