The Iraq War is a once-in-a-lifetime fiasco of such magnitude that it needs to be taken on separately from anything else.
When the United States decided to invade Iraq, the Saudis pulled the brake as much as they could. They warned the United States that the invasion of Iraq would be equivalent to an elephant walking on a crystal glass: you trump it, you break it, you own it. They sensed that a power vacuum would open up and Iran would come in and fill it, something evidently against Saudi’s foreign policy of ensuring an equilibrium between Iraq and Iran. In the famous expression by then Saudi Foreign minister Said al Faisal the US would “hand Iraq to Iran on a silver platter”. Yet, 9/11 had ruined the relationship between the United States and the Saudis so much that Bush decided to go at it anyhow, to pick up where his father had left off. Of course, the President’ decision was heavily influenced by the Pentagon, who beat the drums of war as loud as ever but, on that, more another time.
As soon as Saddam was toppled, the Iraqi Shia came out of nowhere. The Shia that had left their religious clothes in the closet out of fear, all of a sudden wore them again. And the United States soon realised they had a Shia problem. Shias, apparently, were not only in Iran. As a matter of fact, Shias that had been in exile, often in Iran itself, were ready to come back and turn Iraq in the next Shia state in the region. This was an Iranian dream and a Saudi nightmare: the Iranians had been given a second chance to have Iraq ruled by Shia clerics who espoused the “Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist” while the Saudis were confronted not just with the implosion of the balance they had always seeked but with Iraq possibly falling into the hands of their greatest enemy as well.
As the Shia power in Iraq started to get larger, the Sunni power began to fade. Paul Bremer, who was leading the Coalition Provisional Authority, in May 2003 came up with two spectacularly bad ideas: first, he pledged to ban the Ba’athist Party from holding any position in government and, second, he dissolved the Iraqi Army. Hence, in the plan, the Sunnis wouldn’t have a voice. And not only that: in the original plan of invasion the Iraqi army was supposed to remain there and entrusted with “managing” the pacification and reconstruction country.
The United States, after all, were planning to leave only a division in Iraq by the end of 2003.
When the order was given, the entire plan was thrown upside down. 250.000 professional Iraqi soldiers were out of a job, angry at the invaders. The top American military commanders left after that, bamboozled by how the war effort was being (mis)managed.
It all went downhill from there: what came to be known as the “Insurgency” phase of the Iraq war begun. Car bombings at the Jordanian Embassy, the United Nations headquarters, at the Masjid Ali in Najaf took place during August 2003, organised by the group of terrorists called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (later called Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn or “Al-Qaeda in Iraq”) led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, all in an effort to make the United States job unbelievably more difficult. And indeed, the troops that had been told they were going home in one month time had to remain there. For years. The United States were fighting in the dark: at the time, they didn’t know exactly who they were fighting and the resources the enemy had. Hell, the United States had never even considered the possibility of an insurgency in the first place. From his headquarters in Fallujah, a Sunni city west to Baghdad and the infamous prison of Abu Ghraib, Al-Zarqawi organised dozens and dozens of car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings in the successive months all over Iraq leaving thousands and thousands of dead bodies, especially Shias, behind. Al-Zarqawi and his men were so extreme that no less than Ayman al-Zawahiri, Deputy Emir of Al-Qaeda, wrote him to stop what he was doing and that killing fellow Muslims wasn’t going to help with their cause. Undeterred, four American contractors were mutilated, stoned, beaten with iron pipes, set on fire and hung on a bridge in Fallujah. The United States army went all in, transforming Fallujah in a sort of Sunni Alamo that cemented the view that, after all, the United States were out for Sunni blood while the Shias were being (wined-not much, given that we are talking about Iraq) and dined. After having cobbled together an Iraqi Interim Government led by a Shia, leaving more than 140.000 United States’ troops on the ground, Paul Bremer was out of Iraq. The only plan the United States had at that point was “let’s get out of here. ASAP.”
Muqtada Al-Sadr, a Shia cleric with connections to Iran headquartered in the Masjid Ali in Najaf, challenged the IIG with the help of the Mahdi army, leading the first proper Shia insurgency against United States forces. As soon as Al-Sadr was (temporarily) defeated, the United States had to deal with a Sunni insurgency instead, always in the city of Fallujah, always the same “bomb factory” where Zarqawi and his men were living in.
The second battle of Fallujah became the most intense battle in the history of the United States army after Vietnam.
The city was essentially razed to the ground. While it was a military victory, it sooner proved to be the next piece in the sectarian war that was rapidly unfolding: the razing of a Sunni city was bad press to say the least. The Sunni discontent with the status quo and the Americans showed up in the January 2005 elections, when Sunnis deserted them. This created a markedly Shia government which was, of course, a divisive government to 20% of the population. To delegitimise the Government, the Sunni insurgency led, as always, by Al-Zarqawi, ramped up again: the bombing of the Al-Askari Shrines in Samarra, one of the holiest places for Shias, set the country on fire with killings in the thousands per day, Imams included, and various Mosques attacked. Many militias on the Shia side were actively supported and financed by, no surprise here, Iran. A particularly gruesome way of killing, revealing of the ferocity and pure hatred river that run between the two sides, it was the use of power drills to the head. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by the above mentioned Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, was winning: the civil war with a sectarian flavour he envisioned was getting closer and closer by the day. Iraq, instead, was losing. The United States, understanding that the Government the elections had delivered was flawed, found themselves in the now-usual position: catching up with an Iraq situation that always seemed to be one mile ahead of their understanding. They came up with the name of Nouri Al Maliki, a relatively unknown Shia, to become the new Prime Minister in October 2006. The United States had made position much more enticing when they were able to kill Al-Zarqawi, in June 2006. The United States also understood that they would have never been able to maintain a legitimate government as the country was literally being torn apart by the Shia-Sunni sectarian war. A new phase of the Iraq War, called “The Surge”, begun: its objective was to go out there in the country and, house by house, street by street, city by city separate Shia and Sunni. The United States tried to accomplish that, with hundreds of American casualties piling up each month. In a final push, General Petraeus put more than 100.000 Sunnis, dissatisfied with the abusive behaviour of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, on American payroll to join the United States Army, to further draw distinction lines in the population in order to tell who were the true enemies. The violence level decreased massively and immediately after the move. When Bush left office, there was general optimism with the Iraqi situation. At last, one might add.
For more on the Iraq Invasion and the subsequent civil war, I suggest by Michael R. Gordon Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq and its follow up The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle For Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama.
As President Obama disengaged with Iraq, both politically and militarily, Maliki started to concentrate power in his own hands, implementing sectarian policies and practices against Sunnis along the way. He issued an arrest warrant to his Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi and he was later sentenced to death. Al-Hashimi managed to flee to Turkey, but the Sunni-Shia conflict was back. And forcefully so, especially after a respected figure like Rafia al-Issawi, the Finance Minister, saw his bodyguards arrested and he was victim of two assassination attempts. Maliki was fearful of the Ba’athists coming back to power and the possibility that he would end up like Saddam. Yet, at that time, Al-Qaeda in Iraq was broken. A few ones remained, in the deserts of Western Iraq. Those battle-tested soldiers went to Syria, where a power vacuum had just opened up.
In 2011, Syrian people started to fill the streets of Damascus, as the Arab Spring started to sweep also that nation of the region. It was a secular protest, against a dictator, Bashar Al-Assad, who had been in power since 2000 and whose father had preceded him at the top of the Syrian society. Everybody believed there would be little resistance on Al-Assad’s part, as then recent history had just shown. Instead, Al-Assad was a special specimen of dictator: he would not knee. To anybody. For any reason. No matter the cost. And with that, the Syrian protests turn into the Syrian civil war, the bloodiest and most tragic conflict of this century. Assad threw everything he had at his people, including barrel bombs. And he was not alone, in the effort: Hezbollah and Iran rushed into Syria to provide help to Assad (Russia would later join the regime’s side). After all, Syria was, all things considered, the only true ally Iran had in the region and Assad is an Alawite, a branch of Shia Islam, in an overly Sunni country.
And in that overly Sunny country the “leftovers” of the Iraq war announced their arrival on the stage in their usual, bloody fashion: car bombings in Damascus. By the end of 2011, the “leftovers” of the Iraq war were able to operate and recruit among the Sunni population in Syria. They were very well-financed by a bunch of wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait much more than the more “moderate rebels”. And not only they were better financed, they were also more numerous. Saudi Arabia and Qatar financed also other groups, especially the Jaysh al-Islam and the Ahrar al-Sham (in whose ranks ex Al-Qaeda members were later found) groups that, at least in the first years of the conflict, wanted to establish an Islamic State governed by Sharia law in Syria. In a matter of months, “the leftovers” became the most important group fighting Assad, going by the name of Jabhat al-Nusra li Ahl as-Sham or, more simply, “Al-Nusra Front”. What one would define as “moderate rebels” were left without support by the United States or other Western countries, because of the, all in all understandable fear that, sooner or later, those weapons would have ended up in the hands of 21st century Mujahideen and it would have been Afghanistan all over again. In the meantime, the rebels were being slaughtered by Assad’s forces. As Al-Nusra got bigger, it started to take over territories, cities like Raqqah, Idliba and Aleppo, banks, oil fields and all sort of activities. And then it came the moment of the chemical weapons affair: when President Obama refused to follow through on his promise that the use of chemical weapons would have been the Administration’s red line during the summer of 2013, the collective heart of the Syrians sunk. The marketing campaign by ISIS was made, out of nowhere, extremely easy. “Look at the Americans and their allies, they have abandoned you. Only we are here to defend you” they said (their selling point would have been very similar, a few months later, in Iraq). And they made their way into the hearts and minds of the majority of the Syrian Sunni population.
In the meantime, in Iraq, as Maliki’s divisive policies kept coming up, both Sunnis and Shias in Iraq filled the streets, the formers to protest against Maliki’s conduct, the latters in his support. Of course, all the Gulf States started to pour money into all kind of opposition groups without much carefulness in the process, with the result that often the money ended up in the wrong hands. By 2013, two years after the beginning of the Syrian venture, those hardened soldiers started to come back into Iraq under the name of ISIS and infiltrate the protests. Maliki, in a “I told you so” moment, killed more than 300 Sunni protestors in Hawija, near Kirkuk, in one of the most horrible moments in post-U.S-withdrawal Iraq. Sunnis looked around themselves at that moment and saw nothing left: they had been promised their share in the government, instead all they got was no share in the government, their most senior and respected officials arrested or sentenced to death and they were being massacred when they showed up at peaceful protests. They turned to ISIS as the only people who were actually willing to defend them. Maliki kept going at the Sunnis left and right, with Sunnis members of Parliament vanishing into thin air and other protests being dismantled.
At that point, the monster rose up from the dunes of the Iraqi desert.
What were just a bunch of ISIS groups here and there in Iraqi territory soon became a major unitary force, whose leaders were mostly Ba’athist generals under Saddam, that started taking over city after city after city in a matter of days, a force that was being reinforced by the day with new recruits pouring over the Syrian border. The Iraqi army, purged of all the competent generals and commanders and replaced by Maliki’s sycophants, disintegrated as they saw the black flags coming for them. All the most advanced weapons, valued in the billions of dollars, that the United States had left to the Iraqi Army promptly switched hands. ISIS seemed unstoppable. On June 29th, 2014 the Caliphate was declared. Abu-Bakr Al-Baghdadi, ironically carrying the name of the first Caliph, was declared the new Caliph. History had come full circle.