Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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Iraq’s Sectarian Nightmare

DENVER – With the apparent conquest of Iraq’s northwestern provinces – and maybe more – by the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the country’s troubled history has opened a horrifying new chapter. In a matter of just days, ISIS’s fighters overran Anbar, Ninewa, and Salahaddin provinces – a victory that attests to the central government’s non-existent authority in Sunni-majority areas. And, given ISIS’s jihadi ideology, there is limited scope for “Sunni outreach” – the supposed panacea for all that ails Iraq’s sectarian political culture.

ISIS is not a group that is receptive to dialogue. Its leadership adheres to the view, expressed in many corners of the Arab Sunni world, that Shia Muslims are apostates and betrayers of Islam who rank among the worst of the worst (alongside Israel and the United States). This means that the US needs both a military response to ISIS and a political response that extends beyond Iraq. What is needed, above all, is a regional approach to the increasingly murderous Sunni-Shia rivalry.

It is worth remembering that the original sin of the US-led occupation of Iraq 11 years ago was so-called “de-Ba’athification” – the purge of any and all people with ties to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party. That decision was taken in the year following the 2003 invasion, when Iraq was a wholly-owned US subsidiary; Iraqi officials, whether Shia or Sunni, had almost nothing to do with it.

It is often said that Iraq needs a Nelson Mandela; the same could be said of US policymakers back then. In the ideologically charged US policy circles of the time, de-Ba’athification was understood to be a decisive move to extirpate a heinous ideology. It was likened to the de-Nazification of Germany following World War II.

But de-Ba’athification ended up targeting anyone who ever had ties to Ba’athism, something far beyond what the occupying armies attempted in Germany. Given the vast patronage system that Saddam had created, such people included even elementary school principals. And, though some Shia, especially secularists, joined the Ba’ath party to survive in Saddam’s system, Ba’athism was broadly and correctly understood to be a kind of secular fig leaf for Sunni minority rule.

Thus, the overall effect of this de-Ba’athification program was to marginalize the Sunnis. And the Sunni response to de-Ba’athification became de facto support for Islamists.

That is where we are today. By and large, Iraqi political parties are sectarian organizations. Shia vote for Shia candidates and Sunnis for Sunnis. There are exceptions, of course. Following April’s general election, not every Shia is delighted by the prospect of another term for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; but they were not prepared to vote for Sunni parties to prevent it.

US President Barack Obama is correct in saying that a political complement to any military action is needed. A good place to start probably would be a pledge by Maliki not to lead the government for what would be his third term. Maliki has become the most polarizing figure in Iraqi politics, and it is difficult to imagine the country making any progress under his leadership.

But there needs to be a far more concerted effort to persuade Iraq’s Arab neighbors to accept a Shia-governed Iraq. Among Iraq’s Arab population (that is, leaving aside the Kurds, who make up roughly 20% of the population), Shia outnumber Sunni by three to one. In a country where political identity is – at least for the time being – tied to sectarian identity, majority rule thus means Shia rule.

And yet the rest of the Sunni Arab world has had a difficult time absorbing this demographic fact. Many countries – for example, Saudi Arabia – have restive Shia minorities, and one, Bahrain, has a restive Shia majority.

But all Sunnis should be concerned about the kind of extremism that ISIS represents. Though the bombing and assassination campaign waged by Sunni Islamists in Iraq has been directed mainly against Shia, many such attacks have also targeted Sunnis suspected of supporting the government. And much of the weaponry and other aid that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have supplied to support the Sunni uprising in Syria is now in the hands of extremists. It turns out that arming Syria’s moderate rebels is easier said than done.

What is happening today in Iraq is part of a broader pattern of sectarian violence across the region. Whether triggered by the US-led invasion of Iraq 11 years ago or by the often-misunderstood Arab Spring, sectarianism is alive and well, and, in the case of ISIS, it is accompanied by the kind of terrorism that the US has confronted so firmly since September 11, 2001. America and the West need a policy that addresses the sectarian struggle head-on – not just in Iraq but throughout the region.

Read more from "The Middle East Meltdown"

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  1. Commentedvaibhav gairola

    The falling of Iraq is like a long plan falling into pieces that started with U.S invasion and now the ISIS is dividing the nation on terms of power ,religion and instability.

  2. CommentedSam Sharma

    Viewed neutrally from India , this is Part II of the American Invasion of Iraq.

    The task now is to dismember Iraq and put rulers in place for the new parts of Iraq. The ISIS is setting up one agenda, the Kurds will be the second.

    Third ? Anyone..

  3. Commentedj. von Hettlingen

    Mr. Hill believes that "the original sin of the US-led occupation of Iraq 11 years ago was so-called “de-Ba’athification” of the country. During the 2003 invasion, the American military devised a set of 55 playing cards depicting the most wanted members of Saddam Hussein's regime. Nine are known to have been killed or captured. The others are still at large, with Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri as the "king of clubs". He is said to be the leader of "the Men of the Army of the Naqshbandia Order", who are siding with the ISIS militants in fighting the Shia-led government.
    In 2003 it was Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Shia oppostion that led the crusade – "the purge of any and all people with ties to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party". Once seen as the US choice for a future leader of Iraq, Chalabi had close tie to the US Defense Department and was the protégé of the neo-cons, who advised George W. Bush in foreign policies. Many believe he misled the US on the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
    "We must proceed with great speed and determination with the de-Baathication, we must uproot the Baath Party from the fabric of Iraqi society," he said.
    Typical of zero-sum game politics in the region, there is no room for compromise. The ending of Saddam Hussein's power had to be confirmed with the dismantling of his apparatus and Iraq needed to be rid of all remaining signs and trappings of the much hated Baath Party.
    When Nouri al-Maliki came to power, he selectively reactivated the Sahwa (Awakening) movement of armed tribal auxiliaries in an increasingly successful effort to splinter Sunni Arab opposition. He also continued the de-Baathification process.
    Yet the Baathists haven't disappeared. Many of them still want to regain power and are popular among Sunni tribal leaders. Yet there's no way they will rule over the Shia majority in Iraq again. As long as they don't compromise, there is little hope for peaceful coexistence. This uneasy alliance between the Baathists and the Jihadists is just a marriage of convenience. They are united in their hatred towards the Iran-backed, Shia-led government. The Kurds have and can defend their territory. It suits them fine that the central government in Bagdad remains weak and preoccupied with fighting the Sunnis. They have no desire to help the government to get rid of the ISIS jihadists neither.

  4. CommentedWilliam Wallace

    I think Mr. Hill is spot on in describing the issues, but is overly optimistic in suggesting anyone outside the region, especially non-Muslims, can help solve a conflict that has brewed for centuries. At best, we might suggest venues and methods for conflict resolution, but nothing can substitute for the genuine will of the parties to reach agreement and come to terms with their differences.

  5. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I agree wit the writer it is a nightmare.
    But I am not so sure it is sectarian and I definitely do not think it is Iraq's nightmare.

    First of all what is happening in Iraq has direct consequences for the whole of the Middle East, and it spills far beyond.
    Both the causes and the consequences are far extending from Iraq's borders and beyond the Middle East.

    We will not solve anything but cause further destruction if we continuing viewing the world as a loose collection of isolated regions, isolated incidents with their isolated crisis situations.
    In a global, integral world there are no local, or even "two-state" solutions any more.

    What we are watching is people with vested self-serving interest exploiting underlying sectarian, cultural, religious or even economical differences.
    But while it seemingly worked before, "divide and conquer" offering ruling governance for the "Imperial nations", today in this interconnected and inter-dependent human system any such attempt becomes uncontrollable, as soon as the "Genie is out of the bottle" the consequences are totally unpredictable and volatile.

    We are watching this live everywhere from the Ukraine to the Middle East, from the Far East to Africa.
    What the "perpetrators" have to understand that today these attempts will return as boomerang to the initiating place with multiple force.

    We simply have no experience, tools for the global, integral world we evolved into, so first we have to stop our present destructive paradigm and then start learning mutually together how humanity needs to adapt to our evolutionary conditions before it is too late.

    Even the "most important" nations will have to learn playing "team sport" instead of enjoying MVP status.

  6. Commentedhari naidu

    Javier & Christopher are asking for political stability and a new balance of power in Middle East to resolve the Sunni-Shia civil war. I would suggest it’s a pipe-dream of a strategy - at best.

    Recall the 30 years war in Europe between Catholics (Vatican financed Army) and Protestants. How did it end> Peace of Westphalia. (see Wikipedia source below)

    ===============================================================

    Date: 1618–1648

    Location: Europe (primarily present day Germany)

    Result: Peace of Westphalia

    Protestant princes allowed to continue religious practices.
    Habsburg supremacy curtailed
    Rise of France and the Bourbon dynasty
    Rise of the Swedish Empire
    Decline of feudalism[1]
    Decentralization of the Holy Roman Empire
    Franco-Spanish War until 1659
    Substantial decline in the power and influence of the Catholic Church
    ===============================================================

    ISIS (like Al Qaeda ) is a CIA product; and, according to Christopher Meyer, Former British Ambassador To Washington: (Source: Daily Mail Online)

    No Mr Blair. Your naive war WAS a trigger for this savage violence, writes CHRISTOPHER MEYER, Ambassador to the US during Iraq War.
    Iraq may cease to exist as a sovereign state due to current ISIS threat
    ISIS has driven through the US trained Iraqi army 'like a knife through butter'
    The country is on the verge of total civil war between Sunnis and Shiites
    ===============================================================

    Who is financing ISIS?: Saudi Arabia and Qatar (Gulf State).

    The fact, however, is that violent jihadists have something to do with Islam in the same way that the crusaders or inquisitors had something to do with Christianity: They are violent fanatics of a major religion whose mainstream is peaceful. These fanatics will be rightfully dealt with not when they are dismissed as paid agents, but when they are understood, analyzed and challenged as genuine believers of a radical theology.
    Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/06/akyol-isis-turks-iraq-syria-al-qaeda-mosul-consulate-cia.html#ixzz34z0YdBnT

    ===============================================================

    ISIS and Crusaders are being linked together to form a historical thread to religious warfare in Middle East.

    Where will it all end? Me thinks it won’t end with another Peace of Westphalia. The culture and context is invariably different.

    It will only end when (1) Sunni’s or Shia forces resolve their ancient religious conflict; (2) one of them is (finally) eliminated.

    ===============================================================

    Saudi’s are bent on eliminating Shia rule in Iraq – kosta was es will!

    US is unable to understand the cultural dynamics of Sunni (majority) strategy in the region....

  7. CommentedVelko Simeonov

    Americans are so funny, their ignorance towards the rest of the world and its age old history (probably driven by the lack of history of their own), helps them to always create their own worst enemies. Too bad the rest of us have to suffer too, but I guess that won’t last long now. :)

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