Islamic militants have overrun northern Iraq, taking control of the country’s second-largest city and sparking fears of the collapse of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The sudden downturn is a product of the crisis in Syria, the abject failure of Iraq’s security institutions, and al-Maliki’s inability — or refusal — to bridge the gap between Shiite and Sunni in Iraq.

The militants are affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, usually referred to as ISIS. Its avowed goal is to establish a Sunni Caliphate, ruled by Islamic law. The group was originally al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, but was disavowed by al-Qaida as too extreme even for it.

ISIS sent fighters to Syria to battle President Bashar Assad, but their reputation for violence forced other rebel forces to turn against them amid charges that ISIS was trying to take over the opposition movement.

Their fighting prowess is considerable, however, and ISIS has taken control of large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, allowing both men and weapons to easily cross the nearly 500-km border that the two countries share.

Northern Iraq is fertile territory for ISIS, which presents itself as the champion of a Sunni community that believes alMaliki and his government are indifferent, if not hostile, to their concerns. Whatever sympathy the local residents have for ISIS is likely to dissipate given the extreme form of Islam that they practice and their lack of tolerance for any dissent.

The fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city with a population of 1.4 million people, was facilitated by the utter collapse of local security forces. After four days of fighting against a reported 800 militants, 30,000 government soldiers laid down their arms and fled. The insurgents seized weapons depots, uniforms and key government offices, releasing 1,000 prisoners from jails as well. A day after taking Mosul, ISIS seized Tikrit, the hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein — just 160 km from Baghdad.

Some blame the United States for the insurgents’ success. They insist that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011 was premature.

Had those forces remained in the country, they assert, this catastrophe could have been averted. Those critics overlook the fact that the U.S. had already spent nine years in Iraq, and had spent more than $14 billion on training Iraqi security forces and providing supplies for them.

If that was not enough time and money to prepare the Iraqi military, it is hard to see how a residual U.S. force would have made a difference, especially given the al-Maliki government’s hostility to the U.S. presence. After all, the U.S. withdrawal was precipitated by the failure of Washington and Baghdad to agree on the terms of a continued U.S. troop presence.

It is easy to blame the U.S., but the real causes of the Iraqi collapse in Mosul lay in the inability of the al-Maliki government to give Iraqis a reason to fight.

Partisan and sectarian divisions still prevail over any sense of national unity. Politicians are more intent on lining their pockets and those of their supporters than forging a genuine sense of nation and state, which is the starting point of any effort to counter groups like ISIS.

The insurgents’ control of weapons depots in Mosul means that the rebels will now have access to government uniforms; an increase in attempts at infiltration and suicide bombings is likely to follow. Tikrit fell quickly because the insurgents drove police and army vehicles, which were mistaken for retreating government forces.

The Baghdad government now faces a dilemma. Quick to anticipate and react to ISIS penetration further south, it will be tempted to strike hard against any sign of opposition, an inclination that will be strengthened by the sectarian divisions that dominate Iraq’s politics.

But overreacting will only harden those divides and alienate Sunnis who would not support ISIS extremists.

Indeed, al-Maliki has already declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew in Baghdad and other major cities, and called on citizens to take up arms against insurgents. The latter is practically a call for the settling of scores and a disaster in the making.

Friends of Iraq must press al-Maliki to seize this opportunity to forge a genuine unity government, one that extends more than a desultory hand to the Sunni opposition.

Continued marginalization of and discrimination against nearly half the Iraqi population will only ensure that ISIS continues its advance.

There is a more immediate disaster at hand. International aid agencies report that 500,000 people have fled the fighting in Mosul and those numbers will grow as ISIS advances. A humanitarian catastrophe will soon follow as those refugees overwhelm areas already overburdened by the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the fighting in Syria.

The international community must get ahead of this situation, setting up relief facilities and providing the resources that will be needed to deal with this influx of humanity.

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