How Iraq ended up with ISIS and angry Sunnis

Twelve years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the curfew in Baghdad has been lifted. However, there is little reason to rejoice. In 2013, Barack Obama announced the end of a decade of American intervention in Iraq. Today, his nation is involved in yet another war in the area. As the International Coalition has resorted to targetting the Islamic State with airstrikes, the frustrations of the Iraqi Sunnis are growing larger every day.

  • © Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani A Sunni fighter after a raid. Loot of the day: an Islamic State flag and ammunition. March 2015, al-Alam Salahuddni, Iraq. © Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani
  • © Jonathan McIntosh American protest art against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. © Jonathan McIntosh
  • © United States Forces Iraq U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq. © United States Forces Iraq

March 20th, 2015 marks the twelth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. and the United Kingdom. By doing so at the time, both nations ignored the advice of the United Nations Security Council. The U.S. and the United Kingdom also managed to ignore millions of citizens across the world who spoke out against an intervention by participating in mass demonstrations.

The claim of the so-called Coalition of the Willing, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction turned out to be a lie in 2013, just one year after the start of the intervention.

The American intervention, which reached it’s peak in 2007 with a military backing of 170.000 soldiers, lasted until the end of 2011. In december the US had withdrawn most of it’s troops.

The U.S., however, kept firm ground in Iraq with an embassy ten times larger than the second largest embassy in the world: the American mission in Beijing. ‘The Monster of Baghdad’ – as the embassy is referred to by the Iraqis – has a civilian staff of 5500, and 5000 to 7000 international mercenaries to protect the US mission.

More than a little bit of war

‘A decade of war is over’ Barack Obama said back in 2013, in a speech after being reelected president of the U.S. He referred directly to the end of the US military mission in Iraq and the reduction of forces in Afghanistan.

However, actions speak louder than words. Today there are at least 3000 U.S. soldiers – ‘military advisers’ – stationed in Iraq. In just one year the Americans conducted 1500 airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. The American-led intervention against ISIS started June 15, 2014, after ISIS took control of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq.

The US was initially supported by the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark. Later on, when ISIS was advancing towards Baghdad and the Kurdish Autonomous Region, the international support for the intervention increased. The ‘global coalition against ISIS’ is made up by 62 states – including Belgium, whose military took part in airstrikes against ISIS in October 2014.

© Jonathan McIntosh

American protest art against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Sectarian rifts

For the airstrikes, the coalition is supported by Iraqi ground troops, Kurdish militias and Iranian units. Some Sunni – or mixed – Iraqi tribes also joined the ranks of the counteroffensive.

The Sunnis have bad memories of the ‘Sunni Awakening’.

But the Sunnis have bad memories of the ‘Sunni Awakening’, as the American-Iraqi Sahwa campaign in 2007 was called. That year, the US increased its military presence in Iraq to suppress the growing sectarian violence in the country.

Simultaneously the Americans paid and armed tribal militias to fight as their proxies. After the Sahwa campaign the U.S. turned their back to the Sunni leaders. As a result, former Sunni fighters became targets for the Iraqi – Shiite – army and death squads run by the national police.

After the U.S. withdrawal in 2011, the Iraqi government, along with the Iraqi security forces, carried out a sectarian policy. Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister at the time (head of government from 2006 to August 2014), deliberately marginalized Sunni leaders in the political sphere. The remaining Sunni politicians, according to many, forsook their role as representatives of the Sunni Iraqis.

Partly inspired by the Arab Spring of 2011, a large protest movement against the government emerged. In April 2013, a ‘purge’, carried out by Iraqi security forces, left more than three hundred civilians dead in the anti-government protest camp of Hawija. That brought the anger of the Iraqi Sunnis to an absolute peak.

Enough is enough

In Early 2014 the Iraqi prime minister, pressured by the Americans, opened up his government to Sunni leaders and moderates. His goal was strategic : he wanted the support of the tribes in the fight against Al-Qaeda and other militias, like the Sahwa campaign.

Just as the Americans did in 2007, Maliki handed out weapons. Moreover, he promised the tribes job security, pensions and generous allowances for surviving relatives of fighters who fought on the side of the government.

‘Without political promises any alliance between the tribes and the government remains extremely fragile.’

However, a political solution, or a dialogue on the subject was non-existent. Maliki refused to address the underrepresentation of Sunnis in government, yet another betrayal in the eyes of the Sunnis.

‘Without political promises any alliance between the tribes and the government remains extremely fragile,’ warned Maria Fantappie, an Iraqi analyst for the International Crisis Group.

Event have proved her to be right. When the Islamic State took power over Mosul in June 2014, they succeeded in doing so partly due to the support of some Sunni tribes who felt cheated and had given up their faith in a political solution.

Dialogue is the solution

© United States Forces Iraq

U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq.

Sunni Iraqis are caught between a rock and a hard place. After the liberation of the Turkmen city of Amerli in August 2014, witnesses talked about war crimes against Sunnis by the liberation militias. Houses and shops are said to be destroyed.

Human Rights Watch documented these and other war crimes against Sunni civilians during ground operations against IS, in a report published March 18.

These events push Iraq further away from a path towards peace and stability. The current Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi faces a difficult choice. If he enters into dialogue with the insurgent Sunni tribes fighting the Islamic State, there is a risk that they might try to gain control over the Sunni provinces after a victory over ISIS. If he refuses to sit around the table with them, the chance that more Sunni tribes will join ISIS will increase.

Meanwhile, two important Sunni tribal leaders from the Anbar province announced that “a political deal for the Sunnis” is the only guarantee to get rid of ISIS.

In a recent analysis, Nicolas Davies, the author of ‘Blood on our hands’ explains why the Sunni Iraqis view ISIS as a lesser evil than the ‘Iraqi death squads who receive support from the U.S.’ According to Nicolas Davies it is clear: ten years of occupation and meddling by the Americans in the form of a brutal military solution to the political crisis in Iraq have only brought chaos and destruction.

‘The only thing that American leaders have never tried, is what they promised the Iraqi people at the beginning of the invasion: setting up a new political order with full respect for the civil and political rights of all Iraqis.’

This article was translated from Dutch by Humeyra Cetinel and Jago Kosolosky.

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