Crisis in Iraq

The bitter fruit of
 war and occupation

Iraq stands on the brink of another civil war and its possible disintegration as a unified nation state. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has seized several Iraqi cities and begun building what it claims to be a Sunni caliphate. The country’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has taken over Kirkuk and stands poised to assert its right as an oppressed nation to declare independence. The Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has been reduced to rule over only the central and southern sections of the country.

The United States has dispatched warships and Special Forces to help the Iraqi state hold the country together. Iran has also sent advisers and forces. Not to be left out, Russia has sold Maliki fighter jets to use against ISIS. Saudi Arabia and Jordan have deployed troops to their borders to stop ISIS from spreading its caliphate into their countries. And Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria has for first time launched bombing attacks on ISIS. In the meantime, Israel has taken advantage of the situation to attack Hamas in Gaza. The entire order that British and French imperialism set up in the Middle East after World War I and that the United States has overseen since World War II has been profoundly destabilized. 

The neoconservative architects of President George W. Bush’s Iraq war have attempted to blame the Obama Administration for this crisis. Dick Cheney, for one, has crawled out of his undisclosed bunker to join his daughter in denouncing Obama. With no sense of irony, these two warmongers claim, “rarely has a US President been wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”1 The truth is that Bush, Cheney, and the neocons deserve the lion’s share of blame for the crisis. They lied their way into the war against Iraq, imposed a brutal occupation that wrecked the country, used sectarianism to divide and conquer the Iraqi resistances, and destabilized the region in the process. Obama has merely followed in their ignominious footsteps. 

The bipartisan American imperialist project in Iraq, not some eternal Arab sectarianism, is responsible for the chaos engulfing the Middle East today. Further intervention by the United States or rival powers like China and Russia will only make the crisis worse. 

Imperial carve up
The deep roots of the crisis in Iraq and the region are to be found in the imperialist power’s carve up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Through secret treaties, like Sykes-Picot, Britain and France divided up the region into separate states ruled by hand-picked Arab potentates. They artificially separated peoples, recognizing some with nation states and dismissing others like the Kurds, who were consequently subject to decades of national oppression. 

Britain, through the Balfour Declaration, also set in motion the establishment of Israel as a colonial settler state that dispossessed the indigenous Palestinian people of their land. The Zionists finally established Israel in 1948 with full UN approval, driving out waves of Palestinians over the following decades.2 

After its victory in World War II, the US supplanted the European powers in the Middle East. The US first aimed to secure control of the newly discovered oil in Saudi Arabia, which the US state department called “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”3 With the collapse of colonial control in the region and the rise of independent and nominally independent states, the United States aimed to contain any manifestation of Arab nationalism or Russian influence in the region. To accomplish this goal, the US backed reactionary dictatorships and monarchies. In Iran, the United States engineered the 1954 coup that placed the dictatorial Shah Pavlavi into power. To oversee this new order, and especially since Israel’s victory in the 1967 war, successive administrations have used the Zionist state as their chief watchdog in the region. 

In addition to opposing nationalist or secular left-wing movements that threatened its hegemony, the United States also backed Islamic fundamentalism in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to undermine revolutionary forces throughout the region.4

In the post-World War II period, the United States depended on three key states—Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel—to cement its regional hegemony. The US worked to bully and lure other Arab dictatorships like Anwar Sadat’s Egypt into their camp in the Cold War. Washington thus established itself as the bulwark of counterrevolution in the region—an enemy of national liberation, the labor movement, and democracy.

The American-imposed order came apart in 1979, when the Iranian Revolution toppled the Shah. However reactionary, Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime opposed the United States. At the same time, in Afghanistan, the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia backed the fundamentalist Mujahideen against the country’s Stalinist regime and provoked the USSR into invading and occupying the country. President Carter used that invasion to justify a new policy of direct military intervention in the Middle East. In his 1980 State of the Union speech, Carter declared, “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”5

The Carter Doctrine set the United States on the course of increased military intervention in the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular. Carter’s successor Ronald Reagan continued funding and arming the Islamic fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan, including the founder of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.6 He also backed Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran that, while it ended in a stalemate, led to the slaughter of well over a million people. 

Iraq was left in shambles and shackled with $14 billion in debt to Kuwait that it could not repay. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait to seize its oil, plunder its banks, and gain control of its port to export oil. Hussein mistakenly thought he had a green light from the United States after US Ambassador April Glaspie told him “we have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”7

Bush I’s Gulf slaughter
President George H.W. Bush realized that his former ally had slipped the leash and now had become a possible threat to American dominance. So he launched the Gulf War to drive Iraq out of Kuwait. Reagan’s former assistant secretary of defense Lawrence Korb summed up American motives when he stated, “If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn’t give a damn.” 

Bush heralded the Gulf War as the beginning of a “New World Order.” After the collapse of Russia’s empire in Eastern Europe, America’s new grand strategy was to establish itself as the singularly dominant world power that would impose neoliberal economics and smash any so-called rogue states that stood in its way. Republican and Democratic administrations used both multilateral and unilateral tactics to impose this unipolar order that replaced the Cold War’s bipolar arrangement.

In the Middle East, the US sought to prevent Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from becoming a regional power. US Secretary of State James Baker reportedly told Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz in 1991 that the US would take Iraq “back to the stone age.”8 The August 1990 bombing and subsequent ground offensive to drive Iraq’s forces from Kuwait intentionally destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure, killing 100,000 and wounding 300,000. But the US decided against toppling Hussein’s government. It preferred a weakened dictator to alternatives it could not control and that could potentially destabilize the region. 

Thus, even though Bush encouraged Iraq’s Shia and Kurds to rise up against the regime, he refused to aid their rebellion. He instead stood by and watched the Iraqi army massacre thousands of people. In the aftermath, he imposed a no-fly zone in the Kurdish North and the Shia South, thus beginning the process of fragmenting the Iraqi nation. The Kurds’ especially used the cover of American air power to develop their own economy and lay the groundwork for a state of their own.

Genocidal sanctions
Bush and his successor Bill Clinton opted for a policy of dual containment of Iraq and Iran. They imposed a UN-approved sanctions regime on both countries. In the case of Iraq, they barred anything that could have dual uses—one for the military and another for civilian purposes. That meant preventing the importation of everything from pencils to vital drugs for the treatment of cancer.9 They also forced the regime to admit weapons inspectors and conducted regular bombing campaigns every time Saddam Hussein disobeyed their imperial edicts.

The sanctions further devastated an already war-ravaged Iraq. The UN estimated that the sanctions killed half a million children.10 Leslie Stahl confronted Clinton’s ethically challenged Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on 60 Minutes, commenting, “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Albright replied, “I think this is a hard choice but the price—we think the price is worth it.”11

A minority position in the ruling class, represented by those like then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Paul Wolfowitz, who along with other self-described neoconservatives (“neocons”) established the Project for the New American Century, wanted the United States to conduct regime change in Iraq and throughout the region. But Bush and Clinton rejected this out of hand. To enforce this dual containment, the United States established military bases throughout the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, a fateful decision that provoked America’s former collaborator, bin Laden, to order al Qaeda to attack American targets. 

An international movement compelled Washington to loosen its sanctions. Iraq and Iran took advantage of that space to establish legal and black market trade relationships with numerous countries. Dual containment was falling apart. Amidst this policy crisis, the neocons agitated for an alternative strategy of regime change in Iraq. Under this pressure, Clinton persuaded Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 that committed the United States to overthrowing Saddam Hussein. 

Clinton’s claim that Iraq was a threat to America was a fabrication. Two decades of war and sanctions had reduced a country with living standards that rivaled Greece’s to one on par with sub-Saharan Africa. UN weapons inspectors had eliminated Iraq’s capacity to produce weapons of mass destruction. It was a prostrate nation on the verge of collapse, overseen by a tyrant despised by all sections of society.

Bush II’s imperial hubris
Bush the Second came to power with a whole layer of neocons on the lesser rungs of his administration. When al Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11, the neocons used the tragedy to convince Bush to declare his so-called “War on Terror.” 

While the United States wanted to crush al Qaeda, that project was secondary to their primary ambition of transforming and subordinating the Middle East. With the region under its control, Washington aimed to assert its dominance over all rivals, especially China, whose economy is fueled by the region’s oil. The United States would thereby secure a position of unrivalled control over a unipolar world order and open, in the words of the neocons, “A New American Century.” 

Bush II also aimed to smash the OPEC cartel, privatize the region’s nationalized oil industry—opening it up to multinational oil companies—increase production, and thereby cut the cost of oil.12 To accomplish these goals, Bush planned to overthrow Hussein and then conduct regime changes in Syria and Iran. One British official close to the Bush administration told Newsweek, “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran.”13 Bush hoped to establish pliant neoliberal democracies allied to the US throughout the Middle East. 

US officials churned out lies to justify the imperial project. They claimed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and collaborated with al Qaeda. Of course none of this was true. As former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan bluntly stated, “Everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.”14 

The leadership of the Democratic Party, including Hilary Clinton, made the “hard choice” to support Bush’s war. The corporate media, especially the New York Times, parroted Bush’s lies. But a huge antiwar movement rose to resist the establishment’s drive to war on February 15, 2003, when tens of millions around the world marched against the impending war. Bush dismissed the protesters as a “focus group.”

Bush bypassed the UN and put together his so-called “Coalition of the Willing,” which willing only included Britain and a couple of other volunteers. The rest were weak nation states that the United States bought and bullied into joining the war effort. In order to cobble together support from Arab regimes, the US sidelined Israel from the conflict. In what Washington dubbed a policy of “Shock and Awe,” the joint bombing campaign and ground invasion began on March 19, 2003. On April 5, four days before the end of the initial phase of the invasion, the Independent reported that “coalition” forces had “launched 725 Tomahawk cruise missiles, flown 18,000 sorties, dropped 50 cluster bombs and discharged 12,000 precision-guided munitions.”15

Occupation and resistance
Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC’s “Meet the Press,” March 16, 2003 that the US forces would be welcomed in Iraq as “liberators.” The US military staged propaganda events like the infamous toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdos Square in Baghdad to confirm their own fantasies.16 Of course most Iraqis were happy to see their oppressor fall. Not even Saddam Hussein’s feared Republican Guard fought to defend the regime. No Iraqi, however, celebrated the American occupation.

The Shia population hoped to claim their religious rights and, as the country’s majority, shape its future. The Sunnis were worried that they would be punished for being the disproportionate base of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Only the Kurds were relatively pleased, hoping that they would be able to establish an independent state (the Kurdish areas in northern Iraq had already established a measure of autonomy under a US-protected “no-fly” zone after the first Gulf War). But the US opposed an independent Kurdistan, preferring to keep Iraq together as a unified nation state in deference to its ally Turkey.

The United States quickly alienated the Sunni and Shia ruling classes and their followers. Bush’s viceroy Paul Bremer imposed neoliberal reforms on Iraq’s state-controlled economy, privatizing as much as he could. But he failed to build anything in its place, thus impoverishing an already desperate population. The promise that a newly privatized oil industry would pay for the reconstruction never materialized.

Bremer’s first three general orders then detonated mass resistance. Order Number One fired all members of the Baath Party from their state jobs. Since Saddam Hussein’s regime had been based in the Sunni population and employment was dependent on membership in the Baath Party, Sunni professionals and workers lost their jobs in everything from the state bureaucracy to public education. They immediately turned against the occupation.

Order Number Two dissolved the 450,000-member Iraqi Army, which was the sole national non-sectarian institution. Many of the mostly Sunni officer corps helped organize the guerilla resistance. The Shia conscripts were left destitute, without any other job prospects in a wrecked economy.

Order Number Three postponed the election process and effectively declared the country under colonial occupation. This enraged the Shia ruling class that had hoped to assume leadership of the state. Bremer’s orders thereby triggered a fractured national liberation struggle. 

The Sunnis created a popularly supported guerilla struggle variously led by Islamists, ex-Baathists, and the tribal elite. The Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr launched a campaign of mass demonstrations demanding elections and an end to the occupation. Despite Bush’s declaration of victory in 2003, his colonial war against the Iraqi people was just beginning.

Bush cultivates Iraqi sectarianism
The American occupiers confronted the liberation struggle with brutal repression. They conducted sweeps of Iraq’s Sunni areas, arrested thousands, jailed them in Saddam’s prisons like the notorious Abu Ghraib, and tortured them for information. One photograph taken by American prison guards captured the nightmarish abuse of the captives. It showed an Iraqi man standing on a box with a hood over his head with electrical wires attached to his hands running to a wall socket. That image rightly replaced the concocted toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue as the true symbol of the American occupation.

The occupation regime also targeted the Shia resistance, repeatedly trying to arrest and repress Sadr’s movement. But this drove the Sadrists toward an alliance with the Sunni guerilla struggle. Once the US realized it risked uniting the resistances, it turned to the oldest trick in the imperial playbook—divide and conquer, in this case whipping up Iraq’s sectarian schism. 

First, the US set up an electoral process and allocation of government positions along the Lebanese model that apportioned government positions by sect and nationality. This communalized Iraqi politics. Once this electoral system was set in motion, the Sunni ruling class realized that as a minority in the new communalized system it would lose to the Shia parties and their confessional majority. This led to a boycott of the initial votes. As a result Shia sectarian religious parties, like the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Maliki’s Dawa Party, established control of the central state and have never relinquished it.

Second, the US exploited the Achilles heel of any hope for Iraqi unity—the development of al Qaeda in Iraq. Contrary to Bush’s propaganda al Queda had no relation to Hussein’s regime and did not exist in the country before the occupation. The Jordanian Abu Musa al-Zarqawi formed al Qaeda in Iraq in late 2004. These bigots targeted the Shia population and their religious sites.

In response, the Shia parties, which had created their own paramilitaries like Sadr’s Mahdi Army and ISCI’s Badr Brigades to provide order amidst the chaos of occupation, increasingly used them in selfdefense against al Qaeda’s sectarian attacks on Shia civilians and religious sites. Washington implemented the so-called Salvador Option; it incorporated the Shia militias into the Iraqi security force and used them to attack not only al Qaeda, but also the Sunni resistance and the civilian population.17 

Sectarian civil war
The US set in motion a form of sectarian conflict that had never existed before in the history of Iraq. While Hussein’s regime was predominantly based in the Sunni elite, it possessed Shia leaders and members. He was a non-denominational tyrant. Before the occupation intermarriage between Sunnis and Shias was very common. The only systematically oppressed group was the Kurds.

The sectarianism Bush cultivated triggered the civil war between Sunnis and Shia that raged from 2006 through 2008. At its height 3,000 were killed each month. The fighting drove 2 million refugees into Jordan and Syria and displaced another 2 million within Iraq. Baghdad was transformed in the process from a predominantly Sunni city before the civil war into a majority Shia today.

With Iraq on the brink of disintegration, Bush implemented his much-celebrated “surge.” He deployed 20,000 troops in 2007 mostly to Baghdad, claiming that they would bring an end to the civil war. This was yet another one of Bush’s lies. In reality, the Shia militias had already won and the fighting was subsiding. The Sunni tribal leadership had stopped fighting the regime and instead formed Awakening Councils to attack al Qaeda in Iraq.

Bush coopted these Awakening Councils by putting them on the American payroll and promising to get Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to integrate the Council fighters into the Iraqi Army and bring an end to the anti-Sunni de-Baathification policy. But Maliki refused. Bush, nevertheless, continued to back Maliki, whom he had hand picked to be the country’s prime minister in 2006. With both Iranian and American support, Maliki was intent on establishing a sectarian Shia state.

Regionalizing sectarianism
By 2008, Bush’s imperial fantasies of rolling regime change throughout the Middle East had gone up in flames. The United States suffered humiliating setbacks in both Afghanistan and Iraq. On top of that, Israel lost its war against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006. General William Odom called Bush’s invasion of Iraq the “greatest strategic disaster in American history.”18

Instead of locking in American global domination, the Iraq War precipitated the relative decline of American imperialism against its international and regional rivals. China and other rising powers began to assert themselves in regions throughout the world.

In the Middle East, the principal beneficiary of the Iraq War was, ironically Iran. It secured a Shia ally in Maliki’s Iraq to add to its other partners—Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and, for a time, Hamas in Palestine. It also had secured increased trade relations with America’s imperial rivals China and Russia, and its Latin American antagonist, Venezuela.

With his imperial project in crisis, Bush retreated to a balance of power strategy to contain Iran and its so-called “Shia Crescent.” He turned to Saudi Arabia and other reactionary Sunni gulf states to counter Iran’s relative ascendancy. He thus regionalized the sectarianism he had fomented inside Iraq. Not to be left out, Israel began pounding its war drums, demanding that the United States launch air strikes against Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

Obama’s failed rehabilitation efforts
The US ruling class turned to Barak Obama and the Democrats to rehabilitate the tattered empire. Obama came to power in a changed global international system. Gone was the unipolar world order. Instead he faced an emergent asymmetric multipolar world order with the United States as the sole superpower, but facing China as a possible international rival, along with a host of regional rivals. He therefore retreated to multilateralism to keep American allies on side to preserve its dominant position. He tried to reorient foreign policy away from the Middle East with his “pivot to Asia” to contain China. He has also increasingly sought to contain a reemerging Russia in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. 

But the intensifying blowback from Bush’s failing War on Terror made this reorientation next to impossible. While avoiding ground invasions, Obama has actually doubled down on the War on Terror with ever-widening drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere. He imitated Bush’s surge in Iraq with one of his own in Afghanistan, which has been even less successful, neither defeating the Taliban nor reconstructing the country. And, in Iraq, he essentially followed Bush’s lead, supporting Maliki’s sectarian Shia state while pressuring him to integrate Sunnis into the regime.

Obama not only failed to get Maliki’s agreement to this integration, but also to force Iraq to agree to a Status of Forces Agreement that would guarantee legal immunity for American troops. Maliki and his primary supporter Iran want an end to the occupation so that they can consolidate Shia power in Iraq. At a dead end, Obama brought an embarrassing conclusion to the occupation in December 2011, when the last American troops scuttled out of the country in the middle of the night.

Obama called the Iraq War, which at one time he opposed, a “success,” and “an extraordinary achievement.” He bragged that it left behind “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”19 In reality, the US wasted $3 trillion, 4,500 soldiers, and another 30,000 wounded to wreck Iraq. One million Iraqis’ lives were sacrificed for the sake of imperial control over oil. The war left behind a Shia dictatorship ruling over a society rent by sectarian conflict, and the region on the verge of an even deeper crisis.

Iraq’s further descent into sectarianism
Freed of American pressure, Maliki purged his Sunni rivals. He fired scores of Sunni bureaucrats, charging them with being Baathists and terrorists. He even accused Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi of terrorism. After Hashimi fled to Turkey, the Iraqi government convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to death.

Maliki also confronted the Kurdish Regional Government, which had bypassed the Iraqi state to cut oil deals directly with Turkey. He challenged Kurdish rulers over control of Kirkuk and its immense oil reserves. Thus, while the American state and its obedient corporate media lost track of events in Iraq, a new round of toxic sectarian and national conflicts were brewing.

In reaction to Maliki’s sectarianism, the Sunni population rose up in mass nonviolent protests in 2012 and 2013. Some have called it the Iraqi Spring. At various points it seemed possible that it would galvanize resistance to Maliki among, not only Sunni, but also Kurds and Shia, but there was no mass organization with the politics capable of realizing that potential. All sorts of forces led the Sunni protests, from the Iraqi Islamist Party to former Baathists in the Naqshbandi Order, the tribal leaders’ Awakening Councils, and ISIS. They demanded an end to Maliki’s sectarian persecution and their fair share of Iraq’s oil revenue so they could rebuild their section of the country.

Like his former American masters, Maliki responded to the movement with brute force. He sent the mostly Shia Iraqi army to repress the protests, arrest participants, and imprison and torture them. While Obama criticized Maliki, he nonetheless backed the Shia state to the hilt with financial and military aid. Iran also increased its military aid to Maliki, supplying him with $195 million in weaponry at the beginning of 2014.20

Regional sectarian counterrevolution
The sectarianism the United States had encouraged in the region now fed back into Iraq, tipping it toward another new civil war and disintegration. The ruling classes of the region, which had used sectarianism as part of their jockeying for position in the region, now deployed it as part of their counterrevolution against the 2011 Arab Spring—the mass upheavals that toppled pro-American dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. 

They rebelled not only for democracy, but also for the redistribution of wealth and in opposition to American imperialism. The United States initially opposed the Arab Spring, but then attempted to get out in front of it and highjack the rebellions for their own purposes. Thus Obama deployed massive air power to help the Libyan uprising topple America’s sometime ally, sometime opponent, dictator Muammar Gaddafi. 

Quickly realizing that the revolts threatened their key allies, especially Saudi Arabia, Washington turned a blind eye when the Saudis sent troops into the Gulf monarchy of Bahrain to crush the predominantly Shia rebellion. (Shia’s constitute 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, but its ruling family is Sunni.) Soon the region’s states were turning to repression and sectarian divide-and-rule tactics to maintain their power.

Syria became the epicenter of this sectarian counterrevolution. The same family had run the Syrian regime, like the Gulf monarchies, for forty years, the Assads, who had used their power to gain control of the majority of the Syrian economy and violently repress all opposition. The revolution there began as a nonviolent popular uprising, uniting all religious groups against Assad’s brutal autocracy and its neoliberal economic policies. Assad’s state, despite claims by its Stalinist apologists, is in fact thoroughly sectarian. The state security apparatus is based in the country’s Alawite minority, whose religion is a branch of Shia Islam, and has consistently oppressed the country’s Sunni majority. Assad brutally repressed the revolution and used sectarianism to divide and conquer it. First, he sought support from his Shia allies, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, to supply arms, advisers, and troops to aid his counterrevolutionary war. (He also received support from Russia and China.) 

Second, Assad released scores of Sunni extremists from his jails.21 His aim was to introduce a Sunni-extremist fifth column in the ranks of the revolution, whose initial impulses were largely free of sectarianism. He knew that these forces would attack Alawites and Christians, driving them out of the revolution and into the regime’s arms. He could then posture as the defender of secular nationalism and minority rights against Sunni sectarianism, reducing the political space for the nonsectarian popular revolutionary forces. 

The Obama Administration initially positioned itself to support the Syrian revolution, hoping to replicate its work in Libya. But as it became clear that its intervention in Libya did not cultivate a stable ally but only more chaos and the assassination of its ambassador, Chris Stevens, Obama abandoned regime change as a goal in Syria. Instead he adopted the so-called “Yemeni solution,” seeking to get rid of Assad but preserve the core of his state. Thus, Obama has given only minimal support to the Free Syrian Army and wants to use them only as a bargaining chip in the process of orchestrating a palace coup.

While Obama retreated from regime change, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar did not. They supplied funds, arms, and training to the Islamist forces in what had become a civil war in Syria. Even worse, Islamist sections of these countries’ ruling classes have bankrolled al Qaeda’s al Nusra Front and even the recently formed ISIS.

The rise of ISIS
The al Nusra Front regrouped the splintered forces of al Qaeda in Iraq, which had been smashed by the Awakening Councils. They found fertile ground to do so in the increasingly sectarianized civil war in Syria. ISIS split from al Nusra over disagreements over strategy. Al Nusra was committed to fighting Assad’s regime in Syria. By contrast, ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi aimed to establish a base in Syria from which to conquer Iraq with the goal of establishing a Sunni caliphate in the region. Al Qaeda expelled ISIS from its network over this strategic disagreement, as well as its brutal attacks on other rebel forces fighting Assad. 

Once independent, ISIS seized the Syrian city of Raqqah along with a few other towns. Now in control of much of Eastern Syria, they established an incipient state complete with a system of taxation and Sharia courts backed up by their military forces, estimated to number about 15,000. Most significantly, they took over several oil wells and refineries to give an economic foundation to their regime.

ISIS has not fought against Assad, but has established a modus vivendi with the regime, going so far as to sell it oil.22 Likewise, Assad refrained from attacking ISIS. (A recent report suggests this policy may be changing.) He was happy to see it wage unrelenting attacks on Syrian revolutionary organizations. In the areas ISIS controls, it has also slaughtered Alawites and Christians whom they consider apostates. 

By conquering sections of Syria, ISIS amassed a war chest of $2 billion that it used to bankroll its conquest of sections of Iraq.23 Amidst the Sunni revolt against Maliki, ISIS struck a tense alliance with ex-Baathists in the Naqshbandi and the tribal leadership’s Awakening Councils. This alliance defeated the Iraqi Army and took control Fallujah and Ramadi at the start of 2014. 

Then, this summer ISIS led their alliance to conquer Mosul, driving out the Army’s 30,000 soldiers. The Iraqi Army, which the US has spent $25 billion training, collapsed. The predominantly Shia soldiers are only in it for the pay and do not have any faith in their commanders or the Maliki government.

After taking Mosul, ISIS and its allies pushed south toward Baghdad, capturing Tikrit and other towns. They have established control of the border with Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. After a seesaw battle, they also seem to control the Baiji oil refinery, which supplies fuel to most of the Sunni areas of Iraq. Since their seizure of this territory, they have renamed themselves the Islamic State (IS) and have called for all Sunnis to join their war for a new caliphate.

It is very important to underline that the IS is not the expression of a popular uprising. Iraq’s Sunni population does not support it. Instead they look upon the Islamic State as a lesser evil compared to Maliki’s regime. It remains to be seen if the IS can retain its alliance and its acceptance by the Sunni population if and when it imposes its reactionary policies on the population.

At first, the Islamic State did not enact its extremist version of Sharia law, attack its ex-Baathist and tribal allies, or repress Shia and Christian minorities. But they may have lost their initial caution. There have been numerous reports of conflicts within the alliance and the Islamic State has also begun purging Mosul’s Christian population.24

Brink of another civil war
The reaction of the Kurdish Regional Government and Maliki’s state demonstrates how close Iraq stands to another civil war and possible disintegration as a nation state. After the IS took Mosul, the Kurdish Regional Government seized control of the disputed city of Kirkuk and its oil reserves. They have mobilized their Peshmerga militia of about 100,000 to secure their border with the Islamic State, and they have threatened to hold a referendum to declare themselves an independent state.25 

The Maliki government has been thrown into crisis both by the Islamic State and the Kurdish threat to declare independence. It has been shown to be weak, without any consent to rule from either the Sunni or Kurdish populations. Maliki’s Dawa Party did win the most seats in April’s parliamentary elections, but solely based on Shia votes and without enough seats to form a government. The Iraqi military, moreover, is in a state of collapse.

In desperation, Maliki turned to his Shia competitors, Sadr and ISCI, and asked them to remobilize the Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigades to bolster the Army’s failing defense against the Islamic State. The Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for all Iraqis, not just Shia, to heed the call and fight the Islamic State to preserve Iraq. Maliki has promised to pay anyone who will heed the call. Only the Shia responded. Thousands have joined militias and are being mustered to fight alongside army units. Iraq stands on the brink of what could be another civil war that will be even more devastating than the last one. 

Last time, the ruling classes among the Shia, Sunni, and Kurds pulled back from the brink and remained invested in the central state because each wanted a slice of oil profits. This time, each side has control of oil wells and refineries, so they are not as committed to keeping Iraq together. The extreme sectarianism in the country also makes the partition of the country more likely. Any conflict will be far more militarized than the last one and will engulf the countries that surround Iraq for several reasons. The Islamic State includes Syria. A separate Kurdish state will stir the region’s Kurds to join it, destabilizing Turkey, Iran, and Syria, all of whom have Kurdish populations. And Maliki’s desperate attempt to hold a Shia-dominated Iraq together will draw support from Iran and Hezbollah. 

Regional crisis
All the regional powers have responded to the intensifying crisis in Iraq. Iran and its allies have rallied to Maliki’s government. It has sent the commander of its Quds Force, General Qassem Suleimani, along with 2,000 Special Forces. Assad’s regime is now worried enough that it has conducted air strikes against ISIS for the first time in western Iraq, and Hezbollah has now sent some 250 military advisors to help rebuild the Iraqi Army and strengthen the reconstituted Shia militias.26

Turkey has supported the forces fighting Assad and opposes the Shia state in Iraq. However, the prospect of an independent Kurdistan leads Turkey to prefer to keep Iraq together as a unified state. Jordan is worried that the growing sectarian conflict in Iraq will impact the huge Iraqi and Syrian refugee population inside its border, destabilizing it.

The Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, which had been actively supporting the Sunni opposition to Maliki in Iraq and funding Sunni extremists fighting Assad in Syria, are now terrified of the very forces they helped create. As Patrick Cockburn documents in his forthcoming book The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, Saudi Arabia now worries that the Islamic State, like Osama bin Laden before them, will turn against their regime, so they have mobilized some 30,000 troops to their border with Iraq.

Israel, which was already apoplectic over the Obama Administration’s attempt to reach a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, is concerned that collaboration between the United States and Iran to stabilize Iraq will bring the two closer together. They still want Washington to confront Iran. Thus they have supported an independent Kurdish state as a means to weaken Iran and its allies.27 Amidst all this chaos, Israel took the opportunity to launch a new war on Hamas in Gaza. They want to disrupt the Obama Administration’s peace process, break the unity agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and destroy Hamas’ military capacity to resist the occupation.

Thus, the entire state system that British and French imperialism set up at the end of World War I, and which the United States has overseen since the end of World War II, is in crisis. In fact, the Islamic State has set as its main aim the overthrow of the Sykes-Picot state system and its replacement with a Sunni caliphate throughout the Middle East.28

US imperialism: Weakened, confused, and dangerous
In the face of this mounting disaster, the United States has no coherent strategy. Its balance of power strategy designed to counter the rise of Iran provoked the region’s descent into sectarianism. Now it is engaged in a bewildering and contradictory set of alliances to try and control the situation. It is in a de facto alliance with Iran to shore up the Shia-dominated Iraq state, but it formally treats Iran as an enemy that it has imposed sanctions against over its nuclear program. At the same time it is trying to bring an end to the conflict by extending negotiations with Tehran. 

But any American rapprochement with Iran enrages Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. In perhaps the most shocking development, some in the establishment, including Bush’s former Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, are advocating that Washington strike an alliance with Assad against the Islamic State.29 

Given the confusing pattern of alliances and conflicts, the United States is not in a strong position to conduct any large-scale military intervention, despite the calls for such action by the blowhard right. Obama’s preferred policy is therefore to hold Iraq together by pressuring for political reconciliation. His fallback policy, originally proposed by his Vice President Joe Biden during the last civil war, is the partition of the country. Neither will provide a solution.

Obama has deployed warships, sent special advisers, and floated the idea of air strikes against Islamic State targets. The condition for that assistance has been that Maliki step down and that a new government of national unity takes his place. 

Obama sent Secretary of State John Kerry to try and negotiate a deal. Predictably he got nowhere. Maliki has refused to step down; the Kurdish leadership rebuffed Kerry and promised to proceed with their referendum on independence; and the United States has found no significant Sunni forces that trust them any more. It is hard to see why and how the ruling classes of Iraq’s three great communities would unite again.

The only advantage that the US has in the situation is the Islamic State itself. Last time the tribal leadership turned against al Qaeda in Iraq because of their reactionary politics and nihilistic attacks on the Shia and the religious sites. But so far the alliance between the Islamic State, the tribal leaders, and the ex-Baathists has held. Thus, if the United States conducts any air strikes it will be seen as siding with the Shia state against the Sunnis.

Obama’s fallback strategy of partitioning Iraq, which is now the position of America’s unofficial policy journal Stratfor, would destabilize Turkey, Iran, Syria, and several other countries. Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, Washington has conjured up a metastasizing crisis that it cannot control or resolve. 

Hope amidst horror
The United States, its imperial rivals, and all the region’s existing states are all part of the problem and offer no solution for the exploited and oppressed majority. The hope amidst this horror is the long-term revolutionary process triggered by the Arab Spring. That mass uprising showed the way to overcome the toxic combination of imperialism, autocracy, neoliberalism, and sectarianism that is tearing the region apart. 

At the peak of the struggle, for example, in Egypt, revolutionaries called for unity between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Similarly at the beginning of the Syrian Revolution, Sunnis, Alawites and Christians came together in opposition to Assad’s regime. In Iraq itself, the fractured Sunni and Shia resistances almost united to fight for national liberation against the occupation.

The Left, however, was simply not strong enough or rooted enough to lead a united revolutionary uprising to victory. As a result, Islamist parties coopted the movement and led many of the revolts into a sectarian cul de sac. This opened space for the existing regime to carry through a counterrevolution through a strategy of repression and sectarian divide and rule. 

The revolutionary process, however, is not over. The regimes are more than ever committed to autocracy, neoliberalism, and alliances with either the United States or its lesser rivals such as Russia and China. Many have also struck deals with Israel. Their policies will therefore provoke another wave of struggle.

A joint statement by the region’s socialists declares, 

The revolutionary left and democratic, feminist, and progressive groups in the Arab region should work together to confront the sectarian and confessional setup and policies of Arab regimes, on one hand, and obscurantist and reactionary right-wing groups, on the other. This is in order to defeat the sectarian/confessional threat, which is the main weapon used by the counter-revolution to attack the revolutionary space that could unite the peoples of the region.30

The question will be whether the region’s Left can weather the counterrevolution, position itself in any new shoots of resistance like the protests against Israel’s assault on Gaza, and provide an alternative when mass struggle explodes again. In that struggle the goal must not be to shore up the existing state system set up for the benefit of imperialism and the region’s ruling classes and families, but instead to fight for a complete social and economic restructuring of the Middle East.

In the imperialist countries, the Left also has enormous responsibilities. We must be absolutely clear: The United States set this catastrophe in motion. Any intervention it conducts will be against the interests of the region’s people. It is solely concerned to secure its control of oil, no matter what the consequences. 

Therefore, we must oppose US machinations in the region, whether it is diplomatic pressure, negotiations at gunpoint, military strikes, or outright invasion. At the same time, we must avoid the trap that some on the Left have fallen into of supporting either the existing autocratic states or their lesser-imperialist supporters, and painting them as anti-imperialist. Such campism has led various groups and figures to support China or Russia or regional powers like Iran, and even, grotesquely, Assad in Syria, who has spent the last fifteen years cooperating with western powers, pushing through neoliberal policies, and violently repressing all dissent. All these states are part of the problem. We have to rebuild genuine anti-imperialism against our main enemy at home, but also against all its greater and lesser rivals. 


  1. Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney, “The Collapsing Obama Doctrine,” Wall Street Journal, June 17, 2014.
  2. For a detailed account of this imperial carve-up see David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: the Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (New York: Avon Books, 1989).
  3. Quoted in Joe Stork, Middle East Oil and the Energy Crisis (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), 34.
  4. To read more about this unacknowledged history of American complicity with Islamic fundamentalism see Robert Dreyfuss, The Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (New York: Owl Books, 2005). 
  5. Jimmy Carter, “State of the Union Address,” January 23, 1980, available at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=3....
  6. For this background, see John Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism (New York: Pluto Press, 2002).
  7. The New York Times, “Confrontation in the Gulf,” September 23, 1990.
  8. Ramzy Baroud, “Iraq at the brink: A decade after the invasion,” Palestine Chronicle, February 12, 2013, available at http://www.palestinechronicle.com/iraq-a....
  9. For a comprehensive overview of American sanctions against Iraq, see Anthony Ar–nove editor, Iraq Under Siege (Boston: South End Press, 2003).
  10. Barbara Crosette, “Iraq sanctions kill children, UN reports,” New York Times, December 1, 1995.
  11. Watch the interview at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omnskeu-puE.
  12. For a thorough discussion of their hope to smash OPEC, see Michael Schwartz, War Without End (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 20–27.
  13. Quoted in David Remnick, “War Without End?” New Yorker, April 23, 2003.
  14. Alan Greenspan, The Age of Turbulence (New York: Penguin Press, 2007).
  15. “The toll of a war that has taken allies to the gates of Baghdad,” Independent, April 5, 2003.
  16. David Zucchino, “Army Stage-Managed Fall of Hussein Statue,” Los Angeles Times, July 3, 2004.
  17. Mona Mahmood and others, “From El Salvador to Iraq: Washington’s man behind brutal police squads,” Guardian, March 6, 2013.
  18. General William Odom, “Want Stability in the Middle East? Get out of Iraq!” Nieman Watchdog, November 11, 2005, available at http://www.niemanwatchdog.org/index.cfm?....
  19. “Obama Marks the End of the Iraq War at Fort Bragg,” BBC, December 14, 2011, available at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-....
  20. Ahmed Rasheed, “Exclusive: Iraq signs arms deal to buy arms, ammunition from Iran,” Business Insider, February 24, 2014.
  21. Dominic Tierney, “Bashar al-Assad and the Devil’s Gambit,” The Atlantic, July 16, 2014.
  22. Ben Hubbard, Clifford Krauss and Eric Schmitt, “Rebels in Syria claim control of resources,” New York Times, January 28, 2014.
  23. Martin Chulov, “How an arrest in Iraq revealed ISIS’s $2 billion jihadist network,” Guardian, June 15, 2014.
  24. Alissa J. Rubin, “ISIS Forces Last Christians to Flee Mosul,” New York Times, July 18, 2014.
  25. Karl Vick, “Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence,” Time, July 1, 2014.
  26. Nicholas Blanford, “Why Hezbollah is playing a smaller role in this Iraqi conflict,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 16, 2014.
  27. “Israel’s Prime Minister Backs Kurdish Independence,” Guardian, June 29, 2014.
  28. Abu Safiya, “The end of Sykes-Picot,” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyM0_sv5h88).
  29. Ryan Crocker, William Luers, and Thomas Pickering, “How as U.S.-Iran nuclear deal could help save Iraq,” The Washington Post, July 11, 2014.
  30. Joint Statement, “For a revolutionary secular democratic sovereign and independent Iraq,” Al Manshour, June 28, 2014, available at http://al-manshour.org/node/5536.

Issue #78

July 2011

Slavery and the origins of the Civil War

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