Iraq’s tragedy of errors: Why the Sunnis are revolting

Ahmed Meiloud's picture
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Thursday 12 February 2015 14:15 UTC
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It will be difficult to sell the images of a benevolent master, when people can clearly see the differences between the illusion and the reality of liberty.

Late last week the world awakened to news of the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant’s (ISIL) capture of Iraq’s second largest city. The rapid disintegration of the larger and better-equipped Iraqi army caught everyone by surprise. World media sounded the alarm. The group had overtaken Mosul on its way to Baghdad. It was as if this group, even shunned by al-Qaeda for their extremist tactics, had materialized overnight, a devastating surprise not only to Iraq, but to the rest of the world.   

But, this focus on the ISIL says more about the world’s image of the movement than its actual size and contribution to the events on the ground. It overlooks the fact that the movement is a part of a mosaic of Sunni groups disgruntled with the rule of Maliki. Without the actions of all these combined forces, ISIL could not have done more than asymmetric warfare, which it has been carrying on since 2006. It is true that ISIL’s ranks have some of the most war-hardened fighters in the region, but neither its traditional tactics nor its light nature warranted a major operation such as the takeover of Mosul.

More important than reducing all Sunni battles  to  a single war that lasted  hours and attributing it all to the ISIL, much of what has been written about Iraq sheds far too little light on the historical context which upon close inspection shows that recent events where both predictable and inevitable. 

This is not to downplay, legitimize or condemn the ISIL or the role it has played, as this crisis takes an international dimension. What this essay hopes to highlight is that  current events are a culmination of  a prolonged tragedy of errors; a bitter history of mishaps, of missed opportunities, of shady deals, of meaningless wars, and foreign meddling. A tragedy of such magnitude is likely to recruit many more players and one that is likely to linger, even if half victories are celebrated by one camp or the other. Big guns often win, but they also tend to change hands. 

The distant roots of Iraq’s tragedy of errors

If one is to trace the early acts of this tragedy in post-independence Iraq, one must inevitably address the cooperation between Saddam Hussein and the CIA, which goes  back as far as 1958. This cooperation paved the way for the violent rule of Saddam Hussein, and the bloody trail preceding his ascension to power. Thanks to the assistance of the CIA and a number of other western intelligence agencies, Saddam, who effectively became the president of Iraq in 1973—although not in name until 1979, was able to establish a network of security organizations, whose tactics and warring henchmen  spread a culture of terror and violence throughout the country.

During his 30 years of effective rule, Saddam emptied Iraq of all political figures that had promising leadership potential. Those politicians who managed to escape death in Iraq were pursued by hired assassins wherever they lived. The surviving remnants were either unable or unwilling to resist pursuing the path of the very man they opposed: cooperating with foreign intelligence agencies. This depletion of Iraq’s nationalist leadership would have an adverse effect on the effort to rebuild the Iraqi state after the fall of Hussein. But this was only one of Iraq’s many woes.

Iraq’s road to sectarianism 

Even if one is to dismiss the CIA-Hussein collaboration as  almost ancient history, the perpetrators of the most recent calamities in Iraq are the same co-conspirators of the past, albeit as they somehow appeared to be opponents. Unlike the coup attempts between 1958 and 1963, continuous investment in the rising Baath strongman, the immediate causes of the most recent events were not covert operations, but a well-publicized invasion in 2003.

When the Americans started their "shock and awe" campaign in March 2003, there was no Islamic State of Iraq. In fact, there was no significant Islamist militant presence in the country. The exception was a small indolent Kurdish group (by the name of Ansar al-Islam) in the northern region of the country. Of course, the US made a show by wakening its members from their caves. But they didn’t play a role in past years, nor are they active participants today in the unfolding events in the country. Most forces that are now playing a major role in the current debacle in Iraq were nurtured in the post-invasion environment.

Rolling into Baghdad, 18 days into the war, with Blackwater and other mercenary contractors, corrupt Iraqi politicians returning from exile, and with the blessings of Iraq’s main Shiite cleric, Sistani, the United States and its allies had all the necessary elements to transform Iraq.

The invaders had a special reading of Iraqi history and a vision of how to amend it. They believed that the struggle in Iraq is shaped by religious differences, not political platforms. A consequence of that belief was the idea that the struggle was taking place within the Arabic community since the Kurds have an autonomous region.  Excluding the Kurds meant that the Shiite sect would constitute the majority. It follows that, since the president, during the last twenty-two years, was a Sunni, a correction of that unfair history is crucial for the future of the state. The push to compensate Shiites for the unjust history was in part driven by America’s own guilt toward its past, particularly turning blind eyes to the repression of the 1991 revolt.

Although not necessarily driven by a desire to divide prerogatives along sectarian lines, the outcome was precisely that: a sectarian vision, sectarian rhetoric, and predictably sectarian policies. It made matters considerably worse that some of the Iraqi advisers to the Provisional Authority came with strong sectarian biases and extensive ties with Iran.

To highlight this aspect of Iraqi politics, one must take into consideration two influential figures in the current regime: Maliki (who concentrates in his hands vast powers, especially in matters related to security and armed forces) and the Minister of Transportation (who is at the same time the head of the Shiite extremist militia Faylaq Badr), Hadi al-Amiri. Both have deep ties with the Iranian intelligence community.  Faylaq Badr is one of four Shiite militias (Faylaq Badr, Jaysha l-Mahdi, ‘Asa’ib ahl al-Haq, and the Iraqi branch of Hezbollah). The first two of these were active in the summer of 2003, before any palpable Sunni counterpart emerged.

Amiri’s Faylaq Badr, received considerable assistance and training from Iran since its early creation in 1981. Once in Iraq and after the invasion, Amiri became an ally of Maliki, which allowed him to place his men from Faylaq Badr in sensitive posts within the security apparatus. Once in position of power, Amiri exacted revenge on many former senior military officers. Although some of what he did in Iran is unknown, many Iraqi prisoners of war claimed that Amiri tortured on them during their captivity in Iran.

The regime’s main figure, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, also had a long sectarian history and deep ties with Iran. During the period from 1979 to 1987, he was the leader of the military wing of the Hizb al-Ad‘wa, which sided with Iran in the war. Maliki’s first assignment after the invasion was to assist the director of the De-Baathification Program. In that post, Maliki made sure to purge all his foes from the system and introduce his allies.

This direction encouraged the awakening of sectarian sentiments. Vying for dominance was not only raging in the hallways of government offices, but on the airwaves as well. The sudden and unmonitored deregulation of the Iraqi media sector opened the gates for a large host of conflicting channels. Rising rapidly and with dubious backing, the new actors aggressively pursued conflicting agendas and in the process, they fanned the flames of sectarian grievances. This chaotic atmosphere was unprecedented. In pre-invasion Iraq, media was exclusively state-owned, and its content was strictly state-controlled.  Despite its savagery, Saddam Hussein’s regime didn’t allow sectarian divisions to play any role in either public policy or public discourse.

The unlearned lessons: al-Qaeda’s emergence, defeat and second rise

Twenty-two days after his troops entered Baghdad, and after US president George W Bush declared the war a “mission accomplished”, signs of trouble were already looming. Within days, the Americans were suffering casualties from Iraqi resistance operations. Erupting mostly from Sunni areas, the resistance spread to most of the north, west and center of Iraq, reaching a number of Shiite cities. After Shiite resistance elements were quickly neutralized, Shiite politicians put their cultural expertise and sectarian militias at the service of their American allies to help put down the fierce resistance in the Sunni areas.

Showing little restraint, these militias raided Sunni neighborhoods, using brutal tactics to force residents to cooperate. Many men were executed. Countless women were raped.

The gruesome images and stories of the Sunni plight would not only enrage local Sunnis, but would also draw in foreign forces. Chiefly motivated by sectarian revenge and lacking an understanding of, or appreciation for tribal and sectarian ties in the country, the newcomers pursued brutal tactics (car bombing amongst other things), which exacerbated sectarian tensions and confused the Iraqi resistance scene.

The confusion was so great, that Ayman al-Zawahiri - then al-Qaeda’s second in command - felt the need to address - from his location in Afghanistan - Abu Mus‘ab Zarqawi, then a rising figure in what proved to be a bloody and protracted war. The communication, which came in early October of 2005, highlighted two important points in al-Qaeda’s strategic thinking. The first was that the United States’ presence in Iraq was temporary and that the movement should think beyond their presence. The second point was that the organization would like to impart to the Iraqi branch the bitter lesson learned after 9/11: targeting civilians is not popular amongst Muslims.

Zarqawi, the Jordanian fighter, who had some training in Afghanistan and some prison time in Jordan, was doing in war what many Iraqis working with the US were doing in politics: rapidly transforming the fighting in the Iraqi theatre into a sectarian battlefield. Zawahiri warned that this was severely damaging the reputation of the Iraqi resistance, which had given the Arab mujahedeen (now under the banner of al-Qaeda) a second chance, and a friendlier environment.

Zarqawi had pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda a year earlier. His declaration was a surprise to most Islamists, who knew of discord between Osama Bin Laden and Zarqawi, discord going back to the latters’ stay in Afghanistan. Because of that discord, Zarqawi avoided acknowledging the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Doctrinally, Zarqawi shares with al-Qaeda the belief in the need to work for a Muslim world that is free of (what both sides see as) the most insidious aspect of the colonial legacy: the nation-state. Like almost all the ranks and files of the mother organization, Zarqawi and his men were Salafis. Beyond this, Zarqawi, his Sheikh, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi espoused far more radical views than the mother organization, more particularly strong anti-Shiite sentiment.  

Despite Zawahiri’s warning, Zarqawi and his group continued their extensive use of indiscriminate suicide bombings, further fueling a civil war that began with a sectarian purge, committed by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and other state offices under the guise of de-Baathification. 

Although al-Qaeda in Afghanistan sent more than one message to the same effect, Zarqawi disregarded them. The discord between the mother organization and the branch in Iraq was kept hidden, however, and business proceeded as usual. The Iraqi branch continued its attacks, targeting houses of worship, crowded markets and Shiite shrines. Sunnis accused of ties with the regime or the Americans were targeted as well.

This provoked global outrage and conflict within the Sunni camp in Iraq and beyond. Tensions between al-Qaeda in Iraq and other resistance groups, such as Iraq’s Islamic Army intensified. This would prove disastrous, both to al-Qaeda, but also to the Iraqi resistance. American military leaders, who were looking for a way out of the seemingly endless asymmetric warfare in which their army was embroiled, saw an opportunity to turn Iraqi tribal leaders against their ungrateful guest, al-Qaeda in Iraq. That was the beginning of the Sahawat phenomenon and a major blow to al-Qaeda’s influence in Iraq.

The Americans knew from the beginning that— although enlisting and paying off tribal leaders would provide a respite for their embattled troops— it would not resolve the rising sectarian problem in the long term. Yet, they took no real steps to systematically address the sectarian schism. The opportunity presented by the active participation of the Sunnis in the fight against al-Qaeda was missed.

Instead of pushing for national reconciliation, sectarian-based policies became the norm. Maliki, who had been ascending the political ladder in his party and also in the Iraqi regime, remained loyal to his sectarian vision, even after he assumed the prime minister’s office in 2006. Instead of reaching out to the disgruntled Sunnis, who were for much of the period from 2007 until January of 2014, willing to settle for some concessions on his part, he sent his ground troops as well as his bombers to silence their protests.

After the American’s partial withdrawal, Maliki became more dictatorial. Small Sunni uprisings with limited demands (at a time when sectarian emotions were running high throughout the region) were met with draconian reactions. Thousands of men were detained, hundreds killed. Stories of detainees’ abused, narratives of mass rape, of sectarian militias joining the Iraqi army and participation in looting and pillaging of Sunni areas abounded.

Videos and other records proclaiming to highlight some of these brutal measures were posted on various websites and were circulated across Sunni cyberspace. To make matters worse, the tribal Sunni leaders of the Sahawat, enlisted by the Americans to defeat al-Qaeda during the “surge”, did not represent a credible political class to help tie the Sunnis to the political system. Despite the sympathy they garnered during their war of attrition against the men of Zarqawi and his successor ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Sahawat squandered that political capital, favoring Maliki’s ambitions over their own community interests. This situation left the Sunni Arabs with far fewer options.

ISIL exploits the void

Since last summer, Sunni areas have been simmering with discontent.  Although some Sunni leaders remained reluctant to take up arms against Maliki, fearing a fate similar to that of their Syrian brethren, that was all changing by autumn. Sunni groups began targeting Iraqi security units. These were mostly tactical attacks since some Sunnis still believed that pressuring Maliki through peaceful demonstrations and perhaps some limited violence would yield some outcome. Maliki made a major miscalculation, judging that not conceding to any demand is better than conceding any ground. The latter approach, he feared, would embolden the dissenters and fuel more rebellion.

Around this time, the disciples of Zarqawi, who five years earlier had found the Sunni triangle suddenly inhospitable, were again bogged down in Syria. The Syrian regime’s choice three years earlier to turn the Syrian uprising into a sectarian strife, the injudicious decision by Hezbollah to come to Assad’s rescue, and the parallel Saudi decision to encourage the undesired element to plunge into the Syrian incinerator gave the fading movement a conducive environment to regroup, weakly defended arms depots to take an influx of fresh recruits, as well as old connections, from the Arabian peninsula.

For a while, the movement in Syria enjoyed some success, garnering the respect of some Sunnis inside and outside Syria. Despite these successes in Syria, the movement’s presence in Iraq, remained until recently, very negligible. Disfavor of the movement’s leader, Baghdadi, had discouraged the latter and his men to try to enter Sunni areas. Soon the foolhardy Baghdadi would spoil all hard-fought gains, both in terms of territory and reputation, by entering a messy conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra and its emir, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. The traditional discord between al-Qaeda’s main group, which has become progressively sensitive to its public image within the Sunni constituent, and the obdurate Iraqi branch, resurfaced.

Just as Zarqawi had done earlier in Iraq, Baghdadi declared a branch of ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra, a traitor group and proceeded to combat them. Al-Baghdadi won some of the battles against al-Jabha, much to the delight of Assad’s supporters. But the new campaign of fratricide cost Baghdadi his reputation inside and outside Syria, and many of his fresh recruits deserted. Even al-Qaeda declared him a renegade, and on May 3, Zawahiri urged Baghdadi to quit Syria and turn his attention to Iraq, where more work needed to be done.

Within the month, Baghdadi did what Zawahiri wanted. This was more likely not because Baghdadi had suddenly become a faithful disciple, but because the poor strategist is a clever tactician. The policies of Maliki had become so unbearable, that most Sunni areas were in revolt, and a small team of trained gamblers could change the tide. Al-Baghdadi moved in a contingent of his men from Syria to take the prize. As statements’ from his organization revealed, he was himself surprised both by how welcome he was, and by the speed and the scale of the Iraqi army’s disintegration. Staging the takeover of Mosul is no doubt an efficient tool for a movement whose reputation is called into question. ISIL now could claim that it was the savior of the Iraqis, when ironically, just a few years earlier, it was the agent that expelled them.  

America’s role and options

While it is true that neither the late Hussein nor the Americans are actively involved in this round of the conflict, one thing must be emphasized: Having covertly supported  Saddam Hussein in the late 1950s, making his ascension to power an unavoidable “accident” in history, and again invading his country in an unprovoked war in 2003, America and its allies could do some reflection as the war rages in Iraq before deafening the world with their moral indignation and civilized rhetoric and before contributing to the hostilities.

Any haste to action would only spoil the existing opportunities to push towards a more sustained solution of the crisis and would create further trouble down the road for Iraq and the whole region, regardless of how successful any intervention might initially appear. Obama’s recent speech bore some appreciation of the problem, speaking of the need for Maliki to involve the Sunnis in the political process. But this advice may be too late and there may be no solution short of Maliki’s departure. He has had enough time in power, and has so far, done more harm than good.

While it is refreshing to see that the US is aware of the background of the current conflict and isn’t simply reducing it to the rise of ISIL, injudicious past interventions in the region are clearly cause for concern. It was never misinformation that marred US policies vis-à-vis the region, but rather the power of the interest groups who tend to have the final say on what course of action should be pursued.

The role of these interest groups was clear in Obama’s speech after the fall of Mosul. At no point did the speech reflect an appreciation for the immediate and long-term consequences of the American and other Western countries’ tacit approval of the burial of the democratic experiments in Egypt and Libya--a novel case to add to a long list of grievances.

While the youth of the region have an earnest hope for a future of peace and stability, their aspirations don’t  seem to be taken seriously in DC. There is no cognizance of the fact that a well-informed Arab middle class could clearly see that all roads to peaceful transition within their own countries. The West may believe, as it has so arrogantly until now, that there are no alternatives, and that the system could be maintained by the occasional replacement of notoriously terrible leaders with worse, but unknown ones.

When a large enough segment of  youthful and dynamic Arabs, conclude that they will lose nothing but their humiliating dependence on the West if they proceed to fight their way through the layered world of corruption and colonial clienteles in their lands, much could change and change dramatically.  The telecommunication revolution in the past century and the spread of universal education have made it harder to maintain a narrative or a reality of exceptions. It will be progressively difficult to sell the beautiful images of a benevolent master, when the people can see that the differences between the illusion of liberty and the reality of liberty are crystal clear.

- Ahmed Meiloud is a PhD student at the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. His research interests include studying the various movements of political Islam across the Arab World, with special focus on the works of the thinkers, jurists and public intellectuals who shape the moderate strands of Islamism. 

Photo credit: Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 17, 2014 (AA)