There is something reassuring about the latest atrocities committed by the Islamic State militants, whether a beheading video or this week's protocols on how to abuse the women they take prisoner. These are obviously bad men, unsalvageable and inhuman. Many of the core fighters are foreigners – like a foreign virus – so by dealing with them militarily, so the theory goes, Canada and the rest of the U.S.-led coalition are finally applying the right medicine.
Outside Iraq, this contagion theory plays well because the Islamic State is so outlandish, like something out of a horror film.
But what if the metaphor is wrong? What if the Islamic State is not the problem but part of the solution – like a high fever caused by a powerful immune response fighting the virus?
After visiting Iraq recently, I found it hard not to leave with the impression that the West is fixated on the wrong problem, which is just what the militants want. While the world's attention is focused on gruesome beheadings and gun battles, the fate of the group also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), will in fact be decided by politicians and religious leaders in Baghdad.
This is because ISIS is the result of a long process that began with the American invasion and has its roots, as well as its solution, in the politics of Iraq. Foreign military intervention is, at best, triage; at worst, counterproductive. As the Americans have proved, waging war there is the easy part.
On my way into Baghdad, I met in Amman with a wealthy Iraqi businessman whom I was told lost $200-million when ISIS took over one of his factories in Anbar, a vast desert area west of Baghdad and one of three provinces the militants partly control. It was a big loss, he said, but he'd gotten over it quickly because it was "for the people," by which he meant his fellow Iraqi Sunni Arabs, many of whom are now suffering horrifically under the yoke of ISIS.
And yet what would ISIS do if he returned to his factory? "They would kill me," he said.
Later that evening, I spent three hours with Dr. Mohammed Bashar al-Faidhi, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, the Sunni Arab spiritual body often said to have been behind the resistance to the American occupation.
Dr. Bashar is an adherent of Sufism, a spiritual movement despised by ISIS, and comes from Mosul, the city whose capture six months ago this week put ISIS on the world's radar. A fierce critic of ISIS who has condemned it on television, he too would be killed if he returned home. And yet after a lengthy explanation of the group's origins during the occupation, he spent an hour explaining why he feels that bombing ISIS is not only pointless but will only make it stronger.
So here were two leading members of the Sunni Arab community who, although threatened themselves, view ISIS almost as something positive. Like so much about Iraq, this makes little sense outside the country's peculiar logic. But these men are far from alone in considering ISIS, despite its gruesome tactics, to be an attempt by radicals within a minority population to help it deal with years of political failure, alienation and violence.
For many Sunni Arabs, ISIS is simply a better option than the Shia-led government that has been running Iraq with the help of Iranian-backed death squads. To them, ISIS is not a virus but their community's immune system in overdrive, combatting a deadly foe and, in the process, consuming everything it comes into contact with. The disease it is attacking emanates from the political backrooms of the capital, an illness that started with the initial American occupation. And a problem started by one war is unlikely to end with another.
Remarkably, for this part of the world, the history that led to the creation of ISIS is not very controversial. But Canadians, who were spared the American experience, can be forgiven for not having paid too much attention to it. We didn't have to worry about the way in which al-Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS, developed during the initial failed U.S. counter-insurgency in 2003-04 around Fallujah and during the violent collapse of Sunni Arab areas up the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.
Nor do we have to bear the humiliating responsibility of having set up a political system that encouraged the Shia majority to use its victimhood as an excuse to take revenge on the former Sunni rulers while pretending to the world this was democracy.
We had nothing to do with the creation of a new state that was so badly designed that it outlawed Sunni Arab militias while allowing Shia and Kurdish militias to flourish under a judicial system that made it virtually illegal to be a Sunni Arab – Sunni Arabs being roughly one-third of the population. Or set up a prison gulag that incubated future ISIS leaders such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled Caliph Ibrahim.
And we didn't pull out just as the Iraqi army was getting on its feet (and we'd spent $25-billion rebuilding it), only to watch as then prime minister Nouri al Maliki replaced experienced, mostly Saddam-era generals with incompetent lackeys.
Finally, we didn't watch in horror last January as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had taken thousands of American lives and then virtually been wiped out, was revived in the chaos of Syria and poured back south to conquer towns like Fallujah, that had been graveyards for the U.S. Marines, with almost no effort. In other words, unlike the Americans, we don't have to worry that ISIS was, to a great extent, our own creation. But now we, too, are at war with it; and we risk fighting the wrong war.
The real battle involves not dropping the occasional bomb on Toyota pickups mounted with anti-aircraft guns. It is the horse-trading going on in Iraq's very broken political system. Even the war in Syria, while conjoined, is secondary to this limping process. Despite all its its foreign recruits, ISIS is primarily an Iraqi creation led by Iraqis and, without its Iraqi power base, it is just one more faction in an ugly civil war.
But as a diplomat in Iraq told me, the Iraqi nature of ISIS is a good thing. Iraq, unlike Syria, where there is a much larger regional war involving the Russians, at least has a solution. Even enemies like Iran and Saudi Arabia are, generally speaking, on the same page as the West when it comes to wanting peace there.
For that to happen, the Sunni Arab population must be put in a position where getting rid of ISIS is in its best interest. Once that happens, the real fighting will begin. The people themselves will co-opt local ISIS supporters and then turn on foreign fighters, just as they did with those of al-Qaeda during the 2007 U.S. "surge."
Others may be able to help this process, but in a limited way.
While in Baghdad, I asked Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni member of the new government of Haider al-Abadi, a more moderate Shia, how long this would take. He estimated a year or so, if all went well (fast by Iraqi standards).
The diplomat also explained that, before the Sunni Arabs relinquish ISIS, several very big steps must be taken to mollify them.
First, the infamous Article 4 of the Anti-Terrorism Law has to be repealed. Passed in 2005 and aimed primarily at Sunni Arabs, it allows the government to arrest, imprison and even execute anyone suspected of terrorism.
Also, the Sunni nationalist armies that fought the Americans, including the Sufi-oriented Naqshbandi Army, have to be given amnesty, along with hundreds of thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. These are the real powers that allow ISIS to keep going. Finally, the Shia militias, revived again this spring to fight ISIS, have to be reined in.
These are extremely difficult steps for a majority Shia population who fear Sunni ambitions. But ISIS is useful for bringing both these parties to the bargaining table. The Shia, who are the victims of most of the ISIS car bombings, despise ISIS; but they may be willing to make genuine compromises with Sunnis in order to stop the endless, random slaughter.
And ISIS has reminded the Kurds that, despite their recent success, they are still dependent on external help, as the latest deal with Baghdad has shown. ISIS has even given Kurds some sympathy for the Sunni Arab dilemma, which is surprising, considering their historical animosity.
ISIS may even force the Sunni Arabs to finally come to terms with the fact that they lost the war that followed the American invasion and are merely one component of a country, not the country itself, and that ISIS-like solutions are the inevitable result of Sunni chauvinism.
But without a deal to mollify the Sunni Arabs, no amount of bombing will get rid of ISIS until it is no longer useful in dealing with Baghdad.
And without a political solution in Baghdad, the virus metaphor may actually come true – but the U.S.-led coalition will be the foreign virus that must be resisted.
If this happens, Dr. Bashar explained in great detail, Canada risks participating in a conflict that will be seen as an attack on all Sunni Muslims, which is exactly what ISIS has been planning all along.
Patrick Graham is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work in Iraq won an Overseas Press Club Award and the Kurt Schork Award for foreign reporting.