MESOP INSIDE : MUSINGS ON IRAQ / BY JOEL WING Iraq’s Politics & Its Discontents – An Interview With Col. Joel Rayburn

23 March 2015 – Iraq has been known for its deep divisions. In his book Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance Col. Joel Rayburn tried to describe the different groups that have been struggling for power in the country through both participating in the government and violently trying to overthrow it. Rayburn worked in Iraq as an intelligence officer before going on to becoming a senior military fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies and the Hoover Institution Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. He can be followed on Twitter @joel_rayburn. Below is an interview with Rayburn where he explains what he termed authoritarianism, sectarianism, maximalism, and resistance in Iraq.

  1. In your book you spent several chapters discussing the different Shiite parties that took power after 2003. The first was the Dawa. How did it change from when it was formed in the 1950s to when it took power via Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2006?

After starting out as a secret society of young but well-connected Najafi clerics in 1959, Da’wa through the 1960s grew into a party with a large grassroots following. It was easily the dominant Shia Islamist group at that time, big enough to be called a movement rather than just a party. But from the early 1970s onward, the Ba’athist regime cracked down severely on the party and made mere membership in it a capital offense. The crackdown intensified in 1979-1980 during the Iranian revolution and the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war, and this pressure drove Da’wa’s leadership either underground or out of the country altogether. Once Da’wa was in exile, its members were pursued by Saddam’s intelligence services intensely enough that Da’wa began to grow paranoid about Ba’athist infiltration and targeting and grew to be distrustful of outsiders. At the same time, Da’wa was largely cut off from the grassroots popular following it had generated inside Iraq, and the party began to look like other exiled, elite parties around the region. As they waited outside the country for their chance to return, Da’wa gradually came to resemble the insular, secretive Ba’ath Party that they had sought to overthrow.

  1. The second group you dealt with was the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which you called Shiite supremacists. Can you explain the meaning of that name and how ISCI was an example?

By “Shi’a supremacists” I meant to describe those Shi’a groups that emerged during the Iran-Iraq war, mostly in exile in Iran, with a goal of returning to Iraq and establishing a Shi’a ascendancy to replace the longstanding Sunni ascendancy. These groups were largely established by the Iranian regime and fought against the Iraqi regime during the Iran-Iraq war. Fighting on the enemy side in the war alienated them from much of the Iraqi population, which meant that when they returned in 2003 they had an interest in polarizing the country along sectarian lines in order to gain a popular following. Since 2003, these groups have used their new power inside Iraq to try to gain revenge against what they viewed as Sunni oppression of the Shi’a community, and they specifically sought by 2005 to push Sunnis out of the Baghdad region. Even more than the Supreme Council, I would describe the Badr Corps as a Shi’a supremacist organization. I would put Ahmad Chalabi in that category as well.

  1. The third group was the Sadrists. That was based upon Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr’s movement from the 1980s-90s. What was the ayatollah’s original vision, and how did his son Moqtada al-Sadr and the breakaway group Asaib Ahl Al-Haq end up compromising some of his ideas in their fight against the Americans?

In many ways, Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr inherited the Da’wa Party’s grassroots following once Da’wa was forced to leave the country. During the 1980s, Mohammed Sadiq built a very large popular following in Baghdad and the south, so much so that he eclipsed the Hakim family’s following among the Iraqi Shi’a. With him at the helm, this original Sadr movement was more Iraqi nationalist and pan-Arab than the other Shi’a Islamist parties, and he was allowed some measure of freedom to operate by Saddam, who saw Mohammed Sadiq as a useful Iraqi counterweight to the religious leaders at the top of the Iranian regime. Later Saddam and Mohammed Sadiq turned against each other, of course, but throughout the Iran-Iraq war and the 1990s the Sadr movement can be viewed as a countercurrent to Iran’s Islamic revolution rather than in alignment with it. When Moqtada Sadr and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) turned to the Iranian regime for support against the U.S.-led coalition and allowed themselves to be co-opted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it was certainly a reversal of Mohammed Sadiq’s effort to keep his distance from the Iranian regime. And AAH’s declared loyalty to Iran’s Supreme Leader is very much against Mohammed Sadiq’s effort to assert Najaf and Karbala’s primacy over Qom in the world of Shi’ism. I have a feel Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr would be very disappointed in this choice that AAH has made, considering that its top leaders, such as Qais al-Khazali, were his students in Najaf in the 1990s.

  1. Conventional wisdom was that the Iraqi insurgency was made up of former Baathists and Islamists, which also included foreign fighters. These were considered two distinct groups. You argued that there was actually a lot of overlap between those two, in part due to Saddam’s Faith Campaign in the 1990s. Can you explain how Saddam’s policy led to an increase in religiosity within Iraq and how that played out when the insurgency was formed after the U.S. invasion?

After his disastrous defeat in Kuwait and the scare he experienced in the massive intifada of 1991, Saddam needed a new basis for the legitimacy of his regime, and he chose to seek it in religion. This was the genesis of his “Faith Campaign” of the 1990s, during which he actually Islamicized his regime and the previously secular Ba’ath Party. He built mosques for Iraqi clerics who were willing to support him and encouraged Ba’athist businessmen to do the same. He and other major Ba’athists began to pay for pilgrimages and so on. And he also sent Ba’ath Party members, such as secret police and intelligence officers, into the mosques to study Islam—but he steered them toward Salafism, which he viewed as a less threatening strand of Islamism than that of his old enemies, the Muslim Brotherhood. This created a strange fusion of Ba’athism and Salafism inside Iraq. After Saddam fell, the remnants of the regime that went into armed resistance to the coalition and the new political process fell back quite easily on the Ba’athist-Islamist networks that had developed before 2003, with the result that the Sunni insurgency was an Islamist one from the very beginning. This can be seen in the Islamic branding, imagery, and rhetoric of every single Sunni insurgent group since 2003. There was no secular Sunni resistance at all, a strange outcome for a Ba’athist regime that once had been the least Islamist in the Arab world.

  1. You termed the ruling Kurdish parties maximalists. What were their goals after 2003, were they successful, and what were the consequences of their actions in northern Iraq?

By “Kurdish maximalists” I meant those Kurdish leaders and factions that wanted not just to restore the Kurdish position in Iraq and incorporate Kurdish-majority areas into Kurdistan, but also to expand Kurdish rule to wherever Kurds were living, even if they were minorities. Take for example the expansion of the Kurdistan Democratic Party presence into western Ninewa, to towns such as Sinjar where Kurds are decidedly not a majority but where Kurdish maximalists believe it important to establish Kurdish rule so as to create an expanded Kurdistan that is contiguous with Syrian Kurdistan. The Kurdish maximalists took advantage of the power vacuum that ensued after April 2003 to expand into territories that had long belonged to Sunni Arabs. Zumar, the Mosul Dam, and the entire eastern half of Mosul city are good examples. The peshmerga occupied these areas and also oil-rich territories whose final disposition is still in dispute, such as Bashiqa in eastern Ninewa province. I would say that the Kurdish maximalists were quite successful in seizing these territories, but they were far less successful in quelling Sunni Arab violent resistance against their newly expanded footprint. What has followed that land grab of 2003 has been a dozen years of Arab-Kurd warfare all along the “Green Line” dividing Arab Iraq from Kurdish Iraq, with tens of thousands killed and as far as I can see, no end in sight.

  1. What role did Syria play in exacerbating Iraq’s political and security problems?

A very insidious one. The Assad regime welcomed their archenemies, the Iraqi Ba’ath, into exile in Syria and at once helped them and other Sunni insurgent groups to conduct terrorist and insurgent attacks inside Iraq. It seems clear now that the Syrian regime viewed the prospect of a successful U.S.-allied Iraqi democracy as a great danger to Alawite rule in Syria, and they pulled out all the stops to try to ensure that the American project did not succeed. From 2003 onward they allowed Zarqawi and his successors in Al Qaeda in Iraq to use Syria as their strategic depth and the main staging base for AQI fighters and suicide bombers. Bashar al Assad’s regime had direct oversight of many of the insurgent groups operating inside Iraq and, as one former Syrian official once told me, only intervened to stop insurgent activities when an insurgent group failed to report its plans and attacks back to its Syrian regime interlocutors.

  1. You argued that by 2013 Iraq was already back into a state of civil war? What were some signs that the country had fallen into that situation?

I had always recognized the political fissures that could lead to civil war, but I first really took note of the physical signs of what was happening when Al Qaeda in Iraq conducted a Mumbai-style attack on the provincial government buildings in Tikrit in March 2011. A team of AQI gunmen and bombers was able to kill more than 50 officials and civilians and wound about 100 more, and they killed the Salahaddin provincial police chief and four provincial council members. When I saw that news, I realized that AQI had rebounded from the raids that eviscerated its senior leaders, including Abu Ayyub al Masri, about ten months before. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this also represented that the organization was making a comeback under the man we know as Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. From that attack in Tikrit it was a little over a year and a half until the raid against the senior Sunni politician Rafe al Issawi led to large-scale Sunni protests that eventually boiled over into violence between the protesters and Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s troops, especially in Anbar. During the very violent last week of April 2013, of course, hundreds of people were killed when large gunfights broke out between government troops and insurgents—including those from the Naqshbandi Army–in Hawijah, the Turkmen towns south of Kirkuk, and Mosul, along with large bombings in Baghdad. When those clashes took place I realized the civil war had already restarted.

  1. What do you see in the future for Iraq’s ruling parties and the country’s government?

I hate to say that as it stands right now I don’t see a very rosy future for them. When the Iraqi army and national police units in the northern provinces collapsed in the face of the ISIS offensive last summer, the Shi’a political parties in Baghdad made the fateful choice not to embark on an emergency rebuilding of the Iraqi army, but to create a parallel security structure under the major Shi’a militant groups, including the Badr Corps, Kata’ib Hizballah, and Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, with all three of these (and several other major counterparts) answering to the operational control of the IRGC and Qassem Soleimani. This meant the Iraqi government no longer owned the strongest arms in the country, and it also means the formal Iraqi government structure in Baghdad will for the foreseeable future, in my opinion, have great difficulty restraining the Shi’a militant groups. I don’t know how this will play out, but the signs so far are not encouraging.