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Iraq crisis: divide-and-rule in defence of a neoliberal political economy

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Headlined to H3 7/2/14

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Reprinted from Open Democracy


The roots of the most recent crisis in Iraq can be traced to the US-led invasion of 2003 and western meddling in Syria. At stake, is the neoliberal blueprint of post-invasion Iraq, now defended in an effort coordinated between the Baghdad government and its western backers.

By *Ali Al-Jaberi


Bremer and Rumsfeld chat over some light refreshments, 2003.
(image by Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.)


What today is ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), was founded as an Al-Qaida s franchise in Iraq in direct response to the US-led invasion. The group thrived in the security vacuum the invaders created by dismantling the Iraqi security apparatus. At the time, Amnesty International criticized the US for not sufficiently investing in the security of civilians, while guarding oil fields around the clock. Needless to say, oil was the primary motive behind the invasion.

Dismantling Iraq's security infrastructure entailed the dismissal of over 400,000 soldiers and intelligence personnel. With one stroke of the pen, Paul Bremer, who headed the occupation forces in Iraq, granted jihadi groups the ultimate recruitment ground: an army of jobless men who know their way around weapons. It was only a matter of time before various armed groups were rampaging through the country. Among those, the Islamic State of Iraq, ISIS before expanding to Syria, won most infamy for targeting Shia.

Then, as now, western designs for Iraq were at the root of the sectarian logic of the violence. From his office in one of Saddam s former palaces, Bremer issued his first order, which banned all public sector employees affiliated with Saddam's Bath party from current and future employment by government, including a majority who had party membership forced upon them.

Although victimized like all other groups, Sunnis were favored by the Saddam regime and thus disproportionately targeted by de-Bathification. In fact, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank, Sunni Arabs were treated (...) as representatives of an oppressive state structure in need of dismantling which sent the message that de-Bathification was tantamount to de-Sunnification.

Even when disregarding Bremer's first order, post-Saddam Iraq was sectarian by design. As ICG explains, the US enforced stringent security measures in Sunni-populated areas, even those traditionally hostile to the former regime and built a political system along ethnic and sectarian lines, making clear that Sunni Arabs would be relegated to a minor role.

In doing so, the US essentially reproduced the British colonial legacy of ruling Iraq by sectarian division, with predictable outcomes. Although useful allies are co-opted regardless of sect, consecutive Shia majority governments have divided public position and resources on an ethno-sectarian basis. Meanwhile, elastic de-Bathification laws continue to deprive many Sunni families from employment and pensions, while equally flexible anti-terrorism laws are used to eliminate political opponents of the establishment, including key figures in the Sunni community.

Against this backdrop, peaceful protests were staged in Sunni-majority areas in 2012 following the arrest of bodyguards working for Rafi Al-Issawi, a prominent Sunni politician. The protesters consisted primarily of ordinary people demanding decent living conditions and an end to Sunni exclusion by the government as well as political factions, ranging from militants to those seeking concessions from Baghdad.

The government responded violently. Four months after the demonstrations started, a protest camp in Hawija (Kirkuk province) was raided, leaving dozens dead and over 100 wounded. Violence escalated, empowering militant groups, primarily ISIS. Soon, sectarian hostilities soared to levels unseen since the height of the US-occupation, reaching a monthly death toll of approximately 1000 by January this year.

The recent meteoric ascent of ISIS in Iraq, having been largely contained by around 2010, is closely tied to its newly acquired position in Syria. There, it has trained fresh fighters, amassed advanced weapons and found new financial resources to an extent unimaginable without de facto western support.

ISIS troops have reportedly received training from US instructors at a secret base in Jordan. At the Turkish border with Syria, NATO -- represented by Germany, the US and the Netherlands -- deployed patriot missiles and 1,200 troops, prompting any Syrian pilot to think twice before venturing within NATO's reach in northern Syria, the location of the main ISIS strongholds. The US has knowingly contributed to shipments of weapons most of which have been delivered to jihadi hardliners fighting Bashar Al-Assad.

But when ISIS took control over large swathes of territory in western Iraq, the US administration quickly sent Apache helicopters, drones and hell-fire missiles to the embattled Iraqi regime it had once installed. Targeting Al-Assad is fine, but turning your weapons against a US ally is a different matter altogether. It appears one man's freedom fighter can be the same man's terrorist.

For much the same reason, New York, London and Paris newspapers devoted their headlines to ISIS when it reemerged in Iraq, but were largely silent when the same "terrorist liberators" were committing gruesome atrocities in Syria, ranging from summary executions of civilians, to imposing misogynist laws and the recruitment of child soldiers.

Likewise, atrocities committed by the Iraqi army while "fighting terrorism" are generally withheld from mainstream media audiences. When ISIS troops raised their black-and-white banners in Fallujah, the city was indiscriminately shelled by the US-armed Iraqi forces. The newly obtained hellfire missiles killed unarmed civilians, including children. With this in mind, some 500,000 people fled from Mosul after it was seized by ISIS, more out of fear of the Government's response than jihadi extremism.

The success of a few thousand ISIS troops facing a US-backed army, is dependent upon the support of Iraqi Sunni fighters and at least some tolerance by the civilian population. Further alienated by recent government violence and in some cases out of sheer self-defence against indiscriminate cruelty, a significant section of the Sunni community has felt compelled to strike a Faustian bargain with ISIS against the central government. More than just a jihadi exploit, the advance of ISIS thus represents widespread popular opposition to the ruling elite after peaceful resistance was thwarted.

Mainstream reporting is all but entirely oblivious of the above, reducing the whole affair to purported ancient hatreds between Shia and Sunnis. It should be common sense, however, that sectarianism, in Iraq and elsewhere, is an elite-constructed vehicle to channel popular dissent in a manner that maintains the status quo. In the case of Iraq, this amounts to preserving western interests at the cost of the common people.

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