Shakespeare comes to Baghdad – the Iraq war continues

William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the great English playwright and dramatist, wrote a number of historical plays concerning various periods in English history. These plays are not as well known and less-frequently performed than his comedies, tragedies and romantic works. One of his main historical plays is Henry VI (Parts one, two and three). The play examines the course of English political and social life after the death of King Henry V, and the effects of English losses in the Hundred Years’ War. England had lost the bulk of its territories in France, and the political repercussions in England manifested themselves in a series of intrigues and machinations by various factions of the English ruling class. These conflicts reached a head with the Wars of the Roses, when two competing branches of the one royal family (the Plantagenets) fought an inter-dynastic civil war for political and economic supremacy.

Parts Two and Three of the Henry VI trilogy examine the role of the King, his inability to stabilise the political situation, the arming of the various rival houses (Lancaster and York), and the eventual explosion of armed conflict. It is a gripping, tumultuous series of plays, at once enthralling and disturbing. The infighting among the English landed nobility in the wake of English losses of land and resources in France is portrayed sharply by Shakespeare, and evokes powerful emotions. What happens to the ordinary people of a country when its ruling class fragments into warring factions? After inciting English nationalism for a war of conquest in France, once the territories are lost, all nationalist feeling evaporates. The welfare of England as a nation is no longer the paramount objective, but the advancement of the narrow, sectional interests of various factions of the dynastic clans that made up the ruling elite of England.

What is the relevance of this historical play for contemporary times? Patrick Cockburn, the expert foreign correspondent for The Independent states it plainly:

Want to know what Iraq is like now? Check out ‘Henry VI’, parts I, II and III

That is the title of his article in The Independent online newspaper, where he examines the eerie similarities between the conflict for supremacy in Baghdad with the historical account of the fight for victory within the English ruling dynasty during the Wars of the Roses. The corporate media has largely ignored the human tragedies of the Iraq war since 2008, mainly because of a well-crafted myth; the surge. The addition of an extra 30 000 American troops in Iraq back in 2007, so the story goes, successfully reduced insurgent attacks on US troops, providing extra muscle to deal with the Iraqi insurgent groups. Actually, as Mike Whitney explains in his article in Counterpunch, the ‘surge’ was a publicity exercise aimed at disguising the shift in tactics of the American military. What actually occurred was the ethnic and sectarian cleansing of Baghdad. Whitney goes on to detail how the US political and military leadership, faced with a stubborn insurgency that could not be defeated, changed tactics to one of ethnic divide-and-rule. The US created sectarian-based death squads from the local population, mainly from the Shia community, and sent them to fight and torture insurgents.

The change in tactics was not accidental, because the US has vast experience in training and arming para-military death squads that operate outside the law – they have been using this tactic for years in many Latin American countries. In fact, the main American military commander in Iraq at the time, General David Petraeus, employed Colonel James Steele, a retired US Special Forces veteran. Steele has had vast experience in death squad tactics, because he actually studied and implemented counterinsurgency warfare in El Salvador back in the 1980s. Now the Pentagon is (ostensibly) investigating the links between the torture chambers in Iraq and the political and military leadership of the United States. There cannot be any cross-sectarian reconciliation in Iraq until all the details about the torture chambers and death squads of the US dirty war in Iraq are fully exposed and culprits punished.

The irony of the situation is that prior to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, there was no sectarian animosity. Various ethnic communities mingled, intermarried and did business together. Under the rule of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni privileged-elite did emerge, but that was based more on the political loyalty to the Ba’athist party. To advance in Ba’athist-dominated Iraq, joining the military or the police was the surest way to gain steady employment and benefits.

With the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US military and political command fueled sectarian hatred in order to divert the energies of the largely Sunni-led insurgency. What has all this got to do with the surge and the apparent reduction in US casualties? As Mike Whitney explains in his Counterpunch article, the main Shia insurgent force, the Madhi Army led by nationalist and populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr declared a ceasefire for a year. The US military authorities bought off a section of the Sunni insurgency by enlisting them in so-called ‘Awakening Councils’ to attack and defeat al-Qaeda linked groups. The systematic ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Sunnis from Baghdad, carried out by the Shia-dominated regime of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, was well underway in 2007 and 2008. These factors combined succeeded in reducing the number and intensity of attacks on US troops. The vaunted ‘surge’ did have a purpose;

the surge was used to cover an equally-heinous war crime, the massive ethnic cleansing of Baghdad’s Sunni population, millions of who were either killed, tortured or forced to flee to Jordan or Syria.

The entire article by Mike Whitney can be read here in Counterpunch online.

Failure to address the crimes of ethnic cleansing, torture and rendition makes a mockery of US claims to have brought democracy to Iraq. The recent protests, mainly by Iraqi Sunnis, have attempted to combat the sectarianism of the Maliki administration and has gained the support of the Shia cleric and politician Muqtada al-Sadr. Into this political powder-keg, Sunni extremist groups (linked to the petro-monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar) are trying to stoke the fires of a Sunni-based sectarian backlash. Reconciliation will be impossible unless the criminal role of the United States is fully revealed and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Let us make one last observation; David Frum, the Bush-Cheney administration speechwriter and author of the now-famous phrase ‘Axis of Evil’, has just written an article confirming what the anti-war movement stated was the main motivation of the American drive to war. The anti-war activists were routinely vilified, ridiculed and slandered for even daring to suggest one overriding motivation for the US to occupy Iraq. While all wars have multiple motivations and agendas, reflecting the priorities of the various factions of the ruling class, the one claim for this Iraq war (the claim most stigmatised and attacked) has now been confirmed by Frum; Iraq would be an additional reservoir of oil as an alternative to exclusive dependency on Saudi Arabia.

Read the whole article by Glenn Greenwald here.

Let’s not forget that Iraq is still the issue

Patrick Cockburn, veteran foreign correspondent for the Independent newspaper and analyst of Middle Eastern politics, has written a stinging article about the current deplorable state of political and economic affairs in Iraq. Ten years after the 2003 American invasion, Iraq remains a deeply fractured state, with the Shias in power but not in control of a country wracked by poverty, the breakdown of social services and mired in corruption. Cockburn rightly emphasizes that the international community, preoccupied with the Syrian civil war, has forgotten that Iraq is still facing a humanitarian tragedy. Cockburn’s article was reprinted in the political online magazine, Counterpunch.

Cockburn begins his article with a stark assessment:

Iraq is disintegrating as a  country under the pressure of a mounting political, social and economic crisis, say Iraqi leaders.

They add that 10 years after the US invasion and occupation the conflict between the three main communities – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – is deepening to a point just short of civil war. “There is zero trust between Iraqi leaders,” says an Iraqi politician in daily contact with them. But like many of those interviewed by The Independent for this article, he did not want to be identified by name.

While the new ‘liberated’ Iraq technically acquires 100 billion dollars in oil revenue, most of that money disappears into the pockets of a corrupt political-military bureaucracy, financial contractors and speculators. There is construction going on in Baghdad – of military outposts and police stations. However, in the working class district of Sadr City, Cockburn found frequent flooding and untreated sewage, with all the health consequences that this state of affairs entails.

This kind of corruption – Cockburn calls it ‘institutionalized kleptocracy’ in another of his articles –  means that all Iraqi ‘governments’ installed by American military forces have failed to provide electricity, clean water or sanitation to its residents, something that was unthinkable under the Saddam Hussein regime. The autonomous Kurdistan region in the north, while presented as an economic model, is also riven with corruption and theft of public funds. The privatisation of the oil sector, legislated by the American-backed Kurdish political parties, has provided wealth to a minority, while the facade of progress is maintained by the rise of skyscrapers and visits by foreign delegations from the UAE, Turkey, Germany and France. As one Kurdish critic of the regime put it to Cockburn:

“We are making the same mistake with the Turks today as we did with the Americans and the Shah in 1975. We are once again becoming over-reliant on foreign powers.”

For all their professions of independence, let us not forget that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) still depends heavily on obtaining a share of Iraqi oil revenues proportionate to its population. While Kurdish influence in Baghdad has fallen, the KRG has built economic and political links with the old enemy, Turkey – a counterweight to Baghdad, but successive Turkish governments have had no hesitation in using their armed might to kill and suppress the autonomous Kurds in the north of Iraq. The Kurds have pursued deals with foreign oil corporations, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stated that if the KRG follows through with their plans, they will face the Iraqi army.

Prime Minister Maliki rules the country as an autocrat, relying on the Shia-dominated, heavily sectarian police and army to brutally crack down on protests and dissent. The use of secret prisons, torture chambers and widespread police presence is well documented in Maliki’s Iraq. It should come as no surprise that ‘democracy’ is just a catchphrase in Iraq today, because the Maliki regime has had training and support from the experts in police repression and torture – the United States. The Guardian reported earlier this month that high-level Pentagon officials were responsible for arming and training the Iraqi units responsible for the torture and repression of dissidents throughout the 2006-07 stages of the Iraq war. General David Petraeus in particular is a veteran of counterinsurgency wars, having learned his craft in Latin America, and implementing the same death-squad techniques in Iraq in the 2000s. As Cockburn goes on to explain, Prime Minister Maliki:

He (Maliki) has sought to monopolise control over the army, intelligence service, government apparatus and budget, making sure that his supporters get the lion’s share of jobs and contracts. His State of Law Coalition won only 24 per cent of the votes in the 2010 election – 2.8 million  votes out of 19 million registered voters – but he has ruled as if he had received an overwhelming mandate.

The current Iraqi regime, boxed inside the Green Zone, makes no secret of its sectarian allegiances. Shia slogans and pictures dominate the landscape, and the Sadrist movement, headed by cleric and nationalist Muqtada al-Sadr, maintains a fractious alliance with Maliki. While the Sadrists are driven by nationalistic and populist considerations, they are wary of instigating an intra-Shia civil war. The Sadrists combine social activism with an intense religious piety, and are seeking to transform themselves from an insurgent army (they did the heavy fighting back in the 2004-08, inflicting serious defeats on the Americans) into a respectable political and social force in the country. The Sadrists and their social base strongly oppose the Maliki regime’s monopolisation of power in the army and police, but against attempts to bring down the current power arrangement. The Shias are in power, but they are divided and not necessarily in control in today’s Iraq.

The blame for the current parlous nature of the Iraqi nation must be placed firmly on the shoulders of the United States ruling class. The 1990s witnessed an eruption of American militarism, part of which was the 1991 attack on Iraq. Through the use of its weaponry and subsequent economic sanctions, the US wanted to reduce a reasonably industrialised and educated Arab society to a pre-industrial level. The invasion of 2003 brought untold misery and suffering for the Iraqi people, with the reduction of health care, education, and interestingly a sharp reversal of the position of women in Iraqi society. The Iraqi people have paid a terrible price for the depredations and attacks of US imperialism. Since December 2012 however, there have been ongoing protests by Iraqis against the precarious situation, demanding their rights in a non-sectarian, democratic way.

Go read Patrick Cockburn’s entire article in Counterpunch here.