Iraq is such a catastrophe—with the destruction of its Christian heritage, massacres of Yazidis, et on en passe—that I can hardly bear to read about it. But read about it I do. One essential article read recently—on August 10th, to be precise—was in the NY Times, by reporters Tim Arango and Eric Schmitt, on how “U.S. actions in Iraq fueled rise of a rebel.” The rebel in question is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed “caliph” of ISIS. As one learns in the NYT enquête, Al-Baghdadi was a nobody before the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and would have no doubt remained a nobody had it not been for that invasion and occupation. Iraqis—and Syrians, and everyone else—do have agency, of course, and are responsible for their actions, but what is currently happening in Iraq really is a consequence of US policy. What the US did in Iraq in 2003 was the original sin. There is simply no denying this.
A few other essential articles and papers read of late (all of which appeared before the destitution of PM Nouri al-Maliki):
The International Crisis Group published a 9-page briefing on June 20th—just after my last Iraq posting—, “Iraq’s jihadi jack-in-the-box.” The lede: The jihadi surge is the tragic, violent outcome of steadily deteriorating political dynamics. Instead of a rash military intervention and unconditional support for the Iraqi government, pressure is needed to reverse sectarian polarisation and a disastrous record of governance.
Peter Harling, the ICG’s senior MENA adviser—and no doubt the principal author of the above report—, had a piece in the July issue of Le Monde Diplomatique entitled “Taking Iraq apart.” The lede: Nouri al-Maliki’s incompetence and sectarianism have led to the disintegration of the Iraqi state—and now, unsurprisingly, the ISIL insurgents have declared an Islamic caliphate in the territories they control in Iraq and Syria.
Yezid Sayigh, the very smart senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, had an essay dated July 24th—that originally appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat—, entitled “ISIS: Global Islamic caliphate or Islamic mini-state in Iraq?” The summary: Unless Baghdad offers meaningful political reconciliation and reintegration, ISIS will tighten and deepen its rule of its mini-Islamic state in Iraq.
Stathis Kalyvas, the Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University—and also very smart—, had an analysis, dated July 7th, on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog of “The logic of violence in the Islamic State’s war.” Stathis is one of the leading specialists in world social science of the subject of civil wars—and of war-related violence more generally—, so anything he has to say on it is worth reading.
And Patrick Cockburn, who knows Iraq comme sa poche, has a rather discouraging piece, dated August 1st, in the current LRB on how “ISIS [is] consolidat[ing].”
ISIS is, of course, as fanatical, indeed evil, as one can get, and with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi & Co making Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri et al looking like quasi liberals, but there has nonetheless been some nonsense recounted about them in this regard, e.g. the report late last month, and that went viral, of ISIS having ordered the cliterodectomy of all the women in Mosul. The report, emanating from a not-too-competent UN official, turned out not to be true, though which should have been apparent from the outset. I was immediately skeptical of the story and was surprised to see, via social media, that numerous persons who should have known better gave it credence. My reaction was that nothing should be put past the madmen of ISIS but that this one was particularly outlandish even for them. But even if it were true—even if ISIS had indeed ordered the excision of the one million-plus women in Mosul—, there is no way they could have carried it out. It wouldn’t be possible. In cultures where female genital mutilation is practiced, it’s women who perform the act, usually older ones with specialized cutting skills, as it were. Men have nothing to do with the operation. So who in Mosul would do such a thing, particularly as all the women there would be horrified, to put it mildly, by the very idea? And their menfolk too. So would the ISIS crazies enter homes to inspect vaginas? If so, the men of Mosul—every last one—would rise up and kill them, or try to. If ISIS were to seek quick, violent defeat, this would be the fastest way to do it.
So when one reads of some particularly lurid story of ISIS or other jihadist violence or gratuitous cruelty—one that stretches credulity—, make sure that it’s verified before taking it at face value and/or spreading it on social media.