Iraq totters on the edge of social meltdown and western imperialist powers and their allies flounder for a half rational response. What’s going on and what are the implications for the wider region? Yassamine Mather of Hands Off the People of Iran spoke to Mark Fischer
YM: The background is really the Iraq war of 2003. This fundamentally altered the balance of forces in the region. It surgically removed the reactionary, but more or less secular rule of Saddam Hussein and put in power a Shia government, albeit under the auspices of the US occupation.
That government was very close to Iran. It was strongly opposed by Saudi Arabia and most of the Sunni states and manoeuvres against it started from the very beginning. There is also no doubt that the Iraqi government followed sectarian policies from the very start. So the present situation is not at all surprising – there has always been opposition to that discriminatory practice. That opposition was being used by forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), loosely associated with Al Qaida.
So there is nothing surprising about it at all. The same jihadists fighting in Syria were very clear – they were fighting for the liberation of Syria and Iraq. So, in some ways, it was a question of when, not if they would intervene in Iraq.
MF: What has been Iran’s attitude to this?
YM: The Iranian regime is clearly very concerned, unsurprisingly. Not simply about its own security – after all, they are more powerful than Iraq and unlike Maleki’s regime, their army will not simply drop their guns and run away! Iran is intimately involved in the whole drama in Iraq: a senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards has been in the country for the past three weeks. I assume he’s not there on a holiday. The Iraqi government was well aware that its forces were very shaky and he must be there to advise and put some backbone into the army. On Friday June 13 there was confirmation of Iranian Revolutionary guards fighting in Iraq and of course today we heard the Iranian president saying Iran is ready to intervene if the Iraqis ask for help!
As you know, some of these insurgent forces are now less than 40 kilometres from the Iranian border and that must be very frightening for Tehran – to have the enemy so close. And it is an enemy – some of the statements of these forces are basically saying ‘Iraq, Syria – this is nothing. We are going to fight Iran’. They were recently in Mosul and Tikrit and one of the main commanders has been very clear – ‘Our main enemy is Iran’, he has stated bluntly.
That said, it would be wrong to see this as a Shia/Sunni conflict pure and simple. It’s really about the balance of geo-political forces in the region, the instability the war has created and also – we have to remember – created to a certain extent the Arab spring. The Syrian upsurge started as part of the Arab spring before jihadists got involved.
Ironically, therefore, Iran and the US are supporting the same government and indeed might be on the same side of a war?
MF: The whole recent history of the region is full of these ironies. The US-intervention ended up creating a government aligned with Iran. The general process, however, seems to be one characterised by fragmentation.
YM: We can’t be sure that it will simply be fragmentation. The situation is certainly chaotic, but will not necessarily produce disintegration. It won’t be a straightforward civil war if the Sunnis are moving out of towns such as Mosul, fearful of possible Iraq military retaliation if/when they recapture these towns. It is also true that the jihadists have found allies amongst former Baathists and tribal forces opposed to the Iraqi state, which they consider sectarian. But if these forces are alienated by the extremism of the jihadists – and it is difficult to judge this right now – then we will not see a straight forward partition along sectarian lines. Of course, that would mean more than fragmentation. It would mean constant civil war.
The situation is a very complex one. For example, the jihadists have largely left the Kurds alone and the Kurds have taken the opportunity, for example, to move on Kirkuk, in the oil rich part of Iraqi Kurdistan. But don’t be fooled by this. The jihadists have an absolute programme of imposing sharia everywhere.
From that point of view, they actually have more in common with Maleki – as the head of Shia state – than with the Kurdish government. If they would be able to consolidate their power, they would go for the Kurdish region and I don’t believe they will face a successful Kurdish resistance. Kurdish fighters are tired, war-weary, they have fought in many conflicts over the years – it would not be any more of a ‘cake walk’ for them than it was for the US.
MF: What about the response of the Obama administration? It seems at a loss at the moment. What can it do next?
YM: Obama has said that no option is off the table. Included in that are military air strikes, of course. Let’s remember here that the reason we are confronted with this situation is not unrelated to the crime perpetrated by the US air force in carpet-bombing Fallujah. It doesn’t explain the whole mess, but that act was the beginning of the Sunni opposition – it came post the collapse of the Saddam regime, remember. And some of that opposition was not jihadist, some of it not even religious – it was simply against the occupation.
Of course, in the absence of the left and secular forces, the jihadists gained momentum. So the concrete actions of the US in carpet-bombing Fallujah made things worse, was an important contributory factor to the situation that confronts Obama today.
I have seen an interview with Clinton in which she rules out military strikes, but suggests the US works with the Maleki government to get its army retrained and fit for purpose. She claims the Iraqi army must become more disciplined, less corrupt. Clearly, she is delusional. Especially when she talks about corruption and low morale in the army – it’s far too late to deal with this. First of all, corruption – what the army currently knows about corruption, it learnt from the likes of Rumsfeld and other representatives of the US-led occupation. The Iraqi army is proving spectacularly useless in fighting the jihadists, but it still has time to suppress and execute people from its own civilian population. The idea of anti-corruption ‘retraining’ of a force like this is akin to the notion of retraining the mafia.
Ironically, ayatollah Sistani has now called on the Shia people to take up arms to defend themselves. Without some sort of movement from below to defend, say, urban areas, then we are looking at barbarism. And the barbarism won’t just blight Iraq; it will spill over into Syria, it will affect Lebanon and in the long run, Iran also.
I think the situation in Iraq has changed the whole context of negotiations that were going to take place soon on Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, as a culmination of six months of negotiations with the west. The United States is now in a far more precarious situation – the Republicans have been pointing this out very forcefully. I think the key for us is to keep reminding people that we are in this terrible situation not because Sunnis don’t like Shias, or vice versa; not because Arabs simply enjoying fighting each other. We are here because of western politicians such as Bush and Blair who were clueless about what was going on in the Middle East. We face this situation because of the carpet bombing of Fallujah. Because of US support for a sectarian Shia government in Baghdad, anyone but Saddam was good enough at the time.
None of this excuses the barbaric acts of the jihadists – they are from another era. But it does underline the correctness of the position that we took in Hands Off the People of Iran on the nature of imperialism and on opposition to theocracy, not just in Iran but also in Iraq. The Maleki government is widely hated because it is seen as an ally of the clerics in Tehran. It is more complex than that, but there is a strong element of truth in this.
The lesson that this terrible situation underlines again is the need to be implacably opposed to imperialism’s military adventures, but also very wary of political Islam, in all its shades from moderate, through radical to jihadist. The solution can’t be more intervention so we must say no to US intervention, no to Iranian intervention. If the United States and western government wanted to deal with these jihadists, logically they should deal with their pay masters in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates. The problem was that when they were fighting Assad, the west more or less unconcerned with their ‘extremism’ and adherence to jihadist political Islam.
It now may be too late.