An image from Clanking of the Swords IV, a recent film by the Sunni jihadist guerrilla group that now calls itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate, on the border of Iraq and Syria

Show them death and they will accept a fever.
—Iraqi proverb

The title Clanking of the Swords IV brings to mind a cheap costume drama. Yet the horrors depicted in this hour-long film, a recent product of the media arm of a Sunni jihadist guerrilla group that now calls itself the State of the Islamic Caliphate (SIC), are no medieval fantasy. The snuff action is all too real.

As we watch the film, peering along the barrel of a machine gun poking out the rear window of an SUV, it is real live rounds we see spattering into the side of the white BMW we are overtaking, shredding its windows, presumably riddling its passengers with holes, and certainly sending it careening into the ditch beside this bland stretch of Iraqi highway. We accompany an actual hit squad on a nighttime raid to the home of a “collaborator.” We witness them capture, blindfold, and humiliate a portly middle-aged man in a light brown robe. They then cut off his head, an act which requires the knife-wielding killer to jump on the victim and ride him piggy-back, with the cameraman following this ungainly pair as they stagger around the bedroom. The film spares us the final gory moments; we cut to the man’s mustachioed head, successfully detached, parked on the bed.

There are scenes of mass executions: of a row of bound, kneeling men killed with single shots to the back of the head, or of others machine-gunned where they lie, already stretched out in their own shallow graves. Some of this is set in slow motion. In one of the most chilling sequences we follow another team of killers manning a false roadblock. They are in full US-style combat gear, mimicking a crack unit of the Iraqi army. Cars are pulled over, their occupants’ names checked against a database on a laptop computer. Some are then waved on. Other drivers, not so lucky, are politely asked to get out of their cars for a further check. With the camera following they are led into a field next to the roadside and shot dead.

The State of the Islamic Caliphate was known until June as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). It has gained notoriety not only as a particularly ruthless and efficient operator among Iraq’s motley militias, a reputation it has extended to Syria since intruding into the neighboring country’s civil war in 2012. It is also the most media-savvy power in either theater. Advertisements such as the Clanking of the Swords series have helped it recruit an unmatched number of jihadist wannabes from around the world. Unlike the others, too, SIC’s ambition is not merely to defend some cause but to seize territory, hold it, and build a full-fledged state of its own.

The SIC has been on a roll of late. In June it captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, bagging an immense hoard of arms and loot and launching a drive, joined by other Sunni insurgents, toward the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. The group has since expanded its presence across both northern Iraq and eastern Syria, swallowing up rival rebel gangs and local militias along the way or strong-arming them into submission. It has challenged and in some cases routed the highly rated but thinly spread peshmerga forces of Iraqi Kurdistan. The SIC’s estimated 10,000–20,000 armed adherents currently control a region with about the size and population of Indiana. Its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a former theology student, now styles himself a caliph.

The title, meaning literally the “successor” to the Prophet Muhammad, implies a claim to commanding all 1.6 billion Muslim faithful. Yet Baghdadi’s is a very particular, uncompromising brand of Sunni Islam. The SIC has “cleansed” the territories it controls of Shia Muslims and other supposed infidels, chasing out the last of Mosul’s once large and prosperous Christian community. It has hounded the Yazidis, members of an ancient syncretic faith, still more cruelly. The SIC’s capture of their remote redoubt of Sinjar on August 3 prompted thousands of terrified Yazidis to flee into barren mountains. Reports of the mass execution of male villagers and the enslavement of Yazidi “devil worshipers,” as well as of starvation among refugees, raised an international outcry and spurred deepening America involvement in the Iraq crisis, including now-regular air strikes against SIC forces.

The SIC has also systematically destroyed tombs, temples, shrines, statues, and monuments that might hint at exalting anything other than the one true God. Some of the world’s most significant archaeological sites, including the great pre-Islamic Arab city of Hatra, with its magnificent temples to pagan gods, are at risk of destruction or plunder: aside from protection rackets and kidnap ransom, the SIC has developed a lucrative sideline in antiquities smuggling.

Sad to say, Baghdadi’s fusion of the homicidal and messianic is not without precedent in Iraq. The use of seemingly gratuitous cruelty as a form of display—as a talisman of godlike power and an advertisement of worldly success—has old roots here. Some can be traced just outside of Mosul in the fields of dusty ruins that mark the sites of Nineveh and Nimrud, great cities of the ancient Assyrian empire.


For centuries before its collapse in 612 BC, Assyria controlled the upper plains between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, a span of flat, semiarid, and hard-to-defend terrain that is possibly the most often fought-over patch of real estate on the planet, and that happens to be remarkably similar to the SIC’s present domain. Assyria’s perpetual rival and eventual nemesis was Babylon, a kingdom that, rather like the rump Iraq now held by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, centered on the lower reaches of the two rivers. Just as today the area around Baghdad (the city was not founded until the eighth century AD) formed an uneasy border between them.

What stands out in the iconography of the Assyrian kingdom is its unusually frequent and detailed depiction of extreme violence. Again and again we find muscle-bound Assyrians doing terrible things to captives: slitting throats, lopping off limbs and heads, impaling, flaying alive, displaying corpses and body parts atop city walls. Just as in the SIC’s propaganda, too, the smashing of enemy idols provides another common theme.

The British Museum, which houses a spectacular collection of Assyrian art, devotes an entire gallery to reliefs from the palace of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. The image that draws most comment is a small domestic scene showing the king relaxing with his queen in a garden as a musician strums on a harp. They sit in the shade of a tree decorated with an eye-catching ornament: the severed head of a troublesome neighboring king.

In short, the country that is now Iraq—although alas not, perhaps, for much longer in its current shape—is no stranger to the ghoulish and macabre. The Mongols, famously, built pyramids of skulls when they pillaged and razed Baghdad in 1258 and again in 1401. It was in Iraq in the 1920s that Britain introduced newer, cheaper methods for keeping unruly natives under control, such as chemical weapons and aerial “terror” bombings. Saddam Hussein’s three-decade-long Republic of Fear, with its gassing of Kurdish villagers, grotesque tortures, and mass slaughter of dissidents, made the later American jailers of Abu Ghraib look downright amateur.

The SIC captures the headlines, but the group is hardly alone in its viciousness. In recent years Shia gangs have proved no less cruel than such Sunni rivals, one small example being the puritan vigilantes who have regularly and murderously attacked sex workers in Baghdad. The carnage from a raid on a brothel in the district of Zayuna on July 12 included twenty-eight prostitutes and six of their clients. In another incident on July 30, Shia militias in the town of Baaquba, northeast of Baghdad, executed fifteen Sunni men they had earlier kidnapped, strung their corpses on electricity poles, and for several days refused to let medical teams remove them.

Such atrocities represent average daily tolls for violent death in Iraq, where the total of civilian dead since the American invasion of 2003 has almost certainly mounted well beyond 100,000—no one really knows. The postwar sectarian bloodletting reached a flood in 2006–2007, as Shia death squads sought revenge for the bombing of a revered Shia shrine by one of the SIC’s Sunni precursors. Under the impact of ceaseless bombings and tit-for-tat assassinations, Baghdad, once a pixelation of faiths, forcibly rearranged itself into monochrome sectarian blocs divided by grim concrete walls. Following a merciful lowering of the tempo of violence that lingered into 2013, the awful daily drumbeat has again quickened. Instead of wobbling slowly to recovery, a wounded Iraq has found itself staggering into new and possibly worse dangers.

Against this background it is not surprising to find contemporary Iraqi writers responding, like others before them in countries fated to prolonged periods of extreme stress, with a mix of black humor and gloomily whimsical fantasy. The winner of this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (sometimes referred to as the Arabic Booker Prize), the Iraqi author Ahmed Saadawi, is a case in point. His novel Frankenstein in Baghdad recounts the tale of a ragpicker who, angered by the lack of respect paid to the corpses accumulating from repeated suicide bombings and massacres, begins to collect unwanted body parts and sew them together. His nameless creation comes to life and becomes a sort of superhero, wreaking vengeance on behalf of its component victims. But then, disturbingly, this “Shismu,” or Whatsit, discovers that it requires fresh flesh for its own survival.


Not much of such work—and none of Saadawi’s—has come into English. One fine exception is The Corpse Washer, ably translated by the author himself, Sinan Antoon, a New York–based Iraqi poet. His novel relies more on poetic allusion than magic realism. Antoon strains to capture Iraq’s tragedy in the person of his central character, a talented young artist who abandons his vocation to carry on his father’s trade preparing Shia cadavers for burial. Departures of family and friends through death or exile leave him increasingly hopeless and alone. A single pomegranate tree that stands in the courtyard of the washhouse, watered by the runoff from washing corpses, becomes a metaphor for Iraq.

Grim ironies permeate the short stories of Hassan Blasim, another Iraqi exile, but he shows a lighter touch. Although the ones chosen for The Corpse Exhibition, a selection from two earlier collections superbly translated by Jonathan Wright, are of uneven quality, Blasim, who has lived in Finland since 2004, can at his best be subtly and powerfully evocative. Revealed from a shifting array of perspectives, his characters are without exception flawed and often deeply scarred. In one story Blasim tangentially notes the impatience felt by a group of street kids for another public execution: they want a proper pair of goals for their soccer field but have only three posts, so they need the firing squad to leave behind one last bloodied wooden stake for them to steal.


Magnum Photos

A US soldier riding a donkey belonging to inhabitants of an isolated village in Nineveh, Iraq, where they had never seen an American patrol, 2006; photograph by Peter van Agtmael from his book Disco Night Sept. 11, published by Red Hook Editions

The setting for “The Song of the Goats” is a Baghdad radio contest for the most poignant real-life stories, which draws a ferociously competitive crowd. Pushing and shoving, they deride each other’s tales as not sufficiently grotesque or heartbreaking, making for an obliquely dark parody of the story-within-a-story narrative device of the Thousand and One Nights.

One of these brief, barely sketched would-be entries may serve to give a flavor of Blasim’s bleak humor:

The man with the beard was a teacher who went to the police one day to report on a neighbor who was trading in antiquities stolen from the National Museum. The police thanked him for his cooperation. The teacher, his conscience relieved, went back to his school. The police submitted a report to the Ministry of Defense that the teacher’s house was an al Qaeda hideout. The police were in partnership with the antiquities smuggler. The Ministry of Defense sent the report to the US Army, who bombed the teacher’s house by helicopter. His wife, his four children, and his elderly mother were killed. The teacher escaped with his life, but he suffered brain damage and lost his arms.

In another country such a story might be thought fantastical. In Iraq it could well be true; fiction here seems merely to be more concise than fact.

So one might conclude from a very different kind of book, Zaid al-Ali’s well-researched study of how Iraq has gotten into its current, worsening, and possibly terminal mess. The Struggle for Iraq’s Future is not a pretty story. Indeed it seems to be populated entirely by villains, from Saddam Hussein to criminally stupid or negligent American occupiers to the rapacious, self-serving, bloody-minded, and frequently murderous group of Iraqi politicians who have insinuated themselves into power in the Americans’ wake.

Born to an exiled Iraqi diplomat in 1977 and trained as a lawyer, Ali arrived in Baghdad, like many other hopeful Iraqi returnees following the 2003 invasion, with the idea of doing something for his country. After six years working both inside the government and with foreign aid projects, he concluded that it was a waste of time “trying to assist a state that was led by the worst elements in society.” It was not a total waste: Ali’s analytical clarity and his inside knowledge fill the gap in understanding Iraq that, for non-Iraqis at least, has widened markedly since America pulled out of its misadventure, abruptly withdrawing its last occupation troops in December 2011.

Ali proves his case with lawyerly aplomb. What he shows is that while history may have dealt Iraq a hard hand, and perhaps also subtly inculcated destructive pathologies of power and violence, the terrible failure of post-invasion Iraq is mostly a product of specific policy choices made by particular individuals. He devotes early chapters to a brief résumé of the modern country’s sad history. In this telling the 2003 occupation represents less a starting point than a punctuation mark in a slow but wretchedly steady decline.

Even by the standards of Iraq’s turbulent history, its past few decades have been unusually relentless. Just since 1980 Iraqis have experienced three major wars that wrecked the country’s physical infrastructure and left perhaps half a million dead; an attempt at genocide that permanently alienated Iraq’s five million Kurds; a ten-year siege under the UN’s “Oil-for-Food” program that devastated the economy, ruined the middle class, and forced the most talented into exile; an American invasion that shattered national pride and stoked bitter divisions; and a civil war that displaced as many as 4.7 million Iraqis from their homes and has driven a deep, perhaps irreparable chasm of mistrust between Iraq’s 60 percent Shia Arab majority and the once-dominant 20 percent Sunni Arab minority. Excepting perhaps the Russians from 1914 to 1953, few modern nations have been so cursed by ill luck for such an extended period.

Ali quickly dispenses with the blinding folly of Iraq’s post-invasion American administrators, a matter already devastatingly explored by authors such as Rajiv Chandrasekaran in his incomparable Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The occupation’s biggest mistakes are well known. Among them were its disbanding of the Iraqi army (which left a giant security vacuum and swelled the ranks of the unemployed with hundreds of thousands of trained soldiers and disgruntled officers), the institution of sweeping “de-Baathification” (which gutted the government’s administrative apparatus and became a tool for petty vindictiveness), and the application of sectarian and party quotas for public office (which aggravated tensions and turned government bureaus into party fiefdoms).

A more original contribution is Ali’s dissection of the Iraqi political class, who by his reckoning bear an equal if not bigger share of blame. The original sin by this account was the indulgence by the Americans of a select group of exiles based not on competence or on their popularity within Iraq but rather on subjective criteria. The anointed few were either those “most willing to engage in moral compromise” with “unrepentant and ideologically driven US officials” or those who happened to enjoy the backing of other foreign powers, including Iran.

Many among this new elect had not only scant understanding of their own wounded country but no experience of management, let alone of governance. “What was he doing all those years in Damascus?” asked a rival Iraqi politician in an interview with me last year, describing the decades spent in the Syrian capital by Nouri al-Maliki, the long-serving prime minister who on August 14 at last relinquished power to a party colleague and fellow Shiite Islamist, Haider al-Abadi. Maliki, sniffed his rival, “was nothing but a party hack sitting in Sayeda Zeinab [a poor district that houses an important Shia shrine] scribbling reports for Syrian intelligence.”

The skills at which such exiles excelled were not administrative, but of personal survival and party intrigue. The effects of this were soon felt. The American-initiated expedient of dividing responsibilities among parties became increasingly consecrated by practice. Yet not only did each political player attempt to carve out a part of the government pie. For the sake of “national unity” each administrative office had to reflect unspoken quotas: a Shia minister, for instance, was required to have both Sunni and Kurdish deputies, with all three ostensibly able to veto policy. The result was a legislative and administrative logjam, a “frozen republic” in which vital laws were never debated or issued, and policies neither coherently articulated nor executed.

Ali devotes an illuminating chapter to the rushed effort to draft and ratify the new constitution that was promulgated in 2005. By his telling a fatal mix of influences guaranteed a skewed outcome: American haste to show some positive achievement; the Republican administration’s zeal to shrink the role of the state; deal-making between Iraqi politicians who saw the exercise as chiefly a division of spoils; the eagerness of the Kurds to weaken the central government in favor of federal regions; and the disgruntled obstinacy of the newly disempowered Sunni Arab minority, which largely boycotted the process.

Among numerous constitutional flaws was a clause that vaguely designated the prime minister commander in chief of the army: “Though the drafters did not even realize it, the constitution’s lack of clarity turned the keys of the kingdom over to whoever occupied that particular position,” says Ali. Not surprisingly, Maliki, who was widely considered a weak compromise candidate when he was brought into power in 2005, subsequently exploited this loophole to the full. Fearing plots, he simply filled the crucial posts of interior and defense minister himself, running them as fiefdoms for his family, cronies, and associates of his masterfully misnamed State of Law coalition.

On paper most powers were meant to devolve to provinces rather than the central government. Yet it was to Baghdad that Iraq’s income from oil, representing 97 percent of government revenue, flowed and from where it was disbursed. This gave Maliki and his allies immense power to give or withhold favors. Iraq’s agenda for development thus became almost completely subservient to political interests, with catastrophic effects for the crumpled infrastructure. More than a decade after America’s invasion, despite billions spent to restore the country’s battered electricity grid, the only part of Iraq with anything close to a regular power supply was the Kurdish autonomous region. On more than one occasion, reports Ali, Iraqis have shown their appreciation of the absurd, protesting with mock funeral processions behind the “coffin” of electricity.

Corruption has naturally flourished in such conditions, but so have other ills. While Maliki, in a fashion reminiscent of Saddam Hussein, rewarded loyal Shia tribal chiefs with gold-plated revolvers, foes of the prime minister found their followers cut out of government jobs and contracts in a country where the state employs 60 percent of the formal workforce.

Maliki repeatedly dispatched loyalist security thugs to harass Sunni political opponents, or had them prosecuted as “terrorists” by a compliant judiciary. The sense of being not only denied a fair share but punished for complaining has fueled growing Sunni despair, to the point that when a long-smoldering Sunni rebellion erupted into war in June many Sunnis were willing to suspend their horror of the SIC as long as it advanced their cause.

As Ali points out, the flawed constitutional arrangement and its abuse by those in power helped to institutionalize sectarian differences:

Previously, sectarianism had been the principle on which the country’s new political order was established, and the mechanism that political parties had used to place their members in senior ministerial positions. But by 2011, sectarianism had acquired two different functions. First, it was used by politicians to deflect attention from their own dire performance.

Second, in the absence of genuine progress on the standard of living, government officials and their associates sometimes suggested that at least sectarian “interests” were being protected and promoted. Sectarianism had thus become the only line of defence in the face of state failure and the only objective worth pursuing: the achievement that excused all the failures of the past.

Ali wisely avoids placing blame on Maliki alone. Not only was Iraq’s strongman held in place by a peculiar ability to persuade two major but ostensibly deeply antagonistic foreign powers, America and Iran, of his indispensability. Despite their noisy opposition and often heartfelt disgust, Iraq’s other politicians were too lazy, too divisive, and too eager to capture a share of spoils to contest his domination effectively. For all Maliki’s incompetence as an administrator or as a military leader—the initial collapse of Iraq’s costly and overmanned military in the face of the SIC being all the proof needed—he proved masterful at the art of divide-and-rule.

Constant and fearsome violence has obviously added hugely to Iraq’s woes. Much of Iraq’s managerial class has by now, like Ali himself, simply abandoned ship. He describes a frustrating meeting in 2007 between European donors and a top official in the Ministry of Planning, who ends by confessing that he has no personnel left who might qualify for the professional training the Europeans offer. Yet it is shocking how feebly Iraq’s government has confronted the challenge from terrorists.

Following the American withdrawal in 2011, for instance, Maliki quickly reneged on a promise to maintain funding for local Sunni militias that had by 2008 largely succeeded in checking jihadist violence. The move not only set off protests in Sunni-majority areas where the vigilantes’ government salaries had become a mainstay of the local economy, but prepared the way for a return of Sunni extremist terror. Another example: despite enormous funding and manpower, and a crippling proliferation of checkpoints, Iraq’s multiple security agencies have failed to address the devastating menace of car bombings in Baghdad by the simple expedient of monitoring automotive workshops around the city.

Ali devotes his opening pages to one notorious example of such incompetence, the Iraqi government’s lavishing of some $85 million on the import and deployment of wand-like “bomb-detection” equipment. Even after a BBC investigation determined conclusively that the British-made devices were bogus; even after British and Iraqi courts sentenced both the manufacturer’s owner and the Iraqi official who had ordered them to stiff prison terms, Maliki continued publicly to insist that the $50,000 gadgets were effective. It was more important to save face, to sustain the illusion of mastery, than to admit reality.

The departure of Maliki, whose overstay of his welcome made him a sponge for dissent, could offer a window for reconciliation. Mainstream Sunni and Kurdish leaders, as well as some Shiites, had long demanded his exit. Yet the litany of failure that Ali describes is simply too long and wide-reaching to leave much room for optimism. Ali’s own concluding suggestions for how to right things seem sadly perfunctory. He also betrays, in occasional oversweeping judgments and in a peculiar lack of sympathy with the Kurdish yearning for independence (which seems only more justified by the ugly facts he himself reveals), an impractical wistfulness for an imaginary, whole, and complete Iraq.

What came to mind as I closed the book was the damning remark of a distinguished Iraqi exile I met in Kuwait shortly before the 2003 invasion. His father had served as prime minister under the monarchy whose overthrow in the bloody coup of 1958 had led to Iraq’s long era of turbulence. Still, he took a dim view of the looming ouster of Saddam Hussein, and held no dreams of return. “Of course the Americans will get rid of Saddam,” he said. “But what will we have then? A thousand little Saddams.”