7 Myths about the Radical Sunni Advance in Iraq

By Juan Cole

Already in the past week and a half, many assertions are becoming commonplace in the inside-the-Beltway echo chamber about Iraq’s current crisis that are poorly grounded in knowledge of the country. Here are some sudden truisms that should be rethought.

1. “The Sunni radicals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are popular.” They are not. Opinion polling shows that most Iraqi Sunnis are secular-minded. The ISIS is brutal and fundamentalist. Where the Sunnis have rallied to it, it is because of severe discontents with their situation after the fall of the Baath Party in 2003 with the American invasion. The appearance of video showing ISIS massacring police (most of them Sunnis) in Tikrit will severely detract from such popularity as they enjoyed.

2. “ISIS fighters achieved victory after victory in the Sunni north.” While this assertion is true, and towns continue to fall to it, it is simplistic. The central government troops, many of them Shiite, in Mosul and in towns of the north, were unpopular because representatives of a sectarian Shiite regime. The populace of Mosul, including town quarters and clan groups (‘tribes’) on the city’s outskirts, appear to have risen up in conjunction with the ISIS advance, as Patrick Cockburn argues. It was a pluralist urban rebellion, with nationalists of a socialist bent (former Baathists) joining in. In some instances locals were suppressed by the fundamentalist guerrillas and there already have been instances of local Sunnis helping the Iraqi army reassert itself in Salahuddin Province and then celebrating the departure of ISIS.

3. “Iraqi troops were afraid to fight the radical Sunni guerrillas and so ran away.” While the troops did abandon their positions in Mosul and other towns, it isn’t clear why. There are reports that they were ordered to fall back. More important, if this was a popular uprising, then a few thousand troops were facing hundreds of thousands of angry urbanites and were in danger of being overwhelmed. In Afghanistan’s Mazar-i Sharif in 1997 when the Pashtun Taliban took this largely Tajik and Uzbek city, the local populace abided it af few days and then rose up and killed 8,000 Taliban, expelling them from the city. (A year later they returned and bloodily reasserted themselves). Troops cannot always assert themselves against the biopower of urban masses.

4. “The Sunni radicals are poised to move on Baghdad.” While ISIS as a guerrilla group could infiltrate parts of Baghdad and cause trouble, they would face severe difficulty in taking it. Baghdad was roughly 45% Sunni and 55% Shiite in 2003 when Bush invaded. But in the Civil War of 2006-7, the American military disarmed the Sunni groups first, giving Shiite militias a huge advantage. The latter used it to ethnically cleanse the capital of its Sunnis. The usually Sunni districts of the west of the city were depopulated. The mixed districts of the center became almost all Shiite. There simply isn’t much of a Sunni power base left in Baghdad and so that kind of take-over by acclaim would be very difficult to achieve in the capital. As Joshua Landis puts it, ISIS has picked a fight it cannot win.

5. “The US should intervene with air power against ISIS.” The Sunni radicals are not a conventional army. There are no lines for the US to bomb, few convoys or other obvious targets. To the extent that their advance is a series of urban revolts against the government of PM Nouri al-Maliki, the US would end up bombing ordinary city folk. The Sunnis already have resentments about the Bush administration backing for the Shiite parties after 2003, which produced purges of Sunnis from their jobs and massive unemployment in Sunni areas. For the US to be bombing Sunni towns all these years later on behalf of Mr. al-Maliki would be to invite terrorism against the US. ISIS is a bad actor, but it so far hasn’t behaved like an international terrorist group; it has been oriented to achieving strategic and tactical victories in Syria against the Baath government and the Shiite Alawis, and in Iraq against the Shiite Da’wa Party government. But it could easily morph into an anti-American international terrorist network. The US should avoid actions that would push it in that direction. So far the Baath regime in Syria is winning against the Sunni radicals. The Shiite majority in Iraq can’t easily be overwhelmed by them. Local actors can handle this crisis.

6. “US interests are threatened by the ISIS capture of Mosul.” It is difficult to see what precise interest the hawks are thinking of. Petroleum prices are slightly up because the pipeline from Kirkuk to Ceyhan in Turkey is closed. But it only does a few hundred thousand barrels a day on good days. Most oil in Iraq is produced in Basra in the Iraqi deep south, Shiite country where ISIS is unlikely to gain sway. And in any case high petroleum prices may be good for the US. More Americans should be using public transport, moving to the city from the suburbs, buying electric vehicles and electric plug-in hybrids and putting solar panels on their roofs to power their EVs. These steps are desirable to fight climate change and for economic health. Wars for oil are so 20th century.

7. “The US should be concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq.” The American hawks’ attitude toward Iran in Iraq has all along been comical. US viceroy Jerry Bremer used to warn against “foreign” influence in Iraq, making Middle Easterners fall down laughing. Shiite Iraqis and Shiite Iranians don’t always get along, but warning Iraq against Shiite Iranian influence is like warning Italy against Vatican influence. Iran has an interest in seeing radical Sunnis rolled back in Iraq, and if ISIS is in fact a danger to US interests, then the obvious thing for the US to do would be to improve relations with Iran and cooperate with Tehran in defeating the al-Qaeda affiliates in the region. In fact, this has been the obvious course since 2001, when president Mohammad Khatami of Iran staged pro-US candle light vigils throughout Iran after 9/11. Instead, Neocons like David Frum maneuvered the Bush administration into declaring Iran part of an imaginary Axis of Evil on behalf of right-wing Israeli interests. This stance has all along been illogical. The Obama administration is said to be considering consultations with Iran about Iraq. Even Bush did that at one point. It is only logical.


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35 Responses

  1. As you note: ” In fact, this has been the obvious course since 2001, when president Mohammad Khatami of Iran staged pro-US candle light vigils throughout Iran after 9/11. Instead, Neocons like David Frum maneuvered the Bush administration into declaring Iran part of an imaginary Axis of Evil on behalf of right-wing Israeli interests.”

    How sad, how tragic the outcome for us and–far more–for Iraqis.

  2. Hell is officially freezing over. Lindsey Graham is suggesting the US work with Iran on the situation in Iraq. Maybe Cantor being rejected is starting to register on his all war policy brand of politics, but I doubt it.

      • Excuse me, but who the he** is the US to ‘order’ anyone to do anything? If Graham said that, he is an idiot. But we knew that already.

    • There are no enemies or friends, just interests. If the interests collude the outcome might seem extraordinary for a casual observer. After the objectives are met things are reappraised. The nationalist population and rallying, self-serving politicians are such a great tools…

  3. Another talking point by the neo-cons is that this is al Qaeda storming across Iraq.
    What relationship is ISIS to al Qaeda?

    • Al-Qaeda has disassociated itself from ISIS. ISIS has been fighting Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, in Syria. This goes back to Al-Qaeda commands concerns about Zarqawi and AQIs behavior in Iraq. Much of ISIS are former AQI. The leader of ISIS, Abu Dua, lead AQI in 2010. They share a similar ideology but compete with each other for influence. Al-Qaeda views ISIS tactics as extreme. The LRB had a good review some months back concerning Al-Qaeda and the calibration of violence, i.e. not too much violence so as to turn off the local population but enough to make the government and potential supporters take them seriously.

    • Professor, what do you know about Military Councils of Iraqi Revolutionaries (MCIR)? Its general claims it is in control with backing of Sunni tribal leaders and ISIS is assisting them as long as they ‘behave’.

  4. Is ISIS really trying to “Take Bagdad”? It would make no sense, they should strengthen their hold on the Sunni territory they have taken and use the money it has stolen to refit and rearm. There is no threat from our Billion Dollar Iraqi Army and if the U S is stupid enough to start an indiscriminate bombing campaign it will only play into their hands – again.
    What I fear is that Obama will use this as an excuse to stay in Afghanistan, which is poised for a Civil War the moment our troops leave, if we leave next week or next year.

    • Years ago, I made the same comment: “Nothing we can do will change the inevitable civil war in Iraq, whether we lease today of ten years from now!”

  5. For more myths tune into Faux News, MSNBC, CNN, hate radio and advice from Friedman, Brooks, Krauthammer, and all the neocons and politicians who created the crime of the century in Iraq and are now stepping up to any available megaphone to give us the benefit of their “wisdom” to explain how to solve this monumental and continuing tragedy.

  6. Lots of rueful head-shaking and tongue-wagging about The Crisis In Iraq, Syria, Libya, Myanmar, Yemen, Somalia, Detroit… And so much recourse to what George Santayana, who knew a bot about history and human behavior, was reported (in part) to have said: “Those who do not remember/learn from/recall history are doomed to repeat it/its mistakes etc.

    Leave it to W. Churchill to come up with a pithy statement of the problem:

    ““When the situation was manageable it was neglected, and now that it is thoroughly out of hand we apply too late the remedies which then might have effected a cure. There is nothing new in the story. It is as old as the sibylline books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective, lack of clear thinking, confusion of counsel until the emergency comes, until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong–these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

    —House of Commons, 2 May 1935, after the Stresa Conference, in which Britain, France and Italy agreed—futilely—to maintain the independence of Austria. (My book* page 490). link to nationalchurchillmuseum.org

    Of course in the present context, to “act” being the demand from all the Wise and those who profit from “war,” much the same set, the bit about what “action would be simple and effective” is kind of the big-sticking point, now isn’t it? Imperialists are all about shaping everything to suit their pleasure. And as with any kind of engineering, social engineering runs up against the properties and limits not only of your material but of the tools you have to shape things, and Murphy’s immutable Law and its corollaries, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics…

    And more from Santayana: ““History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.” link to en.thinkexist.com

    • Actually, it was Winston Churchill, then Colonial Secretary, who drew the artificial boundaries of a new nation called Iraq. He then appointed a Hashemite King over the new land, who had no previous ties to any of the groups making up the new nation. Why did anyone think that would work? He later regretted not giving the Kurds their own nation. Nothing much has changed in the intervening eighty-three years.

    • Those guys heard John Kerry’s comment about ISIS being a threat to attack the Homeland. If ISIS does decide to pass on attacking Baghdad, I think the people in Dallas will remain safe thanks to patriotic Americans with plenty of guns.

      The only way to beat a BAD GUY with a gun is with a good guy with a gun. In Big D, the people took that to heart.

      “BRING ‘EM ON.”



  7. ¡Vaya! no tiene mucha lógica decir que un grupo terrorista como ISIS (que solo son unos pocos miles), puede controlar un vasto territorio desde Raqqah (en Siria) hasta Samarra (en Irak), y a continuación decir que no tienen apoyos en la población. Entonces ¿cómo pueden obrar tal prodigio?

  8. All the reports I can find seem to indicate that government troops fight like hell, but seem to suffer inadequate leadership at higher echelons. Which isn’t surprising. They still run on an Ottoman model.

  9. Just an observation….. The favorite tactic, and may be an effective one, of US administration to deal with issues is to cut off funding source. Had US been truly oppose to the the ISIS it would have identified and put the financiers of the group on notice and freeze their assets. None of that has happened, and there is not even talk of it, that tells me US is not really against what is going on in Iraq. May be it wants to have Iran pulled to the quicksand of Iraq and is using this group to do so. But I don’t see US doing what it normally does with adversaries in this case. My conclusion… US feels this group is working in its favor.

  10. Any time you say “should” it is not a myth but an opinion. This starts out very well, refuting half-truths, misunderstandings and misinformation that is going around. It ends up confusing policy options with myths and losing its way.

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