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Opinion

Opinion: Iraq's militant fighters

Politically, it's understandable that the Iraqi military has not been able to keep pace with Islamic State. What's unsettling is the massive role that religion is playing in the conflict, says DW's Kersten Knipp.

It's true: The Iraqi army is not putting up much resistance against the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS). When the Jihadists recently took control of Ramadi, it was more like a walk in the park with a bit of adventure animation thrown in for effect.

Nobody really tried to stop them. Stopping them would actually have been the responsibility of the Iraqi army. But the soldiers and their commanders chose to flee instead, leaving the city to its fate. For several hundred residents, that meant death. The IS terrorists deployed their usual tactics in Ramadi – bloodletting and brutality.

Baghdad is betting on alternatives to the regular military, such as Shiite militias, groups like Kataib Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, and the Badr organization. Their commanders have good relations with Iran. The head of the Badr organization, Hadi al-Amiri, fought during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 – 88 on the side of Tehran.

Now, he's a member of the Iraqi parliament. Since the rise of IS though, he's also become one of the most feared and consequently most in-demand militia leaders. In demand, because it seems that it's only troops such as his that stand a chance against IS. His troops' effectiveness has repeatedly been on display in recent months. Now, it's their job to win back Ramadi.

Sunnis fear Shiite dominance

His effectiveness is also one of the explanations for the weakness and poor morale of the regular Iraqi army. The Sunni members, in particular, are likely asking themselves whether it's even worth fighting IS if later they have to live in a Shiite-dominated city in the event that the Jihadists are driven out. They've learned what that means over the past few years.

Under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the Sunnis were pushed to the fringes of society - often to such a drastic extent that many opted to join IS. In Iraq, 90 percent of the organization is made up of Iraqi Sunnis.

The Shiites have been just as relentless in the persecution of the Sunnis as the IS terrorists have been with their opponents. In a UN human rights report from the summer of 2014, Shiite militias stand accused of "torture, kidnapping, and displacement." And in a report from March of this year by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the organization referred to thousands of cases of displacement. HRW also said that Sunni homes were routinely being destroyed. The radical Sunni devil is being driven out by the radical Shiite Beelzebub, or so it seems. It's hardly a stretch to assume that Sunni soldiers are unlikely to be highly motivated in the face of such crimes against their people.

Questionable traditions

Time and again in Iraq, religion has been abused, and it continues to be abused today. People have been whipped into a frenzy of hatred against each other in the name of religion, driving them to murder and other heinous crimes. Of course, in a war-torn country like Iraq, religion is often the only remaining refuge.

At the same time, one has to ask how it's possible for people to so easily be manipulated by the preachers of hate on both sides. Clearly, both the Sunni and Shiite Islamic factions have considerable mobilization potential. When you see how Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis - not all, but still terrifyingly many - attack each other in the name of religion, one wonders to what extent traditions that should have never been allowed to flourish are at play here.

Yes, religion is abused, particularly in countries like Iraq, which have been governed for decades by cynics. But the question remains whether in all that time, theologians and preachers have really done everything right.

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