"Iraq is irreversibly split"

In his new book, "Terror vor Europas Toren" (Terror at the Gates of Europe), Wilfried Buchta analyses the reasons for the rise of the jihadist militia of the self-styled "Islamic State" and the disintegration of the Iraqi state. Ulrich von Schwerin spoke to Buchta, a scholar of Islam, who worked as a UN analyst in Baghdad for many years about the future of the nation

By Ulrich von Schwerin

The advance of Islamic State (IS) on Mosul about a year ago came as a surprise to many. But can it not to a certain extent be seen as a continuation of the Sunni rebellion against the Shia-dominated central government?

Wilfried Buchta: IS exploited the vacuum that opened up on the Sunni side in the years from 2011 to 2013 after Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki systematically and specifically marginalised and disempowered the most important Sunni politicians. Following the US withdrawal, there was no longer any counterbalance to Maliki, which meant he could do whatever he wanted. He utilised this situation to sideline his Sunni rivals, put them in court under false accusations or drive them out of the country.

As a result of the marginalisation of Sunni politicians, a protest movement formed in 2011 in the Sunni provinces of Diyala, Salahaddin, Ninawa and Anbar. The protest leaders had begun initiatives for a referendum to turn each of their respective provinces into autonomous regions – a possibility explicitly provided for in the Iraqi constitution of 2005. If these referenda had taken place, a majority of Sunnis would have come out in favour of the autonomous regions. Maliki didn't want this, of course, which is why he used violent means to tackle the protest movement.

An IS jihadist in Mosul (photo: Reuters)
The unstoppable advance of IS: the fall of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city in June 2014 was a decisive victory for IS in its offensive to bring large parts of the country under its control. Earlier this week, former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki dismissed as "worthless" a parliamentary report blaming him and others for the jihadist takeover of second city Mosul in 2014

So by excluding the Sunnis, did Maliki essentially pave the way for IS?

Buchta: The Sunnis no longer had anyone with a powerful voice to change things in their favour. The quashing of the protests deprived the Sunnis of all remaining hopes of reaching some kind of compromise with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. This led to the radicalisation and militarisation of the protest movement, driving many Sunnis into the arms of IS. IS exploited the pent-up anger of the Sunnis, hijacked their protest movement and steered it in the direction it wanted to go.

Are there no politicians who want reconciliation between the denominations?

Buchta: On the Shia side, the hardliners – such as the pro-Iranian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) – dominate. The Sadrists and, of course, the Dawa Party, which is still dominated by Maliki, are not willing to share power. On the Sunni side, there are a few politicians who are ready to adjust to the new circumstances and who no longer insist on bringing the old elite back into power. But these days, they're in a small minority. Apart from the "Irakiya" party alliance led by Iyad Allawi, there is no secular nationalist force to challenge the denominational hardliners on both sides even though such a force would certainly find support among voters.

To what extent does the Sunni population sympathise with IS?

Buchta: In my experience, most Sunnis are not particularly devout. I think the proportion of fervent IS supporters is actually rather small. Nevertheless, the Sunnis toe the IS line because they can't do otherwise. But most Sunnis are secular and nationalist in their orientation. Denominational identity was always less pronounced with the Sunnis than with the Shias. They see themselves as Arabs first, Muslims second and only then as Sunnis. However, their exclusion from power has resulted in the strengthening of the denominational component of the way they see themselves.

What role do foreign jihadists play within IS?

Buchta: There isn't any reliable information on that subject. When I was in Baghdad between 2005 and 2011, those fighting for al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) – the precursor to IS – were mainly Saudis, Moroccans and Tunisians, and only very few Iraqis. Then many former functionaries and officers from Saddam Hussein's secular-nationalist Ba'ath Party joined the ranks of IS. These are shrewd power tacticians. They rubbed their hands in glee when Maliki made the mistake of marginalising the Sunnis, because this played into their hands.

Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran (photo: Leader.ir)
"But the Iranians don't necessarily need vassals. What's important for them is that Shia Iraqis who want to maintain friendly relations with Iran remain in power. It is enough for Iran if the Shia south of the country with its oil fields, and Baghdad with its surrounding area remain under the influence of central government. Tehran is happy with the current situation," says Wilfried Buchta

Just how great is the Ba'athist influence within IS?

Buchta: There is no exact information on how power is distributed between the former Ba'athists and die-hard jihadists. We can only speculate which of these groups is more dependent on the other and which has more control over the other. There is a theory that the Ba'athists who've gone to ground have grown beards and are now using IS as a vehicle to realise Saddam Hussein's old goal – which is at the same time the core element of the Ba'ath ideology – namely to gather Arabs together in a new empire starting with Iraq. But that's more like a conspiracy theory.

What role are foreign countries playing with regard to denominational polarisation in Iraq?

Buchta: The Saudis are playing a generally destructive role, they don't have a constructive perspective. Behind the scenes, the Saudi state is financing a large number of groups and parties in Iraq – both moderate and Salafist. This works according to the watering can principle, with the goal of making life difficult for the Shia government in Baghdad – and, consequently, their Iranian friends. In addition, private Saudi donors are certainly continuing to finance IS in Iraq or the al-Nusra Front in Syria via charitable organisations.

And what do things look like from the Iranian side?

Buchta: The Iranians aren't pursuing a constructive policy aimed at inclusion of the politically marginalised Sunnis either. The most important thing for Iran is to ensure that Iraq never again becomes a threat, as it was under Saddam Hussein, and that the nation never launches another war. That's the most important strategic goal. In order to achieve this, Iran needs a pro-Iranian, Shia government in Baghdad. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which are responsible for Iraq and Syria, are only interested in keeping the Shias in government and extending their power across the entire state territory if possible.

But Maliki and other Shia politicians haven't always done Iran's bidding.

Cover of Wilfried Buchta's book "Terror vor Europas Toren" (source: Campus-Verlag)
Wilfried Buchta is a scholar of Islam. From 2005 until 2011, he worked as a political analyst for the UN mission in Iraq. His latest book "Terror vor Europas Toren: Der Islamische Staat, Iraks Zerfall und Amerikas Ohnmacht" (Terror at the Gates of Europe: The Islamic State, Iraq's Decline and America's Impotence) was published in 2015 by Campus-Verlag

Buchta: Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Nouri al-Maliki and also the cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr are not unilaterally pro-Iranian politicians. But the Iranians don't necessarily need vassals. What's important for them is that Shia Iraqis who want to maintain friendly relations with Iran remain in power. It is enough for Iran if the Shia south of the country, with its oil fields, and Baghdad, with its surrounding area, remain under the influence of central government. Tehran is happy with the current situation.

Isn't this conflict ultimately going to lead to a division of the country?

Buchta: The country is already irreversibly split. In theory, Iraq continues to exist; the fact of the matter is, however, that there are three states: the rump state with Baghdad and the South; the Kurdish autonomous region, which has everything that a state needs, although the government in Erbil has not yet officially declared its independence; and the North and West, which are part of the new cross-border IS state. IS territories will not now be re-integrated into the Iraqi state, even though the international community maintains that Iraq continues to exist within its 1918 borders. But that's just a myth.

In your book you don't rule out an IS implosion.

Buchta: I don't rule it out, nor do I think that an implosion is very likely. The success of IS depends in the long term on whether it succeeds in maintaining basic public services and the infrastructure for the population. IS has managed to uphold its new state for a year now, which indicates that it has adequate financial resources and experienced Ba'ath administrators to support its administration. I think that living conditions will worsen in territories held by IS, but the new state won't collapse.

Are there any positive prospects to end on?

Buchta: No. We have to be realistic. The Americans have given up their claim to be the world's sole law enforcement officer. They have learned from the Iraq disaster that they can't win and can only lose there. IS cannot be vanquished through air strikes, but there is absolutely no question of the US sending hundreds of thousands of soldiers back to Iraq. They would rather leave the fighting to the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shia militiamen, even if these are directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in order to preserve soldiers' lives and save resources on their own side.

Obama has adopted a new strategic approach: secretly he is turning away from Saudi Arabia, because it promotes so much chaos and damage – whether it be in Yemen or Syria – and undertaking a cautious rapprochement with Iran, to liberate it from the odium of being the revolutionary pariah, and to allow it to again become a responsible player. If Tehran supports efforts to uphold the remnants of a nation-state system of order in Syria or Iraq, then the benefits for the Americans outweigh the disadvantages. It's a cold, but also a clever power calculation.

Interview conducted by Ulrich von Schwerin.

© Qantara.de 2015

Translation from the German by Nina Coon