A U.S.-educated chemical engineer says his friends and relatives have been kidnapped, killed in private locations and their bodies dumped in Baghdad streets.
“There’s a lot of military forces in the street with a lot of Shia militia. These forces are trying to make us afraid of them, or trying to kidnap us,” said Wathik, whose last name is being withheld to avoid putting his life at risk. “I can’t go out of my neighborhood because outside of my neighborhood there are Shia militias. They kill us. So I don’t go out. A lot of us don’t go out.”
Wathik spoke to this newspaper by Skype interview from his home in Baghdad last week as the militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), closed in on the country’s capital. The interview provides a sense of the sectarian violence Iraqi citizens are dealing with as their country is under siege.
Wathik said he is tired of living scared as a Sunni Muslim in Iraq’s mostly Shia capital. His story illustrates a different perspective from the Sunni-affiliated ISIS fighters who are killing and driving back the Shia-led Iraqi army in an attempt to overthrow the Iraqi government.
The Sunni and Shia — the two main sects of Islam — have lived in peace during various points through history, but Iraq’s minority Sunnis feel that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, has not meaningfully included Sunnis in the government.
On Thursday, President Obama announced plans to send 300 U.S. military “advisers” who will gather intelligence as well as train and support Iraqi army leaders in joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq. Obama also will weigh further military, security and political options in Iraq.
During his speech from the White House, Obama stressed that American troops will not engage in combat, he pledged to consult Congress if military action becomes an option and called on Maliki to make the government more inclusive for Sunnis and Kurds.
“We find them and take them to the hospital and see what (Shia militias) did to them,” Wathik said of torture tactics used on his friends. “We’re living in fear from the militia killing us. We’re living in fear from the military.”
‘They want to live peacefully’
On June 10, about 800 ISIS fighters forced some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers to cut and run in the face of an assault near the northern city of Mosul, according to published reports. The group stripped an army base of weapons and released prisoners from jails. That came after an ISIS militant posted social media videos and photos of himself executing Shia men wearing Iraqi army uniforms.
“Maliki has governed in a more and more dictatorial way ever since his re-election in 2010,” said Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan educational institute. “He’s alienated the Sunnis and the Kurds and so when ISIS came in, the Sunnis jumped on the bandwagon with them… . Basically what you’re going to have here is another full-blown civil war.”
Retired Lt. Col. Neal O’Brien, who spent 23 years on active duty in the Ohio Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq in 2004-05, said that even though some factions of Islam aren’t much different, Iraqis generally don’t rally around their nation’s flag.
“We identify ourselves as a country. We are Americans and that’s basically how we consider ourselves,” O’Brien said. “In Iraq, people identify themselves first as a Sunni or Shia or a Christian or an Assyrian or a Kurd. They then identify themselves as what tribe they belong to.”
Latif, a freelance journalist from Baghdad who now lives in northern Iraq, said that before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Sunnis and Shias lived and work together. “They want to live peacefully, but the problem is political because there is no harmony between those political leaders and government in Baghdad.”
Latif also said new Middle East factions have complicated an already complex issue. “It’s not just ISIS,” he said via telephone from Iraq. “There are tribal revolutionaries and military counsels in each province.”
After ruling the country for much of the last few hundred years, Sunnis lost power when the late Saddam Hussein was removed. Iraq’s leaders since have been Shia, but experts say Maliki pushed the U.S. out in 2011 and made mistakes.
“He put all of his political cronies in charge of the military and the leaders left and the troops followed them, so you had 800 guys beat 30,000,” said Korb, who previously taught at the University of Dayton. “We’ve spent $25 billion getting these guys ready to fight and they didn’t.
“I don’t care how well-trained, they’re not going to fight and die for their country unless they believe in it and obviously, these leaders, the ISIS gave them more money than Maliki did so off they went.”
Nearly 5,000 U.S. casualties
Most Americans don’t see a reason to deploy even more resources to Iraq, O’Brien said. “I really think that most Americans have changed the channel, so to speak, on Iraq, a connection to Iraq and a reason to go back there,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a military solution. I think it’s a diplomatic solution and it’s a Middle Eastern solution.”
A study by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University released last year estimated the U.S. war in Iraq cost $1.7 trillion. Additionally, there is $490 billion in benefits owed to veterans, and that number could grow to more than $6 trillion during the next four decades, according to the report.
The Costs of War Project also estimated that 4,489 U.S. service members killed died in the war. That’s on top of 318 other allied troops, 3,455 U.S. contractors and 12,096 Iraqi military and police killed. The study says the war has resulted in the deaths of at least 134,000 Iraqi civilians and might have contributed to the deaths of four times that many. When including security forces, insurgents, journalists and humanitarian workers, the death toll is estimated between 176,000 and 189,000.
“Most people are going to have an emotional response to that, especially when it comes to the lives of soldiers,” O’Brien said. “I don’t feel that my time in Iraq was wasted. I think it was well worth the effort, but there are things that go beyond a soldier’s control.”
Korb said short-term alliances often turn into disputes, such as when insurgent groups overstep their bounds and try to enforce fundamentalist Sharia law.
“I tell people every time I’ve been to Iraq, I’ve never met an Iraqi that doesn’t smoke,” he said. “Well, these guys don’t let you smoke and a whole bunch of other things. So, at some point, they’re going to say, ‘Wait a second. We don’t want to put up with this.’”
‘We want U.S.A. to help us’
Wathik, the U.S.-educated Iraqi, said he doesn’t think the United States government will help in the way he wants. “I don’t think America can make a military solution in Iraq,” he said. “They way that would help is to move out the government and have one with no hate to Sunnis and no effect from Iran.”
Maha, who worked as an interpreter with the Ohio Army National Guard in 2004, disagrees.
“We want U.S.A. to help us” said Maha, speaking last week from insurgent-occupied Tikrit. “Please. We are in a horrible situation. The American forces are the only hope we have to save our lives and our kids’ lives.”
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