Workers Vanguard No. 1049
11 July 2014
Iraq in Flames: Legacy of U.S. Occupation
All U.S. Forces Out Now!
JULY 6—As the fundamentalist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) extends its hold over vast stretches of western and northwestern Iraq, Barack Obama has ordered hundreds of U.S. forces back into that country. Since the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the ISIS offensive in early June, the U.S. president has in three separate deployments mobilized a total of 775 troops, backed up by Apache attack helicopters and unmanned aircraft. Additional warships, including the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, were also dispatched to the Persian Gulf. Faced with strong public opposition to sending troops back into Iraq, Obama engaged in word games, calling the troops “advisers” who “will not be returning to combat” while at the same time evoking possible air strikes.
Washington is putting itself in a position to intervene militarily on the side of the Iraqi government in a communal civil war pitting the Shi’ite-dominated regime in Baghdad against a Sunni-based insurgency that encompasses ISIS, tribal leaders and former B’ath Party officials. The infernal cycle of bloodletting is resulting in the effective breakup of the country, with the Shi’ites in control of the capital and southern Iraq. After Baghdad’s army abandoned Kirkuk amid the ISIS advance last month, Kurdish pesh merga military forces seized that hotly contested, oil-rich city. And Kurdish leaders have taken steps to further consolidate the autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
Workers and the oppressed have no interest in a victory by one combatant or the other in the reactionary Sunni-Shi’ite civil war. However, the international working class definitely has a side in opposing imperialist intervention in Iraq and demanding the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops and mercenaries. It is U.S. imperialism that constitutes the greatest danger to the world’s working people and downtrodden.
In a repeat of scenes from the U.S. occupation, since the beginning of this year more than one million Iraqis have been driven from their homes, victims of atrocities committed by both sides in this communal slaughter. Hundreds of thousands of Sunnis in the western Anbar province have fled the shelling and bombing of residential neighborhoods by the regime of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. In Baghdad, where tens of thousands died during the 2006-2007 explosion of Shi’ite-Sunni slaughter set off by the U.S. occupation, Shi’ite militias are again targeting the city’s remaining Sunni neighborhoods. Meanwhile, ISIS fighters overrunning Shi’ite villages in northern Iraq have carried out mass killings of the population, including women and children. The Christian population in northern Iraq, the remnant of a once substantial community, is fleeing by the thousands as ISIS bombards their villages.
The wave of communal bloodletting in Iraq was nourished by the devastating civil war in Syria, where sundry imperialist and regional powers have backed an insurgency dominated by reactionary forces, centrally from the majority Sunni Muslim population, directed against the murderous Ba’ath Party regime of Bashar al-Assad. Sunni fundamentalists, bolstered by support from U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states as well as Turkey, have increasingly dominated the revolt against Assad. In January, ISIS expanded its operations from Syria into Iraq in support of a rebellion launched by Sunni tribal leaders against Maliki in Falluja and Ramadi, Anbar province’s two largest cities. Harking back to the formation of Islamic states starting in the seventh century, ISIS celebrated its recent gains by proclaiming a “caliphate” extending from its bastion in northern Syria across the extensive tracts that it controls in Iraq.
The U.S. campaign to topple Assad has been driven in no small part by Washington’s longstanding hostility toward Iran, a key ally of Syria. Yet by installing a Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad, the U.S. occupiers ended up handing Iran great influence in Iraq. With the backing of Tehran, Maliki has turned a deaf ear to pleas from Washington that he cede power to a more “inclusive” government coalition. Nonetheless, across Syria’s increasingly meaningless border with Iraq, the U.S. finds itself supporting the same side as Damascus and Tehran. As ISIS forces approached Baghdad, Iran rushed daily arms shipments to the Maliki regime and deployed Revolutionary Guard forces to join the fight, while Syrian jets have bombed Sunni positions inside Iraq.
The civil wars in Syria and Iraq are hot spots in a years-long regional conflagration that threatens to keep widening, with ISIS vowing to extend its military operations into Lebanon and Jordan. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged support to Jordan if ISIS crossed into that country. Iran has massed troops on the Iran-Iraq border. Even Saudi Arabia deployed 30,000 troops to its border with Iraq, concerned that the caliphate declared by the Frankenstein’s monster that it helped create might find support among the tribes in its northern region, which have links to the areas of Syria and Iraq now controlled by ISIS.
The large-scale, ongoing bloodshed in the Near East, and the promise of more, has the bourgeois media in the U.S. pointing the finger at Islam’s centuries-old sectarian rifts. In reality, the main culprit is the history of imperialist divide and rule of Iraq and the rest of the region by the European powers and more recently the U.S. As we wrote at the time, the U.S. occupation threatened “the trisection of Iraq into Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish sectors, with battles to come over the possession of its oil wealth” (WV No. 882, 8 December 2006). With U.S. forces today still in Afghanistan, which is now considered the longest war in U.S. history, Washington is threatening to renew imperialist depredations in Iraq.
In opposition to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, we have repeatedly stressed the need for class struggle against the U.S. capitalist rulers at home in defense of those neocolonial countries. Our revolutionary perspective stands in stark contrast to that of the reformist left. These self-styled socialists aspired to build liberal antiwar coalitions designed to appeal to Democratic Party politicians who saw the Iraq quagmire as a losing proposition for U.S. imperialism. As such, the various coalitions refused to take a side in defense of Iraq and Afghanistan against imperialist attack and beat the drums for “Anybody but Bush!”
Democrats and Republicans may differ over which tactics are most effective in pursuing the interests of U.S. imperialism, but they are both bourgeois parties that defend the interests of the capitalist ruling class. The nightmare inflicted on the Iraqi peoples was a hallmark of successive administrations under both parties: George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. As Hillary Clinton gears up for a possible 2016 presidential run, she has embraced neoconservatives like Robert Kagan who were instrumental in selling the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
By sowing the illusion that Democrats in office can be pressured to carry out a humanitarian foreign policy, the reformists act to retard the political consciousness of workers and radical-minded youth. The truth is that military depredations are part of the “normal” workings of imperialism, the profit-driven capitalist system in its epoch of decay in which the advanced industrial powers compete globally for control of markets, raw materials and access to cheap labor. As the leading capitalist power, the U.S. will persist in its efforts to dominate the Near East and act as the world’s “top cop.”
The ravages of U.S. imperialism abroad are reflected domestically in grinding poverty, racial oppression and intensified exploitation of labor by capital. The U.S. working class must be won to the understanding that it has the social power and interest to eradicate capitalist imperialism and the wars this system breeds. What is necessary is the forging of a revolutionary workers party that fights to overthrow the capitalist system through socialist revolution.
Bitter Fruit of Imperialist Divide and Rule
Once one of the more advanced countries in the Near East and a regional cultural center, Iraq was laid waste by over a decade of U.S.-dictated starvation sanctions, two devastating wars and the eight-year military occupation of that country. The arrogant American ruling class viewed its military superiority as a guarantee that it could defeat any conceivable enemy at any time. All that was needed to put Iraq directly under its thumb was enough firepower deployed with sufficient savagery. The U.S. and allied powers unleashed mass murder, indiscriminate terror and torture on a scale far exceeding that employed by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strongman they replaced. To buttress their rule, the U.S. imperialists systematically played off sectors of the Iraqi population against each other, playing divide and rule.
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S. occupiers moved quickly to purge former members of Hussein’s Ba’ath Party from government jobs. That act largely removed Sunnis from the state administration and helped trigger a communal-based Sunni rebellion. The U.S. mobilized Shi’ite militias and the Kurdish pesh merga to help crush Sunni Arab insurgents in Falluja in 2004 as that city was leveled. Following elections in 2005, a communal-based system of power sharing was set up along the lines of the confessional arrangement in Lebanon. Under this unwritten agreement, the Iraqi prime minister is a Shi’ite, the largely ceremonial president is a Kurd, and the speaker of parliament is a Sunni. This served as a template for setting up puppet governments dominated by Shi’ite—and to a lesser extent Kurdish—parties at the expense of the minority Sunni Arabs.
In 2006, the U.S. occupation authorities installed Maliki as their quisling prime minister (and in 2010 would again support his bid for the office). He oversaw a wave of anti-Sunni terror carried out by the overwhelmingly Shi’ite army and police backed up by Shi’ite death squads. Following the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in December 2011, the ongoing communal conflict that had been fostered under the occupation again escalated. Moves by Maliki against prominent Sunni political figures touched off widespread Sunni protests. In April 2013, government troops attacked a protest encampment in the northern city of Hawija, killing at least 44 people. Thousands of Sunni and Shi’ite civilians perished in the slaughter that followed. In January, Maliki’s troops launched an artillery onslaught against Falluja and Ramadi. The Sunni tribal chiefs, who during George W. Bush’s famous 2007 troop “surge” had sided with the U.S. against Al Qaeda, welcomed back those same fundamentalist forces, now based in Syria.
No longer an Al Qaeda affiliate, ISIS (which recently renamed itself the Islamic State) has posted a video on its website titled End of Sykes-Picot. This is a reference to the secret agreement by which Britain and France toward the end of World War I agreed to divide up the spoils of their impending victory over the Ottoman Empire. For the reactionaries of ISIS, the destruction of that Turkish empire marked the end of the last caliphate, a world to which they aspire to return. In fact, the colonial division of the Ottoman Empire, out of which Iraq issued, retains significance today precisely because it set the stage for the reactionary communal conflagration that is erupting across the Near East. In turn, the deepening sectarian bloodshed in Iraq underlines the fact that it is not a nation but rather a patchwork of different peoples and ethnicities—primarily Shi’ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.
From the mid-19th century start of their direct intervention in the Levant region, the European powers set various nationalities, ethnic groups and sects against each other. France sought to profit from its amitié traditionnelle with the Christian Maronites, who originated in Syria in a seventh-century split from the Eastern church of Byzantium. The British posed as the benefactors of the Druze, a tenth-century offshoot of Shi’ism, and tsarist Russia extended protection to the Orthodox Christians. In 1860, a massive civil war between Maronites and Druze was sparked by a Maronite peasant rebellion in which the feudal estates were seized, the land distributed and a peasant commonwealth proclaimed. On the eve of French military intervention into that war, Karl Marx wrote in the New York Daily Tribune (11 August 1860):
“The conspirators of Petersburg and Paris had, however, in case their temptations of Prussia should fail, kept in reserve the thrilling incident of the Syrian massacres, to be followed by a French intervention which...would open the back door of a general European war. In respect to England I will only add, that, in 1841 Lord Palmerston furnished the Druses with the arms they kept ever since, and that, in 1846, by a convention with the Czar Nicholas, he abolished, in point of fact, the Turkish sway that curbed the wild tribes of the Lebanon, and stipulated for them a quasi-independence which, in the run of time, and under the proper management of foreign plotters, could only beget a harvest of blood.”
Later, the “conspirators of Petersburg and Paris” combined with the British to carve up the Levant, as well as the rest of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, in the 1916 Skyes-Picot treaty. France took Syria (including modern Lebanon) for itself while Britain acquired Jordan and Palestine—all against the wishes of their inhabitants. The publication of the treaty by the newly established Soviet workers state in late 1917 exposed the imperialist intrigues and had an electrifying effect, helping to spark a series of national revolts and popular uprisings across the region.
In the French share of the dismembered Ottoman Empire, Paris created a “Greater Lebanon” by incorporating large Muslim areas together with traditional Maronite strongholds in the Mount Lebanon range. As a result, the Maronites and other, less numerous, Christian sects slightly outnumbered and dominated Muslims. In Syria, the imperialists promoted the Alawites to lord it over the predominantly Sunni Muslim population (see “Syrian Civil War: Legacy of Imperialist Divide-and-Rule,” WV No. 1009, 28 September 2012).
The Kurds were also promised their own state, albeit a truncated one, in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. But they never got even that deformed expression of national self-determination. By 1920, it was becoming clear that the former Ottoman vilayet (province) of Mosul, which had been assigned to France under the Sykes-Picot treaty, had much more oil than was originally thought. So Britain decided to keep southern Kurdistan by incorporating it into a newly created country called Iraq, which itself basically corresponded to the concessions of the British-controlled Turkish Petroleum Company. The state functionaries and military officers of the majority Shi’ite country set up by the British colonialists were exclusively Sunni.
In 1919, the Kurds in northern Iraq rose in revolt against the British overseers. The British brutally crushed the rebellion. The following year, the Shi’ites of southern Iraq rebelled, killing or wounding some 2,500 troops deployed by the British before the revolt was drowned in blood. Anticipating by almost 70 years Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds, Winston Churchill, at the time British war secretary, clamored for dropping mustard gas bombs on the Iraqi rebels. It was decided instead to bombard them with poison-gas artillery shells.
Lessons of 1958 Iraqi Revolution
It is a sign of despair that the most prominent voices in the Near East calling to undo Sykes-Picot today are religious bigots who aim to crush those who do not worship their preferred deity in their prescribed way. That has not always been the case, and it will not remain so indefinitely.
We base ourselves programmatically on the experience of V.I. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party that led the 1917 Russian Revolution, which had an enormous impact on the Near East. But well before mass Communist parties (CPs) were able to take root in the area, a conservative bureaucratic caste under Stalin had usurped political power in the Soviet workers state. This ruling bureaucracy repudiated the Bolshevik program of international socialist revolution in favor of “building socialism in one country” and its corollary, “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. In the Near East as elsewhere in the colonial world, this outlook was expressed in the espousal of “two-stage revolution,” which meant support to a supposedly progressive wing of the bourgeoisie while indefinitely postponing the proletarian revolution.
Nonetheless, the large Stalinist Communist parties that emerged in the mid 1930s and ’40s in many Arab countries attracted the most class-conscious workers and radical intellectuals. Typically, these CPs were either founded by or based heavily on minorities. The various Egyptian communist groups were all formed by Egyptian Jews. The Iraqi CP had Kurds and Jews in its leadership (see “Near East, 1950s: Permanent Revolution vs. Bourgeois Nationalism,” WV Nos. 740 and 741, 25 August and 8 September 2000).
There is a rich tradition of working-class struggle in the Near East, whose highest point was the Iraqi revolution of 1958. That revolution was touched off by the overthrow of the monarchy by left-nationalist officers on Bastille Day 1958. The whole country rose up. As workers staged massive demonstrations in the cities, some numbering a million people, peasants staged insurrections throughout the countryside, killing landlords and seizing the land. The Iraqi CP had the overwhelming support of the multinational working class. It also had broad support among other layers of the population, including within the army and even some sections of the officer corps. It is clear that the Iraqi CP could have taken power. The U.S. sent the Marines into Lebanon to be ready for a possible invasion of Iraq. Socialist revolution was on the agenda.
Isaac Deutscher, the historian and biographer of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, wrote: “Most western observers on the spot agreed that Kassem [the nationalist in power who had the Iraqi CP’s support] could hardly hold his ground against an all-out communist offensive.” But in the interests of “peaceful coexistence” with the U.S., the Soviet bureaucracy sold out the revolution, ordering the Iraqi CP to stand down. And under the sway of the program of “two-stage revolution,” the Iraqi CP went along, putting the brakes on the movement.
While riding the crest of the revolutionary wave, the CP continued to subordinate itself to the left-nationalist officer Kassem in a supposedly “anti-imperialist” revolution. Of course, the promised second stage of socialist revolution never came. Instead, Kassem turned on the CP. In 1963, the reactionary, nationalist Ba’ath party, which included Saddam Hussein (who was not yet a national leader), came to power and carried out a bloodbath of thousands of leftist workers using lists supplied by the CIA.
For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!
The Iraqi revolution held out enormous historic possibilities for workers of the Near East and for oppressed peoples like the Kurds. Today, spread across four countries—Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran—the people of Kurdistan still constitute the largest nation by area without a state. When Iraqi Kurdish leaders recently announced plans for a referendum on independence from Baghdad, the Obama administration let them know, in no uncertain terms, that Kurdish independence is not on Washington’s agenda.
The history of the Kurdish people’s national struggle is a litany of betrayals by their nationalist leaders, who systematically sought to gain advantage by currying favor with sundry capitalist powers. A case in point was provided by the Kurdish leaders in Iraq who actively collaborated with the 2003 U.S. invasion, offering their pesh merga as an auxiliary to U.S. military forces. The Kurdish masses must look to an alliance with the Arab, Persian and Turkish proletariat—which in turn must be won to championing Kurdish self-determination—in a revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalist rule in the four countries that oppress them and establish a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan. (See “The Kurdish People and the U.S. Occupation of Iraq,” WV Nos. 804 and 805, 23 May and 6 June 2003.)
Iraq today is a shattered society. The future of the Iraqi masses as a whole is dependent on working-class struggle in nearby countries with strategic concentrations of proletarian power. We have no illusions that it will be an easy task to win workers of the Near East, ground down by their capitalist rulers and imperialist overlords, to the Marxist program of proletarian revolution. But there will be no end to ethnic and national oppression, no emancipation of women, no end to the exploitation of working people short of shattering the capitalist order. That requires the forging of revolutionary working-class parties in opposition to all forms of bourgeois ideology, religious reaction and imperialism, as part of a genuine Trotskyist Fourth International, which would link the fight for a socialist federation of the Near East to the struggle for proletarian revolution in the imperialist centers.