In March 2003, the US military began an aggressive bombing campaign against Iraq’s major cities for the alleged purpose of liberating the Iraqi people. Of course, “liberation” was the explanation of choice after allegations of Iraqi ties to the events of 9/11 and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were called into question. To believe this lie required ignoring the stated objective of Ullman and Wade’s Shock and Awe strategy: “…to destroy or so confound the will to resist that an adversary will have no alternative except to accept our strategic aims and military objectives. (p.xi)”
In August, the US air force began launching new airstrikes in northern Iraq, again for the alleged purpose of liberating a trapped community of Iraqis, who are starving to death and have no place to go. The Iraqi Yazidis are, indeed, suffering from an abrupt and frightening humanitarian crisis. They fled their homes in fear of the barbarism of Islamic State (IS) militants, who have already, allegedly, swept through eastern Syria and western/northwestern Iraq to establish a new caliphate. By all means available, we should get humanitarian supplies to these refugees (not to mention those in other parts of Iraq, Syria, and Gaza while we’re at it). But airstrikes? Why airstrikes now, without congressional or UN approval? Make no mistake; the control of oil remains the driving force behind US military attacks on Iraq. An examination of US policy in Iraq from 2003 to the present illustrates this point.
Divide and conquer
The sovereign state of Iraq was destroyed through the March 2003 US/UK-led military invasion. Subsequently, by way of “de-Ba’athification” and a brutal military occupation, US administrators immediately employed a “divide-and-conquer” strategy to rule Iraq. The so-called transitional government of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appointed an Iraqi Governing Council: a 25- member advisory panel hand-picked by the occupiers along sectarian and ethnic lines. The CPA also created the organisational apparatus and rules for Iraq’s first “democratic” elections. In January 2005, these CPA-orchestrated elections brought conservative Shiite parties to power. Ibrahim al-Jafaari - one of the Shiite members of the US-chosen Iraqi Governing Council - was named Iraq’s new prime minister. And during his one-year term, Shiite death squads began operating in Iraq as part of government militias, the Iraqi Army, and the Iraqi police.
These Shiite armed forces - many of them originating from militias of conservative parties based in Iran - conducted operations in Iraq with assistance from US occupiers. Sunni Iraqis were the primary victims of these Shiite units, whose grip on Iraq strengthened following the naming of Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister in 2006. (Like al-Jafaari, al-Maliki is a member of the conservative Shiite Dawah Party based in Iran.) In addition to Sunnis, tiny minorities in Iraq, like Christians and Mandeans, were also endangered. Then, as the number of militias grew, the safety of Shiite families depended on allegiance to the Shiite leader of choice (eg al-Hakim, al-Maliki, al-Sadr) of the militia controlling their neighborhoods. During this time, lack of electricity services, potable water, and jobs still plagued the majority of Iraqis throughout the country, and an assassination campaign of intellectuals and academics was employed to eliminate governmental opposition (the same approach used by Saddam Hussein when the Ba’athists came to power in 1968). Amid this chaos, foreign companies gained control of Iraq’s valuable oil resources, which began flowing out of the country.
Iraqi resistance to the US-led military occupation developed immediately after the invasion. Over time, the resistance grew in strength as a nationalist movement. But simultaneously, foreign fighters arrived in Iraq to wage war in the name of extremist ideology. One of these groups of foreign fighters evolved into the organisation of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which gained prominence in western Iraq (primarily al-Anbar province) through 2005-06.
As AQI became more powerful (possibly with support from regional powers like Saudi Arabia), nationalist resistance forces grew concerned. These tribal, Sunni resistance groups opposed AQI’s indiscriminate tactics; its theocratic ideology; and its foreign interference in a national movement. In 2006, these Sunni groups known as the Awakening Councils - who once fought against US occupation forces - began fighting alongside them with US training and arms to reduce the influence of AQI in Iraq. AQI did weaken, but by 2007, an off-shoot of AQI known as the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) had emerged. ISI maintained a presence in northern and western Iraq for the next several years without broad influence. However, their low-profile would change after the start of the Syrian popular rebellion of 2011 and subsequent American interference in Syrian affairs.
In 2012, the Obama administration authorised overt support for Syrian “rebels” opposed to the rule of Bashar al-Assad. Obama also signed a secret order giving the CIA and other US agencies authorisation to bolster these opposition groups. That same year, ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi allegedly sought involvement in the Syrian conflict. Once in Syria, al-Baghdadi declared a union with another Al Qaeda-rooted group (Al Nusra Front) to form Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also translated as Islamic State in Iraq and al Shams (ISIS). The union was rejected by Al Nusra Front and Al Qaeda leaders. But IS continued to grow in strength within Syria - especially in 2013 when the CIA officially began arming such “rebel” groups.
Armed rebellion in Iraq
Meanwhile, back in Iraq in December 2012, Iraqis in western and northern Iraq launched peaceful demonstrations against the Maliki regime, in the spirit of the (later co-opted) mass anti-government demonstrations in Libya and Syria. The demonstrators had a list of 13 demands for the government to address, including an end to the death penalty; provision of essential services throughout Iraq; an end to the anti-terrorism laws used to arbitrarily detain citizens without charge; an end to the rape of women held in Iraqi prisons; and the end of sectarianism in Iraqi rule. Though the demonstrations were strongest in the predominantly Sunni cities (eg. Fallujah, Ramadi, Beiji), both Shiite and Kurdish delegations visited the protest camps in shows of support. Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr also lent his support to the massive demonstrations. But a massacre at the protest camp in the city of Hawija in Kirkuk Province prompted the opposition to change from peaceful demonstrations to armed rebellion.
In April 2013 in Hawija, Iraqi army personnel surrounded 4,000 protesters for four days, depriving them of food and water. At 5am on the fifth day, the army violently attacked the protesters with live ammunition, tanks, and helicopters. At least 50 people were killed, more than 150 injured, and more than 400 arrested. In response, former Ba’athist Iraqi army officers (located both inside and outside of Iraq) established the General Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries (GMCIR). This new military organisation began planning an armed uprising against the Maliki regime that ultimately would begin in June 2014 (see below).
Over the next year, the GMCIR grew to include multiple armed groups opposed to the Iraqi government, including Jaysh Rajaal al-Tariqa al- Naqshabandia (JRTN, primarily former Ba’athists); the Awakening Council militias who worked with US forces to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006; and numerous other Sunni tribal militias in western and northern Iraq. These latter militias became united under the Military Council of Iraqi Tribal Revolutionaries within the GMCIR. The GMCIR also agreed to collaborate with - but remain distinct from - IS to achieve their common goal of deposing the Maliki government. The extremists’ access to armaments and funding, believed to come from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, may have been a factor in this alliance. Besides these armed groups, the opposition located its sociopolitical base in the Association of Muslim Scholars, Iraq’s largest organisation of Sunni clerics representing more than 3,000 Iraqi mosques.
While the GMCIR began planning an uprising, anti-government demonstrations continued in multiple Iraqi cities with growing frustration and anger. In January 2014, the Maliki government sent the army in to violently disrupt another protest camp, this one in the city of Fallujah. Maliki claimed that the army was attacking the terrorists of ISIS/ISIL, who had taken over the city, but the allegation was false. As in Hawija, the protesters were local citizens with political demands. Local tribal leaders were (and remain) in control of Fallujah, not IS, despite what numerous media outlets reported. “Rooting out terrorists” as an excuse for quashing local resistance is a story we have heard before. Recall the November 2004 siege of Fallujah, in which the US military conducted massive aerial bombardments and then designated all residents remaining in that city as “insurgents”. Iraqi government air strikes and barrel bomb attacks on the people of Fallujah in the name of combating ISIS/ISIL terrorists have continued from January through to today. These attacks include numerous strikes on Fallujah General Hospital. This ongoing violent and criminal government oppression in Iraq further emboldened the opposition forces.
In June, after months of preparation, the GMCIR launched its armed rebellion, and declared its identity and intent: an Iraqi nationalist, non-sectarian movement comprised of predominantly Sunni tribal leaders and fighters. The council announced its opposition to Iranian influence in Iraq, especially the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in developing Iraq’s security forces. The council also appealed to Arab Shiite tribal leaders in southern Iraq to join their struggle to remove Nouri Al-Maliki from power. Within a few days of the uprising’s beginning, despite heavy bombardment from government forces, the GMCIR in conjunction with ISIS/ ISIL (who were present in Mosul since about 2007) took control of that city.
Much of the Western press described the GMCIR-led rebellion against government forces in Mosul as the “loss” of this Iraqi city to a single, monolithic horde of bloodthirsty ISIS terrorists. That phrasing may indeed apply to the extremists of ISIS/ISIL, but at that stage, according to multiple Sunni leaders, those extremists comprised only a small minority of the opposition forces; the majority of the fighters came from local tribes. The major role played by the GMCIR may have been demonstrated by the rapid demise of the Iraqi army in Mosul. Many former Ba’athist military officers who formed GMCIR held high posts in the Iraqi army. When the rebellion was launched, these officers left their official commands, leading to the rapid break down of the state’s forces. Subsequently, the opposition groups went on to take control of Tikrit and Tal Afar. In response to these advances, the Obama administration sent more armaments to the Maliki government - but did not take military action.
IS remained brazen, seeking to expand control of neighborhoods in Mosul and imposing its extremist ideology. At the end of June 2014, its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate across a large swath of Iraq and Syria. While that story was prominent in the mainstream western press, little mention was made of its denunciation by the Association of Muslim Scholars:
“[A]ny party announces a state or emirate - whether an Islamic or non-Islamic - under these conditions, it is not in the interest of Iraq and its unity now, and will be taken as a pretext to divide the country and harm people…[those] who had announced the caliphate did not consult neither with the people of Iraq and Syria, nor the influential people and elders there, who represent the base of the pledge of allegiance…”
The mainstream media still refers to a caliphate bridging Syria and Iraq, but it’s not clear what official structure they deem to be in place. Still, the Obama administration did not take military action.
By late July, Islamic State began to overtly target minorities in Mosul, especially Christians. The majority of the more than 1,600-year-old Christian community of Mosul fled their city, many becoming stranded as refugees. The US sent the Maliki regime 5,000 more Hellfire missiles but did not take military action.
Public relations cover
Then on 3 August, the areas of Sinjar and Zummar under Kurdish control in northern Iraq were seized by IS, per most media reports (it’s not clear to me yet whether IS or opposition forces have control). The community of Yazidis in Sinjar fled to the hills in fear of IS’s advance and became stranded there; so began the latest humanitarian crisis. By 6 August, IS advanced to within 30 miles of Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital city of Irbil; this development brought about an immediate change in US policy. Irbil is home to a key American CIA station. It is also home to numerous American and British oil companies whose operations were threatened by the Peshmerga (Kurdish Army) loss of territory. There have been numerous humanitarian crises brought about by US-sponsored instability in Iraq. We’ve ignored (and/ or caused) many of them. But threats to the oil industry - that danger elicits a militant response from the United States.
The US government acts to protect the flow of oil and the dollar; humanitarian causes provide the necessary public relations cover. No matter how sophisticated our weaponry, airstrikes kill innocent people, and it makes no sense to kill one set of innocent people (“collateral damage”) in the name of saving other innocent people. The US administration doesn’t care about the welfare of Yazidis today any more than it has cared for the welfare of the 2-3 million Iraqis who have died because of US policy since 1991. These airstrikes are about the oil.
Likely with US encouragement, Kurdish Regional President Massoud Barzani launched attacks on IS that are striking the city of Mosul. According to witnesses on the ground, Peshmerga mortars have hit civilian homes, causing death and destruction. The Iraqi air force is also supporting Peshmerga fighters over Mosul. And though the US military claims to have struck only “convoys” and other such “IS targets” in the past days, we should know by now that these are sanitised propaganda reports. The people in Mosul are now isolated; they have no water, electricity, or fuel for their cars or generators. Fearing incursion by “IS”, Kurdish forces have sealed their borders, preventing anyone from entering or exiting.
We have created another humanitarian crisis in Iraq, this one in Mosul.
Who will now help the Mislawi (people of Mosul)?
Let’s hope help doesn’t come in the form of a Hellfire missile.
-Dahlia Wasfi is an Iraqi-American physician and peace activist.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo credit: Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains as they tried to escape from Islamic State (IS) forces (AA)