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  • Published in Analysis
Obama and the troops

Obama at Fort Bragg. Image AP Photos

Sean Ledwith investigates the history of Western involvement in Iraq that has led the US into a third war in the country

In December 2011, Barack Obama welcomed back US troops from Iraq following their ignominious exit from the war that had been initiated eight years earlier. Gliding over the fact that his rise to power had been partly built on his explicit criticism of the conflict as a state senator in Illinois, Obama chose to verbally wrap himself in the Stars and Stripes and attempt to justify the horrendous slaughter and carnage caused by Operation Enduring Freedom. Obama piously informed his audience at Fort Bragg military base that the US army left behind a ' sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people'.

As a piece of misplaced imperial hubris, this speech now rivals his predecessor's infamous 'Mission Accomplished' rhetoric on board a US aircraft carrier in the first year of the war.

The semi-disintegration of the Iraqi state in the face of the insurgent group, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (aka ISIL or IS) over the past couple of years exposes the arrogance and duplicity of Obama and the rest of the US foreign policy elite that have presided over the unfolding catastrophe. The re-deployment of US military assets over the skies of Iraq this year indicates the utter failure of his retrospective justification of Bush's Middle East adventure. O

nce again, Western politicians have dis-interred the bankrupt rhetoric of humanitarian intervention to legitimate cynical geopolitical meddling. They have sought to mystify and obfuscate Isis as an inexplicable phenomenon, apparently unrelated to a conflict that just happened to kill one million Iraqis and rip up the infrastructure of a comparatively developed state. Obama has likened the organisation to ‘cancer’, while Cameron's considered analysis of the situation arrived at the equally  insightful  conclusion:  'these people are evil, pure and simple"

His Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, raised the bar of absurd hyperbole with his declaration that the campaign against Isis represented ‘a new battle of Britain.’

Shallow rhetoric such as this is designed to cover up the direct responsibility American and British policy-makers have for the horrendous mess in the region, and highlights their criminal state of denial about how ISIS is, in fact, the bastard-child of their blunders in Iraq since 2003. Some members of the US Army that Obama pathetically tried to eulogise at Fort Bragg had a better grasp of the roots of the crisis than their Commander-in-Chief.

They included the late General and National Security Advisor, Richard Odom, who described the 2003 campaign as 'the greatest strategic disaster in American history.' 

Invasion of the state snatchers

 Bush Jnr's now universally derided speech on USS Lincoln in May 2003 was supposed to mark the triumphant coda to American operations in Iraq that had commenced in that country a few months earlier. Instead, it can now be seen as the curtain-raiser to an  eight-year long period of  catastrophic neoliberal restructuring and imperial manipulation that left Iraq in tatters and paved the way for the rise of Isis.

The not-so thinly disguised agenda of the invasion was soon revealed, blowing away Bush and Blair’s guff about freedom and democracy. Two years after the former's ridiculous Top Gun antics on USS Lincoln, a British NGO reported the ransacking of the Iraqi public sector oil industry that had occurred in the early phase of the occupation.

This report reveals how an oil policy with origins in the US State Department is on course to be adopted in Iraq, soon after the December elections, with no public debate and at enormous potential cost. The policy allocates the majority of Iraq’s oilfields – accounting for at least 64% of the country’s oil reserves – for development by multinational oil companies.

The rapacious privatisation and deregulation of the country's utilities and infrastructure that took place over the next few years tore away the veneer of humanitarian rhetoric with which the war's progenitors had sought to justify it. ' Iraq War I ' (the 1991 invasion of Kuwait ) had likewise wrapped itself in a coating of delusional gloss only to be undone by unscripted comments such as  "If Kuwait grew carrots, we wouldn't give a damn, as one US assistant defence secretary candidly put it.

Bremer's blunders

The invaders of 2003 appointed Paul Bremer as their de facto colonial satrap. He presided over three disastrous initiatives that sowed the seeds of the current imbroglio in the region. Order Number One dismantled Saddam's two-million strong Baath Party, which was made up largely of the country's minority Sunni Muslims population. Similarly, Order Number Two dissolved the military and security apparatus of the ancien regime, pushing the predominantly Sunni officer class into the arms of the burgeoning resistance. The Third Order postponed elections, thereby infuriating the Shia majority that had spent decades enduring Saddam's Sunni minority rule and had been led to believe by Bush and Blair that the rationale of the occupation was to install them in power.

One year after the invasion, the Sunni resistance had coalesced around militias in the Anbar province, west of Baghdad, largely made up of two significant elements; the disgruntled former Baathist officers and officials fired by Bremer; and the nascent Al Qaeda-sponsored group, AQI, led by Abu Musa Al-Zarqawi. The Western powers had spuriously justified the invasion as part retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, ignoring the virtual absence of Al Qaeda in the country during the Saddam era. In classic blowback-style, Bush and Blair actually helped manufacture  a foe which did not exist prior to their intervention.

The majority Shia population had re-organised  around a number of broadly  pro-Iranian parties that Bremer and his imperial paymasters were desperate to keep away from the levers of powers, fearful of increased Iranian influence in the country. The most militant was the Mahdi Army, created by Muqtada Al-Sadr, out of the thousands of poverty-stricken residents marooned in the slums of South Baghdad.

Faced with a steadily mounting scale of opposition from different sections of Iraqi society, Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority resorted to methods of repression and counter-insurgency that led many of the population to think they had just exchanged one despotic regime for another. The notorious images of torture and abuse that emerged from the US-run detention camp of Abu Graib blew away any trace of humanitarian window-dressing from the occupation.

Divide and rule

One year after Bush's declaration of victory, Bremer ordered US marines to smash Sunni resistance in the town of Falluja, where the opposition forces were constructing an autonomous base, beyond the jurisdiction of the CPA's increasingly slender authority. Even more terrifying for the occupiers, the attack that was launched by the US was the trigger for the initiation of a resistance movement that bridged the sectarian divide that Saddam had fostered to consolidate his regime.

As cluster bombs and uranium-tipped shells rained down on the Sunni fighters in Falluja, Muqtada issued a call for his Shia forces to rally to the defence of their compatriots:  You are witnessing the union of Sunnis and Shiites toward an independent Iraq, free of terror and occupation.... Our sentiments are the same, our goal is one, and our enemy is one.  We say yes, yes to unity, yes to the closing of ranks, combating terror and ousting the infidel West from our sacred lands.

The prospect of unified resistance from  the two communities forced the US to back off its assault on the city temporarily. American general, Ricardo Sanchez, warned his political superiors the occupiers were on the brink of the nightmare scenario of waging a war against a combined Shia-Sunni opposition:

'The danger is we believe there is a linkage that may be occurring at the very lowest levels between the Sunni and Shi'a. We have to work very hard to ensure that it remains at the tactical level.'

Unleash hell

The narrative constructed by the West in the present crisis is that intervention in Iraq is necessary to avert a Shia-Sunni fratricidal  war but the events of 2004 illustrate that such a prospect was minimal before the Americans and British meddled with the country. In fact, developments after the siege of Falluja indicate it was at that point the occupiers consciously stoked tensions between the two groups to thwart the resistance and consolidate their own power.  Bremer established a transitional political body on the Lebanese model, incorporating a sectarian divide-and-rule system that set Sunni, Shia and Kurds against each other in a scramble for influence.

By drawing the majority Shia parties into a collaborationist apparatus, the US gave Zarqawi's AQI group the pretext to attack the Shia community as collaborators and to initiate a ferocious sectarian struggle between 2006-2009 that at its peak was killing about 3,000 people a month. John Negroponte, US Ambassador to Iraq, furthered poisoned relations between the two majority groups by established a covert unit of pro-occupation Shia security personnel to target their own community and spread propaganda about AQI's responsibility. One of those involved commented:

'We were basically paying up to $10,000 a time to opportunists, criminals, and chancers who passed off fiction and supposition about Zarqawi as cast-iron fact, making him out as the lynch-pin of just about every attack in Iraq…. Back home this stuff was gratefully received and formed the basis of policy decisions. We needed a villain, someone identifiable for the public to latch on to, and we got one.'

The US-instigated carnage ultimately exhausted all sides, leaving Nuri al-Maliki as Prime Minister of a sectarian Shia state that continued the CPA’s policy of marginalising the Sunni minority. Bremer’s orders excluding Baath Party members was reinforced, allowing Zarqawi’s AQI to appeal to the swelling ranks of alienated Sunnis.

The Syrian factor

Following the exit of the US forces in 2011, the Iraqi crisis began to merge with the political dislocation caused by the thwarted impulse of the Arab Spring revolutions around the region, and in Syria especially. The pro-Shia Assad regime crushed the initial uprising of 2011, forcing Sunni oppositionists in that country to become increasingly militarised, creating another opportunity for Zarqawi’s group to portray itself as the defender of Sunni interests.

Zarqawi had been assassinated by the Americans in 2006 but his group had established enough manpower and munitions to re-group as under the new guise of Isis. Assad cynically released hundreds of Sunni Salafists from jail and into the ranks of the opposition, knowing full well they would attack Shia targets and intensify the sectarian nature of the conflict, undermining the secular credentials of the opposition.

Over the border in Iraq, Maliki’s regime triggered Western  fears about increased Iranian influence in the country, despite Washington’s $25 billion investment in the 200 000 strong national army. The West’s regional allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, shared this paranoia about a ‘Shia Crescent’ stretching from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the regime in Tehran, so they started funnelling funds and weapons to Isis (along with their  fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology). The Independents’s Patrick Cockburn has underlined how the Arabian monarchies have played a key role in sustaining Isis:

'The Saudis have always been behind the Jihadi movement in general, above all abroad, not within Saudi Arabia. And generally they will support those who oppose Shia governments, and don’t really distinguish or didn’t really distinguish who they were supporting. But it’s also pretty clear that a lot of their support did go to Isis...'

Iraqi Spring

As the centrifugal forces of sectarianism intensified,there was still an opportunity for Shia-Sunni unity to avert the impending catastrophe. Early last year, mass demonstrations and protests from the besieged Sunni minority attracted the tentative support of Muqtada and the Mahdi Army. He addressed his supporters in the Shia stronghold of Najaf with a call for solidarity:

'The Iraqi spring is coming. We are with the demonstrators, and Parliament must be with them, not against them. The legitimate demands of the demonstrators, by which people know what they want, should be met.'

Unfortunately, Maliki had learned the art of divide-and-rule from his US predecessors and launched a new wave of sectarian repression that drove many Sunnis towards the violent solution offered by Isis and consequently forced Muqtada's supporters to seek sanctuary under the now Shia-dominated government. Maliki's efforts to shore up his rule have disintegrated this year, however, thanks to the endemic corruption he presided over throughout the Iraqi military and bureaucracy. The spectacular territorial gains made by Isis this year are the consequence of many Sunnis reluctantly seeing the group as their only viable protection against a sectarian Iraqi state, and the ongoing covert support Isis have received from the Gulf monarchies.

Shafts of light

Despite Obama and Cameron's attempts to portray Isis as a quasi-supernatural entity that defies rational analysis, the history of post-invasion Iraq points to the group being  best understood as the inevitable outcome of Western manipulations devised to avert the development of a genuine national liberation movement in the country. In 2004 and 2013 there were fleeting glimpses of Shia-Sunni unity, only for them to be quashed by the neocolonial CPA and its botched homegrown successor respectively. 

The relentless rise of Isis over the past year or so might lead some on the left to despair of the regional situation  but these shafts of light amid the sectarian gloom should serve to remind us of the heroic heritage of the Iraqi working class. In the post-WWII era, the country produced the largest Communist Party in the Middle East with an estimated 20,000 members at one point. Strategic blunders condemned it to bloody oblivion in the 1960s, but the memory of  a non-sectarian, vibrant leftist culture remains a more viable alternative for the country than the reactionary cul-de-sac of Isis.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History 

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