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Bombing Iraq: just the start?

PX*3924134Barely a week after Parliament voted for air strikes on Iraq, Isis are on the outskirts of Baghdad and there is a growing call from military hawks for the deployment of western ground troops. Belgium and Denmark are the latest countries to join the coalition of western military action against Iraq, but in practice it is the US that is leading the campaign, having now carried out hundreds of sorties, to little effect. Why is this?

George Galloway provided part of the answer when he spoke in the parliamentary debate at the end of September. Speaking of ISIS, he said:

It does not have any bases. The territory that its personnel control is the size of Britain and yet there are only between 10,000 and 20,000 of them. Do the maths. They do not concentrate as an army. They do not live in bases. The only way that a force of that size could successfully hold the territory that it holds is if the population acts as the water in which it swims.”

So Isis are tolerated in some of the areas they control because the alternative is often worse. Thanks to the sectarian policies of the Shia-dominated government of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunni majority regarded the Iraqi army as a hostile, occupying force. Isis were part of a broader Sunni uprising against this army, which ran away from Mosul without firing a shot. The real problem is how to isolate Isis from the broader Sunni population, which feels justifiably menaced by the attacks of equally murderous Shia militias. This is not going to be achieved by bombing.

Isis are undoubtedly barbaric, but they are the creation of a very barbaric Occupation that began over a decade ago. There was little religious sectarianism in Iraq before the invasion of the US and its allies. It was they who instituted electoral slates based on religious affiliation and they who supported the now defunct sectarian Shia government of al Maliki, which persecuted Sunnis. Even today the Iraqi Government’s bombing of Fallujah continues and Shia militias mobilised by this Government continue to commit atrocities of their own, for example recently executing 15 Sunnis and hanging them by electricity poles in a public square in a town northeast of Baghdad.

Isis have benefited from the huge amount of war materiel that has flooded into the region. When the Iraqi army fled Mosul, they gained a massive trove of US-supplied weaponry. On at least one occasion, the Iraqi air force accidentally dropped food, water and ammunition on Isis forces instead of their of their own troops.

There is evidence too of weapons from Saudi Arabia – now part of the supposed coalition against Isis – finding their way into the hands of Isis, just as “moderate” opponents of Assad, trained by the US, later defected to Isis.

Isis also have other sources of support. Oil revenues alone bring in $2 million a day and then there is trafficking in antiquities, hostage taking and ransoms. Isis are now the richest terrorist group in the world, paying twice as much to their members as any other group in the region. Their wealth offers a promise of prosperity to areas they take over which have long been deprived, even before they fell victim to sectarian government policies.

As for the Iraqi army, the problem is far greater than incompetence. While the Pentagon may be exasperated at how little there is to show for the $41.6 billion in military aid it has given the Iraqis in the last three years, for the recipients it has been a bonanza.

The culture in the military is so corrupt that many soldiers bribe their officers to be as far from the front line as possible. These soldiers are often referred to as “astronauts”, because they are so far away from where they are meant to be. According to local reports, “this means that sometimes when a general sends a battalion to fight, only half the soldiers are there.”

It’s estimated that only one in three soldiers of the 30,000 supposed to be in Mosul were present when the city fell. Needless to say, the top brass still claim salaries and equipment for all these phantom soldiers, the profits on the sale of which they share among themselves. Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the Independent, commented recently:

A colonel of a battalion nominally of 600 men would get money for 600 men, [but] in fact there were only 200 men in it, and would pocket the difference, which was spread out among the officers. And this applied to fuel, it applied to ammunition… I remember about a year ago talking to a senior Iraqi politician, and who said look: the army’s going to collapse if it’s attacked. I said surely some will fight, he said: no no no, you don’t understand. These officers are not soldiers, they’re investors! They have no interest in fighting anybody; they have interest in making money out of their investment. Of course you had to buy your position. So in 2009, you want to be a colonel in the Iraqi army, it’ll cost you about 20,000 dollars, more recently it cost you about $200,000.”

Writing on Left Futures after the debate, Grahame Morris MP estimated it would cost £1 billion a year to fight Isis and could take at least three years. Military action alone would not work, he concluded, and like other MPs who oppose the bombing, he is alarmed by the lack of an exit strategy.

Far from exiting, escalation is now the talk of the day. If it is to be “boots on the ground”, will MPs get a vote on that as well, and will that policy be any more effective? More importantly, what is the future for Iraq, after a dozen years of economic sanctions, a military occupation that killed a million people and displaced double that, now facing endless military operations, piling failure upon failure, disaster upon disaster and promising unending destruction and misery for its people?


  1. 5566hh says:

    “Grahame Morris MP estimated it would cost £1 million a year to fight Isis”

    Billion, not million, right?

    1. Mike says:

      yes, a billion – my mistake. (Now corrected – Ed)

  2. David Kirk says:

    I note in your article there is not one mention of the fate of the kurds, Shia, Yazhidi’s or anyone else IS does not like in their grasp.

    You state IS is barbaric but thats about it. You seem to suggest they some how have the consent of the people of the Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria. Can I suggest to yourself and George Galloway that that might have something to do with the terror IS are imposing, their control of oil revenues and their monopoly in heavy weapons?

    As a socialist I was and remain against the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan. But this article reflects how many of the left led by the rump of Stop The War Coalition seem to have adopted a conservative isolationism (dont meddle), relativism (the middle east isn’t suited democracy and Saddam and Assad were not that bad) and conspiracism (IS are a puppet of the west/ created by the west).

    Any socialist worthy of the name should give support to the Kurds of the KRG, YPG etc. They have established democratic and anti sectarian regional governements which have offered safe havens for hundreds of thousands of Sunni, Shia and Yazhedi fleeing IS.
    Rather then relativist cant and basterdised anti imperialist rhetoric we should argue for a start for the arming of the Kurds with heavy weapons, the end of the proscription of the PKK.

    If IS kill, rape and maim their way through Kurdistan they are also killing for generations any democratic or socialist future for the middle east. That doesnt mean giving any support for or putting confidence in any Nato intervention, but our key intervention should be to support the Kurds.

  3. Mike says:

    There is a legitimate debate to be had about the extent to which Isis enjoy support in the areas they control. I deliberately confine myself to Iraq, and discussions with many Iraqi comrades suggest there is no consensus on this point. The point I was emphasising was that Sunnis in northern Iraq were suffering murderous persecution at the hands of the Iraqi army and this helps explain why they were so easily chased out of Mosul.
    I have written elsewhere about the barbaric nature of Isis – see my article in the current issue of Labour Briefing – and I don’t see why every article about this issue has to begin with a generic statement reiterating this. While I support Kurdish self-determination, by all means necessary, I’m not sure this resolves much in the largely Sunni areas of northern Iraq now being bombarded.
    My views are not motivated by conservative isolationism, relativism or conspiracism but a recognition of the reality that more bombing of Iraq will achieve none of the objectives that you would like to see met, which makes one suspicious of what western government aims are.

  4. James Martin says:

    Correct Mike. I don’t oppose killing ISIL fighters and supporters. After all, they are at heart clerical-fascists, and like the Nazis in the 30s and 40s cannot be debated or reasoned with, only physically crushed.

    But the key is how, and who by? If we really wanted to help the Kurds we would be opposing Turkey (who up to very recently supported ISIL and did nothing to stop foreign fighters crossing the Turkish border to join them). But no, the rest of NATO appear happy enough to see fellow NATO member Turkey stand by as ISIL does their dirty work for them and slaughters Kurdish fighters in Syria.

    But Mike asks about the aims of Western governments. Again, Turkey has let the cat out of the bag as while ISIL are now seen as an irritant, the main target remains Assad and the secular Syrian republic. Mission creep is turning into a sprint.

    So the key for socialists in countries like the UK remains the same as it was before. Complete and unwavering opposition to NATO, and an end to the continuous western intervention being waged in our name in country after country in the middle-east. NATO cannot achieve socialism only hinder and prevent it – but as socialism remains the only hope to unite peoples throughout the region (including Israel-Palestine), then the solution to the ISIL problem is most certainly not to be found in ever more F-16’s and Tornado’s dropping bombs.

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