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  • Published in Analysis

The sectarian legacy of the US occupation means Obama's strategy of air strikes in support of the Iraqi military cannot defeat the Islamic State argues Ady Cousins

When president Barak Obama authorised US airstrikes in Iraq, part of his justification was 'to prevent a potential act of genocide', referring to the threat Islamic State (IS) presents to Iraq's religious minorities.

But the roots of the violence now tearing Iraq apart lie in the US occupation of Iraq, the sectarian political system that it imposed on the country and the continuing political and military support it provides to a sectarian Iraqi regime. The US is part of the problem, it cannot be part of the solution.

As Musa al-Gharbi, a Research Fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Mideast Conflicts wrote in a recent article for Aljazeera

'The current turmoil results not from the centuries-old feud between Sunnis and Shias but from a revolt against very specific governmental policies — most of which have their origins in the U.S. invasion and occupation.'

The head of Iraq's Coalition Provisional Authority Paul Bremer deliberately stocked sectarianism to undermine resistance to the US occupation forces. American journalist and chronicler of the Iraq War, Nir Rosen explained in the Washington Post:

'In Bremer's mind, the way to occupy Iraq was not to view it as a nation but as a group of minorities. So he pitted the minority that was not benefiting from the system against the minority that was, and then expected them both to be grateful to him'

The result was the introduction of sectarianism into the functioning of Iraqi society at all levels:

'citizens were forced to declare a sect on all state-issued documents. Sectarian identity formed the basis of political organization: Each sect was allocated a quota in the governing council ... Politicians vying for political power pitted Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups against one another, carrying this precedent into the new government.'

The outcome ensured that politicians would increasingly appeal to Iraqis on sectarian lines. As the majority sect in Iraq, as long as the Shias remained a united political bloc, their dominance of Iraqi politics could not be meaningfully challenged. Sunnis began to feel increasingly marginalised as a result.

The Maliki government, chosen by the US in 2006 was a continuation of this sectarianism.

The Iraqi Spring


Iraqi Spring

The origins of the present conflict lie in the Iraqi government's response to the movement that swept Iraq beginning in 2012.

In the wake of the 'Arab Spring' there had been sporadic protests against the regime – often met with state violence. In late 2012 a wave of protests erupted and lasted for over a year. Although largely based in the predominantly Sunni al-Anbar province they took place in cities across the country. The protests were directed against the Maliki regime 'accusing him of corruption, brutal repression, and sectarianism. Because the regime enjoyed military support from the US, the protesters considered it the "second face" of the occupation.'

Protests were repeatedly attacked with lethal force. The response of the regime was likened by some to that of Assad's initial response to the uprising in Syria. But whereas Assad's brutal suppression of protest was condemned by the US, Maliki continued to enjoy the support of the US right up until very recently.

As Erin Evers, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch observed:

'Over the past year, as the U.S. continued to ship military aid to Baghdad, Human Rights Watch documented unspeakable abuses by forces loyal to the Maliki government: indiscriminate air strikes that killed  hundreds or even thousands of civilians in Sunni areas; torture  and extrajudicial killings in prisons...and, most recently, Maliki’s incorporation of Shia militia into the government’s security forces to the extent that the two are now effectively indistinguishable.'

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay likened Iraq’s justice system to “processing animals in a slaughterhouse.”

The sectarian violence of the Maliki regime in response to largely peaceful protest generated growing support for extremist politics amongst Sunnis - recently described by Dexter Filkins in an article in the New Yorker magazine

'...security forces responded harshly, detaining thousands of Sunni men without charges and, in one encampment, touching off a spasm of violence that left hundreds of civilians dead. Across the Sunni heartland, north and west of Baghdad, the town squares filled with angry crowds, and the rhetoric grew more extreme. In Ramadi, protesters raised black jihadi flags, representing the extremist Al Qaeda offshoot that had dominated the city during the American occupation.'

Sunni uprising

The current crisis began when the Iraqi government decided to arrest Sunni parliamentarian Ahmed al-Alwani and break up the Ramadi sit-in by force, one year after the Sunni demonstrations had begun. In response Anbar’s Sunni tribes mobilized against the Maliki regime, with militants from Isis taking part.

But its worth emphasising that the Sunni uprising that followed was not synonymous with Isis. From the outset there have been a range of different forces involved with tensions between them. According to Mushreq Abbas of al-Monitor:

'There is one central goal common among Isis, the Sunni factions, the clans, the clerics and the politicians: ending control by the central Iraqi government on Sunni cities and towns. Uniting these disparate groups are the grievances expressed in the Sunni demonstrations, which went on for more than a year, regarding the practices of the Iraqi government.

But after those forces achieved this goal, with victory spreading gradually from Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit to areas in Diyala and Kirkuk, the future has become very complex.'

In June, once the Iraqi army had been routed these tensions reappeared with reports of clashes within the temporary alliance forged to 'liberate' Anbar from the control of the Maliki regime

In this context, the response of the Iraqi government has been disastrous. Rather than attempt to split the wider Sunni revolt from IS, everything it has done seems almost designed to do the reverse.

Destroying Anbar to save it

The regime's attempt earlier this year to retake Ramadi and Fallujah from IS involved indiscriminate shelling.

In March Dr. Ahmed Shami at Fallujah General Hospital, described to journalist Dahr Jamail how since Iraqi government forces began shelling Fallujah in early January 2014, at least 109 civilians had been killed and 632 wounded.

'Many children have been killed in cold blood as the result of the indiscriminate shelling of the city," Shami said. "At the same time, there are many young people from the city who Maliki's army has killed and burned their bodies.'

Human Rights Watch also points to a 'documented a pattern of indiscriminate attacks from the air in which civilians have died ' – including one attack where at least 31 civilians, including 24 children, were killed in a raid on school.

Sectarian militias

The Iraqi government also organised the mobilisation of sectarian militias which have been responsible for a policy of sectarian displacement of Sunnis in southern Iraq since September 2013 and have massacred Sunni civilians.

Maliki's replacement by Haider al-Abadi as prime minister after pressure from both the US and Iran has done little to change the sectarian nature of the Iraqi regime. Maliki is still in the government – he is now vice president. He also controls Shia militias implicated in human rights abuses of Sunnis.

According to residents interviewed by Erin Evers in Latifiyya a Sunni majority town near Baghdad:

'Shia militias, still operating under the control of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, are laying siege to the town, especially the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq militia. Sunni residents of other towns to the north accused that group and other militias of carrying out summary executions there after the militas took control in the wake of US air strikes against the Islamic State.'

A recent Amnesty International report 'Absolute Impunity: Military Rule in Iraq' states:

'In recent months, Shi’a militias have been abducting and killing Sunni civilian men in Baghdad and around the country. These militias, often armed and backed by the government of Iraq, continue to operate with varying degrees of cooperation from government forces – ranging from tacit consent to coordinated, or even joint, operations.'

The message this sends to Sunnis is clear; that the 'liberation' of their towns by the Iraqi regime will be every bit as bad as life under IS, if not worse.

Despite Maliki's removal the indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas continue.

This is why the sectarian nature of the Iraqi regime is not just an unfortunate hangover from the US occupation, it is a fundamental part of the problem; their response to the growth of IS is reinforcing and deepening the sectarian division of Iraq, and welding a section of the Sunni population to IS.

The US intervention in Iraq is effectively shoring up a brutal, sectarian regime that has driven a section of its own population into the arms of IS.

The political unacceptability of significant US ground forces due to domestic opposition means Obama is relying on a combination of air strikes and the use of a demoralised Iraqi army riddled with corruption, combined with sectarian Shia militias, which according to The Independent's Patrick Cockburn:

'do not distinguish between Isis and the rest of the Sunni population. They speak openly of getting rid of Sunni in mixed provinces such as Diyala where they have advanced. The result is that Sunni in Iraq have no alternative but to stick with Isis or flee, if they want to survive.'

The involvement of the United States, with its airstrikes, its political and military backing for the Baghdad regime, and its history of torture, killing of civilians and encouraging of sectarian tensions will strengthen the sense of identity between the Sunni uprising and IS.

Obama's strategy for dealing with IS is failing. But this failure will almost certainly lead to an intensification of the air strikes and greater support for the Iraqi government – in other words, more of the same.

But failure is also leading to pressure for US 'boots on the ground'. There are already hundreds of US 'advisors' in Iraq, and they are already taking part in combat operations.

Last month Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the Senate Armed Services Committee that that if the current strategy failed he, “would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of ground forces."

More recently Senator John McCain has urged the use of US ground troops.

These voices will get louder. This is the mission creep that the anti-war movement warned of.

The history of US involvement in Iraq demonstrates that further military intervention will not bring peace or stability but instead will bolster sectarianism, and spread the conflict.

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