Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Switzer

It's been four months since President Obama set out to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or the "Daesh death cult," as Tony Abbott put it in Baghdad at the weekend.

If there's one thing we've learnt by now, it's that the underlying problem of Muslim sectarianism, which created the conditions for the rise of Iraqi terrorists, is far from solvable.

Not only could Sunni and Shia animosities break up Iraq as we've known it for nearly a century — and, in the process expunge its Christian community — but they could also lead to a showdown between a Saudi-led bloc and a rival alliance led by Iran's Ayatollahs. Do we really want to get mired in an age-old dispute about the heir to the Prophet Muhammad?

To hear the Iraq war hawks tell it, the US-led campaign of targeted air strikes will resolve this crisis. "Knock off" the fanatics, urges the Prime Minister, and the problem is fixed. It requires a great deal of something — hubris, naivety or Wilsonianism on steroids — to believe that, having spent nearly a decade of blood and treasure on creating the very failed state that gave rise to the Islamic State, we can now somehow end evil in this medieval society with bombs and drones.

We all know the Sunni jihadists that make up the Islamic State have committed the most unspeakable atrocities against Muslims and non-Muslims in Iraq and Syria, not to mention western journalists and aid workers.

Less well known are the pro-Iranian, anti-American Shia militia, with whom we are essentially aligned. According to Amnesty International, these government-backed thugs have also committed the most appalling human rights abuses against Sunni civilians, including war crimes. Moderation is in short supply in the Middle East these days.

We are told the Islamic State will establish a caliphate, or safe haven, for terrorists to target nations, such as Australia and the US. That's a stretch. Yes, as Abbott said at the weekend, the Islamic State has "declared war against the world." But remember we are talking about a group with no navy or air force and an army the size of a standard US Army division of 20,000 troops (although that number has doubled since US air strikes began).

Over time, the Islamic State's wicked ways will repel Sunni moderates in towns such as Mosul and Fallujah, who tolerate the Sunni zealots for now – but only because they fear ethnic cleansing or permanent displacement by Shia death squads.

The Islamic State is confined to largely poor Sunni areas of eastern Syria and northern and central Iraq. It is no match for the Iranian-backed Shia south. And any threat to Australia and the US is better handled with tough anti-terror laws and homeland security than endless wars in the Persian Gulf.

It is also important to recognise why the jihadists promote footage of carefully choreographed beheadings of Western hostages: they want to draw America and her allies deeper into Iraq. After all, foreign intervention helps them recruit disillusioned Sunnis as well as depraved souls from the West to a holy war against "infidels." Are we taking their bait?

We are told that peaceful coexistence among Iraqis is now likely under the "inclusive" Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Tell that to Ehab al-Maliki. The acclaimed (Shia) poet has received death threats for appearing on state television to promote a spirit of national identity that transcends the differences between Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd.

No one is crying for Iraq; but plenty cry for their own sects: the Shia in the south, the Sunni in the west and the Kurds in the north.

We are told the mission is succeeding, because it is inflicting heavy damage on the Islamic State and regaining territory around dams and oil refineries. But it is also reinforcing the potent Sunni Arab narrative that we are in cahoots with the Shia regime in Baghdad.

To the extent such attitudes prevail and Sunnis feel their loss of power and influence is absolute in the post-Saddam Hussein era, many will continue to fight till death. This profound alienation of the Sunni minority is the root cause of the rise of Sunni extremism.

The problem can be traced to what the US conservative columnist George Will has called the "ruinous grandiosity" of George W. Bush's "freedom agenda." When we "liberated" Iraq in 2003, we didn't just topple a brutal dictatorship that kept a lid on simmering ethnic and religious tensions. We also overturned the sectarian imbalance that had been in place for generations.

Under the Ottomans, British, Hashemites and Baathists, the minority Sunnis more or less ruled the joint. The invasion ended their hold on power and presaged the rise of the majority Shia who overtly champion a sectarian identity.

The result: a Sunni insurgency that fought against the US-led occupiers has morphed into an unaccountable mix of Sunni militia groups (including Islamic State terrorists) that are fighting a plethora of Shia militia groups (including Hezbollah-type terrorists).

One senior US official who understood this problem from the outset was Christopher Hill, a former ambassador to Iraq. Writing in Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy, Hill says: "The failure of neoconservatives and their fellow travellers to explain what they were trying to accomplish in Iraq remains one of the most disgraceful performances by a foreign policy class in America."

The war's architects "never understood sectarianism," instead assuming that "a majority-ruled Iraq, which necessarily involves Shia leadership," would become "an inspiration to the Sunni-dominated Arab Middle East."

The failure to understand Iraq's sectarianism helps explain today's mess. It also explains why we won't be able to resolve the crisis in Mesopotamia.

This article appeared in Sydney Morning Herald