Tuesday 17 June 2014

The toxic legacy of the 2003 Iraq invasion: Part One

Readers familiar with That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions 2013) will know that I wrote a blistering critical chapter on the folly of an American-led invasion of Iraq resulting in a ruinous war and a devastated economy. One of the worst consequences of that disaster was American support for Nuri Al-Maliki as Prime Minister. Since the book’s publication, the situation in Iraq and the Middle East generally has grievously deteriorated. Iraq is threatening to implode as the Islamist militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, (ISIS) has seized Falluja, the second largest city Mosul and is attacking the largest oil refinery. The following is a needed update.

"Mere anarchy is loosed/ the worst are full of passionate intensity.”  W. B. Yeats, 1916

Nuri Al-Maliki
Writing in The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins aptly comments that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 destroyed the Iraqi state and empowered the Shiite majority, particularly the power of Nuri Al-Maliki. Since he assumed power in 2006, Maliki has been a polarizing and autocratic figure who bears much of the responsibility for fomenting sectarian bile. Even under the disapproving eyes of American diplomats and military advisors, Maliki was dismantling the non-sectarian professional army. The process only accelerated after he refused to agree to a treaty that would keep a residual force of American troops there in non-combatant roles and grant them legal immunity. Iran, as indicated below, was a major factor in pressuring Maliki to force the Americans to leave. Given the huge drain on the treasury and in human lives that the Iraq war had bequeathed to the American people, Obama, who had always opposed the war, was ready to acquiesce. 

When the Americans left in 2011, with no restraining influences on him, Maliki governed in an unabashedly sectarian manner and deeply alienated the Sunnis. He and his ruling party behaved like thugs using the army and the police to terrorize his religious and ethnic opponents. He reneged on a promise to share power and oil wealth with the nine-million Sunnis and six million Kurds. He shattered an American bargain with Sunni tribal chiefs that created the Sahwa or Awakening, a 100,000 Sunni tribal force that in 2007-2008 helped staunch a civil war by routing Al-Qaeda leaving them unemployed, bitter and susceptible to radicalization. He routinely ignored regional demands for basic services and budgets. He violently suppressed peaceful protests, arrested the most reasonable Sunni political figures on the flimsy charge of terrorism, and accelerated the corruption that he had started before the Americans departed. The police and army were allowed to sell positions and promotions while commanders were by-passed and Maliki Shiite loyalists were given key roles. The US-trained force lost unity, morale, leadership, and effectiveness. Capable Sunni and Kurdish officers left or were pushed out or sidelined. When Maliki relaxed the rigorous training prescribed by the Americanshis priority was creating a loyal rather than a high quality armyit   should come as no surprise that the Iraqi army disintegrated when confronted by a zealous Sunni militia.

By his failure to be inclusive and conciliatory, Maliki re-ignited Sunni anger, increased its support for armed resistance and driven it to become allies of the most pathological extremists. This led to rising violence and casualties in 2011 and 2012, and a serious shift back towards civil war in 2013, long before ISIS first attacked Falluja and Ramadi in late 2013. In that year alone, 8000 Iraqis were killed, including 1000 security forces reminiscent of the worst days under the American occupation in 2006. Although Iraq was not a terrorist stronghold when “shock and awe” toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, it is today. The Anbar-province city of Fallujah, liberated by American forces in the country’s bloodiest warfare since Vietnam, is now under ISIS control. Historians may one day regard the capture of Falluja as the beginning of the end of the territorial integrity of Iraq. Currently, the country is evolving (or devolving) toward partition along sectarian lines: it has splintered into a Sunni north and west; a Kurdish northeast and a Shiite south that, with Iranian help, retains for the time being Baghdad. A conflagration could engulf most of the country with much of it controlled by Sunni hyper-jihadists who have no qualms about inflicting shockingly offensive atrocities

The insurgency of ISIS, the dark side of the pro-democracy Arab Spring, is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda and disavowed by it for its murderous rampages, among them beheading, crucifixion and summary executions; the group recently claimed that it executed 1700 Shia men. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is an Iraqi, a product of the 2003 invasion who spent time in a US prison camp which, American officers feared was becoming a training school for jihadists. According to sources quoted  by David Ignatius, Baghdadi inspires intense loyalty and has a knack for tactical operations and military strategy, and has displayed a greater talent in the field than did his mentor Osama bin Laden. Baghdadi has been able to win recruits by liberating Al-Qaeda operatives from prison under his control and finances his organization with methods used by organized crime

In Syria and Iraq where no international border in effect exists (thereby dissolving one of the arbitrary borders established after the Great War), ISIS slaughters Shia and other minorities, including Christians and Alawites, the offshoot to which Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, belongs. By sacking churches and Shia shrines, dispatching suicide-bombers to market-places, Frank Rich argues that Iraq (and I would add Syria) has become a jihadist laboratory for car bombs, IEDs, and kidnapping scenarios like the one enacted by Boko Ha argues that Iraq (and I would add Syria) has become a jihadist laboratory for car bombs, IEDs, and kidnapping scenarios like the one enacted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced to flee their homes and untold numbers have been killed. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers surrendered and defected to the militants; some were slaughtered. When they capture a wide swath of territory, the militants captured untold quantities of American-supplied weaponry, including helicopters, and looted an estimated $425 million from Mosul’s banks.

ISIS is committed to carving out an Islamist caliphate in the Sunni territory of Syria and Iraq. Once an area like the city of Mosul is under its control, ISIS declares Sharia law and operates in a manner similar to the Taliban before the American invasion in December 2001. Unaccompanied women were ordered to stay indoors and the militia has destroyed symbols of Iraq's rich heritage razing statues of cultural icons and the tomb of a medieval philosopher. But they appear to be more formidable than the original Taliban. ISIS may have up to 12,000 fighters in Iraq, one third of their numbers are estimated to be foreigners, the largest contingent from Chechnya and perhaps 500 or so more from France, Britain, Germany and from North America. The group is well armed, battle hardened and financed directly or indirectly by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other gulf states. At the time of this writing, ISIS is endangering Baghdad and the oil refineries.

Iraq experiences more terrorist attacks than other country in the world. Commentators as diverse as the respected security analyst Anthony Cordesman and conservative George Will believe that Iraq is in worse shape than under Saddam Hussein who, for all his psychopathic tendencies, could restrain sectarian violence. Indeed, Sunnis and Shiites co-mingled and intermarriage was not uncommon.  Even the rule of law, life expectancy and access to education were better under Hussein, and, given his cesspit regime, that is saying a lot.

The current violence that is roiling Iraq has enabled the semi-autonomous Kurds to believe that the state of Kurdistan is within their reach. The collapse of the Iraqi army in northern and western Iraq has allowed the Kurds to expand their territory by about forty percent, including the key city of Kirkuk. They currently control about a quarter of Iraq' oil production. A stable, inclusive and economically vibrant Kurdistan has become a safe haven for up to half a million Iraqis, in part because its soldiers are capable of fighting ISIS.

Some of the responsibility for this turmoil must be attributed to the machinations of Iran who have contributed to the implosion of Syria with military aid to the most militant Shiites. According to Fareed Zakaria, Iran insisted that Maliki require the removal of all American troops. Since Maliki spent much of his twenty-four exile in Tehran and Damascus, and is funded by Iran, he complied. Since then he has followed pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian policies. The irony is that the Shiite government of Iran that ordered its agents to train Iranians to kill American and British soldiers, is prepared to talk, namely the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, with the Americans about how to most effectively respond to the threat posed by their common enemy. Iran is prepared to send troops into Iraq to fight ISIS, although so far the small clusters sent have been hopelessly outmatched. The region is in the grip of a potential all-out sectarian war. If Baghdad were to fall, there would be terrible bloodletting since its ethnic and religious makeup is a microcosm of Iraq's population. 
Car attack in predominately Shiite neighborhood

Under these circumstances, a beleaguered Maliki turned to the White House for support, which provided him with Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones. That military and technical assistance did nothing to deter the onslaught of ISIS. When the Iraqi armed forces performed so woefully, the Obama administration is likely wondering whether it should provide them with weapons that could fall into ISIS hands? As long as the polarizing Maliki remains in power, Iraq will continue to disintegrate and the partition of the country is a likely scenario. President Obama alternates between applying pressure on the divisive Maliki to resign and offering his support given that Maliki was recently re-elected for a third time in a relatively free election, and that there appears to be no other viable more conciliatory candidates. 

A national unity government of moderate Shiites, Sunnis and perhaps Kurds is the best hope for the country for averting its implosion. That will depend to a large extent on whether the government of Iran would support what David Ignatius calls a "quiet putsch," against the Shiite Maliki, whether the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani will endorse a coalition and whether Sunni tribal leaders can be weaned away from their support of ISIS, and that would only happen if they were assured a share of real power. At the same time, few of the Sunni majority in both Syria and Iraq support the political goal of ISIS and their increasingly violent methods. Probably the best scenario for Iraq would be to become a decentralized, loose federation with the central government controlling foreign policy and national security while each region would have control over areas that affect the day-to-day life if its citizens. If a coalition is not possible and  the implacable Maliki refuses to go, Americans should strengthen their ties with the only stable government in Iraq, the Kurds and support the creation of the independent state of Kurdistan. 

Postscript: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of the country’s Shiite establishment, issued a call to arms asking his followers to join with the government military to stop the blitzkrieg by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

How this turmoil is affecting American politics will be the subject of the next blog.

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