‘It’s amazing how different ‘over there’ looks when you’re actually over there,” observed a UA student in my study abroad program in Egypt a few years ago.
Indeed, and the “over there” of concern right now is Iraq and an aggressive Islamic group that seems to be sweeping through the country, singlehandedly obliterating what is seen “over here” as a decade of military sacrifice and a couple trillion U.S. dollars.
What’s happening over there is perhaps not as it first seems from over here.
Why? What’s happened? On the surface, it appears that a small, brutish group of Muslim fighters in Syria swept across the border into Iraq and has taken control of several cities, including Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest. Its goal: to form a radical Islamic state based on Sharia law. Headlines and news tickers scream that Iraq is collapsing and the jihadi fanatics are about to take the capital, Baghdad.
Who are these guys? ISIS or ISIL, depending on how you transliterate the name from the Arabic. The acronym means the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant — greater Syria). It arose from several groups, including Al-Qaida in Iraq, which was fighting in the sectarian war in Iraq in the mid-2000s.
How many fighters are there in ISIS? Maybe 2,000.
Huh? How can they create all this havoc? They can’t. And this is really important and has been missed by much of the news coverage so far.
ISIS is in cahoots with a number of much larger Iraqi groups, including a coalition of some 80 Sunni Arab tribes and what’s called the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order, which is a large fighting force consisting mostly of former Ba’ath Party members. Remember the Ba’ath Party? Saddam Hussein’s party? Remember when the U.S. dissolved the entire Iraqi security and military apparatus and banned the Ba’ath Party?
That’s how Mosul, a city of some 2 million people — mostly Sunni Arab — fell so quickly. It was mostly an inside job. In many cases, those U.S.-trained Iraqi troops didn’t just turn and flee — they were ordered to flee.
So this fighting that we are seeing is actually a much broader struggle between Iraq’s Shia Arab-dominated central government and disaffected Sunni Arabs.
So this is about religion? No, this is political. This is about one group in power ignoring the needs of a large portion of their country.
Shia Arabs of Iraq constitute about 60 percent of Iraq’s population and have controlled the central government since the U.S. invasion (although Saddam Hussein ruled for decades before that by generally privileging Sunni Arabs and persecuting Shia Arabs and Kurds, who were both viewed as enemies of the state). The current elected prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, has proved utterly unwilling or incapable of sharing power with the Sunni Arabs.
Sunni Arabs began protesting with massive demonstrations last year across the “Arab Triangle” west and north of Baghdad. The government cracked down. Thousands of Sunni protesters were arrested or detained and hundreds killed. The Sunnis turned to armed attacks and entered a marriage of convenience with more radical Sunni groups fighting next door in Syria, like ISIS. The Iraqi government retaliated, events escalated, and full warfare erupted early this year in the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah. More Iraqi Sunni Arab groups banded together.
What about the Kurds? Is this a ménage à trois against Maliki’s government? Maybe. The Kurdish role is not yet clear. Some analysts think they too are working with the Sunni Arab tribes and the jihadi groups in an all-out push against an intransigent central government. The Kurds have been thriving under their own Kurdistan Regional Government. They have their own effective intelligence and security forces.
But there is a large swath of land that the Kurds claim as historically Kurdish that the central government does not recognize, including Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that the Kurds took over immediately after Mosul fell.
This is just a taste of the complex dynamic playing out today in Iraq. If it sounds messy, it’s because it is.
But it’s a political mess, and it demands a political solution.
It is easy to dismiss seemingly endless violence “over there” when you are safely over here. But these events are important. When fanatical groups have access to land and resources, they can support and train a lot of terrorists. And whether we like it or not, want it or not, our history and our future are tied to Iraq.
We should all want what is in the best interest of the Iraqi people: a peaceful life with fair opportunities.