Bremer and Rumsfeld chat over some light refreshments, 2003. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
What today is ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), was founded as an Al-Qaida´s franchise in Iraq in direct response to the US-led invasion. The group thrived in the security vacuum the invaders created by dismantling the Iraqi security apparatus. At the time, Amnesty International criticized the US for not sufficiently investing in the security of civilians, while guarding oil fields around the clock. Needless to say, oil was the primary motive behind the invasion.
Dismantling Iraq´s security infrastructure entailed the dismissal of over 400.000 soldiers and intelligence personnel. With one stroke of the pen, Paul Bremer, who headed the occupation forces in Iraq, granted jihadi groups the ultimate recruitment ground: an ´army´ of jobless men who know their way around weapons. It was only a matter of time before various armed groups were rampaging through the country. Among those, the Islamic State of Iraq, ISIS before expanding to Syria, won most infamy for targeting Shia.
Then, as now, western designs for Iraq were at the root of the sectarian logic of the violence. From his office in one of Saddam´s former palaces, Bremer issued his first ´order´, which banned all public sector employees affiliated with Saddam´s Bath party from current and future employment by government, including a majority who had party membership forced upon them.
Although victimized like all other groups, Sunnis were favoured by the Saddam regime and thus disproportionately targeted by ´de-Bathification´. In fact, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, Sunni Arabs were ¨treated (...) as representatives of an oppressive state structure in need of dismantling¨ which ¨sent the message that de-Bathification was tantamount to de-Sunnification.¨
Even when disregarding Bremer´s first order, post-Saddam Iraq was sectarian by design. As ICG explains, the US ¨enforced stringent security measures in Sunni-populated areas, even those traditionally hostile to the former regime¨ and built a political system ¨along ethnic and sectarian lines, making clear that Sunni Arabs would be relegated to a minor role¨.
In doing so, the US essentially reproduced the British colonial legacy of ruling Iraq by sectarian division, with predictable outcomes. Although useful allies are co-opted regardless of sect, consecutive Shia majority governments have divided public position and resources on an ethno-sectarian basis. Meanwhile, elastic de-Bathification laws continue to deprive many Sunni families from employment and pensions, while equally flexible ´anti-terrorism´ laws are used to eliminate political opponents of the establishment, including key figures in the Sunni community.
Against this backdrop, peaceful protests were staged in Sunni-majority areas in 2012 following the arrest of bodyguards working for Rafi Al-Issawi, a prominent Sunni politician. The protesters consisted primarily of ordinary people demanding decent living conditions and an end to Sunni exclusion by the government as well as political factions, ranging from militants to those seeking concessions from Baghdad.
The government responded violently. Four months after the demonstrations started, a protest camp in Hawija (Kirkuk province) was raided leaving dozens dead and over 100 wounded. Violence escalated, empowering militant groups, primarily ISIS. Soon, sectarian hostilities soared to levels unseen since the height of the US-occupation, reaching a monthly death toll of approximately 1000 by January this year.
The recent meteoric ascent of ISIS in Iraq, having been largely contained by around 2010, is closely tied to its newly acquired position in Syria. There, it has trained fresh fighters, amassed advanced weapons and found new financial resources to an extent unimaginable without de facto western support.
ISIS troops have reportedly received training from US instructors at a secret base in Jordan. At the Turkish border with Syria, NATO--represented by Germany, the US and the Netherlands--deployed patriot missiles and 1200 troops, prompting any Syrian pilot to think twice before venturing within NATO´s reach in northern Syria, the location of the main ISIS strongholds. The US has knowingly contributed to shipments of weapons most of which have been delivered to jihadi hardliners fighting Bashar Al-Assad.
But when ISIS took control over large swathes of territory in western Iraq, the US administration quickly sent Apache helicopters, drones and hell-fire missiles to the embattled Iraqi regime it had once installed. Targeting Al-Assad is fine, but turning your weapons against a US ally is a different matter altogether. It appears one man´s freedom fighter can be the same man´s terrorist.
For much the same reason, New York, London and Paris newspapers devoted their headlines to ISIS when it reemerged in Iraq, but were largely silent when the same ‘terrorist liberators’ were committing gruesome atrocities in Syria, ranging from summary executions of civilians, to imposing misogynist laws and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Likewise, atrocities committed by the Iraqi army while “fighting terrorism” are generally withheld from mainstream media audiences. When ISIS troops raised their black-and-white banners in Fallujah, the city was indiscriminately shelled by the US-armed Iraqi forces. The newly obtained hellfire missiles killed unarmed civilians, including children. With this in mind, some 500,000 people fled from Mosul after it was seized by ISIS, more out of fear of the Government´s response than jihadi extremism.
The success of a few thousand ISIS troops facing a US-backed army, is dependent upon the support of Iraqi Sunni fighters and at least some tolerance by the civilian population. Further alienated by recent government violence and in some cases out of sheer self-defence against indiscriminate cruelty, a significant section of the Sunni community has felt compelled to strike a Faustian bargain with ISIS against the central government. More than just a jihadi exploit, the advance of ISIS thus represents widespread popular opposition to the ruling elite after peaceful resistance was thwarted.
Mainstream reporting is all but entirely oblivious of the above, reducing the whole affair to purported ´ancient hatreds´ between Shia and Sunnis. It should be common sense, however, that sectarianism, in Iraq and elsewhere, is an elite-constructed vehicle to channel popular dissent in a manner that maintains the status quo. In the case of Iraq, this amounts to preserving western interests at the cost of the common people.
The protesters in Tikrit and Anbar were demanding an end to corruption, poverty, unemployment and shortages of water and electricity. These grievances are at the root of popular dissatisfaction and by extension the advance of ISIS. Though articulated in sectarian language, they target the very economic architecture of post-invasion Iraq.
Under military occupation, Bremer´s infamous orders transformed Iraq into a neoliberal, free-market paradise. Order number 39 for example, allowed the unrestricted, tax-free export of profits by corporations and granted them 40-years ownership licenses. Order number 12 lifted all protection of Iraqi industries.
In exclusive hotels, public firms were auctioned at fire-sales prizes to foreign investors and the newly-arrived pro-US elite. Most importantly, Iraqi oil has been all but privatized and is exploited by multinational corporations without parliamentary approval. The lion’s share of profits accrues to western oil giants.
From a US perspective, it does not matter who is the president of Iraq as long as the current arrangement is maintained. This is why it may be advantageous for the US to replace Maliki with another ‘manager’.
The consequences of neoliberalism in the Third World are well-known. Multinationals virtually own the economy, sharing part of it with a local elite that ensures the continuation of neoliberal policies. The crumbs that fall off their dinner table are then tossed to the population, which translates into the grievances of, for instance, the protestors in western Iraq.
Of course, there is nothing ´Sunni´ about such grievances, which torment all ordinary Iraqis and have incited them regularly. This explains why several Shia leaders publicly supported the Sunni majority protests. The habitual response of the ruling elite, however, was to recast the protests as an existential threat to the Shia, to the detriment of inter-sectarian class-solidarity. The chances of a united anti-establishment movement, potentially threatening the current order Iraq, further declined.
In this context, the central government exaggerated the ‘terror’ threat, opting for an iron fist instead of genuine security measures. For example, before the elections, Fallujah was willing ¨to evict the jihadis if guaranteed it would not face regime attacks¨. But the Prime Minister did not order his troops to retreat for he had, ¨staked his re-election on an anti-terrorism campaign with a crude sectarian cast¨, says ICG.
Apart from deepening sectarian divides, the above has rallied the Shia behind a status quo government, to the advantage of Maliki and his foreign backers, who, unsurprisingly, share his ‘terror is upon us’ discourse. Even members of the Sadrist movement, the most potent and popular anti-establishment force in the Shia community, are now volunteering to fight alongside government troops, unwittingly defending their own poverty.
Meanwhile, mainstream western media continue to reduce the crisis to ´Arab-looking´ men wielding beards and Kalashnikovs and spreading terror in a sectarian quagmire. This orientalist frame conveniently obscures what lies behind the turmoil, rendering terror and sectarian violence a ‘natural’ phenomenon to the Arab world, entirely detached from western involvement. And so, while Iraqis, who are massacred by the thousands, are portrayed as sectarian fanatics, western military superpowers can plead innocent once again.
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