Iraq – 100 years of imperialist division

The prime minister of Iraq, Nouri Al Maliki, recently warned ‘If the Sunni opposition is victorious in Syria, there will be civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq’. His prediction was provoked by the growing, mainly Sunni, movement against Al Maliki’s government. Over 250 people were killed during January and February in attacks by Sunni groups on Shia and government targets. More than 50 were killed in 17 bomb attacks in and around Baghdad on the 10th anniversary of the invasion. In February, tens of thousands of Sunni demonstrators blocked the streets in five major cities. In Samarra, Sheik Mohammed Jumaa called for an end to ‘tyranny and oppression’, threatening: ‘You will witness what other tyrants have witnessed before’. The movement is gaining inspiration from the Sunni opposition in Syria. In March, 48 Syrian government soldiers were killed by Sunni fighters when they crossed the border into Iraq. Jim Craven reports.

The war on Iraq provoked the present sectarian struggles in the region, but their roots lie in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire by British and French imperialism after the Second World War. Without regard for ethnic, regional or religious differences, the two countries drew lines in the sand of the old Mesopotamia. France took the north, including what is now Syria and Lebanon, while Britain took the south. From the outset, therefore, the area was riddled by sectarian divisions ready to be manipulated by the imperialists in order to prevent any opposition to their interests. In 1914, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later to be BP) and Royal Dutch Shell helped create what was to become the Iraq Petroleum Company. Esso (now Exxon-Mobil) and four other US companies took a quarter share in 1928. Between 1915 and 1921, British forces occupied Baghdad and Basra and annexed the oil-rich Kurdish region around Mosul. Britain created an Iraqi ‘ruling class’ from amongst the most backward landlords and tribal leaders and engineered the election of King Faisal as titular head of state. By giving these parasites huge tracts of land and providing whatever state apparatus, civil service and army was necessary, British imperialism ensured the Iraqi ‘rulers’ had few concerns beyond their individual and tribal interests.

Crushing the popular movement

Iraq received nominal independence in 1932, but British imperialism maintained its presence and grip on the country. In 1948, the Portsmouth Agreement extended British control for a further 20 years by ensuring the RAF had access to bases in Iraq and that Britain would continue to train the Iraqi army. Huge demonstrations against the agreement, led by the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), were brutally suppressed by the Iraqi army. By 1958, just 1% of landowners held more than half the private land. Vast numbers of landless and rural poor were forced to seek a meagre living in the cities. The urban bourgeoisie resented the restrictions imposed by the semi-colonial economy. In that year, Iraqi army officers, supported by a massive popular uprising, overthrew the monarchy. The IPC, aiming to unite the Iraqi people across sectarian divisions, became so popular that it could not accommodate the flood of applicants. Allen Dulles, director of the CIA, warned that the situation in Iraq was ‘the most dangerous in the world’ (for the imperialists, of course). Fearing the advent of socialism, the leadership of the army coup split. An attempt was made by to assassinate General Qasim, the army leader who maintained an alliance with the popular movement. Among the plotters was a young Saddam Hussein. The Baath Party and the Iraqi police launched a campaign of terror and murder against the communists. In 1963, the Baathists overthrew the popular government and set about destroying the ICP. A list of ICP members was provided by the CIA. The Baathists, by then predominantly Sunni, brutally repressed any opposition from the majority Shia community, from the Kurds and from the Iraqi working class as a whole. The Baath dictatorship was supported by both US and British imperialism, who gave it assistance in the 1980s war against Iran. It was only when Saddam Hussein attempted to annexe oil fields on the Kuwait border that the imperialists decided he was no longer a trustworthy ally and eventually overthrew him.

Crushing opposition to the occupation

When US and British forces invaded Iraq in 2003, one of their first measures was to ban the Baath Party and dismantle the Iraqi army. Sunni militias rose in revolt against the occupation but some Shia militias, most noticeably the Mahdi Army, also fought the invaders. As anti-occupation forces gained ground, the imperialists once again played the sectarian card.

In 2004, General James Petraeus (later to become US commander and director of the CIA) was sent to train the Iraqi police force in counter-insurgency warfare. Around the same time, Colonel James Steele was sent by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to oversee the Iraqi Special Police Commando unit (SPC). Steele was a veteran of the dirty wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Steele worked alongside Colonel James Coffman. Together they channelled $8.2bn to the SPC to establish 13 interrogation and torture prisons in Baghdad. Coffman reported to Petraeus. In the summer of 2004, the US lifted the ban on Shia militias joining the Iraqi security forces. Members of the Badr Brigade, but also of the Mahdi Army, flocked to the police force, many seeking what they saw as revenge for years of Sunni oppression. In September 2005, Jabr Al Solagh, who was linked to the Badr Brigade, was appointed Minister of the Interior. The SPC units became death squads. At the height of the ensuing sectarian war in 2006, over 3,000 people were being killed every month. Many Iraqis suspected US special forces were responsible for bombings that exacerbated the sectarian hatred. A US soldier with the 69th Armoured Regiment described the situation in the torture camps as ‘like the Nazis – like the Gestapo basically’. Iraqi General Muntadher Al Samari said ‘[The US] knew everything that was going on there... the torture, the most horrible kinds of torture’. Eventually, the overwhelmed remnants of the Sunni anti-occupation forces had to seek the protection of the imperialist forces in order to avoid extermination.

Corrupt dictatorship

For the time being, the bulk of the armed resistance to the occupation was quelled, but the consequence was a rampant elite of former exiles squabbling over the pickings of the Iraqi state. Al Maliki was chosen by US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to become prime minister in 2006. At the time of the invasion, an Iraqi civil servant told The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn: ‘The Iraqi exiles are the exact replica of those who currently govern us. Those who accompany the US troops will be ravenous’. A former minister recently described the Iraqi government as ‘an institutional kleptocracy’. Kadom Al Jabouri, one of those who pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, told The Observer recently, ‘Then we had one dictator. Now we have hundreds. There’s no future... as long as the political parties running the country are in power.’

But, although in power, the Iraqi government is not in control. Not only has the Sunni opposition reignited, but the Kurdish Regional Government is increasingly taking measures independent of the central government, resulting in fighting between Kurdish militia and Iraqi government forces. There have also been Sunni attacks on the Kurds in disputed areas. The sectarian fault lines engineered by the imperialists are as wide as ever. One Iraqi leader recently warned that ‘[if not mended] the end of Iraq and the division of the country will be inevitable’.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 232 April/May 2013


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