There is a tendency among the politicians and decision makers (key to the world order) for the simplifying of the most important issues. It helps to “understand” the matter of the problem, and take some decisive actions. The problem is, that without careful analysis and taking all – or at least as much as possible – of the details into consideration, such actions can lead to disastrous effects for all concerned.
So we had the issue of „good vs. bad” in the case of Saddam Hussein: After his removal it was meant to be easy to build democracy. Another simplification was in 2009, when the number of causalities decreased in Iraq, which for many simply mean that the country was stabilized. Moreover President Barack Obama, who wanted to withdraw troops from Iraq, was also convinced (or pretended so) that Iraq was stable. And now we try once again to simplify the problems of Iraq in the case of Islamic State (IS, called also ISIS, ISIL or Da’esh). The way it operates, the way it makes people think is at last a clear picture: bad people against good people.
Many people say that IS is so radical and brutal, that it exceeds everything in the human history and that is the enemy of all people in the so- called civilized world. There are voices from the nations of the West, the Middle East and others to join their efforts to defeat this nightmare. For many people, it’s clear, that defeating IS will bring stability to Iraq again. Unfortunately this easy and straight picture is based on an incorrect assessment, because the situation in the region, and especially in Iraq, is not simple at all. Such simplification was the cause of many mistakes and misjudgements in that region, and following such a line will cause future problems for not only the Iraqis , but also for the region and the West. The so- called Islamic State is not the most brutal organization in history, nor in the recent times, not in the region and not even in violent and brutal in Iraq itself.
The invasion of the Coalition Forces (CF) in Iraq of 2003 changed the balance of power in the region radically. The programme for the rebuilding of Iraq seems to have been haphazard and poorly thought-through. The original plan of the Iraq rebuilding seemed to be reasonable: The Director of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, Jay Gardner, knew very well the situation in Iraq and realized the necessity of the difficult but fundamentally important status quo between the Sunni, Shia and the special role of the Kurds.
But the replacement of Gardner by the pair of governors – Paul Bremer and Alamay Khalilzad, could not have been a worse solution. The first of them was meant to be in charge of US and CF and the second was to lead the rebuilding of the Iraq and establish new authorities with the necessary balance of power. Unfortunately those well prepared, discussed and widely consulted plans were drastically changed. First (and it seems, it was Bremer’s initiative) Khalilzad was removed from his position before he even showed up in Iraq.
Then Bremer, after only a few consultations, and despite much criticism, decided to change the plan for Iraq completely. In just a few months, a man who had completely no experience in Iraq and seemed to be unaware of the pre-war plan for Iraq, made a chain of decisions which produced a completely new situation in that country. Bremer decided that keeping the balance between the groups inside Iraq after the war made no sense.
First of all, he dissolved the Iraqi army. The composition of Saddam Hussein’s army was based on Sunnis holding the key positions but many Shia served in the army as well. Bremer switched it into Shia who were made the key personnel and he expected that Sunnis would fill the lower ranks. He wanted to reconstitute the Iraqi army with new recruits. So one of the first decisions was the banning of soldiers who were not in the barracks or in the battlefield from serving in the Iraqi Army. The same decision applied for the Police and Secret Service. In fact, at this moment it meant the disbanding of the Iraqi Armed Forces.
He ignored the fact, that US Phyops, just before the invasion dropped tons of leaflets with warning directed to the Iraqi soldiers, that they have to stay in their homes in order to be brought back to the army after the war. The dissolution of the Iraqi Army, according to CPA Order number 2, made 385,000 armed, trained and quite well paid people unemployed. It meant those middle-class people couldn’t feed their families. Moreover, 285,000 policemen and 50,000 of Hussein’s Republican Guard were also dissolved, making the number of unemployed as high as 720,000 people who used to constitute the entire security system.
Together, along with an ill-conceived “De-Baathifaction” policy, To create a new security system, at least few months was needed. In this period the Coalition Forces were responsible for keeping the law and order in the whole country. Another CPA order (released a little-bit earlier), dissolved also all civilian authorities of all main branches. Along with mashing of all Saddam’s system remnants, Paul Bremer removed all professional and experienced personnel of country infrastructure. Three highest layers of administration, responsible for every sphere of public life, from electricity or transportation, up to hospitals management were removed. In this case another 100,000 of people became unemployed. The chaos in the country was imminent.
Three years later, a new political cabinet composed of Iraqis was established. Together with the parliamentary elections which took place half year earlier, it was a plan for the democratizing of Iraq. In the parliament, as well as in the government, all main religious and cultural groups were included: sunnis, shia, Kurds. It was meant to be a national unity government, headed by PM Nouri Al-Maliki. Maliki was shia, but he convinced US authorities that he would include all the important parties of Iraq . Unfortunately, in fact he did everything he could to bring the Shia to absolute power in Iraq, totally marginalizing all other groups.
Even Iranians from Teheran University, asked by author of this text admitted that Maliki was not a good leader for building the national unity authorities (the author asked Dr Mohammada Hassan Khani, from Islamic Azad University in Teheran, during a conference at Łódź University, 7th of November 2014). At the same time, from the Iraqi prisons were released people who were supposed to be charged for political reasons. The problem was that most of the documents were destroyed during the military operation or burned by the security forces just before coalition forces entrance into the Baghdad in 2003.
The new authorities didn’t always try enough to research the background of the candidates for the key positions in the country. Because of that, such people like Khalil Jalil Hanza, were put into positions of power (governor of the Al-Qadisiyah province). This man was travelling often to Iran for instructions and he led anti-Sunni politics. He was also fighting other Shia groups. All of that was very well known to Coalition Forces intelligence but they usually couldn’t do anything about it without complete control of the border.
Under such conditions, the transfer of money for projects aimed in the rebuilding of Iraqi infrastructure, in fact ended up in hands of governor. He used it to enforce his position in fighting against other “war-lords” or increased his private fortune. When Coalition Force commanders decided to bypass the Divaniyah governor and to transfer the money for the heads of the main families, Hanza accused Polish or Bulgarian officers of direct support for terrorism. I experienced that myself, during one of the meetings with him in Camp Delta, south of Diwaniyah, when he accused Bulgarian Brigade Deputy Commander for support of terrorism. During the negotiations I was responsible for interpreting into polish language, and in some point he directed his accusation against me too, blaming me for lying and cheating in the translations.
Fights were evolving between all other breakdowns: Shia-Sunni, Shia-Kurds, and as most powerful, Shiites fought against other Shiite groups too. Shia Iraqis who lived in Iran and fought against Iraq in Iraq-Iran war (1980-1988), constituted the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq on exile. This body was created with use of the example of Iranian highest authority. The aim was to be prepared to rule the future Iraq. The moment for that came in 2003 just after invasion.
This council was a basis for the Badr organization. Badr squads supported Nouri Al-Maliki’s government of in 2006. They also formed the religious militia, which was accused by the Kurds and Sunnis of being persecution of all other groups in Iraq. On the Iraqi side, the group of Iranian Shiites had it’s base, under Saddam Hussain’s supervision. They were also refugees, and fought on the Iraqi side in the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88). Those people – Mujahedin Al-Khalq, living in Camp Asharaf in eastern Iraq, were especially hated by the Iranian authorities. After 2003 another strong group of Shia fought against other Shia groups. It was Sadri organization (commanded by Muqtada Al-Sadr) and it was very well known to polish troops because of the Karbala battle.
Kurds, who had homogeneous community in the northern and north-eastern Iraq, strived for autonomy. But at the same time, Kurds were divided into many political parties, sub-cultural groups and have also different political aims. Seeing the growing chaos and violence in the other parts of the country, they distanced themselves as much as they could from the central government. Kurdish actions aimed in the separation from the Iraq provoked Iraqi Shia authorities. Also Turkey did not perceived Kurdish actions as a positive step. Their situation changed only after the Islamic State came to life in Iraq, when many international actors supported Kurds openly. Kurdish struggle against so called Islamic State, brought them US diplomatic support and shortly military equipment assistance. US started bombardment of IS positions which was coordinated with Kurdish fighters. Kurdish state in Iraq and north-east Syria is now as strong as never before and it seems that it is permanent situation.
After withdrawing of the US troops from Iraq in 2011, Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his Shia Militia, wanted to prevent Sunnis from creation another separate state. The aim was to keep the control of what left from the country, but also to keep total power of Shia over other groups. Shia militia was very brutal, made raids on the villages inhabited by Sunnis, killing or abducting the people.The Shia were now in all the positions of power and the Sunni found themselves deprived of any political representation in Baghdad, or banned from taking any key positions in the Iraqi army, police or any other key service. This marginalization ultimately led to disaster.
Situation in Syria and Libya
In 2011 in Syria, rebellion exploded; an effect of the Arab Spring , it was brutally pacified by the forces of Bashar Al-Assad . Such pacification was not unique in the region. On the same wave of the “Arab Spring”, people in Bahrain or Yemen were in a state of revolt and were killed in the same way as in Syria. Syria was – and still is – the ally of Iran, supporting both Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are threatening Israel. The support of Hamas by Iran and Syria was (and still is) a cynical game, because Hamas is closely connected to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology which is at another pole of the divisions in the Middle East.
The only reason for Iran’s support for Hamas is just having the basis and people who can help them to threaten Israel: Palestinians are the ultimate victims of those games which are played by the strongest in the region, which is another tragedy . All those circumstances drew the attention of the western world against Bashar Al-Assad; The West accused the president of Syria of being a cruel and brutal dictator and supported the rebellion. The FSA was prepared, trained and armed in southern Turkey or later in northern Syria by the French and US (inter alia) military advisers.
The problem, which at the very beginning was hushed up in the western media, was that in the ranks the rebel forces, more and more Al-Qaeda fighters were appearing. Those well prepared, experienced and armed people, of the same faith and most often aims, were warmly welcomed by the rebellion’s leaders. In June 10, 2013, Abdel Basset Al-Tawil, commander of the northern front of the FSA, admitted in an interview in Al-Jazeera that he cooperated with Al-Nusra and his aim is to build together with them a state based on Islamic rules (Syria: searching for the “lesser evil” in: https://mmilczanowski.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/syria-government-rebels-extremists/).
He mentioned that Sharia law is not a problem for them and that they agree with Al-Nusra in matters of ideology. If we add that support of the Sunni rebellion in Syria was also very much in the interest of the Gulf Countries (especially Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), itt shows why the FSA and Al-Nusra were so strong.
In the Spring of 2011, Muamar Qadafi in Libya was murdered after another rebellion – also caused by the Arab Spring, and evolving similarly as in Syria. The “rebellion” in was in fact the least typical of the any other “revolution” in the region. It was not the result of a mass movement as in Egypt or Tunesia, but rather clans – unhappy that their rival Qadafi ruling for so long. They persuaded French president Nicolas Sarkozy, with the large role of journalist Bernard-Henri Levy, that they had prepared a national unity government and that they would form a “model country” in post-Qadafi Libya (The shocking report of the circumstances of the revolt in Lybia, is well written by the Steven Erlanger: By His Own Reckoning, One Man Made Libya a French Cause, The New York Times, April 1, 2011). For France and for the new US President Barack Obama, it seemed to be a great opportunity to show a much better model of political transformation in the Middle East than the model George W. Bush presented.
They had the support of the Arab League, African Union, and most importantly – of the UN. For both countries, such a victory over a “bad dictator” seemed very beneficial in terms of their internal and international policy: Of course, oil was also important cause of action.
The of the Western decisions was the removal of the Qaddafi clan from power and another cauldron of chaos in the region. What could, and should have been foreseen, is that rival clans and extremists from the southwest – such as Al-Qaeda of the Maghreb – were most happy to remove the Libyan leader. For them, it was the dreamed-of situation to strengthen their position. Disaster in that country also caused more problems for Iraq, because huge arsenals of weapons were emptied very soon after regime collapse. Those arms were spread to all extremists in the region but a large part was transported through the Sahara Desert, underneath tunnels to Gaza and further to northern Syria. It was mean to supply Syrian rebels fighting Assad, but in fact, it fell into the hands of Al-Nusra.
This gave this Al-Qaeda branch another impulse to take the lead not only in the fight against Assad, but also for something much more. Finally, a large group of Al-Nusra members, some parts of the FSA and the most radical people coming there from all over the world ultimately formed the new group calling themselves Islamic State. The idea was to join all the territories in the north of Syria inhabited by the Sunni people, topple the Assad regime and create a nation- state throughout Syria and cross the border to connect with the Iraqi Sunnis, who were in a desperate position defending themselves against the Shia militia (which hasn’t changed, even in face of the IS threat : Iran’s Shiite Militias Are Running Amok in Iraq 21 February 2015, http://www.irannewsupdate.com/news/terrorism/1950-iran-s-shiite-militias-are-running-amok-in-iraq.html).
That IS growth and giving up the illusions of being “good rebels” fighting against Assad, caused the USA to commence air operations against Syria and stop supplying the FSA with arms. Abandoning the FSA made IS the only force in that area. When IS grew into real importance, their actions became much better prepared and they began a wave of of unprecedented brutality in order to threaten people in the region and to make it attractive to mercenaries or extremists who would like to join.
The US government seemed confused and sent ambivalent signals; sometimes cooperation with Iran or Assad against IS, sometimes urging for the removal of the Syrian regime. Unfortunately it wasn’t the effect of the flexibility of US actions, but rather a lack of the strategy. During the same time, France, so active in 2011 in toppling Qadafi and supporting o the FSA, under new president Francois Hollande stayed quiet and otherwise preoccupied.
Levy was giving interviews of how greatly democracy is burgeoning in Lybia (Mehdi Hasan interview: Meddling in other people’s business? Head to Head, Al-Jazeera, 08 Jun 2013 http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/headtohead/2013/06/2013661301564183.html) – in exactly the same way as a few years earlier, Thomas Friedman wrote in Newsweek that Iraq was becoming a model democracy (Thomas L. Friedman. 2005. “A Day to Remember.” New York Times. 154(53114): A27; Thomas L. Friedman. 2004. “Iraq, Ballots and Pistachios.” New York Times. 154(53061): 13). Propaganda is not so easy to spread in democracies. In both cases, the facts showed how cynical those most famous of journalists were.
IS in Iraq
The so-called Islamic State, using the chaos and very difficult position of the Iraqi Sunni, entered the Iraq. Many Iraqi Sunnis, having the choice of an unpredictable and totally hostile Shia militia or the brutal but at least Sunni Islamic State, chose the latter. According to Ahmed, with whom I’ve met in Turkey earlier this year, (Ahmed wanted to stay anonymous, which is understandable as he lives in Turkey with its complicated geopolitical situation between the Kurds and IS right now) after entering a village, IS kills all the soldiers and policemen and establishes establishes very hard conditions for living.
But the villagers know that they will survive. Moreover, if they do not serve in the military or police and simply obey the new rules, they will have some safety, food and water, the basic levels of Maslov’s Pyramid. For many of those people, it is deliverance after oppressive Shia oppressions; they also have now a chance for their own country. Even if it’s brutal right now, they have the hope that after the country entrenches oneself, it will become easier with the rules and conditions of living.
In the same time, US policy in the region, was so ambiguous that all sides accuse them of supporting of the others. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Sunnis from Iraq claimed that USA and EU supports Iranian authorities to get a nuclear deal. From the other side, Ayatollah’s regime, Bashar Al-Assad and many Egyptians accuse US of supporting IS and Al-Qaeda. They claim that wars and chaos in the region are useful for US leadership. Paradox of this situation is, that both sides are partially right.
Both Presidents of the USA of this period (2003-2013) improved the situation of Iran, causing it’s advantage over Iraq. George W. Bush, broke the balance of power between those countries. Barack Obama on his turn, striving for the nuclear deal with Iran, to prove his leadership and soft power abilities. By such actions President Obama allow Iran to spread it’s influences in the region and dominate the Iraq, support Shia in Yemen, Bahrain, enforce Syria regime. On the other hand, it can’t be denied, that US and France supplied FSA in Syria which helped a lot Al-Nusrah and IS. Even if it was not their intention, it does not take out the blame off them.
As a result, we have seen the development of the so- called Islamic Statewhich has strong social support and political justification, even if the West does not want to realize that. Of course, there is no justification for the terrorist methods used by IS. They are disgusting and are not a result of any religion, but rather a radical ideology, being the convergence of misinterpreted and cherry-picked fragments of the Qur’an and tendentious assorted Hadiths of dubious veracity, or sometimes simply propaganda slogans.
The IS concept is far closer to fascism, which is also called Islamism or Islamo-fascism; it is, in any event, a totalitarian ideology. The tragedy of the situation is that such a radical ideology is now considered deliverance from 12 years of humiliation, threats, persecution and chaos for the Sunnis of Iraq. Sunnis have been deprived of their country, pushed into the margins of social life, banned from any political life, and later , armed with weapons from Libya or using the funds of Al-Qaeda, Qatar, KSA and others. The rest was made by the extremists from Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra and IS.
In the present situation, there is no other way but to divide Iraq. The Kurds have defined borders and if nothing new happens, they will stay with it. And it is the most optimistic version of their policy. Many Kurds (especially those from abroad) claims that those small pieces of Kurdistan in northern Iraq and small scraps in Syria are far from enough: Their aim is to unite all Kurdish territories. And again, all those who support the Kurds fail to comprehend that it may well lead to another great war with Iran and Turkey or to continuous acts of terror in their territories.
In the case of Iraq, even more imminent is the struggle between Shia and Sunnis. Any peaceful process of deciding where the line of division between Sunni North and Shia South could run is very difficult to imagine. Such a division without international arbitrage (which again is very difficult to imagine) means yet another war or series of wars.
One of refugees from Iraq Ahmed from Iraq, with whoom I have duscussed inTurkey, said that even the south from Al-Hillah the territories fully belong to Sunni. On the other hand, the Shia will never let go from the line of north of Baghdad. It meand that discrepancy between the two is a belt of the most higly- developed and historical part of Iraq some 100 km wide: Between them is the ancient Babylon and many sacred places of both religious groups, which will serve as a cause for fresh wars for many years to come. Any attempt at international involvement – especially from the West – will be received as the a Sykes-Picot agreement, which even in the West, is now seen as the root of all of the troubles. The war between Shia and Sunni will be a casus belli for Turkey to intervene to protect the Sunni people and to limit the Kurds powers.
We always have to find some (even most academic) solution for the situation; in 2003 there were many possibilities on the table. from 2003 to 2008, the situation got much worse but still there were some possibilities of building a National Unity Government. Even in 2011, there were still some chances for a lesser evil which could stabilize the rest of the country south from Kurdistan. After that moment, when IS became the only alternative for the Sunni, the situation became even much more difficult. In summer of 2014, President Obama admitted that he has no strategy for IS.
It means that the US administration is not able to start any coordinated and well prepared actions in case of IS seizing the area: All this happened despite the numerous think-tanks, advisers with the best knowledge and representation of all the Iraqi groups who could be summoned in Washington DC to find best solution. One thing is perfectly sure and the US administration should face it; there is no universal solution (like democracy in 2003, withdrawal and hope that it will be better in 2011, or bombing IS in 2014 and 2015).
It is impossible to point out any single approach or action, and even a complex strategy is very difficult to succeed in Iraq. But even in such conditions, a comprehensive strategy is needed for Iraq very soon: A strategy which is not concentrated just on US interests or interests of the actors in the region, but on a quick cease fire and establishing a peace process with a two (Kurdistan – Iraq) or three (Kurdistan – Sunni part – Shia part) state solution.
Such a solution would have to be worked out by talks which need to be led by the US and include Turkey, Iran, the Gulf States and Israel. But it has to be concentrated on Iraqis and their situation not on carving-up the oil-pie. I know how controversial it is for many to place these actors in these hypothetical talks, but a proxy war leads to a situation where without the withdrawal of outside actors funds or forces, improvement is impossible.
As an answer to the question in the title, IS is the result of the Iraqi drama and dealing with just the results is pointless. The cause of the grim drama playing out day after day is a proxy war in Iraq where Iran, with use of its deadly militias, fights the Sunni and their deadly proxies, IS or Al-Qaeda. Both sides use extreme methods and the Iraqis are the just a tools and victims in these political wars for influence, oil, money and power. Only way of stabilizing the situation with respecting the rights of the each group inside Iraq is the real power in Iraqi government which is eager to build consensus or division of Iraq into three parts.