KHANAQIN, Iraq — A wind-swept hilltop of parched, brown earth provided as good a vantage point as any to watch Iraq coming apart.
A skirmish here in early October along the front line between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State, with Iraqi army troops absent from the mix, offered a glimpse of a national fracturing along the lines of the three main religious or ethnic groups — Sunni, Shia and Kurd.
But these new stress cracks in Iraq, which have now widened into what regional analysts believe are irreparable divisions, actually date back 100 years to World War I.
The victorious British and French brought arrogance and ignorance to drawing the boundaries of a modern state of Iraq that ignored deep ethnic and religious divisions. Their goal in drawing these lines of control was all too predictable: controlling the oil fields.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s for good reason. The Americans made the same mistake, regional analysts and historians say, when they arrived in 2003 without any serious consideration of the role that sectarian and tribal allegiances would likely play in the vacuum of power left by a toppled dictatorship.
After a disastrous war that began in 2003 and a full pullout of all military troops in 2011, the US is now paying for that failure to learn the lessons of World War I as the ethnic divisions have dramatically resurfaced and yielded the dark force that is IS.
The small battle against IS fighters that took place here in October near the village of Kubashi was hard along the southeast border of Iraqi Kurdistan, not far from the Iranian border. Kurdish peshmerga forces were positioned on the hilltop with two artillery cannons pointed down into a barren valley where about a dozen fighters of the Islamic State were holed up.
The peshmerga marched the mortars in and eventually struck the target. A cloud of dust and the echoes of mortar blasts lingered in the canyon along with a question as to whether or not the action actually killed the Islamic State fighters.
It was a classic skirmish in a confusing, daily battle that feels like a stalemate between the legendary Kurdish forces, or peshmerga, and the equally determined forces of the Islamic State, or IS.
The Kurds, backed by the United States and its airpower, are taking on IS advances while simultaneously trying to carve out their own independent state in northern Iraq. IS stunned the world this summer when it emerged out of the darkness of the war in neighboring Syria and seized Mosul in northern Iraq. With initial support from the local Sunni population, IS quickly established what it calls an Islamic caliphate.
The Iraqi army, which was seen by so many Sunni Iraqis in Mosul as a Shia militia headed by the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad, offered little resistance to IS and virtually collapsed.
Before the Great War, the Ottoman Empire ruled this part of the world for 400 years by allowing these three rival groups to establish three autonomous provinces, or vilayets. That is, until a new nation was artificially conceived by a duo of British and French diplomats named Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot.
They famously crafted the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement which secretly carved up spheres of influence in Syria and Mesopotamia, or Iraq as it would later be called, for the Triple Entente powers after they defeated the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.
History has repeated itself in Iraq for the American empire.
Scott Anderson, a war correspondent and author of “Lawrence in Arabia,” recently wrote, “The American misadventure in Iraq has proven to be by far the more ruinous one,” he recently wrote.
“At least its British forebear had the unintended consequence of uniting — however briefly — Iraq’s fractured population in opposition to their rule, whereas the more recent occupation spawned sectarian divides that remained when the US withdrew its forces in 2011. The result over the last decade has been the gradual dismantling of the Iraqi nation,” he added.
For the self-proclaimed Islamic State, this history is well known and its lessons are as fresh as today’s Twitter feeds. In fact, when the IS fighters were bulldozing their way across the border between Syria and Iraq in June they were live tweeting under this hashtag: #SykesPicotOver.
In a propaganda film produced by IS which is titled “The End of Sykes-Picot,” a Chilean recruit to the Islamic State’s jihad, who is identified as Abu Safiya, is depicted raising the black flag of IS at the border.
Speaking to the camera, he says, “As you can see this is the so-called border of Sykes-Picot. We don’t recognize it and we shall never recognize it. It is the first border we shall break, inshallah, and it is not the last border we will break, inshallah.”
Djene Rhys Bajalan, a professor of history at the American University of Sulaymaniyah, said the historical parallels between the current moment and World War I are alive in the rhetoric of the ongoing conflict. But as he points out, there is a profound difference.
“When the lines were drawn at the end of the First World War, they drawn without the participation of the people. The fundamental difference today is that the people here living in [Iraq] now are in the process of redrawing the borders themselves,” said Bajalan.
The Kurds know their history as well, and they too are setting out to redraw the lines of World War I and finally achieve an independent state. They seem to be in the process of rewriting their own historical narrative.
The road near Chamchamal has become a corridor of remembrance intended to build a timeline of Kurdish history which stretches from its ill-fated alliance with the Ottomans against the British to its long quest for independence through many years of suffering under the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.
There is a new museum that commemorates the genocidal Anfal campaign by Saddam Hussein that killed 180,000 Kurds from 1986 to 1989 including the use of chemical weapons against civilians in the Kurdish town of Halabja.
Just up the road, there is also a new bronze relief statue and a park that has been erected in the last year dedicated to Sheikh Mahmoud, the legendary Kurdish fighter in World War I who made a last stand against British forces from a rocky escarpment alongside the road.
Kaiwan Azad Anwer, an Iraqi historian, invited us into his library to view old maps and books on World War I and said he believed the Kurdish people continue to pay dearly for siding with the Ottomans.
“From the time of Sheikh Mahmoud to today, the mistake haunts us,” Anwer said.
“But after 2003, history has taken a different direction. In siding with the United States in 2003 and now against IS, we are ensuring our independence. We will never have the same Iraq again. And anyone who tries to save the old Iraq is wasting their time,” he added.
These lines of history do not feel academic or abstract in the barracks of the Kurdish forces under Commander Hussein Mansour.
Inside the office, he made small cups of powerful Iraqi coffee on an espresso machine. The sound of distant mortar fire and field radios mixed with the ringtones of an iPhone 5. He stood before a detailed, topographical map of the area and pointed to the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan.
He showed where the IS forces were challenging them, and he waved his hand across the area that is technically under control of the Iraqi state even though, as he explained, the Iraqi army has been nowhere to be found.
“It’s time to fix the lines on this map, to restore them to what they should be. And to fix these lines will require blood,” says Mansour, dramatically pausing for translation and wanting the words to sink in.
“These lines that were drawn through history. They were drawn 100 years ago by colonial powers who did not understand who we are and then by a dictator who exploited them to divide us,” he said.
He circled the area of the fighting and explained that it is on the northern edge of Diyala Province, approximately 50 miles northeast of Baghdad along the Iranian border. The area runs up to the outskirts of Baghdad and was long a hotbed of activity for al Qaeda in Iraq, which claimed the area as a caliphate back in 2005 and 2006.
It was this lawless area that provided the soil in which the first seeds were planted of what would become IS. The US forces combined with the Sunni Awakening pushed back on IS and had greatly diminished their organization. That is, until the war in Syria when they were able to regroup as a fighting force and come together with former Baathist military commanders and professional soldiers with whom they shared time in prison under the American occupation.
In Syria, IS also picked up international fighters who were coming across the porous border between Turkey and Syria. And when they moved into Iraq and overran Iraqi army bases they were suddenly in control of American-made weaponry, including armored vehicles, artillery cannons, anti-aircraft and tanks.
Mansour said IS has returned to this area because its leaders knows the importance of this pocket of land which stretches to the outskirts of Baghdad.
That’s why IS fighters blew up a bridge between Khanaqin and Jalawla in early August to try to fracture the Kurdish forces as the militant group is actively trying to gain a foothold. To prove the point, Mansour ordered some of his men to fetch large plastic jerry cans they had seized from IS. They were filled with explosive materials, which he describes as a uniquely volatile mix of C-4 and TNT that are used in powerful roadside bombs and suicide bombing vests.
“Airstrikes are needed here for sure,” said Mansour, who claimed that they have requested air support from the US military, but not yet seen any response.
“I still do not think America understands what we are up against here, and just how big this moment is in the history of Iraq and in our history as Kurds,” he added.
A few days earlier, I had met with Narmin Othman, a Kurdish party official in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, who served as a minister in the central government under Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
In 2005, she helped to author Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, laying the groundwork for the eventual autonomy of the Kurdish region. So far the plan has not been fulfilled. Othman said that the Kurdish parties were now forming a committee that will draw a new map of Iraqi Kurdistan following the definitions spelled out in the constitution and that “independence is inevitable.”
Othman knows the topography, and she knows the history of the struggle over who will control the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and its vast oil fields if Iraq does indeed come undone.
“Both the Ottomans and then the British defined Kirkuk as Kurdish because a majority there was Kurdish. But when oil was discovered, it became a different story. The British began to construct the northern oil fields and get yield. So the creation of Iraq was wrong from day one,” she said.
“It was a big mistake of history. The Sunni and the Shia have hated each other for 1,400 years. In my time in parliament in Baghdad, I saw this. They will never live in peace,” she added.
“In the next two years, the map of the Middle East will change dramatically,” Othman said.
President Obama may have succeeded in keeping a campaign promise to bring home the troops home from what he called a “dumb war,” but now the unfinished momentum of history is pulling the US back into war in Iraq.
For now, the American involvement is limited to airstrikes and some 1,500 advisers on the ground. But most regional and military experts are under no illusion that this faltering approach will last, and there is a growing consensus that the US will indeed need ground troops to succeed in Obama’s vow to “degrade and destroy” IS.
“History is unfolding right now,” said the Kurdish commander Mansour. “America has already proved that it failed to learn the lessons of the past and of World War I. We know that. But the question now is do they understand the present, do they really get what is happening on the ground here?”