Requiem for Iraq

Requiem for Iraq
Comment: The "scorched earth" policy used in fighting the Islamic State group on the ground is likely to entrench sectarian divisions which could tear apart the country.
6 min read
23 Mar, 2015
Yazidi fighters pass the grave of a child who died from malnutrition in Kurdistan [AFP]
The Iraqi government's current military operation to retake Tikrit has made headlines the world over, and is presented as a major development in the fight to defeat the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as Isis and Isil).

Analysis has concentrated on the need to avoid retaliation against Tikrit's Sunni community once IS is expelled from the city, the birthplace of late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

If previous operations in Salahuddin and Diyala Provinces are anything to go by, however, this is wishful thinking.

Following the fall of Mosul in June 2014 to the then Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), it is no secret that Shia militias have largely replaced the Iraqi army as the main fighting force on the side of the government.

To date, the militia record in those provinces - where the bulk of the fighting against IS has taken place - has been one of death and destruction. Recent news of the burning of Albu Ajil village is in line with this pattern.

Operating with near-total impunity, militias have engaged in the pillaging and burning of Sunni homes and businesses, while targeting the civilian population whom they largely conflate with IS.

Unidentified bodies, often bearing marks of torture, are dumped in isolated areas with increasing frequency, signalling a return to an all too familiar pattern last seen during the civil war years.

Tens of thousands of Sunnis have either been expelled or prevented from returning home. Although security concerns are often cited as the main reason - in some cases, such concerns are legitimate, given that IS has planted bombs and booby-traps when retreating - questions remain.

One militia leader in Amerli recently told me that the population of three Shia villages in the sub-district had been allowed back and electricity restored. Yet, he cited security as the main obstacle for the return of the Sunnis, though he was speaking of virtually the same areas.
     Operating with near-total impunity, militias have engaged in the pillaging and burning of Sunni homes and businesses.

More nails in Iraq's coffin

The militias' scorched-earth policy is changing Iraq's demographics, especially when coupled with the massive displacement triggered by Isil's blazing victories last year.

A million Iraqis have also been displaced in the 2006-8 civil war. But the Shia militias are not the only force intent on creating facts on the ground. In the north, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) exploited the collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of Isil to take over territories disputed between the Kurdish entity and the central government in Baghdad, most notably Kirkuk.

This sudden expansion galvanised KRG President Masoud Barzani to such an extent that open talks of Kurdish independence began circulating. The Kurds' bluff was called only a few weeks later, however, when in August 2014 IS entered the Yazidis' historic heartland of Sinjar meeting little to no resistance by Peshmerga forces drawn thin by the earlier redeployment.

The Peshmerga are now fighting their way back into Sinjar and the surrounding areas, also expelling Sunnis suspected of collaboration with IS and flattening their villages - though admittedly to a lesser extent than the militias.

Sunnis decry the current state of affairs as they feel stuck between IS' hammer and the militias' anvil.

It is not uncommon to hear Sunni IDPs - uprooted by one but often victimised by both - complain that "the Americans created this mess, so they must come back to fix it".

It is tragically ironic that a community who bitterly fought the US-led occupation of Iraq before switching sides in the face of al-Qaeda's murderous spread would now call on the US occupier to return.

This is but a symptom of a deeper malaise affecting Iraqi Sunnis. Lacking a leadership that could unify them behind a shared political programme, many pinned their hopes on IS to restore their dignity after years of abuses at the hands of the government in Baghdad.

By the time Mosul fell, many Sunnis had come to view "Maliki's army" as much an occupier as the US army. This Faustian bargain proved fatal as it provided the perfect excuse for the militias' rampage through Sunni lands.
     By the time Mosul fell, many Sunnis had come to view 'Maliki's army' as much an occupier as the US army.

More ominously, it split the Sunni community between those who supported and those who opposed IS.

A leader of the Jubour tribe - whose members are fighting side by side with the government to retake Tikrit - recently reportedly quipped to a friend that "if the militias hadn't burnt down Albu Ajil village, the Jubour would have [as a punishment for villagers' support for IS]."

Requiem for Iraq

Disunity and conflict are rife as much within as between Iraq's communities. While sharing a common purpose in the fight against IS, Shia militia are divided in their allegiance to Iran, with the Sadrist movement - whose leader remains one of the most powerful political figures in Iraq - opposing Tehran's growing influence in the country.

The main Kurdish parties vie for influence in Kirkuk, where "a common political project with the other communities simply doesn't exist", as a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan member of the Municipal Council put it to me.

A Sunni Kirkuki friend doubled down: "There is no joint administration in the city, as Arabs are not represented. And why isn't there a joint force to defend it, instead of just the Peshmerga?"

Ominously, in areas where IS has been routed, the alliance of convenience between Kurdish forces and Shia militias is cracking at the seams.

People in Kirkuk speak of creating their own autonomous region on the KRG model, as do people in Basra. Yazidis unambiguously voice their mistrust in the government in Erbil - and Baghdad - and recently announced their desire to give Sinjar autonomous status.

This follows the general trend of disintegration of central authority in Iraq. It is difficult to see, however, how creating a further layer of government will bring stability, absent a broad negotiated solution that addresses the systemic political failure underpinning the current turmoil in the country.

The myopia of regional and international actors only intensifies the maelstrom. If Turkey and Saudi Arabia planned to unify the Sunnis behind IS to (re)establish a foothold in Iraq, their spectacular failure is only surpassed by the extent in which the region has been destabilised as a result. And if the Iranian leadership is gambling on controlling Iraq by either marginalising or expelling the Sunni population, they are delusional. As Patrick Cockburn explains:

"[Iraq] can be divided up, but [it] cannot be divided up cleanly and peacefully, because too many minorities, like the million or more Sunni in Baghdad, are on the wrong side of any conceivable dividing line. At best, [Iraq] faces years of intermittent civil war; at worst, [its] division will be like the partition of India in 1947 when massacre and fear of massacre established new demographic frontiers."

The coalition's airstrikes have been successful at halting the IS advance but can be no substitute for a comprehensive political strategy for Iraq, and the region, which is nowhere in sight.

More than a decade after the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq - which was meant to usher in a democratic, pro-US administration in Baghdad after decades of brutal dictatorship - Iraqis are left to pick up the pieces of a country which is no more.

Franco Galdini is a freelance journalist specialising in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.