The crisis in Iraq continues to deepen. This week an organized militant group calling itself ISIS (short for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) overran Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The group controls most of the surrounding province and ISIS forces have advanced toward Baghdad where they have been responsible for a series of deadly explosions.
ISIS is a radical Sunni organization that split earlier this year from al-Qaida and is seen as even more brutal and militant than its parent group. On Wednesday ISIS took control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery, and on Friday we learned that it was occupying the site of a former chemical weapons facility 46 miles northeast of Baghdad that contains a large supply of lethal chemicals.
To understand the present political situation in Iraq it is necessary to know some of its history.
Iraq lies between Syria and Iran at the head of the Persian Gulf. The national boundaries carved out by the victorious European powers in 1920 shortly after the end of the First World War artificially divided this territory without regard to traditional tribal and religious loyalties. Land disputes and religious rivalries have been problems in this region ever since.
In 1979 the secular government of Iran was overthrown in a populist revolutionary movement that put control of the country in the hands of conservative Shi’ite religious leaders. The Shi’a are a minority within the Muslim world (forming about 10-15% of the total Muslim population), but they are the dominant group in Iran.
In neighboring Iraq the Shi’a also form the majority (over 60%), with the Sunnis, who form 85-90% of the Muslim population worldwide, being the minority (only 20%). In 1968 the revolutionary Sunni-based Ba’ath Party took control of Iraq in a coup and began filling government positions with Sunni appointees. Throughout the years of Ba’ath rule, both the majority Shi’a and the minority Kurdish population of northern Iraq were harshly suppressed.
Saddam Husain took power as head of the Ba’ath Party in Iraq in 1979. The following year he invaded Iran – partially out of fear that the Iranian Revolution might inspire a similar revolt among Iraq’s suppressed Shi’a majority, and partially out of a desire to replace Iran as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf.
Iran fougnt back and regained most of its lost territory by 1982. After that Iraq was put on the defensive. In 1983 the Kurds of northern Iraq rebelled against the Husain government and attempted to form their own autonomous country.
The conflict went on for 8 long years at immense cost to all sides. It is estimated that half a million Iraqi and Iranian soldiers died in the conflict along with an equivalent number of civilians. During the war Iraqi forces used mustard gas against Iranian soldiers and sarin gas against Kurdish civilians – both chemicals are considered to be “weapons of mass destruction.” Hostilities were finally ended through a UN-brokered cease fire in 1988 that all sides accepted.
The United States played only an indirect role in the First Gulf War, mainly seeking to protect its economic interests in the region and to ensure the safety of oil shipments in the Persian Gulf. American resentment of Iran was still high following the lengthy holding of American hostages at the at the American embassy in Tehran in 1979-80, and so the United States favored Iraq during the conflict.
In 1982 the U.S. removed Iraq from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism (created in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution). This was despite its full knowledge of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in the war. It established diplomatic ties with the Husain regime, and began massive arms sales to Iraq.
Although Iran remained on the official list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, the Reagan administration surreptitiously gave military support to Iran as well. Anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry were taken from Pentagon warehouses and sold to the Khomeini regime in Iran in exchange for promises that Shi’a militiamen in Lebanon would release their American hostages. The details of the Iran-Contra affair only came to light long afterward.
Operation Desert Storm
American support of Iraq abruptly reversed course in 1990. In August of that year Saddam Husain invaded Kuwait, accusing it of exceeding its OPEC-set quotas of oil production. A few days later he declared Kuwait to be Iraq’s 19th province and installed his cousin as its military-governor. U.S. President George H. W. Bush termed the invasion a “naked act of aggression” and called for a clear and unequivocal withdrawal of Iraqi forces. The United Nations Security Council condemned the invasion, and within days had imposed sanctions on Iraq.
Saddam soon began verbally attacking the Saudis. Saudi Arabia was the largest oil producer in the Middle East and a strategic U.S. ally. President Bush announced that the U.S. would launch a “wholly defensive” mission to prevent Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia. U.N. Resolution 678 gave Iraq until January 15, 1991 to withdraw from Iraq, authorizing the use of force if Iraq refused to comply. The United States began building an international coalition of 34 countries to support such actions which included many Arab states.
Operation Desert Storm began on January 17, 1991 with an aerial bombing campaign aimed at destroying Iraqi military and civilian infrastructures. On February 24 American ground forces entered Kuwait from their staging area in Saudi Arabia and began the process of liberating the country from Iraqi occupation. They were joined by Arab forces advancing from the East. On 27 February, Saddam ordered a retreat from Kuwait, and President Bush declared it liberated.
Coalition forces then entered Iraq. The Iraqi forces suffered massive casualties while coalition casualties were low. American, British and French forces moved within 150 miles of Baghdad before withdrawing. On February 28, President Bush declared a ceasefire stating that the objective of the liberation of Kuwait had been accomplished.
Some criticized the Bush administration for allowing Saddam Husain to remain in power, rather than pushing on to capture Baghdad and overthrow his government. But the American President was adamant that his military forces would not exceed the mandate of the United Nations, which merely called for the restoration of sovereignty to Kuwait.
Events Under Geroge W. Bush
A decade later, after the horrendous terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon in 2001 masterminded by al-Qaida, President George W. Bush, declared war on Iraq claiming that it was in league with al-Qaida and was equipping its members with weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam Husain’s links to al-Qaida were never proven, and the claims tying him to this militant religious group were highly suspicious. Saddam was not a religious person; he knew how to cite Islamic scripture in speeches to show his loyalty to Islam, but didn’t go beyond that. His policies showed a strong secularist rather than religious orientation, and the religious extremists of al-Qaida tended to regard him as a religious heretic and infidel like so many others whom they opposed.
Nor were any weapons of mass destruction ever found in Iraq despite exhaustive searches for them. It soon became apparent that these claims of Iraqi links with al-Qaida and weapons of mass destruction were simply a pretext offered by the Bush administration to rationalize the invasion of Iraq and depose Saddam. Some mused that the younger Bush had vowed to finish the job that his father had left undone, and remove Saddam Husain from power once and for all.
In March 2003 American forces began their massive “shock and awe” military strikes against Iraq. Once American forces had deposed Saddam Husain, they banned his ruling Ba’ath party, systematically dismantled the existing government, and disbanded the Sunni dominated military and police forces. As Fareed Zakaria notes,
[T]he administration needed to find local allies. It quickly decided to destroy Iraq’s Sunni ruling establishment and empower the hard-line Shiite religious parties that had opposed Saddam Hussein. This meant that a structure of Sunni power that had been in the area for centuries collapsed.
Historically there were tensions between these groups, but as writer and peace activist Raed Jarrar explains,
Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites managed to live in the same country for a long time without killing each other, and they lived in the same neighborhoods. They intermarried …
That was before the US intervention. The US destroyed that Iraqi national identity and replaced it with sectarian and ethnic identities after 2003. … [Y]ou can trace the beginning of this sectarian strife that is destroying the country, and it clearly began with the U.S. invasion and occupation.
Developments Under Nuri Kamal al-Maliki
Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was a Shi’a dissident in the early days of Saddam Husain’s regime and spent 24 years in exile after receiving a death sentence. He lived first in Damascas, Syria before moving to Tehran, Iran in 1990, and continues to have close ties with Iran and Syria.
Al-Maliki returned to Iraq aftr the fall of Saddam Husain, and became the deputy leader of the commission formed to purge Ba’ath party officials from the military and the government. He was elected to the transitional National Assembly in January 2005 and was appointed Prime Minister in May 2006.
Al-Malaki has been described as a militant sectarian who after his election began a systematic campaign to consolidate Shi’a rule and marginalize Sunni opposition. He is largely held to be responsible for a brutal civil war between the Shi’a and Sunni in Iraq from 2006 and 2009 which necessitated the “surge” in American troop levels to contain massive Sunni opposition to the U.S backed Shi’a rulers.
But efforts at containment had to be directed toward the Shi’a leadership as well. As one observer close to the situation has reported,
Time and again, American commanders … stepped in front of Maliki to stop him from acting brutally and arbitrarily toward Iraq’s Sunni minority. Then the Americans left, removing the last restraints on Maliki’s sectarian and authoritarian tendencies.
In the two and a half years since the Americans’ departure from Iraq in December 2011, Maliki has centralized power within his own circle, cut the Sunnis out of political power, and unleashed a wave of arrests and repression. … With nowhere else to go, Iraq’s Sunnis are turning, once again, to the extremists to protect them.
Before George W. Bush left office, he negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement with the government of Iraq which stated that
All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.
When President Barack Obama came to office, he realized that situation in Iraq was extremely unstable. He tried to negotiate a new agreement with al-Maliki allowing a contingent of American troops to remain on the ground to continue working with the Iraqi forces and assist the transition to peacetime rule. A necessary condition of this agreement was that U.S. troops would be granted immunity from prosecution for actions in Iraq. This clause is a standard part of Status of Forces agreements that the United States has with other countries. Al-Maliki refused to agree to this condition, and the talks collapsed. Obama was thus legally unable to extend the presence of US military forces in Iraq beyond the withdrawal deadline negotiated by President Bush.
The Current Situation
After enduring years of brutal oppression by Prime MInister al-Maliki and the Shi’ite military command, many Sunni Iraqis have become radicalized against the government. Some have come to see the ISIS militants as potential deliverers. Although most Iraqi Sunnis reject the extreme religious views of ISIS, many have nevertheless welcomed them as political liberators.
ISIS is an extremely well organized and well-funded military movement. ISIS commanders set up local governments wherever they go, collect taxes, and even offer social services.
They are not a“terrorist” group in the usual sense, but rather a well financed radical political movement with an organized administrative structure and an estimated $2 billion in assets.
The appaling irony is that before the American invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush, there was no discernable presence of al-Qaida in Iraq. But after years of American soldiers targeting Iraqis in trying to defeat al-Qaida insurgents who made their way into the country, and after tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians being killed by American forces, many Sunnis have turned to al-Qaida sponsored groups for support.
Al-Qaida was not a direct threat to Iraq before American forces landed. Now, with the Americans gone, they are the largest threat the Iraqis have to deal with. And they may very well end up controlling a sizeable portion of the country and threaten Mideast stability for some time to come.
Photo credits: Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images; European Press Photo Agency