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epa06495516 An Iraqi woman inspects the destruction in the old city district in the western part of Mosul city, Iraq, 03 February 2018 (issued 04 February 2018). The Iraqi joint forces in December 2017 declared victory over the so-calles 'Islamic State' (IS) after a three-year war against the extremists that caused 3.2 million of civilians to flee from their houses in three Sunni-majority provinces and destroyed more than 60 per cent of the cities. EPA-EFE/MURTAJA LATEEF

How the 2003 US-led invasion changed Iraq forever

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By Shatha Al Juburi

Fifteen years after the US and its allies invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, the country is still entrenched in a cycle of sectarian violence and rampant corruption.

No one knows how many Iraqis have died. Some estimates put the number of deaths at more than one million. But, it is undeniable that the fifteen years of war have divided Iraqis along sectarian lines, turned Iraqi cities, such as Ramadi, Fallujah and Mosul, into ruins and caused instability in the region.

The United State unleashed a widespread violence when it decided to dismantle the Iraqi state, such as throwing thousands of Iraqi troops and civil servants out of work, replacing it with a dysfunctional and corrupt semi-state.

Shortly after the invasion, “Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” led by Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi emerged in the country.  The extremist group carried out wide-scale violent sectarian attacks in the name of the establishment of the Khilafa (Caliphate). While the formerly Iran-exiled Shiitefactions like the “Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq” (SCIRI) with its military wing “Badr Brigade”  returned to Iraq intending to establish a theocracy based on the Shiite doctrine of wilayat al-faqih, which  allows a cleric to have ultimate say over the foreign and domestic policy of a nation. The removal of Saddam’s regime also encouraged the emergence of native Shiite factions like the “Sadr Movement” of Moqtada al-Sadr who formed the Jaish al-Mahdi militia.  Consequently, this triggered infighting against fellow sectarian factions over state resources and dominance.

The rise of sectarian Shiiteand Sunni identities

With the fall of Saddam’s regime, Shiite political Islam used sectarian identity to increase its power, especially given the support it received from most Iraqi Shiite population which was seeking to secure its survival in the post-invasion stateless Iraq. The freedom that Shiite factions were enjoying after the invasion helped these factions build their networks that they used to remold the political culture of Shiism into communal themes focused on Shiite identity through performing Shiite public mass rituals such as Ashura and the Arbai’niyya visitation.

The rise of political Islam did not only cause cleavage between Shiite and Sunni communities

The formation of the Governing Council on July 15, 2003, not only politicised Shiism but also empowered Shiite Islamic groups. This, in turn, encouraged armed rivalry within these groups and triggered a fierce responsive Sunni identity. Most leaders of these Shiite factions became powerful politicians dependent on mass mobilisation of the Shiites and they enhanced their power by associating themselves with paramilitaries.

The rise of political Islam did not only cause cleavage between Shiite and Sunni communities but also increased the rivalries and fragmentation within Shiite Islamic factions.  The inclusion of the Shiite exiled and Najaf-based factions (such as the al-Hakims) in the US-led sponsored Governing Council empowered these factions at the expense of the native and non-Najaf based groups such as al-Sadr and triggered infighting between them.

Maliki’s sectarian policy and dictatorial tendencies

A great number of Shiite militiamen, mainly from the “Badr Brigade”, were integrated into theIraqi weak security forces in 2005 following the two general elections. They were accused of forming death squads that committed appalling crimes against Iraqis including killings, torture and kidnappings in addition to non-politically motivated criminal activities, particularly between 2006-2008.  The bombing of the Shiite holy shrines of Al-Askriyyain in Samarra north of Baghdad in February 2006 exacerbated the sectarian violence leading the country into a civil war.

By the end of 2011, al-Qaeda was almost defeated in Iraq

The US-led Surge implemented by the US Army Gen David Petraeus during 2007-2008 along with the formation of the US-sponsored Sahwa, or the “Awakening”, movement composed ofSunni tribesmen in the western parts of Iraq to dislodge al-Qaeda restored a reasonable level of stability in the country. However, this US strategy increased the power of the Sahwa protagonists and led to an intense rivalry between them and the Sunni parties participating in the political process such as the “Islamic Party”. The Sahwa experience, tempted the former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to mimic it and form similar forces composed of Shiite tribesmen giving them the name “Majalis al-Isnad”, in an attempt to enhance his power base and expand his constituency.

By the end of 2011, al-Qaeda was almost defeated in Iraq. Yet, the relative victory over the extremist group evaporated because Maliki’s sectarian policy against the Sunni Arabs promptedthe rise of the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) from the ashes of al-Qaeda. Shortly after the withdrawal of US troops, al-Maliki launched a crackdown campaign on Sunni politicians and figures and put down Sunni peaceful protests. He undermined Iraqi security forces by reinstating several Iraqi commanders who had proved to be corrupt and brutal. In June 2014, Iraqi forces in Mosul were even incapable of facing ISIS fighters who conquered the city in a few hours despite the Iraqi forces outnumberingthem.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces and the prospects of May’elections

Despite the current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declaring last year that the military offensive against ISIS had succeeded in routing the extremist group, a new Jihadist group calling itself “The White Banner” seems to have re-emerged in the outskirts of Baghdad and in several parts of theAnbar province such as in Ramadi.

The re-emergence of this militant group is attributed to the rise of the Iranian-sponsored Shiite militias in Iraq in recent years. Shortly after ISIS had taken over the northern city of Mosul, these militias regrouped within “al-Hashd al-Shaabi”, or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an umbrella of militias heeded the fatwa (religious edict) against ISIS bythe most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq and the world, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

Iran has succeeded in bringing together the PMF and legalising them to aparallel forceto the state army. Earlier this month, Abadi issued a decree formalising the inclusion of these militias in the Iraqi security and military forces despite human rights abuses accusations against them, such as persecution of  Sunni Arabs and political dissidents including Shiite Arabs.  Some PMF elements still take their orders from Tehran, thus their full integration into the Iraqi military will help further consolidate Iran’s long-term influence in Iraq.

The United State unleashed a widespread violence when it decided to dismantle the Iraqi state

Earlier this month, Naim al-Abudi, the spokesman of “Asai’b Ahl al-Haq” (AAH), a militia unit within thePMF with close ties toIran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) rejected that PMF would be merged into any of theIraqi security institutions. The AAH commander argued that PMF forces needed to remain in Mosul and surrounding areas to deal with ISIS remnants. “We do not agree to the Hashd being merged into the ministries of interior and defence because this would mean weakening and abolishing it. And this is not appropriate.”

Despite spending a few months promising plans to cut back any militias and forcingthem to stay out of politics,  in a shocking move, Abadi had declared an electoral alliance with PMF leaders before the latter withdrew suddenly in less than 48 hours.

With the approach of the May 12 elections, the leaders of PMF argue that their influence in the next parliament will be essential to further strengthening their militias and paving the way for the exit of the American troops from Iraq, threatening that they will use violence if Washington decides to keep its troops in the country. The long-term consequences of PMF’s exploitation of the democratic system will be a manipulation of the political system to perpetuate power in their hand and serve Iran’s military agenda of converting Iraq into a vassal state.

The PMF leaders are confident that their electoral bloc, dubbed as the “Fatah Alliance” which includes “Iraqi Hezbollah”, “Harakat al-Nujaba” and “Badr Organization (formerly “Badr Brigade”), will perform well in the next elections and win a significant number of seats.

It is unlikely that the Shiite Islamic blocs will win a landslide victory

However, there is no indication who will win the  May elections, given the internal fragmentations within the major factions. Most certainly, the next elections will not dramatically change Iraq’s ethno-sectarian politics, despite there beingvibrant factions carrying nationalist and cross-sectarian slogans which cannot be altogether discounted such as the “Sadr Movement”. Despite huge the ideological differences, some secularists and liberals have made an alliance with theSadr Movement to benefit from the former’s material resources and vast network.

It is worth mentioning that the popularly of political Islam which dominated Iraqi politics in the post-invasion period,has decreased because of attempts to impose strict Islamic ideologies that undermine human rights, in particular, the rights of women and children. For example, in late 2017, some Shiite Islamists in the Iraqi parliament tabled motions to change the Personal Status Law introducing laws that would allow men to marry 9-year-old girls. This triggered many criticisms and condemnations from Iraq’s civil societies and the majority ofIraqis.  If the elections will be fraudulence-free, it is unlikely that the Shiite Islamic blocs will win a landslide victory, given the flagrant display of their militias’ power and the strict Islamic ideology they attempt to impose on Iraqis, and because, most importantly, they proved to be very corrupt.