William Hague has told Iraqi leaders in Baghdad that national unity was needed to overcome the present crisis, but gave a sense of speaking of an Iraq which has already passed away. In the past month, Iraq has divided into three regions – Shia, Sunni and Kurdish; little is exchanged between them except gunfire.
Mr Hague said at a press conference in the Iraqi Foreign Ministry that “the single most important factor is political unity”, but few Iraqis now see this as more than a pious aspiration. It is only 200 miles from the Kurdish capital Erbil to Baghdad but to hire a truck to travel this distance currently costs $10,000 (£6,000) for a single journey compared to $500 a month ago.
The message Mr Hague was bringing, other than a show of solidarity, was that international support for the government in Baghdad depended on it being inclusive of the three main communities. This is similar to what John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, has been saying, but Iraqis have few motives for believing they belong to the same nation. Such bonds as have remained have snapped since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) captured Mosul on 10 June.
After meeting the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, Mr Hague said: “we believe the urgent priority must be to form an inclusive government … that can command the support of all Iraqis and work to stop terrorists and their terrible crimes.” Like Mr Kerry, Mr Hague said that it was not the business of the outside world to determine who should be the leader of Iraq but the repetition of this denial so often simply reinforces the message that Mr Maliki must go.
There is no doubt he has become a hate figure for the Sunni community. But blaming everything on him avoids the fact that Isis wants to kill all Shia, not just Mr Maliki. It is also unclear where the moderate Sunnis representing their community, who are to be leveraged into power, are to come from. The gang of Sunni politicians who have held office in the recent past are widely considered as crooked and devoted to their personal interests by the Sunni in general.
The fact that the Sunni community has been unable to find a standard-bearer and general staff for their revolt other than Isis, a group that believes that it is its divine duty to kill Shia and Christians, shows how far the Iraqi Sunni have retreated from Iraqi nationalism.
Mr Hague spoke of stopping the flow of extremists, money and weapons to Isis, as if Isis did not control the oil wells of north-east Syria and have a new tax base in northern Iraq. Their recent victories have led to euphoria in Sunni countries neighbouring Iraq, meaning that Isis will find it easy to get recruits among Sunni youth. As for stopping jihadists reaching Iraq and Syria, the days when this might have had some benefit were in 2012 and 2013, when Turkey was allowing busloads of them to cross its 510-mile-long border with Syria.
Mr Hague pointed out the usefulness of reopening the British Embassy in Tehran to further bilateral contacts, but again there seemed a lack of urgency or much idea of cooperating effectively with Iran to stop Isis. As for Syria, President Bashar al-Assad was blamed for providing the conditions in which Isis thrived, with an implicit hint that the British Foreign Office bought into the Middle East conspiracy theory that Mr Assad was the hidden hand behind the sudden rise of Isis.
The best question at the press conference came from an Iraqi journalist who asked Mr Hague if he was aware that weapons supplied to the Syrian opposition often ended up being used in Iraq against the Iraqi army. Mr Hague gave the standard Foreign Office reply that Britain is not supplying arms, because they might fall into the wrong hands, but gave other useful items to the moderate Syrian opposition. In fact, Iraqi security officials go further and say that Isis prisoners say they are always glad when the so-called moderate Syrian opposition gets weapons bought by its supporters in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, because they go straight into Isis’s armoury.
Iraqi journalists at the press conference privately expressed the cynical conviction that Britain and America back Isis in Syria and oppose it in Iraq.
Since Western diplomats express their conviction that Mr Assad has deliberately avoided combat with Isis (though he had lost control of north-east Syria before Isis appeared), this puts them in a difficult position if the Syrian air force attacks Isis forces inside Iraq. The Iraqi PM had at first appeared to confirm that Syrian planes had struck at al-Qaim, but later appeared to retract the claim.