Who Is to Blame for Iraq: A Historical Perspective

Turn on any cable news channel and it won’t be long before you will see a story about has how ISIS (a brutal al-Qaeda splinter group) has captured several cities in Iraq and is currently within an hour’s driving distance from Baghdad.  Thus far when ISIS and Sunni militia group fighting by their side have confronted Iraq military units, the Iraq solders have cut and run, leaving their US supplied weapons in the hands of their enemies. The Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is panicking, calling for US air strikes to stop the ISIS advance.

Most Americans are disgusted.  The US paid dearly to buy freedom for the people of Iraq which now may be lost.  4,488 of our troops died in the Iraqi war and as many as 3,400 U.S. contractors died as well.  The Iraqi paid a much higher human price. 190,000 of their people died in the conflict, 134,000 of which (70%) were civilians who got caught up in the fighting.  Given such a human toll, it perhaps doesn’t seem significant to mention that the war cost this country at least $2.2 Trillion Dollars ($2,200,000,000), but that money could have been used to secure the Social Security system, rebuild this country’s tattered safety net, help educate our children, and retrain workers displaced by technology and job migration to countries with lower labor costs.

Everyone in this country has a right to be angry, but Republican officials have descended in droves on the cable TV shows with one common theme – all of this is happening because the Obama administration didn’t leave some troops in Iraq in December 2011. What they fail to point out is that this current conflict is much more complicated than Iraqi government fighting a terrorist organization. ISIS would never have been able to conquer large portions of Iraq had they been fighting alone. Sunni militia groups, which don’t share ISIS’s ideology, have found it to be temporarily expedient to fight by ISIS’s side because they are jointly battling the forces of the Shiite controlled Iraqi government which they hate.  It is a new manifestation of the old saying, “the enemy of my enemy must be my friend”.  Those Sunni militias would not be involved without the expressed consent of the Sunni tribal leaders in northern Iraq. (These are the same Sunni tribal leaders which US forces previously convinced to turn against the Al-Qaeda terrorist cells operating in their territories.)  The conflict is rapidly morphing into a civil war between the Sunni and Shiite populations in Iraq.  If we want to start explore the many causes of this latest Sunni vs. Shia conflict we would have to go back almost fifteen hundred years to the period immediately following the death of the Prophet Mohamed and then explore how US involvement allowed this long simmering situation to come to boil.

When the Prophet Mohamed died in 632 AD, there was a dispute among his followers as to who would assume leadership.  Some early Muslims believe that mantel of leadership should be passed to Mohamed’s right hand man, Abu Baki, the father of Mohamed’s favorite wife, Aisha.  They ultimately became the Sunni sect.  Other followers of Mohamed believed just as strongly that his son-in-law and cousin, Ali, should be anointed the new leader. They became the Shia sect. The Sunnis and the Shias have been at each other’s throats almost from the start, and the territory now known as Iraq has been in the middle of that conflict from the beginning.  In fact the first actual battle between the Sunnis and the Shias, the Battle of the Camel, took place in 656 AD near the city of Basra which is now in modern Iraq.

Sunnis are the majority of the population in most countries in the Middle East; Iran (90%to 95% Shiite) and Iraq (60% to 65% Shiite) are among the few exceptions.  To fully understand the roots of the current animosity between the Sunnis and the Shias today in Iraq  you have to go back to the Ottoman Turk Empire which ruled much of the Middle East for almost four hundred years. The Ottoman Empire was in large part successful for such a long period of time because once they conquered territory they ruled relatively benignly, appointing local leaders as their surrogates. This is what they did in the territory now known as Iraq, except that since they were Sunnis, they appointed local Sunnis as their proxies. So for hundreds of years the local Shiite majority was subjected to the Sunni ruling class who received the best jobs, the best education, better business opportunities, etc.  Shia resentment simmered, but they had no real recourse.

The Ottoman Turks made the mistake of siding with the Germans in World War I and were subsequently replaced in what is now Iraq by the victorious British army when the Turks went down to defeat. The British drew up the present boundaries of the modern county of Iraq and installed King Faisal, a Sunni, as its ruler. The British also populated the new Iraqi government and civil service positions with the only people who had administrative experience during the rule of the Turks, the Sunnis.  So the Shiite majority in Iraq was again under the heel of the ruling Sunnis.

In 1958, the monarchy was overthrown during a revolution and after a series of military and civilian governments, Saddam Hussein, yet another Sunni, came to power as dictator in Iraq.  Until the American invasion in 2003, Saddam ruled the Iraqi Shiite majority with an iron fist.  His secret police tortured and killed countless Shias.   Again the most government and military positions, etc. went to Sunnis at the expense of the Shiite majority.  In 1991 following Hussein’s defeat in the Operation Desert Storm engagement, Shia and Kurdish factions in Iraq sensed weakness in Saddam’s Sunni controlled government and rebelled.  The movement was initially successful, but in the end Saddam’s forces brutally suppressed the uprising.  Tens of thousands of people died and nearly two million people were displaced during the uprising.  Again, in 1999 after years of oppression by the Hussein government, some Shiite groups staged an another uprising which was again brutally suppressed by Saddam’s military and police.  Hundreds of Shias were killed and hundreds more were arrested and tortured by Saddam’s secrete police.  In the Middle East where old grievances are rarely forgiven and never forgotten, there would come a day of reckoning.  Prior to the American invasion Iraq was a tinder box of sectarian violence waiting to explode into flames, but Hussein’s brutal rule kept the parties separated as long as he was in power.

Because I knew something of the history of Iraq, as the US built up its forces in Kuwait prior our invasion of Iraq, I feared the consequences of removing Saddam Hussein from power. While I fully appreciated that Saddam was a horrific dictator, I also viewed him as the evil cork keeping evil mixture of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence in his bottle of power and preventing it from spilling out onto the streets of Iraq.  I also so viewed him a counter to the rising power of Iran.  Chemical weapons or not, in my view Saddam, while a big pain in our backside, was marginalized and unable to do any real harm outside of his country.  Like many familiar with the Iraqi situation I understood that if we broke that evil bottle with our invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein from power, all hell would break lose in Iraq especially if we didn’t invade with sufficient manpower to keep the various factions in Iraq from tearing themselves apart like Saddam had.  As Colin Powell would later say, “If  you break it you own it.”  Most importantly Saddam Hussein was not a real threat outside of Iraq and certainly did not constitute a threat to our country.  Following the Operation Desert Storm his military was in tatters and sanctions and embargoes initiated both before and after the conflict battered Iraq’s economy and made it virtually impossible for Saddam to extend his influence beyond the borders of his country.

However, for reasons I will never truly understand, the Bush administration chose to remove the evil stopper from that evil bottle and sent our troops into Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath party.  The decision to invade Iraq was the first and most serious mistake of the Bush administration.  Worst yet, not wanting to raise taxes to pay for war about to be waged, the Bush administration staged the invasion on the cheap, sending in only enough troops to whip Saddam’s army, but not enough to secure the country.  This was yet another serious  miscalculation.  As the Iraqi army retreated our troops didn’t have the manpower to secure the territory they had just conquered.  As our units advanced, lawless broke out behind them. The cultural treasures of Iraq’s rich history were ransacked.  Many lethal weapon stockpiles of the defeated Iraqi army fell into the hands of future terrorists and Sunni and Shiite militias setting the stage for future violence.  We were told that invading Iraq would be quick, that it would be easy, and that it would be inexpensive and that we would be “greeted as liberators”. Greater lies were never told.

After the initial conflict in Iraq subsided, with a decision opposed by some of his military and political advisers, the Bush administration took steps to abolish the Iraqi military and dismantled the Ba’ath party throwing very civil employee in Iraq out of a job and further destabilizing the country.  Under Hussein every government official from the highest to the lowest was required to be a member of the Saddam’s Ba’ath party.   So not only did the Iraqi military organization suddenly cease to exist, but mid and lower level administrators as well as policemen, fireman, teachers, etc. many of them Sunni, were all thrown out of work.  Iraq lost the services almost everyone with experience in public administration, law enforcement, and education. The decision also served notice that Sunnis were not considered equal citizens of the new Iraq, further adding to the animosity between Sunnis and Shias.  This was another serious miscalculation of the Bush administration.

As mentioned earlier, the majority of the people in the modern state of Iraq are Shia Muslims, but there are also sizable Sunni and Kurdish majorities.  It was well understood even before the invasion that once Saddam was removed from power, for any new government to be successful all three major factions would have to be involved and the Shias would have share power.  However, given the Shiite’ large majority status and the fact that most prominent Sunni leaders had been members of the discredited Ba’ath party and therefore ineligible for public office, it was inevitable that once Saddam was deposed that Shiites would take over the leadership role in the new Iraqi government.  It was in my mind equally inevitable that the Sunni leaders would alienate the Sunni and Kurd minorities and that is exactly what happened.  After being the oppressed and beleaguered minority for hundreds of years, once the Shiite leaders came to power in Iraq, it would take someone of the caliber of Nelson Mandela to properly share power with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities and such a leader was not evident in the Shiite ranks.

One of the leaders of the interim government which the Bush administration first put together was Ibrahim al-Jaafari.  He was a leader of al-Dawa al-Islamiya (Shiite Islamic Mission Party), a religiously based Shia party supported by Iran with whom they were allied during the Iran-Iraq war. Jaafari was ultimately elected the first Prime Minister of the new Iraqi government, but a year later he was forced to step down when he proved ineffective.  His was replaced by another Dawa leader who was also a member of the interim government sanctioned by the Bush administration,  Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki began as dissident under Saddam Hussein. He fled Iraq under a death sentence and remained in exile for 24 years living in Syria and Iran.  While in exile he rose through the ranks of the Dawa party coordinating the activities of anti-Saddam guerrillas while forming close relationships with the Shiite religious government of Iran and terrorist groups such Hezbollah which he engaged to help overthrow Hussein’s rule.  True to my expectations at least, even while the US still had troops in Iraq, Maliki began to marginalize Sunni and Kurd representatives in his government.

A crucial juncture in Iraqi-American relations came when the last of the US troops were finally being withdrawn from Iraq after eight years of conflict.  In 2008 President Bush signed an agreement which stipulated that U.S. combat forces would withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and all U.S. forces will be completely out of Iraq by December 31, 2011.  The withdrawal began in 2009 and continued through the following two years.

In late 2011 talks broke down between Maliki and the Obama administration over the extension of the Status of Force Agreement (SOFA).  A SOFA is an agreement between a host country and a foreign nation stationing military forces in that country which establishes the rights and privileges of foreign personnel present in a host country.  Among other things it would have prevented American military personnel from being prosecuted by the host government for actions taken while defending themselves.  The US has identical SOFA agreements with governments throughout the world where the US stations military personal.  After Maliki refused to sign the standard American Status of Force Agreement, the last US troops left Iraq in December of 2011, leaving no residual forces in the country.

In an effort to rewrite history several Senators including John McCain have made dozens of appearances on cable news shows recently insisting that President Obama didn’t try to negotiate hard enough and that an agreement on the SOFA was in hand, but President Obama really didn’t want American troops to remain in Iraq.  They have also insisted that it was withdrawal of all of our military forces from that is directly responsible for the current crisis involving ISIS in Iraq.  Obama administration officials insist that it was Maliki’s refusal to accept the SOFA which precipitated the total US withdrawal.

From what I have learned neither Maliki nor President Obama was very enthusiastic of leaving a residual US military force in Iraq. President Obama, had campaigned on ending the war in Iraq, but he would have agreed to leave anywhere from seven to sixteen thousand men in Iraq had the Iraqi government been supportive. However, the he knew that the American people were sick and tired of our involvement in Iraq so he was ultimately willing to take “no” for an answer.  On the other hand, in Iraq the Americans troops were widely seen as an occupying force, especially among the hard line Shias of Maliki’s own party.  Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani’s, one of the Shiite’s chief religious leaders in Iraq had spoken out against America’s continuing presence.  Knowledgeable officials on both the American and Iraqi sides of the negotiations agree that even if Maliki was personally supported the US maintaining a military presence in Iraq (which is doubtful), he didn’t have the votes to have the agreement ratified by the Iraqi parliament, a step he insisted was necessary.  Maliki may well have told McCain and his fellow Republican senators that an agreement was possible, but if he did, in the end he was just another politician making promises he couldn’t keep.  When U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq, Maliki declared a “great victory” and his reputation soared.

By the time the last American troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, Nouri al-Maliki had twice been legitimately selected as Iraq’s Prime Minister.  In both cases his State of Law party won the most seats in Iraq parliament and united with other Shiite parties elected Maliki to the most powerful position in the Iraqi government.  However, though he was elected by democratic means, He has not governed in a democratic fashion.

Finally free of American influence, Maliki has increasingly marginalized Sunni and Kurdish elected officials.  The Sunni minority has complained that anti-terrorism laws are  abused and used to arrest and harass Sunnis.  They also complain about Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.  From 2012 to the present when the Sunni groups time and time again staged public protests, their protests were broken up, often with violence, by Maliki’s security and military forces.  Early 2012 Iraqi security forces arrested a prominent Sunni Muslim lawmaker and supporter of anti-government protests in a raid on his home in the western province of Anbar, in the process killing several of his guards. Discontent reached a boiling point.  In the resulting protests several hundred protestors were killed and several thousands more were arrested.  In the name of greater security, Maliki ordered internet sites banned and has pressured publishing houses to censor books. Government authorities suspended the operating licenses of international Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and nine Iraqi TV channels accusing them of “escalating sectarian tension”.  When Maliki’s State of Law and allied Shia parties emerged for the third time as the top vote-getters in the recent April parliamentary elections, almost guaranteeing Maliki a third term as Prime Minister, many Sunnis in Iraq conclude that they now lived under a Shiite dictatorship and that the only way to remove a dictator is by use of force.

So in retrospect, conflicts, military conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims date back over 1400 years.  After over 400 years of suffering under the discriminatory and sometimes brutal rules by the Sunni minority, no one with any understanding history of the region could have reasonably expected Iraq’s Shiite majority would not retaliate once they were handed the reins of power.  It was nearly impossible to believe that they form the type government, fully inclusive of Sunni and Kurdish interests, that would be necessary to lead a peaceful Iraq.  Before we invaded Iraq the Bush administration should have realized that once we toppled Saddam Hussein, Sunni and Shiite factions to move into open conflict and that once the Shias assumed power they would seek to dominate the Sunni minority as they had once be dominated.  It is not comforting to realize that the lives of over four thousand American military personnel and hundreds of contractors along with a sizable portion of American’s wealth was squandered to affect this dishonorable result.  It is also insulting to see Dick Chaney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other the architects of the Iraqi invasion blaming President Obama for the present state of affairs in Iraq when it was their multiple miscalculations that inevitably precipitated this situation

Make no mistake, Maliki, the power brokers in his party, and the Shiite religious leaders wanted US forces completely withdrawn in December 2011 so that they could rule Iraq as they so fit without the any of the influence that a residual military force might have given American leaders.  Then they behaved as many would have expected, prompting many Sunni groups to consider violence as their only recourse.

I am also convinced that had the United States been able to maintain a military presence in Iraq of say ten thousand men, the result would have been no different.  Maliki and his government partners would have still behaved much as they did, totally alienating he Sunni minority to point of rebellion and pushing the country to the brink of civil war.  US forces trained the Iraqi military  for eight years; I don’t understand how training them for another three years would have made much difference.  No amount of training can make up for a lack of loyalty to a cause.  Solders fight, and fight bravely, when they feel justified to take up arms and confront the enemy.  Solders don’t feel that justification when they perceive that the government they are supposed to serve and fight for is illegitimate.  In such situations they may succumb to the temptation to take off their uniforms, leave their weapons on the battlefield and run, even when their units are militarily superior to the enemy.  That is exactly what Iraqi solders did when confronted by ISIS and their allies in northern Iraq.  Given the American’s public’s unrelenting unwillingness to risk additional American deaths in combat or forward support roles in Iraq, US troops would have been powerless to stop the ISIS advance,

Given the grievous miscalculation made by the previous administration, we find ourselves in a very difficult situation in Iraq. No one wants to see an all out civil war in that country and we cannot very well allow ISIS to continue to secure territory which could later be used as a safe haven from which to launch terrorist attacks around the word.  On the other hand we can’t be seen by the Sunnis as taking sides against them and allying ourselves with the oppressive Shiite government.  Our best chance is to convince responsible Shias in the Iraqi government that it is time for Maliki to step down and replace him with someone who will join with Sunni and Kurdish leaders to form a truly inclusive government.  Done properly, this would rob ISIS of any mantel of legitimately, peel away the support by the Sunni tribal leaders and their militia,s and even turn the  present Sunni allies of ISIS against them.

True to our American ideals, we set up Iraq as a self governing country whose government legally assumed power as the result of the last three elections.  Up until now we had no real leverage to insure that they used that power legitimately for the benefit of all of their people.  Now all we have  are our powers of persuasion and our ability to couple any the extension of military assistance to real govern reform in Iraq.  Other than that we can only hope that those in Iraq who still have the power to make the necessary changes come to their senses before it is too late.

Cajun  6/21/14

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