US President Barack Obama announced the deployment of 300 special forces troops to Iraq on June 19. It followed a week of denials that the US would respond militarily to the rapid advance toward Baghdad of anti-government forces led by the Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Obama’s announcement contradicted his previous statements as well as itself. On the one hand, he insisted the role of the special forces would be limited to “advising” forces of the US-installed Iraqi government, saying: “We always have to guard against mission creep. So let me repeat what I've said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.
“We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq.”
But he also said: “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action, if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”
Australian education minister Christopher Pyne told Channel Nine on June 20: “The United States obviously has to lead any kind of response in Iraq as they are the world power, if you like. If they ask us for assistance, we’ll weigh that up at the time and decide what we can or can’t do. The situation in Iraq is obviously very, very serious.”
A spokesperson for defence minister David Johnston told the Age on June 20 that a “small Australian Defence Force liaison element has been deployed to the Australian embassy in Baghdad to support security arrangements.” The spokesperson declined to state the size of this force.
Australia has responded positively to every US request to join a military adventure since 1950. This includes wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and the two previous invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
The Australian government responded to the current escalation in violence by warning all citizens to leave Iraq. However, the June 18 Guardian reported that immigration minister Scott Morrison said this would not stop the deportation of Iraqi refugees from Australia’s offshore concentration camps.
There are about 500 Iraqi refugees now jailed on Nauru and Manus Island.
The rapid advance of the ISIS-led forces exposed the falsehood of Western claims to having left a relatively stable regime in Iraq when US-led occupation forces lwithdrew in 2010. The first post-occupation elections, held on April 30, had been held up as evidence that Iraq was progressing toward normality.
ISIS originated as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), one of many hard-line Salafist armed groups that proliferated in Iraq during the US-led occupation. It became ISIS after expanding into neighbouring Syria when it descended into civil war after the 2011 uprising against the regime of Bashar Assad.
On June 10, Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, fell to ISIS-led forces with almost no resistance. On June 11, Tikrit fell.
In the following days, several videos released by ISIS gave an indication of the group's agenda. Footage of captured humvees crashing through the now-defunct Iraq-Syria border were released under the hashtag #SykesPicotOver.
This was a reference to the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement in which Britain and France divided up the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire, creating the borders of nation states that have existed ever since.
More ominously, other videos released by ISIS showed the mass execution of government soldiers taken prisoner when Mosul fell. Most had surrendered without firing a shot. ISIS claimed to have executed 1000 prisoners-of-war.
ISIS forces have continued to advance southward. At the time of Obama’s announcement, they were fighting pro-regime forces for control of the country’s largest oil refinery at Baiji.
Meanwhile, forces of the autonomous Kurdish regional government in Iraq's north took the town of Kirkuk, which was previously outside their jurisdiction. The Kurdish government says it remains loyal to the regime in Baghdad, but on the ground there is a de facto ceasefire between ISIS and Kurdish forces.
Western media reports, and even Obama’s June 19 statement, have conceded that this lightning advance by the ISIS-led forces was made possible by the sectarian Shia regime of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and its alienation of the Sunni population.
This is reflected in the ideologically disparate forces that have coalesced behind the ISIS offensive. These include remnants of the Awakening Movement, which had fought alongside US-led forces against ISI and other hard-line Sunni forces during the occupation, and the army of the secular pre-occupation regime of US-installed dictator Saddam Hussein.
However, Western propaganda understates the extent to which the Maliki regime is based on sectarian militias. These operate as separate entities and have also been incorporated into the army and police.
Moreover, the Western narrative portrays the conflict between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam as something that has always defined Iraqi politics. In reality, this division is very recent.
Writing in the June 17 Guardian, London Metropolitan University lecturer and Saddam-era Iraqi exile Sami Ramadani explained: “Until the 1970s nearly all Iraq’s political organisations were secular, attracting people from all religions and none. The dividing lines were sharply political, mostly based on social class and political orientation.
“The growth of religious parties followed Saddam’s ruthless elimination of all political entities other than the Ba'ath party. Places of worship became centres of political agitation and organisation.”
Most of Iraq’s Arab population are Shia. However, since Ottoman times until the 2003 US-led invasion, Sunni predominated in the elite, particularly in the military officer caste which was dominant during the Saddam regime.
Iraq is the location of the most important Shia religious centres at Kabala and Sammara. Saddam ruthlessly repressed the Shia clerical hierarchy as an actual and potential focus of opposition. Anti-Shia repression intensified during the 1980-88 war with Iran, whose regime is Shia, and after the 1991 uprising that followed the first US-led war against Iraq.
However, at a grassroots level, sectarianism remained largely absent. Ramadani said: “Every tribe in Iraq has Sunnis and Shia in its ranks. Every town and city has a mix of communities. My experience of Iraq, and that of all friends and relatives, is that of an amazing mix of coexisting communities, despite successive divide-and-rule regimes.
“The most serious sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq's modern history followed the 2003 US-led occupation, which faced massive popular opposition and resistance.
“The US had its own divide-and-rule policy, promoting Iraqi organisations founded on religion, ethnicity, nationality or sect rather than politics.”
The US-led forces created the sectarian civil war in 2006 to thwart anti-occupation resistance. Communalist and fundamentalist groups on both sides of the sectarian divide were armed and promoted. Groups with a more nationalist agenda were fiercely repressed.
Baghdad was divided, for the first time in its history, into Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods, separated by US-built walls. Non-Muslim minorities fared particularly badly.
The US troop surge during the next year contained, but did not end, the sectarian violence. A balance of terror was created with the occupation forces as arbiter.
This destroyed the united resistance to the occupation and created a semblance of stability that facilitated the withdrawal of occupation troops in 2010.
The sectarian divide-and-rule tactics used in Iraq mirrored similar tactics used in the Islamic world more generally, particularly after the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought Iran's Shia religious hierarchy to power.
Through its client Sunni theocratic regimes in the Arab gulf, particularly Saudi Arabia, the US promoted armed Salafi groups hostile to secularism, non-Muslim religions and Shia Islam. During the 1980s the focus of these groups was the Soviet-backed secular regime in Afghanistan.
The West alternately (and sometimes simultaneously) backed both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, but the Gulf Sunni theocracies tended to support the secular Saddam regime as a bulwark against the Shia theocracy in Iran.
The end of the Iran-Iraq war brought the Saddam regime into conflict with the Gulf theocracies. It led to the first US-led war against Iraq in 1991, which left Iraq besieged and isolated.
Meanwhile, the armed Salafi groups, which no longer enjoyed active Western support having served their purpose by defeating the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, became increasingly hostile to the West. This led to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US that created the pretext for the West’s “war on terror”.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq was based on the now entirely discredited notion that Saddam’s secular dictatorship and the mutually antagonistic Sunni fundamentalist terrorists and Iranian Shia theocracy all formed an “axis of evil”.
Ironically, the US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the hard-line Sunni groups in Iraq created an objective convergence of US interests with Iran.
However, Iran remains the most powerful rival to US interests in the Middle East. It is also a pragmatic ally of the Lebanese Shia community based group Hezbollah, the only force in the Middle East to pose a serious military challenge to the West’s regional colonial outpost of Israel.
Furthermore, after the 2011 democratic uprisings in the Arab world, the US again backed Sunni fundamentalist groups, both directly and through the Gulf theocracies, this time to hijack the uprisings.
In Syria, this strategy helped turn the uprising into a religious-sectarian civil war. This has helped the Assad regime maintain control over part of the country. The secular Assad dictatorship is also a pragmatic ally of Iran.
Last year, ISIS emerged as the strongest, and least susceptible to Western control, of the Sunni groups fighting Assad. This alarmed the West, which encouraged the other Syrian Sunni opposition groups to unite against ISIS and scaled down covert support to the anti-Assad forces.
The half-hearted nature of Obama’s announcement of the redeployment of US soldiers to Iraq in part reflects the failure of the 2003 invasion to achieve its stated goals. It also reveals the fact that withdrawing troops in 2010 was one of the few popular achievements of the Obama administration.
But it also reflects the fact that the Maliki regime is as much an ally of Iran as it is of the West despite the latter having put it in power.
Maliki has requested military intervention from both the US and Iran, which has said it will send troops if the Shia holy sites in Kabala and Sammara are threatened. ISIS has sworn to level these ancient shrines if they capture the cities.
The US intervention to defend the Maliki regime is largely aimed at denying Iran the pretext to do so. In blaming Maliki for ISIS’s rapid advance, Obama indicated the US feels no more loyalty to him than to previous puppets.
The US brought Saddam Hussein to power in the 1960s, overthrew him in 2003 and hanged him in 2006. The fate of Maliki in part depends on whether the US can find a suitable replacement.
Western policy in the Middle East involves supporting any number of antagonistic regimes and non-state armed groups to create continual conflict and instability. It uses direct military interventions to stop any one force becoming too powerful or the chaos becoming unmanageable.