Has the US project to reshape Iraq failed? Here are the origins of the state’s internal divisions, and the advent of ISIS, a group thought too radical even by al-Qaeda. By Hamish McDonald.

The collapse of Iraq

This month the attack came out of the wasteland of the border between two of the world’s most embattled states, Syria and Iraq. On June 10, an unfamiliar jihadist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), seized Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul. The Iraqi army panicked and broke, soldiers stripping off their uniforms to flee.

The ISIS fighters were left to free thousands of their sympathisers and comrades from Mosul’s jails, loot currency worth an estimated $US430 million from city banks, and pick and choose from an armoury of abandoned weapons that included six Black Hawk helicopters.

The offensive continued, taking major towns on the way to the capital Baghdad where the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was rallying defences this week.

The advance tipped the balance of power in the Middle East between the bitterly divided branches of Islam, the Sunni and the Shia, the former regarding the latter as heretical worshippers of deceased saints and followers of a living clerical hierarchy, in contrast to the Sunni vision of man facing God without intermediaries.

The schism has, for who knows how long, fractured two states and created a new one straddling the north of Iraq and the east of Syria, encompassing about six million people. The ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, considers this as only the nucleus of the Sunni caliphate he envisages, a realm of religious purity reforming the Islamic community of believers, the Ummat, into a transnational realm. 

Even al-Qaeda sees ISIS as too radical. Earlier this year Osama bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, urged its fighters to confine their struggles to the insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, as part of its al-Nusra alliance.

Iraq itself faces a three-way split − between the eastern and southern regions peopled by the 51 per cent Shia majority of its 26 million Arabs, who elected Maliki to his third term only on April 30, the 42 per cent Sunni minority of the Arabs in the areas north and west of Baghdad, and the third component, the five million or so Kurds, a non-Arab and mostly Sunni nationality clustered in the north near the border junction of Turkey and Iran.

The prospect alarms two powers that have been drawn into an unlikely congruence of interest: Iran and the United States.

Under Maliki’s grip, Iraq has been a buffer state for Iran on its western flank against the Arab Sunnis, and a corridor to the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus – led by minority Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam – and beyond to the powerful Shia force of the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon.

The US stares at the total debacle of the intervention started by George W. Bush in March 2003, the result of an obsessive preoccupation with Iraq’s then ageing strongman, Saddam Hussein, and the naive belief that removing him and his regime would turn the country into a beacon of enlightened, tolerant democracy for the entire Middle East.

The question now: is Iraq worth the effort of saving as a single state?

1 . An artifical state

Iraq began as an artificial creation in 1919, when the Arab provinces of the defeated Ottoman Turkish empire divided into new client states under a League of Nations mandate. After Iraqi independence in 1932, following continuous revolt against British rule, the country has mostly been held in an iron grip by Saddam and his Sunni, secular, modernist Baathist movement. For the US, he was the best of bad choices for regional stability, especially after the Iranian revolution delivered the Shia clergy power in 1979.

But fear and temptation brought Saddam into growing tension with Washington, as he waged a long war of attrition with Iran and took the ultimately fatal decision to annex Kuwait in 1990. The Gulf War, partial disarmament and sanctions followed, until Bush used the falsified story of a renewed nuclear program and links with al-Qaeda to topple his regime.

The Bush administration’s decision to rebuild Iraq from the ground up led to the current crisis. Electoral democracy empowered the Shia majority. But the institutions that held Iraq together – the army and the civil administration – were shattered by the “deBaathification” purge to eliminate all remnants of the Hussein leadership. The new mostly Shia army, meant to eventually be ready to take over from the foreign forces, was recruited and trained by the US and its allies (including, for a time, Australia).

The West’s long farewell turned out to be an abrupt goodbye. Maliki was handpicked by the Americans as a prospective prime minister. With a long history of opposing Saddam, he seemed a moderate figure, not too close to Iran. Over time, however, he has emerged as an ever-tougher and more suspicious ruler, unwilling to trust Sunni political elements and broaden his base. It turns out, as an illuminating portrait by Dexter Filkins showed recently in The New Yorker magazine, that Maliki’s long exile in Syria and Iran between 1979 and 2003 was spent in large part organising assassinations of Iraqi figures, and in 1981, an attack on the Iraqi embassy in Beirut, killing the ambassador and 60 others.

2 . Maliki's machinations

In September 2010, with the new Obama administration seeking an early wind-down and perhaps withdrawal of forces, under the influence of Iranian hardliners, Maliki insisted on a condition that was impossible for any US leader to accept: that if a transition force of Americans were to remain to support and train and − if necessary − restrain the Iraqi army, they should lose their immunity from Iraqi law. A wavering Obama took this as the cue to pull out.

Almost immediately, Maliki set out on the trail that has created the current crisis of the state. At the start of 2012, a month after the last US forces flew out, he ordered the arrest of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi, the highest ranking Sunni in the government, on a vague charge of running a death squad, prompting Hashimi to flee the country. Maliki then carried out a purge of Sunnis in the new Iraqi intelligence agency. He took over the right to draft and introduce legislation in the parliament, denounced human rights activists as “criminals and killers”, and met the mounting evidence of massive financial fraud in the government with threats and defamation charges. A country that produces $US90 billion worth of oil a year is still beset with irregular electricity and floods of raw sewage.

In the Sunni regions, rising protests were countered with army sweeps and thousands of arrests. Last year, Baghdadi and his fighters came back from Syria and adopted the title ISIS for their group. They and other jihadists took control of the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah at various times in 2013. The army response killed hundreds. In response, the jihadists mounted scores of car and suicide bombings in Shia-populated areas of Baghdad, killing about 1000 people. Around the turn of this year, the army shelled Ramadi and Fallujah. A large percentage of the Sunni members of Iraq’s parliament resigned.

It turns out that the few people still watching Iraq closely have been pointing out that the country was heading over the cliff. In February, a top US army intelligence official, Lieutenant-General Michael T. Flynn, told a congressional committee ISIS “probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria to exhibit its strength in 2014”.

But preoccupied elsewhere and sick of the endless intransigence, the attention of leaders has been elsewhere. Hillary Clinton, for example, last week told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York she’d been worried by Maliki, but did not envisage the ISIS territorial gains.

3 . Where to from here?

What are the solutions? Obama has wisely held back from employing the military approach of Hellfire missile strikes from drones and aircraft. But he may be drawn to it, and Tony Abbott has helpfully suggested Australia’s surveillance aircraft could help out with the targeting. Such moves will alienate the Sunni even more.

Can the Iraqi state be put back together again? One help would be the new Iranian government, led by the moderate President Hassan Rouhani, which is signalling a willingness to co-operate on Iraq with the Americans on the sidelines of the nuclear negotiations, due to reach the next stage of agreement in mid-July. Yet both Obama and Rouhani face potential sabotage from hardline elements in their own power structures. A political solution, at this stage, would surely require the removal of Maliki.

Meanwhile, the Kurds are poised to make their de facto independence an official one. Their enclave is comparatively well run, with its own oil reserves, and has an international airport and an export pipeline to the Mediterranean through Turkey, whose worries about influence on its own Kurdish minority seem to be eased.

The Middle East is a tangle of cross-cutting alliances, in which friends are also enemies. America’s most important ally in the Arab region, Saudi Arabia, is said to be funnelling billions of dollars to the Sunni insurgents in Syria. Assad is now shifting, in Western eyes, from utter villain for using nerve agents and barrel bombs to perhaps not much badder than the others.

The cross-border insurgency is now drawing in jihadists from all round the world. Baghdadi’s ISIS includes about 1000 Chechens and hundreds of North Africans, as well as about 500 young Muslims from Western countries. Between 100 and 200 young Australians are thought to have slipped out to join the anti-Assad forces in Syria. Some undoubtedly have shifted over to ISIS. On the other side, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and volunteers from far-flung Shia communities, including Hazara from Afghanistan, are fighting for Assad.

The Reformation caused wars between Christians for centuries, so we should not feel too superior about the Sunni-Shia schism or expect it to end quickly. The modern state of Iraq could well be the first of many to disappear or change shape.


This story has been modified to reflect the fact it was the Iraqi embassy bombed in 1981.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 21, 2014 as "The collapse of Iraq".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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