The Syrian civil war is spreading to Iraq, carrying with it the risk of fresh violence.
Forty-eight unarmed Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqis were killed earlier this week by al-Qa’ida fighters in an ambush in western Anbar province. The Syrian soldiers were in Iraqi territory, having escaped across the border from a battle with the Syrian rebels further north, and were being repatriated to Syria when they were attacked. The killings have led to fears among Iraqis that it would not take much to revive their own Sunni-Shia civil war, which only died down five years ago. Hadi al-Amiri, Iraqi Transport Minister and former head of the Shia militia group Badr, complains that “presenting money and weapons to al-Qa’ida in Syria by Qatar and Turkey is a declaration of armed action against Iraq. If we (Shia) form militia and they (Sunnis) form militia then Iraq will be lost.”
It may already be too late. Iraqi leaders from different communities are edgy, fearing that the spread of sectarian civil war from Syria to Iraq and to the rest of the region is becoming inevitable.
“The next item on the agenda is Shia-Sunni conflict,” said a senior Iraqi politician. “We thought Lebanon would be first affected by events in Syria, but in fact it is us. The only way to prevent Iraq being destabilised is to put out the Syrian fire at once.”
Iraqis are cynical about the motives of the US and Britain in condemning an al-Qa’ida fighter as a terrorist when he is shooting and bombing in Iraq. But should the same al-Qa’ida member travel a few miles up the Euphrates, cross the Syrian border and fight the Syrian army, he is transformed into a freedom fighter and may soon benefit from “non-lethal” American and British aid.
Other parallels can be drawn between the Syrian crisis today and the Iraq crisis 10 years ago. Saddam Hussein had far more blood on his hands than Bashar al-Assad, yet there are similarities in the way both men have been demonised by Western governments and media. Discussion of ways of ending or modifying their rule is denounced as collaboration with undiluted evil. Everything wrong in Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2013 is blamed on demonic misrule, so any change at the hands of an opponent, however bloodstained and unsavoury, is legitimised. Propaganda and slogans displace rational policy and prevent negotiations and compromise. I remember intelligent and sincere Iraqis assuring me in the 1990s that differences between Shia, Sunni and Kurd were fomented by the regime and would evaporate once it was overthrown. This “black hats” and “white hats” approach opened wide the door to opportunists and racketeers, sniffing out power and money in the new Iraq.
A decade after the US and British invasion, any audit of American and British actions must look at how much good and harm they have done in Iraq. Such is the rancour between supporters and opponents of the war that its history is primarily used as a means for allocating blame. One point seldom made, but of great importance in determining what happened later, is that the military campaign to overthrow the Iraqi government may have begun on 19 March 2003, but the economic war against Iraq started 13 years earlier with devastating results for its people. Indeed, the worst disaster for the Iraqi people as a whole arguably took place before the invasion and not afterwards. UN sanctions between 1990 and 2003 amounted to an economic siege, unprecedented in its severity outside military conflict, that destroyed the Iraqi economy and reduced millions to poverty. People who had held good jobs were reduced to selling their furniture in the streets. In Diyala province in 1996 I remember being pursued by farmers in the fields because they thought I was a foreign doctor. Several were holding up ageing X-rays of their crippled children – there were no facilities to take new X-rays – and asking if I could help. In 1998 a Unicef survey showed that a quarter of Iraqi children under five were chronically malnourished. A year later Carol Bellamy, the American executive director of Unicef, said that had child mortality stayed at its pre-sanctions level “there would have been half a million fewer deaths of children under five in the country as a whole during the period from 1991 to 1998.”
The suffering of his people did not weaken Saddam Hussein, who was happily building giant palaces and mosques to his own glory. The Iraqi health service and education systems, previously among the best in the Middle East, were degraded and brought close to collapse. Officials could not be paid so they only acted in return for a bribe. Young men without jobs or hope of employment turned to crime. Baghdad had been safe but I remember that from about 1994 taxi drivers started carrying pistols in case customers tried to rob them. The senior UN official in Iraq, Denis Halliday, who resigned in protest over sanctions, said a generation of Iraqis was growing up brutalised and open to fanatical beliefs. The US and Britain never admitted the cruelty and injustice of sanctions, but the anarchy and violence they discovered when they tried to rule Iraq had much to do with the economic and social ruin inflicted by them on Iraqis.
Many Iraqis welcomed or tolerated the US-led invasion because it ended sanctions and Saddam Hussein’s disastrous rule. But supporters and opponents of the invasion blur a crucial distinction between invasion and occupation, as if American and British rule must inevitably have followed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The amalgamation of two very different events may be intended to put a defensible motive for the invasion – the overthrow of a dictator – in the shop window without having to explain and justify the imposition of foreign rule, so similar to imperialist ventures in the 19th or early 20th centuries. The occupation had little to do with the good of the Iraqi people and much to do with Washington and London seeking to prevent Iran filling the political vacuum in Iraq left by the fall of Saddam Hussein.
I was in Kurdistan just before the war in 2003 when US officials told the Kurds that they were shelving plans for the immediate introduction of democracy and post-Saddam Iraq would be run by US military officers. I spoke to the veteran Kurdish leader Sami Abdul Rahman, killed the following year by a suicide bomber along with 104 others, who said scathingly “conquerors always call themselves liberators”. Another Iraqi leader is fond of saying to this day that “the occupation was the mother of all mistakes”.
Imperial or dictatorial rule is often justified as necessary to restore law and order. This famously failed to happen in Iraq. Moreover, the whole post-Saddam political settlement was delegitimised in the eyes of Iraqis by being devised and imposed by foreign powers. The US wanted to encourage Iraqi nationalism, but nationalism of a peculiar type that was hair-trigger sensitive and hostile to Iranian influence but blithely tolerant of American control. The Kurds had their own experienced and skilful leaders, but Sunni and Shia leaders whose careers prospered were those who could at least pretend to be fully co-operative with the US and Britain. To this day this taints many of them in the eyes of Iraqis. Last month I asked a Sunni sheikh from Fallujah organising protests against the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, how he regarded the Sunni political leaders. “I don’t,” he said. “They all owe their jobs to the Americans.” To a lesser degree the same is true of the Shia leaders, including Mr Maliki, previously a senior but little-known official in the Dawa party who was picked for the premiership to his own astonishment in 2006 by the US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. The British ambassador, who opposed the choice, was asked to leave the room while Mr Khalilzad talked to Mr Maliki and persuaded him to take the job.
Britain contributed 45,000 soldiers to the invasion but they have left few memorials to their presence. One symbol of British failure survives in the shape of the police station in Majar al-Kabir, a Shia town on the edge of the marshes north of Basra. It was here, 18 miles south of the provincial capital Amara, that six British Royal Military Police were shot dead by angry townspeople on 24 June 2003. I drove from Baghdad the next day to the ramshackle little town, notorious for its heavily armed inhabitants and opposition to Saddam Hussein. The police station’s outer walls were blackened by fire and pockmarked with bullet holes. The interior was gutted, its floors covered in broken glass and what looked like dried blood. I went back to the town last month and visited the building where the killings took place. It is still a police station, its exterior repainted white with a blue stripe at the top, presumably indicating police presence. The police guards outside looked relaxed, as if they were not expecting any trouble.
Majar al-Kabir was and is a very tough place, but it would be a mistake to think that its people in 2003 did not have a firm grasp of what was happening. A local leader called Kadum al-Hashimi said: “It is the belief of the people here, and it is believed by all other Iraqis, that the British want to disarm us because they want to stay for a long time.”
The story told by locals was that they had reached an agreement with the British not to patrol in their town, this agreement had been broken, one local man had been shot dead and it was then they had grabbed their weapons and hunted down the RMPs who were unluckily visiting the police station.
I had as a bodyguard a fierce looking local man called Maythem al-Muhammadawi, who sat in the back of the car with a sub-machine gun cradled on his knee and talked of his days as a guerrilla fighting Saddam Hussein. We did not stay long at the burned out police station before Maythem decided that groups of young men with guns standing around it were beginning to look menacing. On the return journey he confided that: “We are just waiting for our religious leaders to issue a fatwa against the occupation and then we will fight the occupation. If we give up our weapons, how can we fight?” It was the occupation itself, not lack of electricity or engagement with local people, that was the source of their fury.
Shia towns in southern Iraq like Majar al-Kabir have not done badly in the past 10 years. Like the Kurds of the KRG they benefit from living in an area where one community is in an overwhelming majority. Security is good, though jobs are scarce. The Shia benefit from their parties being dominant in central government, dysfunctional though it is. It is in Baghdad, central Iraq and Sunni areas where violence is worst and any new crisis might first explode.
How likely is a fresh political explosion in Iraq? A bloody but essentially stable balance of power between communities and their foreign backers existed from 2008 to the end of 2011. Since then the Syrian civil war, the US departure from Iraq, the regional Sunni-Shia conflict and the US-led offensive against Iran are all powerfully destabilising forces for a country as divided as Iraq. Its leaders gloomily predict things will get worse and they may be right.
But Iraqi parties have a lot to lose as well as gain from a new paroxysm of violence which may well destroy the country. The Kurds are doing better than other Iraqis but their boom would not long survive a war along the “trigger line”. Instead of improving their condition, the Sunni might be finally pushed out of Baghdad. The Shia will be weakened by their failure to hold Iraq together and will become even more dependent on Iran. All parties have strength enough to fight but not to be sure of success. Nevertheless, the political temperature in Iraq is rising to dangerous levels in a region convulsed by political change and an explosion may not be far off.