Iraq: A disaster waiting to happen
The US and Iran find themselves on the same side and ready to cooperate, warns Yassamine Mather
News from Iraq is getting worse by the hour. Many cities in the north of the country have now fallen to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis), working in alliance with a variety of Sunni groups and tribes. The mortar attack on Iraq’s biggest oil refinery is another example of the escalation of the conflict. On June 17 news came of an attempt to capture of the city of Baquba, the capital of Diyala province, which is just 64 kilometres north of Baghdad.
Isis already controls Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar and a number of smaller cities and towns. However, its gains in the north of Iraq are not just military advances: the group is now able to access government military equipment, including helicopters and Humvee military vehicles, as well as substantial funds held at banks and insurance companies in the places it has taken. It is reported that the banks of Mosul alone have increased the jihadist group’s funds by $400 million. Of course, Isis has additional regular income from the oilfields it controls in eastern Syria, the sale of antiquities looted from historical sites, as well as donations from wealthy contributors in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.
According to David Gardner in the Financial Times, “When your second largest city is overrun by a black-shirted horde of jihadi fanatics and your army melts away, you call for a state of emergency but your parliament cannot field a quorum, what you have is a fast failing state. That is what Nouri al-Maleki, Iraq’s irredeemably sectarian prime minister, is presiding over, in what may be his afflicted country’s last gasp as a unified nation.”1
Although most reports trace Isis back to Syria in 2013, the group’s leaders have a longer history as part of an offshoot of al Qa’eda. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Isis’s main figurehead, was born in Samarra, north of Baghdad, and joined the insurgents soon after the 2003 US-led invasion.
The group claims to have fighters from the UK, France, Germany and other European countries, as well as the US, and its declared aim is to create an Islamic state in Iraq and Syria. However, its main enemy is Iran - Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been fighting Isis for the last few months in Syria. Isis forces are now less than 40 kilometres from the Iranian border, threatening the Shia shrines of Karbala and Najaf in Iraqi territory. The propaganda is clear: liberate the region from the takfiri (apostates or those they accuse of being impure or adulterous Shias).
According to prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, who should know about Isis and other Jihadist groups, Isis has no more than around 3,000 fighters, so it could not have advanced so rapidly without help from local Sunni tribes and political groups. In many of Iraq’s northern cities, members and supporters of the Islamic Party, associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, have joined forces with Isis.
Roots in 2003
Contrary to comments by the western media, none of this should come as a surprise. After all, Isis’s car bombings in Shia areas of Baghdad started last year and the group has controlled Fallujah since March 2014. More importantly, the current disaster in Iraq was predicted by anyone with even limited familiarity with the region as early as 2002, when the US and its allies began preparations for the invasion of Iraq. These events are a direct consequence of the 2003 invasion - Isis’s support from Sunnis has everything to do with the US carpet-bombing of Fallujah and its support for successive sectarian Shia administrations in Baghdad (which, ironically, allied with the west’s pariah state in the region, Iran). No amount of denial and falsification by Tony Blair and other warmongers can change this.
The invasion of Iraq in 2003 fundamentally altered the balance of forces in the region. It surgically removed the reactionary, but more or less secular, rule of Saddam Hussein and put in power a Shia government, albeit under the auspices of the US occupation.
That government was and remains very close to Iran. It was strongly opposed by Saudi Arabia, and most of the Sunni states, whose manoeuvres against it started from the very beginning. There can be no doubt that, for all its talk of inclusiveness regarding Sunnis, Turkmen and Kurds, the Iraqi government followed sectarian policies from the very start. Sunnis face routine discrimination and corruption is ripe. Initially the armed opposition to the Shia state was not jihadist - some of it was not even religious: it was simply against the occupation. It was always a question of when, not if, the jihadists would intervene.
Having said that, it would be wrong to see this as a Shia-Sunni conflict pure and simple. As Sami Ramadani has reminded us this week, “Prior to the 2003 US-led occupation, the only incident was the 1941 violent looting of Jewish neighbourhoods … The bombing of synagogues in Baghdad in 1950-51 turned out to be the work of Zionists to frighten Iraq’s Jews - one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world - into emigrating to Israel, following their refusal to do so. Until the 1970s nearly all Iraq’s political organisations were secular, attracting people from all religions and none.”2
The current conflict is about not just the instability the war created, but the balance of geopolitical forces in the region - not least the ‘Arab spring’. Contrary to Tony Blair, the Arab spring was not about the kind of deformed democracy hypocritically promoted by Bush and himself. It was a rebellion against pro-western dictators, and for better economic conditions at a time when the transfer of the worst aspects of the global economic crisis to the countries of the periphery had worsened the living conditions of the majority of the population in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Syria.
In the Arab world there was also shame about defeat in the Iraq war, frustration with the conciliatory attitude of pro-western rulers regarding the Palestinian issue. The Arab masses rebelled against dictators they saw as puppets or allies of the west. Many in Cairo as well as Tunis and Damascus rightly saw their rulers as being partly responsible for the whole situation. It is true that the Syrian uprising started as part of the Arab spring before jihadists, including Isis, got involved, but who financed these jihadists? The west’s main allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. Why? Because they were fearful of Iran’s increased influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. So Blair would do better to keep quiet - every word he utters exposes not just his reactionary self-justification, but his complete ignorance of the region.
The key for us is to keep reminding people that we are in this terrible situation not because Sunnis do not like Shias, or vice versa; not because Arabs simply enjoying fighting each other. We are here because of western politicians, such as Bush and Blair, who were clueless about what was going on in the Middle East. We face this situation because of the history of colonialism and the way arbitrary borders were drawn after the collapse of the Ottoman empire - and again Blair’s comments show his blatant ignorance of that history.
We are here because the west supported the shah’s dictatorship, because it supported Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist government in its war against Iran’s Islamic Republic throughout the 1980s - and then, when Saddam became the ‘enemy’, the US turned a blind eye to Iran’s advances in the region. Then, in the mid-2000s, wary of the change it had inadvertently caused in the balance of forces in the region and concerned about Iran’s influence, it escalated the conflict with Iran, using the excuse of the country’s nuclear programme; it punished the Iranian people (rather than the government) through stringent sanctions. Finally, now that another enemy has appeared, the west is seeking to strike an alliance with what until yesterday was its enemy. No wonder there is cynicism in the region and beyond about this latest phase of US foreign diplomacy.
The situation is, then, that the two countries directly and indirectly responsible for the creation of the current mess in Iraq and Syria - ie, the United States and Iran - are now joining forces to discuss cooperation regarding the “security situation in Iraq”. Both have already committed hundreds of military personnel to ‘advise’ Baghdad.
On June 17 the US dispatched USS Mesa Verde, which carries combat helicopters, to the Persian Gulf to join other naval ships, including the aircraft carrier, USS George HW Bush. President Barack Obama has, after all, said that no option is off the table - and that includes military air strikes.
Iran is already militarily involved. A senior member of the Revolutionary Guards has been in the country for the past three weeks to advise the government of Nouri al-Maleki and, according to some reports, he is leading military operations in Baghdad. On June 13 it was confirmed that hundreds of Revolutionary Guards were already fighting in Iraq, and Iranian president Hassan Rowhani has said that Iran is ready to step up its intervention. Let us not forget that until a few months ago the US was supporting the Syrian insurgents against the pro-Iran regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Hillary Clinton thinks military strikes are unlikely and suggests the US should work with the Maleki government to get its army fit for purpose. She claims the Iraqi army must become more disciplined, less sectarian, less corrupt. Clearly, she is delusional. The US occupation has relied on a sectarian Shia state to rule post-war Iraq, so it is a bit late now to worry about sectarianism in that country.
What about corruption? The army learnt what it knows about corruption from the likes of former defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other representatives of the US-led occupation. They saw how ‘Iraqi democracy’ meant allowing companies like Halliburton to make billions out of war. The Iraqi army is proving spectacularly useless in fighting the jihadists, but it is able to suppress and execute civilians. The idea of ‘retraining’ a force like this is akin to the notion of retraining the Mafia.
None of this excuses the barbaric acts of the jihadists - they are from another era. But it does underline the correctness of the position that we in Hands Off the People of Iran have consistently taken on the reactionary nature of both imperialism and political Islam.
The situation in Iraq has changed the whole context of the negotiations on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities. The US is now in a far more precarious situation - Republicans have been pointing this out very forcefully. If a week ago there was doubt as to whether the interim deal could be extended in the absence of any agreement before the July 20 deadline, suddenly we hear of the drafting of a final agreement. All obstacles seem to have been removed.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has rushed through plans to reopen the British embassy in Tehran and David Cameron is going the extra mile - admitting to MI5’s role in the coup that overthrew the government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. However, all this can change overnight if discussions about Iraq fail or a new enemy is identified in the region. There is nothing stopping US foreign policy taking another turn.
Whatever the outcome of the current conflict, the future looks bad. The Iraqi government has had to rely on hard-line Shia militias, including those who previously fought against the US occupation. If they survive, such forces will demand a greater role in state affairs - and stricter implementation of Shia Islamic legislation. Without some sort of progressive movement from below we are looking at the possibility of barbarism. And it will not just blight Iraq: it will spill over into Syria and Lebanon, Turkey and Iran.
This will not be a straightforward civil war. The jihadists have found allies amongst former Ba’athists and tribal forces opposed to the Iraqi state. But these forces will soon be alienated by the extremism of Isis, as in Syria. There, it formed alliances with moderate Islamic and secular groups fighting Assad. However, soon it began to dominate those groups, expecting them to adhere to strict sharia law. It is the same in Iraqi cities where Isis has the upper hand. So it will not be a case of a straightforward conflict between Sunni and Shia. There will be infighting amongst Sunnis and Shias and the likelihood of further fragmentation.
The situation is even more complicated in the Kurdish areas. The jihadists have largely left the Kurds alone and have taken the opportunity, for example, to move on Kirkuk, in the oil-rich part of Iraqi Kurdistan. There are unconfirmed reports that Kurdish Democratic Party leader Masoud Barzani has ordered his forces to hold their fire against Isis. But Kurds should not be fooled. The jihadists have an absolute programme of imposing sharia everywhere. From that point of view, they actually have more in common with Maleki as the head of a Shia state than with the Kurdish government.
An Iraq divided into three or more separate countries might suit the pro-imperialist, Masoud Barzani, along with western arms manufacturers and oil companies. But it would be a disaster for the peoples of these ethnically mixed regions, producing a situation of permanent conflict.
The lesson that this disastrous situation underlines yet again is the need to be implacably opposed to imperialism and its military adventures, while at the same time standing against political Islam in all its shades - from moderate, through radical to jihadist. We say no to US intervention, no to Iranian intervention. They and other reactionary forces have caused this tragedy and, even if their intervention were to secure military victory against Isis, it would not diminish support for the Islamists - quite the opposite.
If the US really wanted to deal with the Jihadists, then logically it should settle accounts with their paymasters in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates. The problem is that, when they were fighting Assad, the west was more or less unconcerned with their ‘extremism’ and adherence to jihadist political Islam. Now it might be too late.
1. Financial Times June 13.