Today as the Islamic State group rampages through Iraq’s north (the Nineveh Province where they control the entire metropolis of Mosul) and the west (the Anbar province, Iraq’s largest, of which at the time of writing they retain hold over 80%) it appears that through government ineptness and divisions throughout the country that this could be the end of Iraq. Indeed TIME Magazine ran a cover story essentially stating that this was what we were in fact witnessing. And given the dire circumstances it was hard for even the most optimistic and hopeful of people not to be cynical.
When country’s like Iraq become embroiled in such complex and complicated morasses of violence and disorder one finds oneself reading back over the country’s history and trying to understand how it go to this point and if Iraq as a political entity makes any sense. If anything given the disparate nature of Iraq’s various ethnicities and sects one finds oneself wondering how it lasted this long in the first place.
Today we’re seeking the Yazidi people were helpless as Iraqi minorities when Islamic State marched into their towns and villages and enslaved, raped and murdered them. Broken, destitute and terrified they have time and again expressed how completely letdown they were by their fellow “Iraqis”. Iraq’s Kurds were pushed around by the former government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and pressured over pursuing an energy policy independent of the central government’s oversight. Iraq’s Army was given billions in training and weapons, the Kurdish paramilitary Peshmerga were given less and when push came to shove with Islamic State last June the Iraqi Army fled. The Kurds were left to fend for themselves and defend their homeland. The Iraqi state badly let them down when they needed it most. It was therefore no surprise that Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government under Mr. Massoud Barzani revisited the idea of leaving Iraq altogether through a Kurdish referendum on independence.
Given the dire picture I painted of an Iraq which just doesn’t seem to work or have any confluence whatsoever one may feel that the following well known quote made by Iraqi’s first monarch Faisal seems so true, “There is still – and I say this with a heart full of sorrow – no Iraqi people, but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatsoever.”
That statement was made all the way back in 1933. Two years later something very notable happened around Sinjar. The Yazidi tribesmen took up arms. Not against an attacking Islamist force but against their own government. Sinjar was the scene of a massacre. Not like the one which transpired a few weeks ago. This one was at the hands of the Iraqi Army. They quashed by force, killing about 200 Yazidi’s in the process, a revolt on the part of the tribesmen who didn’t want to be conscripted into the kingdoms army. The same was the case with the Shia Arabs and Sunni Kurds who didn’t take kindly to the idea of having a centralized Sunni Arab Kingdom telling them what to do. So they fought it and hundreds were killed in the resulting crackdown.
One finds it very hard to write a general history of Iraq without writing about just how instrumental the army has always been when it comes to the power (or lack thereof) of whatever regime wielded the reigns of power which emanated from control of the central government. And speaking of the army and the central government, before the Kingdom of Iraq was dismantled in the bloody coup of 1958 it was allegedly said of one Nuri al-Said to one of the army coup plotters that, “if your plot ever succeeds, you and the other officers will be engaged in a struggle among yourselves which will not end until each of you hangs the other.”
Prophetic certainly. But historically we know after a series of sometimes violent tumults and struggles for the power, which inevitably came with controlling the centralized government, resulted in the rise of the brutal rule of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi military and centralized control of it was of fundamental importance when it came to securing his rule. The Baath had broader goals for the army than just central control of Iraq. While the Iraqi Army generally looked inward the Baath had ambitions to be a regional hegemonic power. Which is why they sent expeditionary forces in support of the Arabs against Israel and even partook in some of the fighting on the Syrian front in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973 (Iraqi state documents captured after the 2003 invasion reveal that Saddam saw the war with Iran as a pesky delay before his final confrontation with the Israelis over Jerusalem which he assumed would come sometime after that war). Indeed one of the reasons the last Shah of Iran supported the Iraqi Kurds in their revolt against the Baath in the mid-1970’s was so that Baghdad would remain looking inward instead of earnestly seeking to militarily confront Iran over the disputed Shatt al-Arab waterway.
So throughout Iraqi history we see the repetitive tendency of that theme. We saw it with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. A man who emanated from a long trod-upon sect who believed it was in his and his sects interest to use state power to dictate to the others how things should be. That has backfired and it is clear that most Shiites don’t have such a black-and-white approach. Which means for now that the idea of whipping the population into submission using the power of state coercion is bankrupt at its core. That is actually a promising sign in a lot of respects. Now if Iraq can pull together with greater autonomy given to minorities, such as the Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds, whereby issues like security amongst minority sects are given a structural framework so we never again have an instance of a tribe, such as the Albu Nimr, who are opposed to, and have actively fought against the likes of al-Qaeda and Islamic State are not denied, as those tribesmen scandalously were, admission into the broader security apparatus. Also such tribes who were never affiliated with any terrorist group should also have greater freedom when it comes to forming provincial security forces and police organizations. A loosely federated state body whereby people from different sects, beliefs and communities can for the most part stick to themselves their lives and their business but at the same time remain within the confines of the federal polity then we may have an Iraq that is worth fighting for and that will realize its long lost potential.
Iraq has always been a disparate state. But it has lasted through wars and violence worse than ones which have ripped apart and destroyed similar states with varied ethnicities and religions. Yugoslavia strikes me as the most salient example. Furthermore a successful federal secular Iraq would be a victory for secularism and concordance over fundamentalism and division. And that is certainly a victory worth an earnest fight for.