By Hussain Abdul-Hussain
– The writer is a Washington-based political analyst. He has written for the New York Times, The Washington Post and Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, among others.
WASHINGTON (AA) – Top U.S. general in Iraq Stephen Townsend has a tip for Baghdad. “If we’re to keep ISIS [Daesh] 2.0 from emerging, the Iraqi government is going to have to do something pretty significantly different,” he told the BBC . Townsend said the Iraqi government has “to reach out and reconcile with the Sunni population, and make them feel like their government in Baghdad represents them”.
But what seems like an American advice to Baghdad is in fact a denunciation of past government policies toward the country’s Sunnis. If reaching out and reconciling with Sunnis is required to prevent the reemergence of terrorism, then one cannot but conclude that it was the Shia government’s anti-Sunni policies that resulted in the creation of Daesh 1.0 in the first place.
In Washington, it has been long understood that the attitude of Iraqi Shia toward their Sunni compatriots has been at the heart of the rise of terrorism. America, however, was slow to realize that — during the early stages of its war in Iraq — it unwittingly helped tip the balance in favor of the Shia.
Civil wars are slow to heal. The beginning of the healing process, however, is incumbent on the turning of a new page and resetting of relations between the warring factions. In religiously and ethnically diverse Iraq, America copied a political system from the similarly diverse Lebanon. The only Lebanese experience that America did not replicate in post-Saddam Iraq was the “general pardon”, which the Lebanese government issued in 1991, toward the end of the country’s 15-year civil war. Pardons allow bygones to be bygones, and bring vendettas and revenge to a close.
In Iraq, however, instead of turning a new page, America played into the Shia-Sunni conflict by approving a series of steps that put Iraqi Sunnis on the back foot facing an Iranian-inspired Shia assault. Starting with de-Baathification, and ending with the disbanding of the American-formed Sunni tribal militias known as Sahwat, Washington effectively let the Shias go after the Sunnis. And because every action begets a reaction, and because the Sunnis had nowhere to run, many Sunnis started joining groups like al-Qaeda, thus resulting in a resurgence of the terrorist group, which had been annihilated by the time America withdrew from Iraq in late 2011.
The history of the Iraq war has yet to be written. For the time being, the most common narrative has it that America invaded the country in 2003 and unleashed a bloody conflict that continues until today. What actually happened was somehow different.
America’s surge of troops, together with arming Sunni tribal fighters, succeeded in bringing down the number of deaths among Iraqi civilians from a peak of 13,613 in 2007, to 3,036 in 2011, before the number snapped back to 9,851 in 2013, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) , a Washington think tank.
Contrary to the common belief, the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011 was not the determining factor in the deterioration of Iraqi security. It was rather the decision of the Obama administration to treat the Shia Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki as a sovereign counterpart, which meant that America let go of its Sunni allies.
Maliki, who used Iraqi oil proceeds to build an Iraqi Shia movement, feared that pro-Iran Iraqi Shias might outflank him on the right. Iran had given the nod to its Syrian ally Bashar Assad to allow suicide bombers into neighboring Iraq, thus killing hundreds of Iraqis and shattering Maliki’s image as the man who had restored stability.
To make up for his political losses, and to brandish his credentials as a strong Shia leader, Maliki cracked down on Iraqi Sunnis, both those in government and the tribal forces that America had left behind. The day after the U.S. withdrawal, Maliki sent tanks to surround the residence of Vice President Tareq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, on charges of terrorism. Maliki also dissolved the Sunni force, Sahwat, and chased down its leaders, often on bogus charges of terrorism.
Because al-Qaeda — the force that could have countered Maliki’s uncontrollable power — had been ejected, Iraqi Sunnis found themselves on the run with nowhere to hide. Many former Saddam regime cadres thus reorganized themselves into violent groups, but replaced their secular Baathist outlook with one of “radical Islamism”, an image that is more marketable today for foreign fighters and donors.
With former Baathists taking over Iraqi al-Qaeda, Daesh broke ranks with al-Qaeda International. In Syria, Daesh engaged in bloody wars against al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front. Also in Syria, Iraqi Baathists, now Daesh leaders, maintained good ties with Assad’s intelligence networks, a fact that might explain the non-hostile relationship between Assad and Daesh, and their mutual interest in producing oil and gas — in Daesh territory — and selling it to the Assad regime.
While most of the world treated Daesh as an extension of al-Qaeda, only Shia Iraqis seemed to be aware that, in essence, “radical Islamism” was only a veneer for an otherwise Baathist organization the world knows as Daesh. In almost all the statements and speeches by Iraqi officials, as well as in the conversations of common Iraqis, Daesh members were called the “Baathist Dawaish” (the Arabic plural of the singular Daesh). The way Daesh governed territory it controlled further confirmed that the group was more inspired by Saddam than al-Qaeda.
Like Saddam, Daesh banned travel for people living under its control, prohibited satellite dishes, and cut the hands of anyone found using foreign currency instead of the state’s presumed Islamic dinar. And like Saddam, the brutal Daesh had no friends as the group went after everything and everyone, accusing the world of conspiring against the nation, the Arab nation in the case of Saddam and the Islamic nation with Daesh.
Finally, and also like Saddam, Daesh invited the wrath of an international coalition that launched a devastating air campaign against its territory. Daesh fighters, however, showed more prowess in fighting the advancing forces of the Iraqi government and militias, as opposed to Saddam’s fighters, who often ran away at the first whiff of battle.
The architects of the American plan to stabilize Iraq in 2010 and 2011 were called upon after the Iraqi military meltdown and the Daesh takeover of Mosul in June 2014. Former Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who had sneaked into Obama’s limousine to convince him of the importance of American intervention to stop a possible downfall of Baghdad to Daesh, told Congress — in a hearing  — that the cornerstone of his plan to roll back Daesh was to reconnect with Iraqi Sunni tribes. If that fails, he said, America would go back to the drawing board.
Under Iranian pressure, the Iraqi government never let America reconnect with the Sunni tribes or arm them. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, closer to Tehran than his predecessor, insisted that whatever support Washington had to offer to Iraqi Sunnis had to go through his government. With Obama courting Iran for a nuclear deal, Washington let go of Iraqi Sunnis, as pro-Iran Shia militias ravaged Sunni towns and villages, often committing atrocities against civilians and even shooting at the rubble of Saddam’s mausoleum  in Tikrit, suggesting that the Iraqi war on Daesh was more of a Shia settling of scores with Sunnis rather than combating terrorism.
After the downfall of Saddam, Iran and Iraqi Shias went after the Iraq’s Sunnis in revenge, perpetuating an old and vicious cycle of violence. The most recent round of this Shia-Sunni vendetta in Iraq was the Shia retaking of Daesh territory. But if history teaches us anything, it is that revenge never heals old wounds, only deepens them and paves the way for further rounds of violence in the future. That’s why Townsend invited Iraqi Shias to act differently toward the Sunnis. Whether the Shias are heeding his advice is an open question.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.