As the Iraq crisis worsens, the legacy of the recent past looms large. Years of occupation and political oppression, combined with a corrupt elite, and foreign designs, planted the seeds of chaos that being reaped in Iraq today, according to Iraqi analyst Zaid al-Ali.
Al-Ali says that Iraq can be brought back from the brink only by forming a new government from outside of the present political class and by radically overhauling the security apparatuses.
Al Jazeera spoke to al-Ali, who is a lawyer focusing on comparative constitutional law and is author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, published in February 2014 by Yale University Press.
Al Jazeera: How much of what you we see unfolding today is all the end product, the endgame, if you like, of a decade of US occupation of Iraq?
Zaid al-Ali: One can trace the origins of this problem even further back, possibly to the Iraq-Iran war, but certainly to the 1991 war and the manner in which the southern intifada was repressed in southern Iraq following the 1991 war. That event was deeply ingrained in the Iraqi memory and its impact is still felt today. Another cause of the current crisis is the manner in which western and Arab states, as well as Iran, corrupted the Iraqi opposition in exile in the 1990s, and even before that. Exiles were provided with significant financial assistance with close to no financial oversight, and in return were expected to adopt pro-western or pro-Iranian policies. The former exiles eventually returned to Iraq in 2003 and brought with them all the corrupt practises that they had learned in exile, merely to develop them further once they were in power in Iraq.
Finally, the occupation and the decisions that were taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) are clearly to blame as well. The decision to dissolve all of Iraq’s security services in 2003, the de-Baathification process, and the role that the US and the UK played in encouraging corruption and human rights abuses are very significant in that regard, given that they set the stage for what is happening in Iraq at the moment.
AJ: What are the political forces/militias representing the Iraqi Sunnis today? And are they united over a clear vision for Iraq?
ZA: I’m not sure Iraqi Sunnis have any real representatives, in the same way that most Iraqis are unrepresented. Just because you vote for someone does not mean that that person represents your interests. Thus, although Shia Islamist parties are generally in control of the levers of government, the poorest areas of the country are in the South, including in areas where there is no one to be found other than “Shia Arabs” – including in the Dhi Qar and Maysan provinces.
Iraqis vote in elections in the hope of choosing the least bad of terrible options. Everyone understands that our main electoral candidates are corrupt and incompetent, but Iraqis participate anyway for a combination of reasons. The same applies to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, who are incredibly ineffective. These include Parliament Speaker Osama Nujaifi’s Mutahidoun bloc, Salih al-Mutlaq’s Arabiya bloc, and Iyad Allawi’s Wataniya bloc, which have all achieved, essentially, nothing for their constituents since 2010.
These three blocs certainly share the goal of reducing the rate of random arrests and abuse that their constituents are subjected to in detention, but they focus all their strategic energies on removing Maliki from the prime minister’s office.
There is so much that they could have done instead, particularly from 2010 through 2012, when they were still the largest bloc in parliament, but the few reforms they managed to promote were paltry compared with the needs of ordinary Iraqis.
By using the term “sunni rebellion”, the suggestion is made that “sunnis” are rebelling, whereas what is happening at the moment is limited to the actions of a few thousand militants.
AJ: How would you describe what is going on in Iraq today? Is this a prelude to the de facto dismemberment of Iraq? Is this a Sunni rebellion or an all out sectarian war?
ZA: I would describe this as a consequence of the continued dismemberment of the Iraqi state. After the dissolution of the military, and the reconstitution of a new military built around a rotten political system, we are left with a state that is incapable of protecting itself against a few thousand militants.
Tikrit is a small town of around 100,000 people. It essentially consists of a highway and a few roads here and there. It would have been very easy for the central government forces to defend it against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Iraqi government and the military had 24 hours’ notice that ISIL was on its way, and Tikrit is just a two-hour drive from Baghdad.
And yet, Tikrit fell with zero resistance. Hundreds of soldiers were captured immediately and were executed within the next few days and the government did nothing to intervene. People on the ground called contacts in the ministries of interior and defense to ask them to intervene to stop the massacre, but there was no reaction from Baghdad.
That is not the result of dismemberment, nor is evidence of a sectarian war. It is the combined effect of a relatively small group of extremely intolerant militants and the inaction and incapacity of a central government.
AJ: When we talk about a Sunni rebellion, can we put events in context for the reader? When did it start, who are the main forces behind it and what is on the list of demands for Iraq’ Sunnis today?
ZA: Once again, I don’t know if we can characterise what is happening now as a ‘Sunni rebellion’. Although ISIL is sometimes described as being a Sunni extremist group, its ideology is so extreme that it has almost nothing to do with the rest of mainstream Islam. By using the term ‘Sunni rebellion’, the suggestion is made that Sunnis are rebelling, whereas what is happening at the moment is limited to the actions of a few thousand militants.
Having said that, Iraqi Sunnis are generally very upset at their situation. They have now suffered years of abuse at the hands of security forces. Just about every family has horror stories about relatives who were detained by security forces without charge, who were arrested and then sometimes never released.
That is all they have been talking about for the past few years, and sadly their situation has not stopped deteriorating. Ideally, the government should, as a matter of priority, reform the security sector and the criminal justice system to curb this type of practise. Realistically, there is very little chance of that happening.
AJ: How would you explain the sudden collapse of the army in areas such as Mosul and Tikrit?
ZA: The jury is still out on how the chain of command collapsed so quickly and we will probably know more in coming weeks, but it seems certain that a variety of factors played into the army’s collapse. These include corruption, incompetence, a lack of clear ideological guidance for the rank and file, and an effective propaganda campaign by ISIL.
Like all state institutions in Iraq, the army has suffered from incredible levels of corruption. Senior positions in the army are bought and sold, many soldiers are paid without ever showing up for duty, and faulty equipment is procured for extortionate amounts of money.
In addition, Iraqi soldiers almost never undertake any manoeuvres, and instead spend all their time waiting to be attacked at checkpoints. At the same time, the military’s rank and file can clearly see their commanders and political leaders showering themselves with wealth and comfort. Morale in the security forces was very low, which is a significant problem considering how ideologically driven groups like ISIL are.
Many soldiers have reported how their commanders ordered them to withdraw as ISIL advanced, and there is still significant confusion as to why that order was given. In any event, as soon as ISIL started gaining territory, many soldiers decided not to hold their ground and melted away into the general population.
AJ: In what way does the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant represent Iraq’s Sunnis and their aspirations for a just and inclusive political process?
ZA: ISIL certainly has no ambition to be part of a just and inclusive political process. ISIL is very clear that its aim is to establish a violent form of Islamic caliphate that has no space for any form of dissent, whether religious or otherwise.
What is truly needed now is for a government from without the political class, and for courageous reforms that will allow for the country to move back from the precipice. A new government derived from Iraq’s current crop of corrupt and incompetent politicians will not be able to achieve that aim.
AJ: To what extent does the former regime have a presence here, and is it strong enough to lead any Sunni opposition against the current political process?
ZA: There is still no evidence that the former regime is playing a significant role in ISIL’s military advance. Many analysts have made assumptions about possible Baathist involvement for a combination of reasons: Some would like to think that ISIL is not capable of this level of organisation and would have needed significant assistance from Baathists to gain so much territory so quickly. Others would prefer for Baathists to be in control because, as bad as a Baathist revolt would be, it would still be preferable to ISIL.
Finally many pro-government analysts have claimed that Baathists are involved in order to further sully ISIL (as if that was necessary). However, on the ground, there is still very little, if any evidence to support these assumptions.
AJ: What do you make of this regional power play, and would you say that what is going on in Iraq is a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
ZA: It’s unclear that Saudi Arabia has much to do with these developments. What little detailed analysis that has been done on ISIL’s finances indicates that it is financed almost exclusively through their racketeering operations, including kidnappings, ransom, and protection money that it extorts from local populations in Syria and mainly in Iraq.
The Saudi government has financed and supported similar organisations in the past, but there is still not much evidence – if any – that it supports ISIL. Many Saudi citizens appear to have joined ISIL’s ranks, but once again, most eyewitnesses agree that on the ground in places like Tikrit, that ISIL’s local forces are mainly Iraqi.
In terms of Iranian involvement, there is an agreement that Qasem Suleimani was on the ground in Baghdad immediately after the fall of Mosul in order to help prepare the city’s defences.
I’m not sure if one can describe those circumstances as constituting a proxy war between the two countries. Certainly there are significant tensions, given Saudi’s hostility towards the Shia denomination, and given the Iraqi government’s regular accusations against Saudi.
But generally, there does not appear to be much evidence that Saudi Arabia is involved in Iraq.
AJ: Many Iraqi political actors, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, have been calling for a new government. In your view, do you think all that Iraq needs, at this crucial juncture, is a new government?
ZA: A new government might help relieve our situation, but will clearly not be enough. If the new government is formed from within the current ruling elite, then it might help establish a new dynamic but will not lead to the type of wholesale reform that the country really needs.
What is truly needed now is for a government from outside the political class, and for courageous reforms that will allow for the country to pull back from the brink. A new government derived from Iraq’s current crop of corrupt and incompetent politicians will not be able to achieve that aim.