Iraq – A powder keg stoked and primed by imperialist power games

Posted: August 15, 2014 by Admin in At the coalface, British politics, Imperialism and anti-imperialism, Iraq, Middle East, Secularism, State repression, United States, United States - politics, Uprisings/insurrections/rebellions
US bombing of Baghdad that preceded invasion; Western intervention destroyed Iraq, creating the present situation

US bombing of Baghdad that preceded invasion; Western intervention destroyed Iraq, creating the present situation

Iraq is facing a catastrophe. The country is now threatened with implosion. The offensive launched in western Iraq, in January, by the fundamentalist Islamic Sunni militia ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) took a new turn on 10 June, when it took over Mosul – the capital of Nineveh Province and Iraq’s second largest city, with 2 million inhabitants. Over the following days, ISIS pushed on further towards the capital, Baghdad and, by the end of June, its fighters were in control of a new Sunni territory straddling across the border between Syria and Iraq.

In front of this ruthless militia, the forces of the regular Iraqi army collapsed, thereby highlighting the fragility of the central state machinery inherited from the western occupation. The leaders of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region seem to have decided to seize this opportunity to declare their independence from Baghdad.

Meanwhile, in the capital and in the southern part of the country, Shia militias are parading in the streets in full military gear, proclaiming their determination to oppose the ISIS advance. Not only is Iraq breaking up, but it may be engulfed in a war with unpredictable consequences for the stability of the whole region.

The imperialist leaders are now worried that this threat of destabilisation might endanger the profits of their companies. After having considered for a while resorting to air strikes, Obama alluded to possible concessions to Iran should its government undertake to do the dirty job of helping to restore order in the region. However Iran did not seem willing to co-operate. In the end, the US leaders confined themselves to sending a few hundred “military advisers” to Baghdad, officially to protect their diplomatic staff, but probably with some special forces as well.

In any case, if anyone is responsible for today’s unfolding catastrophe in Iraq, it has to be the imperialist powers and their endless manoeuvres aimed at reasserting their domination over this part of the world, in order, among other things, to shore up their control over its oil resources. After decades of meddling, the forces unleashed in the region by the imperialist powers – especially by the most powerful among them, US imperialism – are now escaping their control.

The ISIS offensive
For over a year, ISIS fighters have been attacking government forces in the western Al Anbar province, using suicide attacks, taking hostages and carrying out brutal exactions. In January, they occupied Fallujah and then several districts of Ramadi- two of the province’s Sunni towns, with respectively, 320,000 and 400,000 inhabitants. These successes were probably facilitated by the tacit support of a section of the Sunni population among whom some were increasingly hostile to prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s corrupt regime, which they accused of promoting the interests of the Shia and Kurds. Others, especially among the youth, were driven to despair by the absence of any prospects, due to the complete collapse of the economy.

ISIS was in fact formed in 2003, after the western invasion of Iraq, with the aim of establishing a “new Islamic caliphate” on both sides of the border, between Iraq and Syria. The fast progress of its offensive this year has caused a wave of desertions among the government forces. Many of its soldiers and officers did not particularly want to risk their lives for the central government, especially when their only motive in enrolling in the army had been to escape destitution.

Once again, therefore, the civilian population finds itself caught in the crossfire between the militias and the troops of the Baghdad government. The last months of fighting are already estimated to have forced 500,000 inhabitants of Al Anbar province (almost a third) to flee the combat zones. In May alone, at least a thousand people were killed, three quarters of them in terrorist attacks and the rest in the course of military operations. The death toll during 2013 had already been the highest since the peak reached in 2006 and 2007, during the western occupation.

When announcing the withdrawal of the US forces from Iraq after nine years of war and occupation, in December 2011, Obama had claimed that they were leaving a sovereign state in charge, which was both democratic and stable. The recent events show what this claim was really worth.

From the Iran-Iraq war to the 2003 invasion
Militias such as ISIS, which claim to represent the Sunni minority, just as those, more or less powerful, which claim to represent the Shia majority, would never have seen the light of day without the meddling of the imperialist powers. It was these powers which paved the way for the emergence of such militias, by whipping up, directly or indirectly, the divisions which existed among the Iraqi population – when they did not use these divisions in order to shore up their own domination over the country.

Of course, Iraq was never homogeneous, thanks to the fact that it had been artificially engineered by British imperialism as part of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.,. 53% of its population is made of Shia Arabs, 21% of Sunni Arabs, 23% of Kurds (most of whom are Sunni), plus a few other much smaller minorities. But these divisions had not prevented these sections of the population from living together, without ever experiencing any form of civil war, for over 60 years – until the imperialist powers chose to use Iraq as a pawn in their regional games.

After the 1979 revolution in Iran and the overthrow of the Shah, the imperialist leaders wanted to punish the mullahs for having defied their domination by replacing, without due authorisation, a regime which had been a pillar of the regional imperialist order for over a quarter of a century. Saddam Hussein was given the task of doing the dirty work, resulting in a bloody 8-year war which left a million dead and brought both countries to the verge of economic ruin. It was during this war, that fearing a backlash due to the discontent of the Iraqi Shia majority for being drawn into a war against another Shia country, Saddam Hussein opted to seek the support of the Sunni minority.

At the time, Saddam Hussein, the man who was soon to become a despised enemy of the imperialist leaders, was still one of their main instruments in the region. But in 1990, Saddam Hussein got too big for his boots in the imperialist leaders’ view, when he invaded Kuwait without their approval. They chose not to tolerate what might have appeared to the rest of the world as a gesture of defiance towards their domination. A coalition was formed under the auspices of the US – including Britain and France. In 1991 this coalition launched the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein’s troops had to evacuate Kuwait. Nevertheless, there was no attempt at “regime change” this time. In fact, the western leaders left him to crush a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq and a Shia uprising in the south. And the repression of these uprisings resulted in an exacerbation of the sense of communal and ethnic oppression of those who had been at the receiving end.

After that came a Western-enforced 10-year blockade which further damaged the Iraqi economy and was responsible of the premature death of an estimated half-a-million children. In order to shore up his political authority which was being weakened by this blockade and its catastrophic consequences, Saddam Hussein made more and more concessions to religion in general, but more specifically to the Sunni clerics.

The cost of the imperialist occupation
Among the leading spheres of imperialism, particularly in the US and Britain, some were determined to finish off Saddam Hussein. Their objective was to secure imperialism’s total control over the region’s oil reserves but also, more generally, to reassert imperialism’s regional domination by demonstrating to any of the regimes which might be tempted to display some form of independence, what was in store for them.

The political atmosphere created by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and then by the “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan, provided US president Bush with a window of opportunity. The lies of Bush and Blair both about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq provided them with a justification to launch a second Gulf War, involving, this time, a full-scale invasion aimed at “regime change”.

On 20 March 2003, the first US and British missiles blasted Baghdad as part of a military operation cynically codenamed “Freedom for Iraq”. Within a month, Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown. Within two months, Bush declared the end of combat operations.

Thereafter started an occupation, which was immediately and wholeheartedly endorsed by the UN. It was to serve as a fig leaf for an on-going war, which was to last 8 more years. The US-British occupation forces became a “multinational force” which was occupying Iraq at the request of an interim government that it had just propelled into office.

But the western occupation never managed to restore any kind of order. While, in the very early days, some Iraqis may have welcome the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, they quickly lost their illusions. It did not take long for the western occupation forces to attract the hatred of the population and cause explosions of anger. Rebellions were brutally suppressed, like in Fallujah in 2004, where the US army massacred the insurgent Sunni population, causing a huge flow of refugees to take shelter in neighbouring Syria.

The rise of the militias
As early as July 2003, the US authorities presided over the setting up of a Transitional Government Council which was to act as an interface between the occupation forces and the population. It included all the currents opposed to the former regime. In addition to a number of former dignitaries who had returned from exile, there were representatives of the religious Shia parties, such as the Dawa party which, until recently, had been on the US list of terrorist organisations, or the Iranian-backed Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). It also included a number of Sunni, Kurdish and Turkmen parties, some secular parties and even the Iraqi Communist Party.

But the situation wasn’t getting more stable. There was a simple reason for that: the former pillars of Saddam Hussein’s regime – the army and the Baath party – had virtually collapsed and then the US pro-consul, Paul Bremer, demolished what was left of these pillars, by formally dissolving the army and banning the Baath party.

The vacuum that was left by the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s state machinery opened a Pandora’s box. By paving the way for a struggle for power, it resulted in the development of rival militias, the largest of which were religious- or ethnic-based. Some of these militias, like the Kurdish pershmergas or the SCIRI militias, had already existed underground under Saddam Hussein. Others had emerged by playing on the hatred generated by the occupation forces.

All these militias used the same terror methods to “cleanse” their “fiefdoms” of any “alien” elements. This brutality was supposed to protect the section of the population they claimed to represent – but, in fact, it was just as much designed to sustain a sense of fear among this very same section. Their aim was to occupy as much territory as possible in order to be in the best position to bid for power, at a local or a national level. For example, the so-called “Mahdi army”, the militia of the fundamentalist Shia leader Moqtadah al-Sadr, was 60,000-strong. In Baghdad, its fiefdom was Sadr City, a Shia slum district where 2m people lived. It had other strongholds, such as Najaf and Karbala, south of the capital.

It did not take long before the rivalries between these militias turned into a civil war, especially between Sunni and Shia militias – this, despite the fact that, since the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy in 1958, Iraqi society had been among the most secular in the Arab world and these two sections of the population had mixed together without conflict.

The policy of the occupation forces however, had fanned the flames of sectarianism. In order to restore order while keeping the Sunni forces which had been closest to Saddam Hussein’s regime at arms length, the occupation authorities built up a new state machinery which was based on the Shia religious militias and the Kurdish pershmergas. The Sunni minority was, therefore, marginalised – and not just in the new state institutions but also in the political institutions which were put in place by the occupation authorities. Starting from the December 2005 election, these political institutions were effectively controlled by a motley coalition of Shia and Kurdish parties, under the helm of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, himself the second in command in the religious Shia Dawa party. However, the successive governments soon lost any kind of credit, partly due to being paralysed by their own internal quarrels and partly due to their corruption and criminal negligence.

This year, in an attempt to regain some credit in the run-up to the 30th April elections – the first elections since the withdrawal of the US troops – al-Maliki made another attempt at using divide-and-rule techniques, by having a number of Sunni politicians arrested. But this did not really work. Although his coalition topped the poll once again, it only managed to win 92 seats out of 328, leading to a farcical saga whereby, at the time of writing, more than two months after the ballot, the new parliament has still not managed to agree on the name of a speaker, let alone the composition of a government. In any case, al-Maliki’s sectarian politicking will only have succeeded in alienating the Sunni minority even more.

A threat of implosion
Another device used by the occupation forces to try and restore some form of normality was the federalist principle which was included into Iraq’s 2005 constitution. The idea was to neutralise the rival factions by luring them with the hope that, at some point, they might be able to gain their own autonomous territory, with, possibly, a share of the country’s oil revenue. But far from neutralising the factional rivalries, this had exactly the opposite effect.

Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north of the country, had already been de facto autonomous before the 2003 invasion. The 2005 constitution merely legalised this situation. But at the same time it left a whole number of bones of contention between the Kurdish autonomous authority and the central government in Baghdad. For example, tensions increased on several occasions, when the Kurdish authority decided to export its energy resources without going through the central government’s channels. Then there was the issue of Mosul and Kirkuk, both of which were claimed by the Kurdish authority on historical grounds. In the case of Kirkuk, the stakes were particularly high, given the large oil reserves situated in the region surrounding the town. By now, this last question may well have been resolved by the Kurdish leaders in their own way – by grabbing the opportunity offered by the collapse of the government’s army. Thanks to its 250,000 soldiers and its armoured units, the Kurdish army stopped the ISIS offensive towards the north and, in the process, occupied Kirkuk. It remains to be seen how the Baghdad government will react to this coup de force once the dust has settled – assuming it can still react.

Since 2005, many other militias and provincial governments have been tempted to follow the example set by Kurdistan. Such was the case of the province around Basra in the south, in 2007, where the provincial government was dominated by the fundamentalist Shia party al-Fadhila (the “Virtue party”). One of the leaders of this party was quoted as saying to the press: “We, al-Fadhila, want to have our own region, our own province. We have two million inhabitants, an airport, a harbour and oil – everything we need to have a state”.

Even before they left Iraq, therefore, the imperialist powers had encouraged the development of centrifugal forces which, although unable to bid for power in Baghdad, were willing to limit their ambitions to grabbing a piece of the country for themselves, if and when they had an opportunity to do so. These forces may well be in a position to take opportunity of the collapse of the government forces to take over the fiefdom they have chosen, thereby raising the stakes in the civil war and the likelihood of Iraq imploding – something out of which the Iraqi population would have nothing to gain.

The whole region destabilised
The civil war which is unfolding in Iraq is the latest episode in a crisis caused by the policies of the imperialist powers, which is now threatening the whole region.

Due to the occupation of Iraq, Iraqi fundamentalist Sunni groups fled to Syria. These groups subsequently played a decisive role in reviving the Syrian fundamentalist Sunni current, which had virtually disappeared after being crushed by Bachar al-Assad’s regime. The street protests, which began in early 2011, finally gave way to a war between military cliques. This war provided the fundamentalist Sunni militias, both Syrian and Iraqi, with recruitment and a training ground. In order to avoid a total collapse of Assad’s dictatorship, which could have been dangerous in a country bordering the Palestinian powder keg, imperialism chose not to intervene directly. But it did not miss the opportunity of weakening the Syrian regime – just enough as to make it a bit more pliable – in particular by allowing imperialism’s regional allies to arm the fundamentalist Sunni militias.

What we are witnessing today is literally a boomerang effect. The same Iraqi Sunni militia which had been forced into Syria by the western occupation of Iraq, went on to play a role in the destabilisation of Syria, where they recruited more fighters and acquired both military equipment and training. Then this same militia crossed back into Iraq, first destabilising the western part of the country, then marching towards Nineveh and now Baghdad.

The attempts of the imperialist powers to stabilise the region within the framework of their system of domination, has only resulted in the unleashing of forces which are increasingly uncontrollable.

Down with the imperialist order!
Neither the insecurity of the past years nor the current civil war prevents the imperialist companies from exploiting Iraq’s oil – even if, at the time of writing, the Baiji refinery, the largest in Iraq, is at the centre of a power struggle between ISIS and government forces.

It was in order to protect the profits of these companies that, after the withdrawal of its troops, the US army left behind 35,000 military contractors and a US embassy in Baghdad which is the world’s largest, with 17,000 employees. Iraq may well have become a quagmire, but there was no question of allowing this to stand in the way of the oil majors getting all of the dividends they expected from the western invasion of Iraq.

Of course, the present civil war was not part of the imperialist leaders’ plans and it may well disrupt the majors’ looting of Iraq.

For its part, the Iraqi population has paid – and is still paying – an exorbitant price for the policy of imperialism. Insecurity remains an on-going problem, with the permanent risk of getting killed by a terrorist attack or by a stray bullet from a military operation.

The war and occupation of Iraq caused five million Iraqis to flee, either abroad – mainly to Syria, Jordan, Turkey or the Lebanon – or to be displaced inside the country itself. A large number of these internal refugees are crowded into 400 camps, with no adequate drinking water supplies nor sanitation, no health care, nor adequate food provision.  Those Iraqis who managed to escape abroad have no possibility of having a normal life – having no residence permits, let alone a work permits. As to those who fled to Syria, they have been caught in the middle of another civil war and now have to find another refuge.

Oil represents 65% of Iraq’s GDP and 90% of the country’s foreign revenue. It is an important source of income for the state, but it’s of little use for the poor classes – in particular due to the state’s corruption. At least half of Iraqi workers are unemployed – but probably significantly more – and those who have a job have to cope with very low wages and precarious conditions of employment.

There are periodic explosions of anger, as was the case in 2011 among the oil workers who took action over the low level of wages, the non-payment of bonuses and their casual conditions of employment. During a demonstration, a member of the Kirkuk oil and gas workers’ union was quoted saying: “We produce all the wealth in this country. But then it goes straight into the pockets of officials and politicians. We are like camels who would be carrying gold while being made to eat thorns.”

Day after day, the population is faced with a shortage of water and electricity. Even though the temperature often goes over 100°F, this means neither fridge nor fans. In Baghdad, the water supply network is virtually out of order. The health service, which used to be one of the most developed in the Middle East until 1980, is now a shadow of its former self. In the poorest areas of Baghdad, cholera and tuberculosis have returned with a vengeance.

The clock has thus been turned back by the western interventions – but not just in terms of material conditions. The clerics have gained a considerable amount of influence, allowing them to control a large part of people’s day-to-day lives, while the militias continue to impose their rule. Thus the political current led by the fundamentalist Moqtadah al-Sadr has managed to take over the education ministry and gives its own orientation to the school curriculum.

This social deterioration is particular dire for women. Since the 1960s, Iraqi women had enjoyed a bit more freedom than in other Middle-Eastern countries. However, the fundamentalist militias have now ensured that women no longer enjoy this freedom. For Iraqi women, even more than for the rest of the Iraqi society, the western intervention has turned the clock back by half a century!

Imperialism has turned the Middle East into a powder keg as a result of decades of intervention in the region. It started with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, after WWI, whereby Britain and France shared out the Middle East between them. Then came the increasing stranglehold exercised by the US over the region. The historic links which existed across the Arab world, could have served as the basis for the setting up of a vast political and economic entity, large and strong enough to limit the looting of the region by the imperialist companies.

This was precisely why it was in the interest of the imperialist powers that the region should be divided by artificial borders, into a large number of more or less viable states, in order to better loot its resources. This policy has been taken so far that the artificial states which were created almost a century ago, are now coming to the point where they might explode even further. The civil war in Syria and Iraq is threatening neighbouring countries like the Lebanon and Jordan, which has a common border with Iraq. And beyond them, all the region’s countries may be destabilised, not to mention Palestine, where, for more than 60 years, limited confrontations have periodically resulted in an all-out war between the state of Israel and the Palestinians.

The bloody havoc created by imperialism and its past thirty years of power games is now threatening the entire region. Even if the main criminal in this has been US imperialism, British imperialism and all the politicians and parties who endorsed Blair’s invasion of Iraq have blood on their hands. This system of imperialist domination which feeds on the exploitation and the blood of entire populations can only produce the kind of barbaric situations of which the Middle East provides a dramatic illustration.

The above is a slightly edited version of an article that first appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Class Struggle, magazine of the British Marxist organisation Workers Fight; see, here

 

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