November 29, 2023
November 29, 2023

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Iraq is facing its most alarming crisis in years. The second city of Mosul and the ma­jor city of Tikrit have been seized by a violent ji­hadist group, ISIS—the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, formerly Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad and Al-Qaeda in the Land of Rafideen.

And as U.S. president Barack Obama re­fused to rule out any way of responding to the crisis, Baghdad was reportedly awaiting ISIS’s arrival. In just a few short days, the country has been dragged to a new low—and all by a rel­atively new group who only recently entered the picture.

Formed in 2013, ISIS is a jihadi Salafist mil­itant group. It is virulently anti-democracy and sectarian—and also a seasoned militant op­eration with a transnational membership, to which, despite heavy losses, it is constantly re­cruiting. With key leaders who were prominent in the Iraqi insurgency in the 2000s, it is also well-armed and financed.

ISIS has shown the capacity to assimi­late other extremist Sunni organizations, such as Salafiah al-Mujahidiah. The violence it per­petrates is in many ways broader than that wrought by other groups; it includes a wide ar­ray of attacks on humanitarian aid organiza­tions, videoed beheadings, kidnappings and suicide attacks.

But ISIS’s desire to create a caliphate also tolerates no other armed group capable of challenging its jihadist credentials. This has seen the group disowned by al-Qaeda for harming others dedicated to the creation of an Islamic nation.

ISIS’s swift seizure of territory in Iraq in re­cent weeks was a shock given claims that they were in decline, and had been expelled from areas such as Deir Ez-Zor and Raqqa—claims that have turned out to be far wide of the mark. Evidently, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, ISIS have reformed and re-dedicat­ed their efforts.

Seizing the day

ISIS still has a weakness: it remains largely rejected by Sunni public opinion. This presents Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki with an opportunity to undermine them militarily; it also means he has an op­portunity to win over Sunnis in the fight against them. To do this, al-Maliki must stop refusing to develop an inclusive po­litical system of equal treatment, and most importantly transparent justice. He could rid Sunni districts of ISIS and at the same time reverse discrimination against the wider Sunni population—exactly the kind of toxic political infighting that groups like ISIS seize upon with lust.

And this animosity runs deep; it is central to the mess that is post-invasion Iraq. When I first began meeting with Iraqi parliamentari­ans back in 2006, I was struck by the weariness of the secularists, and the growing confidence among the ethno-sectarians. As we saw in the carnage of the subsequent years, the US had initiated a crisis that was to be endlessly manip­ulated by myriad political forces, all hell-bent on becoming the new “hard men” of Iraq. Well-meant lessons and sage advice all became fuel to the fire of sectarian power brokerage.

The policy of de-Ba’athification and the disbandment of the army ushered in a new sectarian era, and destroyed any chance of real domestic order. The exclu­sion of Ba’athists from the nation-building process allowed sections of the Shiite polit­ical classes to decide that “Ba’athist” simply meant Sunni. Defending your own became the new cause, whilst inclusive nation-building was forgotten. And while the US bumbled, stumbled and fumbled, Al-Maliki seized greater control.

The transitional justice and due process mechanisms required for accountability were trampled. The rise of al-Maliki continued de- Ba’athification, and convinced the more res­tive sections of the Sunni population that fight was better than flight. Using opaque laws to remove electoral candidates, main­taining power with the support of anti-Ba’ath elements, added to Sunni grievances, lay­ered reaction and the loss of faith in democ­racy building. Sunnis increasingly viewed the future as one of exclusion and political bleak­ness—and so began a shift from “when I hear the word gun, I reach for my culture” to “when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun”.

Now, with Baghdad on tenterhooks, a state of emergency called for, and al-Ma­liki unlikely to seize the opportunity for a moment of unity, the last decade’s failures have truly caught up with Iraq.

Peter Shirlow does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affili­ations. Provides funding as a Founding Partner of The Con­versation.

By Peter Shirlow Professor of Law at Queen’s University Belfast

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