The dramatic rise of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)–which even al-Qaeda deemed too extreme to remain part of its network–is a tragedy by any measure. It would also be tragic if we allowed the very forces that created this mess to explain it away.
Despite claims by the Bush administration and its supporters to the contrary, outside of a few dozen fighters in a remote valley of the Kurdish autonomous region, there was no Al-Qaeda or related Salafi extremist presence in Iraq under the Saddam Hussein regime. But now, thanks to the U.S. invasion and occupation, the extremists control most of the northern and western parts of the country, including Iraq’s second largest city.
Under U.S. occupation, Iraq’s two major bastions of secular nationalism–the armed forces and the civil service–were effectively abolished, only to be replaced by partisans of sectarian Shiite parties and factions, some of which were closely allied to Iran. Sunni extremists, believing Iraqi Shias had betrayed their country to Persians and Westerners, began targeting Shia civilian neighborhoods with terrorist attacks. The Iraqi regime and allied militia then began systematically kidnapping and murdering thousands of Sunni men. The so-called “sectarian” conflict, then, has been a direct consequence of U.S. policy.
Despite this, recognizing al-Qaeda related extremists among them were a bigger threat, Sunni tribesmen and other leaders in northern and western Iraq agreed in 2007 to ally with the government in return for better incorporating Sunnis into the government and armed forces. This led to a temporary lull in the fighting, which Republicans and various pundits have falsely attributed to the U.S. troop surge that followed.