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Sabah al Nasseri explains that ISIS was able to take control of Mosul, Tikrit, and Baiji due to the weak state that arose from the occupation, and places it in the context of U.S. policy towards the Arab revolutions

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have made significant gains in territorial control throughout Iraq in recent days, capturing the northern city of Mosul and Tikrit, sending half a million refugees to the northern territories governed by the Kurds. The al-Maliki government in Baghdad has reportedly reached out to the White House for assistance to deal with the possible invasion of Baghdad by ISIS as the country moves toward civil war.

Now joining us to discuss this is Sabah Alnasseri. Sabah, born in Basra, Iraq, earned his doctorate at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and teaches Middle East politics and economy at the Political Science Department at York University in Toronto.

Thanks for joining us, Sabah.


WORONCZUK: So, Sabah, let’s start off. The mainstream press in the United States has spoken about what’s taken place there as a failure, to some extent, of the Obama administration to create the proper security arrangements for Iraq after the withdrawal of troops in 2011, and also has placed a significant amount of the blame at the al-Maliki government for governing based on fierce sectarianism. What’s your take on that?

ALNASSERI: Well, let me start this with a general observation before we address these specific questions. It’s partly true, but only partly true, because the U.S. occupation and the destruction of the Iraqi state made Iraq dependent on the U.S. for its security and defense. And since then, since the occupation of 2003, Iraq is vulnerable to all possible threats from the outside, because basically it can’t defend itself. It’s totally dependent on the U.S. And the U.S., of course, used this dependency to push for concession, political, security, and otherwise. So the basic flaw, the basic problem is the Vichy state structure created by the U.S. occupation in Iraq.

So to blame Obama is only half of the truth, because the whole reality of Iraq since 2003 is a total destruction and total dependency on the United States for security. So it’s not only Obama the president or the Bush administration; it is the U.S. strategy on a worldwide scale which I think we should start with, for what I believe is that when war become endemic, justification are contingent.

And I think the new world order is a new war order of the United States. It’s a sure recipe to create and cement and reproduce U.S. dominance qua instability on a worldwide scale. That means the creation of conflict and deconstruction of all possible evils, be them Russian, Arabs, Muslim, Chinese, etc., etc. I think within this broader context we can understand the U.S. policies in the region.

And when I say justification are contingent, that means that all possible alliances are also contingent. They are not fixed in time. So just like the U.S., so too regional power: they don’t bet on one horse. They bet on different forces at different times to pursue this violent war of terror policy.

And I think we should add another moment to this global scenario is the regional moment, which–I believe all these sectarianization and militarization of the conflict in Iraq and Syria and Libya, etc., are nothing but the mechanism through which the U.S. and other, European imperialists, like the U.K. and France and their regional supporters–to push back against the Arab revolutions, to push back against people’s demands, and to try to reproduce the status quo ante before the revolutions. So it’s a mean through which the United States try to stabilize its regional allies against the demands of the people.

I think within this general context of the global and the regional, we can understand that the problem in Iraq is not just a problem that occurred a few days ago, but it dates back to not only the occupation but before the occupation. And I think–and within this context we can address all the specific issues, what happens in Iraq in the last few days or ten years, and why I think when the media in the U.S. or in Europe, when they address the issues of securities and so on, politics of the Middle East and Iraq, it’s just a discourse for home consumption. It doesn’t relate in any significant way to what happens and what happenings on the ground.

WORONCZUK: Well, let’s move to precisely, actually, what’s happening on the ground right now. How decisive do the gains look of ISIS over the territories that they have taken over in the recent few days? And how does it look like the al-Maliki government will respond?

ALNASSERI: Right. It’s relative. As I said, the significance of the ISIS attack and occupation of Mosul and Baiji and Tikrit is relative. When I say relative, it depends on all the involved forces, domestically and regionally and so on, and what they tried to achieve by enabling, empowering such groups to basically occupy the second-largest cities in Iraq, with almost 2 million people. So if we want to discuss the significance of this attack in the occupation of Mosul and other cities of Iraq between Mosul and Baghdad, we need to talk about all the involved forces, what’s their agenda, and why sometimes, even if it sounds bizarre, it is in their own interest that such things happen. So it depends. What are the agendas behind and the gains expected, and how then they will push back against such groups?

Again, just, I mean, to understand the significance of this event, we need to address all the involved forces, those who enable this attack, those who didn’t resist it, and those who utilized it to–as I said, to push for their own domestic or regional agendas.

WORONCZUK: Well, in terms of the forces that are involved, I mean, for example, like, where are the Shia militias right now? Like, where–I know that al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr, said that militias will be employed to defend some of the religious sites, but as far as I understand, he’s not the only one who’s really in control of the Shia militias throughout the state. So where are they right now?

ALNASSERI: Right. Well, there’s an intra-Shiite conflict going on since years in Iraq between al-Maliki on the one hand and the Sadrists and the Haqqim force on the other hand.

So al-Sadr, for instance, suggested the creation of the so-called peace brigades to solve the problem politically, not qua violence. And he rejected the idea of, you know, all-over war and an emergency laws to utilize it and bomb the cities and so on.

So you can see even this event, this conflict is utilized by different so-called Shiite forces to push for their own political agenda, knowing that al-Maliki utilizes all this conflict in the past. Think about the election on April 30. Think about the provincial election, a period of 2013 and so on. Think about the protests in Al-Anbar in December 2013, where al-Maliki used all these mostly peaceful events, protests and so on, in a violent way, to suggest to the Shiite communities that he’s the only reliable Shia force that can defend their interests and secure and guarantee their safeties vis-à-vis his Shia contenders, like al-Sadr and al-Hakim, the outcome of which was–. [clears throat] Sorry. The outcome of which was that al-Maliki was able to secure and win the elections on April 30 and weaken his Shiite partners, who used to be his partners. So we have also a conflict here going on between these Shiite forces over political power.

WORONCZUK: So, I mean, the al-Maliki government, apparently, today, on this Thursday, he tried to get the Iraqi parliament to issue an emergency decree, but apparently not enough parliamentary members actually showed up to initiate that. So it seems like even–and now that the elections have just passed and that he’s struggling to form a coalition government, it doesn’t seem like the central government in Baghdad is–I mean, does it seem like they’ll be able to maintain a unified state?

ALNASSERI: Right. See, the idea of al-Maliki to push the parliament for emergency laws was an issue not only few days ago, but already in April, at the beginning of April 2014, three weeks before the election, actually al-Maliki wanted to push for these emergency laws. The opposition suspect that he would utilize these loss to silence and oppress all kind of critique and opposition in Iraq, because he can freeze the constitutions and the laws and act with impunities. So that’s why all the parliamentarians–again, even Shiite to be allies of al-Maliki–were against giving him this prerogative and accepting the emergency laws, because they felt that it could be used against them, so that al-Maliki utilize the conflict in Mosul not de facto to liberate the almost al-Mawṣil from the ISIS, but to use it against his opposition.

I mean, they have a precedent in December 2013, where there was almost for one year a peaceful demonstration in the east provinces of Iraq, especially in al-Anbar and the cities of Ramadi and Falluja and so on. And instead of negotiating the peaceful solution to the problems and accepting the demand of the protester, al-Maliki attacked them with the–for the first time, probably, in history [incompr.] using the Iraq army against civilian in the cities. And precisely the timing was important to gains, you know, popularities before the election. And he promised at that time, in December 2013, that he will cleanse Ramadi and Falluja from the ISIS fighter within a few days. Now, six month have been gone, and they are still there. So the opposition doesn’t trust al-Maliki that he really wants to use the military apparatus against external fighters and so on, but to use it against his own opponents to cement his position within political power, and push for a specific coalition, to be nominated for the third time as minister president.

WORONCZUK: So it’s also been reported that about half a million Iraqis have sought refuge in northern territories controlled by the Kurds.


WORONCZUK: So with ISIS’s territorial gains right now, do they have any popular support? I mean, where are, for example, the Sunni protesters who had been protesting against the al-Maliki government for the past year or two?

ALNASSERI: Right. What enabled these parties fighters to enter Iraq and occupy such huge territories–by the way, not only al-Mawsil, but they occupied also Baiji and to Tikrit in between al-Mosul and Baghdad. So they are proceeding with their march and the occupation of other cities in Iraq.

What enabled these fighters to enter easily into Iraq and occupy these cities, you can say three different axes, three different conflicts. The one is between the government of al-Maliki, and the western and northwestern provincial provinces, the so-called–the Sunni, which I don’t call the Sunni, because that’s sectarian discourse used to justify all kind of atrocities. So the conflict between the government and the western and northwestern provinces like in al-Anbar–the biggest is in Anbar or Mosul and in Ninawa.

The second conflict is, you can say, the security dimension, because all the security apparatus of Iraq, from the interior to defense ministries to the intelligence, are basically concentrated in the hand of the minister president. And sometimes he gives order to generals and officers sidelining and short-circuiting the chains of command, which create a lot of confusion, because he basically doesn’t trust even the security apparatus not only to defend Iraq, but to–he utilize it is a mean to sustain his political power. So that’s the second movement.

The third movement is the conflict between the government of al-Maliki and, especially in Kurdistan, the Barzani force over oil and the budget. What happens in the last few weeks is that Kurdistan start exporting oil from Kurdistan, Iraq, to Turkey, and Turkey being on its path starts selling oil to the world market.

So there are three conflicts going on which enabled and opened up the space for the fighter of the ISIS to enter Iraq and easily occupy the cities without expecting a lot of resistance. And they did not expect any resistance, because the majority of the Iraqis who joined the security apparatus, they did not join it because they are interested in the security and defense of the country, but because they are poor working-class kids who have absolutely no employment. And the only way to have access to employment is to join to the security apparatus of the state. And so that’s why. They were there not for the defense, but for employment. So they are not really interested in fighting against such groups like the ISIS or other groups attacking Iraq from different parts in the region.

WORONCZUK: So it looks like basically the country’s on the verge of a civil war.

ALNASSERI: Well, not quite. As I said, we have to put this event into context, and as I said, it’s relative, because, you see, now, Kurdistan, especially the Barzani faction (not necessarily the Talabani faction, which is the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), are pushing for specific concession from the Iraqi government, which they were not able in doing so the last few weeks and month, and if not years, namely in regarding the concession to oil and the budget and the contested territories, especially the oil city of Kirkuk and some part of Mosul, which the Kurds claim to be part of Kurdistan. So now they utilized the defeat and the retreat of the Iraqi armies–by the way, it’s not even Iraq Army; it’s really a heap of militias–and the defeat of this army to occupy this vacuum, this empty space, and bring their peshmerga, the Kurdish militias, to fill the gap left by the Iraqi army. And once they do this in these city, like in Kirkuk or in part of Ninawa, I don’t think they will retreat from these cities. They will use them as a negotiating chip with the government to gain much more concession. And they are supported in this project by Turkey, because since years, Turkey, especially the government of Erdoğan, has an excellent relationship with Barzani in Kurdistan, especially when it comes to oil, investment, etc. So they are supported by Turkey in this endeavor.

WORONCZUK: So, Sabah Alnasseri, this will conclude the first part of our interview about the events that have recently taken place in Iraq. In the second part of our interview, let’s talk about how Saudi, U.S., and Iranian policy in Syria has also led to these conditions taking place right now.

So join us for part two of our interview with Sabah Alnasseri on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Sabah Alnasseri was born in Basra, Iraq, and earned his doctorate at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He teaches Middle East politics and economy at the Political Science Department at York University in Toronto, Canada. His publications cover various topics in Marxist political economy, Marxist state theory in the tradition of Gramsci, Poulantzas and Althusser, theory of regulation, and Middle East politics and economy.