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ISIS and Regime Change in Iraq


Is Iraq following Syria into the genocidal abyss? There have already been reported massacres on both sides, and more should be expected as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seeks to consolidate its victories while the Iraqi government mobilizes to reclaim what was lost.

But don’t believe for a second that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis have any interest in such a war.  ISIS has a thin social base and is incapable of representing Iraqi Sunni Muslims.  There is, of course, plenty of anti-government sentiment in Iraq, especially among the Sunni population. Tapping into this dissatisfaction and steering it into the dead end of sectarian warfare is the specialty of ISIS and its allies, who have zero progressive substance in their vision.

And while it’s true that other groups and militias have stepped into some of the void left by the fleeing Iraqi army, there is no mistaking that ISIS remains the leader of this insurgency, and carries a strict sectarian philosophy incompatible with the Baathists or other anti-government groups that may be opportunistically seeking temporary alliances.

One way ISIS gains some popular support is through its resources: ISIS is a well-funded, well-armed organization that gains many of its fighters by promising a fat paycheck, or equally importantly,  promising a shot at survival amid war. ISIS is essentially a minority of religious fanatics leading a mercenary army.

But you wouldn’t know this from watching the news, which falsely portrays ISIS as representing Iraqi Sunni Muslims in general, a stinging insult to the global Sunni community who are disgusted by ISIS’ atrocities.

As many commentators exaggerate ISIS’ popularity in Iraq, they also misdiagnose the blame for the war by exaggerating the role of the Iraqi government. The media is bizarrely spinning the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, as the principal culprit in this war.

This skewed perspective requires, in part, that the media ignore the recent Iraqi elections, which gave al-Maliki’s coalition a big victory, while proving that al-Maliki is the least hated politician in Iraq.

It’s likely that al-Maliki’s victory was a result of many people voting “no” against the anti-government insurgency, just like Assad’s popularity soared in Syria when it became clear that the rebels were dominated by al-Qaeda-style extremists.

Also like Assad, al-Maliki’s opponents are divided without a clear political vision, making many Sunnis feel like politics isn’t working. This has pushed some Sunnis into the arms of the insurrectionists, who also lack vision but at least do something.

There are significant religious divisions in Iraq, and it’s true that al-Maliki is guilty of sectarianism by strengthening his mostly-Shia base at the expense of the former Baath Party members, who are mostly Sunni. But by focusing the analysis here the big picture gets fuzzy.

The anti-al-Maliki emphasis helps minimize the fact that ISIS is essentially acting as an invading army from rebel-controlled Syria. This is the motor force of the war, and thus strange that the Obama administration is instead focusing his criticism on al-Maliki while Iraq is being invaded by perhaps the most powerful terrorist organization on earth.

ISIS does have Iraqi roots, being born out of the struggle against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. But ISIS was all but extinguished in Iraq when the U.S. paid other Sunni groups to fight it, driving ISIS into Syria.

In Syria ISIS was instantly transformed from a U.S. enemy to an unofficial ally, since both ISIS and the U.S. were targeting the Assad government for destruction.

During ISIS’ Syrian growth spurt, the Obama administration consciously minimized or completely overlooked the role of ISIS and the other al-Qaeda linked Syrian “rebels” — such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham — who were getting the majority of the Gulf state cash and guns, ensuring that they would be the dominant rebel force in Syria.

Obama essentially used the Syrian extremist groups as leverage against Assad, allowing the U.S. and Gulf states to dump huge sums of money into the terrorist group’s coffers. It was hoped that if the rebels were strong enough, Assad’s inner circle would turn against him and install a more U.S. friendly government — regime change accomplished.

This failed Syrian tactic seems to be working in Iraq. Long before ISIS waged its recent assault, al-Maliki was begging the Obama administration for more military aid, which was refused. And when the ISIS attack started Obama declared, mid invasion, that al-Maliki would not receive further aid until he was more “inclusive” as a leader, while giving the Iraqi leader no specific suggestions. Obama’s intent was to send a strong message to the Iraqi government: “replace al-Maliki” or face ISIS alone.

As The New York Times recently noted, “…the Obama administration has made no secret of its exasperation with Mr. Maliki.” Obama wanted a more “reliable” leader in Iraq, with the front-runner being the pro-U.S. Ahmad Chalabi. The Iraq government seems to have gotten the hint, according to the New York Times:

“Alarmed over the Sunni insurgent mayhem convulsing Iraq, the country’s political leaders are actively jockeying to replace Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, Iraqi officials said Thursday.”  The article implied that the Obama Administration was deeply involved in the discussion.

It’s possible that a behind the scenes agreement has already been reached, since Obama all of a sudden decided to send 300 American “military advisers” to aid the Iraqi Government fight against ISIS.

It’s possible that if al-Maliki is replaced there will be a temporary stabilization in Iraq, as some Sunni groups will be more open to negotiate with a new Shia leader, especially since the more intelligent Iraqi Sunnis will see ISIS as a bigger threat than any Shia-led government.

But ISIS has already been unleashed, ensuring that sectarian tensions will be exacerbated no matter who runs Iraq. The fundamentalist sectarian philosophy of ISIS and other Jihadi groups reflects the ideology of their financial backers, the Gulf state monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, etc., whose authoritarian rule is rooted in an especially oppressive form of Islam, ideally suited for the needs of these dictatorships.

Saudi sheikhs encourage impressionable, unemployed Saudi youth to fight abroad in conflicts they don’t understand, to impose a Islamic philosophy foreign to Syria and Iraq that labels Shia Muslims as infidels worthy of death.

The invasion by ISIS has triggered a large-scale Shia sectarian response, since Shia Muslims have seen what ISIS does to Shia “heretics” in Syria, and are thus mobilizing to protect themselves and to drive ISIS out of Iraq.

There is plenty of disastrous potential in this dynamic. Sectarian tensions will rise further still, and many innocent people will die in the process.  Shia militias have committed atrocities in Iraq in the recent past as Baghdad underwent a Shia-led ethnic cleansing of neighborhoods, partially in response to the al-Qaeda (Sunni)-led bombing campaign.  And if ISIS is only met with a Shia sectarian response, other Sunnis will be reluctantly pushed ISIS’ arms, since they are the only effective fighting group.

Those who mislabel the ISIS invasion as a “Sunni uprising” forget that movements are defined by who leads them and what their goals are. A movement led by ISIS, which seeks to instill a Taliban-style dictatorship, will by rejected by the vast majority of Sunnis and Shias, just as they have been rejected in Syria.

Calling recent events an anti-government uprising shields the principle culprits in this war, giving them crucial political cover, as was done in Syria. The politics of ISIS and other al-Qaeda linked groups are the political equivalent of European fascism, a bringing together of all the most reactionary groups towards the most right-wing, totalitarian aims. It is an ideology that must be rejected no matter what religion it covers itself with.

And while one can sympathize with anti-government sentiment, one cannot minimize the danger posed by ISIS. An ISIS-led government will resemble Taliban-era Afghanistan, and destroy civil liberties for Shia Muslims, women, workers, and minorities in general. Shiites and Sunnis must form an alliance to defend their basic civil rights in the face of the ISIS insurgency.”

Shia’s and Sunnis can unite in a common political vision as many did under pan-Arab socialist movement after the post-colonial years. A plan of unity can be translated into a social vision that ensures that all Iraq and Syrian people have sufficient food, housing, jobs, healthcare, and dignity, which are the core issues just under the surface of the sectarian fighting across the Middle East.Without a new political vision based on uniting economic demands, the Middle East will continue to be a plaything for foreign interventions, constantly divided and conquered through religion.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action ( He can be reached at

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action ( He can be reached at

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