Perhaps dictators have their place after all. Saddam Hussein presided over Iraq for 24 years. While he was cruel and vainglorious, he generally succeeded in ensuring Iraqis stayed in line and kept the peace. He was toppled in 2003 when the U.S., with the support of Australia and other allies, invaded the country with the aim of introducing democracy and an altogether more acceptable way of life. Today his country is unravelling with astonishing speed as a small Islamic extremist group takes control of large areas with impunity. Iraq could be even on the verge of disintegration.
Since the 2003 invasion, by the most conservative estimate, half a million people have lost their lives. They have been killed as the result of fighting throughout the country, religious violence, executions, lawlessness, random bombings and widespread other terrorism. Hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted and forced to flee for their lives to seek refuge elsewhere in Iraq or other countries.
President George W.Bush called the initial bombing of Baghdad a ‘shock and awe’ campaign and within six weeks proudly declared ‘mission accomplished’. Given the results 11 years on, it has proved to be as shocking and awesome on any scale of political and humanitarian disasters.
It is all the more so when you consider the calamity now facing the Iraqi government with the fall of its second largest city, Mosul, to Islamic insurgents, who are said to be heading in the direction of Baghdad. Now Kirkuk in the north has been taken over by the Kurds who might see this as an opportunity to establish their long-desired independent homeland.
It is a catastrophic setback for a weakened regime still trying to establish itself. That a movement – the Islamic State in Iraq in Syria (ISIS) – of said to be less than 10,000 fighters could take over a city of more than 1,500,000 people and intimidate the security forces there to shed their uniforms and flee is the humiliating reality of the state of Iraq today.
ISIS declared it had come to ‘liberate’ Mosul. It hoisted its flag over the city. It was no colourful, reassuring victorious pennant. It was a sinister flag in the grim black and white style of the piratical skull and crossbones. Little wonder when reports said that half a million Mosul residents had fled the city. They had good reason.
As relatively small as it is, ISIS already controls other parts of Iraq and reports says it has enforced its rule with a reign of terror, including assassinations, beheadings and amputations. It is so extreme that even its former partner. al-Qaeda, severed ties. It is reported to have attracted the interest of hundreds of foreign fighters eager to support its ambitions.
It is a force which started in Iraq as part of al-Qaeda before splintering. It then moved into Syria during the uprising against the Damascus regime. It had no interest in working with other rebel groups in overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, but simply wanted to establish an Islamic state there. Now, with ISIS back in Iraq in a big way, it wants to eliminate the border with Syria altogether to form one state, hence its name.
It is an unwelcome crisis for President Barack Obama whose cautious, tip-toeing foreign policy has been heavily criticised. After initial threats to take action in Syria, he decided that the tragedy there could somehow take care of itself without US involvement. But after what has transpired in the past 11 years in Iraq since the initial shock and awe and now a terrorist body of potential mass destruction and misery roaming the desert landscape, does the U.S. have any moral obligation to rescue what it created?
Washington certainly wouldn’t want to revisit its military occupation which cost its own forces 4500 lives. Iraq has a weak and almost helpless government. Its parliament cannot even raise a quorum at a time of grave emergency. It faces rising tensions between the dominant Shiites in Baghdad and the Sunnis whom ISIS supports. Its troops seemingly have no will to do their duty. Mosul and Kirkuk, both important commercial hubs, are lost for now. And the billions of dollars the U.S. has spent on training and equipping the Iraqi military have proved a dubious investment.
But what can the U.S. and its Western partners do? President Obama says the U.S. is considering all options short of sending in ground troops. That probably will be limited to what the U.S. can do from the air. Tony Abbott, ever eager to please, is not ruling out Australian involvement.
So while the policy-makers wonder what to do next, spare a thought for the innocent victims of this upheaval who so often are forgotten. The estimated 500,000 Iraqis who’ve fled Mosul join four million other Iraqi refugees around the world, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. UNHCR says nine million Syrians have had to flee their homes since the uprising three years ago. About 2.5 million of them – more than the population of Brisbane – are sheltering in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and even Iraq. Their future is even more uncertain now.
The Iraqi and Syrian borders were drawn up by Britain and France after World War One and the collapse of the Ottoman empire. Who knows, nearly 100 years on, current events may force cartographers to have to change their atlases with new borders.
A poetic postscript: Mosul, famed for its muslin fabric, is on the Tigris River on the opposite bank from the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Once upon a time, every Australian schoolchild learned John Masefield’s poem ‘Cargoes’. Its first verse was:
Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood and sweet white wine.
If only a tiny semblance of that charming scenario were so today.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.