Architects of chaos and war, ISIS has exploited pre-existing and enduring ethno-religious choke points in Iraq, playing on old instabilities to further its own imperialistic religious ambitions. What happens next could be more than just political unravelling.
Iraqi security forces stand guard as Shiite pilgrims march towards Karbala for the Arbaeen holiday in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2014. (Photo: Karim Kadim/AP)
As Iraq continues its descent into the fires of war, the integrity of its state institutions and borders straining under the weight of unprecedented and aggravated stress, the country is teetering on the edge of a dangerous precipice — one which could lead to much more than just political unravelling.
Almost a century after Great Britain, France and Italy broke up the Ottoman Empire, drawing up their own maps of the Middle East to serve their respective immediate geostrategic interests in the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, Iraq’s national integrity is in danger of disintegrating along sectarian, tribal and ethnic lines.
Engulfed in a bitter battle for control with Islamic radicals, Iraq stands to be absorbed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a militant group with supranational hegemonic ambitions. Like other countries in the region, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, and Egypt, Iraq is little more than a pawn in a race for regional control over the Middle East.
This war against terror — which has seen Western powers pitted against radical groups like ISIS and al-Qaida since 2011, on the heels of the Arab Spring — may now degenerate into a violent religious war, forcing populations to withdraw behind their respective sectarian lines in fear.
Iraq’s fall into the trap that is sectarianism has been the subject of many reports in recent months, especially in light of increased intra-religious radicalism in the Middle East. Yet calls earlier this month for jihad against ISIS risk tipping the conflict into a full-blown regional religious crusade that sees Sunnis and Shiites pitted against one another.
On Dec. 11, Muqtada al-Sadr, a prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric who leads the Sadrist movement, announced that his militia, the Peace Brigades, is ready to engage ISIS militarily in what he describes as jihad, or holy war.
“Us versus them”
Following months of brutal attacks targeting Iraq’s Shiite community after ISIS radicals labelled Shiite Islam a heresy against God, Shiite leaders have increasingly looked beyond the state for answers, eager to organize themselves into militias to defeat the black flag-carrying army and defend their own kin.
The latest in a string of vicious strikes against Shiite Muslims came on Dec. 12, when ISIS militants targeted pilgrims near the holy city of Karbala, in Souk Al-Basra, as they performed the Arbaeen commemoration, a religious festival marking the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Experts have warned that such sectarian insularization will only worsen the situation, fanning sectarian sentiment and animosity instead of promoting inter-religious and ethnic cooperation and solidarity.
“Religion has become a political tool. Between the collapse of the army and officials’ inability to project a sense of institutional cohesion, religion has become a powerful unifying tool. However effective it may be in the short-term, using faith as a rallying call for war against ISIS will come with its own set of problems — dangerous ones, too,” Khaled Nasir, a political analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, told MintPress News.
“Iraqis are paying for Baghdad’s inadequacy. ISIS continues to drive the narrative, using the region’s religious and ethnic faultlines to its advantage. I’m afraid fear has pushed leaders into engaging with radicals on those very planes. Iraqis are reacting not strategizing — there lies the real danger.”
Such a move toward religious insularization was best embodied in al-Sadr’s call for holy war against ISIS. On Dec. 11, Abu Doaa Al-Issawi, “assistant jihadist” for the Sadrist movement, wrote in a statement, “Given the exceptional conditions and imminent danger to the sacred city of Samarra from the legions of terrorists, our leader Al-Sadr has ordered the Peace Brigades to prepare within 24 hours for jihad.”
A controversial and polarizing figure, al-Sadr commands undeniable power within Iraq — both religiously and politically. A Shiite cleric with a powerful militia, the Peace Brigades (formerly, the Mahdi Army), to back him up, al-Sadr’s main support remains in the streets. A man of the people, al-Sadr’s might comes from his ability to galvanize Iraqi Shiites, tapping into people’s religious identities to move and direct them.
Although Iraqi Shiites have long organized their own defenses, the Peace Brigades were put in charge of protecting Iraq’s Shiite holy sites against ISIS’ assaults in June. The idea that Shiite Muslims could declare holy war against Sunnis, thus challenging one of Islam’s most precious tenets of non-intra-religious violence, was not yet on the table.
Under Islamic law, Muslims are absolutely forbidden to harm others, except in self-defense:
“But whoever kills a believer intentionally – his recompense is Hell, wherein he will abide eternally, and Allah has become angry with him and has cursed him and has prepared for him a great punishment.” Quran 4:93.
Fast-forward a few months of unparalleled violence against Shiite Muslims across Iraq, and the narrative has dramatically shifted from self-defense to active militarization.
“The discourse went from Iraqis versus ISIS terrorists, to us versus them,” Nasir told MintPress.
“Rather than understand ISIS’ attacks as a declaration of war against all Iraqis, whether Christians, Muslims, Yezidis or otherwise, it has become the fight of Islam,” he continued. “If unchecked, this could lead to a destructive crusade campaign. Beyond Iraq, it is the region which stands to burn.”
When political engineering comes undone
“While ISIS quite clearly precipitated Iraq’s demise, throwing its institutions and national makeup out of balance by exacerbating historical ethno-religious tensions, it is Western powers’ political engineering games which are to blame,” said Marwa Osman, a professor of Politics and International Relations at Lebanese International University in Beirut, whose work focuses on radical movements in the Middle East, to MintPress.
“Imperial powers drew artificial lines in the Middle East, dividing up areas which were once whole and collating people which shared nothing in common. The Middle East has been nothing but a patchwork of nations forced to live under the same flag. And since no real national unity was ever found, countries are imploding under ISIS’ pressure.”
Ironically, ISIS also blames former colonial powers for the ongoing tensions, arguing that the region is a Western creation that needs to be addressed and re-assessed. Yet ISIS’ vision entails not political self-determination, but religious enslavement and ethnic cleansing. In a video posted to YouTube by Al-Hayat in June, ISIS pinpointed the West as the cause of all regional issues, promoting its war campaign as a liberation movement.
In another interesting historical twist, the United States expressed strong reservations toward the politics of partition in the past. Former President Woodrow Wilson rather famously warned in a speech before Congress in February 1918: “Peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as mere chattels and pawns in a game … Every territorial settlement involved in this war [WWI] must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned.”
Yet if Iraq’s demise lies within its own artificially-drawn national borders, its unravelling nevertheless poses a threat to regional stability — especially because terrorist radicals now aim to claim political and institutional control over the vestiges of the Ottoman Empire.
Playing with fire
Architects of chaos and war, ISIS has exploited pre-existing and enduring ethno-religious choke points, playing on old instabilities to further its own imperialistic religious ambitions.
With the narrative firmly focusing in on the religious, Nasir warned that Iraq stands to lose more than just its national sovereignty: “There is a profound disconnect within Iraqi society. The tribes feel alienated, religious minorities feel misrepresented and misunderstood and the state has become an empty institutional shell directed by foreign powers.”
“Under such circumstances is it really a surprise Iraq is disintegrating? I think not. Unless Baghdad finds a way to rally its people — all its people — ISIS will advance. Until a common denominator is found amid such chaos, Iraqis will think themselves Shiite, Sunnis or Kurds first.”
Echoing Nasir’s assessment of Iraq’s impending demise, Patrick Cockburn, a journalist and Middle East expert, wrote in a report for CounterPunch in October: “The inability of the Baghdad government to field a national army and its reliance on militias means that Iraq is in the last stages of disintegration. The few mixed Sunni-Shia areas are disappearing … The final break-up of Iraq has become a fact.”
In the midst of so much despair and competing war cries, however, lies an opportunity to embrace new beginnings and heal old wounds, Iran-based political analyst Ahmad Kazemzadeh told MintPress.
“Should regional and international powers rise above their immediate differences to oppose the likes of ISIS through military, religious and political cooperation, ISIS’ terror discourse will lose its sway. What the region lacks is a common identity, a thread which ties communities together,” Kazemzadeh said.