The road to ISIS – a history lesson

The road to ISIS: A history of violence in Iraq by Amy McTighe

He was buried deep in a cave in northern Iraq; laid out in his grave beside others of the clan. He had lived to around 40 years old, and arthritis had begun to set in. But it wasn’t old age that killed him. It was a spear to the ribs; a spear thrown from a distance, and crucially, a spear thrown by a man.

This was the fate of Shanidar 3, a Neanderthal who lived between 35–45,000 years ago in what is now northern Iraq, and who was killed by an early modern human — the only species to wield such a weapon. Shanidar 3’s death may be the earliest evidence of human conflict in the Middle East, and in fact the world, but the root of today’s violence is to be found elsewhere entirely.

Who is to blame?

Since the US-led coalition invasion in 2003 it is estimated that 211,000 people have died in Iraq, and the body count has risen particularly sharply in the last two years.

Who is to blame for these deaths? Oil-thirsty Americans; A power-hungry dictator; Ruler-happy European imperialists; Islamic terrorists?

No, to find the root of today’s conflict in Iraq we first have to look even earlier than Shanidar 3’s death; back millions of years to the formation of two of the world’s most famous rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. As they began to flow in near-parallel from the highland plateaus of Turkey to the Persian Gulf a fertile plain stretched between them, nurtured by an ideal climate; the perfect conditions for mankind’s first experimentation with agriculture.

The birth of civilisation

Farming really began to take off in this area around 6,000BC. As humans needed to spend less time hunting and gathering, they had more time to spend building increasingly sophisticated dwellings. Then greater numbers of people began to settle in the same place. Societies, economies and religions developed, and in this way Ancient Mesopotamia gave birth to the world’s first civilisations.

And that’s when the trouble started. The streamlining and specialisation of roles in these new civilisations, and the comfort of a more regular food supply, freed up large groups of the men to dedicate all of their time to defending their territory; even to expand it. In other words it allowed ancient civilisations to go to war.

The land that is now called Iraq is relatively close to the outline that was once Ancient Mesopotamia. It is physically bounded by mountains to the north and east, the sea in the south, and a desert in the west. The outline of modern-day Iraq might look artificial, but if you map out the areas of Iraq that are actually populated, you’ll see that most major population centres fall pretty much within the bounds of Ancient Mesopotamia.

The main exception to this is the Kurds in the north, but for simplicity’s sake I won’t be covering the Kurdish question here. I’m just going to look at the origins of today’s violence in the main body of modern-day Iraq, and call it Mesopotamia.

The first conquests of Mesopotamia

Kingdoms centred around cities such as Babylon and Ur (between modern-day Baghdad and Basra) flourished for thousands of years, relatively unchallenged. As other civilisations grew up around the world, it became clear to them that not only was Mesopotamia rich in natural resources, but it was strategically placed in the corridor between Europe and Asia. Whoever controlled Mesopotamia controlled valuable trading routes.

The first violent takeover came in 1360BC, when the neighbouring Assyrian kings of the city of Ashur on the river Tigris began to conquer lands far beyond their own territory, including much of Mesopotamia. For the next two thousand years or so, Mesopotamia’s lands were conquered or re-conquered by most of the great civilisations of the time; Ancient Greece, Egypt, Persia and Rome; each one replacing the other violently.

The coming of Islam

In AD636 came a new wave, which changed Mesopotamia for good. Arabs of the recently established Islamic faith defeated the Sassanid Empire (then covering modern day Iran and Iraq) in a great battle and paved the way for the Islamic dynasty of the Abbasids, who ruled Mesopotamia between AD750 and 1258, establishing their capital in Baghdad.

Although there were conflicts and disputes during this period, it was on the whole more settled, and is known as the Golden Age of Islam, when Baghdad became one of the most important centres of learning and progress in the world.

The early days of Islam were unsettled and often violent, as conflict arose concerning who should succeed the Prophet Mohammed. The Shias believed that the leader of the Muslim community should be a blood relative of the prophet Mohammed, but the Sunnis believed that leaders should be chosen by the elite of the Muslim community. The Sunnis prevailed, but both sects lived side by side relatively peacefully for several centuries.

And then came the Mongols

Few people mention the Mongols when discussing the origins of conflict in Iraq, but their brutal treatment of Mesopotamia began a chain of events that led directly to today’s violence.

The 13th century Mongol invasions were more destructive than Saddam Hussein, the Iraq War, the insurgency and Islamic State put together. In just the first siege and ransacking of Baghdad in 1258 the army of Hulagu, grandson of Ghengis Khan, killed up to 1.6 million people in various gruesome ways and destroyed as much of the city’s cultural heritage and essential infrastructure as it could manage. They didn’t come to conquer, but to destroy.

For the next couple of centuries, Mesopotamia lay neglected at the furthest reach of the Mongolian empire. Any time it tried to pick itself up and rebuild, a fresh ransacking reduced it once more to rubble. From its origins as the first great civilisation and recent past as the centre of a prosperous and learned Islamic empire, Mesopotamia fast deteriorated into a social, economic and political mess.

Farmland fell into disuse as irrigation systems were destroyed, trading centres were avoided by other nations, and the people of Mesopotamia gradually retreated away from the cities and back to a more nomadic, rural and tribal way of life.

The ascent of minority Sunni rule

By the 16th century Mesopotamia was too weak to stand up for itself and became the frontier of a battle between the more powerful Ottoman and Persian Empires, with their seats of power in modern-day Turkey and Iran.

A key result of this slow motion battle, played out over 400 years or so, was that it deepened the divisions of the Sunni-Shia split in Mesopotamia. In the early 1500s, the Safavid dynasty was in control of the Persian Empire, and Shia Islam became the tie that bound its disparate elements together. In contrast, the Ottoman empire was staunchly Sunni, and sought to maintain Mesopotamia as a buffer zone to prevent the infection of its eastern provinces with Shi’ism.

For most of the 16th-19th centuries the Ottomans were successful in their domination of Mesopotamia, with only brief periods of Persian control. The Ottomans, like the Mongols before them, had little interest in a prosperous Iraq, and invested nothing in the territory, which continued as a poor, rural backwater.

For a relatively brief period from 1704 to 1831 however, the Mamluks, former slaves from Georgia, wrested control of Mesopotamia from the Ottomans and initiated a programme of reform and development. By the time the Ottomans took it back, Mesopotamia was beginning to find its feet, and the seeds of nationalism had been sown.

Regardless of any improvement in Mesopotamia’s general condition, both the Ottomans and the Mamluks were Sunni, so although the majority of Muslims in Iraq were Shia, both empires nurtured and promoted only a minority Sunni elite, fearful of giving any ground to Shi’ism and the Persians.

British Rule and the discovery of oil

The Sykes-Picot agreement, negotiated between Britain and France in the midst of the first world war, was a treaty to decide which bits of the Ottoman Empire would belong to who, should they win the war (the Ottomans having thrown their lot in with the Germans). This led to some fairly arbitrary and unnaturally straight lines being drawn across much of the Middle East.

While many of these lines have caused decades of conflict, the territory of the new State of Iraq, under the mandate of the British, was actually little different from existing Mesopotamia (with the exception of the Kurds).

What really did mess the country up was that the British, lacking in money, energy and manpower after a debilitating four-year war, took the easy road and allowed the Sunni elite put in place by the Ottomans to remain largely in charge of the country.

Taking it one step even further, they made the new State of Iraq a monarchy, and appointed a king from the loyal Hashemite clan of Saudi Arabia. King Faisal I had never even set foot in Iraq when he became its monarch. Luckily he turned out to be a thoughtful and fair leader, and throughout his 12 year reign he worked hard to foster better relations between the Sunni and Shia Muslims of Iraq.

King Faisal I promotion of the Pan-Arab movement annoyed the British, whose puppet he was supposed to be. Furthermore it was largely due to his efforts that Iraq obtained nominal self-rule in 1932.

Military coups galore

In 1933 King Faisal I died on a trip to Switzerland (in rather fishy circumstances) and his son Ghazi took the throne at the age of just 21. In contrast to his father, Ghazi was an ineffectual and reckless leader, who played the army and the civilian government against each other in a bid to gain more control over the country.

This led, inevitably, to Iraq’s first military coup in 1936, ushering in a period of great instability in which there were six more coup attempts in five years. King Ghazi died young in 1939, and as his four year old son was too young to rule alone, his uncle Abd Al-Ilah became regent.

Since the late 1920s, the British had been looking for a way to extend their influence over Iraq beyond the end of the Mandate and get their hands on the oil reserves in Kirkuk. Abd Al-Ilah was their best chance for years. He was far more sympathetic to British involvement in the country, seeing them as his best chance to stay in power. To that end, he stamped good and hard on the growing Arab Nationalist movement in Iraq, and on the army in general.

One section of the army he reserved particular disdain for was a group of officers from the poor tribes of Tikrit and its surrounding area. Despite being Sunnis, he regarded them as social upstarts; thieves and beggars who deserved no position of any power.

These officers formed the core of the Arab Nationalist movement, which in the early 1950s gained momentum, culminating in a coup by General Abd Al-Karim Kasim in 1958. This was the real end of British influence in Iraq. Kasim was a dedicated anti-imperialist and socialist, and under his rule the newly formed and non-aligned Republic of Iraq drifted away from Europe and towards alliances with communist countries.

Let’s take stock of where Iraq is in the early 1960s: Mongol devastation leaves a formerly ascendant country at the mercy of surrounding empires for several centuries, each exploiting the population and resources for their own ends; Sunni and Shia differences are exacerbated and the former now have disproportionate influence over the country’s majority Shia. A disenchanted section of the army, Sunni but not elite, grow more and more angry with the status quo and finally burst upon the political scene. They retake Iraq for ordinary Arabs, and start the process of uniting Arab socialist movements across the Middle East. The future holds a glimmer of hope for the people of Mesopotamia.

The rise of Saddam

Within General Kasim’s inner circle was a young, talented and ambitious officer from Tikrit called Saddam Hussein. His uncle, Khairallah Tulfah, with whom he lived after being humiliated, beaten and thrown out of home by his step-father, was a hate-filled man (in the 1980s he wrote a book called ’Three whom God should not have created: Persians, Jews and Flies) and he filled young Saddam’s head with many enemies, chief amongst them the British.

Young Saddam had joined the nascent Ba’ath Party with a strong belief in its aim to unite the Arab world and bring it together under socialist, secular principles, and he worked with Iraq’s first presidents to promote these ideals (while keeping a close eye on his own political promotion).

He began well. In his role as vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council he instituted social reforms from the late 1960s to 1970s that made Iraq’s education and health systems the envy of the Middle East. He modernised Iraq’s economy, wrested control of its oil back from international companies, and directed that revenue flow back to the people of Iraq. He also created a strong security aparatus which would stabilise the government and prevent more coups.

Actually it was this last step which, although in pursuit of an ideal, ultimately became the tool with which Saddam terrorised and divided Iraq.

It’s hard to say when or why Saddam Hussein began his descent into dictatorship, and when the good that he did began to be so completely outweighed by his relentless crushing of individual freedom. Certainly by the time he assumed formal control of Iraq as President in 1979, he was was already far along that path. His devotion to the cause of socialism and Arab Nationalism fell into the background as he became consumed extreme paranoia and a maniacal desire to retain power.

The brutality of Saddam’s rule is legendary. His strategy was a simple one of total control, and divide and rule. Although the Ba’ath Party was secular, Saddam was from a Sunni tribe, and he promoted only those from his tribe (and mostly his family) to positions of any power. This further fuelled the frustration of Iraq’s majority Shia, and substantial Kurdish population. He also pursued a rather pointless and destructive war with Iran for most of the 1980s, nearly bankrupting the Iraqi economy and damaging many of his earlier social and economic developments.

The Iraq War

Skip forward to 2003, and the US + others invasion of Iraq. Whatever the reasons behind the invasion (oil), the US had clearly not done their homework on the country’s history, and after victory, immediately set about dismantling the government under the crowd-pleasing title of de-Ba’athification; an unsubtle echo of de-Nazification.

Had they looked into it a little, the US administration would have discovered that a) the Ba’ath Party did not have a fundamentally bad philosophy (unlike the Nazi Party), it was just misused. b) Saddam was basically the only person with any real power, and most of the Ba’ath Party card carriers keeping the country running were just minions. c) Most of these minions were not die-hard Saddam supporters but had early on been given a choice between employment and Ba’ath Party membership vs. unemployment and often death. d) The Shia who had been downtrodden by successive Sunni rulers for the best part of 600 years were probably going to be up for a bit of revenge.

And so it was that Iraq found itself with Nuri Al-Maliki in power in 2006. Under Maliki, the worse-case scenario in the minds of anybody who understood anything about Iraqi history, happened.

Iran, keen to humiliate their arch-enemy the Americans, whispered in Maliki’s ear that the US never meant to leave, and sent troops to train Shia militia to drive them out Iraq’s new would-be colonisers. Under Iran’s cunning and America’s mishandling, all of Iraq’s long-festering problems were dragged into the open and poked with a very big stick.

Iraq’s first Shia despot

Maliki was a weak and unprincipled leader, lurching from one decision to another without any thought to a long term strategy. Amidst the chaos of the Shia militias and Sunni insurgency, he developed a taste for authoritarianism. When the US military withdrew most of its forces from Iraq in 2010, Maliki had it within his power to begin a path towards reconciliation. Instead he turned his back on it and chose revenge.

From de-Ba’athification in 2003 to the end of Maliki’s Prime Ministership in 2014, Iraq’s Sunni’s were not only kept out of power, but their communities were relentlessly persecuted. Regular assassinations of low-level Sunni leaders avoided the negative international publicity that came with the Sunni suicide bombings, but were nonetheless powerful. Shia militia harassed and patrolled many Sunni areas, taking over the role of the police or army. In Mosul there were ‘Maliki death squads’ who patrolled the streets, enforcing curfews and performing instant executions of people who failed to follow their rules to the letter.

Last year I met a Kurd who had lived all of his life in Mosul. He told me that the eight years of Maliki’s rule had made life unbearable. Citizens lived in constant fear and had no freedom. Maliki’s militia had so much control that if you so much as turned your light on in the night to go to the bathroom, they would knock on your front door to see what you were up to.

As these militia consolidated Maliki’s power, the army fell by the wayside and succumbed to corruption. By 2014 it was estimated that in some squadrons, only one third of the quantity of soldiers on the official register actually existed. The rest were made up and their wages collected by the officers.

Iraq is now in a state of civil war

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that when the self-proclaimed Islamic State marched into Mosul and much of Western Iraq, they appeared to local people not as oppressive attackers, but as liberators of an oppressed minority. And the long-neglected and virtually hollow Iraqi army instantly crumbled.

And this is where so many have got it wrong when searching for the origins of ISIS. The focus on them as a terrorist group with immense power and skill gives them too much credit. They are an opportunistic and well-organised group who rode the wave of ethnic tension into Iraq and ignited a civil war that had been rumbling unrecognised for several years.

To end the violence in Iraq, the focus cannot be to defeat ISIS. The seeds of this conflict are rooted as far back as the agricultural revolution, when Mesopotamia’s natural resources began to make it so desirable. Ever since then it has remained one of the most valuable territories in the world in terms of resources and strategic significance, which will always be vulnerable to exploitation.

The only way forward is to work towards an inclusive government under a strong but fair leader. With no reason to fight, ISIS’s support base in Iraq would melt away as quickly as it came. As my friend from Mosul said; people are starting to realise that ISIS might be as bad as Maliki. It wouldn’t take much support for them to turn their allegiance back to their country.

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