632 and all that - Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)

Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State (2015)


632 and all that


There are many deadly things housed within the Imperial War Museum in London; the place is full of old killing machines that have earned an honourable discharge from military service. From the ceiling hang decommissioned fighters and missiles and elsewhere, placed at strategic points near children eating crisps, you can see the other paraphernalia of war, including tanks and field guns. The exhibits look so polished and pristine it is hard to believe they have seen any conflict, with one exception: the rust-covered car wreckage on the ground floor.

The car melted in the blast of a bomb that destroyed Baghdad’s famous book market in al-Mutanabbi Street on 5 March 2007. The street and bookshops were devastated utterly by the bombing that broke the capital’s cultural heart. At least thirty-eight people died. The attack took place as the terrible civil war caused deliberately by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi burned hot.

The conceptual artist Jeremy Deller obtained one of the cars destroyed in the bombing and exhibited it mainly in the US under the title It Is What It Is. Eventually the New Museum in New York exhibited the car before gifting it to the Imperial War Museum. Tragically the car bomb has become the deadliest weapon of our age, slaughtering countless thousands in Iraq. Kathleen Palmer, the Imperial War Museum’s head of art, said, ‘The idea that we should have things on display that had been destroyed or damaged was really important in our thinking. We are very aware that the nature of conflict is evolving very quickly and very obviously in the last ten years or more.’ She added, ‘If a car ends up in that kind of wrecked state just by being within the blast area then you can only imagine what might happen to people.’

By the time of the bombing Zarqawi was dead but the men who followed him were proving themselves if anything even more deadly. Al-Mutanabbi Street was just one of many massacres that year. The street has now been rebuilt and you can see professors and poets shuffling down the road with newly acquired tomes under their arm or rummaging through the books displayed on the pavement.

In November 2013, I visited the centrepiece of the street, the famous Café al-Shabandar. It too had been destroyed in the bombing but it had since been beautifully restored. Sepia photos of old Baghdad hung from the walls, and writers and old sheikhs drank little cups of muddy coffee, smoked their hookah pipes and played backgammon. The proprietor, Mr Muhammad Khish Ali, then seventy-four, sat by the door where I saw displayed the photos of the four sons and a grandson he lost in the bombing. I congratulated him on the restoration of his café. ‘What else could I do?’ he said gesticulating to the photos of his slaughtered family as he gazed sadly past me to somewhere in the middle distance. ‘I have four widows and twelve grandchildren to support.’1

The al-Mutanabbi Street bombing was just one of the many atrocities and massacres in the two-year civil war finally brought about by Zarqawi. After almost three years of provocation, the Jordanian finally pushed the long suffering Shia into a grisly conflict with an assault on one of their holiest places. At dawn on 22 February 2006, around a dozen men entered the al-Askariya shrine in the city of Samarra. They tied up the four security guards and then planted bombs in the golden onion-shaped dome. At a safe distance they detonated the devices.2

Sixty miles to the south in the Baghdad BBC bureau, the senior news producer Patrick Howse had just sat down for breakfast when the call came in. Howse was the bureau chief at the time and he remembered the day Abu Musab al-Zarqawi destroyed the exquisite shrine at Samarra as if it were yesterday. He said:

The phone rang and our very good local producer, Samir, a former army officer, was there and he was standing up as he took the call and I was looking at him as he did and he went white, I remember thinking all the colour had gone from his face. He sat down heavily in the chair and gripped the phone and started taking notes. He put the phone down and said that this shrine had been blown up. I had a vague understanding about what he was talking about but I didn’t really have any idea other than his reaction that this was something huge.

I assumed that lots of people had been killed but Samir said he didn’t think there were any dead. He then said this is one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam and ‘this will be war’.

With his genius for savagery and mayhem, Zarqawi had at last suceeded in igniting the fuse to civil war. Most Shia Muslims believe twelve divinely appointed imams succeeded Muhammad after the Prophet’s death in 632 ce.3Imams number ten and number eleven, the father and son Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari, are buried in the shrine at Samarra. According to the Shia, imam number twelve, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into hiding near the shrine and the Shia believe he will return before the day of judgement to return justice to the world.

As the BBC’s bureau chief, Howse had to decide whether to send a reporter with a TV camera crew to Samarra. Already thousands of Shia, many armed with machetes and clubs, had taken to the streets of Samarra and other cities to demand revenge. Initially, the BBC news bosses back in London wanted Howse to dispatch a team, but the situation was just too dangerous. He said:

We had a request from London to go to Samarra to ‘get colour’ and I told them we would either be shot by gunmen on the way or we’d be torn to shreds by the mob if we got there. The atmosphere in Baghdad itself quickly became very tense; at the end of our street at one point there was a checkpoint manned by Shia militia from the Mahdi Army. They would drag people out of their cars and cut their throats if they weren’t Shia.

Samarra did prove lethal for one team of journalists who courageously drove there. Zarqawi had chosen his most senior Samarra-based thug, Haitham al-Badri, to lead the attack on the shrine.4 Badri had been a government official under Saddam Hussein and later became Zarqawi’s ‘emir’ for Samarra. Later that day he became incensed by a live TV report from Samarra presented by a brave female correspondent called Atwar Bahjat, who worked for the Al Arabiya station.5 ‘Whether you are Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurds, there is no difference between Iraqis,’ she said during her live report on camera.6 Badri and a henchman found the TV crew and abducted them. First the cameraman and engineer were shot. Then Bahjat was raped and murdered. For good measure a few days later, Bahjat’s funeral procession was attacked - presumably by Zarqawi - as it made its way through Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad. Three people died when gunmen opened fire and a roadside bomb exploded.7 By now, this outrage scarcely merited a mention on the news.

At Samarra, Zarqawi had not just attacked a shrine; he had struck at the so-called Twelvers themselves, the bedrock of Shia Islam. The reaction was swift and violent. As 22 February 2006 drew to a close, Shia mobs had attacked twenty-seven mosques in Baghdad alone and killed three Sunni imams.8

The next two years of civil war between Shia and Sunni was a catastrophe. The country would now witness murder, chaos and ethnic cleansing on an unprecedented scale. In the three murderous years following the invasion, an estimated 40,000 civilians were killed in Iraq.9 In the two years following the Samarra bombing, nearly 55,000 are thought to have died by bomb, bullet and a wide variety of gruesome methods.10 In Iraq after Saddam, religion and politics became inextricably enmeshed. For Shia militias, often working for powerful Shia figures in the Iraqi government, the electric drill was often the execution weapon of choice as they hunted down suspected jihadis and ferociously ‘cleansed’ whole districts and neighbourhoods of Sunnis. Over the next two years, the violence would turn ten percent of Iraq’s thirty million population into internal refugees.11

Patrick Howse would risk the odd jog alongside the river Tigris in Baghdad. ‘It was clear that it was a very violent place,’ he said. ‘There was an eerie quiet but at the same time you could hear shootings and bangs; lots of people were being killed and for months afterwards, bodies were being washed up in the reeds of the Tigris. Often they were people who had been abducted, had their hands tied behind their back and killed by having an electric drill put through their forehead.’

Howse used to run along the Tigris accompanied by an armed security adviser. On one occasion he saw people drag a body out of the reeds and lay it on the ground. Howse added, ‘The man had been killed in this way; he’d had a hole drilled right through his forehead. That image stayed with me for a very long time and it featured in nightmares and so forth.’

So many corpses would end up in the Tigris that people were being advised against eating the famous Iraqi dish masgouf, smoked carp.12 An apparently respected Shia imam in Najaf issued a fatwa, a pronouncement on a point of Islamic law, warning of the danger of carp in the Tigris being infected by rotting bodies. The fatwa said, ‘As a bottom feeder this fish is especially susceptible to diseases from the water.’13 Now throughout the Middle East, the long-dormant sectarian split between Shia and Sunni Muslims has become a dominant source of strife and war. In Syria, a Sunni majority seeks to overturn a Shia minority in power; in Bahrain, a Shia majority has risen up against a Sunni minority.

In Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003, the Shia came to power simply through strength of numbers after centuries of disenfranchisement and oppression by the Sunni, from the Ottomans through to the Ba’ath and Saddam Hussein. In 2014, after the fall of Mosul to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the allegedly anti-Sunni policies of senior Iraqi Shia politicians, including de-Ba’athification, would be blamed for fuelling the rise of Islamic State.

How it all began

Iraq was where Shia and Sunni went their separate ways in 661 ce but the schism was caused almost thirty years earlier in 632 ce with the death of the Prophet Muhammad and the dispute over the succession. None of Muhammad’s sons had survived so the succession for the job as caliph, exercising the authority of the Prophet following his death, was unclear.

One faction supported Muhammad’s close friend and adviser Abu Bakr for caliph while another group of Muhammad’s followers argued that the rightful successor was Ali bin Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law.14 Ali’s followers became known in Arabic as Shi’atu Ali, or Shia for short. The word Sunni comes from the Arabic ahl as-sunnah wal jama’at, or ‘the people of the tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the Ummah [worldwide Muslim community]’.

Abu Bakr was chosen as caliph, defeating Ali and his Shi’atu Ali; they had to wait for the deaths of Abu Bakr and his two successors, caliphs two and three, before Ali became the fourth caliph in 656 ce. In 661, Ali was assassinated, struck by a poison-coated sword while at prayer in the Great Mosque of the Iraqi city of Kufa. Ali’s son Hassan succeeded him but he was swiftly deposed as caliph by Muawiyah of the Umayyad dynasty. On the death of Muawiyah, the Shia saw another opportunity to win the caliphate through another son of Ali, Hussein, although it had already gone to Muawiyah’s son, Yazid.

Yazid defeated the Shia at the Battle of Karbala in modern-day Iraq in October 680. Hussein was beheaded and his companions and family also killed, including his six-month-old son. The Shia commemorate Hussein’s death and that of his baby boy, Ali al-Ashgar, with a ten-day-long act of remembrance known as Ashura. This includes pilgrimages to Karbala and the stupendous shrines holding the remains of Ali’s sons Hussein and Hassan. Pilgrims at such commemorations have often been sitting ducks for Zarqawi and his successors.15

After Karbala, the Sunni followed their caliphs and the Shia revered their twelve imams, six of whom are buried in Iraq. Imam number one, Ali, is buried in the great shrine of Najaf, numbers two and three, Hassan and Hussein, at Karbala, and number seven, Musa al-Kadhim, at the al-Kadhimiya Mosque, again a favourite Zarqawi target.16 And of course, imams ten and eleven were interred at Samarra.

Shias and Sunnis agree about the basic tenets of Islam. They believe in God, Allah, and that his messenger was the Prophet Muhammad. Both sects also fast during the holy month of Ramadan and conduct daily prayers. There are, however, important differences, particularly on the issue of religious authority. For Sunnis, this authority derives from the Koran and the traditions of Muhammad. Sunni scholars exert much less influence over their Muslims than that exercised over the Shia by their complex priesthood structure of imams, ayatollahs and grand ayatollahs.

Zarqawi was not alone in viewing the Shia as heretics. The Wahhabi sect from Saudi Arabia take the view that many Shia beliefs contradict Islam. Classic Sunni religious texts are full of allegations against the Shia that their devotion to Caliph Ali, also the first of the twelve imams, essentially amounted to awarding him ‘divine status’ and that therefore they are guilty of the ultimate sin of polytheism, the belief in more than one god. The Shia are accused of reviling the first caliphs and companions of Muhammad, and the ‘Twelvers’’ devotion to the twelve imams sets them alongside or even above the Prophet.17 The Wahhabis have gone so far as to accuse the Shia of being a Jewish fifth column who should be confined to ‘the lowest rank of Hell’.18

As the majority in Iraq, the Shia represented by far the gravest threat to the rule of Saddam Hussein and he would show them no mercy when he felt threatened by them. He would slaughter them by the tens of thousands and murder their most important clerics. He savagely put down two attempted uprisings, the first following the Iranian Revolution that had brought the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Around two hundred were executed and membership of the main Shia political party, Dawa, was made punishable by death.19 The second uprising, in 1991, followed Saddam’s defeat in the first Gulf War and his withdrawal from Kuwait. This time Saddam’s executioners killed an estimated 100,000 Shia men, women and children.20 In 1980 Saddam had hanged the founder of Dawa, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, along with his sister Bint al-Huda. It was claimed later that the torturers had hammered a nail into Baqir’s head and raped his sister before their executions.21 Baqir al-Sadr’s first cousin and fellow grand ayatollah, Mohammad Sadeq al-Sadr, followed him. In 1999, Saddam gunmen in Najaf assassinated him and two of his sons. The two Sadr martyrs are known as ‘Sadr 1’ and ‘Sadr 2’ and their portraits can be seen everywhere in parts of Baghdad, and Shia cities such as Najaf and Basra. The firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is the surviving son of ‘Sadr 2’.

The fall of Baghdad in 2003 witnessed the return from exile of many Shia politicians, including the controversial future Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki and his allegedly anti-Sunni policies would be blamed for helping to foment support for ISIS/Islamic State more than a decade later. Other Shia returnees to Iraq following the fall of Saddam included Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, soon to meet his end at the hands of Zarqawi.22

The path to evil, and good intentions

The United States wanted Iraq to be a democracy, and democracy inevitably meant a transfer of power from the minority Sunni elite to the majority Shia, estimated at around sixty percent of Iraq’s population.23 Both Shia and Kurds had suffered terribly at the hands of Saddam and his Sunni-dominated government and army, and both peoples were determined to assert themselves in the new Iraq.

Ali Khedery, an influential young Iraqi-American adviser at the time, told me:

There was Saddam’s ruinous war against Iran and just when people started breathing again, there was the ruinous war in Kuwait; the sanctions imposed by the West after Kuwait destroyed the middle class and the 2003 war was the final nail in the coffin.

So I completely understand the Shias’ situation. They were massacred, not by the tens of thousands, but by the hundreds of thousands; they were brutalized and raped and tortured and pushed into exile and into Iran’s lap and Iran was only too happy to exploit them. I understand the Kurds’ perspective as well, that they were also massacred by the hundreds of thousands and fought for decades. What we tried to do was to create a truly representative and truly federal government in Baghdad during the constitution drafting and hoped that people would [live by] the spirit [of the constitution,] and America would become the guarantor of the Iraqi constitution as we were specifically tasked to do. Or the decision could have been ‘This isn’t going to work, let Iraq be a confederacy or even partitioned.’

The Sunnis’ new subordinate role became clear very early on when the US established Iraq’s first formal representative authority, made up of leading Iraqis who would provide advice and leadership. The newly formed Iraqi Governing Council, or IGC, was supposed to give the US the democratic credentials it needed until it could hand over sovereignty to the Iraqi people during 2004 and help pave the way to democracy. On paper, the new council’s twenty-five members seemed to reflect the religious and ethnic make-up of Iraq of mainly Shia, Sunni and Kurd, but that is not how some critics saw it.

The United States had ‘fundamentally altered the political balance of power in Iraq in favor of both the Shiites and the Kurds’, argued a report by the Middle East Research and Information Project think-tank. The Project’s analysts argued that the new council was deeply flawed because Shia politicians who were determined above all to promote Shia interests dominated the new council, in other words they were ‘sectarian’. The report said, ‘Fourteen IGC members are Shiite - five of whom represent parties that are overtly sectarian - and a further five are Kurdish politicians who favor policies with a clear ethnic bias. Only four members are Sunni Arabs, and in contrast to their Shiite and Kurdish counterparts, none are members of organizations that espouse palpably sectarian or ethnic platforms.’24

In addition there was ‘the US propensity to equate Sunnis with Ba’athists and the latter with “Saddam loyalists”’. The report had this prophetic warning: ‘All this has exacerbated fears among Sunni Arabs that they are being purposely marginalized, something that could encourage the community to organize on a sectarian basis in the future and to provide at least tacit support for violent resistance.’25 Ominously, in its first statement on 13 July 2003, the IGC prioritized ‘de-Ba’athification and uprooting of Ba’ath ideology from Iraqi society’.26

By the end of 2003, Shia politicians also dominated another newly created organization that was purging many thousands of Sunnis from their jobs. The so-called De-Ba’athification Commission would vastly expand the scope of the purge to prevent Ba’ath suspects getting good jobs in the new state bureaucracy, media, politics and civil institutions.27 The commission also established de-Ba’athification committees for each government ministry. Nouri al-Maliki, the future prime minister, was making his name as a deputy chairman of the commission and was seen as a strong de-Ba’athification supporter.28 Increasingly Sunnis saw de-Ba’athification as ‘de-Sunnification’ and increasingly they began to withdraw from politics.29

In Baghdad, I spoke to Hana Edward, the human rights activist who was courageous enough to campaign against human rights abuses during the time of Saddam. She blamed both Shia and Sunni politicians for the growing strife between the two sects, adding, ‘All parties played this role, trying to deepen the sectarian feelings among the Sunnis and among the Shia for the purpose of divide-and-rule. The British did it during colonial times [1920-1958] and it was still used by so many actors in Iraqi politics.’

Sunni alienation became clear during 2005 when Iraq held three crucial elections. In January, the Sunnis largely boycotted Iraq’s first parliamentary elections, either voluntarily because they deemed the process illegitimate or out of fear of violence.30 The boycott left them significantly under-represented in the new transitional government;31 consequently they then felt ‘largely excluded’ from the crucial process of drawing up the new constitution.32 A delay in forming the government left the constitutional committee just three months to write the constitution.

In the October 2005 referendum, two thirds of voters in the all-important Sunni regions of Anbar, west of Baghdad, and Saladin, to the north of capital, scorned the referendum by refusing to participate in it. Just before the vote a report by an important non-governmental conflict prevention group argued that ‘a rushed constitutional process has deepened rifts and hardened feelings’ and warned, ‘Today the situation appears to be heading toward de facto partition and full-scale civil war.’33

By the time of the second parliamentary elections in December 2005, just two months before the Samarra bombing, the situation on the ground was deteriorating fast. In addition to Zarqawi and the other insurgents, US troops had already confronted two serious uprisings by both Sunni and Shia that began simultaneously in spring 2004.

On 31 March 2004, in the mainly Sunni city of Fallujah, Iraqi insurgents ambushed a convoy and killed four US contractors working for the Blackwater company. A mob then set fire to the bodies and dragged them through the streets. Then they hung the charred corpses from a bridge over the river Euphrates.34

In the heart of the so-called ‘Sunni Triangle’, Fallujah was also a stronghold for Zarqawi although he was not thought to be present for the battle that followed the Blackwater killings.35 Days later, the US launched an assault on the town. By the time a ceasefire was announced on 1 May approximately eight hundred Iraqis were dead.36 After the battle, Fallujah once again fell under Zarqawi’s influence and became his base of operations for attacks on Baghdad and a place where he could hold and behead hostages.37

US-led coalition troops including British and Iraqis renewed their offensive on a largely abandoned Fallujah again in November 2004; only 400 of the 250,000 civilians remained, the rest having fled to safety. The second battle of Fallujah was a determined attempt to kill Zarqawi and his estimated five thousand fighters. During ten days of heavy fighting, coalition troops discovered twenty-six bomb factories, including two for car bombs.38 They also claimed to have killed or captured three thousand jihadis.39 Critically, they did not find Zarqawi, who was rumoured to have escaped Fallujah dressed as a woman. Fallujah would fall under the sway of the jihadis again and again over the years and would provide Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi with his foothold in Iraq for his full-scale invasion of the country in 2014.

Dr Afzal Ashraf was a senior RAF officer in Iraq at the time. He is now a terrorism expert with the Royal United Services Institute, the leading UK-based defence and security think-tank founded by the Duke of Wellington. He had long concluded that the strategy for dealing with Zarqawi and other insurgents was not working and the repeated failure to keep them out of Fallujah made that obvious. He said:

When it came to Fallujah in November 2004, it took the entire capability of the American army and on top of that, there was also the Black Watch [Royal Highland Regiment]. It was a big desert with an infinite number of routes in and out of the town so that’s why it was a surprise that we managed to clear it. Fallujah was hermetically sealed; the smart insurgents left and they left the dumb guys in there so was a bit of Darwinian clearing out from our point of view. Every single house was cleared; every single room was cleared; a lot of buildings were demolished. There was a lot of reconstruction costing millions of dollars and yet the insurgents came back in not once but two and three times, so the point was, it [the counter-insurgency strategy] didn’t work. The evidence that it was failing on a daily basis was obvious.40

The US also had to face down an uprising by a Shia militia called the Jaish al-Mahdi, better known as the Mahdi Army. The firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the only surviving son of the murdered Grand Ayatollah ‘Sadr 2’, led the revolt. Sadr’s power base was Sadr City, the vast sprawling slum predominantly occupied by poor disaffected Shia. Sadr opposed the US-led occupation and repeatedly demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops. He also demanded the establishment of a new Iraqi government free of the taint of Ba’athism.

The Mahdi Army uprising of early spring 2004 followed two decisions taken by Ambassador Bremer as Sadr started to stoke the flames of revolt: first to close down the cleric’s newspaper, al-Hawza, on 26 March on the grounds of inciting violence, and second to arrest Sadr’s senior aide Mustafa al-Yaqubi on 3 April. Soon Sadr’s fighters were in a full-pitch battle with the US troops in and around Najaf. The extraordinary Shia cemetery Wadi al-Salaam, ‘Valley of Peace’, became a principal battleground. At the end of April fighting stopped after the US backed down from its threat to disband the Mahdi Army and arrest Sadr.41 Both man and militia were to remain ominous influences on Iraq. By April 2007, Sadr’s followers would control six government ministries42 while the Mahdi Army would help rule the streets.

The Shia militia, principally the Mahdi Army and another more powerful organization called the Badr Brigade, still hold sway in Iraq and have long enjoyed the power of life and death over ordinary Iraqis. Often they are connected to powerful senior politicians. In 2014, when Iraqi troops and police melted away, it was mainly the Shia militias that prevented Baghdad falling to Islamic State. Even before Samarra, there were credible allegations that these militias were acting as death squads, and that young Sunni men were the main targets.

In November 2005, US troops discovered a bunker holding 173 malnourished and badly beaten predominantly Sunni men and teenage boys. Reliable sources also reported the discovery of torture implements including saws to cut off prisoners’ limbs and razors to peel their skin. What was even more shocking was that the bunker was part of a detention facility owned by the Iraqi interior ministry and that it was being run by ministry-trained and recruited ‘special commando units’. Interior minister, Bayan Jabor, a former commander of the Badr Brigade, strenuously denied allegations of cruelty.43 This denial was seriously challenged by John Pace, a senior human rights official for the United Nations in Iraq around the time of Samarra in February 2006, who accused the interior ministry of acting as ‘a rogue elephant within the government’.44 That was putting it mildly. Even worse human rights abuses by the ministry of interior against Sunnis, ensnared in its regular round-ups, would come to light later.

After Samarra the Shia militias intensified their campaign of ethnic cleansing and killing. Corpses were turning up all over Baghdad and other cities. One study published at the time said, ‘Bodies often show signs of torture - drill holes in soft body parts, joints and faces, burns, acid burns, heavy beating.’45 Death squads often used ‘police cars, equipment and ID cards but [wore] civilian clothes under police vests’.46 A key Shia killer was Abu Dura, a commander in the Mahdi Army. He was so brutal that he was actually known as the ‘Shiite Zarqawi’. He ran extortion, kidnapping and assassination rings. He was known to use a power drill to torture and kill his victims.47 In the aftermath of Samarra, Shia death squads were killing eight times as many people as Zarqawi and the other Sunni insurgents.48