Workers Liberty on the collapse in Iraq

June 22, 2014 at 4:24 pm (AWL, Cross-post, iraq, iraq war, islamism, kdp, kurdistan, Middle East, posted by JD, secularism, terror, war)

Picture appearing to show ISIS militants loading captives into a truck. Picture appearing to show ISIS militants loading captives into a truck.

The following article, by Martin Thomas of Workers Liberty, carries weight because it is largely based upon interviews with representatives of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq and the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan. It first appeared in the AWL’s paper Solidarity:

On Wednesday 11 June, the Al-Qaeda-oriented Sunni Islamist group ISIS seized control of Iraq’s second-biggest city, Mosul.

It has taken several other cities in the Sunni-majority north and west. Before 11 June it already had control of Fallujah and much of Ramadi, and of significant areas in Syria.

Nadia Mahmood of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq told Solidarity:

“What’s going on now with ISIS is a new phase of the sectarian violence which reached its peak in 2006-7 with the bombings in Samarra”.

That simmering sectarian civil war died down in 2007-8 and after. But, said Nadia: “After the Arab Spring [in 2011], the Sunni [minority in Arab Iraq] became more assertive.

“In 2013, [Iraq’s Shia-Islamist prime minister] Maliki ended the [peaceful, and not sharply Islamist] protest camps outside the roads to Fallujah and ignored their demands.

“Now in 2014, after the election two months ago, Maliki wants to stay in power and has marginalised even the other Shia parties.

“Because of the sectarian nature of the government, this sort of violence will happen again and again. Socialists need to call for a secular state.

“The left and the labour movement in Iraq are not powerful right now, so first of all we need a secular state without religious identity which will give us ground to build. The target now is to end the sectarian nature of the state”.

Some of the roots of this collapse of the Iraqi state lie in what the USA did after invading in 2003. It disbanded much of the Iraqi state machine, including low-ranking people, and promoted “de-Baathification”.

At first the USA hoped that pro-US and relatively secular people like Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Allawi would create a pro-US Iraqi government. But those neo-liberals turned out to be good at schmoozing US officials while in exile, hopeless at winning support from Iraqis in Iraq.

Amid the chaos and rancour which followed the invasion and the destruction of everyday governance, the mosques and the Islamist factions won hegemony.

The US adapted and worked with people like Maliki. As Aso Kamal of the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan told Solidarity: “The Americans made a political system that depended on balancing three ethnic and sectarian identities.

“Iraq had been a modern society, with sectarian divisions not so deep. These events are the product of the new system America brought to Iraq. Especially with other powers like Turkey and Iran intervening, seeking their allies within the Iraqi system, it has been a disaster”. Now Saudi Arabia has seized on the current crisis to call for the fall of Maliki and his replacement by “a government of national consensus”.

Nadia Mahmood explained: “I think some of the Ba’thists saw the de-Ba’thification policy as targeting Sunnis more than Ba’thists. In fact there were Shia Ba’thists who held powerful positions in the state, and they were protected because they were Shia.

“So the Sunni Ba’athists went to the Sunni side and the Islamist side, not the Ba’thist side. They held to their religious identity”.

According to Aso Kamal, Maliki’s government is seen as a Shia government, and that rallies groups like ISIS and ex-Ba’thists against it.

For us in Workers’ Liberty, the horrible events confirm the arguments we made during the previous simmering sectarian civil war in Iraq (especially 2006-7) for slogans of support for the Iraqi labour movement and democracy against both the US forces and the sectarian militias, not the negative slogan “troops out”. The two-word recipe “troops out” then certainly entailed a sectarian collapse like this one, only worse. Now it is happening, even those who previously most ardently insisted that anti-Americanism must be the first step, and everything else could be be sorted out later, dare not hail the ISIS advance and the Shia counter-mobilisation as “liberation” or “anti-imperialism”.

Of course, rejecting the slogan “troops out” did not mean supporting the US, any more than being dismayed at the ISIS advance means endorsing Maliki.

The sudden collapse of the Iraqi army as the relatively small ISIS force advanced shows how corrupt and discredited the state has become.

Nadia Mahmood explained: “Soldiers from Mosul were saying that even when ISIS were still far away from the city, the leaders of the army took off their military clothes and left the soldiers. The Mayor of Mosul told the soldiers to leave. Some of the soldiers are saying that there was a deal”.

The knock-on effect of the ISIS victories is a sharpening on the other side of Shia sectarianism. As Nadia Mahmood says: “Now the Shia political parties are becoming closer to each other and calling for resistance. There is a sectarian agenda against the Sunni”. Aso Kamal adds: “Sistani and Maliki are also calling for a holy war. This is taking Iraq back centuries. It could become like Somalia. That will destroy the working class. It is a very dark scenario”.

Workers’ Liberty believes that defence of the labour movement in Iraq, which will be crushed wherever ISIS rules and in grave danger where the Shia Islamists are mobilising, should be a main slogan now, alongside the call for a secular state.

“ISIS”, says Aso Kamal, “have announced what they are going to do. Women must stay at home. Nothing must be taught in schools outside the Quran. There will be no freedom of speech. They are like the Taliban”.

“I’m not sure how ISIS came to Iraq”, says Nadia Mahmood, “and whether they are popular even amongst Sunnis. Maybe they are allied with the Ba’thists. But are there more Sunnis supporting them? Many Sunnis seem very scared and oppose ISIS.

“It is horrible what is going on”. But, now they have power and access to big arsenals, “ISIS may keep hold of the Sunni cities, such as Mosul and Tikrit, for some time. It’s obviously not the same for Baghdad.

“Bringing in Iranian groups to fight ISIS will only encourage sectarian discourse and maybe accelerate Shia-Sunni polarisation. Already Maliki is accused by ISIS, and by the Ba’thists, of being an Iranian agent. Whether Iranian intervention calms the situation or it worsens it is unclear.

“Many people in Iraq would prefer the United States to attack ISIS. They have come all the way from Mosul to 60km outside Baghdad, killing in their wake. I don’t know if they stay longer how many crimes they will commit, how many tragedies are going to happen. People in Baghdad feel very scared now”.

That doesn’t mean endorsing US bombing. The US’s 12 years of bombing in Afghanistan have not installed a secular state, but rebuilt a base for the once-discredited Taliban.

As Aso Kamal explains: “The Americans have a common front against ISIS now. But the Americans are playing with both sides. They do whatever they think will stabilise the region and the markets, and ignore the future of the people. In reality, they are supporting reactionary forces in Iraq.

“The effect of the developing sectarian war will be to inflame nationalism in Kurdistan. Already the KDP and the PUK [the main parties] are asking people to support them in order to keep the territory which Kurdish forces have conquered”.

For the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan, “the main issue is to keep Kurdistan separate from this war. We say there should be a referendum and independence for [Iraqi] Kurdistan”.

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Turkish troops out of Kurdistan!

February 24, 2008 at 9:44 am (AK Party, kdp, kurdistan, pkk, puk, turkey, voltairespriest)

PhotobucketWithin the past four days, following a lengthy campaign of aerial bombings, a Turkish ground invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan has begun. 10,000 troops in total rolled across the border on Thursday night, according  to the Turkish Daily News. This was on the pretext of hunting members of the PKK who live in camps around the mountainous north of the region. As the troops (whose numbers have been massing on the Iraqi border for months) went into Iraqi Kurdish territory at around 7 pm, the Turkish army’s general staff issued a statement which said:

“The Turkish Armed Forces, which attach great importance to Iraq’s territorial integrity and stability, will return home in the shortest time possible after its goals have been achieved”

Whether this is to be believed or not remains to be seen. Indeed, if the “achievement of its goals” is the elimination of the PKK “threat” then even taken at face value the statement is cold comfort for the Kurds – previous failed attempts by the Turkish army to eradicate Kurdish nationalism resulted in a bloody and drawn-out conflict between 1984 and 1999 which is reckoned to have claimed over 30,000 lives.

This is not a case of the military launching an operation in defiance of a civilian government, either. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party government in fact ordered the attack, it is believed with the tacit support of the USA – in spite of some muted protests. The US will certainly be loathe to enter a direct confrontation with a NATO partner, particuarly a regional superpower of Turkey’s standing in a part of the world where the USA is not overwhelmed by huge numbers of Muslim friends.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, headed by Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masud Barzani, has issued a statement condemning the invasion whilst making clear that it does not support the PKK. For the time being this will suit the Turkish troops, whose lives wouldbe made considerably more difficult if Barzani were to order the mainstream Peshmerga in the region to fire on the invaders. It is, however, quite clear that the Peshmerga’s neutrality in the conflict is far from guaranteed in the longer term.

The conflict has escalated within the last 24 hours, with the Turkish army claiming to have killed 44 rebels and the PKK responding with a claim to have shot down a Turkish helicpter. The death toll will undoubtedly continue to mount over the days and weeks to come, almost certainly without any “clean” outcome one way or the other. Conventional ground forces have found since time immemorial that they can hold an area, only for it to be reoccupied by guerillas once they leave. The PKK may not have the forces to drive the Turkish forces out, but neither do the Turkish army have the means to eradicate the PKK. The result will be a bloody mess.

In a situation like this, progressive and left-wing people worldwide should stand with the people of Kurdistan whose territory is being overrun by invading troops. We should condemn any civilian deaths that the Turkish troops inflict, and we should call for those troops to be withdrawn. The Kurdish people have the right to their own territorial integrity, and the language being used by the Turkish government to justify the invasion (“terrorists” in particular) is eerily remniscent of the language used by US administration to justify the war in Iraq. We on the left stand with oppressed peoples, against such aggressors and we support the right tonational self-determination. It is for that reason and with those principles in mind that I believe we should be calling for Turkish troops out of Kurdistan.

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Turkey goes to war on Kurdistan

December 24, 2007 at 10:39 am (AK Party, kdp, kurdistan, pkk, turkey, voltairespriest, war)

PhotobucketYou probably didn’t know about this: it hasn’t been a prominent issue in the Left press, and hasn’t gotten much coverage in the mainstream papers either. But for those of you who didn’t know, the Turkish airforce has been bombing Kurdistan for the past two days. Remarkable that nothing much has been said about it by the “left” (one can only imagine what would be said if the jets were flying from Israel rather than Turkey), but there we have it. I’m highlighting the issue for you now anyway.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish Prime Minister and leader of the Islamic AK party, has simply kept asserting Turkey’s right to attack the left-nationalist PKK guerillas (who are based in Iraqi Kurdistan) as it sees fit:

“We, without enmity, use our right stemming from international law”

Meanwhile, there have been protests both from the Demokratik Toplum Partisi opposition in the Turkish parliament, and from Kurdistan Democratic Party leader and Iraqi Kurdistan autonomous regional President Masud Barzani. DTP Istanbul leader Halil Aksoy has condemned the USA for backing the Turkish military incursions:

 “You [the U.S.] have opposed millions of people and taken a hostile attitude against them”

Again, the left’s silence on the Kurdistan issue is palpable. Why is it that people who will go charging into political battle behind so many groups in that region, will not do so for one of the most significant stateless nations in the world – even when it finds itself under attack from a regional superpower and NATO member?

If there is one salutory lesson we should take into the new year it is that we as the left are supposed to oppose all oppression – whether the oppressed concerned are of political convenience to us or not. The Kurds’ story tells us that we are not always as good or as consistent as we ought to be. It’s time we changed that.

Biji Kurdistan.

Update 27/12/07 – Mizgin also has a great post on a similar subject

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Biji Kurdistan

October 21, 2007 at 2:17 am (kdp, kurdistan, pkk, puk, turkey, voltairespriest)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketSometimes, as a left wing activist, you run into issues that are simply no-brainers. The Kurdistan issue is one of those. There is a long and complicated history to one of the oldest stateless nations on earth, but that isn’t what you need me to tell you about right now. What you need me to tell you is that a NATO ally of the UK and USA is about to attempt to crush an oppressed people, again, to crush the heroic Peshmerga who have fought against all comers. from Syria, from Iran, from Turkey and from Iraq, in conflict after conflict since before you I or any of our readers were born. The Kurds have no state, they deserve to have one, and there is a large queue of oppressor nations determined to stop them. That’s what you need to focus on.

It is the duty of those of us who have a regard for truth and  a belief in human liberation (sadly these days I can’t honestly use the shorthand “the left” to describe those of us who believe that)  to stand up for those people. They are the great forgotten of the world’s political causes. There are more of them immediately displaced than there were Palestinians in 1948. Countless thousands of them died in the slaughter run by the Turkish army in the 1990s. They stood and fought, and died in droves. against the Baathists in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was our “bulwark against fundamentalist Iran.” We owe them something.

I hold no brief for the established Kurdish parties, and I have a great personal affection for Turkey. However if the AK government in Istanbul caves in to the ultranationalist fools who seem to have taken control of the historically Kemalist army, then I say bring it on. Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani (son of the Kurdish King Arthur, Mullah Mustafa Barzani) has already threatened to call for an uprising across the south east of Turkey. The result of such a call would destroy the Turkish state. As simple as that. The firestorm would be something unlike that nation has ever experienced, even during the most explosive days of the PKK insurgency of the 1990s. And it will be deserved.

Biji Kurdistan.

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The Iraq war’s sleeping giant

April 22, 2007 at 9:39 am (Civil liberties, Human rights, iraq, iraq war, kdp, kurdistan, left, liberation, national liberation, pkk, puk, socialism, turkey, voltairespriest)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOver recent weeks, stories have begun to filter into the public press in the west that the Turkish government and army are increasingly discontented over the seeming haven given to PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) fighters in Northern Iraq. Predictably it’s taken a while, as both the mainstream media and the left wing press in the UK have a tendency to “skip” Turkey on their way to Palestine, Iran and Iraq when covering the area. Which is all the more bizarre seeing as at more than one ethnic and cultural group straddles several of those countries at the same time, but that’s an issue for another post.

Many of you will know that in the 1980s and 1990s the PKK and the Turkish army fought a running civil war in the south-eastern region of Turkey, whose majority population is Kurdish, and whose regional centre is the city of Diyarbakir. At the same time, Kurds were less than second-class citizens in law, their language being barred from most media, and their nationality being generally referred to as “Mountain Turk”. Most of the left in the west (left and centre-left parties in Turkey were more divided) sided with the PKK as a national liberation movement, in spite of some queasiness over their tactics which included attacks on civilian targets. Nevertheless, given the organisation’s at least formally Marxist politics, and the appalling mistreatment by the Turkish government of those who it stood to defend, it is easy to see why the majority of the left took, and still takes, this stance.

However by the late 1990s the Turkish Army had gained the upper hand and the PKK’s influence was radically reduced. The symbolic capture of iconic PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999 appeared to mark the beginning of the organisation’s end. Furthermore, the election in 2002 of the nominally Islamist AK party led by current Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan led to an unprecedented liberalisation of the laws on language in broadcasts and schools, and to a stream of of public investment in south east Turkey being opened up. This in turn seemed to bleed support further from the PKK.

The PKK went through a couple of transitions, as KADEK (Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress) and Kongra-Gel (Kurdistan People’s Congress) in the early 2000s, in an effort to reverse its decline. In 2004 however it reversed its unilateral ceasefire that had been imposed since Ocalan’s capture, and began operations within Turkey once again. These operations have once again included attacks on civilian targets, which have produced outcry in the mainstream Turkish press, but not a huge amount of comment among the western left. Large numbers of PKK fighters were, and are, based in Northern Iraq where their former rivals in the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, hold sway.

All this brings us up to date. Obviously the Iraq War has in many ways entrenched the positions of KDP leader Massoud Barzani and (even more so) PUK leader Jalal Talabani in their political fiefdoms. Further, it has provided the PKK with an opportunity to regroup militarily, subject to their not-always-easy dealings with Barzani, whose forces control most of the Turkish border area. It has also infuriated generals and politicians in Ankara, who in addition to seeing a revived PKK, are also having to resist ultra-nationalist calls for outright military intervention to safeguard the Turkoman poplulation in Kirkuk. The AK government which as well as having to deal with nationalist tide currently enveloping Turkey is also the main electoral rival of Kurdish nationalist parties in the East of Turkey, is under severe pressure to act. Only days ago, Turkey’s special envoy on the PKK, General Edip Baser said:

“It’s hard to understand why we should not use one of our international rights, as this terrorist organization is still active and coming into my country, and acting in my country, killing people and then going back to northern Iraq… Why I shouldn’t go after them?” [1]

This came along with similar sabre rattling from Turkish army chief General Yasar Buyukanit and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, amongst others. And let’s face it, it’s quite hard to argue for restraint in Northern Iraq (as western governments have been doing) on Turkey’s part whilst you’re busy razing the rest of the country to the ground. Further it’s hard to talk about the democratic rights of those invaded when the country doing the invading is an electoral democracy claiming to be protecting the rights of an endangered ethnic minority and eradicating terrorism. Again, sound familiar?

Furthermore, Barzani, part of a Kurdish coalition government in Northern Iraq that wants Kirkuk as its capital, appears to be alert to the mood in Turkey. In response, he has threatened to step completely off the fence in the PKK’s war against the Turkish government:

“Turkey is not allowed to intervene in the Kirkuk issue and if it does, we will interfere in Diyarbakır’s issues and other cities in Turkey” [2]

This carries with it the veiled threat of a call to arms for the majority of people in Turkey’s Kurdish region, for whom Barzani’s father in particular is a folk hero figure. It also marks a potential alliance between the PKK and KDP, whose mutual antipathy has contributed a great deal in the past to Turkey’s ability to manage the region.

So, what happens next? Obviously to anyone such as myself who is basically sympathetic to the Kurdish cause, there is an emotional impulse to hope that the floodgates are lifted, there’s a heroic struggle, and a unified Kurdish national liberation movement sweeps to power across the region on a cry of “Biji Kurdistan!” and the smoke from a peshmerga’s Kalashnikov.

The reality is it won’t work like that. Turkish military intervention in Northern Iraq would massively strengthen the hands of the ultra-nationalist right in Turkey, who are already riding high amid political and legal moves to strangle liberal voices in that country. Pan-Turk sentiment which always bubbles just beneath the surface in parts of Anatolia would have an opportunity to pour out in solidarity with the (genuine) plight of the Turkomans. Turkey is a regional superpower with over 1 million men under arms and modern equipment. Such civil rights as Turkish Kurds have gained in recent years would be washed away under a tide of brutal military repression. The consequences for the Iraqi Kurds of an outright military confrontation with Turkey would be apocalyptic. And the west would be powerless to stop a NATO ally from doing what, after all, is only the same thing that it is doing in the rest of the country.

It is only to be hoped that some kind of solution can be found – and it is far from clear that the PKK is the same organisation that it was in Apo’s day, in order to be able to find the tactical nous to exercise such restraint. Barzani is a master political tactician (whatever one may think of the tribal and conservative KDP’s actual politics), but whether he could put the lid back on Pandora’s box were he to open it with a call for a rising in Diyarbakir, is very much in doubt. Thus far outside interventions in the dispute have been largely limited to toothless criticisms from the Baghdad government and US officials.

And what are we on the left to say about it? I think that we should speak clearly and loudly against Turkish military intervention in Northern Iraq. We also obviously support the Kurdish right to self-determination, which is clearly the wish of a large majority in Northern Iraq and probably a majority of Turkish Kurds as well. Finally, we stand in defence of the rights of the Turkoman minority in Iraq to live free from harrassment and to enjoy the same democratic rights as Kurdish citizens in the Kirkuk region. 

I certainly support an independent Kurdish state – it is one of the greatest historical injustices in that region that one of the oldest nations in the world does not control its own borders, and one that is to the abject shame of western imperialists past and present. But for all that, I don’t think that the left should endorse either the PKK’s actions or Barzani’s tactics right now – they strike me as foolhardy and likely to lead to the destruction of liberationist political forces in Kurdistan, which would lead to that nation’s realisation being set back for decades. Of course every person wants to be his own king, but not of a devastated and desolate realm.

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