Al Qaida-linked groups are wreaking havoc in Iraq, with deaths reported almost on a daily basis as a result of their ever-innovative killing tactics. The rise of militant violence throughout the country is happening within the framework of worsening sectarian tensions, which underlines a real national crisis that has been brewing for years.
The Sunni and Shiite strife, however, also reflects a growing polarisation in the Middle East region, which was greatly exacerbated by the advent of the so-called Arab Spring.
Missing from many Iraq-related political analyses is the US-led Iraq war, whose impact has devastated Iraqi society like no other event in recent Middle Eastern history. It will be greatly misleading to speak of Iraq’s current woes and ignore those who were the architects of such a crisis in the first place.
Almost every news report about Iraq violence cites another news report of another violent event somewhere else in the country. Thanks to hyperlinked text, we can now trace Iraqi violence as far as time allows. “At least three policemen were killed by suicide bombers on February 21 in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul,” reported Reuters. The Associated Press reported on the same day of an attack on an “army checkpoint north of Baghdad, killing four soldiers and wounding four others.” A few days earlier, a devastating series of bombings, “mainly targeting Shiite areas of Baghdad killed at least 21 people”, reported AFP. It is an endless chain reaction that seems to feed on itself.
However, missing from most reportage is that violence in Iraq was not self-generating and that the current divide between Sunni and Shiite groups and political parties is not a manifestation of the ever-unscrupulous political process symptomatic of any fledgling democracy.
Writing in The Atlantic, under the title: ‘Why we’ll never get a full account of the war in Iraq”, D.B. Grady argued that one of the main reasons that the decision to invade Iraq remains a mystery, is that former US vice-president Dick Cheney “would like to keep it that way”. Cheney’s “adroit manipulation of classification policy,” he wrote, “kept his vault-like office sealed through both terms of the Bush presidency.”
Considering how much we knew of America’s ill-intentioned moves towards Iraq prior to the March 2003 invasion (let alone what was revealed by Cheney’s own neoconservative friends, their think tanks, writings and interviews), the devastation that was witnessed throughout the war and hundreds of thousands of leaked documents of unreported war conducts, one fails to appreciate the mystery.
The US quest for war was in no way linked to the terrorist attacks of September 11, although the spin doctors managed to use the horrific events to persuade a shell-shocked and largely misinformed public that Iraq was somehow linked to the attacks on US soil. The then senior administration official, Paul Wolfowitz, was one of the first to argue for an immediate regime change in Baghdad following the attacks. The fact is Wolfowitz, one of the most ardent pro-Israeli neocons in Washington, was actively concocting his war plans in the early 1990s as he was unsatisfied that the first Iraq war did not eliminate the supposed Iraqi threat completely. Cheney and Wolfowitz worked closely to achieve their vision of a new Middle East. September 11 was not the cause of war, but the catalyst.
The US war and invasion of Iraq, ten years ago, was but a continuation of an earlier conquest, which, according to many war hawks, left Iraq under Saddam Hussain crippled but not destroyed. It was the then US secretary of state, James Baker, who reportedly threatened Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, in a Geneva meeting in 1991 by saying that the US would destroy Iraq and “bring it back to Stone Age”. The US war which extended from 1990 to 2011, included a devastating blockade and ended with a brutal invasion. These wars were as unprincipled as they were violent. Apart from their overwhelming human toll, they were placed within a horrid political strategy aimed at exploiting the country’s existing sectarian and other fault lines, thereby triggering civil wars and sectarian hatred from which Iraq is unlikely to recover for many years.
For America, it was a strategy merely aimed at lessening the pressure placed on its own and other allied soldiers as they faced stiff resistance the moment they stepped foot in Iraq. For the Iraqis, however, it was a petrifying nightmare that can neither be expressed by words or numbers. According to UN estimates cited by BBC, between May and June 2006 “an average of more than 100 civilians per day [were] killed in violence in Iraq”. The UN estimates also placed the death toll of civilians in 2006 at 34,000. That was the year the US strategy of divide-and-conquer proved most successful.
The fact remains that the US and Britain had jointly destroyed modern Iraq and no amount of remorse or apology — not that any was offered, to begin with — will alter this fact. Iraq’s former colonial masters and its new ones lacked any legal or moral ground for invading the sanctions-devastated country. They also lacked any sense of mercy as they destroyed a generation and set the stage for a future conflict that promises to be as bloody as the past.
When the last US combat brigade had reportedly left Iraq in December 2011, this was meant to be an end of an era. Historians know well that conflicts do not end with a presidential decree or troop deployment. Iraq merely entered a new phase of conflict and the US, Britain and others remain integral to that conflict.
One post-invasion reality is that Iraq was divided into areas of influence based on purely sectarian and ethnic lines. In western media’s classification of winners and losers, Sunnis, blamed for being favoured by Saddam, emerged the biggest losers. While Iraq’s new political elites were divided between Shiite and Kurdish politicians (each party with its own private army, some gathered in Baghdad and others in the autonomous Kurdistan region), the Shiite population was held responsible by various militant groups for the Sunni plight.
The sectarian strife in Iraq, which is responsible for the death of tens of thousands, is making a comeback. Iraqi Sunnis, including major tribes and political parties, are demanding equality and the end of their disfranchisement in the relatively new, skewed Iraqi political system under Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. Massive protests and ongoing strikes have been organised with a unified and clear political message. However, many other parties are exploiting the polarisation in every way imaginable.
The future of Iraq is currently being determined by various forces and almost none of them are composed of Iraqi nationals with a uniting vision. Caught between bitter sectarianism, extremism, the power-hungry, wealth amassing elites, regional power players, western interests and a very violent war legacy, the Iraqi people are suffering beyond the ability of sheer political analyses or statistics to capture their anguish. The proud nation of impressive human potential and remarkable economic prospects has been torn to shreds.
Writing in the Baltimore Sun on February 21, Ralph Masi, a professor at the University of Maryland, described an encounter with a key Iraq war architect, Richard Perle, who served as an assistant defence secretary and a chairman of the Defence Policy Board. Perle — a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — was confronted by Masi during a talk at the Army War College Annual Strategy Conference on the day Saddam’s statue was toppled by American forces on April 9. “I asked him, ‘What’s next?’” Masi wrote. Perle replied: “Iran or Syria — take your pick.”
The American war party, led by such infamous luminaries as Cheney, Wolfowitz, Perle and others, may have not realised their vision for a new Middle East exactly as they had hoped. However, considering the sadistic war in Syria, a manifestation of that vision has finally prevailed. It really matters little what secrets and mysteries Cheney’s vault-like office contained, for the impact of his legacy is out there for the whole world to see.
Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is: My Father was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press).