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Extremist militants are continuing their dramatic takeover of territory in Iraq. Over the weekend, ISIS — the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — took control of Tal Afar, a small city west of Mosul.
ISIS also claims to have killed 1,700 Iraqi Shiite soldiers in Tikrit. Though those reports have not been independently verified, they raise fears of increasing sectarian violence in the country.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have both indicated their countries are open to the possibility of working together to help stabilize Iraq.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson talks to Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at MIT’s Security Studies Program, about the developments in Iraq. Walsh also discusses the latest Ukraine.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, now let's get to the unfolding, or you could say unraveling situation in Iraq. Sunni militants are continuing their dramatic takeover of territories. Today ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, took control of another city west of Mosul called Tal Afar. ISIS also claims to have killed 1,700 Iraqi Shiite soldiers in Tikrit. Although, those reports have not been independently verified. They do raise fears about genocide and increasing sectarian violence.
In response to the deepening crisis in Iraq, both Secretary of State John Kerry and the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, have said they are open to the possibility of the two countries working together to try to help stabilize Iraq. Joining us in the studio to talk about the latest developments is Jim Walsh, expert in international security at MIT's Security Studies program. Hi, Jim.
JIM WALSH: Good to see you, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Well, big picture here. How bad would you say the situation in Iraq is at this point? And does it appear to you that the U.S. has any control over what's going to happen next?
WALSH: It's both a better and worse than folks think. I think it's better in so far, I don't think this insurgency - they're successful right now. They've been able to expand their territory. But they haven't really met any resistance yet, and they're playing a friendly field. They're playing in the Sunni areas.
Iraq - big picture - is a Shiite country. There are roughly 60 percent of the population is Shia. So for them to somehow be able to translate this into taking over Baghdad or destroying the holy shrines, I think that's unlikely. So that's the good news.
The bad news is this is worse than one would expect because if the Iraqi government pushes back and uses Shia militias to do this, there's going to be revenge. There's going to be blood on the ground, and we're going to see an intensification of the sectarian nature of that war.
And that is something that is contagious and could do all sorts of harm. And meanwhile - oh, by the way - the Kurds have taken their own piece of territory while all this is going on.
HOBSON: Well, and what we saw in the seizure of Mosul and Tikrit by ISIS, was Iraqi soldiers simply laying down their arms and therefore giving a lot of weapons and tanks to their enemies in that fight. In the takeover of Tal Afar today, it was more of a battle for control of city. What does that tell you?
WALSH: Well, it means that the - a lot of those troops who shed their uniforms were Sunnis who were based in that region. They read the handwriting on the wall and chose prudence. Now that you have regular Iraqi forces being transferred up there, I think you're starting to get a real fight.
And as I say, there was a call over the weekend by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani sort of rousing, calling for help from the the Shia population. These are untrained people, but that could lead to a very vicious fight. So I think - you know, the other thing here, by the way, for the insurgents is, as you expand and take more territory, that means more territory to defend.
So on the one hand, they're getting money. They're getting guns. They're getting supplies. They are freeing prisoners from prisons who then are able to join their ranks. But they have a bigger piece of territory to defend and are fighting on multiple sides.
HOBSON: And what's your sense of the rules that they put in place in the territory that they are having to defend and control?
WALSH: Well, that's what - I mean, that's another issue that they have long had and that all Sunni extremists have had going back to the days of the Iraq war. What happens is, they're initially welcomed - right? - because the Maliki government, the Shia government has been insensitive to the rights of the Sunnis. But then, once they're there for a while and they start imposing strict Sharia law, then they begin to create unhappiness, you know, because it is a brutal application of law. And also, they begin competing with local tribes people for power. So the honeymoon may be short lived.
HOBSON: OK, let's listen here to John Kerry who gave an interview with Katie Couric on Yahoo News, which is where she is now. And he said the U.S. is open to discussions and even possibly cooperating militarily with Iran.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: At this moment, I think we need to go step-by-step and see what in fact might be a reality. But I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability, a respect for the Constitution, a respect for the election process and a respect for the ability of the Iraqi people to form a government that represents all of the interests of Iraq.
HOBSON: Now, Jim Walsh, some are saying be careful here in cooperating too much with Iran. They've got their own goals here, and they may want to have more control over parts of Iraq if it - if they offer their help and it succeeds in pushing Sunni militants back.
WALSH: Yeah, and I understand that concern. I think, though, if you step back, the U.S. and Iran have very similar - not identical - but very similar interests here. We want Iraq to be stable.
HOBSON: Stable, yes. Stability.
WALSH: We want it to be a whole, right? Iran doesn't want a violent Sunni revolution on its border. Now, at the end of the day, they're neighbors. Iran is going to have influence in Iraq, and there's nothing the U.S. can do about that. I think what they're - both sides are sort of focused on right now is keeping the thing from falling apart. And there - I don't expect, you know, hand-in-glove cooperation. But it wouldn't surprise me if there was coordination.
And let me say, by the way, from what I'm reading of Iranian commentators in the press, there's not a lot of enthusiasm for taking up another war. Remember, they're already involved in Syria.
WALSH: There are weekly funerals for Iranian soldiers who have died in Syria. There's not a lot of enthusiasm for boots on the ground. But if things get bad, Iran thinks of itself as the defender of the Shia faith in the region and they're on the hook for this.
HOBSON: What about the idea of Iraq splitting up into three parts, which people are now starting to talk about more and more. This came up years ago. But the idea of having a Kurdish section, a Sunni section and a Shiite section. Is that even possible?
WALSH: Well, it may happen as sort of a de facto. You'll remember that Vice President Biden first raised the possibility and was criticized for it. You know, I think a lot of that will depend, ironically enough, on the Kurds.
The Kurds have a real army. I mean, they are for real. And they have taken their piece of territory. And the question is, is Turkey, which has been particularly sensitive about the Kurdish issue, are they going to intervene and try to change the game? If they don't, it's hard to imagine that the Iraqis can fight a two front war against the Kurds and these Sunni extremists. So it may move in that direction whether formally or not.
HOBSON: Well, and you also wonder what it means for the rest of the region. You just mentioned a lot of countries there. But there are even more that may be affected by what is happening in Iraq. Jim Walsh, an expert in international security at MIT Security Studies program, is joining us here in the studio.
And, Jim, the events that we've been seeing in Iraq have managed to push Ukraine off the front page, but today the huge Russian energy company Gazprom stopped supplying natural gas to Ukraine after the government in Kiev did not pay its bill - that's a $2 billion bill - on time. A company spokesman said it supplies to Ukraine only the amount that has been paid for. And the amount that has been paid for is zero. What do you make of this, and how big of a problem is this for the government in Ukraine, which is just trying to get a foothold?
WALSH: Well, Jeremy, it has been a busy weekend. And in Ukraine you saw, obviously, this about the gas problem and the gas. I think in the near term it's not going to be very consequential because Ukraine has some gas reserves. But what we're looking at when the rubber meets the road is December when it's cold and when those reserves run out.
And so we've got a period of a couple of months where those negotiations continue. So - but that was only one piece of the story this weekend. We also had a plane that was shot down with Ukrainian paratroopers - 49 people killed. The most interesting piece to me that I saw this weekend - satellite images suggesting that as many as three to seven tanks crossed from Russia into Ukraine territory at a moment when the separatists seemed to be expanding their ground in eastern Ukraine. So that's certainly something to watch out for.
HOBSON: And what is that about? Is that - if that indeed is the case and it's Russian tanks, is that somebody deciding to take advantage of the international attention focusing on Iraq instead?
WALSH: You know, it's hard to know what it means. Is it symbolic or is it really part of a larger plan to transfer heavy weapons to the separatists? I certainly hope it's the former not the latter. But once you push equipment, heavy tanks and armored vehicles into a battle, it's hard to get them back. So we're going to have to wait and see about that one.
HOBSON: Does the U.S. need to offer more financial help to Ukraine if it's having a problem paying its gas bill? If you go right back to the beginning of this crisis, this was about a Ukraine that was on the verge of default that didn't have enough money and it wasn't getting what it needed from Europe. And so the president at the time decided to look to Russia for assistance. And the people of Ukraine didn't like that. But should the U.S. this time around come forward with even more aid?
WALSH: Well, I think the U.S. and certainly, probably more central Europe, will do something. The Ukrainians did offer to pay a billion on what they owe, but the Russians weren't satisfied by that. The question is whether the Russians really care about the cash or is this really another tool or instrument for them to put pressure politically on the Ukrainians. And my guess, it's the letter.
HOBSON: Jim Walsh is an expert in international security at MIT Securities Studies program. Jim, thanks so much for joining us as always.
WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.