N JUNE, when extremists from the Islamic State (IS) took over the Iraqi city of Mosul and hurtled south towards Baghdad, the Kurds in the north reacted with glee. They had no love for IS, a group which grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, later re-emerged in Syria and now operates in both countries. Indeed IS is sufficiently vile and disobedient, not to mention power hungry, that not even al-Qaeda likes it any more. But the Kurds saw its success as a deserved kick in the teeth for Nuri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister. And if the fight with IS broke Iraq into sectarian pieces, semi-autonomous Kurdistan would achieve long-dreamed-of independence.
That sentiment disappeared at the beginning of August when, possibly as a result of resistance to the south, IS pivoted to take on the Peshmerga, the Kurdish armed forces. The Peshmerga number at least 120,000 and are reputed to be Iraq’s best-trained force. Before June IS was reckoned to have barely more than 10,000 fighters all told, though “they have doubled or tripled since this started,” according to Helgurd Hikmet of the Peshmerga. But the IS onslaught was brutal and well equipped, thanks to American hardware provided to the Iraqi government and then captured. Suicide-bombers were dispatched ahead of high-speed convoys; the troops showed an eagerness to die in battle rather than duck bullets. The Peshmerga admit that without American air strikes against IS, which started on August 8th, the fighting would have reached Erbil, their capital.
On August 10th the Peshmerga took back Gwer and Makhmur, two towns close to Erbil which had fallen to IS five days before. But that night the Kurds lost Jalawla, and IS continues to hold Sinjar and Zumar, two cities in north-western Kurdistan, as well as Mosul dam, which it seized on August 7th (see map). It has also claimed a number of towns peopled by Christians and Yazidis, minorities who have lived on the plains of Nineveh since pre-Islamic days.
In the grounds of a church in Ainkawa, a Christian neighbourhood of Erbil, Christians talk of leaving. “There is no future for us in Iraq,” says Hani, a restaurateur and father of three. Yazidis, members of a small sect that takes inspiration from Zoroastrianism, have faced the prospect of total annihilation. Tens of thousands fled into the mountains above Sinjar to escape slaughter. Those who found safe passage back down told of bodies littering their path, some murdered by IS, others dead from starvation or heat exhaustion.
It was on the plight of the Yazidis and on “prevent[ing] genocide” that Barack Obama concentrated when he announced that America would again be intervening militarily in Iraq, almost three years after it withdrew its last troops from the country. In the first four days of air strikes, America’s manned planes and unmanned Predators carried out 15 air strikes on IS forces around Sinjar and to the west of Erbil. Meanwhile drones and surveillance aircraft carried out hundreds of intelligence flights in a scramble to understand the complex situation on the ground. Other aircraft, later joined by some from Britain, dropped supplies to the stranded Yazidis. .
While most Iraqis, especially the Kurds, cheer at America’s reinvolvement in the country, American officials have been stressing the narrowness of the mission’s scope. In addition to defending American envoys in Erbil and Baghdad, and helping to break the siege around Mount Sinjar, Mr Obama listed just a few other limited objectives. America had to worry about “key infrastructure” in Iraq—referring to such assets as the Mosul dam. American efforts would also include “a counterterrorism element” to watch for jihadists who might launch attacks against Western targets. And America was talking about creating a “safe corridor” or some other mechanism to help Yazidis down from their sun-baked, waterless last resort. By August 14th, though, American forces had found that far fewer Yazidis remained on the mountain than previously estimated.
But although administration officials talk of IS as a broad threat to Iraqi and regional stability, as well as a seething cauldron of extremism that threatens to send hundreds of foreign passport holders back to their home countries trained to kill, America is not as yet embarked on a campaign to extirpate it. Mr Obama has repeatedly argued that IS has been strengthened by the Iraqi government’s mistakes, specifically its marginalisation of Arab Sunnis, who make up about a quarter of Iraq’s 33m population. If IS is to be turned back, Iraqi politics must turn around, too. Indeed, they must turn around first.
The Peshmerga say the forces they meet in combat are all IS. But Sunnis from disgruntled tribes, former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime and others who feel hard done by have all helped pave their way. Their support has included standing aside as IS men take control of their towns. Some Iraqis say that the Sunnis just never got over losing power when Saddam Hussein fell. But plenty, along with most Western governments, put the blame on Mr Maliki’s treatment of them. “This is not a cloud of locusts descending from nowhere,” says Peter Harling of Crisis Group, a Brussels think-tank. “It has been building up.”
Mr Maliki, prime minister since 2006, has always had sectarian and authoritarian tendencies. They were given freer rein after the Americans left in 2011. He kicked Sunnis out of the security forces, often in the name of “debaathification”. As discontent grew, he cracked down disproportionately: at a peaceful protest in the Sunni town of Hawija in April 2013 the security forces killed 50. After Falluja, a Sunni-majority city in eastern Anbar province, was taken over by rebels in December 2013, the army shelled it, and the security forces mounted a countrywide programme of mass arrests.
The Kurds have grievances against Mr Maliki too. The government has refused to send Kurdistan its part of the national budget. In response the Kurds have started to export oil from fields under their control and keep the proceeds for themselves. Although the government in Baghdad resumed military co-operation with the Kurds when IS turned north, carrying out air strikes and ferrying weaponry to the Kurds, it was too little too late to make up for the bad blood. By early August even many of the MPs in Mr Maliki’s Shia State of Law coalition realised Iraq would only continue to fray if he remained in power. Mr Maliki’s removal thus became perhaps the only goal shared by Iraqis across all the country’s divides.
While Obama golfs, innocents die. We can expect nothing more from socialist elitists.