Iraqi Parliament won’t meet until August

Members of Shi'ite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq carry coffins of fighters from their group who were killed during clashes with Sunni militants of the Islamic State in Najaf on Monday.
Members of Shi'ite group Asaib Ahl al-Haq carry coffins of fighters from their group who were killed during clashes with Sunni militants of the Islamic State in Najaf on Monday.

Iraq’s hopes of regaining control of nearly half the country from Sunni extremists has suffered dual setbacks, with the Iraqi Parliament once again failing to form a new government as insurgents killed a top military officer who was leading the defense of Baghdad’s western suburbs.

Facing the gravest crisis to their country’s survival since US troops invaded in 2003, Iraqi politicians announced that Parliament would not meet again until August 12 — putting off for more than a month any hope that a more inclusive coalition will replace the deeply unpopular caretaker government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim.

That delay in turn will push back any decision on assistance to the government in Baghdad by the Obama administration, which has said political outreach to the country’s Sunni Muslim population is a requirement of any new US commitment to help.

The military situation remained grim. Al-Maliki’s office announced that an insurgent mortar attack had killed Major General Najim Adbullah Ali, the commander of the Iraqi Army’s 6th Division.

Ali was at his headquarters west of Baghdad when it came under attack from forces loyal to the Islamic State, the fundamentalist group led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi that now controls most of Sunni Iraq and much of eastern Syria. The group has declared an Islamic caliphate in the territory it controls and said Baghdadi, now called Caliph Ibrahim, is its leader.

Islamic State forces have menaced the area for months. But the killing of Ali at a command post just 16 kilometres from Baghdad emphasized how small the distance is between insurgent strongholds in Anbar province and the capital.

In its statement, al-Maliki’s office said Ali “met martyrdom on the battlefield as he was fighting … terrorists when mortar rounds fell” on his headquarters near Ibrahim Bin Ali, a Sunni Muslim town that controls the western approaches to Baghdad.

The area is also key to controlling Baghdad International Airport, the capital’s main lifeline now that the insurgents have cut the highways to both Syria and Jordan. Last week, the United States sent an additional 200 soldiers to Iraq to help secure the airport after US officials detected what a senior Pentagon official told McClatchy were worrisome insurgent moves near the facility.

Dan Trombly and Yasir Abbas, military analysts specializing in Iraq for Caerus Associates, a Washington consulting firm that specializes in conflict zones, said the Ibrahim Bin Ali area was important to the Islamic State for two reasons: as “a base of operations for attacks against Baghdad, especially if insurgents hope to launch a large assault rather than just sporadic attacks,” and because “the primary line of communication” between territory the Islamic State controls in Syria and its holdings in Iraq “runs through this area.”

Another analyst of the Iraqi military, John Drake, who works for the British security firm AKE Group, concurred that Islamic State militants might not easily seize control of the area, whose importance is also critical to al-Maliki. Drake said the area is currently secured by a combination of army troops and Shiite militias that were pressed into service after the army’s collapse in the north.

The area will remain “a major priority” for Iraqi government forces, Drake said, “so it will be difficult for the Islamists to take it.”

If they do win control, however, the ramifications will be severe, he added. “The risk of mortar fire around the airport will increase and it will become very difficult to fly in and out of the city,” he said, something that would affect the United States’ ability to evacuate the US Embassy.