Iraq, Sunnis, Shias, Kurds, ISIS…these are some of the strange names and words that are now mentioned on a preponderant part of our news broadcasts, newspapers, periodicals and web sites. Before we get into the main point of this post, let’s make sure that we’re all clear on who the main actors are. The former or failed state that we’ll call Iraq has many different ethnic and religious groups living within its once solid borders. The main three that we’ll focus on are the Sunnis, the Shias (or Shiites) and the Kurds.
For this article’s sake, When we talk about Sunni Muslims, we are referring to Sunni Arabs. Islam, which is the predominant religion in the Middle East, has two main sects. The vast majority of Muslims in the world follow the Sunni sect. The other main sect of Islam is that of the Shia who are in general a minority in the Muslim world. However in Iraq, Sunnis who are ethnically Arab or who for whom Arabic is their first language make up roughly 20% of the total population. This group essentially ruled over the rest of the country for decades up until the second Gulf War which brought the Shias to power.
When we speak of the Shia, we are talking about Shia Arab Muslims. The Shia sect makes up roughly 60% of the Iraqi population. It has also been a severely persecuted group, both by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime and also by the other past Sunni rulers in the region for centuries. It is important to note that though many may have Persian origin, Shias in Iraq are predominantly considered ethnic Arabs. Though they follow the same Holy Book, the Qur’an and have many of the same core beliefs, the Shia differ from the Sunnis in many aspects dating back to a really to the days of early Islam. These differences though are the topic for another article and time in the future.
Overall, the Kurds are a group unlike the Sunni and Shia Arabs or Iraq. In fact, they are not Arab at all. They have their own language, Kurdish, which is of Indo-European origin and similar to Persian. Their ethnicity and culture is also similar to that of the Persian-speaking peoples in Iran and other parts of the world. They also have been a persecuted minority for centuries. Though they are mainly of the Sunni sect of Islam, there are larges numbers of Shia Kurds as well as Christian, Yazidis, Jews, and perhaps even Zoroastrians amongst them. However for most them, their identity as Kurds usually takes precedence over their respective religious identities. They also have been fighting for an independent state of their own and to be honest, are well on their way to achieving it.
Now that we have clarified a bit who is who, let’s move forward.
No more Iraq
Iraq is dead. It no longer really exists. Sure, you can still find in on a map, see its flag waving at embassies or at the UN and even meet people who call themselves Iraqis. However for all practical purposes and as a state, Iraq effectively disintegrated last summer.
In June of 2014, two events within less than a week of each other occurred that more or less brought the end of Iraq. One was the invasion and conquest of large swaths of northern Iraq by the blood-thirsty terrorist bandits that call themselves the Islamic State, or ISIS for short. ISIS essentially marched almost unopposed into Iraq and took over not only hundreds of towns and villages, but also Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and home to approximately one million people. The Iraqi army which was supposed to defend Iraq’s northern borders and urban areas such as Mosul put down their weapons, turned tail and ran.
In response to ISIS’ lighting invasion, a second event took place. It was obvious that the ISIS juggernaut wouldn’t stop with just northern Iraq and Mosul but also would be after the oil-rich and strategically important city of Kirkuk. This was a city that at the time bordered the Kurdish autonomous zone that had been created after the end of the first Gulf War in 1991 to protect the rebellious Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s shock troops, the Republican Guard. With the collapse of the Iraqi army in the region and ISIS closing in, Kurdish forces known as Peshmerga (meaning “those who face death”) under the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, took the security of the city into their own hands and occupied Kirkuk. Again, the Iraqi army and the government were unable to do anything to both halt ISIS or prevent the Kurds from taking over the city.
Southern Iraq and the capital city of Baghdad are another matter. These areas are predominantly occupied by Shia Muslims who though they make up the majority of Iraqis, were oppressed and ruled over by Saddam Hussein and the Sunni minority for decades. Like the Kurds, they also believe that their security is best in their own hands and as such, have several powerful militia groups, many backed by neighboring Iran, also a majority Shia country. As the Shias control the Iraqi government and the Ministry of Defense, it is also argued by many analysts and scholars that what is left of the regular Iraqi army is in reality a Shia fighting force. This is much to the dismay of the US and its allies who have tried to create a government and army to protect all Iraqis.
Shias distrust the Sunnis and Sunnis distrust the Shias. The reasons and history for this are long and the discussion for another time, but let’s just say that they really don’t get along and haven’t for over 1200-1300 years. With the Shias now controlling the Iraqi government and other powerful state institutions, the Sunni Muslims are fearful that they will face persecution and oppression. These fears are not unfounded as there are many, many reports of Shia death squads going into Sunni areas and torturing and killing them.
How ISIS has forever fragmented Iraq
One of the primary institutions of any state is having a national army to defend it against invaders.
Enter ISIS. This murderous terrorist force started by former al Qaeda members tries to promote itself as the protector of the Sunni minority in Iraq. They argue that Iran, Iraq’s neighbor and officially the only Shia country in the world, are there to oppress the Sunni Iraqi population. In spite of the fact that many Sunni tribes oppose their harsh brand of religion and have suffered just as severely as Shias, Kurds, Christians and others, ISIS is seen by some influential Sunnis as a lesser evil, at least in comparison to the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and the Iranian-backed militias that support it. In fact, it is the Iranian-backed militias, not the Iraqi army, that is keeping Baghdad and the Shia areas of Iraq safe from being overrun by ISIS. Make no mistake, the Iranians will not allow their Shia brethren nor their Holy Shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala to ever be threatened by ISIS or any Sunni force. They know that eventually, the Americans and other Western powers will leave or greatly reduce their presence in the region and security will once again have to fall onto themselves and their Shia allies.
Given that the numerically superior Iraqi army picked up and ran in the face of ISIS in northern Iraq, the Kurds also will never fully disarm and put their trust in the Iraqi military forces again. As the only consistently successful fighting force against ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria, it is inconceivable that the Kurdish militias (both the Peshmerga in Iraq and the YPG in Syria) would simply put down their weapons and just let the Iraqi army take over. Like the Shia militias, the Kurdish ones are also here to stay. Add to this that Kurdish region has its own elections, parliamentary government and has become quite prosperous in comparison to the rest of the country, it becomes clear that Kurdistan remains part of Iraq in name only. Actually, ask almost any Kurd in this area where they are from and they will almost unanimously tell you Kurdistan, not Iraq. They identity themselves as Kurdish, not Iraqi.
So in conclusion given the circumstances that have passed during the last year, is it possible to realistically envision that the Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and other peoples who greatly mistrust and have fought and killed each other for centuries can live together in peace within the borders that we call Iraq?
Part of wisdom is seeing the world and the event within it as they really are. The reality that Iraq is no longer a functional state is becoming clearer every day that passes by.
Just as there were ethnically-diverse political entities such Yugoslavia or Sudan that were pulled apart due to ethnic and religious divisions, we must now also accept that Iraq has fallen into the same category of a failed and divided state.
I’m not saying that I have a solution to the current situation in the Middle East. All that I’m saying is that there is no more Iraq and that we, the United States government and the rest of the world, need to accept that. The sooner that we accept this as fact, the easier it will be to deal with what is really happening in the region and find a way to bring some sort of peace or settlement to the conflict that is tearing this area apart and destroying the lives of millions of people.
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