Frida Ghitis

Here’s hoping Obama succeeds in Iraq

On Iraq, President Obama is trying to pull off a perilous tight-rope walk over a blustery forest fire. He faces treacherous cross winds. We should all be rooting for him, because it is vital that he make it to the other side.

The United States wants to stop the horrifyingly brutal jihadist group whose name is variously translated as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — ISIS or ISIL. Incidentally, the more accurate translation for the second part of the group’s name, al-Shams in Arabic, is the Levant or Greater Syria, an area that encompasses more territory, including Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

For now, ISIL wants to extend its conquest of portions of Syria and Iraq, part of its goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate, an Islamic state ruled by its extremist interpretation of Sharia.

The most urgent matter is how to prevent the disaster in Iraq from turning into a catastrophe.

The reason the United States can’t simply go into Iraq and try to bomb ISIL out of existence is that Iraq is in the middle of intense, potentially explosive sectarian tensions. The last thing the United States wants to do is move in, or be perceived as moving in, on one side of the rivalry, in the middle of a new civil war.

Iraq is a majority-Shiite country. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a Shia. There is a large Sunni minority. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni. When Saddam ruled, he placed only Sunnis in positions of power and oppressed the Shiites.

Maliki has turned the tables and is ruling with unquestioned favoritism for his Shiite brethren, with the support of Iran, also ruled by Shiites. Most Sunnis in Iraq are not extremists. But the terrorists of ISIL are also Sunni. They are counting on a war between Sunnis and Shiites to help them achieve their aims.

The United States wants the Iraqi military to roll back the gains from ISIL, but it does not want to be seen as favoring Maliki and his Shiites. A victory for Maliki, significantly, could also amount to a victory for Iran.

It would be tempting to sit this out. But the prospect of ISIL establishing a permanent presence in a large section of Iraq, from which it could launch terrorist operations against the West and seek to overthrow other governments, including Jordan’s, is truly frightening. ISIL is so brutal and extreme that al Qaida has found it goes too far, even if the two’s long-term objectives are the same.

Obama is trying to help the Iraqi military enough to hold ISIL back, while taking pains to show it sides with the Iraqi state, not with its prime minister or with one religious group. The long-shot hope, a hope pursued with diplomatic pressure and maneuvering, is to get Maliki to resign his post or get pushed out. Then, the plan goes, he would be replaced by a more-inclusive prime minister, one who would be able to enlist the support of Sunni tribes and of Iraq’s Kurds, the third component of Iraq’s three-sided division.

If the United States and its allies can persuade Iraqis to form a unifying government, then the United States would be able to give its support less hesitantly. Better yet, a more united Iraq would probably make for a much more effective fighting force. After all, the ISIL forces are estimated at no more than 10,000 men, a tiny fraction of the Iraqi army’s 250,000 troops.

For now, there are some signs of progress on the diplomatic front’s effort to push Maliki out. But he is a wily operator.

While political efforts inch forward, ISIL has reportedly captured an old Saddam-era chemical-weapons factory, complete with chemical agents that are said to be “unusable.” The group has also amassed a huge fortune, hundreds of millions of dollars, which will go a long way in recruiting and funding operations.

The challenges are enormous. The winds are blowing in every direction, and Obama is trying to cross to the other side on a very thin rope. If he falls, the Iraqi nightmare will only get worse, and we could all get hurt.