Iraq: Chronicles of a death foretold

The world is watching a once-important country die slowly and very painfully

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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Iraq’s death has been foretold a long time coming. The stunning success of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its local allies in overtaking a large swath of Northern Iraq, including the country’s second largest city, Mosul exposed the Iraqi state as a house of cards. Once again Iraqis were burning their country, and as always with more than just a little help from their friends in the region and beyond. And once again Iraqis were being made refugees or displaced in their own country, uprooted from neighborhoods and villages because of their religious or ethnic backgrounds.

The ugly cancer of sectarianism is spreading fast in the already weak Iraqi body politics. The once diverse Baghdad, a bustling metropolitan with a rich human mosaic of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Muslims of various sects, Christians and Jews (at the turn of the 20th century Jews made up 20% of the population of Baghdad) is now a pale capital of mostly Shiites, (75 to 80%) its old mixed neighborhood have been cleansed to become almost exclusively Sunni or Shiite. The fate of the Christians of Iraq, who helplessly watched their religious leaders being killed and their churches torched and burned, since the U.S. invasion is likely to be similar to the fate of the Jews. Already half the Christians of the various Iraqi churches have emigrated or sought temporary refuge in the Kurdish north as a result of a campaign of terror by radical Islamists.

The fraying of Iraq is part of a larger phenomenon of fragmentation, polarization and radicalization that is sweeping the region since the beginning of the season of Arab uprisings. The emergence of ISIS as a powerful non-state actor throwing its weight around in both Syria and Iraq is part of this new unprecedented nightmarish reality. The ability of ISIS to operate in both states, and Iraqi Shiite volunteers and militiamen entering Syria to help the Assad regime, in addition to sectarian demonization and violence led to the obliteration of the Syrian-Iraqi borders and the morphing of the two wars into a giant nasty one. But Iraq’s accelerated descent to hell in recent years was unique, and America had a decisive role in it.

The world is watching a once-important country die slowly and very painfully

Hisham Melhem

President Bush’s naïve and dangerous belief that the invasion of Iraq will lead to a wave of democratization in the region, instead opened the gates of hell and unleashed the primitive and dark forces of sectarianism, which became the rallying cry in the competition for power between the Sunnis and the Shiites, and the absolute violence of al-Qaeda and its offshoots, as well as making Iran the arbiter of Shiite politics in Iraq and the outside power with the most influence in the country that President Bush wanted to transform from a dictatorship to a democracy with American bayonets. While America’s role in the unraveling of Iraq cannot be denied, still the reality is that Iraqis in the main are responsible for their fate. By the time the U.S. withdrew its forces from Iraq in 2011, the country was relatively quiet, before the cumulative blunders of al Maliki’s government which totally alienated the Sunni Arabs were fully felt and led many Sunnis to acquiesce or reluctantly accept collaboration with a bloody terror group like ISIS.

The Violence on June 10th set in motion a torrent of events and reactions. In Baghdad, the autocratic and hapless Nouri al- Maliki government and its allies engaged in the kind of naked sectarian mobilization, that ISIS and some of its allies have been engaging in. The Kurds swiftly moved from their autonomous region to take over the prized city of Kirkuk and its environ, thus consolidating their control over all of what they consider to be Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds of Iraq, who paid dearly for their struggle for self-determination, find themselves today on the cusp of a truly transformative moment in their long history.

In Iran, the Islamic Republic, which sees itself now as the defender of the Shiites in the region, dispatched two battalions of its Revolutionary Guards to Iraq along with the commander of Iran's Quds Force, Qasem Solaimani, one of Iran’s most powerful leaders, to help set up more effective defenses. The Arab states in the Gulf held al-Maliki’s discriminatory policies responsible for the crisis and rejected outside interference in Iraq’s affairs, an implicit reference to Iran. Predictably, in the United States politicians and pundits engaged in the usual rituals that follow such disasters; finger pointing and the perennial question: Who lost Iraq, a variation on an old refrain of who lost China? Who lost Vietnam? And who lost Iran? As if these countries were America’s to lose. The president’s men blamed al-Maliki and or President George W. Bush for invading Iraq, while the critics blamed Obama’s failure to keep a residual force and his disengagement from Iraq. The sad truth is that the Iraqis themselves created this nightmarish reality, and they, as the rightful owner of Iraq lost Iraq.

Iraq’s short history as a state since 1920 was marred by political instability, coups and attempted coups and wars against some of its ethnic and religious components. Iraq fared better under the monarchy, where a semblance of political life, (parties, and parliaments) was tolerated. The violent fall of the monarchy in 1958 however, put the country on a long and bloody trajectory. The ascendency of the Baath party to power in 1968 and the emergence of Saddam Hussein as the strong man in the regime before he became president in 1979 signaled Iraq’s beginning descent towards tyranny, chauvinism, corruption, debauchery, wars and invasions.

Iraq’s slow death was set in motion by Saddam Hussein’s chauvinistic interpretation of Arab Nationalism, which led him to invade Iran and Kuwait, wage wars on the Kurds, and the Shiites of Iraq. Some of the roots causes of the current unraveling of the Iraqi state can be traced back to Saddam Hussein’s fateful blunder of invading Iran, a country three times the size of Iraq. What’s worse is that Saddam invaded a country undergoing a revolution, and such states can withstand tremendous violence, and fight back ferociously as was the case after European states attacked the French and the Bolshevik Revolutions. The invasion of Iran made Iraq a popper state, which led Saddam to Invade Kuwait to fill his coffers with the wealth of his tiny neighbor. The invasion of Kuwait was Saddam’s epilogue to the invasion of Iran. Of course the occupation and annexation of Kuwait led to the 1991 Gulf war and the defeat of Iraq and the imposition of a crippling sanction regime. President George W. Bush wanted the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to finish the mission his father did not complete, that is to topple Saddam’s regime and to use Iraq to transform the region. Iraq has been living in a constant state of violence, tumult, wars, civil wars, sanctions, uprisings and occupation since 1980. No wonder it is falling apart and breaking up.

Prime minister Maliki’s governing record has been atrocious. Maliki used the so-called de-Baathification law, designed to keep members of Saddam’s regime out of power, to target his political opponents. He pursued overtly sectarian policies to weaken Sunni politicians and to exclude them from senior positions, and he reneged on agreements for power sharing with them. His sectarian paranoia is legendary. He monopolized power by keeping in his hand the defense and interior ministries. His regime was marred by cronyism and widespread corruption. Al-Maliki labeled his critics as terrorists and worst he used violence when people demonstrated against corruption in 2011. The persistent Sunni-Shiite divide is the result of the failure of Iraq’s political classes in undertaking successful nation-building, viable and strong institutions and the adoption of exclusionary politics by the Sunnis when they ruled under the guise of Arab Nationalism (the Baath) as well as under the Shiites since the fall of Saddam’s regime.

The consensus in Washington is that unless al-Maliki is ousted nothing meaningful can be done by the U.S. and its allies to prevent Iraq from sliding towards civil war and partition. It remains to be seen if al-Maliki will quietly go into the night, or will put up a nihilistic fight that will accelerate Iraq’s unraveling. History shows that cunning local players have staying powers because they see their fights as existential, while outside powers don’t necessarily have similar tenacity or patience. President Obama’s decision to dispatch 300 military advisors (mainly special forces) is likely to be too little and too late to stop the unraveling. As retired general David Petraeus said the U.S. cannot afford to be the Shiite’s air force. The reforms that President Obama is correctly calling for in Baghdad may not be enacted in time to make a difference and they may never be enacted if al-Maliki remains in power.

The American reaction to the unraveling in Iraq was initially slow, ambiguous and confused. The secretary of defense Chuck Hagel and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey admitted that they were surprised at the speed with which the Iraqi army that the U.S. trained and equipped melted away. Then the discourse turned a bit surreal, when Secretary of state John Kerry suggested that the U.S. will be open to cooperate with Iran politically and even militarily to check ISIS and the spreading Sunni uprising. This is the same country that trained Iraqi militias to kill hundreds of American soldiers, and helping prop up the Syrian dictator Assad. Then the Pentagon and the White House made it clear that Kerry was freelancing, and the secretary claimed later that he was misunderstood.

It was entertaining to see Kerry in bed with one of the administration’s harshest critics, Republican senator Lindsey Graham who said that the US should contemplate military coordination with the Islamic Republic. Another jarring sight was the legion of former officials in the Bush administration who were among the architects of the Iraq invasion appearing on television or writing columns denouncing Obama’s handling of Iraq or providing free advice without a shred of irony. Such is political life in Washington during the dog days of summer.

The partition of Iraq is already underway. Iraq, as we have known it for almost a century is dying. There is already a Kurdish state in all but name. The control of the oil rich Kirkuk will put the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in a strong position vis-à-vis the Baghdad government, and makes the establishment of an independent Kurdistan too tantalizing to resist. The KRG has its own armed forces, its own prime minister, its border check points and visas, and its own oil wealth. It has a thriving tourism industry and thriving universities. Most Kurds under the age of thirty barely speak Arabic.

The fortunes of the Kurds in Iraq have improved tremendously in the last quarter of a century, and particularly in the last five years with the marked improvement of relations with Turkey. Trade between Turkey and the KRG is more than $8 billion a year, and will increase further with the prospects of more Kurdish oil going through Turkish pipelines to foreign markets. The transformation of Turkey from an opponent of Kurdish self-determination to a supporter is one of the most significant political transformations in the region in recent decades. Following the takeover of Kirkuk, a spokesman of Turkey’s ruling party said “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in," The spokesman Huseyin Celik added "The Kurds, like any other nation, will have the right to decide their fate". The prime minister of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region Nechirvan Barzani has told the BBC he does not believe the country will stay together, and that it would be "almost impossible" for Iraq to return to the status quo that prevailed before the fall of Mosul and Kirkuk.

Breaking up is hard to do

With the Kurds going their way, the Sunni Arabs will feel more marginalized in what is left of Iraq. This will harden their position and would embolden the Shiite hard liners in Baghdad. And unless a new political arrangement that would satisfy the Sunnis is found quickly, the situation is likely to revert to the dark days of 2006 and 2007 when Sunnis and Shiites visited untold violence on each other. This time there will be no American arbiter or a mediator. Iraqis will be on their own, and regional powers will be part of the problem not the solution. The breakup of empires and countries is rarely peaceful and usually happens in the context of conflicts and wars as we have seen in the Balkans and the case of South Sudan. There may have been a time when a decentralized system could have been created that would give Iraq’s main components the right to self-rule while maintaining a federal structure. That moment may have passed.

Just as the wars in Syria and Iraq have morphed into one, the breakup of Iraq could reverberate throughout the region and lead to further fragmentation in Syria and maybe Lebanon. The world is watching a once-important country die slowly and very painfully. And even if we are talking about chronicles of a death foretold, it is nonetheless awful to watch. Iran, the self-appointed defender of the Shiites will step in to defend a Shiite regime in Baghdad; the Arab Sunni majority states and Turkey feel threatened and are sullen but unwilling to take on Iran directly, and all of these developments are taking place against the background of unprecedented Sunni-Shiite confrontation on a long front stretching from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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