Iraq, three years after the withdrawal of Western Coalition forces is falling apart. Is it a straightforward result of Western intervention or is there more? Lets consider the wider context of Iraq, ISIS and the Sunni- Shia Split.
As the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) juggernaut gathers pace, it seems that the Iraq security forces are unable to stop the Al Qaeda linked group, choosing to throw away their uniforms and weapons and hide, leaving the people they’re supposed to be protecting, at the mercy of the Islamic Fundamentalists, who – according to UN observers – are carrying out summary executions of their opponents in the street.
Tony Blair, in his recent essay has suggested that further military intervention by the West is needed to stop the country falling to ISIS. He has also stated that the current situation is not an outcome of the bloody insurgency that followed after the 2003 invasion – an observation that Boris Johnson described as ‘unhinged’.
I don’t want to get drawn in on a discussion on the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War. We have all had thirteen years to digest the information of the events leading up to, and post the 9/11 attacks, and are all by now fully entrenched with our own opinion. Neither am I going to make this a partisan rant in favour of a political persuasion. However I do feel compelled to add my bit, as for someone – who unlike our politicians – has spent over two years in Iraq, I do feel qualified to comment on the grave situation that the country is going through.
Reading Mr Blair’s essay, I was drawn to the following comment, “The reality is that the whole of the Middle East is going through a huge, agonising and protracted transition.” I am in agreement with this, however my assumption is that the protracted period to which he refers, lasts a lot longer than the eleven years since 2003. In this comment, Mr Blair alludes to the elephant in the room, but fails to drive the point home. The truth of the matter is that Iraq and the rest of the Levant have been in an agonising situation for well over a thousand years, and for one specific reason, religion.
Iraq’s history spans of over eight millennia, during which time it has been ruled by a host of conquers that have coveted this most fertile of countries, known in antiquity as Mesopotamia (Land of the Two Rivers), cradle of civilisation, the birthplace of writing and Abraham – one of the most important figures in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
My first contact with this most ancient of countries came in the summer of 2005, and lasted for over two years, at a time when the country was embroiled in a vicious insurgency. I worked in the capital Baghdad and in the south of the country, from the Saudi Arabian border in the west, to the Iranian border in the east, and as far south as a small fishing village on the Persian Gulf called Al Faw, made famous as the birth place of Sinbad the sailor (yes, he really existed), with my operational base being the British held, Basrah Airport.
During this time I worked continually alongside my Iraqi team members, constantly exposed to their intelligence, passion and resolute determination to make their country a better place for their families. I mixed with Sunni’s, Shia’s, Marsh Arabs and Bedouin, and on each occasion was fascinated by their humbleness and sincerity. I was captivated by the Arab way of life; much in the same way that no doubt TE Lawrence succumbed to its distinction, to the extent that when I came to write my debut novel (Damascus Road released later in 2014), I used the backdrop of the Levant and my experiences in Iraq for my inspiration.
Iraq is a Muslim country, with the demographics showing a 65% Shia majority. Saddam Hussein was Sunni, as was the ruling class that he favoured, most of which came from the 35% Sunni minority. Prior to the invasion in 2003, the dictator’s regime treated its Shia constituents barbarically. Events like the Halabja Massacre – the gassing of the Kurds that resulted in thousands of deaths – are well known, but there were other less salient acts of mindless brutality which have gone undocumented. My colleagues from Basrah told me how after the cities uprising immediately following the First Gulf War of 1990, Shia men of Basrah were set on fire, after they had been made to drink petrol by Saddam’s soldiers who were retreating under the Western onslaught. Their families ordered to leave their distorted corpses on the roadsides, a message to the Shia inhabitants.
In the elections held after the invasion, the Iraqi people taking advantage of their new democracy elected a different leader, Hasan al Maliki, a dissident Shia who had been exiled by Saddam, who on his return took the mantle of Iraq’s sixth President.
President Malaki had the opportunity to take Iraq’s fledging democracy forward, using the countries vast reserves of oil to underpin the potentially wealthy country. He fell short however, and allowed sectarianism to spread though his government. The result, the Sunni backlash that has now erupted.
Listening to the insults levied against the Shia’s from ISIS spokesperson recently on TV, confirms to me that this split in the Islamic religion – that started after the death of the Prophet Muhammad – is still alive and kicking, and in order to understand the current situation in Iraq, it is critical that one fully understands the modern context in which this central division of Islam now plays a part.
In 632 after the death of the Prophet, the ummah (the Nation of Islam) was divided into two groups; those that thought that the accession should pass to Abu Bakr, his friend and collaborator – the Sunni’s – and those that it should pass to Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and son in law – the Shia. The Sunni – Shia Split, as it is known, is basically the division of Islam into two camps, which – using the backdrop of Christianity – can be likened to the division between Catholics and Protestants.
To most Muslims, the Sunni – Shia split does not play any significant role in how they conduct themselves. However to the followers of Islamic Fundamentalism and the groups they support – such as Al Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS – the division is an abomination, the label apostate or heretic, given to all that do not follow the Sunni creed. The result is that Muslims have killed, and will keep on killing each other, using as justification, differing interpretations of events that occurred 1,400 years ago.
There are two main protagonists in the region that are using it as a battleground. The Sunni champion being Saudi Arabia, and the Shia, Iran. Both are currently using proxy forces – Hezbullah, the Lebanese militants for Iran, and ISIS and the other Al Qaeda associates for Saudi Arabia.
This is not a new practice for Saudi Arabia, as the oil wealth lavished on their inhabitants has often been transformed into support for terrorism – case in point Osama bin Laden. Iran – which has also been linked to terrorism- on the other hand, couldn’t reach its full potential until recently, as it was pin downed by Saddam Hussein. The Tehran based government frightened of another attack by the Iraqi President, similar to the one in 1980, which resulted in a full-scale war that lasted for eight years, with millions of casualties.
However with Saddam removed, Iran has been allowed to flex its muscles, the result of which I can attest to at first hand. In 2005, taking advantage of the security vacuum after the Invasion, Iranian backed militia flourished in southern Iraq. I watched as the Iranian influence took hold, the local population either unaware or in denial as the Tehran began to dictate how Basrah would respond to the British forces, an involvement which resulted in hundreds of soldiers deaths.
With this in formation available to all, I find it strange that our politicians are sabre rattling once again. I would like to take this opportunity to remind Mr. Blair – and indeed any other politician – that over 4,800 members of the Coalition forces – including 179 British and 4,487 US service men and women – lost their lives during the invasion and subsequent counterinsurgency operations – part of which was to recruit, train and equip the new Iraqi security forces, the cost of which ran into $billions. I would also like to suggest that in asking for re-intervention, Mr Blair and the sabre rattlers are insulting the families of those who gave their lives, as it seems that despite the vast cost, the Iraqi security services are no match to an insurgent force, that was trained and equipped under their noses.
This is an Arab problem that involves, ethnic, tribal and above all religious allegiances. If the West intervenes, we’re damned, if it we don’t, we’re still damned – we can’t win. But there could be a political answer. Why not call on the critics – the Saudi’s, the Iranian’s, the Egyptians – to stop their barracking, and work towards a positive objective. The Arab League was unable to do it with Syria, but we can live in hope. What can’t happen though, is that we rush again into a caldron of sectarianism and loose more brave son’s daughters, husbands and wives.
Mr Pendry, you can write. Nice piece. One viewing of Lawrence of Arabia gives an insight into the Arab/middle east situation. History also, from before the Rising of the Pharaohs shows that this lot will never agree, at least not until the fundamentalists are removed. That my friend aint going to happen!