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Professor Sabah Alnasseri of York University says the systemic corruption of the Iraqi state, institutionalized by the U.S. in order to ensure loyalty of the Iraqi elites, is at the core of all social misery in Iraq

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. We’re now in part two of an interview we’re doing with Sabah Alnasseri. We’re going to explore one of the most overlooked dimensions of the rise of the Islamic State, the current economic conditions on the ground that is allowing more and more people in the region to join the IS–or the Iraqi military, for that matter. Several hundred other militias that are also on the ground are gaining momentum. Why is this happening? Why are people opting be to become soldiers or militia? Well, it’s perhaps the economic conditions on the ground. Now joining us again is Sabah Alnasseri. Sabah Alnasseri is joining us from York University in Toronto, where he is teaching at the Department of Political Science. Thank you so much for joining us, Sabah. SABAH ALNASSERI, ASSOC. PROF. MIDDLE EAST POLITICS, YORK UNIV.: Good to be with you, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Sabah, one of the things that everyone will agree–and when we imagine the IS in the region, we see it gaining momentum, gaining strength. But one of the underlying issues here is, of course, the economic conditions on the ground. What is happening economically in Iraq? ALNASSERI: I’m glad you asked about the social question, because I think the social question is at the core of all the violence and instabilities and extremism that taking place since years in Iraq–and, by the way, not only in Iraq, but the whole Middle East. You see, according to the ILO, the International Labor Organization, almost 23 percent of the young population in the Arab Middle East are unemployed. And that’s the average. But when we talk about Iraq, I would argue it’s above 40 percent. And if you would think about that the majority, two-third of the Iraqi population are under 30 years old and 45 percent under 14 years old, you will see hundreds of thousands of kids in Iraq–a new you phenomenon. These kids, they sell cigarettes and chewing gums and so on on the street to help their parents survive. Decades ago, you wouldn’t encounter a single kid on the street. The reason was simple. In 1972, the Ba’athist party, they wanted to nationalize the oil, so they needed the Communist Party, they needed the working class and trade union. So they build at that time a popular front. And the outcome of this popular front was one of the most progressive constitution in Iraq, or maybe in the Middle East, in which the social rights of the people–free health care, free education, unemployment, and pension, etc.,–were constitutionally guaranteed. Even Saddam Hussein, in his worst times in the 1990s and before 2003, didn’t dare touch on this constitution. What happens is the first thing the U.S. did after Bremer or what people in Iraq would call the caliph of Baghdad, in May 2003, issued more than 100 decrees to privatize the economy–the public industry, gas, oil, water, communication, agriculture, etc. What happens is the first thing when they draft the new constitution, the first thing they did away with was precisely the social securities of the people. So in the constitution now, the state cares for its population as long as the resources are there. But if the resources are privatized so the state cannot do anything, what happens is instead, since the invasion and the occupation of Iraq, what we see is the institutionalization of systematic corruption, or what Marx would term primitive accumulation. So all the public resources were plundered by small elites supported by the U.S. and by international corporation. So now when they accuse the Islamic State of imposing taxes on the people or occupying oilfields or agricultural land and controlling the harvest or smuggling oil and sell it on the black market–by the way, for Turkey, that is the only way they can do it is through Turkey. So this is a reflection of the overall system that was institutionalized by the U.S. in Iraq, a systematic plunder and looting of the wealth of Iraq. So no wonder when you see a lot of young people, educated are not educated, they have no social guarantees, no prospective whatsoever to find a job or to get a decent education. When they are offered by these extremist group–by the way, all the militias, not only the exact states, but all the militias, when they offer them $500 a month and they share with them some of the land or oil resources or what have you, they plunder. So for the young people, there’s a systematic plunder at the top of the state. So why not join the groups on the ground and benefit from this primitive accumulation, rather than just staying home and be subjugated to all possible intimidation, arrest, and unemployment, etc., etc.? PERIES: And, Sabah, it’s important to recall, the Bremer doctrine, as soon as U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, destroyed and re-created the state, that it immediately began pursuing neoliberal economic policies that would provide global markets to have access to the oil, and with the creation of the state of this sort began–part of the city population that were previously civil servants were essentially barred from gaining employment in the state. All of this fed to where we are now. And I think if you could shed some light on that history, it would be very useful. We lived through that Iraq War. But there’s a younger generation now following this, the war with the IS, and don’t really understand how we got here economically. ALNASSERI: Yes. One of the myths and the false assumption of the American occupation of Iraq was to say that the majority of the civil servant and the Ba’ath Party, the members of Ba’ath parties are Sunni, which is not true. The majority of the civil servant–and, by the way, even the Ba’ath party, up to 67 percent were Shiite. So the Ba’ath party was not organized along ethnic or sectarian lines. It was a nationalist party. So you have all segment of the Iraq population, be they Shiite, Sunni, Christian–and some Kurds, by the way–were in the Ba’ath Party on the same institutions. So, when the United States occupied Iraq and dismantled the whole state institutions and laid off hundred thousand of people–bureaucrats, military police, etc., who were not involved with any act of crimes or terrorization of the populations, they created not only a mass of educated and well-trained people who used to run the institution, state institution, and destroyed the normal function of the state–by the way, until today, the Iraqi population suffer under this dismantling of the institutions–was still–Iraq was economically organized similar to ex-Yugoslavia under Tito. You have different bridges with huge natural resources, like gas and oil, especially in the southern part of Iraq. In Basra, for instance, [incompr.] oil field is the biggest in Iraq. And you have it also in the north, especially in Kirkuk. But the western and northwestern provinces of Iraq, which are the biggest provinces in Iraq, they don’t have these natural resources. So the way the economy was organized, it was centralized, and the resources from public industries or gas, oil, etc., were then redistributed to all population, regardless if they have natural resources or not. So now when you have a state structure along ethnic lines, what do you see? You see some of the Kurds–not all of them, of course–some of the Kurds, especially the powerful elite in Kurdistan Iraq and the so-called Shiite party in the South, especially in Basra, trying to be not only autonomous, but to sustain the economy economically, which mean a systematic exclusion of million of Iraqi people who happen to be, to live in provinces where they don’t have these resources. So that’s a systematic exclusion not only politically and institutionally in the state, but also economically. And that’s why the majority of the people in the Western and northwestern parts of Iraq are the unemployed, the young, unemployed people who suffer under this restructuring of the state and the economy. PERIES: Sabah, we should also be reminded of the Obama plan when he took office the first time. The withdrawal from Iraq also contained plans for reconstruction, development, and for rebuilding society. I mean, that was one of his big commitments. What has happened to all those plans now? ALNASSERI: Well, as I said, reconstruction is the surest way for the elite to accumulate wealth by qwa corruption. What do you see? You see a system of contracting and subcontracting through the state. But who have access to these contracts? The same party, governing party, and their clientalist networks. Those are the people who have the access to international contract, or even domestic contracts, and who secure, through this corrupt networking, all the major contract of reconstruction and building in Iraq. But what they do is not reconstruction. What they do is they sell this contract to a subcontractor, who in his turn sell it to another subcontractor and make money qwa speculation and subcontracting rather than pursuing a project of construction. And overall in Iraq, what do you see? Halfway started project, but never ended. When it comes to electricity, to water, to housing, to streets or hospitals and so on, you don’t project that were fulfilled on time and serve the interests of the people. Rather the contrary, almost 14 years after the occupation of Iraq, most of the people in Iraq, they don’t have electricity, clean water, or health care, etc. So, as I said, this systemic corruption institutionalized by the U.S. in order to ensure the loyalties of these elites is precisely the core and the cause of all social misery in Iraq. And if there’s no radical change here, I don’t think that the phenomenon of ISIS or Islamic State or any other militia would be resolved in a year or two or three, or ten for that matter. PERIES: Are there any glimmers of hope? Is there any sector of the Iraqi population that is organizing, that are sort of examples where we could invest more resources and time into? ALNASSERI: Yes. Absolutely. You know, sometimes I would say class consciousness trump the sectarian and ethnic dividing line. So you see when the Islamic State attacked some villages and towns in Ramadi and Falluja–most of the populations are Sunni–most of the family fled these villages, and they went to Kabul and Najaf, which is mostly Shiite. But the people there, especially working class, the poor people, they welcome them in their homes precisely because they are on the same social situation, or where you can see young Iraqi people in different part of Iraq, a reality which is not so much articulated by the media, because there are a lot of violence and terror, etc.–this makes money–but the fact that you see around Iraq and different part of Iraqs young people getting organized, going on the streets protesting and demonstrating against the misery, and asking, demanding their rights. Of course they are faced by the same militia who allegedly fight against ISIS but de facto use their weapons against the armed protesters who are asking for their demands. So, yes, there are signs of hopes on the ground. And these forces, progressive forces working together to overcome ethnic sectarian line, they should be supported, they should get all the support and aid they get, not bombing and creating a new conflict and new instabilities, if the U.S. and the European are serious about Iraq and helping the Iraqi people, they should support the democratic progressive movement in Iraq, just like in Tunisia or Egypt and so on, and not side with the military over the militias just because that’s who their geopolitical agenda [incompr.] PERIES: So, Sabah, we’ll keep following this story, and I hope you join us for that endeavor. ALNASSERI: Pleasure to be with you, Sharmini. Thanks for having me. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the The Real News Network.


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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.