A Fledgling Land: The Perpetual Conflicts in Arab Iraq

Guest Post by Trevor Ford.

Last month, the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS/ISIL took the Iraqi city of Ramadi. Further compounding this stunning seizure was the extremist group’s capture of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria, thus gaining control of over half of Syria. As its biggest victory in almost a year, it illustrates that despite western intervention the group is not going away quietly. ISIL was propelled into the news last summer when on the morning of June 11th, the world was stunned to hear that Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, had fallen to the extremist group in a lightning advance. Since then they have continued to push south and spread their control across the region. Yet what does all of this mean? Factionalism and sectarian rifts are nothing new in the ancient lands that hold tribalism and religion over all other political wants. Iraq, however, was not always Iraq, and the Sunni-Shia rift is not a product of the twentieth century. To understand the issues of ISIL and Iraq today, we must understand the history of this divided region of the world.

Little was known about ISIL when Mosul fell in June 2014, and news agencies around the world scrambled to make sense of the information that was coming in regarding the group. Making the situation even worse was that ISIL had not stopped at Mosul. In a terrifyingly quick succession, the group captured and held Baiji, one of the largest oil refining towns in Iraq, and Tikrit, the home of Saddam Hussein. According to political briefs, a mere 1500 ISIL members had taken Mosul from the Iraqi army, which at the time had numbered fifteen times that. Furthermore, it seemed that many of the Sunni tribes in the area had sworn their allegiance to ISIL. The Iraqi government under the leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim, declared a counter-offensive against ISIL stating that the Iraqi army would turn the tide. Yet they did not, and by the 19th of June 2014, ISIL forces had captured the Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons Facility, a mere 45 miles from Baghdad.

Military situation as of 28 May 2015, in the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts, via Wikipedia.

Map of Sunni and Shia populations, via Vox.

The rapid rise of ISIL should have been foreseen by many. The group, after all, had been steadily gaining ground in neighboring Syria and questions had been arising about the rapid advance of ISIL during its June offensive into Iraq. How could such a group with limited members and which was effectively fighting on two vast fronts achieve such a stunning victory? What many in the media and in the senior levels of the American government had overlooked was that ISIL took advantage of the sectarian divide long festering in Iraq. The signs had all been there. Iraq, under Maliki’s leadership, had effectively stripped away the citizenship of the Sunni minority, which made up approximately 35% of Iraq’s total population. For much of Iraq’s modern history Sunnis had controlled the politics of the nation, especially under Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni. Their status as a minority and, since the American invasion, not in a position of political power is an anomaly in the Arab world. Of all the Arab nations in the Middle East, only Iraq and Bahrain have Sunni-minority populations, but Bahrain’s ruling elites are still all Sunnis.

Present day Iraq came into being in 1921, however prior to this, “Arab Iraq” was understood to include the lands between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers from Tikrit in the North to the crisp waters of the Persian Gulf in the south. Until the 6th century AD, this land contained an extremely heterogeneous population. Arab tribes dominated the western fringes of the Euphrates, while Kurdish peoples inhabited the northern approaches. Throughout this geographical area there were Jewish communities, Persians, Greeks, Indians, Africans, and even a smattering of groups who continued to speak a Babylonian dialect that could be traced back for millennia. Most of these groups, with the exception of the Jews, had converted to Nestorian Christianity, yet this changed dramatically in 633 AD when on the western banks of the Euphrates an Arab Muslim army arrived.

"The Califate in 750." From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1926, via University of Texas.

By 641, Arab Iraq was effectively under control of the Islamic Caliphate of Umar bin al-Kat’tab, the 3rd Caliph, or ruler, of Islam. Under Umar, the Caliphate grew at an unprecedented rate, conquering all of the modern day Persian Gulf states, including today’s Iran, and vast stretches of modern Egypt and Libya. Yet Umar was assassinated and his successor, Ali, the son-in-law to the Prophet Muhamad, became Caliph. His leadership was hotly contested and a civil war broke out in the Caliphate. Ali was also eventually assassinated and the leadership of the Caliphate was in flux for several years until Yazid I became Caliph and called upon Hussein ibn Ali, the youngest son of the assassinated Ali, to swear allegiance to him and heal the rift within the Caliphate. Hussein rejected Yazid’s demand and was subsequently killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. This battle, which took place in present day Iraq, is considered today the definitive break between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam. Those who supported Ali and his son Hussein formed the Shia sect and those who supported the Caliphate of Yazid I became known as Sunnis.

Siege of BagHdad, via Wikipedia.

This new rift often led to violence. Consecutive Sunni rulers have viewed the Shia sect as a threat to their political and religious authority. Shias, being a minority in the Islamic community, have faced several harsh measures and massacres at the hands of the more militarily powerful Sunnis. Several Sunni-led Caliphates, culminating with the Ottoman Empire, targeted Shia Muslims in order to ensure Sunni dominance. The Islamic rule of Iraq was only interrupted once when all of Arab Iraq suffered greatly in 1258 from Mongol invasion under Hulagu Khan. The invasion had enormous consequences on Arab Iraq. Baghdad, considered one of the most enlightened cities in the world, was decimated. The destruction of the Grand Library of Baghdad represented a loss of knowledge and scholarship on par with the burning of the Library of Alexandria nearly a millennium earlier. The Mongols did not just stop at destruction of property though; they sacked all of Baghdad and massacred its population. Perhaps even more profoundly, they also destroyed much of the irrigation infrastructure of “Arab Iraq” that had sustained populations for thousands of years. In short, the Mongols changed “Arab Iraq” to such a degree that the population never recovered. Historians estimate that around 30 million people were residing in “Arab Iraq” in 800 AD, whereas a little less than 5 million remained at the beginning of the 20th century.

Greatest expansion of the Safavid Empire, via Wikipedia.

The bloodshed did not end with the Mongols. Originating in what we now call Iran, the Shia Safivid Empire, from the early 16th century until the mid-18th century, contested the control of “Arab Iraq” with the Ottoman Empire.  For much of their existence, the Safivids had a firm grip on eastern “Arab Iraq” while encouraging many Arabs in their domain to convert to the Shia sect. However, combined assaults from the Mughals of India from the southeast, and the Ottomans from the west, as well as the rise of the British East India Company’s dominance over trade in the area, led to the demise of the Safavid state. They effectively ceased to exist by the mid-18th century, yet their legacy of Shia Arabs in “Arab Iraq” remained. Seeds of distrust between Sunni and Shia Arabs only grew with the expulsion of the Safavids. So much so that many Sunni Arabs still view Iran as the ultimate enemy in the Middle East. This is especially so with Sunni Iraqis who continue to call Shia Iraqis ‘Safavids’ as an indictment of their connections to Iran.

Although “Arab Iraq” has been primarily made up of Sunni and Shia Arabs, a third large minority also exists: the Kurds. Kurdish peoples constitute a variety of different religions, although the vast majority consider themselves Muslims, whether Sunni or Shia. There are also hundreds of thousands of Yazidis, Zoroastrians, Yarsans, Jewish, and Christian Kurds. Yet as a people, much liberty has traditionally been taken with their religious practices. This is not to say that Kurds have forgone participating in the establishment of various Islamic Caliphates or Sultanates, after all Saladin, one of Islam’s greatest warriors and the Muslim leader against the Crusader states, was of Kurdish origin.

Map of Kurdish Populations, via Le Monde Diplomatique.

The first modern Kurdish nationalist movement emerged in the late 19th century and was largely suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, but their nationalist zeal remained strong. At the onset of the twentieth century “Arab Iraq” did not contain solely Arab peoples nor did it contain a homogeneous religion. The culmination of the First World War brought the end of the Ottoman Empire’s rule over the region. Much of the Empire was carved up by the victors, the British and French governments. As a result of the Sykes-Picot treaty, much of the Middle-East was redrawn with consideration for both British and French interests. For Iraq, this meant quite literally straight lines being drawn in the sand without any care of ethnic or religious divides. As such, Arab Sunnis and Shias were bunched together and named Iraqis, furthermore and perhaps more deviously, the Kurds were literally split between four countries. They would inhabit parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Persia (now Iran). For the next century their rights were dramatically curtailed and they became engaged in bitter struggles as a minority within each of these four nations.

For most of the post-First World War twentieth century, Iraq had seen drastic changes and bloody instability.  As a modern nation, Iraq went through a series of governments including a brief line of Hashemite Kings who were overthrown in a bloody coup, a military general who was assassinated, a revolutionary leader who was forced into obscure retirement, and Saddam Hussein. This post will not belabour Hussein’s bloody reign because much of it is public knowledge. Suffice it to say that he was a cruel dictator who sought to keep his own Sunni tribe, the Al-Bu Nasir tribe, and other Sunni Arabs in power through bloodshed. He launched an eight year war with Iran, which cost both nations hundreds of thousands of lives and ordered the deaths of somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrians, and other ethnic minorities in the North through chemical gassings and ethnic cleansing. In southern Iraq, his government executed thousands of Shia Iraqis to maintain the Sunni stranglehold over the population.

His downfall came when an American-led coalition invaded Iraq in 2003, which resulted in Hussein’s capture and subsequent execution. Although the American invasion toppled an evil dictator, it also opened a Pandora’s box of sectarian strife and divide within a power vacuum. Suddenly, the Sunni minority lost almost all of its power, and the restive Shia and Kurdish populations attempted to seize their own previously denied authority. The US was simply unprepared for this. They had presumed that they could collapse a fragile political system and largely walk away. In a series of bad mistakes, one stands out. The Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 2 of the 23rd of May, 2003, which called for the disbandment of the Iraqi security and defence services. This meant that members of both the Iraqi military and police units essentially became jobless with the stroke of a pen. Military trained Sunnis dominated these branches, and removing the vestiges of their power widened the sense of lost privilege by the Sunni minority.

The consequences of this action were immediately felt. Within 24 hours of the order being issued, the first Improvised Explosive Device was detonated under an American military police convoy. After this, bombings became a daily reality, thanks to thousands of unemployed Sunni soldiers, and the coalition forces struggled to keep any form of peace in the fractured nation. With perceived marginalization from the newly formed interim government, and with their tribal leaders – largely Saddam supporters – removed from decision-making positions, the Sunni Arabs began flocking over to the Iraqi insurgency, including Al-Qaeda of Iraq, which took sectarian violence to a whole new level. They regularly bombed Shia neighborhoods and mosques, including the Shia venerated Al-Askari Shrine. Coupled with Shia militias seeking control of the newly formed Iraqi government, and proxy support from Iran, the US coalition could barely control the situation. This led to what some scholars have now coined as the Iraq Civil War, which pitted these two ancient Islamic factions against each other. With Coalition forces in the middle, Iraq began breaking apart.

Repeated offensives and attacks by Coalition and Insurgent forces led to much suffering for the Iraqi people. Although a series of deals and powers led to a restive Shia south, the Iraq Sunni heartland maintained a strong insurgency which peaked in 2006. This insurgency, however, faltered with the beginning of the American surge in 2007, in which the number of American combat troops was increased by more than 20,000 men and women. Furthermore, the Coalition commander General David Petraeus implemented a new strategy that developed Iraq’s security services by supporting local security forces such as the Sons of Iraq militia. This militia was primarily made up of Sunni Iraqis who were financially rewarded for aiding the Americans and promised positions in the new Iraqi government. The surge turned into a success where insurgents, including Al-Qaeda were routed and removed from the predominantly Sunni Iraqi cities and forced into the depopulated tribal lands of North-Western Iraq.

By 2009, compared with the previous six years, Sunni and Shia Iraq was largely seen as passive with intermittent outbursts of violence. However, this suddenly changed when American forces withdrew completely from Iraq. President Barack Obama decided that the US should leave Iraq and focus on Afghanistan. This decision was hurried after the failure to create a force protection treaty with the independent Iraqi government. President Obama ordered a phase withdrawal, which was completed by 2011. The Iraqi government could not hold itself together. The Iraqi parliament was mostly made up of Shia legislators and many of the key ministries were held by Shia Iraqis. Furthermore, the new Iraqi constitution called for a President and a Prime Minister with the latter holding most of the control of the executive branch making it the most powerful position in the country. This position was filled by Nouri al-Maliki who would become the face of the sectarian divide in the new Iraq.

A Multinational Force Iraq map shows the progress coalition forces have made in reducing the number of Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents in Iraq from December 2006 to March 2008. General David H. Petraeus submitted the map as part of his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, April 8, 2008. Defense Deptartment map, via Wikipedia.

Nouri al-Maliki was one of the prime reasons for the collapse of northwestern Iraq before ISIL in 2014. The day after the last American units rolled across the Iraqi border into Kuwait in 2011, Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for Tariq Al-Hashimi, the Vice President of Iraq. Hashimi was one of the few Sunni Iraqis that held any real position of power in the new government. He avoided arrest by fleeing to Turkey. This was seen by many as a continued campaign against Sunni Iraqis by the Maliki government. The Prime Minister further eroded previous American efforts to include Sunnis into the various mechanisms of power by defunding and outlawing the Sons of Iraq. Sunnis in Iraq’s military were also marginalized, and Shias close to Maliki were promoted above those who were more deserving of promotion.

At the same time, Al Qaeda of Iraq and other insurgents that had been routed by the American surge had made a base of operations in eastern Syria, where a violent civil war had begun in 2011. This proved vital for ISIL. The Al Qaeda members were Sunni Iraqi and in many cases, former members of Saddam security forces. They consolidated their numbers and expanded their organization into a ruthless group bent on domination of the Middle East. When ISIL finally struck Iraq, it was a lightning offensive, and the Iraqi army (gutted by Maliki’s cronyism) melted away. ISIL did not win by using overwhelming numbers to surround and overcome the Iraqi army, but rather because most Sunnis living under Iraq’s Shia-led government felt inclined to support a Sunni group and they encountered little resistance. Many secular Sunni Iraqis support ISIL because it could lead to Maliki’s defeat. There has even been speculation that many of Saddam’s former lieutenants masterminded the plan to form ISIL after their realization that Saddam and his Sunni minority would be overthrown. This gave the hope to many marginalized Sunni tribes that ISIL would ensure that Sunnis would continue to lead Iraq.

Iraq is still boiling with sectarian divide. Maliki has stepped down but this has done little to mitigate any Sunni-Shia Iraqi reconciliation. The Iraqi government has still largely refused to arm Sunni tribes in its fight against ISIL. The effects of this can be seen in the recent ISIL capture of Ramadi where again the Iraqi army fled and ISIL fighters walked into one of Iraq’s most strategic cities. Further adding to the flames are the excesses of the Shia militias, which are largely funded and trained by Iran, who began fighting with Iraq’s regular army against ISIL over the past year. They were largely responsible for some success against ISIL when the Iraqi army retook Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, but Shia militias enacted vendettas against the Sunni inhabitants of the town with extrajudicial murders, and looting. Meanwhile in the North, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region seems poised to withdraw from the Iraqi state and declare their independence altogether, thus removing themselves from a war-torn Iraq.

What the future holds for Iraq is unknown. Whether ISIL will ever be fully defeated, even with foreign intervention is also unclear. Even after months of air bombings, special forces’ incursions, and training of Iraqi regulars, ISIL has still been able to mount successful offensives. It is impossible to write about this subject without fully recognizing the human suffering that has been ongoing since the original American led invasion. Some studies have put the civilian death toll of the US led invasion and occupation at 133,000 and a further 1.5 million internally displaced. This number has not included the four years since the Coalition’s withdrawal. ISIL has murdered their way across Iraq and Syria, casually committing ethnic genocide against all non-Sunni Muslims. They also have destroyed the cultural heritage of “Arab Iraq” and displaced hundreds of thousands of people, if not more. Yet, all of this bloodshed and carnage can be traced back from the US withdrawal from Iraq, to the US led invasion of Iraq, to the seizure of power by Saddam, to the carving up of the Ottoman Empire, to the Invasion of “Arab Iraq” by the Ottoman Empire, to the Safavids, the Mongols, to the death of Hussein and a thousand other occurrences and conflicts that have affected “Arab Iraq” over the centuries. What remains, is a devastated region with a depressingly bleak future. 

 Landscape of Iraq, via  KPerhonen  on  DeviantArt

Landscape of Iraq, via KPerhonen on DeviantArt


One of the best sources for geo-political maps online is Vox. A lot of the maps here were originally featured in 27 Maps that Explain the Crisis in Iraq, 40 Maps that Explain the Middle East, and 14 Maps that Explain ISIS.