The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) continues making territorial gains, controlling much of western Iraq along the border with Syria and has captured Iraq’s largest oil refinery.
Iraq’s army, riddled with corruption and reviled as a sectarian Shia force by Sunnis, ignominiously fled in the face of the better-armed and disciplined Isis-led forces. Isis was lavishly funded and armed by the reactionary Sunni Gulf states in its fight against the Assad regime in neighbouring Syria. Now the Frankenstein’s Monster, which began life in Iraq during the western occupation, has surged back into Iraq, exploiting the hatred of Sunnis for the sectarian, corrupt and oppressive Maliki regime in Baghdad.
Isis’s initial force of around 6,000 has been bolstered with new recruits, including foreign fighters arriving from Syria and hundreds of freed prisoners. No wonder the Cameron government fears the ‘blow-back’ of jihadist fighters returning to Britain.
In response, Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Shia militia, and Iraq’s highest Shia authority, Ayatollah al-Sistani, made a call to arms. Twenty thousand volunteers took part in Shia militia parades in the vast Shia slums of Sadr City, in Baghdad, on 20 June, promising to act “in defence” of Shia shrines in several cities. Kurdish military forces have clashed with Isis but have also taken advantage of the crisis to capture territory they dispute with Arabs.
The Isis offensive has features of a general Sunni revolt. But the jihadist’s alliance with Ba’athists, former army officers and Sunni tribal leaders is very shaky. They are also unlikely to make big advances into Baghdad or other majority Shia areas. For the moment, many residents in ‘liberated’ areas welcome the back of the sectarian Iraqi armed forces but these communities will fall foul of ultra-reactionary Isis rule, which is already oppressing women.
The military situation is fluid but it is clear that Iraq is in the process of disintegrating along sectarian, national and ethnic lines, with catastrophic consequences for the region. “Iraq has effectively broken up,” wrote Patrick Cockburn, the veteran Middle East journalist, and ominously adds, “and some people are on the wrong side of the line,” (Independent, 22 June). The White House and former prime minister, Tony Blair, both absurdly claim that the current Iraqi crisis has nothing to do with western policies. But western imperialism is primarily to blame for the sectarian division and bloodletting. Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic fault lines became a chasm after George Bush and Tony Blair’s ‘blood for oil’ 2003 military invasion and occupation.
Since 2006, the western-supported Shia prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, presided over sectarian discrimination, torture and imprisonment without trial. Maliki deployed sectarian rhetoric to take attention away from the atrocious conditions facing all Iraqis. The forcing of a leading Sunni minister into exile triggered popular protests in Sunni areas in December 2012 and early 2013, which the authoritarian regime brutally suppressed.
In the absence of a united workers’ movement to draw together general opposition to Maliki from all quarters, the reactionary Isis was able to step into the political vacuum.
Proving the dictum attributed to Lord Palmerston, “We have no permanent allies, we have no permanent enemies, we only have permanent interests,” the US and Iran – whose competition for influence in Iraq is greatly responsible for today’s catastrophe – find they have common purpose, saving Iraq from Isis takeover.
Shia militias closely linked to Tehran are resisting Isis. Obama sent 300 special advisors to aid the Iraqi army and warships to the area in possible preparation for air strikes. However, air attacks will not dislodge Isis from its urban bases but will only kill many civilians and widen the conflict.
US Secretary of State John Kerry calls for a ‘unity’ government in Iraq and the idea of a ‘federal’ government is touted. Such a proposal would be strongly opposed by neighbouring states with minorities that are either restive or in open revolt, like Turkey and Syria.
The working people and poor of Iraq can only rely on self-organisation to end war and misery. An independent, united working class movement is needed to organise self-defence of all communities. With a socialist programme, such a movement could find many regional and international working class allies in its struggle to overthrow the rotten Maliki regime, to expel imperialism and to sweep away all the sectarian, reactionary politicians and militias.