Thursday, 27 April 2017
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At the height of the sectarian violence in Iraq in 2006 that followed the coalition invasion, more than 2500 people were killed a month, every month, for a year. The excesses of the time are well covered by the writers who were there. To the background of ritualised slaughter from Al-Qa'ida in Iraq and the Jaysh al-Mahdi, smaller militias sprang up in every community to man the roadblocks and carry out the patrols that guaranteed their homes some small shred of security. As these militias fought and protected themselves from other militias, so they become more brutal. Roadblocks became death traps, and the ranks of those disappeared at night grew. Shi'a militias developed a fine line in drilling holes in the heads of those they captured. Sunnis used the power drill for other forms of torture. Each new morning found more bodies abandoned in wastelands. And as the violence grew, so the various sects of Islam in Iraq retrenched territorially and ideologically; the country became split, physically and politically, along sectarian and tribal lines.

The US troop surge in 2007 quelled the sectarian violence for a while, as more moderate forces in each community felt supported to fight the extremes. But the dark forces of extremist sectarianism lay waiting for the vacuum that would emerge as US forces withdrew, their heart beating stronger until they could re-emerge. Today, the most brutal elements of that sectarianism have crystallised in DAESH/ ISIL. At its heart, in the burning Sunni heartlands of Anbar, ISIL is a local, polticial-military movement for marginalised and disaffected Sunnis; the organisation may wear the cloak of transnational Jihadism, but in the majority of Iraq, especially in Anbar province, it is a homegrown Sunni statelet, formed in opposition to the Shi'a ascendancy of recent history. That is critical to the current state of Iraq. The end-game of DAESH is an apocalyptic one, but on the way it requires the cleansing of Shi'a from Iraq, and an endless state of territorial expansion and vicious fighting to achieve that. Their surge through central Iraq broke the shackles of territorial sectarianism and placed them in direct conflict with the Shi'a militias, who strengthened the hollowed out, vacant Iraqi Security Forces. Baghdad may well have fallen had these militias, particularly the Badr organisation under the control of Hadi Ameri, not fought, nor been organised by the IRGC and its leader Qasem Soleymani.

That fight may have been successful in holding Iraq together for now, but it has only strengthened the centrifugal force of secterianism that threatens to tear the country apart. As the Iraqi Security Forces have regrouped and seek to liberate Tikrit the sectarian dynamic is immanent. In their push on Tikrit, and possibly on Anbar province, the major Shi'a militias are actively supporting the ISF, itself an organisation dominated by a Shi'a rank and file. They go to battle against an extremist Sunni organisation, bedded down in the marginalised Sunni areas. And so it is not the success of their advance that will determine the future of Iraq, but how the sectarian angle is managed. At a time when the advance is supposed to bring safety to Iraq, the opposite is happening. Iraq is entering it's most dangerous period; if the Shi'a militias supporting the ISF engage in the sort of retributive atrocities that they accuse DAESH of, and which they have recently turned to, the future of Iraq will be more blood soaked than its past.

DAESH will hope not to lose. But they will cede territory if necessary and, where they do, they will hope for (and expect) Shi'a led atrocities. We should expect them to happen too. And when they do, they will write DAESH's political narrative for itself. Once again, DAESH will become the defenders of the downtrodden, oppressed Sunni from a callous, vengeful Shi'a state, bound by a blood oath to protect their kin. They will re-establish their religious and sectarian legitimacy, and invoke images of sectarian bloodshed stemming back to the dawn of Islamic history. At the time when DAESH finds itself on the back foot their fate will be forestalled, as Sunni communities galvanise behind them to protect themselves from retribution.

Understanding this shows how intertwined the military track is with the political. And it is in the political track that the only stable future of Iraq will be found. Iraq will have little chance of survival if it's leaders cannot promote sectarian reconciliation. Should they be able to, the majority of Sunni communities will turn against DAESH, just as they did during the al-Sahwah. Should they not, DAESH will continue to draw latent support and entrenchment, driving both sides further apart. This is why the fight is so critical. DAESH must be defeated by the Iraqi state, but it must not be a sectarian victory, nor one in which Sunni communities are victimised. Should they be, it wil be a hollow victory, bearing the seeds of its own demise.

The portents are not good. Amnesty recently profiled Shi'a militia atrocities carried out in recently liberated villages. Iran remains intimately involved and, in the wake of the highly publicised slaughter of the moderate Sunni tribal Shaykh, Qassim al-Janabi, by a Shi'a militia, Sunni MPs have boycotted parliament. Even should the push succeed, Sunni areas will still chafe at what the success by representatives of what they see as a distant Shi'a state. Certainly, President Al-'Abadi does not seem sectarian, but despite that he has been unable to progress reconciliation and his proposed National Guard, designed to be a unifying fighting force, has stalled.

For now though, the scales are finely balanced. Sunni communities do not yet seem too far gone, while Shi'a militias have not been too retributive in their recent moves. But the advance on Mosul that has been trailed recently is the ultimate test. If it is handled well with ISF in the lead, if the Shi'a miltias control themselves and if al-'Abadi can broker reconciliation by bringing Sunni MPs as well as taming the growing Iranian influence, Iraq stands a chance. But there are a lot ifs there, and very few certainties. The one certainty I do have is that DAESH stand to benefit from any mis-step, and that it will take supreme political and military will to prevent that. The brutality of the years of 2006 and 2007 echo through today's events.

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