A reporter reflects on the history of Iraq — essentially three sectarian states somewhat arbitrarily cobbled together by colonialists — and his time there.
Everyone seems to have been caught off guard by the sudden advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters sweeping through Iraq’s Sunni heartland. The fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, followed by Tikrit, Tel Afar and now Baqubah — not to mention a good chunk of Anbar province — is a good indication that the rebel fighters have plenty of local support.
What has made the situation particularly ugly, though, is that the ISIS fighters are not only grabbing land but also systematically killing non-Sunnis as they advance. This has prompted Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to call on his followers to take up arms.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following WWI, France and Great Britain stepped in and divvied up the Middle East between them. Britain took Palestine and the region known today as Iraq, while France got greater Syria, which included Lebanon. Artificial borders were drawn up between the two superpowers with little or no concern for ethnic, religious or cultural divisions.
Britain merged the provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and al-Basrah to create the country of Iraq, then appointed a Hashemite king as its ruler. The monarchy was eventually overthrown, but Sunnis remained the dominant force until the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. In the meantime, both the Kurds and the Shiites had staged numerous rebellions against the ruling Sunnis — all to no avail.
The last major rebellion took place in 1991, shortly after the U.S.-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait. In the south, the Shiites took advantage of the chaos following the Iraqi military defeat and led an uprising in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. In the end, Saddam’s forces regrouped and brutally crushed the rebellion using helicopter gunships and arresting and executing thousands of Shiites.
The Kurdish revolt in the north fared much better. After taking over Iraqi military positions and government offices, Kurdish fighters were able to seize much of their ancestral homeland. By the time the Iraqi military staged a counterattack, the Kurds were already well entrenched. Following the two revolts, the U.S.-led coalition set up two “no-fly” zones in the north and south of the country so Saddam’s forces could not retaliate from the air.
Under the protection of the “no-fly” zone, the Kurdish-controlled region became more like an independent state.
The Kurds were able to consolidate power and set up their own government, infrastructure, education system, military, and police force.
Even though the country’s Shiite-dominated south was protected against air attacks, they were unable to get the same direct aid as the Kurds because of their geographic location. Instead, they gravitated toward Iran, which worked out well, since both follow the same sect of Islam.
With two “no-fly” zones extending over the majority of the country from 1991 until 2003, Saddam was only able to exercise complete control over Baghdad and central Iraq, which was largely composed of Sunni tribes already loyal to him.
My first visit to Iraq was in the mid-1980s to cover the Iran-Iraq War. I returned a few years later to cover the U.S. attack on the country following Iraq’s annex of Kuwait, and I visited numerous other times throughout the 1990s to cover the United Nations weapons inspectors and other stories of interest. In 2003, I went back to Iraq to cover the aftermath of the U.S. invasion.
I remember well the two uprisings that took place in March 1991. The Iraqi Ministry of Information insisted every day that all was quiet on both fronts, and to prove this point, the ministry arranged a series of press trips. There was a period when all I did was travel between Kurdistan in the north and Karbala and Najaf in the south. On a few occasions, I would travel to the north in the morning, return to Baghdad that evening, then be driven to the south the next morning. The information ministry was obsessed with showing the outside world that the central government was in control of the entire country.
Even though the Iraqi Army was able to maintain a large military presence in the Shiite strongholds of Karbala and Najaf, it was obvious that the army was not welcome.
We were taken to refugee camps in government-controlled areas and to frontline positions when we traveled to the north. Our Iraqi minders would insist that the Iraqi government was fighting a war against Kurdish terrorists in an effort to compare Iraq’s situation to that of Turkey in their fight against Kurdish separatists.
When I arrived in Baghdad in May 2003, the bulk of the fighting had stopped and an uneasy calm had settled over city. Baghdad was shrouded by black smoke from all the garbage that was set alight. Everywhere I looked, I could see looters with donkey carts full of scrap material and stolen goods looking for abandoned buildings to pillage. The looters even ransacked hospitals and pulled down electricity and telephone poles in order to strip off the copper wiring.
A few years ago, when I was entering a fashionable restaurant in the center of Washington, D.C., I bumped into former Vice President Dick Cheney. The entrance was below street level, and as I descended the narrow steps I suddenly found myself standing in the way of the former vice president.
When he looked up to see who was blocking the exit, I blurted out, “Mr. Cheney, there are so many things I’d like to ask you but this is not the appropriate time.”
He stared back at me awkwardly and said, “Oh.”
Setting aside the obvious question of why the U.S. went to war with Iraq in the first place, I should have liked to ask Mr. Cheney why nothing was done to prevent looters from pillaging Baghdad after the capital was secured.
Granted, the U.S. military could not be everywhere, but one would assume there was a contingency plan to at least protect hospitals, ministry buildings, the central bank, the national museum — spaces of cultural or social importance. In the end, the Americans only put up a security perimeter around the Ministry of Petroleum.
I believe members of the Bush administration knew perfectly well what they were doing when they invaded Iraq and left Baghdad to the thieves. The seeds of mistrust between Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites were sown long before the U.S. had any involvement in the region. By allowing the capital to be plundered, the Americans were in effect removing any semblance of a centralized state.
It was only natural that when the rebuilding process began and the Shiites took control of the government and military, the fragile alliance between the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites would disintegrate. What we are seeing now is the emergence of three independent states carved along sectarian lines — a throwback to the days before British and French colonial rule.