Iraq Background: What’s Behind the Escalating Sectarian War and U.S. Intervention?  Where Could It Go? Where Do Our Interests Lie?

By Larry Everest | June 26, 2014 | Revolution Newspaper |


The June 10 collapse of Iraqi government forces in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and the city’s fall to the reactionary Islamic jihadists of the ISIL and other Sunni forces, stunned the Iraqi government, the U.S. rulers, and other regional and global powers, setting off alarm bells in capitals around the world.

Since then, the situation has evolved very quickly. Jihadists and other Sunni forces have rapidly extended their control of north and west Iraq, including taking control of Iraq’s border with Syria and perhaps Jordan, and moving to within 40 miles of Baghdad. There are reports that ISIL and Sunni fighters may have taken over Iraq’s largest oil refinery. So far, the Iraqi government, headed by Nouri al-Maliki, has been unable to mount a counter-offensive, and there are deep fissures among Iraq’s ruling parties. The Obama administration is furiously working to craft a response and prevent the fall of Baghdad, including deploying military forces to the region. Iran is stepping up its presence in Iraq, and other regional states, including Saudi Arabia, are also reacting to protect their own interests. .

It’s impossible to predict where this is all going, but it could develop into a major turning point—fracturing or breaking national boundaries and ruling structures which have existed for nearly 100 years, since World War 1. These structures and relations have been key components of 70 years of U.S. domination of the Middle East, which has been crucial to the functioning and power of U.S. imperialism globally and domestically.

1. How Did We Get Here? Not Essentially Bush or Stupidity, But the Dynamics and Necessities of Imperialism!

People need to understand some key truths about the current crisis in Iraq.

It isn’t simply the “fault” or “stupidity” of Bush, Cheney and the “neocons,” as some argue. If this were the case it might be fairly easy for the U.S. to extricate itself. But it’s not. This crisis is rooted in the dynamics of capitalism-imperialism, the history of its domination of the Middle East, and the actions the U.S. rulers have felt compelled to take to maintain that dominance.

Imperialism has colonized, dominated, strangled, twisted and suffocated the Middle East for over 100 years. After World War 2 ended in 1945, the U.S. became the dominant imperial overlord. During these decades, the U.S. worked to basically put the whole region on lockdown: overall integrating the core pillars of the traditional social order—feudal, tribal, and patriarchal relations, including the prominent role of Islam and the clerical establishment—into the forms through which it dominated and exploited the region. This meant backing up or installing kings, military juntas, and tyrants, while arming and training their secret police and torturers. Nationalists, revolutionaries, and especially communists were ruthlessly suppressed. Israel has been America’s local enforcer, ethnically cleansing the indigenous Palestinian population and waging war on its neighbors. During its post-World War 2 reign, the U.S. has marauded all over the world, for instance sponsoring death squads that murdered hundreds of thousands in Central America during the 1980s alone. Yet over the last 30 years or so, there’s nowhere it has waged so many wars and military interventions as the Middle East. And both Democrats and Republicans have supported all of this!

Why? Because this was—and is!— a key strategic, military and economic crossroads linking Europe, Asia, and Africa, and home to roughly 60 percent of the world’s energy reserves. (While technological changes like fracking are shifting the global energy landscape, the Middle East still accounts for a third of global oil production, more than any other region.

The issue here is not simply or mainly U.S. oil consumption. Control of this global oil spigot has been called the “greatest strategic prize” in history by various imperialists because it’s been essential to the profitable functioning of U.S. capital, to its global economic and military dominance, and to its leverage over other powers . Hence no disruption of this setup was to be tolerated.

But by the dawn of the new millennium, tensions and contradictions were cracking the edifice of U.S. control. The 1979 Iranian revolution ended up bringing Islamic fundamentalists to power. The 1979-1988 war in Afghanistan, fueled by U.S., Pakistani, and Saudi Arabian support for anti-Soviet Islamist fighters, spawned organized jihadists hostile to both the former Soviet Union and to the West and its regional clients.

The 1989-1991 collapse of the Soviet Union (by then an imperialist power1) was a geopolitical earthquake that shifted the whole global terrain, ushering in what the Revolutionary Communist Party has identified as a “period of major transition with the potential for great upheaval.” The savaging of Iraq during the 1991 U.S. war and then 13 years of sanctions sent tremors throughout the region, yet did not take down the Hussein regime. This and Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians stirred anger and discontent across the region. Through all this, Middle Eastern oil and natural gas have created enormous, obscene wealth for imperialism and its local collaborators, while most of the region’s 300-400 million people remained impoverished and oppressed. At the same time, capitalist globalization has torn up traditional ways of survival and socialization, and propelled millions from the countryside into sprawling urban cities and slums.

These developments occurred in the wake of the 1976 overthrow of socialism and the restoration of capitalism in China following Mao's death. This had profound ideological and political reverberations worldwide, including creating a void of genuine opposition to imperialism. This also strengthened the Islamic fundamentalist current, which by the century's turn was becoming a serious challenge to U.S. interests in the Middle East and Central Asia.

So in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, the imperialists felt it was necessary to radically restructure the region. As Bush later summed up, "Years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither." They also felt they had the freedom to pursue their grand ambitions because the U.S. was then unquestionably the world's dominant power.

So they launched a "global war on terror." This was, in reality, a war for greater empire that aimed to defeat anti-U.S. Islamic fundamentalism, take down regimes that stood in the U.S.'s path, and economically, politically, and socially transform the whole region. They called this "draining the swamp"— drying up the roots and sources of the growing strength of Islamist opposition. All this was part of a larger strategy of preventing any other powers from rising to challenge the U.S., globally or regionally, locking in American hegemony for decades to come. In short, they aimed to create an unchallenged and unchallengeable empire.

This "war on terror" started in Afghanistan in October 2001, but shifted quickly to Iraq with the March 2003 invasion. The Bush regime considered Iraq key to advancing all of its objectives. They envisioned transforming it into a new kind of neo-colony in the region—more open to global capital, especially its oil sector, as well as a U.S.-led "democratic" pole and military platform. A central objective: weakening if not overthrowing the Islamic Republic of Iran, which the U.S. considered one of the prime sources of Islamist opposition regionally. Taking down the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein was also seen as dealing a death blow to Arab nationalism and what remained of Russian regional influence.

Such a vision required clearing the ground, so to speak, and this is what the Bush team did—shattering and disbanding the Baathist Army, privatizing the economy, and then purging the state of all former Baathists, which ended up gutting much of the Iraqi state and barring many Sunnis (who'd had the predominant role in Iraqi government society since the country's founding by the British in 1921) from having any meaningful future. These moves were seen as necessary and logical as part of the larger strategy the U.S. was pursuing.

The leading lights of the U.S. ruling class pretty much all supported the overarching objectives of the "war on terror," including the Democratic Party (and yes, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry)! That's why we shouldn't call these "wars for oil" or "Bush's war"—we should call them imperialist wars, because that's what they are.

But things did not go according to plan. U.S. planners imagined they could airlift a gang of puppet exiles into Baghdad and that they, together with the comprador Kurdish leadership (which had been in control of northeast Iraq since the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War), would form the core of a new U.S.-dominated "democracy." But these exiles had little popular support and no organization on the ground, and the U.S. quickly realized they couldn't cohere a nationwide government. Meanwhile an armed Baathist and Sunni Islamist resistance was emerging. So the U.S. was forced to turn to a number of different, and often contending, Shi'a religious parties, most with long-standing ties to Iran, along with the Kurdish leadership and some Sunnis to form a government.2 The outcome was the replacement of an essentially secular and nationalist neocolonial state with an Islamic state constructed along sectarian lines, dominated by religious Shi'as and also subordinate to imperialism.

The U.S.'s grand plans were made all the more difficult to achieve by the fact it was doing transformation "on the cheap"—with relatively few troops. Why? In part because their strategy was to move on to the next target, not get bogged down.

But bogged down they got, by an armed anti-U.S. resistance that included tribal, nationalist and jihadist Sunnis, as well as some Shi'a militias. This conflict evolved by 2006 into a savage sectarian civil war with the Iraqi government, backed by the U.S., utilizing death squads, torture chambers, and the sectarian 'cleansing' of many Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad. After peaking around 2008, fighting between the Iraqi government forces and Sunni jihadists and other Sunni forces in northwest Iraq has escalated sharply since 2013.

These events jolted the region. They strengthened the oppressive Shi'a regime in Iran and threatened to undercut pro-U.S. Sunni tyrannies like Saudi Arabia. This shift in the balance of forces has provoked a regional battle—sometimes open, often hidden—between the Saudis and other Gulf states backing Sunni forces, and Iran backing Shi'a forces.

As this was taking place, other developments in the region were both increasing mass suffering and shaking ruling structures. Drought created by global warming has hammered the region's agriculture. The global food and financial crises of 2008-2009 hit hard. This was the terrain out of which the "Arab Spring" exploded, increasing the fragility of the regional order, which the U.S. then exacerbated by first promising "democracy," and then supporting coups overthrowing elected Islamists, for instance in Egypt.

Syria has become a focal point—and nodal point—of these contradictions and a major factor in the crisis in Iraq today. In March 2011, in the wake of uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, tens of thousands of Syrians rose up against the oppressive Assad regime, which responded brutally. Since then, the battle in Syria has devolved into a nightmarish civil war dominated by reactionaries on both sides: Assad, backed by Iran and Russia on one side, and anti-Assad forces, dominated by reactionary Sunni Jihadists, as well as forces backed by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and other powers on the other. The Syrian people's suffering has been unimaginable, with some 160,000 killed, and at least 2.5 million forced to flee their homes. This is a major crime of U.S. imperialism, which has both stoked the carnage, and—along with all that's been described above—added jet fuel to reactionary Islamic Jihadism, giving it big openings in which to organize, grow, and become battle-hardened.

This whole history—from 1945 to the current day—shows that the interests of U.S. imperialism—what the rulers call "American interests"—are NOT in the interests of humanity, including those who happen to live within the borders of the U.S. The rulers' actions have led to terrible suffering and oppression for millions, decade after decade. Their interests are against the interests of the people—in the Middle East, here and around the world. Why should anyone think anything good can come from further U.S. intervention and domination?

Those in power understand that they must "never let them see you sweat," in other words never reveal their fears and vulnerabilities to those they oppress and rule over. Yet the events unfolding before our eyes show that the system of imperialism is full of contradictions and its rulers are not all knowing3 and not all powerful. Their "war on terror" has failed to achieve its objectives; it was designed to strengthen U.S. imperialism, instead it's created new problems and difficulties, not just in the Middle East but globally as well.

2. They can't leave...and they have no good options.

Obama's aim has been to maintain overall U.S. dominance in the Middle East-Central Asian regions, while extricating it from direct, on-the-ground wars there. One element: combating "terrorism" via drone strikes and special forces operations, as well as utilizing mercenaries and local reactionary allies. In some instances, this has meant inciting and manipulating sectarian violence—even as that can get out of their control. The Obama team—and there are sharp divisions within the U.S. ruling class over global strategy—has been driven to take these steps by the tremendous costs and ultimate failures of U.S. ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as their need to focus on repelling growing challenges from Russia and China—sharply posed in Ukraine and the South China Sea respectively—as well as other powers. Hence, Obama's stated goal of a "pivot to Asia."

However, in light of the threat to the Iraqi state, the U.S. rulers feel they have little choice, given the threat posed by ISIL to the regional order, but to send advisors, warships, and intelligence assets to prevent the reactionary Maliki regime from collapsing, even as they are maneuvering to forge a government more to their liking, and to prevent increased Iranian influence. But this choice is also full of dangers and uncertainties. For instance, the Iraqi army may be too rotten to successfully prop up. Another possible problem, the Maliki government seems to be counting on rallying the Shi'a population for a holy war against the Sunnis, and this could turn into a horrific, U.S.-supported bloodbath, further stoking Sunni Jihadism and shaking Sunni states. Then there's Iran. While it has been an enormous problem for the U.S. and its key ally Israel, the U.S. seems to be exploring at least a tactical alliance with Iran to save the Iraq state, but this too could end up strengthening Iran in the longer term.4

The U.S. rulers feel they must keep their grip on the region, including to contend with other powers globally. Yet their focus on the region has also given openings to these rivals. And now, it's possible that the U.S. will get sucked more directly back into the cauldron of the Middle East—even as Obama understands how perilous this could be.

The U.S.'s goal in all this is to attempt to protect the region's oppressive ruling forces and its subordination to imperialism. In other words, whatever particular tack the U.S. takes, its actions will only bring more horrors for the people.

3. These events have the potential to turn into major crises, forcing the imperialists to act in ways that are very risky for their power and legitimacy.

Revolution's editorial "Summer 2014: Making Advances...Toward Revolution" pointed out:

Even as this is being written, there is dramatic change going on—and the potential for much greater change. The nexus of Iraq, Syria, and Iran is in deep crisis... Ukraine... Egypt... who can say what may happen? Revolutionaries have to be preparing people even now to distinguish the interests of the people of the world from those of the imperialists.

The crisis in Iraq is one example, and it prompted some actual truth-telling from the rulers.

New York Times columnist David Brooks told PBS Newshour (6/13) that the ISIL-led offensive in Iraq is:

[A] gigantic problem. The idea—and this has been talked about by experts the last couple of years in particular—that it just becomes one big war, that the borders get erased, that the Sunni-Shiite splits—people are watching this—the Sunni-Shiite splits transcend borders and spread all over the region...Then you have regional powers. You got Turkey. You got the Saudis, the Iranians. Everyone's getting involved. And I just—what I read, what I hear from the people who really are experts, it's World War I. It's really a very perilous, extremely perilous situation.

Take Jordan, which is very important for the defense and stability of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Jordan is a small, relatively weak monarchy, with a majority Palestinian population bordering Syria, Iraq, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. It's now under enormous stress from the flood of refugees from first Iraq and now Syria, as well as the global economic downturn. And it's being targeted by ISIL and other Jihadists who now reportedly control its border with Iraq. And then there's Saudi Arabia, long the world's leading oil producer. While the Kingdom has aided jihadist forces to advance its own interests, these Islamist forces are also vehemently opposed to the "corrupt" Saudi monarchy. The destabilization of Jordan or Saudi Arabia would send shockwaves globally and could prompt massive U.S. and/or Israeli military responses, further throwing the region into turmoil.

4. There is a way out—revolution!

All these contradictions in the Middle East are interacting with other contradictions—globally and within the U.S.

The situation is very urgent—pregnant with possibilities and potential openings to hasten the advent of revolution, but also big challenges for the revolutionaries and grave dangers for the people. Things can happen very quickly. So it's urgent, as Revolution put it, that "We have to be alive to the world, and ready to respond in a heartbeat":

As Revolution editorialized:

Prepare the ground, prepare the people, and prepare the vanguard—get ready for the time when millions can be led to go for revolution, all-out, with a real chance to win.


1. In the mid-1950s, socialism was overthrown and replaced by a form of state capitalism, although the Soviet rulers continued to operate under the banner of “communism.” See You Don't Know What You Think You "Know" About... The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future. [back]

2. Sunnis and Kurds each comprise about 20 percent of Iraq's population, with Shi'as making up the remaining 60 percent. [back]

3. In his memoir Duty, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes that the U.S. nearly always begins wars "profoundly ignorant about our adversaries and about the situation on the ground," and acknowledges the U.S. went into Iraq and Afghanistan "oblivious to how little we knew." pp 589-90 [back]

4. Analyzing the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the world's major powers over its nuclear program and the evolution of U.S. strategy toward Iran overall is beyond the scope of this article. However, in light of the extreme necessities they face, some sections of the U.S. ruling class seem to be exploring the possibility of a major shift in approach to Iran, including forging a new relationship, even alliance, with the Islamic Republic, while serving the reactionary interests of both states (including by maintaining the U.S. dominated regional order). I hope to speak to this in future articles. [back]

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