One afternoon this March, during a visit to Jordan, I sat on the banks of the Dead Sea with my Iraqi friend, Azzam Alwash. As we stared across the salt lake and watched the sun disappear behind the rocky crags of Israel, I recounted a trip I had taken to Jordan 20 years earlier to conduct field research on Palestinian refugees, as part of a Middle East peace effort designed to ensure that within a decade nobody in the region considered himself a refugee.
No one had an inkling back then that the numbers of refugees in the region would increase exponentially, with millions of Iraqis and Syrians displaced from their homes by international intervention and civil war. Nor had I imagined at the time that I would find myself in Iraq after the invasion of 2003, initially as a British representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority—the international transitional government that ran the country for about a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein—and then as the political advisor to U.S. Army General Raymond Odierno when he commanded U.S. forces in the country.
A number of the Iraqis I had gotten to know over the last decade had relocated to Jordan. I had gone there to see them and better understand events in the region—and the conditions that had led to the rise of the Islamic State.
* * *
The evening following our Dead Sea visit, Azzam and I went out for Italian food in Amman with a diverse group of our Iraqi friends, Sunni and Shiite, Kurd and Arab. It was a reunion of sorts; some of us had gone white-water rafting down the Little Zaab river in northern Iraq a few years ago. Azzam was an experienced rafter, but even the danger of the rapids had not pressured the group to trust his leadership and work together. There was a lot of shouting and we all got soaked, but somehow we had survived the trip. This, to me, represented Iraq writ large.
The conversation soon turned to Daesh (known as ISIS in the West), and how the group had formed. A common view I’ve heard in the region, propagated by Sunni and Shiite alike, is that Daesh is the creation of the United States. There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq or Islamic State before the U.S. invasion in 2003. Therefore, so the twisted reasoning goes, the United States must have deliberately created the group in order to make Sunnis and Shiites fight each other, thereby allowing the U.S to continue dominating the region. Local media had reported on alleged U.S. airdrops to Daesh. Some outlets even referred to Daesh's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as an Israeli-trained Mossad agent.
One of my dining companions asked me where I thought the group came from. I responded that Daesh was a symptom of a much larger problem. Regional sectarian conflict was an unintended consequence of the Iraq War and the manner in which the United States had left the country, both of which had empowered Iran and changed the balance of power in the Middle East. In my view, regional competition—of which Iran versus Saudi Arabia is the main but not only dimension—exacerbated existing fault lines. Those countries’ support for extreme sectarian actors in different countries had now turned local grievances over poor governance into proxy wars. Iran was funding and training Shiite militias, as well as advising regimes in Baghdad and Damascus. Gulf financing had flowed to Sunni fighters, including the ones that ultimately became Daesh. At the same time, there was a symbiotic relationship between corrupt elites in Iraq and terrorists—they justified each other's existence, each claiming to provide protection from the other.
Azzam offered another perspective. Daesh, he said, were Muslims, and fundamentalist Salafi Islam was to blame for their existence. The problem, he said, was the literal interpretation of the Quran, which, for example, spelled out harsh criminal punishments reflective of seventh-century practices. Other religions had moved forward and reformed because adherents were willing to interpret texts for their own time. A heated argument broke out as others at the table defended Islam and accused Azzam of being brainwashed by the West. "If we Muslim intellectuals are not self-critical, if we refuse to take responsibility to address the issues," he responded, "what hope is there for the Middle East?"
* * *
Azzam’s was only one of numerous explanations of Daesh’s origins and power that I heard from Iraqis during my visit to Jordan. All of these explanations contained some truth: There was no one simple reason, but rather a complex set of factors, that had enabled the group to take control of so much of Iraq.
Another explanation came from Sheikh Abdullah al-Yawar, the paramount sheikh of the Shammar tribe, which has around 5 million members in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Last summer, in the wake of the Daesh takeover of Mosul, his mother and brother managed to escape just hours before their palatial 27-room house near Rabiah—northwest of Mosul on the Syrian border—was blown up, his photos and carpets destroyed, his horses scattered to the wilds. It was a house that I knew well and had visited many times. From 2003 onward, Abdullah had decided that he and his family would cooperate with international coalition forces to secure their area, rather than fight against them.
Daesh did not suddenly take control of Mosul last summer, Abdullah told me over dinner with his family at his house in Amman. For years, there had been so much corruption in local government that Daesh had been able to buy influence and supporters. Government in Iraq, he said, was a business—a family business in which politicians in Baghdad and Mosul had stolen millions of dollars worth of the country's wealth. Daesh had then been able to exploit this situation to take control, presenting itself as a better alternative to corrupt local government.
But I had a more basic question: "Who are Daesh?" Many, he told me, had come out of the town of Tal Afar, where there had been bitter fighting between the Sunni and Shiite populations during the civil war. They were former Baathists, members of Saddam Hussein’s party who had been purged from Iraq’s government following the international intervention to oust Hussein. Then, after 2003, some became al-Qaeda, and now they were Daesh. They felt excluded and marginalized. Daesh gave them a sense of empowerment and let them present themselves as the defenders of the Sunnis against Shiites, Iran, and the United States.
In northern Iraq last summer, I had met men with large mustaches—the Baathists’ signature facial hair—who claimed to be spokesmen for insurgent groups and said they were leading a Sunni uprising against then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. I asked Abdullah what had happened to them. He responded that they had been all talk. Some had grown the beards mandated by fundamentalists and joined Daesh. Others had done nothing.
Abdullah and his wife provided me quotation after quotation from the Quran to prove that Daesh violated the tenets of Islam. Personally, I told them, I judge people by how they behave. "When I think of a Muslim, I think of the hospitality shown to me, a foreigner, whenever I travel in the Arab world." I went on, "Sadly, when I now tell people in the U.S. that I am off on holiday to the Middle East, they worry that I will be kidnapped and have my head chopped off." I had finished the vine leaves and tabbouleh salad we had been eating, and kebab and chicken were now heaped on my plate. I told them I thought I faced a greater risk of death from overeating.
Abdullah turned serious. "We need more help from America," he said. "Look at what Iran is doing. Iran is now in Tikrit.” (Iranian military officers were highly visible as advisors to Shiite militias seeking to retake the city.) He went on: "This is a huge humiliation for the Sunnis. This is not the way to destroy Daesh. It will cause a worse reaction in the future."
* * *
A few days later, Sheikh Ghassan al-Assi of the Obeidi tribe, which has around 700,000 members in Iraq, both Sunni and Shiite, took me to a restaurant in Amman that he said was owned by Christians from Baghdad. When the waiter came to take our order, Ghassan said, with an acerbic wit that I was by now long familiar with: "The Americans and British destroyed our country—but we still invite them to lunch!" He would later pick out the best parts of the barbecued fish and put them on my plate.
I had first met Ghassan in 2003, when he had been highly critical of coalition forces in Iraq. Even so, we had remained friends. He had fled to Amman last summer in the wake of the Daesh blitzkrieg. According to Ghassan, the group had blown up the grave of his father, the paramount sheikh of the Obeidis, and had destroyed the houses of his uncles because they collaborated with Maliki. He had hoped that his house would be left alone, since he had not worked with the United States or the Iraqi government. But the week prior to my visit, Daesh had turned up with C4 explosives and blown the home up. He did not know why. He took out his iPhone. "Bastards, bastards, bastards,” he muttered as he flicked through the photos.
Over a cup of tea, Ghassan showed me photos of one of his sons, who was wearing a red-and-white checked scarf, with a goatee, and was posing for the camera like a male model. I was surprised; I had never expected a boy born and bred in Hawija—a rough provincial town—to turn out looking like this. Even in Hawija, it seemed, there were people who just wanted to lead normal lives, to wear the latest fashion. It was Dubai, not Daesh, that represented the sort of society they wanted to live in.
Sheikh Ghassan laughed at my astonishment. "Miss Emma,” he asked me somewhat cryptically, “what is life without love?"
* * *
On my last day in Jordan, Jaber al-Jaberi, another tribal leader who had served Iraq as a member of parliament and had once been a candidate for minister of defense, drove me to Jerash, an ancient city outside Amman. With Daesh destroying Iraq's archaeological sites, we both wanted to go and see Jordan's. Jaber, too, had been forced to leave his home in Anbar amid the Daesh advance.
"The Sunnis of Iraq are like the Palestinians," Jaber said. "We've been displaced from our land." Sunnis had been cleansed from Diyala and areas surrounding Baghdad by Shiite militias, and many more had fled from the provinces of Anbar, Nineva, and Salah al-Din because of Daesh. Jaber himself had given up politics and was now spending his days trying to get food and assistance to tribesmen living in terrible conditions in makeshift accommodation in the desert. The Sunnis, he said, had no real leaders, and the Shiite militias were more powerful than the Iraqi security forces.
"Iraq is finished," he lamented to me. "There is no state left. It is a state of militias.”
The state of Iraq has indeed failed. It no longer has the legitimacy or the power to extend control over its whole territory, and the power vacuum is being filled by a multitude of non-state actors, increasingly extreme and sectarian, who will likely continue to fight each other for years to come, supported by regional powers. Whether a new kind of order will finally emerge, with more local legitimacy, remains to be seen. And for now those who are displaced are left wondering how long it will be until they are able to return home—and to what.
Still, I refused to believe that terrorists could erase Iraq’s past, and I told Jaber so. The past would survive in archives, in exhibits in the British Museum, on the walls of art galleries in Amman, in poems recited around the world. We were in the land where humans had first experimented with settled agriculture, where the Babylonian king Hammurabi gave some of the first written laws, where Jews had written the Talmud. Jaber, I saw, had tears in his eyes. "Nothing can take this away, Jaber,” I told him. “Nothing. Not these terrible terrorists, not these militias, not these awful politicians. A new generation will come one day that can build on this. The hope is the youth who just want to live their lives."
“Insh'allah,” Jaber responded.