On Tuesday, the Islamisc fundamentalist group ISIS captured Mosul, one of the key cities in Northern Iraq and then proceeded South towards Baghdad, capturing several important cities on the way. Hundreds of thousands have already fled fearing their lives under the rule of this reactionary group. This spectre of barbarism rising on the horizon, is the direct result of the cynical adventures of American imperialism.
Early Tuesday, Islamist fundamentalists coming in from the desert seized Mosul's airport, its TV stations and the governor's office. Thousands of prisoners were also freed as the insurgents consolidated their positions in the city.
The Iraqi army had more than 30,000 troops stationed in the city. However, these forces literally fled without a struggle, leaving their weapons and armour. The militiamen took their place in the city's boulevards and buildings. From the city’s banks the Islamists are reported to have seized $480m in banknotes and as the Iraqi army was dissolving, millions of dollars’ worth of arms, from rifles and body armour to humvees, heavy artillery, cargo planes and even black hawk helicopters.
At least 500,000 people are said to have fled the city for fear of what is to come. Already ISIS have declared that within two days strict Sharia law will be implemented in the area. Mosul is composed of many nationalities who have been living together for generations. Alongside the Sunni Arab majority, thousands of Assyrians, Kurds, Turkmens, Shabaks and Armenians also live in the area. Now those who are not Sunni will be fearing the worst.
Besides being one of Iraq’s largest cities with up to two million inhabitants, it is also a major commercial hub. The capture of the city is a major shift in the civil war which has been raging in Syria and Iraq and which now threatens the whole region.
After the capture of Mosul, the Islamists succeeded in taking the city of Tikrit and the important city of Baiji which holds the most important oil refinery in Iraq. The taking of the city was even easier than Mosul as reports indicate that the surrender of the police and other armed forces took place after a phone call.
The Iraqi army, formally counting 800,000 men (whereof 300,000 on active duty), is literally crumbling in the face of a few thousand Islamists. The demoralised and hungry armed forces have no intention of putting up a fight against the well equipped and determined ISIS. The New York Times reports the following from the province:
“As Iraqi government forces crumbled in disarray before the assault, there was speculation that they may have been ordered by their superiors to give up without a fight. One local commander in Salahuddin Province, where Tikrit is located, said in an interview Wednesday: ‘We received phone calls from high-ranking commanders asking us to give up. I questioned them on this, and they said, ‘This is an order’.”
The offensive has left an area spanning more than half of Iraq in the hands of the Islamists.
ISIS officials chopping off of hands of criminals
The ISIS has its roots in the militias that formed the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda. Until recently it was a marginalised group within the Islamist movement which viewed it as too extreme. It gained notoriety for its brutal and barbaric methods of crucifixion and decapitation. It was mainly isolated to desert and tribal areas of western Iraq, where the disintegration of the Iraqi state and the backwardness of these areas allowed ISIS to gain a foothold.
The group adopted a method of attacking prisons (a total of 24 prisons targeted) where its members were held in order to free and recruit their fellow inmates. Last year it attacked the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, releasing 1,000 prisoners. It also released 2,400 prisoners in Mosul recently, including common thugs and murderers who are joining them for the loot. Thus, some of the most rotten elements of Iraqi society - except for those in government of course - have been incorporated into the outfit.
Over the past year it has tried to intervene increasingly in the Syrian civil war. Initially it sought to fuse with the al-Nusra front, which was the official arm of Al-Qaeda in Syria. However, as they could not agree on the terms of the fusion the group split away. Due to its extreme positions, it managed to gain a foothold amongst the war-hardened islamists who had been fighting in Syria. Some estimates, although they seem to be exaggerated, claim that up to half of the al-Nusra fighters joined ISIS, which was more interested in setting up its Caliphate across the border between Iraq and Syria, than in fighting Assad.
In Syria, the organisation made a name for itself as a particularly vicious and hated militia, establishing control in the rural border region with Iraq. For the past year they have been busy fighting other insurgents in Syria, whilst Assad left them to their own devices. This undeclared truce helped Assad bolster his support at home and put pressure on US imperialism, Israel and the Gulf states. A joke spread among journalists in Syria that the safest place from an air strike in Syria was in the ISIS headquarters.
This allowed ISIS to consolidate its grip over a large part of eastern Syria. Here it managed to seize control of many oil fields. According to one report, one oil well controlled by ISIS south of Raqqa brings in income of up to $1.3 million per day, while other fields in and around Raqqa bring in $500,000 per day. The group is also funded through kidnappings and ransoms involving locals and foreigners, including journalists, as well as robbery and looting of captured areas, including archaeological sites and factories. Furthermore, ISIS has taken control of grains and cotton production in the eastern regions and has looted grain silos, one of which is reported to have been worth more than $25 million.
The conflict in Syria has also allowed ISIS to get its hands on a large arsenal of weaponry, consisting of weapons seized in combat and weapons purchased directly from arms dealers.
Over the past year, the group has rapidly grown. This, combined with the increased income, allowed it to take bolder initiatives. It is on this basis that the offensive of ISIS could widen out and develop a momentum. From fighting the Iraqi army in the desert and the tribal areas the group moved into the cities. Its success came as a surprise, as it is one thing to to roam around in war ridden Syria and an entirely different matter to fight in Iraq, with its numerically overwhelming army.
The real reason why they could do this is the rotten character of the corrupt gangster regime of Nouri al-Maliki, who has been whipping up sectarian conflict for years. His gangster methods and the widespread corruption has alienated layer after layer of the population. At the same time poverty and unemployment is rife. According to the World Bank, 28% of Iraqi families live below the poverty line. In the event that the country would face a major crisis, such as the armed conflicts of the past year, the organization's estimates that this rate could increase by 70%. Thousands of families literally feed on garbage and live in landfills and slums.
In order to divert the attention from this situation Maliki has been particularly targeting the Sunni population whose representatives were systematically removed from the government and the state. Many Sunni leaders suspiciously disappeared or were murdered and a wave of terror was unleashed by reactionary Shia militias nurtured by Maliki and his allies. Relying on the numerical and technical military superiority, he attempted to suppress his Sunni opponents with military force.
The war against ISIS was dubbed as the war on “terrorism” and was frequently used to target Maliki’s rivals and even civilians. This pushed more and more people into the hands of the ISIS who preferred the Islamist reactionaries to Maliki’s terror. In January when ISIS moved its forces into the cities, especially Falluja and Ramadi, the Maliki government treated these whole cities as enemy war zones.
The actions of the government paved the way for the fundamentalists to mobilise more eager young people. The months of indiscriminate shelling of neighbourhoods in the Anbar province, spurred the spirit of vengeance among the families of the victims.
In February a group of people started a campaign of reconciliation between the government and the local tribes of the Anbar province. Although the campaign had widespread support the government did not retreat an inch. This only added fuel on the fire. The government deliberately sabotaged the recent parliamentary elections in the Sunni areas.
All of this meant that the government lost all legitimacy in the Sunni areas of Iraq. Thus the ISIS, which is the most determined and organised force, managed to take the initiative and gaining momentum, incorporating other Sunni militias, old top-ranking officials of Saddam Hussein's regime and army, many tribal chiefs and even the passive or active support of the city population. This is the basis of the ISIS offensive.
Kurdish troops take Kirkuk
In the north also the continued authoritarian actions of Maliki have managed to alienate the population of the Kurdish autonomous region. Maliki has been demanding obedience by the Kurds, who, however, have been balancing between the Iraqi and the Turkish governments. In fact, for a long time Iraqi Kurdistan has been a de facto independent state. In the past month the Kurds have even started exporting their own oil circumventing the central government. At the same time the government has blocked funds allocated to the region in the budget. Only a few weeks ago the Kurdish government warned the central government about an impending attack on Mosul but Maliki did not react.
The Kurds also have their own armed forces, but due to the deterioration of the relationship between them and the central government they did little or nothing to help it against ISIS in Mosul. As the Iraqi army was in a state of dissolution, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces have already moved in and consolidated their control over several areas of Iraqi Kurdistan which were officially not yet under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government. Amongst these they have taken the very important oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Now, there are inevitable clashes between the Islamists and the Kurdish forces. This will, however, be a far greater challenge for the ISIS than the Iraqi army has been.
The speed of the dissolution of the army was surprising even to some islamists. In the past couple of days they have taken over at least five army installations and Mosul’s airport. The desperate Iraqi military was reduced to bombing its own bases to avoid losing more weapons to the enemy. US imperialism had in fact spent $14billion on the Iraqi security forces to prepare them to police the country after American troops left, and some of this is now falling into the hands of the ISIS forces.
The huge investment in arms is in total contrast to the chronic underfunding of the army itself. This has led to mass desertions. The soldiers often go hungry and lack basic equipment and ammunition. US military commentators estimate that around 40-50% of the soldiers have already deserted. Before the troops dissolved in Mosul, the army was losing as many as 300 soldiers a day, in desertions, deaths and injuries.
The ISIS tactic until now has been to launch a series of violent attacks on positions which they retreat from shortly afterwards. In this way they have been aiming at wearing down the already low morale of the army with minimal losses.
The New York Times reported:
“One former soldier who would give only his first name, Mohamed, because deserting is illegal, said that he had served in Ramadi and that his colleagues started deserting months ago as the deaths started mounting. ‘I felt like I was fighting armies, not an army,’ said Mohamed, 24.
“The militants came in waves, sending in suicide bombers when their ammunition became scarce. Mohamed said that eight of his friends had died and that he almost did, too, when a mortar shell struck his Humvee. When militants singled him out as a target for assassination, forcing him to flee, it was almost a relief.
“‘I’m tired,’ he said. ‘Everyone is tired.’
“The government has played down the scale of the crisis, in part by registering soldiers as ‘missing’ rather than as deserters. Officials also blamed the problem on unrelated issues — saying, for instance, that soldiers were not returning from home leave, but only because roads leading to the battlefields had become unsafe.”
On top of that the regime is universally detested for its corruption and brutality. This is why 4-5,000 soldiers can defeat an army of far greater numbers. No one is prepared to risk their lives for Maliki. Many soldiers, especially Sunni would not see any real difference between the rule of one group of gangsters and another. Vast amount of advanced military equipment cannot make up for this simple fact.
After the invasion of 2003, George W. Bush proudly proclaimed "mission accomplished". However, as we can see, the foreseeable consequences of US imperialism’s blunders are now threatening to push the whole region into civil war.
Saddam Hussein’s regime was a vicious dictatorship, but it played a useful role from the point of view of US imperialism. His regime kept the country united (under an iron fist of course) and the Islamists at bay. Saddam’s overthrow and, above all, the dismantling of the Iraqi state forces by US imperialism brought all the national, tribal and sectarian tensions to the surface.
Rather than bringing the nation together, the US based its domination of Iraq on all the rivalries and sectarian divisions that existed in the country. It was a classic tactic of divide and rule, preventing the different groups to coalesce against the US presence.
By dissolving Saddam’s army the US destroyed the military equilibrium of the whole region, setting the Saudis and Israelis on a collision course with Iran who until then had been checked by Saddam's troops.
As the Iranians inevitably ended up dominating Iraq, the Gulf countries started funding Sunni islamic fundamentalist groups throughout the region as a counterweight to Iranian influence. However, the reactionary House of Saud set in motion a process which they could not fully control. The present radicalisation of the Sunni Islamist movement is now becoming a direct threat to the Saudi regime.
The longer the US stayed, the deeper the sectarian tensions became. Above all of this they installed Maliki who presided over an increasingly corrupt and sectarian government. From the very beginning, the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was placed in office as a compromise between the Iranians and the Americans. His weakness, however, meant that he could only survive by furthering the sectarian divide in the country.
Now all the clever pundits, who have spent the past decade defending Maliki and the war in Iraq, blame him for the mess. Of course, Maliki is a particularly inept gangster in a regime of gangsters. But it is precisely the invasion and occupation of Iraq that forced the US to back such people. He is indeed a very similar creature to Karzai in Afghanistan. This reactionary creature has become a liability to everyone, but by removing him they realise that they will face an even worse scenario. His party, despite being by far the biggest in parliament, only gained 92 out of 328 seats, with the second biggest party winning 34. This shows the degree to which the country has been fragmented.
The present tragedy is a direct result of this. The reckless playing around with sectarian politics which was introduced by the US imperialists was simply developed to its logical end by Maliki. The result is what we are witnessing today, the beginning of the breakup of Iraq and a complete meltdown of the regime which could not even muster the necessary quorum in parliament to enforce a state of emergency yesterday.
ISIS - a creation of Imperialism
Like a bull in a china shop, the US imperialists have wrecked everything they have touched. Every move the US administration makes, seems to be the wrong one. They removed Saddam Hussein to get a more pliable Iraq and had to fight a costly and unpopular civil war instead. Al Qaeda suddenly got a foothold in a country from which they had previously been barred.
Then after the Arab Spring, they attempted to unseat both Gaddafi and Assad. They relied on their friends in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to do some of the dirty work. However, soon they faced spill-overs from Libya into Mali of Islamists armed with Qatari weapons and money.
The US imperialists, having learned nothing from their experience in Afghanistan, tried to lean on the Islamists in Syria, where they were the most reliable troops they could count on in fighting the war which Assad was winning. It is a fact that the US administration, indirectly but consciously, and the CIA directly supported Al-Qaeda linked groups in Syria and have been facilitating their movements in the region. The ISIS merely gave these troops a home as they were being radicalised in the hell of the civil war.
This was one of the reasons why the US backtracked from their bombing campaign in August last year. Now the Islamists have established strongholds in Libya, Syria and Iraq whereas before they were confined mainly to Afghanistan and Pakistan. "Mission accomplished" indeed!
Realising what has now become apparent to the whole world - i.e. what a hopeless the mess they have got themselves into - over the past year the US administration has entered into a de facto but unspoken alliance with the Iranians and Assad on the question of curbing the Islamists who now dominate the anti-Assad camp of the Syrian civil war. It is, however, unclear whether the CIA itself has followed this line or if they kept supporting the Islamists.
The same can be said about the Turkish ruling class who since the beginning of the Syrian civil war have been betting everything on the downfall of the Assad regime. It would seem that Erdogan has no idea of what he is doing. After years of hosting thousands of opposition fighters and closing their eyes to their composition increasingly dominated by Islamic fundamentalists, the Erdogan regime has woken up to a serious threat to the stability of Turkey itself. The ISIS has taken around 80 Turkish citizens as hostages. Amongst these there are 3 children and 28 lorry drivers. No doubt this will not be popular in Turkey where Erdogan's imperialist adventures are already a major source of dissatisfaction. Only recently did the country declare the al-Nusra front a terrorist organisation. But it might be too late. Islamist units have already developed a thorough knowledge of the porous borders of the country and their containment will come at great cost for Turkey.
The Iranians on the other hand, in alliance with Bashar Assad, allowed the ISIS to roam in eastern Syria as a means of putting pressure on the west and in order to use them as scarecrows for the Syrian population. However, now the whole region to which they have laid claim has been destabilised and the Iranian supply routes to Syria and Lebanon have effectively been blocked, forcing them to take more laborious and costly measures to support their proxy in Lebanon and their ally in Syria. The situation threatens to drag them into the civil war, which could continue for years.
The ISIS is thus nothing but the result of the collective actions of different powers playing their games. They shed crocodile tears today, but have cynically used the sectarianism to further their own narrow interests. They have created a monster that is now threatening to destabilise the whole region. And now they all stand back and look at each other not knowing what to do.
There is increasing pressure for the US to intervene militarily again, which is the last thing that Obama wanted. There is no appetite in Washington and above all among the American public for another costly adventure. The Republicans will of course be jumping up and down demanding military action, but realistically the administration will attempt to limit their involvement as much as possible.
Now the spotlight is on the Iranians, the new rising power in the region. It has already been reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have been mobilised and that troops have been amassed on the border with Iraq. It is claimed that the Iranians would move in with ground troops along with American air strikes and drone attacks. This is a continuation of the past years’ détente between the US and the Iranians.
The US have angered their allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, not to mention Israel, through their constant vacillations. Instead the US have been forced to rely increasingly on Iran, which since the demise of Iraq has become the dominant regional power. The deal which is being negotiated with Iran is merely the recognition of a fact.
The Iranians might have to make a move in order to defend their interests, however, they are hesitating to enter the same quicksands which trapped the Americans for a decade and cost them one trillion dollars. It is clear that there is no force in the Middle East which can hold on to western Iraq against its will. And the Sunni Iraqis are surely not going to welcome Shia forces from Iran. A military offensive by Iran and the US in Iraq would only add to the crisis.
The Turkish government have given the green light for their army to make cross border operations, with excuse of saving the Turkish hostages. However, neither Turkey nor Saudi Arabia can decisively intervene without causing an even bigger mess. In fact, any hostile intervention would only bolster the ISIS. They have been militarily inferior throughout most of their existence, but it has been the merciless attacks of the Maliki clique against the Sunni population which has pushed the population behind them.
It is unclear what is going to happen now. What is clear is that the moral and financial boost that the ISIS has received will strengthen it in the next period, allowing it to consolidate its forces. It is now approaching Baghdad from the north, but they are likely to face more motivated resistance as they come closer to the capital. It is possible that they will attempt to attack and destabilise the central government, after which they will fall back and consolidate their positions further away from the capital.
In any case the process of disintegration of Iraq as a nation has accelerated dramatically. The tribal areas in the west will be out of the control of the central government and any deal with these will only be temporary. The Kurdish areas will act more and more as an independent country.
A sectarian division of the country will lead to purges, pogroms, terrorist attacks and a bloody war of attrition between the different ethnic groups that make up the Iraqi people who for centuries had lived peacefully together. What was once the cradle of civilisation is being plunged into barbarism. This is the result of the cynical games of the imperialists who have always exploited ethnic differences to further their own greedy interests.
On the basis of the lack of an independent workers’ movement to fight them and their corrupt system, they were able to get a foothold within the country by resting on the most reactionary elements. Thus, for a whole period, the solution to the crisis in Iraq, just like Syria, will lie outside of its own borders. A revolutionary movement in the neighbouring countries, in which the working class must play the decisive role, can change the situation in Iraq.
The Arab revolution showed the potential for a regional uprising of the peoples in this region. In Egypt we have seen the mobilisation of millions, bringing down first the Mubarak regime and then Morsi. In Turkey we saw last year’s mass mobilisation and more recently the mass protest over the death of the miners in Soma. In Iran the 2009 revolutionary movement provided us with a picture of what is to come in the future. Even in Saudi Arabia there are the rumblings of mass opposition.
In Iraq, as well as in Syria and Libya, however, we see how black reaction can raise its ugly head. The masses do not want reactionary Islamic fundamentalist forces in power. It is only the utter failure of capitalism to offer a solution to the burning problems of the working people, that has opened room for these elements to win a base.
The only class that can offer a way out and offer real solutions in the Middle East is the working class. The various national bourgeoisies in the region are rotten to the core. They must be overthrown. The rottenness of capitalism and imperialism in Iraq is the cause of the present impasse. Utter barbarism is all they have to offer. Only by removing them and their rotten system once and for all can a civilised existence be secured for the benefit of the majority.