Iraq is on a precipice
June 12th, 2014
09:12 AM ET

Iraq is on a precipice

By Michael Rubin, Special to CNN

Editor’s Note: Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes. The views expressed are his own.

Iraq is on a precipice from which it may never recover. The fall of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, to forces ostensibly from the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), may simply be the tip of the iceberg. What has happened in Iraq increasingly appears not simply to be a binary struggle between government and insurgent, but rather a more complicated problem that may be impossible to fully unravel.

I drove from Tikrit through Beiji to Mosul earlier this year, and into Syria along the same roads ISIS and other insurgents now use. Even then, government control over Mosul was tenuous. Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints on the outskirts of town urged me and my driver to reconsider my trip because Mosul was not safe; they relented only because a local vouched for me. After all, while Tikrit was home to former President Saddam Hussein and his immediate entourage, Mosul was the hometown of much of Saddam Hussein’s officer corps. It still is. As I continued on to the Syrian border, a special security agent at a checkpoint separated me from my taxi driver and another man accompanying us to ensure that I was there of my own free will. A senior security official in Baghdad subsequently told me that was standard protocol. It also reflects, however, the lawlessness of that area.

While Americans focus on the shock of al Qaeda flags over Mosul, Iraqis describe a more complicated scene. One Iraqi reported that insurgents in Mosul told his brother that they were not al Qaeda, but rather veterans of Saddam’s army. Rumors are rife throughout Mosul and Tikrit that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, Saddam Hussein’s vice president and the most senior official of the previous regime who evaded American capture, has returned from Syria and is leading renewed insurgency.

While many diplomats and analysts remember Saddam as a brutal but secular dictator, the reality was more complicated. After Operation Desert Storm drove Iraqi forces out of Kuwait in 1991, Saddam found religion. He inserted “Allahu Akbar” (God is Great) on the Iraqi flag and actively courted more radical Islamists. In 2000, three years before the U.S.-led invasion, Islamist vigilantes terrorized unveiled and professional women in Baghdad, beheading several for “prostitution” and allegedly shirking more conservative Islamist precepts.

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The U.S. military discovered this the hard way in 2003. After the initial invasion, Gen. David Petraeus and the 101st Airborne Division he commanded took charge of Mosul. Rather than purge senior Baathists, Petraeus empowered them. Former Baathist Gen. Mahmud Muhammad al-Maris, for example, was assigned to lead Iraqi Border Police units guarding the Syrian border, and he picked another former Baathist, Gen. Muhammad Kha'iri Barhawi, to be the city’s police chief.

Petraeus explained his strategy at the time: "The coalition must reconcile with a number of the thousands of former Ba'ath officials…giving them a direct stake in the success of the new Iraq." The result was false calm, good for Petraeus’ carefully crafted image, but shortsighted. Barhawi reportedly used his position to organize insurgent cells comprised of Islamist and Baathist insurgents working hand-in-hand. In November 2004, he effectively handed the keys to the city to them. Just as occurred this week, they burned police stations, emptied prisons, and forced tens of thousands of Moslawis – as residents of Mosul are called – to flee. Only a decisive American military assault restored calm.

The reality in Mosul, Beiji, and Tikrit is that the enemy is not simply al Qaeda, but a coalition of forces dedicated to the eradication of both democracy and Shiite power in Iraq. With American and U.N. officials pressuring long pressuring Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki to reverse de-Baathification and to empower former regime officials, what happened earlier this week seems an eerie repeat of events of a decade ago.

Both the Kurds and neighboring states may have poured fuel on the fire, not realizing the conflagration they would spark would so quickly burn out of control. Reports from Mosul suggest the insurgents used Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles in their assault. Because the Kurdistan Regional Government had purchased Kornets from Bulgaria, their alleged use has sparked rumors across Iraq that the Kurdistan Regional Government might have “leaked” weaponry to the insurgents in order to weaken al-Maliki as he seeks to build a coalition to ensure a third four-year term, something many Kurds find anathema. If true, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani was too clever by half, as Mosul’s collapse has saddled him with tens of thousands of displaced persons for which to care. That said, an al Qaeda-affiliate separating Iraqi Kurdistan from Baghdad may lead Barzani and many Kurds to reconsider whether they should not simply declare independence.

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Should an independent Kurdistan arise out of the ashes of northern Iraq’s fall to insurgents, the Turks might have no one to blame but themselves. With ISIS taking several dozen Turkish diplomats, intelligence agents, special forces, and their families taken hostage in Mosul, Turkey may be experiencing Islamist blowback despite having allowed ISIS fighters and other Islamist militants unfettered entry into Syria. If so, Turkey now learns a lesson that Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and even pre-civil war Syria have previously learned: Play with al Qaeda and get burned.

Reversing Mosul’s fall will not be easy. U.S. rhetoric about providing the al-Maliki government with intelligence and perhaps aerial support is just that – rhetoric. After all, if the United States and Iraqi central government had good intelligence with regard to the insurgency, they would not have been caught flatfooted in the first place. It is easy to suggest supporting Iraqi counterterror efforts with American drones or even manned flights, but it is far less certain where the United States would base such platforms and, again, how they could develop actionable intelligence absent assets on the ground. After all, Mosul is an urban environment, and the insurgents are dressed no differently than remaining civilians.

The Iraqi government could theoretically retake Mosul, but not with precision: It would be a Pyrrhic victory achieved by decimating the city, the equivalent of treating brain cancer by cutting off the patient’s head. But with ISIS and former Baathists rallying “volunteers” for an assault on Baghdad – and Iran preparing to intervene should the insurgency continue to spread – it is not only Iraq on the precipice. The only hope may be a full-fledged and joint Iraqi Army and Kurdish peshmerga assault on Mosul. It won’t be pretty: Moslawis have not forgiven the peshmerga for the looting in which they engaged in 2003. Yet sometimes there are no good options, although perhaps the bad can be blunted if the current crisis and its peak into a dystopian future encourage reconciliation among Iraq’s mainstream politicians. If not, not only will Iraq become Syria 2.0, but the ensuing storm could engulf other regional states like Lebanon and Jordan.

Iraq is at the precipice. The coming week will decide whether it climbs down, or falls.

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Topics: Iraq • Terrorism • Turkey

soundoff (26 Responses)
  1. palintwit

    I woke up this morning, read the news, and nowhere did I see anything about Sarah Palin being run over by a truck, drowning in her tub, or being crushed by a baby grand piano. I can only assume that she continues to waste oxygen. *sigh*

    June 12, 2014 at 10:26 am | Reply
    • Don't Forget

      Don't forget precious space.

      June 12, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  2. chri§§y

    Well arent you just a bundle of cheerfulness today!

    June 12, 2014 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • George

      Operation Iraqi Freedom: Mission Accomplished

      Way to go, BushBoy!

      June 12, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Indeed, Bush II is to blame for the mess in Iraq. What a cynical joke, out of today's point of view: "mission accomplished"! Iraq is an unfinished business, with a never-ending conflict.
        Saddam Hussein had no WMDs, as it later showed. Had he been left in place, the Arab uprisings in 2011 might still have caught up with him. The Sunnis would rise up against him, backed by the Al Qaeda jihadists, whose core mission was to overthrow autocrats.

        June 16, 2014 at 11:13 am |
  3. greg

    I'm scared to death that the politicians in Washington will come up with some kind of excuse to drag us back into Iraq! Let's all hope that never happens.

    June 12, 2014 at 11:15 am | Reply
    • James Kardys

      We may have no choice. Iran's move to send troops into Iraq will be extremely provocative to the Sunni-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. And if that's not bad enough, now that we demonstrated to the world that we will only lightly condemn irredentism by imposing minor sanctions (not the "Iran-styled" ones that Obama promised) on the Russians, Iran will probably try pull a Crimea on Iraq if this insurgency succeeds. Given the fact that the Middle Eastern countries are far more hot-headed than their European counterparts, a "Crimea event" in the Middle East will be much harder to defuse than the already difficult-to-defuse Ukraine crisis. The risk of a regional war in the Middle East is too great. Not only will a large amount of the world's oil supply be cut off, but if our two military allies in the region (Turkey and Israel), are attacked on their own soil as a result, we will have no choice but to intervene and attack Iran, which would draw Russia and China into the war and start World War III. Obama has an extremely important decision to make: either intervene in Iraq and send a message to the Iranians to back off, or let Iran run over Iraq and possibly spark a regional war that could easily escalate into a Third World War. What do you think he should do?

      June 12, 2014 at 5:14 pm | Reply
      • greg

        Stay out of it, of course! We have and never had ant right to be there in the first place.

        June 12, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
      • rupert

        Lol. He told u off greg/ Joseph. Ha ha. He he..

        June 12, 2014 at 7:16 pm |
  4. HeyHey

    Shut the F up... Your opinion is worth less than dirt.

    June 12, 2014 at 11:17 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Please HeyHey, do cut that filthy Tea party lingo out. It has no place here. I don't mind having idiots here usurp my screen name for their personal amusement as much as seeing people use that kind of lingo. The English language already has enough words as to render that kind of profanity unnecessary.

      June 12, 2014 at 1:19 pm | Reply
  5. chri§§y

    Back atcha hey hey!

    June 12, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Reply
    • rupert

      @ chrissy. Haha. Hehe. U can't blame that one on ne. Haha. Hehe.
      @banasy where ever u are. K.M.A.

      June 12, 2014 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  6. John Smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    June 12, 2014 at 12:42 pm | Reply
  7. Allan Kinsman

    I would write an opinion but words on paper cannot scream loud enough at the idiots who construct Americas foreign policy.

    June 12, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Thank you, Allan. The idiots who construct our foreign policies need to be indicted and brought to justice for crimes against humanity!

      June 12, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  8. bobcat2u

    Isn't it amazing how a once (somewhat) stable country, run by a person (albeit a dictator) who was able to keep/enforce peace, is now tearing itself apart because of the oh so wise decision to remove the only stabilizing factor in said country ?
    Because of these choices, we have now given Qaeda even more weak minds to mold to their thinking. If we must again get involved, limit it to air support and no more American boots.

    June 12, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  9. Leftcoastrocky

    "al-Maliki rejected Obama's offer to leave a "long term security assistance force" in Iraq. And for those of you who don't remember, the U.S. pullout began pursuant to a treaty signed in 2008 by W. Bush. Candidate Bush pledged not to engage in nation building. He lied. Iraq, as well as the U.S. is still suffering the consequences."

    June 12, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  10. Let them

    Let them kill each other in the name of Allah. Such a peaceful religion.

    June 12, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  11. chri§§y

    Delusional much @ rupert? And hey L.M.N. Wherever YOU are! Lol good luck figuring that out btw.

    June 12, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  12. Gary Sutphin

    I hate to bring this up BUT...wasn't it Jimmy Carter who 37 years ago warned that if we didn't take serious steps to conserve energy and ween ourselves from our dependency on foreign oil that someday it would impair our ability to intervene in the world in the name of peace? Well....here we ARE!

    June 12, 2014 at 10:28 pm | Reply
  13. Gary Sutphin

    We could always try spending the billions we now spend trying to kick some camel jockey's ass back into line on perhaps....other forms of energy besides oil? Just a crazy thought.

    June 12, 2014 at 10:32 pm | Reply
  14. Matt

    You break it you own it, we broke it and we owned it. So we had to wait through 2005/ 06 to build up the Iraqi security forces before the 2007 surge could occur, 5 years we fixed it and it was fixed when the last troops pulled out, it was fixed when they took over and now they own it. Case closed. If people are that concerned take it to the UN get a resolution and send peacekeepers. Not us but.

    June 13, 2014 at 11:25 pm | Reply

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