The Tangled Web We Weave

The ancestors of modern Iraqis were playing politics when the ancestors of most of the rest of us were living in caves.

The last Iraqi who really knew how to play the game in Baghdad was probably Nuri Said, who served as Prime Minister a total of 14 times between 1930 and 1958, till he was killed by a mob during one of the upheavals that has marked that state ever since the Turks left. I’ve heard stories how he used to keep the Kurdish tribes from coming down out of their hills by buying off first one and then another with bags of gold, to keep them fighting each other.

Where is he now when we need him most? His current successor, Prime Minister Al Abadi, is walking on what appears to be an intersecting web of tightropes, coping with a concatenation of rowdy intriguers, or trying to. The Sunnis used to run things in Baghdad but thanks to our intervention the Shia have moved in, with majority influence in the government. Shias dominate in the eastern side of the country, bordering Iran. Iran is up to its ears these days in Iraqi politics, and supports a collection of Shia militias that have some of the toughest fighters in the area. Sunni tribals occupy much of the dry western region known as Anbar province; they really want to be left alone and don’t like to be run by anybody in Baghdad, least of all Shia. The far north is Kurdish, semi-independent, and absent someone of Nuri Said’s capability seems likely to remain so. The middle, lying north of Baghdad and stretching west into Syria, is almost all Sunni. It is home base for the big new boogie man, ISIS, or the Islamic State, IS. They are the fanatical Sunni fundamentalists who have captured global attention by beheading people and enforcing traditional Islamic law severely enough to make Calvin seem like a liberal. Washington has elevated them to the level of enemy number one in the region, since we have managed to bump off Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda is no longer as prominent as it used to be. We still have a huge Embassy in Baghdad and many military personnel, who remain long after our war there ended. Our soldiers are supposed to help the government face its enemies while our diplomats try to keep the country from falling apart.

We are opposed to Iraq splitting along sectarian lines and deplore the fact that Sunnis and Shias don’t seem to admire Iraqi nationalism as much as their respective religions. We want them all to be good Iraqis. The Iranians have no such aspirations, they see a dog fight developing and know which side they are on. Likewise the Saudis, who also sit next door; they hate and fear the Iranians and their pals in Iraq, and support the Sunnis. The rise of IS gives them a problem since the jihadis in Iraq are even more fanatical followers of traditional Islam than they are, but on balance they hate the ISIS types too, most of time anyway.

Is everything clear? If so, the stage is set for the latest scene in the ever unfolding drama of the Middle East. A shocking event: IS captures Ramadi, the biggest town and capital of Anbar province. It seems that it was a pushover, though defended by government forces both more numerous and better armed than the jihadis that attacked them. This results in a considerable strategic gain for the bad guys, not mention the considerable store of advanced weaponry (which we had supplied) that the defenders left behind when they ran away. Question: Why didn’t they put up more of a fight?

One answer seems to be that tribals who were willing and able to fight the jihadis were repeatedly rebuffed when they asked Baghdad for more guns, even though we were leaning on Abadi to supply them. He was willing, more or less, to give the tribals the equipment, but more extremist Shias in his government blocked any significant aid from flowing. Why? They had their militias ready and willing to get into the fight but we were leaning on Abadi to keep them out because we fear too much Shia influence would result, which would upset our strategists, who have their goals set on a unified Iraq. So we wouldn’t provide air support when it was most needed, in addition to counseling restraint. Or something like that. Anyway, the suddenness of the attack, and the collapse of the government’s defense, has left everybody scrambling, and pretty soon the search for scapegoats will begin in earnest.

Question: does anyone want to take on the job Nuri Said once managed so well, and cope with the present gaggle of factions? One would think that especially on our side of the ocean, cooler heads would sense we were in that particular quagmire a lot farther than was good for us, and we should pull in our horns. A dispassionate observer might conclude that a less ambitious and interventionist stance might not only serve our interests, but Iraq’s.


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