A recent high-profile leak from an official at the U.S. Central Command—which overseas military operations in the Middle East—confirms that an offensive is being planned to recapture Mosul this spring. The city is the second largest in Iraq and holds great political significance. Its fall last year marked the beginning of the Islamic State’s wide-ranging offensive across the country.
Such a victory would be a much-needed boost to the authority of the central government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. It would not, however, settle fundamental questions about the future of Iraq. Recent events have shown that the recapture of Mosul would be little more than a cosmetic sign of Iraqi national unity, which has been shredded by the criminal policies of U.S. imperialism.
Thousands of U.S. troops are deployed across Iraq, and even more may be sent to the country in the lead-up to the offensive. In order to placate both a skeptical domestic population as well as militias that are fighting IS but also fought the U.S. occupation following the 2003 invasion, the U.S. government has insisted that they will not engage in direct combat. Instead, the U.S. military presence, aside from the daily aerial bombardment, is claimed to be solely aimed at reconstructing and advising the Iraqi army.
With Congress considering a wide-ranging war authorization and the steady escalation of the U.S. military presence, the ability of the “advisors” to avoid combat, even if they wanted to, is highly questionable. But the state of the Iraqi army is indeed a major concern for U.S. and associated imperialist powers. After overthrowing the secular, nationalist Baath party regime in 2003, the U.S. government sought to install a stable puppet government that would facilitate the plunder of Iraq. A key piece of this plan was the new national army, which the U.S. spent approximately $25 billion to create.
The Iraqi army in the predominantly Sunni areas in the north and west of the country captured by IS largely collapsed without a fight. With members and commanders chosen on the basis of clientelism and overseen by the Shia-dominated central government, the army is widely seen as a sectarian institution, even by those suffering under the ultra-reactionary rule of IS. It is also ridden by corruption. The pay structure of the army creates an incentive for officers to claim to have more soldiers in their units than actually exist. The army supposedly had 200,000 members, but 50,000 of these turned out to be non-existing “ghost soldiers.”
The Iraqi army is the closest thing to a U.S. proxy force on the ground in the country, and the impending Mosul offensive is a critical opportunity to prove that it has the capacity to fight and win. If it fails, the leadership of U.S. imperialism may consider a more dramatic expansion of their military role.
Military victories alone cannot unify Iraq
Prior to the U.S. occupation that left over a million Iraqis dead, Iraq enjoyed a relatively high level of national unity and development. Caught off guard by the rapid emergence of fierce resistance, the U.S.-led invaders modified their strategy. In order to divide and weaken the Iraqi people, sectarianism was legally codified through discriminatory decrees and an explicitly sectarian model of governance.
A bloody civil war between Sunnis and Shiites was promoted. It was in this context that the Islamic State of Iraq, then an al-Qaeda affiliate that later became the Islamic State following its intervention in the Syrian civil war, was formed. Rather than fighting the occupiers, ISI focused almost exclusively on fighting other Iraqi armed groups, exacerbating sectarian tensions on the basis of an extreme right-wing religious program.
In order to avoid the appearance of outright defeat, the U.S. government was able to broker a temporary period of stability by buying off the main Sunni militias. While they publicly credited the “surge” of U.S. troops for this improvement, it was only the promise of an eventual withdrawal that made the political deal palatable. Almost all U.S. forces left by the end of 2011 after the Maliki government refused to grant legal immunity for Western soldiers.
The wounds of imperialist-instigated civil war were so deep that this arrangement could not last for long. Tensions shortly reemerged and the government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki became an increasingly-hated symbol of Shia dominance over the central government. As the government’s violent repression of Sunni protests in the western Anbar province escalated and political deadlock ground on, IS saw its opportunity and captured huge swaths of Iraq in a lightening offensive. In the territories it now controls, IS has aggressively carried out the murderous sectarian agenda that was introduced into Iraqi politics by the U.S.-led occupation.
Assassination of Sunni leader causes political crisis
On Feb. 15, prominent Sunni leader Sheikh Qassem al-Janabi was kidnapped and executed along with his son and seven bodyguards. Janabi was an opponent of IS and an important part of the central government’s efforts to undercut the group’s base of support among Sunnis who deeply resent Abadi’s government and its predecessor. He was ambushed while traveling through a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad, and the assassination is widely believed to have been carried out by Shia militia members.
While it should be noted that not all Shia militias are motivated by sectarian hatred—many were formed during the U.S. occupation to fight against foreign domination—the murder of Janabi has reenergized calls to disband all militias. The Iraqiya Alliance and the National Coalition, the two main Sunni blocs in the national legislature, announced that they would be indefinitely suspending their participation in parliament. They issued a statement arguing that Prime Minister Abadi was responsible for “the breakdown of security and letting loose killers and outlaws to commit crimes of ethnic cleansing.”
However, the Sunni politicians have indicated that they would be willing to end their boycott if long-delayed legislation authorizing the formation of a new military force called the National Guard is approved. The National Guard would be commanded by the governor of each province. This would in effect mean the creation of a standing Sunni army, and accelerate the disintegration of Iraq.
In addition to the existing militias, a huge number of volunteers has joined the Popular Mobilization forces—emergency military units formed following a call by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia religious authority in Iraq, as IS closed in on Baghdad following their surprise victories in the west and north of the country. This has heightened Sunni anxiety.
Massacre in Diyala
The assassination of Janabi occurred just three weeks after a massacre of nearly 100 Sunni civilians shot execution style by Shia militia members in the town of Barwana in Diyala province. Barwana had just been recaptured from IS after an offensive by the Iraqi Army backed by various irregular armed groups.
In a display of both the balance of forces within the pro-government camp as well as the sectarian inclinations of the central government’s military, army members near the scene did nothing to intervene. It has been reported that some of those shooting were wearing the uniforms of the official special forces.
This is a horrifying preview of what may occur on a much larger scale during this spring’s Mosul offensive. Having developed in the same U.S.-constructed sectarian incubator as IS, many militias and members of the Popular Mobilization may see successes on the battlefield as an opportunity to seek revenge against those they perceive as being responsible for Sunni sectarian violence. This would strengthen IS’s hand as it seeks to present itself as defenders of the country’s Sunni population and make it even more difficult to politically reintegrate the areas of Iraq liberated from IS.
Dispute over Kurdish oil
Meanwhile, tensions between Prime Minister Abadi’s government and the Kurdistan Regional Government are continuing and threaten to escalate. The Kurds are an oppressed nationality concentrated in northern Iraq, northeast Syria, southeast Turkey and northwest Iran. The KRG governs the semi-autonomous Kurdish zone in Iraq and is led by forces that follow a policy of collaboration with imperialism.
Even before the IS offensive, there was sharp conflict between the central government and the KRG over the distribution of resources. Last year, the share of the Iraqi national budget going to the Kurdish authorities was cut by then-Prime Minister Maliki, and in response the KRG increased the amount of oil it was selling independently on the world market. This violated an arrangement in which these transactions were conducted by the central government.
In the opening days of the IS offensive, there were signs that the KRG would use the political instability as an opportunity to declare complete independence. However, the military tenacity of IS proved to be enough of a threat that this strategy soon shifted towards enhanced cooperation with the authorities in Baghdad. A new agreement was reached for the distribution of oil and revenue in December.
This deal has now largely broken down. The central government is accusing the KRG of failing to meet its production targets for political reasons, but the KRG insists that it is able to do so in the long run and any disruptions are temporary consequences of the collapse in global oil prices.
Poor relations between Abadi’s government and the KRG could have serious military ramifications. The KRG has its own military force, the Peshmerga, which has been engaged in fierce fighting with IS. An offensive to retake Mosul would bring the Iraqi army within the immediate vicinity of Kurdish territory.
Of particular importance is the disputed city of Kirkuk, surrounded by major oil fields. Last week, the president of the KRG declared that “should there be a need to bring in the popular mobilization forces [to Kirkuk], the request should be made by the Peshmerga forces alone.” Iraq seems to be caught in a deadly catch-22—as IS retreats, the incentive for disparate political and military forces to cooperate declines.
The tremendous suffering endured by the people of Iraq and the toxic, sectarian political environment is a consequence of the U.S. invasion and occupation. As U.S. imperialism yet again seeks to expand its footprint in the country, it is crucial to understand that this will do nothing to help the people who find themselves under the boot of IS. Self-determination is the essential precondition for the reconstruction of any semblance of Iraqi national unity and true stability.