Well it might be that successes are being registered against the menace that is ISIS, but today’s militia victor is the next agent of revenge and instability. Sectarianism remains a self-sustaining cycle. At Amerli in August 2014, Sunni Iraqis saw the lifting of the ISIS siege that had lasted a gruelling three months.
The vacuum of power left by the departure of ISIS forces was significant. Those moving in to man the new reins of power were not the Iraqi or Kurdish regular forces but their uncomfortably co-opted allies, the Shia militias who have proven their mettle in battle. In a Human Rights Watch report aptly titled After Liberation Came Destruction (Mar 18), optimism gives way to bloody reprisals. There was looting by government militias and volunteer fighters of Sunni villages and neighbourhoods around the Amerli area. Homes and businesses were torched. Abductions were facilitated.
“Through satellite imagery analysis Human Rights Watch confirmed building destruction in 30 out of 35 villages examined in a 500 kilometre square area around Amerli.” While HRW admitted not being able to “determine the level of organization at which the documented attacks took place,” a range of motivations were noted: standard revenge attacks on civilians accused of colluding with ISIS forces; collective, sect-directed punishments against Sunnis and an assortment of other minorities.
We see another repeat of the messy outcome of Amerli in what is now being termed the “liberation of Tikrit”. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abbadi claimed that his forces had retaken neighbourhoods on the western and southern edges of the city, readying to control the rest of the city. Such suggestions seem premature – as are most proclamations of victory in the current Iraqi conflict.
Notwithstanding that, the drive to push ISIS out is being pictured as a clear story of salvation. That necessarily implies that their cruelties will be highlighted with round the clock perseverance. It was Tikrit which bore witness to the reported killing of Shiite air force cadets at the hands of ISIS recruits last year. There are also reports of mass graves and the destruction of monuments. The vengeful ghost of Amerli lingers, and the combatants know it.
The role of US forces in the fight for Tikrit has also been noted, with Abbadi requesting US-led air strikes last Thursday. But Washington is handling its role in the retaking of Tikrit with some difficulty – it doesn’t want to be seen to be aiding Tehran’s cause either. Invariably, both wish for the defeat of the same foe, but both are also aiding each other’s efforts through the quirkiness of providence. (The US logistical role in Yemen, by way of contrast, is directed against Shia Houthis.)
The insistence by US forces on conventional Iraqi command and control in such operations is a moot point – the real muscularity in the fight remains with the highly motivated Shia units. Qassem Suleimani, chief of Iran’s al-Quds wing of the Revolutionary Guard, remains the coordinating hand behind the Shia mission in Iraq. The proliferation of coordinated Shia militias, be they in Iraq proper, or in Syria, is proving to be no accident, with vigorous watering taking place from Tehran’s accounts.
The fallen star of the US security establishment, Gen. David Petraeus, told the Washington Post last month of his looming fears regarding the instability arising from repelling, and ultimately expelling ISIS. The Islamic State was a violent aberration; the Shiite militias, in contrast, were part of a broader geopolitical power play, a potential open door to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs.
Admitting that such militia members did effectively restrain the onslaught of ISIS after a declared “fatwa by Shia leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani,” he also conceded that their effect was very much like that of an ethnic juggernaut, merciless expelling those before them. Sunni fighters, and civilians, have been caught in the whirlwind. “Thus, they have, to a degree, been both part of Iraq’s salvation but also the most serious threat to the all-important effort of once again getting the Sunni Arab population in Iraq to feel that it has a stake in the success of Iraq rather than a stake in its failure.”
Such fabric, once torn, is nigh impossible to fix. The Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq was papered over by a brutal regime that had, previously, the darkest blessings of Western powers. Iran was the satanic enemy of choice, and the rhetoric still pivots on that language: the fear of the Persians with their regional, nuclear-toting aspirations.
Then came the hysterical moralising, the zealotry of regime change by a Washington-led carnival of neoconservatives. As King Abdullah II of Jordan warned over a decade ago, the removal of Saddam Hussein would precipitate an Iranian-directed “Shia crescent” stretching from Lebanon to Saudi Arabia. The rupture remains, and all sides have a stake in that failure. All that matters is simply minimising such failings in a vicious sectarian calculus. The rest is academic.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com