Retribution in Iraq

by Jack Farmer

ISIS held cities on 1 July, source - New York Times
ISIS held cities on 1 July. Source: New York Times

If you like a laugh, it’s always worth looking up what Tony Blair has to say about events in the Middle East. In his latest intervention he insisted that the current crisis in Iraq had nothing to do with the US-British led invasion of 2003: “We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ caused this. We didn’t.”[i]

For those not so eager to liberate themselves from their critical faculties, the situation in Iraq today may nevertheless look alarming and confusing. Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured swathes of Iraq in a couple of weeks. This rag-tag army appeared apparently from nowhere to annex crucial oilfields, dams and populous cities, including Tikrit, Fallujah and Mosul. Divisions of the Iraqi army – armed and trained by the US – melted away before the Islamists’ lightning advance. ISIS now says it has consolidated a new caliphate – an Islamic state led harking back to the empires of the Prophet Muhammad and his successors.

How did this happen?

Coalition of the willing

ISIS is the leading faction in a coalition of forces fed up with the rule of prime minister Maliki. A Sunni former Iraqi general claimed ISIS’s military successes in early June resulted from their alliances with other Sunni fighting groups and tribes, and former Iraqi soldiers and Ba’athists: “It seems a deal was reached among all these groups to start a war of liberation in areas of Iraq under control of Sunni governors, and it has been met with unexpected success due to the collapse without a fight of the four army divisions in northern Iraq.”[ii]

The broader base of the rebellion can be seen in Mosul, a city of two million and ISIS’s most impressive conquest to date. Mosul is now being administered by the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries, a group that contains secular Ba’athists and was founded in January to coordinate insurgents after Sunni anti-government protesters were suppressed as they attempted to emulate the “Arab Spring”[iii]. A spokesman for the group told the BBC that Mosul was too large a city for ISIS to control, and claimed the Council’s forces were stronger than ISIS.[iv] The new governor of Mosul is a retired Iraqi army officer, Colonel Hashem al-Jammas.[v]

Hearts and minds

In addition to building alliances with other groups, ISIS is attempting to win Iraqi “hearts and minds”. It presented its takeover of Mosul as “liberation” from the government in Baghdad, symbolically removing blast barriers and opening streets previously closed by government forces. One young resident told the BBC, “the living conditions are better now than they used to be. Now all the roads are open and we can commute more easily. [ISIS fighters] are organising the traffic and making sure that the vendors are not selling goods at high prices.”[vi]

As its name suggests, ISIS regards itself as a nascent state rather than an insurgency or terrorist group. They have cannily declared that former officials of Maliki government institutions and security forces can repent and work for them instead. In regions they control they deliver religious lectures, repair roads, run bus services, repair the (often unreliable) electricity supply, and they even have a consumer protection office[vii]. ISIS has also levied taxes on its populous and publishes corporate-style annual reports, possibly in the hope of attracting (or retaining) wealthy investors[viii]. These activities run alongside the execution and sometimes crucifixion of “apostates” and opponents, cutting off the hands of thieves and insistence that women wear the full niqab.

The failed state

Despite its public works and pragmatic alliances, it may still seem surprising that ISIS have not faced stiffer popular opposition from Iraqis to its unpalatable interpretation of Islamic law. The answer lies in the decomposition of the Iraqi state and the sectarianism of Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia government, both of which are products of the US’s failed occupation.

After easily defeating Saddam Hussein’s army, the US hoped to quickly install a friendly neoliberal state and chalk up the war as a quick victory. Condoleezza Rice, who was US National Security Advisor at the time of the invasion, explained the administration’s thinking: “The concept was that we would defeat the army, but the institutions would hold, everything from ministries to police forces. You would be able to bring new leadership but we were going to keep the body in place.”[ix]

But the body of the Iraqi state was in a poor condition long before American boots hit the ground. This was largely due to the devastating impact of sanctions imposed after the 1991 Gulf War, intended to strangle Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime.

The Ba’ath party emerged as the dominant force in a post-colonial Iraq, promising social justice and economic progress under the banner of Arab nationalism. In 1971 they nationalised the oil industry and soon benefited from huge profits as oil prices rose throughout the 1970s. This enabled the Ba’athists to build a base among the Iraqi working class and an emerging middle class. Though Iraq’s economy took a battering during its eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, it remained a middle-income country with one of the best welfare systems in the Middle East.[x]

The sanctions imposed in the 1990s quickly destroyed the government’s ability to deliver basic services, eroding the foundations of the Ba’athist state. Into the breach stepped religious forces in the form of Sunni and Shia charities, and tribes who were increasingly able commanded their own armed forces, independent of the national army:

As the welfare system crumbled, Iraqis turned to other forces to fill the gaps. Both Sunni and Shia charitable institutions expanded to meet rising demands from a population sinking into poverty. The power base which radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr inherited from his father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, was built on a network of Shia charities. The swift rise of Sunni and Shia clerics to political prominence following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is partly founded on the decade-long retreat of the state.

The state’s promotion of religion was one sign of the Ba’athists’ increasingly desperate search for ideological cement for their regime. Another policy which proved similarly destructive of central state power was ‘neo-tribalism’…In practical terms this meant giving tribal leaders licence to run private armies and to dispense tribal law.[xi]

The 2003 invasion hastened the state’s disintegration. The Americans wanted to implement a neoliberal state, a break from Saddam’s “command economy”. Initially, this involved opening up Iraq’s state industries to foreign (often American) companies, who were not to be troubled with too much regulation or tax – an arrangement Naomi Klein memorably called “disaster capitalism”. Simultaneously, American policy called for “de-Ba’athification” of the state –   purging the remnants of Saddam’s regime. When Lieutenant Jay Garner, first head of the American caretaker government, objected to this policy on the grounds that it involved not only sacking Saddam’s cronies but also getting rid of low ranking government workers who were needed to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, he was dismissed.

Divide and rule

By April 2003 thousands of Iraqis were demonstrating for jobs, the reopening of ministries and payment of wages. The occupying forces responded with mass arrests, fuelling anger as they broke into peoples’ homes and submitted women to humiliating searches. Saddam’s notorious torture centre at Abu Ghraib refilled with prisoners.

Iraqis soon rebelled in force: occupying troops were ambushed and blown up by roadside bombs and car bombs. People organised in mosques, formed street committees and tribes took up arms again. Having anticipated a quick occupation with limited troop numbers, the US was quickly forced to change tack, initiating a troop surge to quell rebellious areas. Sunni-majority Falluja was an especially stubborn bastion of resistance, so US forced virtually destroyed the city in their assault on insurgents. In January Falluja became an early ISIS conquest.

Facing intransigent resistance, the occupying forces set about dividing the populace along sectarian lines. The US-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority allocated resources along sectarian lines. Shias (oppressed under Saddam) who collaborated with the US occupation increasingly clashed with al Qaeda and other resistance fighters whose support lay with Sunnis. This set the scene for the flurry of sectarian murders and bombings that peaked between 2005 and 2007. The effect on Baghdad’s once diverse neighbourhoods was stark and depressing.

Baghdad neighbourhood segregation, source - BBC
Segregation in Baghdad neighbourhoods in 2005 and 2007. Source: BBC

Faced with this situation the US cut a deal with Sunnis who despised al Qaeda’s repressive politics, in what became known as the “Sunni awakening”: Sunnis provided intelligence and in return the US promised them representation in a future Iraqi government. But America’s client regime soon reneged on these promises. While many of the exiled Iraqi politicians the US supported had failed because they had little or no popular base, Maliki used sectarian politics to marginalise Sunnis, bind the Shia majority to him and cling to power. In 2010 he banned the Iraqi National Movement, which had taken 80% of the Sunni vote while also winning some Shia support, imprisoning its leader on trumped-up charges. Simultaneously, Maliki concentrated power in his own hands. The army, which Iraqis sardonically referred to as “Maliki’s militia”, became riddled with corruption and patronage as promotions were bought and sold. This cronyism helps explain the brittleness and demoralisation in the army that was so spectacularly exploited by ISIS in early June.

Lines in the sand

Amid the chaos, Iraq’s Kurds seem to be profiting from Baghdad’s weakness. As ISIS marched south, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters quickly took control of Kirkuk, a city Kurds have long claimed and which they hope may one day become the capital of a Kurdish state.

The Kurds have been eking out practical autonomy since a no-fly zone was imposed over northern Iraq following the 1991 Gulf War. Since the 2003 invasion, they have become Iraq’s kingmakers, ruling their own regional government while holding the balance of power over Maliki’s fragile government. Though ISIS attacks have been reported in Kirkuk, Kurds seem in no hurry to rescue Baghdad. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani made it clear to US secretary of state John Kerry that with the new reality created by ISIS’ advance, “The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future.”[xii] The Kurds’ seizure of Kirkuk is a significant factor weighing against the reunification of Iraq.

All this signals the demise (at least for the time being) of the national boundaries drawn up in the famous Sykes-Picot agreement, in which the British and French carved the Ottoman Empire between them. The lines in the sand drawn by the imperial geographers cut across the old Ottoman provinces to form the basis of the nations of Iraq (and Syria), binding together Kurdish-majority Kirkuk, Sunni-majority Baghdad and Shia-majority Basra provinces.

Ottoman provinces vs modern borders, source - New York Times
Ottoman provinces compared to modern borders. Source: New York Times
Sykes-Picot vs modern borders, source - New York Times
Sykes-Picot borders compared to modern borders. Source: New York Times

Syria’s war spreads

While the US occupation fuelled anger and sectarianism in Iraq, the ongoing war in Syria has significantly bolstered Islamist forces, including ISIS.

Inspired by the Arab Spring, Syrians took to the street in 2011 to protest against political corruption and repression. Initially they demanded “the reform of the regime”, rather than its overthrow. President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had previously tolerated some limited opposition while implementing neoliberal reforms, including abolishing fuel subsidies and rent controls and privatising hospitals and universities, which deepened social inequality. But responded to the protestors with stunning brutality, sparking a national rebellion[xiii].

Though channelling the spirit of the Arab Spring, the uprising has lacked the kind of sustained popular mobilisations and strikes that initially propelled the movements in Egypt and Tunisia, and in the face of government attacks the logic of guerrilla warfare has proved irresistible. The main opposition groups are the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the National Council, but Islamist groups have grown in size and influence as the war has dragged on. A big hindrance to the rebels has been a lack of weapons and ammunition. Most of their arsenal was obtained from defecting soldiers or by capturing government caches, but these sources are far too limited against a well supplied opponent. So, supplying weapons has become the primary way in which external powers have sought to buy  influence. Simultaneously, Assad has cynically played up the threat posed by Islamists, portraying his regime as a bulwark against a resurgent al-Qeada.

ISIS has emerged from the Syrian cauldron a much more effective fighting force than their precursors who fought the US occupation in Iraq. Douglas Ollivant, a former US Army officer who later handled Iraq for the White House National Security Council says, “They were great terrorists. They made great car bombs. But they were lousy line infantry, and if you got them in a firefight, they’d die. They have now repaired that deficiency.” He attributes this to their participation in the Syrian war: “You fight Hizballah [who are fighting for Assad in Syria] for a couple of years, and you either die or you get a lot better. And these guys got a lot better.”[xiv]

The deadly dance of revolution and reaction

Despite their recent success, ISIS may struggle to consolidate its control over its new state. Their coalition they have built with other groups, Sunni and secular, is fragile. Several rebel groups in Syria have already released a statement describing the attempt to found a new caliphate divisive and likely to bolster Assad legitimacy and allow foreign powers to intervene in their own interests.[xv]

Western editorials have called the rebellion in Iraq a “Sunni rising”, stressing the sectarianism of the conflict[xvi]. But sectarianism is the symptom, not the cause. Western powers have for decades propped up nasty dictators, stoked sectarianism, and now they try to play puppet master to popular movements. Ironically, Saddams’ was just the sort of secular Arab nationalist regime that the US purports to favour, while Maliki’s sectarianism rose from the ashes of the divide and rule policies of the departing occupying forces.

The democratic promise of the Arab revolutions of 2011 has not been extinguished, but across the region reaction has followed hot on the heels of revolution. In Egypt the movement against Mohammed Mursi was used by the military as an excuse to crush the Muslim Brotherhood and smother Egypt’s embryonic democracy. Similarly, the Syrian struggle has been distorted by Saudi funding for ISIS and other Islamists, by Hizballah backing Assad, and by almost every ruling class in the region trying to shape the conflict in their interests. Meanwhile, Iran is moving to prop its ally and co-religionist Maliki, who in turn looks to Assad for support against their common foe. Rulers in Washington, Moscow, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and beyond are trying to manipulate popular movements like chess pieces. But revolutions are made from below, and the future of the Arab Spring will depend on whether revolutionaries can mobilise independent of meddling from above.


Despite their successes, the chances of ISIS actually capturing Shia-majority Baghdad seem slim. In recent days, government forces claim to have retaken Tikrit, and US military advisors are in place to guide air attacks. Trucks full of ISIS fighters driving towards Baghdad would be obvious targets for US airstrikes. Conversely, it’s likely to prove very difficult to defeat fighters entrenched in urban areas; heavy-handed use of air power is likely to inspire more resistance than it quells, as it did during the occupation. Maliki’s ground assaults on rebel cities could be as ferocious as Assad’s attack on Homs, or the Americans’ destruction of Fallujah.

All this is a world away from the world order dreamed up by American neo-cons before the invasion of Iraq. Obama’s habitual hesitations over Iraq and Syria reflect a marked decline of American power. Having thoroughly prepared the ground in Iraq for both national resistance and jihad, there is little the US can now depend upon, except a long and bloody retribution.



[i] Iraq, Syria and the Middle East – an essay by Tony Blair, accessed 28 June 2014

[ii] Quoted in–sunni-war-of-liberation-171632109.html accessed 28 June

[iii] The enemy next door in Al Ahram, accessed 28 June 2014

[iv] Iraq conflict: ‘We are stronger than ISIS’, BBC News, accessed 28 June 2014

[v] Iraq: signs of disagreement emerge between ISIS and the Baath, Al Akhbah, accessed 28 June 2014

[vi] Iraq crisis: “The fighters are everywhere”, BBC News, accessed 28 June 2014

[vii] The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Has a Consumer Protection Office, The Atlantic, accessed 28 June 2014

[viii] Selling terror: how Isis details its brutality, Financial Times, accessed 28 June

[ix] Michael Gordon, ‘The Strategy to Secure Iraq Did Not Foresee a 2nd War’ in The New York Times, October 2004

[x] see Anne Alexander and Simon Assaf, ‘Iraq: the rise of the resistance’ in International Socialism 105

[xi] see above, Alexander and Assaf

[xii] Kerry Implores Kurdish Leader to Join a Government and Not Break Away, The New York Times, accessed 29 June

[xiii] For an excellent discussion of the Syrian war and its causes from 2012, see Jonathan Maunder ‘The Syrian Crucible’ in International Socialism 135

[xiv] Extremists in Iraq Continue March Toward Baghdad, Time, accessed 28 June

[xv] Baghdadi’s vision of a new caliphate, Al Jazeera, accessed 02 July

[xvi] See for example, ‘The Sunni Rebellion in Iraq’ in The Economist, 21 June 2014


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