Iraq: Forgotten, but not yet gone

An incredibly superficial sketch, if you will:

October 1st, 2013 – At least 65 people dead in a bombing spree across Baghdad
October 2nd, 2013 – 28 people killed, 98 wounded
October 3rd, 2013 – 8 people killed when a bomb explodes near a soccer field
October 4th, 2013 – 3 soldiers and 4 civilians killed
October 5th, 2013 – At least 66 people killed
October 6th, 2013 – At least 33 people killed, including a dozen children
October 7th, 2013 – At least 37 people killed
October 8th, 2013 – At least 38 people killed and 25 wounded across the country
October 9th, 2013 – At least 19 people killed
October 10th, 201342 “terrorists” are executed, 39 people are killed
October 11th, 2013 – At least 23 people killed, 36 wounded
October 12th, 2013 – At least 47 killed across Iraq, including a truck-bombing in Samarra that killed 24 people
October 13th, 2013 – At least 42 people are killed, many in Shiite-majority cities
October 14th, 2013 – An IED kills 3 policemen, wounds another 6 in Tikrit
October 15th, 2013 – 12 Sunnis killed in northern Iraq
October 16th, 2013 – At least 14 people dead across Iraq
October 17th, 2013 – At least 59 people killed
October 18th, 2013 – At least 19 killed across Iraq, including 12 in a Baghdad car-bombing
October 19th, 2013 – At least 15 people killed
October 20th, 2013 – At least 78 people killed, including 35 from a car-bombing in a predominantly Shia area of Baghdad
October 21st, 2013 – 7 policemen killed in an attack on police headquarters in a former al-Qaeda stronghold in central Iraq
October 22nd, 2013 – At least 47 people killed, 97 wounded
October 23rd, 2013 – 14 policemen are kidnapped, their bodies tossed near a highway with their throats slit early Wednesday morning, and still later another 4 die (along with 3 truck drivers) in a suicide attack; Nouri al-Maliki warns that the country is facing a “war of genocide”
October 24th, 2013 – At least 24 people killed, 54 wounded
October 25th, 2013 – Attacks across Iraq leave at least 19 people dead
October 26th, 2013 – Series of attacks across Iraq kill at least 17 people
October 27th, 2013 – At least 62 people killed in Baghdad, Mosul and Tarmiya
October 28th, 2013 – Two bombings and an ambush on a checkpoint kill 11 people in and west of Baghdad
October 29th, 2013 – A triple suicide bombing at a dinner banquet in Tarmiya kills 35 people, including 4 ranking officers, 14 soldiers, 6 policemen, and 11 Sahwa members
October 30th, 2013 – At least 32 people are killed across Iraq, with another 63 wounded
October 31st, 2013 – At least 26 people are killed across Iraq, including five car bombs in Baghdad that claimed 19; Nouri Al-Maliki asks the U.S. for help

It seems incredibly morbid to drudge through seemingly endless news reports tallying up statistical figures. It seems injustice, almost equal to the morbidity, to simply stack up figures monotonously, appearing to forget there is a human face behind all these deaths. What seems tragic is ultimately cut down to something robotic. Nor does simply reporting numbers seem to capture the big picture. And that is all that it seems to the mainstream news: a series of tragic deaths whittled down to faceless statistics. Rather than capture the shock and sadness, reporters seem more content with simply parading the numbers out. It almost seems like admitting that what is going on in Iraq has now become a daily bore or a daily chore. It becomes operational. The fear and terror and tragedy of Iraqis are turned into statistics.

The above is just a list of dates and numbers. There is no human element to it. It is simply operation. Furthermore, not only is human tragedy removed, but a complex conflict is simplified into merely criminalist chaos. And that it may be. At this point, it seems less a civil war and more like criminalistic violence. But it is also far more than that. There is a complicated political drama in Iraq, and, yes, it includes both religious and ethnic divisions and some severe American policy debacles. To replace tyranny with terror, to leave an illegal war prematurely, to start an unfinished job, all of this seems to be contributing to a surge of violence. The now-clichéd image of George W. Bush in front of a banner declaring, “Mission Accomplished,” further degenerates into tragic irony. Making matters worse is the overall instability in the region; Syria’s own civil war is helping jihadists on both sides of a rather bare border.

So is it just the “usual background violence”, as Margaret Griffis seemingly referred to it? The short, uncomplicated answer, is ‘no’. However, one thing should absolutely be made clear: violence has become the norm in Iraq. That that even has to be said illustrates how much Iraqi society has deteriorated. Even the superficial and statistical look above shows the most shocking fact: the bombings seem to be occurring everyday. The UN stated that nearly 1,000 Iraqis died in October. But the tragic and complicated web of violence may be its own reason for a lack of reportage.

“Political conflicts from around the world, from Darfur to Gaza are now portrayed to us as simple illustrations of the mindless cruelty of the human race about which nothing can be done, and to which the only response is ‘Oh, dear’.”
Adam Curtis

Bush and his neocon cronies, and a complacent media, seemed perfectly willing to shape conflicts in terms of simplistic notions of “good” versus “evil” and “us” versus “them”: al-Qaeda, tyranny, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, freedom, equality, security, etc. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make,” said Bush on September 20th, 2001, “You are either with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Axis of evil, anyone? In limiting (or, more correctly, not limiting) complexity into the fencing of “terrorism”, one quite drastically manages to simplify a complicated issue and, at the same time, complicate it even further. That particular fence inevitably gets bigger, wider, and more inclusive (or exclusive), while ignoring the complexity of a problem. You can make bigger prisons and lock up more ‘criminals’, it does not mean that the complexities of crime will go away.

This approach also ironically paralleled that of the Islamists and Islamic fundamentalists, who saw the conflict in terms of a grand ideology. They shaped political issues as religious (and vice versa), and also utilized notions of “good” and “evil”, “Muslim” and “infidel”, etc. Thus, not only did their religious beliefs give legitimacy to their war as a struggle for the greater good, but so did their enemies’, who seemed to view the conflict as some sort of long-awaited clash of civilizations.

It makes it far easier to frame discussions in simplistic terms, in tidbits that an ill-informed public can digest readily. When notions of “good” and “evil”, and the like, disappear the complexities of problems reemerge. Because we are either unable or unwilling to understand them, when we cannot create laughably-simple paradoxical frameworks, we simply see ‘chaos’. It seemed that the simplistic notions of “good” and “evil” framed responses in terms of ideology, rather than geopolitics or realities. Now, by reducing the tragedy in Iraq to operations of numbers and statistics, by its inability or unwillingness to explain the conflict, journalists and news reporters seem to state to the public that it is nothing but chaos. Worse than that: it may suggest to impressionable or irrational people that particular peoples are backwards and forever doomed to slaughtering each other, that they are inherently ungovernable.

Equally tragic, and far more maddening, is that, most likely, the audience (or the majority of it) that absorbs most of the output of these news outlets just do not seem to care. Iraq is no longer the big headline. That dubious ‘honor’ now belongs to Syria and even that particular conflict seems grossly misunderstood by many people. Iraq: forgotten; Afghanistan: wearied of; Yemen: not even registered; Africa: hardly ever considered; et cetera. While the concept of oh dearism speaks simply to desensitization, apathy may be a far worse syndrome. In the former, feelings of empathy seem to be replaced by hopelessness. In the latter, there is no feeling at all. Is it presumptuous to state that it would make everyone feel better to simply pretend Iraq does not exist?

This is the same complacent, lazy, and sophomoric media that heralded and paraded the Iraq war to the American people. And these are the same people who supported the invasion without knowing why. The same people who wanted so badly for America to invade Iraq have become disquietingly silent. What happened to bringing freedom to the Iraqi people? Where are you all now that Iraq continues to descend into chaos? You believe or propagate lies while asking very little questions in the lead-up, and ask still none after departure. Where are all those people who wanted the U.S. to forcibly remove Saddam Hussein, get those elusive weapons of mass destruction, and bring democracy to the Iraqis? Where are you now, when bombings occur daily across a paralyzed country? Was it not Saddam who was also conspiring with terrorists? This gross apathy is itself the greatest hypocrisy.

For a people that wished to rid themselves of al-Qaeda, they may have just as unwittingly created a fertile breeding ground for it. And now that they have, where is the clamor to get the resurgent insurgents in Iraq? Is it not discomforting to know that their ability to act with impunity is a threat? What is even more fury-inspiring is that part of the cost of the Iraq war was the ignorance of the Afghan conflict, made to suffer in the shadows and controversies of an illegal war. Knowing of the chaos which threatens to engulf (or may already be engulfing) Central Asia, one ought to become more irate in the face of the fact that Iraq, the country which America chose to focus on at the expense of Central Asia, is itself unstable, and this instability threatens its own region.

Finally, perhaps what is reflected in the current zeitgeist is less hopelessness and apathy, and more outrage. Or a combination of all three exists. Despite the fact that one-dimensional thinking and unilateral actions helped to cause the present situation, many seem unwilling to revisit what they view as a ‘past’ situation. It is a time and place that should be relegated to the most ancient of histories, even though the ‘big headline’ conflict in Syria seems to be an extension of the Iraqi one, and vice versa. Given Iraq’s (and Syria’s) centrality in the Middle East, attempting to doom it forever into the past as a bad experience seems callous and ignorant. It seems already that the clock has turned back far enough that the Surge never happened. Yet, the consequences seem far more dangerous.

Strip away the laughably-simplistic notions of “good” versus “evil” and you have a disaster of mass proportions. How should the legacy of Saddam Hussein be measured? Dictator though he was, he managed to contain the internal tensions bursting at Iraq’s seams… A powderkeg. The first bombs to drop on Baghdad were the short fuse that caused it to explode. Those little catchwords and catchphrases – WMDs, “They hate our freedom”, al-Qaeda, bringing democracy to Iraqis, etc. – lobbied out by Washington’s crones, aided and abetted by a complacent media, and eagerly gobbled up by a vengeful and lazy public pulled a veil over everyone’s eyes as to the complexity of now-simplified problems… Problems which since then have been exacerbated by a premature exit, leaving a job undone, ethnic and religious divisions… War in a neighboring country… And a Prime Minister, whose seemingly Machiavellian or strategic ploys have left him worse off, or who does not seem to understand the dynamics of his own country’s political and social landscape.

Strip away everything and you are left with power struggles, geopolitical strategies, and a civilian population transformed into collateral damage.

American silence on the Iraqi situation has been both disturbing and infuriating. One can see why. But a further reason is perhaps because they would have to acknowledge that there is a problem to begin with. That would mean revisiting a seemingly-repressed past. And by admitting there is and was a problem would mean to admit that they were a part of it. Now that Iraq is no longer the headline news, they can pretend like nothing happened. Unfortunately for the United States, their U.S.-centric view did not, has not, and will not, ease an increasingly deathly situation. News reports on the growing death toll treat the conflict as if it were occurring in some sort of an isolated bubble. It seems far easier for reporters to sideline a conflict as a purely Iraqi problem, in every sense of the phrase.

Most news seems to be focused on a resurgent al-Qaeda (with justification), or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), who does not have a monopoly on the ongoing violence; however, its seemingly-unending attacks account for the bulk of brutalities (thus far). One official has estimated that the reinvigorated al-Qaeda group has three thousand fighters in Iraq. The numbers were bolstered by a jailbreak at the end of July, in which five hundred escapees have likely replenished the group’s mid- to senior-level ranks. And they are out for blood. Among their targets are tribal leaders, particularly those who sided with the Americans, and who have consequently been left in the dust, and Shia and Sahwa “apostates”.

Furthermore, few people seem impressed with Nouri al-Maliki, who has done little of anything that seems impressive or even impressionable. From the outside-looking-in, his behavior seems to suggest a man with every autocratic ambition, but with little of the savvy. Then again, he has survived. And perhaps this is all an excuse to further consolidate power. Few things grant emergency powers quite so easily as massive body counts; few things grant support as strongly as those derived from fear. But I am being conspiratorial… Right? As far back as December of 2011, Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq’s then-Vice President, was accusing al-Maliki of attempting to run a “one-man show” and pushing the country towards sectarian war. Hashimi was later sentenced to death in absentia in what he considered a politically-motivated theatrical trial.

Hashimi may have been right about one thing: Nouri al-Maliki sure loves to stoke sectarian divisions. There seems to be little argument against the general consensus that Maliki has persistently excluded Sunnis during his power consolidation. The protests that began in December of 2012 had the sectarian politics, corruption, and power consolidation of the Maliki government among its list of grievances. The crackdown at a protest camp in Hajiwa in April led to renewed fears of sectarian conflict. It is small wonder then that tribes who formerly fought with American forces against al-Qaeda have little faith that their government will, in any way, help them. It is “back to square one,” says Sheikh Aref al-Jumaili, a tribal leader from Anbar province. He continues, “Today this government is not able to protect or support us.”

It is also small wonder then that given his apparent ambitions he wants to bolster the fighting power of the security forces, rather than rely on tribal support, etc. that helped to quell al-Qaeda a few years ago. Maliki, it seems, also likes to frame the conflict in terms of simple “terrorism”. In an interview with Al-Monitor, Maliki said that “the most important” factor in the rise of violence is “the sectarian tension in the region that is directly related to the developments in the Syrian crisis and its repercussions on the Iraqi arena”. Later on, he states that the crisis “involves the entire political system, because institutions and authorities overlap with one another. No single authority benefits from the destruction of another.” Ever the politician, the answer deftly dodges the question of whether the Iraq government is part of the crisis with a vague and platitudinal answer of how the entire system is affected.

Notice how he shifts the blame to the Syrian crisis. No doubt it has a part in Iraq, but Maliki makes it out to be the biggest factor. Is it? One can certainly understand why Maliki would like it to be: it takes the pressure off of him. Furthermore, he likes to wield the “terrorist” label much like the Bush administration did: a tool to blame one segment of a population, to whittle down a complex situation into chaotic violence, and to attempt to deflect criticism away from his own hand in the problem. His government has been accused of corruption, sectarianism, authoritarian power-hunger, etc. Like always, it is so much easier to play it simple. This is not to say that the ISIS is not involved in a campaign of ceaseless violence. It is to say that there is a reason why this group has roared back.

Between ISIS and Maliki exists all manner of affiliation, from underground Ba’athists to steadily-rearming Shia militias to Kurdish Peshmerga. The societal divisions which existed in 2003 still exist today. If stoking sectarian divisions is or was a power-play by Maliki, which only he seems to understand, it now has the added consequence of blowing up in his face. Strip all pretensions away and you have essentially a power struggle between several self-interested groups and/or individuals; groups and individuals not only within the borders of Iraq. If there is one assurance to be made to Maliki is that while his beliefs that outside sources are destabilizing Iraq, such as his singular blaming of the Syrian conflict, are in a sense convenient scapegoats, there is a measure of truth to them.

It seems very simple to place blame. It seems simple to operationalize a conflict, reduce people to statistics. It seems simple to shape crises in terms of “good” and “evil”; and how simple is it that such notions disappear when more questions are asked. It is simple to blame chaotic forces. It is simple to blame violence as inherent in the Iraqi system. But in all of this simplicity the ordinary person becomes the casualty, collateral damage, caught in the crossfire and seemingly forgotten. Yes, one could suppose that the problem may prove consequential to more than just the Iraqis. But in that supposition, the Iraqis at least are not forgotten.

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