As a new wave of violence ravages Iraq, a new wave of “oh dearism” seems to have taken hold of us. Coined by the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, this disease occurs when terrible, bloody conflicts are covered by oversimplifying media without any meaningful context, so that we don’t ever really get what we’re looking at. Stripped of any tools to form a take, our only remaining response to Iraq, as to a litany of other seemingly inscrutable conflicts, is reduced to: “Oh dear.”
In the coverage of Iraq, there are mentions of al-Qaida, a “sectarian conflict” and a civil war, as we hear about yet another roadside or restaurant bomb that has killed yet more innocent civilians. These terrorising attacks are now routine, increasingly co-ordinated and horrifyingly effective. Last month alone in Iraq, bombs killed nearly 1,000 people. A couple of weeks ago, 25 people were killed as 16 bombs went off on the same day. And just days ago, 10 bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing 44. That’s on top of a new survey, apparently the most rigorous to date, that puts the Iraqi death toll since the eviscerating, avoidable 2003 invasion at half a million lives. This is what George Bush’s victory cry of “mission accomplished” looks like in real life.
The current horror is of course the direct, damning consequence of that US-led invasion and the ravaging aftermath executed by coalition forces, which dismantled the Iraqi government, police and security apparatus. There was no al-Qaida in Iraq prior to that invasion, which not only opened the door to it but effectively rolled out a welcome carpet too. The US-led coalition set up avoidable rifts by marginalising Iraqi Sunnis – hobbling Iraq by fomenting sectarianism, condemning it to instability and obliterating the chance of any functional political recovery. Divisive and combustible policies were then pursued by the US-backed Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shia elite-dominated government is routinely accused of authoritarianism and corruption.
Maliki’s rule has been a wrecking-ball mix of wrongheaded and incompetent. He has dismissed and disempowered Sunni politicians while simultaneously ramping up security forces and misusing terrorism laws to target Sunni areas, stirring up grievances over ethnocentric injustices. And the incompetence? Just one detail: Maliki’s forces are still using the fake bomb detectors sold to Iraq by the convicted former policeman James McCormick.
In May, Maliki was insisting that some of the detectors are fine – to the horror of the Iraqi population that has to negotiate increasingly deadly everyday public spaces. All of this worsened in December last year, when forces arrested the bodyguards of the Sunni former finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, under terrorism laws, prompting mass protests that were brutally dispersed. The violence included an army raid on protesters in Hawija, northern Iraq, in April, killing 50 and injuring many more.
Added to this nightmarish tinderbox is the fuel of the Syrian conflict, which now operates in a two-way flow across the border into Iraq – each feeding the other – both now serving al-Qaida-allied groups: the al-Nusra front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Meanwhile, the cynical proxy war waged in Syria has a hold on Iraq too: Saudi Arabia’s funding of Syrian militants has an impact across the now porous border with Iraq. And, fearing what would happen if Bashar al-Assad were toppled, Maliki has allegedly allowed Iran to use Iraqi airspace to deliver munitions to the Syrian dictator. All of which means that, without the US-led invasion of 2003, neither Iraq nor Syria would be as deadly today.
Meanwhile, an added component in Iraq is that violent militants have become much better at beating security forces that haven’t concurrently improved – look at the jailbreaks of militants in July for an idea of how outmatched the Iraqi security forces are.
With so many more unemployed, politically marginalised people to target as potential recruits, violent, sectarian militants are variously fighting for an Islamic state and trying to discredit Maliki – whose key platform for the 2014 elections is security – while also terrorising the population with protection rackets to fund activities.
Disparate groups are competing for power in Iraq – religious, secular, peaceful and violent – but it’s not true that the splits run only along sectarian lines. On the ground, affiliations aren’t so narrow either. Since 2003, polls show that even as towns and cities have become less mixed, even as there is sectarian-based fear of travel across regions, the majority of the population still wants a unified Iraq and a centralised political system. The trouble is that, as Zaid al-Ali, a senior adviser on constitution building for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance in Cairo, who is closely involved with Iraq, says: “There is no party, no movement that brings them together.” There’s a fashion among commentators to note that Iraq is a superficial entity carved up in the colonial Sykes-Picot agreement between France and Britain in 1916. That’s true on paper, but dismissive in practice. As Sami Zubaida, a specialist in Middle East politics, has written: “While its borders may be arbitrary and contested, it does not follow that Iraq does not have the heart of a real nation, shared by the different groups who live within them.”
This is the tiny shred of hope: a sense of cohesion, despite everything, that could shine a way out of a deadly crisis. Now, ahead of elections next year, the country desperately needs leadership worthy of the Iraqi people – consensus-based leaders who put national unity above corrupted, narrow politics and personal gain.
Rachel Shabi has written extensively on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East.