Washington has embarked on a risky course in Iraq that may lead to a new US war.
In the face of the swift advance by a Sunni coalition headed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which captured a large swathe of northern and western Iraq, the Obama administration has sent 300 soldiers back into the country.
This force, referred to as “observers” or “advisers”, are there to shore up the US-installed Baghdad government in a situation of developing civil war.
In the US media, there is a cacophony of views on who is to blame for the mess in Iraq from the imperialist’s point of view.
The architects of the 2003 invasion, from Dick Cheney and Tony Blair on down, justify the war and blame Obama for not keeping US forces in the country. Others blame the Bush administration for invading in the first place.
Obama blames Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government for being authoritarian and for suppressing Sunnis and Kurds. It seems odd that he has just noticed.
Obama’s proposal is to establish a new Iraqi government that includes Sunnis and Kurds to win the Sunni masses away from ISIS and join a common struggle against it.
To this end, US Secretary of State John Kerry was dispatched to the region to try to get Sunni-dominated governments, such as Saudi Arabia, who have been funding the Iraqi Sunnis under the table, to put pressure on Sunni local leaders in Iraq to break with ISIS.
The US said it would provide support and air strikes to back up the government, but would not “take sides” in the sectarian Sunni-Shia conflict.
This whole scenario is a fantasy. The US is already seen as “taking sides”, and has been since the 2003 invasion, when it smashed the Sunni-dominated state and Baath party, and installed the Shia-dominated regime.
At this stage, the idea that a fig-leaf of a few Sunni and Kurdish figures in the Baghdad government would make any difference to how the Sunni and Kurdish masses view it is highly dubious.
So far, Maliki has rejected such a government, and did so in harsh terms the day after Kerry left Baghdad.
The danger is that Washington will either have to accept that its whole intervention into Iraq has been an abject failure, or attack the Sunni-controlled area with huge air strikes with the Baghdad army and Shia militias on the ground.
The Iraqi army has not exactly distinguished itself in the face of the Sunni advance, largely fleeing without a fight. The Shia militias are divided.
Accepting the Iraq intervention decisively failed would be the most rational action, but would also be a major blow to US credibility. It may be too high a price to pay.
Large-scale air strikes, on the other hand, would be the start of the third US war against Iraq, and suck it deeper into the quagmire of civil war, with untold consequences for the whole region.
Washington would portray any such attack as aimed only against the brutal and extremely sectarian ISIS. But it would inevitably entail “collateral damage” to the Sunni masses.
It would also have to attack the ISIS-controlled area in Syria. This would put the US into a de facto alliance with Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad ・ inflaming Syrian Sunnis even more.
Another player is Iran, which has said it will intervene in Iraq if Shia holy cities and shrines are attacked. How the US will balance this with its commitment to Iranian enemy Saudi Arabia is problematic.
Another wild card is the re-constituted Shia militia of Moktada al-Sadr, the Mahdi Army. The New York Times says it is “possibly one of the largest and most experienced battle groups in Iraq”.
The Mahdi Army fought against the US invasion, as Sunnis did in the first years of the war. At the time, al-Sadar struck an Iraqi nationalist note, and sought common cause with the Sunni resistance.
With US occupation forces backing, the Iraqi army defeated the Mahdi Army in 2008.
Now the Mahdi Army says that it would not place itself under the control of the Maliki government or its army, and does not seek a Shia-Sunni conflict, but will protect Shia shrines and holy cities against any ISIS attack.
In the largely autonomous Kurdish region, which is well-armed, the governing authority has moved to take the oil-important city of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army abandoned it.
So far, the US public is deeply opposed to a new ground war in Iraq, but the danger of a slippery slope exists.
Small, but important, demonstrations against any new US war were held in many cities June 21. If the worse comes to pass, new anti-war mobilisations will be needed.
[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]