Conflict & Justice

Your questions answered: What is going on in Iraq?

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Credit: Nabih Bulos

With all the news coming out of the Middle East, we've received lots of questions about just what's going on there. So we decided to dig in with a series of Facebook Q&As, starting with Los Angeles Times correspondent Nabih Bulos.

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Bulos, a special correspondent covering Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. His work has appeared in McClatchy newspapers, Al Jazeera English, Al Jazeera America, and NPR. A Fulbright scholar, Nabih is also a concert violinist, and has performed with Daniel Barenboim, Yo-yo Ma, Valery Gergiev, and Bono.

Here is an edited transcript of our first Facebook Q&A on the topic.

The situation on the ground

Ron Hf: Are there already forces retaliating in Tikrit and the other places that have been taking over in Iraq, or are they just freely reigning over these towns today?

Bulos: No, the army is scrambling to fight and mount attacks. They've also sent Shi'ite volunteer militias, special forces, and paramilitary groups to join the fray. Of course, air power is also playing a major role, especially in the areas further north. With that said, Mosul remains under their control. 

Less clear, however, is who those in control may be. Is it ISIS? Is it the Naqshabandis (ex-Ba'athists)? Is it the Sunni tribesmen? It's too easy to say it is ISIS. It's not just them.

Bruno Moya: Do you think any of this would have happened if Iraq was still under Saddam's regime? Or was this crisis inevitable?

Bulos: I think it wouldn't have happened in this way under Saddam. Certainly not the separation we are seeing here between Sunnis and Shi'ites. In Saddam's day, secularism was the order of the day. It would have been interesting to see how he would have reacted to all this. Probably in a Sisi-like fashion.

Srini Vasan: Is the Shi'ite and Sunni divide really that violent on the ground?

Bulos: Sadly, it is. Rhetoric between the two groups has gotten only worse. I remember as a younger person never having actually even heard of the distinction. Post 2003, however, it has become a huge problem, and the way the two sides describe each other is striking for how viciously racist it can be.

Ben Alan Jones: A few months back I heard the news that Fallujah was taken by al-Qaeda. Is that city still in their control or has ISIS made moves on it? I served both my Iraq tours there, and my hope is that the people of that city fight off both.

Bulos: I'm sorry to tell you that Fallujah is under Sunni control. Less clear is if it is under the control of al-Qaeda (read ISIS in this case) or under the Sunni tribesmen. Even more unclear is what that distinction really means. ... I should say that the whole situation in Iraq is unclear. Although ISIS is at the forefront of all this, it is not concievable that a place as well-armed as Mosul could have been overrun by a bunch of guys on pickup trucks with AKs and RPGs. There is credible evidence that ex-Ba'athist officers were heavily involved with this, as were many of the Sunni tribesmen and Sunni fighters who are part of al-Qaeda.

Possible Solutions

Reza Motasher: In your opinion, will this de-facto partition still involve Basra's oil feeding the rest of Iraq? It hardly seems fair that they want oil from the south but not southern rule.

Bulos: That's only part of the problem. What about water? What about gas? What about access to Turkey and Kuwait and Jordan? There are long-standing, established relationships, purely economic in nature, that will be catastrophically affected if this is not done intelligently.

Anthony Brice: What happens if we do nothing and allow the situation to unfold organically?

Bulos: It would probably lead to a de-facto partition, provided that the Sunnis can actually mount a real attack on Baghdad and force Maliki to the table. ... I think the partition would still involve a lot of bloodshed and mass migration of populations. More importantly, there is no guarantee that things would go even crazier when the separation happens. Would the Shi'ite part be under Iran's influence, and be a "province" of Iran? What about ISIS's declared intent to merge with areas of Syria?

Michael Mesmer: Why wouldn't it be better for Iraqis to split into three countries, one each for Kurds, Shia and Sunni?

Bulos: It's a question many Iraqis are asking themselves, but although the war has made populations migrate, there are still a lot of areas that have Sunnis and Shi'ites. More importantly, what about those groups that inter-marry? It is not as uncommon as one would think. You should also consider that the Kurds are not, repeat not, ready at the moment to have their own economy. If they manage to establish a proper pipeline for the oil and have a constant money supply, then fine. Otherwise, you have a major problem, simply because the enclave doesn't actually have enough money. And by money I don't mean resources — I mean actual bills.

Reza Motasher: How likely is the partition of Iraq at this point? Which ethno confessional will have the most to gain and which one will have the most to lose?

Bulos: The most to gain would probably be the Kurds, only because they have the most stable "pseudo-state" at the moment. Their recent de-facto takeover of Kirkuk, a prized province and considered to be their cultural capital, is an important achievement. They have also managed to expand their area of influence to areas close to Mosul, and will probably cement their "ownership" over the Christian enclaves in the Ninawa plains. 

De-facto partition is more likely than actual partition. Everyone at this point seems to want a confederation, with the creation of a Sunni-stan in areas of Anbar province and Diyala and Salahudin, and with a Shi'ite-stan, if you will, in the south. Baghdad would be independent.

Reza Motasher: I've heard that before the 2003 Iraq War, Baghdad was 55 percent Shia, I believe that it probably has an 80 percent Shia majority right now. Are my assumptions correct? If so, wouldn't the Shia parts of eastern and southern Baghdad be lumped with the South? What about the mixed provinces like Diyala and Kirkuk, would the respective majority areas split and join their respective confederation?

Bulos: Baghdad would probably have to remain a separate enclave — it's too important historically to be lumped with any one group. Kirkuk would certainly fall into the hands of the Kurds, with the exception of the Sunni villages there, like Huweijah. Diyala would probably have to go through mass population movements, as it would be in the Sunni part.

Reza Motasher: How cohesive could the regions be? I know the Kurds fought a protracted civil war in the 1990s. Would the Sunni confederation end up fighting with itself? Tribal Anbar seems like a world apart from the elitist Mosul or Tikrit.

Bulos: Good point. The assumption that the Sunnis will all play nice with each other once the Shi'ites are gone is a questionable one. Besides, the belief that ISIS will go silently into the night is an incorrect one, as we already saw. Not to mention, how will these tribesmen feel about foreign fighters coming to tell them what to do?

Aaron Schachter, Editor at The World: Nabih, Do you think it really matters if Iraq becomes three autonomous regions? 

Bulos: I suppose I'm a bit of a pan-Arabist... I would hate Iraq to be divided into religious enclaves. Where would the Christians go? What about atheists? I suppose us correspondents are not really supposed to have emotions about this when we report, but I'll be honest in saying that the notion of a divided Iraq (despite its artificial origins at the hands of the British) would sadden me.

Megan Wood: From what you have observed, do you see a solution or way out of the conflict?

Bulos: Everyone seems to be saying that if Maliki goes, then they will manage to fix something. Is that a solution? It may only be a temporarily palliative. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to see what owuld happen if Maliki actually did do that ... call the bluff of the different groups, for a change.

William Stodgel: As a US Marine combat veteran, it makes me angry to know that we left, and are now kicking the idea around to return. Knowing what you know and having a better look at things that are not being reported by mainstream media: What role would the US have in the situation as it stands? Honestly, I personally go back and forth with myself, between letting things take their course and the Marine in me making sure my boys didn't die for nothing.

Bulos: I was speaking yesterday to a colleague of mine who started his journalism career in Iraq. Just yesterday, he was telling me how he now wonders if anything he has done has mattered, and what this means for journalists who spent all that time covering the situation in Iraq. For soldiers who have watched people die and get injured, I can't imagine how pointless this must seem.

I'll be honest, however, in saying that the situation cannot be solved with American boots on the ground without a proper "Marshall Plan"-like effort prepared behind it. And I'll also add that US intervention on the side of the government (read: the Shi'ites) will inevitably inflame Sunni opinion even more. I just don't think that the US is ready or able to do that. The US' time as a nation-builder has largely ended, and we are perhaps the worse for that.

The role of Kurds

Bernadette Fruge: Looking specifically at the situation of the Kurdish people, why is Washington so against allowing them to establish their own independent state? Am I incorrect to assume that they are pro-American and would be stand up allies in the region?

Bulos: You're correct, and I'm not sure Washington will be able to stop them. Many Kurds at this point believe very strongly that they are on the cusp of a historic movement. The takeover of Kirkuk is a big deal, and the Peshmerga have emerged as one of the few forces capable of holding its own in light of the Iraqi army's spectacular disintegration.

With that being said, I don't think it will happen this year or the next, contrary to what many Kurds say. The province still has much to do, and the integration of Kirkuk and the Christian enclaves in the Ninawa plains will be anything but easy.

Corinnarose Guenther Borges: The Kurds are currently living in three modern nation states. Do the Iraqi Kurds also desire to reclaim territory from neighboring states?

Bulos: The ones I've spoken to have said no, but it would be hard to imagine this not happening in the future between the Syrian Kurdistan popoulation and the Iraqi one. Not to mention, even Iran has its own place. Think of it this way, though: The Iraqi Kurds have managed to forge a pseudo-state, and they're on the verge of controlling territory they have wanted for a long time. Not sure they'll want to jeopardize that, at least initially.

Geopolitics

Afsan Vakhshoury: Is this a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Bulos: Very broadly speaking... yes, but more for Syria than Iraq. The situation in Iraq is tempered by the fact that there is some bad blood (not much, but some) between Iran and Iraq from the time of the Iran-Iraq war in the 80s. Yes, Shi'ites were in the army then as well, and so many of them were killed. With that said, Saudi Arabia and Iran have both shown signs of having had enough of this cataclysmic battle for the region. There are signs of rapproachments in the air, and if ISIS actually does create a proper foothold in the oil-rich area between Syria and Iraq, then both countries will not be happy.

Mind you, ISIS are not fans of the Saudi Arabian government, and the situation is also made even crazier by mainstream Sunnis' hatred of ISIS. Responding to this question would honestly be an article in and of itself, but I'll try to do it in one paragraph:

Yes, this is a fight for the region between those two countries, but they are both faced with dealing with forces beyond their control, to the point where they may even find themselves, at least temporarily, on the same side.

ISIS

William Stodgel: At what point have these ISIS fighters been killing people? Are all of their targets focused, or do everyday citizens have to be worried?

Bulos: These ISIS fighters tend to have a soft touch when they take over an area. Mind you, this "soft touch" is not used against regime soldiers or those whom the group considered to be the enemy. Those people are treated viciously. In Raqqa, a rural city in Syria, they initially were not bothering people, but now they regularly crucify "criminals." They've also imprisoned hundreds of activists and journalists, and many of them have been brutally killed.

William Stodgel: Where does the money come to support the ISIS fighters? 

Bulos: Initially, much of the money probably came from Qatar to the most effective groups on the ground in Syria — i.e., before the creation of ISIS. As things become worse, and the whole Sunni / Shi'ite divide came to dominate the character of the civil war in Syria, you started to have more overt support from Sunni charities to Sunni extremist groups. In Kuwait, for example, you'll see Twitter campaigns and shows on state television soliciting funds — to the point where they will provide you a price list for the different weapons they wish to buy for the Mujahideen. More recently, I would wager that much of the funding is coming from ISIS's ability to shake down populations in areas under its control, not to mention its selling of oil to the Syrian government, and probably other groups that are desparate for resources.

Another big source of money will be the recent comandeering of weapons. Can you imagine how much money can be made from selling the helicopter they reportedly took?

Tory Starr: Where is ISIS keeping the money? Do they use banking systems? How is the money being moved?
Bulos: I don't want to make myself out to be a financial expert, because I'm not. From my limited knowledge, however, I would say money would come in the form of Hawaalahs, an ancient system that actually doesn't entail movement of money in the modern sense of the word. It's also pretty unregulated.

 

As the situation in Iraq develops, we're planning more question-and-answer sessions on our Facebook page and on PRI.org. Leave any questions you have in the comments below and we'll keep them in mind for future Q&As.

We hope to announce our next guest soon.

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