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Iraq's political death cult

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp
October 16, 2016

The fight against the "Islamic State" could end in Mosul. Yet that could be just the beginning, says Kersten Knipp.

Members of Iraqi security forces gesture as a convoy advances on the outskirts of Mosul
Image: Reuters/A. Rasheed

Saddam Hussein never liked Shiites. Not even when he was a child in Tikrit, where people said unflattering things about them. They were labeled as potential traitors, much more loyal to Iran, the strongest Shiite nation in the region, than their own country.

Later, in 1980, when Hussein led his country in an eight-year war with Iran, he was forced to deal with a number of Shiites who rose up against his government - a prelude to the open rebellion that would erupt in early 1991 after his failed invasion of Kuwait. At the time the United States encouraged the rebellion.

When Hussein sent his troops to Shiite cities in southern Iraq to exact revenge, US President George HW Bush declined to intervene. As a result, thousands of Shiites were displaced, deprived of their livelihood or killed. Things went on that way throughout the 1990s, and consequently, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq seemed like a liberation for Shiites.

Knipp Kersten Kommentarbild App
DW correspondent Kersten Knipp

They saw themselves vindicated when one of their own, Nouri al-Maliki, became prime minister in 2006. Once in power, he quickly began to bully Sunnis. The only way Sunnis saw to defend themselves was to seek the protection of extremists like al Qaeda, or later, the so-called "Islamic State" (IS). IS jihadis soon became so powerful that they eventually captured the metropolis of Mosul in 2014, seemingly in the blink of an eye - it was a shock for the entire country.

Dark future 

Shiites reacted by creating "Popular Mobilization Forces." These units now stand alongside the Iraqi army at the gates of Mosul, intent on recapturing the city. They are, however, not only there to help the Iraqi government, but rather - and perhaps primarily - to expand their own influence in areas once dominated by Shiites.

This long history of violence points to what may be the future of Iraq. And it doesn't point to anything good. In fact it points to something very bad. The many brigades that the Shiites have sent into the battle of Mosul seem hardly less threatening than the henchmen of IS. And war atrocities that they have committed against Sunni civilians are little worse than those carried out by IS.

Friend vs. foe mentality

Both groups, Sunni jihadis and Shiite militias, are currently doing all they can to establish the rationale of a politically abused religious fervor as a vision for the future. Iraq is a perfect example of how long-term violence can crush civility. The consequence of Saddam Hussein's regime of death, with its hundreds of thousands of victims, as well as the 2003 US invasion, has led to a brutalization of large segments of Iraqi society and pushed it into a friend versus foe mindset split along denominational lines.

One cannot even begin to imagine that this country, dominated by fundamentalist death squads today, was home to a flourishing and inclusive political spectrum just a half century ago - and in which communism, adhered to by many Shiites, even played a major role. Those days are long gone.

A brutalized society depends on a corresponding ideology. In Iraq's case that means a fundamentalist monotheism drenched in fantasies of annihilation. Such ideologies allow respective groups to go all out, and to shut the door forever on any and all compromise, in the name of the one true faith. "Us or them" - that is the logic adopted by those who have drawn the only conclusion possible from their country's violent past and present: Everything is on the line in politics - and compromise is a sign of weakness.

Fighters are gathering at Mosul. They will have to continue fighting for peace until they are finally willing to face a much larger challenge than the battle itself: The reordering of their political culture. That would be the Iraqis' greatest triumph ever, with consequences that would reach far beyond their own country's borders.

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East