Iraq and the Islamic State: The Cause and the Conundrum
By Haniya Khalid
First published on 1 August 2014
“We are often apt to read history backwards, which, I submit, is a very wrong method of reading history. History, in order to be properly appreciated, has to be read forwards. One must put oneself behind the events which one desires to evaluate, and then judge and appraise them.”
-Sir Zafrulla Khan’s address to the UN General Assembly on the Question of Palestine 28th November, 1947.
While the world watches Israel and Gaza thrash each other to death, the former providing the beating and the latter complying with a rising death toll, the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) continues its havoc wreaking campaign through Iraq. From its capture of Fallujah in early January 2014, and then its panic-inducing milestone takeover of the second city of Mosul to the Kurdish capital of Arbil, up to the North of Baghdad, with cities like Tikrit and Samarra under full IS control, to its West with Ramadi, IS continues its descent, moving ever closer towards the capital.
The extreme Sunni based militant Islamist group, previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) before its self-declared caliphate installed its elusive leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as the Caliph of the seized territories in the Levant in the beginning of June, has been locked in a deadly battle in Syria with Hezbollah, allied with the Syrian army, in both Syria and the spillover of in-fighting on Lebanon’s eastern frontier, as well as continuing its bloody expansion through Iraq. Two weeks ago, it overran hundreds of Iraqi government forces including Shiite militia in Tikrit who had been trying to retake the city. Government forces and Shiite militia volunteers were pushed back 10 miles south of Tikrit to the town of Ajwa. In Syria it has hefty control in areas like Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo.
A journalist for Issuehawk.com wrote on Wednesday, “Determining the “beginning” of the turmoil in Iraq is a complex task, so the best way to begin is to work backwards.”
And while the ensuing article briefs over key points in the Islamic State’s movement across Iraq, from its annexation of Fallujah to Mosul and the cities and provinces between as well as locations near the Syrian and Turkish borders, it leaves out the originating factor, the raison d’etre of the strong presence of IS in Iraq specifically, perhaps thus vindicating the words spoken sixty years ago, that to go backwards is to stunt a progressive view of history.
Likewise, the mainstream press duly informs us that IS’s success in Iraq is, first and foremost, a result of the fallout from the Syrian civil war that has been raging on in the last four years and which contributed extensively to IS’s growth. The Syrian civil war itself stemmed from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in the country against the over-zealous President Basher-al-Assad, from among which emerged strong Al-Qaeda affiliates, such as the leading Jabhat-al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, both of whom IS engaged in fierce combat last year during the internecine conflict between rebel groups. It also tells us that IS was once a faction of Al-Qaeda that defected, or rather was disowned (not long after it claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in rebel headquarters in the Syrian city of Aleppo in which a senior Al-Qaeda affiliated rebel commander died), from the infamous terror network in early March 2014 to pursue its intended, caliphate conquest across the better part of the Levant.
Al-Qaeda cut ties with IS, known then as ISIL, purportedly after the latter defied the former’s commands to leave Syria to Jabhat-Al-Nusra, and months of clashes with other Al-Qaeda affiliates and western backed rebels fighting in Syria.
And finally, the concoction of IS itself as a jihadist movement, one that abides by a particularly extreme interpretation of Wahabbism, arising from its predecessors amid the Sunni resistance as part of the Iraqi insurgency against the 2003 US invasion in its early years, is common knowledge.
But the position that the speedy establishment and lightning expansion of the current Islamic State in Iraq is due to the Syrian civil war, under whose bloody shadow the dregs of a radical ideological movement like IS came into full fruition, while correct by the current facts to an extent, falls short of the bigger picture.
Passing The Buck
There are several things that render this view erroneous. For one thing, it leaves a vacuum of bipartisan blame that audacious news anchors and self righteous hacks proceed to fill with lamentations of the ungrateful nature of these crazy sand dwellers Iraqis, as Martha Raddatz of ABC News did after the IS victory over Fallujah, “So 11 years after the US invaded Iraq–lost nearly 4,500 American lives and spent over $730 billion–Iraq is in crisis” or CNN’s Wolf Blitzer expressed in no uncertain words on his show The Situation Room how “the United States spent 10 years there. We assumed that Iraq would emerge a peaceful, stable democracy.”
What were you drinking when you developed these assumptions, Wolfy? Oil?
This of course ignores not only the thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilian lives lost under the violence of the US invasion, the hundreds of Iraqis displaced, not to mention the destruction of a sovereigns state’s whole infrastructure, but also the natural consequences of military invasion by an unwanted, foreign power, which includes the brewing of sectarian tensions as a people already crippled by thirteen years of sanctions were further divided by the friendless, anarchic landscape of war.
And for another, it leaves out the US government’s complicity in what is touted solely as prime minster Nuri-al-Maliki’s incompetence, which hints at the overall Middle Eastern ineptitude at sustaining a ‘successful’ western friendly democracy by both the right and the left. And achieves the overall aim of shifting the blame firmly onto what pundits call the millennium old sectarian religious war that has rocked the region. If we disregard for a minute the fact that sectarianism or groups like IS in Iraq did not exist in its current form of violence and persecution among the civilian population until after the 2003 invasion, this still fails to explain the root cause of the turmoil enveloping the country.
It’s funny how the practice of passing the buck has become the common subtext of Western political discourse in relation to Middle Eastern affairs. It could be even more ironic if it wasn’t so predictable that such a practice takes place in the newsrooms and pundit panels of the liberal press, the fourth estate of the world’s developed nations.
As a great demonstration of this very practice, Wolf Blitzer says later on during the June 10th airing of the Situation Room: “Once the U.S. leaves Iraq, just as the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, they’re going to go back to the Shiites, the Sunnis, the Kurds. In Syria, you see the civil war going on there. Don’t you think what’s going on in the region, irrespective of U.S. involvement, would have happened under any circumstances, given the centuries of the tradition of what’s gone on in that part of the world?”
In other words, are we talking about the installation of democracy, or merely a shell of this ideal filled with an oozing centre of glib hypocrisy?
Lakhdar Brahimi, United Nations diplomat and former United Nations and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria talks about why repeating history, in other words listening to Tony Blair on Iraq, is a mistake.
A Soldier Speaks
As the crisis in Iraq began to heat up in mid June, Former United States soldier Chelsea Manning described the situation as presented to him in 2010 during his work as a US Intelligence analyst in Iraq, around the time of al-Maliki’s reelection, in an Op Ed piece for the New York Times.
“If you were following the news during the March 2010 elections in Iraq, you might remember that the American press was flooded with stories declaring the elections a success, complete with upbeat anecdotes and photographs of Iraqi women proudly displaying their ink-stained fingers. The subtext was that United States military operations had succeeded in creating a stable and democratic Iraq.”
“Those of us stationed there were acutely aware of a more complicated reality.”
He goes on further, describing the process by which dissidence under al-Maliki was crushed through the work of intelligence analysts like himself.
“Military and diplomatic reports coming across my desk detailed a brutal crackdown against political dissidents by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and federal police, on behalf of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Detainees were often tortured, or even killed…I received orders to investigate 15 individuals whom the federal police had arrested on suspicion of printing “anti-Iraqi literature.” I learned that these individuals had absolutely no ties to terrorism; they were publishing a scholarly critique of Mr. Maliki’s administration. I forwarded this finding to the officer in command in eastern Baghdad. He responded that he didn’t need this information; instead, I should assist the federal police in locating more “anti-Iraqi” print shops.”
It won’t come as a surprise that the former US soldier’s Op-Ed was largely ignored by mainstream commentators. But Manning, who not only experienced US involvement in al-Maliki’s Iraq firsthand through his time in the army, but has also been sentenced to thirty five years solitary confinement after leaking 250,000 U.S state diplomatic cables and 500,000 Army reports to the whistle-blowing platform WikiLeaks, all which detail, among other information, the excesses, war crimes and breaches of International Law by US and coalition forces operating in foreign lands, is surely worth listening to.
‘I was shocked by our military’s complicity in the corruption of that election,” writes Manning, “Yet these deeply troubling details flew under the American media’s radar.’
So…now it’s all America’s fault?
Not entirely, but as the world’s superpower, and self-professed policeman, perhaps it should have been more cautious in its preference of al-Maliki over the prior candidate.
So it can’t afford slip-ups?
Not at all, except name more than one country in the Middle East and besides, in whose affairs the US has played part in the last twenty years, the result of which has not been more death, destruction and infighting.
The problem is, one could say, is that it has had far too many for a superpower that is hailed, often by itself, as the stalwart of Democracy and the pinnacle of civilization in the developed world.
Yet this isn’t the time for US bashing or Middle East bashing or even hegemony bashing. History may choose take care of all of that.
A Lethal Alliance?
The dangerous reality of IS’s triumph in today’s Iraq is that even members of the late Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist party, now banned, and other secular and moderate Sunnis have formed a sort of mutual alliance under this new extremist faction against who they consider in the last eight years to be their oppressor due to ethnic and sectarian divides. And more lethal is the fact that unlike al-Maliki’s government IS, is not concerned with its reputation as it slaughters any civilians who do not identify with their ideology at will. As Patrick Cockburn wrote in piece on 15th June, for the Independent, detailing the corruption incompetence and occupational nature of the Iraqi army under al-Maliki:
“Sectarian discrimination and persecution became the common lot of Iraq’s five or six million Sunni who had been the dominant community for centuries. A Sunni might be picked up by the police, tortured into a confession, sentenced to a long term in prison or even executed. Even if he was found innocent by a court, his family might have to pay $50,000 to $100,000 to get an officer in the prison to sign his release papers. An Isis fighter was recently reported as joking: “When we capture our enemies we kill them; when you capture one of us we pay money and he is released.”
Corruption in the army took place at every level. A general could become a divisional commander at a cost of $2m (£1.18m)…in Sunni areas the army and security forces behaved as an occupation force and were consequently much feared and hated. Frightening and bloodthirsty Isis fighters may be, but for many in Mosul they are preferable to government forces…Anger at these abuses is relevant to what is now happening. The majority of Sunni Arabs in Mosul ….are wary of Isis but terrified of what a vengeful Iraqi army will do if it retakes the city. The same is true in the rest of Sunni Iraq. Isis may have begun the assault, but many other groups have joined in. We are now looking at a general uprising of the Iraqi Sunni. Those taking over Saddam Hussain’s hometown of Tikrit are not Isis, but his old adherents who are putting up posters of the late dictator.”
We might as give up the ghost right now, and admit that the US, through its involvement in Iraq, is undeniably one of the players in this recent escalation (another being Nuri-al-Maliki), not only because Maliki was the US preferred and consequently chosen alternative to Ibrahim-al-Jafaari in 2006, but because it was US and coalition troops that went into Iraq in 2003, waking the hideous monster that is systematically winding up the Levant in its serpentine embrace.
And it could also be said that this is what makes the clearly corrupt Nuri al-Maliki the ultimate scapegoat as US calls for his resignation and the formation of a new government are echoed by both the International community and, much understandably, the Iraqi electorate. Yesterday’s election of Kurdish politician Fuad Masum as President Jalal Talibani’s successor looks like a potent prescient to al-Maliki’s imminent disposal.
It’s easy to see the sticky conundrum in which the US finds itself stuck and which leads to such back peddling. If one begins to think of viable solutions to the IS trail of death and destruction that is slowly scything its way towards the seat of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, and which would pose a very real threat of exported-terrorism to the US if it achieved its aims, this brings us to The Choice that the US faces. Either it allies with Iran, “the axis of evil” to help Al-Maliki, or a new government, defeat IS and restore the US definition of order in Iraq, or it continues vocally backing some Syrian rebel factions and consequently allies with Al-Qaeda in Syria. This at a time when has been revealed that Shia Iran, firm ally of Maliki and his Shiite majority government, has sent a Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Ghassem Soleimani, along with 120 advisors from the Guard to help train Iraqi Shiite volunteers.
The Lebanese-Shiite political and military organization Hezbollah has already sent 250 military advisors to help Iraqi Shiite militia in their struggle against IS as well as upping its support of the Syrian army in Syria. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria began as early as 2013 in the battle of Qalamoun as it launched a counter offensive against rebels attempting to use the mountainous area as a strategic base.
Which brings us to another gaping detail neglected in the face of popular analysis, and which, if implemented, further renders previous US allegations and rhetoric centered on the Middle East as invalid. The current Syrian regime, which has been vehemently condemned as a bloodthirsty child killing machine for almost four years, and upon which the EU has imposed sanctions, is now a glaring contradiction to the reality that Syrian army, along with Hezbollah, another organisation proclaimed as a terrorist organization by much of the West are fighting IS to the death in Syria and Lebanon.
In other words, if the US did indeed choose to ally, in some official form or other, with Iran to defeat IS, it would be aligned with not only its Nuclear Nemesis, but also indirectly yet distinctly with Hezbollah and Assad The Butcher (as he has been dubbed by press and politicians alike). And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a conundrum personified. It’s all rather funny when one thinks about it, and phrases like full circle and what goes up must come down, come to mind.
In times like these, one needs to look at non-official points of view-and even alternate media isn’t exactly the untarnished prism that one would expect. As an aside, in this spirit, an exchange that sums up the current situation went on in the comment section of the Guardian under an piece relaying the news that IS had offered an ultimatum to Iraqi Christians, Convert, pay tax or die:
The article in question states a little tidbit of information that reiterates a former point, is easily verified by state documents pre-invasion and fundamentally important in our understanding of Iraq itself as a civilisation before it had retracted head first into the mayhem we see today.
“The Mosul residents who saw the Islamic State announcement estimated the city’s Christian population before last month’s militant takeover at around 5,000. The vast bulk of those have since fled, leaving perhaps only 200 in the city. Mosul, once home to diverse faiths, had a Christian population of around 100,000 a decade ago, but waves of attacks on Christians since the 2003 US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein have seen those numbers collapse.”
All this would be a huge problem for our politicians involved. IF, among other things, we weren’t the proud recipients of the finest, most informative, hard hitting infotainment media organisations in the world.
Whether it’s the Iraqi ingrates and their thanklessness at the huge US sacrifice for democracy, or the recycled, 60 year old, two headed polemic once again coming to the fore amid the newest escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, blame shifting is the core principle of contemporary political analysis, the basic tenet of every mainstream pundit’s ideology, because the lean-mean-fact-reducing-killing-machine that is the press could make a Disney villain look like a princess…
It’s true that the solutions for IS expansion, while fairly simple in theory, pose problems for the interests, and reputation of the US and its most vocal allies in the long run. Those could easily be resolved by the fact that it is unlikely that the US would ally with Iran, publicly at least, considering its systematic vitriol against the Iranian regime in the past few years, something shared with its strongest Middle Eastern ally, namely the state of Israel. And the Obama Administration has already promised against US troops returning to fight in Iraq, something that would further help curdle the mess his predecessor ultimately created and he himself welcomed and exacerbated with open arms. But when you start something, you finish it, and if most of your previous rhetoric is centered on how what you started was done for the benefit of the people it affected the most and conducive to a cohesive and civilised society, and the end result is the antithesis, then there is some serious self-evaluation to be done before one thinks of a just solution. That is a principle that should be of paramount importance for all parties involved.
What did Albert Einstein say about insanity again?
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Now if that isn’t the mutual, masochistic love affair between the Middle East and the US in a nutshell, pigs do indeed fly…