Updated: Iraq Is Coming Apart at the Seams — Here’s Our Essential Reader

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This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) marching in Raqqa, Syria. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)

After American troops were withdrawn at the end of 2011, media coverage of the ongoing conflict in Iraq dwindled to almost nothing. But the country has been back in the headlines since a violent militant group called The Islamic State (IS) waged a fierce military campaign across Iraq.

At the same time, the Iraqi government in Baghdad is in the throes of a major political crisis, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces a revolt from within his own party.

Confused about what’s going on? Wondering how the situation became so grim? We’ll try to answer some of the most pressing questions, with links to in-depth reports for those who want more information.

So What’s Happening in Iraq Right Now?

US forces have launched a series of airstrikes on Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq. On August 9, Barack Obama said that American warplanes were supporting Kurdish forces as they defend Erbil, an Iraqi city with a major US consulate and a number of American military trainers. The strikes also hit militants who have surrounded tens of thousands of Yazidis — members of a religious minority — who fled into the mountains and face starvation and dehydration.

Large swaths of Iraq and Syria have become one enormous field of battle — Agence France Presse reports that IS fighters bulldozed a berm separating the two countries in a symbolic act to advance their goal of a cross-border Islamic state.

IS gained control over much of Anbar province — including the city of Fallujah — back in January. In a backgrounder on that crisis for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Raed El-Hamed writes that IS is pursuing a two-track strategy: occupying cities like Mosul, while launching hit-and-run attacks on others to keep the Iraqi army spread thin. VOX.com has a detailed map of towns that are or have been under IS control.

It’s been widely reported that when confronted with IS fighters, Iraqi soldiers, trained and equipped by the United States, have fled their posts and abandoned their equipment. But some troops have disputed those accounts. According to Asharq Al-Awsat, a leading Arabic newspaper published in London, Iraqi troops who had been stationed in Mosul say they received orders to abandon their positions from their superiors — they say they were told to don civilian clothing and “go home.”

The world has been stunned by photos released by the radical group purportedly showing the massacre of dozens of captured Iraqi soldiers, although the killings were not independently verified. Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub offered more details on that story for the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the Kurds, who have participated in the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki while maintaining an autonomous quasi-state in the North, “exploited the mayhem convulsing Iraq… to seize complete control of the strategic northern oil city of Kirkuk.” So report Tim Arango, Suadad al-Salhy and Rick Gladstone of The New York Times.Tensions between Iraqi and Kurdish officials run high, and it was only this week that the central government offered military assistance to the Kurds.

At McClatchy, Mitchell Prothero writes that Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has broken his longstanding support for the central government and issued a religious call for Shiites to take up arms against IS militants.

Farnaz Fassihi reported for The Wall Street Journal that Iran, which has close ties to the Maliki government, deployed two units of its elite Quds Force — the Special Forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards — to battle IS militants in Iraq. At the end of June, The New York Times reported that Russia had sent 12 fighter planes to Iraq — and personnel to help operate them.

What’s this power struggle about?

In April, Maliki’s Iraqi National Alliance won a majority of the seats in parliament, and Maliki believes this gives him a mandate for another term. But members of his own bloc have turned against Maliki, who is viewed by many as an overly sectarian leader who has consolidated too much personal power. The bloc nominated Haider al-Ibadi, who has served as the Deputy Parliamentary Speaker, to be the next prime minister.

On August 11, Iraqi president Fouad Massoum gave al-Ibadi 30 days to form a government. But Maliki’s supporters are rallying around the current PM, and Maliki called the move a violation of the constitution. The New York Times reports that Iraqi troops and security forces loyal to Maliki have surged into Baghdad. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Maliki is suing the president for his handling of the standoff.

The Obama administration and a number of senior American lawmakers have urged Maliki to stand down, arguing that his regime has alienated Iraqi Sunnis and made it more difficult to fight IS.

Who Are These IS Guys?

IS is a group of violent Islamic fundamentalists that first formed in Iraq in the aftermath of the US invasion as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, or “The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad.” It has gone by many names; today, it is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). As the latter name implies, they ultimately aspire to create an ultra-conservative Islamic state in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Cyprus and Southern Turkey.

To simplify a complex history, the organization, which was most familiar to Americans as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq,” began in late 2004 as a home-grown Iraqi Sunni insurgency group that pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden. It has expanded into Syria during that country’s civil war, where it attracted extremists from around the world and grew in numbers and strength. Last October, Liz Sly reported for The Washington Post that “thousands of Arabs and other non-Syrian Muslims” had “streamed into Syria over the past two years to join in the fight.”

Experts say that IS has now become so powerful and well-organized that it’s misleading to call it a “terrorist group.” Jessica Lewis of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War told Time Magazinethat it now has “an advanced military leadership… They have incredible command and control and they have a sophisticated reporting mechanism from the field that can relay tactics and directives up and down the line,” she said. “They are well-financed, and they have big sources of manpower, not just the foreign fighters, but also prisoner escapees.”

Martin Chulov reports for The Guardian that IS has “secured massive cashflows from the oilfields of eastern Syria, and supplemented those revenues by robbing banks and looting antiquities.” According to Chulov, the network may have access to $2 billion.

Writing for The Atlantic, Aaron Zelin notes that IS has established a very severe form of Islamic law in areas it has occupied, while also employing “a soft-power governing strategy that includes social services, religious lectures, and da’wa (proselytizing) to local populations.” And at The Nation, Robert Dreyfuss suggests that there’s “a real danger that ISIS and its allies can set up a rump statelet in northwest Iraq and northern and eastern Syria controlled by ISIS, and its allies, including groups more closely affiliated to Al Qaeda.”

What’s the Regional Context Here?

This is both an Iraqi conflict, and also a tangled web of proxy wars fought along various regional fault lines.

This chart, by Hayes Brown and Adam Peck from ThinkProgress, is a helpful guide to all of the parties in this highly interconnected conflict:

(Image: ThinkProgress)

Media accounts often focus on the discord between the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, and the “Shiite crescent” — Iraq and Iran, where Shiites are the majority; Lebanon, where Hezbollah is a powerful faction; and Syria, where the Alawites (an offshoot of Shia Islam) are a dominant minority. As the chart above illustrates, this tension also affects Turkey, which has launched multiple strikes against Kurdish separatists in Iraq, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Pew Research Center finds that throughout the region, from Tunisia to Egypt, there are “widespread fears” that the “violence in Syria would spill over into neighboring states.”

Are We Responsible for This Mess?

That’s an oversimplification.

It also takes a short view of history: As the birthplace of the three major Abrahamic religions — and the repository for a good chunk of the world’s oil reserves — the Middle East has long been plagued by conflict. The European colonial powers that sliced up the territory according to their own needs also deserve a lot of credit for its current instability — at GlobalPost, Charles Sennott writes that ISIS is in the process of “tearing up the map” created by France and Great Britain during World War I.

That said, it’s impossible to deny that the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, plus a series of ideologically informed decisions by the Bush administration that followed, is the proximate cause of the bloody conflict raging there today.

The Bush administration went into Iraq with a “small footprint” — that is, insufficient forces to provide security — fired the army and police as part of its “de-baathification” program, privatized the Iraqi economy instead of investing in adequate public services and established a Shiite-dominated government that marginalized the Sunni community.

At The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins argues that the current wave of extremism in Iraq is “America’s legacy.” He writes: “When the Americans invaded they destroyed the Iraqi state—its military, its bureaucracy, its police force, and most everything else that might hold a country together.”

In 2004, The Atlantic’s James Fallows reported that “the Administration will be condemned for what it did with what was known. The problems the United States has encountered are precisely the ones its own expert agencies warned against.” Naomi Klein reported for Harper’s that the administration’s free-market ideology was the root cause of many of the problems that plagued US reconstruction efforts. In 2007, Nir Rosen wrote in The Washington Post that an “obsession with sects informed the U.S. approach to Iraq from day one of the occupation, but it was not how Iraqis saw themselves — at least, not until very recently. Iraqis were not primarily Sunnis or Shiites; they were Iraqis first, and their sectarian identities did not become politicized until the Americans occupied their country, treating Sunnis as the bad guys and Shiites as the good guys. ” That same year, Raed Jarrar and I said that US officials in Iraq had thwarted a number of plans for peace and reconciliation that had been put forth by parties that opposed the occupation.

The US also played a major role in Nouri al-Maliki’s rise to power following the handover from the Iraqi Coalition Government. Maliki has governed in a fiercely sectarian manner — Al-Monitor states that many “inhabitants of Mosul see the Iraqi army as a Shiite occupation army from Baghdad, and some civilians welcomed ISIS when they entered Mosul and removed all Iraqi army checkpoints. And while The Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote back in 2007 that “the most important fact about Maliki’s election is that it’s a modest declaration of independence from Iran,” Maliki spent a decade in exile in Iran and, despite some ideological differences, the party he heads, Dawa, has received consistent support from Tehran.

Dexter Filkins reported for The New Yorker that a crucial deal that brought the current Iraqi government together was orchestrated by Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force and the architect of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s war against the Syrian insurgency.

What About the Domestic Politics?

It’s often the case that the more complex a situation is in the real world, the sillier our political discourse around it here at home is, and this conflict is no exception.

First, there has too often been a tacit assumption, more or less across the political spectrum, that the US has the power to “fix” Iraq if only it can get the policy right. But as Ramzy Mardini writes in The New York Times, “armed intervention by external actors into ongoing conflicts in the Middle East will likely add fuel to the fire.” He adds, “To effectively contain the militant threat spilling over from Syria will require the cooperation of various parts of the state and society in Iraq — from national, provincial and local to political, religious and tribal.”

But how can the U.S. fix a problem in which it has a fraction of a fraction of influencing the solution? For example, to stabilize Iraq will require stabilizing Syria; to stabilize Syria will require a regional settlement, among other things. The United States cannot force the Iraqis to come to terms with one another and cooperate. Washington is often perceived as supporting one political faction over another, especially through security-assistance to the regime.

Second, partisan charges that Barack Obama decided to withdraw all US troops from Iraq at the end of 2011 reflect a short memory. As Tony Karon observed for Time magazine in late 2011, “the decision to leave Iraq by that date was not actually taken by President Obama — it was taken by President George W. Bush, and by the Iraqi government.” In one of his final acts in office in 2008, Bush signed a Status of Forces agreement with the Iraqi government that guaranteed all US combat troops would depart the country by the end of 2011. Bush had tried to negotiate a longer stay, but the Iraqi government refused to grant US troops immunity from prosecution, a deal-breaker for the US military. At the time, a “senior Iraqi official” told Fareed Zakaria, “Maliki cannot allow American troops to stay on. Iran has made very clear to Maliki that its No. 1 demand is that there be no American troops remaining in Iraq. And Maliki owes them.”

Polls dating back to 2004 found that huge majorities of Iraqis saw US forces as “occupiers” rather than “liberators.”

The situation in Iraq — and Syria — is fluid. We’ll update as events unfold.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Thaddeus Kozubal

    To understand the turmoil in the middle East, one would need a history lesson going back many centuries, and several classes in non-Christian religion. The occupants of these countries see themselves affiliated with a religious group first and a region second. There is no such thing in that area as a democracy since that would mean the citizens would have to put their religion second, and that will not happen. It is sad to admit that there are religions in the area that condone death for what Christians view as minor family matters. It is also sad that the punishments doled out for criminal actions are considered barbaric by many “western” countries. Without accepting some of these religious beliefs as governing law, the western countries will never be able to bring order and peace to the region. The principles and laws of the west do not apply to these people. No amount of military or economic aid will bring peace to the region. It is better to leave them be to settle their own problems. Then, decide which countries would line up with our morals and beliefs, and support them in the world theatre.

  • Anonymous

    The war criminals in the Bush administration lied about the pretexts and reasons for their preemptive, illegal and unconstitutional invasion of Iraq, aided by the disinformation and propaganda spread by regime stenographers in the establishment mainstream media to hoodwink and bamboozle the hapless American electorate. The lies and dissembling concerning the war of aggression in Iraq have continued by Obama and his cohort.

    Here are several vitally important online articles regarding US imperial policies in the Middle East that attentive readers may have missed.

    In particular note the detailed maps putting forth the strategic formation for a new Middle East under the hegemony of the US and its Saudi and Israeli partners. What is going on presently has long been planned:

    The Engineered Destruction and Political Fragmentation of Iraq: Towards the Creation of a US Sponsored Islamist Caliphate;

    Was ISIS’s Plunder of Mosul an Insider Job?;

    Plans for Redrawing the Middle East: The Project for a “New Middle East;”

    Resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Fuelled by Saudi Arabia; and

    Al Qaeda: The Database.

  • Anonymous

    If you drew up a map of the United States with the web of corporate and ideological interests destroying our democracy it would look very similar to the above entitled “The Tangles Web For The Future of Syria” instead of religion, here in the US of A, we put profit above our people and environment.

  • Johnny Kulas

    Beware of Turkey.

  • http://www.jlsreport.com JLS

    Americas only solution is the same as the Israeli solution, you have to kill them all if you want to have it all. The invasion was just a means to spend military money, and have the tax payer pay for it.

  • HopeWFaith

    Certainly no one can logically state we have not already added fuel to the fire in the region. We do not need to contribute additional fuel (or weapons, or money, or training). Our efforts were based upon lies to begin with. That was the first mistake. More involvement there – this will mean we have learned nothing from our historically disastrous big ego based thinking. We need to focus on our “land” and redouble our demands with our own government for better outcomes, better behavior. I see this is as a horror, but also a total distraction from all the United States’ overwhelmingly important home front issues. We are just not tackling the enormous needs here, again because we have Republicans in Congress blocking all logic and improvements.

  • JSutton

    Any faction we support now will later become the new enemy equipped with our weapons.

  • Ghostdog

    Don’t be a fop. There are war criminals in both parties that voted for the POS war. I think one of them will be running in 2016

  • Ghostdog

    This looks like a piece of cake to solve………… Nothing another 5 trillion and a Goldman Sachs WAR IPO couldn’t take care of

  • http://www.MilliJoolz.com MilliJoolz

    In the US money is god.

  • Saaby000

    Especially on Thanksgiving.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for nothing Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld for one of the worst military blunders in American history.

  • Anonymous

    I was told by an Iraqui on the way to LA in an airplane that the US was wrong to invade Iraq. He could practice his religion before the war, and had to leave the country after the war. He said that despite the control of Saddam, his country was whole; now it is a fractionated mess.

  • april page

    Shortly before we entered the war with Iraq, I saw Joseph Wilson on a late night TV show. Wilson had worked in the foreign service for close to 30 years, and had lived in Iraq for about 3 years as Deputy of Missions, the assistant to the American Ambassador to Iraq at that time. Wilson said that he had concerns that an invasion of Iraq might lead to civil war. He said that Iraqis’ first allegiances were not to the country of Iraq which had been recently created by the British, but to ancient tribes and religious sects which were often hostile towards each other. Although he despised Saddam Hussein, Wilson believed that the dictator and the various means by which he controlled and ran the country were what was holding it together. Recently, I was talking to a doctor from South Sudan, and she was talking about how thoroughly people identified with their tribes which went back “forever”. She believes that these deep deep tribal roots make it very difficult to form democracies such as we have in the west.

  • Marvin McCoy

    This is a good discussion but you make it sound like this happened by accident and the US did not know this would happen. That is bull. They knew exactly what would happen and if it was not for the US and other mid east interests, ISIS would not exist today. The fact that they are now taking the oil is what is driving the US action today. It is all about oil.

  • fred

    CEC/LaRouche warned forcefully against U.S./U.K./Aus support
    for jihadists in Syria which has created terrorist Islamic State

    Following are five releases the CEC issued since 2012 which repeatedly
    exposed the policy of Australia’s major allies—the U.S. and U.K.—and
    Australia, of backing al-Qaeda-linked jihadists to achieve their aim of regime
    change in Syria. Those jihadists have now formed the Islamic State of Iraq and
    Syria (ISIS), slaughtering thousands of innocents on their way, and recruiting
    jihadists from as far afield as Australia. The American, British and Australian
    governments are wringing their hands in a show of despair, but they caused this

    On the other hand, Russia, the nation the Anglo-Americans are so intent on
    demonising, opposed the illegal invasion of Iraq on a lie, which is ultimately
    responsible for unleashing these monsters, and opposed the backing of these
    monsters to topple Assad in Syria. As British columnist Max Hastings wrote in
    London’s 9 August Daily Mail, “And I cannot forget that when David
    Cameron’s government was so schoolboyishly eager to give support to the rebels
    attacking the tyranny of Syria’s President Assad, a very senior British soldier
    friend said to me: ‘This is the first time in my career that I think the
    Russians have a point. They keep waggling their fingers and saying to us “be
    careful what you wish for”. They believe the anti-Assad jihadis represent a
    threat to us all, and they may be right’.”

    It is time the people of Australia, Britain and the United States rise up
    and demand their governments dump their imperial agenda of regime change, and
    instead respect the sovereignty of other nations, and work with those
    nations—especially Russia and China—on genuine solutions to the crisis in the
    Middle East.

    CEC releases on Syria 2012-2013:

    17 February 2012:

    Obama allies with al-Qaeda
    against Syria; how heavily is Australia involved?

    The British, Barack Obama, Israel and Australia (under Foreign Minister
    Kevin Rudd) are so hell-bent on “regime change” in Syria that they are now
    allies of the very terrorist network against whom we have sent troops to their
    death, and given up our civil liberties to fight a “war on terror”—al-Qaeda…

    10 December 2012:

    Top U.S. official: British-Obama
    lies on Syrian chemical weapons ‘preposterous’

    The same apparatus which knowingly lied in 2002-2003 that Iraq had planned
    to use “weapons of mass destruction”, in order to justify an invasion of Iraq
    and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, is at it again. This time, however, not
    everyone is willing to be suckered by the British-orchestrated lies. The former
    chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson
    (US Army-ret.), for instance, has just denounced as “preposterous” the present
    British and U.S. claims that Syrian President Assad is preparing to use
    chemical weapons against his own people…

    11 December 2012:

    A Preliminary fact sheet:
    President Obama is in bed with al-Qaeda in Libya and Syria

    Thirty-nine Australian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, after their
    government sent them to fight alongside our U.S. allies against the al-Qaeda
    terrorist network and the Taliban. The following release from U.S. statesman
    Lyndon LaRouche’s Political Action Committee (LPAC) exposes how closely Barack
    Obama has allied with the very same al-Qaeda terrorists to execute his
    British-directed agenda of “regime change” in Libya, and now targeting Syria.
    The Gillard government has signed on to the British-Obama agenda, and has taken
    a leading role in demanding regime change in Syria—first under Kevin Rudd as
    Foreign Minister, and now Bob Carr. Australia’s role in Syria is a betrayal of
    the sacrifice of the 39 Australian soldiers killed fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan…

    26 August 2013:

    Rudd is Britain’s agent to turn Syria into WWIII

    Everything that the media is feeding Australians right now about the Syrian
    chemical weapons attack is “Iraqi WMDs”-style propaganda crafted in London, to
    orchestrate a military intervention that could blow up into WWIII.

    The British are manipulating Australia, through their agent Kevin Rudd, a
    longtime intelligence operative closely tied into MI6, so that Australia’s
    position as incoming president of the UN Security Council is used to escalate,
    rather than resolve, the conflict…

    29 August 2013:

    The Syria crisis—stop British/Obama
    mad drive for WWIII

    CEC National Secretary Craig Isherwood declared today, “All competent
    strategists are aware that the current drive for a British and U.S.-led attack
    upon Syria could rapidly escalate into World War III. Australia will take up
    the chair of the UN Security Council on September 1, so we Australians have a
    special responsibility to speak out against this madness. Thus far, the
    ‘evidence’ for the Assad government having used chemical weapons is of the same
    quality as then-British PM Tony Blair’s infamous ‘sexed-up’ dossier in 2003
    which claimed Saddam Hussein possessed WMD. That unleashed a needless war in
    Iraq with all its horrible, continuing consequences, but an attack on Syria may
    well unleash Hell on earth…