The Iraq war is far from over, and the fall of Ramadi blasts US policy to pieces

The long-running Iraq war, now entering its twelfth year, re-appeared in the corporate news media with the announcement that another major city, Ramadi, had fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The much vaunted Iraqi army, barely eleven months after their decisive defeat in Mosul, turned and fled the battlefield, surrendering American military equipment and resources to the ISIS militia. Ramadi, situated in the predominantly Sunni province of Anbar, had always resisted the American military occupation and its client armies, namely the associated Shia-militias controlled by the Baghdad authorities.

As David Alpher, adjunct professor at George Mason University states it;

The loss is devastating, and not only because of the city’s size or symbolic value, or because it’s another reminder that ISIS is on the march. The loss is devastating because between Ramadi and Baghdad there is only one major city, Fallujah, which has long since fallen to ISIS and has always been known as a radical hotbed.

American policy, still reeling from the Saigon-style debacle at Mosul last year, has been blasted to smithereens. After the Mosul defeat, the Obama administration and their associates in Baghdad made reassuring noises that the difficulties of the Iraqi army were temporary and measures would be implemented to reinforce its demoralised ranks. Former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was held responsible for the defeats on the Mosul battlefield and ousted in backroom manouevres initiated by the United States.

In September 2014, after the removal of Maliki, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad to express the American government’s continued support for its clients in Baghdad, stating that the reformed Iraqi government would be the engine of the fightback against ISIS. US President Obama pledged his enthusiastic support for the new Abadi regime in a televised speech, declaring that his government would adopt a fresh strategy for dealing with the Iraq crisis. Promising a more inclusive government, the Baghdad authorities announced their determination to turn a new page in Iraq’s history, and fight determinedly against the ISIS militia.

Seven months after the Obama administration launched ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ to respond to the reversals on the Iraqi battlefield, ISIS has not only remained a viable force on the ground, and taken Ramadi, but expanded. As the Financial Times correspondent in Washington put it, the ISIS takeover of Ramadi ‘blows a hole’ in Obama’s Iraq strategy. Maliki has remained one of three vice presidents in Baghdad – and Mosul remains in the hands of ISIS.

The loss of Ramadi is not only a serious defeat for current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. This defeat indicates that the Iraqi army, no matter how much training, money and munitions, is incapable of becoming an effective fighting force. The continuing failure of the American-backed Baghdad authorities to create an efficient fighting army, undermines the United States post-2003 political project in Iraq.

The political class in Baghdad, installed in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 US invasion, is unable to rise above its own factional squabbling, and implement a functioning government capable of providing services. Composed of former CIA assets, political exiles, con artists, warlords, economic charlatans, and self-identified agents of American and British secret services, this political class is currently under attack and being decapitated by an Iraqi Sunni insurgency. The remains of the former ruling Iraqi party, the mainly Sunni Ba’athist Party, has entered an alliance of convenience with the Sunni fundamentalist guerrilla groups, the Salafi ISIS being the most obvious spearhead. This alliance of Iraqi Sunnis has managed to shatter the post-2003 American-imposed order in Iraq.

Professor Juan Cole, expert in Middle East and Islamic history from the University of Michigan, stated back in 2005 that the possibility of a Ba’athist Sunni uprising was not only probable but quite likely. This prediction has turned out to be quite accurate. Professor Cole wrote recently for Common Dreams online magazine that:

In early 2005, I wondered if the Sunni insurgency could eventually turn into a “Third Baath coup.” By that I meant that the remnants of the Baath Party (socialist, nationalist) allied with Salafi Muslim hardliners were systematically killing members of the new political class being stood up by the Bush administration, and were angling to take back over the country. We now know that former Baath officers set up the so-called “Islamic State” as a means of gaining recruits for their ongoing insurgency, at a time when the Baath Party no longer had any cachet but political Islam seemed a growing trend. The ex-Baath/ Salafi cells of resistance were all along strong in Ramadi.

As Cole states, while Washington is asking ‘who lost Ramadi?’, they are actually asking the wrong question – they never had Ramadi in the first place. And this evaluation of the current Iraqi situation is from someone who has supported US military policies in the past, hardly the prognostications of a hardened anti-war Leftist-Bolshevik.

The revenge of the past

Iraq’s Sunni people, having been overthrown from positions of power by the 2003 American invasion, were marginalised by the Shia-Kurdish dominated political class in post-Ba’athist Iraq. The Sunnis were now the targets of revenge by the American – and Iranian – backed Shia and Kurdish parties. Sunnis were excluded from top jobs, the largely state-owned industries set up by the Ba’athist Party were privatised, Iraqi oil opened up to foreign multinational corporations, and throughout 2006-07, the sectarian Baghdad authorities carried out a program of ethnic cleansing, systematically killing and removing the Sunnis of Baghdad. Former Prime Minister Maliki, with the support of his American and Iranian patrons, launched a war of terror against the Iraqi Sunni population. American General David Petraeus, implementing a ‘troop surge’, is responsible for this ethnic-sectarian warfare, empowering the Shia militias to carry out their revenge attacks.

It is no surprise that the Ba’athist Party members and supporters, driven underground and marginalised, formed the first cells to militarily resist the US occupation. The staggering reversal of Sunni fortunes in Iraq since the 2003 invasion left them desperate for allies. They found such allies, in a rival and growing another strand of resistance, one that we now see today – the Sunni fundamentalist Salafi groups, advocating their particular brand of political Islamism.

While the roots of the ISIS militia reside in the Syrian conflict, its ability to tap into the grievances of the embattled Sunni people in Iraq demonstrates gives it a beachhead inside Iraq where it can batter the American-supported Baghdad regime. The fall of Ramadi is not the only recent success of the fundamentalist ISIS; Palmyra in neighbouring Syria fell to the group earlier in May 2015. Its ability to inflict military defeats on its opponents indicates to regional powers that American policy is either inadequate, or unwilling, to confront the disturbing reality on the ground.

ISIS a product of US and Saudi imperialism

Make no mistake; ISIS is a fundamentalist movement that is the child of American and Saudi parents – more specifically the policy of the US to use political Islamism as a battering ram in the Arab and Islamic countries. As Jacobin Magazine stated in an article earlier in 2015, do not blame Islam for the rise of ISIS. It bears the imprint of its American and Saudi sponsors – religious fanaticism, virulent anti-socialism and strong dedication to capitalism. Originating in the soil of Al Qaeda and similar fundamentalist groups, ISIS has taken root by exploiting the social and economic grievances of large sections of the Iraqi population.

It is out of the scope of this article to examine the entire history of the ISIS movement or to go into an extensive history of the financial and military collaboration between US imperialism and reactionary political Islamist groups. However, we can note that ISIS was incubated and nurtured by the political patrons of Sunni fundamentalist movements, namely US and British imperial power. The reaction of US officials to the fall of Ramadi and the rise of ISIS is one of bewilderment and shock. But a cursory examination of recent history makes such a reaction unnecessary. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted in June 2014 that the success of ISIS in Iraq is an unsurprising surprise, and is no shock to those who have followed developments in Iraq closely. The loss of Ramadi to ISIS, in one sense is a replay of the loss of Mosul in 2014.

The monster of Frankenstein

The loss of Mosul eleven months ago was attributed to the personal failings and leadership inadequacies of former Iraqi PM Maliki. While all individual politicians have their failings, it is simplistic to ascribe military and political defeats to the personal qualities of this or that politician. Maliki was made a scapegoat for a wider failure – the fundamentally flawed, sectarian and kleptocratic nature of the post-2003 Baghdad political order.

Excessive violence is a feature of ISIS, particularly against Christian minorities. But it is not the original practitioner of such extreme coercion. Sectarian fanaticism was built into the post-2003 political system in Iraq, dividing up power along ethno-sectarian lines. The responsibility for this setup rests with the United States. Its criminal and predatory invasion of Iraq, and its exacerbation of sectarian divisions as a tactic to keep control, has resulted in the fracturing of the country and the demolition of the reasonably developed, educated and functioning society that Iraq was during the Ba’athist era.

For instance, Iraq did have a self-sustaining, technologically advanced and functioning health care system under the Ba’athist state, back in the 1970s and 1980s. That health care system was deliberately targeted by the incoming US invaders. Now, Iraq is a society that has high rates of child malnutrition and mortality from vaccine-preventable diseases. There were hospitals and clinics being built in Iraq to be sure – by the Bechtel corporation, an American private company that secured the rights to privatise the health system in the country. Bechtel failed to adequately provision the population with medical facilities, and finally pulled out of Iraq in 2006-07.

While ISIS is definitely the monster that has turned against its master, the US imperialist Dr Frankenstein, the real poison is the sectarianism inherent in the Baghdad political class. ISIS savagery is nothing to be celebrated, but its actions are only occurring within the larger context of the savagery of the US imperialist power in the region. Reversing ISIS cannot be done by military means alone – the policies that the United States has pursued over the decades to subjugate Iraq must be reversed as well.

Glenn Greenwald states it plainly – ISIS is following a well-trodden path of savagery

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is in the news yet again, this time in the form of video footage showing the execution of a captured Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasabeh. The latter was doused in gasoline while held in a cage, set alight and burned alive. This barbaric punishment generated understandable and justifiable revulsion among audiences around the world. This act of savagery only underscores the brutality of the perpetrators.

The denunciations of ISIS by the politicians and media commentators in the West however, have a hollow ring to them. The constant and repetitive orgy of condemnations, rather than stemming from concern for the victim, only serve as a means of almost-tribal self-affirmation. As Glenn Greenwald puts it in his latest article, the ritualistic outpouring of criticism of ISIS obscures the crimes that the imperialist powers have committed over the decades in their predatory wars. Surely we, the West, are not as bad as them? If ISIS is savage and repellent, it is only using tactics that have been mechanised and refined by the Western states in their wars against the non-white peoples of the world.

The grotesque nature of this crime – incinerating people – is not in dispute. Greenwald is asking why there is no comparable outrage when the United States and Britain (and for that matter, the state of Israel), have committed similarly egregious atrocities, crimes that have been hidden from public view. The United States, in contrast to ISIS, deliberately suppresses, excuses and provides flimsy rationales for the savagery it commits with its superior military technology. As Greenwald points out, the US military had implemented and perfected its preferred method of incinerating people alive in its war in Vietnam – by using napalm. As the Boston Globe wrote in 2013:

SINCE ITS INTRODUCTION in World War II, where it was used to firebomb Japanese cities, napalm—highly incendiary and nearly impossible to extinguish—has made its way into American consciousness as a symbol of war gone horribly wrong. Perhaps the most striking photograph to emerge from the Vietnam War was of a little girl, Kim Phuc, burnt by napalm, running and screaming.

Actually, rather than symbolise war gone wrong, napalm has the intended effect of not only burning its victims, but also intimidating civilian populations into submission.

White phosphorus, an inflammatory chemical that can burn extensively and ignite clothing, fuel and other materials, was used by the Israeli military in its assault on the Palestinians of Gaza in 2008-09. Densely populated areas were deliberately targeted by the Israeli forces during their military campaign. White phosphorus, on contact with people, produces intense burns, emitting heat and absorbing liquid. Human Rights Watch compiled an extensive report on the war crimes of the Israeli forces, including their use of incendiary chemical weapons.

Greenwald cites the report by a human rights group Living Under Drones. This organisation questions the usual narrative about US drone strikes being clean, clinical and precisely targeted strikes that avoid civilian casualties. Living Under Drones documents the stories of those who live in constant fear of a drone attack, along with those survivors that have been traumatised by the grief and loss of such strikes. Not only do drone strikes kill and incinerate everyone in the direct impact zone, they also leave the survivors with disfiguring burns, shrapnel wounds, amputations, and severe deleterious impacts on mental health.

However, Greenwald omits to mention the experts on burning people alive; the United States air force. In March 1945, the US air force, under the direction of air force General Curtis LeMay, dropped 2000 tonnes of incendiary bombs on the city of Tokyo over a 48-hour period. It was the worst firestorm in recorded history. Knowing that most of Tokyo city’s buildings were made of wood, the US air force command set to work on incinerating the city and its people. As a French reporter described the bombing at the time, “They set to work at once sowing the sky with fire.”

Common Dreams, the online magazine, wrote in 2005 about the Tokyo firebombing that:

The M-69s [the incendiary cylinder bombs dropped on Tokyo], which released 100-foot streams of fire upon detonating, sent flames rampaging through densely packed wooden homes. Superheated air created a wind that sucked victims into the flames and fed the twisting infernos. Asphalt boiled in the 1,800-degree heat. With much of the fighting-age male population at the war front, women, children and the elderly struggled in vain to battle the flames or flee.

As Common Dreams notes, the bombing of Tokyo left a lasting legacy of terror and pain for the victims. This aerial bombardment still remains a component of unfinished business for US-Japan relations, more so in some ways than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While the Tokyo bombing sent shock waves throughout Japan, the morale of the Japanese military remained undented;

But if the American objective was to shorten the war by demoralizing the Japanese population and breaking its will to resist, it didn’t work. What had proven true in Germany proved equally true here: Morale was shaken by bombing, but once the shock passed, the war work went on.

The infliction of pain and suffering on a person, or group, by means of incineration and burning is a sadistic crime, of that there is no doubt. ISIS used the primitive method of pouring gasoline; the mechanised war machines of the imperialist states use more sophisticated, but no less lethal, methods in applying their brand of warfare on a larger scale.

The hypocritical denunciations of ISIS barbarity serve to incite a tribalistic mentality, further instigating public opinion for another war in the Middle East. We must ask serious questions about the motives of the US imperial state in its drive to secure energy-rich and strategic resources in the Arab and Islamic countries. While we recognise that ISIS is barbaric, it is the barbaric drive to war emanating from our own political and economic elites that must be subjected to searing and critical examination before even more lives are sacrificed for corporate profits. Hyperbole about the unique evil of ISIS only serves to obfuscate the brutality of our imperialist system.

Go read Glenn Greenwald’s entire article here.