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In the Absence of a Communal National Identity, Iraq Finds Itself One Again Engulfed by Sectarian Politics

18/06/2014 14:23 BST | Updated 16/08/2014 10:59 BST

The speed at which the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shaam (ISIS) has advanced in Iraq has shocked the country's citizens and politicians alike. On Tuesday the 10th of June, the world awoke to the news that the extremist group- joined by various other domestic insurgent groups including ex-Baathists - had captured Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. The very next day it began advancing south towards Baghdad, taking with it Tikrit, and parts of Diyala province. It is doubtless that the speed of this progress would not have been possible if the Iraqi army stationed in Mosul had put up at least a veneer of resistance. Instead, residents in Mosul recalled how they awoke to find abandoned army uniforms, vehicles and weapons lining the street of the city; and a defiant ISIS patrolling their new territory. Over 30,000 Iraqi soldiers had fled to Erbil when faced with approximately 800 ISIS members. This pattern was repeated in the outskirts of Samara and in Tikrit- where over 2000 members of the Iraqi police force surrendered to ISIS without a fight. Army members on the Iraqi-Syrian al-Qaim border followed suit and abandoned their posts on the 12th of June.

The complete disintegration of this American-trained security force has perplexed not only the Iraqi government- which vowed that all defecting officers and soldiers would face the death penalty- but also the world's media and more importantly, policy makers in the US, to whom it has become evident that the money- approximately $25 billion- they spent to train and arm the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) was futile.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi, noted that the "Iraqi army simply was not prepared to die for Mosul". Some commentators observed that the army, composed mainly of young Shiite men, may have been more interested in the military salaries - often the only line of work available to them- than in defending the locals of a hostile Sunni governorate. Interviews with members of the defected army confirmed that on an individual level, the soldiers did not have the same motivation or energy as ISIS and the ex-Baathist army officers fighting alongside them, one defector telling the New York Times: "I felt like I was fighting armies, not an army...I'm tired, everyone is tired". Indeed, an army in which every single member is willing to sacrifice themselves for their ultimate goal is a challenge; particularly if their opponent is unsure of what they are fighting for. As Plato put it; "We are twice armed if we fight with faith".

The Kurdish Peshmerga forces were quick to offer their men, noting that their experience in guerrilla warfare puts them at an advantage in dealing with groups like ISIS, compared to the regular, inflexible army. Indeed within 3 days the Peshmerga had already taken control of Kirkuk- coveted by Kurdish independence groups for decades and the missing piece in the dream of an independent Kurdish state. However, it is not so much their experience in guerrilla warfare that makes the Peshmerga a more suited match to ISIS, but rather their committed sense of national identity and motivation.

Since 2003, Iraq has been undergoing a crisis of identity. Efforts have been made over the past 11 years, in both the political and social spheres, to redefine Iraqi national identity. This process has itself contributed to the sectarian strife that erupted after 2003, in which each community fought for a different version of what it meant to be Iraqi. Shia religious symbols and narratives became dominant in the version of Iraqi national identity enjoyed within Shia majority areas, while a fierce anti-Iranian understanding of nationalism took over among Iraqi Sunnis. Rarely over the last 10 years have Iraqis been able to agree on a national narrative. One example that comes to mind is the dispute over the new lyrics for the national anthem, which is still ongoing today.

In the absence of a communal national identity, Iraq finds itself facing asocial vacuum that will likely be taken over by sectarianism. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's political rhetoric during the last year of battles between the ISF and insurgents in the Anbar region has tried to play on sectarian sentiment, invoking historical narratives of the battle between Yazid and Imam Hussain, two key figures who exemplified the Sunni-Shia rift. Indeed since the fall of Mosul, statements by prominent Shia clerics such as Moqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al Hakeem, as well as the Iranian trained militia Asaib Ahl al- Haq, have urged people to volunteer and fight ISIS, stressing that it is a national duty to do so. Al-Sadr and al-Hakeem, who both have had links to a number of sectarian militias during Iraq's civil war from 2006-2008, have this week set up new groups to fight ISIS; al-Sadr's being the Peace Brigade and al-Hakeem's the Ashura Brigade; which already boasts a membership of over 50,000 men. Finally, in an unprecedented move on 13th of June, Grand Ayotallah Ali al-Sistani called on all Iraqis to join the army and fight to protect the country against ISIS. While the Ayotallah's representative was careful to use inclusive language that could be addressed to both Shia and Sunni Iraqis, the nature of Sistani's status to Iraqi Shias will mean his speech is more likely to be received with fear by the Sunni community. Within a day of this statement thousands of Shia men were rushing to join the army, guard holy shrines and fight against ISIS.

Iraqi state TV has labelled the campaign against ISIS as the 'Settling of Scores' - yet given its lack of national loyalty and motivation, the Iraqi army has proven that it does not have much of a score to settle. The Shia militias on the other hand, who see ISIS as a threat to their very identity- particularly their definition of Iraqi national identity- will most definitely rise to this challenge, likely dragging Iraq back into disarray. In his latest speech on the 14th of June from the city of Samarra, home to one of Shiite Islam's most revered shrines, al-Maliki amended his language and stressed "We are not sectarian, we will fight as a nation" - but is this rhetoric too little too late?