Almost unanimous on the right is the mystifying notion that a reduced American footprint in the world, President Barack Obama’s doing, has brought about the “sudden” eruption across Iraq of a particularly savage faction of Sunni fundamentalists called the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This small band of zealots has conquered a third of Iraq, including the metropolis of Mosul, from which 500,000 residents have fled. Tikrit too is under ISIS control. Fallujah fell in January.
Odd too is the idea that ISIS, currently barreling toward the capital, Baghdad, is somehow a new killer on the block. While the gang, led by newcomer Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is not as ancient as the Egyptian goddess by the same name—ISIS was previously known as Al Qaida in Iraq (A.Q.I.), reflecting its earlier, more modest mission. A.Q.I. was the brainchild of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, described aptly in the New Yorker as, “A Jordanian who had been a convicted thief and sex criminal before turning to radical Islam.” Commensurate with its morphing, expansive ambitions, A.Q.I. changed its name to ISIS. Whereas “Al Qaida was originally envisioned as a kind of Sunni foreign legion, which would defend Muslim lands from Western occupation,” writes New Yorker staffer Lawrence Wright, “Zarqawi had a different goal in mind. He hoped to provoke an Islamic civil war.” George W. Bush’s invasion primed Iraq for Zarqawi’s purposes. “There was no better venue than the fractured state of Iraq, which sits astride the Sunni-Shiite fault line.”
So savage and extreme is ISIS, always has been, that it had been “booted out of the Al Qaida consortium,” attests Wright. Remember the “Dear Al (Zarqawi)” letter penned by Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in 2005? In it, Bin Laden’s Capo Bastone (Zawahiri) had asked the lieutenant (Zarqawi) to reconsider the wisdom of slaughtering so many Shia civilians in Iraq. Al-Z No. 1 broached the topic by counseling Al-Z No. 2 about the wisdom of bringing “the Muslim masses to the mujahed movement.” To that end, killing so many of them was probably unhelpful. Yes, the Shia are a handful—theologically problematic—conceded Zawahiri. Suspect too was the Shia’s history of “connivance with the Crusaders.” But while Zawahiri didn’t give a dried camel’s hump about his Shia brethren, he thought better of slaughtering them, preferring to forgive their “ignorance.” Besides, added Zawahiri as an afterthought, it’s impossible for the mujahedeen to kill all Iraq’s Shia.
While Zarqawi rejected Zawahiri’s soft approach, his personal odyssey has a happy ending. Zarqawi died, killed by Americans in 2006. But his legacy, like that of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, lives on in ISIS. Shia Iran, once a bitter enemy of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, now has pride-of-place in the Iraq that Bush built. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been galvanized to the aid of the Iraqi army. But it is not the 930,000 members of the Iraqi security forces that the Revolutionary Guard aims to rouse. Despite the princely sums ($25 billion) Americans spent to train and prepare it, in Mosul, this inorganic, artificial creation of the Bush brigades fled before 1,300 ISIS fighters. To fight the marauding Sunnis, the Revolutionary Guard will likely corral well-motivated, tribal Shia militias. (In Iraq, Shiites make up about sixty percent of the population. Sunnis comprise less than twenty percent.)
It is this cauldron of sectarian strife that Saddam Hussein kept from bubbling over.
What’s unfolding in Iraq, with ISIS, is no more than a progression along a predictable continuum, the starting point of which was an American occupation that unseated an extremely effective law-and-order leader: Saddam Hussein. Consequently, where there was once oppression and order, there is now only chaos and carnage. The lawlessness we brought to Iraq with our messianic, faith-based initiative has allowed the manifestation of divisions that have riven the region for four millennia.
As this column predicted in 2007, “Once we decamp, some Saddam-like strongman will fill the power vacuum left. The dictator to emerge from the ruins of Iraq will impose Sharia, pray to the hidden Imam, and compel women to walk about in black nose bags. We had it good with Saddam because he was secular, an enemy of fundamentalist Islam. Can we have back what, in our folly, we fouled up? No.”
There is little reason for me to hope to impart something new about the predictable progression of Iraq from (sectarian) rogue state to failed state to Islamic state, in the wake of the American occupation. There is no reason to expect me to best a column dated December 2006, titled “At Least Saddam Kept Order”:
… If Iraqis appear ungrateful or disoriented, it is because they are busy … busy dying at rates many times higher than under Saddam. In the final days of Saddam’s reign of terror, i.e., in the 15 months preceding the invasion, the primary causes of death in Iraq were natural: “heart attack, stroke and chronic illness,” as The Lancet reported. Since Iraq became a Bush object lesson, the primary cause of death has been violence. …… Hussein’s reign was one of the more peaceful periods in the history of this fractious people. What a shame it’s too late to dust Saddam off, give him a sponge bath, and beg him to restore law and order to Iraq. Secretly, that’s what anyone with a head and a heart would want. We could promise solemnly never to mess with him again—just so long as he kept his mitts off nukes, continued to check Iran (which he did splendidly), and minimized massacres. To be fair, Saddam’s last major massacre was in 1991, during which only 3,000 Shiites were murdered. That’s less than Iraq’s monthly quota under “democracy.” No one is praising Saddam, yada, yada, yada. But even the Saddam-equals-Hitler crowd cannot but agree that Iraq was not a lawless society prior to our faith-based intervention. Even the war’s enablers must finally admit that under our ministrations Iraq has gone from a secular to a religious country; from rogue to failed state.Put yourself in the worn-out shoes of this sad, pathetic people. Would you rather live under Saddam—who was a brutal dictator, but did provide Iraq with one of the foundations of civilization: order—or under a force made up of ideological terrorists, feuding warlords, and an “Ali Baba” element, all running rampant because they can, and where not even mosques provide a safe haven from these brutes and their bombs?
“Iraq has slipped back into chaos,” huffed one of Fox News’ interchangeable commentators, who, heretofore, had been oblivious to the pal of despair that has engulfed this Gulf state; to the Christian community’s near annihilation; to the millions of displaced Iraqis, refugees living in squalor within and without their country, all since Bush sicced the dogs of war on it.
“I wish the Americans had never come,” Baghdadi Mohammed Rejeb told veteran war correspondent Arwa Damon, a decade after the American Nakba (catastrophe). “They ruined our country. They planted divisions. They made us cry for the days of Saddam Hussein.” Wept another Iraqi woman, on that anniversary: “I lost hope six to seven months ago. You don’t feel it’s home anymore.” One after another, Iraqis all speak of the “corruption, suspicion and tribalism” that have seeped into civil society since the invasion.
No. Iraq hasn’t suddenly “slipped back into” this backward and benighted state. It was bombed there by a mulish military power which didn’t know Shiite from Shinola.