The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged iraq
In Translation: Nationalism is the new sectarianism

While we await what the era of the Trump presidency will bring for the Middle East, local actors are not wasting time and trying to create their own realities. For Saudi Arabia, the setback faced in Syria (now ever more firmly in an Iranian-Russian sphere of influence) means a refocus on Iraq - arguably more important in its regional rivalry with Iran than a ravaged Syria. In the piece below, a writer for the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar (generally pro-Hizbollah, anti-imperalist, anti-Saudi and pro-Iran) argues that this shift underscores a new Saudi strategy based of reviving Arab nationalism to replace the Sunni-Shia sectaranism (or, as a new book argues, sectarianization) that is so often condemned and linked with jihadist extremism.

This article was translated by our partners at Industry Arabic – hire them for your translation needs.

Saudi Arabia’s Enticements: “Arabism” vs. the Resistance

Khalil Kawtharani, al-Akhbar (Lebanon), 9 February 2017

Now that the plan to sow Sunni-Shia strife has failed and the weakness of the forces that Washington and Riyadh relied upon has become evident, and now that ISIS’ regional influence has declined sharply as the world has moved decisively against takfiri extremism, it seems that the new plan is in need of a different polarizing element — one based on focusing solely on Iran and portraying its regional allies as mere client actors. This means that the confrontation needs new labels, and Saudi Arabia could find no better banner to raise than “Arabism against Persianism,” which opens a path for the country to work among Shia and allows it to hope for political breakthroughs that had been impossible when it raised the banner of opposing the expansion of Shia influence.

About a year ago, Saudi Arabia returned to Iraq in formal garb. With the opening of its embassy in Baghdad, Riyadh ended a two decade-long era in which its presence there had been restricted to security channels.

However, the evolution represented by this diplomatic opening toward its northern neighbor — which followed the removal of Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival there, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — soon revealed that the kingdom’s intentions toward Iraq had not changed, intentions which Iraqis say have been characterized by negativity all along. It did not take long until the whole spectrum of Baghdad’s ruling coalition converged upon the need for the new ambassador to be withdrawn, accusing him of overstepping his diplomatic role and issuing statements which went beyond that which everyone considered acceptable, including those advocating for engagement with the kingdom. Ambassador Thamer al-Sabhan — who had a security background — was removed, leaving the embassy to the chargé d’affaires, Abdulaziz al-Shammari, who is still managing the embassy because Saudi Arabia has not yet appointed a successor to Sabhan.

Sabhan was recently appointed Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs, and he now seems to be a minister for practically everything save that which his title refers to. These days he monitors multiple regional issues (including Lebanon), none of which are related to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. This can be explained by Riyadh’s insistence that he play his previous role (that of restructuring the “Sunni street”) with the matter no longer limited to Iraq.

Amid all these changes, one thing is still guaranteed: Saudi Arabia does not want the clock to be turned back with its northern neighbor, and it wants to leverage the divided Iraqi home front to achieve a breakthrough and prevent its Iranian adversary from gaining a complete hold over Iraqi decision-making. For all this, the Saudis believe it was still within their abilities to reserve a seat in the lineup of influential players in formulating the “new Iraq,” or, “post-ISIS Iraq.”

“Arabism” instead of “sectarianism”?

This being said, decision-makers in the palaces of Jeddah and Riyadh have become fully convinced of the need to change the region’s modus operandi in general and in Iraq in particular, given that it is such an important regional testing ground. The new approach, established silently, can be summed up in the idea of leveraging the nationalist rhetoric of Arabism as an alternative to a sectarian and religious discourse focused on the necessity of “defending the Sunni people against Safavid expansion.” The “expansion” Saudi Arabia wants to stand against will now be primarily “Persian,” after having previously been portrayed largely as “Magian Safavid.” Two factors have brought the Saudis to the aforementioned conclusion: First, the sectarian card is now played out after the spread of the terrorism phenomenon and after receiving international messages that this issue will soon wind down. Second, it now senses the need to attract a larger segment of Shias in Iraq, which there is no way to do through its previous sectarian discourse.

Beirut embassy

For some time, Saudis working on the Iraqi issue have been trying to prepare an expanded lineup including Iraqi figures with a nationalist background or who are inclined toward the rhetoric of Arabism. What they are seeking is to attract a larger spectrum of these figures, open up to them, and open permanent channels of communication with them — especially Shias and those who view Iranian policies in the region with suspicion. Indeed, the Saudi embassies in both Baghdad and Beirut have already seen a series of meetings with a number of Iraqi figures, some of whom have not been known to have previous ties to Saudi policy in Iraq. All of this has been conducted under the notable supervision of Thamer al-Sabhan. In his latest two visits to Beirut, he has spoken clearly and explicitly with those he met about the kingdom’s new approach in Iraq. Perhaps the Saudis chose Beirut to hold a portion of these meetings as a way of operating away from the embarrassment that could be caused by holding similar meetings in the Baghdad embassy.

“Free market” at the Iraqi borders

In this context, arrangements are underway to establish a free trade zone in the Saudi city of Arar, which is near the Iraqi border. Riyadh expects this project will provide cover for more dynamic action with various collaborators inside Iraq, far away from the security and logistical complications in Baghdad. The new market is to be a camouflaged platform for the new Saudi operations, which will require broader and more comprehensive action than was previously exerted. This project was preceded by Saudi activity in this area, however it had been at a different level. The volume of Saudi communication with the sheikhs of clans and tribes in Iraq’s southernmost area — which overlap with Saudi Arabia geographically — has become notable. Indeed, the Saudis have succeeded in winning the friendship of some of the sheikhs of the tribes present inside Iraqi territory.

This has intersected with the appearance, a few days ago, of a number of Iraqi guests at the Al-Jenadriyah festival held annually in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is keen to invite new names to the festival, and those in the know say the guest list is not selected arbitrarily. Additionally, other conferences have been arranged by Saudi circles, outside of the spotlight, to discuss “Iraqi national issues,” the means of confronting “Persian ambitions,” and how to present a new discourse in the media.

Upcoming parliamentary elections

How does Riyadh translate its new approach into tangible progress? Decision-makers in the kingdom believe that entry into the Iraqi arena involves passing through the gates of elections — the sole matter that ensures continued Saudi efforts to network inside decision-making circles in Baghdad. This can explain the Saudi focus on expanding extensive contacts with Iraqi movements and figures: for Riyadh, the matter is no more than a preliminary to leveraging the parliamentary elections.

However, these Saudi initiatives still face one obstacle – the electoral law, which controls who the potential winners will be in any electoral round. Because Riyadh suffers from having cut communication links with most political parties active in Baghdad, there is nothing left for it but to resort to finding counterbalancing independent figures and working to prop them up to benefit from them. There is no other way to achieve this aim than an electoral law that involves independent candidate electoral districts and a first-past-the-post system. If the system is approved, Riyadh hopes it will result in about 200 lawmakers in the new parliament who either affiliated with it or at least not suspected of being pro-Tehran, once the power of the political parties is broken — an issue which the political and religious authorities in Iraq have begun to pay attention to. Despite the calls to adopt a system of single-member districts — which some hope would inject new blood into ruling circles — the proposal will likely be withdrawn from discussion in the coming days.

Over the past two weeks, Riyadh has felt more comfortable in its operations in Iraq since the installation of the new American administration. In the statements of Donald Trump, the Saudis sense a wider margin for their activity in Baghdad, especially since the new president complains about Iran’s role in Iraq at every opportunity. The new era of Saudi-American convergence was confirmed with a question posed by an American official a few days ago to an Iraqi official about the possibility that Baghdad would abandon Washington for the sake of “others” after “all it had done to assist them in the war on terror” — a reference to the fear that Iraq will continue to draw closer to Tehran. Under the previous administration, Saudi rulers pleaded with former Vice President Joe Biden to strike Iran, only to find that their pleas fell on deaf ears. Now they finally sense that those days are gone forever, and a new age has begun.

Life in Mosul

Really interesting essay in The American Interest by a former Mosul resident (who says  Da'esh first appeared in the city in 2006). 

Eight months of ISIS so far, as I sit to write, have taken their toll on every aspect of the city. Electricity and running water are available for two to four hours a week, but no one knows which hours in any given week. Umm Saja, an employee at a city office, said that she is not surprised by the lack of services: “Providing clean water and energy to people is not child’s play. It takes regular, trained employees and experts. How are a bunch of brainwashed young people who have not finished grade school going to maintain such functions?” People approach the militants to complain only to be answered, “You Moslawis are too spoiled. Think about the early days of Islam. Did the Prophet own an air-conditioner?”
In these complaints one hears not only the voiced Islamist cant, but also the rural accents beneath it that identify most ISIS cadres as poorer, less well-educated Iraqis who have resented Mosul urbanites all their lives. This is a central sociological dimension to what has been going on that the Western press has missed almost entirely, as far as I can tell. More on this theme anon.
Scores of Mosul residents have abandoned going to mosques altogether and choose to pray at home to avoid ISIS. Hasan added: “There is a young man who lives around this area; an absolutely immoral perverted person so that I do not have enough bad words to describe with. He has joined ISIS and grown a long beard. Now he roams the market place fully armed. I see him and think, ‘if this lowlife represents Islam, then I no longer need this religion’—and then I quickly ask Allah for forgiveness.”
Ruaa, 35, told me she misses her “Christian neighbors as Christmas approaches. We used to visit them during their holidays. They were family and we were not able to offer them any help. I am ashamed of myself and my religion. I do not blame them if they hate Islam.” The most extreme statement came from Saad, a 29-year-old physician: “Our problem is with Allah. Every murderer, rapist, and thief speaks in His name and He does nothing. Do not tell me Allah exists. If He does, then He is content with what is happening. Either way I want nothing to do with Him.”
While atheism exists everywhere, what is rising in Mosul, and probably in Raqqa too, is a trend worth noting. When young people, once devoted Muslims, decide to stray from the Creator in anger, the future will bear the consequences. A young doctor told me he has become a heavy smoker and laughs about the extreme lengths he goes to just to get his hands on smoke after ISIS added cigarettes to its extended “taboo list.” He wrapped his amusing story with blasphemy: “If not only ISIS, but if Allah Himself comes down here to Mosul and tells me stop, I will still find a way to smoke.” This is a far cry from the man I used to know, who backed the Islamic Party in all national and local elections. ISIS is driving him crazy.
AsidesUrsula Lindseymosul, iraq, ISIS
Book review: The Iraqi Christ

A few months ago I finally got around to reading a short story collection by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim. I was impressed by the wit, originality and punch of his writing, their well-balanced mix of very dark humor, brutality and pathos. 

Hassan Blasim’s short story collection The Iraqi Christ, translated by Jonathan Wright, opens with a crowd gathered at the headquarters of Memory Radio in Baghdad, ‘set up after the fall of the dictator’, to take part in a storytelling competition. Everyone believes their own stories are ‘stranger, crueller and more crazy’ than everyone else’s. But they are also all afraid that they will not have the chance to tell them, that a suicide bomber may ‘turn all these stories into a pulp of flesh and fire’.
Blasim’s book was published in 2013, when Iraq had already suffered a decade of violence after the US invasion. Since then, the country’s very existence has been called into question by the rise of the so-called Islamic State. How to hold the pieces of one’s identity and humanity together is, unsurprisingly, a major theme of contemporary Iraqi fiction.

You can read the whole review here

Iraq: The Outlaw State

An excellent essay by Max Rodenbeck on recent writing about Iraq. 

In short, the country that is now Iraq—although alas not, perhaps, for much longer in its current shape—is no stranger to the ghoulish and macabre. The Mongols, famously, built pyramids of skulls when they pillaged and razed Baghdad in 1258 and again in 1401. It was in Iraq in the 1920s that Britain introduced newer, cheaper methods for keeping unruly natives under control, such as chemical weapons and aerial “terror” bombings. Saddam Hussein’s three-decade-long Republic of Fear, with its gassing of Kurdish villagers, grotesque tortures, and mass slaughter of dissidents, made the later American jailers of Abu Ghraib look downright amateur.


Against this background it is not surprising to find contemporary Iraqi writers responding, like others before them in countries fated to prolonged periods of extreme stress, with a mix of black humor and gloomily whimsical fantasy.

Max mentions the novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, which I wrote about earlier here

Why the US stuck with Maliki

Pretty fascinating account by an insider of the arguments and interests that led the US and the Iraqi political elite to stick with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is now being largely blamed for the crisis in Iraq. 

On Sept. 1, 2010, Vice President Biden was in Baghdad for the change-of-command ceremony that would see the departure of Gen. Ray Odierno and the arrival of Gen. Lloyd Austin as commander of U.S. forces. That night, at a dinner at the ambassador’s residence that included Biden, his staff, the generals and senior embassy officials, I made a brief but impassioned argument against Maliki and for the need to respect the constitutional process. But the vice president said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,” referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.

I was not the only official who made a case against Abu Isra. Even before my return to Baghdad, officials including Deputy U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford, Odierno, British Ambassador Sir John Jenkins and Turkish Ambassador Murat Özçelik each lobbied strenuously against Maliki, locking horns with the White House, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Maliki’s most ardent supporter, future deputy assistant secretary of state Brett McGurk. Now, with Austin in the Maliki camp as well, we remained at an impasse, principally because the Iraqi leaders were divided, unable to agree on Maliki or, maddeningly, on an alternative.

Our debates mattered little, however, because the most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East, Gen. Qassim Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was about to resolve the crisis for us. Within days of Biden’s visit to Baghdad, Soleimani summoned Iraq’s leaders to Tehran. Beholden to him after decades of receiving Iran’s cash and support, the Iraqis recognized that U.S. influence in Iraq was waning as Iranian influence was surging. The Americans will leave you one day, but we will always remain your neighbors, Soleimani said, according to a former Iraqi official briefed on the meeting.

After admonishing the feuding Iraqis to work together, Soleimani dictated the outcome on behalf of Iran’s supreme leader: Maliki would remain premier; Jalal Talabani, a legendary Kurdish guerilla with decades-long ties to Iran, would remain president; and, most important, the American military would be made to leave at the end of 2011. Those Iraqi leaders who cooperated, Soleimani said, would continue to benefit from Iran’s political cover and cash payments, but those who defied the will of the Islamic Republic would suffer the most dire of consequences.

AsidesThe Editorsiraq
The misgovernment of Iraq

In April, Iraqi lawyer Zaid Al-Ali wrote a remarkably prophetic article arguing that Nouri al-Maliki, who had convinced many Iraqi voters in the just-concluded elections that he was a strong man, was actually presiding over a rapidly weakening state. The armed forces were a "paper tiger," he argued, sapped by corruption and politicization and unwilling to fight. Six weeks later the Islamic State struck and proved Al-Ali right, as Maliki's forces in the north melted away.

The full details of just how badly Maliki governed Iraq can be found in Al-Ali's book, The Struggle for Iraq's Future, an account of misrule in the country since 2003. One particularly cutting anecdote, in which Maliki kept in use a demonstrably fraudulent bomb detector, apparently to save face, at the cost of hundreds of lives, is excerpted on The Arabist here. Read in light of the fall of Mosul, the accounts dramatize how the same instincts that propel a political leader to extend control over all the institutions of state leave those very institutions fragile, led by opportunists and functionaries. That a ruthless leader does not make for a strong state is a lesson that the Arab world should have had ample opportunity to learn, yet many here still keep falling into the same trap.

Pressure is building on Maliki to go, with some even within his own party saying a new leader is needed. This will obviously not in itself roll back the Islamic State and its allies from its newly won conquests, but is probably a minimal prerequisite for building a more professional army and, more importantly, a signal to Sunnis that the new government won't repeat Maliki's vindictive policies against them.

But if Maliki is removed, the question of who will replace him, and whether they can forge a more effective army and a more effective state, will remain. For Al-Ali, Maliki is just part of a much larger problem - the political class, mostly exiles, that came to power in 2003-2005. Al-Ali goes looking for the original sin of Iraq's fragility in the hurried push to get an Iraqi government in place. When the Coalition first selected a governing council, he says, they opted primarily for exiles who imagined that Iraqis' sense of political identity was one-dimensional, determined entirely by their sect, and thus chose people who they imagined would be considered sectarian advocates: "The more extreme their position, the more likely that they would be seated at the head of the table." A second error was the rush to get a constitution approved by all the existing sectarian blocs, leaving it rife with loopholes that Maliki later exploited to stack ministries with loyalists, subordinate the military for his personal control, and, like other politicians, to buy votes with the expenditures of public funds. The occupation chose opportunists who cast themselves in sectarian terms, he argues, and the constitution neglected to take away the tricks they would need to maintain their hold on power.

Very few general historical overviews have been written on the Iraq war, and particularly not from an Iraqi perspective. Al-Ali was involved in the transition, and it's extremely valuable to have his insider view of what went wrong. Most of Al-Ali's observations ring true, and all of the reforms he recommends would probably be a step forward. But indicting opportunism, clientalist politics and the advantages of incumbency does not suggest a solution; what is really indicted is politics - dysfunctional and disheartening, but not uniquely to Iraq. Contemporary India, to take one example, has equally dismal horror stories of corruption, opportunism, playing with sectarian fire, and other forms of political misbehavior, yet still has held together as a democratic state. He's right that the 2005 constitution was a rush job: but Iraq in 2005 was already on the verge of a civil war, plagued with bombs and death squads, and given the mutual suspicion, it is remarkable that all the major factions agreed on any document at all.

By focusing on political dysfunction, Al-Ali seems eager to rescue Iraq from the charge of being haunted by eternal sectarian divisions. Much of what has been written about those divisions is a caricature, but Al-Ali sometimes takes his argument too far. Take for example that opening anecdote of Maliki and the fake bomb detectors: “a perfect illustration of how Iraqis' problems were caused not by religion or race, but by misgovernment." The failure to prevent bombs was deadly incompetence, but the bombs themselves were what killed people. They did not plant themselves, and it is hard to attribute them to misgovernment – the radicals who would later be the Islamic State started to plant them only four months into the occupation, when an Iraqi government even began, and almost immediately began hitting Shiite religious targets, not the occupiers. Car bombs are not unique to Iraq, but as far as I am aware, a decade-long offensive involving scores of bombs are year trying to kill as many civilians as possible is unprecedented in history, and it is the foundation of Iraq’s subsequent civil war. And it is difficult to maintain that this has nothing to do with “religion,” or at least with religious identity. Although most people in Sunni communities did not support the bombs, they were willing to turn enough of a blind eye to them to welcome the radicals as potential allies against the Americans and later, against the Shia-led government.

Al-Ali is right to point out that Iraq’s record of sectarian bloodletting is comparatively recent, that most people react with horror to the idea of dividing the country along sectarian lines, and that there are plenty of instances of cross-sectarian solidarity. But the country he describes – a population wanting to rise above the sectarian identity imposed on them by their leaders – is not the country I recognize from my years in Iraq. My young Shia friends, mostly secularists with many Sunni friends, were eager for "our chance" to rule the country, even if that meant voting for reactionary clerics. Sunnis, although they were friends with Shia, often found Shiite clergy and religious rituals to be horrifying and alien, almost a form of penetration by archenemy Iran. A country cannot emerge from decades of dictatorship without deep polarization, particularly not when you’re emerging into the uncertainty of the power vacuum brought by foreign invasion. The Iran-Iraq war in particular left deep wounds - many Shia had experienced persecution on account of religious or family ties with Iran, whereas many Sunnis still considered Iran an existential foe. Both Sunni and Shia may have in theory felt a sense of kinship with ordinary citizens from the other sect, but they felt threatened by leaders they considered to be “Iranians” vs “Baathists” or “Wahhabis.” Yet often enough they turned to their equally sectarian leaders, largely because they felt they would be the most likely to defend their interests.

Al-Ali has written in the Washington Post that the current crisis requires a “new idea” that must “break out of the ethno-sectarian paradigm.” He suggests appointing ministers outside the “current crop of corrupt political elites who have been running the country into the ground since 2005.” It is unquestionable the Islamic State is rolled back, Iraq cannot return to the status quo before the fall of Mosul, reinserting Baghdad's incompetent and brutal security forces back into the communities from which they were routed. A new political arrangement, either informal or formalized through an amended constitution, will need to be agreed upon.

But we cannot simply cannot wish into place a leadership that is infused with civic spirit. Iraq has a parliament, elected only two months ago. These politicians – many of whom are from the old sectarian elites – cannot be simply told to go home. They are currently scrambling to form a government that may or may not include Maliki, perhaps as early as Tuesday. While it may be an improvement on past Cabinets, it is difficult to imagine that they will put aside the instincts of a lifetime and stock it with competent technocrats.

It may be that the Islamic State's onslaught is the shock that transforms Iraq's political culture. But, just as much as new blood in government, what is needed are safeguards that prevent these politicians from considering each other to be threats, to prevent whichever bloc holds power in Baghdad from using the security forces and judiciary to target other groups. Such safeguards may well involve extending federalism to Sunni areas. This need not be seen as a reinforcement of the principal that Iraq's sectarian groups were destined to live apart, rather an acknowledgement that sometimes history causes rifts that, once they've emerged, take on lives of their own.

Maliki's most solemn hour

As the Baghdad government reels from the humiliating loss of Mosul to insurgents this week, ISIS resolves to succeed where al Qaeda failed in Iraq.

ISIS fighter in Mosul, via @vijayprashad

ISIS fighter in Mosul, via @vijayprashad

Some analysts said during the Second Gulf War that al Qaeda would be trading up from Afghanistan if it secured a base in Iraq. It was a prescient thought, but perhaps premature: between 2007 and 2010, Iraqis by and large rejected that fate for their country and dealt a body blow to the foreign Sunni jihadists who entered the country. But then the Syrian Civil War began. Non-Syrian jihadists entered Syria in numbers - though so too did foreign brigades sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah - and many of the Sunnis among these fighters came from nearby Iraq to fight in solidarity. Ironically, some had once been agents of Syrian state-sponsored terrorism. The most significant of these "new" groups has been the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which over the past year has spent as much time fighting other Syrian rebels groups as the Syrian Arab Republic's forces. ISIS was once aligned with al Qaeda's central command, but has since gone its own way. Though increasingly a multinational conglomeration after absorbing many of the Nusra Front's foreign fighters, it has only one strategic goal today: that of gathering all Sunnis living in "Greater Syria" under its rule. 

"Many [ISIS fighters] have come from Afghanistan and Iraq," says Syrian activist Abu Ibrahim Ar-Raqqawi, describing their rule in his country's northern reaches as an effort to build a state, "cleanse" it (especially of rival anti-Assad actors), and only then begin the fighting against Assad in earnest. "Our Syrian fighters are farmers and masons, they don't have that experience." Indeed, and ISIS has delivered on what Abu Musab al-Zarqawi could not. It has set down foundations for an emirate in the Sunni heartland abutting Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and the Caucasus Mountains. ISIS is not al Qaeda. And because of this difference in priorities, it has done what al Qaeda failed to do: secure, as Aymenn Al-Tamimi tweeted, "contiguous territory, [a] series of linked strongholds, [and] provision of services." For much more than mere shakedowns of rich merchants and handing out candy to children is planned for northern Iraq in the coming weeks.

Just days ago, ISIS pushed forward from its safehouses and camps in the Nineveh Governorate, which it had won control over in the past months, to take over the city of Mosul. It has attacked several other cities in northern Iraq as well, and disrupted the siege that federal forces in Iraq brought against it and its allies in Al Anbar Governorate this Spring. Mosul was living under a state of siege with the government resorting to an air bridge due to the danger ISIS ambushes posed to highway traffic. The group has for over a year now been following a strategic campaign it dubbed "Soldier's Harvest": the aim has been to retake the territories lost by al Qaeda-aligned jihadists during the final years of the U.S. Occupation by terrorizing the local authorities into quitting the fight. ISIS would then fill the resulting vacuum caused by their retreat. "This started in rural sections of Iraq such as the desert regions of Anbar and the Hamrin Mountains that stretch across Diyala and Salahaddin [Saladin]," wrote Iraq watcher Joel Wing, and "now ISIS is moving into urban areas." 

Its other effort - "Breaking the Walls," so termed because it involved freeing captured Sunni militants from Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki's jails - is also doing well in Mosul, with over 1,000 detainees freed this week after their guards fled. With Mosul mostly secured - its banks and military depots have been emptied by the jihadists for redistribution to its forces in Iraq and Syria - and tens of thousands now jamming the roads out of the region, ISIS is simultaneously staging offensives into the nearby Saladin Governorate and points further south, heading towards the capital. There has as yet been no significant armed government response to the crisis in Nineveh, a province that is also home to many of Iraq's remaining Assyrians and other Christian minorities. In Syria, ISIS has closed down churches to set up indoctrination centers (Da'wah) for youth: darker charges of kidnapping and execution have followed.

Disillusionment with Maliki's sectarian agenda, power-grabs, and refusal to reign in the abuses of federal forces has been coupled with a worsening economic situation in the area as ISIS and its sometimes-allied fellow insurgents milked Iraq's second largest city for all it was worth: Iraq is, after all, the treasury of several Islamist militias fighting in Syria thanks to smuggling, Islamic charities, and plain old-fashioned extortion, theft, or ransom demands. Local media reported that, trusting less in the Iraqi Army than in protection money, Mosul's well-to-do chose to pay ISIS not to attack over paying the security services to defend. Unfortunately for them, ISIS's Mosul organization was not the Italian 'Ndrangheta. The local governor, Adheel al-Nujaifi, did not acknowledge such unpleasant details in his post-loss tirade against the security forces. But mass desertion and retreat was the result of this ill-advised trade off: the roads out of the city are littered with discarded army and police uniforms. 

The Mosul area is home to Kurdish peshmerga now gearing up to fight ISIS where the security services have not. Despite an announcement from ISIS that it has no beef with the Kurds, clashes have been reported and the road to Kirkuk is in ISIS's hands. The Kurds are not fighting for Maliki's sake, though, but for their own autonomous region. Militarily, the federal government may only really be able to rely on the U.S.-trained Special Operations brigades - which did force ISIS to retreat from the city of Samarra, hometown of ISIS's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, with heavy losses - air force, and a handful of regular army divisions.

None of these well-trained and politically reliable units were on hand in Mosul this week, though, and a large chunk of the Iraqi military is tied up in Al Anbar in a reprisal campaign against anti-government militias that took over the major towns there earlier in 2014. Shortages plague the regular army, and the national police have little stomach for enduring the constant assaults on their stations. The city effectively fell overnight: the main government offices, the northern dams supplying power and water to central Iraq, the airport, and the oil fields are all in ISIS's hands now. Watching the loss - and the militants parading around in captured Humvees - must be especially galling for the U.S. military because the 101st Airborne Division's initial occupation of Mosul a decade ago was hailed as an exception to the rule of anarchy in the rest of the country. Mosul was actually a "model" for the Surge and the "Awakening" that followed the worst of the internal violence in Iraq under the U.S. Occupation (2003-2011), especially in Fallujah, to the southwest. 

For its part, Fallujah - site of two bloody battles after 2005 - has been outside of Baghdad's control for some months. Not that it was ever fully under federal or even U.S. authority during the Surge. Though ISIS is present, the city's loss is far more the result of the "Awakening's" politics being well past their sell date in the region. The Sunni Arab "Sons of Iraq" tribal movement could have been a significant moment in Iraqi state building there. But it was ultimately compromised by the inability of Maliki's government to accept the legitimacy of the movement. Prior to the Sons' formation, the incessant attacks on Sunni communities by Shia militias and terrorists meant that many Sunnis decided not to trust the new authorities: as Phil Williams wrote in 2009, "the very force that was designed to protect them [the Iraqi national police] preyed on them instead, engaging in sectarian killings, extortion, robberies, and kidnapping." In response to this, and the depredations of al Qaeda, Iraqi Sunnis began organizing themselves into self-defense leagues and soliciting U.S. assistance (mainly in the form of air support and monies that Iraqi officials either did not have or were hoarding). Eventually, these militias were turned on the nebulous "al Qaeda in Iraq" jihadists, men who were led by foreigners and had displayed again and again a complete inability to govern the Sunni areas they took over. By 2011, when the U.S. left the county, most Iraqis had turned on this bandit coalition and (with sufficient U.S. "inducement") many influential tribal leaders put their men on the barricades to repulse the terrorists, rather than ordering them to mortar checkpoints alongside them. 

When Sunni leaders went to Baghdad cap in hand to obtain official blessing for their militias during the Surge, the Maliki government very reluctantly granted it, and then stalled on implementing the understandings that had been reached. This was due to the Shia leaders' fears of arming groups that only weeks before had been fighting in the anti-government camp, something that the U.S. did not seem to grasp on its way out of Iraq. This federal recalcitrance, in turn, convinced some of the Sons of Iraq that they were better off keeping their arms and rejecting vague promises of official recognition and salaries. And after the contested 2010 elections that returned Maliki to power - before the U.S. even left the country, it is worth noting - Al Anbar found itself heading back to where it was before the "Awakening" began. 

The catalyst for the (third?) Battle of Fallujah in January 2014, though, was not spillover from Syria but a disastrous raid on a Sunni protest camp by federal forces. The two "Arab Spring-style" protest camps set up in that city and nearby Ramadi were set upon by the federal authorities; Sunni clerics began calling for open revolt against Baghdad to defend the protestors. ISIS took advantage of the chaos to organize in the city, yet the initial revolt - and the people the government and local sheiks have been trying to talk down from the barricades - was staged by fed-up local militias who had formally been the guarantors of a cold peace. Maliki's deputy PM Saleh al-Mutlaq contends that the typical heavy-handed response of Baghdad to an assassination in the province - unrelated to the demonstrations - killed the cold peace that had been maintained by the "Sons of Iraq."

Sunni grievances against the government are real and legion: job discrimination, undue prosecution of activists, human rights violations by the police, welfare cuts that "punish" the Sunnis for their collaborationist role in past dictatorships. Well before this uprising, "the Sunnis [had] lost faith in the political process and the jihadists were once again able to make inroads among them." Hence the castle-building Iraqi political factions all continue to engage in, because it is one death squad or another if you try to play honestly by constitutional rules the Maliki government itself doesn't respect. "State collapse produces sectarianism - not the other way around," as James Fromson at the Middle East Institute writes. ISIS and the federal government agree on one thing implicitly: there is an Iraqi nation, but there is only a weak state grafted onto it, and representatives of different factions should seek to capture it for their own in-group. This mistrust, and not the Syrian Civil War alone, ultimately collapsed the uneasy power-sharing arrangements the "Awakening" had brokered between local (predominantly Sunni) and provincial authorities. Sunnis are also angered by Maliki's alliance with Iran, which in practical terms allows the IRGC to fly men, material, and money over the country into Lebanon or into Syria to back Assad.

Iraq's Shia leadership, on the other hand, generally accepted such crackdowns on the Sunni community leaders because they saw the virulent rhetoric aimed at them by some Sunni politicians or media personalities (notably Al Jazeera's Arabic service, now banned in Iraq), rhetoric which evoked the worst promises Saddam Hussein and al-Zarqawi made to destroy them. The Shia see their association with Iran as necessary to counter Saudi and Gulf influence among Sunni insurgents. Yet Sunni politicians like the Mosul governor, says Kirk. H. Sowell of the Uticensis Risk consultancy, have been "feckless": Sowell notes that he and army command in Mosul spent more time fighting each other than ISIS or other anti-government groups such as the (pro-ISIS) General Military Council and Naqshbandi Army or (anti-ISIS) Jamaat Ansar al-Islam. Such incitement and infighting, and the ongoing car bombings and shootings carried out by antigovernment terrorists, was taken as cause enough to disregard Sunni complaints about Shia heavy-handedness. So, in Fallujah, ISIS was able to set up a sphere of influence - but one it has had to share with local groups, including many who are uninterested in grand Levantine designs, but instead want more local autonomy. 

In Mosul, it seems ISIS has the stage more to itself, the work of diligent base-building in the previous months. Al-Tamimi notes that in the north, ISIS dominated the military effort (its casualty figures suggest as much as well) and gained the most ground and material, unlike in Fallujah. Surely, then, ISIS will consider power-sharing arrangements in Mosul only by promising unity now and later entrenching itself at the expense of its so-called "friends," many of whom - like the Free Syrian Army - realize too late why the armory doors are now locked and guarded against them. As Ar-Raqqaqi chillingly notes of his experience with them in Syria, "ISIS found its place by dismantling the rebels there one by one." This will be their immediate aim, as it has been in Fallujah, even before they finishing mopping up what is left of the security services in the north.

Iraq: The Road to Chaos

Ned Parker, in the New York Review of Books, reminds us of the growing violence, corruption and authoritarianism that is unraveling Iraq. The damage that the US invasion of that country -- based on fraud and arrogance -- has done, to them and to us (strategically, morally, financially, and of course in terms of a damaged and blighted generation of Iraqis) can still stagger sometimes. 

Now, as Iraq prepares for its first national election in four years on April 30, it is hard to imagine democracy activists rallying weekly in Iraqi streets. For months, suicide bombers have been dynamiting themselves in crowded Shiite markets, coffee shops, and funeral tents, while Shiite militias and government security forces have terrorized Sunni communities. The Iraqi state is breaking apart again: from the west in Anbar province, where after weeks of anarchic violence more than 380,000 people have fled their homes; to the east in Diyala province, where tit-for-tat sectarian killings are rampant; to the north in Mosul, where al-Qaeda-linked militants control large swathes of territory; to the south in Basra, home to Iraq’s oil riches, where Shiite militias are once more ascendant; to Iraq’s Kurds, who warn that the country is disintegrating and contemplate full independence from Baghdad.


Excerpt: Zaid Al-Ali's "The Struggle for Iraq's Future"

Friend-of-the-blog and constitutional scholar Zaid Al-Ali (who has joined us on our podcast) shares an excerpt from his new book The Struggle for Iraq's Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy. This may be of particular interest to Egypt-watchers and Arabist readers, as it discusses a bomb-detecting device based on the same fake science as the Egyptian army's recently unveiled Hepatitis C and AIDS cures. 

 In 2013, politics in Iraq reached a new low. Apart from the usual depressing failures in terms of services, corruption, security and the environment, a number of other developments finally revealed the full extent of the government’s incompetence.

For several years, the security services have used a small handheld device to detect explosives, known as the Advanced Detection Equipment (ADE) 651. These devices were purchased at a desperate time: car bombs had already claimed the lives of thousands of people, and there was an urgent need to improve security measures. Physical searches were effective but were far too time consuming and could cause traffic jams of epic proportions, bringing life to a grinding halt. 

ATSC Limited, a UK company that was founded by Jim McCormick, a former police officer with no previous experience in electronics, programming or engineering, claimed that the ADE 651 was ‘a revolutionary tool in the effective detection and location of Narcotics (drugs), Explosives, and specific substances at long- range distances’ and that it functioned according to a principle that the company referred to as ‘Electro- Magnetic Attraction’. The ADE 651 and similar devices had been used in other countries, including Afghanistan and Lebanon. The Iraqi government purchased an unknown (but large) number of the ADE 651 from ATSC for approximately US$85 million. It required so many government departments and institutions to use the device that there were not enough to go around. A market sprang up overnight, with government departments buying and selling the devices to each other at a profit. One department in the ministry of justice obtained one for $50,000 (even though each device cost just a few dollars to manufacture). The department’s staff was so terrified of losing or damaging it that they placed it in their building’s safe – out of harm’s way – and never put it to use. 

Even to the casual observer it is clear that the devices are useless. Yet for years they have been employed by security forces at checkpoints throughout the country and at the entrance to ministries and other institutions. The device consists of a small plastic handle with a horizontal antenna attached. When a vehicle approaches a checkpoint, the driver has to wait while a soldier holds the device so that the antenna is level horizontally. He then walks parallel to the car, bobbing from left to right. If, during the soldier’s dance, the antenna tilts towards the vehicle, the suggestion is that the car may contain explosives. 

Like anyone who has spent any time in Iraq outside the Green Zone, I have been through thousands of checkpoints where the ADE is employed. On occasion, during particularly long trips, I have been through more than a hundred checkpoints in a single day while travelling in the same car. Although the car’s contents were always the same (empty apart from passengers and some computers), the ADE would sometimes tilt towards the vehicle and sometimes not. There was no clear pattern; it was pure chance. Even when it did tilt, we were never searched anyway. The troops manning the checkpoint would always ask if we had any perfume with us. An answer in the affirmative guaranteed that we would be politely waved through with a smile.

Years after the ADE was first deployed, explosions were still taking place with alarming frequency. The attackers’ weapon of choice was the car bomb, and sometimes several of these would go off in a dozen locations throughout the country within just a few hours. Clearly the terrorists were transporting significant amounts of explosives about with relative ease. Certainly the presence of army and police checkpoints every few hundred metres, and their heavy reliance on the ADE 651, did not appear to impede their movements. Many Iraqis and international observers began to question the device’s effectiveness.

Since ATSC was a UK company, and as its founder was based not far from London, the BBC took it upon itself to investigate the issue in 2010. In the presence of a BBC reporter, researchers from Cambridge University took one of the devices apart, the better to understand the technology and how it was supposed to work. The supplier would provide the purchaser with a number of cards, each of which was designed to detect a particular type of explosive. 

The cards fitted into a holder that was attached to the antenna. In front of the BBC’s cameras, university researchers took some of the cards apart and analysed their contents: they were empty. They contained no digital or electronic information whatsoever. There was no way that the ADE 651 could be used to detect anything. A number of other investigations were also carried out on the device, including by the US military. The conclusion was always the same. Some of the world’s leading scientists therefore confirmed what just about any Iraqi who has been through a checkpoint had known for years. 

Following the BBC’s investigation, UK law enforcement officials banned the ADE 651’s export to Iraq and Afghanistan. The affair led to criminal investigations and prosecutions in both Iraq and the UK. On 10 February 2011, al-Rasafa court of appeal in east Baghdad issued an arrest warrant against General Jihad al-Jabiri, who at the time was head of the counter- explosives department at the ministry of the interior and who had been responsible for purchasing the ADE 651 on the government’s behalf. On 4 June 2012, al-Jabiri was sentenced to four years in prison. The court’s spokesman said that the decision was motivated by the fact that the devices were overpriced and based on bogus technology. 

In July 2012, the UK Crown Prosecution Service charged six people, including James McCormick, with the ‘alleged manufacture, promotion and sale of a range of fraudulent substance detector devices’, including the ADE 651, to countries such as Iraq. During the course of the investigation, it was discovered that the ADE 651 had been modelled on failed golf- ball detectors that were on sale in the US. In May 2013, the court sentenced McCormick to ten years in prison and confiscated the property that he had accumulated, courtesy of his contracts with the Iraqi government, including several homes and a yacht. In his sentencing remarks, the judge addressed McCormick: ‘The device was useless, the profit outrageous and your culpability as a fraudster has to be placed in the highest category . . . [H]otel security staff and many other users trusted their lives to the overpriced devices sold by you, which were no more than crude plastic components with a disconnected antenna and a capability of detecting explosives no better than random chance.’ 

News of these developments spread far and wide in Iraq, and many wondered how the government would react. Clearly, there were few available options – and none of them attractive. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had cultivated a public persona as someone who was strong on security. He had largely taken credit for the reduction in violence in 2007 and 2008 and, following the March 2010 parliamentary elections, he had assumed control of the security services, including the ministries of the interior and defence. Security was unquestionably his responsibility, and there were significant grounds for holding him personally accountable for the use of the device (among other failures). It is unheard of for senior officials in Iraq to hold up their hands and admit ‘mea culpa’, so nobody expected the government to apologize. Given the weight of evidence against the ADE 651, however, no one believed that it would keep them in use. It was most likely that the devices would be quietly withdrawn and the matter downplayed by senior officials. 

On 21 May 2013, two weeks after the UK court decision, several explosions ripped through the capital, killing dozens of people. The devices were still in use. The prime minister organized a press conference a few hours later with a large part of his cabinet. He solemnly condemned the violence. The first question from the packed hall of journalists was about the ADE 651: how could it be that it was still in use, given the recent court ruling in the UK? 

The prime minister’s reply left me and others dumbfounded. Despite international consensus on the issue, he stood before his audience and insisted that the devices did in fact work: 

We formed committees the day the claims [of corruption] and rumours took place. We formed three committees: a science and technology committee, a defence committee, and a mixed committee. The results were that the devices detect between 20 and 54 per cent under ideal conditions. ‘Ideal conditions’ means that the soldier has to have been trained in the use of the device, and that he knows how to use the cards, given that the card that is used to detect bombs does not detect arms, and the one that is used to detect arms does not detect bombs . . . Some Iraqi MPs are talking about corruption. The relevant people were taken to court and are now in prison. A court case was filed in Britain, and the person responsible for the forgery [is also in prison]. But what is the truth? The truth is that some of the devices were real and those devices do detect bombs, while the devices which the court case was about were fake. The problem lies with those that were fake. As for the devices that are real, their problem is that using them correctly requires experience

For al-Maliki, the problem was that some of the devices were fake and others were not. This was a distinction that no one else had made or recognized and was purely of his own creation. One wonders what the deputy prime minister, Hussein al-Shahristani thought of the comments: he has a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Toronto and throughout the press conference was standing with a poker face immediately to the left of the prime minister. 

Officials in Thi Qar, one of the country’s poorest areas, did not have the benefit of an advanced western education in science, but nevertheless they saw through the ruse and banned the ADE 651, committing themselves to purchase dozens of sniffer dogs instead. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, car bombs continued to rip apart the lives of the people that the government pretended to protect with a piece of plastic that was worse than useless. July 2013 witnessed more than a thousand security- related deaths. Still more people were maimed. Yet not a single senior official accepted any responsibility. I learned from a friend that an acquaintance of mine was among those killed. A few years back, he had lost his brother in another explosion and had taken in his brother’s children, who had nowhere else to go. Following this new wave of attacks, they were left fatherless for a second time. 

There were only two ways of interpreting the prime minister’s comments: either he believed what he was saying (which would mean that he was incapable of understanding what was painfully obvious to just about everyone else) or he was deliberately twisting the truth (which would mean that the security and wellbeing of Iraqis was for him secondary to protecting his own reputation). It was a perfect illustration of how Iraqis’ problems were caused not by religion and race, but by misgovernment. The question, for me and for many others, was how we had reached this point in our country’s history and what solutions existed.

Portrait of an Iraqi Person

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing a lecture by Iraqi novelist and translator Sinan Antoon on his work translating the Iraqi poet Sangor Boulous, as part of the American University in Cairo’s ongoing In Translation series. Antoon, a professor at New York University who has translated Mahmoud Darwish, Saad Youssef and Boulous, talked about translation “as mourning.” He himself left Iraq in the early 90s and he shared poems by Boulous that engaged in the “mourning of individual and collective lives and of a lost homeland.” But he pointed out that Bolous resists easy nationalism and nostalgia even as he chronicles the staggering loss that Iraq has suffered. 

Here is Antoon's translation of "A Portrait of an Iraqi Person at the End of Time," originally published in Jadaliyya

I see him here, or there:

his eye wandering in the river of catastrophes

his nostrils rooted in the soil of massacres

his belly which grinded the wheat of madness

in Babylon’s mills

for ten thousand years

I see his portrait, which has lost its frame

in history’s repeated explosions

retrieving its features like a mirror

to surprise us every time

with its gratuitous ability to lavish

In his clear forehead you can see

as if on the pages of a book

a column of invaders passing through

just as in a black and white film:

give him any prison or graveyard!

give him any exile

any “here” or “there”

Despite that

we can see the catapults

pounding the walls

so that once again,

Uruk rises high

* Uruk: the ancient city of Sumer and then Babylonia, became an important cultural and political center. It is believed that the modern name of “Iraq” might have been derived from it.

* The poem was published in Boulus’ last collection, published posthumously: Azma ukhra li-kalb al-Qabilah (Another Bone for the Tribe’s Dog) (Beirut & Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2008).

Here is Bolous himself reading, In Arabic, “I Came From There,” which Antoon said pays dues to “the dead who do not demand to be spoken for, but spoken to.” Here is the text side-by-side in Arabic and English.

New book: The struggle for Iraq's future

Our friend Zaid al-Ali, constitution-watcher extraordinaire (see the podcast we did with him last year) has a new book out the disastrous path Iraq has taken since the 2003 US invasion. From the publishers's blurb:

Many Westerners have offered interpretations of Iraq’s nation-building progress in the wake of the 2003 war and the eventual withdrawal of American troops from the country, but little has been written by Iraqis themselves. This forthright book fills in the gap. Zaid al-Ali, an Iraqi lawyer with direct ties to the people of his homeland, to government circles, and to the international community, provides a uniquely insightful and up-to-date view of Iraq’s people, their government, and the extent of their nation’s worsening problems.   The true picture is discouraging: murderous bombings, ever-increasing sectarianism, and pervasive government corruption have combined to prevent progress on such crucial issues as security, healthcare, and power availability. Al-Ali contends that the ill-planned U.S. intervention destroyed the Iraqi state, creating a black hole which corrupt and incompetent members of the elite have made their own. And yet, despite all efforts to divide them, Iraqis retain a strong sense of national identity, al-Ali maintains. He reevaluates Iraq’s relationship with itself, discusses the inspiration provided by the events of the Arab Spring, and redefines Iraq’s most important struggle to regain its viability as a nation.

The legacy of minority-based regimes

The question of what to do about former elites haunts countries that have undergone a radical political transformation. Retain them in office, and dissidents will complain their revolution has been "betrayed." Purge them, and the inevitable fall-off in state services, even if it is temporary, will feed instability and spread nostalgia for the fallen regime. This dilemma has recently surfaced in Libya, where militias made up of mostly working-class ex-rebels have backed a law to purge from office anyone -- including their wartime middle class allies -- who held even a minor government position under Qaddhafi. Similar laws have been drafted in Tunisia and contemplated in Egypt, and will almost certainly figure in an aftermath to the Syrian conflict.

The United States faced this dilemma in Iraq. May 16 is the ten-year anniversary of the decision it took: Coalition Provisional Authority Order 1, the decree that removed top-ranking members of the Baath party from their positions in Iraqi state institutions, swiftly followed by CPA number 2, which dissolved the military to be rebuilt anew. Collectively they are often termed "de-Baathification."

Today, CPA Order 1 is one of the most universally condemned American foreign policy decisions of this generation Even proponents of the war tend to describe it as a terrible mistake. With Iraq's legacy under review, both because of the 10 year anniversary and because of contemplated intervention in Syria, CPA Order 1 has been invoked by both sides in the debate: one side frequently depicting it as an indication of the headstrong mindset by which the Americans helped plunge Iraq into the chaos, the other side seeing it as a mistake that, because it can be avoided in the future, does not necessarily condemn intervention as a doctrine.

Few dispute that de-Baathification helped turn a nascent Sunni insurgency into a nationwide movement. As Sunnis tended to rise more easily to top posts than Shiites, both decrees affected Sunnis disproportionately. The decrees alienated the mid-ranking military officers, tribal sheikhs, and other town- or neighborhood-scale leaders who eventually led the rebellion. The CPA decrees also purged many of the Baath party bureaucrats in charge of keeping the lights on and the sewers flowing, which undercut any chance that Sunnis might see the overthrow of Saddam as a change for the better and fueled the general sense of chaos. From there, things spiraled downhill: insurgents attacked US targets, counter-insurgency measures including mass detentions sparked more resentment, an al-Qaida-affiliated radical network entered the fray and tried to draw in the Shia with attacks on religious and civilian targets, and thus Iraq was brought to the edge of civil war. The legacy of de-Baathification persists today, where the current Shiite-led government's refusal to pursue some sort of reconciliation is threatening to push the country into a new round of sectarian violence.

But in condemning a policy must also take into account counterfactuals. We know what discord CPA Order #1 caused; what potential discord could it have averted? What would have happened had the Baath party undissolved and the army in place?

In Iraq, in 2003, some middle-class Iraqi Shia thought of the military and the ministries as "national" institutions, and felt you could serve Iraq in a career that required Baath party membership even if you detested Saddam. But if you were a working class Shiite, or one rendered half-unemployable by your family's past involvement with a Shia dissident group, it didn't take much to turn you against middle class functionaries or officers. Officials weren't your benefactors: rather, they left you to stew in the misery of east Baghdad's slums or made your life hell as an army conscript. Many of the Shia were already half-convinced that the US intended to institute Saddamism without Saddam. If CPA Order 1 had not been issued, the US could easily have been facing a full-fledged Shia insurgency by late 2003, backed by all major Shia religious parties. Such an insurgency would draw from 60 percent of the population rather than 20 percent, with the full backing of a very large Shiite state next door.

In looking at the horrors of 2003-2008 in Iraq, there is a tendency to see the path taken as the worst of all possible options. But Saddam's style of ruling -- his repression of Shia religiosity, his war with Iran, his conflation of internal dissidents with foreign agents, his parceling out of favors in exchange for loyalty -- created a very divided country. The divide wasn't purely Sunni/Shia, but it was close enough that, when the rising tide of violence prompted Sunnis and Shia to go looking for threats, each looked first to the other. The sudden prominence of two new forces that prior to 2003 could only work in the shadows, al-Qaida-style Sunni extremists and Iranian-backed Shia religious parties, further fueled this polarization. Sunnis had nothing against their Shiite neighbors -- but they were convinced that the leaders chosen by those neighbors were all theocratic stooges of Iran. The Shia likewise were proud to have Sunni friends -- but every Sunni leader was either a Saddam-lover or a terrorist.

The United States did not know it yet, but it did not have very many good options in May 2003. To have avoided a civil war in Iraq, then, the obvious conclusion would perhaps be that the United States simply should not have invaded at all. But here again, one must consider the counterfactual. To have left Saddam in place would have saved the United States a great deal of blood and treasure, but it is not clear at all that it would have been any less bloody for Iraq. During the 10-year anniversary of the invasion, one of the most though-provoking (if provocative) assessments was made by, of all people, Tony Blair. He asserted that the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 showed that, if the Iraq War had not been launched, Saddam would have faced an Arab Spring uprising anyway. He adds that Saddam was "20 times as bad" as Assad and thus the repression would have been worse.

Blair's "20 times" assertion is questionable -- but his bigger assertion on the likelihood of a nationwide uprising, while self-serving, is probably correct. Saddam and the Assad regime both used similar tactics when dealing with demonstrations of dissent. Bashar al-Assad's father applied this tactic in 1982 in Hama and Saddam applied it in 1991 in the cities of the Shiite south. Both were brutal -- and back then, brutality served them well. They isolated the uprisings, brought in security forces with strong sectarian loyalty to the regime, and crush them using whatever firepower could be brought to bear. 

2011 in Syria is not an exact parallel to 1982 or 1991 in Iraq. Assad's forces faced unarmed protesters rather than an insurrection, and he gradually escalated the use of lethal force, mixing bullets and arrests with apparent political concessions, rather than unleashing the heavy firepower from the beginning. But the tactic was similar enough -- suppress dissidents with small but dedicated "regime protection" forces authorized to kill.

This tactic turned out to have been rendered obsolete by technology. Activists used videophones to document the atrocities and satellite-based internet to upload the documentation. This allowed the protesters not just to spread news of atrocities, but to spin them. Voiceovers, music, and the help of al-Jazeera's and al-Arabiya's graphics team ensured that other Syrians would see what was happening elsewhere not as a deterrent but as an inspirational show of defiance. This caused parallel uprisings in other cities throughout the country, and when protesters turned to armed resistance the sheer number of flashpoints overwhelmed the numbers of loyalist troops that could suppress them. The result was a civil war that, at time of writing, has left more than 80,000 dead in just over two years -- if anything, a swifter descent into large-scale bloodletting than Iraq experienced, especially if you take into account Syria's somewhat smaller population. 

One can never say that any counterfactual scenario would have happened, merely that it might have happened. There are simply too many variables in play to allow any confident conclusions to be made. For that reason, they do not lend themselves to any particular policy recommendation. A comparison of Syria (a civil war conducted without foreign intervention) and Iraq (a near-civil war touched off by foreign intervention) does however suggest that the determining factor in the two greatest tragedies in the Arab world in decades are not so much the action or inaction of outside powers, but the decades-long legacy of regimes based on sectarian minorities that remained in power by practicing divide-and-rule. Confronted with this legacy, the best that the rest of the world can do is survey a range of options that at best can reduce the scale of a tragedy, not avert it. None will produce a happy ending, and each has deadly pitfalls attached to it.

Iraqi media ban and sectarianism

Paul Mutter writes in:

I have a piece at Tech President about the Iraqi government's decision to suspend the broadcasting licenses for 10 channels in the country following what is now two weeks of sectarian violence concentrated in and around Baghdad. One of the networks was Al Jazeera, but except for a single Kuwaiti channel that is meant to appeal to Shia Iraqis, the rest were either based in Iraq or owned by Iraqi expatriates, and are regarded by their critics as anti-government, pro-Sunni and, for some, pro-Baathist:

The networks’ offices have not been closed down, but they are no longer permitted to broadcast in the country. Wamith Al-Kassab, an Iraqi journalist, explained that the feeling among most Iraqis is that “people want peace, and if shutting a few channels will make this so, then why not?”

"It was no surprise that this crackdown happened the way it has because a few weeks ago, four newspaper offices were attacked by Shia militiamen in Baghdad”. This event, he said, "did not have the same effect as it used to have [on public opinion],” a sign of the exhaustion and mistrust Iraqi audiences feel towards media outlets in their country.

In Iraq today, he continued, the news media “is controlled by either pro-government forces, or by people that see in the Sunni demonstrations a chance for the past to return or a way for Iraq to became like Syria," alluding to the defunct Baathist Party of Iraq and the Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI) formed by Sunni Arabs who seek to topple the Shia-dominated government of Nour al-Maliki. With Maliki's Shia coalition government in power, Sunni Arab media has the most to gain in criticizing the government — and also the most to lose in this tense moment if brought up on charges as accessories to the Sunni militiamen blamed for the spate of shootings and bombings in the past two weeks that have left hundreds killed and wounded.

Wamith gave me a lot of helpful context about the relationship between particular domestic channels and the government, plus the general state of press freedom in his country. The actions Maliki et al. took this past week against the networks shows just how deeply non-Sunni establishments have come to distrust the politics of the "Sunni media" these days - think of Al Jazeera Arabic's reception in Egypt and Syria nowadays. But, there is a lot of debate that is particular to Iraq's volatile coalition politics and general war-weariness, as I note that when "people doubt the independence of the media because outlets take up increasingly partisan stances for or against the Maliki government's policies, outlets risk becoming more polarized towards a pro-government line or towards positions espoused by the Islamist parties."

Read the whole article here.