The dramatic military advance by Isis militants in the Sunni Muslim areas of Iraq in the early part of the summer pushed the country back towards civil war. The US war and occupation sowed the roots of sectarian division in Iraqi society.
The declaration of the formation of an Islamic Caliphate by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) and its lightening offensive in both countries has sent shockwaves around the world.
The Caliphate (known as the Islamic State) stretches from the Syrian city of Aleppo to the Iraqi suburbs of Baghdad. By effectively abolishing the Iraqi-Syria border, Isis has in one move trumped the rhetoric of every Arab ruler since the 1917 Anglo-French Sykes– Picot agreement drew the modern map of the Middle East.
It has galvanised huge numbers Arabs and Muslims. Jihadis who were until recently shunning the movement as an illegitimate split from Al-Qaeda, are now pledging allegiance to it, including many factions of the Syrian resistance. Isis drew its strength from those disillusioned by both the stalled revolution in Syria and the failure of the national resistance movement in Iraq to deliver anything for the country’s marginalised Sunni Muslims.
Those foreign fighters who have rallied to its flag are drawn from countries that have suffered greatly at the hands of imperial powers — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine and Chechnya among others.
The organisation is not tarred by the brush of imperialism like other mainstream rebel organisations, and grew in power (and territory) in response to US threats to launch airstrikes on the Syrian regime following its gas attack on the Ghouta area of Damascus.
Yet despite its radical appeal it cannot reach out to those who do not share its narrow philosophy and as with other Islamist organisations it is hampered in its attempts to lead a national movement along narrow religious sectarian lines.
In Iraq this means alienating any support among the downtrodden and equally marginalised Shia Muslims and disenchanted Kurds. In Syria, Isis, among other Islamist organisations, have crushed the grassroots local revolutionary committees that emerged out of the first months of the uprising. It is now threatening its allies among Iraqi Sunni organisations.
The brutality with which Isis executed in cold blood hundreds of captured Iraqi Shia soldiers, as well as its vicious sectarianism, has provoked an equality violent reaction from the country’s Shia majority.
It has also humiliated the US and is threatening global interests and investments in Iraq’s oil fields. The capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has accelerated the breakup of Iraq.
Among the Kurds the Isis offensive has accelerated its desires for independence in a move that is a threat to Syria, Turkey and Iran — all of which have large restive Kurdish populations. The dilemma for Turkey is that it has invested heavily in the autonomous Kurdish regions of Iraq and opened a pipeline that links the lucrative Kirkuk oil fields to the Mediterranean.
Kurdish troops used the chaos that followed the collapse of the Iraqi army to capture the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, and with it inherited a conflict that could pit Kurds against Arabs.
The dangers of a sectarian war between Shias and Sunnis, as well as an ethnic conflict around Kirkuk, are now seen as unavoidable. Meanwhile the US and other world powers are left to watch from the sidelines.
There can be no doubt that the US’s post Operation Iraqi Freedom swagger has gone, replaced by imperial humiliation and the “Iraq syndrome”. Despite its immense military power, the US seems helpless to control the forces it has unleashed. Close behind the unravelling of Iraq is the looming chaos in Afghanistan, setbacks in the Ukraine and missteps in Syria.
The much-lauded neo-con Project for a New American Century has melted into the sand. The roots of the latest debacle were sown during the occupation and the attempts by the US to tame the Iraqi people using a strategy of divide and rule.
The sectarianisation of Iraq grew out of the Western occupation. The US and its allies wanted a unified and compliant country when it invaded in 2003, and a “light footprint” occupation — where after a battle US troops move on while an indigenous force keeps order under the guidance of “special advisors”.
When US soldiers secured Baghdad in 2003 the Coalition authority opted for a neo-liberal “shock doctrine” that ripped Iraq apart. State benefits were slashed, industries closed or sold off to global companies, tens of thousands of former soldiers were demobilised without any pay or job prospects, social services collapsed and power cuts became routine.
Meanwhile the authority and competence of the occupation forces were destroyed by the large-scale looting and chaos that followed the collapse of the Baathist regime.
Large numbers of ordinary Iraqis lost their jobs in the so-called de-Baathification process that followed. The plan to strip Saddam Hussein’s coterie of power was extended to ordinary people, such as school teachers and civil servants, whose jobs depended on party membership.
The first large demonstrations demanding some form of social justice began early in the occupation. Western troops reacted with violence and repression. In April 2004 US soldiers in the western city of Fallujah opened fire on a peaceful demonstration. The killings triggered an uprising that quickly spread across the country.
In Baghdad and western Iraq the resistance centred on Sunni organisations. In Shia majority areas tens of thousands flocked to join the Mehdi Army, a militia created by the firebrand anti occupation cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The unified uprising left the occupation reeling. No sooner had troops suppressed one neighbourhood, another exploded in anger. The casualty rate among occupation forces grew steadily.
Following the invasion the US talked of implanting “democracy” in Iraq, but wanted time to control the process. In 2003 it pushed for indirect elections that would have allowed its allies the opportunity to entrench themselves in the state. But the uprising compelled the US to concede direct elections in 2005.
The US dropped the ineffective exiled politicians who rode into Baghdad in the back of its tanks, and promoted mainstream Shia Muslim and Kurdish parties. Key to this strategy was the blessing of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most senior Shia cleric based in the holy city of Najaf.
The relationship between Sadr and Sistani exposes the contradictions among Iraq’s Shia Muslims. Far from being a monolithic religious bloc, the Shias are divided by class, geography, language and ethnicity.
The Mehdi Army’s main base of support is in the sprawling Baghdad slums of Sadr City, whose neighbourhoods suffered both under the occupation and the subsequent governments. The poor of Sadr City have little in common with the clerical hierarchy in Najaf and Karbala for whom the occupation provided the opportunity to open the holy cities to the lucrative pilgrimage trade.
Sadr, whose fighters were becoming an effective part of the resistance, took an ambiguous approach to the elections. He opposed them in principle, but as he was tied to the clerical hierarchy he could not directly oppose Sistani.
The elections were boycotted in Sunni majority areas, but there was a sizeable turnout among the Shias and Kurds. Its impact was to expose growing political and ideological differences building inside the resistance.
Sectarianism has shallow roots in Iraqi society. Many tribes have Sunni and Shia branches while intermarriage was the norm in most urban areas. The polarisation of Iraqi society was a direct result of the occupation that imbedded sectarianism into the political system.
The “model” imposed by the occupation following the first elections was a form of “consociational democracy”. Under this system, different ethnic, religious or linguistic groups are represented in government according to their demographic size, with state jobs allocated according to quotas.
It gave those at the top of each “community” a share of state power to be dispensed as patronage. In practice it concentrated immense power in the hands of sectarian politicians, while encouraging members of different groups to see each other as competitors.
The result was that sectarian parties and opportunist politicians turned ministries into private fiefdoms, while top government posts became entangled in sectarian and ethnic rivalries. This Western policy of divide and rule enforced a vertical cleavage in Iraqi society, laying the groundwork for sectarian strife.
With Sadr’s forces effectively out of the battle following Sistani’s intervention, sections of the Sunni insurgency began to drift towards the Jihadism of Al-Qaeda. This was compounded by the use of predominantly Shia troops in the suppression of Sunni regions.
The growing tensions exploded into open hostility following an attack on an important Shia religious shrine in Samara. Sections of the Shia resistance, among them a large contingent of Sadr’s supporters, joined the overtly sectarian gangs in a campaign of murder against Sunnis.
The impact of this civil war has been that Sunni Muslims were effectively cleansed from Baghdad, and those who remained live in constant fear and uncertainty.
Throughout 2005-06 the bulk of the resistance was reduced to the Sunni majority regions where there developed a prevailing sense of frustration and betrayal. It was during this period that radicals linked to Al- Qaeda began to emerge as a major force. At first fighters inside the resistance welcomed them. Al-Qaeda fighters, despite their small numbers, could launch effective attacks on occupying forces.
But its use of suicide bombers, indiscriminate car bombs and overt sectarian attacks on the Shias (who they label as “apostates”) led to a fissure inside Sunni-based organisations. Coupled with its harsh interpretation of Islamic law, Al-Qaeda found itself increasingly at odds with the rest of the resistance.
The growing discontent gave the occupation the opening it needed. The US was able to win over substantial sections of Sunni organisations into the so-called Awakening Council (also known as the Sons of Iraq).
Awakening fighters turned on Al-Qaeda, almost wiping out their organisation. But it came at a price. The US promised the Awakening Council a role in a future Iraqi government and security forces. But following the withdrawal of US troops in 2011, the government of Nouri al-Maliki reneged on the deal.
With a government system tilted against them, a war that left many of their neighbourhoods in ruins, exhaustion and growing alienation from their Shia brethren, Sunni regions slipped into bitter apathy until the outbreak of the Arab Spring reignited demands for social justice.
Despite the social disintegration of Iraqi society, billions of dollars have poured into major investment projects, particularly developing the lucrative the oil fields. Chinese, Western, Russian, Korean and Turkish companies have all staked a claim to Iraqi oil. Production recovered to its pre sanctions levels.
Business Week summed up the new Iraqi boom: “In 2012 [Iraq] passed Iran to become Opec’s second-largest oil producer, behind Saudi Arabia. This spring, Iraqi oil production hit a 35-year high at 3.4 million barrels a day. Government oil officials talked about being able to produce as much as nine million barrels a day by 2020.
“Iraq’s borrowing costs were down; economic growth was up. Earlier this year the International Monetary Fund forecast that Iraq’s economy would grow 6.3 percent this year and 8.25 percent by 2016, the fastest of all 22 economies it surveyed in the region.”
The figures for Iraq paint a rosy economic picture; GDP has skyrocketed since 2003, per capita income is up and inflation and unemployment are officially down. Yet these figures mask the ugly truth that the majority of Iraqis are as badly off today as they were ten years ago, while a small coterie of corrupt politicians and businessmen have amassed vast hordes of wealth.
Iraq’s economic boom has bypassed the majority of its citizens. One study claims that the 15 richest Iraqis own more than £10 billion in wealth. Meanwhile according to the United Nations over 23 percent of Iraqis, some 9 million people, subsist below the poverty line. Others estimate the number in extreme poverty at 12 million. Even in the relatively peaceful southern oil rich city of Basra one in three people have been reduced to begging.
The economic divide in Iraq is prevalent across all sects and ethnic groups, but the political marginalisation of both the Kurds and the Sunnis is an added sting. In Shia areas there could be some illusion that the ordinary residents of Sadr City could one day escape from poverty, there is no such hope among Sunnis.
The simmering discontent expressed itself in the large protest movement that erupted in December 2013 centred on Fallujah and Ramadi. This movement had the potential to crash through the sectarian barriers.
As thousands of demonstrators set up peaceful protest camps, Sadr issued a statement in their support. It was recognition that the anger at the Maliki government, and the cabal who were getting rich, found an echo in poor Shia areas.
The response of Maliki to the protests was violence. His brutal repression of the protests was such that it could only provoke further anger. It was here that the intervention of Isis and the sectarian Islamist organisations became crucial.
As sympathy for the plight of these areas grew across the social divides, the movement reached a crossroads — by extending the demand for social justice it could have drawn huge sympathy from across all Iraqi regions. Instead these organisations raised exclusively Sunni demands, seeped in anti- Shia rhetoric.
The response by Isis to Sadr’s public expression of sympathy and support for the “Iraqi Spring” killed off the possibility for the movement to develop.
The rise of Isis, and the declaration of an Islamic Caliphate, presents imperial powers with another harsh dilemma. Despite China’s multi-billion dollar investments in Iraqi oil — the biggest of all foreign investors — it cannot protect its interests in the country. It is similar story for the other global players.
China is dependent on the US and Iran to act as guarantors. The long standing enemies have now become de-facto allies in the war against Isis, and by extension Iraq’s Sunni Muslims. When viewed through the lens of global capitalism, a military cooperation (US drones and firepower alongside Iranian ground troops) is a logical and necessary step.
Behind these shifting alliances there are also economic worries. Any halt in Iraqi oil production could see a $40 rise in the price of a barrel of oil. This “oil shock” will not necessarily have a direct impact on the US as over the past decade it has increased its own production from 2.4 million barrels a day to than 7.4 million barrels a day.
But it does pose a problem for global capitalism for which the US acts as the world’s policeman.
According to the Washington based Securing America’s Future Energy (Safe), “Over the long term, Iraq is central to most projections for meeting future oil demand growth in countries like China and India. If Iraq enters a period of protracted instability, the consequences are likely to include sustained higher oil prices and slower global economic growth.”
A bleak future
What has becoming clear since the 2003 invasion is that all the warnings voiced by the anti-war movement were true. The invasion and occupation was a disaster for the US, and a tragedy for the Iraqis.
The declaration of the Islamic Caliphate has become a direct challenge to imperialism and regional powers. It is also deeply divisive for the region. Isis cannot win the allegiance of Shia Muslims (or others) and its actions have exacerbated the growing sectarian schism in the Middle East.
The disintegration of Iraq is the bitter consequence of Western intervention and the “war on terror”. Any move for more foreign intervention can only add fuel to the fire.