Iraq's sectarian terror is legacy of West's bloody war

July 10, 2016

An Iraqi woman passes by the scene of a car bomb attack in Kamaliyah, a predominantly Shia area of eastern Baghdad in 2013.

A truck bomb exploded in Baghdad on July 3, killing at least 292 people and wounding hundreds of others. The bombing, for which ISIS claimed responsibility, had the highest death toll of any terrorist bombing in Iraq since the US, Britain and Australia invaded the country in 2003.

Terrorist attacks are routine in Iraq. It is just one of many forms of violence that have become normal since the 2003 invasion. On July 8, ISIS attacked a Shia shrine in Balad, 80 kilometres north Baghdad, killing at least 26 people, the Independent reported the next day.

There has been some hand-wringing in the liberal media about how this atrocity inevitably received less attention than the rarer terrorist attacks in Western countries or those targeting Westerners. But while some commentators pointed out such terror is routine in Iraq, few said why.

Chilcot Inquiry

But on July 6, the world was reminded of the reason why Iraq has become so violent with the release of British Chilcot Inquiry seven years after it was launched.

The report turned out to be less disappointing than some feared, demolishing the main pretext for the invasion, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, and taking Blair to task for ignoring intelligence reports saying as much and for ignoring the potential dangers in Iraq following the invasion and “inadequate” planning for this.

A number of bereaved family members of the 179 British soldiers killed in the war were interviewed by the July 6 Independent. They generally expressed satisfaction that the report had vindicated their belief that Blair was culpable. But they were unanimous that Blair should face court.

Sarah O'Connor, who lost her brother Sergeant Bob O'Connor in 2005, summed up the sentiment: “There is one terrorist that the world needs to be aware of and his name is Tony Blair, the world's worst terrorist…”

Blair was unrepentant. “I can regret the mistakes and I can regret many things about it — but I genuinely believe not just that we acted out of good motives and I did what I did out of good faith, but I sincerely believe that we would be in a worse position if we hadn't acted that way,” he said.

He was backed up by then-Australian PM John Howard, who said: “There were errors in intelligence, but there was no lie.”

But there was. The Chilcot Report confirmed what was widely known. Before the invasion, the claims of weapons of mass destruction and supposed links between Saddam and the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were denounced as lies by millions of people marching against the war around the world. This included 1 million in Australia alone.

Justifying his “mistaken” belief in intelligence reports saying Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, Blair said: “I did believe it, and one of the reasons for that was because Saddam Hussein had used these weapons against his own people.”

Saddam's use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurdish civilians in Halabja in March 1988 has been routinely cited by Western leaders since the first US-led war against Iraq in 1991.

Western collaboration

However, this atrocity was perpetrated with Western collaboration.

During the 1980–88 war between Iraq and Iran, the West gave covert support to both sides. The West deliberately fuelled the war in order to weaken both regional powers that had the potential to challenge Western domination of the oil-rich Middle East. Such imperialist cynicism characterises Western policy towards Iraq.

In 1991, the US covertly gave Saddam a green light to invade Kuwait — then used the invasion as a pretext for leading an international coalition to carpet bomb Iraq. The motive was to demonstrate the West's right to stage military adventures amid the ending of the Cold War with the collapse of Soviet Union.

At the end of this short, but brutal, war the US-led forces allowed Saddam to crush an anti-regime uprising. The US then pushed for United Nations sanctions on Iraq that condemned the civilian population to extreme poverty and, according to UNICEF, contributed to killing at least half a million children.

The 2003 invasion had more ambitious motives. This time, the dictator would be overthrown, a new regime installed and the West's regional and global rivals shown that the US could set up and take down regimes in the region at will.

The cabal around Bush had already put their plans in writing in a document called The Project for a New American Century, which projected that Iraq would just be the first country to get the treatment.

Blair continues to insist that removing Saddam was a good thing. Iraqis disagree. Kadom al-Jabouri, a dissident jailed by Saddam, initially welcomed the invasion and achieved a fleeting moment of fame as the Iraqi with a sledgehammer who took part in the US army's stage-managed demolition of a statue of the overthrown dictator.

But in 2013, he told the Guardian: “I dreamed for five years of bringing down that statue, but what has followed has been a bitter disappointment. Then we had only one dictator. Now we have hundreds.

“Under Saddam there was security. There was corruption, but nothing like this. Our lives were protected. And many of the basics like electricity and gas were more affordable.

“After two years I saw no progress. Then there came the killings, robberies and sectarian violence.

“The Americans began it. And then with the politicians they destroyed the country. Nothing has changed. And things seem to get worse all the time.”

Initially, the US ruled directly through the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Its mandate was to demobilise the Iraqi armed forces, retrench the public service and implement an extreme neoliberalism of selling anything sellable to US corporations at bargain basement prices.

The CPA's Director of Security Policy was an Australian, Peter Khalil. Today he is not in jail or on trial — he has just been elected to parliament as the ALP Member for Wills, in suburban Melbourne.

Divide and rule

The post-invasion anarchy was accompanied by growing resistance. The US response was a violent divide-and-rule tactic: fomenting a civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Prior to 2003, the Sunni-Shia divide was a factor in Iraqi politics, but a minor one.

The US built walls between communities, and allocated positions in their puppet administrations along sectarian lines. The 2006 filmed hanging of Saddam by Shia militias chanting sectarian slogans was stage-managed by the US military and calculated to fuel the sectarian war.

This tactic worked to an extent. A unified resistance to the US became impossible. For Iraqis, violence grew exponentially.

However, the 2007 “surge” in US troops was not, by itself, enough to ensure US control. The US increasingly favoured Shia militias, the stronger of the sides, which meant increasing Iranian influence.

As Iran is the main rival of the West in the region, this represented the real failure of the US-led enterprise, along with having to let other global powers, including Russia, share in the spoils of the invasion. Imposing sanctions on Iran for a non-existent nuclear weapons program did not undo this failure.

By 2011, the US declared its occupation over. The country they left behind was ruled by corrupt politicians permanently at loggerheads with each other over competing financial interests, with sectarian militias as private armies.

Corruption, human rights abuses, lack of basic utilities and almost daily terrorist attacks continued in “post-occupation” Iraq. The lightning invasion of north-west Iraq by ISIS in early 2014 was connected to the occupation in a number of ways.

First, ISIS originated on the Sunni side in the sectarian civil war. Second, the brutality of the Shia militias was such that many people in Sunni communities were willing to accept the rule of the notoriously brutal terror group on the basis that it could not be any worse than the government-aligned militias.

Third, the corrupt state created by the occupation meant that the army was spectacularly ineffective.

With the support of Western airstrikes, the dysfunctional post-occupation state has managed to claw back some of the territory won by ISIS.

Tikrit was recaptured in April, Fallujah in June. This has been undermined, however, by sectarian violence by Iranian-backed militias grouped in the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU).

Al-Monitor reported on June 29 that pro-government Sunni politicians were trying to exclude the PMU from the projected recapture of Mosul, the capital of ISIS in Iraq, because of their hostility to the civilian population. However, the PMU are militarily more effective than the army.

This has paralleled squabbling between politicians over who should administer the recaptured areas. The main function of the sectarian-based militias is as private armies for entrepreneurial politicians.

Moreover, Al-Monitor reported on July 7 that there was simmering antagonism between rival Shia militias — those backed by Iran and those loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr — that could become full-scale armed conflict.

Iraqi toll

The number of Iraqis killed is phenomenal, although no accurate figures are kept. An indication is given by a November 2011 New York Times report that estimated Iraq had 1 million widows and more than 3 million orphans.

There is also the effect of depleted uranium weapons used extensively by US forces in the initial years of the occupation. Inter Press Service reported in 2011: “Records show that the total number of birth defects observed by medical staff at Al Basrah Maternity Hospital more than doubled between 2003 and 2009.”

Lack of basic services such as electricity and clean water, rampant corruption and lack of employment also help make day-to-day life hell.

The Chilcot Report delivered some truth but no justice. Bush, Blair and Howard should be put on trial for what is one of the worst crimes in human history. And both the Western powers and rival powers should be compelled to cease their military, economic and political domination of Iraq.

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