One thing the leadership of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and its predecessor, the Iraq branch of al Qaeda, had in common was the skill and professionalism of its key personnel. This was no accident because until 2003 Iraq had, for centuries, been dominated by the “Baghdadi Sunnis.” This group was better educated and more experienced in running a government, military force or commercial organization than anyone else in Iraq. That was because these Baghdadis, who constituted about ten percent of the 2003 Iraq population became enormously affluent after oil was discovered in Iraq in the 1920s. Oil income for the government began to skyrocket in the 1950s as the Baghdadi Sunnis seized control of the government and replaced the foreign companies running the oil operations with educated Baghdadi Sunnis who were not as dependent on foreign experts. The Baghdadi Sunnis dominated government and economic functions in all the other major cities (Mosul, Basra, Kirkuk) and especially the “Sunni triangle” formed by Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk (where oil was first produced). Basra was in the largely Shia Arab south but the Baghdadi Sunnis ran Basra as well, just with more brutality.
Many Westerners were unaware of this Baghdadi Sunni dominance. Everyone was reminded of that after the Baghdadi government of Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. Two years later the new Shia dominated government announced that the Iraqi Armed Forces would accept for service "retired" junior and mid-level officers of the former Army, up to the rank of major, and asked that such personnel volunteer for the good of the "precious motherland." This announcement seems to have been in the works for some time and never worked out as planned because most of these officers were Baghdadi Sunnis, a group that had lost everything in 2003 when the Baghdadi Sunni government was forced from power. While some former officers accepted the offer most would not serve, believing the new Iraqi government was a band of "traitors" working for the United States. Foreign experts realized that without a substantial numbers of former officers returning to service, it would take much longer to create the new Iraqi Army. Some junior Sunni Arab officers returned, but reluctantly because they had to serve under Kurdish or Shia Arab commanders. That had never happened before and was considered disgraceful by Baghdadi Sunnis, who believed that only they could rule Iraq. Many Western observers, including journalists and government officials, believed the many officers who refused to serve were Iraqi nationalists. That was incorrect. Those officers were Baghdadi Sunni who wanted their minority running Iraq once more as a dictatorship. Kurd and Shia Iraqis were always treated badly by the Baghdadi Sunnis and were unwilling to surrender power. At the same time, Baghdadi Sunnis believed that only they could bring back the good old days of any kind of prosperity. The Baghdadi Sunnis believed then, and some still believe, that the Kurds and Shia are unable to run the country despite subsequent evidence that Kurds and Shia could manage things.
Because of this misconception about the Baghdadi Sunnis, many foreigners remained highly critical of the in May 2003 American decision to dissolve the former Iraqi Army. That was done because of its ties to Saddam Hussein and his regime. The 400,000 strong-army was not formally discharged, but essentially just told to go home. Many of these troops went home with their weapons. And some of them, especially officers, were soon identified as leaders in the growing anti-government violence. While it was pointed out that that retaining the army was like "keeping the Nazis in power," that was exactly the point of many critics who wanted to again rule Iraq via the most capable locals. No one would admit that view, but that is what it came down to.
It was pointed out that at the end of World War II, German and Japanese forces were required to maintain order until relieved by Allied forces in areas over which the enemy troops still retained control. Once properly relieved the enemy troops became prisoners-of-war. This meant that German troops in Norway, Crete, and Bohemia, and Japanese troops in Malaya, the Netherlands East Indies, British Borneo, and several other areas, including portions of China, at the time of the Armistice of August 15, 1945, continued to occupy these areas, under Allied supervision, until sufficient Allied personnel could assume control, which in some instances took several months. Only then did the Axis the troops formally became prisoners-of-war. They were then properly discharged by the Allied occupying authorities, with some being held for prosecution as war criminals.
But in Iraq, there was no foreign territory occupied by Iraqi troops, only Iraq itself. Nearly all the key officers in the Iraqi armed forces were Baghdadi Sunnis and selected mainly for their loyalty to Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party. The American administrators of Iraq had to make a quick decision. Do they allow several hundred thousand organized troops, led by a minority, and much hated, Sunni Arabs, remain in their jobs, and risk having these troops becoming the basis for warlord forces, led by men who had long supported dictatorship? Or do you disband the army, and start over? Either way, there are risks. Most other Iraqis; especially the Shia Arabs, who were 60 percent of the population, the Kurds (20 percent) and even many of the non-Baghdadi Sunni Arabs (ten percent), agreed with disbanding the army.
Saddam Hussein and his Baghdadi Arab officials and military commanders had anticipated this and established a “Plan B” in the event that the Baghdadi Sunni government was overthrown and the Baghdadi military disbanded. This almost happened in 1991, after an American led coalition destroyed the Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait in a hundred hour long ground battle. The only thing that halted this operation at the Iraqi border was the American promise to Saudi Arabia that the Kuwait liberation force would not enter Iraq. The Saudis wanted this because they also wanted the Sunni Arab minority of Iraq to remain in power to prevent Shia Iran from dominating and perhaps annexing Iraq and all its oil. The Saudis thought they could arrange a coup that would replace Saddam Hussein with a kinder, gentler and more rational Sunni Arab dictator. The Saudis failed and did not try to prevent the Anglo-American 2003 invasion.
Between 1991 and 2003 Saddam and his Baghdadi Sunnis prepared for that worst case. This involved Saddam making amends to the non-Baghdadi Iraqi Sunni Arabs after 1991. Most of these Sunnis were tribal and most of those were Bedouin, who had always been looked down on by the Baghdadis. To make this work Saddam not only shared the oil wealth with the tribal Sunni Arabs but suddenly because religious. For all his adult life Saddam was a very public secular Arab, openly consuming alcohol while encouraging Iraqi women to be more “modern” (no veils and allowing Western attire). The tribal Sunnis, like the Bedouins who dominated and ran Saudi Arabia, favored a more Islamic and traditional lifestyle, Saddam publically agreed and enshrined that as the official (but not always followed in private) law. The Sunni tribal leaders, now wealthy because they had some of the oil wealth, and flattered that the haughty Baghdadi Sunnis finally accepted the ancient wisdom of the Bedouin, became part of the larger Sunni Arab coalition, that then comprised about 20 percent of the population.
Saddam had noted the inspirational power of calling for Arabs to “defend Islam” with fanatic armed resistance and terrorism and used that as the essence of his Plan B; creation of a new Islamic terrorist organization run by Baghdadi Sunnis who had the knowledge and skills to make this sort of violence even more effective. Osama bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi (actually Yemeni) entrepreneur, went to Pakistan in the 1980s to organize al Qaeda using the same methods as the Baghdadi Sunnis. Osama was university trained and understood the importance of efficient organization and professional management. The Baghdadis understood and practiced this centuries before the bin Laden family did.
More than two decades after Plan B was organized, the Baghdadi Sunnis are still the most effective leaders of al Qaeda and its offshoot ISIL. The Baghdadi Sunnis running these Islamic terror groups have recruited like-minded (and educated) Sunni Arabs from the rest of the Arab world, especially Arabia but also North African states like Algeria and Egypt. As a result ISIL staff work and organization are thorough and robust. Bin Laden started that and Iraqi Al Qaeda and ISIL improved on it. That is why key ISIL leaders are targeted for attack or capture. Worse these men were numerous enough to replace losses with skilled subordinates. The replacements are not as experienced but are professional enough to know that is a potential problem they can avoid by slowing down operations until they are able to make things work as well as their predecessor.
The Sunni Arabs had been at the center of Iraqi politics for centuries. Even though the British had installed a non-Iraqi aristocrat as king in the 1920s, most of the people running the bureaucracy and army were Iraqi Sunni Arabs. But the monarchy ended in 1958 when Sunni officers murdered the royal family and took direct control of the government. The Sunni Arabs were a rough bunch, well-educated and clever as well. Would they accept being a minority in 2003? The answer came even before Baghdad fell, as small groups of Sunni irregulars made suicidal attacks on American troops.
The Baghdadi Sunnis are at the center of this Islamic terrorist brain trust because of their history and experience. In effect, the Americans in 2003 faced the same situation that confronted the Turks when they conquered Iraq in 1534 and drove out the Iranians. The British faced the same thing after they drove out the Turks in 1918. The Turks had made a deal with the Baghdadi Sunni Arabs, who then dominated the local government and went on to provide many officers for the Turkish army. The British installed a foreign Sunni Arab (from the noble Hashemite clan of Saudi Arabia) as king of Iraq in the 1920s, but left the Sunnis in charge of everything else. The kingdom of Iraq was actually a constitutional monarchy from the 1930s to the late 1950s. The Baghdadi Sunnis did not like the idea of being a minority in parliament and replaced the monarchy with the secular Baath Party, which established and ran Baghdadi dictatorship.
Since thousands of Sunni Arabs decided to fight after 2003, despite the opposition of the majority of Sunnis (but support from a large minority), the war wasn't over until the armed Sunnis were reduced to the level of scattered bandit and gangster activity. That took until 2008, and in the meantime, the Americans had to scramble to put together a police force and bureaucracy that was dominated by Kurds and Shia Sunnis, and capable of defeating the Sunnis who were still fighting.
After 2008 the Kurd/Shia government was unopposed, except by its own inefficiency and corruption. Because of that, Iraq went back to being a mess. All this just goes to show you that armies are easier to deal with than politics. Meanwhile, the defeated Iraqi al Qaeda went underground after 2008 but kept organizing. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011 Iraqi al Qaeda went to Syria, recruited like-minded Syrian Sunni Arabs (who were the majority in Syria, which had long been run by a Shia minority that used tactics similar to the Baghdadi Sunnis) and quickly evolved into ISIL. Then 2008 repeated itself by 2017 and the Baghdadi Sunni Islamic terrorists were once again in stealth mode, preparing to revive Plan B when the opportunity presented itself. It may take generations for the Baghdadis to lose their zeal for regaining their control over Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. That’s how things work in the Middle East, where grudges remain volatile and lethal for centuries.