The Obama administration’s willingness to ignore if not facilitate the spread of Iraqi Shi’ite militias into the traditional Sunni heartland of Iraq is shortsighted. Iraqis will say—rightly—that they turned to the militias in their moment of crisis as the Islamic State threatened not only Baghdad but also Karbala (which is closer, as the bird flies, to the Al-Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi than is Baghdad). When I visited a camp in southern Iraq in which Shi’ite volunteers trained to take on the Islamic State, most everyone was sincerely dedicated to the crisis at hand rather than geopolitics. That does not mean hardcore, pro-Iranian militias do not exist—indeed, they do; one only needs to look at Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Qatab Hizbullah and those served by Qods Force leader Qassem Soleimani to see that reality—but not every militiaman has shed his Iraqi identity. This is why it’s important for the United States to develop a strategy to reach out to and cultivate Shi’ites without conflating Shi’ism with Iran.
Many political leaders, diplomats, and military officers are prone, however, to attribute Sunni extremism in Iraq to simply a backlash to Shi’ite sectarianism and the rise of militias. This may be putting the cart before the horse, although it is true that the goal of the United States should be to defeat extremism regardless of the sect.
There are two false assumptions that undercut the thesis that Iraqi Sunni extremism—not only that of the Islamic State but also that of men like Tariq al-Hashemi who sponsored sectarian terrorism to more limited ends—is simply a reaction to Shi’ite militias.
The first is that the evidence doesn’t fit the thesis. If the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria is simply a response to grievances perpetrated by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Iranian backed militias–which the former selectively tolerated and which propped up the latter–then what explains the rise of the Islamic State in Libya or in the Sinai or elsewhere? After all, Sunnis in both Libya and the Sinai don’t face a threat from Shi’ite militias or Shi’ite sectarianism. The common denominator here is not abuses by nefarious, Iranian-backed militias but rather the extremism promoted by and funded through Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. This is not to suggest that Iranian Shi’ite militias do not pose a serious challenge; they do and should be rolled back. But to focus solely on Shi’ites as the problem is to miss the point.
The second is that too many officials believe that a clear separation exists between Baathism and the most virulent forms of Sunni Islamist extremism. Baathism may have been founded by a Christian as an Arab socialist, secular ideology, but decades before Saddam Hussein’s ouster, it had shed its ideological pedigree and instead simply become a cover for bigotry and tyranny. After his 1991 defeat in Kuwait, Saddam Hussein found religion, hence the Koran written in his blood and “God is Great” written in Arabic on the Iraqi flag. In 2000 and 2001, the Fedayeen Saddam ran around Baghdad, beheading women it considered un-Islamic. The failure to recognize that Baathism is more about power and tyranny than loyalty to any single ideology has cost American lives. While heading the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Gen. David Petraeus empowered former Baathists. They spoke English and told him the things he wanted to hear. Alas, they also cooperated with the Islamist insurgents, turning over the keys to the insurgents when the subsidies Petraeus paid to them ran dry upon his departure. Many made the mistake in subsequent years. After all, trapped within the walls of the U.S. embassy and seldom traveling outside their own diplomatic bubble, too many diplomats simply reinforced each other’s biases. Then, of course, there is the present crisis. According to former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-appointed Islamic State caliph, had been a Baathist before he decided to form the Islamic State.
Sunni extremism in Iraq is not going to be resolved by blaming outsiders; it is going to require introspection. The real tragedy of Iran’s incursions is, beyond substituting one flavor of extremism for another, it simply provides a distraction and an excuse for Iraqi Sunnis not to address an extremist problem whose cause lies within their own community.