Iraq was a creation of the British following World War I out of disparate Ottoman provinces that had never had any coordinated existence. It is now on the verge of disintegration, thanks to the misguided policies of the American Bush/Cheney administration. President Obama is being pressured by his Republican critics to “do something” about this. But anything he does will only make matters worse.
The forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have now taken most of Northern Iraq and are inching toward Baghdad. The withdrawal of American troops from the country, and the inexperience of the Iraqi national army have left the field wide open for this takeover. Since troop numbers for ISIS are very small—around 1000 by some estimates—their rapid advance seems incomprehensible, until one considers the ethnic makeup of the territory.
ISIS is a mature Sunni Muslim movement started in 2000. The government of Iraq and its troops are largely Shi’a Muslim. The territories now conquered by ISIS are also Sunni. There is only one conclusion that fits the facts of the success of the ISIS conquest: The Sunni residents of Northern Iraq are aiding ISIS in the takeover. Thus the ISIS “conquest” is not that at all—it is rather a full-scale revolt of the Sunni population against the Shi’a government.
The seeds for these events were sown a full century ago in the creation of the State of Iraq by the British. The British essentially created an artificial state that was doomed to self-destruct. The surprise is not that it is falling apart; it is rather that it has lasted this long.
After World War I, the British had two goals regarding Iraq. They wanted the oil riches of the Ottoman province of Mosul, and they wanted the port of Basra as a depot for the export of that oil and the transport of goods from India to Europe via the railway they also built. Baghdad, the historical metropolis that lay between these two on the great navigable rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, was the natural capital of the new nation.
The British were not at all concerned about the ethnic communities of the new nation. They were mere inconveniences controlled by force to allow the colonial occupation to continue to extract wealth. The Kurds, sitting on the oilfields, were traitorously cheated out of their own independent state. The majority Shi’a in and around Basra were deprived of any but a token role in governance, and the Sunni kings in Baghdad—natives of Arabia and installed by the British—were dominated by the British Embassy and army until a revolution removed them all in 1958.
Keeping the nation together after that point was a formidable task. After years of internal strife the nation devolved into a military dictatorship under Saddam Hussein whose ruthless authoritarian tactics suppressed all revolt on the part of the individual ethnic communities.
All of this changed in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush. The first American invasion by George H.W. Bush had left the government intact, but the 2003 invasion destroyed Saddam’s rule and left the nation’s factions exposed like an open sore. The Shi’a majority established a government, but like in the Kingdom of Iraq, the new government was dependent on the American military to maintain the order they needed to govern. Moreover, the Shi’a leaders, fuming with rage at decades of mistreatment wanted revenge. They clamped down on the Sunnis, depriving them of any power in the new government and engaging in their own repression of Sunni majority regions. This of course created even more enmity between the communities.
Now, with the withdrawal of the United States from Iraq, the wounds are open once again, and there is nothing available to stench the flow of blood. The United States situation presents a terrible dilemma for President Obama. He is being called upon to do something to stop ISIS, as if this organization was an invading force that could be air-bombed and stopped. In fact, ISIS is simply the vanguard of a popular resistance against the Baghdad government. Moreover, Iranian troops have been enlisted to aid the Iraqi army in countering these forces.
So the pressure on President Obama from his Republican critics to provide military support against ISIS is misguided. If the President acquiesced, he would be attacking a popular revolt. The justification for this would be that the United States is actually attacking the seemingly greater enemy—fundamentalist Sunnis who are already furious at the United States. However, this distinction is utterly lost on the Sunni residents of Northern Iraq who have been caught in military crossfire for more than a decade and already see the United States as the enemy.
Added to this is the fact that Iranian troops have been enlisted to aid the Iraqi army. Thus the United States, in attacking ISIS would actually be making common cause with Iran—which Washington has labeled “the chief State supporter of terrorism.” The irony is truly staggering.
So at this point President Obama is trapped. Opposing ISIS is in the interests of the United States. Allying with Iran is political poison for the Obama administration. Doing nothing will result in the disintegration of Iraq. Right now, disintegration seems to be the path that the United States and the Iraqis are following.
Can this terrible state of affairs be calmed? Perhaps. The United States handled the insurgence in the Sunni communities by bribing the leaders of the resistance with cash and promises of leadership positions. The cash was given, but the leadership positions never emerged. That is still a strategy that could work in the short run. In the long run if Iraq is to hold together, there must be a serious effort at power-sharing at the national level.
Failing that, the nation will certainly split apart. There is nothing more to hold it together.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has conducted research in the Middle East for more than 40 years.
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