So What’s Going On In Iraq Now?

The nation of Iraq has been fixed firmly in the western conscience for over twenty years. Ever since Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and proclaimed it the 19th province of Iraq, it has been a place that has both intrigued and entangled the western powers. But Iraq is really an artificial nation. It never experienced the centuries of development from which the national conscience of many ancient nations benefitted. No nationalist unifying events have served the nation; not for Iraq the 1776 declaration of American independence, nor the nation-birthing declaration of the German Empire in 1871, which serve as the historical building blocks of nations. Iraq is the product of post-Ottoman maneuvers on the part of European powers.

Under the Ottoman Empire the region now known as Iraq comprised three distinct Wilayats, or administrative areas. These were the Kurdish Wilayat, governing the predominantly Kurdish region around the cities of Kirkuk, Mosul and Irbil; the Baghdad Wilayat centered on the modern capital; and, in the south at the Arabian Gulf coast, the Basra Wilayat. The Kurdish people are predominantly Sunni Muslim, however many other faiths have influenced the region including ancient forms of Christianity and Zoroastrianism. The peoples of Baghdad and Basra are predominantly Arab, however where Baghdadis are mostly Sunni, those from the south are, like the Iranians, predominantly Shi’ite.

These three regions have distinctly different outlooks on life and with them, different ideas about nationhood. The regions were melded together to form the Kingdom of Iraq or what British historian Christopher Catherwood has termed Churchill’s Folly[1]. The British had induced the Arab peoples to revolt against their Ottoman overlords by promising the Hashemite clan that they would rule over Syria. However, that territory had already been promised to the French, so it was left to Winston Churchill at the British Colonial Office to offer Ottoman Iraq to the Hashemite Prince Feisal. Defying a global wave of nationalistic sentiment and the desire of subjugated peoples to rule themselves, Churchill put together the broken pieces of the Ottoman Empire and unwittingly created a Middle Eastern powder keg[2]. Nonetheless, the British wanted to establish a Mid-Eastern counter-balance to the perceived threat of Iran as a power in the region.

When Saddam Hussein came to power at the head of a Ba’athist regime (the same political body that rules Syria) he kept the nation united by a rule of fear. Iraqis became Iraqi by default and ethnic and religious differences were subjugated, often by force. Hussein was, at least nominally, a Sunni Muslim. Sunni Iraq and Shi’a Iran engaged in an eight year conflict during the 1980s ostensibly because the Iraq leadership were fearful that the Iranian revolution would encourage unrest among the Shi’a majority in Iraq.

Unfortunately the government that has emerged in the wake of the ouster of Saddam Hussein has become, instead of a government of national unity, one in which the Shi’ite Nouri Maliki has gathered great support from the Shi’a communities at the expense of the Sunni and Kurd. Some have regarded him as using his position to profit the Shi’a at the expense of the Sunni, while the semi-autonomous Kurds are marginalized.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a terrorist group linked to Al Qaeda, has already been very active in Syria. From an Islamic point of view it is Sunni, however it is devoted to violence as the means to establish a new Caliphate with the ultimate goal of unifying all Muslims, eradicating heresy and establishing a universal theocracy. Beginning in Syria, where it has ruled the city of Raqqah for over a year, ISIS goal in the recent ‘invasion’ of Iraq, is to extend this new Caliphate. They will do this with an unrelenting violence against everyone whom they do not believe to be a true Muslim. A recent video posted online shows one of their leaders interrogating three Syrian truck drivers on the road into Iraq[3]. He asks them how often they kneel when they pray, how the prayer times differ during the day, and then accuses them of being polytheists, when they claim ignorance of what the Alawite Ba’athists (the ruling party) are doing to the true Muslims in Syria. Meanwhile, a Shi’a militia leader in Iraq states: ISIS regards Shia as their eternal enemy, and they will kill whoever falls in their hands who is Shia, whether they are soldiers, grocers or even singers[4].

ISIS having overrun Mosul in the north, and Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, claim their goal is to take the battle to Baghdad and then beyond to the Shi’a holy city of Karbala. This city is home to the tomb of the son of the founding leader of Shi’a Islam. Ali, the first cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, is believed by Shi’a to have been chosen by God to lead Islam. He was enshrined in Najaf, Iraq, after his assassination, and his son Hussein fought for the succession, only to be killed in the battle of Karbala. In its early days, Islam had a very bloody testimony. That testimony continues to infect it today.

The current battle for Iraq has the prospect of destroying the nation; it raises the specter of the USA actually working alongside the Iranian regime in defence of Shi’a Islam; and it may be the spark that ignites full Kurdish independence, something that will antagonize both the Iranian and Turkish governments. However events transpire and with respect to the vast majority of peace-loving Muslims, the conflict further reinforces the bloody nature of Islam’s roots and continued expression of its passion. Oh Lord, may your Kingdom come and may your will be done, here on earth as it is in heaven!

_______________________________________________________________

[1] Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq – Christopher Catherwood – Carroll & Graf 2004

[2] Amazon review – http://www.amazon.com/Churchills-Folly-Winston-Churchill-Created/dp/078671557X

[3] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/video/news/video-1099961/ (accessed June 16, 2014)

[4] Abu Bakr al-Zubaidi quoted in New York Times article Massacre Claim Shakes Iraq  by Rod Nordland and Alissa Rubin, June 15, 2014

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