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ISIL a symptom of US bombs

Fault Lines producer examines the causes of and the US involvement in the fracturing of Iraq

“Do you have any Arabs?”

The questioners were Kurdish militiamen, peshmerga, who had stopped our car at a checkpoint in northern Iraq while we were en route to what recently was a village where Arabs and Kurds coexisted. The question posed neatly sums up the state of the country today.

Iraq is fractured—aided in no small part by decades of American policy.

The Kurdish flag is emblazoned on a shuttered storefront in the Iraqi town of Makhmur, which Arabs recently fled.
Ben Foley for Al Jazeera America

All the Arab families fled the village before peshmerga forces took it back from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, in August. Many of the Kurdish residents who had returned to the village said their Arab neighbors had aided ISIL in their advance on the town.

During the filming of Fault Lines' new episode “Iraq Divided: The Fight Against ISIL” (airing Saturday, October 18, at 7 pm Eastern time/4 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America), we could not find a single person who expressed a wish for the former Arab residents of the village to return. In fact, it was made clear to us that the peshmerga had no intention to allow it. The local head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, the political faction that now essentially controls the town, said the same. What trust had existed was now gone.

Arab families who had fled Gwer, another city on the front line, were stuck at a checkpoint outside the town, where they waited for several days to return to their homes. Eventually, they gave up, returning to camps or wherever else they had found refuge. They were in an unfortunate sort of limbo, unable to return to their homes and unable to enter Kurdistan proper without a Kurdish sponsor.

The emergence of the Islamic State has left many Arab Iraqis effectively stateless.

The root of Kurdish anger

The crimes of the Islamic State do not excuse the crimes of the U.S. or its allies, like the Kurds. Simply put: People are being driven out of their homes based on their ethnicity and are being forbidden from returning.

The Kurds justify their animosity toward Arabs by citing decades of abuse by Iraqi central governments, culminating with Saddam Hussein’s systematic displacement and chemical attacks against them in the 1980s. In some form or another, Kurdish independence movements have been at war with the Iraqi central government since it was created.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters stationed near the front of a battle against ISIL for the Iraqi town of Jalula.
Josh Rushing for Al Jazeera America

The Kurds have come a long way in their quest both for international recognition and to form alliances with other nations. In 1919, the occupying British pioneered the use of aerial assaults by bombing Kurdish separatists. More than 70 years later, in 1991, the U.S. had stepped very much into Britain’s imperial role. But instead of supporting Baghdad against the Kurds, they created a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein.

The result, whether intentional or not, was the birth of an autonomous zone that allowed the Kurds to create an independent state within a state.

In 2003, when the U.S. military finally drove Saddam Hussein from Baghdad, and the Iraqi army collapsed, the Kurds took over more land and resources—and briefly took over Kirkuk, the center of northern Iraq’s oil industry. In the wake of ISIL’s advance, they have once more taken the wealthy city. Unlike as in 2003, it is improbable it will be returned to Iraqi central government control.

ISIL is a symptom

Even more problematic than the shifting demographics taking place between Kurds and Arabs is ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). A quick investigation into how the group came to be shows that ISIL is not a problem in Iraq but a symptom.

ISIL grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, itself formed in response to the U.S. invasion in 2003. Today the Islamic State is the target of bombing ordered by President Barack Obama, who campaigned in part on ending the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Bombing ISIL is like drinking vodka to cure a hangover. They exist in large part because of U.S. bombs. The disproportionate number of Sunnis who cycled through U.S. prisons during the more than decade-long occupation has further ensured that there is a ready pool of support for ISIL. Iraq is locked in overlapping cycles of violence that the U.S. has done nothing to relieve, only exacerbate.

In April 2013, I spent three days with Islamic State fighters in Syria. They drove me from Tel Abayad, on the Turkey-Syria border, to Rabia, on the Syria-Iraq border, where they had surrounded Iraqi soldiers stationed there from both sides. (The group was already making it clear it could operate effectively on both sides of the border.) They made the 200-mile trip unimpeded. The Islamic State’s black flag on the front of the car apparently was intimidating enough that sometimes other drivers pulled aside to let us pass more quickly. Along the route, we saw grain silos and water tankers that bore Islamic State flags, signifying the group’s control of the commodities necessary for basic survival.

Years of marginalization by the government battered Eastern Syria, and mismanagement of irrigation and other state-provided assistance for agriculture exacerbated the effects of a decade-long drought on its people. In Anbar and Ninewa, the Iraqi provinces directly east of the Syrian border, people experienced similar depredation, compounded by the U.S. occupation and the collapse of the Iraqi state. ISIL readily filled the vacuum.

The last time I was in Mosul, the largest city now under ISIL control, was in 2011. I had gone to find the home of a Kurdish family that had fled after their house was blown up by Arab militants.

Standing in front of the house, one of the family’s former neighbors told me that it was safe for the family to return at any time. He claimed that one Kurdish family remained in the neighborhood.

I relayed this message to the Kurdish family in the refugee camp outside the northern Iraqi city. They didn’t believe it.

“We can’t live with Arabs,” they said.

In "Iraq Divided: The Fight Against ISIL," Fault Lines travels to Irbil to examine the consequences of the latest U.S. intervention in Iraq. The film airs on Al Jazeera America Saturday, October 18, at 7 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern and Sunday, October 19, at 2 a.m. Eastern.   

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Islamic State
ISIL, Kurds

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Islamic State
ISIL, Kurds

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