Nemesis in Iraq

Issue: 143

Alex Callinicos

To justify the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, George W Bush and Tony Blair argued that the country belonged under Saddam Hussein to an “axis of evil” of “failed states” (the others were Iran and North Korea) that were a danger to themselves and others. But if ever there was a failed state, it is the Iraqi regime that emerged from the occupation following the invasion, as the sudden fall of Mosul to a coalition of forces headed by the jihadis of ISIS (as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is generally known) in mid-June has shown. And the United States under Barack Obama now finds itself being pushed into an alliance with another member of the “axis of evil”, the Islamic republican regime in Iran.

For years sections of the left have been trying to convince themselves that, despite all the appearances to the contrary, the US somehow “won” in Iraq. Perry Anderson airily describes the war as “a relatively painless affair”: “Militarily and politically, however, US objectives were achieved. There was no winter rout on the Yalu or helicopter scramble from Saigon”.1 Well, the precipitate collapse and flight of the Iraqi army in the face of the ISIS advance on Mosul and Tikrit looked pretty like the disintegration of America’s client army as North Vietnamese forces made their final drive on Saigon in the spring of 1975.

The scale of what has happened bears emphasis. Estimates of the size of the ISIS forces range from 1,000 to 15,000. Mosul is a city of 2 million. The Iraqi government security forces claim a total of 930,000 under arms, with state of the art equipment supplied by the US.2 How could such a tiny group seize so great a city and rout so apparently mighty an army?

Two fundamental factors explain this astonishing reversal. The first is the failure of the occupation. The conquest of Iraq was motivated by what Toby Dodge calls “kinetic liberalism”: “After removing Saddam Hussein, the US was committed to creating a neoliberal state with a minimal presence in society and the economy”.3 A combination of bad planning, inadequate troop numbers and, most fundamentally, the rapidly developing armed resistance to the occupation defeated this attempt.4

The US was forced to rely on the clique of Iraqi politicians it selected to staff the client regime that took shape from 2004 onwards. The American-dominated Coalition Provisional Authority from the start based political representation on ethno-religious lines and allocated resources accordingly, laying the foundation of the sectarian politics of divide and rule that has prevailed ever since.5 Collaborators whose political base lay in the Shia Muslim majority, oppressed under Saddam’s Ba’athist regime, resorted to sectarian tactics directed particularly at the Sunni Arab minority; this was matched by the Sunni jihadis of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The result was a frenzy of sectarian murders reaching its climax in 2006 (when the United Nations estimated that nearly 35,000 civilians were killed) that drove Sunnis out of large parts of Baghdad.6

The scale of the resistance forced the Bush administration to abandon its hubristic fantasies of a neoliberal remaking of Iraq. The famous surge in US troop numbers in 2007 under General David Petraeus represented a return to conventional counter-insurgency warfare that, thanks to the intelligence provided by the so-called “Sunni Awakening” movement in areas where the insurgency had been strongest but where Al Qaeda’s tactics provoked a revulsion, succeeded in stabilising the situation.7

The chief beneficiary was Nouri al-Maliki, appointed prime minister in April 2006. At the time he was seen as a “grey functionary”, deputy leader of the Shia Islamic Da’wa Party, who would be a harmless placeholder.8 But Maliki moved rapidly to accumulate power by gaining personal control of the security forces, appointing a network of relatives and cronies in key positions, including his son Ahmed as deputy army chief of staff.

Even though his list came second in the 2010 elections, Maliki succeeded in hanging on to power by a mixture of cynical manoeuvres and ruthless repression. Ideologically, he appealed to a combination of Iraqi nationalism and Shiite sectarianism. Although his regime owed its existence to American military power and financial assistance, he blocked the Obama administration’s attempt to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement that would allow the US to keep 10,000-20,000 troops in Iraq after the deadline for US military withdrawal of December 2011. “In effect,” Dodge comments, “American troops would be forced out of Iraq”.9 Not for the first time, an imperial client was able to wrest some autonomy from its master. Maliki has manoeuvred between the US and Iran, which ever since 2003 has played a very active role within Iraq, marshalling and shaping the Shia political forces.

Domestically, Maliki has sought systematically to marginalise the Sunni minority the US had sought to conciliate during the surge. He broke up Iraqiyya, the Iraqi National Movement, which came top in the 2010 election on the basis of a secular nationalist appeal that took 80 percent of the Sunni vote but also won support in Shia areas. Opponents were denounced as Ba’athists, and exiled, gaoled, tortured and killed. When protest camps inspired by the examples of Tunisia and Egypt sprang up across Iraq in 2013, Maliki use the military to crush them.

Meanwhile, more than ten years after the invasion, and amid endemic official corruption, the material situation of ordinary Iraqis remains dire. Basic services such as water, electricity and sewage are still very unreliable, and the World Bank estimates unemployment at 40 percent, with an additional 30 percent underemployed.10 Thanks to Maliki’s successful pulverisation of the opposition, his list came first in the elections at the end of April 2014: it’s a sign of the demoralisation of Iraqi society under his rule that the resulting parliament couldn’t achieve a quorum after the fall of Mosul.

So the regime that emerged from the US invasion created the conditions for new revolts and insurgencies. But the form which nemesis has taken in Iraq has been shaped by a second factor, the changed situation in the region caused by the Syrian civil war. Bashar al-Assad responded to the Syrian Revolution of 2011 by launching a sectarian civil war. The Ba’athist regime, itself based on the Alawi Shia sect, has sought to mobilise Syria’s other religious minorities by invoking the threat of domination by the Sunni majority.

Although the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and local revolutionary committees have fought to keep alive the vision of a secular and democratic Syria, armed Sunni jihadis, often bankrolled by Gulf sheikhdoms, have increasingly made the running militarily. Meanwhile geopolitical interests and sectarian loyalties have made the Iranian regime and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah Assad’s chief external backers.

Among the jihadis ISIS flourished. It emerged from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia as, defeated in Iraq, it redeployed to Syria. There it has concentrated less on fighting the regime than on seizing territory from the FSA and the official Al Qaeda affiliate, the Jabhat al-Nusra. It was able to build up a base centred on Raqqah in eastern Syria from which it could then resume operations in Iraq. It took advantage of Maliki’s repression of the “Iraqi Spring” to seize control in January of Fallujah, the city in north western Anbar province that was one of the main centres of resistance to the occupation, and was recaptured by a brutal American offensive in October-November 2004.

ISIS seems well organised—for example, raising $875 million thanks to its control of oilfields in eastern Syria and through activities such as smuggling ancient artefacts from Syrian archaeological sites. Bank robberies and other looting in Mosul may have added another $1.5 billion to its stash.11 It is an indication of the complexity and also the fluidity of Middle East politics that there are persistent reports of ISIS’s connections with those great enemies Saudi Arabia and the Assad regime. This kind of alignment undercuts simplistic attempts to counterpose “progressive” and “reactionary” states in the Middle East.

But ISIS couldn’t have got as far as it has without the sectarian thuggery, corruption and incompetence of the Maliki regime. And it has benefited from the cooperation of other forces among Iraq’s Sunni population. After the fall of Mosul and Tikrit, the New York Times reported:

As the dimensions of the assault began to become clear, it was evident that a number of militant groups had joined forces, including Ba’athist military commanders from the Hussein era… One of the Ba’athists, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, was a top military commander and a vice president in the Hussein government and one of the few prominent Ba’athists to evade capture by the Americans throughout the occupation.12

Patrick Cockburn goes further:

ISIS may have begun the assault, but many other groups have joined in. We are now looking at a general uprising of the Iraqi Sunni. Those taking over Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit are not ISIS, but his old adherents who are putting up posters of the late dictator… ISIS were the shock troops of a much broader group of Sunni militant groups such as al-Naqshbandi army and assorted Ba’athist groups. Attacks were well coordinated and planned and were probably assisted by Sunni army officers within the regular Iraqi army sabotaging the defence.13

Numerous commentators have warned that, if ISIS continues its advance on Baghdad, the sectarian civil war of 2005-8 may resume. But there is nothing inevitable about this. Both the Association of Muslim Scholars, which supported the Sunni insurgency after 2003, and the Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani have issues call for restraint. The humiliation and partial disintegration of the Maliki regime could allow for the development of bargaining among a range of Iraqi political forces. Modern Iraq has been marked by complex ethnic, religious and class cleavages but the present sectarian antagonisms are a product of the occupation and its aftermath, and cut across a strong Iraqi tradition of political movements (including the Communist Party and the Ba’ath) that transcended confessional and ethnic differences.14 The repellent character of ISIS’s sectarian jihadi politics shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that the renewal of the Sunni insurgency has re-opened the Iraqi political situation after it had been locked into a sectarian stasis by the US and Maliki.

But there is a real chance of the partition of Iraq into a Sunni north west, a Kurdish north east, and a Shia centre and south. The Kurdish Regional Government has consistently sought to expand its autonomy since 2003. Its forces moved quickly after the fall of Mosul to seize Kirkuk, which it has long claimed. Iraq’s implosion leaves it even more the plaything of outside forces than it was already. The logic of blocking ISIS and its allies is pushing Maliki’s two main external backers, the US and Iran, into de facto cooperation in Iraq, even though they back opposite sides in Syria. Washington and Tehran have in any case been drawing closer, engaging in serious nuclear negotiations. There have been signs that the Syrian catastrophe is prompting even the Saudi regime to make overtures towards Iran.

In an astonishing and widely derided intervention, Tony Blair has tried to deny that the present crisis in Iraq has anything to do with the 2003 invasion, which he now tells us was part of a “battle…against Islamist extremism”.15 This ignores the minor fact that the Iraqi Ba’athist state was a secular pan-Arab nationalist regime. Overthrowing Saddam gave the jihadis their greatest fillip since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Syrian civil war has strengthened them, but so too has the Egyptian military coup (enthusiastically backed by Blair), which seemed to slam the door on Islamist efforts to win power by peaceful constitutional means.

Western imperialism cannot evade the main responsibility for Iraq’s torment. But there is no doubt that the ISIS advance adds to the crisis of American imperial power. Russia’s successful destabilisation of Ukraine has already impeded Obama’s attempted “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific region to address China’s emergence as a peer competitor.16 And now the Iraqi quagmire beckons again. No doubt Obama will do his best to stop large numbers of US troops returning to Iraq and to rely instead on air and naval power: the 300 Special Forces “advisers” he is sending there will probably act as intelligence gatherers and as spotters for air strikes. But the bill for imperial hubris is becoming ever steeper.


1: Anderson, 2013, p95. Thanks to Anne Alexander, Joseph Choonara and Phil Marfleet for their comments.

2: Dodge, 2012, Kindle location 2168. This book is a valuable source of information about and analysis of post-invasion Iraq, though it is hampered by an intellectual framework derived from academic security studies.

3: Dodge, 2010, p1277. For a dissection of the Bush administration’s ideology, see Callinicos, 2003, chapters 1 and 2.

4: For an excellent contemporary analysis, see Alexander and Assaf, 2005a and b.

5: Herring and Rangwalla, 2006, ch. 3.

6: Dodge, 2012, Kindle location 1003.

7: Ricks, 2009.

8: Dodge, 2012, Kindle location 2866.

9: Dodge, 2012, Kindle location 153.

10: Dodge, 2012, Kindle location 3063.

11: Chulov, 2014, and Khalaf and Jones, 2014.

12: Al-Sahly and Arango, 2014.

13: Cockburn, 2014. See also Cole, 2014.

14: Ramadani, 2014, and, for a historical perspective, the peerless Batatu, 1978.

15: Blair, 2014.

16: There is even speculation that Russia, via Saudi Arabia (which is in touch with the insurgents in Anbar), may have encouraged the Isis-led offensive to distract the US from Ukraine: Bhalla, 2014.


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Anderson, Perry, 2013, “Imperium”, New Left Review, I/83.

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