The US should neither increase its troop presence in Iraq nor intervene militarily. America has twice tried — and failed — to reshape the country according to its own projects and principles; and has wasted $3 trillion (Dh11 trillion) and thousands of lives in the process. It is time for the people of Iraq to seek reconciliation and work together to rebuild their shattered country, allowing its future governance to evolve organically — however painful that process might be. Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) thrives on chaos, dissatisfaction and discord. These must be removed before any campaign against the extremists can succeed.
Rather than seeking to form part of the answer to Iraq’s current woes, the US should acknowledge its part in causing them. This would be the most honest contribution to the nation’s quest for peace and stability.
Before the American invasion and occupation which began in 2003, sectarian tensions in Iraq were few and Sunni-Shiite couples were commonplace among my Iraqi friends. Now the country is falling apart along fault lines of religious and ethnic hatred.
The Americans were not prepared for the vigorous insurgency that erupted shortly after former US president George W. Bush declared victory. The chaos that ensued allowed Al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) to set down roots and flourish. The Iraqi army — which would have been the most appropriate and effective weapon against the extremists then as now — was disbanded by Paul Bremer, who ran Iraq for 14 months after the invasion. Bremer made little effort to understand the complex, ancient culture in which he found himself and had no concept of how tribal loyalties (rather than religious affiliation) underpinned the region’s power structure.
Bremer took all his major decisions based on a rigidly sectarian paradigm in the mistaken believe that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain, the higher echelons of his regime and the Baath Party were all Sunni. If Sunnis were bad, then the Shiites must be good …
In fact, the majority of Baath party members were Shiite as were one third of the ‘most wanted’ deck of cards the US produced in advance of the invasion. The disbanded Iraqi army — which was established before Saddam came to power — was firmly nationalist and, contrary to Bremer’s belief, was mixed in sectarian terms, with its fair share of Shiite Generals. In addition, by not fighting the American invader, it was surely indicating that it might cooperate with Washington post-Saddam? Instead, embittered by Bremer’s treatment of them, many commanders joined the insurgency — and ultimately Al Qaida — taking whole brigades with them. These ex-army elites are the men behind Daesh’s devastating military successes. Bremer diligently cleansed Iraq’s administrative and security apparatus of Sunni influence — even the Communist Party representative in his first Interim Governing Council was Shiite – and ignited the touch paper of sectarian conflict.
At the same time, AQI chief Abu Musab Al Zarqawi was the first to make the terrorists’ anti-Shiite drive explicit and Iraq nose-dived into a period of unrelenting violence.
The US-backed Shiite-dominated government of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, which was installed in 2006, was incapable of dealing with the insurgency and in 2007, US General David Petraeus oversaw a surge in US troops and instigated a sectarian U-turn, wooing the Sunni tribes to enjoin the battle against (Sunni) Al Qaida. The ‘Awakening’ campaign produced a 100,000-strong militia, ‘The Sons of Iraq’, which was bank-rolled by Washington and which succeeded in diminishing Al Qaida.
Here was a window for peace and reconciliation, but it was swiftly slammed shut by the failure of the occupiers to read the situation correctly. Petraeus had promised the ‘Sons of Iraq’ full-time, salaried, jobs in the security forces when they were de-commissioned but handed over responsibility for this to the Maliki government; not only deeply sectarian, but also corrupt, the Shiite-dominated regime failed to deliver. Many of these disappointed men joined a resurgent AQI that expanded under Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi to the extent that, when civil war in Syria opened up new possibilities, he dispatched one of his commanders, Al Jolani over the border and Daesh was born.
Despite the chaos that threatened to engulf Iraq, US President Barack Obama completed the planned withdrawal in 2011.
Now that AQI has morphed into Daesh and controls half of Syria and at least a third of Iraq, Obama has taken to announcing that “we don’t yet have a complete strategy”. This did not stop Pentagon officials announcing earlier this year that US planes would support an Iraqi Army offensive to retake Mosul ‘in the Spring’. This infuriated the current Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider Al Abadi, not only because it suggested the Pentagon was still in control but also because it gave the enemy advance warning of the operation. Worse still, not only did the offensive not materialise but Daesh used the opportunity to seize further territory — Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria.
The current Iraqi Army is demoralised and lacking in incentive and loyalty. This is why its brigades repeatedly flee from Daesh, abandoning territories and military hardware. The most effective fighting force currently combating the terrorists are the Shiite militias, but Washington is wary of working with them because of their history of atrocities (in Tikrit, for example) and close ties with Tehran.
The most recent US plan is to revive the Sunni militias and to this end Obama has dispatched 3,550 troops to Anbar province to train tribal fighters. The Baghdad regime was meant to have provided arms and equipment, but has yet to do so. Clearly the idea of Sunni and Shiite militias filling the vacuum left by a national army is highly dangerous and a recipe for all out civil war.
But the answer is not for the US (or any external power) to send in the troops. Recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan shows us that western military successes over extremism are short-lived because they do not root out its causes. Indeed they are often counter-productive because groups like Daesh are perceived as fighting the ‘occupier’, a cause with which many war-wearied Iraqis sympathise. Like Al Qaida, the bloodthirsty brigades of Daesh would welcome the opportunity to fight American soldiers on Arab land and one wonders if the American people have the stomach for troops coming home in bodybags … or the budget, given that the US is only just emerging from recession and is spending $9 million a day combating Daesh.
Further meddling by Washington could only make matters worse. The weak, inefficient, sectarian Baghdad government needs to be replaced by an inclusive administration that represents all of Iraq’s sects and ethnicities. Such an outcome has to evolve organically and can only arise from the people of Iraq.
This article, written by Abdel Bari Atwan, originally appeared in Gulf News