ISIS and Washington’s Ignorance About the Sunni-Shia Divide
“Most Americans Don't Have a Clue”
by GARY LEUPP
Counterpunch, SEPTEMBER 15, 2014
Patrick Cockburn reports that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington (1983-2005), once told M16 head Sir Richard Dearlove: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will literally be ‘God help the Shia.’ More than a billion Sunni have simply had enough of them.”
There are thus deep animosities within Islam, as there have been, historically, within Christianity.
There was a time when Protestants viewed Roman Catholics as idolatrous heretics and bloody wars of religion ravaged Europe. ISIL is now fighting such a war against Shiites, Christians, Yezidis, secularists, and others it sees as unbelievers and as stooges of the west. But its primary target is the Shiites.
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This know-nothingism surely prevailed in the State Department after 9-11, as Deputy Secretary of “Defense” Paul Wolfowitz began to plan the war on Iraq, and the campaign of calculated fear mongering lies to persuade the people to support it. The neocons controlling the State Department argued (versus Pentagon testimony) that the occupation would be a “cakewalk” and that the Iraqi people would greet the U.S. forces as liberators. When in the wake of the invasion a bloody Sunni-Shiite civil war broke out, the occupiers were at a loss to understand it. There is little indication that Barak Obama is more aware. In striving to crush ISIL without an alliance with Syria and Iran, and relying on the reluctant Saudis and NATO, he is (1) recruiting thousands more anti-U.S. Sunni jihadis into ISIL ranks and (2) exacerbating a Sunni-Shiite war while marginalizing key Shiite players.
There are today only four Shiite-majority countries, two of them non-Arab. Iran is over 90% Shiite, due to the conversion of the Safavid Persian dynasty in the early sixteenth century. A powerful, populous country, it sees itself as the defender of Shiites globally. Neighboring Azerbaijan, once ruled by the Safavids, is about 75% Shiite. The two Arab countries are tiny Bahrain (60%) and Iraq (65%).
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George “Dubya” Bush gleefully destroyed the Iraqi state. He smashed a state in which Christians served in high posts, women attended college and felt free to leave their heads uncovered, rock n’ roll blared from radios, liquor stores operated legally, and there was even a gay scene. He replaced it with an occupation run by clueless cowboys literally marching around Baghdad in cowboy boots, issuing orders—most notably the orders of dissolution of the Baathist Party and the Iraqi Army.
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The chickens have indeed come home to roost. The neocons ignorant of Islamic divisions, eager to remake the Middle East as they pleased, have let the genie of sectarian strife out of the bottle. But they will never acknowledge it. “Let’s not dwell on the past,” they say, when asked about events in 2003. “We need to focus on this new threat to the Homeland.” When asked why Iraq is such a mess, they reply: “They squandered the opportunity [for ‘democracy’ etc.] that we gave them.” In other words, in their weird little age-old religious disputes over arcane issues worthy of Trivial Pursuit, the Iraqis brought this chaos on themselves, and now we, as the responsible adults, have to go in and straighten things out. (This despite the fact that Iraq has a 270,000-strong army trained by the U.S. at the cost of $ 17 billion. It buckled when confronted with ISIL and Baghdad has only been saved by Shiite militias that once fought occupation troops.)
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The air (and probably, coming ground) campaign against ISIL will inevitably be viewed by millions as a war of Washington, its Iraqi Shiite allies (and just possibly in time, a new-found shadow ally, Iran) and corrupt pro-U.S.—hence apostate–Sunni kings against the Sunni world. It‘s a recipe for disaster.
If the U.S. were not controlled by the 1% wedded to the military-industrial establishment, and if common sense were the operative principle, it would make sense to refrain from any military action, leaving it to the Iraqi and Syrian people to deal with these new oppressors, perhaps with local powers’ support. The record shows that U.S. military actions in the Middle East produce no good but rather lots of harm. Rooted in the quest for imperial expansion, shaped by deep ignorance of history and profound disrespect for the peoples affected, they produce mounting hatred for this country, and intensified prospects for blowback.
Phi Beta Iota: The US Intelligence Community failed to educate the Executive, Congress, the media, and the public on the fact that invading Iraq was not only unwarranted (there were no weapons of mass destruction) but also criminally insane in relation to destabilizing a country holding the largest concentration of Shi'ites outside of Iran.