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On August 1, 1990, I was an 18-year-old college student living at my parents’ home, enjoying my last few days of summer vacation. I stayed up late, puttering around my room, preparing for my upcoming return to campus for my sophomore year. My small, flickering black-and-white television kept me company with its background noise of boring shows. Sometime around midnight, a Special News Report bulletin interrupted ABC’s regularly scheduled programming. Ted Koppel broke the news to me: the Iraqi Army had occupied Kuwait.
In the subsequent weeks and months, frenzy emerged out of this news. Without receiving any information on the events that led up to Iraq’s military action, the American people had no means to put this startling development in context. Then-President George H.W. Bush warned us that Saddam Hussein was the Adolf Hitler of our generation. The “Butcher of Baghdad,” we were told, was just getting started with a take-over of Kuwait and preparing to move into Saudi Arabia (enter fake satellite imagery showing troops massing at the border). The mainstream media effectively convinced the American people that if we didn’t stop Saddam Hussein immediately, he would sweep through the Middle East the way the Nazis swept through Europe. The 1991 Gulf War on Iraq was launched, destroying the nation’s infrastructure, targeting civilian lives, and bringing unmitigated suffering to Iraqis.
Now, as then, Western media tells us that crazed barbarians will sweep through Iraq and the Middle East. Now, as then, US military action (direct or indirect) will cause unwarranted suffering, death, and destruction for Iraqis. Now, as then, if we understand what led to the “sudden” taking of Iraqi cities, we can see the path ahead.
* * *
Sectarianism was brought to Iraq by the US- and UK-led occupiers of 2003. Islamic World Studies professor Laith Al-Saud—a native of Baghdad—has described how the destruction of Iraq in 2003 left a societal vacuum which the US filled with ex-patriots and sectarianism:
“With the dismemberment of Iraq’s bureaucratic, economic and security infrastructures, the practical experience of Iraqi civil society has been rendered inaccessible and by extensions is brusquely being removed from civil consciousness. With the infrastructures of Iraq absent, what once held up a sense of civic society is now being replaced with of [sic] a sectarian nature. The average Iraqi is no sectarian [emphasis added]. What we have rather is the importation of sectarianism along with ex-patriots, many of whom had not been in the country for thirty years. Politicians such as Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, Ibrahim al-Jafaari or even the secularist Ahmed Chalabi had little to do with Iraq when they came in with the Americans [;] without possession of any practical representative power they all took recourse in the realm of abstract sectarianism.”
With Coalition Provisional Authority Order 27, issued on April 10, 2003 (the day after the fall of Baghdad), the occupiers decreed the establishment of the Facilities Protection Services (FPS). Armed forces of the FPS may “…consist of employees of private security firms who are engaged to perform services for the ministries or governorates through contracts, provided such private security firms and employees are licensed and authorized by the Ministry of Interior.” In 2005, FPS and Iraqi police forces were developed under the authority of Interior Minister Bayan Jabr.
Bayan Jabr is a member of the conservative Shia Party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and was a commander of its militia, the Badr Brigades. Under his watch, Shia death squads began operating in Iraq as FPS and Iraqi police. But Jabr wasn’t alone in the organization of these sectarian militias; US administrators employed the Salvador Option in Iraq.
In El Salvador in the 1980s, the American CIA used terror campaigns to intimidate the populace to submit to the US agenda in the region. So-called “nationalist” paramilitary forces were funded and armed by the CIA to assassinate rebel leaders and their supporters. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians were killed and “disappeared” during the operation of these death squads, including members of the Catholic Church, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and three American nuns and a church worker in December 1980 (Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel). Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Negroponte, and US Army Colonel James Steele helped coordinate these paramilitary groups in Latin America. After the 2003 Shock and Awe invasion, they brought their “death squad democracy” to Iraq.
The violence in Iraq during the height of so-called “sectarian strife” from 2006 on was comparable to the violence associated with the US military assistance program to El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 80s. In Iraq, the paramilitary death squads have included Police Special Commando Units, trained by US forces. One of the most feared of these units was the Wolf Brigade. Documents released by Wikileaks in 2010 confirmed that US forces were part of their operation.
Many Iraqis believed the sectarian death squads were created in order to divide Iraq along sectarian lines—a foreign concept for the population which has been religiously and ethnically mixed for hundreds of years. Sectarian strife was introduced by the occupiers as a means of dividing-and-conquering a population that rejected its agenda. This same sectarianism has been sustained by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki of the conservative Shia Dawah Party, who came to power in 2006 under the US-led occupation.
The Iraqi resistance brought an end to the formal military occupation of their country; the resistance is NOW seeking to rid itself of the occupation-installed government and its bloody sectarianism. It is this resistance that is taking control of northern Iraqi cities. Witnesses on the ground in Iraq say that multiple groups with significant political differences have set those divisions aside to unite against the sectarian government of Nouri Al-Maliki. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is one of those groups, but they are playing a smaller role. Mosul and Tal Afar are in the hands of the General Military Council of the Iraqi Revolutionaries, liberated from Maliki’s brutal sectarian rule. Only a strong, coordinated military organization—not 1000 or even several thousand undisciplined extremists—could take and hold a city the size of Mosul (1.4 million) and continue to advance.
Understanding the horrors that we have continued to bring to Iraqis since 1991 helps us see that what is happening in Iraq is a legitimate rebellion against a brutal dictator (a theocratic one instead of a secular one). US President Barack Obama is sending more troops to Iraq  to defend the sectarian government from the Iraqi people. Instead of sending more forces in, Mr. President, fly as many planes as you need to Baghdad, load up every last American and the bloody US-installed government, and leave. If you can find it, pick up your dignity  on your way out.
Dahlia S. Wasfi is an Iraqi-American physician and peace activist.