The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 80/No. 24       June 20, 2016

(front page)

US, Tehran-led Fallujah offensive adds to sectarian conflict in Iraq

Military offensives by the Iraqi and Syrian governments and by Kurdish forces were underway in early June to capture cities controlled by Islamic State. The government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has backing from Moscow in the air and Tehran on the ground. Washington is aiding Iraqi and Kurdish forces with airstrikes and some ground forces. The Iranian government backs Shia militias in Iraq.

Washington has collaborated with Moscow and Tehran to try to stabilize the Mideast in its imperialist interests. Deeper dependence on the Iranian rulers’ involvement was a central goal of the “nuclear” agreement President Barack Obama reached with Tehran last year. One result is fraying of the U.S. rulers’ longstanding alliances with the governments in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. At the same time, national and sectarian tensions continue to sharpen throughout the region.

Iraqi government soldiers and Shiite Muslim militias, backed by U.S. air strikes, began an assault May 23 on Fallujah, 32 miles west of Baghdad. All towns and villages on the city outskirts were reported captured by the end of May. Fallujah, with a predominantly Sunni Muslim population, was taken by reactionary Islamic State forces in January 2014.

There are up to 1,000 Islamic State fighters in Fallujah now and some 50,000 civilians — some being used as human shields. The city, which once had a population of 300,000, was the scene of fierce fighting during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and remained under U.S. military occupation until 2009.

The offensive has exacerbated sectarian friction between Iraq’s minority Sunni population and the majority Shia-led government. On June 2, Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Salim al-Juburi, who is Sunni, urged Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to enforce discipline among the government forces attacking Fallujah, following reports of abuses against civilians. Abadi has sought to downplay the role of the Iran-backed Shiite militias, which have a record of brutal reprisals against Sunnis. In a move to avert Sunni protest, Baghdad ordered the militias to stay on the outskirts, slowing the offensive.

Sunni politicians in Iraq have condemned the involvement of the militias and of Iranian military officers under the command of General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds special forces of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. “We are Iraqis and not Iranians,” said member of parliament Hamid al-Mutlaq.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir accused Iran May 29 of interfering in Iraq and “causing sectarianism.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded by calling the criticism “arrogant” and saying Tehran would stay “as long as Iraq wants us to.”

Fracturing of Iraq

Increasingly Iraq has split into three distinct ethnic regions, registering the failure to establish a stable capitalist regime in Baghdad following the 2003 invasion by Washington and London. There are growing calls for autonomy among Iraq’s Sunni population, concentrated in the north and west, who say the government in Baghdad has marginalized them. The Kurds — an oppressed nationality living in territory of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran whose aspirations for independence have long been thwarted by imperialist and regional governments — have established their own autonomous region and government in northern Iraq.

The assault on Fallujah has put on hold plans announced by Washington and Baghdad earlier this year for an offensive to retake Mosul, Islamic State’s biggest stronghold in the country. Some 5,000 Kurdish Peshmerga forces, however, began an offensive May 29 to push IS out of villages east of Mosul.

In Syria, some 30,000 Kurdish and Arab fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG), began advancing from the north toward the city of Raqqa May 24 backed by U.S. airstrikes. The city of 200,000 is Islamic State’s de facto capital.

Meanwhile, forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russian airstrikes, began an attack from the southwest June 1. This is the first time in two years Syrian government forces have entered Raqqa, demonstrating the gains the regime is making with Moscow’s support.

The Syrian Democratic Forces began advancing simultaneously on the city of Manbij near the Turkish border. Capturing the city would sever a vital supply route for Islamic State and strengthen Kurdish control over territory in northeastern Syria. Previous efforts to take Manbij have been slowed by Turkish shelling. Ankara labels the YPG “terrorist” and opposes the development of a Kurdish autonomous zone.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused Washington June 5 of having a “double standard” for its collaboration with the YPG. He called on the U.S. government to “join forces” to open a new military front in Syria. The Turkish government reinforced its garrisons along the Syrian border in May.

Since the collapse last July of a ceasefire with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Ankara has mounted a military assault on cities and towns in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. Thousands of dwellings have been destroyed and 355,000 people displaced. Ankara claims 5,000 PKK fighters have been killed in both Turkey and Iraq.

Last December Turkey deployed some 150 troops to Iraq, where it carries out airstrikes against PKK bases. In May the foreign ministers of Iraq and Russia demanded Ankara withdraw these forces.  
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