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Cole writes: “Already in the past week and a half, many assertions are becoming commonplace in the inside-the-Beltway echo chamber about Iraq’s current crisis that are poorly grounded in knowledge of the country. Here are some sudden truisms that should be rethought.”

A scene from the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 13, 2014. (photo: Stringer/Reuters)
A scene from the Iraqi city of Mosul on June 13, 2014. (photo: Stringer/Reuters)


7 Myths About the Radical Sunni Advance in Iraq

By Juan Cole, Informed Comment

16 June 14

 

ALSO SEE US to Evacuate Baghdad Embassy Staff
ALSO SEE US Condemns 'Horrifying' Massacre in Iraq's Tikrit

lready in the past week and a half, many assertions are becoming commonplace in the inside-the-Beltway echo chamber about Iraq’s current crisis that are poorly grounded in knowledge of the country. Here are some sudden truisms that should be rethought.

1. “The Sunni radicals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are popular.” They are not. Opinion polling shows that most Iraqi Sunnis are secular-minded. The ISIS is brutal and fundamentalist. Where the Sunnis have rallied to it, it is because of severe discontents with their situation after the fall of the Baath Party in 2003 with the American invasion. The appearance of video showing ISIS massacring police (most of them Sunnis) in Tikrit will severely detract from such popularity as they enjoyed.

2. “ISIS fighters achieved victory after victory in the Sunni north.” While this assertion is true, and towns continue to fall to it, it is simplistic. The central government troops, many of them Shiite, in Mosul and in towns of the north, were unpopular because representatives of a sectarian Shiite regime. The populace of Mosul, including town quarters and clan groups (‘tribes’) on the city’s outskirts, appear to have risen up in conjunction with the ISIS advance, as Patrick Cockburn argues. It was a pluralist urban rebellion, with nationalists of a socialist bent (former Baathists) joining in. In some instances locals were suppressed by the fundamentalist guerrillas and there already have been instances of local Sunnis helping the Iraqi army reassert itself in Salahuddin Province and then celebrating the departure of ISIS.

3. “Iraqi troops were afraid to fight the radical Sunni guerrillas and so ran away.” While the troops did abandon their positions in Mosul and other towns, it isn’t clear why. There are reports that they were ordered to fall back. More important, if this was a popular uprising, then a few thousand troops were facing hundreds of thousands of angry urbanites and were in danger of being overwhelmed. In Afghanistan’s Mazar-i Sharif in 1997 when the Pashtun Taliban took this largely Tajik and Uzbek city, the local populace abided it af few days and then rose up and killed 8,000 Taliban, expelling them from the city. (A year later they returned and bloodily reasserted themselves). Troops cannot always assert themselves against the biopower of urban masses.

4. “The Sunni radicals are poised to move on Baghdad.” While ISIS as a guerrilla group could infiltrate parts of Baghdad and cause trouble, they would face severe difficulty in taking it. Baghdad was roughly 45% Sunni and 55% Shiite in 2003 when Bush invaded. But in the Civil War of 2006-7, the American military disarmed the Sunni groups first, giving Shiite militias a huge advantage. The latter used it to ethnically cleanse the capital of its Sunnis. The usually Sunni districts of the west of the city were depopulated. The mixed districts of the center became almost all Shiite. There simply isn’t much of a Sunni power base left in Baghdad and so that kind of take-over by acclaim would be very difficult to achieve in the capital. As Joshua Landis puts it, ISIS has picked a fight it cannot win.

5. “The US should intervene with air power against ISIS.” The Sunni radicals are not a conventional army. There are no lines for the US to bomb, few convoys or other obvious targets. To the extent that their advance is a series of urban revolts against the government of PM Nouri al-Maliki, the US would end up bombing ordinary city folk. The Sunnis already have resentments about the Bush administration backing for the Shiite parties after 2003, which produced purges of Sunnis from their jobs and massive unemployment in Sunni areas. For the US to be bombing Sunni towns all these years later on behalf of Mr. al-Maliki would be to invite terrorism against the US. ISIS is a bad actor, but it so far hasn’t behaved like an international terrorist group; it has been oriented to achieving strategic and tactical victories in Syria against the Baath government and the Shiite Alawis, and in Iraq against the Shiite Da’wa Party government. But it could easily morph into an anti-American international terrorist network. The US should avoid actions that would push it in that direction. So far the Baath regime in Syria is winning against the Sunni radicals. The Shiite majority in Iraq can’t easily be overwhelmed by them. Local actors can handle this crisis.

6. “US interests are threatened by the ISIS capture of Mosul.” It is difficult to see what precise interest the hawks are thinking of. Petroleum prices are slightly up because the pipeline from Kirkuk to Ceyhan in Turkey is closed. But it only does a few hundred thousand barrels a day on good days. Most oil in Iraq is produced in Basra in the Iraqi deep south, Shiite country where ISIS is unlikely to gain sway. And in any case high petroleum prices may be good for the US. More Americans should be using public transport, moving to the city from the suburbs, buying electric vehicles and electric plug-in hybrids and putting solar panels on their roofs to power their EVs. These steps are desirable to fight climate change and for economic health. Wars for oil are so 20th century.

7. “The US should be concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq.” The American hawks’ attitude toward Iran in Iraq has all along been comical. US viceroy Jerry Bremer used to warn against “foreign” influence in Iraq, making Middle Easterners fall down laughing. Shiite Iraqis and Shiite Iranians don’t always get along, but warning Iraq against Shiite Iranian influence is like warning Italy against Vatican influence. Iran has an interest in seeing radical Sunnis rolled back in Iraq, and if ISIS is in fact a danger to US interests, then the obvious thing for the US to do would be to improve relations with Iran and cooperate with Tehran in defeating the al-Qaeda affiliates in the region. In fact, this has been the obvious course since 2001, when president Mohammad Khatami of Iran staged pro-US candle light vigils throughout Iran after 9/11. Instead, Neocons like David Frum maneuvered the Bush administration into declaring Iran part of an imaginary Axis of Evil on behalf of right-wing Israeli interests. This stance has all along been illogical. The Obama administration is said to be considering consultations with Iran about Iraq. Even Bush did that at one point. It is only logical.


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+17 # RMDC 2014-06-16 20:04
I think we need to find out a lot more about who and what ISIS is. Cole just assumes they are transnational Sunnis. But if they are the same fighters who have been destroying Syria, then they also include Chechnyans, Georgians, Turks, Libyans, and people recruited from all over the Muslim world by the Saudis and CIA to fight against the modernizing and progressive forces in the middle east. It is likely only a small minority are Iraqis. This seems to be the case in Syria.

There are reports of American mercenaries fighting with ISIS. These may be Blackwater-type s or they may be US Special Forces like SEALS. It is known pretty well these mercenaries were fighting in Libya and in Syria. They are called "trainers" by the US regime. In some of the photos, some of the ISIS fighers sure do look American.

As of now, the best analysis of ISIS is that it is the CIA proxy army that has been fighting In libya and Syria. This is not a Sunni vs Shi'ia conflict. This is the US destroying more middle eastern nations along with the Saudi grand vision of its own new caliphate headed by the Royal Family al Saud. The American neo-cons are taking their orders from the al Saud family. this includes the neo-con Obama.
 
 
+1 # bmiluski 2014-06-17 09:56
There are reports of American mercenaries fighting with ISIS. These may be Blackwater-type s or they may be US Special Forces like SEALS.

In some of the photos, some of the ISIS fighers sure do look American.

If these fighters are American SEALS, why on earth would the neo-cons in Washington be screaming for bombing attacks on our own people?
And please explain to me....what does an "American" look like.
 
 
+12 # asbpab1966 2014-06-16 23:38
More Americans should be using public transport, moving to the city from the suburbs, buying electric vehicles and electric plug-in hybrids and putting solar panels on their roofs to power their EVs. These steps are desirable to fight climate change and for economic health. Wars for oil are so 20th century.

I disagree with one item there. I don't think people should move back into the cities. An apartment building with 10,000 people where nobody knows anybody, in the center of a concrete jungle, is no place to raise a family. Better to build solar-powered electric rail lines between the city and the suburbs; and suburbs designed so that people can walk, bike, and use transit rather than relying on cars.
 
 
-40 # jdd 2014-06-17 05:27
Solar power will never power anything except maybe your watch. It is a joke, as is wind, geothermal and allo the rest. What it will do is stop the implementation of nuclear energy and the advance toward nuclear fusion and ensure that this country suffers a scientific and technological breakdown - the real green revolution.
 
 
+24 # StuBones1960 2014-06-17 06:47
Tell that to Germany.
 
 
+12 # bmiluski 2014-06-17 10:14
Hey jdd.....what did the Koch Bros. promise you for posting this?
 
 
+5 # Radscal 2014-06-17 16:23
Someday, scientists will finally figure out how to make fusion power economically viable.

Until that time, there is a giant nuclear fusion reactor already in full operating mode... 96 million miles away. Only greed is keeping us from utilizing it more.
 
 
+3 # Granny Weatherwax 2014-06-18 09:27
*** Troll alert ***
 
 
+2 # Jingze 2014-06-18 13:29
You're wrong. Solar power can power entire houses. In fact, all new houses should be required to have solar energy installed.
 
 
+3 # bmiluski 2014-06-17 09:57
And just how many of these suburbs are we going to build...."subur b sprawl" is a real danger to our environment.
 
 
+24 # dick 2014-06-17 00:58
As is almost always the case, we know almost nothing about what is REALLY going on, what "our" govt is REALLY up to, but DEBATE as if we knew. US policy in the ME has been dominated by the interests of Big Oil, Greater Israel, & the Saudi Wahhabis for a LONG time. The interests of ordinary Americans, Iraqis, Iranians, Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs, Muslims, Palestinians, Lebanese, Palestinians, Israelis, etc., has NOT been a concern since the CIA monster was birthed after WWII to rule the world for monied interests.
 
 
+14 # Activista 2014-06-17 01:21
Think that the Juan Cole, Informed Comment re Iraq is objective compared to US mass media propaganda.
What scares me more than Iraq is "information" US masses are getting. This is not only international politics, but also state of our economy. Actions (all these sanctions on Russia, Iran, ..) could raise the energy cost up to 50%. We could see collapse ... but the wargames/milita rism (half of the World spending) are going on.
 
 
+10 # Activista 2014-06-17 01:24
Actions (all these CONGRESS sanctions on Russia, Iran, ..)
aka Congress lost grip on reality - looks like Soviet Union before disintegration ..
 
 
-7 # morriskwt 2014-06-17 01:46
Juan compares Shias to Catholics; Sunnis to Protestants! waa! lol!
 
 
+12 # bmiluski 2014-06-17 10:16
You missed the point morriskwt.....J uan was just making religios comparisons.
And lets not forget: Religion has nothing to do with god. It has everything to do with power and control.
 
 
+5 # Citizen Mike 2014-06-17 06:57
"ISIS ...could easily morph into an anti-American international terrorist network. The US should avoid actions that would push it in that direction."

YES, that is the most important thing for our policy makers to understand!

But of course they will be brutal because Islamic culture is stuck in the middle ages. Nothing we can do about that but stand back and watch them do their thing according to their own culture.

Bottom line is, the area will re-assert its own nature and stabilize, having thrown out foreign interference. We must have the courage to stand by and do nothing but watch it unfold according to its nature.
 
 
+11 # Citizen Mike 2014-06-17 06:58
I am hoping and expecting that the troops being sent into Iraq are for the purpose of orderly evacuating the US embassy complex--which is huge, built by our arrogance--to avoid anything that looks like the embarrassing helicopter rush out of Saigon the last time we lost a colonial war. We must get all the American spies and contractors out of Bagdad before it is over-run.

Losing a war again is good for us, it will put an end to that manifest-destin y exceptionalism myth that has plagues us and help us to ease ourselves into a new role for the 21st Century. We shall become one of the community of nations and stop trying to be a world leader, which is folly and leads to tragedy.

We feared that Asia would fall to the Commies and it did, but they turned out to be nationalists with a greater desire for development than an attachment to Marxist ideology. Same will happen as this area falls to "Islamists." They will turn out to be nationalists who will be kept busy by economically developing their territory.
 
 
+1 # bmiluski 2014-06-17 10:18
And exactly how was losing the war in Viet Nam good for us? Did it stop the neo-con assholes from starting the war in Iraq AND Afghanistan?
 
 
+9 # irvingwood 2014-06-17 08:30
Unfortunately David Frum is a Canadian, the evil son of the saintly Barbara Frum and a dentist. We are eternally ashamed of him and wonder how such a genetic catastrophe could occur. His courting and servility to the neo-cons always smacked of careerism. Now his ambition has driven him to foreswear the crazy people now that they are being eclipsed. I have seen him on TV recanting his former fanaticism. His claim to fame is a simplistic and erroneous alignment of the WW2 Axis with a fabricated axis between Iran, Iraq and Korea. These states have absolutely nothing in common and don't communicate. But the neo-cons, who couldn't care less about the political stripe of these states, saw a handy toady who would spout their nonsense. Canada doesn't want him back. You keep him!
 
 
+2 # ikhadduri 2014-06-17 13:21
Be wary of being drwoned with ISIS mass medisa amplification.
The 8th non-myth is the emergence, since January 2014 of the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries that has orchestrated this push, after preparing for it for a year and waiting for the elections results (last chance) before commencing. Ask NSA about them.
 

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