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Iraq: From disunity to dissolution
June 30, 2014, 4:43 am

In a few weeks, the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I – a conflict that eventually carved out the Middle East and Iraq’s current borders.

But with large swathes of Iraq falling under the control of a coalition of anti-government and extremist groups spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that same country is now facing the likelihood of Balkanization.

As Iraq’s army continues to withdraw and looks unlikely to be able to repel attacks without US support, ISIL has declared that it wants to establish a Sunni caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq (for starters) – effectively redefining the contours of the current two states.

Redrawing the maps of Syria and Iraq is hardly a novel supposition and transcends the issue of the extremist forces waging a brutal war against the Damascus and Baghdad governments.

In the 94 years since France, Turkey and the UK carved up many of the nations that today comprise Western Asia, the project to partition Iraq into disparate ethnic constituencies has repeatedly been deemed a security imperative by more than one Middle Eastern power.

Israeli military strategist Oded Yinon, for example, mapped out as early as 1982 a blueprint for dividing Iraq into Kurdish, Shia and Sunni entities. He drew on the ideas of earlier Israeli thinkers.

In his article A Strategy for Israel in the 1980s published in a Hebrew-language journal Yinon outlined why the break-up of Iraq – and the eventual dissolution of its military was crucial to Israel’s survival.

“In the short run it is Iraqi power which constitutes the greatest threat to Israel,” he wrote.

He went on to say that the “dissolution of Syria and Iraq later on into ethnically or religiously unique areas such as in Lebanon, is Israel’s primary target on the Eastern front in the long run, while the dissolution of the military power of those states serves as the primary short term target.”

He said that Iraq could be broken up into three to five states with Baghdad, Basra and Mosul as the capitals. This particular demarcation plan would resurface again nearly 35 years later.


In the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, the Iraqi military was disbanded - a costly and deadly error in judgment [Getty Images]

In the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, the Iraqi military was disbanded – a costly and deadly error in judgment [Getty Images]

But the first real opportunity to ‘physically’ divide Iraq emerged in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War when France, the UK and the US sponsored and enforced a No-Fly Zone in the north. This was a turning point because it effectively ‘shielded’ (isolated) the Kurdish autonomous territories from the rest of the country.

The No-Fly Zone was also used to slowly erode Iraq’s defensive capabilities; it remained in place until the 2003 invasion.

Meanwhile, the punitive sanctions regimen slapped on Iraq between 1990 and 2003 for its invasion of Kuwait was the most comprehensive and damaging in human history, and succeeded in eroding the state’s capacity to administer the country.

State institutions withered; the middle class vanished; industry broke down; and the military struggled to keep the country together.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 not only completed the process of deconstruction initiated by the sanctions, but led to gradual decentralization of power, which helped to foment sectarian and ethnic divisions that would quickly take root and threaten the country’s sovereignty and unity.

The first decision of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) headed by Paul Bremer was to disband the Iraqi military – a costly and deadly mistake.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men were now left with no jobs, no pay and no prospects. With Iraq’s national institutions – such as the military – crumbling or being voided, these men dissolved back into their ethnic constituencies. In the months to come they would prove to be fertile recruiting ground for the militias and extremist groups that ran rampant in Iraq.

The removal of the military also meant that there was no national force that could battle with militia or secure the borders. With the US military struggling to contain the dozens of militias and resistance groups that had emerged, the borders became porous to the influx of foreign fighters, some traveling from Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iran.

Security throughout the country broke down and it was left to the workings of the militia and similar forces to bring law and order. Their rise to power in turn established a psychological and pronounced alternative to the functions of the military.

During the sectarian conflict sparked by the destruction of the Askariya Mosque – revered by Shia and Sunni Muslims – in 2006, the military was invisible as Shia and Sunni militias butchered each other and thousands of civilians.

The police, paramilitary and security forces were not only unable to halt the fighting, but were complicit in many of the crimes on both sides. After 2007, many militia fighters were absorbed into the new US-funded and trained army.

However, this army would continue to suffer from the variant sectarian loyalties of its troops and officers.

Seeds of division

Thousands have been killed in Iraq in the past few months, renewing fears of a civil war [AP]

Thousands have been killed in Iraq in the past few months, renewing fears of a civil war [AP]

While Iraq’s military was made into a paper tiger, political decisions taken by the CPA also helped plant the seeds of division that we see now. By 2004, the CPA had created the Iraq Governing Council (IGC), a grouping of exclusively former Iraqi exiles.

Position and influence was distributed along sectarian lines and appeared to emulate the Lebanese model of political distribution of power.

At the time, a number of Iraqi analysts observed that what was really happening within the Council was an entrenchment of sectarian realpolitik that the former Baathist government had tried to bury.

Furthermore, as power was being decentralized and abdicated to militia, Iraqi media was slowly growing increasingly adversarial. Whereas national TV had endured through the sanctions of the 1990s, the new media structure in Iraq was built around political and religious allegiances.

There were news networks established by Iraqi businessmen with ties to Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki and his opponents – Shia Cleric Moqtada Sadr, Iyad Allawi and exiled Tareq Al-Hashimi.

Other networks featured a tirade of Shia and Sunni clerics railing at each other, issuing fatwas and calling for the support of or opposition to the government.

Networks that didn’t toe the government line were intimidated; journalists were arrested or killed, and eventually forced to set up shop in Syria, Jordan, Dubai or Egypt.

When the mandate of the IGC ended with the so-called US “handing over of sovereignty” to Iraq on June 28, 2004, the same group of exiled Iraqis who had been selected by Bremer since 2003 were now empowered enough to establish parties and run for office.

These exiles would prove to be malleable to external forces – most of which stood to benefit from an increasingly divided Iraq.

In the beginning, these exiled politicians had scant popular support (most within the country had no idea who they were) and had to rely on the US military for sustenance and protection.

They also manipulated  religious loyalties to create a power base, and fueled sectarian distrust and fear to grow the rank and file.

In turn, the CPA would brandish the new Iraqi politicians before the Iraqi people in elections labelled as free, fair and democratic.

The Iraqi people would then ‘elect’ from a pre-selected list of candidates, who would then appear to bicker amongst each other until they had traded enough influence and favours to agree who should run the country.

Ministries and their respective posts would be divided along sectarian and ethnic lines and sectarianism, not liberalism, not nationalism, would be the new ethos of Iraq.

It’s a sad reality.

Voting for change?

In 2010 and 2014, millions of Iraqis voted in hopes that a new government would boost security and provide services [Xinhua]

In 2010 and 2014, millions of Iraqis voted in hopes that a new government would boost security and provide services [Xinhua]

In March 2010, more than 62 per cent of the Iraqi electorate headed to the ballot box with enthusiasm and hope that their vote could make a difference, and set the country down a democratic, non-sectarian path.

But the same powerhouses of mix-n-match political exiles-cum-elite that gained control between 2003 and 2010 instead squabbled over which ministries to alternate between them; courts disqualified winning candidates (hundreds were disqualified before the ballot due to suspected ties to the former Baathist government); and various groups threatened to walk out of talks to form a government.

It took nine months for a government to be established but the absence of law and order created a vacuum which was immediately filled by various extremist groups.

This was an unfolding tragedy for a populace so deprived of basic services, so longing for security and stability ravaged by war and violence perpetrated by sectarian and extremist militias that it now was forced to wait while the officials it elected bartered political power.

Iraq should have become more stable and secure after the 2010 elections but the opposite happened.

It was during this political jockeying that ISIL – then known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) – started to mobilize. Believed to have been an Al-Qaeda affiliate originating in Anbar Province, the group moved to the Nineveh province in 2007 and began a campaign of attacks, intimidation and fear.

Two important factors aided their growth and popularity.

The first is Maliki’s inability (or unwillingness) to form an inclusive government.

Between 2010 and 2013, Maliki appropriated control of ministries based on sectarian affiliations and political loyalties. The Iraqi army remains largely sectarian, and Sunni Sahwa militias, which were credited by US commanders as having played a pivotal role in stabilising the country, were discouraged and barred from joining national security forces.

It was no surprise then that one sectarian group would be marginalized at the expense of the other.

Sunni frustrations were slowly growing and eventually culminated in ISIL’s fast routing of the Iraqi military and growing control of western and northern Iraq.

While ISIL is considered a violently extremist group that imposes strict adherence to Sharia Law, it has moderated its approach in Sunni centres such as multi-ethnic Mosul and in the process been able to market itself as a better, more accommodating alternative to Baghdad’s rule.

It has also allowed other Sunni resistance groups to take the helm in Mosul.

These groups – such as the Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries, largely former Baathists and Saddam loyalists – have gained favour with the local populace. This, too, is not surprising as the core of the officer elite prior to the US invasion came from Mosul.

Streets are being repaired, electric power and basic services is being restored, security has been increased – Mosul residents have observed a drastic drop in crime, attacks and assassination.

In the event of a military campaign to recapture Mosul, Maliki’s forces will likely find that ISIL has swelled its ranks with thousands of the city’s young men who do not want to see a return of the “sectarian army”.

These factors have effectively split Mosul from the rest of the country, partially fulfilling Yinon’s vision of a divided Iraq.

So long, Kirkuk

Kurdish regional government President Massoud Barzani ordered his forces to seize control of Kirkuk as ISIL began its expansion in Iraq's north [Xinhua]

Kurdish regional government President Massoud Barzani ordered his forces to seize control of Kirkuk as ISIL began its expansion in Iraq’s north [Xinhua]

Equally separated now is another multi-ethnic, yet contested city – Kirkuk.

The city claimed by Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds produces nearly 40 per cent of Iraq’s oil from some of the richest fields in the Middle East, and is a prize for any of the three ethnicities.

So contested is this city that it was excluded from provincial elections in 2009 for fear of the possibility of electoral violence between the ethnicities marring the entire political process.

For the past decade Kirkuk has been a red line and the issue of its final status has been – much like the status of Jerusalem for the Israelis and Palestinians – postponed indefinitely. The conventional wisdom has it that Iraq has far too many other problems to tackle this powder keg.

But ISIL’s capture of Mosul and their later push toward Kirkuk forced facts on the ground – the veteran peshmerga Kurdish paramilitary force mobilized and seized control of the city.

Kirkuk is in Kurdish hands; Mosul is in Sunni Arab hands; and in the south, thousands of Iraqi Shia men have answered the call to wage jihad and defend the holy sites in Najaf and Karbala.

Mr Yinon, are you getting this?

US Vice-President Joe Biden is.

In 2006, then US Senator Biden co-authored a piece with Leslie H. Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, calling for the eventual dissolution of Iraq.

“The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralising it, giving each ethno-religious group — Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab — room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests,” they wrote.

They blamed the Bush administration for “a futile effort to establish a strong central government in Baghdad, leaving us without a real political settlement, with a deteriorating security situation — and with nothing but the most difficult policy choices.”

The editorial was the culmination of a series of treatises on how Iraq could be partitioned. Gelb had since November 2003 urged the Bush administration to create three states out of Iraq allocating the north to the Kurds, the centre to the Sunnis and the south to the Shia community.

At the same time in 2006, David Zohar, an Israeli Foreign Ministry Iraq analyst, wrote in a Jerusalem Post article that “With patience and skill it is not too late to partition Iraq and establish a confederal state in its place. It may be the only way out of the deadlock.”

He believes such division would ultimately serve Israeli interests because it would ensure that Iraqi oil is flowing to world markets and that “Palestinians would finally realise that partition is the name of the game”.

As the media examines how Western policies on Iraq could have been so off the mark, architects of the US invasion former US Vice-President Dick Cheney and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair have tried to distance themselves from any blame for the de facto disassembling of the country.

They, and others who support the neoconservative views justifying the invasion, say Iraq was always a powder keg ripe with sectarian hatred just waiting to implode.

But a review of Iraqi history since the 1920s debunks that false distillation of the modern state.

Iraq created, Iraq united?

Britain was awarded Iraq (and Palestine) as a mandate after the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I.

But the people of the new Iraq did not want to be under occupation.

Mass peaceful demonstrations against the British Mandate began in Baghdad and were violently suppressed; but the dissent spread south when Iraqi Shia tribes took arms against British troops. Sunni tribes joined the rebellion – which was called Al Thawra Al Iraqiya Al Kubra (The Great Iraqi Revolution) – and both communities worked together to remove the yoke of occupation.

The rebellion was gaining ground until Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill authorized the RAF to bomb Iraqi cities and towns to break the rebels’ spirits. There has been fierce historic debate whether poison gas was used against Iraqi civilians at the time.

With the rebellion broken, the British moved to run Iraq indirectly. (The Kurds, too, rebelled against the British Mandate which they accused of having betrayed promises to create a Kurdish nation in Iraq’s north. But by 1924, British military supremacy brought them to their knees.)

Supported by the Cairo Conference of 1921, the British Mandate in Iraq determined all aspects of political life, institution and governance and ensured that Baghdad was firmly its proxy.

The British injected a Hashemite, Faisal, as a monarch of Iraq, but this was a tough sell to the Iraqis, who despite their divisions as Kurd, Turkoman, Shiite, Sunni, Christian, and Jew, were fiercely independent and nationalistic.

Nevertheless, the British moved to secure Faisal as the new King of Iraq, seeing in him a Muslim who traced his lineage to the Prophet Mohammad, was remotely an Arab nationalist, and yet was so insecure in his alien presence in Iraq that he would need to heavily rely on the British as advisors, allies, and mentors.

Never mind that he was rejected by the Syrians as their first monarch just months earlier.

The British moved quickly to quiet any dissent by manipulating a one-question plebiscite for the Iraqi people: “Do you agree to Faisal as King and Leader of Iraq?” Not surprisingly, the result was an astounding 96 per cent.

Nationalistic aspirations and tribal divisions came to the fore when Faisal died in 1933 and was succeeded by his son Ghazi I. Ghazi, mentored in the West, was inexperienced in the ways of the Iraqis, especially when it came to tribal political power and loyalties. In the eyes of nationalist Iraqis, Ghazi was seen little more than a puppet for the British, brought into their midst to control Iraq.

This boiled over into the first coup d’etat of the Arab world in 1936: General Bakr Sidqi proceeded to implement non-Arab policies geared towards satisfying Turkey and Iran. His policies contributed to his assassination in 1937.

But A 1939 ‘mysterious’ fatal car crash ended Ghazi’s life after he had called for the invasion of Kuwait to return it to Iraqi sovereignty. Iraqis had come to see Ghazi’s passionate call as a pan-Arab nationalistic movement to unite Arabia. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, crashing headfirst into a lamppost, was widely believed to be a British plot.

Ghazi’s son, Faisal II, ascended the throne. But according to historian and writer Eric Margolis in his book Iraq’s History is Written in Blood, “real power was wielded by Britain’s man in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri as-Said. The US and Britain forced Iraq to join the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact and sell its oil at give-away prices to the West”.

Following the 1936 and 1939 Arab revolts in Palestine, Pan-Arabism – an idea already floated as a response to colonialism and an alternative to Islamism – quickly gained ground in Iraq.

With the colonialist powers engaged in fighting each other during World War II, Arab nationalists from Algeria to Egypt to Iraq started planning their rise.

In 1940, Rashid Ali Al Gelani succeeded Nouri as-Said as prime minister and quickly moved to restrict British movement in Iraq, allied himself with the Nazis hoping to win support against London, and rallied against the Jewish presence in Palestine. Iraqi Jews were caught in the middle and on several occasions attacked by the new anti-British forces.

The British, sensing a threat to their influence, pushed as-Saidto initiate a silent coup against Gelani. For his part, Gelani, who was widely popular with the military and Iraqi civilians, ousted as-Said, who fled to Transjordan (now known as Jordan).

The British invaded Iraq and were greeted with fierce resistance from the people who now believed they were facing a second phase in the occupation of Iraq. British RAF strafed Iraqi military and civilians alike and British mechanized divisions quickly headed toward Baghdad. Gelani and his staff fled to Iran. The monarchy was back in control of a disgruntled Iraq.

Iraqis now secretly talked of revolt and were completely disenfranchised from a monarchy they considered foreign and in the pay of others. It was perceived that Iraq’s oil wealth was being siphoned off for use by the British for the war effort, and the country’s development was in retardation.

Blood-soaked history

The 1947 UN partition of Palestine enraged pan-Arab Iraqis. Faisal II, now King of Iraq, dispatched a poorly equipped and badly funded Iraqi army to fight the Israelis. The Iraqi army suffered humiliation and Iraqis back home blamed as-Said for deliberately keeping funds from the military. Iraqis believed that it was a British plot to weaken Iraq and keep it under Churchill’s grasp. Nouri as-Said was seen as the agent of this British plot.

Between 1950 and 1955, as-Said called for greater unity between Britain and Iraq and openly supported a US-influenced coalition to face off the Soviet threat of Communism.

In 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser led a military coup that ended Egypt’s British-influenced monarchy. This helped tip the balance in favour of revolutionaries and pan-Arabists throughout the Arab World.

The growth of Nasser’s popularity threatened the Jordanian monarchy, which moved to quickly call for a federation between Jordan and Iraq. This was too much for Iraqis to bear.

Such was the hatred for British involvement in Iraq and for its puppet monarch that a 1958 revolution, led by General Abdul Karim Kassem, gave the world a glimpse of the reviled butchery that would taint the modern state.

Iraqis marched in the streets calling for the death of the entire royal family. In the ensuing madness of revolution, thousands were killed and hung from lampposts as a sign and lesson for future generations.

If sectarian conflict was just simmering under the surface, as Blair, Bremer and others claim, why did it never emerge during these periods of contentious politics?

Iran war, Kuwait debacle

Iraq’s demise began in the 1980s when it went to war with Iran. Although it was Shia Arabs that formed the bulk of the Iraqi army and paid the price fighting Shia Iran, the seeds of sectarianism had been planted.

The war had started, in part, because of Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for Iraq’s Shia to rise against Baghdad.

A paranoid Iraqi government responded by persecuting thousands of Shia suspected of ties with Iran. Iraqis with Iranian background were jailed, their assets seized, and exiled.

At the time, Yinon wrote: “The Iran-Iraq war tore Iraq apart and provoked its downfall. All manner of inter-Arab conflict help us and accelerate our goal of breaking up Iraq into small, diverse pieces.”

While the eight-year conflict debilitated and bankrupted both countries of finances and nearly one million young men, Iraq emerged with enough momentum to believe it could throw the gauntlet and occupy Kuwait with no repercussions.

The consequent 1990 sanctions, the 1991 Gulf War, the No-Fly Zone, the separation of the Kurdish autonomous region all served to slowly, if not systematically, decentralize control of the country and weaken Baghdad’s power and influence.

The distrust and tension between Shia and Sunni grew in direct proportion to the weakening hold of the government; outside influences gained room to maneuver and Iraq was infiltrated by extremists from all sides.

In the 1990s, some 40 per cent of Baghdad’s Muslim population was composed of mixed Shia and Sunni families – nicknamed Sushi in the years since.

Many of these families were torn apart following the US invasion as the country was split socially and politically along sectarian lines. Since 2003 and especially as of 2005, multi-ethnic districts of Baghdad were cleansed – Shia in Shia neighbourhoods; Sunnis in Sunni neighbourhoods.

Mixed “Sushi” marriages now became almost impossible to manage; in the past decade, these have become very rare.

With the dissolution of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurd now increasingly likely, the suffering of these mixed families will likely worsen.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.