Gordon Campbell on the Sunni extremist state that’s now emerging in Iraq/Syria

Back when they were trying to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration conjured up an entirely fictitious link between al-Qaeda and the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Well, the Americans are now seeing that fantasy come true. The forces of al-Qaeda are over-running northern Iraq for real. In recent days, the Sunni extremists who have stormed into key cities and towns in northern Iraq have sent hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing south, and with good reason; the Iraqi population knows full well just how hideous the rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has been across the border, in northern Syria.

More clearly than ever before, the war being waged in Syria against the Assad regime is now the same war that is being fought in Iraq. The national borders are illusory. The best way of seeing how events are unfolding is from this map, borrowed from Juan Cole’s site on Middle East analysis, via the New York Times.

Click for big version.

As the map shows, Iraq is now only a rump (Baghdad/Najaf/Basra) attached to Iran. The humanitarian disaster in Syria and Iraq is the most pressing need. Yet the twin policies that have brought it about have been (a) the 2003 invasion of Iraq to take out the Saddam Hussein regime and (b) the related attempt to isolate and encircle Iran by taking out its ally, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. These two adventures have both been led and cheered on by the US, the conservative Arab states and Israel. The karmic backlash has been immediate, and extreme. The first consequence of getting rid of Saddam was – ironically – to put in power a Shia-led government that quickly became hugely dependent on the main US target, Iran.

How on earth did that happen? And could things conceivably get worse for Washington? Yes, they could, and have now done so. Successive Shia-led governments in Baghdad have deepened a sectarian divide which to be fair, had initially been exploited by Saddam. The Shia have wreaked vengeance on their former oppressors. They drove the Sunni population as refugees (and as fighters) into the north of the country, and over the border into Syria. Well, now the Sunni fighters are back. Some of them used to be the backbone of the Iraqi army, and they’re likely to meet little opposition from army forces loyal to the al-Maliki government, but the Shia militias will be a different story. In short, the civil war of 2006/07 is on again. So far, the Sunni fighters have already over-run the provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, and they’re headed for Baghdad.

This can only be a temporary stage in the downward spiral of events. As they have conclusively proved in the towns and cities of northern Syria, ISIS can only rule by terror, intimidation and via their own ghastly version of sharia law. In fact, the extreme brutality of ISIS in Syria has been a useful recruiting tool for their Sunni extremist rival, Jabhat al-Nusra. Once the Iraqi population feels the lash of ISIS governance, they will rebel against it. Yet for now, a half a million of them are fleeing to escape it.

One final irony: the current best hope for containing ISIS is the Assad regime. Indeed, one reason why ISIS has turned around and is directing its energies back into Iraq is because it was being turfed out of cities like Aleppo and other towns in northern Syria by the Syrian army still loyal to Assad. For now…the Obama administration has stood by impotently while its anti-Iranian policies in Syria have came unstuck. It is now watching just as futilely as its chickens come home to roost in Iraq as well.

Rain, Rain
What with the weather of late and all, it may be time to bring out this great version of “Didn’t It Rain” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, as recorded at a concert held in an railway station outside Manchester, England in 1964. Interesting looking crowd, too. Wonder how many of them went on to form gospel groups of their own.

As a bonus, here is Sister Rosetta doing the definitively soulful version of the great “Precious Memories.” BTW, this version was used as the theme for the Charles Burnett film To Sleep With Anger which is well worth checking out on DVD. Burnett’s masterpiece was Killer of Sheep, screened at the Film Festival four or five years ago. Yet in To Sleep With Anger, Danny Glover is unforgettable as the smiling trickster uncle who comes spinning in out of the Southern past like a whirlwind, to sow discord among a good middle-class black family.