A full-blown Sunni - Shia conflict in Iraq would be all-consuming

Shia fighters parade weapony through Baghdad. Credit: Reuters

By Geraint Vincent: Middle East Correspondent

I lost count of the number of checkpoints I went through when I went to visit the General.

Saad Maa’n Ibrahim is the commander of the Iraqi forces charged with the defence of Baghdad, and his head quarters are set up in a heavily fortified corner of the city.

The troops guarding his compound don’t look like the sort who would run away from a fight - like their comrades up in Mosul did - and their boss has every confidence in them.

“You know, if you want to protect you must attack,” he told me.

“So we have sent units to take on the ISIS to the North of the city.

"We will never give them the chance to get inside Baghdad. People must have faith that our troops can do it.”

There are others in the capital for whom his words will ring hollow.

Diplomats in Baghdad have expressed grave misgivings about the Iraqi army’s ability to turn the tide.

One says that it now lacks any real offensive capability at all, so its chances of regaining any of the huge amount of territory lost to the Sunni militants are next to nil.

If this is a fight to maintain the state of Iraq as we know it, it may have already been lost.

Meanwhile there are thousands more men readying themselves to defend their communities.

A truly terrifying carnival of military equipment was paraded through the streets of Baghdad this weekend by the Mehdi Army - Iraq’s Shia militia.

Among the weapons on show were the roadside bombs used to such deadly effect against US and British forces here a few years ago.

Among the gun-toting ranks, our team came across an elderly gentleman who bore more than a passing resemblance to Uncle Albert from the comedy series Only Fools and Horses.

But unlike the comedy character, this man’s fighting days were not behind him.

“I will fight to the death against those rats in the North!” he declared, his AK47 hanging from his neck.

If the spectre of Sunni/Shia conflict does return to Iraq, it will be all-consuming.