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Unravelling a century of imperialism in Iraq

William Hague has announced there will be no new British military involvement in Iraqand the PM himself gave a guarded answer when asked why he voted for the war in 2003 — something along the lines of, if I knew then what I know now things might be different.

The massive media interest in the situation in Iraq has come from the dramatic and unexpected Isis advance across eastern Syria and much of northern Iraq. Now apparently they are advancing towards Baghdad.

The other big factor in the political debate was Tony Blair’s intervention (repeated in the FT today – £) when he informed anyone who cared to listen that Britain was wrong not to engage in military action in Syria and that he still defends his pursuit of the Iraq war in 2003.

It is 15 years since Blair’s Chicago address in April 1999 laid out his doctrine of a moral imperative for western European and north American nations to intervene anywhere in the world that they felt was appropriate. It’s a bizarre combination of crusading zeal and a laser-like focus on oil and gas resources — Blair’s central role in Iraq, Libya and his ties to Kazakhstan come to mind — with lucrative advisory contracts for him and his strange group of companies.

The collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of Isis forces and the ongoing bloody car bomb attacks across the country are directly related to the invasion and the conduct of the occupying forces immediately afterwards.

The destruction of the Iraqi army and state machine in 2003 and the continual promotion of religious sectarianism by the occupation and the Iraqi government has given the space and opportunity for Isis to grow.

It is barely believable that in the space of less than a year Iran has gone from being the most hated country to the West’s new best friend. The dramatic decision not to intervene in Syria promoted the talks between the US, Russia and Iran and the nuclear agreement.

In recognition of the US and Britain’s rapidly reducing influence in the region they’ve now turned to Iran to help bring about political stability. I hope in the process of reaching a welcome rapprochement with Iran they do not ignore the systemic abuses of human rights that are the norm in all countries in the region, including the supposedly liberated Iraq.

Equally the atrocities committed by Isis forces are appalling and have to be condemned. As the US and Britain mull over their military options as to how to save Nouri al-Maliki’s government and the very lucrative supply of oil from Iraq, some questions have to be asked about the involvement of other powers in the region.

The presence of US forces in the region is very obvious. Less obvious is the role played by Western allies such as Saudi Arabia, which is not only the biggest arms purchaser from both the US and Britain, but is a leading supplier of arms and military hardware to Isis and to opposition groups in Syria, which are part of the same forces sweeping Iraq.

To understand how we have arrived at this perilous state, one has to look to two aspects of the history of the region.

As Sami Ramadami wrote in his excellent article in the Guardian, while he was indeed a victim of Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses, the Ba’athist regime in Iraq created a functioning secular state that was not based on religious sectarianism. That is now a thing of the past as, following the 2003 invasion, religious forces now largely dominate the scene.

Second, the history of western intervention is hardly new and Isis’s claims to be reuniting Iraq and Syria take us back to events during the first world war.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant forces drew much media attention recently with their photos from the Iraqi-Syrian border announcing they were smashing the Sykes-Picot border.

At the death knell of the Ottoman empire, the British and French in the persons of Sir Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot secretly carved up the region on behalf of Britain and France. They laid the foundations for the hypocrisy of the Balfour Declaration and the current borders of all the countries in the region, not least Syria and Iraq.

The Kurdish people were abominably treated by all Western powers after WWI. After initially being given recognition this was then smashed away in 1923 and since then the Kurds have been stateless, for many decades their existence barely recognised in any country.

Interestingly Kurdish forces have taken the disputed oil-rich town of Kirkuk and there seems to be a de facto ceasefire between the forces of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq and Isis.

There is no solution to the killing and abuse of human rights that involves yet more Western military action. Ultimately there has to be a political solution in the region which bombing by Nato forces cannot bring about.

The drama of the killings and advances by Isis in the past few weeks is yet another result of the Bush-Blair war on terror since 2001. The victims of these wars are the refugees and those driven from their homes and the thousands of unknown civilians who have died and will continue to die in the region. The “winners” are inevitably the arms manufacturers and those who gain from the natural resources of the region.

We need no more advice from Tony Blair and his corporate friends and we need to learn the old lesson that we reap what we sow.

A version of this article first appeared at the Morning Star


  1. Sami Ramadani says:

    Many thanks Jeremy for an excellent article. Just to clarify my Guardian article stressed that various Iraqi regimes, including Saddam’s, did practice violent repression, dicriminatory, sectarian or chauvinist policies, but there was no history of sectarian conflict amongst the vast majority of the people. It was the US-led occupation that did its best to sow discord among the people and set up institutional sectarianism, alien to Iraq’s modern history. Sami Ramadani

  2. Peter Rowlands says:

    I am surprised that neither Jeremy or Sami mention what is surely the worst example of British repression in Iraq, when in 1920 a ( non sectarian) uprising against British rule was put down largely through the systematic bombing of civilians.

    1. Sami Ramadani says:

      You are absolutely right Peter, the 1920 Revolution, as it is known in Iraq, was a seminal event which united the the people and forced Britain to concede formal independence to Iraq.

  3. swatantra says:

    The OttomanTurks have a lot to answer for.
    Brits have nothing to be proud of either.
    Apparently quite a few Syrians ended up in exile in the Argentine and Chile

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