September 22, 2014

Outbreaks of Islamism in Iraq—the Rebirth of the Caliphate?

Unfortunately, it seems that the diagnosis for this patient—the diseased statehood of Iraq—is in every sense very serious and a longer severe illness could turn out to be an incurable deadly disease.

Islam (in Arabic الإسلام—islām) means surrendering to the will of God or Allah.1 This word, which is incredibly important to Muslims, is derived from the Arabic word aslama—“surrender oneself”. It is the religion of surrendering yourself and also subjecting others. David Waines writes that “Islam means the willing and active recognition of and submission to the command of the One, Allah. People who practice that are Muslims. They, the scholars and the ordinary faithful, are the ones who have made the community happen.”2
While Christianity is nowadays more in decline in the Western European cultural space, and churches in the Netherlands, Germany, England and even France and Spain are emptying, in Islam the opposite is taking place. Islam is one of the world’s religions with increasing popularity, currently probably the most viable of them and spreading wider and wider. The number of Muslims has increased drastically over the past few years. Islam is often peaceful and prefers the peaceful way,but not always. There are also several extremist movements, fundamentalist sects, different Islamist and terrorist extremist organisations,3 such as Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS (also known as ISIL). ISIS (al-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah fī al-ʻIrāq wa-al-Shām—Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) has recently proven itself to be quite successful in Iraq, but they are also active in Syria. (The abbreviation ISIS comes from the English name of the organisation: Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham—Ed.)
Not much is known about Islam in Estonia but it is the religion of nearly 1.8 billion people and has quite strongly influenced all of humankind—and this influence may grow even more in the future. Even less is known about Islamic fundamentalists. It is estimated that by about 2030 the number of Muslims will constitute more than 26–27 percent of the global population. Nearly 1.2 billion Muslims currently live in Asia, more than 500 million in Africa, at least 50 million in Europe, over 10 million in the US, and about 0.7 million in Australia and Oceania. Muslims account for more than 80 percent of the population in 39 countries and 50–79 percent in 13 others. This number is increasing every year.
In a sense, one could even talk about the triumph of Islam, which has until now been mostly peaceful, although not always and not everywhere. Nevertheless, it must also be said that Islam as a religion is not as uniform as it is thought to be, and there have been and still are occasional serious disagreements and even conflicts. Recently—at the beginning of the 21st century—these have occurred in the Middle East and elsewhere. Examples are religious conflicts in Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, even military clashes and long, bloody civil wars that resemble religious wars—e.g. the battles taking place in Syria and Iraq today.4
In today’s Middle East, Central Asia and Africa, very dangerous and extremist forces are becoming increasingly visible—Islamist religious fanatics, such as the Salafists in Iraq, who have recently been successful and whose attack on Baghdad may result in the establishment of an Islamic republic in Iraq. Extreme Islamists5 are very active elsewhere as well, especially, for example, in Syria, where a bloody civil war has been going on for several years and where the Islamists wish to create a caliphate on the territory of Syria and Iraq.6
Now the creation of an Islamist caliphate is also threatening the existence of Iraq. The central authority of Baghdad has found itself in a difficult situation. Iraq is once again on the verge of disaster. At the time of writing, there are nearly 800,000 refugees, plus hundreds of casualties.
It should be noted here that, as a country, Iraq has already been fragile for a long time. The dissolution of the state could occur at any moment. As Asso Zand and Kristiina Koivunen noted in their article “The Soft Partition of Iraq into Three States?” in the February 2012 issue of Diplomaatia: “The ‘soft’ partition of Iraq into three states is still not out of [the] question”.7 However, it seems today that it is not a soft partition that is occurring—it is a civil war, which could result in the country’s eventual dissolution into several parts.
The roots of the current situation in Iraq lie partly in the events of 2003 but also, and largely, in earlier history—primarily in the 20th century. When the Western coalition overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003, they did not take into consideration that the opposition to him was weak and divided and that, after the Ba’ath Party and Saddam disappeared from the political scene, the former opposition groups were not capable of normal cooperation with each other. 8 There was no strong charismatic leader, nor were there adequate security forces able to control the country.
Ibrahim al-Marashi writes: “After Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime collapsed as a result of the 2003 Iraq War, the factors that shaped Iraqi politics changed dramatically. A whole pleiad of new political organisations stepped on[to] the Iraqi internal political scene, the most remarkable of which had an Islamist orientation.”9
America and its allies, who began to build a new democratic system in Iraq after the war and the overthrow of Saddam in 2003, probably thought that the task would not be very difficult. The main hope and stakes lay with the political emigrants who had fled from Iraq during Saddam’s regime. In the US government’s view these were the ones who were supposed to govern the new Iraq. Things did not go as planned and, although Saddam’s former opponents—the émigré politicians—did return to Iraq, they immediately began a power struggle among themselves and were not particularly popular among Iraqis.10 Many Iraqi politicians and public figures who operated in exile against the Ba’ath Party had already left Iraq after the monarchy was overthrown in 1958 or during the supremacy of the Ba’ath Party. They had therefore not been aware of internal developments in Iraq for a long time, in some cases for nearly 45–50 years. They did not have any support in the country after 2003—the new generation of Iraqis did not know them and did not acknowledge them as leaders. This is only part of the problem. The other factor was that many of these politicians turned out to be self-interested, new clans and groupings were formed, there were fights over the distribution of resources and spheres of influence, there was competition and rivalry, and the level of corruption (which was already high in the country) increased even more.
Another serious issue was that the operation against Saddam planned by the US and their allies was intended to be quick and successful, but developed into a bloody, devastating and long war with many victims. In addition, the occupation forces ran into serious friction and conflict with the Shia as well as the Sunnis, whom the Shia started to push from power. The trend towards separatism (especially in Kurdistan), extremism and fundamentalism increased. Several terrorist organisations, including Al-Qaeda, found the situation convenient for their activity. It is worth noting that the Iraqi dictator had at least managed to keep Al-Qaeda and other terrorist and extremist organisations out of his country, albeit using very severe and even brutal methods. Unfortunately, Salafi-Wahhabi Islamist movements and groupings related to Al-Qaeda and other Islamist and terrorist groups and organisations made their way to Iraq during the occupation and started to operate very actively, which further destabilised the already fragile country that was in a state of war. The influence of (Shiite) Iran in Iraq also increased immensely.
In reality, however, the deeper problems causing Iraq’s current difficulties lie not only in 2003 and the events that followed, or the brutal years of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which dragged the country into serious problems, not least with his devastating wars (such as with Iran in 1980–8). In order to understand Iraq’s problems, it is necessary to be acquainted with the country’s historical development and to understand its culture. In other words, we should look at the beginning of the 20th century and even earlier—the 18th and 19th centuries, the Middle Ages, and so on. But the most important period is the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, immediately after World War I. Why did Iraq not become a monolithic nation state?
It is worth mentioning right away that there has never been an Iraqi nation. There are many different nations in Iraq—Arabs, Marsh Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkomans, Jews, Azerbaijanis, Armenians and Persians, to name just a few. In addition, there is religious pluralism—the Shia (including different sects), who constitute about 60–65 percent of the population and are therefore the majority; and Sunnis (also different sects, including religious fanatics), whose number is half that that of the Shias in Iraq. In addition, there are the Yazidi, Christians (decreasing; about 600,000 currently live in Iraq), Jews (about 150,000), Mandaeans, etc.
In the February 2012 issue of Diplomaatia, Asso Zand and Kristiina Koivunen noted correctly that “There is no such ethnic identity or language as ‘Iraqi’. The Iraqi state was created from some pieces of the collapsed Ottoman Empire. It had been the superpower of the medieval world for seven hundred years together with … the Safavid Empire, which ruled the area of today’s Iran.”11
Thus, a true Iraqi identity has never developed and is unlikely to do so in the coming decades or even centuries. Iraq as a country was created artificially, even arbitrarily, from some of the territories of the fallen Ottoman Empire, without taking into consideration the interests, cultural peculiarities, customs and rights of the ethnic and religious groups. The creators of Iraq were of course European (primarily Britain) who unfortunately did not understand or did not wish to understand the affairs and context of the Middle East. Different regions (such as northern Iraq or southern Iraq) are in many ways historical opponents or even enemies. So this formation remained fragile and was from the beginning full of contradictions and problems. A state-like creation that is put together artificially is never homogeneous, monolithic or lasting, and sooner or later such a construction will begin to crumble, especially when there is chaos in the country and the activity of extremists is on the rise. Numerous ethnic and religious groups do not get along, and the country itself is still in a difficult economic and political state. All it took was to add fuel to the fire, and the fire flared up with renewed force. The same could be said of Syria.
Why and how did Saddam Hussein manage to keep the country from falling apart? Perhaps we should not underestimate the fact that he had wide support and a strong power base—the Ba’ath Party; the army and special services were at his disposal, the economy functioned more or less well, and Saddam also controlled the media,  financial sector and oil industry.
It was also important that Saddam was charismatic, immensely popular among the people, and knew how to perform and please the crowd.
There were insurgencies against his power—for example, the Kurdish and Shia uprisings. Saddam managed to rule ethnic and religious groups by the use of extremely rough and brutal policies of fear, even terror at times; but he also occasionally manoeuvred skilfully between the different groups. Ruling Iraq and keeping it together demanded effort from him as well.
The powers that be in Iraq at the moment, headed by Prime Minister Nuri al–Maliki, do not seem the most competent in ruling and administering the country. A charismatic nationwide leader has not emerged. Iraq is certainly not a stronghold of democracy and human rights either, since the Christians, Yazidi, Assyrians and other minorities are persecuted for their religious and ethnic belonging.
Saddam’s policies were largely founded on fear, deportation and terror, which he used against the citizens of his own country. At the same time, he supported and developed the country’s economy and paid special attention to research into ancient civilisations—Sumer, Babylon and Assyria, which were situated on the territory of modern-day Iraq. There was an important political and ideological reason for this—Saddam was interested in ancient despots, who held plenty of lessons concerning regimes and creating empires, and by using this historic knowledge, he wanted to legitimise his power with their help. Saddam followed the examples of the great conqueror and creator of the Babylonian Empire, King Hammurabi (1792–1740 BC), the brutal Assyrian deporter Sennacherib12 (704–681 BC), and Nebuchadnezzar II13 (605–562 BC)—the most famous ruler of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
R. J. Updike writes: “The rulers of Mesopotamia were especially attractive for Saddam not only because of their remarkable position in the region but also because of their military advances in Palestine. Sennacherib … the successor of Sargon II, invaded Palestine and, although he did not manage to conquer Jerusalem, he defeated some important cities in Judea and received a large impost from the king of Judah, Hezekiah. Where Sennacherib did not succeed, Nebuchadnezzar was a success: in 587 BC, after the uprising of the Jews in Palestine, he destroyed the kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem, including the Temple of Judah, and sent thousands of Jews to Babylon. Saddam often talked of this historic event and admitted that he would very much like to follow the example of the great Babylonian king.”14
In January 2007, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published the article “Saladin and Nebuchadnezzar as Role Models” (in German: Saladin und Nebukadnezar als Vorbild), which noted that Saddam’s year of birth (1937) coincided with the probable 800th anniversary of the birth of Salah ad-Din (Saladin), one of the most famous rulers of the Arab countries,.
When Saddam learned this he undoubtedly used it to his advantage. It was also important for Saddam that he and Salah ad-Din both originated from Tikrit and, just like Salah ad-Din, Saddam wished to unite the Arabs under his rule.15
Hussein’s militant plans and military adventures had a negative outcome for the country. The Iran–Iraq war is just one example.16 This war, which was devastating for the whole region, took place in 1980–8 and was one of the bloodiest episodes in the long opposition and conflict between the Arabs and Persians that began as early as the 7th century with the Arab conquests in the Middle East.17 This lengthy and bloody war brought the relatively economically stable and quite wealthy Iraq to its knees. The eight-year war with Iran, which was several times larger and economically stronger, weakened and demoralised the Iraqi army.
The results of Saddam’s first nine years of rule (1979–88) were thus millions of war victims, famine and disease, huge government debts and serious economic problems.18 However, he did not pay much attention to this and did not let it influence him in any way; instead of letting the Iraqi people and the stricken economy recover for a few years, he embarked on an ambitious new military campaign in 1990, this time against the smaller Kuwait.19 Saddam wanted to improve his country’s economy and was still hoping to make Iraq a world power.
Saddam coveted the oil resources of the rich Kuwait, which he thought would provide at least a partial solution to some of Iraq’s more serious financial problems. The outcome of this military adventure was devastating for both Iraq and Kuwait. Iraq crushed Kuwait’s economy and occupied the country,  but Iraq did not become rich. Western countries and the US intervened in the conflict, demanding that Saddam withdraw from Kuwait immediately. Saddam did not comply and this resulted in another war—this time, however, against a powerful international coalition led by the US and far more dangerous than the war with Iran. In the Gulf War of 1991, the US and its allies destroyed the strength of the Iraqi army in only a few days. Saddam nevertheless remained in power. The final and deadly blow to his regime came 12 years later, in the spring of 2003. Saddam was brought down as a result of the joint operation by the US and its allies. He fled Baghdad but was later captured and put on trial. He was sentenced to death and the former dictator and sole leader of the Ba’ath Party was hanged on 30 December 2006.20 Nevertheless, this did not bring peace, rather the contrary. A civil war and a war against the US and its allies broke out, and lasted for eight years, until 2011.
When US forces finally left Iraq in 2011, the situation in the country deteriorated, becoming even more unstable and hopeless. Internal tensions continued to increase. The country is now in a serious state of civil war. It is likely that the situation in Iraq means the Middle East is facing another long and bloody civil war (similar to that in Syria), but this war could be even bloodier and waged on an even larger scale—Iraq is bigger than Syria in terms of territory and population. It is also worth noting that several Islamist groups are closely connected to each other in Syria and Iraq, and it could even be said that many act as a common front with the intention of creating a caliphate in the Middle East on the territory of Iraq and Syria—this is, without doubt, the greatest dream of ISIS. The idea of creating a caliphate on Iraqi as well as Syrian territory is far from new. It has strong and ancient roots in the early Middle Ages, when the Arab caliphate was established. So we ought to turn to the distant past of the Middle East and Iraq, as well as observe the political scenery of the Middle East at the beginning of the 7th century, when a new and victorious monotheistic religion—Islam—was emerging on the Arabian Peninsula.
The founder of Islam was Prophet Muhammad (570–632 AD), who gradually gathered supporters and proved to be a successful conqueror.21 In 613, Muhammad began to promote the new religion, and on 24 September 622 he and a large number of his supporters moved to Medina. This date is considered the beginning of the Islamic era, which we know by the name of “Hijra” or “Migration”. Muhammad continued his conquests and by 632 Islam was recognised across the entire Arabian Peninsula. When Muhammad, prophet and Muslim warrior, died in 632, his successors, the caliphs—“substitutes” or “vice-regents of God”—ruled in his place. The first caliphs conquered the whole Middle East and North Africa and thereby created a powerful empire reaching from Spain to India, which we know as the Arab Caliphate. The territories of the former Byzantine and Persian Empires were swallowed up quickly by the Arabs and became part of the new Islamic state.
The first caliph was Abu Bakr (632–4) and the second Umar ibn al-Khattāb (634–44). It was during the rule of Abu Bakr and Umar that the greater part of the Middle East and Persia, which had belonged to the Sasanian Dynasty for 400 years, was conquered.22 After the Arabs took control of Iraq, it became an important country in the Caliphate. Muawiyah, a caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled in 661–80, viewed Syrian territory as an important strategic location and moved the capital of the Caliphate to Damascus; the capital remained there until the middle of the 8th century. In 750 a new dynasty of caliphs—the Abbasids— came to power and in 762 they moved the capital of the Caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad. From that time, Iraq was one of the most important areas of the Caliphate.
The founder of the Abbasid dynasty was Al-Abbas ibn ‘Abd al-Muttalib. One of the most well-known Abbasid caliphs was Harun al-Rashid (786–809), who we know from the “One Thousand and One Nights” stories.23 Medieval Baghdad was an astonishing place, a world-renowned centre of science and culture and, during the rule of the Abbasid dynasty until the mid-13th century, one of the most exemplary cities.
Saddam Hussein also dreamed of making Baghdad the most outstanding city, at least in the Middle East. He was well acquainted with the story of Harun al-Rashid, who thus became one of Saddam’s role models. Iraqi television often broadcast a programme in which Saddam visited an ordinary Iraqi family and asked what they thought of politics. The hosts pretended not to recognise him, despite the fact that portraits of Saddam were on the tables and walls, and talked of Saddam being a remarkable ruler, praising him in every way.24 Hussein took the idea for such visits from history. Sometime in the 8th century, during the era of the Caliphate, Harun al-Rashid25 loved to take walks around Baghdad and converse with people, asking what they thought of their sovereign.26
In the 9th to 13th centuries, the Caliphate began gradually to weaken. The caliphs lost more and more territory—the surrounding areas became rebellious and gained independence, and the caliphs’ influence in the Middle East also diminished. At the same time, they retained the position of religious leaders, which was very important to Muslims. The Abbasid Caliphate, which was already significantly weaker, was ended by an invasion of the Mongols, who conquered Baghdad in 1258, and Damascus and Aleppo in 1260. The Mongol invasion was brought to a halt on 3 September 1260 by the Mamluks, who governed Egypt. By 1261 the Caliphate was restored in Cairo, but its centre was no longer in Baghdad. The first caliph in Cairo was al-Mustansir. The time of the Caliphate in Baghdad had come to an end.
Today, the ISIS Islamists have succeeded in conquering the city of Mosul in northern Iraq with a population of two million people (making it the second largest city in Iraq), and other cities in northern and western Iraq, making their way toabout 80–90 km from the capital.27 In an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace “What the Takeover of Mosul Means for ISIS” of 12 July 2014, Lina Khatib writes: “The capture of Mosul demonstrates that ISIS is close to becoming a regional player in the Middle East”.28
In a short period of time, therefore, the Islamists have managed to seize the whole province of Nineveh—the core of the former Neo-Assyrian Empire—and also Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein. The Islamists now have a real opportunity to recreate the caliphate, whose centre they believe should be Baghdad, just as in the Abbasid dynasty. Although the Iraqi army and Shia volunteers have already begun a counterattack and have made some progress, Tikrit and Mosul are still under the control of the Salafist rebels. The Islamists and the civil war are threatening ancient Mesopotamian cities such as Nineveh, Ashur, Nimrud, Babylon and Nippur, as well as many museums, important archives and ancient monuments, which the Islamists will undoubtedly pillage and destroy as they are currently doing in Syria. One of the most important fortresses built by the crusaders in the Middle East is Krak (or Crac) des Chevaliers in Syria, near the border with Lebanon. The fortress is a very important ancient monument, but has been damaged by military activity in the Syrian Civil War.29 Similarly, the Islamists have shown no mercy towards the heritage of the Assyrian and Babylonian civilisations, as they have destroyed sculptures and pillaged ancient cities that are thousands of years old.30
When the Baghdad museum was pillaged in 2003, thousands of unique cuneiform scripts, ancient stone inscriptions, Arabic scripts, statues and other very valuable artefacts went missing.31 We can therefore draw certain parallels with the great fire of Alexandria in 47 BC following the torching of the Library by Caesar’s Roman legionaries, although the pillaging in 2003 caused far more damage all over Iraq. Both are cases of a tremendous and barbaric disaster in cultural and historical terms. Similar incidents can now be expected to occur again, in Iraq as well as in Syria.
The ISIS fighters active on Iraqi territory with a string of successful conquests behind them wish to gain control over all of Iraq, including Baghdad. It is a Salafist extremist movement whose founder could be considered to be the Jordanian Abu Musad al-Zarqawi (1966–2006). It is known that al-Zarqawi founded the movement in 2006—a few years after the Western countries’ invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is significant that Al-Qaeda was involved in founding the movement, while it was later joined by several large and small Islamist groups, such as Islamic Jihad. The first leader of the Islamic State of Iraq was Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who was later assassinated. The current leader of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.32 ISIS has been strongly influenced by Wahhabism and is puritan, fundamentalist and ultra-conservative, as it wishes to return to the roots of Islam, and to subject all aspects of everyday life to the Quran and everything provided in the Hadiths (stories of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad and his leading companions). ISIS consider their greatest enemy to be the Shias, and the Shia regime in Iran. ISIS fighters and activists are also busy on the Syrian front, where they have numerous supporters and their own bases. ISIS fighters are attempting to expand the territory they have occupied in Syria to the Iraqi border in order to unite with the groups fighting there, but ISIS is in conflict with several local organisations and groups, as well as with the central Iraqi government and the Kurds. In this “game of thrones”, they may end up as the losers because of the deep-rooted conflicts in Iraq. Recently, there have also been disagreements with Al-Qaeda and, at the beginning of 2014, Al-Qaeda leaders announced that they no longer supported ISIS.
What do the ISIS extremists want? To put it briefly, they want to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria but, if possible, over an even wider territory—a Sunni Islamist theocracy in all of the Levant.
What is the basis of ISIS’s programme? In broad terms, it is the same as that of all Islamists and jihadists—the Quran and the sharia are everything. The most extreme passages are selected from the Quran and used to justify violent and radical actions. The jihadists call on their supporters to start a religious war and in this they rely on modern ideologists but also the Quran. For example, the Quran (9:29–30) says:
Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture—[fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled. The Jews say, “Ezra is the son of Allah”; and the Christians say, “The Messiah is the son of Allah.” That is their statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?
In the eyes of the extremists even the peoples of the scripture—the Jews and Christians—have no hope of reaching the “true way” and they are in no respect “better” than other non-believers. Such passages from the Quran are, for the Islamists, the foundation for a religious war.
Perhaps one of the most well-known Pan-Islamic groups is the infamous Muslim Brotherhood, which was created in 1928 in Egypt and recently gained power in elections there—until they were overthrown by the Egyptian army in summer 2013. Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, dreamed of creating a Pan-Islamic empire or a grand caliphate that would reach from Spain to Indonesia, and expressed his principles as follows: “Allah is our objective; the Quran is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our most exalted wish”.
This is a short but specific programme with no room for liberalism, freedom of speech, other democratic values and principles, or freedom of religion because the Quran and the sharia are the Islamists’ constitution, the basis of all rules and laws.
When discussing jihad,33 Zainab Bahrani’s book Rituals of War: The Body and Violence in Mesopotamia comes to mind; Bahrani observes religious violence and wars in the ancient Middle East: according to Middle Eastern tradition, the term “jihad” (now mostly used to denote terrorism or suicide attacks) is more or less similar to the concept ius ad bellum, defining in which cases war is justified. Ibn Khaldun (1322–1402), an Islamic solicitor and historian, discussed the terms of just and unjust wars in his book Muqaddimah. Centuries later, Michael Walzer, an American political theorist and war philosopher, analysed wars and war behaviour in his 1980 book Just and Unjust Wars.34
Nearly half a million people have now fled Mosul. It is a humanitarian catastrophe, but unfortunately the worst may still be ahead. The Islamists do not care about the condemnation, criticism and opinions of the UN, the EU or other organisations and countries. They have taken a number of hostages, including about 50 employees of the Turkish consulate, children among them.
Iran, which has a long border with Iraq, feels threatened, and President Hassan Rouhani has announced that Iran will fight against Sunni extremism and terrorism in Iraq.
In the March 2013 article Masendav perspektiiv (“Depressing Outlook”)35 in the daily newspaper Postimees, I wrote that “to assume that the breakdown of Iraq (if it does really happen) goes smoothly would be naïve” and “there is no reason to rule out another Islamic revolution in the Middle East”. As of July 2014, Iraq remains in a very dangerous state and the near future seems even worse than it did in 2012 or 2013. We are increasingly haunted by the question whether Iraq will remain in the form created after the Ottoman defeat or break up into three or even more parts.
The initial triumph of the Islamists in northern and western Iraq signals nothing good and, if they cannot be halted, they might take Baghdad; however, at the moment there is still hope that they will be stopped. If not, the situation will become critical and we can then begin to talk of a new caliphate of Baghdad, which will start to export religious fanaticism36 across the Middle East and, it may be feared, also to Europe and Africa.
This would mean the final breakdown of Iraq, since the Kurds who inhabit the northern areas will do anything it takes to resist Salafist authority; the Shia will also oppose ISIS. There is a possibility that a third national formation will emerge, belonging to the Shia Muslims, who will certainly not want to be subject to Sunni fanatics. Iran, which supports and aids the Iraqi Shias, would also do everything to prevent Sunni rule. The situation of Iraqi Christians, Assyrians, Yazidi and Jews is bad as it is, and their future is uncertain, but religious fanatics coming to power in Baghdad would worsen things even more. The question remains whether the Iraqi central authorities have sufficient resources and opportunity to prevent Baghdad from being conquered by Islamists and to counterattack. It is possible that this is only achievable with assistance from the US.
What makes this situation unique is that, according to President Rouhani, Iran is willing to cooperate with the US if Washington decides to undertake anti-terrorism operations in the region. This could be a clever bluff, but it could also prove to hold some truth. It must be kept in mind that, like the authorities in Teheran, Iraq’s current regime is also Shiite and Teheran is very interested in keeping the Shia in power in Baghdad.37
Will the US and Iran cooperate to fight ISIS? That is a separate matter. Will they be able to stop ISIS’s activity and will the central authority in Baghdad remain in place after all? Or will the country fall apart for good? In that case, what will Iraq’s future be like? Answering these questions would be akin to reading tea leaves. The only thing that can be claimed with a degree of certainty is that peace in this unstable region is at least a decade, if not several decades, away. Unfortunately, it seems that the diagnosis for this patient—the diseased statehood of Iraq—is serious in every sense and a longer severe illness could turn out to be an incurable deadly disease.
1 Д. Уинтл, История ислама с VII века до н.э. Издательство Астрель, Москва, 2008, v.
2 D. Waines, Sissejuhatus islamisse. Translated into Estonian by Ü. Peterson, H. Einasto, AS BIT 2003,     p 15
3 On extremism cf. Extremism Within And Around Us. edited by Alar Kilp and Andres Saumets – ENDC Proceedings 14/2011, Estonian National Defence College. Tartu University Press, 2011.
4 On the Syrian Civil War cf. A. Laast, Süüria – väikse ja suure vastasseis. Maailma Vaade. No 17, 2012, pp 1314; P. Espak, V. Sazonov, Vägivalla ummik, – Postimees, 12.01.2013, p 4; P. Espak, V. Sazonov. Süüria „suurkuningate” võimu lõpp? – Diplomaatia. No 108, August 2012, pp 2–4.
5 On Islamism cf. R. C. Martin, A. Barzegar (ed.), Islamism, Contested Perspectives on Political Islam. Stanford University Press. Stanford, California, 2010.
6 Adam Withnall, Iraq crisis: Isis declares its territories a new Islamic state with ‘restoration of caliphate’ in Middle East, The Independent. Monday 30 June 2014., last visit 23.07.2014; c.f. Isis rebels declare ‘Islamic state’ in Iraq and Syria. BBC News, last visited 24.07.2014.
7 A. Zand; K. Koivunen, Iraagi habras föderatsioon. – Diplomaatia, no 101/102, February 2012:[tt_news]=1381&tx_ttnews[backPid]=598&cHash=bf871d498a, last visited 24.07.2014.
8 On Iraq under Saddam Hussein cf. M. Hallik, O.-M. Klassen, Taaveti tähest Talibani languseni. Konfliktid ja arengud Lähis- ja Kesk-Idas pärast Teist maailmasõda, Argo, Tallinn, 2004, pp 150–202; J. W. Dower, Culture of War. W.W.Norton/The New Press, Printed in United States of America, New York, London, 2011, pp 313–358; V. Sazonov, Saddam Hussein ja Iraagi katastroof. Katastroofid Maa ajaloos. (toim.) Liina Laumets, Liisa Lang, Karin Truuver, Reet Nemliher, Eesti Looduseuurijate Selts, Tartu Ülikooli Ökoloogia ja Maateaduste Instituut, Tallinna Tehnikaülikool, Tartu, 2012, pp 19–34.
9 Al-Marashi, I. Iraq – Guide to Islamist Movements. Ed. By Barry Rubin, volume 1,  M.E.Sharpe. Armonk, New York, London, England 2010, p 263
10 Е. Примаков, Ближний Восток на сцене и за кулисами – Российская газета, Москва, 2006, pp 353–358.
11 A. Zand, K. Koivunen, Iraagi habras föderatsioon. – Diplomaatia, no 101/102, February 2012:[tt_news]=1381&tx_ttnews[backPid]=598&cHash=bf871d498a, last visited 24.07.2014
12 E. Frahm, Einleitung in Sanherib-Inschriften, Arhiv für Orientforschung, Internationale Zeitschrift für die Wissenschaft vom Vorderen Orient, begründet von Ernst Weidner in Zusammenarbeit mit Hermann Hunger, herausgegeben von Hans Hirsch, Selbstverlag des Instituts für Orientalistik der Universität Wien, Druck: F.Berger&Söhne G.m.b.H., Horn 1997
13 On Nebuchadnezzar II cf. newer works  – for example, the Catalonian assyriologist Rocío da Riva has published several important researches – R. da Riva, The Neo-Babylonian Royal Inscriptions. An Introduction. Guides to the Mesopotamian Textual Record, Volume 4, Ugarit-Verlag, Münster, 2008; R. Da Riva, Nebuchadnezzar II’s Prism (EK 7834): A New Edition. Zeitschrift für Assyriologie 103 (2), 2013, pp 196–229; V. Sazonov, Nebukadnetsarit järgides: Saddam Hussein ja muistsed Lähis-Ida despoodid. Idakiri: Eesti Akadeemilise Orientaalseltsi aastaraamat 2014 [unpublished].
14 Дж. Апдайк, Садам Хусейн. Политическая биография. Феникс, Ростов-на-Дону, 1999, pp 225–226; On S. Hussein also cf. W.J.Spencer, The Middle East. Global Studies. McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Learning Seris 2460 Kerper Blvd., Dubuque Iowa 52001. A Division of The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2007, pp 73–74.
15 Cf. R. Hermann, Saladin und Nebukadnezar als Vorbild. – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 02.01.2007, p 3, last visited 24.07.2014.
16 For more on the Iran–Iraq war cf. L. Fawcett, International relations of the Middle East. Oxford University Press, Oxford-New York, 2005, p 266–268; also cf. E. Karsh, Iraani-Iraagi sõda 1980–1988, Koolibri, 2010.
17 Cf. V. Sazonov, Vanad rivaalid – Postimees, no 29, 2012, pp 6–7.
18 On the conflict between Iraq and Iran cf. А. Алиев, Иран vs Ирак. История и современность. Издательство Московского Университета, Москва 2002.
19 On Iraq’s wars under Hussein cf. М. П. Зейналов, В блокадном Ираке. Реалии, Москва. 2001; С. Шурлов, Иракский капкан для США. Яуза, Эскмо, Москва, 2006.
20 Cf. “Saddam Hussein executed in Iraq”,, last visited 24.07.2014.
21 On Muhammad cf. В.Ф. Панова, Ю.Б. Вахтин, Жизнь Мухаммеда. Издательство политической литературы,  Москва 1991.
22 The kings of the Persian royal dynasty of Sassanids ruled in the Middle East in 224–651 AD. Cf. С.Б.Дашков, Цари царей Сасаниды, Иран III–VII вв., в легендах, исторических хрониках и современных исследованиях. Москва, 2008
23 Cf. U. Masing, Tuhande ja ühe öö jutte. Translated from Arabian into Estonian by Uku Masing, Johannes Esto Ühing, Bookmill OÜ, Tartu 2007.
24 Апдайк, ibid. pp 223-224.
25 И. Фильштинский, История арабов и халифата 750–1517 гг., издание третье, исправленное и дополненное, Московский Государственный Университет им. М.В. Ломоносова, Институт стран Азии и Африки, Восток-Запад, Москва, 2006, pp 5–260.
26 Апдайк, ibid. p 224.
27 L. Khatib, “What the Takeover of Mosul Means for ISIS”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 12 June 2014,, last visited 24.07.2014
28 Khatib ibid.
29 Cf. Latest victim of Syria air strikes: Famed Krak des Chevaliers castle, Middle East Online, First Published: 2013-07-13; Robert Fisk, Robert Fisk, Syria’s ancient treasures pulverised, 5.08.2012, last visited 24.07.2014. last visit 24.07.2014.
30 Ilan Ben Zion, Radical Islamists take hammer to Syrian artifacts – The Times of Israel, May 22, 2014 last visited 24.07.2014.
31 Cf. Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past, (toim.) by Feoff Emberling, Katharyn Hanson, with contributions by McGuire Gibson, Donny George, John M. Russel, Katharyn Hanson, Clemens Reichel, Elizabeth C. Stone, Patty Gerstenblith 2008
32 A. J. Rubin, “Militant Leader in Rare Appearance in Iraq” –The New York Times, July 5, 2014 last visited 24.07.2014.
33 Cf. Ü. Peterson, Džihaadi kontseptsiooni kujunemine Koraanis. Magistritöö, Tartu Ülikool, filosoofiateaduskond, Tartu: Tartu Ülikool, 2005
34 Zainab Bahrani, Rituals of War. The Body of Violence in Mesopotamia, Zone Books, New York, 2008, p 11
35 V.Sazonov, Masendav perspektiiv. – Postimees, 20.03.2013, pp 12–133; c.f. H.Mölder, V.Sazonov, R.Värk, Kümme aastat operatsioonist Iraagi vabadus: ajalooline, poliitiline ja õiguslik ülevaade ning Iraagi võimalikud tulevikuperspektiivid. – Ajalooline Ajakiri, 3, 2013, pp 405–418.
36 For more on fanaticism cf. K.Marimaa, The Many Faces of Fanaticism. Ed. By Alar Kilp and Andres Saumets, Extremis Within And Araound Us. Tartu University Press, ENDC Proceedings 14, 2011, pp 29–55.
37 H. Mölder; V. Sazonov, R.Värk, Iraani ideoloogiast ja geopoliitikast läbi ajaloo ning selle mõju Iraagile. KVÜÕA Toimetised 18, 2014 [unpublished]


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

Filed under: CommentaryTagged with: ,