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ALL FALL DOWN

Less than six months after the fall of Fallujah in January this year, Tikrit and Mosul, the latter the second-largest city of Iraq, have fallen to the Sunni militant group, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Fallujah still remains out of bounds for the Iraqi army, and so do Sunni pockets of the Anbar province. So it is not difficult to imagine what the state of Iraq might look like in some more months from now. Like neighbouring Syria, effective control of the government might ultimately be restricted to a small percentage of the total area, the remaining part being divided among rival factions of armed militias who battle it out for control. The former al Qaida-affiliated ISIL has done remarkably well for itself in this aspect, spreading its tentacles to eastern Syria and now western Iraq. Its intention is, as its name suggests, to create an Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an aim similar to the Talibanís in Afghanistan. Given how difficult it is still proving to be to deny this dream to the Taliban, the ISILís steady advance is cause for another bad headache for the international powers, particularly the United States of America, the footprints of which in both the countries are indelible. The US, that completed its withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, and continues to provide armed training and weapons, has been approached for help by the Iraq government. But as in Syria, its policy in Iraq is likely to be guided by its own confusion over how much or how little it ought to intervene. It stood back during the fall of Fallujah, allowing the Iraq government to handle its own mess. It might do so again.

The problem is that the Shiite government of Nouri al-Maliki has never distinguished itself in handling mess. In fact, its openly discriminatory policies to eradicate what it believed to be traces of the old Sunni Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein have added to Iraqís problems. Disaffection among the Sunni population is so deep that it has proved to be an ideal recruiting ground for al Qaida affiliates and the ISIL. It has not helped that neighbouring Iran has done its bit to shore up the minority Shiite government of Mr al-Maliki, encouraging Saudi Arabia to try its best to offset that influence. Iran has now openly pledged help to Iraq, but that is a sure-fire way of guaranteeing extra shelf life for the ISIL, which is bound to receive help from Sunni Arab States.