Iraq is on the verge of a splintering collapse that could throw backward the entire region. While the immediate antagonist is the sectarian Sunni Islamist force known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the root cause lies with none other than the United States itself.
Contrary to the vulgar sentiments promoted by the major media, neither Iraq (nor the Middle East in general) has ever been an eternal battlefield, a hellish place unceasingly gripped by turmoil and crying out for intervention in the name of ‘civilization.’ Relations between the Sunni and Shia, Islam’s two main sects, in Iraq have to be seen in the same way as relations between Protestants and Catholics in Europe: shaped by real-world events, improving at some times and worsening in others.
Around 60-65% of Iraq’s 34 million people follow some form of Shia Islam1,but the country wasn’t always a sect-based Islamic Republic as it is now under the U.S.-backed regime of Nouri al-Maliki. Saddam Hussein came to rule Iraq after having deposed his predecessor in the ruling Ba’ath Party, an anti-communist “Arab nationalist” organization supported at the time by the United States as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. When the 1979 Iranian Revolution was crushed internally with the establishment of a (Shia) Islamic Republic, thus removing it from direct U.S. domination, the American capitalist class couldn’t tolerate such insolence. Thus Saddam Hussein became America’s attack dog in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that followed, the latter receiving conventional and chemical / biological weapons and military training.
Baathist Iraq, though its base laid in the country’s Sunni minority, was largely secular – although it was a far cry from the combination of secularism, political freedom and workers’ rights demanded by millions in the decades prior. A largely nationalized oil industry served as the basis for relatively high employment levels and social welfare infrastructure and the legal system wasn’t based on Sharia (Islamic) law. Urban women dressed like their peers in the West and had access to a year’s maternity leave and public day care centers.
Of course, none of this should be taken as support for Saddam’s dictatorial regime. Coming to power on the basis of mass anti-imperialist sentiment, it was obliged to grant some economic concessions to the population. But the Baathist government’s crimes are well documented: trampling democracy, punitive rape, mass executions and chemical weapons use, all in the service of building the power of the national capitalist class. None of these atrocious methods seemed to bother the United States government until Saddam stepped out of line, going against the interests of U.S. capital in his crusade against Kuwait. Here is where we find the reason for the period of war on Iraq, both military as in the Gulf War and economic in the form of sanctions, that culminated in the 2003 U.S.-lead occupation.
Marxists refer to the Iraq war as an imperialist war because it was fought not for freedom and democracy but for regional domination. The occupiers used classic divide-and-rule tactics after smashing the Baathist state, dividing up the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish sections of the population among ethnic-religious lines. After languishing under illegality and repression for decades, Iraq’s labor and Left organizations (such as the trade unions and the once-powerful Iraqi Communist Party) were too scattered and disorganized, and in most cases their leaderships too politically bankrupt, to oppose this trend and assert a common class identity instead.
Under Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian Shia regime, widespread discrimination, torture and death have been used to distract the Shi’ite majority away from the crushing poverty of their daily lives. Between 28 and 35% of the population live below the poverty line, with thousands of families feeding themselves by garbage scrounging. Unemployment stands at 15% according to official state figures, which count only those who are actively searching for work – not those who’ve given up in despair of the situation. Jobs are even more precarious, and on-the-job rights more lax, than in the United States. Violence is a constant danger; separation of religion from the state is rejected. Over 650,000 deaths and $4 trillion2, money well spent to ‘liberate’ Iraq into oblivion!
In the absence of strong workers’ organizations with a clear class answer to Maliki’s America-sponsored Shi’ite chauvinism, it’s not hard to understand how ISIS has been able to gain as much ground as they have in recent weeks. However, the situation is inherently unstable, as expressed by a statement3 released by the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions of Iraq, the country’s second largest labor group:
“The fall of several Iraqi cities in the hands of armed groups does not represent the dreams of the people who live there. Their demands to be rid of sectarianism are clear and direct. They expressed them through nonviolent sit-ins, but armed terrorist groups took advantage of this environment to take power…
…Regional forces that benefit from Iraq’s disintegration—especially Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—operate in their own way to achieve political gains. All the while the US government—the prime cause of these problems to begin with—prepares to intervene however it chooses. President Obama has so far expressed his concern over Iraqi oil twice when talking about recent events. He has not shown any regard or concern for the fate of two million people now under the control of ISIS, or for the women who have started committing suicide in Mosul as a result of ISIS gangs. The working class in Iraq is the common force that exists across the county, from the north of Kurdistan to the furthest points south. It is this force whose very existence and survival depends on the eradication of discrimination and the unification of the Iraqi people. This is the only force that can end fragmentation and division.” [emphasis ours]
Neither American nor any foreign power’s intervention can alleviate the suffering in Iraq. While Obama and the U.S. establishment equivocate over how much ‘humanitarian’ assistance, meaning military support, to provide Maliki’s besieged government, every American with a genuine humanitarian concern for the people of Iraq will join socialists as they say: no more war, no more intervention! U.S. intervention can only exacerbate the crisis it has made; international working class solidarity, stretching from Iraq to Iran to Turkey and the United States, can prevent further imperialist meddling while also providing the working people and poor of Iraq with the breathing space to fight for the mass democratic social justice movement that will undercut support for reactionaries of all stripes, from ISIS to the more mainstream religious parties.
The Iraqi Communist Party has the potential to play a leading role in this. Rather than call for a cross-class (popular front) alliance that includes the same forces whose own sectarian politics have lead to the current crisis4, its rank-and-file members should bring pressure to bear on the leadership to make the party into a beacon of anti-sectarian class politics.
For those of us in the United States, our best chance to see a free and peaceful Iraq is to remember that our own country’s ruling elite has the same goal to subjugate Iraq and the Middle East, whether it’s lead by Bush’s fiery neoconservatism or Obama’s erstwhile humanitarianism.
- Sunnis account for 32-37% of the population, with Christians making up around 2% now, having fled en masse after the U.S. invasion. 17% of the Iraqi population is Kurdish, most of whom are counted in the Sunni figures.
- www.alternet.org/media/war-iraq-cost-4-trillion-and-enormous-loss-life-8-warmongers-who-would-take-us-back and www.iraqbodycount.org. Around 4,800 U.S. / Coalition soldiers are among the death toll, the rest being Iraqis. The $4 trillion figure includes only American spending, not British / Coalition costs or the massive damage dealt to Iraq’s economy.
- The ICP’s Tareeq al-Shab (People’s Voice) editorial dated June 19th, calling for “the unity of all patriotic forces” for a National Conference that would “set up a temporary consultative body that would work with the government to consider the developments and tackle the situation.” Thus the ICP leadership would have the party form a bloc with the very same government, corrupt to the core, that is responsible for the sectarian divisions in the first place! http://iraqiletter.blogspot.com/2014/06/iraqi-cp-calls-for-urgent-national.html
(Originally published in The Red Vine.)