Cover Story Related: Crisis in Iraq
Intro: More the ideology of Muslim community becomes anti-human, more it will provocate the anti-human activities in the world. The consequences are already being witnessed in West Asia.
By toppling Saddam Hussain in 2003, under the pretext of eliminating Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), the United States, not only removed the well-entrenched 35 year old Baathist regime of Iraq, it ushered in a period of instability, which continues to this date. Saddam’s deposition allowed hitherto suppressed Shiite majority and Kurdish minority in Iraq to give vent to their suppressed aspirations and seek greater say in the administration. However, Sunni Arabs, who had been used to power and pelf, were not ready to relinquish their dominance and this facilitated Al-Qaeda to fish in the troubled waters and give rise to sectarian conflicts. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Jama'at al-Tawhidwal-Jihad, an Islamist terrorist group became Al-Qaeda in Iraq in October 2004 and began targeting coalition forces as well as Shia Muslims, further exacerbating sectarian tensions. More significantly the presence of US troops in Iraq was used to whip up nationalist sentiments to target Shiite leaders, who were shown to be collaborating with foreign occupiers. Saddam’s assassination through a largely sham trial further exacerbated the sectarian tensions as Shias and Kurds celebrated his death, whilst Sunni Arabs mourned him as a martyr.
The US withdrawal, however, brought in a modicum of peace in Iraq as the main ground of foreign occupation, on which Al-Qaeda got its recruits was no longer there.A democratic regime, where all communities found representation further smothered the opposition to the regime. Pluralistic and democratic Iraqi Regime became a model for the Arab world, causing serious anxieties amongst many Middle Eastern States and could have been the catalyst for ‘Arab Spring’. Arab spring that started in Tunisia, and toppled entrenched regimes in Egypt and Libya, turned into a sectarian conflict, by the time it reached Syria. Syrian protests against President Assad’s regime, which initially were nothing but a quest for democracy turned into a Shia Sunni conflict, after Saudi Arabia, Qatar and even Turkey started supporting the rebels, thereby forcing Iran and Hezbollah to come out in support of the regime. Iraq initially remained neutral, but a Shiite government eventually started leaning towards Assad. In the mean time the government of Nouri-al-Maliki, which had came to power in Iraq, started establishing Shiite supremacy without paying any heed to the Sunni sensitivities. This alienated the Sunni Arabs, who had been used to ruling Iraq in the past. More significantly absence of oil in the region dominated by Sunni Arabs, and consequently lower provincial revenues there, also accentuated the sense of deprivation amongst Sunni Arabs. This aggravated the sectarian divide and when Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) started moving into Iraq from Syria, it received support from disparate Sunni armed groups and from former Baathists to disgruntled tribes, all climbed on to ISIL bandwagon.
The global community by and large ignored ISIL activities in Iraq, as the territory being controlled by them was desert and not of much economic significance, consequently,its presence in Iraq was perceived just as a spillover from Syria. All this changed drastically as soon as ISIL captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq with a population of 1.8 million.
The manner in which ISIL captured the city with motley group of fighters and followed it with Tikrit, Tal Afar and vast swaths of territory in North and West of Iraq, stunned the analysts across the globe. It also raised serious questions about the fighting capability of Iraqi Army; however, according to reports emanating from Iraq, Maliki’s policies had alienated the Sunnis so much that Sunni troops joined ISIL rather than fighting them and Shia troops, not sure of their colleagues’ loyalty scooted from an overwhelmingly Sunni city.
ISIL in its attack on Mosul was also joined in by an array of other Sunni militant groups, including the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order -a collection of former members of Saddam Hussein's now-outlawed Baath party. Naqshbandi leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri is considered to be the sixth most important target during the Gulf War. He also praised ISIL and its “historic victories” and stated that the militant offensive marked a “Historic and great turning point in the nation's march of Jihad to achieve its freedom and unity and to build prosperous future for coming generations.”
The brutality exhibited by ISIL after capturing Mosul and surrounding areas, has created an awe amongst Iraqis, which is reminiscent of the fear of Mongols, who had ransacked Baghdad eight centuries ago. Over 90000 Iraqi troops are believed to have panicked and deserted their posts under the ISIL onslaught and have created serious concerns about the viability of a unified Iraq. More significantly, ISIL aggravated the sectarian hatred by asking its fighters not to yield territory won to Shiites, except over their dead bodies. The fact that Karbala was ravaged by the Wahabis in the past, have raised the anxieties of Shias worldwide.
ISIL declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate and dropped Iraq and Levant from its name transforming itself into Islamic State (IS). Subsequently, its Shura ‘elected’ the elusive Dr Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the jihadist leader of ISIL as the new caliph. By establishing an Islamic caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq under their control, ISIL is blurring the national boundaries, which were in any case a legacy of the colonial rule. ‘The proclamation of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Caliph Ibrahim, the caliph of all Muslims, has made him even more powerful than Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. It already has vast resources with its war booty having been enriched by vast reserves of gold held by various banks in Mosul and cash reserves of around $ 429 million. It also has large quantity of arms and ammunition, which were acquired when Mosul fell into its hand.
The Islamic State has also asked Al-Qaeda and other related militant Sunni factions to immediately pledge their allegiance and many members of Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra front have reportedly sworn their allegiance to the new caliph. One Islamic outfit in Pakistan and Boko Haraam in Nigeria have already shifted their allegiance to the new caliphate. As it gets more and more theocratic validation, one would see Sunni youths from across the globe joining it, to fight the holy war!
It means that despite the military hardware from Russia and advisers from the US, Iraqi Army is not going to be successful in dislodging ISIS from the territories captured by it. Iraqi Kurds, who have been eyeing independence for long and already enjoy considerable autonomy have utilised this turbulence to capture Kirkuk, which they always claimed as their capital.
Iran, which finds itself hemmed in by an Islamic caliphate with an avowed anti-Shia agenda in the West, and an army of the faithful led by Mullah Omar and his Taliban in the East, is justifiably concerned with the developments. This could result in Iran aligning more closely with its Shiite allies, namely the Iraqi and Syrian regime as well as Hezbollah to counter the threat of this Sunni Wahabi caliphate. The caliphate will influence not only West Asia, but the entire Islamic World.
-Alok Bansal(The writer is the Director, Centre for Security and Strategy, India Foundation)