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.