November 10, 2014

Why won’t Iraq collapse?


In assessing the situation in Iraq in the light of recent events, one is presented a picture which is at least as complicated as the long history of the state.

In June, intensive military operations started yet again in Iraq. The extremist Sunni fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) conquered the city of Mosul in northern Iraq, which has a population of nearly two million. Thereafter, ISIL started an offensive south towards Baghdad, and soon also occupied Tikrit, at least in part. At the end of the month, an Islamic caliphate was declared and the organisation underwent a name change—ISIL became simply Islamic State (IS). According to the Central Intelligence Agency of the U.S., the membership of the extremist organisation has doubled in Syria and Iraq as a result of successful military activity—different estimates put the number as high as 30,000.
In analysing recent events in Iraq, many experts immediately pointed out the ancient hostility between the Arab Sunnis and Shi’ites in the country. Michael Crowley proceeds from the same viewpoint in the U.S. magazine Time: “What’s happening in Iraq is the work of centuries, the latest chapter in the story of a religious schism between Sunni and Shi’ite that was already old news a thousand years ago”.1 David Keys, in turn, states on the pages of an Estonian newspaper that the roots of the hostility can be traced back to the 7th century, when people could not reach agreement about the future of Islam.2 It is not only the hostility that is historical between the rival sects but also the idea of creating a caliphate, which Vladimir Sazonov considers one of the most important reasons behind IS’s success.3
Viewing the Arab world through the prism of a thousand years is not new in itself. The main presumption is that the Arabs and Muslims are driven to action not by modern events, but by “the long-ago tendencies and deep undercurrents of the history of the Middle East, which were repressed or at least hidden during the centuries of Western dominance.4 Homo islamicus does not obey the rules of our world. Crowley reaches a similar conclusion and states that the Western countries’ words about liberty and cooperation will remain distant to the Iraqi spirit, which is buoyed up by ancient enmity.
Unfortunately, this worn-out method of the orientalists for explaining modern events via universal principles deduced from history is full of flaws and only presents a very confused picture of modern Iraq.5 The purpose of this article is, therefore, to draw attention to the imprecise claims of the orientalists as well as to explore the difficult situation of Iraq. In relation to the latter, I shall only consider current events, people and institutions, not those of the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, when we speak about the changing security situation in Estonia, there is no point in delving into the course of the Great Northern War or the ancient fight for freedom in excessive detail.

National Unity

The orientalist point of departure is not the only problem. People also tweak the truth to support their claims. When characterising the tensions between the Sunni and Shi’ite, Crowley describes how a leading Shi’ite cleric summoned men of his faith to battle against the Sunni extremists, who plan to create a 7th-century-style caliphate in which there is no place for the Shi’ites. Crowley does not point to a specific name, but it is likely that he is referring to Ali as-Sistani, the highest-ranking Shi’ite Grand Ayatollah in Iraq, whose address seemed to encourage taking up arms.
In reality, As-Sistani did not order the Shi’ites to start a war against their fellow Muslims. His appeal was clearly meant for all Iraqis who wish to protect their state, families and sacred sites against terrorists. As-Sistani noted poetically that the Iraqi government and other political interest groups “must join their voices and strengthen their efforts to withstand the terrorists so as to protect their citizens from their [the terrorists’] malice”.6
Another important Shi’ite leader, Muqtadā al-Ṣadr, who is closely connected to Teheran, repeatedly appealed for the inclusion of the Sunni in politics. The necessity of cooperation and resolving differences are still the key words. “The government must promise that it will sign the peaceable and justified demands of the moderate Iraqi Sunni,” said the Shi’ite al-Ṣadr in one of his televised addresses.7 The unyielding confrontation charged with religion in which the Shi’ites present a common front against the Sunni alluded to by Crowley does not exist.
The first important step for resolving differences was made in August, when the then Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki was forced to resign after eight years in power. Haider Al-Abadi from Maliki’s party became the new Prime Minister, and the Sunni tribes who boycotted Maliki and Kurds have both promised to cooperate with him. To confirm this, a new government was also formed in Baghdad. They have not yet overcome all difficulties, as the Iraqi parliament approved neither the Minister of Defence nor the Minister of Internal Affairs first time round. According to expectations, the former position should go to a Sunni. Ned Parker, Baghdad Bureau Chief of Reuters, states that it is a great challenge for Al-Abadi to convince the Sunni tribes that Baghdad is well-meaning.8
Tensions between the two sects—Sunni and Shi’ite—do exist but they are not so much historical and religious as related to current affairs and pragmatism. A burning question is whether members of the former Ba’ath party of Saddam Hussein—most of them Sunni—are to be allowed to hold state office. Under a law passed in 2003, former members of the Ba’ath party were barred from working in the public sector and army. In addition, the Sunni are demanding that the government release thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were taken into custody last year during the protests against Maliki. IS attacks against the Shi’ite population are making the daily interaction between the sects more difficult than usual.
Moreover, the utterly pragmatic issues between the Kurdistan capital Arbīl and Baghdad need settling. The main problem is dividing Iraq’s oil revenues. The Kurds’ independent action in sending crude oil to Turkey via the Kirkuk–Ceyhan pipeline saw the financial support of the central government taken from them. The argument over dividing the profits actually began even earlier, when Baghdad did not pay a portion of the finances allocated to the Kurds. It is worth noting that 95% of Iraqi Kurdistan’s budget still depends on dollars coming from Bagdad which, in turn, are connected to Iraqi oil exports.9

Reasons for IS success

Presenting erroneous facts is not the only problem in describing the situation in Iraq. Religious and historical factors cannot be ignored, but attributing too much importance to them not only confuses the situation but also diverts attention away from actual events. Vladimir Sazonov notes that the idea of creating the caliphate “has strong and old archaic roots which lie 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”. Postulating a thousand-year-old causal connection is not a problem for the orientalists, given that the Islamic world is allegedly immobile in time.
Still, behind the success and brutality of IS are more earthly reasons that one does not have to search for from the Middle Ages. Many different interest groups have come together under the flag of the Islamic State extremists. In addition to the holy warriors from Syria and foreigners, the Sunni tribes ousted from power and the military elite from Saddam Hussein’s times that are against Baghdad, as well as former members of Al-Qaeda, all have an important role.
The skilled fighters who crossed the border after the Syrian civil war and involving the military leaders from Saddam Hussein’s times in the action stand behind the successful military operations. The 5,000-strong Naqshbandi Army led by an erstwhile confidant of Hussein—Izzat Ad-Douri—is especially noteworthy in the latter case, as it was also the key factor in occupying Mosul in early June.
In organising terrorist attacks with many casualties, IS is still definitely supported by former members of Al-Qaeda, many of whom have been accepted into the organisation over the years. In this respect, an attack on the infamous Abu Ghraib prison last summer, during which IS liberated some 500 former members of Al-Qaeda, is of significant importance. Marwan Bishara, a political analyst specialising in the Middle East, underlines that it was specifically in that prison that the detainees underwent the most horrible humiliation and torture.10 This is why we need not wonder about IS’s current brutality and organisation of massacres. The things they experienced in Abu Ghraib stripped them of all humanity.
Besides IS’s high level of organisation and conclusion of alliances, the weakness of the Iraqi army is also an important factor in IS’s success. The Iraqi army brigades were undermanned, and superiors often embezzled their subordinates’ pay. Thousands of soldiers deserted near Mosul, leaving American-supplied vehicles, arms and ammunition as IS spoils. According to some data, 300 soldiers a day fled the army in June.11 It is also noteworthy that, due to political discord, Iraq has not had a Minister of Defence for the past four years. During Maliki’s time in office, the duties of Minister of Defence were performed by the Minister of Culture—his achievements include a cultural cooperation agreement with Slovenia, but not the efficient organisation of national defence.
In addition, IS has cleverly used the tensions between the Shi’ites and Sunni that have been exacerbated by the arms race between the sects in the last few years. In 2013, the Sunni protesting against Maliki formed armed groups to defend themselves from potential attack by the Iraqi army. To counter this, Shi’ite religious leaders also began to form illegal armed groups. A noteworthy example is the Mukhtar army, which claimed responsibility for several attacks in Baghdad last year.12 At first, Maliki, who had lost the 2013 parliamentary elections, turned a blind eye to the creation of these Shi’ite armed groups, hoping to win their political support.
On the other hand, one cannot underestimate IS’s ability to restore order within chaos, which is especially important in the organisation’s activity in Syria. Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, states that the strict application of sharia law will bring a semblance of stability to a lawless place. The author of The New Arabs compares the situation in Syria and Iraq to that of Cambodia after the Vietnam War, where desperate people also started to support radical groups. “[IS’s] roots are supported to a small extent by religion and to a large extent by the chaos and violence these societies are experiencing,” notes Cole.13
Vladimir Sazonov said in an interview with Vikerraadio that the extremists have the capability of “getting the majority of Syria and Iraq under their control as well as potentially invading Jordan, Lebanon and somewhere else”. Although the global ambitions of the Islamic State extremists are well known, the chances for the realisation of this scenario on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris are extremely small. Even now, IS is unable to hold on to the territories it has conquered in Iraq.14 By declaring the caliphate, IS gave away its military advantage—its diffuse and invisible organisation. Now IS has a physical territory, which it needs to protect. That, in turn, makes attacking IS easier. In terms of military activity, it is doubtful whether IS would even want to conquer Baghdad. The terrorist attacks organised in the Iraqi capital are, rather, an attempt to display the feebleness of the central authority in Baghdad, which cannot guarantee the safety of its citizens.

An International Conflict and the Future of Iraq

The anti-IS coalition is shaped not only on the local but also on the regional and international level.
Taking their example from the U.S., ten Arab states, including the Sunni Saudi Arabia, promised to support Iraq in the fight against IS. Officially, Iran has been left out of the coalition of neighbouring states. Washington claims that both Teheran’s strong proclivity to the Shi’ite sect as well as nuclear issues, unresolved to this day, present a problem. But Iran has clearly expressed the wish to support activities against IS. As a token of this, they also provided weapons required by the Kurds.
On the international level, both the U.S. and the European Union have shown their support towards Iraq. In terms of military means, the Western countries are first and foremost supporting the Kurds, since they do not wish to exacerbate sectarian tensions by arming one of the sides in the conflict. Even Estonia gave over a million rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition to the Kurds. The U.S. is carrying out air strikes against IS footholds, and France has done the same. However, the Western countries need to be careful to avoid civilian casualties and the local Sunni turning against them. This danger was characterised well by a cartoon published in the Qatar daily newspaper Al-Watan, depicting an Iraqi trapped between the knife of an IS extremist and NATO missiles. The allies must continue on the course they have chosen—supporting the Iraqi army and the activities of the Kurds. When other countries take too great a level of military initiative in Iraq, it may lead to increasing distance and distrust between the various parties.
In assessing the situation in Iraq in the light of recent events, one is presented a picture which is at least as complicated as the long history of the state. The rapid dissolution of the Iraq state is, however, not to be expected since the resulting chaos would not be acceptable to either the Iraqis or anyone else. Today, the state is gradually moving towards a new social agreement, in the framework of which the Kurds will gain even more extensive autonomy and the Sunni will be more involved in state matters. This kind of decentralisation will not lead to the dissolution of the state. The key question is finding political balance—dividing the power equally between the Shi’ites, Sunni and Kurds. The first touchstone in this field is gaining final approval for the members of the government.
Considering the serious national and international efforts and the fact that IS is internally fragmented between various interest groups and has limited military capability to hold on to their areas in the long term, one could think that the Sunni extremists will be forced gradually to retreat from Iraq in the near future. Naturally, IS will continue to organise dispersed terrorist attacks in the Shi’ite districts of Baghdad and other cities with the support of the local anti-central-government forces, continuing to create instability and fear in the country.
The final solution of the IS issue requires decisive action in Syria, which has become a refuge for the extremists. While the international community and key regional states basically have the same views in terms of Iraq, in Syria’s case the differences are greater. The issue of Syria will be the most painful after IS has been ousted from Iraq. The U.S. has declared that they are at war with IS and will fight extremists everywhere, even when this means organising attacks on Syrian soil. In addition to the Americans, Saudi Arabia is prepared to offer military training to the moderate Syrian opposition. Iran and Russia, which support Al-Assad, are trying to cast doubt over these steps. Thus, solving the issue of Syria also means involving Russia and Iraq, whether others wish it or not.
The region can expect no peace until the issue of Syria has been resolved. On the contrary, clashes between the various groups are most likely to continue. “… The potential for interstate conflict in the Middle Eastern regional security complex has risen sharply, and can be expected to continue to accelerate so long as the Syrian uprising rages out of control,” states Fred H. Lawson, an expert on the Middle East. In this context, IS will continue to use the tensions and disappointments in relations between the sects to their advantage, whereas the final fragmentation of Iraq is not a serious option for anyone besides the extremists themselves.
1 Crowley, M, “The End of Iraq” – Time 30.06.2014, pp. 18–24
2 Keys, D. Kunstlikult loodud mureriik võib lõheneda – Postimees 04.07.2014, pp. 10–11.
3 Sazonov, V. Islamismi puhangud Iraagis – kas Araabia kalifaadi taassünd? – Diplomaatia No. 132, August 2014, pp. 10–15.
4 Lewis, B. Euroopa ja islam – Diplomaatia No. 45, May 2007, translated by Marek Laane, pp. 5–9.
5 By “orientalism”, I mean Edward Said’s approach, which has been discussed more thoroughly in the book Orientalism (1978). On the issue of orientalism in Estonia, see Raudsik, P. Orientalismi kõverpeeglis – Sirp 28.03. 2013, p. 4.
6 Al-Monitor 2014, As-Sistani: lām id’aw lil-jihād, bal ḍabṭ il-waḍ’a qānunyiā.… 7 Wattan TV 2014, Abraz al-ṭuwrāt fi-l’rāq. 8 Parker, N. 2014, “Can Iraq Save Itself?”. Interviewed Bernard Gwertzman. Council on Foreign Relations. 9 For detail about relations between Iraqi Kurdistan and the central power: Natali, D. 2014, “A New Normal for Iraqi Kurds?” Middle East Research and Information Project. 10 Bishara, M. 2014. “On savagery and war”. Al-Jazeera.… 11 Henman, M. 2014, “Why has the Iraqi army struggled to counter ISIL advance?” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.… 12 Mamouri, A. 2013, “The Rise of ‘Cleric Militias’ in Iraq”. Al-Monitor.… 13 Al-Jazeera Inside Story (2014): The genesis of the Islamic State group. Speakers: M. Zeid, A. Al-Tamimi and J. Cole.… 14 For detailed listening material about IS’s military tactics and capabilities: Institute for the Study of War (2014): “ISIS vs. the Iraqi Security Forces: Can the State of Iraq Survive?” Speakers: Lieutenant General James. M. Dubik and Jessica. D. Lewis.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.