Iraq: The Rebirth of a Nation? by Roger S. Farhat & Carl Yonker

Iraq: The Rebirth of a Nation? by Roger S. Farhat & Carl Yonker



By Roger S. Farhat and Carl Yonker

In April 1920, Great Britain was awarded the mandate over Iraq at the San Remo Conference. Not a month had passed before peaceful protests, encouraged by Sunni and Shiite ulema, against British rule occurred in Baghdad and eventually transformed into a widespread, popular armed revolt in the mid-Euphrates region against British rule that transcended tribal and sectarian lines. Though the British ultimately put down the insurrection with ease and went on to enshrine Sunni dominance over the political and military institutions of the nascent state, the event, with the passage of time, has been transformed by some Iraqis into a foundation, albeit contested, myth of non-sectarian Iraqi national identity. Today, an amalgam of Iraqi armed groups, including Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Kurdish Peshmerga, Shiite militias, Sunni tribes, and the Shiite-dominated Hashd al-Shaʿbi (Popular Mobilization Units, PMU), are cooperating in the battle to rid Iraq the Islamic State and reestablish Baghdad's sovereignty over its territory, an effort that may provide the opportunity to reshape Iraqi national identity in a way that would serve as a foundation for building a more cohesive Iraq.

Despite steady progress against the Islamic State, the ISF and the central government in Baghdad suffered a major setback on May 17 when provincial capital of Anbar, Ramadi, fell to the Islamic State. As in Mosul last year, ISF forces simply failed to put up any real defense of the city, fleeing in droves and leaving their weapons and advanced weaponry to be seized by IS. Though IS has been trying to take Ramadi since late 2013, the rapid fall of the city was facilitated as much by a wave of 30 SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle-borne IED) and the activation of the sleeper cells that followed as it was the decision of Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, under US influence, to heed the initial call of Anbar Sunni politicians and keep the PMU from aiding the ISF and Sunni tribesmen in defending the city. Yet, in the aftermath of stunning defeat, Abadi and the Sunni elite in Anbar, as well as the US, have changed their positions on allowing the Shiite-dominated PMUs to mobilize forces in the province. In response, a massive call for reinforcements was sent out by Shiite militias, which urgently recalled fighters on leave.

8th Iraqi Army Compound in Ramadi, Iraq 

The defeat in Ramadi was a severe blow to great strides Iraq has made in recent months in rolling back the advance of the Islamic State, including important victories in Amerli in August 2014 and the Sunni Jurf al-Sakhar area in late October, followed by several other key victories in the areas of Jalawla, Baiji and Sinjar (retaken by Kurdish forces) and most recently the city of Tikrit. These victories have been achieved, in no small part, thanks to the critical participation of Shiite militias, such as the Iran-backed Badr Organization, ʿAsaʾib Ahl al-Haq, Kataʾib Hizballah, and Kataʾib Sayyid al-Shuhadaʾ, and the Kurdish Peshmerga, forces that stood in the gap after the collapse of the ISF last summer amid the onslaught of the Islamic State. Though Shiite militias continue to take the lead in the battle of the Islamic State, and the performance of the ISF has steadily improved, considerable efforts have been made to recruit Sunni tribes and Sunnis into the effort to dislodge the Islamic State from Iraq.

Nawar Mohammed, one of the
 Sunni residents of Al-Alam who
 joineda Shiite militia to battle
 the Islamic State group,
 stands in Al-Alam after it
 was retaken from IS
on March 11, 2015
(AFP Photo/W.G. Dunlop)
The fruits of these efforts were borne out in part in Tikrit and in several battles preceding its liberation in which military advances were accomplished with the symbolic or significant contributions of Sunnis.  Indeed, 250 Sunnis, led by Sheikh Khaled al-Jbara of the Juburi tribe, joined ʿAsaʾib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed militia who is responsible for numerous sectarian kidnappings and killings, forming ʿAsaʾib al-Alam, the first Sunni unit of its kind. Though the establishment of such a unit within an established Shiite militia can easily be dismissed as propaganda and an effort to mitigate the organization's sectarian history, it nevertheless represents an important development in Sunni-Shiite relations in the country. Iraqi Christians have also become more involved in the fight as IS threatens their continued existence in the country and have formed several Christian battalions which are currently fighting within the PMU. Yet more efforts must be made by all of the political actors involved to build trust and cooperation in order to transcend the ever-hardening sectarian divides in the country and repair a severely broken national Iraqi identity.

Against the Tide of Sectarianism

The predecessor to the Islamic State, then known as al-Qa'ida in Iraq and led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ignited a sectarian war in the mid-2000s, carrying out indiscriminate attacks against Shiites and Sunnis alike, including the 2006 and 2007 bombings of the Imam al-ʿAskarī Shrine in Samarra, which provided a symbol around which radical Shiʿi Islamists mobilized. Now, just as it tried then, the Islamic State has sought to provoke and reignite sectarian war in Iraq through its massacres, executions and campaign of wanton violence, such as the execution of 1,700 Shiite Iraqi Army cadets at Camp Speicher in 2014. However, instead of igniting a widespread sectarian conflict, it provoked a popular mobilization of Iraqi Shia and Kurds, who have been joined by a growing number of Sunnis who have realized that, their grievances and misgivings notwithstanding, a future under the rule of the Islamic State is far worse than a future under the rule of Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.

Grand Ayatollah 'Ali al-Sistani
In June 2014, Grand Ayatollah 'Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling on all Iraqis to exercise restraint and defend Iraq and the holy sites in response to a declaration made by Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, in which al-Adnani threatened to not only attack Baghdad but to take the battle to two of Shiʿi Islam's holiest cities, Najaf and Karbala. This followed previous threats and actual military move to attack the city of Samarra and the Imam al-ʿAskarī Shrine once again.  Sistani, through his spokesman Abdu al-Mahdi al-Karbalai, urged Iraqis, Sunni and Shia, to support the ISF and volunteer to defend the state because "the threats posed obligate the volunteering of those who are capable of carrying arms to defend the homeland and it is a duty on [them]." While Sistani explicitly called on Iraqis, particularly Shiites, to support the government, his fatwa was used by Iranian-backed militias in their own campaigns to mobilize their followers and recruit new volunteers.  

Nevertheless, Sistani's fatwa was a watershed moment in Iraq, as it was a call on all Iraqis, regardless of sectarian or tribal affiliation, to rise in defense of the Iraqi State. Though predominately Shiite, as the fighting continues, more and more Sunnis, as well as Christians, are joining the ranks of or fighting alongside the Hashd al-Shaʿbi, a positive development as Iraqis of various backgrounds fight and shed their blood together in defense of their country.

However, no sooner had the battle for Tikrit began than a series of reports surfaced in international media outlets warning of revenge attacks and misconduct by Shiite forces against Sunnis. While Western reports ranged from sounding a pre-emptive tone to agenda-driven propaganda, those from Sunni Gulf states, particularly from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, tended to be sectarian invectives embellished with exaggerated claims of campaigns by the ISF and Shiite forces to cleanse areas of Sunnis. Sunni religious institutions and sheikhs further promoted widespread Sunni objections, particularly that promulgated by al-Azhar, which strongly condemned what it characterized as the "slaughter and violations" committed by the "Popular Mobilization Militias" against Sunni Iraqi citizens in Tikrit. One of the notable replies to al-Azhar's allegations came from a highly respected Sunni religious figure in Baghdad, Sheikh Adnan, who slammed al-Azhar's Mufti al-Tayyib, charging that he "was quiet until we began to win and ISIS was losing then he spoke against us." Al-'Ani further accused Saudi Arabia of orchestrating religious bigotry.

The accusations and information campaign undermined the momentum of Iraq forces and prompted the Iraqi government to forcefully, albeit defensively, state that it will ensure all civilians are evacuated from the city and that its forces act to protect civilian life and property. To be sure, the offensive was primarily slowed due to stiff resistance by the Islamic State and the soaring number of ISF and Hashd al-Shaʿbi causalities. In addition to the Iraqi government, Ayatollah Sistani urged, once again, fighters in the PMU to refrain from inflicting harm on non-Muslims and take precautions to avoid harming innocent civilians, protecting their rights and the even the rights of those who they are fighting against because they are "victims who have been led astray by others." Moreover, he urged PMU fighters to only raise the Iraqi flag when liberating an area, an explicit call to avoid sectarian symbols in favor the national symbol of the Iraqi flag.

News of human rights violations attributed to Kataʾib Hizballah (KH) and, on occasion, to the Hashd al-Shaʿbi, including extrajudicial executions, looting, and burning of houses and property, were strongly denied by KH’s spokesman, who called these reports "a smear campaign." In confirmed cases, these abuses are no less serious than some of the crimes perpetrated by the Islamic State, and should not be tolerated by the Iraqi government. However, attempts to brand Shiite militias of the PMU as no better than the Islamic State misses the raison d'être of the Hashd al-Shaʿbi: to serve as a non-sectarian popular force under the central government's auspices whose objective is to aid the ISF in defeating the Islamic State. While such a force is in danger of ultimately being hijacked for sectarian purposes and while this force currently fights under Shiite religious banners, there are signs of wider cooperation between Shiites and Sunnis, who are advancing together towards Islamic State positions. To dismiss this popular mobilization as "a sectarian force" with little possibility for transformation into a wider, non-sectarian popular movement is premature. While forging such a non-sectarian movement is not without serious challenges, such challenges do not, in themselves, preclude the establishment of such a movement.

 Challenges to Forging a New National Identity

Iraqi Army / Photo Courtesy : www.imperiya.by
The growing participation of Sunnis in the Iraqi offensive against the Islamic State is a positive development for Iraqi unity. A joint victory in Tikrit by the forces representing Iraq's diverse communities, followed by expanded Sunni participation in the offensive against the Islamic State, and a successful joint operation to reclaim Mosul, will be historic events that may serve as the basis for creating a new Iraqi national myth and more cohesive Iraqi national identity. Such an outcome is contingent on several important factors: Iraqi Sunnis ceasing to view ruling Iraq as their communal patrimony in perpetuity; developments in Iraq's political culture and system that ensures the voice and rights of all Iraqis; and, Iraqi Shia refraining from conducting retribution whether politically or militarily on Sunnis. 
This is a tall order, and though it may appear far-fetched at first glance, an opportunity to promote Iraqi unity and peace among its various communities is one that should not be wasted.  As such, the United States and its allies must continue and expand their efforts to not only support the central government in Baghdad, but work to develop leverage so that it can have a positive influence on the development of a more pluralistic Iraqi political culture. The desired role of the US should not be restricted to airstrikes, arms shipments to Baghdad and logistical support. In addition, inserting more special forces on the ground is indeed a required step if the U.S. wants to be taken seriously in the war against the Islamic State, and if it wants to restore some of its lost credibility among Iraqis. However, any such attempt will be ineffective as long as the geopolitical context of the unresolved regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues to manifest itself in Iraq.

The nuclear negotiations between the West and Tehran and the positive atmosphere surrounding the talks, is negatively perceived by wary Saudi eyes. Riyadh fears losing its status as a top US-ally to its regional nemesis in the event a deal is reached. Together with Qatar, Saudi Arabia controls the most dominant media outlets and mouthpieces in the region, and influences numerous anti-Shiite hardliner preachers from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf. Undermining their role in favor of Iran means both intensified sectarian incitement against Shiites and elevated anti-Western sentiments. Hence, the US should demonstrate unwavering leadership in decisively curbing its Gulf allies from hampering the efforts to liberate Iraq from the nightmare of the Islamic State and give the country a chance for peace and stability. While an Iraqi victory over the Islamic State offers an opportunity, however limited, for Iraqis to establish a new national myth and forge a more cohesive national identity, the success of such an endeavor is, perhaps, far more dependent on actions taken by Riyadh and Tehran, rather than those taken in Iraq itself.

Iraq, like Syria and Yemen, is merely a sphere of influence over which the main regional players seek to extend their hegemony with little concern for the local populations and will happily exploit religious, tribal and ethnic tensions for their own gain. If Iraq's stability and integrity will continue to be affected by undeterred negative regional meddling, then perhaps it is better that Iraqi leaders seriously consider reorganizing the government and state institutions into a more federalist system.


The views expressed are the authors' alone.



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