The West thought it had it down. Iraq is made up of Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, right? So if we can divvy up power and distribute slices of the economic and political pie, we will be able to put Iraq on the road toward stability and democracy, right?
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Wrong. Iraq is made up of these dominant subgroups as well as tribes, but also many minorities. There are Yazidis, Christians, Armenians, Chaldeans, Turkomen, Circassians, Shabaks and Mandeans, the latter of which largely left in the upheaval of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The once-large Jewish community largely left six decades ago. It’s never been easy to be a minority in Iraq. When I visited a Yazidi-majority town called Sheikhan in this region of Iraq at the start of the war in April 2003, I found people fearful if hospitable, supportive of the incoming Kurdish leadership but too afraid to voice it, terrified Saddam Hussein might yet be back.
The Yazidis, who practice an ancient religion inspired by Zoroastrianism, see themselves as Iraqi as anyone else, part and parcel of perhaps the most ethnically and religiously diverse nation in the Middle East. And until a recently, no one seemed too concerned for the survival of communities who are stitched into the very fabric of the country, many of them pre-dating Islam.
No one, that is, except for those who have been closely watching the meteoric rise of ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which true to its caliphate-centric ideology, has since dropped the names of those two countries and is now just calls itself the Islamic State (IS). Their rhetoric of creating a borderless Islamic state in the region, it turns out, was not just mad religious ranting but an actual action plan.
Their lightning advances across northern and central Iraq in June, however, were only enough for U.S. President Barack Obama to agree to send 300 military advisors to Iraq. Until the government of Iraq undergoes fundamental change – read, and Nuri al-Maliki steps down and a new government is presented – the U.S. would not provide more significant military power to back up Iraqi government forces. Or, as Gen. David Petraeus put it in June: “This cannot be the United States being the air force of Shia militias.” In other words, given your super-sectarian behavior, Mr. Maliki and friends, you’re on your own now.
But the Obama administration is now playing catch-up following its decision to make only a minimal commitment to strengthening anti-IS forces in Iraq. In the seven weeks since Petraeus’ influential statement, the IS has not only held onto the key city of Mosul and gained additional towns, but has committed atrocities in almost every place it has reached, killing Kurds, Shi'ites and most recently, about 500 Yazidis, some of whom may have been buried alive, according to an Iraqi government minister.
What caught the West’s attention over the last few days was the footage of thousands of people on the run on a dusty, near-barren mountain in the height of summer. They were Yazidis on the run from the IS after having been given a choice: convert to Islam or die. Christians are also on the run. IS has overrun Qaraqosh, the largest of a triangle of Christian towns north and east of Mosul, and turned all of its people into refugees. Many of them fled east to Erbil, the heretofore stable capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government – the Washington of northern Iraq. Only when IS fighters captured the Mosul dam and advanced to within 20 miles of Erbil, where American military personnel are stationed, did the Obama administration decide to respond with air strikes. With that help, the U.S. air strikes Sunday managed Sunday to help the Peshmerga regain one of two towns it had lost.
What happened that some two months after the U.S. ruled out air strikes, the very same air strikes that Maliki has apparently been asking for since May, the Obama administration has had to do an about-face? First, the U.S. overestimated how effectively the Kurdish Peshmerga would do be able to hold back a tide of fanatical but fantastically motivated IS fighters. Second, it underestimated just how powerful the IS has become. This is no rag-tag guerrilla movement fighting with Kalashnikovs and RPGs, nor is it a Hamas shooting rockets. IS is fighting with modern U.S. weapons and tanks its fighters have seized from Iraqi forces – who largely abandoned their weapons while retreating – while the Kurds are fighting with Soviet-style arms and limited amounts of ammunition. It as if IS is armed like Israel, and the Kurds are armed like Hamas.
“The U.S. has basically armed ISIS: they take these weapons over and they know how to use them,” says David Andelman, an Iraq expert and the editor of World Policy Journal in New York. “ISIS is more powerful now than Al-Qaida was at its peak because it's possible that it will soon be running a country as big as two countries.”
Andelman says that while he’s argued for several years that the “natural solution to Iraq problems is a tripartite Iraq,” even that no longer looks like the way to solve the key issues. “The question is whether any two of the three parts can resist a force as powerful as ISIS,” he adds. “It’s not going to be solved by dropping two 500-pound-ton bombs on an ISIS artillery post, and American jets flying overhead is not going to solve it either.” But America’s reluctance to get re-entangled in Iraq, he said, is mixed in with a sense of responsibility. “There is more and more of an understanding that that we can't have let thousands of American boys die in vain and say it’s not our problem. It is our problem, because we put this government in power and it obviously is useless to stop what’s happening.”
The most troubling part is that worst-case scenarios, seemingly unfathomable when the U.S. left Iraq in 2011, now seem eminently possible. The slaughter of innocent civilians and the growing number of displaced, desperate people seeking shelter is foremost among them. The fact that the IS has already reached within 20 miles of Erbil is like a red alert. Iraq’s one running success story, the one with a leadership that has been the most friendly to Western interests, is in danger of being overtaken by a group that sees almost everyone not like it as infidels, and which wants to remake the very map of the Middle East.
Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government, is now appealing for international military aid to help the Kurds defeat IS. I’m usually the last person to argue that the answer to a problem is to throw more weapons at it. But in this case, if the West doesn’t do it, it may be a death sentence for many of those beautiful minorities Iraq is famous for and the idea of Iraq itself.