Page 1 of 2 Embers of Syria reignite a vulnerable Iraq
By Derek Henry Flood
A decade on from the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, Iraqis, many of them civilians from the majority Shi'ite sect - though Sunnis are being killed as well - are perishing in droves. Scores of people are reported killed in violence spanning much of the width and breadth of the country barring the comparatively secured Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan-controlled Kurdistan Regional Government semi-autonomous enclave in the north. Agence France-Presse is reporting that 2,600 people have been reported killed in renewed sectarian warfare since early April while the Associated Press says some 2,800 have lost their lives in that time.
When the words Iraq and "surge" are coupled together in
reportage in 2013, it is more associated with the surge in religio-political violence than the surge of US troops in 2007 that was meant to overwhelm the insurgency with sheer numbers. Iraq has become neither an efficient federal political space nor become coherently recentralized since the overthrow and execution of its bellicose president, Saddam Hussein.
Instead it has only become increasingly fissiparous as the two principal Islamic denominations of Sunni and Shi'ite have retreated further while the deep principal ethnic division among Arabs and Kurds appears unlikely to ever be healed.
As the spotlight on Syria has gradually intensified since the start of the uprising there on March 15, 2011, media attention on Iraq has faded. CNN, the last of the American television news channels to maintain a bureau in Iraq, closed its Baghdad bureau this spring. A source told Asia Times Online that as Iraq became a less central story in the American media landscape, keeping the office there was no longer considered a worthwhile asset to network decision makers. Talk in Washington of arming the discordant Free Syrian Army while somehow keeping arms away from Salafi-jihadi groups has gone from fanciful Beltway gossip replete with 1980s Afghanistan or Nicaragua analogies to a very real policy debate.
Despite desperate attempts by US politicos to pass off Iraq as even the most modest success story, the country is still in flames well after US troops exited the country in mid-December 2011. Major news outlets ran misleading headlines like "Iraq war ends" when describing the final MRAP convoy driving over the Kuwaiti frontier at the time. Rather than simplistically ending, the war in Iraq merely entered a new phase. For US troops left just as the Syrian civil conflict was rapidly escalating from uprising to full-scale war.
Officialdom from successive US administrations have been relentlessly inept at gaming various Middle Eastern domino theories with theoretical pendulums swinging from the ignorant to the outright absurd. In his seminal 2005 work The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq, author George Packer describes the "curious subtext" of neoconservative American Jews' concepts of toppling Saddam and freeing the oppressed Iraqi Shi'ite masses, a numerical majority in Iraq but a minority in the wider Middle East remotely akin to the Jews, in order to redirect "the Arab world toward America and Israel".
The Shi'ite seminaries of Najaf in southern Iraq, known collectively as the Hawza, have existed in a much different societal context than their closest equivalent in the Iranian city of Qom southwest of Tehran. Arab Iraq was a complex patchwork where adherents on either side of Islam's great schism had to live side by side or in adjacent communities. Najaf is greatly venerated by mainstream Shi'ite as the final resting place of Ali ibn Abi Talib, known commonly as Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammed who ranks in Shi'ism as first of the twelve imams and is the fourth and final of the Rashidun - the four original "rightly guided" caliphs - to the Sunni.
In contrast to Qom at the heart of Iran's unchallenged Persian Shi'ite core, the Shi'ite clerical hierarchy in Najaf and environs had no choice but to exist in land ruled by authoritarians of mostly Sunni backgrounds. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in trying to get out from under Shah Reza Pahlavi and his notorious SAVAK intelligence service, lived in exile in Najaf from 1965-1978. Khomeini's presence in Iraq also served as a useful irritant between the Ba'athists in Baghdad and the pro-Western monarchists in Tehran. For while Iraqi ayatollahs in Najaf had to contend with secular Sunni militarists, that did not mean that radical thought did not emanate from Iraq's Shi'ite heartland among Iranian, Lebanese and other Shi'ite intellectual theologians.
It was during his tenure in Najaf that Khomeini penned his controversial hallmark Shi'ite legal theory, vilayat-i-faqih, the rule of the jurist, which would evolve to become the emblematic doctrine of Iran's Shi'ite Islamic revolution in 1979. As the French Arabist Laurence Louer explains in her book Transnational Shi'ite Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf, Ba'athist authorities kept a watchful eye on Shi'ite religious students and teachers in 1970s Iraq, both Iraqi and foreign. As Khomeini's political activism in Najaf drowned out the quietism of the Iraqi Shi'ite who mostly publicly abstained from outright political opposition to Ba'athist rule for fear of retribution, Khoemeini and other prominent foreign Shi'ite had lost their utility in the eyes of Iraq's mukhabarat, leading many to be subsequently jailed or expelled from Najaf.
A chain of events that began in Najaf ultimately lead to the overthrow of the Shah. The rise of such a radical Shi'ite government in Tehran allowed for a much more outspoken seminary scene in Qom which further polarized either side of the Sunni-Shi'ite chasm in the long term. The ardent political activism being promoted in amongst the clerics of Qom, sometimes referred to as Khomeinism, created a schism with the modern Shi'ite world.
The Hawza in Najaf helmed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani came into conflict with the legacy of Khomeini's vilayat-e-faqih teachings which advocated direct clerical rule in politics which Sistani eschewed. Sistani considers himself a big-think intellectual who refuses to involve himself in what he considers petty rabble rousing affairs.
As one of his last acts in office, outgoing Iranian president and quintessential Khomeninist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a state visit to Iraq. He started off by meeting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki but quickly moved south where he was photographed touching the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf and then moving on to the shrine of Imam Hussein in Karbala. With only days left in power, the Iranian president - at risk to his own physical safety in light of Iraq's ongoing killings - made a visible statement about Iranian state's influence among Iraq's Shi'ite.
As the Iraqi Shi'ite have become empowered by the awkward, immensely costly democratization project in Iraq, Iraq has become a close Iranian ally whose prime minister courts the Kremlin for arms deals and whose oil ministry makes its first post-2003 foreign petroleum company dealings with the China National Petroleum Corporation. In other words, 10 years on from the invasion, Iraq has become the polar opposite of what the war's neoconservative architects naively envisioned in 2002. This naivety cost the United States the lives of nearly 4,500 soldiers not to mention billions of dollars.
As inter-communal killings in Iraq have risen sharply since the start of Ramadan overlap with the sectarian prism through which foreign fighters interpret the Syrian civil war, the divide between Najaf and Qom as well as that within Najaf between those pledged to Sistani versus the Iranian-funded pro-Qom faction has become an ever more critical issue to be examined.
In essence, there is a vigorous disagreement between high Shi'ite theologians on cohabitation or confrontation. The ripple effects of this struggle are felt across the region with Hezbollah directly entering Syria and Iraqi Shi'ite volunteers heading to Damascus to defend Shi'ite holy sites. Iraqi militants both Sunni and Shi'ite, are involving themselves deeper into Syria's internal battle as their Lebanese sectarian counterparts had already been doing for some time.
When ATol entered Syria barely six weeks after the overwhelming majority of American boots on ground had headed to safety, the Syrian conflict appeared to be an anti-regime insurgency with not so subtle sectarian undertones - the overwhelming majority of anti-government fighters hailed from Syria's Sunni populace.
The fighters in Idlib Governorate interviewed by ATol were practicing Sunnis but labeled themselves as members of the Free Syrian Army. The FSA men saw themselves as part of a loosely organized national liberation movement with a logistically local agenda. When asked if they were in touch with Islamist fighters in far away Deir ez-Zor close to Iraq's al-Anbar, the FSA commander quipped, "Honestly, we have no idea what is going on in Deir ez-Zor. It is too far away. We have no contact with them [Deir ez-Zor rebels]."
This anecdote illustrates natural factionalism of a movement armed with a common aim - toppling the Assad regime - but desperately lacking a centralized command structure or an overriding ideology helped lead to the rise of the more cohesive Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria and their resuscitation in nearby Iraq. Rather than starting a grassroots war from scratch, religious oriented insurgent movements can take advantage of pre-existing networks stemming from years of warfare in Lebanon and Iraq.
In the 18-month interim since that reporting trip, Syria has become what Iraq was at the height of its multi-pronged Sunni insurgency. Salafi-jihadi militants formed Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in an attempt to morph the Arab Spring's most enduing conflict into an all or nothing religious war.
The rise of the Salafis in Syria's war theater breathed new life into al-Qaeda's Iraq affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The ISI then tweaked its moniker in April after it incorporated a portion of Jabhat al-Nusra to become the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS). The very term ISIS conflates the respective conflicts in Iraq and Syria as two sectors of a single revivalist Sunni struggle to forge an Islamic state from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean coast.