From Dr Hamid Hussein. And old post that is still relevant
Things in the middle east are going from bad to worse….
btw, ISIS has officially stoned a woman to death in Syria. I am surprised it took them so long. Some things have an iconic status in Jihadi circles: cutting off the hands of a thief (check, ISIS has done that, in public), whipping someone for drinking alcohol (so mundane that its probably been done but not reported) and stoning a woman to death. Nothing puts the fear of God into people like watching a woman (in a shroud) being stoned to death by a mob of baying humans.
July 16, 2014
I don’t know why but many interested in the subject asked about changing dynamics of Iraq conflict in view of recent advances of ISIS, Shia militia response and maneuvers of Kurds. Utter barbarity and carnage and that also in the most holy Islamic month of Ramadan with indiscriminate killing, mass executions (ISIS executed close to 200 Shia air force recruits and soldiers and Shia militiamen responded by executing almost 200 Sunni prisoners) and demolishing of mosques and mausoleums by ISIS is tragic but general apathy among Muslims is truly mind boggling. Overwhelming majority is totally oblivious to the cancer eating away the body politic of Muslims.
Frankly, I have nothing more to add but refer them to an old piece written in 2006 before the surge. The question asked at that time was Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq and Kurdish context as well as impact of U.S. troops on the equation. I was personally against the surge of American troops and thought that it may give a tactical respite but not change the long term instability emanating from Iraq. I was proven wrong and surge achieved a major success although jury is still out about what was the major contributing factor. There is still debate in U.S. military community about this. U.S. mistakes were compounded by failure of Iraqi government to adjust the course regarding Sunnis and crisis in Syria ultimately unraveled the whole thing. Now a long and very painful road will be travelled by all Iraqis and I fear more china will break in the process. We have seen this horror show before in 2006-07 and it is not for the faint hearted.
Shia-Sunni Conflict and Kurds
There are several theories and perspectives about the complex web of violence in Iraq which is rapidly expanding and with every day getting more brutal. There are several dimensions but two most important are U.S. operations and how they have evolved over three years and increased assertion of Iraqi players. I’ll briefly review both of them. From outset, one should be very clear that the spectrum in Iraq is very complex and constantly evolving. Local, regional and international players are in a contest of musical chairs where friends and foes shift like the shifting sands of the desert.
In mid 2003, violence started to gradually escalate in Iraq with very unique characteristics. First, it was almost exclusively Sunni in nature, second after the disbanding of Iraqi army, new security apparatus (National Guards, police including its commando units, paramilitary units, army) is predominantly Shia and Kurd. From operational point of view, U.S. forces were content that Shia and Kurd soldiers whose communities have most to gain from changed order will be genuine partners of U.S. troops in fighting insurgents (mainly Sunnis). Kurds were enthusiastic for the fight while Shia response was more lukewarm. In addition, with increasing violence, U.S. started to operate ‘hunter-killer’ teams which need good intelligence off course from local Iraqis. This invariably changed the dynamics of the conflict and further widened the gulf between Iraqi communities. In the violence ridden Sunni areas, patrolling of Iraqi security forces (dominated by Shia and Kurd) was invariably going to inflame passions on both sides. Two examples will show the complexity. In 2005, continued violence against Shia pilgrims near a town on the road from Baghdad to Najaf prompted dispatch of a crack Shia battalion ‘Karrar Brigade’ to the town. These soldiers very quickly earned the hatred of the population by their abuse. U.S. had to fire the commander and embed U.S. soldiers to keep an eye on Shia soldiers. In Fallujah, after the pacification Shia and Kurd dominant security forces took control of the city. City police is predominantly Sunni. Recently, Sunni police went on strike protesting high handedness of Iraqi soldiers.
Indiscriminate slaughter of Shia civilians by Sunni insurgents resulted in next wave of violence where Shia militias and security personnel went after Sunnis. Summary executions, torture and disappearances at the hands of Shia militias alarmed U.S. which is now trying to win back Sunni sympathies. Even most staunch Sunni opponents of U.S. occupation got a rude awakening when they faced the brunt of Shia vengeance. Now they see U.S. troops as a safety valve to prevent wholesale slaughter or forced migration of Sunnis from Iraq. In many places (especially urban areas), local Sunni leaders have reached an agreement that if Iraqi forces are accompanied by U.S. troops then they will not fire but if Iraqi forces come alone they will be fired upon. U.S. is also encouraging Sunnis to join security apparatus. However, increased incentives to Sunnis are unnerving Shia. U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was welcomed by Shia but now he is seen as a Sunni who is helping Sunnis to regain some political and military power (Zal was fondly called Abu Ali by Shia when he came. Now they call him Abu Omar. Those who know the Shia-Sunni rift can very easily understand the meaning of this seemingly benign comment). Shia now see that continued U.S. presence can reverse some of Shia gains of last three years. They are resisting U.S. overtures of compromise with some Sunni insurgent groups and increased Sunni representation in security forces. They have increased their demands of transfer of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces. The process has started in south of the country. We may now see some change in the nature of violence. Sunnis may even go after some foreign fighters to prove their credentials to U.S. while Shia militias tacitly approving limited attacks on U.S. forces. Many operational decisions made by U.S. in the last three years contributed to the widening of gulf between Iraqi communities. Having said that there was no other option for U.S. Shia and Kurds were their allies and without these steps, they could not continue their mission.
Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq is neither a myth nor manufactured by outsiders. Off course, in view of a very complex situation, others may use it to further their objectives, but there is a deep divide with very painful history. This has historical, doctrinal, philosophical, political and economical dimensions and these are not limited to Iraq. While the difference between two communities have existed for centuries, two major developments in last 2 decades have sharpened the dividing line. First, there is total silence among Sunni majority about historical and contemporary discrimination, repression and outright violence against Shia. Adding fuel to the fire is the rise of ‘salafi’ (a puritan and stricter version of the literalist school) trend among Sunni communities. Extremist and terrorist entities are predominantly ‘salafi’, which very liberally use their doctrine against Shia and responsible for acts of horrific violence against Shia all over the world. Second very important factor is the fact that Shia have changed their status from a passive minority to an assertive community demanding their right place in societies where they are minorities. Political empowerment of Shia is a relatively new phenomenon and they are now refusing to take any more abuse whether it is from non-Muslims or their Muslim brothers. In the context of Iraq, when insurgents changed tactics and started wholesale slaughter of Shia (both security personnel and civilians), it changed the dynamics of the conflict. Shia clerics were able to keep things in check for a while but continued violence was too much. Shia retaliated with a vengeance and embarked on a sustained campaign of wholesale executions of Sunnis. In fact, rapid rise of popularity graph of Moqtada al-Sadr is partly due to his revenge attacks on Sunnis. He has very shrewdly used this instrument of violence against Sunnis as an important part of his message that he is the only one who can protect Shia community. He is telling Shia that all powerful U.S. military, Iraqi forces and quietist Ayatollah’s hunkered down in Najaf cannot provide them security. His Mahdi militia is the answer to ‘break the Sunni nose’. Shia response has been quite broad. Badr and Mahdi militias are at the forefront of this campaign; however tactics of both are a bit different. Badr has started their log of retaliation starting from 1980s. It started target assassination of former Iraqi air force pilots (accused of indiscriminate bombing of Iranian cities during Iran-Iraq war). Former mid and high level members of Baath party (both Sunni and some Shia) have been targeted by both Badr and Mahdi militias. The catalogue of retaliation for recent outrages against Sunnis started on a wholesale scale after the February 2006 bombing of Shia shrine at Samara. Mahdi militia is at the forefront of this campaign which is quite diverse and much more brutal. Sunni youth and clerics are the main target in addition to confiscation of Sunni mosques. These Sunni opponents are dubbed ‘wahhabis’, ‘salafis’ and ‘takfiris’. Mahdi militia members are different in the sense that they have got the permission to kill ‘wahhabis’ and to confiscate their belongings. In addition, they obtain confessions under torture; a kind of mini-inquisition of their own. Even a cursory look at the doctrinal shift of extremists on both sides in their own words and publications provides sufficient evidence that the hatred has gone much deeper. Two examples of the thought process; one Sunni and one Shia give a glimpse of the coming fratricidal wars;
‘The problem is that American crimes are only a hundredth of the crimes committed by the militias. It’s like one hair compared to all the other hairs on a camel’. Omar al-Jabouri, human rights officer of Iraqi Islamic Party, July 2006
‘Wash away your sins and be forgiven with the blood of a Sunni’. A Shia militiaman, July 2006
If the Arabs of Iraq do not have the courage to come to terms with the terrible past that we have had and make right those terrible injustices that befell my people, I would have extreme difficulty convincing the doubters in Suleimanyiya’s bazaar that Iraq is our future. Barham Salih 2005
It is no secret that Kurds want independence. Any step towards weakening of central Iraqi state is a step forward to their cherished goal of independence. If one looks at the Kurdish narrative, who can blame them for that. We all know, what was done to Kurds in Iraq. If they have concluded that a centralized state of Iraq with a strong army is a recipe for genocide, at least I can fully understand it. It is also true that a number of Kurds see deepening Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq as a positive step which can speed up the process of their own independence. However, this does not automatically translate that Kurds have their hand in this cookie jar also. Kurds are a significant component of Iraqi security apparatus including Special Forces. Israel is also helping Kurds in security sector and Israeli trainers are also training Kurdish Special Forces. Kurds as part of security apparatus participate in operations against insurgents (mainly Sunnis) which invariably increase ethnic tensions. This component of violence is quite clear, however the current graph of indiscriminate violence against both Sunnis and Shia is way beyond Kurdish capabilities and its dynamics are different. One cannot rule out also some intrigues by Kurdish leadership; however a careful analysis of the nature of violence makes it very unlikely that Kurds are directly participating or contributing to Shia-Sunni violence. My conclusion is based on evaluation of not only historical context but current dynamics and close scrutiny of the violence between two communities. Many Sunni operations against Shia civilians have been clearly suicide operations. Evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that bombings in mosques, funerals and public places where Shia gather have been predominantly suicide bombings. Insurgent communiqués, web announcements and videos claim these achievements. Shia revenge has also been quite public with no ambiguity. Shia militias rocketed Sunni mosques in broad day light. They took control of many mosques and flags were planted on minarets. Sunnis have been dragged from their homes and cars and buses on main roads and executed publicly. In one case, after a suicide bombing, Mahdi militiamen arrested a Sunni in the vicinity, charged him guilty on the spot as ‘wahhabi’ based on the evidence that his trousers was above ankles which was a conclusive proof that he was a ‘wahhabi’, sentenced him to death and even invited passerby’s to take a shot at him. All this done in public and death sentence carried out in minutes. There are dozens of such examples involving both security forces and militias. It is very hard for me to believe that Kurds will be sending suicide bombers to Shia places or killing Sunni in a Shia dominant neighborhood in a broad day light. I think that Shia-Sunni conflict has taken a momentum of its own and no help is needed from outside. If continued bloodletting between Shia-Sunni helps someone, be it an Iraqi such as Kurd or any outsider, this does not prove that the particular party is actually orchestrating the whole event. Such kind of violence is usually the result of a cancerous condition in the body politic with long history and not simply manipulation by witch doctors. A saner advice to both Kurds and Arabs is summarized by someone in following words;
I cannot blame a Kurd for feeling anger. But I can plead with him to contain his anger, because angry people often do stupid things, and they can end up hurting themselves. Arabs, on the other hand, must acknowledge the injustice that has been done to the Kurds. By acknowledging the injustice, you take the poison out of the system.
Samir Shkair Sumaide, Iraqi ambassador to U.N. 2005
Game in Iraq has long past the goal post of whether U.S. troops will stay or leave. Many uninvited guests (non-state actors, Iraqi players and regional states) have crashed into the party. We Americans now look like shocked apprentice sorcerers who are stunned by the power of the demons we helped to unleash let alone able to control them. In such situations, usually Wisdom of Solomon is needed but alas we have only chest thumping monkeys on the stage. God help us. However, last time when I checked, I was told that God has already left the Middle East. He has left it to the people to solve their problems. Civil societies of Muslim countries especially in the Middle East have to urgently address this issue. Clerics, academia, intelligentsia, government and non-government organizations have to ponder on these crucial issues to prevent fracture of their societies rather than engaging in rhetorical and meaningless debates. Off course, political issues such as Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Muslim minority problem in Kashmir or Chechnya need to be solved, however they should remember that the demon is not outside, it is inside. They desperately need to exorcise this demon. Voices of common people are drowned in the noise of violence;
‘I spent thirty five years of my life going from war to war. Now my hopes are for my children. We lost our future. We’re looking for the future of our children’. Shadha Mohammad Ali, an Iraqi housewife, January 2005
July 26, 2006