US gift to the world

the Islamic State

The Islamic State (IS) has all but eclipsed the al-Qaeda in media attention and public discourse in recent months. Having dramatically made a public appearance in the summer of 2014 capturing swathes of territory in Iraq, the IS is making its mark through sheer ruthlessness and intolerance of anything that is not just non-Muslim, but also non-Sunni. The killing of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya, burning alive of 45 Iraqis, the point-blank killing of a Syrian soldier, murder of a US healthcare worker, beheading of two Japanese hostages and setting fire to a Jordanian pilot are the latest examples of IS gore.

The emergence of IS has been largely interpreted by popular media as yet another Islamist group out to terrorise the population and specifically those it views as its opponents. The IS did not spring into existence one dark day out of nowhere to torment the rest of society. It is the result of all that has horribly gone wrong in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003. The toppling of Saddam Hussein was the easier part of the job as the Bush administration discovered.

After announcing the end of hostilities a few days after the invasion, the then US President George W Bush and his cohorts calculated it was only a matter of time before they tied up the loose ends and exited from Iraq. But 12 years since, the country is yet to return to normalcy. Besides, other events including the so-called Arab Spring, have complicated the chances of any return to even a semblance of stability in the region. 

The subtext of Saddam Hussein’s removal was the dislodging of the Sunni elite from power in Iraq. Soon, the Shia replaced the Sunni, backed by Washington. The Shia regime under former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was particularly ruthless against the Sunni. Under its benevolent gaze, Shia militias targeted the Sunnis across Iraq in an act of revenge for the repression that the Shia suffered when the Sunnis under Saddam Hussein were in power.

The strategic error of al-Maliki in tacitly encouraging the anti-Sunni attacks is a key reason behind the emergence of the IS, an act of self-preservation that has quickly turned predatory. While the IS has managed to attract hordes of Sunni fighters from across the world, particularly from the West, what gives them the military capability and technical prowess is the fact that sizeable sections of the IS comprise former soldiers and officers from Saddam Hussein’s military.

That brings us to another fundamental mistake the US made after toppling Hussein. In one of its first decisions, the Bush administration disbanded the Iraqi military and the Baath party. Washington feared that military personnel, politicians and officials owing allegiance to the ruling Baath infrastructure would attempt to stage an insurrection and decided that disbanding would finish them. 

This decision has since come to haunt not only the US but also Iraq and the region. The US could disband the military but what could they do about the training and expertise of its soldiers and officers? The disbanding of the military also caused massive resentment as scores of Iraqis overnight lost their jobs and security.

The US oversaw the building of a new military in which the Sunnis found no place or at best, were relegated to the sidelines. The ex-military personnel morphed into the Iraqi resistance, bombing and attacking US and Western targets within the country. Even as the new Shia-dominated government attempted to consolidate its hold over political power in Baghdad,  the discarded Sunni combatants and political elite were left in the cold. 

Emergence of sectarian strife
Leveraging the ensuing anarchy in Iraq, a local wing of the al-Qaeda emerged which tapped the resentment of the dislodged Sunni elite. It targeted Shia places of worship and their habitats. For Iraq, this was tragic as the coun-try for the first time in recent history saw a sectarian strife breaking the decades-long harmony between the Shia and Sunni. 

The al-Qaeda’s attacks on the Shia infuriated the already resentful community which then formed armed gangs to take on the Sunnis. With United States’ help, the al-Qaeda was neutralised but relations between the two sects had been damaged. The al-Maliki government did nothing while the Shia militia targeted the Sunni. The outcome was the emergence of the Islamic State which fed on the fears of the Sunni community and grew into a violent group to take on the Shia.

Ironically, the arrests of Sunni militants and lodging them together in prisons across Iraq enabled them to talk to each other, plan out their future – in fact, these prisons were reportedly the breeding ground for the formation of the IS. In other words, the IS was conceptualised and created right under the noses of US prison guards.

The growth of the IS was fuelled by the civil war that erupted in neighbouring Syria where the Sunnis were ranged against the Shia-dominated Bashar al-Assad regime. The US and its European allies, in their eagerness to see al-Assad dislodged, heavily funded and armed the rebel Sunni groups in Syria. The Sunnis, including those owing allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of the IS, who were initially part of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) were given arms, ammunition and lessons in military strategy to fight al-Assad.

After a few weeks, the FSA broke up with the secular sections parting ways with the Islamists. Within the Islamic sections, a large number of Sunni rebels joined the Islamic State. In the process, the IS became so powerful they were able to transfer their expertise and equipment to Iraq and capture territory there. The rest is there for all to see. Thanks to Washington’s self-serving short-sighted strategy.

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