Iraq’s hopes of regaining control of nearly half the country from Sunni extremists suffered dual setbacks Monday, with the Iraqi Parliament once again failing to form a new government as insurgents killed a top military officer who was leading the defense of Baghdad’s western suburbs.
Facing the gravest crisis to their country’s survival since U.S. troops invaded in 2003, Iraqi politicians announced that Parliament would not meet again until Aug. 12 _ putting off for more than a month any hope that a more inclusive coalition will replace the deeply unpopular caretaker government led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite Muslim.
That delay in turn will push back any decision on assistance to the government in Baghdad by the Obama administration, which has said political outreach to the country’s Sunni Muslim population is a requirement of any new U.S. commitment to help.
The military situation remained grim. Maliki’s office announced that an insurgent mortar attack had killed Maj. Gen. Najim Adbullah Ali, the commander of the Iraqi Army’s 6th Division.
Ali was at his headquarters west of Baghdad when it came under attack from forces loyal to the Islamic State, the fundamentalist group led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi that now controls most of Sunni Iraq and much of eastern Syria. The group has declared an Islamic caliphate in the territory it controls and said Baghdadi, now called Caliph Ibrahim, is its leader.
Islamic State forces have menaced the area for months. But the killing of Ali at a command post just 10 miles from Baghdad emphasized how small the distance is between insurgent strongholds in Anbar province and the capital.
In its statement, Maliki’s office said Ali “met martyrdom on the battlefield as he was fighting . . . terrorists when mortar rounds fell” on his headquarters near Ibrahim Bin Ali, a Sunni Muslim town that controls the western approaches to Baghdad.
The area is also key to controlling Baghdad International Airport, the capital’s main lifeline now that the insurgents have cut the highways to both Syria and Jordan. Last week, the United States sent an additional 200 soldiers to Iraq to help secure the airport after U.S. officials detected what a senior Pentagon official told McClatchy were worrisome insurgent moves near the facility.
Dan Trombly and Yasir Abbas, military analysts specializing in Iraq for Caerus Associates, a Washington consulting firm that specializes in conflict zones, said the Ibrahim Bin Ali area was important to the Islamic State for two reasons: as “a base of operations for attacks against Baghdad, especially if insurgents hope to launch a large assault rather than just sporadic attacks,” and because “the primary line of communication” between territory the Islamic State controls in Syria and its holdings in Iraq “runs through this area.”
How likely the area is to fall under insurgent control is less clear. Trombly and Yasir, in an email, said that the area is currently held by what they called “some of the Iraqi military’s best special operations forces.” They added that “neglect and corruption is less of a factor here” than they were in Mosul, where Iraqi officers abandoned their posts June 9 and were quickly followed by their rank and file, whose wholesale retreat allowed the insurgents to sweep south toward the capital.
Another analyst of the Iraqi military, John Drake, who works for the British security firm AKE Group, concurred that Islamic State militants might not easily seize control of the area, whose importance is also critical to Maliki. Drake said the area is currently secured by a combination of army troops and Shiite militias that were pressed into service after the army’s collapse in the north.
The area will remain “a major priority” for Iraqi government forces, Drake said, “so it will be difficult for the Islamists to take it.”
If they do win control, however, the ramifications will be severe, he added. “The risk of mortar fire around the airport will increase and it will become very difficult to fly in and out of the city,” he said, something that would affect the United States’ ability to evacuate the U.S. Embassy.
The failure of Iraqi politicians to form a new government exacerbates the risk, Drake said, because Sunni tribes in Anbar province, whose support was critical to U.S. efforts eight years ago to counter al Qaida there, currently are allied with the Islamic State because of their disaffection with the Maliki government. They’re unlikely to change that allegiance because they would distrust any such assurances from the current Maliki regime.
“It would be useful if some sort of protection and guarantees could be offered to the senior tribal chiefs in places such as Anbar province in exchange for them siding with the authorities against the Islamist fighters,” Drake said.
The monthlong delay in Parliament’s next meeting simply makes such a realignment unlikely in the near term, he said. “There is very little the international community can do at this stage,” he said.
Meanwhile, officials in Iraq’s Shiite south also are worried about security, though the threat there is less obvious.
Najaf Gov. Adnan al Zurufi said two key areas of concern are a stretch of desert about 175 miles from the border with Saudi Arabia, and the Babil area south of Baghdad, which he said is a “main base” for extremist activity.
“We’ve built up our defenses along those main lines and we’re getting intelligence from the areas,” Zurufi said.
He said there’s no sign that the Islamic State has any presence inside of Najaf, which is almost exclusively Shiite and home to one of Shia Islam’s most important shrines. But he said there’s some concern that Sunni extremists could build partnerships with former military and intelligence officers who are still loyal to Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. He said Iraqi intelligence officers are closely monitoring those communities.
Khaled al Jashaami, head of the security committee on the Najaf provincial council, said interagency coordination has improved since the early chaotic days of the Islamic State’s offensive.
“I don’t think the Islamic State will be able to do the same kind of operation here as it did in Mosul or Tikrit,” he said, referring to Saddam’s hometown, which fell to the insurgents June 11. “None of the population in Najaf or Karbala” _ another Shiite city _ “believe in this kind of system.”
Still, Jashaami said, the political paralysis in Baghdad doesn’t help.
“The key to resolving all these crises now is for the political powers that won in the elections to understand their duties, get together and form a government,” he said. “And we think Maliki’s presence in government is a huge obstacle.”