Mosul is located in northern Iraq and is one of Iraq’s larger cities. In June 2014, Iraqi and American officials were stunned when a small force belonging mostly to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) quickly overran large chunks of Iraqi territory and captured the city. The Iraqi security forces, trained and supplied by the United States at great expense, simply dissolved in the face of the ISIS attack. During the military fiasco, an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Iraqi troops fled the area. The swift capture of the city by ISIS shook the unstable central government in Baghdad to its very core and raised serious questions regarding the worth of the American military aid program. The sporadic urban fighting now underway to liberate the city from ISIS control is expected to continue until sometime in April.
ISIS began its existence as an al-Qaida affiliate in Iraq that took advantage of the turmoil churning in the wake of the American invasion of 2003. As part of the process of establishing a new government in Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) decided to exclude all members of the Bath party from jobs. The difficulty with the CPA decision was that almost everyone in Iraq who wanted a promotion in the civil service, police, state enterprises, military forces or school system was required to be a member of the Bath Party. Although a few analysts argued that that the CPA effort was too broad and that the Iraqi military should not be considered to be a fully Baathist institution, the CPA dissolved the Iraqi military in May 2003.
As a result, thousands of military-trained men found themselves out of a job, alienated and excluded from any role in Iraq’s then dazzling future. In retrospect, the CPA program drove a large number of disenfranchised Sunni Arabs into resisting the American occupation and the effort to establish a replacement government. The overstretched U.S. military which had easily defeated Saddam Hussein’s forces, soon found itself dealing with a major insurgency problem that had to be subdued.
Events in Syria also helped fuel the enlargement of ISIS. In 2011, the peaceful protests in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad degenerated into a civil war after Assad violently beat down the protests. A number of fighters from the insurgency movement in Iraq moved to Syria to fight against Assad. About the same time, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi enunciated his violent, medieval Islamic Caliphate philosophy. He split from al-Qaida and merged the Iraqi and Syrian components into a new outfit named ISIS. Along with its many other chilling atrocities, ISIS’s brutal methods of raising funds ran the gamut from levying taxes to extortion rackets and kidnapping.
The blunders made by the Iraqi government headed by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki from 2006 to 2014 also contributed to the rise of ISIS. Prime Minister Malaki’s decision to assign soldiers openly displaying Shia sectarian sentiments to the streets of Sunni-majority cities was idiotic, antagonistic and invited strife. His Shia militias allied with Iran raised fears in the Sunni community. After the withdrawal of the U.S forces in December 2011, Maliki introduced more controversial policies favoring Shia Iraqis over Sunni Iraqis. The result was a Sunni protest movement which emerged in 2012, quickly spreading across six of Iraq’s 18 governorates. The Maliki government then cracked down, killing unarmed Sunni protesters. The Iraqi military was also affected by Maliki’s program of centralization and sectarianism. It gravely weakened the already stressed armed services.
Haider al-Abadi, the current prime minster, is trying to reverse the damage. He has brought thousands of Sunni officers and soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s army back on to the government payroll. Amid the political chaos, some open-minded Shia leaders are starting to realize the Sunnis, Kurds and other Iraqi minorities have to have a place in the new Iraqi state. There are other signs of improvement. In the Iraqi parliament, some alliances are forming across the deep sectarian divide. Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shia Arabs no longer vote as united blocks on all issues. In a sectarian environment riddled with political corruption, the question is how to convince a majority of Iraq’s people that they actually have a future together. If Iraq is to thrive as a country, the widespread disillusionment stemming from the past failings of the central government will have to be overcome.
One complicating factor is that former Prime Minister Maliki retains a substantial amount of power in Iraq’s governing circles. Due his political network, many in the top jobs in Iraq’s civil service, judiciary and parliament owe their positions to him. Despite the failure of his policies, Maliki has not changed most of his sectarian views. In a 2015 article, Henry Kissinger stated that the United States played a key role in creating a relatively stable order in the Middle East after the 1973 war. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 had much to do with shattering that order. Many of the unanticipated aftereffects remain to be resolved.