Thinking About Iraq

by Schuyler Kempton

This post does not necessarily represent the views of the Anti-Oppression Forum as a whole

ISIS fighters in Iraq (Creative Commons/Google)

ISIS fighters in Iraq (Creative Commons/Google)

Iraq, never truly stable since the U.S. invasion of 2003, is now under threat of falling apart at the seams. The central, US-backed government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is made up almost exclusively by, and is working almost exclusively in the interests of, the country’s Shia Muslim majority. Iraq’s Kurdish population, massacred under former dictator Sadaam Hussein and shunned by Maliki’s government, have claimed more land for their semi-autonomous region, and militant Sunnis, backed by the military might of the violent extremist group ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), have claimed cities such as Mosul (Iraq’s second largest) and Tikrit in the country’s North, expanding their already large presence in Eastern Iraq. ISIS is already claiming that they have massacred thousands, and have announced that they will indiscriminately slaughter Shias along their warpath.

The sectarian divisions plaguing the country are in large part the bitter fruits of America’s imperial strategy while occupying the country. According to senior Algerian diplomat Lakdhar Brahimi, “the impression one had was that the people that were preferred by the occupying powers [the U.S.] were the most sectarian Shia.” Now, the only way to both preserve the central government and stop even greater bloodshed would be to have the country’s leadership reflect and represent all of the Iraqi people—Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds. Since promoting sectarianism no longer behooves the United States, the Obama administration is appealing to Maliki to incorporate a larger cross section of the Iraqi population into his government.The problem is that Maliki, one of “the most sectarian Shia[s],” whom the U.S. helped to choose to lead Iraq, is not interested in inclusivity. His first response to the Sunni insurgency was a military one, rallying an almost entirely Shia army to fight. Further, in an act of retaliation, Iraqi forces slaughtered 44 Sunni prisoners earlier this week.
More recently, Iraqi officials have softened. An article from June 20th on said:

On Friday, Iraq’s highest Shia authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, echoed Obama’s call for the newly elected president to form the country’s next government as soon as possible. Sistani’s statement, read out by a representative at Friday’s prayers in the Shia holy city of Karbala, urged the new government to ‘open new horizons toward a better future for all Iraqis.’

Maliki had gone on a diplomatic offensive Wednesday, reaching out in a televised address to try to regain support from the nation’s disaffected Sunnis and Kurds. His conciliatory words coupled with a vow to teach the ISIL insurgents a ‘lesson,’ came as almost all of Iraq’s main communities have been drawn into violence not seen since the dark days of sectarian killings following the 2003 U.S. invasion of the country.

It has yet to be seen whether reality will match Maliki’s rhetoric, but his history doesn’t make things look promising. The Prime Minister’s systematic discrimination against Sunnis and Sunni areas sparked a protest movement which he responded to using brute force. In an article for Socialist Worker, Ashley Smith looks at the rise of ISIS within this larger context of Sunni protest:

Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the ignorant corporate media, ISIS’s victory did not come out of nowhere. The dynamics that enabled its fights to seize Mosul and other cities have been developing for several years.

Over the last year and a half, the Sunni population of Iraq has been conducting a mass campaign of mostly nonviolent resistance against Iraq’s central government. This is the result of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki increasingly transforming the government into a Shia one. Maliki has refused to integrate the Sunni Awakening Councils into the Army; maintained the anti-Baathist law, implemented after the U.S. invasion for use against remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime, to target all Sunni political forces; and went after Sunni politicians and leaders with accusations that they support terrorism.

The Sunni population across Iraq responded by fighting for their rights with mass demonstrations and sit-ins throughout 2013. At one point, important Shia leaders like Moqtada al-Sadr, who have their own grievances against the Maliki regime, expressed solidarity with these Sunni protests and threatened to organize demonstrations of their own. But this hopeful moment of solidarity proved fleeting, just as similar developments have in the past.

Maliki responded to the wave of protests–what some called the Iraqi Spring–with a brutal campaign of repression. He turned to tactics learned from the U.S. occupation–neighborhoods sweeps, mass arrests and torture. Thus, the overwhelming majority of the Sunni population was driven into desperate opposition by the actions of the Maliki government.

With the repression intensifying, forces among Sunnis like ISIS, which opposed the regime on sectarian grounds, gained increasing prominence and leadership because of their willingness to confront security forces. Maliki in turn used the threat of ISIS’s sectarianism to convince Sadr to stage demonstrations in support of the Iraqi state. This further consolidated Maliki’s hold on an increasingly exclusive Shia autocracy, defended by a Shia-led and -staffed army.

Against this backdrop, should it be surprising that an organization such as ISIS has been able to gain ground?
The situation in Iraq is complex, but it’s not impossible to understand the forces which led to the present moment. Iraq’s problems in the contemporary period go back to the stifling of democratic possibilities under the colonial British occupation. This was followed by 35 years of unstable autocracies and then another 35 years of dictatorial rule by Saddam Hussein, who emerged as the strongest strongman. Finally, instead of helping to usher in a new age of democracy and self-determination, the U.S. stoked sectarian differences after the fall of Hussein, and the American puppet Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has waged a war on non-Shias.
Despite Maliki’s recent gestures toward inclusivity, he’s pinned his hopes on the ability of his sectarian Shia military to defeat the sectarian Sunni insurgency.According to Vijay Prashad, a scholar on Middle a Eastern affairs:

[f]rom the South, the various Shia militias are being formed again…[t]hey are going to have a very large demonstration of military force against the ISIS advance and Naashbandi Army advance. The danger in all these on-the-ground military defenses, on the one side the Kurds, on the other the Shia, is it’s making this a deeply sectarian war, when much evidence suggests the general public in Iraq is not interested in going down the road of a full-scale sectarian war.

Prashad says that a large U.S. aerial bombing campaign would not make things any better:

You know, this thought that Mr. Kerry has been talking about of aerial strikes is delusion. I mean, you know, the Iraq War began with shock and awe. It was unable to pacify and make Iraq submit to Western authority. It’s very unlikely that a massive aerial bombing campaign against ISIS will do anything more than put off the situation that ISIS thinks is inevitable, which is taking all of Iraq, or at least a substantial part of northern Iraq.

But while Iraq’s past was bleak, its future is not pre-determined. For Prashad, the answer to Iraq’s crisis will come from the bottom-up: “[p]eople inside Iraq need to feel empowered to fight against ISIS.”
I can’t imagine that anything but a popular, multi-ethnic and multi-religious movement of the Iraqi people could succeed in pushing back the sectarians, whether from ISIS or Iraq’s central government. Clearly, workers’ struggle would be one component of this movement. Falah Alwan of the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions in Iraq writes:

The working class in Iraq is the common force that exists across the county, from the north of Kurdistan to the furthest points south. It is this force whose very existence and survival depends on the eradication of discrimination and the unification of the Iraqi people. This is the only force that can end fragmentation and division.

I think that the United States, with its military might and great wealth, should in fact take a side in Iraq. In many ways, we have an obligation to do so. But that side should not be that of Maliki or ISIS but of the popular movements and oppressed communities which have been silenced for so long.
What if, instead of pursuing our imperial agenda or propping up a sectarian central government, our soldiers were to act under the commands of village councils, unions, and other structures that form the backbone of popular Iraqi society? What if we used our resources to send humanitarian supplies like food and medicine instead of focusing on trying to secure oil fields? What if instead of mounting an aerial bombing campaign that will kill civilians and likely lead more people to seek refuge in ISIS, we used our forces to assist in the self-defense of villages and areas under attack from either sectarian force?
Such a task is America’s worst nightmare—and its moral imperative.

Palestinian Prisoners “At the Edge of Death” As Hunger Strike Continues

by Shahd Abusalama, Electronic Intifada

Palestinians in Gaza City have launched a solidarity hunger strike in a sit-in protest outside the Red Cross. (Ahmad Abu Hussein)

Our Palestinian detainees have been battling the Israel Prison Service (IPS) with their empty stomachs since 24 April, embarking on the longest-known mass hunger strike in the history of the Palestinian prisoners movement. Hunger is the only remaining weapon they can use against the IPS and its well-armed Israeli occupation soldiers.

They launched this hunger strike to call for an end to their detention with no charge or trial based on secret “evidence” submitted to a military court that is kept from the detainees and their lawyers — an unjust policy that Israel calls administrative detention. One hundred and twenty administrative detainees launched this mass hunger strike which grew to involve nearly three hundred prisoners, according to the rights group Addameer.

Our dignified prisoners are striking in protest of Israel’s violation of an agreement reached with the IPS after the 28-day mass hunger strike that ended on 14 May 2012. According to that deal, the use of administrative detention — the key issue behind the hunger strike – would be restricted and administrative detention orders would not be renewed without fresh evidence being brought before a military judge. However, Israel did not abide by the agreement and has continued its practice of arbitrary administrative detention.

Strikers hospitalized

Administrative detainee Ayman Tbeisheh from Dura village near Hebron in the occupied West Bank has exceeded one hundred days of refusing food in protest of his administration detention orders which have been continuously renewed since his last arrest in May 2013, according to al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper. Tbeisheh has spent a total of eleven years in Israeli jails, including nearly five years under administrative detention.

According to Addameer, Tbeisheh first began to refuse food on 22 May 2013, immediately after his four-month administrative detention order was confirmed in a military court. He suspended his strike after 105 days, when he thought he reached a deal with the IPS. But this was soon broken as his order was again renewed, despite his deteriorated health.

Ayman Tbeisheh told Palestinian lawyer Ibrahim Al-Araj, who managed to visit him during his previous hunger strike, “I will continue this open hunger strike until I put an end to the ghost of administrative detention that keeps chasing me.”

Soon after he regained some of his physical strength, he re-launched his hunger strike on 24 February 2014. Tbeisheh has since been placed in Assaf Harofe Medical Center where he lays shacked to a hospital bed that may become his deathbed at any moment.

Ayman’s condition is no different than the rest of administrative detainees whose hunger for freedom and dignity drove them to launch the mass hunger strike that has been continuing for 51 days. Eighty hunger strikers have been hospitalized as a result of their ongoing hunger strike, but they persevere in this battle for dignity.

Despite their weak bodies that are drained of energy, their hands and feet are shacked to their hospital beds. They are threatened with force-feeding on a daily basis, an inhumane and dangerous practice that Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is close to setting into law.

Death penalty

My father, who spent a total of fifteen years in Israeli jails, calls force-feeding “a death penalty.” He participated in the Nafha prison mass hunger strike in 1980 which lasted for 33 days. He was subjected to force-feeding and thankfully survived. But his comrades Rasem Halawa from Jabalia refugee camp and Ali al-Jaafary from Dheisheh camp were victims of this murderous practice that aimed to break their hunger strike, and were killed after being subjected to force-feeding.

The Israel Prison Service escalates its oppression of the hunger strikers as their health constantly deteriorates. They put them in windowless isolation cells, keep their hands and legs shackled for tens of hours, deny them family and lawyer visits, and they even deny them an access to salt, which is necessary for their survival.

The strikers are committed to “hunger until either victory or martyrdom,” the same as Khader AdnanHana al-ShalabiMahmoud SarsakSamer Issawi and other ex-detainees who freed themselves after heroic battles of hunger strike against the IPS.

Prisoners’ letter

A smuggled letter from Israeli jails written by the administrative detainees who are on hunger strike. (QudsNetwork)

Below is my translation of a letter our administrative detainees managed to smuggle on 8 June to call upon humanity and people of conscience for popular and international support of their battle for justice. The ex-detainee Allam Kaaby read it during a press conference in front of the sit-in tent erected in front of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Gaza in solidarity with our Palestinian prisoners’ open-ended mass hunger strike:

Despite the chains and the prisons’ bars and walls, this is a will from those who are standing at the edge of death to the guards of our homeland, Palestine.

After leaving the isolation cells which are no longer able to tolerate our pains, illnesses and corroded bodies, from our hospital beds to which we are shackled by chains and guard dogs, from amidst the jailers who keep watching our heart monitors that may announce our death any moment, from the edge of death, we send our call which could be the last for some of us. It might be the time to announce our will before we embrace our people as dignified martyrs. Our call is our voice, our scream, our will. We are the administrative detainees who are heading towards immortality, towards embracing the sun of dignity which might mark at the same time, the end of the battle for dignity. We raise our voice, hoping that it will reach our revolutionary people.

First, we call upon you to intensify your support of the hunger strikers who are not yet martyred; the fighters who fight our fascist enemy with their bodies deserve from you a stand of loyalty that prevents the continuation of our bloodshed which will never stop until the achievement of our just demands.

Second, the pains of hunger damaged some of our organs but some organs must be still in tact. As death is waiting for us, we declare that nothing will stand in the way of our sacrifices, even death. Therefore, we donate our functioning organs to the fighters, poor and oppressed people who are in need. We are waiting a visit from the International Committee of The Red Cross to endorse these donations.

Third, we call on you to stay faithful to our blood and the blood of all martyrs who sacrificed their souls over the course of our Palestinian struggle. Faithfulness is not just through words, but through revolutionary practice that knows no hesitance nor weakness.

Fourth, hold on to our historical and legitimate rights and never give up an inch of Palestine, from the river to the sea. The right to return is the bridge to our historic rights. These rights cannot be restored without resistance, which is the only language that our enemy understands.

Fifth, don’t fail prisoners who remain alive after us, as those who sacrifice their freedom as a price for their people’s freedom deserve freedom rather than death.

To our dignified people in Palestine and diaspora, to the free people and freedom fighters worldwide, we will let our screams be heard despite the darkness of Israeli jails, which are graves for the living. To people of dead conscience worldwide, our Palestinian people will continue the struggle until victory. We bid farewell with smiling faces.

Reading their words which embrace pain and disappointment must make us all ashamed as we watch them die slowly. Changing our profile pictures to a picture that shows solidarity with their battle for dignity cannot do them much help. We have to move beyond superficial solidarity to serious actions that will bring meaningful change to them. Act before we count more martyrs among Palestinian heroes behind Israeli bars. Their death would be our shame.

Poughkeepsie Activists Demand Youth Programs, End to Jail Expansion

by Schuyler K.


On June 2, I joined a group of around 20 activists to rally outside of the abandoned YMCA building in the City of Poughkeepsie. It was the second rally in as many months outside of the abandoned Y. Nearly everyone at the rally spoke, primarily highlighting the disconnect between the county’s persistent effort to fund jail expansion and its intransigent refusal to spend nearly any money on community programs.

At the rally, young people noted the lack of any after-school programs or activities in their community, affirming that they had seen folks turn to crime upon being unable to find any productive things to do. One mother said that her child asked her, “What happened to the YMCA?” She was forced to say, “I don’t know.”

Yet, there is in fact a striking logic behind Dutchess County’s refusal to fund things like after-school programs and community centers (the YMCA itself was a private project, and the money evidently just dried up). Like elsewhere in the United States, whenever there’s a budget crunch, services benefiting hard-hit communities are always the first on the chopping block. However, the campaign for social programs in Poughkeepsie has been buoyed by a promise made by none other than County Executive Marc Molinaro and County Legislator Rob Rollison to fund such programs. Longtime community activist Mae Parker-Harris and I spoke during today’s County Legislature meeting to remind them of their pledge.

The imagery of the abandoned YMCA building as the backdrop to our rallies has proven very powerful, clearly underlining Poughkeepsie’s abandonment by the powers that be, both locally and nationally. The jury’s still out on whether those in the legislature will follow through and cash a check, and it’s essential that activists keep up the pressure.

But whatever the legislature approves will certainly not be nearly enough, and some residents are ready to take matters into their own hands. At yesterday’s rally, one speaker appealed to the crowd to make the renovation of the YMCA building into a community project:

“Let’s put ourselves together, people! It takes one mind, one soul, not just me—all of us! We can come out here and get some lawnmowers, get some wrenches, and put it back to where we want it, to where we want to have. We deserve this! It’s ours—take it!”

The Peril of Hipster Economics

by Sarah Kendzior, Al Jazeera English

In some north Philadelphia elementary schools, nearly every child is living below the poverty line, writes Kendzior [AP]

In some north Philadelphia elementary schools, nearly every child is living below the poverty line, writes Kendzior [AP]

On May 16, an artist, a railway service and a government agency spent $291,978 to block poverty from the public eye.

Called psychylustro, German artist Katharina Grosse’s project is a large-scale work designed to distract Amtrak train riders from the dilapidated buildings and fallen factories of north Philadelphia. The city has a 28 percent poverty rate – the highest of any major US city – with much of it concentrated in the north. In some north Philadelphia elementary schools, nearly every child is living below the poverty line.

Grosse partnered with the National Endowment of the Arts and Amtrak to mask North Philadelphia’s hardship with a delightful view. The Wall Street Journal calls this “Fighting Urban Blight With Art”. Liz Thomas, the curator of the project, calls it “an experience that asks people to think about this space that they hurtle through every day”.

The project is not actually fighting blight, of course – only the ability of Amtrak customers to see it.

“I need the brilliance of colour to get close to people, to stir up a sense of life experience and heighten their sense of presence,” Grosse proclaims.

“People”, in Grosse and Thomas’s formulation, are not those who actually live in north Philadelphia and bear the brunt of its burdens. “People” are those who can afford to view poverty through the lens of aesthetics as they pass it by.

Urban decay becomes a set piece to be remodeled or romanticised. This is hipster economics.

Influx of hipsters

In February, director Spike Lee delivered an impassioned critique – derisively characterised as a“rant” by US media outlets – on the gentrification of New York city. Arguing that an influx of “… hipsters” had driven up rent in most neighbourhoods – and in turn driven out the African-American communities that once called them home – he noted how long-dormant city services suddenly reappeared:

“Why does it take an influx of white New Yorkers in the south Bronx, in Harlem, in Bed Stuy, in Crown Heights for the facilities to get better? The garbage wasn’t picked up every … day when I was living in 165 Washington Park… So, why did it take this great influx of white people to get the schools better? Why’s there more police protection in Bed Stuy and Harlem now? Why’s the garbage getting picked up more regularly? We been here!”

Gentrification spreads the myth of native incompetence: That people need to be imported to be important, that a sign of a neighbourhood’s ‘success’ is the removal of its poorest residents. True success lies in giving those residents the services and opportunities they have long been denied.


Lee was criticised by many for “hipster-bashing”, including African-American professor John McWhorter, who claimed that “hipster” was “a sneaky way of saying ‘honkey'” and compared Lee to television character George Jefferson.

These dismissals, which focus on gentrification as culture, ignore that Lee’s was a critique of the racist allocation of resources. Black communities whose complaints about poor schools and city services go unheeded find these complaints are readily addressed when wealthier, whiter people move in. Meanwhile, long-time locals are treated as contagions on the landscape,targeted by police for annoying the new arrivals.

Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.

Proponents of gentrification will vouch for its benevolence by noting it “cleaned up the neighbourhood”. This is often code for a literal white-washing. The problems that existed in the neighbourhood – poverty, lack of opportunity, struggling populations denied city services – did not go away. They were simply priced out to a new location.

That new location is often an impoverished suburb, which lacks the glamour to make it the object of future renewal efforts. There is no history to attract preservationists because there is nothing in poor suburbs viewed as worth preserving, including the futures of the people forced to live in them. This is blight without beauty, ruin without romance: payday loan stores, dollar stores, unassuming homes and unpaid bills. In the suburbs, poverty looks banal and is overlooked.

In cities, gentrifiers have the political clout – and accompanying racial privilege – to reallocate resources and repair infrastructure. The neighbourhood is “cleaned up” through the removal of its residents. Gentrifiers can then bask in “urban life” – the storied history, the selective nostalgia, the carefully sprinkled grit – while avoiding responsibility to those they displaced.

Hipsters want rubble with guarantee of renewal. They want to move into a memory they have already made.

Impoverished suburbs

In a sweeping analysis of displacement in San Francisco and its increasingly impoverished suburbs, journalist Adam Hudson notes that “gentrification is trickle-down economics applied to urban development: the idea being that as long as a neighbourhood is made suitable for rich and predominantly white people, the benefits will trickle down to everyone else”. Like trickle-down economics itself, this theory does not play out in practice.

Rich cities such as New York and San Francisco have become what journalist Simon Kuper calls gated citadels: “Vast gated communities where the one percent reproduces itself.”

Struggling US cities of the rust belt and heartland lack the investment of coastal contemporaries, but have in turn been spared the rapid displacement of hipster economics. Buffered by their eternal uncoolness, these slow-changing cities have a chance to make better choices – choices that value the lives of people over the aesthetics of place.

In an April blog postUmar Lee, a St Louis writer and full-time taxi driver, bemoaned the economic model of rideshare services, which are trying to establish themselves in the city. Noting that they hurt not only taxi drivers but poor residents who have neither cars nor public transport and thus depend on taxis willing to serve dangerous neighbourhoods, he dismisses Uber and Lyft as hipster elitists masquerading as innovators:

“I’ve heard several young hipsters tell me they’re socially-liberal and economic-conservative, a popular trend in American politics,” he writes. “Well, I hate to break it to you buddy, but it’s economics and the role of the state that defines politics. If you’re an economic conservative, despite how ironic and sarcastic you may be or how tight your jeans are, you, my friend, are a conservative …”

Lee tells me he has his own plan to try to mitigate the negative effects of gentrification, which he calls “50-50-20-15”. All employers who launch businesses in gentrifying neighbourhoods should have a workforce that is at least 50 percent minorities, 50 percent people from the local neighbourhood, and 20 percent ex-offenders. The employees should be paid at least $15 per hour.

Gentrification spreads the myth of native incompetence: That people need to be imported to be important, that a sign of a neighbourhood’s “success” is the removal of its poorest residents. True success lies in giving those residents the services and opportunities they have long been denied.

When neighbourhoods experience business development, priority in hiring should go to locals who have long struggled to find nearby jobs that pay a decent wage. Let us learn from the mistakes of New York and San Francisco, and build cities that reflect more than surface values.

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.