Last week, the leader of the Islamic state (formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis) appeared in Friday prayers in Mosul addressing Muslims worldwide. At least this is what his supporters claimed after a week when the organisation had declared the territory under their control a “caliphate”.
On July 3 the Iraqi ministry of interior (not the most reliable source of information) put out a statement maintaining that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (otherwise known as Ibrahim al-Samarrai), the Islamic world’s new caliph, or Amir Almuminin (‘commander of the believers’), successor to prophet Muhammad, had been wounded in an air strike and had been transferred to Syria for medical treatment. Irrespective of whether this was the real Baghdadi or a double (as claimed by Iraqi government forces and the United States), Isis took no chances. According to Mosul residents, the city’s mobile network was closed down, presumably to stop any tracing of the movement of the Isis leader.
The same day the militant Sunni group also issued video footage showing the destruction of dozens of places of worship in Nineveh province in northern Iraq. Shia, Sunni and Christian sites were destroyed, with images placed on social media. In line with Isis’s claim that it is abolishing the arbitrary borders drawn up by Britain and France in 1916, the group symbolically blew up border posts between Syria and Iraq. On July 8 the Al Arabia news agency was reporting the circulation of a new Isis passport in the name of “the State of the Islamic Caliphate”.
The first caliphate, or succession to Islam’s prophet Muhammad, was established in the 7th century, when, according to Sunnis, Abu Bakr succeeded Muhammad as the commander of the believers. Sunni Muslims claim Abu Bakr was chosen by Muhammad in the last few days of his life – the prophet asked him to lead prayers and this indicated his choice of successor. However, according to followers of Shia Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, had been designated his successor and previous caliphs were irrelevant.
The Ottoman emperors (1451-1924) were originally secular conquerors. However, Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1481 claimed caliphal authority and his grandson, Selim I, who conquered and unified more Islamic territories, continued the title as the defender of Islam’s holiest shrines. The collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1923 marked the end of the caliphate.
Over the last few centuries small fringe groups have, like Isis, declared their territory to be a caliphate and, of course, Iran’s Islamic Republic portrays itself as the true Islamic state for both Sunnis and Shias, while the Moroccan king calls himself “commander of the faithful”. The specific problem with Isis’s declaration is not just that it has left itself open to accusations of overreaching itself, but that it has put it on a collision course with al Qa’eda. The conflict between the two groups has been in the open for months and in Syria they have taken up arms against each other.
The government of Nouri al-Maleki has rightly been blamed for sectarianism and incompetence and it is certainly largely responsible for creating the political stalemate that paved the way for the current crisis in Iraq. Throughout his two spells as prime minister, the Iraqi leader made no serious effort to reach out to either the Sunnis or the Kurds. On the contrary, Maleki’s ‘counterinsurgency’ policies were aimed at reducing the influence of Sunnis in the state and the military – a policy that created dissatisfaction amongst the Sunni population of the northern provinces. The Iraqi army became dominated by incompetent, unpopular officers whose only quality was loyalty to the Shia prime minister.
Maleki ignored reports of corruption and torture made against his allies in the upper ranks of the military. One general close to the Iraqi premier was implicated in torture; another, already sacked in 2009 for failing to protect Baghdad from terror attacks, was put in charge of defending part of the northern territories and is believed to have been amongst the first deserters. As a result, the military was quickly sapped of morale and cohesion, and the local population lost confidence in the central government.
In the 2010 elections, the more or less non-sectarian, mainly Sunni Iraqiya coalition gained the largest number of parliamentary seats. However, Maleki used the courts to stop it from attempting to form a government. He later used delaying tactics, bringing false accusations of corruption against Sunni rivals to outmanoeuvre opposition politicians and eventually taking power himself. And now, nearly three months after the elections held on April 30 2014, the Iraqi parliament has failed to reach an agreement over nominations for the country’s top posts: president, prime minister and speaker of the parliament.
According to the Iraqi constitution, a new president should be chosen within 30 days of the election of parliamentary speakers and their deputies. Following this process, the new head of state will have two weeks to ask the political party/alliance with the most MPs to nominate a prime minister, whose responsibility it is to form a government. Maleki, who remains the prime minister-designate until August, is responsible for carrying the process through and it is his delaying tactics that are blamed for the current political chaos in Iraq – a stalemate that has paved the way for Isis’s military advances.
The Iraqi prime minister has now acquired some powerful enemies. The United States, Britain and some factions of Iran’s Islamic Republic are looking for an alternative figure. John Kerry, Tony Blair and senator John McCain all agree that Maleki needs to stand down before a unity government can take shape in Baghdad. In late June US deputy secretary of state William Burns discussed Iraq with Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, in Vienna. US officials claim Iran is sending out conflicting messages over whether it is prepared to support a new Shi’ite prime minister other than Maleki. Both Adil Abdul-Mahdi and Ahmed Chalabi, mentioned as possible replacements, are acceptable to Iran’s government. However, ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has publicly declared his support for Maleki and demanded the US stop interfering in Iraq’s political deliberations.
His views are supported by some commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. In fact the Revolutionary Guards are heavily involved in military operations against Isis. For all the denials by Iran’s foreign ministry officials regarding the country’s military intervention in Iraq, there are a number of reports over the last couple of weeks of funerals held for Revolutionary Guards, as well as for Iranian airforce pilots, killed in Iraq and Syria.
Tribal leaders and Sunni politicians in northern Iraq have also been blamed for the crisis. Without the active cooperation or acceptance of locals, Isis would not have been able to capture so many cities. Those Sunni leaders who think they are preparing the ground for an Islamic state have clearly not thought through the implications of being part of an Isis-led ‘rogue state’, with little or no access to oil; a state where self-appointed ‘caliphs’ will interfere forcefully in every aspect of the private and social lives of Iraqi citizens in the cities under its control, irrespective of their religious and cultural background.
In the midst of this political and military chaos, incompetent, corrupt and deluded Iraqi Kurdish leaders are also hoping to benefit from the situation, and are calling for Kurdish independence. Having secured temporary control of the Kirkuk oil refinery on July 1, Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, told the BBC he intends to hold a referendum within months – Iraq was already “effectively partitioned”, he added. No sooner had Barzani spoken than the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, promised cooperation with any new state.
The news of Netanyahu’s support initiated postings on the internet and the social media of the historical background to Israeli-Kurdish relations, including photographs from the 1960s showing Massoud Barzani’s father, Mustafa, embracing the then Israeli defence minister, Moshe Dayan. In 2004 Israeli officials met with Kurdish political leaders when Massoud Barzani, Jalal Talabani and the former Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, publicly affirmed good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan.1
Soon after the Israeli statement, social-imperialist groups, ranging from the Worker-communist Party of Iran to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in Britain, echoed Israel’s position on the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.
Iran’s response followed soon after, with a warning to its former allies in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, not to declare independence, since Israel was plotting to divide Iraq. Iran’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham was quoted as saying: “Undoubtedly the vigilant Iraqi people will not allow the Zionist regime and enemies of a unified Iraq to carry out their plots and realise their immature fantasies in the region.” Deputy minister for Arab and African affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that the US is going for a Ukraine scenario in Iraq.
However, before anyone gets too excited about an ‘independent Kurdistan’ (limited to Kurdish territory in Iraq, of course), let me remind them that the biggest obstacle to such a plan will be economic considerations. Barzani clearly hopes to benefit from oil revenues generated from areas under his control, but the Kurdish authorities are currently in dispute with the central government and Baghdad is withholding payment of the share of the national budget allocated to the Kurdish regional government. Any serious attempts at separation will reduce the chances of the Kurdish authorities obtaining sufficient funds for economic survival. Moreover, the territory is landlocked, and the ‘independence’ plan is based on the income gained from the export of oil resources through Turkey. This will depend on the outcome of lengthy negotiations with Ankara. In other words, the new Iraqi Kurdistan’s economic survival will be in the hands of Ankara (not exactly the Kurds’ best friend) instead of Baghdad. Turkey’s support for such a state will no doubt include plans to control and silence aspirations for independence in Turkish Kurdistan.
Meanwhile, exaggerated stories about the role of KDP pishmargehs in fighting Isis in northern Iraq do not match reports from the region. Barzani’s initial order to his pishmargehs was to avoid conflict with Isis. It is the PKK and Pejhak guerrillas who have been taking the lead against Isis advances in Kurdish territory in Syria and Iraq. Furthermore, Barzani and his supporters should be well aware that Isis’s ambitions go far beyond defeating the Shia government in Baghdad. It is violently opposed to semi-secular Iraqi Kurdistan, where there is no state-imposed sexual segregation, where some women dare go out without a headscarf, where alcohol is openly sold and consumed …
There is also the question of Sunni Arabs living in Iraqi Kurdistan. They are fiercely nationalistic and will oppose any talk of independence. Iraqi Turkmen in and around Kirkuk are also unhappy about Barzani’s proposal and are threatening to unite against the Kurdish regional government’s attempts to fully integrate Kirkuk into the region.
No-one should take Netanyahu and his cheerleaders in the Iranian and the British left seriously when they talk of the “birth of a new Kurdish nation” in Iraq. Any unilateral attempt at declaring the current Kurdish region independent would unleash civil war.
For all the hype about Isis’s military gains in the last few weeks, we should remember that last time jihadists, in the shape of al Qa’eda forces led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, controlled a large chunk of northern Iraq, they did not keep hold of it for long, because their brutality alienated the majority of the local population and they also managed to alienate the Sunni tribes who had backed them. Reports from Iraq imply the new ‘caliph’ has not learned any lessons from the previous occasion. No wonder al Qa’eda has distanced itself from its former ally.
Having said that, clearly the unpopular Maleki, like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, does not believe he can stop Isis without huge support – and in the case of Iraq almost everyone is now involved: Russian jets, Iranian planes and ground forces, as well as US drones.
Although the governments in Iran and Iraq have publicly accused Saudi Arabia of funding the jihadi movement, the Saudis, together with Jordan and Morocco, are now concerned that it could endanger their own rule. In the case of Saudi Arabia there is clearly a feeling that the monster it has created is out of control. Nothing else would explain the recent rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with talk of a possible visit by the chairman of Iran’s expediency council, ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, to Riyadh.
On July 5 Rafsanjani proposed the following: “To fight extremism … a collective effort should be made by all Muslim countries, particularly Iran and Saudi Arabia, in order to prevent a perception that Islamic nations and governments depend on foreign powers to maintain their stability and security.”2
Once again it is clear that, far from securing ‘democracy and prosperity’, the ‘war on terror’ unleashed by Bush and Blair has created such chaos that the two most reactionary countries in the region – Iran and Saudi Arabia – could soon be widely seen as forces of moderation and “stability”.
1. The Guardian June 21.