Iraq’s Inferno and How It Could Singe You

The ISIL scheme for a sectarian Islamic Caliphate can prove to be a thorn in India’s side with its threat to the latter’s oil dependence and its manifesto of Sunni-Shia hatred
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

A few days after militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took over Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, without facing much resistance from the US-trained Iraqi soldiers, they made their intentions quite clear: purge the area of their opponents and the Shia and establish the authority of Sunni Salafis. Their aggressive and violent sectarianism suggested they were in for the long haul. Killing hundreds of the Shia populace and even more government troops, they let it known that the historic Shia site of Karbala in Iraq was no longer safe.

When Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the ISIL chief, announced the formation of an Islamic Caliphate–thereby proclaiming himself a descendant of the Prophet–it signalled one of the most ambitious attempts at redrawing the national borders of many Islamic states. He also triggered  feverish preparations amongst other Muslim sects to protect their shrines and cultural values in the wake of an overwhelming rise of Sunni chauvinism.

Delhi was not immune to this raging tension. Not only was the new Indian government sent into a tizzy, finding ways to evacuate its workers and nurses from the trouble-torn country, it was also attempting to calibrate the implications of this attack by ISIL on fuel prices, which shoot up at the slightest disturbance in the Middle East. But what’s more striking is the impact of the Iraq crisis on the Muslim community in India, one of the biggest in the world.

As soon as the horrific images from Mosul began to air on YouTube and news channels, an angry Shia community started rallying around calls to save the holy shrine of Karbala. A Shia outfit, Anjum-e-Haidari, based out of DargahShaheMardon, Jorbagh, New Delhi, began to seek volunteers under the rubric ‘Razakars to Save Holy shrines in Iraq’. The volunteers had to give an undertaking that they were against terrorism and upset with what was happening in Iraq, which in their words was a “blot on Islam”. The undertaking stated that the volunteers would go to Iraq and “protect the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, by all means legal, just and moral”.

There are reports that hundreds of thousands have volunteered to defend these shrines. The only catch being that the enthusiastic razakars don’t have passports. While this could be a dampener for the organisers, the Iraq tragedy has injected an unhealthy dose of discord between the Shias and Sunnis.

In Lucknow, formerly a Shia principality, where
Shia-Sunni strife has been taking place much before its
industrial scale version in the contemporary Middle East, the violence spilled to the streets after ISIL’s takeover of Iraq. In one case, members of the majority Sunni community beat up a Shia in Lucknow. The anger against the minority within the minority has been welling since the recent Parliamentary elections. There are indications that the BJP’s victory in UP, and especially in Lucknow, would not have been so overwhelming if a section of the Muslims had not voted for NarendraModi. In some places, the BJP won about 13 per cent of the minority vote—a percentage that fits in with the proportion of the Shia segment in the minority votes in many parts of Uttar Pradesh.

The shift of this vote, many observers feel, contributed in making the much-coveted Muslim vote and its influence on government formation largely irrelevant. The disenfranchisement of this vote that preserved the secular order in the country has infused fear and uncertainty in their minds. Worse, if the sectarian schism, aggravated by the Shia-Sunni standoff in the neighbourhood is real, their vulnerability in the face of a hostile majoritarian rule could increase. Although the government is making light of this brewing crisis, hoping that the sharp electoral reverse and the change in the government would keep the lunatic fringe under check, it is anybody’s guess whether the new government has a crisis on its hands.

Intelligence agencies, though, have not bestowed much attention on this feverish stirring in the minority community. Perhaps Urdu newspapers would reveal the flaw in their assessment of the Muslim mood. Propelled by dark conspiracy theories, the minorities here as well as elsewhere see the current violence as an attempt to reconfigure the Middle East to control its natural resources and to create circumstances that diminish this community’s influence.

There is plenty of evidence to support some of these conspiracy theories. An article by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker in 2007 has been doing the rounds lately. There is talk about a “Redirection” that purportedly places the Shia as the bad guys and the Sunni as the moderates. This official line that has many covert features was cobbled together by the earlier Bush administration and was seen as the triumph of the Saudi line. In very crude terms, it meant the splitting up of Iraq in three different ways, hurting Iran, Syria and Lebanon. It was George W Bush who ignited the sectarian fires. Hersh writes, “To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organisation backed by Iran. The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally, Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.”

Although there has been some change in the way the war in the Gulf has unfolded, the basic course has remained unaltered. This redirection has resulted in a firm embrace between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the compact has unfolded in the way the civil war has been stoked in Syria—which has been called an evil state by the Bush administration. It was the Saudis and western powers that funded and armed militant organisations in Syria to dismantle the secular regime of Baath leader Basher-al-Assad. Expectedly, the narrative that was woven to de-legitimise his regime was that he was not accommodating the majority Sunnis and giving precedence to the minority Alawites. Also, Assad was presented as an ally of Iran, which had to be de-fanged if peace had to return to this volatile region. Former US Vice President Dick Cheney, who drew so much flak for condoning the invasion of Iraq in 2003, reportedly said that there was no way the US could allow a nuclear-armed Iran astride the oil-gas fields. He tried to build an image of an irresponsible and villainous Iran, an old civilisation, out to destroy the peaceful Israelis and the Saudis.

In 2011, when the so-called Arab Spring swept parts of West Asia and Maghreb, there was expectation that Syria would be swept aside by street power. When that did not happen, then the sectarian violence was unleashed against it. Covert intelligence outfits recruited mercenaries from different parts of the world and put together an operation similar to the one witnessed when the Mujahideen challenge was being put together against the Soviets in Afghanistan. There too, Saudis and Pakistanis had played a major role. Al Qaeda and its slain boss, Osama bin Laden, were its unfortunate legacy.

In Syria, the sectarian violence unleashed by the militants—true to its time—was disseminated through social media. Genocidal killings took place in many villages to build a case why different sects and religions cannot live together. In oil-rich cities like Raqqa, with a high population of Shia, and Homs, with a large Christian population, armed rebels went on a rampage through targeted killings and assault. During the three-year civil war, sectarian selection played out in scores of villages with the murderers unveiling their diabolical agenda.

ISIL is a product of these violent times. Known to be an offshoot of Al Qaeda, it has many foreign militants in its ranks. So violent and brutal are its members that even Al Qaeda ideologue and leader Ayman Al Zawahiri has eschewed their  method of madness. One of the ISIL members has been shown in a video eating a soldier’s gut. This was the video that shocked the world and led Russian President Vladimir Putin to wonder how the West could support such fiends.

ISIL’s conduct can be further gauged by their actions in Raqqa, where they publicly hanged a few young men who had tried to reason with them. Edward Dark, who has chronicled the face-off between the Syrian forces and armed rebels in the city of Aleppo, believes it’s only a matter of time before they bare their murderous intent in the rest of Iraq. In parts that are under their control, ISIL has imposed dress codes for women and forbidden men from smoking and drinking. But they are more famous for extreme brutalities and demolishing or desecrating the shrines of other faiths and sects.

Since December, ISIL had actually been on the retreat in some ways. In December 2013, intelligence reports suggested they were moving towards the Anbar valley and giving up Syrian territory. In fact, they had left Aleppo to vacate it for other militant organisations they found themselves to be in conflict with.

Although the movement of ISIL and its legion of foreign fighters were known to the Iraqi government and its army, nothing seems to have been done to counter their moves. Even the US army, cognisant of ISIL’s imminent march, was in no mood to do anything. In other words, the ISIL takeover of Mosul was not entirely unexpected. Intelligence sources claim that ISIL created a haze; the real work was done by Izzat al Douri, the former General of the late Saddam Hussein. He has been at large ever since Hussein was thrown out, but has been putting together his force of militants, the Peshmarga. These militants worked on the Iraqi army to give up their arms and disappear. There is indication that huge amounts of money changed hands so that a well-trained army would allow itself to be chased by a rag-tag group of a few thousand militants. In many ways, this has Taliban written all over it. In 1996, the Taliban entered Kabul and took the reins without any resistance. In Afghanistan, border posts changed hands after the transaction was completed without firing a bullet.

The ISIL militants also tried to capture the Baiji refinery in Iraq. Iraqi forces are hanging on. Earlier, ISIL was expected to capture it and build up its considerable financial reserves through the sale of oil to Turkey or whomsoever. Media reports suggest that Mosul alone provided them some $450 million, but if intel sites are anything to go by, they had big money with them all along. Otherwise, how did they go about buying out everyone in Mosul?

On the first day of Ramzan, ISIL declared Baghdadi as Caliph and the land as an Islamic State. He has also given a call to Muslims from all over the world to come to this region between Raqqa and Mosul and create an Islamic state. During the capture of Mosul, many South Asians were visible in the ISIL ranks.

The announcement of the Caliph and the Islamic state means that Muslims living in other countries should not recognise their own nation states. This announcement has tricky implications and, if not contained, could lend legitimacy to those who are not averse to some serious cartographic expansion as a precursor to jehad. Some maps that emerged from ISIL’s twisted manifesto showed parts of India in the Islamic state. ISIL’s success could revive ambitions of the likes of Hafiz Sayeed who would not be averse to taking up Islamic State franchises if it means raising their importance in this region.

The US government, though, since the Bush days, has nuanced its policy in the Middle East. Washington is slowly trying to disengage itself from the overarching influence that Israel exercised on its Middle East policy. After Mosul was taken over by the ISIL, it tried to convince Iran to step into Iraq and throw out the militants. Iran, which is conversing with, US on capping its nuclear programme, did not trust them. However, Iraq Prime Minister Nouri-Al Maliki is getting help from both Russia as well as Iran. In the last few weeks, there have been talks between the Russians and the Saudis to find a solution to the crisis in the region. Both countries have agreed to revive the Geneva talks to find a solution to Syria. There is near agreement that if the Syrian problem is solved, the process of dousing the fires could begin. They also asserted that the unity of Iraq and Syria has to be preserved. This resolve goes contrary to what is happening on the ground where the Sykes-Picot agreement that redrew the borders of the old Ottoman Empire is coming under serious threat. Worse, Iraq is threatened with a three-way split, with Kurds on the threshold of gaining independence. In fact, Israel, that has trained its militia, has backed the Kurds’ demand for independence. Israel will definitely gain from this strife as there will be no country of a significant size in a position to challenge them. Also, the Syrian war accompanied by the turmoil in Egypt, has devalued the Palestinian cause so much that the Israelis have effectively stalled all attempts
by the US government to find an enduring solution to the Palestinian crisis.

Amidst the chaos and redrawing of borders, it seems unlikely that the  visible violence will be limited to the Middle East. Other failing societies like Afghanistan and Pakistan, too, may find takers for Baghdadi’s Islamic state. In many ways, the crisis in the Middle East is far closer to Delhi than many
might think.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2014