Since early June the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an al-Qaedist formation, has taken over most of the predominantly Sunni Arab west. The Iraqi army and Shiite Arab militias are in control from Baghdad to the southeast. The Kurds, an oppressed nationality, have seized on the opportunity to consolidate control in the northeast, stake out new ground, including the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and take another step toward the establishment of an independent Kurdistan.
The borders of modern Iraq were drawn by the imperialist powers of Europe following World War I a century ago, setting up a pro-imperialist monarchy and establishing the domination of a Sunni-Arab ruling class. The region’s borders were carved up out of the former Ottoman Empire in agreements between the governments of Britain, France and czarist Russia. The new borders, like the empire they replaced, denied a homeland for the Kurds — today roughly 30 million who reside in a region spanning parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
But the removal of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and his national-socialist Baathist party in 2003 precipitated the unraveling of this imperialist order. Washington’s goal of establishing a stable capitalist regime of a new kind in Baghdad that would better serve imperialist interests failed. Instead, it set in motion unintended consequences, including an opening of political space in the region for working people to discuss, organize and fight for their class interests and the beginning of a new stage in the struggle of the Kurdish people.
Between 55 and 60 percent of Iraq’s 29 million inhabitants are Shiite Arabs, roughly 20 percent are Sunni Arabs and 15 to 20 percent are Kurds.
To the chagrin of the region’s capitalist rulers, Kurds in Iraq following Washington’s wars have carved out a semi-autonomous region. The Kurdish Regional Government collects its own taxes, has its own army — the Peshmerga with some 200,000 men and women under arms — and conducts trade, bypassing the government in Baghdad.
After some 800 ISIS combatants captured Mosul from 30,000 Iraqi soldiers June 12 and the Iraqi army disintegrated in the north without a fight, the Peshmerga moved rapidly to defend nearby Kurdish areas.
Over the last couple of weeks Peshmerga expanded the area under Kurdish rule by 30 percent, including the city of Kirkuk and surrounding oil fields Salahaddin and Diyala, brushing aside objections of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“The time for Kurdistan’s independence is closer than anytime before,” Kurdish government employee Shorsh Khalid Ahmed told the Wall Street Journal.
More than 14 million Kurds are estimated to live in Turkey, where they have fought against systematic and brutal oppression. Advances for the Kurds in Iraq forced new openings in Turkey. An agreement last year brought decades of armed conflict between Ankara and the guerrilla forces of the Kurdistan Workers Party to an end. The Turkish government has, little by little, conceded language rights and other national demands.
Turkey is today the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan. An oil pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan opened recently as part of expanding trade across the border.
“In the past an independent Kurdish state was a reason for war, but no one has the right to say this now,” Huseyin Celik, a spokesperson for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, told the Financial Times June 27.
“In Turkey, even the word ‘Kurdistan’ makes people nervous, but their name is Kurdistan,” he said. Independence for Iraqi Kurdistan is not Turkey’s “number one choice” he said, but “if Iraq is divided and it is inevitable, they are our brothers.”
Origins of ISISISIS has its origins in al-Qaeda of Iraq, which organized a campaign of terror and fomented sectarian killings between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shiites after the overthrow of Hussein.
In 2007, al-Qaeda was pushed back by an offensive of the U.S. military in alliance with tribal-based forces under the control of Sunni-Arab rulers who had formed the backbone of Hussein’s regime. Washington promoted Awakening Councils that put 100,000 Sunni-Arab militiamen on the U.S. military payroll.
Many Awakening Council fighters were incorporated into the Iraqi army. Maliki, who first came to power in 2006 as the candidate of Shiite capitalists, formed a fragile alliance with Sunni-Arab bourgeois politicians.
But that alliance was short-lived. Sunni-Arab Tariq al-Hashemi, vice president of Iraq and a leader of the al-Iraqiyya bloc, was arrested and then sentenced to death in absentia in September 2012, accused of aiding armed anti-government groups. Funding for Awakening Council local patrols was cut, and Sunni Arab army officers were replaced with Shias. Maliki also formed closer ties to the government of Iran.
Growing resentment in Sunni areas against discrimination by the new Shia-dominated government provided fertile ground for ISIS and other groups opposed to the regime in Baghdad. ISIS fighters, which include a large number of recruits from across the Middle East, Chechnya and elsewhere, have also gained experience in the Syrian civil war where they have wrested control of swaths of territory. The group gets funds and other aid from capitalists in the Gulf monarchies, especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
ISIS has taken control of almost every Iraqi border crossing with Syria and Jordan. The group tweeted pictures of a bulldozer demolishing an earthen barrier between Syria and Iraq.
While the U.S. rulers are concerned about moves toward a Kurdish nation and the strengthening relationship between Baghdad and the Iranian government, its greatest worry is the threat posed by al-Qaedist forces. The latter concern is equally shared by Tehran and has given impetus to thawing of relations between the Iranian and U.S. governments. The Washington Post reported June 16 that U.S. and Iranian diplomats meeting in Vienna discussed how to cooperate to bolster the Iraqi government and push back ISIS.
US-Iran collaboration“The United States and Iran find themselves on the same side of the current battle in Iraq,” the Post said, “both seeking to prevent the collapse of the Baghdad government or descent into all-out civil war.”
Washington has sent some 300 special forces to Iraq to bolster operations against ISIS, as well as drones and other surveillance planes. According to the New York Times, Iranian transport planes have been flying 140 tons of military equipment to Iraq every day.
“It feels both too late and too early to stop the disintegration,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote June 17, reflecting a bleak and inaccurate perspective common in the U.S. ruling class. “Pluralism came to Europe only after many centuries of one side or another in religious wars thinking it could have it all, and after much ethnic cleansing created more homogeneous nations. … Arab Muslims need to go on the same journey.”Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Baghdad June 23 to push Maliki to reach agreement with Sunni and Kurdish politicians in the newly elected Parliament. He flew to Erbil the next day hoping to convince Kurdish leaders to remain within Iraq.
Kerry then headed to Saudi Arabia to pressure Saudi King Abdullah to support the formation of a new Iraqi government. The Saudi government has called Maliki an “Iranian agent.” But worried that ISIS could threaten not just Iraq and Syria, but the Saudi kingdom, Abdullah pledged to back the U.S. plan.
As part of the setup put in place by Washington after removing Hussein, the prime minister’s post is reserved for a Shiite Arab, the speaker of the Parliament for a Sunni and the ceremonial presidency for a Kurd.
But when the newly elected Parliament met July 1, Kurdish and Sunni parties walked out, after Maliki’s Shiite-dominated coalition was unable to reach agreement on their candidate for prime minister.
Thousands of Sunnis and Shiites have fled areas where fighting between ISIS and the Iraqi army have taken place in the west.
Bashir Khalil, a Shiite and his wife Nidal Khalil, a Sunni, were among those who fled Mosul after ISIS took over, taking refuge in Kurdish territory near Erbil. “We don’t want this one or that one,” Nidal Khalil told Today’s Zaman, referring to the Maliki government and ISIS. “Neither of them cares about us poor people.”
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