Tuesday, April 24 , 2018, 11:08 pm | Overcast 54º


Letter to the Editor: Isis and You, Part I

Shock and Awe.

The world now seems so full of crises – economic, social, political, environmental, military – crises often linked by complicated, interwoven threads, that it's difficult for someone who wants to understand current affairs to feel he has a reasonable grasp even on some of it.

Certainly one of the most worrying is the rise of ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in the Middle-East: its brutality; its success in attracting 30-40 thousand fighters (or more); its varying achievements in controlling land in Iraq, Syria and Libya as well as support structures in Afghanistan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen; its worldwide terrorist activity, both by ISIS-directed adherents and by admiring lone operators.

The study I've been able to do has convinced me that, though many complicated economic, social and political circumstances have combined to bring about ISIS' attempt to create a pan-Sunni “caliphate,” by far the most significant was the United States invasion of Iraq which, as Middle-East historian Fawaz Gerges has said, “Opened the gates of hell” in the region.

Islam, the Muslim faith, has many branches, as does Christianity, Judaism and other religions; these branches have a variety of sects, each of which embraces its own approach to tolerance, to the use of force, to the “correct” means of practicing and spreading the faith and in attitudes towards non-believers.

Sunni and Shia are the two major Islamic religious faiths. About 90% of Middle-Eastern Muslims are Sunni; about 10% Shia.

In 2003, Iraq was governed by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. His entire government apparatus was Sunni. The Shia, though a majority of the population in that country, were “low-lifes,” cut out from any significant political or social influence. Hussein's regime was tyrannical, harsh and repressive, but if Shias kept their mouths shut politically they could, and did, despite tensions live in relative peace with Sunni neighbors.

When the United States invaded Iraq, overthrowing, and eventually killing, Hussein, the regime-change conquerors, in their infinite wisdom, dismissed all “Baathist” Sunnis – government officials, military, police - from their positions. After all, they were the equivalent of Nazis, weren't they? So tens of thousands of Sunni Iraqis – including doctors, professors and teachers - were stripped of their jobs, their income, their ability to support their families. One can hardly be surprised, then, that these Sunnis' attitude toward the United States and toward Americans, whatever it had been, now moved toward hatred and, in fact, many of these “Baathists” - Sunni administrators, military and police - later joined ISIS, providing it with semi-governmental capability and military expertise on the battlefield.

The US had, then, ripped from the Iraqi state most of its experienced administrators and “peacekeepers.” It tore apart the country's administrative fabric before creating an effective, reasonable and temperate alternative.

Showing further sagacity, the US installed Nuri al-Malaki as Iraq's Prime Minister. Over time, Malaki, a Shia, and his government - like Zionist Jews when their oppression was replaced with power - wielded a vengeful whip over the now powerless – and minority - Sunni, stripping them of any effective participation in their government or economic power.

The United States, that had installed Malaki, was somewhat successful during that Prime Minister's initial administration in having a modifying influence on his despotism, but following Malaki's reelection in 2010 the administration of Barack Obama in effect stood by and watched the Prime Minister's increasingly oppressive, corrupt practices while still voicing support for him.

Malaki named himself defense minister, interior minister; created special armed forces reporting only to him; installed corrupt cronies in key government positions; acted to deprive the state's parliament from passing, or even considering, legislation; prevented it from summoning his ministers so they could be held accountable for their behavior; named himself Chief of Intelligence; forced the head of the Integrity Commission to resign; subjected political opponents to arrest warrants and helped install violent, brutal Shia militias which were often funded, at least in part, by Iran. (These were at first intended to combat Muqtada al-Sadr's independent anti-government Shia militias, but Malaki assumed personal control, reminding many of another country's 1930's “SS”.)

As late as 2012, the president of Iraq's self-governing Kurdish area of Iraq reported to the US that that country was under “one-man rule.” *

In this atmosphere, Iraqis were torn by opposition to and/or hatred for their government, the United States and each other. Sunni and Shia populations, who in Iraq had lived in relative tolerance, increasingly believed that the other intended to wipe them off the face of the earth and that the only recourse for survival was to eliminate the other.

This “sectarianism,” fueled by the United States, fed and inflamed by Nuri Malaki, is without question one of the most significant factors - perhaps the key – that provided fertile soil in the Middle-East for the rise of Salafi jihadism in the personae of Al Qaeda and its successor, ISIS.

In 2010, Vice President Biden's attempt to seek moderation from Malaki was ignored; the re-elected Iraqi PM further flaunted his power by refusing to grant legal immunity for US troops' behavior. So Obama said, “Good-bye, we're leaving.”

In the Middle-East, the “Arab-Spring” protests that had produced leadership change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen - in hope for more democratic processes and more economic security for citizens - led to none of the above. Arab states were not providing jobs for their citizens; not providing security from organizational and sectarian attack; not restoring electrical, water and communications systems destroyed by the US coalition; not providing critical health care for the diseases caused by those demolished infrastructures; not providing transparent government or enhanced opportunity to participate in political, social, economic decisions that determined their lives.

In Syria, the oppressed, led by rural people making $1.25/day, after peaceful demonstrations were met with gunfire, launched a civil war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Al Qaeda, that had survived the American onslaught as well as various ups and downs in its regional influence, was joined in Iraq by a pathological killer whose jihadist outlook had been transformed in al-Suwaqah prison where he had been released minus his toenails. This was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Al Qaeda's purpose in life has always been to attack and defeat the “far enemy”: the United States and its allies who had, in their view, brutally controlled and dismantled the governments and lives of Arabs. It thought an Islamic caliphate should be established, but only gradually, after emasculating the power of its international enemies. Otherwise, it believed, such an attempt would be strangled at birth.

On the other hand, the focus of Zarqawi's group, which had become numerous and regionally influential, was to destroy the “near enemy”: Shia or any person or group who would not subscribe to an Islamic State governed by that religion's Salafist, or most severe, principles. They sought and fought,In other words, for a caliphate now.

At the instigation of many tribal leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Queda's leaders, accepted Zarqawi's installation as a distinct sub-group - “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” Al Queda's prestige at the time had been much weakened; it entered this awkward arrangement hoping to reap advantage from Zarqawi's growing power and influence. Though his focus on the “near enemy” and his brutality toward both Shi'ites and non-believing Sunnis alarmed them as being counter-productive, and though via Zawahiri they said so to him, they actually asked him for a $100,000 loan, revealing who at that moment had the “juice.”

Zarqawi's ruthless, widely-publicized suicide bomber attacks, and his poor-boy Jordanian origins - as opposed to the more socially, educationally elite Al Qaeda leaders - actually enhanced his regional appeal and resulted in an enormous spread of his influence. At the start of the US invasion in Iraq, he had perhaps 50 followers; months later, one source reports, he had 5,000 fighters and 20,000 supporters.

This fiery jihadist did not intend to end as anyone's soldier, did not intend to remain merely a commander. He intended to supplant Al Qaeda, to become himself the world's supreme Salafi-jihadist leader. Though he did not survive – in June 2006 he was killed by Americans - Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's followers, as we shall see, achieved his goal.

Zarqawi's death propelled a series of complex events. A council of Iraqi tribal leaders announced the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) without permission from, or notice to, Al Queda, whose leaders, to their later regret, pretended they were in on the deal. The new jihadist group named as its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi who was himself killed in 2010 by US coalition forces.

At that point ISI seemed on the verge of disintegration: a number of tribal groups had become repelled by its brutality, especially to fellow Sunnis, and opposed it; coalition forces had diminished its military capability; fighters from Syria were no longer joining in appreciable numbers.

But just at the point of near extinction, one man arose who - against all odds and defying any logic - transformed this struggling, straggling group of insurgents into a cohesive, effective, terrifying weapon.

William Smithers
Santa Barbara

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