The crisis in Iraq is an uprising, not a sectarian war – expert

16 June 2014  — Voice of Russia

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Iraq is plunged into a new war – the third one since the US invasion of 2003. Why has the war broken out this time, and what could be its impact on the region? Voice of Russia is discussing these issues with Dr. Meena Singh Roy is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, and Sabah Al-Mukhtar, Iraqi lawyer, President Arab Lawyers Association in UK. 

This time the shia-led government of Nouri al Maliki has been challenged by a Sunni uprising, also involving militants from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – a jihadist group affiliated to Al-Qaeda. 

The US, which had helped al Maliki to power in 2006 and then pulled out of the country in 2011, this time is trying to keep away from the turmoil. “The United States is not simply going to involve itself in a military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they are prepared to work together,” Obama said, triggering off heavy criticism from his domestic opponents. Later on the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf and 300 military were sent to Iraq for the US Embassy protection.

Different analysts point to different causes of the new security crisis. Most of them put the blame on the Prime minister. Even his old allies in the US are now pointing their fingers at al Maliki. Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, has been quoted by the Middle East Online as saying that Maliki “has spent the last few years… both corrupting the Iraqi security forces and putting people in (its) command chain (who) are loyal to him,” Cordesman said.And “he has used it systematically to repress the legitimate Sunni opposition.” Others maintain that Iraq is a battleground of the Saudi – Iranian enmity….

Dr. Meena Singh Roy is Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi:

“I think this particular crisis needs to be viewed in the context of what is happening in and around Iraq. And here I’m referring to Syria. As you well noticed, a group ISIS, which was founded in April 2013 led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, it was part of Iraqi Al Qaeda. And now it was just a ripe situation, because they know that the country is weak, it is divided. There is a Sunni-Shia divide, which they exploited. And after the withdrawal of the US forces from there, the things just went out of control. And the crisis in Syria has obviously given this opportunity to the group to try and achieve their goals.

Tell me, when we are talking about jihadi groups, the general understanding is that they are not exactly independent in their strategy. I mean, they are used as instruments. Do you identify any larger force behind this particular group?

It is really difficult, but we do know that there is a regional dimension to the war which is happening in Syria, where these extremist Islamist forces are backed by certain Sunni countries, who are divided to fight the Assad regime in Syria. So, there is a regional dimension to the whole game which is unfolding there. And this is an offshoot of that.

Do I get you right that those experts who are saying that Iraq’s situation is in fact just a reflection of the Saudi-Iranian standoff…

It is! It is the sectarian conflict that you see. It is actually about Shia and Sunni, which normally the people from the region have always tried to put this issue on the side and say – no, ultimately, everybody is Muslim and it is about Islam. But I think these sectarian divides are becoming so visible in west Asia, that I don’t think anybody can ignore it today. It is a divide that is about the leadership of the Islamic world, of course. But the situation is much more complex and nuanced, than generally understood”…

Sabah Al-Mukhtar, Iraqi lawyer, President Arab Lawyers Association in UK, believes the new crisis has nothing to do with sectarianism.

“I think one has to start by the idea of the occupation of Iraq, the occupation caused the division in the country of Iraq from the 1920’es, when it was part of the British empire until 2003. It’s never worked on the sectarian basis or division on ethnicities. In 2003 they brought into Iraq these divisions in the policy which is used by everybody, which is divide and rule. So, the society was split into various secular factions. You had the Kurds and the Arabs, and you had the Christians and Muslims, and you had the Shiites and the Sunni.

This idea has been propagated and it is continued now by the policy of Maliki. Maliki is a government which was appointed by Khalilzad, who was representing the UN. And at that time this man has run the country for the last six years on the basis of sectarianism. He has excluded a very large chunk of the population. I’m not going to get into this situation on who is the minority and who is the majority, but when you exclude a major part of the society, you are bound to have a reaction.

Those people in the west and in the north for the last year they were peacefully demonstrating trying to get some equality, some treatment, some rights and what did Maliki do? He had the massacre in Hawija, in Fallujah and in Mosul. So, at the end of the day they have taken up arms. And now, at the present moment the fighters, and this is where the media is going wrong on that one, because it is accusing them of being Qaeda and being ISIL.

In fact, what is happening – this is an uprising of the people of Mosul and Tikrit, and Fallujah, and Ramadi who are being led by senior army officers of the previous army. They have nothing to do with this illness of sectarianism or whatever. As a matter of fact, the first thing they have done is to protect the minorities in Mosul, the churches, they protected the government offices and buildings.

But unfortunately, the media is still describing it as an ISIL. Certainly, when you have a situation like that, you have some terrorist organizations, you have some criminals around, but that is not what the situation is. And this has caused the total and absolute collapse of something like 80 000 soldiers on whom the Americans have spent tens of billions of dollars to train, and they wouldn’t even fire a shot. They’ve left behind them the airplanes, tanks, cannons, weapons, artillery.

So, it is not a sectarian war. This is effectively an uprising of the people of the north and the west. And now Baghdad is being effectively under siege from the west, from the east, from the north and to a lesser degree from the south.

If you remember, when there were debates before 2003, when the Americans were planning the operation in Iraq, in fact, this outcome was forecasted as early as then. So, does that imply that this is a real strategy of Americans in Iraq? Have they been counting on a country which would be torn apart by something like a civil war?

I don’t think they would want to do that. However, it is a convenient way. It is not a strategy, it is a tactics. They have used it in order to achieve their objectives. And if you listened to what our ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair said yesterday, he seems to think that it is not caused by the occupation, but he is accusing the Western governments for not taking action in Syria and he is saying that what is happening in Iraq is due to that. And he said that the occupation of 2003 did not cause that.

And I disagree with that one. I think it is more certainly that this is not just talk, but it is the policy, it is the documents, it is the implementation, it is the action. This is the absolute cause of the occupation. I don’t actually think that the Americans, regardless of what anybody thinks of them, want to do that, but if it serves their purposes, they don’t mind it.

So, I think this is the result of what they have done. I think the Western powers are ought to know that (and I think they did know that). They have sent people into the area which they know little of, especially the Americans. The Americans don’t even know the USA, let alone the other countries with other cultures and other religions, and attitudes. But this is the result of the use of force and occupation of nations and countries.

But what would be their goal? You said that they would be okaying it, if it meets their goals? What would be their goals in Iraq?

I think the goals of the Americans and the Western powers, we all know it, it was the control of the oil. The second thing is the protection of the interests of Israel. Three is to stop this so-called movement of the Arab countries. And there are some other additional ideas which they had. They wanted to use the Iraqis against the Iranians, because they had this problem with them before that, in terms of hostages. So, these are the various objectives I think, that were behind it.

Do they coincide with their objectives in Syria?

With Syria they have a different objective. With Syria they wanted to get rid of the regime, they wanted to neutralize the country, as far as Israel is concerned, because the most important element in the foreign policy of the USA in the ME revolves around Israel, whether their position vis-à-vis the Arabs or the Iranians, or the Turks, the Israeli file is the most important file for the Americans when it comes to the politics in the ME.

So, I think what they have done in Syria, they wanted to affect, because the Syrian regime, dictatorship, as it is, it’s being one of the few countries neighbouring Israel that has remained on its position against Israel, regardless of whether they’ve done anything it or not, but they were against it. If you compare their position with Jordan and Egypt – the neighbouring countries – you find that Syria’s position against Israel was the prominent one. And that is what I think is behind the policy of the US, aside from getting rid of Bashar al-Assad or the regime in Syria. And certainly, the regime is not all that popular, at least in the West.

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