By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
— UPDATED JULY 4 — The current conflict in Iraq gathered momentum with seemingly amazing speed as an armed coalition of secular and religious Sunni groups, spearheaded by the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, an al-Qaeda splinter grouping), wrested about a third of the country from government control. Islamic State has proclaimed the formation of an independent caliphate, crossing the border into IS-held territory in eastern Syria, although this action has strained relations with some of its Sunni allies.
The Sunni gains have produced a profound setback for the neo-colonial efforts of the United States, which occupied Iraq for eight years, imposed a puppet government, and helped propel the corrupt and murderous Nouri al-Maliki government into power.
Maliki has accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of funding IS. This is not at all clear, especially since in recent months both countries—with the encouragement and participation of U.S. operatives—have supplied armaments to selected Islamic rebel groups in Syria in order to fight IS. However, some of the funds that wealthy private sources, if not governments, have donated to rebels fighting the Assad dictatorship in Syria have reportedly filtered through to IS.
At the same time, Iraq’s Shiite-based militias—such as the Mahdi Army, led by clerical firebrand Moqtada al-Sadr, and which the U.S. tried for years to stamp out—have been revived with a promise of bringing “terror to ISIS and al-Qaeda.” This has created a “perfect storm” in which two retrograde forces, both flush with funds and supplies furnished by U.S. imperialism and its allies, are embroiled in a showdown that threatens the stability of the entire region.
In the long run, Syria and even Jordan face dismemberment along with Iraq, as Sunni, Shiites, Kurds, and other ethnic groupings fight for territory and power. The spectrum of client states that the colonial powers first carved out of the oil-rich Middle East following World War I, and the artificial borders that they erected, are now threatened with disintegration.
The current military stand off in Iraq has brought to the forefront the long-sought cause of independence for the Kurdish minority in the north of the country. As the Kurdish semi-autonomous government ponders whether to secede from Iraq, it has sent some 40,000 Peshmerga soldiers to counter the incursion of IS onto its borders. The Kurdish militia has taken over the disputed city of Kirkuk, a center of the oil industry and a candidate for the capital of a future Kurdish state.
Turkey, although still wary of granting self-determination to Kurds inside its own borders, now considers the Kurds in Iraq as a buffer and as allies in the fight against IS. However, the Turkish government has stated that it is resolutely opposed to outright independence for Kurds in Iraq. Israel, on the other hand, has expressed itself favorable to an independent Kurdistan, perceiving it as a method to weaken and draw valuable oil resources away from its Arab opponents. The U.S., for its part, while it has long protected the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, seems more hesitant right now toward outright independence—although that stance is apt to change as pressures mount in the region.
At the same time, Iran and the United States have seen a partial convergence of their objectives in Iraq. Both countries are offering direct military aid to Iraq’s government, although top Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insists that he opposes U.S. intervention into the country. In trying to explain U.S. interest in pursuing some sort of collaboration with the reviled Iranian government—which it has been punishing with sanctions—Republican Senator Lindsay Graham manufactured an analogy with alleged U.S. policies during World War II: “Why did we deal with Stalin? Because he’s not as bad as Hitler.”
The tremendous military firepower that the U.S. has given the Shiite-dominated Maliki regime (sending more than a billion dollars’ worth of equipment every year) has been interpreted by some as showing favoritism to Shiite forces over those of the Sunni—thus deepening ethnic tensions in Iraq. Increasingly, however, the Obama administration has been perturbed by Maliki’s close relations with Iran and has stepped back from offering explicit political support to his government. With the current Sunni upsurge, Obama has escalated his criticisms of Maliki, accusing him of “political opportunism” and of sowing “mistrust and sectarian divisions.”
On June 20, Obama gave a populist-sounding rationale for Washington’s hesitant policy toward Maliki’s regime: “There’s no doubt that there has been a suspicion for quite some time now amongst Sunnis that they have no access to using the political process to deal with their grievances, and that is in part the reason why a better-armed and larger number of Iraqi security forces melted away when an extremist group, ISIS, started rolling through the western portions of Iraq.”
Since then, the U.S. has been more and more insistent that Maliki step down from office as a step toward cobbling together a “more inclusive” coalition government. The powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and Middle Eastern leaders such as Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, have added their voices in calling for the selection of an Iraqi government that is acceptable to all major political blocs.
Yet, despite the wariness that Washington has displayed toward the Maliki regime, Obama has made it clear that at this point the U.S. is willing to help defend the Baghdad government by military means. The U.S. recently delivered a large shipment of laser-guided Hellfire missiles, and is sending up to 300 “advisors” in order to “train” the Iraqi army—as well as increasing U.S. surveillance and intelligence “assets” in the country. These forces will augment some 600 U.S. soldiers and an unspecified number of armed “private contractors” who are already in Iraq. At the same time, the U.S. has augmented military aid to so-called “moderate” rebel forces fighting in Syria, in order to counter the power of the Islamic State in that country.
While calling for the military build-up, the White House and Democratic Party members of Congress have been forced to respond to the fact that U.S. public opinion (by a 74 percent majority in a June 17 poll) has expressed itself strongly against the reintroduction of U.S. combat soldiers into Iraq. Thus, Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi urged “caution” in the U.S. military escalation, while observing: “You have to be careful sending special forces, because it’s a number that has a tendency to grow.”
Obama did not rule out U.S. air strikes in the future, but stressed that they would be “targeted and precise.” By the use of such phrasing, the administration obviously intends to assuage fears of the civilian casualties that inevitably accompany the use of air strikes. A high number of civilian deaths could prove highly embarrassing for the White House.
While lobbying the U.S. Congress for air support, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Lukman Faily, raised the alarm that IS would commit “ethnic cleansing” in the cities that it has captured. Faily’s warning, of course, probably elicited knowing winks among some U.S. officials—who are well aware that U.S. occupation forces and their client governments in Iraq commonly and effectively employed ethnic cleansing as part of their strategy. In fact, the current Sunni rebellion is a direct consequence of the sectarian warfare unleashed by the U.S. invasion over a decade ago.
When the U.S. toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, the ruling echelons and their representatives in Washington estimated that risks would be minimal. They knew that working-class and left Arab nationalist forces had already been crushed by Hussein’s autocratic regime. Likewise, the fall of the Soviet Union and the smothering of the Iranian Revolution had diminished the possibility of opposition in the international arena.
Washington and its allies counted, moreover, on the hysterical climate of the “war on terror,” together with the charade of Saddam’s having authorized ”weapons of mass destruction,” as the means to quell any significant antiwar opposition from arising against the Iraq adventure.
It’s difficult to say how many U.S. politicians at the time really believed the rosy rhetoric of ideologues like Dick Cheney, who insisted that U.S. troops “will, in fact, be greeted as liberators” in Iraq. Yet most U.S. policy makers no doubt believed that feuding ethnic and religious groupings in the shattered country—the legacy of imperialism’s longstanding divide-and-rule policies throughout the Arab world—could be quickly knitted together within a regime that was completely subservient to U.S. dictates.
With that outcome in mind, they expected that the United States would soon have sufficient peace and comfort to reap the great reward of its military victory—Iraq’s vast oil wealth, which was quickly pieced out to U.S. corporations.
But Iraq turned into a quagmire for the imperialists. As resistance to the U.S. invasion solidified, Washington saw fit to pour more and more troops and armaments into Iraq, utterly destroying Fallujah and other cities. At least half a million Iraqis have been killed in the war (some sources report many more deaths), with several million displaced from their homes.
The U.S. invasion and war left Iraq, once one of the wealthiest nations in the Middle East, marooned in a state of economic and social collapse. Unemployment today is officially 18 percent, and illiteracy is 60 percent. Billions of dollars in oil wealth have disappeared into the bank accounts of favored businessmen, while much of the urban population survives on merely four hours of electricity a day. As social conditions steadily worsened during the early months and years of the occupation, they further enflamed resistance to the U.S. and allied forces and to their puppet Iraqi armies.
Early in the war, signs began to appear that ethnic groupings might work together to defy the occupiers. For example, after the first U.S. attack on Fallujah, in April 2004, Sunnis and Shiites mounted a joint convoy to provide aid to civilians. That same month, 200,000 Sunnis and Shiites demonstrated in Baghdad against the U.S. occupation. To forestall any such attempts at unity in the future, the U.S. looked to the tactic that imperialism had successfully employed many times in the past—fanning the flames of nationalist and religious rivalries. Accordingly, the U.S. fostered the formation of religion-based militias and death squads—which its Saudi, Kuwaiti, and other “allies” helped to supply with weaponry.
In many U.S.-led offensives in the “Sunni triangle,” like the murderous assault on Fallujah, the main allied Iraqi troops were made up of Shiite and Kurd militias. Many of these forces sought to turn the tables on their Sunni opponents who had dominated the country during the Saddam Hussein years.
However, the U.S. still held an open hand toward Sunni forces who were willing to collaborate. After U.S. Marines withdrew from Falluja in 2004, they left the city under control of a group of Sunnis they had armed and equipped—the so-called Fallujah Brigade, led largely by former Baathists. In the meantime, the U.S. continued to bomb Fallujah from the air, with high civilian casualties.
Soon, it became clear to the Americans that many in the Fallujah Brigade were sympathetic to the suffering and grievances of the local Sunni population, and ineffective in carrying out U.S. directives to arrest the insurgents still in the city. The brigade was demobilized by the U.S. puppet government in Baghdad, but Fallujah remained in the hands of a coalition of Islamic fundamentalists (including al-Qaeda), former Baathists, and Sunni tribal nationalists. The U.S. military responded with an onslaught that it later described as “the heaviest urban combat Marines have been involved in since the battle of Hue City in Vietnam.” At least 800 civilians lost their lives, according to the Red Cross.
In the meantime, Sunni elements, including al-Qaeda, had undertaken a wave of jihadist attacks, including massacres, suicide bombings, and assassinations of political officials who were deemed to be collaborators. These actions further stiffened the old Shiite grudges against Sunnis. After the February 2006 bombing in Samarra of the al-Askari mosque, one of the Shiites’ holiest shrines, the country quickly descended into civil war. Well over 1000 people were killed in the days following the bombing.
Nouri al-Maliki, who took office in 2006 with a base among Shiite political forces, increasingly acted to remove Sunni politicians from their posts, and has cracked down hard on dissent. Torture has been commonplace.
The Maliki regime organized several attacks on Camp Ashraf, a refugee compound that was home to people who had been persecuted by the fundamentalist Shiite regime in Iran. In the last attack, on Sept. 1, 2013, Iraqi troops fired grenades and mortars into the camp’s sleeping quarters, and then machine-gunned people as they tried to escape. At least 52 refugees (according to UN observers) were massacred, with seven others deported to Iran, where they face the prospect of torture and execution.
Minority nationalities and religious groups have fared no better. The Christian population of the country (now 500,000) has declined by about two-thirds since the U.S. invasion; most Christians have fled the country to escape repression by militant Islamists. And the 2 million “Black Iraqis,” descendants of escaped African slaves, live as poverty-stricken pariahs in southern Iraq, where they are regularly denied identity documents, marriage certificates, and education.
A major flashpoint for the current insurgency was ignited when ISIS occupied the western dessert region of Anbar province, near the border with Syria, at the end of last year. The Iraqi army, freshly supplied with U.S. Hellfire missiles and reconnaissance drones, attempted to expel the ISIS fighters, but met with little success. Video footage from the campaign showed Maliki’s troops raising Shiite religious banners and slogans as they operated in the Sunni-majority region.
As an outgrowth of its operations, in late December, the Iraqi army moved in to disburse the Sunni-led protest camp in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, situated nearly 80 miles west of Baghdad. Maliki had claimed, with little evidence, that the camp was an “al-Qaeda” (i.e., ISIS) headquarters. At the same time, the government arrested a local Sunni member of parliament, Ahmed al-Alwani, after a firefight at his residence in which Alwani’s brother was killed.
As a result of these incidents, Sunni clerics and tribal leaders issued a call for Sunnis to take up arms against the Maliki government. A three-way armed struggle ensued in Anbar province between Sunni tribal militias, the mainly Shiite Iraqi army, and al-Qaeda. “We don’t like ISIS, but we also don’t like to be treated like second-class citizens,” the deputy head of the Anbar provincial council, Falah al-Alssawi, explained at the time.
The Iraqi army was forced to withdraw from Ramadi and Fallujah in January, and in the breach, ISIS moved in to occupy those cities.
Today, IS and its allies continue to gain territory in Anbar province, having recently seized several key towns on the Euphrates River and gained control of the key highway into Jordan. In some regions, Sunni tribes, as well as former Saddam Hussein loyalists from the Baath Party and officers from Saddam’s army, have formed an alliance with ISIS, since they share the goals of creating a separate Sunni state or even overthrowing the Shiite-backed government in Baghdad. However, the insurgent coalition has not remained intact throughout the country. Both in Anbar province and in the north around Kirkuk, several Baathist and other Sunni militias have engaged in firefights against ISIS.
Working people in Iraq—whether they belong to Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, or other ethnic groups—have nothing to gain from the sectarian mayhem. None of the current belligerents can speak to their interests and wellbeing. However odious and reactionary IS and al-Qaeda might be, it is necessary to acknowledge that the imperialist-backed Maliki regime has yielded nothing but death and misery for the Iraqi people—while the ex-collaborators of Saddam Hussein and the Baathists were even more repressive when they held power.
The only way that Iraq’s working people can eliminate the ongoing cycles of war, repression, and poverty is for them to carefully construct their own independent workers’ party, open to people of all nationalities and religious groupings, and armed with a revolutionary socialist program. Councils of democratically elected workers’ representatives can be built to organize defense of communities and workplaces from the marauding armies and death squads, while taking action to replace the present corrupt and pro-imperialist capitalist regime with one that is fully representative of working people.
Oppressed nationalities like the Kurds must be recognized as having the right of self-determination, which would include supporting their choice to separate into a new state if they wish. But they must also be given absolute assurance that they would be guaranteed equal rights and opportunities if they choose instead to help build a united socialist Iraq. Ultimately, the borders that the imperialists erected in the region a century ago must fall—replaced by a united, confederated socialist Middle East.
In the meantime, President Obama and Congress have left open the option of further escalating the U.S. intervention in Iraq, with jet and drone strikes as well as larger quantities of U.S. troops. The United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) has called for united, massive protests in the streets. The antiwar movement must make itself heard: “No new U.S. war in Iraq!”