Escalating sectarian conflict threatens to draw in surrounding countries
From The Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party (CWI – England & Wales)
At the time of President Bush’s catastrophic and criminal invasion of Iraq in 2003, Socialist Alternative and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) warned it could lead to the break-up of Iraq and terrible sectarian war that is now being played out in front of the eyes of the world.
US imperialism laid the basis for being faced with not one, but a number of Saddams and the rise of al-Qa’ida type terror organisations like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that is sweeping across north Iraq today. The turn of events threatens to trigger a shake-up of the entire region, with profound and possibly tragic consequences for the populations.
To justify the 2003 war and subsequent occupation – in which over half a million Iraqis died, plus thousands of intervening troops – Bush and Blair claimed to be ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and laying the basis for democracy. The WMDs didn’t exist and their interest was never democracy – it was the vast oil wealth in Iraq and their influence in the Middle East. In pursuing their goals, they created the conditions for a prolonged period of bloody ethno-sectarian conflict.
The overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein and the ‘debaathification’ carried out, saw Sunni Muslims removed from the state apparatus and jobs. Faced with mass resistance to its occupation and to defeat Sunni insurgents, US imperialism resorted to sectarian ‘divide and rule’ and imposed a Shia-dominated, corrupt government which greatly worsened the division.
ISIS taking control of Fallujah in January and now Mosul – Iraq’s second largest city – is seen as disastrous by the US government as it effectively reverses the driving out of Sunni militias from those cities by US marines in what were sustained, brutal assaults during the US-led war.
Now US imperialism is seriously weakened in the Middle East following its catalog of foreign policy disasters, and mass opposition in the region and at home to its interventions. Obama was elected to the US presidency pledging to end the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so he withdrew the US troops from Iraq in 2011, and subsequently claimed that the US killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan had destroyed al-Qa’ida’s core. Then last year Obama again came under mass pressure that stopped him from bombing Bashir Assad’s forces in the Syrian civil war. Cameron in Britain was also prevented from going down that road.
As a result of this history, neither Cameron nor Obama are contemplating putting large numbers of ground troops back into Iraq. But it’s a measure of the alarm with which the imperialist strategists view the Sunni militia gains that Obama is rapidly boosting supplies of arms and heavy military equipment to the Iraqi army and is considering an aerial bombardment of the ISIS-held areas. Air strikes however, if carried out, will be counterproductive, inflicting massive bloodshed on civilians who would inevitably be hit, as the bombardments in Afghanistan bear witness.
Sections of the nearly one million-strong Iraqi army – US and British trained and equipped to the tune of $30 billion – disintegrated in the path of the offensive driven by an ISIS force of less than a few thousand. In taking Mosul, a city of two million people, and a number of towns, including Tikrit, ISIS was supplemented and aided by uprisings from within the minority Sunni population which has suffered heavy discrimination and victimization under the initially US imposed Shia-led government of Nouri al Maliki.
Former Baathist security personnel from Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime were among those who joined the offensive. Meanwhile the Kurdish Peshmerga forces used the crisis to rapidly take the city of Kirkuk into their own hands, seeing it as a capital for a Kurdish state.
The Iraqi government was left paralyzed, with virtually no control across the entire north of Iraq, unable to even get a quorum in parliament in order to introduce emergency measures. Over half a million refugees poured out of Mosul and other captured areas, fearing government bombing raids, ISIS, or both.
One of the great ironies of the present situation is that it is in the interests of both the US administration and its sworn enemy, the theocratic Iranian regime, to bolster the hapless Maliki government. So disturbed was the Iranian elite at the plight of its Shia protégés in Baghdad that it quickly sent its General Suleimani to Baghdad to help pull together volunteer Shia militias and government army forces that could defend the city and others nearby.
This is another humiliation for the US leaders – to need the cooperation of a detested regime which it has been harshly punishing with sanctions and at whose hands they had many troop losses during their occupation of Iraq. However, to justify talking to Iran, US Republican senator Lindsey Graham commented: “Why did we deal with Stalin? Because he’s not as bad as Hitler. We should have discussions with Iran to make sure they don’t use this as an opportunity to seize control of parts of Iraq.”
Another recipient of venom from the US administration, Bashir Assad’s forces in Syria, have too come to the aid of Maliki by launching some strikes against ISIS bases in Syria. Assad had previously turned a blind eye to much of ISIS’s aggression in Syria because it was mainly directed at seizing ground from other Islamic militias that were at the forefront of fighting Assad’s regime.
ISIS and other Sunni militias have declared that invading Baghdad and holy, mainly Shia and mixed cities south of it are among their aims, but it appears unlikely that they could quickly succeed in this given the balance of forces that are accumulating. Shia militias are reactivating, with new influxes into them, including the Mehdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr which was involved in fighting the US-led occupation. Iranian forces are reported to be backing them up.
In Mosul and other Sunni dominated areas that ISIS swept through, the Iraqi Shia-dominated army was widely viewed as a repressive tool being wielded by a government pursuing a sectarian agenda against the non-Shia sections of society. There have been credible reports that some Iraqi army leaders in those areas led a disbandment of their forces in collusion with ISIS, but in any case the army’s unpopularity in the Sunni dominated areas contributed to soldiers’ low morale and desertion in the face of the jihadist onslaught. ISIS had built up a reputation for gruesome savagery against Shias – it is an al-Qa’ida offshoot that even al-Qa’ida disowned – which added to the fear of the fleeing troops.
Reports have emerged of ISIS executing hundreds of Shias and unarmed Iraqi army soldiers in the captured areas and the group has previously brutally killed many people in Syria. This bloodshed comes on top of a great many other atrocities committed in Iraq by Sunni militias against Shias and vice-versa by Shias against Sunnis in recent years.
However, while an invasion of Baghdad may not be attempted in the short term, it is unlikely that the remaining Iraqi government forces will be able to regain control of all the areas now in the hands of Sunni-led militias or the Kurdish Peshmerga. Some towns are changing hands – Maliki’s army recaptured two north of Baghdad – but the government has failed to retake Fallujah through shelling it since ISIS seized it in January this year.
As for Kirkuk, the leaders of the Kurdish semi-autonomous zone have been locked in a long running battle with Maliki’s ministers over who will profit from the oil production in their zone, a fight that they would welcome being free of by keeping control of Kirkuk as part of further steps towards de facto independence.
ISIS, with many foreign jihadist fighters in its ranks and a growing number drawn from local populations, has imposed repressive Islamist rule in the Raqqah area of Syria and wants to extend this to form an Islamist caliphate linking up with its captured areas of Iraq and maybe eventually with parts of Lebanon and Jordan. Its leaders proclaimed the end of the border between Iraq and Syria – states drawn up in the 1916 deal between British and French imperialism that divided the spoils of the Ottoman empire between those two powers.
Journalist Robert Fisk, among others, has reported that ISIS has financial backing from wealthy Gulf Arabs, including members of the neighboring Saudi elite, who are US allies but would like to end Shia control in Baghdad. In Syria ISIS increased its wealth through imposing taxes, kidnapping and other extortion and it has now seized huge sums of money from captured banks in Mosul and large quantities of abandoned Iraqi army weaponry – mostly US provided.
Some ISIS commanders have tried not to antagonize people in the areas they have seized, while others immediately issued Sharia edicts telling thieves they would have their hands cut off, women to cover up their bodies and avoid leaving their homes, banning political parties, and other reactionary laws. These announcements instilled fear into much of the population, including many Sunnis who initially hoped that ISIS would at least deliver them from discrimination and the arrests and torture that have been meted out on Sunnis by Maliki’s government.
Overall, the recent turn of events spells further terrible suffering for ordinary Iraqi people regardless of the community they are in. The prospect of escalating sectarian division also threatens to further draw in the surrounding countries, including Turkey which has already faced kidnappings and detentions of a number of Turkish people at the hands of ISIS, and moreover does not want to see an independent Kurdistan.
Furthermore, once again, there are jitters regarding oil supply and the world economy, as fears grow of possible disruption to the large oil fields in the south of Iraq.
Another significant danger worldwide will lie in the eventual return home of hundreds of war hardened and traumatized jihadists who have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq – from countries far and wide including Saudi Arabia, Russia and Britain. Not yet seeing an alternative to the rotting capitalist system other than to try to turn the clock back to the days of feudal persecution, subjugation of women, dire poverty and summary justice, an increased danger of terrorist attacks will arrive with them.
Working class Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and the other nationalities and ethnic and religious groups in Iraq have nothing to gain from any of the propagators of sectarian conflict, from whichever quarter. Iraqi Sunnis have previously rejected the forerunners of ISIS and driven them out of their communities and many are now appalled at the actions of ISIS. There is widespread anger among Shias at Maliki’s corruption and sectarianism. Sunnis, Shias and Kurds alike are suffering from the constant insecurity, lack of basic services and poor living standards.
There have been many times historically when people in Iraq have shown their desire for unity against division, such as in April 2004, when 200,000 Shia and Sunni demonstrated in Baghdad against the US-led occupation. Grassroots building of democratic, non-sectarian working class led organisations is essential to organize defense of all communities and to put forward an anti-capitalist program as the only way of showing a way out of ongoing bloodshed, repression and poverty.
That program would need to challenge and expose the self-interest and greed of all the pro-capitalist political and military leaders that are fighting for hegemony across Iraq today. It should explain the necessity of removing them from power and replacing them with democratically elected workers’ representatives who will call for a socialist solution, in the interests of all workers and the poor.
Socialist Alternative and the CWI support the right of self-determination for all oppressed nationalities and groups, but point out that the resulting states and state-lets would not be economically viable unless linked up in a voluntary socialist confederation, in this case of the peoples of Iraq and the region. Only on that basis could cooperation be achieved that could lift everyone’s living standards, making the best use of all the natural resources for the benefit of all.