Since October 2019, Iraqis have taken to the streets in a sustained, organised, community-based uprising against the corrupt and sectarian Baghdad regime. Installed in the aftermath of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, the government of Iraq has been unable to unify the country, or provide basic social services. The regime propped up by the US has institutionalised a sectarian-based power sharing agreement.
Over the last week, a new Prime Minister, Mohammed Allawi, has been selected, breaking months of deadlock. The protesters have rejected his appointment, stating that he is still part and parcel of the Baghdad regime. Camped out in Tahrir Square in the capital city, the Iraqis on the streets have undermine the entire structure of the regime and its political parties. In Nasiriyah, a southern city of Iraq, anti-government demonstrators issued a statement rejecting the sectarianism of the regime and vowed to continue their protests.
Let’s examine the background of the current events, and place them in a wider political context. The current uprising represents a crisis of the Baghdad government and is a striking rejection of the entire post-2003 American-imposed political structure. There is intense and widespread outrage at the catastrophic results of the 2003 invasion and the corruption of the political elites.
In January this year, a ‘million-man march‘ was organised by the powerful political cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The latter, a populist-nationalist Shia politician, has joined the protest movement, but also leads the largest political bloc within the current Baghdad government. While his supporters have participated heavily in the antigovernment protests, Sadr has played a balancing act, negotiating between the bourgeois parties and the demonstrators.
The march brought into focus the continuing presence of US troops in the country. No doubt among the demonstrators are those whose lives have been scarred by the 1991 First Gulf War, the punitive US sanctions on Iraq in the 1990s, through to the 2003 full-scale invasion of that nation. These measures amount to an act of criminal and predatory sociocide carried out by US imperialism.
While the Sadrist bloc has participated in the protests, the party that has seen its fortunes rise most noticeably and appreciably is the Iraqi Communist Party. No single political group leads the demonstrators, however, the Communist party’s activists are solidly embedded with the protest movement. The party has a practical alliance with the Sadrists, while maintaining its own independent political platform.
The Iraqi Communists have demanded that only a complete overhaul of the entire post-2003 regime will suffice. The sectarian power-sharing system, established by the US occupation authorities after 2003, seems on the surface a reasonable idea. However, the purpose of such a confessional-based system is to purposely divide the Iraqi population into sectarian-ethnic components, thus implementing the old tactic of divide-and-rule.
The rise of sectarian violence is a direct consequence of the US invasion of 2003. The role of the United States has been, whether overtly or covertly, to increase and exacerbate the religious-sectarian divide. Let us dispose of the tired cliche of ‘ancient hatreds’ as an explanation for sectarian violence in Iraq. Professor Stephen Zunes writes that it was deliberate US policy, not ‘ancient hatreds’, to cultivate a system based on sectarian hostilities.
The current armed Shia militias, commonly called Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) are for the most part allied with Iran. These forces arose after the 2003 invasion and subsequent dissolution of the Iraqi Army. Iran has gained influence in Iraq, and the US believed that the Iranian-backed militias would be effective in fighting all those Iraqis who opposed the US occupation. Having fought ISIL, and becoming incorporated into a new Iraqi army, the PMU groups are now turning against the United States, particularly in the aftermath of the assassination of Iranian General Qasim Suleimani.
Resorting to the explanation of ‘ancient hatreds’ between Sunnis and Shias may be popular among the American punditocracy, but has no bearing to reality. In fact, such cliches only serve to shift culpability for the US invasion and its destructive consequences onto some mythical ‘historic forces’.
It is worthwhile to note that the demonstrators have denounced the economic and social inequalities of the post-2003 invasion regime. Since the US invasion, Iraqi society has been marked by high unemployment, rampant corruption and poverty. Indeed, corruption has become an institutionalised feature of the Baghdad government, in much the same way as corruption was a feature of the US-backed client state of South Vietnam in its day.
The protesters, by emphasising their rejection of sectarianism and corruption, pose a striking similarity to the Iraqis of earlier generations who rose up in rebellion in 1920. The nationalist uprising of that year, opposing the then-colonial power Britain, rejected sectarian divisions and demanded greater social equality. The British government at the time, one of whose ministers was a young Winston Churchill, responded with unrestrained savagery. Churchill, for his part, recommended the use of poison gas against the Iraqi insurgents.
It is imperative, for us in Australia, to build up an antiwar movement capable of responding to the manoeuvres of the pro-war and imperialist Australian ruling class. Australia, as a junior partner of American imperialism, has consistently joined every measure of the US ruling class to carry out its colonial ambitions. From Vietnam to Iraq, Australia has voluntarily joined – even pushed its way – in every American overseas war. It is time to break this pattern and listen to the Iraqi people’s demands for sovereignty.