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    Members of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shi'ite militia that is part of the Iraqi government's Popular Mobilization Forces. | Photo: Reuters

The U.S. is at war with the same extremist group it claimed to have defeated five years ago, and it’s relying on sectarian extremists to "win" again.

The United States is winning the war on terror, just as it always has. The Islamic State group is “on the defensive,” Col. Steve Warren told reporters earlier this year. In Iraq, it has reportedly lost 40 percent of its territory since an international coalition led by the U.S. began bombing the country, again, in August 2014. In Syria ,it has lost 20 percent of its territory, the coalition claims.

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That’s the story in 2016. A similar tale was spun in 2011.

“The story of America’s victory over terror in Mesopotamia needs to be told,” wrote Walter Russell Mead, a foreign policy expert at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, nearly five years ago. At that point, just a few months before President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of most U.S. troops in Iraq, the mood was triumphant, with those who backed the 2003 invasion and occupation claiming retroactive justification from the fact that, after years of insurgency, “the Sunni Arabs of Iraq made a fateful decision,” as Mead put it. “They chose America over al-Qaida.”

And indeed they had, for a time, for a good deal of money. At its peak, 103,000 Sunni fighters, were put on the U.S. payroll and proclaimed the “Sons of Iraq,” paid to attack al-Qaida’s local affiliate rather than U.S. occupation forces. And it worked—again, for a time, for a good deal of money.

When most U.S. troops left in December 2011, those who had run al-Qaida in Iraq out of the country were supposed to be incorporated into the Iraqi state’s security forces. Instead, Prime Minister Nouri al-Malik—fresh off an election loss to a secular, nationalist coalition, which proved to be no obstacle to the U.S. and Iran insisting he remain in power—had his country’s Sunni sons thrown in prison, tortured and disappeared. Despite the vanquishing of al-Qaida, the clumsily sectarian system that the U.S. installed after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein remained in place, with a sectarian strongman backed by foreign powers at the top.

The factors that contributed to the Sunni insurgency and the rise of extremism were left in place, so three years later—after the Maliki government answered non-violent, non-sectarian protests demanding equality before the law with a hail of bullets, mirroring the response of other authoritarian regimes in the region—the insurgency returned, Sunnis returning to the fight against a state created by occupation years after the occupation itself had ended. By 2014, al-Qaida in Iraq had rebranded as the Islamic State and came roaring back across the border with Syria, proclaiming itself the savior of a repressed minority as it sought to exterminate any minority that was not Sunni.

Today the U.S. is once again at war with Sunni extremists in Iraq as well as Syria, and this time that war—a very real one, with airstrikes that have likely killed over 1,000 civilians—is supported even by those opposed to prior interventions.

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“I voted against the war in Iraq,” U.S. senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders says on his website. The only good it served “was to destabilize an entire region, and create the environment for al-Qaida and ISIS to flourish.”

As for the war in 2016, Sanders believes the United States “should be part of an international coalition, led and sustained by nations in the region that have the means to protect themselves.” In other words: the policy being pursued by the Obama administration today, where U.S. airstrikes support and U.S. weapons arm largely Shia militias known as “Popular Mobilization Forces” that are organized and trained by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

That’s the war that’s being won, according to all of the governments waging it—including, lest one forget, the government of Iraq.

Writing in The Atlantic this month, war correspondent Anand Gopal paints a rather different picture: one where the war against the Islamic State is being won, militarily, while the forces fighting it lose the hearts and minds of a Sunni population that feels no less terrorized by the sectarian extremists the U.S. empowers today compared to the sectarian extremists it first created when it decided in 2003 to introduce war in a country that had not attacked it, once considered the gravest of all war crimes.

“Regime change without worrying about what happens the day after you get rid of a dictator does not make a lot of sense,” Sanders has said. After the feel-good victory one must plan for the day after, and no one much likes to do that.

Anand Gopal | Photo: Wikimedia

A valid point, but as Gopal observes—based on the sort of on-the-ground reporting increasingly absent in an online world of 140-character talking points stretched into 800-word, half-thought pieces with a high bounce rate—it’s one being ignored by all those backing a war policy today without a thought as to what comes next; without paying much if any attention to the evil that the U.S. and its allies, new and old, are empowering to replace the evil they seek to destroy.

teleSUR spoke to Gopal, an award-winning war correspondent who has covered Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria for publication such as Harper’s, The Nation and the Wall Street Journal, about the U.S.-led war on the Islamic State and what ordinary people witnessing that war firsthand think about the claim that it’s being won.

The U.S. has been bombing the Islamic State in Iraq since August 2014, arming and in some cases providing air cover for these Popular Mobilization Forces. The U.S. of course says it’s succeeding and Iraqi forces have taken back some territory. You just got back from Iraq. Is that the perception among people you spoke to, that the U.S. and its allies are winning the war against the Islamic State?

Well, when you talk about winning the war you really have to distinguish between the military situation and the broader political situation. So militarily, absolutely it is the case that the anti-ISIS forces, which is the U.S. and the Iraqi government and Iranian forces, are indeed defeating ISIS on the ground. ISIS has lost a great deal of territory in the last year and it will most likely continue to lose territory.

Anti-government protest in Fallujah in 2013 | Photo: AFP

But if you look at the broader political situation and really look at the reasons why ISIS was produced in that area in the first place—the underlying sectarianism and the sense among some sections of the population that the Iraqi state is deeply corrupt and abusive—there’s been no headway on those issues. It’s just as bad and abusive as it was a year ago or two years ago, and so the underlying issues that led to the rise of ISIS really haven’t been affected, which means even if we see the military defeat of ISIS on the ground, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see peace in Iraq; it doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t see another insurgency or other types of violence that will continue for a long time because of the U.S.’s actions and the Iraqi state’s actions.

I wanted to talk to you about those underlying factors. Of course the U.S. invasion in 2003 and subsequent occupation created fertile ground for these sort of extremist groups, but when the U.S. withdrew most of its troops in December 2011 we were told that al-Qaida in Iraq, the predecessor to the Islamic State, was mostly defeated. The question being: the U.S. occupation is often seen as driving extremism, so what explains the resurgence of al-Qaida in Iraq since most U.S. troops left?

I think it’s actually right that al-Qaida iness Iraq was largely defeated by 2011, but the U.S. in its withdrawal had left essentially a deeply broken and shattered society, and it’s really from the ashes of that society that al-Qaida in Iraq was able to reemerge. The reason why al-Qaida in Iraq was able to be defeated in the short-term was because of what was called “the Anbar Awakening,” which essentially was the U.S. throwing lots of money and guns at insurgent forces, bribing them to stop fighting against the U.S., and that’s what they did.

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A lot of the forces that were fighting the U.S. and Iraqi governments stopped, but that wasn’t accompanied with any sort of political reconciliation. These are militias and forces that had been fighting for years, and without any reconciliation, without any attempt to try to absorb these forces into the Iraqi armed forces, or more generally into Iraqi society, essentially led to these forces reemerging as an insurgency again, and that’s what happened a couple years after the U.S. left.

There was a protest movement in 2013 that was mostly led by Sunnis who were demanding equal rights and demanding an end to some of the counter-terrorism laws that were in place since the days of the occupation, in which thousands of innocent people had been swept up and tortured or killed by the Iraqi state. The protest movement was drowned in blood by the government and it was through that process—the destruction of the protest movement and the lack of a broader reconciliation—that the insurgency reappeared in Iraq, and within the insurgency al-Qaida in Iraq was able to maneuver to get a dominant position.

As I understand it, those protests werealthough they were mostly Sunni, they were explicitly non-sectarian. And as you note in your article, Iraqi Sunnis have kind of lagged behind the Kurds and Iraqi Shias in terms of embracing the kind of identity politics that’s been forced on Iraq by the U.S.-written constitution. We know about the crackdown, and how it parallels the crackdown in neighboring Syria, but how did a crackdown on a non-sectarian protest movementhow did highly sectarian Sunni extremists exploit that?

Well, there was actually two waves of the protest movement. The first was actually in 2011, and that wave, which was actually dubbed the “Iraqi spring,” that was happening around the same time as the other uprisings in the Arab world—that one was much less sectarian in character. It had Sunnis and Shias and a strong secular component as well. So you had elements of the left, for example the Iraqi Communist Party, and Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, succeeded in dividing that protest movement; divide and conquer. He arrested certain elements of it—he isolated the secular elements of it—and through various ways succeeded in sort of forcing the sectarian character on that movement.

Essentially the state declared war on a section of its population and so we have what we have today.

So by the time 2013 rolled around, and you had a second wave of those protests, it had a much more of a Sunni character in the sense that it was predominantly in the Sunni areas where the protests were taking place. But even then it wasn’t really an avowedly sectarian protest movement. There was an element of that movement that was articulating for a separate Sunni state, but there were also others who were just demanding an end to the de-Baathification laws and to some of the counter-terrorism laws. But the movement faced a lot of repression. I think this mirrors what happened in Syria, where you had unarmed protesters that were gunned down; you had people who were thrown in prison; anybody who was associated with the protesters was called a terrorist — was called a member of al-Qaida; there were widespread accounts of torture.

In this way slowly the movement mutated into an armed struggle, and in the process of becoming an armed struggle the forces that had the access to the most guns and the most money were some of the hard-line insurgent groups, including the old Baathist organization and al-Qaida in Iraq, and so those groups were able to rise to the top in the general breakdown of the protest movement. Really very similar in some respects to what happened in Syria.

Was any of this preventable, in your view? After the U.S. withdrew, was there anything that could have been done to stop Iraq from going down this sectarian road? Obviously Nouri al-Maliki was propped up by the United States, and also Iran. Was there anything they could have done to pressure him not to carry out this crackdown, or was this kind of set in motion by the U.S. invasion and occupation and we were always going to end up in a not very good place?

I think if you look at it broadly, what you’re seeing is the failure of the integration of different segments of society as a result of the post-2003 order, and so if you look at it that way it really is sort of a structural consequence of the way in which the U.S. invaded and established the occupation. I think the odds were stacked against any sort of peaceful outcome. But I don’t know if anything is strictly preordained because there were lots of specific moments along the way which were clearly moments that had exacerbated tensions.

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I’ll give you a couple examples. One is 2010, the Iraqi parliamentary elections, when a movement, Iraqiya—which was a non-sectarian group, a secular group—actually won the elections and Maliki maneuvered to undo those results. He was backed by President Obama on that in what was essentially a power grab. And that led toward retrenching sectarian politics from the top. And during the protest movements there were a number of incidents when the Sunni elites were actually looking to make connections with the Iraqi state but they were arrested or turned away or in some cases tortured.

The key moment there was when Maliki decided to pull the army out on various protest encampments. Tribal militias took over the protest grounds and the Iraqi government just started shelling these areas, killing hundreds of people in Fallujah. Essentially the state declared war on a section of its population and so we have what we have today.

Can you shed any light on the thinking of the Maliki government? As you note, they were more than willing to deploy armed force against nonviolent protesters. But when the Islamic State came roaring back across the border from Syria the Iraqi army fled, and Maliki was widely criticized for not taking the threat seriously. What explains that? Why deploy lethal force against nonviolent protesters who you are calling al-Qaida but be hesitant to do so against actual al-Qaida?

Well, that’s a good question. An issue from Maliki’s perspective is, if you look at the Anbar Awakening, there are cases where the U.S. basically put every military-aged male in a town on the payroll and said that, “you are a member of the Sons of Iraq.” There were 60,000 people who are technically part of the Sons of Iraq program and this is far greater than what the Iraqi state had the capacity to absorb.

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In terms of why Maliki was so willing to open fire against protesters—ISIS, actually, its biggest victories, particularly in Mosul and Fallujah, those victories weren’t really military victories. They were really political victories first, and what I mean is that if you take, for example, Fallujah, tribal revolutionaries took Fallujah and then ISIS kind of came in from within that and coopted parts of the revolutionary movement and took it over slowly. And they had a lot of local support in doing that.

Same in Mosul. They had a lot of local support. That sort of accounts for why those places fell so quickly. They had support from within and so it was very difficult for the army to go in and actually fight and take it. That accounts for the semi-collapse of the army in the face of ISIS because they’re seeing towns that all of a sudden overnight are becoming ISIS strongholds and none of the soldiers were willing to go into what was going to be an almost certain bloodbath. That’s why the Iraqi state was unable to take over these places very quickly.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the fact there are a lot of conspiracy theories in Iraq trying to explain the rise of the Islamic State. I saw a poll the other week that said many Iraqis believe the Islamic State was a deliberate creation of the United States. I’m wondering: During your travels in Iraq, what did Iraqis tell you? And I’m also curious whether there’s a sectarian divide on this. It seems to me that maybe Sunnis might be more willing to argue that ISIS was the result of state repression that they exploited, whereas perhaps Shia Iraqis might be less willing to concede their government and its pursuit of sectarian policies led to the rise of the Islamic State.

Well, even among Sunnis though, those who very clearly describe to me the outcome of these policies, it is a fact that many of those Sunni groups and Sunni leaders who initially allied with ISIS in 2014 have now realized that it was a terrible mistake because ISIS has destroyed their communities. And so they’re also opposed to ISIS and so one of the ways they account for it is they say it was created by the U.S. as a way to destroy the Sunni movement. It’s a very popular conspiracy theory.

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Among Shias and others, they would also say the same thing: that it was created by the U.S. to destroy Iraq. The only difference you might see between the two groups is that a lot of Sunnis will tell you that the United States and Iran are secretly working together and have created ISIS and they’re running it, and they will point to the Shia militias and other groups (benefitting). Whereas, you’re less likely to hear Shias say that Iran is part of the problem, but they will say that the United States and conspiracy theorists — they’re all agreed that the United States created ISIS. It’s a very widespread belief.

I want to talk about the relationship between the U.S. and Iran in terms of policy in Iraq. It’s kind of amusing: Ayatollah Khamenei, on his Twitter account, kind of hints at these conspiracy theoriesthat the U.S. is not really serious about fighting the Islamic State, suggesting it created that problem to justify a perpetual presence in Iraq. But in reality, it seems Iran and the U.S.their policies are complementary. The militias are trained by the Islamic Republic and are armed and given air cover in some cases by the United States.

Do Iran and the United States effectively have the same policy in Iraq, and what is that?

I think they have very similar policies; they're working in parallel, almost. The Iranian militias tend to have a much stronger presence towards the north of Baghdad, for example in Diyala. Whereas in Anbar the U.S. has successfully lobbied to keep the Shia militias to a limited role. Ultimately, at the end of the day, there's a de facto alliance between the two sides. They're both working to try to stabilize the Iraqi state and defeat ISIS. Both appear to agree on keeping Haider al-Abadi in place, and his position right now is very precarious due to protests. So you have this very complicated situation in which Shia militias that are in some cases even receiving U.S. air power in Iraq are fighting against ISIS and certain Shia militias are going to Syria to support Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. at least ostensibly is opposed to. So it's extraordinarily complicated, but in Iraq I think it is the case that there is a de facto alliance that's become stronger since the Iran deal.

Both Iran and the United States seem to share this sectarian conception of how Iraq should exist. In the case of the United States, one could perhaps chalk it up to a patronizing Orientalism that only sees foreigners in terms of their ethnic group or religious identity. In the case of Iran, it just seems like cynical, power politics; they'd rather like to have a state that identifies as Shia next door. Is that a correct interpretation? And is there any hope of a non-sectarian, unified Iraq arising if two of the most influential foreign powers there don't share that vision?

Absolutely the U.S. and Iran share a sectarian vision of Iraq, and for the U.S. that has been the case since the beginning. Iraqis will tell you back in 2003, 2004, they would try to go meet with the U.S. in one of the pre-parliamentary councils, and everyone had to say whether they were Sunni or Shia or Kurd, and people would say, "I'm a communist. I'm secular." They would say, "It doesn't matter. You're Sunni or Shia."

There's still a real possibility for non-sectarian policies. It really depends on the levels of violence and it depends on the will of outside forces.

The U.S. had this very sectarian mentality that is sort of a classic way in which outside forces deal with local populations; the British and the French have done the same thing, historically. Despite that, I think there's surprisingly there's still hope for non-sectarian, anti-sectarian politics in Iraq. Even now, in the last nine months or so, there's been a big, powerful protest movement in Baghdad, protesting against lack of services, lack of electricity, the deep, widespread levels of corruption in government. Until the last couple months it was largely a secular movement, one that had participation from Sunnis and Shias, and also one that had participation from various secular forces, from trade unions, from communists and others. And in the last two months that movement has sort of been taken over by Moqtada al-Sadr, and it's become much more of a Shia Islamist movement. But the demands are still non-sectarian demands. They're demanding to end the sectarian quotas in government, to end the patronage system in government. And what you're seeing in the last year, and what you saw in 2010, you see the flourishing of a cross-sectarian politics.

Mural in Baghdad featuring Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei | Photo: Reuters

I think whenever the levels of violence drop, as in 2010, or how it was this past summer when the threat to Baghdad from ISIS receded, you tend to see the Islamist forces losing ground and some of the more secular forces gaining ground. I think that shows that there's still a real possibility for non-sectarian policies. It really depends on the levels of violence and it depends on the will of outside forces as well, who tend to use sectarianism as a way to pursue their own ends.

Can you speak at all to what has given rise to this protest movement? As you’re saying, now it has a little bit more of a not necessarily sectarian color, but it’s more of a Shia Islamist movement with Moqtada al-Sadr endorsing it. Why is al-Sadr endorsing this? Why would Iraqi Shiites be upset with a system that, at least from an outside perspective, it seems that they benefit from at the expense of the Sunnis?

The movement started last summer because of the soaring temperatures and the fact that there was no electricity in large parts of the country, especially in Baghdad. This is just a basic failure of state services and so that’s how the movement began. But it grew to address the rot that’s at the core of the Iraqi state. For example, all the political parties are patronage parties; posts are doled out to specific parties. Many people argue they haven’t really delivered anything for ordinary people, and while it’s true that broadly speaking after 2003 Shias have benefitted, relative to Sunnis, it’s not like Shias are doing well either. The price of oil has collapsed. The state is moving toward austerity politics, where some of the social services are being gutted. It’s not fun to be a Shia in Iraq, it’s just the challenges are different than being a Sunni, and so there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with and anger towards the government, toward officials, and that’s why there’s a demand to remove this patronage system and have a technocratic government. That was the demand for months and months.

People would say, "I'm a communist. I'm secular." They would say, "It doesn't matter. You're Sunni or Shia."

Moqtada al-Sadr got involved in February for complicated reasons. One reason, I think, is he’s trying to sell himself as a nationalist. His militia, his people, are probably the least sectarian today of any of the Shia militias. He’s gotten behind the protests and given it a lot of muscle, to the point where now, once his people got involved, the Abadi government was actually forced to draw up a new cabinet that was full of technocrats. And when he did that all the entrenched interests, the Islamist parties, Maliki’s side, they fought back and demanded that he retract it. So now Abadi is in a very precarious situation, caught on one side between a mass movement, and the Sadrists, and on the other side by the Islamist parties and the old elite that was brought here by the United States in 2003, which means that we may see in the coming months a coup, we may see in an overthrow of Haider al-Abadi. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but it looks to be an explosive situation today.

I wanted to touch on what is essentially the focus of your article in The Atlantic, which is the Popular Mobilization Forces. There’s a specific line in there where you point out that “NGOs and human rights workers have been documenting cases, and they allege that—in certain areas, at least—anti-ISIS forces may have killed as many Sunnis as ISIS has.” Obviously in the United States, in large part because of the terrorist attacks that ISIS has carried out in the West, we have this focus on the Islamic State as a kind of exclusive evil. With respect to Syria, a very common thing to say would be like Bernie Sanders in the last Democratic debate: Assad and ISIS are bad, but we have to deal with ISIS first.

Are we focused too much on the Islamic State at the expense of a holistic approach to the problems of the Middle East?

Absolutely, I think it’s a major problem. With Sanders’ comments that we have to deal with ISIS before we deal with Assad—it actually doesn’t make sense to do that, because Assad helped produce ISIS. His bombing and torturing guaranteed that groups like ISIS would emerge. Same in Iraq: the sectarianism of the state and the militias helped produce ISIS. The danger becomes that if you look at just the immediate problem of the Islamic State, you end up deputizing the same sorts of actors that helped produce the problem you’re trying to fight in the first place. That’s a problem in Syria and Iraq.

Can you explain what sorts of abuses the Popular Mobilization Forces have been accused of carrying out?

The militias have been accused of a whole range of things, from extrajudicial killings to horrific torture to you name it. A lot of things we tend to associate with ISIS—beheadings and the mass slaughter—most of them have done that as well it’s just that they, like the Assad regime, tend to do these things without the camera rolling. They have a different audience. They have a different constituency that they’re trying to reach. But every one of these groups is extremely brutal.

An enormous amount of power still exists among social movements and ordinary people on the ground, but they tend to get smothered by the policies of major states like the U.S.

I write about in this article one Sunni family describing what they have gone through. They flee ISIS—and flee the brutality of ISIS—only to deal with the brutality of Shia militias in Baghdad. And there’s many, many stories like that. There are cases where after territories have been “liberated” from ISIS that militias have gone in and set houses on fire, set people on fire, and all sorts of horrific things.

These are things that tend not to get talked about in the West, particularly so with Assad. If you get a chance to look at the photographs of people who were in Assad’s prisons and see the horror that is unfolding on a daily basis there—ISIS pales in comparison to what Assad has been doing in terms of inflicting terror on a population.

In the United States, it seems the political establishment and the leading candidates for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations, they’re all basically in agreement that the Obama administration’s strategy for fighting the Islamic State is more or less working. No one has the stomach for another ground invasion, so this kind of “half-in” approach of airstrikes and proxies on the ground, whether it’s these Popular Mobilization Forces or the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, the perception is that this working.

If you had the opportunity to speak to any of these candidates, or President Obama himself, and you were asked whether this strategy is working, what would you tell them? What would you recommend to U.S. politicians who, for better or worse, are determined to continue intervening in Iraq’s affairs?

It’s hard for me to say only because I think that U.S. politicians, when they are talking about these things, they tend to look at it from a completely different framework than I am. These policies either work or don’t work with respect to what they perceive to be U.S. national security interests and so in that sense you can see that ISIS is being defeated and it may seem that this is helping U.S. national security interests.

Shia militiamen | Photo: Reuters

I’m actually less interested in what is perceived as U.S. national security interests and more interested in what ordinary people on the ground in Iraq or Syria view as being in their interest. And there you see a real divergence, because the U.S. just does not have the track record of acting in the interests of ordinary people—the U.S. or any other state, for example Russia or Iran—in that region. Any kind of strategy that relies on the policies of on high, in many ways will be doomed to fail, instead of looking at what’s actually happening on the ground. So, for instance, in Syria, since the partial ceasefire we’ve seen a blossoming of the protest movement that had been more or less crushed for a few years—a protest movement that’s not only protesting against Assad, but also against Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the al-Qaida franchise in Syria.

An enormous amount of power still exists among social movements and ordinary people on the ground, but they tend to get smothered by the policies of major states like the U.S. and others.

That makes total sense. Obviously U.S. politicians are interested in the perceived U.S. national interest and they’re not so much concerned about Iraq as a functioning state—as long as it’s functioning enough to keep ISIS there, contained, and not in the West.

Exactly. Keep it on life support.

Charles Davis is an editor at teleSUR. Follow him on Twitter: @charliearchy


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