We were always caught in the middle. We still are. As a young man, a new lieutenant, and a true believer, I once led a US Army scout platoon just south of Baghdad. It was autumn 2006, and my platoon patrolled – mainly aimlessly – through the streets and surrounding fields of Salman Pak. To our north lay the vast Shia heartland of East Baghdad, to our south and east, the disgruntled and recently disempowered Sunnis of the rural hinterlands. Both sides executed teenagers caught on the wrong side of town, leaving the bodies for us to find. Each side sought to win American favor; both tried to kill us.
It was a battle of attrition; a war for land, yes, but more importantly a war for the mind. Each day, the platoon had the distinct honor to drive our HMMWVs past the impressive ruins of an ancient Persian (Iranian) empire – the Sassanid. Some 1500 years earlier, Salman Pak was known as Ctesiphon and was the populous capital of a powerful civilization. The Iraqi Shia were proud of this past; the local Sunnis were not. Sunni insurgents still called the Shia "Sassanids," or "Persians," and they meant it as a pejorative. History was present and alive in Iraq. Still, few of my young soldiers knew – or cared – about any of this. They merely sought survival.
The Sunni fighters, once ascendant under Saddam Hussein’s regime, were backed by Saudi Arabia and other sympathetic Gulf states. In nighttime raids and daytime searches, we found Saudi "Wahhabi" Islamist propaganda on the floor of car bomb factories. Back then, the local Sunni insurgents called themselves TWJ (Tawhid al Jihad – Monotheism and Holy War). This group, a nonfactor at the time of the 9/11 attacks, would rebrand several times in the ensuing years: Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and, finally, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).