Analysis: The former UK prime minister used to claim the 2003 invasion would undermine jihadis. The 12 years since have proved how wrong he was
Only one of
Tony Blair’s mea culpas in his CNN interview stands out as truly significant: his partial acknowledgment that without the Iraq war there would be no Islamic State (Isis).
Until now, Blair had refused to link the two, insisting instead in the lead-up to the war that sending western troops would deny jihadis an arena and prevent
Saddam Hussein from using them as proxies in his standoff with the west.
The 12 years since have constantly disproved both claims. Within six months of British troops landing in Iraq, the SAS was sent to Baghdad’s western outskirts to attack jihadis who had taken up residence in Ramadi. Back then, they were a mob of foreigners and Iraqis who fed off a broad Sunni discontent fuelled by the invasion; a serendipitous vanguard that not long afterwards organised into al-Qaida in Iraq, then
the Islamic State of Iraq and, since mid-2013, Isis.
Throughout all its incarnations, the group’s grievances have been largely consistent. Central to them is the belief that the invasion destroyed a regional order, ousting a stalwart of Sunni rule, and inviting the rival Shia sect to take over. The sense of loss was profound, with many Sunnis passionately believing that the US and Britain must have known exactly what they were doing.
These views, formed along contemporary faultlines of power and patronage, drove a widespread Sunni resistance, a mix of non-ideologues enraged by losing jobs, status and dignity, and others, like the jihadis, who believed the war had been preordained in Islamic prophecies. As Iraq unravelled, the latter began to hold sway – just as later happened in
Rightly or wrongly, the Sunnis of the region have come to believe that Blair’s decision to join George Bush’s war was the start of a historical pivot towards Iran and the restoration of Persian hegemony. They hold up a litany of developments to support their claim, including de-Ba’athification, which was aimed at eliminating Saddam’s influence, but also became a tool of repression against Sunnis, as well as the installation of Iraqi leaders who hailed from Shia supremacist backgrounds.
A senior Isis commander has told the Guardian that without the Camp Bucca facility in southern Iraq, in which he and most of the senior leadership were at one point detained, there would be no Isis today. “It made it all, it built our ideology,” he told the Guardian last December, “We could never have all got together like this in Baghdad, or anywhere else,” he said. “It would have been impossibly dangerous. Here, we were not only safe, but we were only a few hundred metres away from the entire al-Qaida leadership.”
As Iraq sank into chaos from early 2005, sectarian positions steadily hardened. Sunni militants, though battered in 2006 when Iraqi tribal leaders joined US troops in fighting them, were tamed for a time but never defeated. In the years since 2011, when US troops left, and in the wake of the Arab spring, Isis was able to feed off grievances that had remained unresolved since the British and US armies rolled north from Basra eight years earlier. The jihadis’ rallying call that British and US-led aggression caused all of this still resonates broadly, far beyond their constituency.
A sense of loss, enduring indignity and injustice on one hand, and helping to restore lost glories on another are a potent double act for Isis, which openly hails 2003 as its raison d’etre. It remains just as much of a unifying principle now as it was back then. Events ever since in Syria and Lebanon, where Iran is ascendant militarily and politically have if anything given it even wider appeal. This would not have happened if the Iraq war had not been launched.
In Baghdad on Sunday, Jihad Mohanned, a Sunni resident from the west of the city, said Blair’s acknowledgment was “so obvious it’s surprising he bothered to speak”.
He added: “It really isn’t possible to come to any other conclusion. Without the invasion, we would not have Isis. It’s crystal clear.”