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

A Powder Keg Stoked and Primed by Imperialist Power Games

Jul 8, 2014

The following article first appeared in issue #102, July-September 2014 of Class Struggle, the magazine of our Workers Fight comrades in Britain.

Iraq is facing a catastrophe. The country is now threatened with implosion. The offensive launched in western Iraq in January by the fundamentalist Islamic Sunni militia ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) took a new turn in June, when it took over Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province and Iraq’s second largest city, with two million inhabitants. Over the following days, ISIS pushed on further towards the capital, Baghdad and, by the end of June, its fighters were in control of a new Sunni territory straddling across the border between Syria and Iraq. In front of this ruthless militia, the forces of the regular Iraqi army collapsed, thereby highlighting the fragility of the central state machinery inherited from the Western occupation. The leaders of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region seized this opportunity to declare their independence from Baghdad. Meanwhile, in the capital and in the southern part of the country, Shia militias are parading in the streets in full military gear, proclaiming their determination to oppose the ISIS advance. Not only is Iraq breaking up, but it may be engulfed in a war with unpredictable consequences for the stability of the whole region.

The imperialist leaders are now worried that this threat of destabilization might endanger the profits of their companies. After having considered for a while resorting to air strikes, Obama alluded to possible concessions to Iran should its government undertake to do the dirty job of helping to restore order in the region. However Iran did not seem willing to cooperate. In the end, U.S. leaders confined themselves to sending a few hundred “military advisers” to Baghdad, officially to protect their diplomatic staff, but probably with some special forces as well.

In any case, if anyone is responsible for today’s unfolding catastrophe in Iraq, it has to be the imperialist powers and their endless maneuvers aimed at reasserting their domination over this part of the world, in order, among other things, to shore up their control over its oil resources. After decades of meddling, the forces unleashed in the region by the imperialist powers—especially by the most powerful among them, U.S. imperialism—are now escaping their control.

The ISIS Offensive

For over a year, ISIS fighters have been attacking government forces in western Al Anbar province, using suicide attacks, taking hostages and carrying out brutal exactions. In January, they occupied Fallujah and then several districts of Ramadi—two of the province’s Sunni cities, with respectively 320,000 and 400,000 inhabitants. These successes were probably facilitated by the tacit support of a section of the Sunni population among whom were some increasingly hostile to prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s corrupt regime, which they accused of promoting the interests of the Shia and Kurds. Others, especially among the youth, were driven to despair by the absence of any prospects, due to the complete collapse of the economy.

ISIS was in fact formed in 2003, after the Western invasion of Iraq, with the aim of establishing a “new Islamic caliphate” on both sides of the border between Iraq and Syria. But the fast progress of its offensive this year has caused a wave of desertions among Iraqi government forces. Many of its soldiers and officers did not want to risk their lives for the central government, especially when their only motive in enrolling in the army had been to escape destitution.

Once again, the civilian population finds itself caught in the crossfire between the militias and the troops of the Baghdad government. The last months of fighting are already estimated to have forced 500,000 inhabitants of Al Anbar province (almost a third) to flee the combat zones. In May alone, at least a thousand people were killed, three quarters of them in terrorist attacks and the rest in the course of military operations. The death toll during 2013 had already been the highest since the peak reached in 2006 and 2007, during the U.S. occupation.

When Obama announced the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Iraq in December 2011, after nine years of war and occupation, he claimed that they were leaving a sovereign state in charge, one which was both democratic and stable. Recent events show what this claim was worth.

The Role of Imperialism: From the Iran-Iraq War to the 2003 Invasion

Militias such as ISIS, which claim to represent the Sunni minority, just as the more or less powerful ones that claim to represent the Shia majority, would never have seen the light of day without the meddling of the imperialist powers. These powers paved the way for the emergence of such militias by whipping up, directly or indirectly, the divisions which existed among the Iraqi population. Often they used those divisions in order to shore up their own domination over the country.

Of course, Iraq was never homogeneous, thanks to the fact that it had been artificially engineered by British imperialism as part of the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Iraq’s population is composed 53% of Shia Arabs, 21% of Sunni Arabs, 23% of Kurds (most of whom are Sunni), plus a few other much smaller minorities. But those divisions had not prevented the population from living together, without ever experiencing any form of civil war, for over 60 years—until the imperialist powers chose to use Iraq as a pawn in their regional games.

After the 1979 revolution in Iran and the overthrow of the Shah, the imperialist leaders wanted to punish the mullahs for replacing the Shah’s regime, which had been a pillar of the regional imperialist order for over a quarter of a century. Saddam Hussein was given the task of doing the dirty work, resulting in a bloody eight-year war which left a million dead and brought both countries to the verge of economic ruin. Fearing a backlash from the Iraqi Shia majority for being drawn into a war against another Shia country, Saddam Hussein opted to seek the support of the Sunni minority during this war.

At the time, Saddam Hussein, the man who was soon to become a despised enemy of the imperialist leaders, was still one of their main instruments in the region. But in 1990, Saddam Hussein got “ too big for his britches,” in the imperialist leaders’ view, when he invaded Kuwait without their approval, to pay himself back for carrying out the war against Iran. They chose not to tolerate what might have appeared to the rest of the world as a gesture of defiance towards their domination. A coalition including Britain and France was formed under the auspices of the United States. In 1991 this coalition launched the first Gulf War. Saddam Hussein’s troops had to evacuate Kuwait. Nevertheless, the U.S. made no attempt at “regime change” then. In fact, the Western leaders left Saddam Hussein in place to crush a Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq and a Shia uprising in the south. The repression of those uprisings resulted in an exacerbation of the sense of communal and ethnic oppression among those who had been put down.

After that came a Western-enforced 10-year blockade which further damaged the Iraqi economy and was responsible for the premature death of an estimated half-a-million children. In order to shore up his political authority, which was being weakened by this blockade and its catastrophic consequences, Saddam Hussein made more and more concessions to religion in general, and more specifically to the Sunni clerics.

The Cost of the Imperialist Occupation

Some of the leading spheres of imperialism, particularly in the U.S. and Britain, were determined to finish off Saddam Hussein. Their objective was to secure imperialism’s total control over the region’s oil reserves but also to reassert imperialism’s regional domination, demonstrating what was in store for any regime that might be tempted to display some independence.

The political atmosphere created by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York provided U.S. President Bush with a window of opportunity. The lies of Bush and Blair both about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction” and the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq provided them with a justification to launch a second Gulf War, involving, this time, a full-scale invasion aimed at “regime change.”

On March 20, 2003, the first U.S. and British missiles blasted Baghdad as part of a military operation cynically code named “Iraqi Freedom.” Within a month, Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown. Within two months, Bush declared the end of combat operations.

Then began the occupation, which was immediately and wholeheartedly endorsed by the U.N. It was to serve as a fig leaf for an ongoing war, which was to last eight more years. The U.S. and British occupation forces became a “multinational force” which was occupying Iraq at the request of an interim government that the occupation had just propelled into office.

But the Western occupation never managed to restore any kind of order. In the very early days, some Iraqis may have welcome the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but they quickly lost their illusions. It did not take long for the Western occupation forces to spur hatred in the population and cause explosions of anger. Rebellions were brutally suppressed, as in Fallujah in 2004, where the U.S. army massacred the insurgent Sunni population, causing a huge flow of refugees to take shelter in neighboring Syria.

The Rise of the Militias

As early as July 2003, U.S. authorities presided over the setting up of a Transitional Government Council which was to act as an interface between the occupation forces and the population. It included all the currents opposed to the former regime. In addition to a number of former dignitaries who had returned from exile, there were representatives of the religious Shia parties, such as the Dawa party which, until recently, had been on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, or the Iranian-backed Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). It also included a number of Sunni, Kurdish and Turkmen parties, some secular parties and even the Iraqi Communist Party.

But the situation did not become more stable. There was a simple reason for that: the former pillars of Saddam Hussein’s regime—the army and the Baath party—had virtually collapsed. The U.S. proconsul, Paul Bremer, then demolished what was left of these pillars, by formally dissolving the army and banning the Baath party.

The vacuum that was left by the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s state machinery opened a Pandora’s box. By paving the way for a struggle for power, it resulted in the development of rival militias, the largest of which were religious or ethnic-based. Some of these militias, like the Kurdish Persh Merga and the SCIRI militias, had already existed underground under Saddam Hussein. Others had emerged by playing on the hatred generated by the occupation forces.

All these militias used the same terror methods to “cleanse” their “fiefdoms” of any “alien” elements. This brutality was supposed to protect the section of the population they claimed to represent. In fact, it was just as much designed to sustain a sense of fear among that population. Their aim was to occupy as much territory as possible in order to be in the best position to bid for power, at a local or a national level. For example, the so-called “Mahdi army,” the militia of the fundamentalist Shia leader Muqtadah al-Sadr, was 60,000-strong. In Baghdad, its fiefdom was Sadr City, a Shia slum district where two million people lived. It had other strongholds, such as Najaf and Karbala, south of the capital.

It did not take long before the rivalries between these militias turned into a civil war, especially between Sunni and Shia militias—this in a country that had been among the most secular in the Arab world and in which these two sections of the population had mixed together without conflict since the overthrow of the pro-British monarchy in 1958.

The policy of the occupation forces however, had fanned the flames of sectarianism. In order to restore order while keeping the Sunni forces which had been closest to Saddam Hussein’s regime at arms length, the occupation authorities built up a new state machinery which was based on the Shia religious militias and the Kurdish Persh Merga.

The Sunni minority was, therefore, marginalized, and not just in the new state institutions but also in the political institutions which were put in place by the occupation authorities. Starting from the December 2005 election, Iraq’s political institutions were effectively controlled by a motley coalition of Shia and Kurdish parties, under the helm of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, himself the second in command in the religious Shia Dawa party. However, the successive governments soon lost any kind of credit, partly due to being paralyzed by their own internal quarrels and partly due to their corruption and criminal negligence.

This year, in an attempt to regain some credit coming into the April 30th elections—the first elections since the withdrawal of the U.S. troops—al-Maliki again resorted to divide-and-rule techniques, having a number of Sunni politicians arrested. But this did not really work. Although his coalition topped the poll once again, it managed to win only 92 seats out of 328, and his sectarian politicking succeeded only in alienating the Sunni minority even more.

A Threat of Implosion

To try to restore some form of normality, the occupation forces also used the federalist principle, which was included in Iraq’s 2005 constitution. The idea was to neutralize the rival factions by luring them with the hope that, at some point, they might be able to gain their own autonomous territory, with possibly a share of the country’s oil revenue. But far from neutralizing the factional rivalries, this had exactly the opposite effect.

Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north of the country, had already been autonomous in fact before the 2003 invasion. The 2005 constitution merely legalized this situation. But at the same time it left a whole number of bones of contention between the Kurdish autonomous authority and the central government in Baghdad. For example, tensions increased on several occasions when the Kurdish authority decided to export its energy resources without going through the central government’s channels. Then there was the issue of Mosul and Kirkuk, both of which were claimed by the Kurdish authority on historical grounds. In the case of Kirkuk, the stakes were particularly high, given the large oil reserves situated in the region surrounding the city. This last question may well have been resolved by the Kurdish leaders who grabbed the opportunity offered by the collapse of the Iraqi government’s army in front of the ISIS offensive. Thanks to its 250,000 soldiers and its armored units, the Kurdish army stopped the ISIS offensive towards the north and, in the process, occupied Kirkuk

Since 2005, many other militias and provincial governments have been tempted to follow the example set by Kurdistan. Such was the case of the province around Basra in the south, in 2007, where the provincial government was dominated by the fundamentalist Shia party al-Fadhila (the “Virtue party”). One of the leaders of this party was quoted as saying to the press: “We, al-Fadhila, want to have our own region, our own province. We have two million inhabitants, an airport, a harbor and oil—everything we need to have a state.”

Even before they left Iraq, therefore, the imperialist powers had encouraged the development of centrifugal forces, which, although unable to bid for power in Baghdad, were ready to grab a piece of the country for themselves if they had an opportunity to do so. These forces may well be in a position to use the collapse of government forces to take over the fiefdoms they have chosen, thereby raising the stakes in the civil war and the likelihood of Iraq imploding. The Iraqi population has nothing to gain from this.

The Whole Region Destabilized

The civil war which is unfolding in Iraq is the latest episode in a crisis caused by the policies of the imperialist powers, and it is now threatening the whole region.

Due to the occupation of Iraq, Iraqi fundamentalist Sunni groups fled to Syria. These groups subsequently played a decisive role in reviving the Syrian fundamentalist Sunni current, which had virtually disappeared after being crushed by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The street protests that began in early 2011 finally gave way to a war between military cliques. This war provided the fundamentalist Sunni militias, both Syrian and Iraqi, with recruitment and a training ground. In order to avoid a total collapse of Assad’s dictatorship, which could have been dangerous in a country bordering the Palestinian powder keg, imperialism chose not to intervene directly. But it used the opportunity to weaken the Syrian regime, making it a bit more pliable, in particular by allowing imperialism’s regional allies to arm the fundamentalist Sunni militias.

What we are witnessing today is literally a boomerang effect. The same Iraqi Sunni militia which had been forced into Syria by the Western occupation of Iraq, went on to play a role in the destabilization of Syria, where they recruited more fighters and acquired both military equipment and training. Then this same militia crossed back into Iraq, first destabilizing the western part of the country, then marching towards Nineveh and now Baghdad.

The current crisis obviously has a regional character. No one can say with certainty what will be the consequences of the civil war in Iraq and in particular if it will lead to the implosion of the country. But it destabilizes a little more a region already ravaged by a multitude of conflicts in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine.

The attempts of the imperialist powers to stabilize the region within the framework of their system of domination, has only resulted in the unleashing of forces which are increasingly uncontrollable.

In the Middle of Chaos, Business Goes on

Neither the insecurity of the past years nor the current civil war prevents the imperialist companies from exploiting Iraq’s oil—even if, at the time of writing, the Baiji refinery, the largest in Iraq, is at the center of a power struggle between ISIS and government forces.

It was in order to protect the profits of these companies that, after the withdrawal of its troops, the U.S. army left behind 35,000 military contractors and a U.S. embassy in Baghdad which is the world’s largest, with 17,000 employees. Iraq may well have become a quagmire, but there was no question of allowing this to stand in the way of the oil majors and the big banks behind them getting all of the dividends they expected from the Western invasion of Iraq.

The present civil war may not have been part of the imperialist leaders’ plans, but it may well disrupt the infrastructure for production and exports, preventing oil profits from enriching Western shareholders.

The Population Continues to Pay a High Price

For its part, the Iraqi population has paid—and is still paying—an exorbitant price for the policy of imperialism. Insecurity remains an ongoing problem, with the permanent risk of getting killed by a terrorist attack or by a stray bullet from a military operation.

The war and occupation of Iraq caused five million Iraqis to flee, either abroad—mainly to Syria, Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon—or to be displaced inside the country itself. A large number of these internal refugees are crowded into 400 camps, with no adequate drinking water supplies nor sanitation, no health care nor adequate food provision.

Those Iraqis who managed to escape abroad have no possibility to have a normal life—having no residence permits, let alone work permits. Those who fled to Syria have been caught in the middle of another civil war and now have to find another refuge.

Oil represents 65% of Iraq’s GDP and 90% of the country’s foreign revenue. It is an important source of income for the state, but it’s of little use for the poor classes, in particular due to the state’s corruption. At least half the Iraqi workers are unemployed—but probably significantly more—and those who have a job have to cope with very low wages and insecure conditions of employment and skyrocketing prices.

There are periodic explosions of anger, as was the case in 2011 among the oil workers who took action over the low wages, the nonpayment of bonuses and the casual conditions of employment. During a demonstration, a member of the Kirkuk oil and gas workers’ union was quoted saying: “We produce all the wealth in this country. But then it goes straight into the pockets of officials and politicians. We are like camels who could be carrying gold while being made to eat thorns.”

Day after day, the population is faced with a shortage of water and electricity. Even though the temperature often goes over 100°F, this means neither refrigeration nor fans. In Baghdad, the water supply network is virtually out of order. The health service, which until 1980 was one of the most developed in the Middle East, is now a shadow of its former self. In the poorest areas of Baghdad, cholera and tuberculosis have returned with a vengeance.

The clock has thus been turned back by the Western interventions—and not just in terms of material conditions. The clerics have gained a considerable amount of influence, allowing them to control a large part of people’s day-to-day lives, while the militias continue to impose their rule. Thus the political current led by the fundamentalist Muqtadah al-Sadr has managed to take over the education ministry and gives its own orientation to the school curriculum.

This social deterioration is particularly dire for women. Starting in the 1960s, Iraqi women had enjoyed a bit more freedom than in other MiddleEastern countries. However, the fundamentalist militias have now ensured that women are deprived of almost all their rights. For Iraqi women, even more than for the rest of the Iraqi society, the Western intervention has turned the clock back by half a century!

Down with the Imperialist Order

Imperialism has turned the Middle East into a powder keg as a result of decades of intervention in the region. It started with the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, after World War I, whereby Britain and France shared out the Middle East between themselves. After World War II the U.S. exercised an ever increasing stranglehold over the region. The historic links that existed across the Arab world could have served as the basis to set up a vast political and economic entity, large and strong enough to limit the looting of the region by the imperialist companies.

This was precisely why the imperialist powers moved to divide the region by artificial borders into a large number of more or less viable states, in order to better loot its resources. This policy has been taken so far that the artificial states that were created almost a century ago might today explode into more pieces. The civil war in Syria and Iraq is threatening neighboring countries, like Lebanon and Jordan, which have a common border with Iraq. Beyond them, all the region’s countries may be destabilized, not to mention Palestine, where, for more than 60 years, limited confrontations have periodically resulted in an all-out war between the state of Israel and the Palestinians.

The bloody havoc created by U.S. imperialism is now threatening the entire region. This system of imperialist domination, which feeds on the exploitation and the blood of entire populations, can only produce the kind of barbaric situations of which the Middle East provides a dramatic illustration. Overthrowing the imperialist order has become an urgent necessity.