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Origins Of ISIS, Imagining If Saddam Was Still In Power

Many now blame the U.S.-led Iraq invasion of 2003 for the spread of terror in the Middle East. But what would the region look like today, if the Iraqi dictator hadn't been ousted?

What if...?
What if...?
Daniel-Dylan Böhmer and Clemens Wergin

BERLIN — That's what victory looks like: Saddam's bronze-colored hand up in the sky, greeting his people, his metallic eyes wandering over Baghdad. But at the huge statue's feet in the Iraqi capital hundreds of men riot. A hundred meters above, a U.S. marine covers the fallen dictator's head with an American flag.

Kasim al-Dschaburi, who was an opponent of the regime and spent 21 years in Saddam's prisons, traces the past decade-plus of troubles to the fact that it wasn't the Iraqi flag in that image instead. "Under Saddam we had safety, water, electricity and gas," he says. "Today there's nothing but burglary, murderer and violence between Sunnis and Shias."

In America, some of the military veterans from Iraq, have come to the same conclusion, as have much of Germany and other countries in Europe who evoke the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq as the origin of today's chaos throughout the region.

Rise of ISIS

There was of course no mandate from the United Nations Security Council for the operation. George W. Bush's government claimed that Saddam was cooperating with al-Qaeda and was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, but this was never proven. Saddam was gone soon after the invasion, but the blood began flowing between the competing Islamic confessions.

Now these same critics say that today's bloodshed in Syria comes straight from the chaos created by the U.S. in Iraq. But this inevitably leads to a more direct question: Would the situation be any better if Saddam was still in power? To search for an answer, we have to start by looking at the period before the invasion.

Wilfried Buchta, an expert on the Middle East and Islam, began visiting Iraq in 1990. Even well before the U.S. invasion, he says, the state structures were being dismantled by Saddam's policy. The war against Iran in the 1980s, the failed invasion in Kuwait and the subsequent sanctions — taken together meant that Iraq had no real hopes for modernization.

Buchta explains that "this combination of socialist elements, as well as the claim to unify the Arabic world, by force if necessary, had lost all of its power." Saddam, the Sunni who reigned over a Shiite country, had to look for a new power base.

But in many parts of the country, he had already lost power: in the north the Americans protected the Kurds from Saddam's bombs by establishing a no-fly zone, in the south, the Shiites were working with their neighbor protector state, Iran.

An Iraqi Arab Spring?

Without a U.S. invasion, Buchta says, "Saddam could have remained in power for a couple more years, but he wouldn't have recovered his influence over Kurds and Shiites."

Saddam would have been well past 70 years old when the Arab Spring was unleashed, as popular movements rose up and revolted against their autocratic rulers from North Africa to the Middle East. His sons were reckoned to be cruel and violent, but their political qualities doubtful. The regime, we can say, would have become extremely vulnerable during the revolts of 2011.

"In Iraq there would have never been an Arab spring like in Tunisia and Egypt, with peaceful demonstrations and social media," says Buchta. "Any riot would have turned into civil war right away."

The researcher doubts that an extremist sect such as ISIS could have expanded under Saddam. That it has become this strong, is partly due to the dictator's downfall, partly to the policies of the American-led occupying forces.

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Toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad on April 9, 2003 — Photo: U.S. DoD

America's responsibility when it comes to ISIS's rise has also become a political question. A democratic terror expert says that without George W. Bush's war, ISIS would have never emerged. ISIS's predecessor organization in Al-Qaida in Iraq, is a product of Bush's war.

Obama's fault

The conservative U.S. former diplomat Eliott Abrams says that when Bush left office in 2009, ISIS had been eradicated. "It's a phenomenon of the Obama era," he says.

Truth probably lies somewhere in between. Bush's war had helped the ascension of the terror group led by Abu Masab al-Zarqawi and its transformation into ISIS. Obama's premature distraction from Iraq in 2011 allowed the terror groups to spread quickly and unobstructed.

And yet, one decisive factor would have been different without Bush's war in Iraq: the choice of his successor in the White House. Things would have been a lot easier for Hillary Clinton or John McCain, since Obama's victory was largely based on American battle fatigue that followed the long occupation and spreading chaos in Iraq.

Situation in Syria

Saudia Arabia was no friend to Saddam, but they were always worried that his country might fall into the hands of the Shia majority and thereby extend the area of influence of Iran.

Again, the scenario resembles the current Syrian proxy war. With one significant difference: In Syria, positions are pretty clear. Russia and Iran support the regime, Gulf Arabs and the West collaborate with assorted rebel groups, and they all in theory are fighting ISIS. The Iraq scenario on the other hand was more complicated, each party facing its own dilemma.

Public appeals for peace but discrete financial aid and arms delivery on all sides would have been the consequence. That's what has now been happening for years in Syria. But because of the controversial interests in Iraq, the slaughtering could last even longer there, resulting in the division of the country. If the U.S. hadn't taken down Saddam in 2003, there would probably still be civil war. But the pressing question today: would ISIS never have flourished?

"Maybe ISIS wouldn't have existed, but something similar," says Iraqi intellectual Kanan Makiya, "The war was a complete failure. The Americans have made every mistake possible, there's no doubt about that."

But Makiya quickly adds: "The biggest mistakes of all have been made by, we Iraqis, especially the Shia. The religious battle was bound to drive the Sunnis into the arms of ISIS." Even ISIS' world view had been co-shaped by the Shias: "The whole ideology of the end of the world, that makes ISIS so brutal, emerged among Shia militia under Saddam."

War infects through the veins of madness. Syria shows how radical groups grow stronger the longer a conflict persists. A second, even longer confessional war in Iraq, would have been an even bigger tragedy. Even without ISIS, and with Saddam.

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food / travel

When Racism Poisons Italy's Culinary Scene

This is the case of chef Mareme Cisse, a black woman, who was called a slur after a couple found out that she was the one who would be preparing their meal.

Photo of Mareme Cisse cooking

Mareme Cisse in the kitchen of Ginger People&Food

Caterina Suffici


TURIN — Guess who's not coming to dinner. It seems like a scene from the American Deep South during the decades of segregation. But this happened in Italy, in this summer of 2023.

Two Italians, in their sixties, got up from the restaurant table and left (without saying goodbye, as the owner points out), when they declared that they didn't want to eat in a restaurant where the chef was what they called: an 'n-word.'

Racists, poor things. And ignorant, in the sense of not knowing basic facts. They don't realize that we are all made of mixtures, come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. And that food, of course, are blends of different ingredients and recipes.

The restaurant is called Ginger People&Food, and these visitors from out of town probably didn't understand that either.

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