Things are moving very quickly in Iraq. The narrative in the US media seems to be that “the terrorists are taking over Iraq!” This is not the case. What is happening in Iraq is important and concerning, but if you are alarmed that terrorists have suddenly taken over half of Iraq, you can put your mind at rest.
In this post I will briefly explain what is going on with Iraq (as of June 22, 2014.)
Regarding “ISIL” vs. “ISIS.”
In my last post I wrote about the military group called “ISIS.” From now on I will be calling them “ISIL” instead of “ISIS.” ISIL stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” They are called this because ISIL is a military group that wants to take over the Sunni areas of Iraq and the Levant and turn them into a new, Islamic country. If you’re wondering what the Levant is, it isn’t a specific area, but it is this general region:
In reality, ISIL does not want the entire Levant. For now ISIL wants to conquer this general area: (in black)
What the change from “ISIS” to “ISIL?” Both President Obama and al-Jazeera calls them “ISIL.” So I’m going to go with what they’re going with. Why not call them what they call themselves? Because they call themselves, “ad-Dawlat al-Islamiyah fi il-Iraq wa-ash-Sham.” So no.
What is happening in Iraq right now?
ISIL is taking over Northern Iraq. Although they’re not exactly “taking over.” I will explain what they are actually doing later on in this post.
According to Wikipedia, this is a map of ISIL territory from yesterday: (June 21)
Today ISIL have gained even more territory. At the moment they are beginning to seal off the North-Western borders of Jordan and Syria. *Update* The Western border of Iraq is now under full ISIL control.
This looks a lot like ISIL, a terrorist group, has taken over a huge portion of Iraq. Yet you say the media is wrong in saying so. What gives?
To explain the real situation in Iraq, I would like bring three main characters to the stage. You have already met them in the last post. They are:
Nouri al-Maliki is the Prime Minister of Iraq. This is the highest position in the Iraqi government. He is Shia, and has given away a lot of important government positions to his Shia friends. He has created conflict between the Shia Iraqis and Sunni Iraqis, because he gives all the good stuff to the Shias and suppresses the Sunnis. Iraq is 60% Shia and 40% Sunni.
ISIL is a Sunni military group that wants to take over the Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq and turn them into a single Islamic country. ISIL was formed in the beginning of the 2003-2011 War in Iraq. In 2012-2013 they took advantage of the neighboring Syrian conflict and conquered Sunni parts of Syria. Now they are taking over Sunni parts of Iraq.
It is important to remember that the Iraqi people are not fighting each other. At the moment most of the fighting that is happening is between ISIL and al-Maliki’s Shia government. Since 2003, the Iraqi people have lived in a state of war. Before that they lived under the rule of Saddam Hussein. I cannot speak for the Iraq people but I think it is safe to say that they do not want war, nor do they want to live under a repressive government.
A simple analogy to the current situation in Iraq: Pirates and Kings
Under al-Maliki, the Sunni Iraqis are living under a repressive government. Al-Maliki has been their Prime Minister since 2006 and they are soooo done with him. In 2012 -2013 they had massive demonstrations against him. Al-Maliki responded to these mostly peaceful demonstrations by ignoring and then shooting the protesters.
Now ISIL has come in to the Sunni areas and began taking away al-Maliki’s control. Think of it this way: imagine if you are living on an island that is ruled by a king who isn’t from your island, and doesn’t even like your island. The king is constantly making your life worse. When the people of your island ask him to change his ways, he responds by attacking them. A few months later some pirates who are actually from your island show up, and scare the King’s men off your island. Suddenly you are free from the king! You may be wary of the surly pirates but your island isn’t being controlled by the king any more. That is the situation in Iraq right now.
So it’s not exactly like ISIL has taken over Northern Iraq. ISIL is far too tiny to take over such a large amount of territory. They’re more like little groups of surly pirates who are fighting off the al-Maliki’s guards to take away his control from Sunni areas.
This is not to say that ISIL is a bunch of Robin Hoods, with the sole intention of liberating Iraqi Sunnis from the clutches of al-Maliki. What is happening right now is that ISIL is simply taking advantage of the lack of love the Sunnis have for al-Maliki. At the moment Sunnis are letting ISIL fly their flags over their cities because:
1) Fuck al-Maliki and
2) If the Sunnis fight ISIL they will have al-Maliki back. ISIL is Sunni and al-Maliki is Shia. The Iraqi Sunnis have been suppressed by the Shia government too long to give up the chance to have Sunnis control the Sunnis.
Things have moved very quickly in Iraq. ISIL has not had time to settle in. The Sunnis have not had time to react to their new situation. And al-Maliki has so far barely responded to his loss of power. But at the moment, this is the situation in Iraq.
What does the future hold?
ISIL is taking over so quickly that it is hard enough to grasp the present, let alone the future. But simply put, the biggest threat to the future of Iraq is civil war. The threat of civil war is nothing new to Iraq. It has been a threat since the creation of the Iraqi boarders some 70 years ago. Although this month is the closest we’ve come to civil war since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
Is civil war really coming to Iraq? It’s hard to tell. Of course most Iraqis don’t want it, but most Syrians didn’t want civil war either. Luckily, civil war is not the inevitable conclusion to Iraq’s circumstances. On June 19, Obama decided not to bomb ISIL, averting American military involvement. This is good. Iraqi peace is too fragile to withstand foreign military intervention.
Though civil war in Iraq in not inevitable, both ISIL and al-Maliki may desire it. A civil war would force the Sunnis to defend themselves and join ISIL in the fight against al-Maliki. In turn, the Shias would be forced to defend themselves against ISIL and support al-Maliki’s government and Iraqi military. Both ISIL and al-Maliki are weak and desperate for support of the people they claim to represent. A civil war would force people to support them.
On the other hand, things are not that easy. ISIL and al-Maliki are weak. Even if they initiate a civil war, they may not be able to survive it. In the political chaos of a civil war, other groups will rise and may take power from ISIL and/or al-Maliki. ISIL has been popular as liberators but not as governors. al-Maliki is loosing popularity among the Shias and lately there have been some major Shia threats to his power. So even from a cynical point of view, ISIL and al-Maliki may not want civil war anymore… maybe.
But much more importantly, who the fuck else wants civil war?? The Iraqi people certainly don’t! This isn’t like the American civil war where the South wanted to leave the US and was willing to fight over it. Nor is this like Libya in 2011, when the Libyans were able to overthrow a crazy dictator and his army. Iraq is more like Syria, and an Iraqi civil war would be very much like the war that’s happening in Syrian right now. Nobody wants that.
There are two solutions:
1) Iraq can split into two countries: Shia-Iraq, and Sunni-Iraq. It’s not that hard to imagine because Iraq has split once before. During the 2003 – 2011 war in Iraq, the Kurdish population of Iraq quietly became their own country. This country is now called Iraqi-Kurdistan. Technically, Iraqi-Kurdistan is not their own country, but they basically are. The Kurds are able govern themselves freely, make lots of money without the Iraqi government interfering, and Iraqi-Kurdistan is an island of peace despite all the conflicts around them. Also, the Kurds did not have a revolution or fight a civil war to get their country.
If al-Maliki cuts his losses and lets the Sunnis have their own government, civil war can be averted. With ISIL in control of the Sunni areas, the Sunni government of a Sunni-Iraq would not be a democracy. But please, how could civil war be the better option?
2) The Iraqi government could become more inclusive towards Sunnis. Given al-Maliki’s history, he will not allow for a more inclusive government. However, international and internal pressure could force him to stop his old ways. Due to the recent events in Iraq, the US government finally seems to be aware of the danger al-Maliki has put Iraq in. If the US and other governments as well as the Iraqi Shias put enough pressure on al-Maliki, he may acquiesce.
3-?) Things are moving so quickly in Iraq and it’s hard to grasp the present, let alone the future. There are plenty of other possibilities that would prevent an Iraqi civil war. For example, even if al-Maliki does not change the government, his generals may refuse to fight civil war. It is very possible that has already happened earlier this month when 30,000 Iraqi troops “fled” from only 800 ISIL fighters.
And that’s the simple version of what is going on in Iraq right now! There’s a lot more to it but it is far more important to understand the basic concept rather than all the small details. If nothing else, the next time you hear about “terrorists taking over Iraq,” please remember this post. I will end with some pictures of some Iraqi cities that may be hearing of in the news.