Since 2003 when Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Iraq lurched from crisis to crisis. The nation-building experiment has left a political vacuum despite the so-called democratic elections of Nouri al-Malaki and, most recently, Haidar al-Abadi as Prime Minister. This has left the nation vulnerable to groups of insurgents, most recently the Islamic State (IS) aka ISIS, a Sunni group. When IS began parading its beheadings of Westerners to the world, the United States and other partner nations decided to jump into the fray and try to eliminate the latest threat to Iraqi freedom. Unfortunately, according to a study by Sinan Adnan of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), even if IS is eliminated, another violent group of insurgents will step into the void and take up the "war" against the government of Iraq and the Iraqi Security Forces. Please note that Sinan Adnan is a pseudonym for an Iraqi-American employee of ISW whose identity is being protected for security reasons. He has served with the United States military and is fluent in both English and Arabic.
As a bit of background, Iraq was ruled by the Ba'athist Party which was founded in Syria in April 1947. In 1968, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr, predecessor to Saddam Hussein, led the Ba'ath Party to victory in a bloodless coup in Iraq. The Ba'ath Party ruled Iraq until Saddam was overthrown in 2003. In Iraq, the Ba'ath Party was comprised of Sunni Muslims who actually formed a minority in Iraqi society. While the majority of Iraqis that controlled power in Iraq were not necessarily religious in the sense that Muslims that control other Middle East nations are religious, the very nature of the tribal culture and tribal loyalty in Iraq meant that those that belonged to the Sunni sect were more favourably treated than their Shi'a counterparts who were often excluded from government activities. As well, in many cases, during the 1980s and 1990s, much of the social strife in Iraq was between the religious and the secular Muslims rather than between Shia and Sunni adherents. After the Coalition of the Willing took control of Iraq's government, they made a deliberate decision to exclude all former Ba'ath Party members from the newly formed "democracy" in, what has turned out to be, a rather disastrous decision. While many Iraqis during Saddam's rule did not focus on their Sunni versus Shi'a identities, that is quite clearly no longer the case. Sunnis, by external declaration, have become alienated in their own nation as a result of the de-Ba'athification of Iraq.
Let's go back to the study. The author begins by noting that there is an ongoing problem of anti-government insurgency in Iraq that will not be solved by destroying ISIS even though the actions may protect the nation's civilian population. There are a variety of anti-government groups that could form another layer of Sunni insurgency that will resist the return of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), particularly since the ISF is working with Shi'a militias. After taking up arms against al-Qaeda in Iraq during the "Awakening" when the U.S. military implemented its surge program during 2007 - 2008, most of these groups became less active once the United States military withdrew from Iraq. In light of actions by the Maliki government after 2011 in which the Prime Minister tried to sideline his political adversaries, the anti-government Sunni-based groups have reformed and reactivated. The Sunni anti-government forces have varying ideologies, some being more extreme than others, but all have the goal of upending the current Iraqi government. Unlike ISIS, most of these groups do not target civilian populations but often take over control of areas that have been taken from the ISF by ISIS. While most groups are limited in military experience and capabilities, they have proven that they can control local areas.
What actions by former Prime Minister Maliki acted as the catalyst for the Sunni reactivation? On April 30th, 2013, Iraqi Security Forces stormed a Sunni protest camp that blocked a highway southwest of Kirkuk and killed 20 Sunni protestors and wounded over 100 others. Over a five day period, more than 200 people were killed across Iraq's Sunni majority provinces. His Shi'a-led government also imprisoned thousands of Sunnis in an attempt to prevent a coup. This was only a surprise to those who did not acknowledge the fact that Maliki has a deep-seated fear of Ba'athists. In the months following the protests, there were increasing calls for armed resistance from Sunni tribal militias and insurgent groups. It was during this period that al-Qaeda in Iraq rebranded itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham in the hopes of channeling Sunni insurgents to their side. In late December 2013, ISIS killed 24 senior officers of the Iraqi Army which resulted in an order from Prime Minister Maliki to clear a protest camp in Ramadi. After violent clashes broke out between the Iraqi Army and Sunni tribal militias, Maliki promised to withdraw the Iraqi Army from both Ramadi and Fallujah which left in its wake a power vacuum. On January 1, 2014, ISIS captured Fallujah and declared an Islamic State with the purpose of protecting the area's Sunni population
Here is a chart showing the Sunni insurgency groups operating in Iraq:
Here is a map showing their areas of operation:
While some of these groups do not share all of ISIS' ideologies, the overwhelming number of ISIS fighters and the group's stronger military abilities means that many of these insurgent groups must tread lightly even while assisting ISIS in capturing new ground.
Let's take a brief look at the strongest of the anti-government groups, the General Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries or GMCIR. Its origins began in December 2013 after the government violently dispersed anti-government protestors in Anbar. It has local military councils in several cities including Fallujah, Mosul and Baghdad and acts as an umbrella organization for the widely dispersed local councils. Its goal is to gain co-operation from all Iraqis to put an end to aggression from both the government and Iraqi Shi'a militias which are now part of Iraq's security system. The author notes that it is interesting to see the parallels between the anti-American and anti-Israeli policies of the Ba'athist Party and the GMCIR, in fact, it appears that GMCIR evolved from the splinters of the Ba'athist Party. Interestingly, the most prominent faction of the GMCIR is under the command of Izzat al-Duri, a former Vice President under Saddam Hussein. Another faction is under command of Mohammed Yunis al-Ahmed who served as governor of Ninewa under Saddam Hussein.
Here is a video produced by GMCIR which shows us all of the affiliated local anti-government groups noting the use of its logo in the introduction:
Like ISIS, GMCIR also uses social media as shown on this screen capture from its Facebook page:
ISIS and GMCIR have substantially different goals which has led to inter-group conflict. While ISIS seeks to implement Shari'a law in Mosul and GMCIR does not, GMCIR must be cautious when dealing whtih its much more powerful peer. In fact, in June 2014, GMCIR advised that tribal warriors not surrender their weapons to ISIS when it is demanded. During early July 2014, between 25 and 60 former leaders of the Ba'ath Party were taken from their homes in Mosul and were either executed or held by ISIS forces in an attempt to prevent the formation of an anti-ISIS movement within the city.
Other than the expulsion of ISF forces from areas that they seek to control, it would appear that the long-term relationship between GMCIR and ISIS will be a difficult one. That said, in either case, it appears that the Iraqi government will be the long-term loser either way.
As we can see, the nation-building exercise by the Americans and their partners in Iraq have led to an extremely unstable nation. While the Bush Administration was proud of the fact that the 2005 national election seemed to herald the beginning of a new democracy in Iraq, we can clearly see that an election does not a democracy make. With the power vacuum outside of Baghdad and the lack of military control by the supposedly trained Iraqi Security Forces, it will be a long time before there is any semblance of peace in Iraq and getting rid of ISIS is but the first small step in a very long process.