The Fall of Mosul and the False Promises of Modern History

By Juan Cole

The fall of Mosul to the radical, extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a set of historical indictments. Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city, population roughly 2 million (think Houston) until today, when much of the population was fleeing. While this would-be al-Qaeda affiliate took part of Falluja and Ramadi last winter, those are smaller, less consequential places and in Falluja tribal elders persuaded the prime minister not to commit the national army to reducing the city.

It is an indictment of the George W. Bush administration, which falsely said it was going into Iraq because of a connection between al-Qaeda and Baghdad. There was none. Ironically, by invading, occupying, weakening and looting Iraq, Bush and Cheney brought al-Qaeda into the country and so weakened it as to allow it actually to take and hold territory in our own time. They put nothing in place of the system they tore down. They destroyed the socialist economy without succeeding in building private firms or commerce. They put in place an electoral system that emphasizes religious and ethnic divisions. They helped provoke a civil war in 2006-2007, and took credit for its subsiding in 2007-2008, attributing it to a troop escalation of 30,000 men (not very plausible). In fact, the Shiite militias won the civil war on the ground, turning Baghdad into a largely Shiite city and expelling many Sunnis to places like Mosul. There are resentments.

Those who will say that the US should have left troops in Iraq do not say how that could have happened. The Iraqi parliament voted against it. There was never any prospect in 2011 of the vote going any other way. Because the US occupation of Iraq was horrible for Iraqis and they resented it. Should the Obama administration have reinvaded and treated the Iraqi parliament the way Gen. Bonaparte treated the French one?

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I hasten to say that the difficulty Baghdad is having with keeping Mosul is also an indictment of the Saddam Hussein regime (1979-2003), which pioneered the tactic of sectarian rule, basing itself on a Sunni-heavy Baath Party in the center-north and largely neglecting or excluding the Shiite South. Now the Shiites have reversed that strategy, creating a Baghdad-Najaf-Basra power base.

Mosul’s changed circumstances are also an indictment of the irresponsible use to which Sunni fundamentalists in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Oil Gulf are putting their riches. The high petroleum prices, usually over $100 a barrel, of the past few years in a row, have injected trillions of dollars into the Gulf. Some of that money has sloshed into the hands of people who rather admired Usama Bin Laden and who are perfectly willing to fund his clones to take over major cities like Aleppo and Mosul. The vaunted US Treasury Department ability to stop money transfers by people whom Washington does not like has faltered in this case. Is it because Washington is de facto allied with the billionaire Salafis of Kuwait City in Syria, where both want to see the Bashar al-Assad government overthrown and Iran weakened? The descent of the US into deep debt, and the emergence of Gulf states and sovereign wealth funds is a tremendous shift of geopolitical power to Riyadh, Kuwait City and Abu Dhabi, who can now simply buy Egyptian domestic and foreign policy away from Washington. They are also trying to buy a Salafi State of Syria and a Salafi state of northern and western Iraq.

The fall of Mosul is an indictment of the new Iraqi army, which is well equipped and some of its troops well trained , and which seems to have just run away from the ISIS fighters, allowing some heavy weapons to fall into their hands.

It is an indictment of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and of the Shiite political elite that took over Iraq from 2005, and which has never been interested in reconciliation with the Sunni Arabs. It is not merely a sectarian issue. The particular Shiite parties that have consistently won elections are those of the religious right among Shiites. Before the CIA cooperated with the Baath Party to destroy the Iraqi Left, many Shiites were secular and the Iraqi Communist Party united them with many of the country’s Jews back in the 1950s. The Shiite religious parties dream of a Shiite state. Many want to implement a fundamentalist vision of Islamic law. There is little place for Sunni Kurds or Sunni Arabs in such a state. Al-Maliki himself seems to have a problem with the Sunnis, and his inability to integrate them into his government means that he is losing them to Sunni radicals. His inability to reach out to Sunni Arabs made plausible what the entire Iraqi parliament rejected when it came out, the Biden plan for the partition of the country. Usama Nujaifi, parliamentarian from Mosul and speaker of the Iraqi parliament, was driven to say a few years ago that for the first time since WW I, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement (envisioning a French Syria and British Iraq) was up for renegotiation.

It is also an indictment of the shameful European imperial scramble for the Middle East during and after WW I and the failed barracuda colonialism of the interwar period, as London and Paris sought oil and other resources, and strategic advantage, in areas they had promised the League of Nations they would prepare for independence. In one instance, they just gave away Ottoman Palestine to a European population, leading to 12 million stateless and displaced people to this day.

During WW I, British diplomats promised lots of people lots of things, and were not embarrassed to double book. The foreign office promised France Syria but the Arab Bureau in Cairo promised Syria to Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Cairo wanted Iraq for Sharif Hussein, but so did New Delhi (the British Government of India couldn’t see the difference between ruling Iraq and ruling Sindh or Rajasthan).

As the war was winding down it was clear that the Ottoman Empire would collapse. The French saw Mosul, with its oil wealth, as part of Syria. The British in New Delhi and in Cairo, for all their wrangling, agreed that it should be part of Iraq, which British and British Indian troops were conquering.

When British Prime Minister Lloyd George met with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau at Versailles, he was eager to push back French claims on Mosul. Since the British and their Arab allies had taken Damascus from the Ottomans, some wanted to renege on the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 altogether. President Woodrow Wilson was also there, with his ideas of self-determination for the peoples of the former empires, and he didn’t want to just see an imperial grab for them. Clemenceau is said to have remarked that he felt he was caught between Jesus Christ and Napoleon.

When Lloyd George met with Clemenceau, the latter is said to have asked him, “What do you want?” Lloyd George said, “Mosul.” Clemenceau agreed. Anything else? “Jerusalem.” You shall have it. In return, the French were assured of Syria, which meant that Lloyd George had betrayed Sharif Hussein and his son Faisal b. Hussein, then in Damascus, for the sake of Mosul’s oil. Afterwards it is said that Lloyd George felt he had gained these boons from Clemenceau so easily that he should have asked for more.

Integrating Mosul into British Iraq, over which London placed Faisal b. Hussein as imported king after the French unceremoniously ushered him from Damascus, allowed the British to depend on the old Ottoman Sunni elite, including former Ottoman officers trained in what is now Turkey. This strategy marginalized the Shiite south, full of poor peasants and small towns, which, if they gave the British trouble, were simply bombed by the RAF. (Iraq under British rule was intensively aerially bombed for a decade and RAF officers were so embarrassed by these proceedings that they worried about the British public finding out.)

To rule fractious Syria, the French (1920-1943) appealed to religious minorities such as the Alawites and Christians to divide and rule; Alawite peasants were willing to join the colonial military as proud Damascene Sunni families largely were not, but when the age of military dictatorships overtook the postcolonial Middle east, the Alawites were in a good position to take over Syria, which they definitively did in 1970.

The countries now known as Syria and Iraq came into modernity having been for 400 years part of the Ottoman Empire. Sometimes it ruled what is now Iraq as a single province with roughly its modern borders, sometimes it ruled it as a set of smaller provinces. At some points the city of Mosul was the seat of a province of the same name. More often its top official reported to the Sultan in Istanbul through Baghdad. Mosul, a large urban center on the caravan and river trade routes stretching to Aleppo and Tripoli to the west and to Basra and India to the southeast, was a major urban place. It was very different from southern Iraq, which through the 19th century converted to Shiite Islam (in part under Indian Shiite influence) and was less urban and more tribal. Still, it was united with the south by trade along the Tigris and by the structures of Ottoman rule.


PM Nouri al-Maliki can only get Iraq back by allying with nationalist Sunnis in the north. Otherwise, for him simply brutally to occupy the city with Shiite troops and artillery and aerial bombing will make him look like his neighbor, Bashar al-Assad.


Related video:

DW: “Islamists take Mosul, Iraq”


Related book:

The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation is Changing the Middle East

141 Responses

  1. Thanks for this interesting and relevant analysis. Most of us don’t know enough about history to realize how it still affects us. There are so many interconnected threads here. The fabric of history is dense. I wonder how many of our “leaders” know, or care, about such matters.

    • Most people, with some intelligence, would know that what’s happening in Iraq is the fruit of the orchard of wonderful things left for it, following the American and Allied Forces successful crusade against Iraq’s evil rulers.

      • Successful crusade? The cheney/bush thugs were not successful in anything they attempted. Trillions of dollars and thousands and thousands of lives wasted to stoke the cheney/bush egos and line the pockets of the MIC. We are governed by fools, crooks, cowards and religious nutbags, on both sides of the aisle.

        • The goal was to secure access to the Iraqi oil. My understanding is that US oil companies got a piece of the action there, so there was some success, but that could come to a screeching halt with ISIS in the catbird seat.

          We are governed by fools, etc. because the majority of the electorate are fools, etc. Notice how they keep re-electing politicians guilty of monumental blunders.

      • What are you talking about? Bush and Cheney and the United States and its Allied Forces has made Iraq more dangerous and messed up and much worse off.

    • There are so many interconnected threads here. The fabric of history is dense. I wonder how many of our “leaders” know, or care, about such matters.
      = = =
      I would say that most of our “leaders” have woven this fabric.

    • “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana

      Unfortunately in this case, there’s nothing to remember. We’ve been intentionally uninformed, and distracted. We weren’t meant to be taught this institutionally or on our own.

    • i served 2 tours in iraq and YOU are a coward and a liar. It is entirely bush’s fault. We didn’t have enough troops to prevent looting and reprisals by the two sides and failed miserable to stabilize and secure the country.

        • The American invasion should never have been undertaken. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and was no threat to us. Moreover, bush’s invasion killed far more Iraqis than sad dam Hussein in his 40 years of rule. Bush & do arefond of saying we rid Iraq of a tyrant, but saddam was America’s boy when he was killing iranians and when he gasses the Kurds during the Iran Iraq war, the Reagan/bush administration refused to condemn him. Because to do so would mean the us could no longer sell him weapons or buy his oil but gassing the Kurds was Bush. Jr’s favorite rationale for invading. The whole uly mess dad and remains bullshit. And the.iraqis continue to pay the price.

      • Unfortunately for you, the commanding general who went before Congress and told them the truth – that “pacifying” Iraq would require 500,000 troops – was unceremoniously sacked.

        • And, what does that say about the other generals who saluted Rummy and said “Yes, sir, whatever” and ordered their troops on stage for the opening act of this monumental tragedy?

      • 5 Tours in Iraq, 6 to Afgan…. We had enough troops on the ground.. The problem came when Rumsfeild thought he could hold down the fort with BCT’s….. He was wrong. Lets also not forget the 79% of house Dems voting for the war in Iraq.

      • You are correct. There weren’t enough troops to accomplish the misguided mission. There should have been no troops.

      • Thanks for putting your life on the line….. Its sad that it had to be for a rich’s man oil war. We need more soldiers coming forward with a “true” version of what you faced because the ongoing attack to force citizens to blame Obama is the only agenda. I remember when Mom’s were sending equip to their soldiers because Rummy said “you go to war w/the army you have, not the one your want”….. but BILLIONS to protect the oil fields…….

  2. I am not too comfortable about the claim that those who took Mosul consist primarily of the ISIL. I have seen different groups issuing statements taking credit and responsibility for the seizure including some sort of Military Council. It is clear that local tribes are involved as well, as there is genuine dissent towards the sectarian policies of the government in Baghdad.
    Also, I find blaming terrorists in general and the ISIL in particular too convenient for the sectarian president Al-Maliki, his Iranian backers, and US interests as well.

    • The family members I am in contact with also say that most of the armed men in the streets are from the tribal areas around Mosul. They have not seen much ISIS fighters. This is especially so on the western side of the city.

      • I recall a discussion that took place at the Frontline Club earlier this year in which the panelists stated that we do not have a very good understanding concerning the composition of ISIL, Al-Nusra, the Islamic Front, and other parties engaged in Iraq and Syria. In particular, the feeling was that we are underestimating the number of local/regional members.

    • Even though ISIL is an Islamist terrorist group, made up of mostly foreign Sunni radicals, it enjoys support from many in the local Sunni population, who have militants involved in an insurgency again, which has always in itself been sectarian motivated involved in attacking the majority Shia population (pilgrims, markets – which also nets Sunni bystanders – mosques or their holy places, etc), besides also targeting other minorities, such as Christians, ethnic Kurds (even though a good deal are Sunni), Yezidis, etc which happened before under US occupation, rather than just restricted against the govt or military/police installations or other Shia militias – who have indulged in killings, or like come claim as cleansing, but its no where close to the same level or scale.

      There were opposing nationalistic Sunni Awakening Council armed tribes that were aligned with the govt against ISIL, other foreign militants and local Sunni rebels, but their main leaders have been recently assassinated in bombings.

      Whiile Maliki failed to make inroads with the Sunni Arab minority with his policies, (which came way after the earlier constant onslaught of Sunni led insurgency and terrorist attacks, which continued even after the Shia militias halted their own attacks for stability – but eventually stopped by local Sunni Awakening Councils who came around against mostly Al Qaeda foreigner types) but nevertheless were marginalizing sectarian wise, the Iraqi Sunni population, if not the regional and global populations, never really reconciled with the fact that they lost power and always had sectarian charged opposition against a Shia head of state, an opinion not born out of a vacuum or from Maliki alone, but part of the religo-political Sunni Islamist extremist (identified as the top threat to national security…in Canada!) narrative and current which exists globally, be it MENA, Af-Pak, Europe, Indonesia, etc.

      Al-Maliki wasn’t even fond of Iran, even Assad, and has been backed into a corner to have greater ties with them to fend off these violent groups.

    • When Hussein was in power, Al Qaeda members or members of any other terrorist group would have been shot on sight. The United States went in there and removed the, albeit evil, leader of that ideology and now there is nothing but terrorist activity popping up all over that country. We need to simply keep our business out of other people’s business.

      • Exactly. The world is full of evil leaders. We usually get involved only when it serves our corporate interests. The Middle East is a mess because of U.S. involvement and interference for the last 60 years.

  3. Very informative. I would have liked to see some explanation included as to who and why the Kurds were also attacked. Does the ISIS really want two fights? the Kurds are not the Iraqi Army. The Kurds are not going to drop their weapons and run.

    • Likewise – one of the better results of this constant bloodshed might be an actual state of Kurdistan, which Turkey and Iran will resist. However, if the fighting in Syria and Iraq continues, the Kurds could make the case for autonomy as a buffer state to keep ISIS and other radicals out of Turkey and Iran.

      • Yes, but thereby inviting all kinds of strife and tensions because they would be in the middle of the fight between the two countries. Not to mention those within the as yet unformed Kurdistan who support one side or the other acting from within.

      • Ask Belgium and Luxembourg and the Netherlands how being a buffer state worked out. Until there’s an end to the Great Game and the industrial and financial facilitation and incitement of violence and predation, and our self-inflicted wounds of combustoconsumption and religio- tribalism, not too much chance for species or even surface-life survival…

  4. “It is an indictment of the George W. Bush administration, which falsely said it was going into Iraq because of a connection between al-Qaeda and Baghdad. ”

    On the other hand, as the brilliant Condoleeza Rice, she of the “mushroom clouds,” might have put it, these are just the birth pangs of democracy.

    On the third hand, given the prevailing influence of our neocons who are hostile to Shi’ite-dominated Iran, we shouldn’t rule out an alliance with this would-be al-Qaeda affiliate as we did with the original version.

  5. Truly a mess,there are as many bad guys as good guys,of course nobody can say which side is better for which outside interest ,which changes day to day..typical Mid East state of affairs..

    • And the United States helps all of that by siding, today, with people who try to kill us, tomorrow. They spend billions of dollars fighting something they can’t win, losing the lives of many innocent people and a lot of soldiers for nothing. We think that our form of democracy is accepted world wide, like a MasterCard or something. It’s all very selfish of us.

  6. What is frightening about the 2nd map is that the potential Sunni state would be an arena in which Salafi Jihadi groups, the Gulf dictatorships, Iran, Turkey, and their respective global allies would vie for influence, i.e. infuse with cash and arms. It is unlikely that Turkey would allow a Kurdish state on their border or that Lebanon and Jordan would not see a massive influx of refugees. (Considering Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, Lebanon would most likely also see increased fighting.) We should all be thankful that the men and women who advocated and oversaw the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq no longer retain power and influence and that President Obama has implemented a much more nuanced and humane policy…

    • I hope that is sarcasm regarding the humanity of Obama’s policies. Unless you think it is humane to wash your hands of a conflict and claim to end a war while leaving the country at the mercy of jihadist thugs.

      • O please, many Iraqi experts warned Bush of the consequences of his invasion. They predicted this sectarian warfare. They warned againt it. They were ignored. THAT is hte lesson, and it is tragic.

        • Dubya said he didn’t know there were different kinds of Muslims. Apparently he didn’t hear the warnings or get the memo.

        • Just like he never saw the memo in August 2001about imminent threats, my heart breaks for all Iraqi’s who merely try to survive, the great game continues and until we for meant a policy away from petro capitalism we’re all doomed to this sort of endless vying for power every where

  7. Mosul siempre fue una parte de Irak. Nunca de Siria. Solo hay que leer a Ibn Yubair y a Ibn Battuta, que lo consideran parte de Irak. En el pasado mesopotámico, Asiria también estaba ligada al sur de Irak. Las invasiones extranjeras, y los intereses de las potencias occidentales, no son la medida de la historia de Irak. Para nada. Hay que dejar de ver la historia de otros países desde el punto de vista occidental, y verlo desde su punto de vista.

    • Iraq hasn’t always existed as a political unit so nothing can always have been part of it. Mosul has belonged to lots of polities in the past.

      • Lea usted la “Rihla” de Ibn Yubair (del siglo XI). Tiene un capítulo dedicado a su viaje por Irak. Incluye claro está la ciudad de Mosul, y otras ciudades más al Norte como Nusaybin (hoy en Turquía). El Imperio Otomano no es la medida de la historia de Irak. Pregunte usted a los Maslawíes si son turcos o sirios. Y verá lo que le contestan. Los imperios no son legítimos, y los repartos imperiales tampoco. No significan nada para los iraquíes (salvo un buen dolor de cabeza por el problema que se les crea).

        • Sara, “Irak” was a geographical term, not a country. There was an “Arab Iraq” and a “Persian Iraq” (Isfahan was in latter). You are projecting contemporary understandings back onto medieval history. In the 11th century you are likely talking about the Buwayhid state ruled by Iranians that stretched from Khurasan to Baghdad. There was no country of Iraq and Mosul wasn’t in it. As for Arab Iraq, it is like Provencal or Catalonia (or Palestine).

  8. This is an indictment of Obama’s policy in Iraq. Just compare Iraq in 2008 to today. Obama can pretend he is “ending the wars”, but in reality he is just giving radical jihadists an opening to continue fighting them.

    • So Obama is omnipotent, and can keep an American fighting force inside of Iraq even though the elected leaders of Iraq told the US they had to leave, and that would create peace and stability? Do you really believe that?

      • Bill, this is yet another example of the left having to clean up the mess of right wingers, and righties not taking responsibilities for their criminal actions. How about the delusion that Iraq was ok in 2008? It shows a complete lack of understanding of the situation, so continuing a discussion is pointless.

      • WE cannot keep printing money to support these foreign wars. Only the warmongers weapon merchants like this war.

      • Yes he believes that because it fits into the right wing meme. They have to believe the instability now is Obama’s fault because they can’t fathom that the whole premise of overthrowing Hussein was wrong. They live in opposite world where up is down, white is black and round is square.

        For example:
        “I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days, or five weeks, or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that.”- Donald Rumsfeld,
        November 14, 2002

        Mission Accomplished!!!!

    • Forget Obama on this. Go back to 2003 and the people who caused the original overthrow in Iraq as Robert Parry explains:

      “Blaming Obama for Iraq’s chaos: Exclusive: As Islamic militants gain ground in Iraq, Official Washington’s neocons and the mainstream media are blaming President Obama for ending the U.S. military occupation, but they ignore their own role in destabilizing Iraq with the 2003 invasion,” . – link to

    • Compare Iraq in 2008 to now, please. That is how one witnesses the entire process unfold. Radical jihadists didn’t wave a magic wand to do what they did. It was an arduous PROCESS. Reread the article to see what you’ve missed….i.e. the crux of the situation.

    • What you fail to understand is that when Bremer eliminated the army within Iraq, turning the country into anarchy, he opened pandora’s box for a second time, the first being the moronic “choice” by bush/cheney to invade for what?? Ego, money?

  9. Thank you for the illuminating article. There is no question that Americans know very little about the Middle East nor the history of the region. I have both lived and worked in Middle Eastern countries, have many friends from the area and I have to say I was very disturbed over the apparent ignorance of so many in the Bush Administration who were so enthusiastic about invading both Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s happening in Iraq – in fact what’s happened – was entirely predictable given even a modicum of knowledge about the country.

    • What was entirely predictable is what would happen if the United States withdrew completely from Iraq. Obama pretended that he was “ending the war”, but really he just gave jihadists the breathing room they needed to continue fighting it. At what point do we judge Obama based on what happens under his watch?

      • I disagree. Bush also could not make an agreement with Malak. Blaming Obama is letting Bush off the hook.

      • Obama didn’t have much of a choice. He wanted to keep US troops in Iraq at the same time he was claiming to have ended the war there. The Iraqi government apparently was willing to allow some troops to remain, but the deal breaker was the status of forces agreement (SOFA). The Iraqis wanted to be able to try US soldiers they accused of crimes against Iraqis, but there was no way Obama could agree to that. So, it was adios or whatever they say in Iraq when they aren’t praying for survival.

      • We always judge Obama based on what happened under his watch. But that doesn’t mean we accept fairly tale premises or false constructs under which we render those judgments. Obama had no choice but to leave. He was elected to leave. The Iraqis asked the US to leave. In what alternate reality could Obama have stayed? Only one that exists in the fact free minds of Fox News viewers.

        • You are smuck. US president has no choice? Really? Because last I checked…the US president does whatever he wants. Sure…Bush set things in motion, but to say Obama has nothing to do with this is kind of dumb.

        • Thank you, well said. It is so convenient for the neocons to put blame onto the Obama Administration, when Cheney advised never to go to Baghdad during the first Gulf war and then he did it any way.

      • Bush will own this disaster for the rest of his life. That is his legacy. If Obama’s legacy is Obamacare then I can live with that.

        • It’s a good bet that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Biden, Clinton and all others in the lead to promote this war won’t lose much sleep over this. Well, maybe Hillary will be awake a little at night trying to figure out how to dupe enough gullible Democrats (sic) to excuse her role.

    • “What was entirely predictable is what would happen if the United States withdrew completely from Iraq.”

      In general terms, it was also predictable according to well-informed observers that the war on Iraq would eventually prove to be a disaster for all but the military-industrial-security complex.

      • Exactly. The corporations made a fortune and the losers are our soldiers, the Iraqi people and the American taxpayers.

  10. You did a heckofa job Dubya, Dick, Don, Condi, Tony, et al. Same to all the generals who disregarded the Nuremberg principle about not obeying unlawful and immoral orders.

    • Maybe you don’t recall all the Democrats who voted to go into Iraq? Or are you suggesting the NSA had pics on all of them?

      • You don’t get to pin that on anyone who was lied to or fed distorted information aimed at getting the approval to invade. If you are lied to and you base your decision on the lie, only the a-hole who lied to you is responsible, as it clear it was intentional.

      • You make a valid point however, in their defense, they were presented with false evidence and a barrage of questions of their patriotism to even question it. I respect the many Democrats and few Republicans who voted against it.

        • They may have been presented with false evidence, but many people saw through that, so if any politician uses that excuse the next question is, “how do you justify your incompetence?”

          Also, Dick Durbin made a speech on the senate some time after the war was well underway in which he said that he and other members of the senate intelligence committee were getting briefings that contradicted the Bush Administration/neocon line. He claimed he couldn’t say anything about this in public because he was bound by obligations. Too bad he didn’t decide to be a profile in courage – like Edward Snowden. Some members of the intelligence (?) committee still voted for the war.

  11. There was a series of articles in the NYT today covering the fall of Mosul. Reporters interviewed civilians who said they saw Iraqi soldiers abandon their vehicles, drop their weapons, change into street clothes, then mingle into the street scene with civilians. Scared soldiers readily admitted to reporters that they have deserted the army, One deserter called the ISIS fighters “ferocious” and he said snipers killed some of his comrades as soon as they came within range of the rebels’ assault rifles.. An ISIS fighter may be a nasty piece of work, as Professor Cole has noted, but he definitely gets the job done. There were also three YouTube videos accompanying these stories. In one of them ISIS fighters are shown setting fire to an abandoned Humvee left in the middle of the street. In another, teenage boys and even little kids are throwing rocks at a Iraqi soldiers in an armored vehicle that is trying to back up into bumper-to-bumper traffic. A soldier manned a machine gun and therefore exposed outside so this poor guy id bobbing and weaving getting the brunt of these volleys. Then he fired short bursts with the machine gun pointed up toward the sky. The boys duck and retreat but soon hurry back and give him another volley. Finally, the driver forces the armored vehicle backing up into the street and barrels away as these boys run after it and throw a couple more volleys. It was bizarre yet funny to watch. I assume these boys must be Sunnis and the soldiers must be Shiites. I may be mistaken. But what really struck me was it reminded me of those stock news reels from the intifada where Palestinians are throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers.

    Sir John Falstaff once said, discretion is the better part of valor. I agree. Hope those deserters never get caught by army officials and have long and fruitful lives. Why die in a battle over Mosul?

  12. You forgot that it’s also an indictment of the Syrian civil war and everyone who has contributed to prolonging it. The destabilization of Iraq is in large part the result of a contagion effect from Syria.

    • The destabilization of the Middle East is a result of the actions of Bush, Cheney, et al.

      • That’s possible, but it’s actually quite difficult to draw a causal line between the Iraq War and the Arab Spring. The Iraq War may have had a destabilizing effect, but on the other hand, the Arab Spring began in faraway Tunisia.

        What definitely *has* had a destabilizing effect is the support that the US, the Arabs, and the Turks have provided to rebels in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. The Syrian case is especially problematic for two reasons: 1) the rebels are extremists, and 2) the rebels have been given only enough support to prolong the war, not enough to decisively win it. But the Libyan civil war was nearly as destabilizing. The political outcome there was more favorable than anywhere else in the region, but the unintended consequence has been the destabilization of Syria and Mali by fighters and weapons from Libya. The country’s just too big and the new government too weak to stop this, and now a backflow of fighters from Mali is making the situation in Libya even worse. The sad fact is that both Bush and Obama helped light fires all over the region, and instead of a controlled burn it has become a wildfire that can’t be put out.

      • The contagion could be stopped if overwhelming force was employed simultaneously in all of the infected countries, especially if that force was used on the side of existing regimes. (Not saying that would be the best solution morally, but existing regimes by their very nature will be more stable than revolutionary governments.) But as long as even one country continues to be unstable, it will be a contagion risk to all the others. (The contagion effect of civil war, by the way, has been empirically demonstrated. It’s a very robust effect.)

        • Never learn. There is no way to apply enough “overwhelming force” in those “infected countries” (what a line!). Get it straight — even our “world’s best military, bigger, stronger, faster with everything from hotfoot matches and stink bombs up to nuclear weapons has discovered that nationalist and tribal warriors are much more agile and all they have to do is “not lose,” the only way to win is not to play the game (unless you suggest nukularly glassifying all them “infected countries” or gassing or REALLY “infecting” them with war bugs and nanoweapons and such. Ask that other Marine general, van Riper, how hard it was to defeat the vaunted Giant Forces of the Empire in various war simulations, like Millenium 2002, link to Our generals are dorks and losers and fatass careerist bureaucrats when it comes to dealing with your “contagion,” which in large part is people wanting to be left to their own devices, and in part a result of making it easier for Bad Guys to “take over” and “Start Trouble.”

          And don’t forget that the Big Military has it all planned out, how the giant clumsy bureaucracy, “interoperating” with the militaries of all those Democratic States of Africa and Asia and the Middle East and South and Central America, that have been trained and equipped to Do Military Stuff by the Empire, will Respond To And Run Everything come the advent of Really Bad Times as a result of screwing up our atmosphere and oceans: link to

    • There are reports that former Baathists from the Saddam Hussein era are playing a role in ISIS.

      Very clearly, many fugitives listed in the famous “Deck of Cards” were never apprehended and have played a part in the resistance to the post-Baathists governments in Iraq. Izzat al-Doury is an example a general from the Baathist regime who has never been located and has organized an insurgency.

  13. Bush and Cheney are responsible for American dead, wounded and lost treasure. All based on the lies of Cheney and Scooter Libby. We need a hanging.

  14. The “blowback” of U.S. government policies (remember that the majority of the politicians of both major “parties” voted to authorize and fund the invasions and occupations) is always paid for:

    a) by the civilian populations of nations harmed;

    b) by the mis-used U.S. military personnel and their families.

    c) by the U.S. public (financially, morally and spiritually, and possibly targeted for revenge by the loved ones of those harmed – both here at home by U.S. military personnel who are traumatized, and from individuals from the harmed civilian populations abroad);

    Our U.S. politicians and policy-makers – past and present, only suffer some “political embarrassment”, as the ongoing U.S. government policy of: “We can’t look back into the past and we won’t hold anyone in past and/or present government accountable” flushes the ‪Nuremberg principles‬ right down the toilet.

      • That can’t be said of the U.S. Senate – in terms of the Iraq war vote.

        I was however speaking of the invasions and occupations of more than one nation, and look at the years of “yes” votes for continuing occupations by politicians of both “parties”.

        I’m not saying that this “excuses” George W. Bush, Richard “Dick” Cheney, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Condoleezza “Condi” Rice, and Colin L. Powell * in terms of the 2003 U.S. government-ordered invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

        I’m pointing out that politicians and policy-makers of both “parties” bear a great deal of blame (with 90% of the U.S. corporate media being an “echo chamber” before and after the fact, for justifying what has been done – as Amy Goodman and others have pointed out), and that our U.S. politicians and policy-makers do not bear the consequences of what they have done.

        (* Powell being the only one who appears to after-the-fact have expressed some real regret, has acknowledged that the claims regarding Iraq he stated in his February 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations Security Council were false, and that is a ‘blot’ on his record for all time…)

      • And Hillary may get to deal with this latest blowback of her vote.
        … If this carries on into 2016, it may prove pivotal to her campaign.

        Just sayin’.

      • An informative article, yet a good one.
        Indeed Juan, Iraq was created in 1914-1920 to protect the best interest of colonial powers back then and still. Colonial powers were aware of the fact that they undermined Kurd rights as nation, and Shiite as majority. Now the balance of power changed and governments in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey are using Iraq as a battlefield, each for different reason, so radical groups appears to be alone, but they’re not.

      • Agreed, and that said–I am in total disagreement with our young people ever going back to Iraq.
        The consequences of that war will take generations to heal, and then, only when the name Saladin will disappear from collective memory.

    • “The “blowback” of U.S. government policies (remember that the majority of the politicians of both major “parties” voted to authorize and fund the invasions and occupations)…”

      Polls at the time showed around 70 percent of the American people supported this crime against humanity. Since then almost all of the politicians who voted for this war have been reelected by the “people” if they chose to run again, and it is a good bet that if they run again in November they will be elected one more time to do whatever insanity they might be presented with.

  15. Glaring omission is reference to every single prominent (D)emocrat politician (both Clintons, Algore, JFKerry, etc,etc) who right up until the invasion of Iraq were calling for military intervention based on Sodumb Insane’s chemical weapons possession and capability, which was transported to Syria in 2002 and subsequently used by Assad against his own…..far more effective protection of USA would have been a well conceived energy policy and stringent border/port of entry control, both of which should have been effected 40+ years ago.

  16. The article points out a telling statement in reference to the American knowledge of history. Our self perceived perception of “exceptionalism”, our committment to technology, and simple false pride have led us to believe we can solve problems that are rooted in the ages. Our involvement in Afghanistan also speaks to this issue. There was so much money to be made in these adventures by the so very few that we forgot the wisdom of our first president who warned us of foreign adventurism.

    Maybe our schools should teach a little more history and a little less of whatever it is that they are teaching.

  17. This is the Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, legacy remaining to haunt us. 4000 dead, our treasury ruined, and our reputation sullied, all for lack of knowing (or caring) anything about the history of Iraq in particular, and the Middle East, in general. If asked, prior to the US & coalition of the willing, none of them knew a Sunni from a Shiite, liberal, fundamentalist or not.
    The chaos in the region today is a direct result of their collective ignorant hubris.
    Obama was elected in part to get us out of these wars. Only the naive would not know that the exit plan would be messy for years, if not decades, to come. We definitely broke it, and as Powell said, we now own it, present or absent, notwithstanding.

  18. Every politician who voted to involve the USA in the illegal war and destruction of Iraq should be taken there and made to walk through the mess that they made. Ike did it to the Germans at the end of WW II, when he made them walk through the concentration camps and view what their leaders had done in their name. If we did it maybe (probably a long reach of faith in politicians here) they would understand the evil that they have done in our name.

  19. I have come to rely on Prof Cole’s informed historical analysis of the ME since forever. He never disappoints. Again, thank you.

  20. Should this sentence not read: “Is it because Washington is de facto allied with the billionaire Salafis of Kuwait City [AND] Syria, where both want to see the Bashar al-Assad government overthrown and Iran weakened?”

  21. What were the Ottomans doing there anyway? Didn’t they declare war on the Entante (UK and France) in 1914? Doesn’t that make it the Turk’s fault entirely?

    What right did Saddam’s uncle have to stage a coup in Iraq in 1978? What right did have to invade Iran and then Kuwait? What gave him the right to commit genocide against his own people? So it’s it all HIS fault too?

  22. The 2003 Mission Accomplished speech gets its name from a banner that read “Mission Accomplished” displayed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during a televised address by George W. Bush May 1, 2003. when he arrived at the USS Abraham Lincoln in a Lockheed S-3 Viking, dubbed Navy One, He posed for photographs with pilots and members of the ship’s crew while wearing a flight suit. The S-3 that served as “Navy One” for use was retired placed on display at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola. The museum makes it clear that Bush was a passenger – not the pilot – of the plane. In November 2008, Bush indicated that he regretted the use of the banner “To some ‘Bush thinks the war in Iraq is over,’ when I didn’t think that. It conveyed the wrong message.
    As Mission Accomplished implied “We have been victorious! The preemptive strike is accomplished!

    In 1971* Lewis F. Powell Jr. urged corporate enticement to retake command of public discourse by “financing think tanks, reshaping mass media and seeking influence in universities and the judiciary.” {Koch Brother} In the following decades conservative policies once considered outside the political mainstream—such as abolishing welfare, privatizing Social Security, deregulating banking, embracing preemptive war—were taken seriously and passed into law thanks to the work of the Hoover Institution, Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and smaller tanks. In the selling of a “product”! 21st century Globalization! The politics of Corporate Liberalization Worldwide through bought politicians!

  23. To what extent, if any, was the failure of the United States and the Maliki government’s inability to come to terms on a status of force agreement in 2011 responsible for the current situation?

    • That was no doubt a factor, but the underlying problem – a hatred of the US and Israel – was embedded like a cancer destined to metastasize. Blowback also had something to do with this revolt.

  24. Let’s remember Bush signed off on the time-line for withdrawal in 2008.

    “Iraq and U.S. agree that all U.S. forces will withdraw “no later than December 31, 2011.” On November 17, 2008, US and Iraqi officials signed a Security Agreement, often referred to as a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), stating that “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.” The agreement also called for all U.S. combat forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities “no later than June 30, 2009.” [U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, 11/17/08]

    “Bush praised agreement as “another sign of progress.” Calling the SOFA “another sign of progress,” President Bush said in a November 27, 2008, statement, “The Strategic Framework Agreement sets the foundation for a long-term bilateral relationship between our two countries, and the Security Agreement addresses our presence, activities, and withdrawal from Iraq.” [, 11/27/08]

    “Bush signed SOFA, which “lays out a framework for the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq.” In a press conference at the signing of the SOFA, President Bush commented: “We’re also signing a Security Agreement, sometimes called a Status of Forces Agreement. The agreement provides American troops and Defense Department officials with authorizations and protections to continue supporting Iraq’s democracy once the U.N. mandate expires at the end of this year. This agreement respects the sovereignty and the authority of Iraq’s democracy. The agreement lays out a framework for the withdrawal of American forces in Iraq — a withdrawal that is possible because of the success of the surge.” Bush later commented: “There are certain benchmarks that will be met — such as troops out of the cities by June of ’09. And then there’s a benchmark at the end of the agreement. As to the pace of meeting those agreements, that will depend of course upon the Iraqi government, the recommendations of the Iraqi military, and the close coordination between General Odierno and our military.” [, 12/14/08]

      • However, the Obama Administration was in active negotiations to extend that 2011 date for several more years, and there are MANY conflicting accounts of that ill-fated negotiating process (who was at fault, who was operating in good faith, etc.) which ultimately led to the failure of what many of the affected parties thought was a mutually beneficial goal of reducing U.S. military presence over a longer period of time. Obviously, from the Maliki government’s point of view, making last second (and denied) requests for air-strikes from the U.S. this last week, would have been more likely granted if that agreement was still in place.

      • How did Obama ‘abandon Bush’s withdrawal plan and abandon Iraq’? Please elaborate.

  25. Yeah, all this historical stuff is fascinating, but the net result is these people are killing each other in the name of a religion founded, allegedly on the words of God or Allah or whoever.. How much more absurd can this get? All you theocrats need to step up and do some ‘splainin’

  26. ** suites waiting at Pelican Bay Club Fed

    …Emperor Bush II, President Cheney, Condie, Rummy, Colin, et al…for crimes against humanity…crimes against federal law…should be in prison…alongside petty conspirators, would-be bombers, bombers…made into political prisoners…condemned to solitary confinement 23/hrs/da…not comfortable retirement

  27. I wish I could apologize to all the Iraqi people for what our representatives have done to those in the Middle East, in the name of democracy, but in reality, in name of the Plutocracy that we really are, and those in the 1% that gained greater wealth on the dead and maimed caused by our invasion of Iraq, through deliberate LIES to the gullible American People.
    We have past leaders that should be in prison for the WAR CRIMES they have committed.

    • And so what?

      You’re going to judge and pillory Hillary for the rest of her career? She made one bad vote but it was based on her assessment of faulty intelligence. Get over it, dude. She’s still the best equipped national leader to run the White House. Dare say that she would have been more effective than O – even though I did vote for him in both elections. But let’s move on. You show me a politician with 1000% purity and I’ll show you — well, I won’t because NONE exist.

      • It’s not a question of purity. Hillary also pushed the strikes in Libya. She is a liberal/’humanitarian’ interventionist in ideology with a ‘have to prove myself as tough’ ambition.

      • Stay tuned. You’ll find that there will be more reasons to come as to why Hillary has more problems than “one bad vote” but that’s another subject.

      • “She made one bad vote but it was based on her assessment of faulty intelligence.”

        This “faulty intelligence” excuse is unadulterated BS. There were many critics who shot the Bush/Cheney “intelligence” down before the vote.

      • “She made one bad vote but it was based on her assessment of faulty intelligence.”

        Come to think of it, there is one way she can justifiably claim to have bought into faulty intelligence, but it is unlikely she will because she went along, as she always has, with the “intelligence” given her from the Israel lobby.

  28. Your analysis that the current problem is due to Maliki’s issue with Sunni is driving the current crisis doesn’t make sense. The Sunnis are running aways from the Mosul. They don’t seem to be in support of the take over of their town by Al Queda affiliates.

  29. Bush said he would let history judge him. This debacle he and Cheney Rumsfield, Perle, Wolfowicz, and the other war criminals are reaping their rewards now. We let idiots lead us down the road to disaster and decimated and killed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives on lies. May they all rot in the darkest, dankest, deepest dung heaps in hell

  30. Good Article. Thanks. However, one important issue should be considered. USA Congress got a decree on dividing Iraq into 3 regions. Kurdi (Arbil), Sunni (Baghdat) and Shiti (Basrah). This is one of the major steps of Greater Middle East Project.

    link to

  31. Juan, greetings from one of the many conservatives who agreed with you a decade ago. Bush’s Manichaean drive to “rid the world of evil” and force Iraqis to be good Democrats was a gnostic disaster.

    The current outrage, however, is barely mentioned: The “Christian” Bush of the 2000 campaign destroyed Christianity in the Middle East — something Islam hadn’t been able to do in 1500 years, according to the Patriarch of Kirkuk.

    And yet Bush has not uttered one public word of regret, or sympathy, or even acknowledgement of the results of his hubris, which so outsized his paltry persona.

    He hasn’t apologized and he never will. The neocons are always wrong, always brazen about it, and they never, ever apologize.

    Good to hear from you again!


  32. Militants in Falluja and Ramadi, enjoyed local support. Saw a small BBC interview with some US ambassador, who was in denial of US crime in wrecking Iraq and creating a magnet.

    Shia militias, didn’t win the civil war themselves. They resisted the US, until they figured out Sunni extremists, that included Al Qaeda, made them sectarian targets for destabilization. There were expulsions of Sunni residents and decline in violent attacks followed. Improvements were also credited to Sunni Iraqi nationalists (Awakening Councils) who first insurgents, then realized the insane tactics of foreign extremists. They targeted fellow Shia Iraqis, marginalized local Sunni fighters and killed Iraqi Sunnis too.

    Perhaps it was inevitable, seeing how Syria unfolded. Maliki could have been pragmatic, not so symbolic or resenting US army extension, who were already there, but I understand the principle of holding US troops accountable. Still could have helped. Many Iraqis were nervous with the drawback.

    Its barely a reverse in strategy, considering the history of Saddam’s suppression, like Najaf which now challenges Qom’s, stresses sectarian unity, and Sunni population still had their say, but refused the ballot box.

    A US official in a Fareed Zakaria piece on KSA’s UN tantrum, wished he could cut off KSA’s funding for extremists. The Sunni Gulf contributed to ideological global Sunni fundamentalism, despite challenged by the same elements, as the West looks on. But Syria and Iran never helped themselves, except some moments of illegal/legal cooperation with the US.

    Despite what Shia right-wingers wish, who are so self-sabotaging and rather cut a deal with Al Qaeda than to tolerate a leftist Shia intellectual, do not have absolute control, and it has been easier to reconcile with the Sunni Kurds as compared to Sunni Arabs, because the latter really are difficult. The Biden plan also looked like the same repeat of foreign power in allocating land, and the rest is well written history, like how the Brits relied on the old Sunni dominated Ottoman rule and crush the Shia south (and I think Churchill had a hand on killing Kurds), and how the French reversed a trend and found difficulty with the Sunni majority and instead put the minority Alawites easier to put, but may mean little now as it all gets obliterated.

  33. Welcome to Bush/Cheney Democratic Bizzaro world, The world would be off with Saddam still in charge we all knew that except these two dummies !

  34. OK BOYS & GIRLS . . . I just sent this to my 2 Senators . . . now it’s your turn . . . it’s all done, copy and paste, and share

    “Iraq is on the brink of disintegration. Al-Qaeda-inspired fighters swept through northern Iraq toward Baghdad and Kurdish soldiers seized the city of Tikrit & Mozul without a fight. The manner with which the rout has unfolded in northern Iraq has raised deep doubts about the capacity of U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces, and it has also kindled fears about the government’s grip on the capital.


  35. Mitch Daniels was another “genius” peddling the war. He projected the Iraq war would cost $60 Billion. A majority of the people of Indiana later elected him to be their governor. How dumb can these “conservatives” be? Don’t answer that.

  36. Bush thought we could change the dynamics of the Middle East – or so his handlers told him. Obama claimed we would create a modern state in Libya if we just aided the rebels. Lots of progressives agreed, including Juan Cole – link to

    Not looking so good in either place, eh?

  37. I will have to read this again several times to be able to follow and understand it. Please do not be offended by that. Your writing is amazing. There is just too much to process in one sitting.

  38. No, the fault lies with Bush sr, Francios Mitterand and Dr. Bashir’s daddy, who let a genocide happen after we liberated Kuwait. There were five very pro-western governments who had liberated themselves from Saddam and WE LET SADDAM kill THEM.

  39. Just an FYI, but the battle is spreading. Extremist forces are attacking the Karachi airport in Pakistan (its main transportation hub) even as we speak.

    At what point, do we all stop living collectively in the “who-is-to-blame past” and instead fixate on the present, and determine what our long term interests really are in the region and what we will do (or not do) to protect them. Who are going to ally with or abandon in the near future? The decisions President Obama makes (or doesn’t make) in the coming days and weeks could determine the fate of generations in the region and beyond.

    These questions are more interesting to me than endlessly re-debating congressional votes and ill-fated presidential decisions that got us in the mess in the first place.

    Lets endlessly debate current congressional votes and ill-fated presidential decisions instead! (because these are are the only ones we might have a chance of influencing)

    • In this instance, the past is very much a key to the present and future decisions. Knowing who got it horribly wrong in 2002/2003 should at least encourage skepticism when they try to peddle their “oracles” about what to do now.

  40. […] Kenneth Pollack, are quoted as voices of wisdom once again. And the consequences of the war, like attracting al-Qaeda into Iraq, are buried in this neocon narrative. As are some of the real reasons for the disintegrating state […]

    • There is religious identity and linguistic identity. One overlaps, the other doesn’t (though Kurdish Sunnism is also distinctive– much more Sufi than most Sunni Arabs).

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