As Iraq burns, world feels the heat

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This is largely a battle between the three major groups of people in Iraq — Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. Shias and Sunnis are Islam’s major sects. Kurds are Sunnis but they’re a different ethnic group from the rest of Iraqis who are of Arabic origin. The Kurds live in northern Iraq in a semi-autonomous region. Sunnis occupy the central provinces and Shias the south. The populations intermingle. Saddam Hussein was Sunni and his Baath Party Sunni-dominated. This led to discrimination against Shias and discontent. Saddam’swas a secular regime.There was none of the present-day sectarian blood-letting.Thesectarian faultlines became sharp during US’s eight-year Iraq occupation during 2003-2011. The occupation forces armed both sides to control the country and divert the anti-occupation violence. The period 2006 to 2008 saw bloodshed and destruction of religious structures by both sides; many cities including Baghdad witnessed ethnic cleansing. A Shia dominated government was setup in Baghdadwhichfurther worsened discrimination against Sunnis. Extremist group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS ) exploited this discontent and took over large parts of central Iraq, threatening Baghdad.
What’s the connection with oil?

Oil is the major reason behind international involvement in Iraq, which has the world’s fifth-largest reserves and is the eighth-largest producer. Oil was discovered in Iraq in 1919 and the British took control of the region, demarcatedborderstosuit their interests and installed a pliant ruler. In 1963, the Baath Party took over and, drawing upon oil revenues built a militarily-strong state, nationalizing the oil industry. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991 and the US hit back defeating Iraq in the first Gulf War. They imposed a blockade preventing oil exports. After the secondUS invasion in 2003, Westerncompanies got oil exploration and extraction contracts in Iraq. Oilfields are largely in the south, the Kurd areas have about 17% of reserves.Yearsof war had limited Iraq’s oil production. Of late, it touched 3.3 billion barrels per day, almost the same as in prewar times. With the current instability, there are fears that production will be hit and global prices will shoot up.

Why are neighbours getting into the conflict?

Saddam’soverthrowin 2003 andhisexecution opened up realignments in the regional power play. Baghdad’s Shia government became a natural friend of Iran which was hostile to Saddam and fought a 10-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. Although Iran was anti-US, a Shia ruler in Baghdad was helpful to Iran, isolated by Western sanctions. Saudi Arabia andQ atar are Sunni monarchieswith strong fundamentalist links. Iran and others allege that they’ve been backing Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq. Syria became another battlegroundfor rival powersbehind the same Shia-Sunni screen — Syria’s ruler Assad is Alawaite, a Shia subgroup; opposition to him comes from Sunni rebels backed by regional Sunni powers and the West. As civil war progressed, Sunni rebels were increasingly taken over by fanatics, including ISIS. Unable to dislodge Assad but flush with arms and fighters, ISIS expanded into Iraq which shares a border with Syria.

What could happen?

With the takeover of Iraqi cities like MosulandthedrivetowardsBaghdad,the region could go up in flames. Iran is worried its friend, Iraqi PM Maliki, may be removed and US may again get involved in Iraq. Saudi Arabia,theGulf States andTurkeyarejittery that ISIS will become their Frankenstein’s Monster,threatening the region’sfragile relations. Turkey and Iran are worried about Kurdswholiveinthesecountriestoo and may rekindle their dream of a united Kurdistan stretching from Turkey to Afghanistan. Lebanon’s Shia militant group Hezbollah is worried over losing Iranian support. With Palestinian peace talks collapsing and Israeli strikes in Gaza and Syria, tension threatens to spill over into the explosive Israel-P alestine conflict. Not too far to the east, Taliban is knocking on the doors of Kabul. A demoralized US occupation force awaits evacuation. An arc of instability is fast developing from Afghanistan, through Iraq and Syria, to Israel, and beyond, to Egypt and Libya. The US may decide to get militarily involved, despite strong opposition. It’s an incendiary situation.

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