The Dominant ISIS Narrative
Ever since ISIS appeared on the mainstream media’s radar several months ago, stories of massacres by ISIS have dominated US news. A review of just the news at the end of October and beginning of November turns up numerous stories with the same content and purpose – to demonstrate the barbarity of the US government’s current enemy in the region. The New York Times noted on October 27 that ISIS is a prime suspect in a suicide bombing in Jurf al-Skhar that killed at least 38. On October 30, The New York Times ran a story on ISIS’s violence against the Sunni Albu Nimr tribe west of Baghdad, a story picked up the next day by Time. On November 1, both NBC and Fox covered the killing of 50 tribesmen in Anbar province.
Needless to say, these are horrible atrocities; but that is not why they are being reported. These stories are making US news because they offer justification for the most recent phase of the US invasion and vindicate the occupation as a whole. Stories of atrocities committed by Islamist militias allied with the United States in the fight against ISIS are being sparsely reported. An October Amnesty International report reveals frequent massacres by Iraqi Shiite militias, currently pardoned and protected in their crimes by the Iraqi and US governments, because of these militias’ direct connection to the Iraqi government and because of their common opposition to ISIS.
This study was acknowledged by several news outlets on the day of its release, but reporting since then has generally reverted to its former narrative, oriented around the destruction caused by ISIS and the dire need for US assistance, with very little mention of the dangers posed by these Shiite militias. There has certainly been little if any mention of the fact that these militias have been instrumentalized and protected by the Iraqi government long before ISIS. (Amnesty International report, p. 17) And the larger lesson suggested by this report – that the United States is a major contributor to the violent situation in Iraq, having both instigated the civil war to begin with and supported and protected some of the most bloodthirsty participants who emerged – has escaped notice by major media. Stories of violence by Shiite militias appear in isolated and occasional reporting, far outnumbered by stories, contextualized in a larger news narrative, detailing the crimes of ISIS.
Amnesty International Report Challenges the Dominant Narrative
The Amnesty International report mentions numerous instances of violence by militant groups opposed to ISIS, such as the Badr brigades, the Mahdi Army, the Madhi Army offshoot, Sarayah al-Salam (Peace Brigade), Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous), and the Hizbullah Brigades, in the Sunni cities of Samarra and Kirkuk. These groups have participated in frequent attacks against and abductions of, mostly Sunni, civilians, sometimes as retaliation against similar attacks by ISIS (p. 11) and other times with financial motives. (p. 6)
There are more than 170 confirmed cases of young men being abducted from the city of Samarra since June, all of whom have been either confirmed dead or not seen since. More than 30 of these men were abducted and killed on a single day in June. (p. 10) A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) earlier this year told a similar story. HRW documented 61 killings of Sunni men in the first week of July in the Baghdad, Diyala and Hilla provinces. At least 48 were killed in March and April in the vicinity of Baghdad. Mass executions of Sunnis have also been a frequent occurrence; for example, 53 were found bound and shot north of Hilla in July. Moreover, any body count will be an understatement because many people disappear without any conclusive indication of the identity of the perpetrator or whereabouts of the victim and because the Iraqi government prevents investigations into these matters.
The Iraqi government does so because all of these groups have direct ties to the government of Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has actually hired these groups as security forces to police Baghdad. The head of the Badr organization, Hadi al-Amiri, was the minister of transportation until September 2014. (p. 17) Besides the kidnappings and murders mentioned, these Shiite militias have been known to make illegal arrests on behalf of the state. (HRW report) As Amnesty International reports, the government disguises militia fighters as members of the army, while giving them license to take far more damaging actions than ordinary soldiers and excusing them from the military oversight mechanisms to which official soldiers are, at least in theory, accountable. (p. 17)
The Larger Lesson
There is a saying that war makes strange bedfellows. Sometimes this is the result of a warring power with an unavoidable mission allying out of necessity with whatever parties share a vital interest. However, in wars of choice, like this 12-year-old war in Iraq, such strategic decisions amount to a decision to participate in wrongdoing in order to acquire greater international power. For obvious reasons, military intervention is always accompanied by state propaganda villainizing opponents of the intervening state – and finding monsters in, depending on the targeted party, governments or rebel movements, is rarely challenging. As is common in situations of violent conflict, ISIS is apparently just one of many psychopathic parties, both state and nonstate, currently wreaking havoc in that war-torn country. The United States has sided with some and fought against others.
The point of discussing these crimes is not to establish that the government and Shiite militias kill more than ISIS. This would be hard to prove conclusively and would also be beside the point. The point is to acknowledge the responsibility of the US government, and thus indirectly our responsibility, for whatever volume of unnecessary violence the United States happens to be involved in Iraq. This present strife among various militias must, first of all, be placed in the context of a civil war apparently resulting from the United States’ decision to destroy the previous government and try to rebuild a US-friendly civil order from scratch. The US government subsequently chose to join forces with mass-murdering fundamentalist militias not markedly different from ISIS.
This type behavior has precedents. It is easy to understand why an intervening power would gravitate toward whatever established centers of power, however morally bankrupt, happen to share interests in an unstable political situation. For instance, CIA support of the Nicaraguan anti-communist forces in the 1980s involved encouraging murderous drug lords, the most obvious counter-power to the state in Latin America, to sell cocaine to crack dealers in Los Angeles in order to fund violence in Nicaragua. The CIA also famously gave Osama bin Laden valuable experience organizing terrorism against the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Policy decisions like these will recur until we find a way to stop generating and supporting US leaders who engage in wars of choice.