ISIS, Iraq and the West: Imperialism in the modern age (full text) – Part I

During the KSU/Basta on ISIS and Iraq on Thursday evening, Abulkasim Al-Jaberi, journalist and political activist shared a sharp analysis on the rise of the Islamic State and the role of the West. Here, we publish the full text of his speech in three parts.

Part IPart IIPart III

Any conflict always has a historical context. This may speak for itself, but it is too often ignored in today’s analysis. When it comes to Iraq, you can go back as far as the early 1900s, when it was a British mandate. 1925 for instance, a puppet regime installed after a popular uprising, signed off all of the countries’ oil to a number of oil giants, among them Shell and BP and Exon Mobil, granting them concessions to exploit it and give the country a tiny share of the profit for 75 years. Iraq was de facto under British administration and military control at the time. These oil giants still operate in Iraq today, and after they were kicked out of the country by a nationalist government, they came back after the 2003 US/UK invasion and signed lucrative multi-billion dollar deals with the current government to develop some of the countries’ largest oil fields. Then, like now, these deals were signed under foreign military occupation, accept this time it was the US. So it’s not hard to see a line of continuity there. We have limited time though and we can’t get into British colonial adventures for the purposes of this talk. But it’s relevant to mention this, because the presence of imperial occupying powers, accompanied by the same corporations almost a hundred years ago, should at the very least suggest that colonial meddling in Iraq, driven by an imperialist capitalist logic, has always been crucial in determining the countries’ fate. And we have to keep this in mind when reflecting about Iraq.

So let’s look at the magnitude of the crisis. The Islamic State currently controls the north eastern part of Syria, which amounts to about a third of the country. The border with Iraq has been rendered effectively null and void when Al Baghdadi, the self proclaimed caliph, declared the caliphate June 29th. The area under ISIS control in Iraq spans about a quarter of the country, and this includes Iraq’s second city Mosul in the north, Fallujah to the west of Baghdad, Sinjar, and most of Anbar governorate. The area they control is roughly the size of Britain, and has some 6 million inhabitants, more than for instance Denmark and Finland. IS is currently closing in on the Iranian, Jordanian, Saudi, Turkish, and Lebanese borders and has engaged in fighting with the Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, Iraqi and Turkish army. But that is not all. The Islamic State, as was revealed by flash disks captured by the Iraqi army in June, possesses at least 2 billion US dollars. They possess American Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi army and rival rebel groups in Syria. The Islamic State generates its own income through own oil revenue from fields captured in Syria and Iraq, their own taxation and public services. Their territorial expansion continues, as does their recruitment, including among alienated youth in Europe. currently estimated to command between 30 and 50 thousand fighters. Once again, Iraqi’s and Syrians pay the price. Over a hundred thousand Syrians have been killed, and the refugees number in the millions. Around a thousand Iraqi’s have been killed every month since January as a result of fighting, the injured run in the tens of thousands, and some 1.2 million Iraqi’s have been displaced. By all accounts, it looks like they’re here to stay.

The media has reacted in shock. If we examine the language used in the media to cover the events, we come across such phrases as lightning advance, meteoric advance etc. This makes it seem as though ISIS came out of nowhere, and we have no idea how this could have happened. Now as I said earlier, and this is a general rule, the events we are witnessing today do not take place in a vacuum. And the reason everyone was so shocked is partly because the developments in Iraq were not being reported. Now, there’s a reason to be silent about the jihadists advance. Let’s not forget that the US, after 9/11 unleashed a ‘ global war on terror.’ War rhetoric escalated and became even more normalized in American society, billions of dollars were invested in this industry, wars were waged killing hundreds of thousands, including many US soldiers. Civil rights in the US were curbed under the new anti terrorism regime, and local police departments in the US were militarized Obama is also lauded for killing Osama bin Laden, so they were winning the war on terror, right?.. so both domestically and abroad, the US, the Netherlands and other allies have put the stakes very high. Now, if after all of this, the jihadists are more powerful than they have ever been, it makes you look bad, to say the least. The very legitimacy you depend on crumbles if you are losing the war on terror. What we will see, and many analysts, iraqi civilians, and people all over the world have been saying this, is that the policies pursued by the US purportedly to fight terrorism, are the very policies that created such groups as the Islamic State in the first place.

The aftermath of the US invasion

Let’s take a closer look at these policies. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, they invaded a country that was already in tatters. In the Gulf War, the US killed thousands and leveled the countries’ civilian infrastructure. By that time already, since august 1990, the UN Security Council imposed on Iraq what was to become the most comprehensive set of sanctions ever witnessed. The embargo was near total, and as a result, crucial spare parts could not be imported, and the water treatment and electricity generating facilities destroyed by the US could not be repaired. The consequences for the Iraqi people were devastating. Unicef estimates that 500.000 children died as a direct result of the sanctions, causes of death were disease and malnutrition, affecting mostly children under 5. The embargo was only lifted after the US, Britain and their allies, including the Dutch, sent their armies to execute their policy of regime change. Again, the civilian infrastructure, barely recovered, became the target of imperial military aggression.

Paul Bremer headed the occupation forces and served as the head of state of Iraq from May 2003 to June 2004. One of his first decisions was to dismantle the Iraqi security apparatus. Overnight, he fired 400.000 soldiers and security personnel. 400.000 men lost their jobs, they were under foreign military occupation, and they had access to weapons. Some of those high ranking Iraqi officers are now among the ranks of the Islamic State. At the same time, Iraq’s borders were left wide open for Jihadists from all over the world, just like Iraqi museums with some of the world’s oldest historical artifacts, which were of course looted. The oil fields however, were guarded around the clock by American occupation forces. One of Bremer’s first orders was to ban all public sector employees from current and future employment by the government. This included simple civil servants and people who had party membership forced upon them. So under the guise of deBa’thification, Bremer was implementing a policy of deSunnification, thus institutionalzing sectarianism. In the meantime, Iraqis were being killed by the thousands. The US called their military strategy shock and awe. This simply meant using such overwhelming military force so as to defeat the enemy physically and psychologically. It is reminiscent of the Gulf War bombarding of so called strategic targets, read, the civilian infrastructure, to inflict a collective sense of humiliation and defeat bearing so heavy on the Iraqi people so as to destroy their psyche. This is how the military strategy was explicitly defined, and you can look this up, it’s is all very well documented. The stage was thus set, and all the ingredients for a sectarian Jihadist upsurge were in place: The first ingredient was the very real threat of an enemy, rampaging the country killing thousands, and this has proved a very powerful mobilizing force for jihadists. And secondly, with the disbanding of the Iraqi army there was a security vacuum, and hundreds of thousands of unemployed, armed and impoverished Iraqi’s who were soon joined by jihadists who crossed the open borders.

Against this backdrop, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a radical militant from Jordan, entered Iraq and founded the Iraqi branch of Al-Qaeda, later to become the Islamic State of Iraq. The link between the American occupation of Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State becomes even more explicit if we look at the leader of the Caliphate, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Under the US occupation al Baghdadi had spent 5 years in an American jail. Everybody is aware of the torture, rape, and humiliation that Iraqi’s underwent structurally in these dungeons. Anyone could end up in those jails, under the fabricated charge of terrorism. According to the New York Times, who ran a background article on Baghdadi,at every turn, Mr. Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’ involvement in Iraq – most of the political changes that fueled his fight, or led to his promotion, were born directly from some American action.”

The Maliki government inherited this anti terrorism rhetoric and the torture dungeons to eliminate political dissent. Soon after the Americans moved out of Iraq, a peaceful protest started in Sunni areas like Fallujah in 2012. These protesters were demanding an end to the institutionalized sectarianism, and better living conditions. After the devastation of war, none of Iraq’s vital civilian infrastructure had been repaired. Despite investments worth billions, electricity and water facilities perform at an all time low, and the billions of dollars meant for reconstruction disappeared as corruption was at an all time high. To get back to the protesters’ demands, they were not much different from for instance the Egyptian revolution, and resonated the calls for bread, freedom, and social justice. Maliki’s response, backed by the US, has been a brutal and bloody clampdown. Soon, under the same terrorism pretext inherited from the US, American provided helicopters and fighter jets, only with Iraqi pilots this time, started bombarding Fallujah and other Sunni areas. Hundreds have died as a result, and even a Fallujah hospital was targeted by US weaponry. To make sure that Maliki, a loyal ally to the US, would successfully suffocate the protest, the US at the time pledged emergency military aid. As a sunni insurgency followed, Maliki answered by more repression. An 80 page Amnesty International report documents the horrors of this repression. One woman, interviewed by journalist Dahr Jamail, recounts how she was raped in prison: “I was tortured and raped repeatedly by the Iraqi security forces,” “I want to tell the world what I and other Iraqi women in prison have had to go through these last years. It has been a hell.”This woman, who goes by the alias of Heba, was charged with terrorism, a matter of protocol for anyone who is taken by the security forces. She goes on: “”I now want to explain to people what is occurring in the prisons that [Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki and his gangs are running,” Heba added. “I was raped over and over again, I was kicked and beaten and insulted and spit upon.” Precisely these types of abuses occurred on a large scale in the US controlled Aby Ghraib prison. Now they had a proxy doing it for them.

Under these circumstances, it is not hard to see that Iraqi tribes would tolerate the Islamic State, the self branded sworn enemy of the Shiite heretics who control the government. And one can understand that these conditions were very conducive to Jihadi recruitment in the area. Other tribes, if they didn’t deliver fighters, sometimes reluctantly entered varying degrees of alliances with the Islamic State.