Understanding the crisis in Iraq

June 16, 2014

Last week, as the conflict in Iraq intensified and the mainstream media struggled to understand what happened, Michael Schwartz, author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context and a regular writer at websites such as TomDispatch.com, outlined his analysis of what was taking place in notes written for the IraqViews listserve he edits (to subscribe, send an e-mail to [email protected], with the message: "sub iraqviews-l"). He edited and expanded those comments for publication here.

SO...WHAT'S going on in Iraq?

A lot, and it has been going on for a long time, but the English language media has chosen to ignore most of the important stuff as it occurs. Now, with the Sunni insurgency "capturing" Mosul, the country's second-largest city, we are going to get a flurry of coverage, probably followed by it dropping back into oblivion, even as the drama increases in pitch and importance.

Three articles from the New York Times--"Sunni Militants Drive Iraqi Army Out of Mosul," by Suadad Al-Salhy and Tim Arango; "Exhausted and Bereft, Iraqi Soldiers Quit Fight," by Kareem Fahim and Suadad Al-Salhy; and "After Capture of Mosul, Militants Extend Control in Iraq," by Suadad Al-Salhy and Alan Cowell--will give you a (typically distorted Times) portrait of the current events, with little background. So here are a few key points that can be teased out of the Times coverage, enough to rough out the lay of the land:

THE TIMES wants you to believe that this is a war between a jihadist group "The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," (now designated ISIS)--anointed by the U.S. government and media as the fully realized terrorist adversary in Syria, Iraq and other nearby countries--and the government of Iraq, led by its would-be strongman Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and sometimes-orphaned client of the U.S. And that this is a sectarian battle between the Sunni terrorist groups and the Shiite-dominated government, with the people of these areas oppressed by both sides.

People fleeing the fighting in Mosul arrive at a checkpoint near Erbil
People fleeing the fighting in Mosul arrive at a checkpoint near Erbil

But this is just a stereotype that distorts what is going on. For the last couple of years, local folks in the Sunni areas of Iraq--many of whom are now involved in this insurgency--have been organizing protests, nonviolent and violent, against the government, based on numerous justified grievances. The roots of these rebellions extend back before the U.S. invasion, but the current protests/political demands/rebellions are directed against the government's failure to reconstruct these U.S.-devastated areas by delivering oil-financed government jobs (education, police, etc.), financing economic redevelopment (re-opening manufacturing enterprises, rejuvenating farming, etc.), and rebuilding infrastructure (clean water, electricity, roads).

As the government has escalated its repression of these protests, what is essentially a guerrilla war has developed (or rather a large number of uncoordinated local guerrilla-type insurgencies) in the various cities and towns in Anbar, Nineveh and other northwest provinces. ISIS--with a multi-local presence in many, but not all, of the local areas--is an (often vicious) element in the mix. It sometimes takes leadership, but most often, it is not the dominant force in any locality.

The impression conveyed by the coverage in the U.S. electronic media (though less so in the New York Times) is that the insurgency operates on the basis of terrorist attacks against local communities. But actually, this is not even close to the way things have happened thus far. As has been the pattern over the decade since the U.S. invasion, these locally based insurgencies--still operating after all these years in these same cities and towns--are usually careful to avoid killing local residents.

There is a terrorist presence within the larger insurgency (ISIS usually, but not always), and it undertakes targeted assassinations against its local opposition, executes apostates when it can and mounts (so far) occasional high-profile terrorist attacks against Shiite communities. But these are a very small part of what is happening, and not expressive of the local insurgents--though these terrorists' actions are a major part of the mainstream media coverage.

What is typical of on-the-ground events is this interchange reported by a resident of Mosul with an insurgent fighter: "They greeted us, and when they saw that we were scared, they said, 'We are not here to fight you. Just stay away and do not interfere...We are here to fight Maliki's army, not you.'"

If you read the Times articles, you will see that the targets of the attacks (including those undertaken by ISIS) are almost all military and government personnel and installations. Or you can tell that the violence is largely NOT terrorist by the few descriptions of actual fighting in the media coverage, including this Times account of an interview with a government soldier who deserted his post in Mosul:

Mohamed said that eight of his friends had died, and that he almost did, too, when a mortar shell struck his Humvee. When militants singled him out as a target for assassination, forcing him to flee, it was almost a relief.

"I'm tired," he said. "Everyone is tired."

THE "CONQUEST" of Mosul (like the earlier "conquest" of Falluja six months ago, and all the "conquests" since last week) was not accomplished with a big battle that defeated the Iraqi army. After months of small unit ambushes and sniper attacks on army units and officials, the government presence in Mosul (and elsewhere) basically melted away.

Consider this description from the Times: "Desertions had become widespread, with thousands of men laying down their arms, gutting frontline units across the country. Before the troops dissolved in Mosul, the army was losing as many as 300 soldiers a day, between desertions, deaths and injuries."

And so, after the very kind of war of attrition that Mao wrote down in the original handbook of guerrilla war, the army (and the official government presence) simply withdrew, with "militants...moving into the city the night before, taking positions that had been abandoned by the army."

And the denouement:

The Iraqi Army apparently crumbled in the face of the militant assault, as soldiers dropped their weapons, shed their uniforms for civilian clothes and blended in with the fleeing masses. The militants freed thousands of prisoners and took over military bases, police stations, banks and provincial headquarters, before raising the black flag of the jihadi group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over public buildings.

The ensuring "battles" for the smaller cities in the area were almost without violence, according to the Times reports:

Citizens in Baiji, a city of 200,000 about 110 miles south of Mosul, awoke Wednesday to find that government checkpoints had been abandoned and that insurgents, arriving in a column of 60 vehicles, were taking control of parts of the city without firing a shot...

In Tikrit, famous as the hometown of Saddam Hussein, residents said the militants attacked in the afternoon from three directions: east, west and north. Residents said there were brief exchanges of gunfire, and then police officers and soldiers shed their uniforms, put on civilian clothing and fled through residential areas to avoid the militants.

AND...WHILE it is not clear how much the people in the "captured" cities support the insurgents and/or jihadists, it is clear that they prefer them to the government. As James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told the Times, the government had long ago "lost the support of the people because they had a sectarian policy" that included "sweeps that rounded up hundreds of men, innocent and guilty alike, and the arrest of the wives of suspected militants."

Ambassador Jeffrey (and the Times reporters) did not mention that these brutal tactics came in response to protests from local citizens, tribal leaders and even public officials that these localities had been denied their share of promised oil revenues earmarked for reconstruction of devastated cities, infrastructure, and farms.

The government soldiers feel like--and are treated like--the invading army that they are: "They spoke of nerve-racking patrols in remote areas or in contested cities, surrounded, at times, by hostile residents. They searched booby-trapped houses and traveled roads full of bombs. Most terrifying, though, they said, were the snipers."

TYPICALLY, THE U.S. press coverage portrays this as a civil war between Shia and Sunni, and of course, it does have elements of this. Given the ethnic element, it is by now almost impossible for the government to get Sunni troops to fight against the locals (and the jihadists), but the Shia troops do not want to fight either.

Even the Times reporters sneak in the fact that many Shia soldiers have "fled" the battle--i.e. deserted. The army has been recruited mostly from those "who joined the service for its relatively good salary," and not on the basis of any support for the government. And with service becoming more and more dangerous as the insurgency continues its war of attrition, the families of soldiers are urging them to take advantage of the current opportunities deserting without suffering any consequences:

One 25-year-old deserter said his mother was so terrified of the fighting that she burned his uniform every time he returned home on leave. Two months ago, he said she raised the stakes, threatening to kill herself if he returned to his unit.

So when the media speak of the army "melting away," they are recording a mutiny by Shia soldiers who are refusing to fight to maintain the government occupation of insurgent Sunni communities. And when the media report that large numbers of Shia citizens are volunteering to join militias to "defend" against the ISIS offensive, they are signing up to defend Shia communities from the invasion (in Baghdad and elsewhere) that the government and Western media are predicting, despite the fact that guerrilla fighters are incapable of such an invasion.

The recruitment of Shia fighters therefore does not portend a re-invasion of Mosul and other insurgent-held cities by government forces. Any new effort by the government will involve air or artillery attacks--i.e., indiscriminate slaughter of the local citizens.

THE U.S. is--as usual--supplying the armaments for both sides of the war. As the Times writes:

After militants captured Falluja at the end of last year, the United States rushed guns, ammunition and Hellfire missiles to Iraq, but those seemed to make little difference. In some cases, the weapons were captured by insurgents in Anbar, and on Tuesday, it appeared that more American equipment had fallen into the hands of the militants, including American-made Humvees.

So, Maliki's army is disintegrating and the local insurgencies are capturing U.S. weapons from the fleeing soldiers. (Just like in Vietnam, 50 years ago).

AND...ALSO as usual...the U.S. supplies weapons that allow for a dramatic escalation of the destructive violence, including a multiplication of the number of casualties, and especially casualties among non-combatants. The Hellfire missiles and the recent additions of military airpower mean that the government can attack areas where its presence is weak or non-existent, with the usual "collateral damage." This is what happened in Falluja six months ago, increasing the body count and structural damage enormously while leaving unaltered the equation of forces.

And in the great tradition of the American military, they have taken to destroying locations in order to save them:

The fleeing troops left weapons, vehicles and even their uniforms behind, as militants took over at least five army installations and the city's airport. In a desperate bid to stem the losses, the military was reduced to bombing its own bases to avoid surrendering more weapons to the enemy.

Do not let this bland language fool you. The bombed-out targets were inhabited by, or surrounded by, non-combatants who constituted the fast majority of the (always unreported) casualties.

But this sort of mass killing does not compare to the U.S. army's capacity, a capacity that the Maliki government is anxious to harness. In recent months, "the United States has provided a $14 billion foreign military aid package to Iraq that includes F-16 fighter jets, Apache attack helicopters and...ScanEagle reconnaissance drones."

And as if this is not enough firepower to engage in the sort of systematic state terrorism that the U.S. practiced in Iraq for the better part of a decade, Maliki has repeatedly asked for the direct application of U.S. air power against these rebellious communities, for example the use of "armed American-operated Predator or Reaper drones [against] the expanding militant network in Iraq."

So far, Maliki has been "rebuffed by the White House," despite the fact that at least some of Obama's military advisers believe that "such American military action could be helpful." Times reporters Gordon and Schmitt, reported the current thinking thusly:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

On the other hand, last week, in his first formal statement on the situation in Iraq, Obama was careful to exclude another invasion with U.S. ground troops, while forcefully asserting that a Pakistan-type intervention--including air attacks (from aircraft that can carry 1,000-pound bombs) as well as Special Forces missions (that is, death squad attacks against insurgent leaders or activists)--were definitely under consideration.

SO...THE Sunni insurgency is on the offensive, and the Maliki government is in retreat, perhaps disorderly retreat. Maliki is looking for ways to amplify his capacity to attack rebellious communities and escalate the level of violence. He may or may not succeed.

AND FINALLY, there is the question of the advance of the Sunni insurgency toward Baghdad. It is important to underscore the fact that it is in the nature of guerrilla war that it cannot simply conquer large cities, especially cities where the population does not support the insurgency. Conquering large cities like Mosul require the dissolution of the police and army in the face of guerrilla actions and a hostile population. The Shia areas of Baghdad are not susceptible to either of these circumstances in the near or distant future.

Militarily, a stalemate is inevitable, with localities that drive out the government presence establishing local administrations of varying characters, uncoordinated with each other. The Shia areas will remain quasi-loyal to the government and well-defended from any frontal attack. These areas will have as their most important challenge protecting themselves from the vicious suicide and truck bombings that ISIS and other terror-based groups have promised to unleash, once they feel comfortably protected in the various insurgent areas.

And the crisis will continue.

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