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.