Recall the broad context.
In March 2003, in the worst crime of the 21st century, a war-based-on-lies led by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, the U.S. invaded and destroyed the modern country of Iraq, generating mass flight and civil war. Half a million people were killed and the suffering continues.
Too soon do we forget the magnitude of the atrocity, including the cheerful murderous bombing sprees revealed by Wikileaks, the Abu Ghraib torture, the ignorant mishandling of Sunni-Shiite issues, the civil war and terror engendered by the criminal occupation. During the Trump years our attention’s been focused on one evil man, who happens to have actually pursued a policy of withdrawal from the Middle East. We forget how the man now president supported this war enthusiastically and praised his son Beau for his “service” in Iraq in 2008-9 when the oppressive, imperialist nature of the (de facto ongoing) occupation was perfectly clear.
By October 2003 it was clear that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and no appreciable al-Qaeda links. The secular regime had been replaced by an unpopular occupation provoking an insurgency. In October 2004 as the civil war between Sunnis and Shiites intensified (produced by the occupiers’ decision to eliminate the traditional Sunni vehicles of power including the national army and the Baath Party) the Jordanian Abu Musad Zarqawi established a militant group in Anbar Province that called itself Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. This group took root in Iraq, but was largely driven out into Syria, where it eventually established itself in the north as ISIL (aka the Islamic State, Daesh, ISIS). (So—flourishing first in Iraq due to U.S. destabilization, ISIL then flourished in Syria, again due largely to U.S. destabilization the neighboring country.)
In 2011 U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in accordance with the agreement signed between the U.S.-recognized government and Bush. (Obama dearly wanted to retain forces in Iraq but balked at the Iraqi demand that any small force remaining be subject to Iraqi law. This demand was in response to popular revulsion against rampant U.S. war crimes. It is normal in U.S. military relations with other countries for Washington to insist on judicial extraterritoriality for U.S. forces. This is the case in Japan, Germany, Italy, South Korea. That the Iraqi regime refused to concede on this point was an indication that the troops’ presence was truly despised and unwanted even by the Iraqi regime it had brought to power, to say nothing of the Iraqi people.)
In destabilized Syria, where U.S. forces invading the country were working with Kurdish separatists (not to promote their national cause but to undermine Bashar Assad), ISIL was able in January 2014 capture the regional capital of Raqqa. It then rapidly fanned out of Syria into northern Iraq, overwhelming Mosul, Ramallah, and Fajullah. Alarmed at the prospect of Baghdad’s collapse (how embarrassing for the U.S. to have toppled the Saddam regime—having falsely accusing it of terrorist ties—only to watch the puppet regime and its panic-stricken U.S.-trained troops buckle before REAL terrorists: the al-Qaeda spinoff ISIL!). The U.S. had to offer to return to assist in defending the Iraq state against the demonic Caliphate. The Iraqis were obliged to accept the offer, and to meanwhile create militia that could perform better than the U.S.-trained troops that had fled the battlefield. In 2014 the Popular Mobilization Forces (including Kitaib Hizbollah and Kitaib Sayyal al Shuhada) were officially established as part of Iraqi state forces, to fight ISIL terror.
They are not all “Shiite militias,” by the way. The PMF include Sunni Arab militia, and there are many groups that include Christians and Yezidis. Their members’ morale may be higher than that of the regular (U.S.-trained) army soldiers, and there may be religious aspects to that. But to suggest these are more religious (“Shiite”) than other nationalist militants would be misleading.
It is very likely that most members of most Iraqi militias oppose the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil. They may acknowledge U.S. assistance against ISIL (especially by the bombing of Mosul in 2017, something the U.S. is good at) but note that much of the heavy fighting was done by the militias, with some Iranian support. It should not surprise anyone that Iranians would want to unite with Iraqi coreligionists against the viciously intolerant Sunni forces of ISIL. But the U.S. has consistently depicted any Iranian involvement in the next-door country since 2003 as improper “interference” in its own state-building project 6000 miles from the U.S. West Coast.
The head of Kitaib Hizbollah—which the Pentagon accuses of the attacks that prompted the 2/25 strike on Iraqis in Syria, to send Iran a message—was, until 3 January 2020, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes. You might recall that he was assassinated by a U.S. missile strike in a car on the road outside of Baghdad Airport with visiting Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The general was on a diplomatic mission at Baghdad’s invitation when Trump killed them both, to the deep embarrassment of the Iraqi government which protested the egregious violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
Two days later the Iraq parliament voted to expel all foreign forces from the country. Trump laughed at the demand, as usual, threatening punishment should the Iraqis kick out U.S. forces—cruel punishment worse than any sanctions ever applied to Iraq! It would not be surprising if Iraqi militias lob missiles into U.S. bases if they can. It is often unclear who is responsible for an attack; the attack in Erbil that killed a U.S. contractor last month was attributed by the Baghdad government to ISIL, which has much to gain from a U.S. confrontation with Iran.
After Joe Biden’s election, Iran publicly counseled Iraqi militias to refrain from attacking U.S. targets. Obviously, Tehran was optimistic about a U.S. return to the Iran Deal and did not want to give the U.S. any pretext to tarry on the matter. Kitaib Hizbollah issued a statement declaring that Iran did not determine its policies and it would respond to the unwelcome U.S. presence as it saw fit. But it is not clear that it is responsible for any of the recent attacks.
On 2/25 the U.S. under new President Biden launched missile strikes on a site in SYRIA (where the U.S. has troops illegally operating, still attempting to effect regime change) to kill IRAQIS to (as Secretary of “Defense” Lloyd Austin explains it) send a “message to IRAN” that it “can’t act with impunity.” That is: the U.S. will interpret the actions of any Shiites in the world against its own (real or imagined) interests as “Iranian” acts of impunity against itself. It will continue to stupidly conflate Iraqi Shiites, Syrian Alewites, Yemeni Zaidis and Iranian Twelvers swallowing the (Wahhabist Sunni) Saudi propaganda about a threatening “Shiite crescent” from the Mediterranean to central Afghanistan.
U.S. news anchors and talking heads will continue to carelessly substitute “Iranian militia” for “Iraqi militia” not even noticing nor caring if they err. There is no law in this country of lies, in this season of lies, that prevents someone like CNN’s Richard Engel from constructing a story about Iranian provocation and leaving out all the points made above.
What, you thought the lies were over with Trump gone? You thought Biden was going to be a straight-shooter, and would— while handling the burning issue of structural racism in this country—also end a century and a half of imperialist aggression based on lies? You thought maybe the critic of racism and police murder would become the critic of imperialism, regime change, and the sort of racist essentializing applied the Iran and Arab Shiites?
Consider this: Gen. Austin thanked the Iraqi government for its cooperation in planning the attack to send the message to Iran. Never mind that Iran has actually since the U.S. election discouraged any actions against U.S. troops in Iraq. Never mind that the Iraqi government issued a denial of any consultations with the U.S. in the attack. (Pentagon press secretary Kirby had to acknowledge under questioning 2/26 that the Iraqis did not assist the U.S. with targeting.) Never mind that a force the Iraqis want out of their country killed an anti-ISIL Iraqi warrior helping the neighboring country of Syria rid itself of the hated ISIL. This is meant as a message to IRAN—to make it clear that the U.S. can act with impunity for the near term, anywhere it wants—under Biden just as it did under Trump.
It appears Kitaib Hizbollah (which again is a leading force within the PMF, integrated into the Iraqi defense structure) has responded to the murder of their member in Syria by an attack on the al-Assad Air Field in central Iraq. A reminder that the Iraqi people have asked the U.S. to leave.
Questions for Pentagon spokesperson Kirby:
Have the Iranians poisoned the minds of Iraqis, with anti-U.S. propaganda? Did Iraqis need to learn from Iranians to hate people who (again) attacked them in a war killing half a million, based on lies? Following a decade of vicious sanctions that killed half a million kids?
Does one have to imagine a specifically SHIITE linkage, between the various movements in the region that refuse to submit to U.S. imperialism? Do the mullahs in Tehran set the policies of Lebanon’s Hizbollah? Or Syria’s secular government?
There is a good deal of racist essentialism here, ignorance combined with malice. It is as though the U.S. imperialists expect the Iraqis to say thank you for the destroying our country, installing a new government, training a failed army, and blocking our efforts to strengthen neighborly relations with Iran! Thank you for saving us from ISIL after you virtually created it by your cruelty and idiocy during the first year of your occupation! Thank you for standing by us even as you continue to insult the Iraqi people and state!
But that’s not the message of the strike on the al-Assad base. The message Biden needs to hear remains “Get out!” not double-down. Iraqis have ample reason to hate the presence of U.S. troops, who are NOT the “heroes” Biden paints them as routinely as he invokes God’s blessing on them (with all the sincerity with which a mullah blesses jihadis). They are unwelcome remnants of the crime of the century: the U.S. war to destroy Iraq as a powerful independent Arab country.
On 2/25 Biden attacked three countries simultaneously to remind them that the U.S. “does not distinguish” between its Muslim foes but conflates Persians with Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, terrorists and anti-terrorist militia. Primarily the attack was to intimate Iran, to signal to it that the U.S. is in no rush to revive the Iran Deal and wants more concessions before rejoining. But it was also a warning to all people of the region—that if they expected major changes in U.S. capitalist-imperialist impunity with a change of faces in the White House, they were optimistic.