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iraq chaos

On May 1, 2003, while on the air-carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, the then president of the United States, George W. Bush, held a speech on Iraq and pronounced the following phrase, two words that made history: “Mission accomplished”. The war had started with the invasion of March 19, 2003, the enemy had been defeated, Saddam Hussein had fled, the Americans, and those who supported them, had won. Thus, “the mission was accomplished” and, emphasizing the euphoria of the time, the so-called “exportation of democracy” began.

More than 11 years have gone by since that day and this is the price the Iraqis have paid for the victory of democracy: over 133,000 deaths shared between civilians, insurgents, and soldiers, all victims of a war that went from being a military conflict to a civil one. And these are conservative figures. Since January 2014, an average of one thousand people a month have perished in the country. A peak was reached in June, when the victims of the conflict touched three thousand units, basically about the same number of people that died following the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq. In the meantime, the US has completed its withdrawal from the country; it started in June 2009 and ended in December 2011. They have also left on the field over 4.000 US soldiers.

This is the basic synthesis of Iraqi history since February 6, 2003, the day in which, with a famous speech by the then US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, before the UN Security Council, it was certified by “irrefutable” evidence that Iraq still had an active weapons of mass destruction program and that this was a sufficient reason to attack the country. During his speech, Powell showed satellite photos, provided audio recordings and a test tube of anthrax – all obviously provided by the CIA – because he claimed his statements to be “undeniable”. Saddam Hussein was turned into the root of all evil, he was even accused of siding with Islamic terrorism (when everyone knew the exact contrary was true) and, hence, had to be eliminated. And so he was.

However, the weapons of mass destruction have never been found (but this was of no importance once the war had begun) and the world has gotten rid of a bloodthirsty dictator (this being a truly irrefutable fact). The “democracy” that followed subverted the status quo that had been reigning over Iraq until then: a Shiite leadership took over the pre-existent Sunni one. The order of the divisors had been inverted – lending a mathematical lexicon – but the result should have stayed the same. There was only a switch in roles between persecutors and persecuted, between those ruling and those obeying. But maths is not life in flesh and blood.

In the light of what is now happening in Iraq, it is thus necessary to search for the causes and provide answers about a country that, after the arrival of groups of terrorists waiving the flag of Islam on their path to Baghdad, is sliding towards its dissolution.

paul bremer
Paul Bremer

The road to disintegration

The first mistake was committed by the Americans whom, when they go to war, systematically destroy a country's infrastructures (whose “side effect” is the out of the blue creation of a wealthy market for reconstruction). In 2003, the “liberated” Iraq was a devastated and torn to pieces nation; its population was facing, in every day life, the consequences of the conflict: shortages of electricity (still recurrent), a black market for fuel (still present), shortages of water. Starting from the minute following the invasion, the ordinary Iraqi began wondering whether he was better off under Saddam. At the same time, the Americans wondered why the Iraqi people were not acclaiming their passage on the street since they had brought them freedom and democracy.

Then, in May 2003 and until June the following year, the US installed a proconsul to lead the transition in Iraq. He was a diplomat, Paul Bremer, that during his year of interregnum in Baghdad committed the most blatant of mistakes: he decided that anyone who had had a role during the past dictatorship, regardless of his rank, title, civilian or military status, was banned from joining the new administration. The backbone of the Armed Forces of Iraq (in the hands of the Sunnis) was destroyed at once, all the people (once again a Sunni majority) who had joined the ranks of the Baath Party (in most cases simply because they were obliged to do so) were fired. The provision had the immediate effect of throwing on the streets 3 million people and erasing with a single blow the Iraqi security apparatus. From that moment onwards, the Shiites took over and the Sunnis were marginalized.

The Sunnis soon began opposing the Shiite governments that took over in Baghdad. And, since they were a key component of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, they were also the only ones who knew how to fight. Therefore, with different degrees of effectiveness, they began to clash with the Shiite leadership.

On the Shiite front, instead, after the government led by Ayad Allawi – during which there had been different attempts to find a compromise with the Sunnis (between 2004 and 2005 several meetings were held between Sunni leaders and US and British diplomats; some of these encounters were also held at the Italian diplomatic compound inside the Green Zone) – the efforts towards a reconciliation waned during Ibrahim Jaafari's tenure (2005-2006) and totally disappeared with the advent of Nouri al Maliki. Maliki whom unfortunately, if you wish for a national reconciliation, still leads Iraq.

At the same time, the country's third largest group, the Kurds, representing around 17% of the Iraqi population, have slowly begun building on their autonomy, have formalized their army of Peshmerga, benefit from the income deriving from the oil fields in Kirkuk and are creating the basis for their own independence. Once opposed by everyone – especially by the Turkish – the idea of a peaceful and prosperous Kurdistan while the rest of Iraq dissolves is an option seriously gaining ground.

david petraeus
David Petraeus

The role of David Petraeus

If, on the political level, the contrast between Sunnis and Shias has been linked to the incumbent Prime Minister's negative relational trend, on the military level, there has been an improvement starting from June 2004. The turning point was the appointment of US General David Petraeus to the post of chief of the “Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq”, that is the structure that was dedicated to the creation and strengthening of the country's security forces. And this objective was reached by involving Sunni militias in the process.

Then, when in January 2007 Petraeus was appointed the new chief of the Multinational Forces in Iraq, his approach gradually began to produce tangible results: annual deaths decreased from 26 thousand in 2007 to ten thousand in 2008 and down to 4-5 thousand between 2009 and 2012. All of this happened as Petraeus was then promoted, in 2008, to the post of commander of USCENTCOM, the command responsible for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The General's success in Iraq (where, according to the official version, the decrease in deaths was the result of the strengthening of the local security forces) was not replicated in Afghanistan where, in 2010, Petraeus was named chief of US military forces.

To a certain extent, both the direct and indirect role played by David Petraeus favored some form of coexistence that outbalanced the increasing political contrasts between Sunnis and Shias that followed the arrival of al Maliki. As expected, the departure of US troops from Iraq had a negative impact on the country's stability. The result was that, in 2013, the deaths from Iraq's ongoing civil war surged to 10 thousand units once again.

ISIS and the former Baathists

If an internally fueled unrest was not enough, then came the external actors: in March 2011, on the wave of the so-called Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria began. And just like during any other revolution, the armed opposition gathered along the Syrian borders. Iraq also became one of the bases from which attacks against the regime in Damascus were carried out by both secular and Islamic (they were the majority, as a matter of fact, and with the biggest military experience) opposition groups.

Among the latter are Jabhat al Nusra (supported by Al Qaeda) and the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), both competing to lead the Islamic opposition to Bashar al Assad. The ISIS controls parts of Syria and the north of Iraq; it's leader is known under the nom de guerre of Abu Bakkr al Baghdadi (the truth is he was born in Samarra and his real name is Awad Ibrahim Amoush) and his aim is to establish a Caliphate over Syria and Iraq.

His plans are facilitated by two favorable circumstances: the weakness of the Iraqi central government and the support granted to them by the enraged Sunni marginalized minority ready to battle the Shiite leadership. In fact, fighting alongside ISIS are also militias linked to the former Baath party and that are now lead by Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, one of the few members of Saddam's regime still at large. There is presently a synergy between ISIS and Douri, between Islamic factions and secular Sunni demands. This has lead the conflict to slide towards a religious struggle between Sunnis and Shias pushing Iran and the USA closer; Tehran wants to support the friendly government of Nouri al Maliki, while Washington wants to avoid the rise of extremism in the region.

And, as has often happened in the Middle East, roles and alliances switch, friends become enemies and vice-versa.


Which ending?

The future of Iraqi affairs still doesn't have a finale. There are several different variables at play: the potential military role played by the US and Iran against ISIS, how long the Iraqi government will hold and whether al Maliki will be removed to facilitate a national reconciliation, the role played by the take over of the oil fields in Mosul, the raids on the Central Bank and the racket on the population in the financing of the Islamic militias, the question marks regarding the unfolding of events in Syria, the outcome of the clashes between Jahbat al Nusra and the Free Syrian Army, the Kurdish attitude and their decision to whether intervene militarily or not, the role played by neighboring countries like Turkey and Jordan who could decide to act to protect their national security, the failure or the success of any mediation attempt aiming at involving the Sunni community in Iraq's future.

Abu Bakkr al Baghdadi wants to play a political and military role that goes beyond his true influence on the ground. Self-proclaimed Caliph, he claimed he was a descendant of the Prophet and, during his sermon in Mosul in July 2014, he assumed the right to lead the Muslims in a new holy war against the impious and the infidels. A war without boundaries and that includes the entire “Umma”, the muslim community. His enemies are not the Syrians or the Iraqis anymore, but the Alawites, the Shia and, in a wider context, the Christians and the moderate factions of Sunnism, like the Sufis.

This means that the issue of the advance of the Salafist militias towards Baghdad is not solely a national security problem of Iraq or Syria. Hence, if and when there will be a military response to this dangerous spread of Islamic fundamentalism, the reply will see the involvement of several different international actors.