Escalating sectarian conflict in Iraq reached a new peak on 2 January.
According to academic Juan Cole, an Al Qaeda group took over “big swathes of some al-Anbar cities and... police stations”, abandoned by the cops after mass anti-government demonstrations by local people.
“Allegedly half of Fallujah had fallen to the Al Qaeda affiliate”.
Anbar is a large but mostly desert province in the west of Iraq, bordering Syria and Jordan, and mostly inhabited by Iraq’s large Sunni minority.
Iraq’s government, led by Shia Islamists round prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, has negotiated alliances with some local Sunni militias which dislike Al Qaeda even more than they resent Maliki’s policies, and launched counterattacks. But government control in Anbar’s cities has still not been restored.
Maliki has obtained urgent shipments of missiles and drones from the USA, and on 7 January the government reported that it had killed 25 people with missile strikes on the city of Ramadi.
The Al Qaeda group which took the cities is ISIL (or ISIC), the same group currently in battle in northern Syria against secular and softer-Islamist strands of the Syrian opposition.
The anti-government surge which ISIL profited from was triggered by Maliki, in late December, sending troops to disperse a long-running and peaceful Sunni protest camp outside Ramadi and arresting a Sunni MP who had been negotiating between the protesters and the government. 44 MPs, mostly Sunni, resigned from the Iraqi parliament.
Maliki’s policy for many years now has been one (as Cole puts it) “of almost ignoring Sunni complaints”. To rule Iraq, he has relied more or less totally on his Shia base and on deals with Kurdish parties which, despite many tensions, in return get virtual autonomy for the Kurdish north of Iraq.
Deaths from sectarian attacks, across Iraq, rose to 8000 in 2013, the highest figure since 2008.
Some on the left acclaimed the militias active in 2006-7 as “anti-imperialist resistance”, but the worst of them have become even more active since US troops withdrew, targeting not imperialism but Iraqis of other creeds.
Anbar was a stronghold of rebel militias under the US occupation of Iraq from 2003-8, but then, as Cole notes, “the old Islamic State of Iraq [group] was powerful in some areas at some times, [but] it was a guerrilla organisation which faded away when conventional troops came in”.
The US was adroit and flexible enough to nurture, negotiate with, and finance a militia of anti-Al-Qaeda Sunnis. That militia, Sahwa, had 100,000 fighters by 2008. Maliki disbanded Sahwa and largely broke promises to give its fighters jobs in the Iraqi army or bureaucracy.
Economically Iraq has boomed in recent years, and foreign investment continues to flow in. This seems to have given Maliki false confidence. Many provinces, not just Anbar, are demanding autonomy and a bigger share of the oil revenues.
Elections are due in April. A working-class political presence is urgently needed there, to avoid Iraq collapsing into a militarised regime in which sectarian conflicts dominate, and the labour movement is crushed.
To organise it in time, in current conditions, will be difficult.