By Anju Anna John:
Some say they should never have invaded Iraq in the first place. Others believe that the troops should have remained in Iraq longer. The fact remains that, when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 (on what could only be surmised to be a misguided apprehension of how Iraq’s alleged possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) posed a security threat to the United States and its regional allies), it unleashed a Pandora’s Box. Now, a little over two years after Obama sought to fulfil his campaign promise by pulling out the troops from Iraq, he is faced with the dilemma of sending more ‘military advisers’ into Iraq in order to ameliorate the situation.
The real problem in the present Iraq conflict has its roots in the dispute over the Prophet’s successor. This led to the formation of two distinct sects known today as the Shias and Sunnis. Following World War I, the British and French divided the territories of Iraq and Syria, and also divided the Sunni tribal population in the process. In Iraq, the Shiites form the majority of the population (60-65%), while the Sunnis and Kurds form the minority. Before the Iraq Invasion of 2003, Saddam Hussein’s Baath party constituting of Sunnis were in power. In the elections that followed the invasion, Nouri Maliki (who was the United States’ preferred candidate ) was elected as the Prime Minister. Around this time, the civil war in Iraq had surged.
At this point, Senator Joseph Biden and Leslie Gelb of the Council of Foreign Relations wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times , in which they suggested that Iraq should be divided into 3 autonomous zones according to ethno-religious groups — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab, citing the success of this method in Bosnia. However, the Bush government went ahead and ordered for additional troops to be sent in, in order to reign in the insurgent groups. At that time the Sahwa (or Awakening), the Sunni tribal force assisted in ejecting Al-Qaida from Iraq. However, after the US withdrawal of troops on the 18th of December, 2011, in a great blow to the Sunni group, the Maliki government did not recognize the Sahwa for their assistance. Moreover, he arrested various prominent Sunnis and ordinary folk on charges of terrorism. In April 2013, his troops shot at around 50 protesters in a peaceful sit-in.
It is into this background that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) finds its way. The group led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is a group that grew out of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It has about 10,000 members in Iraq and Syria and is now joined by many Sunni militant groups. As its name suggests, it is working towards an Islamic emirate which encompasses the territories of Iraq and Syria. In January this year, it exploited the rising tensions among the Sunni group and the Shia government by taking control of the Sunni city of Fallujah.
It is interesting to note here that the ISIS had joined the war in Syria in late 2012, but was considered to be too violent by the Syrian Rebels and too extreme by Al-Qaida. On the 17th of June, the Syrian Islamic Council condemned ISIS as ‘a stooge of Mr. Assad’. The Al-Qaida has renounced it too.
The conflict took a new turn on the 5th of June this year, when the ISIS clashed with the government forces. In about 5 days’ time, they had managed to take over the city of Mosul. This prompted Maliki to call for an emergency and appeal to the international community for help. The ISIS responded to this, by taking Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s hometown) on the 11th of June.
In their move to realize their regime ambitions, they have left mass violence and destruction in their wake. In the video footage and still photographs released, hundreds of men are seen transported by trucks and marched off, according to the statement of ISIS, to their deaths. The Shia militiamen on their part have returned these deeds in kind by slaughtering Sunni detainees in a jail located north east of Baghdad. Sunni youths have been found slain in the Shia neighbourhoods . In Mosul, the ISIS has kidnapped some 40 Indian construction workers of the Tariq Noor Al Huda Company and left 46 Indian nurses stranded in a hospital in Tikrit. Further, the conflict has forced many Iraqi people to abandon their homes and head to the refugee camp in the Kingdom of Jordan.
Amidst all the sectarian killings and the abandoning of cities by the Iraqi soldiers, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have fought to take control of the cities and towns that have been deserted by the Iraqi soldiers, even as the jihadists advance to these regions. The cities and town that the Peshmerga forces have taken control of include the city of Kirkuk and the surrounding area that constitutes the disputed land between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Central government. However, the Prime Minister of the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq has ruled out the possibility of the Peshmerga fighting off the ISIS. He stated that, it was not just a question of terrorism but ‘about the Sunni community feeling neglected’ by the policies taken in Baghdad.
The Kurdish people are not the only ones to look past this terrorist activity and blame the policies of the Maliki-government for the situation in Iraq today. The Obama-government that had agreed to provide 300 ‘military advisers’ to Iraq last Thursday and has even found an unlikely ally in Iran , has stopped short of granting the request of the Iraqi-government for an airstrike. The US president has asked Maliki to do more to improve the situation of the Sunni population in Iraq. This comment was echoed in the speech of the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius as he reiterated the need for a national unity government “with or without” Maliki. As the US military advisers are sent in to help the Iraqi troops to secure Baghdad, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, plans to visit Iraq to press for a more inclusive cabinet.
While the United States waits on Maliki to reshape his cabinet before they start attacking the ISIS, the jihadist group has been advancing on the country’s biggest oil refinery in Baiji, disrupting the national energy supplies. The ISIS have also captured the Tal Afar airport in northern Iraq and a disused chemical weapons factory in the north-west of Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Shia militia have been parading the streets of Baghdad. Moreover, many Shia Iraqis (mostly Shiites) have volunteered to fight the ISIS in response to a call from the Shia religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who also advised that a new government be formed that would find “broad national acceptance” and to “remedy past mistakes”.
In the concluding lines of the Greek Mythology, it is said that the last thing to come out of Pandora’s Box was actually not evil; it was Hope. When the US army pulled down the Saddam Hussein’s statute in Firdos Square, at the centre of Baghdad, they had not won a war, but opened a Pandora’s Box. In hindsight, the hasty withdrawal of troops may not have been America’s smartest move. Whether they carry out air strikes or push for an inclusive government, let us hope that the United States’ next step goes on to solve the problems of the Iraqis.