Monday, June 16, 2014

Pressure Cooker Iraq

In 2003 when George Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheny, Donald Rumsfeld, Collin Powell and their cohorts, were vehemently drumming up support for an illegal invasion of Iraq with lies wrapped inside careful lies, experts all around the world were predicting dire consequences to such a move. Anyone with any inkling of the long and bloody history of the region knew that Saddam Hussain was brutally holding a lid over a sectarian pressure cooker. Removing Saddam Hussain would mean allowing the pressure cooker to explode, leaving in its path a bloody civil war that would break Iraq into three separate regions. The Kurds to the north east and Sunni and Shia territories in the middle, west and south. Anyone following the nightmare that is brewing in Iraq today, can see that that forewarning seems to be coming true, through the vestiges of a decade long bloody war of mass murder.

Saddam Hussain, a Sunni tribesman from Tikrit had usurped power in a brutal coup and had dominated the Shia majority for decades in Iraq. When the US overthrew him and chased his people into oblivion they by default and by design dismantled the bureaucracy and security apparatus that held Iraq together, leaving a vast power vacuum. Paul Bremer, the person left in-charge after the initial US onslaught, deliberately and methodically cleansed the Iraqi establishment of all Bathists, members of Saddam Hussain's party. Then the US tried to begin the process of putting the lid back on the pressure cooker by waging a deadly urban guerrilla war and installing a democratic government. In poorly represented democratic elections, a government was installed with the backing of the US government. The hope was this would stop the bloodletting and fulfill George Bush's warped vision of bringing democracy to Iraq, that would magically transform the Middle East. One thing the deadly Iraqi adventure has proven, is that democracy cannot be exerted on a people from the outside. It has to take root from within. Ironically, recent movements that have attempted to spring from within, in the form of the "Arab Spring" uprisings have sadly amounted to very little in terms of real democracy.

By operating from inside a fortified walled compound called the "Green Zone" in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, America lost touch with most of the nation. Armed conflict further blurred any vision that they had for the country. The government that followed seems to have succumbed to the same problem. From the beginning, the agenda it seems, of the highly sectarian prime minister Nouri-Al-Malaki, was to carve out an Iraq for his tribe, with the backing of Iran. The west hoped that he would unite Iraq and be a president to all, but many inside Iraq saw him serve retribution to Sunnis who held power in the past. The fact that the bloodletting decreased for a while but never stopped, even when the US troops left, was an indication that Nouri-Al-Malaki was not able to bring everyone into the fold. In many Sunni neighborhoods the security forces were seen as oppressors and not protectors. Any form of unity government was a distant dream, and thus Iraq began the process of breaking up under the very eyes of the international community. Just because it was no longer front page news, people began to assume things were improving. In reality, life for most Iraqi citizens became more dire. Some remembered Saddam Hussain's rule with fondness, as there was order and the supply of basic amenities such as electricity, petrol and food were guaranteed in a largely secular Iraq.

When president Obama decided to bring all the troops home in 2011, he did so because his predecessor had signed a treaty that had to be honored and the Iraqi government refused to grant immunity to the troops, if there were a residual force to be left behind. The hope was that Iraq would be able to stand on its feet. The hardware and training that was left behind was assumed to be sufficient to repel any potential security threat, internal and external. So this month, when the Iraqi army scurried under the brutal onslaught of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria) the shock in no uncertain terms was demoralizing to the United States. Irresponsible hawks like Senator John McCain were quick to blame the president and his administration for the debacle. But as ISIS took control of large swathes of the country, with the support of the local Sunni tribes, it was apparent that the deep wounds inside Iraq were never tended to. The writing - as predicted a decade ago - was on the wall and the unravelling had been a slow burn. The crisis in neighboring Syria tipped the balance. The break up of Iraq has begun and the consequences could not be more ironic. The US invaded Iraq proclaiming to the world that Saddam Hussain posed a real security threat not just to America but to the whole region. It was soon revealed that Saddam Hussain was never a threat. ISIS is a real Jihadi force that is driven by an ideology that is more extreme than Al-Qaida. So much so that Al-Qaida has chosen to distance itself from them. If ISIS takes root in Iraq to fulfill its goal of establishing a Caliphate across Syria and Iraq, the threat it will pose will be real in every possible way imaginable.

Allowing the situation in Syria to fester without finding a decisive solution in many ways has led to the situation we face today. The international community could not respond with unity to the horror that was unleashed by the Assad regime on its own people. More than three years into the conflict Syria is no close to finding peace and large swathes of the country are under the influence of extremist groups who offer an alternative that is abhorrent, leading to a mass exodus. The chaos in Syria created a vacuum into which people with Jihadist visions of grandeur walked in from around the world. ISIS was formed from the residual elements of Al-Qaeda in Iraqi, an extremist group which the US successfully defeated with the help of Iraqi Sunni tribes, during the "Sunni Awakening" or "Sahwa". When trouble in Syria started members of ISIS crossed into Syria gathered steam and returned to Iraq in full force cutting deals with the same Sunni tribes that had aided the US in the past. Now with as many as 10,000 equipped fighters, stolen cash from Mosul (the first major city they seized), and abandoned American military hardware possessed from the retreating Iraqi army, they have become a force to reckon with. Funds from motivated Sunni sympathizers in nations like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have also aided ISIS establish itself as an organization with teeth.

This war within Islam, between the Shia and the Sunni is ancient. But what we see in Iraq is a power struggle tainted by the age old sectarian strife. This deadly combination of religion, tribe and power has been a cause for many a genocide in human history. In Bosnia, Christians massacred Muslims, in Rwanda, Hutu's massacred Tutsi's and in Iraq and Syria, the bloodletting along the Shia-Sunni divide has been showing its ugly face for sometime now, and shows no sign of diminishing. Countless have been summarily executed for being Shia or Sunni. ISIS considers the Shia as heretics and therefore must eliminate them in order to forge a pure form of Islam. In principle, this belief is prevalent among many groups across Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world.

While Iraq fights for its survival, it is not hard to infer why it finds itself at this juncture today. Nations that go through mass upheaval because of war and genocide, only find balance through a process of truth and reconciliation. South Africa and Rwanda are two recent examples where such a process has brought peace between people who had seen abominable crimes committed by the other side. Victims and perpetrators had to face each other and acknowledge that crimes were committed, only then a nation could begin to restore. Iraq never went through this process, since it was not shaped to do so in its present form. There was no conscientious movement initiated. Part of the problem was that when the United States invaded Iraq, there was no exit strategy, and therefore no framework to create peace after mass murder. They stirred up the pot and left it bloody, and it has only gotten bloodier. And due to long standing feuds the tribal leaders that were left standing only sought reparations for their tribe and not for their nation. So now they stand to lose their nation.

As Iraq fights to keep its borders intact, it turns to the US for assistance. Having partially created the situation in Iraq and having spent a trillion dollars and sacrificed thousands of its young citizens, the US is skittish. On one hand the security threat Iraq faces is visa vie a threat to America and its allies in Europe and the Middle East. Iraq has no standing Air Force and therefore is relying on American air power to assist in its ground offensive as it attempts to retake lost ground. But the reality is that Iraq cannot be put back together by force. It did not work before and it will not now. Iraq's future is now also directly dependent on the shape Syria will retain while it crumbles. The only thing that is viable and lasting is a political solution, which at the moment seems very distant. The Sunni's have to be represented with power. The Kurds need to understand that their future is within Iraq and not as a breakaway nation and it is only unity that can defeat ISIS and other groups that rule by fear of religion and gun and threaten to form a medieval state within a broken state. It is what it is.