A long trail of blood and tears

For 35 years, Iraqis with a little help from their regional and international ‘friends’ have put Iraq on a steady trajectory towards state collapse

Hisham Melhem
Hisham Melhem
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There is a long trail of blood, tears and causality stretching from that fateful moment when Saddam Hussein decided to invade Iran in September 1980, to the current moment where Qassem Soleimani Iran’s supreme military commander in Syria and Iraq is leading a Shiite campaign to retake Tikrit, Saddam’s birthplace, from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) the most extreme of Sunni extremists.

For 35 years, Iraqis with a little help from their regional and international ‘friends’ have put Iraq on a steady trajectory towards state collapse and societal fragmentation. Four years after the completion of the American military withdrawal from Iraq, and four years after the beginning of the Syrian popular uprising, the United States finds itself in those two countries being eclipsed by an ascendant Iran acting as the custodian of two sectarian regimes in Baghdad and Damascus, and acquiescing – with the occasional protest- to its sectarian and regional designs. For all of their public claims that they are not cooperating militarily against the Islamic State (ISISI) the U.S. and Iran are surreptitiously fighting alongside the Shiite based regime in Iraq and the Alawite (an offshoot of Shiite Islam) based regime in Syria by leading an international air campaign against their Sunni enemies.

By focusing only on degrading (ISIS) the U.S. will end up shoring up the two Shiite sectarian regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. As long as the U.S. and its western and regional allies are not pursuing a comprehensive transitional strategy in Syria leading to the removal of the Assad regime, the very magnet that attracted (ISIS) in the first place and unless they push their Iraqi allies to seriously rein in the Shiite militias and genuinely include the Sunnis in the political life of Iraq, America’s venture in the Levant and Iraq will end tragically.

Saddam’s chauvinism, his primitive understanding of history and politics, his desire to settle old scores with Iran and his fear of its revolutionary zeal led him to embark on a stunning suicidal mission. The son of a brute rural environment would never entertain complex notions such as beware of invading a society when it is intoxicated with revolutionary fervor and in Iran’s case visions of Millenarianism. The European monarchies that tried to deter and reverse the French Revolution suffered the wrath of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. The Allied military intervention (in Which American forces participated) in the Russian Civil War in 1918 against the Revolutionary Bolsheviks backfired and the Red Army led by the Indefatigable Leon Trotsky emerged victorious. (Trotsky, the prolific writer and ruthlessly unorthodox warrior managed to find time between the bloody battles to write literary criticism and essays on modern art).

For 35 years, Iraqis with a little help from their regional and international ‘friends’ have put Iraq on a steady trajectory towards state collapse

Hisham Melhem

At the outbreak of the longest conventional war in the twentieth century, Iraq had amassed an estimated $35 billion in foreign exchange reserves. When the guns were retired in 1988 Iraq had accumulated an external debt of over $100 billion. Saddam, who felt entitled to the wealth of his Arab allies in the Gulf because he believed that he had defended the Eastern gates of the Arab world, could not resist the beckoning of the bank vaults of Kuwait. In this sense the invasion of Kuwait was the epilogue for the Iraq-Iran war. The invasion of Kuwait led to the 1991 war and the defeat of Iraq at the hands of a U.S. organized and led international coalition and the imposition of harsh economic sanctions. In 2003 President George W. Bush with a handful of advisors decided to complete the ‘unfinished’ job of his father in 1991, and ostensibly to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and bequeath it the gift of Jeffersonian democracy. Iraq has been in a free fall ever since.

The road to Persia

From the beginning of his tenure President Obama has doggedly pursued a historic bargain with the Islamic Republic of Iran that could conceivably be as consequential to both countries and to the region as Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China was for the two powers and to South East Asia. Administration officials believe that a nuclear deal with Iran would be the foreign policy equivalent to the Affordable Care Act (health care) Obama’s signature domestic achievement. Such an agreement it is thought would bring in Iran from the cold, and into the ‘family of nations’ and paves the way for a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations. In a recent interview President Obama hinted at that goal; “they have a path to break through that isolation and they should seize it,” the president intoned, because “if they do, there’s incredible talent and resources and sophistication . . . inside of Iran, and it would be a very successful regional power.” It was unfortunate indeed, that President Obama chose not to recognize the resourceful, talented and sophisticated Iranians, and they are a plenty during their peaceful and admirable uprising in 2009. Obama in fact abandoned the very Iranians, with whom he should partner and left them to the tender mercies of the Revolutionary guards after he created false equivalence between the man who stole the election and his legitimate opponent. All along Obama was the unabashed pursuer, and Ayatollah Khamenei was the aloof and at times elusive pursued. Obama’s extended hand was met during his first term by Khamenei’s clenched fist. The resumption of the nuclear talks with Iran, and the president’s eagerness for a deal, explain in part his actions, and more importantly his inactions in Iraq and Syria.

Iran’s Arab satraps

Qassem Soleimani is a very busy man. He is always on the move, he is constantly checking the frontline warriors, and the frontlines traverse Syria and Iraq. The once elusive commander of the Quds Force never seems to get tired of being filmed and photographed by his legions of Shiite and Kurdish admirers, who offer him tea and even green apples. His perennial sly smile, and his droopy but cunning eyes give him away as the tough and successful Iranian political viceroy-cum-military commander of the modern-day Shiite Internationale operating on behalf of Iran in the bad lands of the Arabs. In the last four years the Shiites of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon obliterated the political borders from Iran to the Mediterranean, long before (ISIS) did so theatrically to the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Soleimani has every reason to be happy with the ruthless efficiency of his Shiite Arab satraps such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, whose expeditionary force in Syria saved the Assad regime from collapsing, and the Badr organization in Iraq which is spearheading the current campaign against Tikrit (when they are not busy terrorizing the local Sunni population, that are suspected en mass of harboring sympathy towards (ISIS).

It is breathtaking indeed to think that twelve years after George W. Bush’s imperial venture to plant Jeffersonian democracy in the parched land of Mesopotamia, thus exacting a tremendous price from Iraqis and Americans, Iran has emerged as the uncontested main outside power in Iraq. Both the Bush and Obama administrations opted to live in denial for years, when the former premier Nouri al-Maliki was allowed for 8 years to pursue sectarian politics, hounding and intimidating his Sunni Arab and Kurdish critics. Instead of reining in these destructive policies, the Obama administration provided Maliki’s government with sophisticated weapon systems including F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopter gunships that he used against his Sunni political opponents.

Embracing old enemies

The current campaign to retake Tikrit, is being directed by Soleimani who coordinates with the heads of the Shiite militias and organizations since they constitute more than two third of the 30,000 fighters taking part in the battles. Many of these leaders have lived in Iran and they are known personally by Soleimani. These militias, whose members have American blood on their hands, are using American equipment. Some of their leaders like Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis who has been designated by the U.S. Treasury as a terrorist in 2009, a move that forced him to seek refuge in Iran until the Americans left Iraq, are directly responsible for killing Americans. The Iraqis did not inform the U.S. of the Tikrit campaign, which surprised American military commanders according to press reports. Hajj Qassem Soleimani would like to keep the Americans guessing.

President Obama’s actions in Iraq, like arming the sectarian Maliki, and his inaction in Syria like refusing to seriously arm and train the moderate opposition long before the rise of (ISIS) have facilitated the rise of (ISIS) and other radical Islamists like Jabhat al-Nusra and deepened the sectarian divide and made Iran the master of Iraq and Syria. The Obama Administration’s almost obsession with reaching a nuclear deal with Iran, and its eagerness not to provoke Iranian retaliation against American personnel in Iraq, explain in part Washington’s refusal to remove Assad from power. Americans and the rest of the world were horrified when a Jordanian pilot was immolated by (ISIS) and young Egyptian Copts were beheaded in Libya; and yet the Assad regime is responsible for killing more innocent civilians than (ISIS) could ever do, given that Assad has the industrial capacity to conduct such horrors. His primitive but lethal barrel bombs that his air force rains daily on the civilians of Aleppo, have immolated more Syrians than (ISIS) would like to claim.

These boots are not made for walking

President Obama’s absolute dogma against dispatching ground troops, known in Washington’s parlance as the perennial ‘boots on the ground’ to inflict serious damage on (ISIS) and not even entertaining conducting special operations to decimate their leadership casts serious doubt on his claim that the campaign is determined to achieving the goal of first degrading then ultimately destroying (ISIS). He has yet to mobilize the needed human and material resources to destroy (ISIS). This position, which deprives the U.S. of the much needed ground component to win the war, made the U.S. dependent on Iranian and Iraqi ground troops to do the job. American boots are not expected to be walking into the battlefield if President Obama could help it. In the current campaign to drive (ISIS) from Tikrit Iran has dispatched units of its Revolutionary Guards as well as military advisors, to coordinate the operations with Iraqi militias and military. And since the U.S. is not providing air cover, because the ‘reviled’ Soleimani is leading the charge, Iranian jets and drones have been deployed. In the last few days, U.S. officials went out of their way to assure congress and the public that America’s military is not coordinating its operations in Iraq with Iran.

Dangerous wishful thinking

However, when we look at the broad military campaign, we see that U.S. military commanders inform their Iraqi counterparts of their plans, expecting that the Iraqis will relay the information to the Iranians so that accidents and misunderstandings would be avoided. This situation led an astute observer to say that General Lloyd Austin, commander of the U.S. Central command is in charge of the air campaign against (ISIS), while General Qassem Soleimani is in charge of the land campaign. General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a congressional committee that the involvement of the Iranian- backed Shiite militias in the battle of Tikrit and its environs which is heavily inhabited by Sunnis, could be ‘a positive thing’ provided it did not stoke sectarian tension. Dempsey went on to say ‘this is the most overt conduct of Iranian support, in the form of artillery and other things’. And as if the General was engaging in wishful thinking Dempsey added ‘frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism’. The problem with this statement is that it flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence that these Shiite militias always play out their sectarian hatreds. The tragic reality of Iraq (and Syria) is that there is no hope that this long trail of blood and tears is likely to end any time soon.

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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