The Spectacle Blog

“Waiting to Die” in Iraq: A Costly History Lesson

By on 6.11.14 | 4:31PM

"We are waiting to die," Mahmoud al Taie, an Iraqi dentist, told the Wall Street Journal as he prepared to flee Mosul. If he does, a country that desperately needs every upright citizen it has will have lost yet another health professional.

Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, which at least 125 American soldiers died liberating from Saddam Hussein's forces, fell on Wednesday. Half a million Iraqis are fleeing to the Kurds, who have set up their own government and army.

Mosul is now in the well-armed hands of a militant group known as ISIS or ISIL, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The radical group's expansion from Syria into Iraq now poses even more of a threat, especially because it will have access to supplies and manpower from Mosul, according to Reuters.

Initial reports said the fall of Mosul, while grave, would not affect Iraq's oil exports. But then then the next story broke: Saddam Hussein's hometown, which is located 100 miles south of Mosul, has also fallen to militants. Reported Reuters:

Sunni rebels from an al Qaeda splinter group overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit on Wednesday and closed in on the biggest oil refinery in the country, making further gains in their rapid military advance against the Shi'ite-led government.

Critics say the failure of Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim who has been in power for eight years, to address grievances among the once dominant Sunni minority led to a rise in Sunni militancy and pushed Sunni groups and tribes to rally behind ISIL.

Why is the sectarian violence spreading from Syria to Iraq? Why is the country so many Americans died to free falling apart? It's easy to look back and talk about what should have been done, especially in the Middle East. Maybe that's a good thing; after all, those who do not learn their history are doomed to repeat it.

In the case of Iraq, one concern does stand out, one that was so well-documented even when the Iraq War began that it might be worthwhile to revisit. In 2006, a reporter asked relevant congressmen and security officials if they knew the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite Muslim. Many didn't. At the time, it seemed like an innocuous question, similar to the gag panel videos of tourists who say "Ben Ghazi" is a brand of toothpaste.

Who could know that distinction would be the reason we couldn't help the Iraqis form a stable government, or the reason that a government uprising in Syria became a sectarian bloodbath that has displaced 2.5 million Syrians, or the reason that an innocent dentist named Mahmoud al Taie will probably die in Mosul? It turned out to be important. Authoritarian leaders such as Saddam Hussein, and before him the British army and Ottoman Empire, were keeping a lid on centuries-old hatred between the Sunnis, the majority of Muslims who wanted elected leadership after Mohamed's death. and the Shiites, who now hold power in Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Sunnis and Shiites mattered in Iraq, whether American leaders knew what they were or not. What the United States does in the Middle East matters—to a dentist named Mahmoud al Taie, and to the Americans who died to take Mosul and Tikrit. It's been a costly history lesson.

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