On October 10, 680, Husain Ibn Ali, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, and a small band of followers were attacked at Karbala, in what is now Iraq, by a much larger force under the command of the reigning Caliph Yazid I. At stake was the leadership of the Islamic world. What ensued was less a battle than a slaughter. All of Husain’s supporters were killed. Seventy-two of them were beheaded.
Husain himself was, according to tradition, the last to fall. His corpse was then also decapitated, and his body trampled under horses so as to be unrecognizable. The day of his death has been celebrated ever since by the descendants of his followers, the Shia, as Ashura. It is a day of mourning and vows of retribution.
It has been 1336 years. It might as well have been yesterday.
Days ago, Qais Al-Khazaali, leader of the Shia militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, vowed that the Iraqi offensive to retake the city of Mosul would be “revenge for the killing of Imam Husain.” The implication was clear. The attacking Iraqi force, excluding the Kurdish Peshmerga, is overwhelmingly Shia. Mosul is a predominately Sunni city populated in Shia eyes by the descendants of Yazid I, and thus sharing in his guilt.
Khazaali’s words expose the fiction that underlies this administration’s Iraq policy and the public relations lie being sold to the American people. According to that fantasy vision, we are in Iraq helping a united democratic government regain control of its sovereign territory and defeat ISIS, a dark, hostile, apocalyptic force. The attack on Mosul will crush ISIS once and for all and enable the Iraqis to move ahead with the task of rebuilding their shattered nation.
The truth is nowhere near as neat and clean. The reality is that we are in Iraq providing logistical support and air cover for a mixed bag of separate entities, all of whom have their own disparate agendas and all of whom have their own very distinct ideas of what Iraq will look like in the future. It’s still not certain if Iraq as we know it will continue to exist.
A very large number of these individuals are Shia members of a bewildering array of militia groups loosely classified as Popular Mobilization Units. Many of these militias are entirely creatures of the Iranians. The Asaib Ahl al-Haq was built from the ground up by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Its leader, Khazaali, was recruited a decade ago by the Iranians during the American occupation of Iraq. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force, has for years been in effective operational control of the activities of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq. It is no coincidence that Soleimani has been reported recently to be on the ground near Mosul.
The Obama administration continues to push the story that we are nearing the end of the war against ISIS in Iraq and that peace and prosperity lie ahead for the Iraqi people. As with the false narrative that the Iran nuclear deal made the world a safer place, the political dimensions of this story are obvious. The priorities are to send President Obama off into retirement with claim to a “legacy” of peace and to guarantee the election of his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, as his successor.
In reality, the fall of Mosul will represent only a turning of the page in Iraq. This is not the end of the book. It is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Shia militiamen by the tens of thousands, along with their Iranian advisors, are massing outside of Mosul. As with Fallujah, where hundreds of Sunni males vanished after the city’s fall, these militia are intent on revenge and ethnic cleansing, and Iraqi government assurances that they will stay outside the city limits are, as usual, meaningless.
Perhaps more significant than what happens during the storming and capture of Mosul, however, is what happens afterward. Shia militia groups, many of which fought against the Americans during the occupation, have made repeated recent threats to attack American forces now in Iraq. Once Mosul has fallen and the need for American support no longer exists, there is every reason to believe that those threats will be acted upon.
On the day after Mosul falls, the real battle for the future of Iraq begins. The Shia militias and their Iranian masters, driven by hatred held close and cultivated for over 1,300 years, have no intention of sharing that future with American allies of convenience, Sunni Arabs, or Kurds. They intend to settle an old score once and for all.
The battle for Mosul is the end of nothing. It is only the beginning.