Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have deepened their hold over Iraq’s Anbar province and western border crossings, while groups of volunteers are enlisting to defend their communities, following a decree issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s highest religious authority.
Iraqi Army units have fled their posts in besieged regions through the country to help reinforce and fortify the capital, Baghdad, and other areas under threat. As Shiite militias respond to Ayatollah Sistani’s call to arms, ISIS militants are attempting to consolidate control over Sunni regions by capitalizing on popular disenchantment with Maliki’s government.
Sectarian bloodletting on a wide scale now seems inevitable, as the United States deploys 300 military advisers and prepares to carry out airstrikes against ISIS positions. The official position in Washington is that Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government, which began overtly sectarian policies following the US withdrawal in 2011, has alienated the Sunnis and created conditions for their rebellion.
On a recent trip to Iraq, US Secretary of State John Kerry made it clear that the Obama administration wants Maliki out, in favor of a more representative leader capable of bridging sectarian differences and uniting the country. Washington, however, is also prepared to take military action against ISIS before any new government is formed.