Iraq crisis forces old battle lines to be redrawn
The spectacular eruption of Isis in Iraq has turned the country upside down with unimaginable speed, posing not only Iraqis but regional and international powers a challenge that has already upset parts of the regional order.
With Sunni militants and rebels gradually moving in around the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, there is a dramatic race going on between slow-moving efforts to defuse the crisis politically and rapid developments on the ground.
The latter could lead to a sectarian bloodbath in the capital and elsewhere, leaving Iraq in tatters.
The tough position taken by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki - stressing military options and insisting on standing for a third term of office - is likely to slow down the political rescue effort, and risks aggravating the conflict.
Confirmation that Syrian air force jets have been bombing Isis targets on Iraq's western border shows how the upheavals have merged the conflicts in the two countries, forcing everybody to rethink old assumptions.
Although premature, the strikes could equally well have been carried out by American drones or jets - as the Iraqi government itself at first reported.
As the battle lines are redrawn, the White House suddenly finds itself on the same side as the Syrian government it has been trying half-heartedly to help topple for the past three years.
And while the US is rushing military experts to Baghdad to assess the situation - and potentially identify targets for drone strikes or air attacks - so too is its old adversary Iran, intimately involved in efforts to stem a tide which it rightly sees as a potent threat to itself.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Maliki says Russia is selling his government some second-hand Sukhoi jet fighters to hit the militants with.
Isis seems to have succeeded where others have failed, in galvanising the international community into action against a threat which all feel is already being, or will be, directed at them.
"Before September 11 people thought of al-Qaeda as confined to the caves of Afghanistan, and now look what happened," said Barham Salih, a leading Kurdish politician.
"Today, al-Qaeda is pervasive through the main street throughout the Arab world. This lethal threat is something no-one can ignore."
If Isis consolidates its grip on large interlinked tracts of territory in both Iraq and Syria including major towns and cities, the world could face an extremist entity that would make Tora Bora look like a small scout camp.
Its capabilities have been boosted to phenomenal level by what it won from its stunning capture of Mosul on 10 June in an assault spearheaded by perhaps as few as 500 fighters.
The list of military hardware captured after Iraq's troops fled Mosul and Kirkuk includes, sources say, some 4,000 medium machine-guns, 1,500 Humvees and other military vehicles, 50 state-of-the-art 155mm GPS-guided artillery pieces which can "aim like a sniper rifle" over a 40km range, 50 T-55 tanks and two helicopters.
They are also reported to have seized an eyewatering $427m (£251m; 314m euros) from Mosul's branch of Iraq's central bank, boosting their coffers to independence levels.
It's clear that the subsequent headlong rampage southwards along the Tigris, and gains made in the western Anbar province, would not have been possible had the Sunni ground they were treading not been fertile.
Disgruntled Iraqi Sunni factions - former Iraqi army officers and men, dissident tribal groups and highly-organised Baathist activists - joined in the cavalcade, giving Isis a local depth without which they would have been rapidly overstretched, isolated, and easier to deal with.
Whether or not there was any complicity by his many political adversaries in the collapse of the $40bn Iraqi army, as Prime Minister Maliki maintains, the fact is that the Isis issue is now inextricably interwoven with bitter Sunni grievances against his Shia-dominated rule, which has made many Sunnis feel both marginalised and victimised.
The upheavals have seen virtually all the main Sunni-populated parts of the country fall out of government control.
So far, the Iraqi army has been unable to launch a strategic counter-offensive to drive the rebels back.
The addition of three Iranian-backed Shia militias to its forces in the field has added to the perception that this is a Shia army fighting to impose Shia rule on Sunni areas.
Its chances of reconquering the lost ground appear very slight. And if it did, it would be crushing and further displacing Sunni populations in order to plant the state flag on the smoking ruins.
It's now taken for granted by most Iraqi politicians that the Sunnis have carved out their own area, and that things will never be the same.
"1991 saw the genesis of the Kurdish entity, 2003 the establishment of Shia authority, and 2014 is the violent birth of the Sunni region," said Barham Salih.
Behind the intense political activity going on in Baghdad and elsewhere, involving the Americans and many others, there are several basic assumptions:
- There can be no purely military solution to the crisis.
- Isis has to be made a Sunni problem, by empowering the Sunni community, giving it a real stake in the political process and its own future.
- The days of centralised power in Baghdad are gone, and a loose federal formula, perhaps seeing the emergence of a Kurdistan-style Sunni entity, has to be found
- Only then can the Sunni strands which have joined the insurgency be expected to turn on the Isis extremists, as they did in Anbar in 2006-7, and as many tribal and military rebels have said they will do again.
- If the politics in Baghdad come right, Iraqi army elements and Kurdish peshmerga soldiers - backed by US air power - would support the Sunni moderates in dealing with Isis.
- Nouri Maliki, who many blame for pursuing divisive sectarian policies that led to the crisis, cannot lead the reconciliation and profound restructuring process that is needed.
Mr Maliki himself, of course, disagrees. He has arranged a meeting of parliament for 1 July, hoping to press ahead with the post-election constitutional process which last time took more than nine months to produce a government.
But unless something changes radically, there will be no quorum.
Kurdish and Sunni deputies will not attend if Mr Maliki is the nominee for PM. Most Shia leaders also want him out, including the maverick cleric Moqtada Sadr, who in a televised speech on Wednesday referred to him as "the oppressor, who pursues personal interest over that of the sect or nation".
When it comes to such Shia matters as choosing an Iraqi prime minister, Iran has the last word.
Is it ready to drop the divisive Mr Maliki in favour of someone who all sides agree would stand a better chance of pulling the country back from the brink?
Well-placed sources believe it is. Iran needs a solution that stabilises its neighbour. Helping defend the Shia in an open-ended sectarian war while Arab states fuel the Sunni struggle is something the Iranian government cannot afford.
Its interests have already been heavily threatened: its land route to its strategic ally, Syria, and thence to Hezbollah in Lebanon is cut. Iraqi airspace is now patrolled by US F-18s, further disrupting links.
For these reasons, informed sources say, the highest Shia instance, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the ubiquitous Qasem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, share the view that Mr Maliki has to go.
The names most cited as possible replacements are Adel Abdul Mahdi and Ahmad Chalabi, both seasoned Shia politicians with strong relations to the Kurds and Sunnis, and both acceptable to Iran and the US.
Mr Maliki seems determined to dig his heels in. But if the Iranian government has indeed decided to drop him, his chances would, as one senior politician put it, resemble those of a snowball in hell.