Did the U.S. Create a Civil War in Iraq?

At he Fort Bragg ceremony honoring the return of U.S. troops from Iraq, President Barack Obama boasted that the U.S. had accomplished “an extraordinary achievement nine years in the making.”

“Everything that the American troops have done in Iraq–all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering–all of it has led to this moment of success,” Obama said. “[W]e’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

Such claims are a lie. None of this rhetoric can disguise the terrible waste of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq–as many as 1 million Iraqis dead, millions more driven from their homes, along with 4,500 U.S. soldiers killed, 32,000 wounded and nearly $1 trillion gone.

Obama’s claims about America’s “extraordinary achievement” in Iraq are Orwellian. In reality, the U.S. war and occupation further wrecked an already devastated country, left it in a shambles rather than rebuild it and stoked sectarianism between Iraq’s three main groups–Kurds, Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims.

The U.S. already precipitated one civil war between Sunnis and Shias in 2006. And now, sectarian conflicts are threatening to explode again.

Shortly after the U.S. withdrawal, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia, attempted to arrest Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni. Hashimi fled to the Kurdish region for sanctuary. Sunni Salafists, who view Shias as infidels, have launched a wave of attacks that killed scores of Shia during their religious holiday of Arbaeen.

Post-occupation Iraq may be poised to descend into three-cornered warfare.


In the 1970s, Iraqis–though living under the brutal rule of Saddam Hussein’s regime–had achieved economic development and living standards on a par with Greece.

Over the last three decades, the U.S. has wrecked the country.

The U.S. launched the 1991 Gulf War to prevent Iraq from becoming a regional power that could threaten American control over the Middle East and its strategic oil reserves. The first Gulf War killed 300,000 Iraqis and destroyed the country’s infrastructure. Afterward, sanctions crippled Iraq’s economy, prevented reconstruction of the country, and led to the deaths of as many as 1.5 million more people.

In 2003, the Bush administration justified its invasion of the country with fabricated claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. In reality, Bush hoped the invasion would begin a series of regime changes in the region, including in Iran and Syria. With allied regimes in place in these countries, the U.S. would be able to dominate the region, control access to oil and thereby assert power over its international rivals, especially China.

The invasion quickly succeeded in toppling Saddam Hussein. But in short order, the Iraqi resistance to occupation destroyed Bush’s imperial fantasies.

Nevertheless, the U.S. occupation inflicted a terrible price on Iraqis. The Lancet medical journal estimated that between the invasion in March 2003 and June 2006, there were 650,000 civilian deaths directly and indirectly attributable to the war. Opinion Research Business, a British polling agency, used the Lancet‘s methodology to estimate over a million civilian deaths between March 2003 and August 2007.

Far from rebuilding Iraq as promised, Iraq remains in worse shape today, eight years after the invasion, than it was Saddam Hussein.

Outside of the Kurdish north, most Iraqis still go without regular electricity and don’t have reliable supplies of potable water. The Iraqi economy is in disastrous shape, with sky-high levels of unemployment and poverty. Journalist Juan Cole reports that the number of Iraqis living in slums jumped from 17 percent before the occupation to 50 percent today.

Instead of leaving behind a stable democracy responsive to its people, the U.S. established a corrupt state similar to that in Lebanon. Kurdish, Sunni and Shia ruling classes compete, via their political parties, in a three-way battle for the spoils of the national government. According to Transparency International, Iraq’s new government is the eighth-most corrupt in the world.

Perhaps the single-worst aspect of the entire legacy of occupation is the sectarianism and ethnic chauvinism that the U.S. consciously stoked and then used as the basis of the country’s new political system.

Iraq had a history of ethnic and religious oppression–though nominally secular, Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime was predominantly Sunni. It repressed Kurdish aspirations for self-determination, and crushed Kurdish and Shia uprisings at the end of the first Gulf War.

Iraq, however, did not have a history of mass sectarianism and ethnic cleansing. But the U.S. occupation magnified and militarized these divisions, eventually triggering a full-blown civil war between Sunnis and Shias in Baghdad during 2006.

Iraq’s three major groups–Shia, Sunni and Kurds–reacted differently to the 2003 invasion.

The Sunni ruling class saw the U.S. war as an attack on its historic control over the country–confirmed by the occupation authorities’ “de-Baathification” program that hit Sunnis the hardest–and it went into resistance right away. The Kurdish ruling class, on the other hand, saw the invasion as a chance to consolidate its autonomous zone in the North, established after the first Gulf War.

The Shia ruling class and its religious parties Dawa and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) tried to use the invasion to gain control of the new government. Since the Shia were a majority of Iraq’s population, Dawa and the ISCI pressed hard for elections to consolidate their dominance–which encouraged Sunnis to view them with hostility. Only the Shia nationalist Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army organized protests against the occupation.

When the U.S. targeted Sadr and his followers with repression, it raised the possibility of an Arab opposition uniting Sunnis and Shia against the occupation. In response, the U.S. turned to the oldest trick in the imperialist book–divide and conquer.

When the U.S. appointed up an Interim Governing Council, it used the Lebanese model, assigning each community representatives in proportion to their percentage of the population. But the pressure continued for elections. When they came, the U.S. had designed them in a fashion that cemented the religious and ethnic divisions in Iraqi society. As author Nir Rosen wrote:

Iraq’s election law itself seemed designed to promote civil war. Although the diverse country is divide into 18 province, it had only one electoral district…Ethnic and religious blocs preferred one district because they were nationally known, and they would be able to avoid challengers who had genuine grassroots local support.

Faced with impending defeat, the Sunni elite called for a boycott of the elections, which culminated in the victory for a succession of Shia-dominated governments. Sunni Salafist forces organized in various formations, including Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The Salafists staged a series of bombings and attacks on Shia civilians. Even the Sadrists turned against the Sunnis then.

A civil war between Shia and Sunni exploded in 2006, with Baghdad as the chief battleground.

Instead of using its occupation forces to stop the conflict, the U.S. fueled it. Washington’s Ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, had made his mark during the Reagan administration, backing death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua against left-wing movements and governments.

Negroponte implemented the so-called “Salvador Option” of backing Shia death squads against the Sunni resistance. He encouraged the Shia ISCI party to incorporate its militia, the Badr Brigades, into the Interior Ministry’s security forces. He then encouraged them to target not only the Salafists, but also the Sunni resistance itself.

The Shia-dominated Badr Bridgades and sections of Sadr’s Mahdi Army launched a massive counter-attack against Sunnis in Baghdad. Entire neighborhoods were ethnically cleansed.

In the end, according to the UN Refugee Agency, the fighting drove 4.7 million from their homes. Over 2 million mostly Sunnis fled the country, half of them to Syria, and another 2 million were internally displaced.

“There is no national identity any longer,” Ghassan al-Attiyah, an Iraqi political scientist and commentator, told journalist Patrick Cockburn. “Iraqis are either Sunni, Shia or Kurd.”

Negroponte and the U.S. had another twist in store. In 2007, the U.S. made overtures to sections of the Sunni elite–as part of the so-called “surge” of troops into Iraq–with the aim of exploiting divisions between the broader Sunni resistance and the Salafist groups. Over the protests of the Maliki government, the U.S. hired 100,000 Sunni resistance fighters and paid them $300 a month to form the Awakening Councils to fight a proxy war against the Salafists.

U.S. policies enflamed the sectarian conflict not only in Iraq, but across the Middle East.

The U.S. had planned to move on from Iraq to take down the Shia-dominated regime in Iran and Iran’s allies in power in Syria. But bogged down by the Iraqi resistance and the civil war, the U.S. hand in the Middle East was growing weaker. Iran gradually became as influential in Iraq as the U.S. itself.

The U.S. responded by raising the specter of a “Shia Crescent,” headquartered in Iran and extending through a Shia-dominated Iraq to Syria and the forces of Hezbollah in Lebanon. As Nir Rosen wrote, “The Bush administration contributed to regional sectarianism, seeking to bolster the so-called ‘moderate Sunni regimes’ (dictatorships like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, viewed as moderate because they collaborated with Israel and the United States) against Iran or Hezbollah.”

U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia were only too happy to respond to the call for a network of Sunni states aligned with the U.S. against Iran and its influence in Iraq. The Saudis, along with the U.S. and Turkey, poured money into Iraqiya, an Iraqi party led by the secular Shia Ayad Allawi, but which had won 80 percent of the Sunni vote in recent elections. Iran, on the other hand, backed the Shia formations, from ISCI to Dawa and the Sadrists.

The battle over control of the Iraqi state came to a head in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Because of disagreements among them, the Shia parties didn’t put up candidates as part of a united slate, and Iraqiya was able to win the largest block of seats in parliament. Nevertheless, Maliki was able to unite the Shia parties to form a government.

The Sadrists agreed to participate–but on the condition that Maliki refuse to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement that the Bush administration had struck with the Iraqi government in 2008. Under the agreement, the U.S. was required to withdraw completely from Iraq by the end of 2011.

Despite pressure from the Obama administration to allow some number of U.S. military troops to remain in Iraq, with immunity from prosecution, Maliki refused to go along, and the U.S. was forced to pull its last soldiers out of Iraq in the middle of the night on December 18.

With the U.S. left with only a force of mercenaries in Iraq working for the State Department out of the giant Baghdad embassy, the situation in Iraq has reached a new stage–and the sectarian conflict threatens to explode once again into civil war.

Each of the sections of Iraqi ruling class is angling for full or partial control over the state, leadership of Iraq’s 900,000 military troops and police, and access to the country’s huge oil revenues.

The Kurdish ruling class, represented by Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, aims to consolidate its autonomous province and seize control of the contested city of Kirkuk, with its large oil reserves. Sunni politicians, represented in parliament by Allawi’s Irakiya party, want to establish a Sunni autonomous zone. Meanwhile, Shia leaders in Nuri al-Maliki’s coalition government aim to consolidate their rule over the country as a whole.

These schisms have detonated a political crisis.

Less than 24 hours after U.S. forces withdrew, Maliki, responding to an assassination attempt, ordered the arrest of Hashimi, the Sunni vice president of the coalition government, on terrorism charges mainly relating to the 2006-07 period. Hashimi fled to the autonomous Kurdish territory, where he remains. Maliki’s forces were able to arrest the vice president’s bodyguards, who were coerced into confessing to terrorist activities on national television.

Thousands of Sunnis have protested in various cities against the threatened arrest of Hashimi. The Iraqiya Party is now boycotting parliament and cabinet meetings to protest what it describes as Maliki’s attempt to consolidate dictatorial power, particularly over the security forces. Iraqiya is calling for Maliki to step down or face a no confidence vote.

At the same time, Sunni Salafist guerillas have launched a wave of attacks on Shia civilians and religious pilgrims. The Salafists have killed 145 Shias on a pilgrimage during the Arbaeen holidays. In one horrific attack on January 5, Salafists killed 78 pilgrims in Nasiriyah.

It is hard to predict whether the political crisis will descend into a full-blown civil war, but there are certainly dynamics driving in that direction.

For their part, the Salafists are intent on causing this. Leaders among the Sunni, Shia and Kurdish ruling classes also have an interest in playing the sectarian card to divert the anger of a desperate working class and urban poor onto other religious and ethnic groups.

The flashpoints are clear. Maliki’s attempt to consolidate a Shia state is a provocation to both Sunnis and Kurds. As Nir Rosen writes, “Government buildings are decorated with Shiite flags, banners and posters, and these can be seen even on Iraqi Army and Police vehicles and checkpoints. Not only is there no separation of church and state, there is no separation of state and sect.”

The Sunni elite’s demand for a Sunni autonomous zone could lead to another round of ethnic cleansing. Any such zone would contain a significant Shia minority who would be second-class citizens. No doubt the Salafists would take the opportunity to target the Shia, and this would provoke counter-attacks on Sunni minorities in predominantly Shia areas.

The Sunni Awakening Councils could also turn against the Shia government. The U.S., which had been bankrolling the Awakening Councils, has pressured Maliki into continue the payments and incorporating the councils into the Iraqi military. But Maliki has only hired one-sixth of these fighters. The well-armed Awakening Councils could be the basis of Sunni military attacks on Maliki’s ramshackle army.

Meanwhile, the long-simmering conflict between Arab and Kurdish rulers in Iraq could explode over control of the northern city of Kirkuk. Kirkuk sits on key oil reserves that would be a bonanza for whoever rules over it. A long-running, low-intensity conflict between Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Arabs could reignite at any time.

On the other hand, there are interests and dynamics that could prevent the slide toward civil war.

The Shia, Sunni and Kurdish ruling classes have a stake in maintaining access to the national state and its oil profits. If the conflict goes too far, this would undermine their ability to continue to enrich themselves through state office. As journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote:

Disaster may come, but perhaps not yet. Iraqi politics can be misleading because, with the country so violent at the best of times, furious political confrontations do not necessarily lead to all-out conflict. Each side has a lot to lose from the final disintegration of the state.

Sunni rulers also recognize that they lost the last battle with Shia forces, and that they would likely lose any fight with either the Kurds, who have their own military forces in the Peshmerga, or the Shia, who control Iraqi military as well as a network of their own militias.

Among the Iraqi masses, there is also a deep weariness after three decades of war, sanctions, occupation and civil war. There is mass discontent with the entire government and distrust of national political parties that are widely perceived as corrupt, and only out to stuff their own pockets with government cash.

But no national political force has emerged to galvanize a united resistance among workers and urban poor against the government and the sectarian and chauvinist parties that dominate it. At various points, Iraqi oil workers seemed to point a way forward, but they have yet to create a national union movement nor a political party of their own that can break out of the stranglehold of communalist politics.

The U.S. and regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia will also be a factor in whether or not Iraq erupts in another civil war.

Each side in Iraq is weak in important ways, and so it looks to international sponsors for money and support. The Kurds look to the U.S. The Sunnis look to Saudi Arabia. And the Shia look to Iran and Syria. Thus, the growing schisms between the U.S. and the Sunni regimes it is allied with on the one hand, and Iran and its Shia allies on the other, will rebound into Iraq.

The U.S. remains the key player in all this. It has suffered a major defeat by having been forced to withdraw its military forces from Iraq. As a result, Iran has emerged as the principal victor of the Iraq war, with increased influence in the region. It now has a government dominated by Shia parties in control of Iraq to add to its historic relationship with the regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The U.S. also faces a threat from below in the form of the Arab Revolutions, which have toppled two U.S. allies in Tunisia and Egypt and shaken other regimes in Washington’s network of Sunni monarchies and dictatorships.

But the U.S. is determined to shore up its declining influence in the region. It wants to maintain its power in Iraq itself. It still retains a large military base in the country, otherwise known as the U.S. Embassy. This facility is the size of 80 football fields and employs 16,000 staff, 5,000 of whom are military contractors. The U.S. hopes to be the broker between the various forces inside Iraq, using its alliance with the Sunnis and Kurds to prevent the full consolidation of a Shia state aligned with Iran.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is escalating its conflict with Iran, using the cover of Iran supposedly developing–does this sound familiar?–nuclear weapons of mass destruction. Washington’s allies Israel and Saudi Arabia are also important actors in a conflict that revolves around the same imperial interests at stake in the invasion of Iraq–control of Middle East oil and geopolitical dominance.

Thus, the sectarian conflict that the U.S. stoked in Iraq is being reproduced on a regional level–with the U.S., Israel and a network of Sunni regimes confronting Iran’s Shia government and its allies. The catastrophe that took place with the civil war in Iraq–and that threatens to break out again–could play out regionally, with horrifying consequences.

The hope amid this horror is working class solidarity across the ethnic and religious divisions. This is not a fantasy, but has been demonstrated at the high points of the Arab revolutions, such as the efforts to unite Muslims in defense of the oppressed Christian Copt minority in Egypt.

In reality, only the ruling class benefits from such communalist divisions. Sectarianism cannot provide jobs, electricity, food nor housing for working people and the poor. The working class in Iraq and throughout the Middle East will have to combat sectarianism, religious oppression and national oppression on the road to uniting the Arab working class in a struggle for a new Middle East.

Only such a struggle can stop the horrors that imperialism has unleashed in the form of ethnic cleansing, civil war, and regional war.

  • Originally published at Socialist Worker.
  • Ashley Smith is a writer and activist from Burlington, Vermont. He writes frequently for Socialist Worker and the International Socialist Review. He can be reached at ashley05401@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Ashley.