Offensive leads to capture of four villages but ISIL hits back with suicide attacks against Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers.
As the latest round of violence rages in Iraq, the dominant narrative about that conflict goes uncontested in the United States. Adopting and using words like “liberation” by media outlets such as Fox News, CNN, NBC, and The Washington Post, while describing events surrounding Mosul might seem neutral at face value, but it is the result a carefully constructed and curated narrative introduced by the United States to justify its ongoing military presence in the country.
The dominant mainstream media narrative about Iraq claims that the country is engulfed in an ancient religious war that started centuries ago, and that the war with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), is just the latest chapter of this ongoing sectarian war.
It also claims that the US has historically, and is currently, playing a positive role in the country by helping our “good” allies in Iraq destroy this evil group by liberating cities under their control.
This narrative is reinforced not only by the pro-war content put out by much of US-based media, but also by its conspicuous absence of any substantive challenge to US-backed Iraqi military efforts.
Politically moderate CNN writes: “The task ahead for this elite American-trained unit is daunting – but essential to the future of Iraq – to conquer the urban sprawl of Mosul.” MSNBC frames the military operations as “progress“.
This narrative, rooted in pro-US military propaganda, is problematic for many reasons. The conflicts in Iraq do not originate from sectarian divisions, nor are they ancient. ISIL is only one example of many violent sectarian militias and warlords controlling the country, and transferring control of Mosul or other cities from one bad actor to the next should not be referred to as a “liberation”.
The conflicts in Iraq do not originate from sectarian divisions, nor are they ancient. ISIL is only one example of many violent sectarian militias and warlords controlling the country, and transferring control of Mosul or other cities from one bad actor to the next should not be referred to as a ‘liberation’.
Growing up in Iraq in the 1990s, sectarian affiliations were not a primary source of identity. Iraqis were never asked if they were Sunni or Shia until 2003 when the US invaded and occupied Iraq. It was only then that sectarian identities became a source of contention or discrimination.
This defies conventional wisdom in the US. The story here is that Saddam was a Sunni Arab who oppressed and killed Shia Muslims and Kurds. While Iraq indeed had a political dictatorship, it didn’t go after people based on their sectarian backgrounds, and it definitely wasn’t a dictatorship run by one sect.
After the fall of Baghdad, the United State’s own department of defence released a “deck of cards” with the top 55 Iraqi leaders – the majority of them were not Sunni Arabs. As a matter of fact, the two vice presidents were a Christian and a Shia Kurd.
The former Iraqi government was in many cases brutal and totalitarian, but it was not sectarian.
The destruction of iraq’s national identity and territorial integrity was a result of the US’ creation of the 2003 “Governing Council”, a vulgar introduction to a new era of ethno-sectarian politics in Iraq.
Iraqis were chosen to run the country based on their religion.
Sectarian identities became primary for the first time. The US even pushed for Iraq to be segregated into ethno-sectarian regions. This divide-and-conquer tactic, imposed intentionally by the US, was one of the three sins committed by the United States that paved the way for ISIL to rise.
The second major offence committed by the US was the deliberate destruction of Iraq’s national sovereignty that allowed for increased foreign interventions.
The list of regional countries that became involved include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, Israel, and more. The mere presence of US troops in Iraq as an occupying force was an unabashed violation of the country’s sovereignty, opening the gate to many other regional neighbours to interfere as well.
The third measure the US took that paved the way for ISIL was the dismantling of iraq’s armed forces and replaced by militia groups. Shia Muslims have militias and so do Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians and even secular Iraqis.
ISIL is a horrific, terrifying, and violent group. Their mere existence in Iraq is a disaster. Unfortunately, they are not an exception to how other Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Yazidi or Christian militias that have been acting in the country as well.
Last July, a violent militia attacked Fallujah, kidnapped 900 civilians, and executed at least 50, some by beheadings and torture. No, that wasn’t ISIL, it was a Shia militia that fought alongside Iraqi forces – funded, trained and equipped by the US.
Last year, members of a militia attacked two villages in north-western Iraq. They killed 21 civilians, half of them elderly men and women and children, in what appear to have been execution-style killings, and injured several others, including three children. The gunmen also abducted some 40 residents, 17 of whom are still missing and feared dead.
This wasn’t ISIL either. It was a Yazidi militia.
Kurdish, Shia, and other militias have been committing crimes, many of which are as bad as those of ISIL. But it is not only about the war crimes and brutality – most of these militias are linked to the ruling parties in Iraq though, and they have been using violence as a tool for ethnic cleansing.
These horrific crimes are not only committed by paramilitary and militia groups, they are also committed by the Iraqi military, to which the US government continues to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons.
According to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organisations, the Iraqi military has a long record of gross violations of human rights. This includes indiscriminate bombings of civilian neighbourhoods, extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearances, recruitment of child soldiers, indefinite detention, ethnic cleansing and more.
Some of these weapons, including tanks, trickle down to militias affiliated with the Iraqi government, which the US has denied and tried to cover up.
To justify the ongoing flow of arms and lucrative military operations in Iraq, the US government is quick to whitewash the crimes of the Iraqi military and demonise ISIL instead.
The mainstream perception of the role that the US military is playing in Iraq is also a myth. The US government portrays itself as the protector that stepped in to Iraq to save the people from a dictatorship, to save people of one religious sect from other sects, or to help with nation-building.
Violence, according to this narrative, happened despite the US’ best efforts, not because of its occupation. But in fact, the role of the US has been the source and perpetuation of the problem. The US has been bombing, sanctioning, and meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq since 1991.
And despite the common belief that the US pulled out of Iraq in 2011, it continues to have troops deployed, and funds, trains and equips hundreds of thousands of Iraqi militia members.
That is why we have groups such as ISIL, and Iraq will never be back on track for peace and reconciliation unless these issues have been addressed. The role of the United States must be challenged by the American people whose tax dollars are still funding death and destruction in Iraq.
ISIL is not a bad guy we are trying to get rid of with the help of our good allies. It is just another militia that the US intervention has created the conditions for.
There is no liberation going on. Mosul is run by a group of violent sectarian militias, and is on track to be handed over to another violent sectarian militia – but one that has the backing of the US government.
What the US should do instead is what it should have done a long time ago: focus on ending the wars in Iraq, not winning them. Ending Iraq’s bloodshed will take a long time, but the first step is removing the US and other foreign actors out of the equation.
Only then will Iraqis be able to liberate and rebuild their country.
*Arab-American blogger and political commentator