New Zealand’s involvement in the fight against Isis has been depicted as good v evil but the morality is murky.

In the lead-up to the decision on committing troops to the war against Isis (Islamic State) in Iraq, that country's foreign minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, made a surprise visit to New Zealand to shore up support last week.

He looked earnest and kindly as he took the stand beside Murray McCully. The face of rational Islam, wearing a suit and glasses, and pleading for international help because Isis is a foe unlike any other.

He didn't need to say it, but the spectre of pilots burned in cages, women raped, summary executions and terror are the ever-present, horrifying backdrop to all and every comment on why America and her allies must rush to provide help.

Dr al-Jaafari represents the "right side" to support, as the Prime Minister forcefully emphasised in Parliament after the announcement of troop deployment had been made.


Let us examine, then, this "right side" that New Zealanders may yet lose their lives in supporting.

Dr al-Jaafari left Iraq during the Saddam Hussein years when the Shi'ite Islamic Dawa Party, to which he belonged, was targeted for its aim of combating secularism.

While living in London in the lead-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, he visited the White House to petition the Americans to help overthrow Saddam. Some reports suggest he was part of a Shi'ite elite eager to seize control of Iraq's enormous resources and wealth after the dreaded tyrant was overthrown.

Dr al-Jaafari was installed as Prime Minister of the transitional government of Iraq until May 2006, a period that was one of the bloodiest in the country after the Saddam era. Some believed Dr al-Jaafari's government was, at the least, turning a blind eye to the sectarian cleansing which saw mainly Sunnis summarily executed, disappeared and beaten.

For example, according to The New York Times, Americans found evidence of an underground prison where Sunni prisoners were regularly beaten, tortured, subjected to electric shocks and some blindfolded for months on end. Others were only allowed to use the toilet every three days.

Dr al-Jaafari's main backer in those early days, and more recently, was cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr's militia, known as the Madhi Army, boasted death squads that would kill Sunnis at random, leaving them on the roadside with bullet holes in their faces and chests and their arms tied. Female - often very young girls - and male victims thought to be involved in extramarital sex were not just murdered but their genitals also mutilated.

Thousands of Sunnis died at the hands of Shi'ite militia during years of violence - a militia that still continues to reject the presence of any foreign troops in Iraq. Sadr militias have targeted the allied presence repeatedly and violently over decades of unsuccessful intervention in Iraq. According to German news agency Deutsche Welle, it committed thousands of bombings, detonated roadside explosives and fired mortar shells toward the Green Zone, where the US and the Iraqi Government had their administrations - "analogous to the Sunni terrorist organisation, al-Qaeda".

Could this be the reason Dr al-Jaafari completely rejected the idea of our troops in combat during "World War III" against Isis, as he calls it? Is it possible he is for the use of foreign capital to fund and arm and train his own people, but not for ongoing help from us for the establishment of democracy? Is that why our soldiers enter without badges - without legal protection?

On the one hand, there's no doubt that Isis uses, and broadcasts the use of, the most extreme forms of violence in an attempt to horrify and mobilise Western involvement in Iraq; they dream not only of an Islamic caliphate but a killing field where they die as martyrs fighting the evil West, according to an article in the Atlantic published this month. If they can radicalise groups of impressionable young people to carry out the work of slaughtering infidels further afield, so much the scarier for us.

But it's not a simple equation of good versus evil, like it is being painted by our Government with such vehemence. I believe the decision to commit our troops to Iraq was made a long time ago, and was a decision our Prime Minister had to make for geo-political reasons that gave him little option.

Fair enough, I suppose, but there's no need to oversell the moral aspect, or wrap it up in the language of having "guts". Especially when morality is murky, and you are committing other people's children to war.

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