This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
The start of 2020 saw the assassination of the top Iranian general Qasem Suleimani by US forces, recklessly destabilising the Middle East region. In the immediate aftermath of Suleimani’s assassination, millions poured onto the streets of Iraq and Iran to mourn him as an Iranian hero and Shia martyr. This was despite his recent role in the bloody repression of mass protests in both countries, which reignited in Iraq in recent days.
The assassination triggered a series of events that led to the accidental shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by the Iranian military, with the terrible loss of hundreds of lives, which, in turn, provoked new protests against the Iranian regime.
This is not the first time Western powers have intervened in the region with grave results. Imperialism, particularly the US, British and French capitalist powers, has a long and bloody record of meddling in the Middle East. And the backdrop to the current crisis can be found in the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The then US president, George W. Bush, and British prime minister, Tony Blair, ordered their armed forces to bomb Iraq’s cities and tanks, troops and armoured vehicles were sent in from Kuwait. This act showed how the imperialist powers ignore so-called ‘international laws’ when it suits them.
Millions of anti-war protesters marched across Britain, the United States and around the globe in opposition to the plans of Bush and Blair. But it would have required greater action, such as strikes and general strikes which directly threatened the interests of the invading powers, to stop the war drive. The invasion set in train disastrous events that shaped regional and world politics for years to come.
The 11 September 2001 terror attack on US soil by Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network, killing thousands of innocent people in New York and Washington, was seized upon by the US ruling elite to enhance its long-held geo-strategic aims in the Middle East and Central Asia. Afghanistan was invaded and the Taliban overthrown, despite most of the 9/11 plane hijackers originating from Saudi Arabia, a close US ally.
The next aim of the US, the invasion of Iraq, was prepared for by the imperialist powers with a litany of lies. They falsely claimed that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’. Yet Saddam Hussein’s primitive nuclear program was closed down under US and UN supervision after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
The claim that he was in alliance with Al Qaeda was also nonsense. Al Qaeda’s Sunni fundamentalists and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist secular nationalist regime, held each other in mutual contempt and hatred.
As The Socialist said at the time of the 2003 invasion, the real motivation for the war was to seize control of the vast oil resources of Iraq and to use occupied Iraq as a key strategic position in the Middle East region for US imperialism.
The enormous strength of the US army in comparison to the Iraqi army, as well as its soldiers’ low morale, meant the war was over within weeks. Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003 and executed after a show trial three years later. George Bush arrogantly declared “mission accomplished” and promised peace and prosperity for Iraq now the tyrant Saddam was gone.
This bombast conveniently ignored the fact that Saddam was previously a close US ally. He came to power in Iraq in the 1970s after internal struggles within the ruling Ba’ath party.
The Ba’athists mixed Arab nationalist and socialist rhetoric but following their successful coup in the 1960s struck out at the left, violently suppressing the once-powerful Iraqi Communist Party. Attempts by its leadership to find accomodation with the regime were rewarded in 1978 by Saddam Hussein’s renewed repression, including the execution of many Communist Party members.
During the Cold War years, Western powers sponsored Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war against Iran, which cost at least one and a half million lives, following the coming to power of the Mullahs in 1979/80.
However, Saddam overplayed his hand and invaded neighbouring Kuwait on 2 August 1990, which gave him more vast oil resources. This directly collided with US imperialist interests in the region. Washington assembled a ‘coalition of the willing’ and waged the first Gulf War – possible only with the redrawing of the world balance of forces after the collapse of Stalinism in the former USSR – driving Iraq forces out of Kuwait.
Saddam was allowed to stay in power, and gas thousands of Kurds in revolt, as the Western powers watched on, but he remained a major irritant for Washington. Cruel UN sanctions imposed on Iraq led to the deaths of many thousands of civilians mainly due to the lack of medicines. In 2003, US imperialism finally got its chance to remove Saddam Hussein but at further catastrophic cost to the people of Iraq and the region.
According to Iraq Body Count in 2017, the conflicts in Iraq resulted in the death of 199,734 Iraqi civilian and 4,424 American soldiers, as well as the injury of 31,952, according to the US Department of Defense. Some other estimates put the total figures, as a consequence of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq war and taking into account wider categories of mortality causes, at over two million.
In the first three years of the war and occupation, over four million Iraqis were displaced from their homes. The use of depleted uranium in shells by US forces caused an increased rate of cancer and birth defects. The years of US occupation led to the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure and public services, like health. Open street sewers and undrinkable water inevitably spread deadly diseases.
While, as of 2013, the Iraq war had cost US taxpayers about $2 trillion, none of the stated objectives of the US-led invasion and occupation were achieved. The conscious fomenting of sectarian strife, as US forces leaned on one section of the population against another, led to sectarian bloodbaths.
Tragically, no mass force of the working class, uniting all religious and national groups on an anti-imperialist, socialist programme, existed. This could have successfully expelled the occupation and opposed the local reactionary politicians.
The occupiers ‘de-Baathification’ led to a purge of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated state and military apparatus. Sunni militias rose in revolt against US, British and other forces, and also indiscriminately targeted Shias. Atrocities were followed by counter atrocities by Shia militias.
As Western forces became bogged down in an endless conflict, the occupation became synonymous with the worst of the colonial-era rule. Detention centres, such as the Abu Ghraib, were notorious for the torture and humiliation of Iraqis by US forces. Iraqi homes were raided and ransacked, family members kidnapped. The medieval-like sieges of Fallujah city in 2004 were high-profile examples of ‘collective punishment’ of tens of thousands of Iraqis by western forces.
It was during these years that Iran, the US’s main opponent in the region, became strengthened. The crucial role played by pro-Shia political and militia forces in Iraq make up an important part of the ‘Shia Arc’ in the region, strengthening Tehran’s reach and influence, all the way to Lebanon.
According to the journalist Patrick Cockburn, “After the US invasion in 2003, the Americans often dealt with Suleimani, knowingly but at a distance. Both Washington and Tehran had to agree on all Iraqi presidents and prime ministers before they could be appointed…both sides had an interest in maintaining a stable Shia-dominated government, even if they vied to bring it under their influence” (London Review of Books, 23 January 2020).
Under occupation, Iraq held multi-party elections in 2005. Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister in 2006, and remained in office until 2014. His government implemented policies that alienated the Sunni minority, worsening the sectarian tensions already fostered by the US.
The region’s rulers and imperialism were badly shaken by the ‘Arab Spring’ which erupted in 2011/2012, toppling despots in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere. Iraq was not immune. Mass protests occurred against poverty, lack of basic infrastructure, corruption, occupation and the rule of right-wing sectarian-based parties.
But emerging from decades of oppressive rule, the various protest movements were not able to develop class-based, socialist mass parties that could unite the working class and oppressed across all religious and ethnic divisions. The ruling elites were able to regroup and, in many cases, use sectarian poison to divide and rule. This found its most disastrous expression in Syria, where the revolutionary uprising against President Assad was derailed by the civil war and outside powers’ interference.
In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as Isis), fuelled by the plight of the discriminated-against Sunni minority in Iraq, launched a military offensive in northern Iraq, dramatically capturing Mosul city.
Both the US and Iran had a common interest in stopping Isis fighters taking Baghdad.
US combat troops were officially and ignominiously finally withdrawn from Iraq by December 2011, after years of bloody conflict in which it was clear that imperialist forces could not quell resistance to their occupation. The anti-war protests in the United States, Britain and around the world, also played an important role in forcing the withdrawal. However, the US and its allies unleashed another military action, Operation Inherent Resolve, in 2014, as the Isis threat grew.
General Suleimani played a key role in directing pro-Iranian militias in Iraq in the conflict with Isis. Their victories brought Suleimani hero status among many of Iraq’s Shia population. But his role in the violent repression of small-scale protests in Iraq, last October, and the deaths of around 500 protesters at the hands of Iranian proxies, like Hashd al-Shaabi, the umbrella grouping of Iraq’s mostly Shia militias, provoked a near mass uprising of the Shia community.
The Iraqi ruling elite hope Suleimani’s assassination can undermine the protests. It claims it is defending Iraqi sovereignty and that the greatest threat comes from the US. The Iraqi parliament voted, albeit indicatively, for the removal of all American troops from Iraqi soil. Most Kurdish and Shia parliamentarians did not attend the vote, an indication of the sectarian and national fault lines that exist within Iraq.
Yet new anti-regime demonstrations took place on 19 January and are continuing, with protesters closing roads in cities across Iraq, and demanding political change. “They have had their chance, they have had many chances – 17 years of chances. There will be no extension”, a 19-year-old protester said.
Shia leader and militia leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, announced his support for escalations of the protests and called on his followers to take to the streets in “a million-man march”. While demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, he also opposes Iranian domination. However, despite al-Sadr’s nationalist appeal, many protesters are very sceptical of his motives, believing he will attempt to hijack and divert the protest movement.
This reinforces the need for mass protests to be cross-community and linked up on a local, regional and national level, through democratic committees of action that include self-defence against militia attacks.
The protest movement of recent months has proven to be resilient in the face of bloody repression. To develop it needs to go beyond immediate slogans and to discuss a programme of radical social and economic demands, and to pose the question of who should rule Iraq. The repressive and sectarian regimes imposed by the Western imperialist occupation are widely discredited and without authority amongst millions of workers.
A revolutionary constituent assembly, with a majority of workers’ representatives, from all religious and ethnic backgrounds, can act to end poverty, mass unemployment, and broken infrastructure and public services. The nationalisation of the country’s huge oil wealth under democratic workers’ control and management, to be used for the benefit of the majority of Iraqis, is a crucial starting point.
The Iraqi people have endured barely imaginable horrors over the last decades, from iron dictatorship to brutal imperialist occupation, to dysfunctional and corrupt rule by local sectarian and ethnic-based right-wing parties. Increasing numbers of the working class and poor will see the need to build independent trade unions and a mass party that represents their class interests.
With radical socialist policies, such a workers’ party could rekindle Iraq’s powerful left traditions and form a workers’ and poor people’s government that could kick out imperialism, sweep away the sectarian forces, bringing about lasting peace and prosperity and providing a beacon for workers and the poor throughout the region.