In the past few months, I have been angered over hearing about ISIS and their brutality in the news. It had me wondering what factors were involved in their emergence. One factor lies especially in Iraq’s history and the other factor is the political disruption caused by the Iraq war and the fall of Sadaam. In Iraq there are two sects of Muslims, the Sunni and the Shia and the main difference between them is that they believe certain individuals were the successors to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. They disagreed over the successor and over the course of history they have battled each other because of it. Fast forward to the period after World War I, and the Ottoman Empire broke off into different nation-states, which led to the creation of Iraq. According to Rafid Jaboori of BBC Arabic, “all the rulers of Iraq since the emergence of its modern state in the 1920’s came from the Sunni Arab minority, although in general Iraqi Shia and Sunni lived in peace before 2003.” Sunnis were the minority but ruled Iraq sometimes with an iron fist especially in terms of Sadaam’s regime.
This political dominance for over 80 years has created a culture of political exclusion for the Shia population. A professor of law from the University of Pittsburgh, by the name of Haider Ala Hamoudi, as quoted by NBC, stated, “They [Shia] were feared as a group that could somehow sell the country to Iran. The exclusion of the Shia was not something that was just a historical accident, but was viewed as something that was important to preserve the state in its current form.” Iraq is located next to the Shia dominated country of Iran and it seems that Iraq feared a Shia takeover for years and this nightmare became somewhat of a reality when Sadaam fell in 2003.
Sadaam’s fall ended Sunni dominance in Iraq and immediately afterwards, Shia leaders were ready to make a power grab. They gained power in an unlikely way. The United States helped to create an Iraqi democracy and Shia leaders got elected into this new government. Sunnis were now shut out from political posts in Iraq and despite trying to get elected in the following elections; they have failed to acquire adequate representation. Years later, after Sadaam’s fall, Nouri Al Maliki came to power and according to Zoe Mintz of the International Business Times, “Rather than seeking peace between the two groups, critics say he [Maliki] oppressed the Sunnis both inside government and by squashing protests in the streets.”At this point around 2007, it was apparent that the Sunni population was being marginalized and as a result some Sunnis turned radical and Al Qaeda found refuge in some Sunni neighborhoods.
That did not last long, however, and Sunnis started to fight off the terrorists in their neighborhoods and Maliki’s government was partly responsible for driving them out. It seemed that Sunni and Shia were about to reconcile but political deadlock proved to be much more inflammatory than anticipated. By 2011, Sunnis held a few senior posts in the Iraqi government but all hell broke loose as soon as US forces left the country. Maliki began cracking down on Sunni leaders and kicked them out of the Iraqi government. Sunnis were enraged and mass protests rang out and the timing could not have been worse because of unrest in neighboring Syria. Terrorists gained a strong foothold there, which allowed some Sunnis to join a strong group that could takeover large areas. This group became known as ISIS, and has proven to be the most brutal terrorist group in this century.
Now there is a lot to take in here and many lessons to be learned. The first thing is that maybe democracy is not such a great idea in Iraq. Sunnis and Shia have been fighting for years and making these sects the basis of politics in Iraq only exacerbates conflict. One group will always be marginalized. Another thing is that maybe the Iraq war was a costly mistake for the US and its foreign policy. Their thinking must have been that they wanted to use democracy as way to stabilize the region in order to access all the oil fields in Iraq. (Don’t get me started on Bush’s wmd story!) In a sense this supposed policy has almost completely backfired. Our greatest enemy, Iran, is propping up the Maliki government and has taken a substantial lead in fighting ISIS. On the other hand, gas prices have lowered over the years but was the Iraq war even worth the money that was spent? Now it seems as if US policy in Iraq has caused more problems than it solved. They should have taken more time in understanding the Iraqi people and finding out what they wanted. The political shift in Iraq from Sunni to Shia dominance has ended up causing a chaotic shockwave that has provoked violence and brutality throughout the Middle East.