The dramatic rise of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—which even al-Qaeda deemed too extreme to remain part of its network—is a tragedy by any measure.  It would also be tragic if we allowed the very forces that created this mess to explain it away.

Despite claims by the Bush administration and its supporters to the contrary, outside of a few dozen fighters in a remote valley of the Kurdish autonomous region, there was no Al-Qaeda or related Salafi extremist presence in Iraq under the Saddam Hussein regime. But now, thanks to the U.S. invasion and occupation, the extremists control most of the northern and western parts of the country, including Iraq’s second largest city.

Under U.S. occupation, Iraq’s two major bastions of secular nationalism—the armed forces and the civil service—were effectively abolished, only to be replaced by partisans of sectarian Shiite parties and factions, some of which were closely allied to Iran. Sunni extremists, believing Iraqi Shias had betrayed their country to Persians and Westerners, began targeting Shia civilian neighborhoods with terrorist attacks. The Iraqi regime and allied militia then began systematically kidnapping and murdering thousands of Sunni men.  The so-called “sectarian” conflict, then, has been a direct consequence of U.S. policy.

Despite this, recognizing al-Qaeda related extremists among them were a bigger threat, Sunni tribesmen and other leaders in northern and western Iraq agreed in 2007 to ally with the government in return for better incorporating Sunnis into the government and armed forces. This led to a temporary lull in the fighting, which Republicans and various pundits have falsely attributed to the U.S. troop surge that followed. 

However, the Maliki regime did not come through with its end of the agreement. Indeed, discrimination and repression increased. Nonviolent protesters were gunned down. Dissident journalists were targeted for imprisonment and assassination.  There was widespread torture. Thousands of Iraqis were detained for years without trial. Sunnis and their communities faced rampant discrimination and the Maliki regime became recognized by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

As a result, when ISIS emerged as the latest manifestation of al-Qaeda-style extremists, the Sunni population—despite their relatively secular outlook and strong opposition to such ideologies and tactics—found them to be the lesser evil, and various militia have joined with their former rivals in expelling government forces. 

Their advance was made easier by the failure of the Iraqi army to fight. As the U.S. learned in South Vietnam, no matter how well you train a foreign army and how many arms you provide them, they will only be successful if they believe their regime is worth fighting and dying for.

The good news is that, thanks to an influx of Shiite militia and Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighting alongside the army, the ISIS advance appears to have stalled. The bad news is that it will reinforce the sense among the Sunni population that their country is controlled by Iranian-backed Shiite sectarians, which will only strengthen the power of religious chauvinists within their own community. Should there be attacks by the regime and its allies on the ISIS-occupied cities, the inevitable civilian death toll that would result would only increase the country’s divisions further.

It is ironic that many of the very U.S. politicians and pundits who supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq are now being paraded through the mainstream media giving advice on how the Obama administration should respond, ignoring how the rise of ISIS and the underlying “sectarian” conflict is a direct consequence of Bush administration policies.

It is particularly bizarre that some of the very people who supported the illegal and unnecessary invasion of Iraq are now trying to somehow blame Obama for the unfolding fiasco. Obama opposed the war in part because he recognized that a U.S. invasion and occupation would "only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida." 

Ironically, in that same 2002 speech, Obama called on the Bush administration to “make sure our so-called allies…stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.” Unfortunately, as president, Obama has spent more than $25 billion in taxpayer money arming, training, and propping up the corrupt, oppressive, and discriminatory Maliki regime in Baghdad whose policies have directly resulted in the rise of the ISIS extremists.

There do not seem to be any good options for the United States to pursue now. Since the ISIS takeover is in many respects part of a larger popular rebellion, it cannot be reversed simply through air strikes and drone attacks. Conditioning aid on the Maliki regime becoming more democratic, inclusive, and transparent would seem like a sensible first step, but instigating such reforms would be difficult in the midst of such a major crisis. Ultimately, as difficult as it may seem for many Americans to accept, the Iraqis may just need to work things out themselves. Almost everything else the United States has done to that country in recent decades has only made things worse.

 

__________________

Stephen Zunes is a professor of Politics and coordinator of the Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of San Francisco.

 

 

 

Section: 

Comments

Those in Congress who funded, supported, praised, otherwise contributed to the carnage should be named and shamed. Our murders of Vietnamese still hide the truth and live the good life. They too need to be condemned, None were blind. We should not forgive.
Let what happened in the past stay in the past and let our president as Chief direct our military as he and his advisors know the present circumstances require. IIf they make mistakes then blame them not before they are guilty of any wrong doing ? I believe that they will do what is best first of our country and tax payers and Second for the our world .
In the first place it isn't called ISIS except by the western media and our government. The name of the organization, according to everybody over there including the Takfiri group itself, is ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. So, get that right. Then you fail to mention that this group is funded and trained by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other Sunni Gulf States. Which makes it an ally of both the United States, Britain, France and yes, Israel. Most people in the Mideast, and Iraq in particular know that the Sectarian Conflict was actually created by the Americans, because that division for the most part had lost it's differences to most muslims there about 200 years ago. When the Americans came to Iraq they forced the Shia to carry identifying documents, identifying them as Shia. As far as the corruption of the Maliki government goes, in the mouths of Americans that's equivalent to the Pot calling the Kettle black. So, don't quote Obama, McCain or Bush, the Western Media (including the so=called Left in this country) or any other of our criminals to me. This country created these criminal forces, including what's known as al-Qaeda, this country(along with Britain, France and Israel) have created all the misery in the Mideast. We even installed Mr. Saddam, Hussein in his dictatorship, and when he failed to defeat Iran, with our money and weapons(even the gas was provided by Germany and Britain) we had him removed. That was a lot like Noriega in Panama, another one of our "good guys" that failed in his role as well, so we had him removed. You don't know your history, and because of your racism and bigotry you certainly don't understand Islam and it's history. But, I will let you in on a little clue, Sunni Islam is fake Islam just as Western Christianity is fake Christianity. And Talmudic Judaism is fake Judaism. The Shia are the only real religion operating in the Mideast right now. And, now that they have been totally abused they rise up to defend themselves.

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A couple thousand rabble rousers and nerdy savants from across the republic will let loose this weekend.

If I lived in South Dakota, I’d probably be in a nursing home. And that would be hell.

The nights would start with beer and end with coffee—a lot of coffee.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).


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