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'Mowing the lawn' in Iraq by turning it into a jihadist's land

After decades of waging war in Iraq and beyond with disastrous results, now is the time for the US to use a bargain with Iran to bring peace to the region

While the bloody carnage by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which is now calling itself the Islamic State, is going on in Iraq, and the United States and its allies are adding to the bloodshed and destruction by bombing the areas that are under ISIS control, we should ask ourselves how this terrible situation has come about. Two important factors have contributed to the tragedy in Iraq. One is the internal factors within Iraq, while the second one is the role that external forces have been playing. Internally, since its birth, Iraq has never been a democratic state, but besieged by dictators, corruption, fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic teachings, and ethnic and religious strife.

The most important external factor contributing to the present state of affairs in Iraq has been the United States and its policy toward that country. Naturally, the US pursues what it considers its “national interests”, but, when it comes to pursuing such interests vis-a-vis Iraq and, more broadly, the Middle East, the US has committed fundamental errors. From goading Iraq to invade Iran in 1980 and Kuwait in 1990, to its crippling economic sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s up until 2003 when it invaded and occupied Iraq illegally, US policy toward Iraq has been one disaster after another, and has produced catastrophe, destruction and bloodshed. At least half a million Iraqi children and young people died as a result of the economic sanctions of the 1990s and hundreds of thousands more since 2003. The Pentagon even drew up plans in 2002 to use nuclear weapons against seven countries, including Iraq, “in case of an emergency”.

Why has the US committed such crimes? The US has always wanted to frighten Arab states into submission. As former CIA director James Woolsey put it two months after the US invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, “Only fear will re-establish [Arab] respect for the United States,” and Iraq was a prime target for creating such fear. In the world of warmongers such as Woolsey, “respect” means submission.

But the most important consequence of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was the destruction of its political order, which gave rise to Sunni terrorism there through the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) - which is now ISIS - and effectively partitioned that nation along ethnic and religious lines.

“Mowing the lawn”

According to a “strategy” that is referred to as “mowing the lawn”, every few years Israeli forces go into Gaza to destroy Hamas’s infrastructure and its ability to wage war against Israel. Likewise, American forces attack places like Yemen and Pakistan to supposedly root out the terrorists, using drones and other means. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Obama counterterrorism adviser, said: “The problem with the drone is it’s like your lawn mower. You’ve got to mow the lawn all the time. The minute you stop mowing, the grass is going to grow back.”

The same strategy has been used against Iraq over the past 25 years. The US supported a “monstrous” Iraqi state during its war against Iran, but then it had to contain it in the 1990s, and to invade it in 2003. Its invasion of Iraq destroyed the Iraqi army, and left it unable to fight ISIS effectively. In fact, had it not been for the help that Iran provided, Baghdad may have fallen into ISIS hands last summer.

Iraq: Planned or unforeseen outcome of failed policy?

But, it would be naïve to think that the “get tough” policy of the US toward Iraq, which began in 1990, was created in a vacuum. What is happening in Iraq is part of the US strategy and plan for the Middle East and north Africa over the past four decades and, in particular, the continuation of its policy toward Afghanistan in the 1980s, when it helped the so-called Afghan Mujahedin to fight the Soviet Union. This change in policy began during Bill Clinton’s presidency, after both Iran and Iraq had been exhausted by war and sanctions. On 31 October 1998 Congress approved a resolution that made “regime change” in Iraq the official policy of the United States. Clinton did not get to carry out the new policy, but George W Bush did. Even before the terrorist attacks of 11 September, 2001, Bush was determined to invade Iraq.

So, Bush lied to the American people about Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction and a non-existent link between Saddam Hussein’s regime and al-Qaeda, and attacked and occupied Iraq. But the true outcomes of the invasions are as follows.

First, the invasion gave rise the AQI and then ISIS. According to a 2011 report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, from 2004-2007 the most potent forces fighting the US and its allies, as well as the Iraqi government, were AQI. Despite the fact that some of its top leaders, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and others were killed, the organisation eventually morphed into the present ISIS.

Second, it effectively partitioned Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions. The US cannot claim that it could not foresee what would happen in the aftermath of its invasion, or what is happening in Iraq now. As early as 1994, Dick Cheney had predicted:

“Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it the Syrians would like to have to the west. Part of eastern Iraq, the Iranians would like to claim, fought over for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire.”

Partition of Iraq further exacerbated the religious and ethnic tensions in that country. Once again, this was foreseen, but ignored. In an op-ed in May 2006, then Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote:

“Some will say moving toward strong regionalism would ignite sectarian cleansing. But that’s exactly what is going on already, in ever-bigger waves. Others will argue that it would lead to partition. But a breakup is already underway. As it was in Bosnia, a strong federal system is a viable means to prevent both perils in Iraq.”

Bill Clinton recently said that if the United States had not invaded Iraq, the present situation would not have arisen. So, he too has finally recognised what the US policy, including that of his own administration, has done to Iraq.

A 2013 report by the Council on Foreign Relations expressed similar views. According to the report, although “AQI's campaign of violence has diminished since peak years of 2006 and 2007, but the group remains a threat to stability in Iraq and the broader Levant,” and, “Since the complete withdrawal of US forces in late 2011, AQI has accelerated the pace of attacks on mainly Shiite targets in what analysts say is an attempt to reignite conflict between Iraq's Sunni minority and the Shiite-led government of Nuri al-Maliki. Meanwhile, the militant group has expanded its reach into neighbouring Syria, where it has forged ties with Jabhat al-Nusra, a Sunni militant faction providing tactical support to the insurrection against the Assad regime. In April 2013, the two groups formally merged into the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria.” The funding for the group comes from “the region, including those based in Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia,” but, “the bulk of al-Qaeda's financing, experts say, comes from internal sources like smuggling, extortion, and other crime.”

And, after all the destruction and bloodshed that invasion of Iraq produced, George W Bush’s only regret is that ISIS has emerged.

The role of US allies

As the US was leaving Iraq in 2011, it was attacking Libya, where the AQI fighters were playing a prominent role in fighting Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. Then, when the civil war in Syria was transformed to a sectarian Shiite versus Sunni war by US allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies, the AQI migrated to Syria and began its terrorist war under the name ISIS.

In early October 2014, during a discussion with students at Harvard University, Biden stated the following (emphasis with boldface words mine):

Our biggest problem was our allies. Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends and I have a great relationship with [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, which I just spent a great amount of time with. The Saudis, the Emiratis, etc. What were they doing? They were so determined to take down [Bashar al-] Assad in essentially a proxy Sunni-Shiite war. What do they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollar and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being, who were being supplied were [Jabhat] al-Nusra], al-Qaeda, and extremist elements of jihadists coming from the parts of the world. If you think I am exaggerating, take a look. Where did all of this go? So, now, what is happening? All of a sudden everybody is awaken because this outfit called ISIL [Islamic State in Iraq and Levant], which was al-Qaeda in Iraq, which they were thrown out of Iraq, found space and territory in western, excuse me, eastern Syria, worked with al-Nusra who we declared a terrorist group early on, and we could not convince our colleagues to stop supplying them. So, what happened? Now, all of a sudden, I do not mean to be fictitious, they have seen the Lord. Now, we have, the President has been able to put together a coalition of our Sunni neighbors, because America cannot once again go in to a Muslim nation and be the aggressor. It has to be led by Sunnis to go and attack a Sunni organisation. So, what do we have for the first time? Saudi Arabia stopped the funding going in. Saudi Arabia is allowing training on its soil of American forces, Article 10, open training. The Qataris have cut off their support for the most extreme elements of the terrorist organisations, and the Turks, President Erdogan told me, he is an old friend, said, “You were right. We let too many people [terrorists] through.” Now, they are trying to seal the border [with Syria]. 

Biden’s confession should not need any explanation.

From Syria back to Iraq

Given the vast experience that AQI and later ISIS gained in Libya and Syria, and the new weapons it captured there, it was only “natural” for the ISIS to return to its birth place. The result has been more bloodshed.

According to a UN report, 8868 people were killed in Iraq during 2013. In the first ten months of 2014, at least 10,000 people were killed, over 17,500 injured, and 1.8 million displaced, all in the war against ISIS, with the situation becoming considerably worse over the last two months, as the number of people killed, injured or displaced has been rising dramatically. The net result is that the US military has returned to Iraq for its war III, with its involvement becoming deeper by the day.

Worse yet, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, whose forces have occupied new territories in Iraq, has threatened the central government with secession from Iraq, dreaming about a Greater Kurdistan in parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In an interview with CNN, Barzani said that Iraq is disintegrating, and now is the best time for the Kurds to make their decision regarding independence for Kurdistan. Barzani also spoke to US Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to the province about Kurdistan independence. Israeli President Shimon Peres also said that Kurdistan’s independence is a “foregone conclusion,” and that his country will recognise the new nation. Benjamin Netanyahu has also expressed his support for an independent Kurdistan.

Thus, the seeds that were sown by the US and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan have fully grown and produced “fruits” everywhere. Apparently, no lesson was learned from the experience of the two wars.

Work with Iran?

Last July, in an article in the Washington Post, Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, William Luers, former US ambassador to Venezuela and Czechoslovakia, and Thomas Pickering, undersecretary of state for political affairs from 1997–2000, emphasised that working with Iran is critical to saving Iraq from the ISIS. They acknowledged that the Arab nations of the Persian Gulf, all US allies, have been covertly or overtly aiding Sunni radical groups, and have helped in creating a sectarian Sunni versus Shiite war. They also stated: “It makes no sense for the West to support a war against [President Bashar al-] Assad as well as a war against the Islamic State. Assad is evil, but in this case he is certainly the lesser evil.”

I agree with the trio. If the United States recognises that instability, changing national borders, destruction and millions of dead, injured and displaced in the Middle East are not in its national interests, it must work with Iran. Without Iran, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to defeat ISIS. Recent polls indicate that 61 percent of the Americans support working with Iran. The US also needs Iran for ending the war in Syria, and keeping the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan.

President Obama’s recent letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, apparently sought to foster cooperation between the two nations. ISIS and other jihadi groups are security threats against both countries and, thus, Iran and the US have common interests in defeating ISIS.

Finalising a comprehensive agreement between Iran and the United States over Iran’s nuclear programme, and cancelling, or at least suspending, US economic sanctions against Iran will create the necessary positive atmosphere for cooperation between the two countries, and will open the door on cooperation between them for confronting terrorism.

Israel and Saudi lobbies and their allies in the US, and Tehran’s hardliners, oppose the nuclear agreement, but Obama and President Hassan Rouhani can overcome their opposition. The agreement will make it possible for the two countries to work together to take steps toward ending the war in Syria by holding a ceasefire there, and holding free elections under the United Nations supervision. The US must set aside its fantasy of training the “moderate” Syrian opposition in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Doing so will indicate only thing: The US has once again not learned the necessary lesson, to work with Iran, Syria’s strategic ally. An Iran whose national security is guaranteed, and its regional interests to provide the guarantee are respected, will open the way to ending the war in Syria.

Guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Middle East countries is the necessary condition for defeating terrorism and creating a secure and stable region. Without security, there can be no democracy. Democracy and respect for human rights are not, and cannot be, the fruit of invading Islamic nations in the Middle East and North Africa. Just as the United States criticizes Iran’s human rights record, it must do the same with regard to its allies in that region, Saudi Arabia and the Arab nations of the Persia Gulf.

- Akbar Ganji is an Iranian journalist and writer. He has been described as "Iran's preeminent political dissident", and a "wildly popular pro-democracy journalist" who has crossed press censorship "red lines" regularly. A supporter of the Islamic revolution as a youth, he became disenchanted in the mid-1990s and served time in Tehran's Evin Prison from 2001 to 2006 after publishing a series of stories on the murder of dissident authors known as the Chain Murders of Iran. While in prison he issued a manifesto which established him as the first "prominent dissident, believing Muslim and former revolutionary" to call for a replacement of Iran's theocratic system with "a democracy".

This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Former US President, Bill Clinton said that if the United States had not invaded Iraq, the present situation (IS) would not have arisen