x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Iraq militants threaten whole Gulf region

Iraq is America's mess. It should use air power to destroy the militants, as Iraq's prime minister requested

Four days on from the stunning collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and the march of the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues. On Wednesday, the ­jihadists took Tikrit, the hometown of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Although fighting over Tikrit continued yesterday, it put the militants halfway to the capital, Baghdad.

It is difficult to overstate how serious the situation is now in Iraq. The whole region is dangerously unstable and there is a strong chance that the chaos will find its way to the borders of the GCC. Militants are now in control of parts of two major Arab countries and hundreds of thousands of people are on the move. This is not a conflagration that can be easily contained.

But, it becomes increasingly clear, it is one that could have been avoided. The New York Times reported this week that Iraq’s prime minister Nouri Al Maliki asked the US vice-president less than four weeks ago for US air strikes against militant training areas inside Iraq. The request was refused. That report was published on the same day that the Obama administration restarted drone strikes in Pakistan, after a six-month pause. Such is the reluctance of the US president to be seen to involve himself in the war of his predecessor that sound military strategy is being sacrificed for political gain.

That is not a plausible policy. The White House cannot wash its hands of Iraq, for two important reasons. The first is that, stated simply, this is America’s mess. By invading the country in 2003, shattering the state, disbanding the army and removing all the institutions of government, the US brought about a situation that continues to play out in destructive ways and with loss of Iraqi life.

But the second is that this insurgency is not merely about Iraq, but about America’s allies in the region. A successful insurgency attracts recruits and money, enabling it to grow and expand, as ISIL undoubtedly will. That will very soon pose a threat not only to the rest of Iraq, and Syria, but to Jordan and even to other neighbouring countries.

The years in which the US and the UK enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq allowed the Kurdish region to thrive and showed how important air power is in halting conventional armies. The same principle applies to the militant groups now snaking across Iraq.