The fall of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, to the Islamist guerrillas of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), represents not just a defeat for the Iraqi army and the US-supported regime in Baghdad. It also stands as the end of a whole set of US imperialistic policies, designed to bring Iraq under its total control. The seemingly sudden dissolution of the Iraqi army in Mosul is a defeat for US imperialism that shatters decades-long policies that formed the backbone of US conduct in the Arab world, delusions of imperial grandeur and empire-building that must now be brought to an end. The capture of Mosul, Iraq, by Islamist rebels and Iraqi Sunni insurgents is a defeat for US imperial empire-building, on the same magnitude as the scattering of the remnant forces of the misnamed Republic of Vietnam from Saigon in 1975.
Only a few months ago, on this blog, the current author made note that the eleventh anniversary of the Iraq invasion was studiously ignored by the corporate media, promoting the impression that Iraq, while still having some remaining problems, has largely settled down into a functioning society. The implicit message in ignoring that anniversary was that the architects of the 2003 invasion were generally vindicated in their decision to go to war. Former UK prime minster Tony Blair, one of the main enthusiasts for the Iraq war, has made numerous comments in the media, defending his decision to lead Britain into the American-driven invasion.
All these imperial delusions have come crashing down, as the Iraq war literally exploded, and the consequences of that invasion are plain for all to see. The decision by the US and Britain to unilaterally invade Iraq has resulted in the destruction of that society. The seizure of Mosul by forces loyal to ISIS, represents the collapse of the US imperial project in Iraq.
The 2003 invasion, launched on the false pretext that Iraq possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’, intended to install a regime that was compliant with US and British business interests. The Maliki regime, composed of CIA assets, pro-American politicians, war profiteers, and associated Kurdish warlords, now stands humiliated and in tatters, its armies refusing to fight the Iraqi insurgency. American and British imperial hubris stands condemned, as the army on which they spent billions of dollars proved ineffective in responding to insurgent attacks. As Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North in Britain has stated, the overrunning of Mosul, followed by the quick seizure of other cities by the Iraqi insurgents, represents the unravelling of a century of imperialism. Focusing on the oil and gas resource of Iraq, and the wider Middle East, the US and Britain wanted to expand their economic and military influence across the region, and have devastated Iraqi society in the process. This set of policies now stands condemned, as the consequences of imperial intervention threaten to engulf not just Iraq, but the region as well.
Capture of Mosul
Patrick Cockburn, the veteran foreign correspondent for The Independent newspaper, detailed the initial fall of Mosul to the ISIS, and the subsequent developments in the rest of Iraq. His articles, republished in Common Dreams, are a valuable resource for an up-to-date analysis of the political and economic situation inside Iraq. Cockburn states that while ISIS guerrillas provided the front-line ‘shock troops’ in the capture of Mosul, they are just one component of a more generalised Iraqi, largely Sunni, uprising against the pro-American regime in Baghdad. While the emergence of ISIS as an important factor in Iraqi politics heralds the rise of an Islamist program for Iraq, the seeds of rebellion against the Maliki regime go back to 2012-13. Since 2013, peaceful, political demonstrations have been occurring against the sectarian policies of the Baghdad government. The latter responded with violent repression, and thus drove thousands of Sunnis into the arms of the insurgent groups.
The social and economic grievances of the Sunnis were ignored by Maliki, and he resorted to brutal, oppressive measures (much like President Assad in neighbouring Syria) to suppress any resistance to his rule. The Sunnis, disenfranchised and excluded economically and politically by the Baghdad government, have been agitating for a number of years to end the sectarian order established after the 2003 invasion. The growing Sunni revolt, documented by Cockburn, demonstrated that the Maliki regime had no popular support or legitimacy outside Baghdad and the associated Shia militias that have helped to prop up that government. Maliki was bound to fail to gain any traction for his heavily sectarian project. A number of different insurgent groups, some ex-Ba’athist officers, Iraqi nationalists, and others have all joined in the armed rebellion and helped in defeating the Iraqi army in Mosul and other northern Iraqi cities. As Patrick Cockburn stated, ISIS was not the only Sunni militant group to rise up; it was part of a multi-pronged, carefully coordinated armed uprising that left the Baghdad government aghast and paralysed by inaction.
The fall of Mosul, and the ease with which it was captured by the insurgents, confirms that Baghdad had no political support, and its army refused to fight for it. Thousands of Iraqis did flee the fighting in that city, and the mass movement of refugees increased as town after town fell to the ISIS guerrillas. Iraqis, particularly from the ethnic minorities, are wary of the brand of extreme Sunni fundamentalism and the vision of a caliphate promoted by ISIS. However, not all Mosul residents feared ISIS, in fact, they were more worried about the prospect of barbaric Iraqi army counterattacks. One resident informed The Guardian newspaper that:
I feel we have been liberated of an awful nightmare that was suffocating us for 11 years. The army and the police never stopped arresting, detaining and killing people, let alone the bribes they were taken from the detainees’ families.
“Me and my neighbours are waiting for the news that the other six Sunni protesting provinces falling in the hand of the Isis fighters to declare our Sunni region like the three provinces in Kurdistan.
It is not just The Guardian that is reporting this sentiment from Mosul residents. The loyal lapdog of the US empire, the New York Slimes, covering the ongoing offensive by ISIS in northern Iraq, reported that ordinary Iraqis were unified in their opposition to the Maliki government. The New York Slimes recorded the reaction of Iraqi and American officials to the scale and speed of the ISIS-insurgent uprising:
As the dimensions of the assault began to become clear, it was evident that a number of militant groups had joined forces, including Baathist military commanders from the Hussein era, whose goal is to rout the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. One of the Baathists, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was a top military commander and a vice president in the Hussein government and one of the few prominent Baathists to evade capture by the Americans throughout the occupation.
“These groups were unified by the same goal, which is getting rid of this sectarian government, ending this corrupt army and negotiating to form the Sunni Region,” said Abu Karam, a senior Baathist leader and a former high-ranking army officer, who said planning for the offensive had begun two years ago. “The decisive battle will be in northern Baghdad. These groups will not stop in Tikrit and will keep moving toward Baghdad.”
The lack of support for the Maliki regime is a searing indictment of the political system established by the Americans, and their associated Iraqi collaborators, since the 2003 invasion. The institutionalised sectarian division, the main feature of the Baghdad government, has further worsened relations between the Sunni and Shia communities, and between the Muslim-majority and the Christian minorities. The Shia parties, such as the Islamic Dawa party of which Maliki is a leader, failed to be inclusive and build political support among the population. The reason that the Iraqi army dissolved so quickly is that nobody was willing to take up arms and sacrifice their lives for a despised regime.
ISIS, an offshoot of Al Qaeda, advocates a Sunni fundamentalist vision, and works to establish a caliphate in the areas that it controls. Whether it has the support of the local population for its narrow platform of a Sunni fundamentalist, religiously-based political order remains to be seen. However, since taking Mosul in June 2014, residents have reported that life is returning to normal. Time magazine reported that the residents of Mosul are getting on with their jobs, resuming their businesses and that life is actually getting somewhat better. In spite of the warnings of the implementation of strict, literalist interpretations of Islamic Sharia law, residents are reporting an improved atmosphere. From the Time magazine article is the following snippet:
“Do you know how it was in Mosul before ISIS came? We had bombings and assassinations almost everyday. Now we have security,” said Abu Sadr, who asked to be identified by a nickname, from his home in Mosul’s Hay Al Sukar neigbourhood. “I’m going to work, going to the market, like normal, and people are coming back to the city.”
According to Abu Sadr it is basically life as usual in Mosul. There is little of the tyrannical Islamic Sharia enforcement the group’s name has become synonymous with. Abu Sadr has seen Pakistani, Afghani and Syrian fighters amid the Iraqi ISIS recruits, but says the fighters have yet to adorn the city with their signature black flag. They fly them only above their checkpoints, which some residents say are fewer than the army had there, two weeks ago.
The fact that ISIS rule is seen as less threatening, even though the Islamist guerrillas espouse a brand of extreme Sunni chauvinism, indicates the widespread hostility to the Maliki government. This does not mean that the sectarian nature of ISIS is to be downplayed; far from it. But this does demonstrate that the central state in Baghdad offered nothing to the people in Mosul and other parts of the country.
Sectarian order comes crumbling down
However, this does not mean that ISIS will be any more successful than Maliki in restoring the basic services necessary for a functioning society. Though they are off to a good start; Mosul has a consumer protection office where people can air their grievances, amnesty has been offered to those from the security services should they lay down their arms, and social services are being provided. However, while Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah and other cities have fallen easily, Baghdad will not be so easy. As Professor Juan Cole writes, the insurgents have picked a fight they cannot win in Baghdad, if they do not appeal to the Shia masses in the south of the country. Without a power base to sustain them, the Iraqi insurgents can cause damage, make some gains in Baghdad, but they cannot win the city on their own steam. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pre-eminent Shia authority in Iraq, called on all Iraqis, regardless of religious orientation, to rise up and organise a sturdy defence of Baghdad against the ISIS guerrillas. Thousands have responded to the call. Various Shia religious parties, including the Mahdi Army, the militia of the Sadrist bloc headed by nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are forming brigades to defend Baghdad and the holiest Shia shrines located in the south of the country from attacks by ISIS.
It is interesting to note that Sistani, while a Shia, did not include any reference to jihad, or any sectarian appeals, in his statement. He specifically asked that Iraqis join the national army, not private or political-party-based militias, and he appealed to a sense of patriotism and nationalism. He went so far as to call ISIS ‘terrorists’, a designation not taken lightly in the political climate of the Arab and Islamic worlds. He reiterated that the defence of the country was paramount. This message, coming from an important and revered religious figure like Sistani, is important because it demonstrates that Arab nationalism still has a resounding resonance in Iraq. Sistani did not directly mention Maliki, but in his pronouncements, it is clear that Sistani is finding fault with the sectarian political order that arose in the aftermath of the US invasion.
Responsibility for the current crisis resides with the imperialist powers
The Iraqi state is going through its worst crisis since the worst days of the Iraqi insurgency and subsequent sectarian warfare in the mid-2000s. Maliki and his associated Shia politicians certainly shoulder a heavy burden of blame for the current impasse. Maliki and his Shia sectarian policies have resulted in a state where the main institutions of the army, police, parliament, and associated militias are controlled by Shias. But this is only one part of the story. The ultimate responsibility for the sectarian fracturing of the country lies with the policies of the United States. As Ashley Smith of the Socialist Worker newspaper writes, “The principal cause of this crisis is three decades of U.S. imperial policy that culminated in Bush’s 2003 invasion.” In his extensive analysis, Smith notes that the first Gulf War of 1991, followed by years of crippling sanctions, devastated a functioning society that provided healthcare, education and services for its citizens. Iraq never fully recovered from deleterious effects of the 1991 aerial bombing campaign, a programme of aerial warfare on a par with the Allied bombing of German cities during World War Two.
It is true that sectarianism existed prior to the 2003 invasion. The Ba’athist party built a Sunni top-heavy state, with the top levels of political and military power going to Sunnis. The lucrative government contracts to conduct business were usually awarded to Iraqi Sunnis. However, each town had its own mix of religious and ethnic groups, and there was nothing like the fratricidal sectarian warfare that we see today. The responsibility for the explosion of sectarian violence in Iraq resides directly with the US and Britain, fomenting ethnic and religious divisions in order to fragment a determined opposition. The traditional tactic of divide and rule was implemented by the US occupation authorities, backed up by savage repression. In an article written in 2013, Ashley Smith of the Socialist Worker explained that the US adopted the Lebanese model for Iraq, attempting to Balkanise the country, exacerbate ethnic tensions and apportion power according to sectarian loyalty. Sectarian polarisation was not the product of ‘ancient hatreds’, or the result of a ‘clash within a civilisation’ as the New York Slimes columnist David Brooks once opined.
As Sami Ramadani, Iraqi exile and senior lecturer in sociology at the London Metropolitan University explained, the sectarian hatred is promoted by the imperialist powers, and this partition would be a recipe for endless wars. Iraq is not a random aggregation of disparate ethnic and religious groups all straining for the first opportunity to slaughter each other, Ramadani elaborates in his article. He does not spare the Ba’athist party from blame, criticising its Arab-centric ideology and its marginalisation of the poorest segments of society. The Ba’athist party had no love for the Kurds, and possessed a strong anti-Shia undercurrent in its political operations. The largest mass political organisation, and the most multicultural, was the Iraqi Communist Party, until decimated by Ba’athist repression in the 1970s.
Ramadani reserves his most scathing criticism for the US invasion and its aftermath, holding it responsible for the worst upsurge of violent sectarianism in Iraq’s history. Ramadani wrote that;
The most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq’s modern history followed the 2003 US-led occupation, which faced massive popular opposition and resistance. The US had its own divide-and-rule policy, promoting Iraqi organisations founded on religion, ethnicity, nationality or sect rather than politics. Many senior officers in the newly formed Iraqi army came from these organisations and Saddam’s army. This was exacerbated three years ago, when sectarian groups in Syria were backed by the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
It is this officer class that this month abandoned Mosul and a third of Iraq’s territory to the terrorists of Isis, beefed up by thousands of foreign fighters, members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party, and the Islamic party (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). It has also become clear that leaders of the Kurdistan regional government have expanded their control and implemented a de facto ceasefire with the sectarian insurgents.
Iraq’s partition would only benefit the arms manufacturers, oil companies and war profiteers.
The ultimate responsibility for the calamitous state of Iraq today lies with the long history of imperialist interference in the Arab and Islamic worlds. The 2003 US invasion is just the latest in a long line of imperialist interventions, starting with the redrawing of boundaries at the end of World War One, without the consent or input of the Arabic-speaking peoples. As the Ottoman Turkish empire collapsed, Britain, France and the other powers rushed to carve out spheres of influence for themselves, with the Arabs and Kurds failing to gain self-determination.
Mick Armstrong, writing for the Red Flag newspaper, correctly observes that the imperialist states, determined the dominate the resource-rich areas of the Middle East, resorted to divide-and-rule tactics, propping up proxy forces that were amenable to their economic and political interests. Armstrong writes of how the British, given the mandate to govern Iraq, formed alliances with friendly pro-British Arab forces, installing a puppet king from the Hashemite clan as their ruler in the newly formed Kindgom of Iraq. Whenever the Iraqis rose up to resist this arrangement, as they did in the 1920s, the British resorted to aerial bombing to bring the recalcitrant indigenous people back into line.
Sectarian policies, implemented by the United States, are only the latest incarnation of imperialist meddling in Iraq. The sordid consequences of this long history of violent interventions by outside powers is now plain for all to see. The capture of Mosul is not only an indictment of the US occupation’s divide-and-conquer strategy and inflammation of sectarian tensions. It is also a searing indictment of the 2003 US invasion, an invasion that is still causing casualties, because it destroyed an otherwise functioning society. The crimes of imperialism in this region are becoming more glaring in the light of the debacle the US has suffered in Iraq. As Seumas Milne of the Guardian explained in one of his many articles on Iraq, the Arab and Islamic worlds are living with the disastrous consequences of imperialist attempts to control their resources and futures.
The Iraq war was not just some ‘tragic mistake’ or ‘error in judgement’ as many corporate media pundits would have us believe. It was a deliberate, coldly calculated predatory crime that resulted in millions of deaths, the outflow of refugees, and the poison of fratricidal sectarianism taking hold. While ISIS is a takfiri, Sunni fundamentalist group that will be unable to appeal to a broad segment of the Iraqi population over the long run, the political and economic order against which they are fighting is a criminal regime born of a violent occupation and sustained by rampant sectarianism. The grievances of Iraqis against imperialist interference in their affairs are real and legitimate. It is time to listen to the Iraqis and let them determine their own future.