While the U.S. led coalition is advancing against ISIS in Iraq, unsolved problems and differences in fragmented Iraqi society are gradually making their way back into the conversation about the country’s future. Lack of understanding for these nuances among the Western decision-makers in the midst of invasion frenzy in the early 2000s paved the way to insurgency, chaos and protracted conflict in the region. While the invasion and its disorganized aftermath are an important factor in current crisis, they are hardly the exclusive reason for it. This guide is an attempt to shed some light on internal dynamics of Iraqi society both in pre-Saddam and post-Saddam era.
Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Ba’athist Rule
Despite sharing the same name, Ba’athist regimes in Syria and Iraq carry a lot of differences, with the Iraqi regime embeded in much stronger ethnic, tribal, religious and social networks, described as “a peculiar combination of authoritarianism, tribalism and rentierism.” The connections within these networks often remained hidden, making it problematic to analyze Ba’ath-era Iraqi society. The focus often remains solely on Saddam Hussein and his close group of associates, which is the ultimate mistake in the approach to post-war Iraq.
Iraq’s Ba’athist leaders mostly originated from lower-middle provincial classes, bringing into the party the value and importance of kinship, using it to strengthen both the Ba’ath party and their personal standing. In Hussein’s security and intelligence network, kinship played a vital role, which is how he gradually asserted his dominance over “the most powerful clan within the most powerful tribe.” The members of the political elite were subsequently recruited from Hussein’s family, clan and allied tribes — his lineage Albu Ghafur belonged to Baijat clan, part of the Albu Nasir six-clan tribal confederation. Among the political elite were also the Ba’ath party senior circles, approximately 10 percent of overall party membership. These people were placed in the Regional Command division, section and branch officials. The Ba’ath party had around 800,000 members, and while some were hardcore loyalists, many members were just people seeking personal advancement, while some, such as Kurdish nationalists and Islamists, sought membership in order to stay safe under the regime’s reppressive security apparatus, which quashed any source of opposition.
Despite the socialist components of Ba’athist ideology, the Iraqi economy was delivered a serious blow during the war with Iran in the 1980s, enabling development of private sector and foreign Arab investment in the country. That hardly brought any fair game to the market — owning a private business also required ties with the ruling elite, facilitating corruption and crime through awarding loyal partners with licenses and contracts. State employees, on the other hand, suffered with stagnant income under the weight of international sanctions. The same could have been said about the unemployed and semi-employed population, both in provincial and urban areas.
At the dawn of the 21st Century, 48 percent of the Iraqi population was under 18. These people, alongside the population younger than 35, grew up in a perpetual state of war, violence and crisis. Most of them had basic military training and little political or ideological vision, making Iraq the ideal recruiting ground for Islamists and jihadists in the years following the insurgency. However, the recruitment commenced long before Hussein was ousted. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs follow the moderate Hanafite teachings, and Sunni Kurds follow the rationalist Shafi’ite approach, both schools of thought having a strong anti-Wahhabi attitude. Also, Iraqi Shi’ite scholars differ from their Iranian counterparts, who adhere to the supreme authority of clerics. Iraqi scholars viewed clerics’ role as advisory. In order to counter the influence of Iranian hardliners after the Shi’ite uprising in 1991, the Ba’ath government encouraged growing religious and sectarian sentiments among the population, even tolerating Wahhabi preachers. In this atmosphere, with any kind of vibrant political and ideological narrative repressed and silenced, grew an entire generation who knew a lot about religion, but nothing about politics. They were highly susceptible to Islamist ideologues. Their sense of nationhood eventually failed the test, with tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims, escalating after Hussein’s regime crumbled.
The invasion and prolonged occupation of Iraq remain controversial topics to this day, both in the U.S. and internationally. Hussein and the United States already had their stand-off during the Gulf War in the 1990s. Several years later, intelligence reports surfaced suggesting that Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction, therefore posing a threat to American allies in the Middle East. These reports were tirelessly peddled by the U.S. and U.K. political establishments, who were eager to wrap up what they had started with Hussein. Fifteen years later, no proof of such weapons in Iraq has ever been found. Other supporters of intervention pointed out the need to topple Hussein’s brutal regime. According to Human Rights Watch, 25 years of Ba’ath party rule accounted for the murder or disappearance of 250,000 Iraqis, among those 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds in 1988, and 25,000 to 100,000 people during the Shi’ite uprisings in 1991. Some observers pointed out that death toll didn’t tell the whole story of the systematic use of torture, conducted both by secret police and Hussein’s close circle of confidantes and advisors. Given the scarcely limited access of observers and journalists in Iraq, estimates of deaths and human rights violations vary greatly.
By the time invasion was imminent, it was not entirely clear how the Iraqi people felt about it. According to International Crisis Group, which conducted interviews pointing out that the scope of their research was rather confined, Iraqi people seemed “eager to alter the status quo” and felt that the intervention was tolerable for a limited amount of time if it was going to bring an immediate change. In that sense, the invasion was a success. U.S.-led troops swiped the country in a matter of days and easily toppled the Ba’ath regime and Hussein. That proved to be the only success of the army and decision makers who didn’t really know what kind of society they were dealing with, much less what kind of future they envisioned for that society.
Post-Hussein Iraq and Sectarian War
After the Ba’athist government fell in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority was established to pick up the pieces of the immediate fallout. It failed — it couldn’t guarantee security or reinstate and provide basic services to the Iraqi people. With Ba’ath party members swiftly removed from all managing positions, the bureaucratic system and industry were falling apart. There was no chance of organizing elections immediately, so while the opposition was rallying, Ba’athist loyalists were recuperating, and the insurgents were organizing. The opposition to occupation came in the form of Ba’athist loyalists, nationalists, Islamists (mainly Sunni), tribal members who sought revenge for the deaths of family members or dishonoring them, criminals and a growing number of foreign fighters from other Arab countries. The Interim Governing Council was an attempt at legitimacy, formed by the CPA and consisting of 25 members placed in consultations with pre-chosen political parties, inadvertently created by confessional and ethnic lines. Thus, the CPA set a precedent for organizing Iraqi politics along these lines for the first time in modern history of Iraq.
One of the immediate hopeful sides in post-Hussein Iraq was the Shi’ite majority, which had the first chance, after many decades, to be represented in the government in accordance with its demographic presence in the country. Despite the ideological and religious differences among the Shi’ite population in Iraq, the persecution throughout the 1980s and 1990s led them to a certain sort of sectarian unity. This, in addition to having a lack of a clear political vision and being in touch with constituents among many figures in opposition, led to a strengthening of Shi’ite Islamists, who carefully stepped in where the state disappointed, delivering welfare services and protection to civilians. The three groups with the greatest influence became the traditional establishment in Najaf, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) based in Tehran and supported by Iran, and the Iraqi-based radical movement led by Moqtada al-Sadr, with a well-developed welfare and da’wa network.
The elections and ratification of the constitution in 2005 further solidified all kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies about ethnic and sectarian divide. Clerics turned into politicians, with their respective mosques taking care of their political PR and advertisement. Each ethnic and religious group played into radical insurgents’ hands, with attacks and retaliatory attacks that drag on to this day. The elections saw a Shi’ite-Kurdish alliance emerging as the dominant political force, which confirmed that they felt that post-Hussein Iraq was payback time for multi-decade grievances, marginalizing the Sunni Arab community by the letter of the constitution and indiscriminately retaliating against them after attacks against Shi’ite civilians or the newly established security apparatus. Federal security forces have disproportionately been deployed in Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods and Sunni-populated governorates (Anbar, Salah al-Din, Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala).
In this atmosphere, insurgents centered in Sunni Arab areas were able to overcome differences among various groups, appealing to the disenfranchised population with basic Salafi ideological points and patriotism, focusing on the fight against the proven oppressors — U.S. and Iraqi government forces. They were well-organized, unwilling to negotiate and understood the value of publicity, capable of offering short-term answers people desperately needed and lacking any long-term vision. For most of the young population who had no means of entering the system in post-Hussein Iraq, joining insurgent groups and militias was the only way out of poverty, unemployment and a lack of sense of direction. While Islamist radicals such as Al-Qaeda snatched Sunnis in Anbar province and the suburbs of Baghdad, Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr led his own Mahdi Army, which took over the capital. As time went on, they grew more violent and competitive for resources.
Yet the violence did not end there — tensions started escalating in Kirkuk between the Kurdish majority and Arabs, with Kurds essentially seizing civilian and military control in the region, and also crossing the Green line separating Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq in other governorates. This was bitterly opposed by Arabs and Turkmen, and eventually the Iraqi government itself. While Kurds felt that re-establishing their rule in Kirkuk and other regions was fixing the injustice, massive oil reserves also made it a question of resources, valued by Kurds who were seeking to strengthen their claim to local autonomy and eventual statehood. A similar situation happened in Nineveh governorate, with Mosul as its capital. The region was also seized in ensuing post-invasion chaos by Kurds, but the Sunni Arab insurgency was particularly strong thanks to an open border with Syria, enabling them to import fighters and weapons, and establish their civil and military presence in various pockets across Nineveh. By 2009, this stalemate set the scene for ISIS spillover into Syria and the subsequent capturing of large swaths of Iraqi territory several years later.
U.S. military surge and leaving Iraq
The U.S. military surge from 2007 to 2009 reduced violence to a certain extent, but containment could not offer the solutions Iraq really needed: political compromise. It also facilitated a vicious circle of Iraqi youth entangled in conflict, by paying Sunni tribal chiefs to rally young people to fight against Al-Qaeda in their respective villages and areas, while the Iraqi government did the same in Southern Iraq to counter the power and influence of the Mahdi army.
In the following year, U.S. forces started pulling out, and by 2011, Iraq was on its own, and the U.S. hoped that the lack of that hammock would help the Iraqis handle the political crisis. Re-elected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proved not to be up to the task.
In 2011, it was clear that Iraq was repeating its history, with slight modifications. Corruption was deeply entrenched in all institutions, from security and political establishment, to bureaucratic and service providing sector, relying on political, sectarian, and ethnic identities and allegiances. The government continuously interfered with the judiciary, while institutions in charge of checks and balances were either never formed or faced pressure and violence. Key elements of the power-sharing agreement reached in 2010 were never carried out. After Vice President, Tareq al-Hashimi was arrested (many believe for publicly criticizing al-Maliki), his opponents among Sunnis, Kurds and Shi’ites grew dissatisfied. The standoff with the Kurdish government continued well into 2012.
As Al-Iraqiya, a secular cross-confessional movement, fell apart due to internal rivalries and a lack of an assertive stance in fighting al-Maliki’s growing authoritarianism, numerous Sunni Arabs who identified with their ideology started peaceful protests. On top of the stand-off between al-Hashimi and al-Maliki, the triggering event was the arrest of the bodyguards of a prominent Iraqiya member. The government responded with bureaucratic procedures, refused to negotiate directly and ultimately deployed security forces in Sunni neighborhoods.
In this stand-off, coupled with the Syrian civil war escalation spilling over to Iraq, radical voices gained prominence, giving the government an excuse to storm a camp in Hawija, killing more than 50 people and injuring 110 more. At the same time, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, alarmed by developments in Syria, recruited young people and ex-insurgents into militias, which were deployed to Syria. Retaliatory sectarian violence soon spiraled out of control, with 2012 ending with more than 4,600 civilian deaths, mainly in terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In 2013, the death toll doubled, with more than 9,800 victims, according to ICB. Al-Maliki was ultimately unseated and replaced by Haider al-Abadi after newly elected president Fuad Masum nominated him for that position.
In 2014, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant conquered parts of Northwestern Iraq in only a few days, conveniently aiming at Sunni regions and the cities of Fallujah and Mosul, where they found little organized resistance among people angry at Sunni elites and Iraqi government, closely identified with Shi’ites. Sensing the threat from the ultra-radical unified group with significant territorial presence, Shi’ite groups called their population to join various militias on the grounds of protecting Shi’ites from ISIS. Iraq’s highest religious Shi’ite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa, which obliged Shi‘ites to join the defense — what was to become Al Hashd al Sha’abi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization composed of some 40 militias which currently fight ISIS.
Over the course of 2014, ISIS also captured larger parts of Anbar province, Al Qaim, Ramadi, Abu Ghraib, Tal Afar, Tikrit, Nineveh province and parts of Kirkuk and Diyala provinces. More than 1,700 Iraqi soldiers who surrendered were brutally executed, with videos and photos finding their way to social networks. ISIL declared creation of a calpihate in June 2014, with Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi appointed as caliph. After capturing Sinjar, ISIS besieged, killed or enslaved thousands of Yazidis, prompting U.S. president Barack Obama to authorize U.S.-led aistrikes on ISIS positions. On the ground, ISIS was countered by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who managed to break the siege of Sinjar by the end of the year. They were joined by Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters, making new advances.
In 2015, Iraqi forces made significant gains, recapturing Diyala from the Islamic State. Pro-Iranian Shi’ite forces took back Tikrit. The country saw a wave of deadly terrorist attacks, which claimed more than 200 lives. Peshmerga forces recaptured large parts of the area surrounding Mosul, as well as all of Sinjar. By the end of the year, Ramadi was liberated.
The battle for the last ISIS urban stronghold in Iraq — Mosul — began in October 2016, and it was proclaimed liberated by Iraqi forces in June 2016, although jihadists are still present in some pockets of the city. Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, is encircled. Currently, the broad coalition consists of the Iraqi armed forces, Kurdish peshmerga and various Turkmen Muslim, Assyrian Christian, Yezidi, Shabaki and Armenian Christian forces.
(Source: International Crisis Group)