Quora Question: What's the History of the Islamic Insurgency in Iraq?

Rebel fighters stand guard at a former base used by fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters

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Answer from Balaji Viswanathan, founder of a Silicon Valley based analytics startup - Limitless.

Shias and Sunnis have been fighting for over 1100 years on the importance of Imams (religious leaders). Shias place more importance on the people (Imams) and the Sunnis place more importance on the customs (Sunna). Iraq is in the middle of the Sunni and Shia world.

The Safavids of Iran and Ottomans of Turkey fought for centuries and kept Iraq as a sort of buffer state (to prevent Shia faith from moving west).

Then the World War I came when Ottomans supported Germany and lost. Britain took over Ottoman empire's territories in the Middle East and started imposing boundaries that didn't reflect the ground reality of various tribes. Mandatory Iraq.  Until 1914, the Ottomans had welded the various tribes of the Middleast into a federation. However, their defeat in the WW-I led the victors - UK and France to start splitting the regions among them.

The British power was passed to their friendly Hashemite monarch from Mecca and backed by the Lawrence of Arabia. This has resulted in a patchwork of incompatible tribes that are forced to stay under the same nation.

Fighting for a solution

The Kurds and Shiites have long fought for independence from the Sunni Arab authority that the British imposed. Over many decades, US has picked different sides in this sectarian violence - switching between Shia and Sunni leaders.

One feasible solution could be the division of Iraq into 3 nations:

  1. Sunni nation to the West
  2. Shia nation to the East and South
  3. Kurd nation to the north

This could have been ideal, but for the compulsions of other countries. Turkey didn't want Kurds to have a separate nation as they feared that a similar demand would be asked out of them (Turkey has a large Kurd population). US doesn't want a separate Shia Iraq as it would come under Iran's influence, nor want a separate Sunni Iraq that would come under Syria's domination.

The ease with which ISIS took over the Sunni cities indicate how weak and illegitimate  the current Iraqi government is. Even the moderate Sunni tribes support the ISIS more than their own government - indication that Iraqi government is no legitimate representative of the people of Iraq. US should let the things take a logical course - tripartite division of Iraq. This will put down the ISIS in two ways - 1) they have no power to fight the Kurds or Shia militias in their home bases 2) once the Sunnis get their territory the moderate tribes would put more pressure on ISIS to reduce violence.

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