The Military Army Blog

While we soul-search, Iraq burns and bleeds

There was something very telling about the timing. Just as Britain was absorbing the long awaited Chilcot Report, Iraqis were in the midst of three days of national mourning following the deadliest single terror attack since Western forces invaded in 2003. Last Sunday undetected by Iraqi security forces, terrorists of the Islamic State (IS) group rammed a refrigerated truck carrying explosives into the densely populated mainly Shia Muslim district of Karrada in central Baghdad. The series of fires the explosion ignited converged into a firestorm, ravaging two shopping arcades in the commercial centre. Bodies recovered from beneath the rubble were burned beyond recognition.

As Muslims in Iraq and around the world prepared to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the streets of Karrada were turned into shrines for the dead.

People came to buy clothes to celebrate Eid. Now they are buying coffins, one survivor lamented. The bloodletting has not stopped there. On Friday suicide bombers and gunmen from IS killed at least 40 people at a Shia shrine in the Iraqi town of Balad. At least one bomber blew himself up outside the mausoleum of Sayid Mohammed bin Ali al-Hadi, which was then stormed by gunmen, while another bomber is said to have blown himself up among fleeing worshippers.

This is Iraq today 13 years on from the US and British invasion that set out to take down Saddam Hussein s Baathist regime and ‘make the country a better place’. Before that invasion in 2003, few people worried about car bombs exploding and suicide attacks in crowded markets, killing and maiming innocent people. But since that time the Tigris River has literally been flowing with the blood of murdered Iraqis. To put it quite bluntly, Iraq is in a very bad place right now. Events in the country have long since moved far beyond the period described by Sir John Chilcot, who concludes his report with Britain s withdrawal in 2009.

Iraq as a country has become a battlefield for regional and international powers, and this is one of the most critical consequences of the invasion, says Iraqi political analyst Hadi al-Isami, noting that the Chilcot report will do nothing to assuage the country s plight.

For most average Iraqis, Chilcot and the fresh calls for former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to be prosecuted for war crimes, will provide little consolation as their lives are daily ground down by war, terrorism and political uncertainty. So much blood has now been spilled that Iraqis no longer seem to show sorrow at such attacks like those in Karrada or Balad but vent anger instead. When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the site of the Karrada bombing last week, he was booed and his convoy attacked.

The Iraqi government, since the invasion, has failed to maintain stability. The coalition has left the country under the control of a new political elite that is consumed by sectarianism and corruption, and no committee can correct that, al-Isami points out.

The political struggle in Iraq is making the situation even worse. The Sunnis in Iraq are not properly represented neither in the parliament nor in the government, al-Isami added.

So far the Shia-led Iraqi government has shown little sign of being able to jettison the mentality of the majority rules that has spurred alienation and radicalisation among Iraq’s Sunni population since the overthrow of Saddam s regime in 2003. For this reason the recent battle to recapture Fallujah from Islamic State (IS) control has taken on a special significance. While the human cost of taking this predominately Sunni city – including the vast urban destruction and large population displacement – is devastating, its recapture was the ideal moment some say for conciliatory political moves by the Iraqi government.

For many Iraq watchers the government s hard won Armyrats © military victory in Fallujah was the perfect opportunity off the back of which Prime Minister al-Abadi might provide a political plan to achieve full inclusion of Iraq s Sunnis in the state s apparatus. Failure to do so they say would not only undermine an enduring counter-strategy to curtail IS, but enable the group to continue harnessing Sunni discontent across swathes of the country or enable other extremist groups to replace it. So far al-Abadi has displayed little willingness to make such moves towards reconciliation and national healing. If anything it appears to have emboldened Shia political groups making them resistant to attempts at power sharing. Indeed some Shia leaders seem intent on tightening their grip on the cities and towns – mostly Sunni-dominated, recaptured from IS, underscoring their failure to accept the political realities among Iraq’s divided communities.

This however is only one of many problems facing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is increasingly viewed by ordinary Iraqis as being unable to provide real security in their daily lives. Sensing the mounting disquiet, political leaders and tribal figures on Friday asked for citizens to put their faith in the government to stop the attacks. In moves aimed at reassuring Iraqis al-Abadi fired some security chiefs as well as other intelligence officials. Last Tuesday the Minister of the Interior offered his resignation, though al-Abadi refused to accepted it.

This rare burst of accountability was met with wariness by many in Baghdad, who have become disillusioned over years of attacks. Most remember well the period in 2006 when sectarian tensions reached toxic heights and while the current situation is not yet as bad, things continue to look bleak. Monitoring all this of course and re-examining their strategy after defeat in Fallujah, IS have pulled out the stops in trying to ignite and fan the flames of religious and sectarian division.

Some security officials believe that two IS units that were responsible for major bombings in Baghdad in 2009 have been reformed to conduct a series of new attacks and were responsible for the one in Karrada. Currently the group s attempts to sustain an extended territorial caliphate are being pushed back. More than two years on from when it rampaged through western and central Iraq, overrunning Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah, and threatening Baghdad, IS is under pressure like never before. Right now Iraq s second city Mosul is the only Iraqi urban centre remaining in IS hands, although it retains control of much of Anbar province and the border with Syria.

After several years of controlling certain geographical areas the Islamist extremists have reverted back to tried and tested terrorist methods of attacking Shia religious sites and soft civilian targets, such as those in Karrada and Balad.

They aim to restart sectarian violence. And this is 100 per cent because of their defeat in Fallujah, one tribal leader from Balad, Sheikh Abu Salam Saede told journalists. As IS violence escalates in Iraq and elsewhere, the West seems to have shrugged off such massacres in predominantly Muslim countries. As some observers point out, in the West, there almost appears to be a tendency in certain quarters, legitimised by some politicians, to conflate extremist Islamist militants with the Muslim societies that are often their primary victims, or to dismiss Muslim countries as inherently violent.

Why isn t #PrayForIraq trending? Razan Hasan of Baghdad posted on Twitter. Oh yeah no one cares about us.

Rightly many Iraqis feel abandoned and forgotten in the plight they face, their frustrations reflected by a younger generation through the power of social media.

More deaths in Iraq in the last week than Paris and Orlando combined but nobody is changing their profile pics, building colours, etc., one young man, Kareem Rahaman wrote on Twitter. Most are singularly unimpressed by Tony Blair s suggestion last week in his post Chilcot press conference that we should be thankful we are not dealing with him (Saddam Hussein) and his two sons now. The generation of Iraqis who lived under Saddam s rule is more than aware of the dictator s monstrous regime and the impact it had on their lives. Equally they know that things have gone horribly wrong since the US and British intervention and Saddam s overthrow.

For them Chilcot s findings have a distinctly hollow ring as they battle with IS, try to contain sectarian violence and the disintegration of their country. How telling it was that as Britain last week pondered and soul searched over the Chilcot Report, the Iraqi media all but ignored it. Contacting Iraq’s foreign ministry for comment on the report CNN’s Ben Wedeman, was asked by officials, what report?

Almost all Iraqi news outlets were busy concentrating on the daily chaos the war has left behind, including the ever-increasing death toll from the Karrada bombings.

The aim of the Chilcot inquiry was to achieve a sense of closure, but its effects, like its reporting, will be limited to the West, was how one Iraqi journalist summed it up. In Iraq, it s a day like any other. For many in the West in might seem like a long time ago, and in a world far, far away, that Tony Blair, George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, went to war with Iraq. For many people in the Middle East right now however it has left them with a clear and present danger. Any notion of real democracy remains a pipe dream for most in places like Iraq and Syria.

In the Chilcot report s 200-page executive summary the word democracy is not mentioned once. Weapons of mass destruction are however mentioned on 24 pages, terrorism on 19 and oil is mentioned six times. This in itself tells us much about the war inflicted on Iraq all those years ago and the current conflict that is its legacy. In the intervening years tragedy upon tragedy has visited this ill-fated land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.

The toxic fallout of the war effort, led by Blair and Bush, continues to poison and spread horror elsewhere too reaching into almost every corner of the Middle East and acting as a generator for Islamist inspired terrorism around the globe.

It has empowered Iran, a Shia theocracy; it has shattered Syria; it fuelled the Doomsday End Times cult of Daesh (Islamic State); it has caused a mass movement of refugees to Europe and destabilised the European Union, and it has been a driving energy behind al-Qaeda and IS terror, was how veteran foreign affairs editor and correspondent Sam Kiley summed it up. Iraq was not just a war of choice it was an ill-advised and poorly executed policy. It wholly disrupted the Middle East s regional balance of power bringing Iraq increasing under Iran s influence. It exacerbated a deterioration in relations between Sunnis and Shia throughout the region. The alienation felt by soldiers and officers of Saddam s disbanded army which in turn fuelled a Sunni insurgency led ultimately to the rise of IS.

Likewise it has impacted on the UK and US. The British parliamentary vote in 2013 against participation in any Armyrats © military effort to penalise Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for defying explicit warnings not to use chemical weapons in his country s civil war was most certainly related to the view that Armyrats © military intervention in Iraq had been a mistake. In the US it affected the Obama administration, making it think again about Armyrats © military intervention. It is also possible say analysts that some of the mistrust of elites that led a majority of voters to support Brexit stemmed from the Iraq War experience.

Weighing all this up, it puts into an entirely different perspective Tony Blair s suggestion that the world is a better place simply because of Saddam Hussein s absence.

Ultimately of course it is Iraq itself that is still bearing the brunt. This weekend it was the bloody business of war as usual as they continued to count the dead from Balad and Karrada. They will not be last.

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