Vitaly Naumkin of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) shares his thoughts about the dangerously unstable situation in Iraq.


Volunteers from the Shi'ite Badr Organization have joined the Iraqi army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who have taken over Mosul and other northern provinces. Photo: Reuters

The recent dramatic events in Iraq were both surprising and predictable. Their roots run into the recent past – namely, the invasion by U.S. troops and their allies of this country and the ensuing occupation. During the occupation of the country, according to some estimates, nearly half a million people were killed, and several million refugees and displaced persons were created.

What was wrong with the US policy in Iraq?

Most serious analysts now agree that the three major errors committed by the Americans in Iraq were the banning of the Ba’ath Party [an authoritarian political movement based on the ideology of Arab socialism – Editor’s note], the dissolution of the Iraqi Army and the elimination of the state bureaucratic apparatus.

It is understandable why this was done – there were fears that these structures were incapable of transformation and that, moreover, if allowed to remain, in the future they would be able to carry out revenge operations and restore the old social and state system.

The main state institutions were effectively eliminated. These were the pillars of the secular nationalist regime – with all the hideousness of the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, who brought grief to a huge number of his own people as well as citizens of neighboring countries – Iran and Kuwait.

As a result, a power vacuum was formed in Iraq that the new rulers have failed to fill. This doesn’t even take into account the explosive potential of a growing mass of highly qualified specialists left with nowhere to turn.

In addition, an equally serious mistake of the U.S. was its focus on using the religious factor. Of course, the Shiites were part of a discriminated minority, and needed to have lawful and fair rehabilitation. However, this was not done by promoting a kind of national consensus, but by relying on religious Shiite parties – the Islamic Call Party (Al-Dawa) and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution.

The “Shiite project” for Washington was in fact a religious project, which could not but lead to a sharp rise in hostilities between different sects in Islam. Meanwhile, the no less fair rehabilitation of the Kurds has led to the creation of Kurdish quasi-statehood.

As a result, social fragmentation increased, and the task of nation building in Iraq and the establishment of a full-fledged version of a nation-state began to look quite illusory. The “sectarian genie” was let out of the bottle, and the Americans condemned the country to civil strife.      

Looking back at past history, the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein was one of the most efficient in the region. However, its commanders preferred not to provide resistance against superior American forces, which would have been disastrous for the Army and for the country as a whole, and thus ensured that the Iraqi capital would not be destroyed. Among both military and civilian officials, there was a huge mass of people who belonged to the “silent opposition” to the dictator, and faulted him with all the troubles that had befallen Iraq. The Army was tired of two bloody wars waged by Saddam against Iran and Kuwait.

According to one of the leading American experts on the region, Anthony Cordesman, the United States should learn from the hard lessons of waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially if they intend to conduct such wars in the future. In the list of recommendations given by the expert is the following bit of intriguing advice – “Never fall in love with the mission.” However, it seems that Russia’s Western partners have not yet been able to overcome this illness.

An Iraqi security forces member with his weapon takes position as people, who fled from the violence in Mosul, arrive in their vehicles at a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Arbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region June 14, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Will ISIS provoke the U.S. to hit Iraq once again?

The captures last week of the second largest city of Iraq – Mosul, and towns in the Saladin Province, were in the first place carried out by the fighters of the most radical Islamist terrorist forces in the region – long affiliated with al-Qaeda group – the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

The very name tells about the essence of this Islamist ISIS project – the creation of an Islamic state on the territory that includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. In the region, it is believed that this group is composed of from seven to ten thousand jihadists, hardened by the fighting in Syria, cruel and ruthless, while surpassing their opponents at least by the fact that they are willing to die for their cause.

They receive generous financial support from shadow networks, mainly from countries of the Arabian Peninsula. Among them, there are many people from many countries of the region, as well as from Europe, America and Eurasia. After establishing their control over Raqqa, a city in northern Syria, they undertook mass executions of the unwanted, and imposed on this territory the strict observance of Sharia Law in its most rigid interpretation. Streams of refugees rushed from Mosul.

However, we must not forget that the ISIS troops invading Mosul were not alone – people cooperating with them also accompanied them. Thanks to the coincidence of tactical goals, these are representatives of other groups, including supporters of the former regime.

In fact, what is being formed today is the prototype of a cross-border Islamist state – for now on the territories of Iraq and part of Syria – as the regions seized by the militants are adjacent to one another, thus forming a coherent whole. Already patrolling the area of ​​Raqqa can be seen military Hummers, captured by terrorists in Mosul and sent into Syria. It is clear that being sent there are also weapons abandoned by the Iraqi Army in the field of battle. Now it is obvious that the civil war in Syria will become even fiercer.

The ISIS victory has inspired the entire international extremist underground, which undoubtedly increases the threat of spreading of this cancer of terrorism beyond the region. It is clear that the next target of those who came to fight under the banner of the ISIS from afar will be the regimes of those states where they came from.

Today in the West, all are blaming the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, accusing him of “sectarian politics” and dictatorial methods of governing. Some are even talking about betrayal in the ranks of the Iraqi Army. Nevertheless, already coming to its aid or replacement are units made up of Shiite, and a considerable number of Sunni, volunteers. 

While no one can say whether ISIS troops will push on to attack Baghdad (although there are reports they have already started preparing for a blockade of the capital, to be further followed by an assault), and further to the south – to the main Shiite shrines of Karbala and Najaf. The central government will mobilize all resources to defend Baghdad, while the threat to Shiite shrines will mobilize Shiites en masse for the national defense.

Will the U.S. intervene in this situation? Will they coordinate their activities with Iran and, in general, how would Americans react to a possible Iranian intervention? It seems that U.S. President Barack Obama does not really desire any new military campaigns. It can be assumed that, in case of further gains being made by radicals, Washington may undertake pinpoint air strikes against the concentrations of their forces.

However, this requires not only a formal appeal from the Iraqi government, but also precise intelligence (here the main role will be performed by drones) in order to avoid civilian casualties, as any civilian deaths would only mobilize new supporters for the ISIS.

As many have pointed out, of all the places in the Arab World where the U.S. has acted to topple governments that existed for many years, direct U.S. and Western intervention has led to stabilization and the achievement of positive results (in terms of development), only in two territories. These are Tunisia and Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraq has apparently not been so lucky.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.