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The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict
The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants
‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants
Report 52 / Middle East & North Africa

The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict

The bomb attack on a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006 and subsequent reprisals against Sunni mosques and killings of Sunni Arabs is only the latest and bloodiest indication that Iraq is teetering on the threshold of wholesale disaster.

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Executive Summary

The bomb attack on a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006 and subsequent reprisals against Sunni mosques and killings of Sunni Arabs is only the latest and bloodiest indication that Iraq is teetering on the threshold of wholesale disaster. Over the past year, social and political tensions evident since the removal of the Baathist regime have turned into deep rifts. Iraq’s mosaic of communities has begun to fragment along ethnic, confessional and tribal lines, bringing instability and violence to many areas, especially those with mixed populations. The most urgent of these incipient conflicts is a Sunni-Shiite schism that threatens to tear the country apart. Its most visible manifestation is a dirty war being fought between a small group of insurgents bent on fomenting sectarian strife by killing Shiites and certain government commando units carrying out reprisals against the Sunni Arab community in whose midst the insurgency continues to thrive. Iraqi political actors and the international community must act urgently to prevent a low-intensity conflict from escalating into an all-out civil war that could lead to Iraq’s disintegration and destabilise the entire region.

2005 will be remembered as the year Iraq’s latent sectarianism took wings, permeating the political discourse and precipitating incidents of appalling violence and sectarian “cleansing”. The elections that bracketed the year, in January and December, underscored the newly acquired prominence of religion, perhaps the most significant development since the regime’s ouster. With mosques turned into party headquarters and clerics outfitting themselves as politicians, Iraqis searching for leadership and stability in profoundly uncertain times essentially turned the elections into confessional exercises. Insurgents have exploited the post-war free-for-all; regrettably, their brutal efforts to jumpstart civil war have been met imprudently with ill-tempered acts of revenge.

In the face of growing sectarian violence and rhetoric, institutional restraints have begun to erode. The cautioning, conciliatory words of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites’ pre-eminent religious leader, increasingly are falling on deaf ears. The secular centre has largely vanished, sucked into the maelstrom of identity politics. U.S. influence, while still extremely significant, is decreasing as hints of eventual troop withdrawal get louder. And neighbouring states, anxious to protect their strategic interests, may forsake their longstanding commitment to Iraq’s territorial integrity if they conclude that its disintegration is inevitable, intervening directly in whatever rump states emerge from the smoking wreckage.

If Iraq falls apart, historians may seek to identify years from now what was the decisive moment. The ratification of the constitution in October 2005, a sectarian document that both marginalised and alienated the Sunni Arab community? The flawed January 2005 elections that handed victory to a Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which drafted the constitution and established a government that countered outrages against Shiites with indiscriminate attacks against Sunnis? Establishment of the Interim Governing Council in July 2003, a body that in its composition prized communal identities over national-political platforms? Or, even earlier, in the nature of the ousted regime and its consistent and brutal suppression of political stirrings in the Shiite and Kurdish communities that it saw as threatening its survival? Most likely it is a combination of all four, as this report argues.

Today, however, the more significant and pressing question is what still can be done to halt Iraq’s downward slide and avert civil war. Late in the day, the U.S. administration seems to have realised that a fully inclusive process – not a rushed one – is the sine qua non for stabilisation. This conversion, while overdue, is nonetheless extremely welcome. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s intensive efforts since late September 2005 to bring the disaffected Sunni Arab community back into the process have paid off, but only in part. He is now also on record as stating that the U.S. is “not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian”. Much remains to be done, however, to recalibrate the political process further and move the country on to a path of reconciliation and compromise.

  • First, the winners of the December 2005 elections, the main Shiite and Kurdish lists, must establish a government of genuine national unity in which Sunni Arab leaders are given far more than a token role. That government, in turn, should make every effort to restore a sense of national identity and address Iraqis’ top priorities: personal safety, jobs and reliable access to basic amenities such as electricity and fuel. It should also start disbanding the militias that have contributed to the country’s destabilisation. The U.S. has a critical role to play in pressuring its Iraqi war-time allies to accept such an outcome. States neighbouring Iraq as well as the European Union should push toward the same goal.
     
  • Secondly, substantive changes must be made to the constitution once the constitutional process is reopened one month after the government enters office. These should include a total revision of key articles concerning the nature of federalism and the distribution of proceeds from oil sales. As it stands, this constitution, rather than being the glue that binds the country together, has become both the prescription and blueprint for its dissolution. Again, the U.S. and its allies should exercise every effort to reach that goal.
     
  • Thirdly, donors should promote non-sectarian institution building by allocating funds to ministries and projects that embrace inclusiveness, transparency and technical competence and withholding funds from those that base themselves on cronyism and graft.
     
  • Fourthly, while the U.S. should explicitly state its intention to withdraw all its troops from Iraq, any drawdown should be gradual and take into account progress in standing up self-sustaining, non-sectarian Iraqi security forces as well as in promoting an inclusive political process. Although U.S. and allied troops are more part of the problem than they can ever be part of its solution, for now they are preventing – by their very presence and military muscle – ethnic and sectarian violence from spiralling out of control. Any assessment of the consequences, positive and negative, that can reasonably be anticipated from an early troop withdrawal must take into account the risk of an all-out civil war.
     
  • Finally – and regrettable though it is that this is necessary – the international community, including neighbouring states, should start planning for the contingency that Iraq will fall apart, so as to contain the inevitable fall-out on regional stability and security. Such an effort has been a taboo, but failure to anticipate such a possibility may lead to further disasters in the future.

 

Amman/Baghdad/Brussels, 27 February 2006

‘Jihadi bride’ doesn’t fit: we need a new language for female militants

Originally published in The Guardian

Tabloid sensationalism about Shamima Begum flattens important debates about how much agency these women have.

There are around 150 British women in the world who can be called “jihadi brides” – those who left places such as Luton, Birmingham and Burton upon Trent to migrate to the Islamic State and eventually marry its fighters – and Shamima Begum is one of the youngest. She assumed this status as a minor, and the use of the term “jihadi bride” by journalists and commentators to describe her is appalling, a heaping of further trauma on a groomed child.

Tabloid sensationalism flattens a complicated and necessary debate about agency: whether these women had any; and how much and the extent to which they should be held accountable for the spectacular violence Isis has inflicted, even if they were not directly involved and some of them were crushed by it, too. In trying to get to the bottom of these questions for a forthcoming book, I interviewed more than 20 Isis women.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word ‘bride’, so resonant and feminine.

At the heart of this problem is female militancy itself: the historical and near-universal aversion across so many societies to viewing young women as capable of dreadful violence, and the incentives for powerful governments and militaries to downplay or amplify the nature of female militancy and its implications. One premise underlying the term “jihadi bride” is that the debutante in question holds no valid political grievances, is indoctrinated into accepting grotesque violence as legitimate, and as “just” a wife plays a dangerous but marginal role in the working of the armed group to which she is wed rather than operationally affiliated. “In-house whores for Isis,” as one columnist memorably called them in 2015. The term also tilts toward characterising such women as civilian spouses of jihadist militants, akin to the German wives who held dinner parties for Nazi SS officers, rather than aspirant members who joined first and wed second, or at least concurrently.

There is a gentle infantilisation to almost any description of militancy that includes the word “bride”, so resonant and feminine. Its inclusion is almost antique, from a time when women had hysterics and doctors acting on behalf of the patriarchy had to pacify them with dubious sex therapies or lobotomies. But perhaps in the past this patronising view also served a social function: if militants’ wives were just wives, society could forgive them more easily and, once the fighting was over, they could serve as bridges back to some normalcy. Women could then try to explain what had overtaken their sons and husbands (as Osama bin Laden’s mother has done). As I wrote earlier this year, in Nigeria viewing women who voluntarily joined the Boko Haram insurgency as wives who didn’t commit violence has helped communities grudgingly tolerate their reintegration. Returnee men are often simply slaughtered.

But this inherited thinking has outlived its use, especially in light of the way militant groups themselves play on gender to recruit and swell their ranks. Ignoring women’s agency in this process obscures our understanding of all the ways, meaningful, oblique and direct, that women lent their power and numbers to Isis. Women in the caliphate served as doctors and midwives, language instructors, recruiters and intelligence agents, and morality policewomen who tormented locals.

With the flow of Isis men and women out of the group’s last patch of territory and the prospect of them returning to their countries of origin, there are loud voices now calling for the suspension of “jihadi bride”. But sometimes these reflect social and political forces with their own agendas, such as Sajid Javid’s early bid for the Tory leadership, which was signalled through the stripping of Begum’s status as a British citizen. In the rush to bestow militant women agency, there is a tendency to blaze past any legal and investigative process and hold girls such as Begum just as accountable as those who beheaded civilians. The haste to make her indoctrinated, feeble responses to journalists’ questions appear lucid and defining of her fate is reminiscent of the excesses of the post-9/11 period, when jihadists disappeared into the facility at Guantánamo Bay in a netherworld of lawless, indefinite detainment. Among those who directly suffered under Isis there is an understandable impatience with the attention such women receive, but among some voices from Syria and Iraq, the language about Begum is sometimes dehumanising, making her the focus for both justified rage at what transpired and a target for sectarian or ethnic hate.

Our need for new, measured and more forensic language to characterise female militancy and the agency that underpins it is now clear. Yet we must remain sensitive to the coercion and violence many female Isis members experienced themselves.

It is worth remembering that, after a certain point, it became virtually impossible to leave the caliphate. During the years I spent following the stories of female Isis members, I was in touch with women, or families of women, who were repulsed by what they saw unfolding and tried to escape. Kadiza Sultana, one of the three original Bethnal Green girls, saw she had made a terrible mistake and worked with her family in London to plan her evacuation. She died in an airstrike on the building where she lived, before the collapse of the territorial caliphate gave her a chance to flee.

It is no disrespect to the victims of Isis to hear women such as Begum attempt to explain their motivations. Perhaps not immediately after having a baby, in a fetid IDP camp, but later, in a courtroom – or, better, in a transitional justice hearing, where she could be confronted with the stories of Yazidi women such as Nobel peace prize winner Nadia Murad, the victims of Isis who were faceless at the time, about whose suffering Begum was, and remains, chillingly incurious.

There are legal bases on which to assess criminal accountability, which require investigations and collection of evidence. But we are also struggling to understand, as a society encumbered by loaded terms such as “jihadi bride”, how much blame to accord such women. This requires learning precisely what they did – and what might have been done to them.

The role of women in Isis is one of the most significant questions of the post-Arab spring period, the aftermath of a historic sweeping revolt that women often led and animated. The Syrian Isis woman who met Begum at the Syrian border that dark night in February 2015 and escorted her into Raqqa told me later how surprised she was by the Bethnal Green girls’ submissiveness. The driver snapped at them to cover their hair properly, and they smilingly complied.

This woman, a bookish university student, a Hemingway reader who had gone from demonstrating against Bashar al-Assad to working for Isis at the behest of her family, couldn’t understand what had brought these London girls to the hell that had become her country. They seemed bewitched. She herself was dissimulating each day, biding her time until she could just get out.