The Iraq war is far from over, and the fall of Ramadi blasts US policy to pieces

The long-running Iraq war, now entering its twelfth year, re-appeared in the corporate news media with the announcement that another major city, Ramadi, had fallen to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The much vaunted Iraqi army, barely eleven months after their decisive defeat in Mosul, turned and fled the battlefield, surrendering American military equipment and resources to the ISIS militia. Ramadi, situated in the predominantly Sunni province of Anbar, had always resisted the American military occupation and its client armies, namely the associated Shia-militias controlled by the Baghdad authorities.

As David Alpher, adjunct professor at George Mason University states it;

The loss is devastating, and not only because of the city’s size or symbolic value, or because it’s another reminder that ISIS is on the march. The loss is devastating because between Ramadi and Baghdad there is only one major city, Fallujah, which has long since fallen to ISIS and has always been known as a radical hotbed.

American policy, still reeling from the Saigon-style debacle at Mosul last year, has been blasted to smithereens. After the Mosul defeat, the Obama administration and their associates in Baghdad made reassuring noises that the difficulties of the Iraqi army were temporary and measures would be implemented to reinforce its demoralised ranks. Former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was held responsible for the defeats on the Mosul battlefield and ousted in backroom manouevres initiated by the United States.

In September 2014, after the removal of Maliki, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad to express the American government’s continued support for its clients in Baghdad, stating that the reformed Iraqi government would be the engine of the fightback against ISIS. US President Obama pledged his enthusiastic support for the new Abadi regime in a televised speech, declaring that his government would adopt a fresh strategy for dealing with the Iraq crisis. Promising a more inclusive government, the Baghdad authorities announced their determination to turn a new page in Iraq’s history, and fight determinedly against the ISIS militia.

Seven months after the Obama administration launched ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ to respond to the reversals on the Iraqi battlefield, ISIS has not only remained a viable force on the ground, and taken Ramadi, but expanded. As the Financial Times correspondent in Washington put it, the ISIS takeover of Ramadi ‘blows a hole’ in Obama’s Iraq strategy. Maliki has remained one of three vice presidents in Baghdad – and Mosul remains in the hands of ISIS.

The loss of Ramadi is not only a serious defeat for current Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. This defeat indicates that the Iraqi army, no matter how much training, money and munitions, is incapable of becoming an effective fighting force. The continuing failure of the American-backed Baghdad authorities to create an efficient fighting army, undermines the United States post-2003 political project in Iraq.

The political class in Baghdad, installed in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 US invasion, is unable to rise above its own factional squabbling, and implement a functioning government capable of providing services. Composed of former CIA assets, political exiles, con artists, warlords, economic charlatans, and self-identified agents of American and British secret services, this political class is currently under attack and being decapitated by an Iraqi Sunni insurgency. The remains of the former ruling Iraqi party, the mainly Sunni Ba’athist Party, has entered an alliance of convenience with the Sunni fundamentalist guerrilla groups, the Salafi ISIS being the most obvious spearhead. This alliance of Iraqi Sunnis has managed to shatter the post-2003 American-imposed order in Iraq.

Professor Juan Cole, expert in Middle East and Islamic history from the University of Michigan, stated back in 2005 that the possibility of a Ba’athist Sunni uprising was not only probable but quite likely. This prediction has turned out to be quite accurate. Professor Cole wrote recently for Common Dreams online magazine that:

In early 2005, I wondered if the Sunni insurgency could eventually turn into a “Third Baath coup.” By that I meant that the remnants of the Baath Party (socialist, nationalist) allied with Salafi Muslim hardliners were systematically killing members of the new political class being stood up by the Bush administration, and were angling to take back over the country. We now know that former Baath officers set up the so-called “Islamic State” as a means of gaining recruits for their ongoing insurgency, at a time when the Baath Party no longer had any cachet but political Islam seemed a growing trend. The ex-Baath/ Salafi cells of resistance were all along strong in Ramadi.

As Cole states, while Washington is asking ‘who lost Ramadi?’, they are actually asking the wrong question – they never had Ramadi in the first place. And this evaluation of the current Iraqi situation is from someone who has supported US military policies in the past, hardly the prognostications of a hardened anti-war Leftist-Bolshevik.

The revenge of the past

Iraq’s Sunni people, having been overthrown from positions of power by the 2003 American invasion, were marginalised by the Shia-Kurdish dominated political class in post-Ba’athist Iraq. The Sunnis were now the targets of revenge by the American – and Iranian – backed Shia and Kurdish parties. Sunnis were excluded from top jobs, the largely state-owned industries set up by the Ba’athist Party were privatised, Iraqi oil opened up to foreign multinational corporations, and throughout 2006-07, the sectarian Baghdad authorities carried out a program of ethnic cleansing, systematically killing and removing the Sunnis of Baghdad. Former Prime Minister Maliki, with the support of his American and Iranian patrons, launched a war of terror against the Iraqi Sunni population. American General David Petraeus, implementing a ‘troop surge’, is responsible for this ethnic-sectarian warfare, empowering the Shia militias to carry out their revenge attacks.

It is no surprise that the Ba’athist Party members and supporters, driven underground and marginalised, formed the first cells to militarily resist the US occupation. The staggering reversal of Sunni fortunes in Iraq since the 2003 invasion left them desperate for allies. They found such allies, in a rival and growing another strand of resistance, one that we now see today – the Sunni fundamentalist Salafi groups, advocating their particular brand of political Islamism.

While the roots of the ISIS militia reside in the Syrian conflict, its ability to tap into the grievances of the embattled Sunni people in Iraq demonstrates gives it a beachhead inside Iraq where it can batter the American-supported Baghdad regime. The fall of Ramadi is not the only recent success of the fundamentalist ISIS; Palmyra in neighbouring Syria fell to the group earlier in May 2015. Its ability to inflict military defeats on its opponents indicates to regional powers that American policy is either inadequate, or unwilling, to confront the disturbing reality on the ground.

ISIS a product of US and Saudi imperialism

Make no mistake; ISIS is a fundamentalist movement that is the child of American and Saudi parents – more specifically the policy of the US to use political Islamism as a battering ram in the Arab and Islamic countries. As Jacobin Magazine stated in an article earlier in 2015, do not blame Islam for the rise of ISIS. It bears the imprint of its American and Saudi sponsors – religious fanaticism, virulent anti-socialism and strong dedication to capitalism. Originating in the soil of Al Qaeda and similar fundamentalist groups, ISIS has taken root by exploiting the social and economic grievances of large sections of the Iraqi population.

It is out of the scope of this article to examine the entire history of the ISIS movement or to go into an extensive history of the financial and military collaboration between US imperialism and reactionary political Islamist groups. However, we can note that ISIS was incubated and nurtured by the political patrons of Sunni fundamentalist movements, namely US and British imperial power. The reaction of US officials to the fall of Ramadi and the rise of ISIS is one of bewilderment and shock. But a cursory examination of recent history makes such a reaction unnecessary. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists noted in June 2014 that the success of ISIS in Iraq is an unsurprising surprise, and is no shock to those who have followed developments in Iraq closely. The loss of Ramadi to ISIS, in one sense is a replay of the loss of Mosul in 2014.

The monster of Frankenstein

The loss of Mosul eleven months ago was attributed to the personal failings and leadership inadequacies of former Iraqi PM Maliki. While all individual politicians have their failings, it is simplistic to ascribe military and political defeats to the personal qualities of this or that politician. Maliki was made a scapegoat for a wider failure – the fundamentally flawed, sectarian and kleptocratic nature of the post-2003 Baghdad political order.

Excessive violence is a feature of ISIS, particularly against Christian minorities. But it is not the original practitioner of such extreme coercion. Sectarian fanaticism was built into the post-2003 political system in Iraq, dividing up power along ethno-sectarian lines. The responsibility for this setup rests with the United States. Its criminal and predatory invasion of Iraq, and its exacerbation of sectarian divisions as a tactic to keep control, has resulted in the fracturing of the country and the demolition of the reasonably developed, educated and functioning society that Iraq was during the Ba’athist era.

For instance, Iraq did have a self-sustaining, technologically advanced and functioning health care system under the Ba’athist state, back in the 1970s and 1980s. That health care system was deliberately targeted by the incoming US invaders. Now, Iraq is a society that has high rates of child malnutrition and mortality from vaccine-preventable diseases. There were hospitals and clinics being built in Iraq to be sure – by the Bechtel corporation, an American private company that secured the rights to privatise the health system in the country. Bechtel failed to adequately provision the population with medical facilities, and finally pulled out of Iraq in 2006-07.

While ISIS is definitely the monster that has turned against its master, the US imperialist Dr Frankenstein, the real poison is the sectarianism inherent in the Baghdad political class. ISIS savagery is nothing to be celebrated, but its actions are only occurring within the larger context of the savagery of the US imperialist power in the region. Reversing ISIS cannot be done by military means alone – the policies that the United States has pursued over the decades to subjugate Iraq must be reversed as well.

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Reflections about Anzac Day: respect the dead, heal the wounded, end all imperialist wars

April 25, 2015 marked exactly one hundred years of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp (Anzac) offensive against the forces of the Ottoman Turkish empire at Gallipoli. There were many moving, and emotional commemorative activities on the day, as Australians like myself remembered those who fell in what was an ultimately disastrous campaign. Anglo-French military leaders had figured on opening a new front, intending on capturing the Dardanelles, defeating the German-allied Ottoman empire, and assisting the Imperial Russian ally in the East.

The amphibious assault, involving thousands of British and French troops, also witnessed the participation of soldiers from the former colonial possessions of the British and French empires. Thousands of Indian troops, a Sikh brigade, fought alongside the Anzac soldiers for the duration of the Gallipoli campaign. Let us not forget the 10 000 French soldiers who died fighting the Ottoman Turkish army, even though the French (along with the British) had colonial ambitions for the territories controlled by the Ottomans. The campaign by the Western Allies was not humanitarian in nature – political and economic calculations motivated the desire to defeat the Ottoman Turkish forces, and subsequently partition the Middle East into easily controllable portions (the Sykes-Picot Agreement was negotiated in secret).

The invading forces were multinational in composition, however, in Australia it is the Anzacs that understandably receive the most attention. Obviously we must remember our own compatriots that have lost their lives in battle. Hopefully, this compassion will be extended to the thousands of indigenous Australians who served in the Australian military. Even though the First Nations of Australia were not even considered citizens at the time, indigenous people signed up to the military and served with distinction in World War One. They participated in various campaigns of that war, including Gallipoli.

The Ottoman Turkish forces were also multiethnic, consisting of Arabs, Assyrians, Greeks and other minorities. The soldiers confronted by the Anzacs at Gallipoli were not only Turkish, but Arabs, conscripted from the various Arabic-speaking territories under the control of the Turkish Sultan.

Every year in Australia, there is a national discussion about how the Gallipoli campaign forged our national identity, graduated us to the world of independent nations and provided a foundational sense of national assertiveness. All that may contain an element of truth, but it is a very distorted picture that obscures a number of important lessons about Australia’s role in the international system.

After all, Gallipoli was not the first time that Australians served as auxiliary troops for the British empire. Back in 1885, volunteers from New South Wales (at the time still technically a colony of the English) served in the British-led campaign to violently suppress an anti-British, indigenous and Islamist-inspired uprising in the Sudan. Australians fought alongside the imperialist states in 1900-01 in China to help defeat an indigenous and nationalist uprising against foreign domination by the Chinese Boxer rebellion.

Serving an imperial master

The importance of Anzac day lies not in remembering the fallen, buttressing our notions of mateship, sacrifice and courage – as important as those are. Anzac day has become another stepping stone in Australia’s role as an unthinking, subservient junior partner to imperialist empire-building. Professor Tim Anderson, an academic and solidarity activist at the University of Sydney, wrote an article “The ANZAC Myth, a cult of imperial dependence”. He states that:

It is no accident that, one hundred years after the disastrous Gallipoli operation, Australian troops are again being sent to the Middle East. While in 1915 the ‘First Australian Imperial Force’ was used by the British Empire to attack the Ottoman Empire, in 2015 the ‘Australian Defence Forces’ are being used as part of an extended North American operation to control the entire Middle East.

These decisions to follow the British empire are not just a relic of a long-gone age of our history. This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the momentous decision by then Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies to voluntarily commit Australian troops to America’s war on Vietnam. This decision firmly tied Australia to the mast of US imperialist empire-building. No longer were we just an ally; now we were a junior mercenary advancing the war aims of the rising power in the North. Nicholas Ferns, PhD candidate in history at Monash University stated in his article on this subject that Menzies’ commitment is the forgotten skeleton in the closet:

This forgetfulness suggests a great deal not only about the current national “besottedness” with Gallipoli, but also concerning our collective unwillingness to confront less honourable aspects of our diplomatic and military history. With some notable exceptions, the nation’s populist commentators and the war pathos industry have used Gallipoli as a vehicle for national self-aggrandisement, despite the efforts of some academic historians to push for a more considered approach.

The sordid aspects of our military history

The present author’s late father was born and raised in Egypt. He knew the about the Anzacs very well, years before he migrated to Australia. He learned about the Anzacs not in the context of the Gallipoli commemorations however. Back in 1919, the Anzac troops were in Egypt, but not as tourists or cultural vacationers. They had their orders from the British commanders – violently suppress the nationalist uprising that was convulsing Egyptian society at the time. They gained a reputation as racist overseers, carrying out acts of violence against the population they viewed as ‘darkies’ and ‘niggers’. Looting, arson and assault were the trademark methods of the Anzac forces as they assisted the English in putting down the 1919 Egyptian revolution.

This is one of the less honourable aspects of our military history that has not been properly explored. This underlying squalid record does not correspond to the publicly marketed perceptions of courage, mateship and sacrifice that the Anzacs are portrayed as typifying. Philip Dwyer, a professor of history at the University of Newcastle, wrote an article entitled “Anzacs behaving badly: Scott McIntyre and contested history”. In it, he wrote of the behaviour of the Anzacs, acting more like an army of occupation rather than a friendly force in a country subjugated by British rule:

On Good Friday 1915, things got out of hand. Around 2,500 Anzacs rioted in the Wazza district of Cairo, sacking and setting fire to brothels, terrifying the locals, and clashing with military police who tried to intervene. These were no angels. Between 12% and 15% of the AIF had contracted venereal disease.

The battle of the Wazza, as it was dubbed, was not the only riot that took place. Others followed. Drinking and whoring, leaving bills unpaid, threatening, bullying and beating locals because they were “niggers”, and generally behaving in ways that we now condemn our sportsmen for behaving was standard fair for these boys who had money, were far away from home, and had no one to control them.

This is not to besmirch the reputation of each and every Anzac soldier as a violent psychopath – by no means. It is meant to expose a pattern of behaviour that directly contradicts the officially sanctioned nationalist gloating about war and militarism that surrounds every Anzac day. Australia’s involvement in military campaigns overseas cannot be reduced to simplistic assertions about national identity. What is less well known is the record of those Anzacs (and Australian civilians) who opposed war and militaristic adventures at the time.

Anzacs who opposed the war

Pip Hinman is an activist with the Socialist Alliance in Sydney. She wrote a moving, informative article for Green Left Weekly called “Lest we forget why Anzac Day glorifies war”. She wrote of her relative, great-uncle Arthur G Hinman, who joined the 15th Australian Infantry Battalion and fought at Gallipoli. He expressed his opposition to the entire Gallipoli operation, and voiced his concerns to his commanders. However, he followed his orders like a loyal soldier, landing at the peninsula with his outfit, digging trenches and performing his duties – he was killed in action at the age of 24.

The voices of those returned servicemen and women, horrified by the slaughterhouse of World War One, have been drowned out by the almost cult-like obedience demanded in remembering Anzac day. Resistance to the promotion of militarism was widespread throughout the societies affected by World War One, and Australia was no exception. Opposition on the home front has been amply documented, and consisted of strikes, demonstrations, political campaigns against the proposed introduction of conscription, and public debates about the nature of the war and the capitalist system.

The last surviving Gallipoli veteran until his death in 2002, was Alec Campbell. Upon his death, he was accorded a nationally televised state funeral, with dignitaries paying their respects for Campbell’s war service and undoubted heroism. He was a soldier for less than a year, but it was to be a transformative experience. Upon his return to Australia, he became an opponent of the war, a trade union organiser and socialist. Regarding war as a futile activity, he spoke out in favour of peaceful resolution of conflicts.

In fact, he did want to serve in a war again, after his return from Gallipoli, but not for the Australian military. He intended to fight for the anti-fascist and socialist side in the Spanish Civil war, as he quite correctly regarded the fascist counter-revolution of General Franco to be a mortal threat to the workers of that country. In 1999, Gallipoli veteran Alec Campbell, having served King and Country, voted in favour of Australia becoming a republic when the country went to the polls on that question.

Hugo Throssell, another Gallipoli veteran, declared that “The war has made me a socialist”. Winner of a Victoria Cross for bravery at Gallipoli, he spent the rest of his life scarred by his experiences. There was no term for it at the time, but today we would identify it as post-traumatic stress disorder. He wrote that “I have never recovered from my 1914-18 experiences”. Lacking any prospects for the future, he committed suicide in 1933.

The war that defined Australia as a nation

There is a war that shaped our identity and psyche as a nation, but it was not Gallipoli. It is the frontier wars, the wars of conquest waged by the English colonial authorities against the First Nations of Australia that defined the kind of country we became. Amy McQuire wrote a thoughtful, compelling article for New Matilda magazine that examines the frontier warfare, the silence that has until recently accompanied this subject, and the slow painstaking work by historians to examine its impact. The lack of acknowledgement of the black deaths in these successive frontier wars points to our failure to truly come to terms with the origins of the Australian state. While we commemorate those who died at Gallipoli, we must also face the fact that it is the First Nations of Australia that have paid the highest price in the formation our national identity.

In 1885, while New South Wales volunteers were serving in the Sudan as noted above, there was a very real war being waged in Queensland against the First Nations of that area by the English colonial overlords. Pastoral expansion was achieved at the expense of the indigenous people. As Paddy Gibson notes in his article “Frontier Wars: the wars that really forged the nation”:

Massacres of Aboriginal people to clear them from land continued in Australia into the 1920s. In Queensland alone it is estimated 25,000 Aboriginal people were killed by the Native Police and a similar number by punitive parties of squatters and their supporters.

Whereas an estimated 250,000 Aboriginal people lived in Queensland prior to colonisation, there were only 20,000 left alive by the time Australian troops set sail for Gallipoli in 1915.

Honestly acknowledging the history and consequences of a genocidal campaign has particular resonance for the present author. Indeed, April 1915 was not just the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign, but also the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Being a descendant of genocide survivors, the centenary is a pivotal occasion to persist with the ongoing campaign for recognition and for the perpetrators of that crime to admit their culpability. The Turkish authorities still refuse to face up to their guilt and deny that such a genocide took place. The first case of mass ethnic cleansing of the twentieth century, the inconvenient genocide, in the words of Geoffrey Robertson QC, has yet to take its place as a seminal event of World War One, just as crucial as any of the military campaigns that took place during that conflict.

November 11 1918

The end of World War One on November 11 1918 is the occasion to commemorate all those who fell in that conflict. Australians, English, Turkish, German, Armenian, Russian, Indian – all nationalities that were affected, either directly or indirectly, must be remembered for their heroism, sacrifice and resilience in the face of tremendous difficulties. While it was dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’, sadly World War One was anything but the end of organised slaughter. The imperialist powers, never giving up their quest for colonial expansion, set their sights on redesigning the defeated territories into commodities that could be governed by the victors.

In Sydney, the cenotaph that stands at Martin Place is one of the oldest war memorials in Australia, unveiled on Anzac Day 1927. It is a constant reminder of Australia’s war dead. It is fitting to ask why they died at Gallipoli, serving the interests of an imperial overlord. Why does Australia spend 28 billion dollars a year on armaments and the military, serving as a deputy sheriff, a junior partner for the United States? Australia is intimately bound up with the American financial-military establishment, providing comprehensive cooperation in matters of spying and intelligence-gathering. How many more shattered Anzacs will it take, families and survivors that cope with the psychological trauma of wars, before we stop serving as an auxiliary force for the imperialist system?