Saturday, June 14, 2014

Things To Understand About The Upheaval In Iraq

Iraq is jarringly back in the headlines after the extreme Islamist group ISIS ("Islamic State of Iraq and Syria"), or alternatively ISIL ("Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant") suddenly and shockingly routed the Iraqi army and seized control of the major Iraqi city of Mosul. Here are some things you need to know about the circumstances, the group, and the region—with particular consideration of the U.S. role leading up to the current events.

1. The date by which U.S. forces were obligated to withdraw from Iraq was set in a treaty negotiated and signed by the Bush administration and the sovereign government of Iraq. President Obama had nothing to do with that legally binding timetable, other than ensuring that it was met.

2. The Obama administration engaged in discussions with the Iraqi government over a remaining residual contingent of U.S. troops after the withdrawal date, but was unable to reach a satisfactory "status of forces" agreement governing things such as the legal authority and accountability under which U.S. forces would operate. Iraq, a sovereign state, thus opted to have no remaining U.S. presence. And in any case, a residual force would not have consisted of U.S. combat troops.

The previous two items are provided for the "blame Obama for everything" crowd. Some consider it Obama's fault that the U.S. exited Iraq "too soon."

3. The ISIS sacking of Mosul was only possible due to the wholesale disintegration of two divisions (three, if you include Tikrit) of the Iraqi army, which far outnumbered and was far better equipped (with tanks and heavy weapons, for example) than the much smaller group of Islamic fighters. Iraqi soldiers simply removed their uniforms and fled en masse, mostly without putting up a fight. It must be noted that those soldiers were Sunnis who may have had minimal allegiance to the central government in Baghdad in any case. But it's hard to overstate how mismatched the forces were, or how stunning it is that the army refused to engage.

4. The ascent of ISIS is due in large part to severe dysfunction in the Iraqi government, which has been unwilling to advance accommodation and power sharing between various sectarian and tribal factions and regions in Iraq, particularly between Shiites and Sunnis. ISIS is a Sunni organization. The Iraqi government is controlled by Shiites, and has relentlessly dominated and excluded the Sunni areas and populations of the country. Political dysfunction and sectarian strife has been rife in Iraq ever since the U.S. invasion, and to some extent before it, although Saddam Hussein ruled ruthlessly and severely put down any sectarian, ethnic, or separatist uprisings.

For many years the U.S. has been pleading with the government of Iraq (under Nouri al-Maliki) to accommodate and share power with the country's sectarian and ethnic factions (principally Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds), but he has been loathe to do so. The sectarian violence that dominated the news during much of the U.S. occupation never really ended, even as the American public's attention largely turned elsewhere. For example, persons still paying attention noted ongoing reports of car bombings coming out of Iraq, and discomfiting civilian death counts, up to the present. Sectarian strife has thus been underpinning and feeding upon the political dysfunction in the country, and also explains to a large extent the army's and the populace's lack of resistance to the invading ISIS, which although unimaginably cruel and extreme may also represent an alternative to the dominant Shiites.

5. ISIS is a descendant of the group "Al Qaeda in Iraq" that was a prominent player in Iraq before (c. 2006) the U.S. "surge" and the "Sunni awakening." AQI was an outcome of the U.S. invasion and the ascent to power of the majority Shiites; it did not previously exist in the Sunni-dominated Iraq of Saddam Hussein where no sectarian groups openly operated and in which no terrorist groups existed. When the majority Shiites took control of the country under the U.S. occupation, extremist Sunni groups such as AQI emerged in opposition.

6. ISIS has been operating across the Iraq border in Syria, and is one of the most extreme of the jihadist opposition groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad. ISIS envisions an Islamist state spanning parts of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, governed by a particularly cruel version of Sharia law. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has argued that by failing to arm more moderate opposition groups in Syria, the Obama administration inadvertently empowered ISIS, which was able to consolidate its organization when the moderate opposition became discouraged from lack of assistance.

For his part, Obama's analysis seems to be that it has been too difficult to distinguish on the "battlefield" between moderate and extremist groups, that the moderate groups in any case were not "ready" (in terms of their fighting capabilities) to receive weapons, and that any arms sent to Syria would inevitably fall into the wrong hands. Obama seems to have believed there was no clear way forward—at least through use of force—to a broadly inclusive Syrian government, and that what was ultimately a choice between Assad and an eventual extreme Islamist government in Syria was no choice at all. Maybe so, but now the game is apparently up with respect to weaponry: In abandoning Mosul, the Iraqi army left behind large amounts of U.S. supplied weaponry which is now in the hands of ISIS. And ISIS has looted half a billion dollars from Mosul banks, making it suddenly an incredibly well-funded organization. This could get interesting.

7. Long before its involvement in Syria, ISIS has been operating in Iraq in one form or another for over half a decade, honing its ideology and strategy for the formation of an Islamic caliphate. Here's a good overview in The New York Times that explains what's been happening while we weren't paying attention.

 Copyright (C) 2014 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

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