reclaiming islam

Reclaiming Islam

Posted by on January 28, 2015 in Culture, Discussions |Leave a comment

For Discussion: Please contribute your comments to London Toast at the bottom of this page.The subject is particularly sensitive, so we welcome any fact checks on the history, as well as your views. (N.B. The following piece is emotively as well as intellectually challenging, using provocative words such as “cleanse”.)

late 19th-early 20th century --- A painting of the Battle of Karbala, which took place on October 10, 680 A.D., in present day Iraq. The battle consisted of the large army of Umayyad Caliph Yazid fighting against 72 soldiers fighting with Imam Husayn, a grandson of the prophet Muhammed. Iman Husayn was killed during this battle. | Located in: Brooklyn Museum. --- Image by © Brooklyn Museum/Corbis

A painting of the Battle of Karbala,  — Image by © Brooklyn Museum/Corbis

In the battle of Karbala, 48 years after the death of Muhammed, depicted in Al-Musavi’s painting, Husayn the son of Ali and grandson of Muhammed was killed along with his family and his followers by the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate.It was the most crucial moment in the split between Shia and Sunni Islam. ( Image source: Brooklyn Museum ).

“Many people are understandably asking: What is the true nature of Islam? Is it that although there are many peaceful Muslims, Islam itself is not peaceful?

Classical Islamic law, developed over the history of Islam, is definitely not peaceful or benign, and therefore not suitable for this age; neither are its violent and grotesque progeny, such as Islamism and jihadism.

If Islam is a religion that stands for justice and peaceful coexistence, then this policy of jihad cannot be justified as sanctioned by a just and merciful creator.

Religious traditions have changed and evolved over time, therefore it is the duty of us Muslims, using reason and common sense, to reinterpret the scriptures to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values. It is our duty to cleanse the traditional, literalist, classical Islam and purify it to make it an Islam that is worthy to be called a beautiful religion.

Looking at a year of beheadings by ISIS, child grooming abuses in the UK, the hanging judges of Iran, slaughtering and enslaving of Christians in Egypt and Africa, and various murders justified in the name of Islam throughout the world, many people are understandably asking: What is the true nature of Islam? Is it that although there are many peaceful Muslims, Islam itself is not peaceful?

If, for us Muslims, Islam is a religion of peace, justice, and mercy, how come the militants, who claim to be staunch Muslims — who are ready to die for Islam and who claim to have established a state in the name of Islam in Iraq and Syria by sacrificing blood and lives — are beheading journalists and aid workers, and enslaving religious minorities, all by citing Islamic Sharia Law?

The Taliban (literally “students”) in Afghanistan have persecuted religious minorities and inflicted human right abuses against women — and men who disagreed with them or who have fallen afoul of their laws. Boko Haram has also carried out human rights abuses in the name of Islam and Islamic law. In Malaysia, where “moderate” Islam is practiced, Christians cannot call God “Allah.” In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, and supposedly an ally of the U.S., the policies and practices carried out by the state, and the Wahhabi religious scholars in the name of Islam, are woefully anti-humanitarian. Many Muslims from around the world perform the religiously required pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina; a number of them are on the dole of the petrodollars provided by the Saudis, but do not show much concern for the human rights abuses carried out in the name of Islam by the Saudi establishment.

Many devout Muslims, like monks in monasteries, are busily trapped in performing rites and rituals, and ceding ever more ground to extremists, without adequately reflecting on the history of Islam, the nature of God and the nature of revelation from God.

We Muslims commonly believe that God sent prophets and messengers to every corner of the world since the beginning of creation to guide humanity, but that most, if not all, of the messages got corrupted and adulterated, one way or another, except the message of Islam. But it seems natural that most people, Muslims or not, also see their own religion as the only true religion. But there are religious traditions, both in Islam, such as many Sufi sects, and in other religions, that affirm the transcendental unity at the core of almost all religious traditions, and that are inclusive and universalistic in nature.

Also, Muslims learn from the Qur’an that hubris, or arrogance, is the greatest sin committed by the Satan, and that it was arrogance that led him to disobey God. God asked him to bow to Adam, the first human, but Satan refused out of arrogance.

The current question seems to be: Did Muslims go astray very early on, when they conquered many lands and developed a massive doctrine and theology of intolerance (it took about 300 years to solidify Sharia after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad), due to pride and quest for power — the very arrogance that is prohibited? Although many conversions to Islam did not occur by the sword, the first four caliphs (the so-called “Rightly Guided”) and their successors did in fact send out armies to conquer the world. If Islam is a religion that stands for justice and peaceful coexistence, then this policy of jihad — and the idea that peace and justice can be achieved only under Islamic sovereignty — with Muslim rulers subjugating non-Muslims, cannot be justified as sanctioned by a just and merciful Creator.

The Islamic tradition is not monolithic; there are countless variants. Many of the Islamic Sufi traditions, for instance, that are often relentlessly condemned by the extremists, who likely see them as a threat to their own power — are notable for their pluralistic and humanistic nature, even though, historically, some orders may have been more martial than spiritual.

There have been many individual Muslims throughout history who are truly freedom-loving and who respect the rights of all human beings. Also, historically, a number of Muslim kings, sultans and emperors in Andalusia, Spain — and in the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, as well as in Mughal India — who treated their non-Muslim subjects kindly, albeit not with full equality. The Ottoman Sultans established a system of “millet” whereby people of other religious communities were allowed to live in the Empire in peace, although as second-class “protected” citizens, had to pay a head tax called jizya, but were otherwise freely allowed to follow their own personal laws and religions (Canon law for Christians and halakha for the Jews), without attempting to convert them by compulsion.

Maimonides, the early medieval Jewish scholar, for example, makes it clear that even in the “golden age” of Islamic rule in Spain, it could be a bit nightmarish for the non-Muslims; but if the rulers were reasonably kind and tolerant, and if the intolerant religious leaders were not in control, non-Muslims could live restrained but reasonably comfortable lives, as dhimmis (protected people), under Islamic suzerainty.

When Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, died in the year 632 CE, the Qur’an had not been compiled as a book. The messages said to have been revealed from God, or Allah, to Muhammad during a period of 23 years, during his prophetic career, were either orally passed down or written on animal bones, leather and scraps of parchment, without systematic collection or any adequate background or context.

The Prophet Muhammad himself did not provide any authoritative narration or explanation for the Qur’anic verses while he was alive. He also did not provide a method for selecting his successor, nor did he authorize his companions to record the Hadith (his actions and sayings) while he was alive. Later, therefore, subsequent generations would have to sift through mountains of dubious material, in an age of primitive record keeping — and during a period of discord, partisanship and violence, even among those who were close to the Prophet.
In the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE (48 years after Muhammad’s death), depicted in Abbas Al-Musavi’s painting, Husayn, the son of ‘Ali and grandson of Muhammad, was killed along with his family and all his followers by the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate. It was the most crucial moment in the split between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. (Image source: Brooklyn Museum)
The Qur’an and the six canonical Hadith collections primarily formed the twin pillars of the sources from which the scholars of Islam developed the principles of Sharia and the commandments of the Islamic laws. These try to give prescriptions and proscriptions for all human conducts imaginable.

But is it not possible that God wanted humans to use their brains and rational faculties, and that He did not provide step-by-step instructions for all the questions in life simply to be obeyed by humans without reflection or questioning? Although in Islam, there exists an important concept called ijtihad — independent reasoning in legal matters — the literalist, textual fundamentalist scholars declared this principle to be inoperable whenever there are clear-cut, decisive textual statements in the sacred texts on the issue in question. There is also a debate as to whether the gates of ijtihad were closed after the 10th century CE. While most traditional Islamic scholars and jurists still consider ijtihad to be the exclusive domain and prerogative of the preeminent religious scholars (mujtahid), and not for the general public, other scholars do not.

In the early days of Islam, right after the passing away of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslims splintered into many sects and factions. There were endless debates on the issues of religious doctrine, theology, and religious law, due to divergent interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadiths. During that period, a group of theologians called the Mutazila, who based their theology on reason and rational thinking in conjunction with the sacred texts, waged an intellectual battle with the traditionalists, who gave absolute primacy to strict literal interpretations of the revealed texts: the Quran and the Hadith. Unfortunately for the future of the Islamic tradition, the literal traditionalists won the struggle, and went on to establish among the Sunni Muslims the four legal schools of Sharia, which became the dominant form of Islam from then onwards.

This mainstream, legalistic, text-bound, literalist Islam — now the dominant strain and controlled by the traditional Muslim scholars — is a mixture of both humanistic ethical values, combined with supremacist ethos, as it developed throughout the centuries. Due to its literalist tradition, it does not have the flexibility or the ability to overcome interpretations of the scriptures that are inimical to pluralistic and humanistic values.

Many equate this literalist, legalistic, text-bound Islam to be the “true” Islam. But just because it is the dominant form of Islam does not mean that it is the “true” Islam. A careful study of the history of Islam indicates that this view is utterly unwarranted. Religious traditions have changed and evolved over time, based on the understandings, interpretations, and practices of their adherents. Therefore, it is the duty of us Muslims, using reason and common sense, to reinterpret the scriptures to bring about an Islam that affirms and promotes universally accepted human rights and values.

Classical Islamic law is a synthesis and deduction of rulings from the Quran and Hadith by the medieval scholars from when Muslims were powerful. Beheadings and enslavement at that time were widespread among many societies, not unique to the practice of Islam. Muslims believe that in the Quran we have a document from God that provides ethical guidance and moral lessons from the Prophet and his followers in the language many at the time understood. They allude to the practices and conduct suitable for the time and place in which the Prophet lived and was trying to influence people.

There were many actions of the Prophet recorded in the “authentic” Hadith, such as holding slaves, carrying out beheadings and so on, which are not easy to accept according to the present day norms, to say the least. But for the textual literalists, there is no question that whatever the Prophet did, as recorded in the approved texts, must be accepted and emulated without any question or hesitation. And in order to strengthen their text-based legal methodology, the textual literalists elevated the status of the so called “authentic” Hadith to the status of the divine scripture, almost equivalent to the status of the Qur’an, believed by almost all Muslims to be the literal word of Allah relayed to the Prophet.

For the rest of us, however, first, we need to realize that the “approved” texts were recorded by early methods and at least after a century or two after the passing of the Prophet in an age of violent sectarian conflicts. Therefore, it might be wise to take with a big grain of salt, the accuracy of these so called “approved” texts. Second, if the actions of the Prophet were so important as exact examples, then, why didn’t he or his God make sure that authoritative, unambiguous, contemporary recordings of the actions were written down for posterity to follow? Either the Prophet or his God, or both, did not have foresight, or more than likely, these actions were not meant to be exactly copied and emulated, especially in different times, different places, and under vastly different circumstances.

While it is true that there are eternal principles in the Qur’an and the Hadith, such as peace, justice, and mercy, which are universal values, and therefore, incumbent on everyone to believe and practice at all times and at all places, it is also true that it is a betrayal of the true spirit of Islam to assume that God wanted Muslims to follow the Prophet blindly, slavishly, without thinking and reflecting. Is it possible, therefore, that the close-minded, literalist and text-bound tradition is a betrayal of the true spirit of Islam?

The pitfalls of the literalist methodology can be illustrated by looking at any textual document. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for example, affirms freedom of speech. But we know that, to “shout fire in a crowded theater” (when there is no fire), for example, endangering public safety, does not fall under the protection of the First Amendment. Any text by its very nature is finite and limited, and therefore cannot be comprehensive. Therefore, to be a strict literalist is to live in constant conflict with common sense and with practical reason. According to the literalist classical scholars of Islam, “justice” is achieved only by being obedient to God and reason by itself is not to be trusted to decide what is just and unjust.

For these literalist, text-bound scholars, there are no objective standards of right or wrong by using reason alone. In the mind of the literalists, the killing of innocents, for example, is wrong not because we learn from experience or reason, but because that is what God says in the Qur’an and the Hadith. According to them, God could just as well have said, for example, in the scripture that the killing of innocents is right, and therefore that makes it right.

The god of these scholars is not therefore a merciful and rational God but a god of power whose motto is: “Might is right!” In order to preserve the absolute omnipotence of God, these scholars sacrifice rationality as an essential attribute of God.

As Prof. Robert Reilly writes in the article, “The Formidable Philosophical Obstacles to Islamic Constitutionalism”:

“There is a realm within which man is legitimately semi-autonomous and sovereign. Through his reason, he is called upon [to] figure out how to rule it and himself … God [in the Judeo-Christian tradition] speaks to man with equal force through his reason, as He does through revelation. Reason, therefore, is morally legitimate as a source of law. What is reasonable is morally good.”

If we Muslims want to stand up and challenge the literalism of the text-bound scholars and the militants who are beheading, enslaving and persecuting people around the world alike, we need to develop an interpretative methodology that balances revelation with reason as in other rational, religious traditions.

The militants are idealistic and impatient, and part of an ideology that has essentially become frozen in time, while the other Muslims are more careful, patient and circumspect, and dwell in a tolerant society without resorting to violence.

That is why many of these literalists believe that peace, justice and mercy (all interpreted according to the classical Sharia) can be achieved only under the sovereignty or hegemony of Islamic rule. And that is also why the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference, since renamed the Organization of Islamic Cooperation), in 1990 came up with its own version of a human rights declaration, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam — based on Sharia law — to supersede the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, approved by the UN in 1948.

So the vital question is: Can’t we Muslims also learn from all of human history and all of nature — the arts and the sciences — which are also created and originated from God, as in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as stated in the U.S. Declaration of Independence?

There are signs and hints in the natural world that provide guidance from the Creator on a continuing basis, even after all the textual revelations. Although God has stopped sending His messages (revelations) through human messengers, He is still providing messages, in the form of natural phenomena in the world He created, so that human beings can experiment and learn, and benefit — using reason and reflection.

Slavery and beheadings may have been suitable at some time in human history. But just because it is in the scriptural texts, it does not mean that we need to follow them to the letter so literally, for eternity — unless we happen to agree with the literalists, and reject using reason and thinking to learn from the natural sciences and the experiences of human history.

A religion that prescribes killing or criminalizing apostates; condones institutionalized slavery, stoning, beheading, flogging, and amputations; which restricts and criminalizes freedom of speech and freedom of religion; commands the stoning of adulterers; develops a theory of constant state of war with non-believers; discriminates and demeans women and people of other religions is not only “The Religion of the Bigots” but it is also the Religion of the Bullies.

Classical Islamic law, developed over the history of Islam, is definitely not peaceful or benign, and therefore not suitable for this age; neither are its violent and grotesque progeny such as Islamism and jihadism.

If we Muslims believe that “true” Islam, which is genuinely aligned with the will of the Creator, must be fundamentally peaceful, comprehensively merciful and objectively just, then it is our duty to cleanse the traditional, literalist, classical Islam and purify it to make an Islam that is worthy to be called a beautiful religion.”

Article by Ahmed Vanya , based in San Jose, California, fellow at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD).

Penstorm, in response to the above article,  asks:  ” The time has come for all faiths to disavow the perversions which have crept in over hundreds of years. A simple, scholarly, contextualising of the books and scripts would be an important advance. Not one source is free from scrutiny. The Old Testament of the Christian bible advocated “An eye for an eye: a tooth for a tooth”. The New Testament contradicts the old one with the humble teaching: “When your enemy smites you, turn the other cheek”. Societies have continued to evolve since the books were written, and growing enlightenment continues to be needed in their interpretation. Many religions need to acknowledge their brutal pasts and presents.  For instance, will learned teachers now urgently put forward a fresh critique of Judaism, which, evidenced by the brutalities of the modern state of Israel, seems to have lost its way on its zealots’ road to Zionism? Their recent holocaust experience leaves them no excuse for today’s cruelty, especially against innocent children. If modern societies cannot learn from the horrifying lessons of history, what hope for civilised peace? Honestly?”

Karbala, the Chain of Events

Highlights of Karbala, History of Mu’awiyah and Yazid, events of ‘Ashura, and lessons from Karbala.

Highlights of Karbala

The events of Karbala reflect the collision of the good versus the evil, the virtuous versus the wicked, and the collision ofImam Husayn (the head of virtue) versus Yazid (the head of impiety). Al-Husayn was a revolutionary person, a righteous man, the religious authority, the Imam of Muslim Ummah.

As the representative of his grandfather Prophet Muhammad (S), Imam Husayn’s main concern was to safeguard and protect Islam and guide fellow Muslims. On the other hand, the staying power of the rulers (Mu’awiya and his son Yazid) depended solely on the might of the sword. They used brute force to rule over the Muslim empire even by all possible illicit means.

Imam Husayn as head of Ahlul Bayt (a.s.) never recognized Mu’awiya nor his followers. Before him Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) had fought battles against Mu’awiya because Mu’awiya continuously violated the Islamic principles. Imam Al-Hasan (a.s.) had to swallow the bitter pill of making a peace agreement with Mu’awiya, in order to safeguard the security of the Ummah which was at stake.

When Yazid son of Mu’awiya declared himself as a ruler over the Ummah, he demanded Imam Al-Husayn’s (a.s.) allegiance of loyalty. Imam Husayn on his part flatly rejected Yazid’s rule and behavior, for there was no way Yazid could represent Islam, it would be blasphemy. But Yazid, the tyrant ruler over the Ummah, was adamant in his demand, and tension between the two parties increased day by day.

Imam Husayn was quick to realize that giving allegiance of loyalty to Yazid would serve no purpose but to jeopardize the survival of Islam. To safeguard and protect Islam, therefore, the Imam had no choice but to confront and collide with Yazid’s rulership irrespective of consequences. Since Yazid had ordered his commanders to seize the Imam’s allegiance of loyalty at any cost, even by brutal force, the commanders had to assemble a relatively large army, surrounding Imam Husayn’s camp in a desert called Karbala.

Then they cut off the basic necessities to the camp, including access to water. The camp consisted of Imam Husayn, his family, friends, and companions, all of whom stood fast and firmly with him. These braves would rather face death for the noble cause of Islam, than submit to the outrageous tyranny and the un-Islamic ways of Yazid.

Thus, Karbala proved to be a clash involving Islamic truths versus falsehood, right versus wrong, belief versus disbelief, and the oppressed versus the oppressor, faith against brute force. Karbala was about standing in the face of oppression, regardless no matter the cost. Thus, in Karbala, Al-Husayn the 57 year old grandson of Prophet Muhammad (S), sacrificed his totality and all he had, for one goal.

This goal was to let the truth triumph over falsehood eventually, and he did that brilliantly.

His goal was to foil the plan that Mu’awiya had expertly developed for his son, Yazid, which was to establish a permanent Bani Umayya rulership over the Muslim Ummah (even by sacrificing the Islamic principles), but doing it in the name of Islam. Brilliantly, Imam Husayn succeeded in foiling this plan and he exposed the disreputable nature of Bani Umayya though this was at the expense of his life.

Who Was Mu’awiya?

Mu’awiya was son of Abu Sufyan, a leader of Bani Umayya clan which was one of the clans of Quraish tribes. Mu’awiya grew up in a family known to be cunning, worldly, materialistic, and power hungry. Mu’awiya became Muslim only when Prophet Muhammad (S) triumphed over Mecca. Those who became Muslim in this manner were called Tulaqaa’, (a term scornfully used for the disbelievers who became Muslims to save their lives).

Mu’awiya, his father Abu Sufyan, his mother Hind, and his brother Yazid son of Abu Sufyan were all Tulaqaa’; Mu’awiya never forgot this stigma for the rest of his life; he could never shake it from his mind, thus a feeling of malicious vengeance always existed in his heart. Mu’awiya’s character and aspirations were entirely opposite to that of his sister, Umm Habiba, who was one of the wives of the Holy Prophet (S). Unlike Mu’awiya, Umm Habiba was a sincere believer and a pious person.

Omar, the second Khalifa, appointed Mu’awiya’s brother, Yazid son of Abu Sufyan, as the Governor of Syria when the Muslims captured that territory from the Byzantines. Within a few years, Yazid son of Abu Sufyan died of a disease, and Omar appointed Mu’awiya in his brother’s place as the Governor. Upon coming to power, Mu’awiya took advantage of the rich public treasury of Syria using it personally to buy favors and influence people.

Thus he built a large base of support among some tribes, almost to the fanatic level. He used this to his advantage in later years to form a network of informants (spies) against Ahlul Bayt (a.s.) and their devotees.

Jamal Confrontation

When Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) became Khalifa, he decided to remove Mu’awiya immediately, notwithstanding Mu’awiya’s strong base of support. At that time, Mu’awiya had been the governor of Syria, Palestine, and Jordan for 17 years. Mu’awiya became defiant, he refused to obey ‘Ali’s orders. Brazen and unabashed, he even declined to recognize ‘Ali or give allegiance of loyalty to him.

Also in defiance, Mu’awiya established a parallel government in Greater Syria, and started a campaign of treacherous accusations and malicious rumors against Imam ‘Ali (a.s.). He falsely blamed Imam ‘Ali for the killing of Uthman, the third Khalifa, and urged people to take up arms against the Imam. He spread these notorious accusations constantly to incite an uprising against ‘Ali (a.s.).

At the same time A’isha, the Prophet’s widow, became highly vocal against Imam ‘Ali (a.s.). She called for taking revenge for the blood of Uthman. As a result, a party of 3,000 insurgents supported by Sahaaba (Companions) such as Talha and Zubair, along with A’isha headed toward Basrah. The insurgents upon reaching Basrah clashed with the local authorities and finally occupied a portion of Basrah. Soon after the occupation these insurgents spread a reign of terror among the people, killing no less than 600 local Muslims, pilfering the treasury and stealing the arms supplies of the armory.

As a Khalifa in charge, Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) could not ignore the situation, he had to act and restore peace and order. He ordered his forces to proceed to Basrah. As the Imam’s forces reached near Basrah, Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) tried to persuade the insurgents led by A’isha, Zubair and Talha to change their minds and avoid confrontation, but he did not succeed. A battle broke out though Zubair elected not to fight; Talha was wounded then bled to death.

Thousands of people lost their lives. A’isha fell down from the camel after it was disabled; but luckily she was not hurt. Imam ‘Ali asked Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr, (A’isha’s brother), to take A’isha to Basrah for a few days, and from there to escort her to Medina with full honor and dignity. Upon leaving Basrah Al-Hasan (a.s.) and Al-Husayn (a.s.) accompanied the Prophet’s widow for some distance before bidding her farewell.

Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) stayed in Basrah for a few weeks to restore law and order. He compensated for the dead, and decided to forgive and absolve all who fought against him, exactly as the Prophet (S) had done when he triumphed over Mecca 40 years earlier.

Battle of Siffin

Upon returning to Kufa, Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) immediately prepared for the anticipated clash with Mu’awiya. The defying Mu’awiya continued to violate the Islamic principles by personally using the public treasury for espionage and buying peoples’ loyalty. The people of Syria fully believed him and the in false picture he presented. Ultimately this resulted in a confrontation called Battle of Siffin when the troops of the two sides met at Siffin.

The battle saw ferocious fighting for nine days when Mu’awiya’s forces were near collapse. His troops were fleeing and in disarray, and their retreat was in massive disorder, running helter skelter. Mu’awiya was alarmed, tense and frightened, preparing to run away, when he learned of a clever trick. The trick was indecent and unbecoming, it was to make the Holy Quran as an instrument and exploit it, to use it as a tool to his advantage.

Mu’awiya seized on this immediately and commanded his fighters to raise 500 Holy Qurans on tips of spears, in order to stun the troops of Imam ‘Ali. As jolting as it was, this maneuver did break the onslaught and the momentum of ‘Ali’s fighters, for they were very pious men. But Imam ‘Ali was quick to recognize this deceit, he knew how deceptive Mu’awiya was, and now that being near collapse, Mu’awiya wanted to save his neck at the expense of the Quran itself.

With that in mind, ‘Ali (a.s.) urged his generals not to halt, but to keep fighting since victory was almost at hand. Alas, ‘Ali’s generals and fighters were in shock, for the sight of the Holy Quran high on spear heads was startling to say the least. They could not take it. Not willing to fight, they wanted to accept Mu’awiya’s offer to halt the fighting and negotiate instead. The termination of the battle in this manner and the consequences thereof proved to be disastrous to say the least, especially for Ahlul Bayt and Islam.

It is said that there was a conspiracy between Amr Ibnil Aas of Mu’awiya’s side, and Ash’ath Ibn Qais, a General in Imam ‘Ali’s camp, who was working as a spy against ‘Ali, secretly working as an agent for Mu’awiya. In this battle 45,000 men lost their lives in Mu’awiya’s camp, and about 25,000 in ‘Ali’s (a.s.) camp.

Many men of high caliber from both sides died, especially Ammar Ibn Yasir, the great Companion of the Prophet (S), who was 90 years old and fought on Imam ‘Ali’s side against Mu’awiya.

After Siffin

Imam ‘Ali’s (a.s.) generals, who stopped the battle to negotiate with Mu’awiya, did not pick the right person for the negotiation. They unyieldingly refused to accept Imam ‘Ali’s choice, instead they picked Kufa’s Governor,Abu-Musa Ash’ari, an incompetent Governor who had been previously dismissed from office by Imam ‘Ali. Mu’awiya appointed Amr Ibnil Aas, a shrewd and cunning man, to be his representative in the negotiation. Negotiation between the two sides did not take place for about one year.

When the two negotiators came face to face, it was clear that Ash’ari’s capability was no match for his opponent Ibnil Aas. In the negotiations, Ash’ari proposed that, both Mu’awiya and Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) were to abdicate and to let the people hold election for the Khilaafah. Amr Ibnil Aas, a deceptive man at best, quickly agreed to Ash’ari’s proposal and asked Ash’ari to first announce the agreement.

Ash’ari stood up and announced, “O people, we have agreed not to consider ‘Ali or Mu’awiya for Khilaafah. You may choose or elect whomever you think is fit.” The cunning Amr Ibnil Aas stood up next to say, “O people! I won’t consider ‘Ali for the Khilaafah. But Mu’awiya, in my opinion, is the person for that office!”

Upon hearing this (and feeling deceived), the people screamed disapprovingly, an uproar was the result. Imam ‘Ali’s (a.s.) camp was in shock, they were double-crossed, deceived and lied to, they felt deeply cut. Amr’s double crossing and deception was simply beyond their imagination. They left the place bewildered and utterly disappointed. Because of this a large group of Imam ‘Ali’s supporters defected to form a separate group calledKharijies, meaning the Outsiders.

The Khariji became fanatically opposed to Imam ‘Ali and Mu’awiya. Some of their members met secretly in Mecca and drew a plan to assassinate ‘Ali (a.s.) in Kufa, Mu’awiya in Syria, and Amr Ibnil Aas in Egypt. Three fanatics took the responsibility, they were to attack their victims in the morning, the same day, as the would-be victims were going to the mosque to lead the morning salat.

Ibn Muljim attacked and fatally wounded Imam ‘Ali (a.s.), whereas Mu’awiya escaped with a light wound of his buttock. Amr Ibnil Aas was ill that day and his replacement was killed by the Khariji. Imam ‘Ali (a.s.), in wounded condition, conferred the Imamah and the reign of the Islamic nation to his 37 years old son Al-Hasan.

Peace Agreement Between Imam Al-Hasan And Mu’awiya

Imam Hasan (a.s.) faced extremely difficult conditions from the start. He observed that fear, anxiety and much distress were ever present in Kufa, Basrah, Medina and other towns. The anxiety, uncertainty and insecurity were caused by Mu’awiya’s ill dealing of sincere Muslims. Mu’awiya had spread secret agents all over to defame Ahlul Bayt.

Imam Hasan knew that his father Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) had stood like a lion in all difficulties and fought battles against Mu’awiya, but these confrontations had resulted in heavy casualties on both sides.

A mass scale family devastation was visible everywhere. Considering all circumstances, Imam Hasan (a.s.) discussed the matter with his brother Husayn (a.s.) and other relatives. He revealed to them that in order to end the bloodshed and to provide a reasonable safety and security to the Ummah, he would make a peace agreement with Mu’awiya and abdicate until after Mu’awiya’s death. After a few days of careful consideration, Imam Hasan (a.s.) accepted an agreement as per the terms dictated by the Imam and agreed to by Mu’awiya. Four noteworthy terms of this agreement were:

– People of Syria, Iraq, Hijaz, Yemen and other places shall enjoy amnesty against persecution,

– Friends and companions of Imam ‘Ali (a.s.) and all their women and children shall be protected from all dangers,

– Mu’awiya is to immediately stop the use of abusive language with reference to Ahlul Bayt (cursing Imam ‘Ali) after Salat of Jumu’a), and

– Mu’awiya shall not appoint anyone as his successor.

Once the treaty was signed, Imam Hasan (a.s.) and brother Husayn (a.s.) moved out of Kufa and settled in Medina. Over there both Imams lost no time in holding nightly meetings for Islamic discussions. The nightly meetings proved very successful and gained tremendous popularity. More people started to attend, to hear the Imams give of their fountain of knowledge on Islam and humanity.

The reputation of these meetings began to fly to faraway places. People from as far away as Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and other distant areas travelled to Medina to learn about the Islamic values. As years passed, the knowledge thus given started to bear fruits. The number of Islamic scholars multiplied and increased considerably.

In the meantime Mu’awiya, unabashedly elected to disregard the terms of his treaty with Imam Al-Hasan.

a) He sent secret agents to terrorize, kidnap, or even kill innocent people specially those who were loyal to Ahlul Bayt (a.s.).

b) Instead of helping the needy with the public treasury, Mu’awiya’s governors and their surrogates used the public treasury for personal use, freely and excessively as they wished.

c) Freedom suddenly died, and dictatorship took its place.

d) Mu’awiya gathered a very large number of collaborators who unabashedly would do anything for money.

Mu’awiya’s Plot to Poison Imam Hasan (a.s.)

It was Mu’awiya’s ardent desire to impose his son Yazid (who had been named after his uncle) upon the Muslims by making him the succeeding Khalifa, despite the fact that Yazid was the playboy of the time, with many evil habits including gambling, heavy drinking, and indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh.

But the peace agreement would not permit Mu’awiya to appoint Yazid as his successor, (According to the agreement Imam Hasan would immediately become Khalifa upon Mu’awiya’s death). Therefore, it was obvious to Mu’awiya that, if Al-Hasan did not outlive him, Mu’awiya could do as he pleased. Thus Mu’awiya planned to kill Imam Al-Hasan in order to pave the way for his son Yazid to be his successor.

Mu’awiya sent one of his agents to contact Imam Al-Hasan’s wife Joda who was the daughter of Al-Ash’ath (once a secret agent for Mu’awiya against Imam ‘Ali in the Battle of Siffin). Joda was asked a small favor, i.e., to put a little poison in Al-Hasan’s food, and in return Mu’awiya would give her a large sum of money and also make her wife of his son Yazid. She found the offer too attractive to ignore, and foolishly agreed to accept it. A few days later, she mixed poison in honey and gave it to the Imam.

As soon as the Imam took the poisoned honey he became seriously ill. Sensing that his death was imminent, the Imam designated his brother Al-Husayn (a.s.) to be the third Imam. Although Imam Al-Hasan knew he was poisoned, he did not reveal that to anyone but to his brother Al-Husayn.

One thing Al-Hasan had wished was to have his burial by the side of his grandfather, Prophet Muhammad (S). Imam Husayn made all the arrangements to fulfill that wish but Mu’awiya’s governor over Medina did not let that happen and used military force to stop it. Imam Al-Hasan was 47 year old when he died of poisoning.

Medina was never the same without Imam Hasan (a.s.). Everyone missed him dearly. People at first did not believe Mu’awiya poisoned Imam Al-Hasan, but soon found out the truth.

When Husayn (a.s.) was designated as the 3rd Imam he was 46 years old. Imam Husayn (a.s.) carried on with his mission of teaching Islam as before. A large number of people kept coming to see him and to learn from him. This process continued for several years when people began to hear an ugly rumor that Mu’awiya wanted his son, Yazid, to succeed him.

Mu’awiya Designates Yazid as Successor

Mu’awiya began a campaign to introduce Monarchy into the structure of Islam. To have Monarchy, by force or otherwise is alien to Islam, an innovation in religion, simply not acceptable. Everyone knew that, for Islam does not subscribe to any form of Royalty through inheritance or Monarchy. In Islam it is supposed to be Shura.

Nevertheless, Mu’awiya sent his agents to the prominent members of the communities to obtain allegiance of loyalty to his son Yazid. But Yazid was evil, of the drinking type, incompetent, contemptible, and a pleasure-seeking person. People knew that. So the people protested vigorously. There was anger everywhere.

Emotions went sky high. To calm people down, at least temporarily, Mu’awiya decided to send his son Yazid to Mecca for the pilgrimage. Yes, Yazid did go to Mecca but only after taking alcohol with him as well as a chorus of girls for his entertainment.

Mu’awiya Dies

Mu’awiya was getting older day by day. At the age of 75, he became seriously ill. He was nearing death. He lay weak and lifeless as if something was choking and strangling him. He felt tortured and tormented, and continuously cried for mercy. He was in terrible pain. He wanted to die but death would not come close to him.

His conscience tormented him for the calamities that he brought upon the Islamic Ummah specially Ahlul Bayt. Mu’awiya suffered in agony for many many days. His suffering continued until he breathed his last. At the time of his death, the 30 year old Yazid was nowhere near him, he had gone for fun on a hunting trip.

(Please note that Mu’awiya’s brother was by the name of Yazid, and he had named his son after his brother.)

Yazid Becomes Ruler

Upon Mu’awiya’s death, Yazid, 30 years old, managed to impose himself on the people and become the Khalifa. At first people refused to accept him as a representative of the Prophet (S) and Islamic Ummah, but Yazid approached people in mosques for their favors. Like his father Mu’awiya, Yazid used all possible means like bribery, coercion, pressure, threats, and force to receive the people’s acceptance of him as the legitimate ruler.

Many people were worried, threats to their lives and livelihood was too menacing, so they grudgingly and reluctantly gave in. But, Imam Husayn (a.s.) and his family (who practiced Islam in its true sense), did not give in. As the true representative of Prophet Muhammad (S), Al-Husayn flatly refused accepting Yazid either as a Khalifa or a leader of Islam. Despite Yazid’s intimidating military power the Imam stood firm in his resolve and chose to challenge Bani Umayya’s authorities.

Yazid commissioned Waleed Ibn Ut’ba, his Governor over Medina, to ask for Imam Husayn’s allegiance of loyalty or else upon refusal, his head. Waleed invited Al-Husayn to a meeting for the purpose. Imam Husayn did not give his word at the meeting and decided to leave Medina along with his family to proceed to Mecca. When Al-Husayn reached Mecca he received 12,000 letters from Kufa urging him to go to Kufa to be their leader, and be the Khalifa. Imam sent an emissary, his cousin Muslim Ibn Aqeel, to Kufa to ascertain first-hand information about the situation in Iraq.

In the meantime Yazid spread a network of informants and secret agents in Mecca to assassinate the Imam during pilgrimage. Imam learned about the spies, and carefully evaluated the situation in Mecca. Imam Husayn knew that Yazid son of Mu’awiya had no regard for Islamic values and teachings, that he would do anything to enforce his tyrannical rule.

Imam Husayn also knew that giving allegiance of loyalty to an imposter like Yazid would certainly place Islam at great jeopardy. Therefore he decided to leave Mecca for Kufa to prepare for a confrontation with Yazid and his forces.

Many friends and relatives urged Imam Husayn not to go to Kufa, but he insisted on going. Imam Husayn, along with family, friends, and companions began the journey toward Kufa (1,100 miles) in a long caravan in the blistering heat of summer.

On the Way to Karbala

During the early phase of the journey the caravan met Al-Farazdaq (a famous poet) at a place called al-Sifah. Al-Farazdaq advised the Imam not to go to Kufa because though people’s hearts were with him (Imam), their swords would be against him. But the Imam continued with the journey, and he received the first letter from his emissary Muslim Ibn Aqeel with good news.

The letter indicated that the people were more than ready to welcome the Imam in Kufa and were looking forward to his leadership. Imam Husayn decided to send another emissary to Kufa with a message. The caravan kept proceeding toward Kufa. Many days passed but the Imam did not receive any more responses from Muslim Ibn Aqeel.

In Kufa Muslim Bin Aqeel with the help of Mukhtar Al-Thaqafi and Hani Ibn Urwah continued to hold secret meetings with the supporters of the Imam. Within a short time the gatherings started to gain momentum. Yazid through his spies and informants learned about Muslim’s successes in Kufa. He appointed the tyrantUbaidullah Ibn Ziyad to replace al-Nu’man Ibn al-Basheer as Governor of Kufa.

Meanwhile, as Al-Husayn’s caravan got closer to its destination (Kufa), coming to a place called Zubalah, Imam Husayn unexpectedly received shocking news. The shocking news was about Muslim Ibn Aqeel and the person who provided him shelter, Hani’s Ibn Urwah, both of whom were arrested and beheaded by the Governor Ibn Ziyad. Mukhtar was also arrested and imprisoned and tortured by Ibn Ziyad.

Imam Husayn gathered his companions and disclosed to them about the bad news, and said, “Our Shi’a have deserted us, those of you who prefer to leave us may do so freely and without guilt.” Becoming scared, some companions left the caravan. Imam Husayn continued with the journey along with close companions and family members until he was face to face with 1,000 horsemen led by Hurr al-Riyahi representing the enemy.

The enemy army blocked the camps of Imam Husayn (a.s.) from advancing. Tension started to rise between the two. The Imam addressed the enemy explaining to them his motives for going to Kufa, that it was in response to the invitation of the people. He even showed them a bagful of letters he received from Kufa. Hurr said that he and his men were not the writers of those letters. Imam told them that if they did not like him to advance with the journey, he was prepared to return to Hijaz.

Hurr replied, “We are commissioned to follow you until we take you to Governor Ibn Ziyad, and suggested to the Imam to go towards a station which is neither Kufa nor Medina.” Imam Husayn found the proposal fair and turned the caravan away from Kufa. Hurr and his army marched parallel to the Imam. The two sides reached a village called Nainawa where Ibn Ziyad’s messenger (Yazid’s governor over Kufa) delivered a message to Hurr.

The message read, ” …force Husayn to a halt. But let him stop in an open space, without vegetation or water.” Hurr conveyed the contents of the letter to Imam Husayn.

The Imam, his family and companions defiantly resumed their journey and reached a place where another enemy force blocked their move and forced them to stop. When Imam Husayn learned that the place was called Karbala, he felt he reached the destination and ordered his camp to be setup. That day was 2nd of Muharram, Hijri 61.


Upon learning that his army had succeeded to lay a siege around the Imam’s camp, Governor Ibn Ziyad sent additional military units to Karbala and appointed Umar Ibn Sa’ad in charge. Imam Husayn (a.s.) opened a dialogue with Umar Ibn Sa’ad and convinced him to lift the siege so that the Imam with his family and companions could leave Iraq.

Umar Ibn Sa’ad liked the Imam’s proposal and sent a message to Governor Ibn Ziyad notifying him about the results of the talks with Imam Husayn (a.s.). Ibn Ziyad also found the Imam’s proposal acceptable. However before agreeing to it officially, Shimr Bin Dhil-Jawshan, opposed it strongly. As a result Ziyad wrote a letter to Umar Ibn Sa’ad commanding him to either go to war with Imam Husayn (a.s.) or be relieved of his duties as commander of the army and Shimr would not only replace him but despatch Ibn Sa’ad’s head to Kufa.

Umar Ibn bin Sa’ad got the letter. After pondering over the consequences he decided to fight Imam Husayn (a.s.). On the 7th day of Muharram he moved his troops closer to the camp and began to surround the Husaini camp. Ibn Sa’ad laid a blockade around the camp to cut it off from access to the river Euphrates, to deprive it of water in a move to force them to surrender.

Two days later, (on the 9th of Muharram), the enemy’s military forces closed in on the camp of Imam Husayn (a.s.). Imam asked his brother, Abbas, to talk to Ibn Sa’ad and request a delay of the aggression by one night. Umar Ibn Sa’ad agreed to the demand. He ordered his troops to delay the aggression till next morning.

Imam Husayn and his pious companions spent that night in prayers. During the night the Imam told the companions, ” ….the enemy is interested in none but me, me alone. I’ll be most delighted to permit each and every one of you to go back, and I urge you to do so….” All companions screamed in response, “By Allah, never, never! We will either live with you or die together with you.”


Finally, the day of Ashuraa dawned upon the soil of Karbala. It was the day when Jihad would be in full bloom, blood would be shed, 72 innocent lives would be sacrificed, and a decisive battle would be won to save Islam and the Ummah.

It had been a few days since the water supply was cut off by the enemy. Children were crying for water, the women were desperate for water, Zainul-Abideen, the son of Imam Husayn (a.s.) was sick with fever. The suffering from the thirst was too painful to bear. And despite this, not a single person in the camp made any complaints or even questioned the mission of Imam Husayn. Each member supported the Imam wholeheartedly and enthusiastically.

Next morning Imam Husayn (a.s.) went out of the camp and saw Umar Ibn Sa’ad mobilizing his troops to start the hostility. He stared at the intimidating army, and as large as it was Imam Husayn showed no signs of compromise. Imam Husayn raised his hands in prayer:

“O Allah! It is Thee in whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. Thou are my refuge and provision in everything that happens to me. How many grievances weaken the heart, leaving me with no means to handle them, during which friend deserts me, and enemy rejoices in it. I lay it before Thee and complain of it to Thee, because of my desire in Thee, Thee alone. You relieve me of it and remove it from me. Thou are the Master of all Grace, the Essence of Goodness, and the Ultimate Resort of all Desire.”

Before the actual engagement was to take place, Hurr, the previous commander of the enemy force, felt his conscience violently stirring, he was in turmoil. Upon realizing the gravity of the situation, he suddenly broke away from Umar Ibn Sa’ad’s camp (along with two others). They rushed toward Imam Husayn (a.s.) to join his camp.

Hurr’s heart was jumping with joy, his mind relieved of an agonizing tension. Hurr’s defection worried Umar Ibn Sa’ad very much, lest others do the same and defect. So Umar Ibn Sa’ad threw an arrow in the air to indicate the start of the battle. This was the outset of a catastrophe and a tragic event that Mu’awiya had once conceived to happen.

The Battle

Imam Husayn’s supporters insisted on being the first to fight. Therefore, they took the brunt of the enemy attack. The battle was ferocious. Within a short time the Imam’s supporters slay a large number of the enemy fighters; they were on the offensive and the enemy on the defensive. This caused apprehension and confusion in the enemy military, the 72 of Husayn’s against the 5,000 of the enemy (some say 30,000) being on the defensive.

So worried and nervous, the enemy commander-in-chief ordered his army not only to set fire to the Imam’s tents (which were occupied mostly by frightened females and children), but at the same time reinforced his fighters with more troops.

The heroes began to fall, they were men of valor welcoming martyrdom, and they fell one after another, for the enemy was overwhelming in number. By noon time the Imam stopped the fight to perform the Salat (prayer). By this time those left were mainly his family and a few supporters. They performed the Salat together. Two supporters were guarding the performers of Salat. The enemy was standing still, watching!! When Salat was finished one of the guards fell dead; there were 17 arrows in his back.

‘Ali Akbar, Husayn’s son obtained permission to fight and dashed toward the enemy. He engaged them in fierce fighting, falling on them like thunder, slaying numerous fighters. He continued to move forward, deep inside the enemy. The enemy was overpowering in number, it overwhelmed him cutting him with swords and spears, and his body became nothing but wounds gushing blood, until he died.

Imam Husayn (a.s.) rushed to the area and picked up the wounded limp body and brought it to the appalled camp. His sister and others in the camp were horrified and shocked at the scene.

Abbas and five other brothers of Imam Husayn went to fight. They also engaged the enemy in a fierce fighting, almost doing the impossible. Abbas went toward the river to bring some water for the thirsty children. While he was returning on his horse with the water, he was attacked by a large horde of the enemy, overwhelming and severely wounding him. As much as he tried Abbas could not save the water, he fell from his horse to breath his last.

Next to the battle field went the sons of Imam Al-Hasan and Zainab and their cousins (about 17 of them). They were all in their teens but each stood bravely, believing in the mission, facing a formidable enemy, and showed no less enthusiasm in their quest to embrace the martyrdom.

Al-Husayn and His Baby

By the afternoon 70 brave persons had sacrificed their lives in Karbala to save Islam. All had fought under nerve racking conditions, severe thirst, dehydration, exhaustion, and agonizing feeling of what would happen to the family of the Prophet (S) afterwards. Husayn endured all that and more, for he saw all his beloved ones brutally cut to pieces, including children. Remaining the only one, Imam Husayn was to face the enemy head on.

Precisely at that moment Imam Husayn heard his baby crying incessantly, agonizing because of the thirst. Imam Husayn’s love for his family was unbound, especially for a suffering baby. He held the six months old baby, his youngest son (‘Ali Asghar) in his arms, and appealed to the enemy fighters for some water for the baby.

Imam wanted to awaken their conscience and stir their human feelings but the stone-hearted enemy, instead of giving water, zoomed an arrow toward the agonizing baby and killed him instantly. Imam Husayn was shocked. He felt an unbearable wave of pain. The sight of the limp baby in his arms was agonizingly painful. He filled his palm with the blood of the baby, and threw it upwards toward the sky, complaining to Allah (swt),

“O’ Allah, O’ my Lord! My consolation is the fact that Thou in Thine Majesty are witnessing what I am going through.”

Al-Husayn by Himself

Imam Husayn (a.s.) was alone, one man against thousands. He took them on, fighting them bravely, and kept fighting, receiving many wounds in the process. Thousands of enemy fighters were surrounding him but none dared to move toward him.

The silence was broken when Shimr screamed for an attack, and then screamed again, threatening, and in response they attacked collectively, and one sword fell on Imam Husayn’s left wrist and deeply cut his left hand. The blood gushed like a fountain.

Another sword was soon to follow and it hit his upper back. Imam Husayn (a.s.) felt numb as he fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. He was near the point of shock, even though staggering he tried to stand by leaning on his sword. Then he received the fatal blow.

It was at this point, that Shimr whose mother was a disbeliever, came forward and severed Imam Husayn’s noble head from the body, the noble head kissed often by the Prophet (S)! Shimr and others had the audacity to carry it on the tip of a spear to Yazid, 600 miles away!

Umar Ibn Sa’ad ordered the horsemen to trample upon the supine bodies of Imam Husayn and all others killed, to disfigure them even further, as if the wounds, the bloodied bodies, and the headless forms were not enough.

For three days the exposed bodies of the martyrs were left lying in the desert of Karbala. Afterwards, the people of the tribe of Bani-Asad, who were not far away from the battle field, helped bury them.

Umar Ibn Sa’ad and his forces (representing Bani Umayya) took the women and children as prisoners in shackles, put them on camels, and proceeded in a caravan from Karbala to Kufa. At the forefront of the procession were the heads of Imam Husayn (a.s.) and his followers on the tip of spears. The scene was both grotesque and pathetic. This was the leftover of the beloved family of Prophet Muhammad (S), in such a deplorable unimaginable condition, all caused by people who called themselves Muslims!

Lessons from the Tragedy of Karbala

Karbala is the cruelest tragedy humanity has ever seen. Yet, the startling (though appalling) events in Karbala proved like a powerful volcano that shook the very foundation of Muslims, it stirred their consciousness, ignorant or learned alike. For sincere Muslims, Karbala turned into a triumph. The tragic event became the very beacon of light to always remind Muslims to practice Islam honestly and sincerely, to do what is right irrespective of consequences, and fear no one except Allah (swt).

On the other hand, Yazid never achieved what he and his father had planned to achieve, for within three years, Allah’s wrath fell upon him, causing him to die at the age of 33 years. And within a few decades the rule of Bani Umayya crumbled and came to an end.

The tragedy of Karbala taught humanity a lesson that standing for the truth and fighting unto death for it is more honorable and valuable than submitting to the wrongful, especially when the survival of Islam is at stake.

Distance between Medina and Karbala about 1,100 miles.

Distance between Ibn Ziyad in Kufa and Yazid in Damascus about 750 miles.

Average travel by camel per day: 30-45 miles.


1. Mowlana Rafiq H. Naqvi, Khutbas at Salat of Jumu’a, Idara

2. Mowlana Amir M. Faizi, Muharram Majlis, Idara

3. Dr A.S. Hashim’s Books: Ahlul Bayt and Al-Khulafaa Al-Rashidoon

4. Al-Balagh Foundation: Ahlul Bait #5, 1993 (Iran)


A’isha: Widow of the Prophet (S) and a leader during Jamal Confrontation.

Abbas: Brother of Imam Husayn, flag-bearer during Karbala.

Abu Sufyan: Leader of Bani Umayya, Mu’awiya’s father, was inveterate enemy of Islam.

Abu Musa Ash’ari: Governor fired by Imam ‘Ali, was selected to arbitrate after Siffin.

Ahlul Bayt: The household of the Prophet (s), consisting of ‘Ali, Fatima, al-Hasan, al-Husayn and the 9 Imams descending from al-Husayn (peace be upon them all).

Al- Farazdaq: A famous poet.

Al- Nu’man Ibn al-Basheer: Governor over Kufa replaced by Ibn Ziyad through Yazid’s order.

‘Ali Akbar: Son of Imam Al-Husayn, martyred in Karbala.

‘Ali Asghar: Baby of Imam Al-Husayn, martyred in Karbala.

Ammar Ibn Yasir: A famous highly revered Companion, on ‘Ali’s side, killed in Siffin.

Amr Ibnil Aas: A cunning deceptive person, in Mu’awiya’s camp, arbitrator after Siffin.

Ash’ath Ibn Qais: A spy General in ‘Ali’s armed forces, also the father of Joda (wife of Al-Hasan).

Bani Asad: The tribe that buried Al-Husayn and the other martyrs of Karbala.

Bani Umayya: A clan known to be power hungry, greedy, and materialistic, of Mu’awiya.

Basrah: An important town in south of Iraq.

Byzantines: The Christian superpower ruling over Syria and Egypt that lost to Islam.

Hani Ibn Urwah: The man who helped Muslim Ibn Aqeel in Kufa and lost his life for the cause.

Hurr Ibn Yazid alRiyahi: The Commander of the enemy force who defected to the side of Imam Husayn.

Ibn Muljim: The killer of Imam ‘Ali while ‘Ali was performing Salat Al-Subh.

Ibn Ziyad: The Governor over Kufa responsible for the atrocities of Karbala.

Imam: The 12 Divinely Commissioned leaders of the Ummah after the Prophet (S).

Imam AlHasan (a.s.): The second Divinely Commissioned Imam, and the brother of Imam Husayn.

Imam ‘Ali (a.s.): The first Divinely Commissioned Imam, and the father of Imam Hasan and Husayn.

Imam Husayn (a.s.): The third Divinely Commissioned Imam, hero of Karbala, brother of Imam Hasan.

Iraq: Country in which Imam Husayn suffered at the hands of its military.

Jamal: Battle imposed on ‘Ali by A’isha, Talha, and Zubair.

Joda: Wife of Imam Al-Hasan, who poisoned him when enticed by Mu’awiya.

Karbala: The site of the ugliest atrocities committed against Al-Husayn, his family and devotees, but Karbala saved Islam from disintegration in an indirect way.

Khalifa: Head of state after the Prophet (S).

Kharijies: The outsiders who turned against ‘Ali, then killed him while he was praying.

Medina: Famous town of the Prophet (S) in Arabia.

Mu’awiya: Of Bani Umayya clan, brother of Yazid, also father of the infamous Yazid of Karbala.

Muhammad ibn Abu Bakr: Brother of A’isha who fought on ‘Ali’s side during Battle of Jamal.

Mukhtar AlThaqafi: Loyalist of Ahlul Bayt.

Muslim Ibn Aqeel: Cousin of Al-Husayn and his emissary to Kufa, killed by Ibn Ziyad.

Omar: The second Khalifa who appointed Mu’awiya as the Governor over Syria.

Quraish: The clan of the Prophet (S).

Shimr Bin DhilJawshan: The killer of Imam Husayn, his name will remain in infamy.

Siffin: Battle imposed on ‘Ali by Mu’awiya.

Syria: Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine nowadays used to be called Syria.

Talha: Sahaabi, leader during Jamal Confrontation, killed during that battle.

Tulaqaa’: Denigrating term used by Muhammad (S) for the disbelievers who had to become Muslims after Mecca was triumphed over.

Umar Ibn Sa’ad: Commander-in-chief of the military forces against Imam Husayn in Karbala.

Umm Habiba: Sister of Mu’awiya, daughter of Abu Sufyan, wife of the Prophet (S).

Uthman: The third Khalifa killed by the protesting Muslims.

Waleed Ibn Ut’ba: Governor over Medina when Yazid son of Mu’awiya declared his rulership.

Yazid son of Abu Sufyan: Brother of Mu’awiya, governor of Syria for a few years until he died.

Yazid son of Mu’awiya: Son of Mu’awiya, the infamous despicable ruler, cause of Karbala tragedy.

Zainab: Sister of Al-Husayn, heroin of Karbala, losing her children for the cause.

Zubair: Sahaabi, leader during Jamal Confrontation, refused to fight during that battle.

why we lost

A 3-Star General Explains ‘Why We Lost’ In Iraq, Afghanistan

November 09, 2014 5:22 PM ET
Why We Lost:  A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars
by Daniel Bolger

“I am a United States Army General, and I lost the Global War on Terrorism.”

Those are the frank opening words of a new book by retired Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account Of The Iraq And Afghanistan Wars. Bolger continues:

“It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous. Step one is admitting you have a problem. Well, I have a problem. So do my peers. And thanks to our problem, now all of America has a problem. To wit: two lost campaigns and a war gone awry.”

In over 500 pages, the retired three-star general describes the conflicting agendas that haunted both campaigns, as well as the difficulty of identifying the enemy and the looming specter of Vietnam.

“The bravery and sacrifice of the people that I was privileged to serve with should be saluted,” he tells NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates. “And the mistakes, the errors made by guys like me have to be accounted for and explained so we can learn and do better in the event we have to do something like this again.”

It’s a timely work, scheduled to be released on Veteran’s Day — a few days after Friday’s announcement that the president has authorized the deployment of 1500 additional troops to Iraq.

Bolger tells Grigsby Bates about the worrying signs he noticed at the very start of the campaigns, and why the conflicts were so challenging for the U.S. military.

Interview Highlights

On his earliest hints that the operations might not be successful

What I saw almost immediately was trouble figuring out who the enemy was. We knew within a day or two of the 9/11 attacks that it was al-Qaida, a terrorist network that had a headquarters element, if you would call it that, or a chairman of the board in Osama Bin Laden. And they were operating out of Afghanistan.

But that’s not who we ended up fighting most of the time. Sure, we went after al-Qaida at times. But we ended up fighting the Taliban, which were Pashtun people in Afghanistan who were trying to run that country. We evicted them in 2001. And we ended up fighting Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, who again — although they might make common cause with al-Qaida — those weren’t the guys who attacked us on 9/11.

On the lack of advance information about enemies on the ground

One of the things that we often say in the military is you have to fight for information, or fight for intelligence. So as we developed this picture and it became obvious that we were fighting an insurgent enemy mixed into a civil population that was suspicious of us anyway as outsiders (and that was true in both Afghanistan and Iraq), it really brought up the second point, which is what is the U.S. Military trained to do? And the U.S. Military is trained to carry out short and decisive conventional operations against a uniformed [enemy in formations].

So if you want us to go in and do something along the lines of 1991 Desert Storm, where we go against armored divisions and air force squadrons of the Iraqi forces and destroy them and capture the remainder, that’s what we’re trained to do. It’s very, very difficult to take even the great troops that we have and send them into a village to try and sort out which of the males there … might be insurgents, [or] who might be just people living in the area, [or] who might potentially be government supporters, when you don’t speak the language and you really don’t understand what’s going on in that village very well.

On what gave him confidence during the operations that they might still be successful

We really had two ways we could prosecute this war. The first was essentially to do what we did in Desert Storm. And both Afghanistan and Iraq started with a very short, successful, decisive U.S. initial invasion. And at that point, we had the option — we could have backed out and left it to the local people to sort it out. It might have been sort of ugly and it might have been sort of unsatisfying. But in both cases, we didn’t do that. We decided to stay.

“ We could have backed out and left it to the local people to sort it out. It might have been sort of ugly and it might have been sort of unsatisfying. But in both cases, we didn’t do that. We decided to stay.
– Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger

The only way you can win that is the local people have to take the lead, and they have to have the sure knowledge that they’ve got a long term U.S. commitment to help them in the things they have trouble with.

And when I made that statement at Veterans’ Day [in 2012, expressing confidence in the mission], I was hopeful that the United States would make a long-term commitment to both countries.

It seems like in Iraq, we’re gonna have a degree of commitment more than we probably thought we would in the fall of 2011 [when the U.S. Army withdrew from the country], based on their fight against ISIS and what we’re trying to do to help them now.

Afghanistan, though, I keep hearing the same noises about [how] we’re gonna draw down to just an embassy and a few hundred people there within a year or so.

On what he would have done

Given what I knew then, I would have recommended to do like we did in 1991 and turn it over to the local folks. You know, give them some backing, but not much beyond the embassy or maybe a couple hundred advisers or something. Certainly not hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground for ten years.

iraq maps showing religious and ethnic divisions

27 maps that explain
the crisis in Iraq

by Zack Beauchamp, Max Fisher and Dylan Matthews on August 8, 2014

The current Iraq crisis began in early June, when the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), which already controls parts of Syria, seized much of northern Iraq, including the major city of Mosul. The conflict has roots in Iraq’s complicated history, its religious and ethnic divisions, and of course in the Iraq War that began with the 2003 US-led invasion. These 27 maps are a rough guide to today’s crisis and the deeper forces behind it.


    1. Iraq’s demographic divide

      Iraq’s three-way demographic divide didn’t cause the current crisis, but it’s a huge part of it. You can see there are three main groups. The most important are Iraq’s Shia Arabs (Shiiism is a major branch of Islam), who are the country’s majority and live mostly in the south. In the north and west are Sunni Arabs. Baghdad is mixed Sunni and Shia. And in the far north are ethnic Kurds, who are religiously Sunni, but their ethnicity divides them from Arab Sunnis. Iraq’s government is dominated by the Shia majority and has underserved Sunni Arabs; the extremist group that has taken over much of the country, ISIS, is Sunni Arab. Meanwhile, the Kurds, who suffered horrifically under Saddam Hussein, have exploited the recent crisis to grant themselves greater autonomy.

    2. Sunni-Shia balance in the Middle East

      This map of the region’s Sunnis and Shias is crucial for understanding the larger geopolitics of the Iraq crisis and how its neighbors are responding. Look at the swath of mostly-Sunni territory in northern Iraq and eastern Syria, both countries that are led by Shia-dominated governments; a lot of that grey area is under ISIS control. While no one in the Middle East is happy about ISIS’s takeover, the Shia governments are responding most forcefully, and the crisis is giving common cause to the Shia governments of Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This could exacerbate already-bad tension between the region’s Sunni and Shia powers, which have been supporting opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.

    3. The Kurdish region, in Iraq and beyond

      The Kurds — who are long-oppressed minorities in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran — have been fighting for their own country for more than a century. They’ve come closest in Iraq, where, since the 2003 war, the international community has pushed to give them an unprecedented degree of autonomy. Since the recent crisis began, they’ve taken even more de facto autonomy for themselves, and recently seized control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk, which is part Arab and part Kurd. The big problem for Kurds is that all of Iraq’s neighbors want to prevent an independent Iraqi Kurdish state, because they fear their own Kurdish populations will then fight to break off and join them.

    4. Iraq’s enormous oil reserves

      Iraq has the fifth largest proven oil reserves of any country, after Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Iran. Production has gone up since the fall of the Hussein regime; in February 2014, 3.6 million barrels were being pumped a day, while in 2002 about 2 million were pumped a day. In 1991, following the Gulf War, a mere 305,000 barrels were pumped a day, gradually picking up as the country recovered from its defeat. The oil is concentrated in the Shia south and Kurdish north, with Sunni regions to the west notably lacking in oil wealth. That makes it all the more significant that the Sunni ISIS rebels have targeted the country’s largest oil refinery and have suggested they plan on seizing much of the country’s northern oil fields; see the map of “ISIS’s 2006 plan for Iraq and Syria” below for more on that.

History of Iraq

    1. The Battle of Karbala, 680 AD

      Sunnis and Shias have gotten along fine for most of Islam’s history, but the Syria and Iraq crises are driving them apart today, and it helps to understand the historical roots of how Islam split along these two major branches and what it has to do with Iraq. In the 7th century, soon after the Prophet Mohammed who founded Islam died, there was a dispute over who should succeed him in ruling the vast Caliphate he’d established. Some wanted to elect a successor, while some argued power should go by divide birthright to Mohammed’s son-in-law, Ali. The dispute became a civil war, the divide of which began today’s Shia (the Partisans of Ali, or Shi’atu Ali, hence Shia) and Sunni. Ali was killed in the city of Kufa, in present-day Iraq. 20 years later, his followers traveled with Ali’s son Hussein from Islam’s center in Mecca up to Karbala, which is in present-day Iraq, where they were killed in battle and the war ended. Their pilgrimage is mapped here; it made Kufa and Karbala, and other locations in southern Iraq, the heartland of Shia Islam.

    2. The Safavid Empire at its height

      Almost a thousand years after Ali and Hussein’s deaths, the Persian Safavid Empire (today we would call it Iran) expanded to conquer much of eastern Iraq. This is still a source of distrust between the Arabs of Iraq and the Persians of Iran, and reinforces a belief that the much-larger Iran seeks to conquer or control Iraq. This is important for remembering that Iraqi Shia might share a religion with Iranians, but they’re still wary of Iran. But it’s an even bigger issue for Iraqi Sunnis, who sometimes believe that Iraqi Shia are secret pawns of Iran and will refer to Iraqi Shia as “Safavids.” The worse the ISIS crisis gets, the more Iraq’s Shia government turns to Iran for help, and the more that Sunni Iraqis fear a Shia plot against them.

    3. How the Sykes-Picot agreement carved Iraq’s borders

      You hear a lot today about this 1916 treaty, in which the UK and French (and Russian) Empires secretly agreed to divide up the Ottoman Empire’s last MidEastern regions among themselves. Crucially, the borders between the French and British “zones” later became the borders between Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Because those later-independent states had largely arbitrary borders that forced disparate ethnic and religious groups together, and because those groups are today in conflict with one another, Sykes-Picot is often cited as a cause of warfare and violence and extremism in the Middle East. Scholars are still debating this theory, which may be too simple to be true. But the point is that the vast Arab Sunni community across the Middle East’s center was divided in half by the European-imposed Syria-Iraq border, then lumped in to artificial states with large Shia communities.

    4. Saddam Hussein’s Al-Anfal campaign against the Kurds

      In 1988, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to kill tens of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the country’s north. The attacks — which he named the al-Anfal Campaign after an episode in the Koran — were meant to put down Kurdish rebels who were fighting for autonomy. Al-Anfal killed in just a few months an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 civilians, although Kurdish groups say it was closer to 180,000. While the genocide is most infamous for Saddam’s use of chemical weapons, this map also shows the less-known but similarly brutal mass execution sites, where Kurdish families were slaughtered en masse, and resettlement camps. The US responded tepidly at the time — it was tilting toward Saddam in his ongoing war against Iran — but Al-Anfal later became a justification for international action against Iraq, and is a big part of why Iraqi Kurds were granted autonomy after Saddam was toppled in 2003.

    5. The 1990 Gulf War order of battle

      On August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded its neighbor Kuwait following disputes about oil production, and installed a puppet regime to run the country. After several months of occupation, a UN-sanctioned international coalition led by the US used ground and air forces to forces Iraqi forces out. The ground campaign to push back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was surprisingly short, beginning with the advance of coalition forces from Saudi Arabia into both Kuwait and Iraq on February 24, 1991. Within days Iraqi forces were retreating, and on February 28, President George H.W. Bush declared a ceasefire. The air war, however, began on January 17, and was devoted to destroying the Iraqi air force, anti-aircraft facilities, command infrastructure, and other military targets. Iraq responded by launching missile attacks on both Israel and Saudi Arabia; while Israel was not involved in the conflict directly, Iraq hoped to draw it into armed conflict and convince other Arab states to abandon the coalition. Israel exercised restraint, however, and the Arab forces remained part of the coalition. On January 29, Iraq attacked the Saudi city of Khafji, but was driven back by Saudi, Qatari, and US military forces two days later.

    1. The anti-Saddam uprisings of 1991

      In March 1991, Saddam Hussein looked vulnerable to many Iraqis after his defeats in the Iran-Iraq War and in the Gulf War that had ended just weeks earlier. Kurdish rebels in the north and Shia Islamists in the south rose up in rebellion, among others, to oust Saddam. President Bush, who had thousands of troops stationed mere miles away, called on Iraqis to rise up. Many Iraqis believed the rebels would receive US military backing, but the support never came. While the rebels made large advances at first, particularly in the south, within a few weeks Saddam had defeated them and slaughtered thousands in reprisal killings. The episode left Iraq’s opposition devastated, ultimately strengthening Saddam’s hold. Many Iraqis who had risen up felt betrayed by the US and by Bush personally. Some American foreign policy officials and scholars also felt the US should have used the opportunity to push all the way to Baghdad and topple Saddam, a belief they advocated for years and finally carried into the George W. Bush administration a decade later, providing part of the ideological basis for the 2003 US-led invasion.

    2. The no-fly zones imposed after the Gulf War


      The no-fly zones imposed after the Gulf War

      After the Gulf War, the United States, France, and Britain set up “no-fly zones,” in which Iraqi aircraft were forbidden to fly, in the northern tip and south of Iraq. The ostensible purpose of the zones were to protect the Kurdish and Shia populations from Iraqi air strikes after Saddam’s massacres. In practice, this meant British and American aircraft patrolling Iraqi airspace continuously between the two Gulf Wars. The Iraqi military would frequently shoot at the international aircraft patrolling the zones, though they never shot down a manned plane. After Operation Desert Fox in 1998, when the US bombed Iraq ostensibly as punishment for not complying with UN weapons inspectors, the low-level conflict over the no-fly zone escalated. Saddam offered a reward to anyone who shot down an American or British plane, while the Western forces began regularly targeting Iraqi anti-air and other military emplacements. This all goes to show that the US military never really left Iraq — the no-fly zone only lifted just before the Coalition invasion began in 2003.

    3. Why Saddam drained Iraq’s marshes

      The marshes in southeastern Iraq weren’t just a beautiful ecosystem; their bounty also fed 450,000 people by 1991. But after Shia insurgents began using them as a base to hide from goverment forces — one Iraqi called them “our Sherwood forest” — Saddam drained the water out of them. By diverting the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates river, Saddam deprived insurgents of a sanctuary. He also forced the so-called Marsh Arabs who lived nearby to flee; the poulation of the largest nearby city fell from 67,000 to 6,000 by 2003. Iraqi engineer Azzam Alwash led a movement to restore them after Saddam was desposed, but the Draining of the Marshes proves just how far Saddam was willing to go to more effectively kill his Shia opponents.

    4. What sanctions did to Iraq

      During the period between the first and second Gulf War, the US and its allies enforced a containment policy against Iraq, and while military measures like no-fly zones (see above) played a role, the main mechanism was economic sanctions. UNICEF claimed that about half a million children died as a result. Then-UN ambassador Madeleine Albright, confronted with that figure, famously said, “we think the price is worth it.” The accuracy of that figure, however, is in some doubt. Michael Spagat of Royal Holloway College, University of London notes that three out of four surveys examining the period found no changes in child mortality rates following the Gulf War. “There were no hundreds of thousands of extra deaths,” he concludes. That’s hardly a settled point — Columbia researcher Richard Garfield, for one, put the number of excess child deaths between 1991 and 2002 at350,000. But, as the chart shows, this is a point where little is known with much certainty.

2003 invasion

    1. The coalition against Iraq, 1990 and 2003

      While the United States was the prime contributor of troops to both the first Gulf War and the second, both were backed by international coalitions contributing troops, humanitarian aid, and other assistance. In 1991, that coalition was backed by a UN Security Council mandate and included among its ranks most of Western Europe (notably France and Germany) as well as several of Iraq’s neighbors, like Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia (which was actively threatened by Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and was itself invaded by Iraq in the course of the war). As you can see in the above order of battle, French and Arab forces actively participated in the ground attack on Iraq. The 2003 invasion had no such consensus backing it. The UN Security Council declined to support the mission, with France and Germany opposed, and not a single Middle Eastern country expressed support. Only four countries — the US, UK, Poland, and Australia — participated in the initial invasion, and while others assisted in various capacities, it was nonetheless mostly an American and British operation.

    2. How the invasion overran Iraq in one month

      The invasion was mainly staged from Kuwait, with troops advancing northeast before reaching Baghdad in the second week of April. The ground advance was supplemented by air strikes, beginning in Baghdad at the Presidential Palace but escalating in scale as the invasion began in earnest. About a week into the invasion, the 173rd Airborne Brigade parachuted into northern Iraq and joined forces with Kurdish rebels, claiming the city of Kirkuk on April 10; American and Australian special forces were charged with securing the western portion of the country and preventing possible SCUD missile launches. Before the invasion, General Tommy Franks claims that the US, using a double agent, successfully tricked the Iraqi government into believing that the US would invade through Jordan, catching them off-guard when the actual invasion from Kuwait began.

    3. How de-Baathification devastated the Iraqi army

      As you can see in the chart, the combined forces of the Iraqi army were comparatively minuscule in 2005 as compared to 2009. Why? In 2003, the US government essentially disbanded the Iraqi army. The plan was part of a policy called de-Baathification, the purpose of which was to cleanse the government of any influence from former members of Saddam’s Baath Party so the ancien regime didn’t reassert itself after its toppling. The problem with this plan is that a large number of recently unemployed Iraqi soldiers went and joined insurgent militias, greatly strengthening the anti-government forces while simultaneously stripping the government of its military capabilities. The effects of de-Baathification redound to this day: ISIS has become infinitely more skilled by incorporating skilled Saddam-era officers.

    4. The rise and fall of the Sunni insurgency, 2006-2008

      ISIS was formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). At its peak level of influence in 2006, AQI controlled significant chunks of Sunni Iraq, and even set up a quasi-government along harsh Islamic lines in some of the land it controlled. However, the Sunni population turned on AQI — partly out of anger with AQI’s brutal rule and partly out of political interest. This Anbar Awakening, named after the province in which it began, resulted in former Sunni insurgents partnering with the American and Iraqi militaries to uproot AQI. AQI was roundly defeated, and lost effective control over almost all of its previous domain. The fall of AQI illustrates just how much ISIS depends on support from Sunni Iraqis. If it angers the population, they can provide critical intelligence and cooperation that would allow the Iraqi military to crush them.

    5. Iraqi civilian deaths, 2003-2010

      No one suffered more from the Iraq War than Iraqi civilians. The fluctuations in this chart show the three distinct stages of the war. The first, from 2003 to 2005, was the war between the US-led invasion force and Iraqi forces, including government forces as well as Islamist and nationalist insurgents. Civilians in this period were bystanders. In early 2006, however, Iraq’s conflict became what is often described as a civil war, fought among three factions: Sunni insurgents, including Islamist extremists and former Saddam loyalists; Shia militias, some of them rogue members of state security forces; and the US-led occupation force. In this period, which lasted two awful years, civilians were often the target of the violence, with bombings and death squads seeking to ethnically cleanse Baghdad in particular. While conditions improved significantly after 2008, many fear that the current crisis could reignite the sectarian hatreds and militias of 2006 to 2007.

    6. The ethnic cleansing of Baghdad


      The ethnic cleansing of Baghdad

      There are few grimmer symbols for the devastation of the Iraq War than what it did to Baghdad’s once-diverse neighborhoods. The map on the left shows the city’s religious make-up in 2005. Mixed neighborhoods, then the norm, are in yellow. The map on right shows what it looked like by 2007, after two awful years of Sunni-Shia killing: bombings (shown with red dots), death squads, and militias. Coerced evictions and thousands of deaths effectively cleansed neighborhoods, to be mostly Shia (blue) or mostly Sunni (red). Since late 2012, the sectarian civil war has ramped back up, in Baghdad and nationwide.

The current crisis

  1. ISIS’s 2006 plan for Iraq and Syria

    This map is hypothetical, but the fact that it exists at all speaks to ISIS’s ambition. Aaron Zelin, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, found this 2006 map produced by ISIS, showing the areas it hoped to control and overlapping oil sources. The correctness of the map aside (there is not actually much oil in this area, despite the little derrick icons), it shows that the group has been thinking about the economics of its war and how to self-fund. It currently controls much of this desired territory, and some reports indicate ISIS has enough some oil production and refinery facilities, a big step toward being able to fund its own war.

  2. The Sunni protest movement of 2013

    Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did a lot to assist in ISIS’s rise. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2006, he has centralized a great deal of power in his office, and run the Iraqi government along Shia sectarian lines. Naturally, this infuriated Sunnis, who organized a series of protests around the country in 2012. These continued into 2013, and the Maliki government began to see them as a serious problem. Unable or unwilling to resolve the protests politically, the Maliki government turned to force. His security forces killed 56 people at protest in the northern town Hawija alone in April 2013. The forcible breakup of the protest movement convinced some Sunnis that their only solution was military, helping militant groups like ISIS and the more secular Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) recruit from and curry favor with the Sunni minority.

  3. Syria’s civil war

    This map shows the state of play in Syria’s civil war, which after three years of fighting has divided between government forces (red), the anti-government rebels who began as pro-democracy protestors (green), Kurdish rebels (yellow), and the Islamist extremist fighters who have been moving in over the last two years (blue). Areas under government control tend to overlap with religious minorities, whereas both kinds of rebels are mostly from the Sunni Muslim majority. This is crucal for understanding the Iraq crisis because ISIS spent a year fighting and winning territory in Syria before it opened its offensive in Iraq. ISIS fighters have been in many cases fighting with and overpowering the more moderate rebels. This has happened in part because extremists have received funding from Gulf countries, in part because they are better at attracting foreign fighters, and in part because Syria’s government has refused to target ISIS, correctly believing that foreign powers like the US may hate Assad but would ultimately prefer him to ISIS. All of that helped give ISIS a staging ground, territory, and battlefield training for its assault now.

  4. Where ISIS has control in Iraq and Syria

    The red-shaded areas across Syria and Iraq show the widest extent of what could be considered territory under ISIS control. In many cases, ISIS does not directly govern the territory so much as that they have expelled government forces; in some places it’s more contested than controlled by any one side; and in others, such as the large Iraqi city of Mosul, ISIS appears to have handed control over to local Sunni groups. So this is not quite an ISIS mini-state, but it is a vast swath of Sunni Arab territory across two countries that’s held in part by an Islamist group so extreme that they were kicked out of al-Qaeda.

  5. ISIS’s war in Iraq as of August 2014

    This map shows who controls what in Iraq as of early August. The black dots show ISIS control; yellow and red are either contested or under threat. The city of Mosul is circled — that’s because ISIS may have seized a huge Iraqi dam there, which could be used to flood large parts of the country and deprive Iraqis of water. Sinjar is also circled: that’s where ISIS militants have expelled at least ten thousand Yazidis, and ethno-religious minority, sending them fleeing to the top of a mountain where they are waiting to be killed by ISIS or die of thirst. ISIS has also pushed into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, which had previously resisted the group. The Kurdish capital, Erbil, is where a number of American and other foreign government personnel are based, after evacuating Baghdad. On August 7, President Obama authorized air strikes to defend both Erbil and Sinjar from ISIS.

  6. The spike in Iraqi deaths since 2011

    Compare this chart to number 18 above, of Iraqi civilian deaths from 2003 to 2010, and you can see why people are so worried about sectarian civil war returning. This chart of rising civilian deaths in Iraq since 2011 shows just how bad things have been getting, near or at wartime levels. But it also shows that this crisis did not begin as suddenly as it may seem to Americans; there has been rising sectarian violence over the last year and a half, much of it terrorism by Sunni extremists who have targeted the government and Shia civilians.

  7. Iraqi civilians displaced by the crisis

chemical weapons, including degraded poison gas, captured by ISIS (Levant) rebels

Iraq Says ‘Terrorist’ Groups Have Seized Former Chemical Weapons Facility

Posted: 07/08/2014 7:46 pm EDT Updated: 8 minutes ago

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The Islamic State extremist group has taken control of a vast former chemical weapons facility northwest of Baghdad, where remnants of 2,500 degraded chemical rockets filled decades ago with the deadly nerve agent sarin are stored along with other chemical warfare agents, Iraq said in a letter circulated Tuesday at the United Nations.

The U.S. government played down the threat from the takeover, saying there are no intact chemical weapons and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to use the material for military purposes.

Iraq’s U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a letter that “armed terrorist groups” entered the Muthanna site on June 11, detained officers and soldiers from the protection force guarding the facilities and seized their weapons. The following morning, the project manager spotted the looting of some equipment via the camera surveillance system before the “terrorists” disabled it, he said.

The Islamic State group, which controls parts of Syria, sent its fighters into neighboring Iraq last month and quickly captured a vast stretch of territory straddling the border between the two countries. Last week, its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the land the extremists control.

Alhakim said as a result of the takeover of Muthanna, Iraq is unable “to fulfil its obligations to destroy chemical weapons” because of the deteriorating security situation. He said it would resume its obligations “as soon as the security situation has improved and control of the facility has been regained.”

Alhakim singled out the capture of bunkers 13 and 41 in the sprawling complex 35 miles (56 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad in the notorious “Sunni Triangle.”

The last major report by U.N. inspectors on the status of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program was released about a year after the experts left in March 2003. It states that Bunker 13 contained 2,500 sarin-filled 122-mm chemical rockets produced and filled before 1991, and about 180 tons of sodium cyanide, “a very toxic chemical and a precursor for the warfare agent tabun.”

The U.N. said the bunker was bombed during the first Gulf War in February 1991, which routed Iraq from Kuwait, and the rockets were “partially destroyed or damaged.”

It said the sarin munitions were “of poor quality” and “would largely be degraded after years of storage under the conditions existing there.” It said the tabun-filled containers were all treated with decontamination solution and likely no longer contain any agent, but “the residue of this decontamination would contain cyanides, which would still be a hazard.”

According to the report, Bunker 41 contained 2,000 empty 155-mm artillery shells contaminated with the chemical warfare agent mustard, 605 one-ton mustard containers with residues, and heavily contaminated construction material. It said the shells could contain mustard residues which can’t be used for chemical warfare but “remain highly toxic.”

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki expressed concern on June 20 about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seizing the complex, but played down the importance of the two bunkers with “degraded chemical remnants,” saying the material dates back to the 1980s and was stored after being dismantled by U.N. inspectors in the 1990s.

She said the remnants “don’t include intact chemical weapons … and would be very difficult, if not impossible, to safely use this for military purposes or, frankly, to move it.”

The Muthanna facility, south of the city of Samarra, was Iraq’s primary site for the production of chemical weapons agents. After the end of the first Gulf War, U.N. weapons inspectors worked there to get rid of chemicals that could be used in weapons, destroy production plants and equipment, and eliminate chemical warfare agents. The U.N. inspectors left just before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and never returned. The U.S.-led Iraq Survey Group then took over the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and found none.

News of the facility’s takeover came amid continued political uncertainty in Iraq as leaders must agree on a new government that can confront the militant offensive that has plunged the country into its worst crisis since the last U.S. troops left in 2011.

Iraq’s parliament on Tuesday officially rescheduled its next session for Sunday after it was criticized for earlier plans to take a five-week break.

america’s role in iraq

The U.S.’s sledgehammer worldview is destroying countless lives and future generations.

The front page of The New York Times on June 26 featured a photo of women mourning a murdered Iraqi.

He is one of the innumerable victims of the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) campaign in which the Iraqi army, armed and trained by the U.S. for many years, quickly melted away, abandoning much of Iraq to a few thousand militants, hardly a new experience in imperial history.

Right above the picture is the newspaper’s famous motto: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

There is a crucial omission. The front page should display the words of the Nuremberg judgment of prominent Nazis – words that must be repeated until they penetrate general consciousness: Aggression is “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

And alongside these words should be the admonition of the chief prosecutor for the United States, Robert Jackson: “The record on which we judge these defendants is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well.”

The U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq was a textbook example of aggression. Apologists invoke noble intentions, which would be irrelevant even if the pleas were sustainable.

For the World War II tribunals, it mattered not a jot that Japanese imperialists were intent on bringing an “earthly paradise” to the Chinese they were slaughtering, or that Hitler sent troops into Poland in 1939 in self-defense against the “wild terror” of the Poles. The same holds when we sip from the poisoned chalice.

Those at the wrong end of the club have few illusions. Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of a Pan-Arab website, observes that “the main factor responsible for the current chaos [in Iraq] is the U.S./Western occupation and the Arab backing for it. Any other claim is misleading and aims to divert attention [away] from this truth.”

In a recent interview with Moyers & Company, Iraq specialist Raed Jarrar outlines what we in the West should know. Like many Iraqis, he is half-Shiite, half-Sunni, and in preinvasion Iraq he barely knew the religious identities of his relatives because “sect wasn’t really a part of the national consciousness.”

Jarrar reminds us that “this sectarian strife that is destroying the country … clearly began with the U.S. invasion and occupation.”

The aggressors destroyed “Iraqi national identity and replaced it with sectarian and ethnic identities,” beginning immediately when the U.S. imposed a Governing Council based on sectarian identity, a novelty for Iraq.

By now, Shiites and Sunnis are the bitterest enemies, thanks to the sledgehammer wielded by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (respectively the former U.S. Secretary of Defense and vice president during the George W. Bush administration) and others like them who understand nothing beyond violence and terror and have helped to create conflicts that are now tearing the region to shreds.

Other headlines report the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Journalist Anand Gopal explains the reasons in his remarkable book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes.

In 2001-02, when the U.S. sledgehammer struck Afghanistan, the al-Qaida outsiders there soon disappeared and the Taliban melted away, many choosing in traditional style to accommodate to the latest conquerors.

But Washington was desperate to find terrorists to crush. The strongmen they imposed as rulers quickly discovered that they could exploit Washington’s blind ignorance and attack their enemies, including those eagerly collaborating with the American invaders.

Soon the country was ruled by ruthless warlords, while many former Taliban who sought to join the new order recreated the insurgency.

The sledgehammer was later picked up by President Obama as he “led from behind” in smashing Libya.

In March 2011, amid an Arab Spring uprising against Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1973, calling for “a cease-fire and a complete end to violence and all attacks against, and abuses of, civilians.”

The imperial triumvirate – France, England, the U.S. – instantly chose to violate the Resolution, becoming the air force of the rebels and sharply enhancing violence.

Their campaign culminated in the assault on Gadhafi’s refuge in Sirte, which they left “utterly ravaged,” “reminiscent of the grimmest scenes from Grozny, towards the end of Russia’s bloody Chechen war,” according to eyewitness reports in the British press. At a bloody cost, the triumvirate accomplished its goal of regime change in violation of pious pronouncements to the contrary.

The African Union strongly opposed the triumvirate assault. As reported by Africa specialist Alex de Waal in the British journal International Affairs, the AU established a “road map” calling for cease-fire, humanitarian assistance, protection of African migrants (who were largely slaughtered or expelled) and other foreign nationals, and political reforms to eliminate “the causes of the current crisis,” with further steps to establish “an inclusive, consensual interim government, leading to democratic elections.”

The AU framework was accepted in principle by Gadhafi but dismissed by the triumvirate, who “were uninterested in real negotiations,” de Waal observes.

The outcome is that Libya is now torn by warring militias, while jihadi terror has been unleashed in much of Africa along with a flood of weapons, reaching also to Syria.

There is plenty of evidence of the consequences of resort to the sledgehammer. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly the Belgian Congo, a huge country rich in resources – and one of the worst contemporary horror stories. It had a chance for successful development after independence in 1960, under the leadership of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba.

But the West would have none of that. CIA head Allen Dulles determined that Lumumba’s “removal must be an urgent and prime objective” of covert action, not least because U.S. investments might have been endangered by what internal documents refer to as “radical nationalists.”

Under the supervision of Belgian officers, Lumumba was murdered, realizing President Eisenhower’s wish that he “would fall into a river full of crocodiles.” Congo was handed over to the U.S. favorite, the murderous and corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and on to today’s wreckage of Africa’s hopes.

Closer to home it is harder to ignore the consequences of U.S. state terror. There is now great concern about the flood of children fleeing to the U.S. from Central America.

The Washington Post reports that the surge is “mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras” – but not Nicaragua. Why? Could it be that when Washington’s sledgehammer was battering the region in the 1980s, Nicaragua was the one country that had an army to defend the population from U.S.-run terrorists, while in the other three countries the terrorists devastating the countries were the armies equipped and trained by Washington?

Obama has proposed a humanitarian response to the tragic influx: more efficient deportation. Do alternatives come to mind?

It is unfair to omit exercises of “soft power” and the role of the private sector. A good example is Chevron’s decision to abandon its widely touted renewable energy programs, because fossil fuels are far more profitable.

Exxon Mobil in turn announced “that its laserlike focus on fossil fuels is a sound strategy, regardless of climate change,” Bloomberg Businessweek reports, “because the world needs vastly more energy and the likelihood of significant carbon reductions is ‘highly unlikely.'”

It is therefore a mistake to remind readers daily of the Nuremberg judgment. Aggression is no longer the “supreme international crime.” It cannot compare with destruction of the lives of future generations to ensure bigger bonuses tomorrow.

© 2014 Noam Chomsky — Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate

gertrude of arabia: british intelligence officer

The Daily Beast Clive Irving


Gertrude of Arabia, the Woman Who Invented Iraq

The story of the British intelligence agent who rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, drew new borders—and gave us today’s ungovernable country.
She came into Baghdad after months in one of the world’s most forbidding deserts, a stoic, diminutive 45-year-old English woman with her small band of men. She had been through lawless lands, held at gunpoint by robbers, taken prisoner in a city that no Westerner had seen for 20 years.It was a hundred years ago, a few months before the outbreak of World War I. Baghdad was under a regime loyal to the Ottoman Turks. The Turkish authorities in Constantinople had reluctantly given the persistent woman permission to embark on her desert odyssey, believing her to be an archaeologist and Arab scholar, as well as being a species of lunatic English explorer that they had seen before.She was, in fact, a spy and her British masters had told her that if she got into trouble they would disclaim responsibility for her. Less than 10 years later Gertrude Bell would be back in Baghdad, having rigged an election, installed a king loyal to the British, re-organized the government, and fixed the borders on the map of a new Iraq. As much as anyone can be, Gertrude Bell could be said to have devised the country that nobody can make work as a country for very long—no more so than now.The Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie of men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers and colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists—this is the “orient” according to the definition first made by the Greeks, meaning everything east of the Mediterranean as Alexander the Great advanced to seize it.For decades, beginning in the mid-19th century, the Orientalists had explored the desert and found there the ruins of the great powers of the ancient world—Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia. Through archaeology they revealed these splendors to the modern world and, from their digs, stuffed Western museums with prizes like the polychromatic tiled Ishtar Gates of Babylon, moved to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, or the Cyrus Cylinder, containing the Persian king Cyrus’s new creed of governance as he conquered Babylon, shipped to the British Museum.

They wondered why such resplendently rich and deeply embedded pre-Christian urbanized cultures ended up buried by the drifting sands of the desert, completely unknown and ignored by the roaming Arab, Turkish and Persian tribes above. The many glories of Babylon, for example, lay unexplored not far from the boundaries of Baghdad.

The Middle East as we know it was largely the idea of a small coterie of men composed of British scholars, archaeologists, military officers and colonial administrators who were called the Orientalists.

Among the explorers, a state of mind developed that was patronizing and paternalistic. If they had not made these discoveries, who would know of these great cities? If Arabs took the artifacts it would be, to these men, mindless looting; if the Western scholars shipped them home, often in vast consignments, it was to preserve them for posterity.

The Ottomans had managed Arabia through a decentralized system of provinces called valyets, run by governors they appointed. Tribal, sectarian and territorial conflicts made it a constantly turbulent place, despite the hammer of Ottoman rule. Under a more centralized system the place would have been ungovernable. But the Turks never entertained the Western idea of nation building, it was as much as they could do to keep even a semblance of order.

The Orientalists thought differently. The Western idea of nation building was the future of Arabia. As World War I drew to its end and the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Orientalists saw an opportunity to bring modern coherence to the desert by imposing new kingdoms of their own devising, as long as the kings would be compliant with the strategic interests of the British Empire.

Into this coterie of schemers came two mavericks, both scholars, both fluent Arab speakers, both small in stature and psychologically fragile, both capable of extraordinary feats of desert exploration—a young man called T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell, a more seasoned connoisseur of the desert life.

Both had been recruited before World War I to gather intelligence on the Ottomans. Both were hard to accommodate within a normal military and diplomatic machine and so ended up working for a clandestine outfit in Cairo called the Arab Bureau, which was more aware of their singular gifts and more tolerant of their habits.

Bell’s epic desert trek in 1913-14 was already legendary. Her objective had been a city called Hail that no European had reached since 1893. Under the cover of archaeological research, her real purpose was to assess the strength of a murderous family called the al Rashids, whose capital Hail was.

The Rashids had been kicked out of Riyadh by the young Abdul Aziz bin Abdurrahman al Saud, otherwise known as Ibn Saud, who was to become the founder of Saudi Arabia.

Despite the rigors of the terrain, Bell was as susceptible to the spiritual appeal of the desert as others like her young protégée Lawrence. “Sometimes I have gone to bed with a heart so heavy that I thought I could not carry it through the next day,” she wrote. “Then comes the dawn, soft and benificent, stealing over the wide plain and down the long slopes of the little hollows, and in the end it steals into my heart also….”

When she reached Hail, the Rashids were suspicious and put her under what amounted to house arrest in the royal complex.

But as a woman, Bell enjoyed an advantage over male colleagues that she was to deploy on many missions: molesting or harming women was contrary to the desert code of conduct, even in a family as homicidal as the Rashids. For a week or so, Bell was warmly entertained by the women of this polygamous society, and the women’s gossip provided a rich source of intelligence on palace intrigues, of which there were many. From this she was able to see what her British minders valued: That the Rashids were yesterday’s men and the Saudis would likely be a formidable and independent power in Arabia. The Rashids released her, and she went on to Baghdad, Damascus, and home to London.

It was inside knowledge like this that put Bell in an influential position when the war ended and the European powers decided how they would carve up Arabia. Lawrence had committed himself to the princes of the Hashemite tribe, notably Feisal, with whom he had fought against the Turks, and promised Damascus to them. But unknown to Lawrence, a secret deal had been cut with the French, who wanted control of the eastern Mediterranean and were to get Damascus while Britain would fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire by re-drawing the map of Arabia.

The British were more aware than the French of the importance that oil would assume. Syria, the new French subject state, was unpromising as an oil prospect. The first Middle Eastern oil field began pumping in Persia at the head of the Persian Gulf in 1911, under British control, and geologists suspected, rightly, that vast oil reserves lay untapped in both Persia and Iraq.

While Lawrence left the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 stricken by the guilt for a British betrayal of his Arabs to which he had not been a party, Bell was sent to Baghdad, where Feisal was to be given his consolation prize: the throne of a new Iraq.

As well as the prospect of huge oil reserves, this new Iraq was crucial to the lines of communication to the great jewel of the British Empire, India. And, ostensibly, it was the diplomats and generals of the Indian administration who ran the show in Baghdad. But they depended on Bell as an expert and a negotiator, fluent in Arabic and used to the schisms and vendettas of the region. In fact, many of the decisive meetings as the British struggled to create a provisional government took place in Bell’s own house.

On August 23, 1921, at a ceremony in central Baghdad, Feisal was installed as the monarch of Iraq, even though he had no tribal roots in the country to assist his legitimacy. “We’ve got our king crowned,” wrote Bell with relief. And she made a claim about this election that would be echoed decades later by Saddam Hussein, that Feisal had been endorsed by 96 percent of the people, even though he was the only candidate and the majority of the population was illiterate.

Indeed, Bell was so carried away with her confidence in the nation she had helped to create that she crowed: “Before I die I look to see Feisal ruling from the Persian frontier to the Mediterranean.”

In reality, the Iraqi borders had been arbitrarily drawn and disregarded 2,000 years of tribal, sectarian, and nomadic occupation. The Persian frontier was the only firmly delineated border, asserted by mountains. Beyond Baghdad the line drawn between Syria, now the property of France, and Iraq was more cartography than anthropology. Nothing had cooled the innate hostilities of the Shia, in the south, who (in a reversal of the current travesty in Baghdad) were virtually unrepresented in Bell’s new assembly, and the Sunnis to the north, as well as the Kurds, the Armenians and the Turks, each with their own turf. Lawrence, in fact, had protested that the inclusion of the Kurds was a mistake. And the desert border in the south was, in Bell’s own words, “as yet undefined.”

The reason for this was Ibn Saud. Bell wrote in a letter to her father, “I’ve been laying out on the map what I think should be our desert boundaries.” Eventually that line was settled by the Saudis, whose Wahhabi warriors were the most formidable force in the desert and who foresaw what many other Arabs at the time did: Iraq was a Western construct that defied thousands of years of history, with an alien, puppet king who would not long survive and internal forces that were centrifugal rather than coherent.

For a while, Bell was the popular and admired face of the British contingent in Baghdad. An American visitor pleased her by calling her “the first citizen of Iraq.” The Arabs called her “Al Khatun,” meaning a noble woman who earned respect. She went riding and swimming every day, somewhat diminishing the benefits of that by chain smoking in public. She also made no secret of the fact that she was an atheist. It seemed that she was more comfortable in the company of Arabs than she had been among her peers in Cairo.

Lawrence, for example, while respectful of her scholarship, thought that Bell “had no great depth of mind” and politically was a poor judge of people and “changed direction like a weathercock.” Sir Mark Sykes, a crusty diplomat who had colluded with the French to give them Damascus, was more defiantly a misogynist. He called her “a silly chattering windbag, an infernal liar, a conceited, gushing, rump-wagging, blethering ass.”

Sometimes Bell revealed a dark self-knowledge. In 1923 she wrote to her father: “At the back of my mind is that we people of war can never return to complete sanity. The shock has been too great; we’re unbalanced. I am aware that I myself have much less control over my own emotions than I used to have.”

By then she had only three years to live, and was becoming frail from overwork. She described her routine in a letter: “I get up at 5:30, do exercises till 5:45 and walk in the garden till 6 or a little after cutting flowers. All that grows now is a beautiful double jasmine of which I have bowls full every day, and zinnias, ugly and useful. I breakfast at 6:40 on an egg and some fruit…leave for the office by car at 6:55 and get there at 7…”

As well as administrating in the manner of a colonial official, she often acted like a viceroy, receiving a stream of tribal sheiks, Arab officials or simply citizens with grievances. The king had to be managed, as he sat in his garden “in full Arab dress, the white and gold of the Mecca princes.” But she also devoted much of her time to a personal passion: creating the Iraq Museum in Baghdad where she gathered a priceless collection of treasures from the world of antiquity—reminding herself and the Iraqi people how the earliest urban civilizations had flourished around the Tigris and Euphrates.

There were, though, other loves that belied the appearance of a desiccated, workaholic spinster. She lived with the memories of two passionate romances, both thwarted.

At the age of 24 she became engaged to a young diplomat but her rich industrialist father deemed it an unsuitable match and, in the compliant Victorian manner, she ended it. Her second affair was far deeper, tragic and, in its effects, everlasting. She fell in love with Colonel Charles Doughty-Wylie, a soldier with a record of derring-do with appropriate movie star looks. But Doughty-Wylie was married, and as long as the war occupied them both neither could see a way out. Bell was, however, completely besotted:

“I can’t sleep,” she wrote to him, “I can’t sleep. It’s one in the morning of Sunday. I’ve tried to sleep, every night it becomes less and less possible. You, and you, and you are between me and any rest; but out of your arms there is no rest. Life, you called me, and fire. I flame and I am consumed.”

He responded in kind: “You gave me a new world, Gertrude. I have often loved women as a man like me does love them, well and badly, little and much, as the blood took me…or simply for the adventure—to see what happened. But that is all behind me.”

Doughty-Wylie died in the amphibious assault on the Turks at Gallipoli in 1916—ill-conceived by Winston Churchill as an attempt to strike at the “soft underbelly” of the Ottoman Empire.

Bell died at her house by the Tigris in Baghdad in July 1926 at the age of 57.  She had taken an overdose of barbiturates, whether deliberately or accidentally it was impossible to tell. Lawrence by then was a recluse, in flight from the road show devised by the American journalist Lowell Thomas that had turned him, as Lawrence of Arabia, into the most famous man on Earth.

But it was Gertrude Bell, who was never a public figure, who had left the greater mark on the Middle East, for better or worse.

King Feisal, who had been ailing for some time, died in Switzerland in 1933, at the age of 48, to be succeeded by his son Prince Ghazi. The monarchy was brought down by a pro-British military coup in 1938, a regime that would ultimately mutate into that of Saddam Hussein’s in 1979.



© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

“Coming towards me was a party of camel riders. They were clearly all Arabs, except one who seemed to be a woman. It was Gertrude Bell. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a well-­dressed Englishwoman, looking spick and span in spite of her weeks of desert travel. I never forgot that first striking impression.”  Sir William Willcocks,1914

An advisor on Arab affairs during World War I, she was the only woman with a diplomatic role at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the only woman (invited by Winston Churchill) at the Cairo Conference in 1921.

In 1925, Bell drafted a new Law of Antiquities which safe-guarded Iraq’s right to hold onto excavated artifacts. She championed education for Muslim girls, helping to establish one of the most progressive educational systems in the Middle East.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926) was part proper Victorian and part modern woman. The precocious daughter of a wealthy industrialist family from northern England, her life was a series of “firsts”:

  • The first woman to receive highest honors in Modern History at Oxford
  • The first person to climb all the peaks of the Engelhörner range in the Swiss Alps
  • The first woman to do a solo journey into the uncharted Arabian desert (traveling by camel for 1500 miles across Central Arabia in 1914)
  • The first female Intelligence officer employed by the British Military
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University
© The Gertrude Bell Archive, Newcastle University

isil forces capture western iraq towns in anbar province

Sunni fighters expand offensive in western Iraq

Update Article:

Iraq Militants Seize Border Post In Drive To Create Islamic Caliphate

Posted: 06/21/2014 8:51 am EDT Updated: 06/21/2014 3:59 pm EDT

ANBAR, Iraq June 21 (Reuters) – Sunni fighters have seized a border post on the Iraq-Syria frontier, security sources said, smashing a line drawn by colonial powers a century ago in a campaign to create an Islamic Caliphate from the Mediterranean Sea to Iran.

The militants, led by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), first moved into the nearby town of al-Qaim on Friday, pushing out security forces, the sources said on Saturday.

Once border guards heard that al-Qaim had fallen, they left their posts and militants moved in, the sources said.

Sameer al-Shwiali, media adviser to the commander of Iraq’s anti-terrorist squad, told Reuters the Iraqi army was still in control of al-Qaim.

Al-Qaim and its neighboring Syrian counterpart Albukamal are on a strategic supply route. A three-year-old civil war in Syria has left most of eastern Syria in the hands of Sunni militants, now including the Albukamal-Qaim crossing.

The Albukamal gate is run by al Qaeda’s official Syria branch, the Nusra Front, which has clashed with ISIL but has sometimes agreed to localized truces when it suits both sides.

The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, Rami Abdulrahman, said ISIL had pushed the Nusra Front out from many areas of eastern Syria in the past few days and their capture of al-Qaim will allow them to quickly move to the Syrian side.

ISIL already controls territory around the Albukamal gate, effectively pinching the Nusra Front between its forces in Syria and those in neighboring Iraq, said Abdulrahman, who tracks the violence.

The al Qaeda offshoot has captured swathes of territory in northwest and central Iraq, including the second city, Mosul. They have seized large amounts of weaponry from the fleeing Iraqi army and looted banks.

World powers are deadlocked over the crises in Iraq and Syria. Shi’ite Iran has said it will not hesitate to protect Shi’ite shrines if asked by Baghdad but Sunni-run Saudi Arabia has warned Tehran to stay out of Iraq.

U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 U.S. special forces advisers to help the Iraqi government recapture territory seized by ISIL and other Sunni armed groups across northern and western Iraq.

But he has held off granting a request for air strikes to protect the government and renewed a call for Iraq’s long-serving Shi’ite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, to do more to overcome sectarian divisions that have fueled resentment among the Sunni minority.


The fighting has divided Iraq along sectarian lines. The Kurds have expanded their zone in the northeast to include the oil city of Kirkuk, which they regard as part of Kurdistan, while Sunnis have taken ground in the west.

The government has mobilized Shi’ite militia to send volunteers to the front lines.

In Baghdad’s Shi’ite slum of Sadr City, thousands of fighters wearing military fatigues marched through the streets.

They carried rocket-propelled grenades, semi-automatic rifles and trucks had mounted long-range rockets, including the new 3-meter “Muqtada 1” missile, named after Shi’ite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who has tens of thousands of followers.

Sadr has yet to throw his fighters into the recent wave of fighting but has accused Maliki of mishandling the crisis.

“These brigades are sending a message of peace. They are the brigades of peace. They are ready to sacrifice their souls and blood for the sake of defending Iraq and its generous people,” a man on a podium said as the troops marched by.


The fighting, with strong sectarian overtones, is pushing the country towards civil war.

Iraq’s largest refinery, Baiji, 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital near Tikrit, has been transformed into a battlefield.

“Last night, three attacks on Baiji refinery were repelled and attackers … More than 70 terrorists were killed and more than 15 vehicles were destroyed,” said Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for the Iraqi military’s commander-in-chief.

He showed aerial footage of cars and people being blown up but details of the fighting could not be independently confirmed.

The conflict has displaced tens of thousands. On Saturday evening, 15 people were wounded by a army helicopter strike in the village of Al Bu Saif, south of Mosul city, medics said.

A health official in Mosul said the wounded included two children and seven women. “Most of them are from the same family. Three are in critical condition from shrapnel wounds,” he said.

As in Syria, ISIL has started to clash with other Sunni militias in Iraq. In the town of Hawija, ISIL and members of the Naqshbandi Army, made up of former army officers as well as loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s former ruling Baath party, started fighting on Friday evening, witnesses said.

They said the clashes, in a dispute over power, killed 15 people.

“Hawija is falling apart,” a senior tribal figure from the community said before the clashes. “There are so many groups working with ISIL. Each group has its agenda.”

Hawija could be seen as the spark for Iraq’s current armed Sunni insurgency. In April 2013, Sunni protesters said security forces shot dead at least 50 of them. They were demanding greater rights from the Shi’ite-led government. After the killings, violence soared in Iraq. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Volunteers of the newly formed

Thousands of Shiite militiamen have paraded in Baghdad. | AP Photo


BAGHDAD — Sunni insurgents led by an al-Qaida breakaway group expanded their offensive in a volatile western province on Saturday, capturing three strategic towns and the first border crossing with Syria to fall on the Iraqi side.

It’s the latest blow against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is fighting for his political life even as forces beyond his control are pushing the country toward a sectarian showdown.

In a reflection of the bitter divide, thousands of heavily armed Shiite militiamen — eager to take on the Sunni insurgents — marched through Iraqi cities in military-style parades on streets where many of them battled U.S. forces a half decade ago

The towns of Qaim, Rawah and Anah are the first territory seized in predominantly Sunni Anbar province, west of Baghdad, since fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group overran the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi earlier this year.

The capture of Rawah on the Euphrates River and the nearby town of Anah appeared to be part of march toward a key dam in the city of Haditha, which was built in 1986 and has a hydraulic power station that produces some 1,000 megawatts. Destruction of the dam would adversely impact the country’s electrical grid and cause major flooding.

Iraqi military officials said more than 2,000 troops were quickly dispatched to the site of the dam to protect it against a possible attack by the Sunni militants. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Rawah’s mayor, Hussein Ali al-Aujail, said the militants ransacked the town’s government offices and forced local army and police forces to pull out. Rawah and Anah had remained under government control since nearby Fallujah fell to the Sunni militants in January.

The Islamic State’s Sunni militants have carved out a large fiefdom along the Iraqi-Syrian border and have long traveled back and forth with ease, but control over crossings like that one in Qaim allows them to more easily move weapons and heavy equipment to different battlefields. Syrian rebels already have seized the facilities on the Syrian side of the border and several other posts in areas under their control.

Police and army officials said Saturday that the Sunni insurgents seized Qaim and its crossing, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) west of Baghdad, after killing some 30 Iraqi troops in daylong clashes Friday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to journalists, said people were now crossing back and forth freely.

Chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi acknowledged Qaim’s fall, telling journalists that troops aided by local tribesmen sought to clear the city of “terrorists.”

The vast Anbar province stretches from the western edges of Baghdad all the way to Jordan and Syria to the northwest. The fighting in Anbar has greatly disrupted use of the highway linking Baghdad to the Jordanian border, a key artery for goods and passengers.

Al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government has struggled to push back against Islamic extremists and allied Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of the country’s north since taking control of the second-largest city of Mosul on June 10 as Iraqi government forces melted away.

The prime minister, who has led the country since 2006 and has not yet secured a third term after recent parliamentary elections, also has increasingly turned to Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Shiite volunteers to bolster his beleaguered security forces.

The parades in Baghdad and other mainly cities in the mainly Shiite south revealed the depth and diversity of the militia’s arsenal, from field artillery and missiles to multiple rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, adding a new layer to mounting evidence that Iraq is inching closer to a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites.

Al-Maliki has come under growing pressure to reach out to disaffected Kurds and Sunnis, with many blaming his failure to promote reconciliation led to the country’s worst crisis since the U.S. military withdrew its forces nearly three years ago.

invasion of islamic countries revisited

Combat Veteran and Military Historian Tells Bill Moyers, “No Way” Do We Go Back into Iraq:  “Invading and occupying countries in the Islamic world is a pretty dumb idea,” says Andrew Bacevich.

Moyers and Company / By Bill Moyers

June 20, 2014 |

The escalating bloodbath in Iraq has triggered renewed debate on how muscular America’s foreign policy should be. Speaking about the crisis earlier, President Obama recently said that the US is ready for “targeted and precise military action” against advancing Islamists if needed, adding that “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.”

BILL MOYERS: Welcome. They said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that could turn the smoking gun into a mushroom cloud, and they were wrong. They said Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda, and they were wrong. They said the war would be a cakewalk, and they were wrong. Over and again they were wrong, yet 11 years, thousands of lives, millions of refugees, and trillions of dollars later, the very same armchair warriors in Washington who from the safety of their Beltway bunkers called for invading Baghdad, are demanding once again that America plunge into the sectarian wars of the Middle East.

A chorus of kindred voices fills the echo chamber: the same old faces, the same old arguments, never acknowledging the phony premises and fraudulent intelligence that led to disaster and chaos in the first place. A headline at the website ThinkProgress sums it up: “The People Who Broke Iraq Have A Lot of Ideas About Fixing It Now.”

Among the most celebrated of these hawks is Robert Kagan, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution. A darling of the neocons, he’s been a foreign policy adviser to John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Hillary Clinton. In 2002, he and William Kristol wrote that for the war on terrorism to succeed, Saddam Hussein must be removed. When George W. Bush set out to do just that, Kagan cheered him on, and then, in 2006, called for a surge in American troop levels to prevent Iraq’s collapse.

Now Robert Kagan is stirring controversy again with this lengthy article in “The New Republic,” “Superpowers Don’t Get To Retire: What our tired country still owes the world.” He calls for America to return to muscular, global activism.

Kagan’s much-discussed article brought a sharp riposte from another scholar and historian who sees the world and America’s role differently. Andrew Bacevich has seen the horrors of war too closely to advocate more of the same policies that failed in Vietnam and Iraq. A graduate of West Point with 23 years in the military, including time in Vietnam, he teaches history at Boston University, writes best-selling books on foreign policy, and articles and essays in journals both liberal and conservative, like this critique of Kagan in “Commonweal” magazine titled, “The Duplicity of the Ideologues.” Welcome back.


BILL MOYERS: So what do you mean, the duplicity of ideologues?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, Kagan’s essay, which does deserve to be read, simply because of Kagan’s stature in Washington, gives us a falsified, sanitized, and in some respects, illusory account of recent American history.


ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, his notion of American history, particularly since 1945, is one that we might term an extended liberation narrative where the United States devoted itself, in the wake of World War II, to promoting liberal values, democracy everywhere, fighting against evildoers, and he concludes that this success is being squandered by Barack Obama and those who are unwilling to continue this crusade.

Now, that narrative is only sustainable if you leave a lot of important facts out, or if you distort those facts. So we get no mention of overthrowing Mossadegh in Iran in 1953. We get no mention of the CIA overthrowing the president of Guatemala. We get virtually no mention of the Vietnam War, which he dismisses as sort of an unfortunate incident of no particular significance. And perhaps most egregiously, he utterly ignores the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he served as a cheerleader for. And which to a very large extent, account for the problem that we’re dealing with today in the greater Middle East.

BILL MOYERS: This week, one of his allies, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Elizabeth wrote a long essay in “The Wall Street Journal.” They say, “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many. Too many times to count, Mr. Obama has told us he is ‘ending’ the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—as though wishing made it so.

His rhetoric has now come crashing into reality. Watching the black-clad ISIS jihadists take territory once secured by American blood is final proof, if any were needed, that America’s enemies are not ‘decimated.’ They are emboldened and on the march.”

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I’d say rarely has a major American newspaper published an op-ed that was so thoroughly shameless. Again, what is the cause? What was the catalyst of the instability that racks Iraq today? The simple answer is the one that Cheney and his daughter don’t want to mention: the unnecessary, misguided, and frankly immoral war launched by the United States in 2003. We destabilized Iraq. In many respects, we destabilized the larger region. And misfortune of Barack Obama is that he inherited this catastrophe, created by the previous administration.

BILL MOYERS: Even Cheney once thought that it would be a serious mistake to occupy Baghdad. This is Dick Cheney in 1994 reflecting on the first Iraq war– when he was Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush.

BRUCE COLLINS on C-Span,1994: Do you think the US, or UN forces, should have moved into Baghdad?

DICK CHENEY on C-Span,1994: No.

BRUCE COLLINS on C-Span,1994: Why not?

DICK CHENEY on C-Span,1994: Because if we’d gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn’t have been anybody else with us. It would have been a US occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq.

Once you got to Iraq and took it over, and took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government in Iraq, you can easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of eastern Iraq the Iranians would like to claim– fought over for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think the contrast between what Cheney said in 1994 and what he says 20 years later is actually very illustrative of this point. And that is that what passes for foreign-policy debate today, is just nakedly partisan. Back in 1994, he was in the business of defending George Herbert Walker Bush. Now he’s in the business of defending George W. Bush. But basically attacks Barack Obama, blaming Obama for any difficulties that we’re having. And the point about naked partisanship I think really applies in a somewhat larger stage. When you look at the people who get invited on the Sunday talk shows, or whose op-eds appear in “The New York Times” or in “The Washington Post” or other prominent organs of opinion, they are people who are participating in this partisan debate.

There is very little effort to look beyond the Bush versus Obama, Republican versus Democrat, to try to understand the larger forces in play that have brought us to where we are today. And the understanding of which could then make it possible for us to think somewhat more creatively about policy than simply having an argument about whether we should, you know, attack with drones or attack with manned aircraft.

BILL MOYERS: What are those larger forces at work? Because Robert Kagan says, quote, “world order shows signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing.” And that these changes signal a transition into a different world order, which the United States should attempt to lead.

ANDREW BACEVICH: When Kagan uses phrases like world order, he’s describing something that never really existed except in his own imagination. But again, the point is worth reflecting on. Kagan believes, many people in Washington believe, perhaps too many people in the hinterland also believe, that the United States shapes the global order. That there is an order for which we alone are responsible.

Where does this kind of thinking come from? I mean, I think in many respects, what we see here is the contemporary expression of the whole notion of American exceptionalism. That we are chosen. We are called upon, called upon by God, called upon by providence, to somehow transform the world and remake it in our own image. Now, Robert Kagan wouldn’t state it as bluntly as I just did. But that is the kind of thinking that I think makes it very difficult for us to have a genuine and serious foreign policy debate.

BILL MOYERS: So the other side would argue, as they are, that well, look at the beheadings and the murders, the brutality and cruelty that the radical Islamists are inflicting upon their adversaries, and the people of Iraq. Isn’t that an evil to which we are the only ones can respond?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, first of all, it is an evil to which we contributed by our folly in invading Iraq back in 2003. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq under the previous order. That’d be the first point. And the second point I think would be: let’s be practical. Let’s be pragmatic. If indeed we are called upon to act, let us frame our actions in ways that actually will yield some positive outcome.

I’m personally not persuaded that further military action in Iraq is actually going to produce an outcome more favorable than the last one. If what we have here on our hands in Iraq, in Syria, elsewhere in the Middle East is a humanitarian catastrophe, then let us become serious about asking ourselves, what is the appropriate response? What can the richest and most powerful country in the world do to alleviate the suffering of innocent people who are caught up in this violence?

And my answer to that question is not air strikes. My answer to that question is, well, if indeed we have a moral responsibility to come to the aid of suffering Iraqis and Syrians, then we better start opening up our wallets to be far more generous and forthcoming in providing assistance that people need.

You know, we live in a country where if you want to go bomb somebody, there’s remarkably little discussion about how much it might cost, even though the costs almost inevitably end up being orders of magnitude larger than anybody projected at the outcome. But when you have a discussion about whether or not we can assist people who are suffering, then suddenly we come very, you know, cost-conscious.

BILL MOYERS: What form would that assistance take, given the hostilities on the ground there, and the murderous internecine, tribal, sectarian conflicts going on there? How do we help people who are at this moment suffering as a consequence, as you have indicated earlier, of polices we pursued?

ANDREW BACEVICH: People flee these conflict zones. They flee into neighboring countries where they end up in pretty squalid refugee camps, mostly run by the United Nations. Let’s double, triple, quadruple the support that we provide to maintain those refugee camps. Or let’s go beyond that. Let us welcome at least some number of them to America, where they will have safety and freedom. I mean, if we’re serious about caring about the well-being of these people, that’s one practical way to respond to their plight.

BILL MOYERS: So do we conclude from that that you don’t believe there is anything practical we can do on the ground to separate the warring forces or help the government forces in Iraq prevent this violence? Is the only option murderous genocide and optimum paralysis?

ANDREW BACEVICH: We have been engaged in the Islamic world at least since 1980, in a military project based on the assumption that the adroit use of American hard power can somehow pacify or fix this part of the world. We can now examine more than three decades of this effort.

Let’s look at what US military intervention in Iraq has achieved, in Afghanistan has achieved, in Somalia has achieved, in Lebanon has achieved, in Libya has achieved. I mean, ask ourselves the very simple question: is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more democratic? Are we alleviating, reducing the prevalence of anti-Americanism? I mean, if the answer is yes, then let’s keep trying. But if the answer to those questions is no, then maybe it’s time for us to recognize that this larger military project is failing and is not going to succeed simply by trying harder.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, the events that are unfolding in Iraq at this very moment promote a debate within Washington revolving around the question, what should we do about Iraq? But there is a larger and more important question. And the larger and more important question has to do with the region as a whole. And the actual consequences of US military action over the past 30 years.

BILL MOYERS: As you know, Iraq has formally asked the US government to launch air strikes against those Jihadist militants. How do you think that’s going to play out?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I don’t know. My guess would be that this will substantially increase the pressure on the president to do just that. And my question would be if we launch air strikes, and if the air strikes don’t have a decisive effect in turning the tables on the ground, then what? I mean, this is always, I think, a concern when you begin a military operation that you have some reasonable sense of what you’re going to do next if the first gambit doesn’t succeed.

BILL MOYERS: Many people are saying that Barack Obama is feckless, lacks will, or strength, and that he’s enabling the defeat of our interest in the Middle East by pulling the troops back and by being indifferent to what’s happening there now.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, he’s not indifferent. I mean, I’m not here to defend the Obama approach to foreign policy, which I think has been mediocre at best. That said, the president has learned some things. I think the most important thing the president learned from his predecessor is that invading and occupying countries in the Islamic world is a pretty dumb idea. It leads to complications and enormous costs. So we see him reticent about putting so-called boots on the ground. That said, the president certainly has not been reluctant to use force in a variety of ways. Usually on small-scale drone strikes, commando raids, and the like.

Where I would fault the president is that he hasn’t been able to go beyond learning the negative lessons of the Bush era to coming up with a positive approach to the Islamic world. Shortly after he was inaugurated he went to Cairo, gave a famous speech, speech proposed that there was going to be a new beginning, turn the page, a new beginning of US relations with the Islamic world.

Who would not endorse that proposition? I mean, I certainly do. But it has come to nothing. Nobody in the Obama administration, either in the first term or in the present term, as far as I can tell, has been able to figure out how to operationalize this notion of a new relationship between ourselves and the Islamic world. One can give Secretary Kerry credit for trying to restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Were we able to broker a peace that created a sovereign, coherent, viable Palestinian state, that actually could be the one thing we could do that would seriously change the tenure of US relations with the people of the Islamic world. But that effort has failed.

BILL MOYERS: But you seem to think that the other thing we could do is end our estrangement with Iran. What do you think would come from that?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Neither Iran nor the United States has an interest in a massive, bloody, protracted civil war in Iraq. Both the United States and Iran have an interest in greater stability in this region. And I think that it would be at least advisable to explore the possibility, whether this common interest in stability can produce some sort of an agreement comparable to Nixon’s opening to China. When Nixon went to China, that didn’t make China our ally. It didn’t have the immediate effect of bringing about a political change in China. But it did change the strategic balance in ways that were favorable to us and frankly favorable to the rest of the world.

BILL MOYERS: What is it, about how we go to war? We poured blood and treasure into Vietnam and Iraq and wound up with exactly the opposite consequences than we wanted. And we keep repeating, hearing the same arguments and claims that we should do it again.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, war itself is evil. But war is an evil that should command our respect. War is something that we should not take lightly, that we should not discuss frivolously. And I think that that’s one of the great failings of our foreign policy establishment. That our foreign policy establishment does not take war seriously. It assumes that the creation of precision guided weapons makes war manageable. Removes from war the element of risk and chance that are always inherent in warfare. So these are people who, quite frankly, most of them don’t know much about war and, therefore, who discuss war in frivolous ways.

BILL MOYERS: And yet, there’s this still almost religious belief in force as the savior.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I think your use of religious terms is very appropriate here. Because there is a quasi-theological dimension to their thinking related, again, to this notion that we are called. We are chosen. We are the instrument of providence. Summoned to transform the world. And therefore empowered to use force in ways not permitted to any others. I mean, the ultimate travesty of the immediate period after 9/11 was the Bush administration’s embrace of preventive war that became then the rationale for invading Iraq in 2003. But it was a general claim. A general claim that the United States was empowered to use force preventively. Before the threat emerges. Not simply–

BILL MOYERS: Pre-emptory strikes.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Not simply in self-defense. And we should note that as far as I can tell, President Obama has not repealed that notion. Indeed, has used it himself in order to employ force in lesser ways in various situations.

BILL MOYERS: So is it duplicity or self-delusion?

ANDREW BACEVICH: It depends I think on who we are talking about here. For somebody like Vice President Cheney berating Barack Obama for somehow surrendering American leadership and in the course of doing that simply ignoring the record of the administration in which he served– that’s duplicity. That’s malicious partisanship.

But I think when you talk about people like Robert Kagan, they believe. They believe what they believe. They subscribe to a worldview that to my mind is utterly misguided. But they are genuinely committed to the sort of propositions that are on display in his “New Republic” article. I mean, it’s just a question of why those propositions continue to be treated seriously when they should not be.

Watch part two of a video interview with Bacevich, followed by a transcript.

BILL MOYERS: How can one hold to the notion of exceptionalism when America performs so miserably in Vietnam and Iraq? Failed in those two wars fought within 30–

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the, I mean, the belief in American exceptionalism is accompanied by a very specific, historical narrative. I mean, a story of contemporary history to which we swear fealty or give our allegiance. And that’s the story which is centered on World War II. And centered on a very specific interpretation of World War II as a fight of good against evil, in which the United States liberated Western Europe and overthrew Nazi Germany. Now, that story’s not wrong. It’s just radically incomplete.

And the preoccupation with World War II, particularly the European war, then makes it possible to gloss over much of what followed World War II, during the Cold War, those episodes like overthrowing governments that we didn’t like, befriending autocrats and corrupt dictators around the world making monumental mistakes such as the Vietnam War.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the conclusion you draw from that reading of history?

ANDREW BACEVICH: My reading is that there are no simple, moral lessons to be drawn. My reading is one in which yes, of course, there is evil in the world that needs to be taken into account. And some time must be confronted. But my reading would be, let’s not kid ourselves in somehow imagining that the United States represents all that is good and virtuous, we, ourselves, have committed many sins. And we ought to be cognizant of those sins before we go pronouncing about how the world ought to be run.

BILL MOYERS: Right now the Iraqis confront the fate that befell the South Vietnamese. Do we just walk away from what’s happening there?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I don’t think they face the fate of the South Vietnamese–

BILL MOYERS: You don’t?

ANDREW BACEVICH: –in this sense, we must exercise care in predicting what’s going to happen operationally next week and the week after. But my sense is that this ISIS force, obviously fierce. It’s also relatively small. It doesn’t possess tank divisions. It doesn’t have an air force. It has enjoyed great success in penetrating into the predominately Sunni parts of Iraq. And it professes to wish to overthrow the predominately Shiite government.

My expectation would be that as the Shiites themselves face this prospect that they’ll rally. Not rally in a sense that they’re going to defeat ISIS and eject them from Iraqi territory. But rally in a sense that they’ll be able to deny Baghdad to ISIS, which doesn’t really point to a happy outcome.

It points to the outcome of what could well be a protracted and bloody civil war with the Shiites controlling one part of the country, Sunnis controlling another part of the country and Kurds a third party of the country. That’s not a happy prospect. But I think that’s actually more likely than the scenario we saw in Vietnam back in 1975 where the north simply swept across all of South Vietnam and seized Saigon.

BILL MOYERS: You have recently in “The Los Angeles Times” last week call for rethinking our relationship with Iran. Just as Nixon after Vietnam rethought and reshaped our relationship with our once mortal enemy, China. But that’s the very thing right now, today, the neo-conservatives are opposing. They do not want to change our hostile relationship with Iran.

ANDREW BACEVICH: The fathers of today’s neo-cons were among the people who, back in the 1960s and 1970s, were insisting that unless we fought on to final victory in Vietnam, that the consequences would be catastrophic. That the dominos would fall. That the communists would enjoy a great victory. That victory was not in the offing. And to his considerable credit, the cynical and in many respects amoral Richard Nixon realized that there was one way to salvage at least some positive aspects from this catastrophe in Vietnam.

And that was opening to China. Bringing China, beginning the process of bringing China back into the international community. Making China something other than an enemy of the United States. And that’s what he did. And the notion now it seems to me is that if we had sufficiently bold and creative people guiding U.S. foreign policy today, they might consider a comparable turn with regard to Iran.

ANDREW BACEVICH: I think that it’s manifestly the case that excluding Iran from the international order with the expectation that somehow peace and democracy are going to bloom in Iran, that that’s failed. Iran is an important country. And in many respects, Iranian interests do coincide with American interests. And I think Iraq actually is an example of that.

BILL MOYERS: But the neo-cons are defiantly against collaborating with Iran for any reason because they see that as a potential threat to the survival of Israel.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, they do. And, I mean, the first point would be why should we listen to them at this stage of the game? But the second thing, I think, is to assess pragmatically this Iranian regime. Now it is possible to build the case, particularly back when Mr. Ahmadinejad was the President of Iran that this a country governed by madmen who wanted nothing more than to wipe Israel off the map and would be willing to sacrifice Iran itself in order to achieve that. It’s possible to build that case.

But I think the case is a false one. I think that, first of all, Ahmadinejad is passed from the stage. We’ve got a new president. A new president’s language is considerably different. But more broadly, if you look at the behavior of the Iranian regime, since the revolution back in the late 1970s, they’ve actually performed pretty rationally. They’re not irrational. They’re not madmen. They’re people, frankly, who you can deal with if you can find those points of interest that coincide.

And my preference, as opposed to, confrontation with Iran, war with Iran, as indeed some neoconservatives would propose, my proposition would be that we should explore carefully whether or not that rational regime can be brought to a point where we can strike a deal with them.

BILL MOYERS: You asked, and I don’t think it was rhetorically a moment ago, why should we be listening to them? And that raises the old question, how do they get the audience and the forum that they have despite a record of failure, deception, and as you say, duplicity?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I puzzle over that. And the only answer I’ve been able to come up with has to do with the mindset of Washington journalists. You know, the people who book you to come on the Sunday talk shows, the people who decide whether or not your op-ed submission’s going to be accepted by the Washington Post are people who live within this bubble, this Washington milieu in which everything, it seems to me, gets viewed through the lens of partisanship.

Everything is assumed to be an issue of Republicans versus Democrats, left versus right. You know, the people who like Obama and the people who loathe Obama. And so when the booker for some network news show says, well, gosh, Iraq’s falling apart. Who should we get to come on the show on Sunday? Their little rolodex turns up the pro-Iraq war, anti-Obama typical cast of characters.

Rather than thinking about, gosh, isn’t this a historical development of very considerable magnitude. Who are the voices, who are the people who might have something to reflect on? Who are the people who have might have something to say that’s simply not regurgitating the same sort of talking points that we heard last week and the week before?

I mean, I’m struck by how thin the intellectual discourse is when it comes to foreign policy. There was a time in this country when we had very serious thinkers who were taken seriously and who illuminated the fundamental difficulties that we faced in the world.

They weren’t necessarily– they didn’t get everything right. But what they did was to challenge the conventional wisdom and invite people to look beyond simply the partisan debate of the day. I’m not sure who on our national stage today fills that sort of role. And frankly, the absence of these people is a great misfortune.

BILL MOYERS: What price do we pay for the absence of this critical thinking and inquiry?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, the debate that goes nowhere. I mean, it’s the same talking points are endlessly repeated. That, you know, the warnings against isolationism. The demands for American global leadership, the comparisons with Adolf Hitler.

Whoever the bad guy of the day happens to be, he’s cited as the next Hitler. The recollection of Munich and the warning against appeasement over and over and over again these points are repeated. And they don’t illuminate.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote that a handful of randomly selected citizens of Muncie, Indiana would probably be more reliable on what to do than these oracles in Washington.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I was only half kidding. And what I mean by that is it seems to me that there– that every day citizens would be more likely to view things realistically, pragmatically and would not be swayed by theological or ideological considerations.

BILL MOYERS: We saw that in their outspoken response and felt response when Obama was considering going into Syria. Public opinion really turned that course.

ANDREW BACEVICH: That was the striking moment. Of course from the point of view of people like Kagan, the president was guilty of great folly and not following through on his threat to go to war with Syria. But I think you’re exactly right. The American people would seem to have learned some important lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan and are not eager to embroil themselves in yet another major war. And I think to his credit, Barack Obama has now acknowledged that.

BILL MOYERS: Kagan, however, laments the fact that Americans show these signs of being world weary. You can hardly blame them.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I mean, he calls it world weariness. One could also call it world wisdom. I mean, that it shows the capacity of the American people to learn.

BILL MOYERS: But Kagan and his crowd claim that, in your words, that, feckless, silly Americans with weak-willed Barack Obama, their enabler, are abdicating their obligation to lead the planet.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it’s not true. Again, here Kagan is playing to this mythic interpretation of U.S. history which contends that the American people are instinctively isolationist. That all we want to do is to turn away from the world. And that’s simply a false narrative.

The American people even before there was an America that is to say before there was a United States, have been engaged in the world commercially, culturally. Once this republic was created the founders and their successors set out to expand this nation to acquire power, to build wealth. That was a project that began in early in the 19th century. And in many respects reached its culmination with World War II. So the notion that there’s this instinct towards isolationism, although it certainly, you know, that’s a piece of propaganda that has been, rather successfully sold, it is simply propaganda. It’s not true.

BILL MOYERS: What does it say to you that at a time when our country can’t stop the killing of children in Chicago or prevent homegrown terrorists from attacking schools with their own private arsenals or cope with the chaos on the border with Mexico or rebuild our broken bridges and highways that there is still this cadre, this body, this community of people who believe we can police the Middle East?

ANDREW BACEVICH: They’re deluded. And I think the point implicit in your question is a very good one. Our power is limited. What are the priorities? And there are domestic priorities that are achingly ignored. And yet are arguably far more amenable to solutions than anything in the greater Middle East. So where you want to spend your money? I think we’d be better off spending some of that money in Muncie, Indiana than in Baghdad.

BILL MOYERS: Back when you published “The Limits of Power” you had hope that the lessons we would learn from Iraq, the financial crash, the great recession that followed would lead to a wakeup call. That we would turn around, turn in a better direction. Things would take off in the right direction. What happened to that hope?

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, it was not fulfilled. There certainly were signs of political change on the left and on the right. The Occupy movement on the left, the Tea Party on the right. But both of those were marginalized I think by the political center, Republican and Democrat which is deeply invested in maintaining the status quo.

Because the Republican party and the Democratic party are supported by, integrated with, a set of structures – whether we’re talking about the National Security bureaucracy or Wall Street – that views change as a threat to their own well-being. And thus far, those proponents of the status quo have succeeded. They’ve gotten their way.

BILL MOYERS: Andrew Bacevich, thank you for being with me.


Bill Moyers has received 35 Emmy awards, nine Peabody Awards, the National Academy of Television’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and an honorary doctor of fine arts from the American Film Institute over his 40 years in broadcast journalism. He is currently host of the weekly public television series Moyers & Company and president of the Schumann Media Center, a non-profit organization which supports independent journalism. He delivered these remarks (slightly adapted here) at the annual Legacy Awards dinner of the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan public policy institute in New York City that focuses on voting rights, money in politics, equal justice, and other seminal issues of democracy. This is his first TomDispatch piece.


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