“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 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.
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.