Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
The US Role in the Islamic State Sectarianism
By Ramzy Baroud
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, October 16, 2014
Consider this comical scene described by Peter Van Buren, a
former US diplomat, who was deployed to Iraq on a 12-month assignment in
Van Buren led two Department of State teams assigned with
the abstract mission of the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq, which was destroyed in
the US-led wars and sanctions. He
describes the reconstruction of Iraq as such:
that meant paying for schools that would never be completed, setting up
pastry shops on streets without water or electricity, and conducting endless
propaganda events on Washington-generated themes of the week (‘small
business,’ ‘women's empowerment,’ ‘democracy building.’)”
the comical scene: “We even organized awkward soccer matches, where American
taxpayer money was used to coerce reluctant Sunni teams into facing off
against hesitant Shiite ones in hopes that, somehow, the chaos created by
the American invasion could be ameliorated on the playing field.”
Of course, there is nothing funny about it when seen in context. The entire
American nation-building experiment was in fact a political swindle engulfed
by many horrifying episodes, starting with the dissolving of the country’s
army, entire official institutions and the construction of an alternative
political class that was essentially sectarian.
Governing Council (IGC), which was founded in July 2003 as an example.
The actual ruler of Iraq was the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA),
headed first by General Jay Garner, then by Paul Bremer, who, affectively
was the governor of Iraq. The figureheads of the IGC were mostly a
conglomerate of pro-US Iraqi individuals with a sinister sectarian past.
This is particularly important, for when Bremer began mutilating
Iraqi society as dictated to him from Washington, the IGC was the first real
sign of the American vision for Iraq with a sectarian identity. The council
was made of 13 Shias, five Sunnis, five Kurds, a Turkmen and an Assyrian.
One would not dwell on the sectarian formation of the US-ruled Iraq
if such vulgar sectarianism were embedded in the collective psyche of Iraqi
society. But, perhaps surprisingly, this is not the case.
Haddad, author of
Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity, like other
perceptive historians, doesn't buy into the 'ancient hatred' line between
Sunnis and Shia. "The roots of sectarian conflict aren't that deep in Iraq,"
he said in a recent interview.
Between the establishment of the
modern Iraqi state in 1921 and for over 80 years, "the default setting (In
Iraq) was coexistence." Haddad argues that “Post-2003 Iraq ..identity
politics have been the norm rather than an anomaly because they're part of
the system by design.”
That ‘design’ was not put in place
arbitrarily. The conventional wisdom was that the US army is better seen as
a ‘liberator’ than an invader, where the Shia community was supposedly being
liberated from an oppressive Sunni minority. By doing so, those in their
name Iraq was ‘liberated’ were armed and empowered to fight the ‘Sunni
insurgency’ throughout the country. The ‘Sunni’ discourse, laden with such
terminology as the ‘Sunni Triangle’ and ‘Sunni insurgents’ and such, was a
defining component of the American media and government perception of the
war. In fact, there was no insurgency per se, but an organic Iraqi
resistance to the US-led invasion.
The design had in fact served
its purposes, but not for long. Iraqis turned against one another, as US
troops mostly watched the chaotic scene from behind the well-fortified Green
Zone. When it turned out that the US public still found the price of
occupation too costly to bear, the US redeployed out of Iraq, leaving behind
a broken society. By then, there were no more Shia vs. Sunni awkward
football matches, but rather an atrocious conflict that had claimed too many
innocent lives to even be able count.
True, the Americans didn’t
create Iraqi sectarianism. The latter always brewed beneath the surface.
However, sectarianism and other manifestations of identity politics in Iraq
were always overpowered by a dominant sense of Iraqi nationalism, which was
violently destroyed and ripped apart by US firepower starting March 2003.
But what the American truly founded in Iraq was Sunni militancy, a concept
that has, till recently been alien to the Middle East.
majority among Muslim societies as a whole, Sunnis rarely identified as
such. Generally, minorities tend to ascribe to various group memberships as
a form of self-preservation. Majorities feel no such need. Al-Qaeda for
example, seldom made such references to being a Sunni group, and its
targeting of Shia and others was not part of its original mission. Even its
violent references to other groups were made in specific political contexts:
they referred to the ‘Crusaders’ when they mentioned US military presence in
the region, and to Jews, in reference to Israel. The group used terror to
achieve what was essentially political objectives.
al-Qaeda identity began changing after the US invasion of Iraq. One could
make the argument that the link between the original al-Qaeda and current
group known as the Islamic State (IS) is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The
Jordanian-born militant was the founder of al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad group, and
didn’t join al-Qaeda officially until 2004. A merger had then taken place,
resulting in the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)
move to Iraq had originally targeted the US occupation, the nature of his
mission was quickly redefined by the extremely violent sectarian nature of
the conflict. He declared ‘war’ on the Shia in 2005, and was killed a few
months later at the height of the civil war.
Zarqawi was so violent
in his sectarian war to the extent that
al-Qaeda leaders were allegedly irritated with him. The core al-Qaeda
leadership which imposed itself as the guardians of the Muslim ummah
(nation) could have been wary that a sectarian war would fundamentally
change the nature of the conflict - a direction they deemed dangerous.
If these dialectics ever existed, they are no longer relevant today. The
Syrian civil war was the perfect landscape for sectarian movements to
operate, and, in fact, evolve. By then, AQI had merged with the Mujahideen
Shura Council resulting in the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), then the Islamic
State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS),* which eventually declared a Sunni-centered
Caliphate on land it occupied in Syria and, more recently in Iraq. It now
simply calls itself the Islamic State (IS).
Sunni militancy (as in
groups operating on the central premise of being Sunni) is a particularly
unique concept in history. What makes IS an essential sectarian phenomenon
with extremely violent consequences is that it was born into an
exceptionally sectarian environment, and could only operate within the
To destroy sectarian identities prevalent in the
Middle East region today, the rules would have to be redesigned, not by Paul
Bremer type figures, but through the creation of new political horizons,
where fledgling democracies are permitted to operate in safe environments,
and where national identities are reanimated to meet the common priorities
of the Arab peoples.
While the US-led coalition can indeed inflect
much damage on IS and eventually claim some sort of victory, they will
ultimately exasperate the sectarian tension that will spill over to other
Middle Eastern nations.
- Ramzy Baroud is a PhD scholar in People's
History at the University of Exeter. He is the Managing Editor of Middle
East Eye. Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media
consultant, an author and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest
book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press,
* The US government officials prefer the term used by European
orientalists and crusaders, "Levant" instead of the authentic Arabic word of
Al-Sham or Greater Syria, hence the acronym of ISIL - Al-Jazeerah Editor.
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