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Iraqi Revolution and the specter of jihadist extremism

As they did in the past Iraqis refuse to surrender their land to the radicals

20. June 2014
Pedro Rojo*, IraqSolidaridad

"The Military Council of the Revolution, formed by the former Iraqi army military, youth of the revolution and tribal members, is coordinating the military struggle of different groups against the Maliki government, heir to the political system imposed by the U.S. occupation".

Following article was kindly translated from Spanish by John Catalinotto of Workers World in New York. We publish it because it plausibly points out that the military takeover of Northern Iraq by ISIS forces is intertwined with a popular rebellion and much broader than the Jihadi phenomenon. We do, however, not share the optimism that Daesh will be expelled as an alien force. Conversely we believe that Jihadism could sink deep popular roots and sectarianism from both sides has infected Iraqi society more than any other Arab country. None of the major forces involved got an instrument against sectarianism. And the Syrian events are showing the predominant dynamics of the region which transformed a supra-confessional democratic popular rebellion into a sectarian civil.

The best way to know what is really going on in Iraq is to listen to the Iraqis themselves. The last statement of the Military Council of the Revolution (No 21 of June 14, 2014) is clear on the objectives of the current popular uprising:

“1. To restore justice and not to seek revenge. All settling of accounts must be done according to the law and through a fair trial.

2. To respect neighboring states and their sovereignty.

3. To end the sectarianism and political repression that the occupation implanted.

4. To begin a constitutional process that will represent all Iraqis.”

The Military Revolutionary Council, formed by the former Iraqi army officers, youth of the revolution and tribal members, is coordinating the military struggle of different groups against the Maliki government, which is heir to the political system imposed by the U.S. occupation.

The Iraqi armed response has been the last resort taken in the face of ongoing violence and repression of a regime that has refused to listen to the demands of its people. The protests began peacefully in 2011 with demonstrations, in which basic services, the end of corruption and regime change was demanded. Nuri al-Maliki responded by ruthlessly crushing the demonstrations that spread across the country, including in some cities in the so-called Shiite South, before the silence of the international community. But there was no turning back after more than a decade of marginalization and total abandonment of the Iraqi population by the various governments. The Iraqis followed the path of Tunisians and Egyptians by occupying, in late 2012, several squares of the northern provinces where pro-Iranian men of religion and Iraqi security forces have less influence. The government’s response was to attack these squares, which were symbols of the revolts. It first attacked Hawiya (April 2013) and then Ramadi (December 2013), which became the spark because those who had previously protested peacefully, now took up arms.

The specter of radical jihadists

The manipulation of Al Qaeda as a threat that hangs over the Iraqi people, and especially the Shia population, has been a constant since the beginning of the occupation.

Remember that until the arrival of the U.S. occupiers in Iraq, Bin Laden’s organization was totally absent from the lands of ancient Mesopotamia. It was thanks to the chaos created by the invasion and the excuse it provided to call a jihad against the Western occupiers that Al Qaeda began to take root in some areas of Iraq. Al Qaeda’s presence has always been marginal, but they have learned to use or or another way to maintain their activity and media presence.

Since 2003, both the occupying forces and the Iraqi government imposed by them have exaggerated the capacity and influence of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which later became the Islamic State of Mesopotamia, and from 2013 has been known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams (Daesh, as it is known in Arabic). Daesh has officially split with Al Qaeda in Syria over disagreements. The use of these radicals as a pretext, first used by the U.S. forces to extend their stay in Iraq and then by the Maliki government to terrorize the Shia population, has been a constant that has been repeated in this latest occasion.

Nobody seems to want to use the most basic logic when mainstream media report that the Daesh, composed – using the most generous estimates — of a few thousand fighters can control a stretch of territory stretching from Raqqa in Syria to Fallujah on the outskirts of Baghdad.

The Iraqis already know what it is to have areas of the country controlled by fundamentalists and radicals. Just as they did in 2008, they will return to expel these elements that are foreign to the tolerant and respectful nature of the Iraqi nation.

The dilemma that was placed before the anti-U.S. resistance is presented now to the rebels, who are faced with the difficult decision either to continue fighting to liberate the country or to engage in a battle to stop the barbarism of Daesh. This last option is what Maliki intends to use to change the nature of the rebels fight for the restoration of Iraqi sovereignty into in a struggle against Islamist extremism, that was introduced by the U.S. occupiers in the first place. The decision made by the military councils is to postpone the expulsion of Daesh from Iraq to prevent the Syrian scenario, where armed confrontation between the opposition groups and Daesh has eased the pressure on the Assad regime.

Short-term challenges

The march of the rebels toward the capital seems unstoppable but the final assault on Baghdad poses several challenges. The military is certainly important, because despite the disbanding of the Maliki’s army in Mosul or Tikrit, the prime minister counts right now on the part of the army which is willing to fight for his regime, and with the pro-Iranian militias and Iranian forces already in the country (currently three brigades of Iran’s Republican Guard). But undoubtedly the most important challenge is to make the Iraqi revolution against sectarianism and manipulation of that part of the Shiite population that accepts without question the guidelines of religious leaders, including Ayatollah Sisitani, who have called for jihad to defend Shiite holy places from the alleged anathematizing horde coming from the north.

The efforts of some sectors that make up the Iraqi opposition to counter this campaign of terror are being overwhelmed by the media machine of the Iraqi government, which has redoubled its discourse of sectarian hatred that has been repeated since 2003.

Initiatives such as the open letter from the Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq in which the combatants are urged to treat the populations of liberated cities with sensitivity and care, including their minorities, so that “[…] these cities become a model that others will wish to emulate” are important.

Another example of the commitment of the rebels to the unity of the country has been the city of Samarra. The whole province of Saladin is controlled by the rebels least this city that welcomes Shiite holy places, which we remember were destroyed by a bombing in 2006.

Given the possibility that Daesh could be able to attack these mausoleums (the tribesmen successfully defended the sacred precincts from a raid ten days ago by the jihadists), the Iraqi army has left city and the local tribes have taken custody of the holy places, for both Maliki and Daesh gain from feeding the fire of sectarian war, one to stay in power and the other to foment chaos, the natural environment where they know they can get the most of their tactics.

Various organizations have issued statements south of support for the rebels, as Unified National Confederation of Tribes of the South and Middle Euphrates and the Popular Movement for the Salvation of Iraq, led by Udey al Zaidy. The uprising in the south, which is majority Shiite, seems to be complicated by the aforementioned manipulation of the most religious sectors of the area and by the ironclad control pro-Iran militias and Maliki’s security forces use against any form of opposition. A hypothetical popular uprising in the south would be the death knell for the current regime.

The alternative to the Maliki regime was presented at a reception at the House of Lords, last June 10. A delegation of the Iraqi opposition, who represented all sectors of society and all political currents of the opposition based in Iraq, planned an Iraq based on the “independence and territorial integrity of Iraq […], a political system based on democratic and constitutional principles that will lay the foundations of political pluralism, peaceful transfer of power and equality before the law for all citizens, [… ] The rejection of terrorism and the restoration of social peace.” It is time that Western and regional powers leave Iraq and allow the people to recover and develop their country.

June 16, 2014

* Pedro Rojo is Arabist, CEOSI member and president of the Foundation Al Fanar