In Translation: Standing on Saddam's Grave

Courtesy our friends at Industry Arabic -- a professional translation service that can fulfill your every Arabic need -- a column on the battle to liberate Tikrit from ISIS, Iran's prominent role there, and the way it may undermine the fragile equilibrium in Iraq. 

Suleimani, on Saddam's Grave

By Ghassan Charbel

El Hayat, 12 March

ISIS is a cancer that can only be treated by excision. Its removal is a patriotic, national and humanitarian duty. Successful treatment to ensure that a relapse will not occur requires involving the community that it has infiltrated in uprooting it, and insulating this community against ISIS' lies and claims. It is not out of place at this juncture to consider in advance what the patient’s condition will be after the malicious tumor is removed.

It is not insignificant for ISIS to control Tikrit, a city with much resonance in recent Iraqi history -- not because Saddam Hussein’s tomb is in the nearby village of Awja, but because it is symbolic of the Sunni Arab role in Iraq. The Iraqi government could not leave Tikrit in the hands of ISIS, but the conditions of the current surgery raise concerns that if Tikrit falls into the hands of its attackers – which is the necessary outcome – this could lead to the collapse of balance required for Iraq to remain united and part of the Arab world.

These concerns would not have been prompted if the Iraqi army was the one leading the charge to retake Tikrit and had adopted measures to quell the concerns of the inhabitants of Anbar, Saladin and Nineveh. But what is happening now is that “popular mobilization” is playing the main role in combating ISIS, and “mobilization” means an alliance of Shiite militias. The attack is also marked by an American refusal to provide air cover and an increasing tendency by Iran to openly admit that it is managing the campaign.

Iran has intervened in the countries of the region over the past two decades and has skillfully found many covers for this activity. What is remarkable in recent weeks is that Tehran has openly avowed these interventions through images of General Qassem Suleimani in the field in both Iraq and Syria and statements by Iranian officials about their solid influence in four Arab countries, not to mention talk about the Mandab Strait and an entrenched presence on the Mediterranean.

Why has Tehran abandoned its previous reserve? Does it wish to say that it has seized its regional role in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen before any potential nuclear agreement with the US has been signed? Does it wish to make decisive changes that cannot be reversed? Does it wish to signal that the above countries are a vital extension of Iran and that the inhabitants of the region ought to get used to seeing Iranian generals left and right? Does it wish to unequivocally declare what it used to whisper to its visitors, which is that it is not just an important country in the region, but the most important country? And that the most important country has the right to recalibrate the balances in the region in a manner that accords with its new role? It is not a trivial matter for Ali Shamkhani to be declaring that Iran has prevented the fall of Baghdad, Erbil and Damascus.

To return to Iraq, this past January in Baghdad and Erbil I heard people expressing concern that Sunni Arabs will be the biggest loser in the war to eliminate ISIS. The war is being fought in their areas, with all that entails in terms of death, destruction and displacement. However, there was a belief that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was interested in convincing Sunni Arabs of the legitimacy of the fight before going to battle in their strongholds. There were also those who believed that the American role would moderate the Iranian conduct of this war. Because of fears that the spirit of revenge would break out, Ayatollah al-Sistani repeated calls to avoid vengeance and even to arm the Sunni tribes that were willing to take part in the war.

There is no doubt that we are at juncture that will be decisive for Iraq, decisive for its internal equilibrium and decisive as well for its future position. Clearly, roles are being drawn in blood. The most dangerous thing that could happen is for the current battle to be seen as marking the final loss of the country’s internal balance and the increased marginalization of Sunni Arabs. If that happens, it would expose Iraq to future turmoil. The previous victory over al-Qaeda evaporated due to infighting, which gave ISIS the chance to infiltrate wide swathes of Iraq. Refusing to recognize the necessary conditions for a real national reconciliation threatens a repetition of the same deadly mistakes. It is the end of a turbulent era for Iraq. Recall, dear reader, that the Iraqi army invaded Iran in 1980, and it was a long, destructive war that ended with a ceasefire and the “poisoned cup.” That Iraq is gone and shall not return. Even the Iraq that was born out of the American invasion seems transitional. We are on the way to a new Iraq, and to a new region. And to conflicts that may be more dangerous than policies of invasion and encirclement.

I called an Iraqi friend to ask questions and verify things. He said that the current surgery poses great risk to Iraq and to relations between its Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish components. He also said that the fall of Tikrit was a major event by every measure, even if Qassem Suleimani had not come forward to stand on Saddam Hussein’s grave to announce the end of one era and the start of another.

Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.