It is now more than eleven years since the unprovoked invasion of Iraq by the USA and Britain. Because those who planned and prosecuted that invasion, and those who supported them, continue to defend what they did with contorted and specious arguments, it is worth recalling the attempted justifications for it that were made at the time.
Former prime minister Tony Blair who has escaped prosecution as a war criminal, astonishingly still emerges from time to time, apparently oblivious to the widespread contempt in which he is held, to argue that he did the right thing and that Iraq and the wider world are far better for being rid of Saddam Hussein. Although he and those who supported the war, including most of the British media at the time, now conveniently avoid mentioning it, the invasion of Iraq was supposedly to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction. It was not to effect regime change. Shortly before the invasion Blair himself pointedly stated that the planned invasion would be called off and Saddam could remain in power if he agreed to destroy his stockpile of WMD. The public was assured that he possessed such weapons despite the absence of any credible evidence that he did and despite convincing testimony from very reliable sources that they had all been destroyed shortly after the first Gulf war. In spite of all this and against mass popular opposition to the war manifested in the largest demonstrations in British history, the U.K. parliament, including crucially the majority of Labour MPs and almost all the Tories, voted in favour of the invasion. Had the majority of Labour MPs voted with the Liberal Democrats and the minority of Tory opponents, Britain could not have joined Bush in the invasion and Blair would have had to resign. It is to their everlasting shame that instead they voted for a war which, at the time and since, the great majority of international lawyers regarded as illegal. The events of the past week or so in Iraq are the entirely foreseeable consequence of that disastrous, criminal invasion in 2003.
At the time of writing (20.June) the situation in Iraq is almost as bad as it can get. Almost, because it can – and by the time this is published – probably will become even worse. At the moment Isis (the Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham) has control of Iraq’s third largest city, Mosul, and Tal Afar in the north. It has taken Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s birthplace) and also controls a string of smaller towns on or close to the oil pipelines from Basra to Haditha and Tal Afar to Baghdad. This includes the refinery at Baiji. Another refinery at Samarra is also under threat. In the Kurdish north-west the refinery at Irbil is now effectively in the hands of the large and well-trained Kurdish military force, the peshmerga. The venal Iraqi army, trained and armed by the U.S., and hyped as the best military force in the Arab world, melted away in the north as Isis forces advanced. The corrupt, sectarian, Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, backed until now by the U.S., stands impotently transfixed by the crisis. Maliki can do nothing but beg his paymasters and mentors in Washington and London for air-cover and drones as the jihadists draw ever closer to Baghdad. He has been upstaged by the Shia cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistrani, who, with considerable success, has called upon his followers to take up arms against the Sunni jihadists.
The country faces almost certain collapse in one way or another. Either Isis takes Baghdad and proclaims the first stage of a new-born trans-national Caliphate stretching from the Mediterranean to the Gulf, or Iraq disintegrates into three warring regions – a Sunni-Jihadist north-west dominated by Isis; a north-eastern Kurdistan and a Shia dominated south. Whatever may happen, the whole country is likely to undergo a further and more intense period of sectarian-religious conflict. This will occur whether or not Britain and the U.S. intervene. U.S. drone strikes and/or aerial bombardment, should they be attempted, are likely to inflame sectarian passions even more. Such intervention will certainly not bring an end to the crisis provoked by the invasion of 2003. It will simply prolong and intensify the crisis. A mark of British/U.S. desperation may be seen in the overtures at present being made to Iran, only yesterday the dominant actor in G.W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”. Where do things go from here? Can we look forward to the rehabilitation of Assad or a working alliance with Hezbollah? Where does it leave the close relationship with Saudi-Arabia, sworn enemy of Iran and armourer of the Sunni jihadists? And all this hardly begins to address the crucial question of Iraq’s oil reserves and the western stake in the industry. Who will control oil production and export in the tumultuous times ahead? Apparently Opec was predicting earlier this year that 60% of its future production would come from Iraq.
It is a sad reflection on the fate of the “Arab Spring” about which there were such high hopes after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, that in almost every case the outcome has been, not the democratic transformation expected by the revolutionaries, but the ascendancy of reactionary Islamism and, in Egypt, as a counter-blast against it, the restoration of a military regime hardly better than Mubarak’s dictatorship. It is depressing to admit that in Syria after the agonies of the last three years, the choice has turned out to be between a brutish secular dictatorship and an Islamist barbarism redolent of the dark ages. The enlightened forces of the Arab revolution have turned out to be feeble or chimerical. Though true, it doesn’t help much to point out that the emergence and growth of fanatical Islamism in its “modern” manifestation can be traced at least to the arming and funding of the Afghan Mujahedeen by the U.S. against the Soviets in the 1980s, culminating in the collapse of the Soviet-backed regime and ultimately in the castration, butchery and dismemberment of its leader, Mohammad Najibullah, by the victorious western-backed jihadists in Kabul in1996: a foretaste of things to come.
It is inconvenient for the dwindling band of apologists for the 2003 invasion and supporters of the “War on Terror” to be reminded that before the war to “liberate” the country from Saddam’s tyranny there was no al Qaeda in Iraq. They do not want to be told that the frenzied sectarian bloodletting which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since 2003 was a direct consequence of that illegal invasion and the murderous occupation that succeeded it. Tony Blair continues to deny that there is any causal connection between the war he launched and the catastrophe that is now engulfing Iraq. It beggars belief that the British news media still defer to this man and, as has been remarked recently, it is beyond parody that he is still in post as peace envoy for the Middle East.
But what might one expect a left wing assessment of the present situation to be? Here it is more important than ever to distinguish between wishfulness and reality. In the early years after the Bolshevik revolution when the first revolutionary phase had passed elsewhere, Lenin criticised those who refused to recognize this for believing in fairy tales. In light of the rise to prominence and dominance throughout much of the Arab and wider Muslim world of particularly violent and reactionary brands of Islamism, it makes little sense to continue talking about the Arab revolution as though it was a living reality in any progressive sense.. In 1979 the “Islamic revolution” in Iran marked the beginning of a relatively new phenomenon – the fusion of a mass social revolutionary movement and a predominantly reactionary theocratic ideology (Shia Islamism) containing elements of populist anti-imperialism. Nowhere in the (Sunni) Arab world and the wider Sunni world have secular revolutionary forces been able to withstand the rise of militant Islamism. The U.S. and its allies must bear a large part of the responsibility for this. During the cold war their opposition to more progressive secular Arab nationalist movements such as Nasserism and the Algerian FLN which leant towards the Soviet Union, helped bring about the decline of progressive nationalism and paved the way for more pliant reactionary secular regimes, and ultimately for the rise of Islamist jihadists. The most extreme of these are now running rampant in Iraq and Syria.
It is a sad reflection on the present state of affairs that a significant minority of young Muslim men in Britain and elsewhere in Europe have in recent years reacted to western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and to their own often marginalised and economically precarious status in society, by identifying with these jihadist movements. Several thousands from European countries have enlisted to fight in Syria and Iraq. Some commentators have suggested that these jihadists can be compared to the anti-fascists of the 1930s who joined the international brigades to fight for the Spanish republic. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain were clear-sighted socialists, motivated by the highest humanist principles, prepared to fight and die for a noble cause – the struggle to defend democracy from the onslaught of a barbaric militarist rebellion. Those who enlist in the ranks of Isis are surrendering themselves to a benighted, intolerant, misogynistic movement that aims to drag the societies it conquers back into the dark ages.
Further western intervention in Iraq and Syria needs to be vigorously opposed. It is by no means certain that the Isis territorial gains in Iraq can be held. It is likely that the internal forces in Iraq will force Nouri al-Maliki to resign and his passing will be most welcome. But it seems highly unlikely that Iraq will escape an intensified Shia-Sunni-Kurdish conflict. It is likely that the Shia forces will be actively supported by Iran and their proxies, Hezbollah. The outcome, at least in the short-run, could be the break-up of Iraq into three regions. Facing hard and unpalatable reality it is clear that any idea of a progressive secular revolution succeeding in the foreseeable future is to believe in a fairy story. The best that can be realistically hoped for at the moment is that western intervention is blocked and that the advance of Isis is halted and reversed. If that is to be accomplished in Iraq it is likely to be done by predominantly Shia forces, hopefully supported by anti-Isis Sunnis and the Kurdish peshmerga. It is also to be hoped that the back of Isis and similar jihadists in Syria is broken too. If this can only be achieved by the armed forces of the Assad regime backed by Hezbollah, so be it. Not a particularly encouraging outcome. However, the choice is not between differing favourable solutions but between the lesser of evils.