The End of Iraq

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from TIME Magazine,

Iraq’s Eternal War. The sudden military victories of a Sunni militant group threaten to touch off a maelstrom in the Middle East.

As the brutal fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) rampaged through northern Iraq in mid-June, a spokesman for the group issued a statement taunting its shaken enemies. Ridiculing Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an “underwear merchant,” he warned that his fighters, who follow a radical strain of Sunni Islam, would take revenge against al-Maliki’s regime, which is dominated by Shi’ites. But this vengeance would not come through the capture of Baghdad, the spokesman vowed. It would come through the subjugation of Najaf and Karbala, cities that are home to some of the most sacred Shi’ite shrines. The Sunni fighters of ISIS would cheerfully kill and die, if necessary, to erase their blasphemous existence.

What army would rather raze a few shrines than seize a capital city? The answer says a lot about the disaster now unfolding in Iraq and rippling throughout the Middle East. The rapid march by ISIS from Syria into Iraq is only partly about the troubled land where the U.S. lost almost 4,500 lives and spent nearly $1 trillion in increasingly vain hopes of establishing a stable, friendly democracy. ISIS is but one front in a holy war that stretches from Pakistan across the Middle East and into northern Africa. A few days before ISIS captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Pakistani militants driven by similar Sunni radicalism killed 36 in an assault on their country’s busiest airport. Holy war inspires the al-Shabab radicals who took credit for massacring at least 48 Kenyans in a coastal town on June 15 and explains why suspected al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen riddled a bus full of military-hospital staff the same day. It’s the reason Boko Haram has kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls and why Taliban fighters sliced off the ink-stained fingers of elderly voters who had cast ballots in Afghanistan’s June 14 presidential election. Osama bin Laden is dead, but his fundamentalist ideology–and its cold logic of murder in God’s name–arguably has broader reach than ever.

The Sunni radicals’ dream of establishing an Islamic caliphate–modeled on the first reign of the Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century–has no place for Shi’ites. That’s why Iraq’s leading Shi’ite cleric responded to ISIS’s advance by summoning men of his faith to battle. So begins another Iraqi civil war, this one wretchedly entangled with the sectarian conflict that has already claimed more than 160,000 lives in Syria. Poised to join the fighting is Iran.


As he helped draw the post–World War I map of the Middle East, Winston Churchill asked an aide about the “religious character” of an Arab tribal leader he intended to place in charge of Britain’s client state in Iraq. “Is he a Sunni with Shaih sympathies or a Shaih with Sunni sympathies?” Churchill wrote, in now antiquated spelling. “I always get mixed up between these two.”

The Westerners who have sought to control the Middle East for more than a century have always struggled to understand the religion that defines the region. But how could the secular West hope to understand cultures in which religion is government, scripture is law and the past defines the future? Islam has been divided between Sunni and Shi’ite since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and a bitter dispute that followed over who should lead Islam.

The seat of Shi’ite power is Iran, whose 1979 Islamic revolution cracked open the bottle in which the region’s sectarian tensions had been sealed for many years–first by the nearly 500-year rule of the Ottoman Empire and then by Western colonizers. Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini’s overthrow of the pro-American Shah of Iran fired the ambitions of jihadists elsewhere and instituted the region’s first modern theocratic regime.

The national boundaries plotted on Western maps have little place in the radical vision of the restored caliphate. The ambition is absolute Sunni authority and Shari’a–Islamic law–over the entire Muslim world. To achieve this, the West need only be banished, while the Shi’ites must be eradicated. “There are all kinds of al-Qaeda documents in which its operatives say things along the lines of ‘the Americans are evil, the secular tyrants are evil, the Israelis are evil–and the Shi’ites are worse than all of them,’ ” says Daniel Benjamin, the former counterterrorism coordinator.

With the 2011 Arab Spring, many in the West grew hopeful that the spirit of democracy was finally taking root. Instead, as in Iraq, the toppling of dictators unleashed the religious radicals almost everywhere.


The Islamic state of Iraq and greater Syria is at once highly modern and wholly medieval. Its fighters eagerly post propaganda videos on YouTube and photos of executed prisoners on Facebook. Credit ISIS with one of the most demented mashups of our time: a tweeted crucifixion.

And they are more fearsome than the militants who came before them. When what became ISIS first gathered in Iraq to attack Americans after the U.S. invasion, they called themselves al-Qaeda in Iraq. But their violence against fellow Muslims appalled the senior al-Qaeda leadership. Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s most senior comrade, chastised the group for killing Shi’ites too wantonly.

Two factors gave ISIS new life. One was Syria’s civil war. The second factor was the Iraqi Prime Minister.

Many Sunnis now see al-Maliki as nothing more than a Shi’ite version of Saddam. This may explain how as few as 1,000 ISIS fighters, originally equipped with small arms and pickup trucks, managed to overrun some 30,000 Iraqi troops to capture Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, before they and their allies took Kirkuk, Tikrit and Tal Afar.

“I think we’re headed for a grinding guerrilla war that’ll last a long time, with extremely high death rates, that could end up sucking in more of the neighbors,” says Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has advised the Pentagon on Iraq. That would suit ISIS just fine. A climactic war with the Shi’ites is exactly what the group wants. And as its territory grows, so does ISIS’s readiness for such a war. As they conquered major Iraqi cities, ISIS fighters looted military bases for guns, ammunition and U.S.-made Humvees–along with at least two helicopters. They have also plundered gold and vast sums of cash from banks. One unconfirmed estimate by local officials pegged the haul at a staggering $425 million.


As haunting as the threat of a terrorist haven may be, the significance of the ISIS victories goes far beyond the threat it poses to Baghdad or the West. With lightning speed, ISIS has begun to erase the Middle East map drawn by Europeans a century ago. In 1916, Mark Sykes, a young British politician, and François Georges-Picot, France’s former counsel in Beirut, agreed to divide the region to suit Western goals. With an eye to the death of the Ottoman Empire–on the losing side of WW I–the two diplomats slashed a diagonal line across a map of the region, from the southwest to the northeast, and divided the empire between their countries. “What do you mean to give them, exactly?” British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour asked Sykes during a meeting at 10 Downing Street, according to James Barr’s 2012 book, A Line in the Sand. “I should like to draw a line,” Sykes said, as he ran his finger along the map of the Middle East, “from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk.”

After crossing the line between Syria and Iraq, ISIS fighters took a bulldozer to the berm that marked that border.

Other borders could also be in danger. Western Iraq abuts the kingdom of Jordan, a vital U.S. ally and oasis of regional moderation.

So does Lebanon, a sectarian tinderbox. Syria, meanwhile, may be melting into unofficial quasi-states.

The region’s heavyweights, Sunni King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Ayatullah Ali Khamenei of Iran, watch with wariness and few good options.


Barack Obama first ran for President, in large measure, to end the Iraq War, and he takes pride in having done so. It surely wasn’t easy, then, to announce that some 170 combat-ready soldiers were headed to Baghdad to secure the U.S. embassy. The White House insists that Obama won’t re-enter a ground war, though military planners are exploring possible air strikes. Clearly, Obama was mistaken in declaring, after the last U.S. troops departed in 2011, that “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.”

Yet on a deeper level, the blame belongs to history itself. At this ancient crossroads of the human drama, the U.S.’s failure echoes earlier failures by the European powers, by the Ottoman pashas, by the Crusaders, by Alexander the Great. The civil war of Muslim against Muslim, brother against brother, plays out in the same region that gave us Cain vs. Abel. George W. Bush spoke of the spirit of liberty, and Obama often invokes the spirit of cooperation. Both speak to something powerful in the modern heart. But neither man–nor America itself–fully appreciated until now the continuing reign of much older spirits: hatred, greed and tribalism. Those spirits are loosed again, and the whole world will pay a price.

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