The furnace of war - Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)

Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)


The furnace of war


It seems extraordinary now and it felt extraordinary then but Iraq had no government when Mosul fell in June 2014, even though parliamentary elections had been held at the end of April, more than five weeks earlier. No one seemed to be in too much of a hurry to form a government, much less recall the Council of Representatives (the Iraqi parliament), despite the fact that Islamic State fighters were less than forty minutes’ drive westwards down the road from the centre of Baghdad and threatening the country with destruction.

On 1 July 2014, the Council of Representatives met for the first time since the elections to form a government to save the country from ISIS, soon to become Islamic State. So it was with great anticipation that we reporters jumped in our cars and headed towards the bridge over the river Tigris that would take us into the Green Zone, the fortress city within a city that harbours the parliament. We were stopped at a security checkpoint to await final clearance and festered in the heavy traffic while temperatures outside began their ascent through the thirties and forties. The city felt jittery and on edge. It wasn’t entirely clear what was causing the hold-up, possibly something about the paperwork not being in order or the understandably heightened security concerns. What better target could there be for the two hundred IS terror cells than the Iraqi parliament on the day it met to save the country from Baghdadi?

As things turned out, we need not have bothered; the parliamentary proceedings collapsed in scenes of farce. According to the post-election rules, the parliament had to first choose a new speaker, who must be a Sunni. The speaker then had fifteen days to select the prime minister, who must be a Shia. The prime minister had a further thirty days to select a president, who must be a Kurd. There were growing divisions among Shia MPs about whether Nouri al-Maliki, now widely seen as spoiled goods, should be replaced. A huge row had broken out over comments made by the Kurds’ president, Masoud Barzani, to the BBC’s Middle East correspondent Jim Muir promising an independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan within months.1 It was the first real evidence that Iraq could break apart completely thanks to ISIS.

Baghdadi’s onslaught was a threat in particular to the four ethnic groups in his path - the Shia, the Kurds, the Christians and the Yazidi people. ISIS had threatened all with annihilation. With a political impasse in Baghdad, we planned to travel south of Baghdad to Karbala and Najaf to talk to people there but first I decided to talk to the Christians about the disaster that had engulfed them, particularly in the north in Mosul and Nineveh province.

Before setting off for the Shia heartlands, I went to see the Reverend Canon Andrew White, one of the more remarkable people in Baghdad. He was the vicar of St George’s Church, the sole Anglican church, not only in Baghdad but in the whole of Iraq. Known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad’, Canon White was once a doctor as well as a Conservative councillor in the London borough of Wandsworth. For more than a decade, he was one of the few forces to stand between his congregation and destruction. A man of great warmth and wit, he spoke with a slight but compelling drawl, a sign of his multiple sclerosis. He could scarcely comprehend the catastrophe suffered by the ancient Christian community of Nineveh, of which Mosul is the capital, a community that had been augmented over the years by refugees fleeing the jihadis’ pogroms in Baghdad.2

‘At one stage I had a congregation of six and a half thousand; too much - I couldn’t fit them all in,’ he said. ‘Now 1,272 of my congregation have been killed in the last ten years.3 I don’t how many have fled in the last four weeks but so many who had fled from here back to Mosul have now gone [from Mosul] as well - so we have lost hundreds.’ I reminded Canon White, not that he needed reminding, that according to official figures two thirds of Iraq’s Christians had already fled Iraq in the previous decade, from a pre-invasion population of 1.2 million down to 400,000. The exodus was certainly hastened by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s murderous suicide assault on the Chaldean Catholic Our Lady of Salvation Church in October 2010, in which more than fifty people were killed.4 Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi had also persecuted and murdered Christians, not least during their terrorizing of the Assyrian Catholics in 2006 and 2007.5

‘Yes, two thirds have gone,’ he added. ‘And a very large percentage of them were in the north and now they are increasingly in Kurdistan because the north of Iraq is no longer safe for them.’ Canon White seemed haunted by the fate of Iraq’s Jews, who once made up a third of Baghdad’s population.6 The pogroms and persecutions of Iraq’s Jews intensified after the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 to the extent that most left in the following years. Between 1950 and 1952, operations Ezra and Nehemiah airlifted around 130,000 Jews to Israel.7

‘I look after the Jewish community as well,’ said Canon White. ‘I’m not just a priest; I’m like a rabbi as well. Here we have the Passover Seder [the ritual feast marking the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover].’ He added darkly, ‘Do you know how many Jews there are remaining in Iraq? There are six Jews left and I know each of them individually.’

It was time for evening prayers and Canon White’s congregation had arrived at the security barriers of the heavily fortified St George’s. Even nuns were thoroughly checked by the security guards before being allowed into the church. Canon White briefed his congregation, packing out the pews of St George’s, about his recent trip to the north and Nineveh to see the unfolding crisis for himself and then said, ‘I will promise I will never leave you; don’t you leave me. So many of our people have left but we are still here.’8 But in late 2014, Canon White was forced to leave Iraq after constant death threats from Islamic State militants.9

The Shia also had much to be worried about. ‘Sheikh’ Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, al-Baghdadi’s media spokesman, had also issued the darkest of threats against Nouri al-Maliki and the Shia, as well as their holiest of shrines in Najaf and Karbala. ‘What have you done with your people, little fool?’ Adnani admonished the Iraqi prime minister.

You have nothing to do with politics and military leadership. You wasted a historic chance for your people to control Iraq. The Rafidah [a derogatory term for the Shia] will continue to curse you as long as some of them exist. Truly, between us is a settling of debts. You spoke the truth although you are a liar. There will be a heavy and long account. However, the settling of debts will not be in Samarra and Baghdad, rather in Karbala al-munajjash [the defiled] and Najaf al-ashrak [the most polytheistic].10

To underscore its threat, Islamic State had demolished six important Shia mosques across Nineveh province.11

However, even by early July 2014 there was a feeling that, in military terms, stalemate was setting in. Islamic State could not get closer to Baghdad, either from the north or from the west, whereas south of Baghdad the Shia of Karbala and Najaf were organizing their defences. At a Najaf football stadium, we saw thousands of enthusiastic young Shia men preparing for battle with Islamic State. Military trainers drilled them under the careful eye of one of the local ayatollahs. Increasingly the Shia militias were stepping into the apparent void left by the military to save Iraq. As we watched the young recruits being put through their paces the ayatollah told me, ‘Our shrines are being destroyed in the north, but we are determined to protect our holy places here. Millions are volunteering to fight ISIS. We’re not interested in getting into a sectarian conflict with other Iraqis. We wish to defend our country.’12

Then we travelled to Wadi al-Salaam, the Valley of Peace, the gargantuan cemetery of five million souls on the outskirts of Najaf. For the past 1,400 years, the Shia have regarded this as their final resting place. Every few minutes a minibus arrived with a coffin strapped to the roof. Then the bodies were taken to special washrooms to be prepared for burial. Many victims of Islamic State were among the dead. I spoke to two men who had respectively lost a brother and a nephew to IS suicide bombers. Already by early morning, the heat was oppressive and pitiful sounds of grief filled the air. One young man who had lost his father was so overcome that he passed out in front of us and started having a fit, and had to receive immediate medical treatment.

The fall of Mosul forced the rest of the world to go through its own ‘awakening’. Many people outside Iraq had not heard much about Mosul or even comprehended its importance, but they soon realized that the capture by a genocidal organization like ISIS of such an important city with a population of two million people was something that could not be taken lightly. Suddenly the threat posed by ISIS to the world as a whole felt as real as that first posed to the people of Anbar in western Iraq by Zarqawi and the killers who followed him.

For years, many news organizations had simply coalesced with the sensibilities of their consumers, particularly in the West, in recoiling from Iraq, the endless insurgency and the steady drumbeat of apparently pointless sectarian violence. During the first half of 2014, Syria, Ukraine and Libya had monopolized the Twittersphere, the newspapers and the radio and television bulletins. News from and about Iraq had long slipstreamed past the stories many felt should be important and instead had become a sort of spam narrative that could be safely dumped into a folder marked ‘things that no longer need concern us’.

Few people even realized that ISIS was simply the latest reincarnation of an old menace that had refused to die. Zarqawi was forgotten; Abu Omar al-Baghdadi had scarcely even registered in the public attention and neither had his former courier and successor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had now emerged as caliph. It was as if ISIS were aliens from another planet. Inevitably, the right questions emerged. Who or what had helped nurture this threat and who or what had fed and funded it? These questions have proved awkward not just for the West and the elites of Iraq but also for the country’s glowering neighbours, principally Saudi Arabia, Turkey and particularly Iran. Iraq had never just been about Iraq. While the rest of the world struggled to keep up, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his grim Ba’athist commanders seemed to intensify the swarming nature of their invasion.

Baghdadi had wasted no time luxuriating in his surprise capture of Mosul. Immediately, he realized that the prize of Baghdad, the city he had terrorized for years, lay in his grasp. As Mosul fell, Baghdadi sent his jihadis south towards the Iraqi capital down Route One to seize Saddam Hussein’s home city of Tikrit. The city fell, but even worse was to follow.

Near Tikrit, the jihadis seized Camp Speicher, a one-time US forward operating base. There they captured more than a thousand unarmed Iraqi Air Force cadets, predominantly Shia. They were tied up, loaded onto trucks and taken to wasteland nearby. Many were laid face down on the ground and machine-gunned to death; some were beheaded and others were strangled. Later, Baghdadi’s media machine boasted of killing 1,700 young soldiers.13 Their bodies would be exhumed in April 2015 after the Iraqis recaptured Tikrit.14 Meanwhile, Mosul itself witnessed an exodus of half a million people. Many were Christians who had sought refuge there from the Islamic State of Iraq pogrom of Baghdad in 2006.15

There seemed to be a real risk of Baghdadi’s advancing on Baghdad from Tikrit in the north and from Fallujah, just forty or so miles to the west, and taking the capital. There was more than a note of triumphalism in the message issued by Islamic State’s media ‘sheikh’, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani: ‘March to meet your Lord. Don’t be distracted by victory. Don’t be gentle with your enemy, after Allah has granted you their shoulders. Continue your advance, for the furnace of war has not yet been fully heated.’16

On paper, it seemed impossible that Baghdad could fall to Islamic State. After all, some thirty thousand jihadis could surely not be a match for more than four million Shia who lived in Baghdad alone? No man is an island and neither are nation states, even if they are islands. Iraq’s tragedy had long been a cause of deep anxiety to its neighbours. The key question is: in their concern and cynicism and insecurity had Iraq’s neighbours, both Shia and Sunni, contributed to the rise of ISIS and the calamity that had suddenly befallen their region? The answer is assuredly ‘yes’. Iraq had contributed to its own disaster, but it had been aided and abetted by the states on its borders.

Iranians to the rescue

At this moment of crisis, what was left of Iraq would be rescued not by an Iraqi government already consumed by recriminations over the fall of Mosul but by two Iranians. Both men, one a senior cleric and the other a ruthless general, may have had different motives and different masters but their interventions in June 2014 proved critical in fending off the advance of Baghdadi.

During Friday prayers on 13 June 2014, Iraq’s most important Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a historic fatwa calling on all Iraqis to fight ISIS. The ayatollah insisted that this was not just a call to arms aimed at his Shia followers. ‘ISIS are a threat to Sunnis, too,’ he told an acquaintance at the time.17

In the years following the US-led invasion, Grand Ayatollah Sistani remained steadfastly one of the few repositories of decency and common sense among Iraq’s leaders. Born in August 1930, he was already into his seventies by the start of the occupation. Sistani’s base was a modest house in Najaf and from here he dispensed advice on a whole range of issues from politics to matters of sex, although he was widely condemned for an anti-gay fatwa which he was later forced to withdraw following the murder of a fourteen-year-old Iraqi boy accused of homosexuality.18 Few issues fell outside the grand ayatollah’s remit when considering his followers. Sistani advised people on what types of fish they were allowed to eat (‘permissible sea animals’ included fish with scales, and shrimps) and men on when they should shave off their beard (only permissible if they were at risk of death by not shaving or if they were forced to shave it for medical reasons).19

Sistani was widely admired because, although he was a Shia and an Iranian, he considered himself to be essentially non-sectarian and an Iraqi nationalist. He had called for democratic elections in the face of the growing violence from 2003 onwards and had called on the Shia not to retaliate against the Sunnis following the Samarra shrine bombing in February 2006.20 He sent instructions to his followers forbidding attacks on Sunni mosques. Sistani was disobeyed but he had tried to rein in the worst of the excesses following the attack. On several occasions, journalists and commentators had even recommended Sistani for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2005, the American journalist and author Thomas L. Friedman had written in the New York Times to say, ‘Lady Luck has shined on us by keeping alive this seventy-five-year-old ayatollah who resides in a small house in a narrow alley in Najaf and almost never goes out the door. How someone with his instincts and wisdom could have emerged from the train wreck of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq I will never know.’21 Sistani had also issued a fatwa in late 2013 denouncing and condemning the growing sectarian violence directed against Sunnis.22

Sistani’s fatwa of June 2014 was a remarkable proclamation because it was a call for one jihad against another, that of ‘Caliph’ Baghdadi. The cleric had brushed off repeated calls for a fatwa for jihad after the Samarra bombing, a decision that probably reduced the ferocity of the civil war that followed and certainly saved lives. In June 2014, Sistani’s call was for a defensive jihad not just to save the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, but also to rescue the Sunni cities Mosul and Tikrit.23 He urged all ‘able-bodied’ volunteers to enlist in the army according to the law and he made it clear that the ‘the number of volunteers does not need to exceed the sufficient force that can accomplish the objective of protecting Iraq, its people and its sacred places’.

Sistani would also play an important part in the eventual downfall of Nouri al-Maliki. Around six weeks before the fall of Mosul, Sistani demonstrated his disfavour of Maliki by refusing to receive the prime minister in Najaf.24 At the height of the political crisis following the loss of Mosul, Sistani took the unusual step of writing to Maliki, urging him to step down.25 Maliki resigned not long after, to be replaced by the Shia deputy speaker of parliament, Haidar al-Abadi.26

The second Iranian to come to Iraq’s aid had already mobilized his own forces to fend off the jihadi tsunami. On 11 June 2014, the day before Adnani’s genocidal message against the Shia, one General Qassem Suleimani from neighbouring Shia-dominated Iran deployed two battalions of his elite Revolutionary Guards, known as the Quds Force, into Iraq to fight ISIS.27 Quds is not just any old elite brigade of fighters; its commander, Suleimani, reported directly to the president of Iran. The force takes its name from Quds, the Persian name for Jerusalem, which its fighters have promised to ‘liberate’ from Israeli occupation.

Back in September 2013, General Suleimani was described as ‘the single most powerful operative in the Middle East’, the sharp and brutal end of Iran’s covert foreign policy throughout the region from Lebanon to Iraq.28 He rose through the ranks during the bloody quagmire of the 1980-8 Iran-Iraq War to become one of Iran’s youngest and most capable divisional commanders. Suleimani’s Quds Force has extremely close links to Hezbollah, which was largely created and developed under Iranian guidance. Essentially, Hezbollah is considered to be the Lebanese branch of Quds.29 With Hezbollah, Suleimani coordinated the military strategy of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Alawite Shia president, and he would do the same for Shia-dominated Iraq after the fall of Mosul.

However, Suleimani’s interference in the affairs of Iraq in the years running up to the ISIS incursion was already well established, extremely pervasive and not a little controversial. Unlike Sistani, a native Iranian who wanted the best for Iraq, the principal beneficiary of Suleimani’s nefarious activities was always going to be Iran. Sunni Iraqi politicians believed Iran was protecting itself by fostering insecurity and political instability in Iraq. The theory went that America would be too busy dealing with chaos in Iraq even to think of using it as a base for targeting Iran. Iran’s funding and support for Shia political parties gave it immense influence in the country.30 Later, the priority in 2014 was to prevent Iraq being completely overrun by genocidal Sunni terrorists. After the fall of Mosul, highly placed US security sources were convinced that Iran would have intervened much more aggressively, possibly with a full-scale invasion, had ISIS looked likely to take Samarra or threaten other holy Shia cities like Najaf.31

From 1980 to 1988, Iran and Iraq had been locked in a terrible war that cost an estimated one million lives and brought financial ruin on both countries. It had begun shortly after the Iranian Revolution, which toppled the Shah and brought to power the hardline Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Khomeini had lived in Najaf until he was thrown out of Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1978, a year before his takeover of Iran. The ayatollah repaid the compliment by calling on the Shia of Iraq to overthrow Saddam and the Ba’ath. Saddam launched an invasion of Iran not long afterwards. The Iran-Iraq War also exposed the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia long before the US-led invasion of Iraq. Iran had enormous vested interests in its turbulent western neighbour.

Through Suleimani, Iran’s influence and power extended into Iraq’s Shia political parties and militias. The armed groups funded by Quds carried out attacks on coalition and Iraqi troops. For example in January 2007, Quds was accused of attacking a military compound in Karbala, resulting in the kidnapping and ‘execution’ of four US soldiers. A fifth American soldier also died in the operation. The Pentagon believed that the assault was in retaliation for the Americans’ capture on 11 January 2007 of five Quds fighters in Erbil, the capital of north Iraqi Kurdistan.

The US also repeatedly accused Quds of financing, training and arming Shia terror groups operating in Iraq. Both Quds and Hezbollah allegedly ran training camps for the so-called ‘special groups’ within Iran before sending them across the border into Iraq to participate in sectarian violence or attacks on coalition forces. In one raid on the offices of a mainstream Shia political party in Erbil at the beginning of 2007, US forces arrested three Quds operatives, including two senior commanders,32 and seized documents including organization charts, lists of weapons, papers relating to the shipments of weapons and explosive charges into Iraq.

During 2007, the Americans made two more important arrests within Iraq, capturing the senior Quds commander, Mahmud Farhadj, as well as Ali Musa Daqduq, a senior officer in Hezbollah.33 Daqduq was supposedly tasked with ‘special groups’ within the Mahdi Army, the militia associated with the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. When the Americans talked of ‘Iranian-backed militias’, they meant primarily those groups supported and financed by Iran through Quds and Hezbollah. These groups and militias may have helped to save Iraq in the weeks and months following the fall of Mosul but they had also been a source of long-term instability and sectarian violence in Iraq. The five main Shia militias have proved to be a double-edged sword for Iraq.34 In 2014, under Iranian direction, they essentially prevented IS from capturing Baghdad and possibly conquering the entire country.

However, the militias always remained capable of plunging the country into sectarian violence as they had in 2006 after the Samarra bombing.35 Following the fall of Mosul, some militias were accused of abducting and killing Sunni men in response to IS attacks and bombings. An investigation by Amnesty International in late 2014 revealed how 170 predominantly Sunni young men were abducted in their home town of Samarra. Dozens were later found dead. On one day, 6 June 2014, more than thirty were abducted near their homes and shot dead. Their bodies were dumped nearby. The militias murdered some victims even after their families had paid the ransoms demanded. In May 2014, two young men, a 31-year-old civil servant and father of three and a 30-year-old engineer, were abducted. Their families paid up the agreed ransom of around $90,000 and a day later the corpses of both hostages turned up, with hands handcuffed behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the back of the head.36 In April 2015, after being instrumental in the recapture of Tikrit under the command of General Suleimani, the Shia militias were accused of going on the rampage, looting, killing captured IS fighters and burning down hundreds of houses.37 The militia’s protection of Iraq has come at a heavy price.

Iran’s growing influence is an important factor in the acrimonious debate about which countries may have helped fuel the rise of ISIS with money and weapons and why Iran’s activities in Iraq helped fuel Sunni support for the jihadis not just inside Iraq but also it seems from within predominantly Sunni nations in the Middle East, turning Iraq into a toxic regional political football. In particular, Iraq has been a battlefield for the proxy cold war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, also predominantly Sunni, have even been accused of supporting and even funding ISIS and Sunni jihadi groups to help counter the growing influence of Tehran.

General Suleimani is also believed to be the patron of one of the most widely feared Shia militias, known as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, the so-called ‘League of the Righteous’. Among the militia’s commanders was the notorious power drill-wielding killer of Sunni men and boys first mentioned in Chapter 5, Abu Dura, also known as the ‘Shiite Zarqawi’.38 Abu Dura, whose real name is Ismail Hafiz al-Lami, was allegedly given shelter for two years by Iran before being allowed to return to Baghdad in 2010 to continue his ‘work’ in protecting the Shia majority.39 Quds was also integral to the formation of the Shia political party the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. The SCIRI militia, the Badr Corps, renamed the Badr Organization,40 operated essentially as a unit of Quds. The Badr Organization was also implicated in the torture and murder of predominantly Sunni young men in the interior ministry scandal of 2005.41

Many Shia also resented Iran’s enormous influence in Iraq, and particularly its main political ally, SCIRI, later renamed the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI. Muqtada al-Sadr was also suspicious of Iranian influence although he was content enough on occasion to receive training and funds from Tehran.42 Aside from SCIRI/ISCI, Iran had formidably close links with the Islamic Dawa, another important Shia political party whose leading mmembers included Nouri al-Maliki.43 In the days of Saddam, the leaders of these groups were political refugees, and often the guests of Iran. At one time SCIRI went as far as to recognize Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini as its effective supreme leader and even supported it in its war against Iraq. Many of these Dawa refugees returned to rule Iraq after the invasion, but they were often accused of remaining beholden to Tehran.

In Baghdad, around eight months before the fall of Mosul, I visited Hanna Edward, a prominent Iraqi human rights activist, to discuss the influence of Iran and other issues. She said:

Facing pressure from America and the West, Iran used Iraq as a buffer zone to defend themselves, and this means supporting the militias. Sometimes we even heard Iran supported al-Qaeda. The unstable situation has given the Iranians the opportunity to work in their own interests. In such a situation they can really play a big role within the Shia political parties and the others too.44

At the same time I also went to see the senior Shia political adviser Saad al-Muttalibi. He was kind enough to receive me at his Baghdad home despite just having survived an assassination attempt. A Shia militia apparently carried out the attempt, which he happily survived without injury, although he did not seem too keen to discuss the issue. His bullet-riddled utility vehicle sat on the drive outside. Around his desks were several weapons, including an AK-47 Kalashnikov and handguns. There were also some swords available by the mantelpiece.

Muttalibi acknowledged the influence of Iran but countered by pointing out the extensive meddling of neighbouring predominantly Sunni countries. He accused the Sunni former Iraqi deputy president Tariq al-Hashimi, later convicted of murder in absentia,45 of ‘actually receiving orders from Turkey’. When I pointed out that Iran funded political parties in Iraq, Muttalibi replied, ‘And so does Qatar and Saudi Arabia. We get nowhere by throwing around these accusations. It’s also a fact that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and Egypt support certain Sunni politicians.’

By late 2013, Muttalibi had long been convinced that the Wahhabis, the extreme Salafi sect from which the Saudi royal family derives its religious legitimacy, were to blame for the rise of ISIS. He told me:

There is an organized genocide against Shias in Iraq and it has been recognized as such by several international organizations. We believe there is a religious organization behind it. The Wahhabis are a cult with an extremist view on Islam; they believe in the political Islamization of things; they believe in jihad. They believe that anyone who disagrees with them deserves to die and should be killed. They emphasize the necessity of killing all men, women and children of Shias because they consider them more dangerous than the Jews. After they have exterminated the Shia, they will then kill all the Jews and the Sunnis who do not agree with them.

Wahhabism granted legitimacy to the throne in Saudi Arabia because in Islam generally, monarchy is not allowed because the country should be ruled by the khalifah, the caliph, essentially an Islamic state, and the caliph should be elected, and should be ‘the best of the best’. It is supposedly un-Islamic to have a monarchy line. So the Wahhabis granted legitimate means for the Saudi royal family to rule the country. In return the Saudi government and the ruling family granted favours to the Wahhabi leaders. Part of that means unlimited amounts of money. The Wahhabis run six thousand schools in Pakistan and Bangladesh alone. If each school produces one terrorist, you can see what kind of world they are planning for us.46

For many Sunnis, Iraq’s Shia elite derived their power and authority from Iran, not from ordinary Iraqis. Many Sunnis believed they were being persecuted by Iranian-backed militia and excluded by Iranian-backed politicians. They resented Tehran’s enormous influence and felt that for all intents and purposes, Iran was running Iraq. These fears were given credence somewhat later in March 2015 when a senior Iranian presidential adviser, Ali Younisi, was quoted as saying that ‘Baghdad is now capital of the Iranian empire’.47 Younisi’s outburst was later ‘clarified’ by an embarrassed Iranian government statement emphasizing Iran’s recognition of Iraq’s sovereignty,48 but the damage had been done in any event. Ordinary Iraqis and powerful forces beyond its borders had long believed that Iran, once a deadly enemy, had been the puppet master of Baghdad, and that ISIS would be the best device to cut the strings.