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Poverty and inequality created by the plunder of Iraq’s wealth by elites and multinational corporations after the US occupation of Iraq were a great recruiting tool for ISIS, says Professor Sabah Alnasseri of York University’s Department of Political Science

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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 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.


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: Right. 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 [are] 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 hundred of thousand of kids in Iraq–a new phenomenon. These kids, they sell cigarettes and chewing gums and so on on the street to help the parents survived.

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 built 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 pention, 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 that the U.S. did after Bremer–or what people in Iraq 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, there’s–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 or 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 Islamic State, but all the militias–when they ofter 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 being subjugated to all possible intimidation, arrest, and unemployment, etc., etc.?

PERIES: And, Sabah, it’s important to recall the Bremer doctrine, as soon as the 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 their creation of the state of this sort began–part of the Sunni 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 most 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 Iraqi population, be them Shiite, Sunni, Christian–and some Kurds, by the way–were in the Ba’ath Party or in the same institutions.

So when the United States occupied Iraq and dismantled the whole state institutions and led of hundred of thousands of people–bureaucrats, military police, etc., who were not involved with any act of crimes or terrorization of the population, they created not only a mass of educated and well-trained people who used to run the institutions, state institution, and destroyed the normal function of the state–by the way, until today, the Iraqi populations suffer under this dismantling of the institutions–was still–Iraq was economically organized similar to ex-Yugoslavia under Tito–you have different regions with huge national resources, like gas and oil, especially in the southern part of Iraq, in Basra, for instance–Rumaila oilfield 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 resources, natural resources or not.

So now when you have a state structured 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 their autonomy 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 this state, but also economically. And that’s why the majority of the people in the western in 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 qua corruption. What do you see? You see a system of contracting or 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 subcontractor, who in his turn sell it to another subcontractor and make money qua speculation and subcontracting rather than pursuing a project of construction. So 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 see project that were fulfilled on time and serve the interests of the people. Rather the contrary. Also almost 14 years after the occupation of Iraq, most of the people of Iraq, they don’t have electricity, clean water, or health care, etc.

So, as I said, this sustained 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 phenomena 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 Karbala and Najaf, which is mostly Shiite, but the people there, especially working-class, the poor people, they welcomed them in their homes precisely because they are in 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 they love violence and terror, etc. (this makes money), but de facto you see around Iraq and different part of Iraq 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 young 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 or the militias just because that suit their geopolitical agenda.

PERIES: So, Sabah, we’ll keep following this story, and I hope you join us for that endeavor.

ALNASSERI: A pleasure to be with you, Sharmini. Thanks for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on 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.