For Americans, it was like the news from nowhere. Years had passed since reporters bothered to head for the country we invaded and blew a hole through back in 2003, the country once known as Iraq that our occupation drove into a never-ending sectarian nightmare. In 2011, the last US combat troops slipped out of the country, their heads "held high", as President Barack Obama proclaimed at the time, and Iraq ceased to be news for Americans.
So the headlines of recent weeks - Iraq Army collapses! Iraq's second-largest city falls to insurgents! Terrorist Caliphate
established in Middle East! - couldn't have seemed more shockingly out of the blue. Suddenly, reporters flooded back in, the Bush-era neocons who had planned and supported the invasion and occupation were writing op-eds as if it were yesterday, and Iraq was again the story of the moment as the post-post-mortems began to appear and commentators began asking: How in the world could this be happening?
Iraqis, of course, lacked the luxury of ignoring what had been going on in their land since 2011. For them, whether Sunnis or Shiites, the recent unraveling of the army, the spread of a series of revolts across the Sunni parts of Iraq, the advance of an extremist insurgency on the country's capital, Baghdad, and the embattled nature of the autocratic government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were, if not predictable, at least expectable. And as the killings ratcheted up, caught in the middle were the vast majority of Iraqis, people who were neither fighters nor directly involved in the corrupt politics of their country, but found themselves, as always, caught in the vice grip of the violence again engulfing it.
An Iraqi friend I've known since 2003, living in a predominantly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, emailed me recently. He had made it through the sectarian bloodletting of 2006-2007 in which many of his Sunni compatriots were killed or driven from the capital, and this is the picture he painted of what life is now like for him, his wife, and their small children:
All the dangers faced by Iraqis from the occupation - arrests, torture, car bombs, and sectarian violence - those killings have become like a toy in comparison to what we are facing these days. Fighting has spread in all directions from the north, east, and west of Baghdad. Much of the fighting is between the government and Sunni insurgents who have suffered a lot from the injustice of Maliki's sectarian government.
As for his daily life, he described it this way:
As a result of this fighting, we can't sleep because of our fear of the uncertainty of the situation, and because of the random arrests of innocent Sunni people. Each day I awake and find myself in a very hard and bad situation and now am trying to think of any way I can to leave here and save my family. Most of my neighbors left back when it was easier to leave. Now, we have both the US and Iran helping the Iraqi government, and this will only make the fighting that is going on across Iraq much worse.
Life in Iraq has become impossible, and even more dangerous, and there is now no way to leave here. To the north, west, and east of Baghdad there is fighting, and with so many groups of Shiite militias in the south, it is not safe for us to go there because of the sectarianism that was never here before the invasion. The price for bus tickets has become very expensive and they are all booked up for months. So many Iraqi families and I are trapped in the middle now.
Every day, the Iraqi army is raiding homes and arresting many innocent people. So many dead bodies are to be found at the Baghdad morgue in the days following the mass arrests in Sunni areas.
He concluded his email on a stark note, reminiscent of the sorts of things I regularly heard when I was in Iraq covering the brutal results of the US occupation. "Horror, fear, arbitrary arrests, indiscriminate bombing, killing, an uncertain future - this is the new democratic Iraq."
And don't for a second think that this summer it's just Sunni communities who are living in fear. Claims of massacres and other atrocities being carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group spearheading the Sunni revolt across the northern and western parts of the country, abound along with well-documented accounts of their brutal tactics against Shiites.
In one incident, according to witnesses, ISIS forces kidnapped at least 40 Shiite Turkmen, blew up three Shiite mosques and another Shiite shrine, and raided homes and farms in two Shiite villages near the city of Mosul. And that's just to start down a long list of horrors. Meanwhile, the sectarianism shredding the social fabric is being stoked further by the posting of images online that show at least 10 ancient Shiite shrines and mosques destroyed by ISIS fighters.
The disintegration of Iraq
As for myself, I can't claim to be surprised by the events of recent weeks. Back in March 2013, on a visit to the embattled Sunni city of Fallujah (twice besieged and largely destroyed by US troops in the occupation years), I saw many signs of the genesis of what was to come. I was at one point on a stage there alongside half a dozen tribal and religious leaders from the area. Tens of thousands of enraged men, mostly young, filled the street below us, holding up signs expressing their anger toward US-backed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Having written about the myriad human-rights abuses and violations Maliki's regime was responsible for, I was intimately familiar with the way the bodies, dignity, and rights of much of the Sunni population in Fallujah's province, al-Anbar, had been abused. That same month, I had, for instance, interviewed a woman who used the alias Heba al-Shamary and had just been released from an Iraqi prison after four grim years.
"I was tortured and raped repeatedly by the Iraqi security forces," she told me. "I want to tell the world what I and other Iraqi women in prison have had to go through these last years. It has been a hell... I was raped over and over again. I was kicked and beaten and insulted and spat upon." Heba, like so many Sunnis the Maliki regime decided to detain, torture, and sometimes execute, had been charged with "terrorism".
That very month, Amnesty International released a report that highlighted what it called "a grim cycle of human rights abuses" in Iraq. When I was in Baghdad, it was common to hear Maliki referred to in many areas as "worse than Saddam [Hussein]".
In late 2012, the young among the politically disenfranchised Sunni population began to organize peaceful Arab Spring-style rallies against the government. These were met with brute force and more than a dozen demonstrators were killed by government security forces. Videos of this went viral on the Web stirring the already boiling tempers of youths desperate to take the fight for their rights to Baghdad.
"We demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah. We demand they allow in the press [to cover the situation]. We demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions. We demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons."
This was what Sheikh Khaled Hamoud Al-Jumaili, a leader of the demonstrations, told me just before I went on stage that day. As we spoke, he clutched a photograph of one of his nephews killed by Maliki's forces while demonstrating in the nearby city of Ramadi. "Losing our history and dividing Iraqis is wrong, but that and kidnapping and conspiracies and displacing people is what Maliki is doing."
As I wrote at the time, the sheikh went on to assure me that many people in Anbar Province had stopped demanding changes in the Maliki government because they had lost hope. After years of waiting, no such demands were ever met. "Now, we demand a change in the regime instead and a change in the constitution. We will not stop these demonstrations. This one we have labeled 'last chance Friday' because it is the government's last chance to listen to us."
"What comes next," I asked him, "if they don't listen to you?"
"Maybe armed struggle comes next," he replied without a pause.
Maliki's response to the Fallujah protests would, in fact, insure that the sheikh's prediction became the region's future.