The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The “Forgotten” War

Jan 12, 2010

The following article is part of a longer article that appeared in the Class Struggle, the political journal of Workers’ Fight comrades in Great Britain. Giving a fuller picture of the situation today in Iraq, it supplements the previous article in this issue about U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and the wider region. And it demonstrates how completely the policy of the Obama administration follows the line laid out by the Bush administration in the region, continuing a vastly disastrous policy toward the population of Iraq.

There are two notable events since the article was written. First, the U.S. army, which had retreated to its bases, as part of its supposed preparation for leaving Iraq, has once again put U.S. soldiers into the field, this time in northern Iraq, manning checkpoints and patrolling in an area where Iraqi government forces have been clashing with Kurdish forces. And second, the Maliki government, in preparation for the election has begun to purge names from the list of candidates: several dozen accused of “moral turpitude,” whatever that means in a country under the sway of reactionary religious forces; and 511 people—so far—accused of having once had links to the Baathist Party.


Any number of statements—coming both from the U.S. army’s top spheres and from Obama’s own entourage—show that the U.S. army will, in fact, maintain a significant presence in Iraq beyond December 31, 2011 [the original date set by Bush for the removal of “all” U.S. troops in the Status of Forces Agreement he signed with the Iraqi government]. The U.S. army will have “advisers” attached to the Iraqi forces, under the pretext of assisting their training, just as is the case in every one of the countries belonging to the backyard of U.S. imperialism. In addition, since military experts estimate that the Iraqi army will not be able to have an air force or heavy artillery units of its own before 2015 at least, the U.S. will have to provide it with fully operational units, complete with their weapons and personnel. And the colossal bunker built by the U.S. in Baghdad to host its embassy—the world’s largest U.S. embassy, which Obama has no intention of dismantling—will conveniently serve as headquarters to coordinate all these forces!

Besides, as Obama’s advisers pointed out, there is nothing to stop the Status of Forces Agreement from being renegotiated later, to fine-tune some “minor details,” such as the establishment of permanent military bases, for instance. Today is not quite the right time to do this, however: neither for Obama, who may not want to uncover his plans for Iraq too early, at a time when he already has to get U.S. public opinion to swallow quite a few bitter pills; nor, above all, for the Iraqi government, which is facing a rather delicate situation, in the run-up to the general election scheduled for March 7, 2010.

In the meantime, even with U.S. troop numbers being significantly reduced in Iraq, the U.S. army will remain a permanent threat for the Iraqi population. Indeed, since the first Gulf war, back in 1991, and even more so since 2001, Washington has poured billions into the neighboring Gulf emirates, to establish a solid permanent military foothold. Very recently, General Petraeus, the head of CENTCOM, the U.S. central military command, explained before a U.S. Senate commission that: “We are also working toward an integrated air and missile defense network for the Gulf. All of these cooperative efforts are facilitated by the critical base and port facilities that Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and others provide for U.S. forces.” And the fact is that, in addition to the U.S. fleet, which patrols permanently off the coast of the Gulf, each one of these countries hosts U.S. bases—with troop numbers as high as 15,000 in Kuwait and 3,000 in Bahrain, for instance....

A “Normalization” in the Inter-Faction War?

U.S. and British politicians have been claiming, with a good deal of cynicism, that the first signs of a “normalization” are beginning to appear in Iraq. To back up this claim, they quoted, in particular, the fall in the number of casualties among U.S. troops and in the number of attacks aimed at occupation forces. As if this fall could prove anything—since U.S. soldiers are now confined in their bases, they no longer risk being used as targets by Iraqi armed groups!

By contrast, the same claim is hardly backed up by a parallel fall in terrorist attacks against the Iraqi population.

In reality, there has been a resurgence of suicide attacks since last summer, in Iraq in general, but more specifically in the capital. But whereas, during the first half of the year, suicide attacks had the same kind of blind, sectarian character as in the previous years, from August onwards, the main attacks, both in terms of the number of victims and in terms of the importance of the military resources involved, followed a different common pattern: they all involved a series of simultaneous, obviously co-ordinated explosions; they all hit Baghdad’s “Green Zone” (the most heavily protected area of the capital, where the embassies and the main government buildings are located); they all targeted important ministries or government buildings and they all left between 100 and 150 casualties along with several hundred injured.

Prime Minister Maliki’s government and the parties that are connected to it were quick to blame these attacks on al-Qaeda, Iran or the Syria-based remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party (to the point that Iraq even broke off diplomatic relations with Syria). But it was clear that everyone was at a loss. The perpetrators had demonstrated their ability to mobilize considerable logistical resources; their aim was clearly to expose the government’s incapacity to guarantee the security of its own stronghold in the capital; and yet no one had claimed responsibility for these attacks. In fact, it may well be that Maliki came closest to the truth when, following the attack that claimed 112 dead on December 15, 2009, he blamed clandestine groups that had “infiltrated” the ranks of the police.

What seems certain is that those who carried out these attacks were preparing for the March general election in their own way, trying to destroy the political image that Maliki, whose list of candidates seems best placed to win this election, has built up for himself over the past period. His image is that of a man who gets the credit for having restored order and imposed the rule of the army and police in the streets of the radical Shia militia’s two main strongholds—Basra, the capital of southern Iraq, and Sadr City, Baghdad’s sprawling slum, with a third of the capital’s population.

This was, in fact, the result of a series of joint operations by the Iraqi and U.S. armies, backed up by Sunni militias known as the “Awakening Councils,” who are former members of Sunni armed groups, originally recruited by the U.S. occupation authorities in return for an amnesty and the guarantee of a regular wage. Faced with forces that were far superior in terms of numbers, weaponry and organization, the radical Shia militia had to melt away into the population and leave the control of the streets to the police.

In the meantime, Maliki’s party Dawa, the second largest Shia party, had left the ruling coalition of Shia parties, which won the 2005 election, to form a coalition of its own and put up separate lists in the provincial elections held in January 2009. Thanks to the credit he had gained, by cutting down to size the radical Shia militias, Maliki’s coalition swept the poll, coming in first position in 9 of the 14 provinces in which an election was held, including in the country’s two most important provinces, those around Basra and Baghdad, where it won a majority of the seats. These elections saw two main losers: on the one hand, ISCI (Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq), the Shia religious party which had appeared, so far, as the leading Shia political current; on the other hand, the two main radical Shia religious currents were completely marginalized in the election. But they remain the main political forces on the ground in the poor Shia districts of Baghdad and Basra, particularly among the internally displaced population.

A Vulnerable Regime

Maliki obviously hoped to replicate this electoral show of strength in March’s general election. He did everything to improve his chances in this respect, in particular by setting up a coalition of parties, known as the “State of Law” coalition, which presents itself as “secular.” The word “secular” should not mislead anyone, however. Five of the six main coalitions standing in the March election call themselves “secular,” quite simply because using a religious label in politics is being seen by a growing number of voters as a reminder—and an endorsement—of the past bloody confrontations between Shia and Sunni. In reality, however, the “secular” provincial authorities, which are dominated by Maliki’s coalition, have been noted for, among other things, banning women from attending provincial council meetings without a male minder (in the Wasit province, next to the southern border with Iran), closing down shops selling alcohol (in Baghdad), etc.

There is no shortage of factions that not only could have an interest in destroying Maliki’s political image as a “security enforcer,” but could also have the logistical means to carry out terrorist attacks such as those that took place over the past months.

Among them is ISCI. If it were to lose as much ground in the coming election as it did in the provincial elections, ISCI would stand to lose at the same time its most valuable stronghold—the Interior ministry, which it has occupied since it was propelled into this position by the U.S. authorities, when the first provisional government was formed after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. If this loss continues in the coming election, the ISCI would lose, by the same token, the main source of its influence within the police where many key positions are held by members of its militia, the Badr Brigade.

Another force that has accounts to settle with Maliki is the militia of the “Awakening Councils.” The Iraqi government has not proved very grateful to them for their role as cannon fodder in the 2008 offensives against the radical Shia militia. As soon as the U.S. authorities handed over responsibility for the “Awakening Councils” to Maliki, with the objective of integrating their members into the police, the first measure that the Iraqi government took was to cut their wages by half! To date, only 5% of these militia men have been integrated into the police. Many others have deserted, amidst bitter complaints of being discriminated against when they applied for police jobs. But there still remain 45,000 of them, who are used as auxiliaries by the Iraqi police and army in their most dangerous operations and who are likely to have very strong feelings against Maliki and his regime.

Finally, other possible suspects are the victims of Maliki’s military offensives against the radical Shia militia—particularly the radical Shia militia known as the “Mahdi Army,” whose policy has been, for a long time already, to create clandestine cells of supporters within the army and police, especially as a means of securing regular supplies of weapons and ammunition.

The Mahdi Army would, therefore, have both the motivation and the means to carry out such terrorist attacks in order to weaken Maliki.

But even if Maliki manages to overcome the hurdles of the pre-election period and remain in power after the election, he will still have to face powerful centrifugal forces that, for a long time, have played a part in the on-going political chaos—forces that could see an advantage in testing their luck under the present circumstances.

Thus, during the discussion on the regulations governing the coming election, violent tensions resurfaced over the issue of Kirkuk. The Kurdish parties have always demanded that the Kirkuk province should be integrated into the north-eastern Kurdish autonomous region. This issue had been tentatively addressed by the 2005 constitution, which provided for the organization of a referendum in the province. But Baghdad has never been willing to take the risk of organizing this referendum, no doubt due to the fact that the Kirkuk province has the second largest untapped oil reserves after the Basra area. This oil wealth is also the main reason why the Kurdish nationalists are so vocal in their claim over Kirkuk. So far, the Kurdish autonomous regional government has confined itself to exploiting medium-size oil fields for its own benefit, without sharing the profits with Baghdad. But if the central government starts awarding oil contracts to foreign companies, the Kurdish parties may fear that Kirkuk’s oil reserves might go the same way, which would make it a lot more difficult for them to get their hands on this province. This is why they may want to force through the integration of Kirkuk into autonomous Kurdistan as a matter of urgency.

Likewise, and contrary to its main rival Dawa, the Shia party ISCI has always supported the setting up of an autonomous Shia region in the south of Iraq, where most of its base of support is concentrated—an autonomous region that would be the southern counterpart of a northern autonomous Kurdistan and would comprise more than half of Iraq’s oil reserves. As long as ISCI held a key position in Baghdad, it had no real incentive to try to whip up the regionalist feelings of the southern Shia. But if ISCI were to lose its key position as a result of the March election, it may change tactics in this respect—thereby creating another factor of instability for the Iraqi regime.

The Open Wounds of the Occupation

While visiting Baghdad in the aftermath of the 2008 offensive against the radical Shia militia, U.S. journalist Nir Rosen—who has always expressed his opposition to the Western occupation of Iraq—gave a snapshot of the life of the population, which speaks for itself. What follows is an extract of his article, published in The National, a daily paper based in the United Arab Emirates.

“There are fewer people dying today because there are fewer left to kill; Sunnis and Shia now inhabit separate walled enclaves, run by warlords and militias who have consolidated their control after mixed neighborhoods were cleansed along sectarian lines. Since April 2007, American forces have erected a series of concrete walls and checkpoints throughout the city to divide warring Sunnis and Shiites. Though these walls helped dampen sectarian violence, they may have bolstered sectarianism, isolating Iraqis from their neighbors and leaving them dependent on militias like the Mahdi Army for food, supplies and protection .... In central Baghdad, the majority-Shia Washash neighborhood sits in squalor right next to the upscale Mansour district, where Baghdad’s wealthy once packed stores and restaurants until sectarian fighting closed stores and drove pedestrians off the streets. The unpaved streets of Washash are flooded with filth, and electric cables hang low from rooftops, criss-crossing like old cobwebs. The Mahdi Army men in Washash—who are notorious, even among the Sadrists, for their brutality—used the neighborhood as a staging point for attacks against Sunni militants and forays into Mansour, and the neighborhood was among the first Shiite enclaves to be surrounded by concrete walls; there is only one entrance for cars, guarded by Iraqi soldiers. Elsewhere a few narrow openings in the concrete blocks allow pedestrians to squeeze through, one at a time. Almost all of the Sunnis who once lived in Washash were forced out or killed by the Mahdi Army.”

The cleansing of these districts of Baghdad by Maliki’s offensive may have restored the rule of the law, by imposing a permanent police presence that is forcing the radical Shia militia to act more discreetly. But it did not bring the brutality of the militia to an end—nor that of the police, which is notorious, nor the rule of the gangs. And, of course, it has done nothing to reduce the deep communal resentment born out of the militia’s past violence—quite the opposite, in fact.

As to the material conditions faced by the population, they have not improved much either. Nearly a third of all men under 30 have no access to any form of paid employment, not even to the most casual or informal types of work. 55% have no access to clean water and 80% of the population has still no access to proper sewage systems.

Neither the occupation forces nor the Iraqi government has done anything to meet the most urgent needs of the population. Corruption is so prevalent among the Iraqi institutions that what funds are allocated for public investment, repair or maintenance, are largely sponged off by layer upon layer of parasites. According to the corruption index published by the non-governmental organization, “Transparency International,” Iraq was ranked 178th among the world’s countries in 2008 and 176th in 2009 (out of 180)!

Not only does the Iraqi regime leave the population in abject poverty, but its bankruptcy feeds the influence of the sectarian militia. Says Nir Rosen about Washash, “for the Iraqis there, there is essentially no state; they are dependent on the Sadrists [Mahdi Army] for sustenance and security, which the central government cannot provide.” More generally, adds Rosen, “before the war, 80% of Iraqis depended on the Public Distribution System, an efficient ration system established in 1996 that provided essential items for all Iraqi families. But the system has now stopped functioning because of security problems, corruption and sectarianism. Most families do not even receive 50% of what they used to, and displaced Iraqis, especially Sunnis, receive nothing at all. In the meantime, the Sadrist movement has become Iraq’s largest humanitarian organization.”

The past communal violence combined with the destruction of the occupation and the increasing poverty they caused, are estimated to have resulted in the internal displacement of 2.7 million people while another two million fled into exile abroad—meaning that 15% of the population became refugees. Out of these refugees, only 300,000 have chosen to return home so far. This is to say that, for a significant part of the population, the situation remains just as intolerable today, with no sign of any “normalization” on the horizon!

To sum up, the withdrawal of the U.S. troops, if and when it happens, will not wipe out the catastrophic consequences for the population, of the West’s criminal invasion and occupation of the country. The more or less open civil war the U.S. precipitated will not disappear either. In every respect—material, social and political—the invasion has thrust the country backward, decades into the past. And the host of rival factions—brought into existence by the Western invasion and in some cases promoted to political power by the Western governments—are all equally reactionary, bigoted and corrupt. They have nothing to offer the population.