Wednesday, November 19, 2014

There Will Always Be An Iraq

Flower in the Desert - Iraq

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.

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

An inadvertent slander of Iraq’s Sunnis

After the gunfire stopped 34 were dead. The massacre had taken place at the mosque during noon prayers. Those who carried out the massacre did so with automatic AK-47 assault rifles. Given the nature of its execution it could indeed have been any sectarian massacre in Iraq.

This one happened to take place in Musab bin Omar Mosque which is in a village just under fifty-miles from Baquba on August 22 of this year. What makes this particular incident notable was its executioners. The Human Rights Watch group have compiled testimonies of survivors which points a clear finger at the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) working in cahoots with Shia militants. A damning and disturbing situation.

The town of Baqubah located less than 50 miles from Baghdad, Iraq

Human Rights Watch (HRW) goes on to point out that the nature of that horrible mass-murder is not unlike other instances it has become aware of at the hands of Iraq’s Shia militias. Groups like the Badr Brigades. It is of course no secret that such militias have sympathizers within the ranks of the army, government and security forces. But the nature of that chilling incident at Musab bin Omar Mosque cannot be ignored. And one is glad that HRW is investigating it and finding out just who is responsible and how high-up this grizzly affair goes.

The situation in Iraq is indeed highly unstable and one is disheartened to see that in the middle of establishing a new government, in the wake of the pure ineptitude of the Iraqi state which was a direct result of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki divisive governance, Sunni lawmakers are withdrawing support and demanding those responsible for that mass-murder be arrested. One of course agrees wholeheartedly that the perpetrators should be arrested. But one also recognizes that a thorough investigation needs to be undergone first. And one thinks those Sunni lawmakers should not withdraw from those important negotiations (it is not by far an exaggeration to say these negotiations are of vital importance to the Iraqi states’ future) but instead demand that the first order of the day of the new government is a thorough investigation of that massacre and the bringing to justice of its persecutors.

Iraq Divided into three states

Iraq cannot be divided any more, especially in the wake of the threat it faces. The more divided it is the easier it will be for Daesh to rule (in other words the Iraqis will end up doing the “divide” part of Daesh’s “divide and rule” strategy themselves). That is in no ones interests.

Enter Joe Stork. He is the deputy Middle East director at HRW. Recently he rightfully points out that, “Pro-government militias are becoming emboldened and their crimes more shocking,” in light of the threat posed by Daesh. I concur and would add that in such times its more important than ever not to downplay, ignore or trivialize certain actions carried out by the side in a war you are supporting.

But Stork takes this into territory I quite frankly find a little bit disturbing. He says that, “Iraqi authorities and Iraq’s allies alike have ignored this horrific attack and then they wonder why the militant group Islamic State has had such appeal among Sunni communities.”

I have addressed the plight of Iraq’s Sunnis and think it’s a very real and very important issue. Their grievances against the former Maliki government were genuine and one does sympathize wholeheartedly with them. And one has also contended many times that Maliki’s divisive government was bad for Iraq and thankfully not necessarily supported by the Iraqi Shia community. Far from it in fact.

Furthermore analysts and observers shouldn’t fall into the trap of conflating the Iraqi government of the day with Shia militias as a whole. Even the leader of the Sadrist movement has expressed sympathy with those mass Iraqi Sunni protests which began in late 2012 as a result of the popular feeling of discontent with Maliki’s quasi-sectarian governance.

Stork’s comment simply will not do. It is an insult to most Iraqi Sunnis to conflate their discontentment with top-down political marginalization in a multi-denominational state to sympathy with a brutal and violent mass-murdering terrorist group like Daesh. It is also very irresponsible for HRW to call on the United States and other countries to stop giving Iraq “military support and assistance until the government ensures that such widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity have ended.”

Ceasing support in the wake of Daesh’s continued onslaughts and atrocities in Anbar is unrealistic. Once again HRW should be commended for its important research, but these suggestions (and that suggestive comment made by Stork) are quite ridiculous given the circumstances. At least 200 members of the Albu Nimr tribe were executed just days ago in Anbar. Those same brave Sunni tribesmen repudiated Al-Qaeda in Iraq and helped in the fight against it – those very same Anbar-based tribes were later disgracefully discriminated by Prime Minister Maliki who refused to incorporate them into the security services, another reason the Sunni Awakening needs serious re-invigoration as part of the broader political situation to this crisis. They are among the bravest and best of Iraq’s Sunnis. The ones who when reinvigorated and empowered will dispense themselves and their society of a barbaric force of reaction like Daesh. A process that will indeed require a more inclusive government in Baghdad, a government whose first steps will indeed see to it that the perpetrators of that disgusting massacre at Musab bin Omar Mosque are jailed.

Iraq Magnifying Glass - Baghdad

But for the meantime to imply that Iraq’s Sunnis would naturally find a group which kills Iraqi minorities, enslaves and murders women and children and executes en masse fellow Sunnis in an intentionally barbaric fashion “appealing” is frankly insulting. A man of Mr. Stork’s professionalism and humanity should know – and I really hope he does and this was mere hyperbolic – so much better.

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