Nov 4, 2014
As this issue of our journal goes to press, four months have elapsed since the first of Obama’s “special advisers” officially set their “boots” – sorry, their “civilian shoes,” since they were not supposed to be there in a combat capacity – on Iraqi soil. They arrived on August 1st.
In fact, whether they wore “boots” or “civilian shoes,” was hardly relevant. With 35,000 heavily-armed private contractors operating in Iraq, 17,000 employees at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad (the world’s largest!) and countless military minders and trainers “embedded” within the Iraqi forces, the U.S. government already had “boots” all over the land of Iraq, anyway!
Western “precision bombings” against Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, began a month later. They were first carried out by the U.S. Air Force at the beginning of September, then by the French from September 19th and after the Commons vote on September 26th, by the British RAF – with a host of smaller players joining the U.S.-led coalition over the following weeks.
Two months later, however, this new Western intervention in the Middle East seems to have melted into the general background noise of international politics. Of course, given the right opportunity, like the gruesome beheading of a Western hostage by Islamic State, the hysterical media coverage will undoubtedly come back – to provide yet more “moral” justification for the Western governments to use their lethal arsenal against the population of the region and to whip up fears here that, unless this is done, the Islamic State henchmen will soon be knocking at our doors.
As to the bloody mayhem which the Iraqi and Syrian populations have to live through, the deaths and injuries they suffer, the hardship experienced by the massive numbers of refugees fleeing the war zones, whether they are internally displaced or forced into makeshift camps in neighboring countries – all that is carefully ignored by the media.
But isn’t this entirely predictable? Who would want the public to come to realize that the situation of these populations is only made worse by this new Western military venture? Especially in countries like the U.S. and Britain, where major elections are on the agenda? The last thing political leaders want is to have the prospect of another quagmire in the Middle East tainting their election campaigns with blood! And this applies just as much to those who are in office, like Obama and Cameron, as it does to someone like Miliband, who, despite being in opposition, is far too “responsible” towards the interests of British imperialism to adopt even a purely symbolic stance against one of its dirty wars!
The question is, however, where is this all going? Because the catastrophe which is unfolding in the region is already the direct consequence of Western military aggression and power games in the region. The rise of Islamic militias – and more specifically, that of Islamic State – is itself a blowback from the Western occupation of Iraq. What other catastrophes will this new military adventure generate for the Middle East in general, and for its population, in particular?
Of course, so far, with the exception of the U.S., which has lined up a significant number of aircraft of every description, the other Western coalition members have only deployed resources which, although costly, are largely symbolic. And while the eight British Tornado jets and the nine French Rafale bombers are certainly able to cause significant damage to those who happen to be within the range of their bombs, they are totally inadequate for waging a war over the territory currently under Islamic State control.
This may mean that the imperialist leaders have chosen, at least for the time being, to stick to the strategy celebrated by U.S. strategists after it was used to topple Qaddafi in Libya – a “low-level,” “low-cost” war, in which operations on the ground are left to local protagonists acting as proxies for the imperialist powers, while the imperialist forces themselves use their superior airborne power to reinforce their chosen regional pawns. But will the Western leaders have the option of sticking to this strategy? Will they be able to control the forces they will have directly or indirectly unleashed in this war? Or will they, on the contrary, face a regional implosion which, by threatening the profits of Western multinationals, will force them to put “boots on the ground,” after all, with all the unpredictable further consequences this may have?
There is no answer to these questions for the time being. Only the future will tell. But there have been many warnings as to the disastrous potential of this situation. The experience of Libya, with the country’s subsequent implosion and the impact of this implosion on neighboring countries, shows what a high price the region’s population is paying for the West’s “low-cost” strategy. But there’s more. Already, only two months after the bombings started, the situation in Iraq, both in the war zones and in much of the rest of the country, is showing signs which are reminiscent of the worst years of the civil war which broke out during the Western occupation of the country. But, of course, these are not the sort of warning signs that the Western leaders and their media would acknowledge.
In fact, ever since the beginning of the events in Syria and Iraq, which led to the present war, there has been very little information available about what is really happening on the ground. And if an event is indeed given wide coverage by the media, it usually has more to do with justifying the policies of Western imperialism. Anything which might put such policies into question is downplayed, when mentioned at all.
The propaganda purpose of the media hysteria surrounding the treatment of Western hostages by Islamic State was obvious. While the brutal practices of the Islamic militia had to be exposed for what they were, the “outrage” expressed by the U.S. and British governments was particularly hypocritical, given their past record. Especially considering the use by U.S. and British forces of cluster bombs and white phosphorus incendiary munitions – both of which cause atrocious injuries – during the siege of Fallujah, back in 2004, which caused a still unknown number of casualties and destroyed 36,000 of the city’s 50,000 houses!
Likewise, the coverage of the terrible fate facing first, the Yazidi religious minority, near the town of Sinjar, and then, the Christian minority in and around the city of Mosul, was heavily tainted with an underlying propagandistic objective. In both cases the brutal light shed on the predicament of these minorities was aimed at generating an emotional reaction – and, in the case of the Christian minority, a certain sense of identification with the victims of Islamic State – which, in the Western leaders’ calculations, was expected to secure the public’s support for their planned military intervention. In fact, the fate of these minorities was a major element in the official justification provided by both Obama and Cameron for launching their bombing operations.
But since when do the U.S. and British leaders care about the fate of these minorities? Did they ever speak out in support of the very same minorities – let alone, take action to defend them – when they came under attack from Islamic Sunni militias, during the peak of the sectarian civil war triggered by the Western occupation, in 2006-7? Of course not! At the time, for Blair and Bush, this would have been to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth – that far from bringing what they called “democracy” to the Iraqi people, their invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein had only opened the floodgates, letting in uncontrollable, reactionary, sectarian forces which then went on the rampage!
Even now, the comparatively abundant coverage of the battle around Kobani by the media, has nothing to do with any kind of “humanitarian” concern for the fate of the inhabitants who have been besieged by Islamic State forces for many weeks already. Otherwise, why would the U.S.-led coalition have waited a full month before beginning to drop the food supplies, medicines and weapons (and even then, only light ones) which had been requested by the YPG fighters (People’s Protection Units, the militia of the PYD, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria), who are defending the town? Why? Quite simply, because Obama was not concerned with the fate of these Kurdish fighters who, after all, are associated with the PKK (the Kurdistan’s Workers’ Party, based in Turkey), which is listed by the U.S. as a “terrorist organization.” What made Kobani interesting in Obama’s view, was only that it is located on the Turkish-Syrian border, which gives him an opportunity to put pressure on the Turkish government to join the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State instead of continuing to sit on the fence. Hence the publicity given to the siege of Kobani.
In fact, if it was not for the battle of Kobani, it would seem as if this latest war in Iraq was just not taking place. Of course, there are the usual warnings about a “terrorist threat” hovering over Britain or the U.S., the arrests of “terrorist suspects” and the recurring news about youths turned “jihadists” despite being born and educated in Britain. But this is something which, to a large extent, has been ongoing since the beginning of the Western “war on terror.”
However, it is not as if nothing was happening on the war front in Iraq and Syria. Just before the Western intervention started, it was estimated that one-third of Iraqi territory was neither controlled by government forces nor by the militias of the Kurdish autonomous region. Since then, there has been little change in this situation.
However, a measure of the intensity of the civil war is provided by “Iraq Body Count,” an organization set up after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to record war casualties among civilians only. This organization estimates that, by the end of October, the death count for 2014 had reached over 14,000, of which around 12% were killed by government forces. Using the accounting method of this organization, this means that this year’s death count is likely to be about 65% of the peak reached during the civil war, in 2007, but 170% of its level in 2008, after the intensity of the civil war began to go down!
These estimates depend entirely on the voluntary reporting of deaths (since no army “does body counts” as U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell notoriously asserted during the 2003 Iraq invasion). So, large as they may be, they are necessarily a huge underestimate of the reality of the war.
Military consultancies, such as the U.S. “Institute for the Study of War,” which have access both to army sources and to the Middle-Eastern papers, keep a rolling account of the main events in the war. Taking just the 4-day period between October 28th and November 2nd, here are some of the developments selected by this Institute in its rolling account:
In other words, there is clearly a lot more going on in this war than what is reported by the media here. But what is probably most significant in this snapshot of the war covering just four days, is that a significant part of the war is actually taking place in areas, like Baghdad and its suburbs, where Islamic State units have no military presence.
So not only has the Islamic State militia the military capability to face pro-government units sent against them, but they – or their allies – also have the capacity to organize deadly terrorist attacks in “safe” government-controlled areas. This means that, in addition to its regular militia, Islamic State can rely on a network of sympathetic groups, at least in the northeastern part of the country, which are capable of carrying out such attacks, but also of undermining any attempt at resisting the approach of its militia. This was what happened, for instance on June 6th, in Mosul, where armed fighters brandishing the black flag of Islamic State emerged out of nowhere inside the town itself, when the first columns of regular militia were still far from its suburbs, and began to attack the barracks of pro-government forces with high-power explosives.
So what are the reasons for the advances of Islamic State? The initial collapse of the Iraqi army cannot explain everything on its own. There are also political and social reasons, linked to the general disaffection of Iraq’s Sunni minority towards the Baghdad regime.
Not only did the Western occupation forces rely heavily on the Shiite religious parties, thereby generating among the Sunni minority the feeling that it had been disenfranchised. The Western forces also put in place a state machinery which was recruited out of Shiite militias which were fresh out of a vicious sectarian civil war in which they had got into the habit of considering any member of the Sunni minority as a potential enemy and, more often than not, a legitimate target. And this sectarian habit has not disappeared: the Iraqi police, in particular, are notorious for their corruption, but Sunnis are usually their favorite prey. And to make matters even worse, in many parts of the country Sunnis are de facto barred from public sector jobs – this, in a country where unemployment is close to 50%!
Had the Baghdad governments done anything to improve the material situation of the population, this Sunni-Shiite divide might have become tolerable over time. But instead, these governments displayed an increasing level of corruption and parasitism. They issued triumphant press statements celebrating the country’s rising oil production but the price of gasoline and fuel did not go down for ordinary people. In fact there was no “oil dividend” for the vast majority – whether Sunni or Shiite – as somehow, all the proceeds went to line the pockets of the privileged few in high places.
Meanwhile, ministers ignored the most basic needs of the population, especially in the Sunni-dominated areas, looting the budgets earmarked for the reconstruction of indispensable infrastructure destroyed during the war and leaving the population without reliable electricity supply, decent sanitation and sometimes, even, without drinking water. While the dignitaries of the parties in office were parading their affluence surrounded by their bodyguards, most people were left barely surviving in the middle of towns and villages where the scars of the war were still wide open.
In short, the situation left over by the Western occupation was a time bomb waiting to explode. In a sense, Islamic State just anticipated this explosion by harnessing its explosive power for itself – and, by the same token, depriving the Iraqi masses of an opportunity to find their own way out of this nightmare; to rid themselves of all the warlords and politicians who thrive on their divisions.
It should be recalled that Islamic State is one of several rival Islamic Sunni militias which were shaped, relatively recently, by the Syrian civil war following the so-called “Arab Spring.” But it was different from its rivals in that most of its cadres were Iraqis, many of whom hailed from the Anbar province of Iraq, from which they had fled the U.S.-British repression after the fall of Fallujah in 2004. While fighting against the Western occupation in Iraq, they had already gained some experience in military and underground activities. Once in exile in Syria, these cadres began to recruit among the disaffected youth in the Iraqi refugee camps. They also established links with what was left of the Syrian Islamic groups, which had been decimated by the repression of Assad’s regime.
After the wave of protests started in 2011, many of the Syrian Islamic factions chose to merge in order to be able to have a higher profile on the political scene. But once the Syrian civil war started, they began to splinter again, with most preferring to withdraw to the safety of a geographical stronghold. Islamic State, which had no geographical base of its own, turned this weakness into an advantage by becoming one of the few Islamic militias purporting to offer a regional objective to its followers – a kind of Islamic pan-Arabism which, apart from its religious packaging, was not all that different from the old ideology of the Baath Party in its heyday. This, together with effective organizational and fund-raising skills, allowed Islamic State to grow fast, often by assimilating its smaller rivals and, short of that, eliminating then.
Eventually, Islamic State felt strong enough to expand its activity back into Iraq. Using the areas of Syria which were no longer controlled by the Assad regime as a launching pad, its units crossed over the Iraqi border, into the province of Mosul which was on the other side. This explains why it is in this province that Islamic State made its most spectacular gains initially and why this is where it has developed its strongest base. The militia’s next port of call was Anbar Province, where its cadres had retained strong links. There, they seem to have met with a certain amount of support among the mostly Sunni population – no doubt because of the Sunnis’ deep hatred for the pro-Western Baghdad regime, which they see as an accomplice to the crimes of the Western forces during the occupation and, more specifically, the repression that was carried out in their province at the time.
From Anbar and Mosul provinces, it was then logical for Islamic State to continue its march into the neighboring Salah ad-Din province, towards Tikrit and the region around Samarra. But what is less obvious is how Islamic State managed to make gains right on the other side of Iraq, next to the Iranian border, in Diyala province, where it has taken control of a number of towns. The answer lies in the background of a section of the Islamic State leadership which comes from a group originating from Diyala. In 2007, this group had already declared a “caliphate” in this province, before being promptly crushed by the U.S. army and forced to take refuge in exile where they met their future colleagues from Anbar province. It can be assumed, therefore, that Islamic State had retained strong enough links in Diyala province to mastermind an uprising there without the need for units of the militia to travel all the way to that part of Iraq – which would have been virtually impossible, even with an Iraqi army in a virtual state of collapse.
What this means, however, is that Islamic State now controls the areas surrounding Baghdad from every direction, except from the south. The question, however, is how much real control it has. All evidence points to the fact that Islamic State has been made relatively welcome by a section of the population, despite its brutal, obsessive obscurantism, especially in the rural areas and small towns. It is much like what happened with the Taliban when it swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996. This is partly due to Islamic State’s focus on basic social schemes, such as the centralization and distribution of staple commodities like bread. But this is also due to its brutal treatment of criminality which gives a deceptive sense of normality in a country that has been plagued by insecurity and lawlessness for over a decade.
What remains to be seen is how long the Islamic State cadres can resist the corruptive effect of power – and, therefore, how long they can sustain illusions among the population and retain its passive goodwill. Mosul is a case in point. Being the country’s second largest city, it also offers a certain degree of comfort to those who control it. Reports coming from there already indicate that Islamic State cadres are proving just as corrupt and parasitic as their predecessors, even if they are not as ostentatious about the perks they grant themselves.
One of the consequences of the present situation is the re-emergence of all sorts of militias, exercising their own rule over the population and embroiled in often bloody rivalries with each other.
The collapse of the Iraqi army has led many villages and small towns to revive the self-defense militia which had been originally set up against potential attackers during the civil war and the subsequent period of lawlessness under the Western occupation. Except that this time, many of these militias are playing a different role.
Islamic State, which is estimated to have at most 15,000 fighters, has been striving to secure the allegiance of these militias – whether it be by buying out their leaders or terrorizing them. Today, Islamic State exercises much of its territorial control through such allied local militias. But due to the way it is obtained, the allegiance of these local militias is far from reliable. And for Islamic State this may well prove to be its weakest point. For the time being, however, these militias remain in place, whether as passive or active auxiliaries of Islamic State, exercising their own brutal rule over their own people.
Meanwhile the Baghdad government itself has had to make up for the collapse of its army by mobilizing new armed forces. Thus, it has revived what was left of a Sunni militia originally set up by the U.S. in 2007, known as the Sahwas. But following the Shiite parties’ failure to deliver on the U.S. promise that the Sahwas would be integrated into the new Iraqi army and police with full rank and pay, many Sahwa members defected and some were reported to have joined Sunni terrorist groups. As to today’s Sahwas, one thing is certain: they are despised and hated, by Sunnis and Shiites alike, for their brutality and cruelty while serving under the Western occupation in the past.
Leaving aside the Kurdish militias, which do not follow Baghdad’s orders, the main military auxiliaries brought into action by the government to back up its defective military machine are the large Shiite militias.
These militias all date back to the days following the downfall of Saddam Hussein, when the Shiite religious parties came out into the open, after their long underground existence. At the time, each of these parties, as well as a number of aspiring religious leaders, proceeded to form armed militias in a bid to fill the political vacuum left by the demise of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Some of these parties – especially the two largest, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Islamic Dawa Party – eventually chose to play along with the U.S. As a result SCIRI and the Dawa got the lion’s share of the political institutions of the new state set up by the occupation forces in 2005 – a position which they still retain today. As to the cadres of their militias, they provided much of the backbone of the Iraqi army which was created at the same time.
However, some Shiite forces chose, on the contrary, to oppose the occupation. The largest among them, the Mahdi Army, led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, staged an attempted uprising against the Western occupation in 2004. After a failed attempt to integrate into the political process in the 2005 election, the Mahdi Army played an active part in the civil war. In 2008, it was finally officially disbanded and several political parties claiming allegiance to al-Sadr joined the political process. However at the same time as the Mahdi Army was dismantled, al-Sadr launched a new militia, the “Promised Day Brigades” which maintained the organizational and political tradition of the Madhi Army.
Following the advance of Islamic State, the Iraqi government asked the Shiite parties to revive their militias. And they did it all the more easily as their government positions give them access to large funds, while weapons are not a problem since Iran is there to provide for their needs. Since June there have been several spectacular, heavily-armed parades staged in the middle of Baghdad by the two main offshoots of al-Sadr’s “Promised Day Brigades,” now known as the “Peace Brigades” and the “League of the Righteous.” The Badr Organization, an offshoot of SCIRI’s old militia, has re-emerged too, in full combat gear, just as in the days of the civil war. Many other smaller Shiite militias have appeared across the country, often for the sole purpose of defending one particular Shiite holy shrine. There are now far too many Shiite militias to even attempt to list them here.
Not all these militias are officially involved in providing backing to the Iraqi army. The government has formed an umbrella paramilitary command – the “People’s Mobilization” – which brings together the militias chosen for this task under the command of the Badr Organization. But, while all participants in this “People’s Mobilization” tend to prove more combat-worthy than the Iraqi army itself, when it comes to fighting Islamic State, each one of them retains its independence and plays according to its own agenda.
The activity of the Shiite militias is not confined to acting as auxiliaries of the Iraqi army, however, whether they are officially required to do it or not.
The brutal Islamic agenda of these militias is appearing in open daylight, in a way which is not very different from that of Islamic State. For instance, in July, the BBC World Service reported an attack by gunmen on two apartment buildings in a mixed middle-class area of Baghdad, in which 29 women were killed. The gunmen had written on the wall: “This is the fate of any prostitution.” Locals said the attackers were members of a Shiite militia.
Since June, there has been an increasing number of reports of arbitrary arrests, kidnappings, etc. carried out randomly by Shiite militias against Sunnis, simply on the basis of their identification papers.
For example, before the first U.S. air strikes against Islamic State, Shiite militias took control of Latifiya, which occupies a strategic position at a crossroads between four provinces. According to Human Rights Watch: “The militias, along with federal police and the Iraqi army’s infamous seventeenth division, have kidnapped and killed dozens of residents in Latifiya.. Residents [said] that militias have destroyed the area with bulldozers and explosions since the beginning of June, with repeated militia attacks against Sunni residents and their property, despite the absence of active combat in the town.... On June 11, militiamen took 137 men from the Um Weilha market in Latifiya.... Police have found the bodies of about 30 of them, but no one has heard any information about the rest.”
As a result of these exactions, many people have fled the town whose population has now fallen from 200,000 to 50,000! Among the main Shiite militias involved in Latifiya was the “League of the Righteous.” Its black-clad fighters, who could easily be mistaken for Islamic State fighters, have earned a fearful reputation for kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians in various towns of northern Iraq.
With the virtual collapse of the Baghdad government’s authority in many parts of the country and the rise of rival religious militias, all the ingredients are back in Iraq for a return to the sectarian civil war which plagued the country under the Western occupation.
The descent into chaos which is taking place in Iraq and carries on in Syria is now threatening other neighboring countries. The inflow of refugees coming from Syria and Iraq is stretching the resources of Jordan and Lebanon, creating a ready-made pool of potential angry recruits for the Sunni Islamic militias. Meanwhile, the expansionist policy of Islamic State translates into a still limited, but nevertheless significant offensive towards these countries, either directly, through their borders with Syria, or indirectly, through the activity of local groups which support its political objectives.
In Lebanon, for instance, Islamic State units are reported to have infiltrated the north of the country through the country’s border with Syria and recruited new forces among the two million Syrian refugees living in squalid conditions in that area. There have been on-going clashes between these Sunni infiltrators from Syria and Shiite Hezbollah fighters who are resisting their attempt to march into the Bekaa Valley. In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city which is located in the north of the country, local supporters of Islamic State are raising their heads. On October 23rd, according to Al Jazeera, a wave of violence broke out in this city: “After an army patrol was attacked in the market area, the Lebanese army carried out raids in the city searching homes of individuals with alleged links to Islamic State. According to an army statement, 162 armed suspects had been arrested since the clashes broke out and at least 42 people, including 11 soldiers, were killed in the fighting with some 150 wounded.”
A taste of what may be in store in Iraq – and possibly for other neighboring countries – as a result of the present Western “low-cost,” “low-level” intervention is provided by the catastrophic consequences of the West’s similar intervention against Libya, in 2011. To all intents and purposes, Libya is now a failed state, broken into multiple fiefdoms, each dominated by a local militia which does not recognize any authority apart from its own. And these militias have been a major factor in destabilizing the neighboring African countries, as far away as Niger and the Central African Republic. On paper, Libya still has an elected parliament and a central government, but ministers are regularly kidnapped – if not executed – by the militias when they dare to speak against their rule. The bankruptcy of the Libyan government has reached the point where, in September, its parliament was forced to flee the capital Tripoli and to meet in a hired car-ferry off the coast of the small eastern town of Tobruk. As to the Libyan population which, back in 2011, had been showing its courage by confronting the dictatorship in the streets, it is now caught in the iron fist of these reactionary militias, which owe their political fortune to the Western bombers.
Many voices in the Western imperialist establishment have said that the present Western bombings cannot possibly stop the advance of Islamic State. Some of these statements are undoubtedly coming from people who would like to see a full-scale Western invasion of Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, they are stating the obvious: the advance of Islamic State has not been stopped.
But what none of these wise men dares to mention is that every single Western bomb that falls on Iraq or Syria brings more recruits to Islamic State and similar militias. If Islamic State is capable of recruiting young fighters right in the center of Britain or France, by appearing as a determined enemy of the imperialist forces which have plundered the Middle-East for so long, it is even more capable of finding recruits in the region itself.
This is why any Western intervention, whatever its shape or form, must be stopped in the Middle East, in the interests of the region’s population as a whole. The brutal methods of imperialism have done far too much damage as it is. Any idea that the imperialist powers might – let alone should – “fix” the damage they have caused in the past and restore some normality for the population, is a lunatic deception. As a system of domination entirely designed to maximize Western capitalist profits, imperialism has always been, and can only be, a system of oppression for the region’s populations.