REVIEW |  A Stranger in Your Own City – Travels in the Middle East’s Long War

Protest in Baghdad's Liberation Square, October 2019 (Photo: Wikimedia/CC)

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, born in Iraq in the 1970s, began writing for the London Guardian and the Washington Post after the US led invasion in 2003. A Stranger in Your Own City starkly, and often beautifully, tells the story of ordinary, mainly working class Iraqis in the last forty years. From the Iraq/Iran war in the Saddam-era, to the US invasion twenty years ago, sectarian conflict, the ‘Arab Spring’, and the reactionary rule of the Islamic State (Isis) culminating in the mass “Tishreen uprising” of youth and workers in 2019.

The political strengths of the book are that it rails, not just against the brutal legacy of the “leader necessity” of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship, but also against the role of US and British imperialism and now the influence of the Shia Iranian regime under the sectarian “Muhasa” corrupt power-sharing arrangement. Abdul-Ahad shows, whatever his actual intention, that despite the darkest period of reaction post-invasion – sectarian “civil war”, the emergence of Isis and their counterparts in the right-wing Shia militias – eventually elements of a class consciousness and unity can recover and a left tradition can even begin to assert itself, as in the mass movement of 2019-21.


Legacy of Stalinism

What is not fully discussed by Abdul-Ahad, even, it seems, with members of his family from the Communist Party tradition, is the vacuum left by the failure of this once mighty force. Stalinism lacked a perspective for an independent struggle of the Iraqi working class against the Bonapartist Baathists and other forces.

Abdul-Ahad briefly references the battles between “Communist sympathisers and Arab nationalists in the 1950s and 60s” in the working class Adhamiya district of Baghdad. What is not explained is the 1963 coup by the military-wing of the Baath Party, aided by the CIA, against the left-wing nationalist government of Qasim that had enacted social reforms.

The Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) was a mass party with deep roots in the working class, however its Stalinist leadership, under direction from Moscow, saw the first task revolution in Iraq as establishing a form of capitalist democracy and so postponed the struggle for socialism.

ICP members participated in the government of Qasim but did not base themselves of the strength of the working class and the poor for the nationalisation of major industries, like oil, under the control of workers and the popular masses. The counter-revolution of the Baathist military-wing drowned the CP in blood. This was one of the main causes of the reemergence of long dormant sectarianism and right-wing political Islam, fostered under Saddam and then the US occupation.


Long War

In the Middle East today there seems to be an endless “long war” with little immediate sign of the workers movement emerging as a force to unify the working class in struggle. The onslaught and agenda of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Israeli regime against the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the fighting in Lebanon with Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen and on the Red Sea have enraged and radicalised millions internationally.

Especially in the Arab and the neo-colonial world this can lead to understandable sympathy for groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad that conduct armed resistance against Israel and the proxies of US imperialism. Especially when contrasted with the rotten feeble role of the capitalist regimes and dictatorships of Jordan, Egypt the UAE etc. in the face of the plight of the Palestinian’s.

This book, and the experience of the masses of Iraq, however, serves as a warning against imperialist invasion and occupation, which the CWI opposed and mobilised against. Critically, it also shows that the right-wing pro-capitalist sectarian organisations, that are themselves backed by regional capitalist forces and section’s of big business, are a blind alley incapable of winning real freedom, self-determination and a transformation of the dire economic and social conditions faced by youth and the working class.



Abdul-Ahad describes the horrific futility of his “first war” in the 1980’s Iraq- Iran conflict, and in which his father was conscripted. Saddam Hussein’s regime was backed by Western Imperialism, he explains, “After a million people killed or injured on both sides, the two countries accepted a UN resolution and returned to the same point of departure”. Under the Baathists regime which initially utilised state ownership to invest in infrastructure “there were two realities of life …. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers slept in trenches or ploughed through the muddy marshes or were killed or maimed. The other reality was of life in the cities … these were years of prosperity – the years where we went to schools, had jobs, when hospitals functioned, and roads were built”. The true nature of Baathism is described “the image and rhetoric of the party in those days were of revolution, radical socialism and Pan-Arab nationalism. None of it meant anything … the ‘Leader Necessity’ had long since emptied the Baath Party of any meaning beyond the implementation of his personal will”.

Saddam built a brutal police state and security apparatus with the aid of powers like the US and Britain and a partly modelled on that of Stalin – “they were present in every institution and worked to control the masses through denunciations, intimidation and the rounding up of men, who were subsequently forced to “volunteer” at the front.”

To mobilise support for his ailing regime after the war with Iran facing economic crisis Saddam demanded the Gulf countries cancel Iraq’s debts. He was defied and the price of oil fell provoking the invasion and looting of Kuwait in 1991.


First Gulf War

Abdul-Ahad describes the dismay of the Iraqi population at the “hubris and arrogance” of Saddam, now instigating the “mother of all battles” with US imperialism. The relentless bombing of his home city Baghdad is vividly portrayed with his family subsisting “like scavengers for weeks”. The war only lasted forty days ending with the regimes defeat.

“My father and I were in a crowded bus station waiting for one of the few buses that still had petrol, when I saw what crystallised later in my mind as the image of the rout: three Iraqi soldiers, walking slowly … people moved around them, no one cared or tried to help. The three soldiers were the face of a broken nation. The skies too were defeated, shrouded by the smoking from the burning oilfields … and when the rain fell, it dropped thick black lines, on the walls and down the streets, gathering in puddles, and ditches, like mascara lines tracked by the tears of a crying woman. The threats of the US secretary of state, George Schultz, of pushing us back into the stone age seemed to have been fulfilled”.

Abdul-Ahad recounts the misery of the “Years of the Sanctions” in the 1990s, imposed by the Clinton administration and US imperialism. “In the working class neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Baghdad and in the south, it was the poor who bore the brunt of these hunger years, when they had to sell their government food rations to buy medicine and baby formula of the black market”, infant mortality doubled.


Emergence of right-wing political Islam

Abdul-Ahad usefully highlights a major factor which has been barely discussed by Western historians and political commentators. One cause of the reemergence of sectarianism and religious political organisation was the Saddam regime turning away from socialist and Arab nationalist rhetoric after Stalinism collapsed in the 1990s. This was replaced in regime propaganda by “a new set of values based on Islam and the tribe”. Sadaam utilised “tribal and religious networks, both as a means to extend his control and to appease his patron-client networks”. This was to fuel the rise of Sunni sectarianism under the US occupation later on. Abdul-Ahad is correct to point to political Islam rising across the Arab world in the 1980s and 90s as Stalinism weakened and collapsed and the workers movement was pushed back. Increasingly, aid in working class areas came from charities and mosques.

Sadaam, despite promoting his own version of Sunni Islam and building large mosques, continued to ruthlessly repress opposition movements both Sunni and Shia with his security apparatus fuelling their support as forces like the Communist Party waned.

In the slums of the big cities, a Shia opposition cleric, Muhammed-Sadiq al-Sadr, gained large support among workers and the poor during the time of sanctions, not just for attacking the West and Israel, but also opposing the regime. He was assassinated by the security forces in 1999. Abdul-Ahad points to the mass base his youngest son Muqtadr al-Sadr would later gain on the back of this. The mass movement and insurgency he led against the US occupation, means al-Sadr is still seen as a political reference point in Iraq today despite retreating from electoral politics at one stage.


2003 Invasion

Abdul-Ahad describes the disillusionment and hopelessness felt by himself and his fellow graduate friends in the early 2000s just before the US invasion. This makes a mockery of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and the promises of Imperialism.

“Did I Want to see the end of the reign of the Leader of Necessity? Yes. Did I Want a war? No. … that whole debate was flawed from the start: why were there only options for us as a nation and a people the choice between a foreign invasion and a noxious regime led by a brutal dictator? We were all merely potential collateral damage in a war between the dictator and the American neo-cons adamant the world should be shaped in their image”.

Abdul Ahad describes the deserted bombed streets of Baghdad in March 2003. For taking photos and riding a bicycle he gets arrested and interrogated by the security services, then hiding in his bedroom until the regime falls. He is present at the iconic toppling of the Sadaam statue, which he describes that was a “muted affair” involving only a few people.

Abdul-Ahad describes the immediate aftermath of the arrival of US troops as “Bakunin (the Anarchist) in Baghdad … as chaos and mass looting reigns. Armed mobs plunder the Iraqi museum setting fire to libraries and archives, the poor emerged from cramped slums and began building … shanty towns on ex-military and government lands.” Hospitals and schools are also ransacked, electricity and clean running water could not be relied upon in searing heat. “The collective intoxication of Iraqis at the end of the regime wore off quickly, and the people of Baghdad moved from euphoria to frustration and fury”. The Shia are finally allowed to commemorate their religious days, repressed under the regime, and get massive turnouts.

Abdul-Ahad fully exposes the nature of the US/UK occupation – “a new American administration was established, led by Paul Bremer, a close ally of the neo-cons in Washington. He became the “viceroy” and the ruler of the country and was given sweeping legislative and executive powers reminiscent of a British proconsul of the Indian Raj”. In Baghdad, a “Green Zone” around the former Presidential Palace housed the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Corruption quickly developed as “blocks of dollars” were handed out for projects that were never built. Abdul-Ahad rightly argues that the occupation was doomed to create an insurgency from the beginning, against the argument put forward by liberal western commentators who argued that Bremer could have stopped it by better planning for the post-invasion reality and not purging the Baathist party from all state jobs or disbanding the army. This was a factor, but so was the coalition forces guarding oil infrastructure while letting cities be looted and imposing their version of capitalist “democracy”, including bans on trade union activity, on the peoples of Iraq.


Role of exiles

Abdul-Ahad is also scathing of the official Iraqi opposition to Sadaam that now returned from exile, including from Iran. Many pro-capitalist right-wing exiles belonged to Islamist Shia parties like Ahmad al-Chalabi, in reality a pawn of the US neo-cons. They, with Bremer, institutionalised sectarian and national divisions by creating the Iraqi Governing Council, a 25-person body representing every sect and ethnicity, institutionalising division, which the Iraqi CP wrongly joined. This council never governed but squabbled over state resources. From now on the new Iraq capitalist state was organised based on “Muhassasa” the allocation of state power and resources on sectarian and ethnic lines.

The pro-capitalist Shia parties “set about creating a new national myth founded on sectarian identity politics … the “madhloumiya” the injustice inflicted on the Shia community for centuries … the new narrative went like this because the Leader of Necessity was Sunni, all Sunnis were by association, if not culprits in the regime’s crimes, beneficiaries of his [Saddam’s] rule”.

Abdul-Ahad and a trade union leader he quotes, point out in opposition to this that not all Sunnis were supporters of the regime, which initially was based on tribal networks not sectarianism. Many Shias and Kurds had even collaborated with Saddam.

Those of Sunni origin, for a whole historical period, had not had a communal identity and felt more attached to their tribe or the state despite a version of Sunnism being the official religion. These new sectarian divisions were useful for Iraq’s new rulers in blurring the class lines between poor farmers and workers and wealthy businessmen. In response to the occupation and Shia sectarian ascendancy, a belligerent new Sunni identity emerged. Many Iraqis hated the returning exiles who had fought with the Iranians in the war in the 1980s.

Abdul-Ahad tells the story of the exile Abu Hashem who had a CP past. From a poor background, he was involved, as a youth, in the revolutionary struggles of the 1950s and 1960s in southern Iraq. But in the 1970s he came under the influence of the Iranian Revolution and its’ leader Khomeini, ending up, at the time of the war with Iraq and Iran, in the Iranian intelligence services.  Many such exiles returned from Iran and set up Shia militias based on smuggling and gaining access to jobs in the police force after 2003.



An insurgency, first of all sporadic, developed in the summer of 2003. Abdul-Ahad explains how, “the initial guarded optimism of the Iraqis … shattered with the first car bomb”. First, the US forces dismissed this as FRE – “former regime elements” – but their own actions and tactics in indiscriminately shooting civilians, checkpoints and raids spread the rebellion. Young men began using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and firing mortars at the coalition troops.

Shia militias in Baghdad, like the Badr Brigade, began hunting down former military and Baath party figures and assassinating them. In response, ex-Baathists armed to protect their areas. Initially, there was armed conflict in the Shia areas between the Badr brigade and Al Sadr’s forces over the income from the Shia shrines. Abdul-Ahad says that “cells were formed to resist the Americans. Some fought out of nationalism, others a sense of injustice, still more for tribe or religion”.

The Committee for a Workers International at the time pointed out the need for the creation of workers’ cross-community armed defence organisations that could have combated the occupation and fought for better conditions for workers and youth and a socialist solution, while cutting across sectarian, communal and national divisions. But no major force with this in its programme existed, including the faded Communist parties.

Abdul-Ahad points out the reactionary consequences of the weakness of the workers’ movement – “probably for a fraction of a second in the first year of the occupation, there was resistance with all the connotations of that word, before they descended into banditry and mass killings”.

Sections of the left internationally were blind to this including the SWP/IST in Britain, who used the slogan “victory to the Iraqi resistance”. Correctly Abdul-Ahad states, as the CWI did at the time, that “these bands of fighters could not defeat the Americans militarily; however, they ensured the failure of the American adventure in Iraq. Any community or institution that defied them was attacked though intimidation, assassinations or sectarian mass killings.”


Sectarian killings

Abdul-Ahad evokes the utter terror and carnage of the sectarian terrorist bombings used to attempt and ignite a “civil war” by provoking Shias to attack Sunnis. Chapter follows chapter of the aftermath of car bombs and IEDs and of US forces firing rockets into crowds after being hit by IEDs. Those injured and maimed cry “take pictures! show the world American democracy”.

The first and one of the longest fires of the insurgency was around Fallujah, a city on the strategically important highway to Jordan. In April 2003, US forces massacred unarmed civilians there protesting their presence. In response the locals attacked US convoys and fired rockets. In March 2004 four private American security contractors were ambushed and killed as they drove through the city. A mob burned their bodies and hung them from an overpass. In retaliation, US forces collectively punished and attacked Fallujah. In a short ceasefire period jihadist groups built a base in the city as it was surrounded by US forces that winter.

These groups included the precursors to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but resistance was also widespread in the population. The battle killed 700 civilians including phosphorous bombing by the Americans that disfigured those born in the city and created a refugee crisis. To this day there are no accurate figures for the civilians killed in Iraq during the occupation.

By 2005 a new Iraqi constitution was proposed, but swathes of the Sunni population now rejected the political process. There was a split among Sunnis. Some politicians and armed factions advocated voting down the proposal, but the jihadist elements advocated rejecting the process entirely and that anyone who voted should be killed.

The US forces by now had surrounded many Sunni areas in Baghdad with concrete walls and watchtowers, nicknamed “Rafah” after the Palestinian occupied territories. Restriction of movement fuelled checkpoints of sectarian militias both Sunni and Shia who kidnapped each other driving in and out of Baghdad. As the violence increased, Al-Qaeda, with global funding and foreign fighters increased its base and became the most feared insurgent group in Iraq, ironically given the neo-con’s and Bush’s bogus claims about invading Iraq in response to 9/11 and Bin Laden.

Al-Qaeda attacked anyone who worked with or for the Iraqi state as “kafir”, or infidels, and fuelled the reaction of the Shia militias including the Badr Brigade, Al-Sadr’s Mahdi army and the armed Shia fighters of the “Ministry of the Interior”.

Civilians fled areas on both sides in Baghdad. Abdul-Ahad points to sections of Sunnis becoming discontented with the jihadists who “bring another Fallujah” into Sunni communities in Baghdad. Many Sunni’s including ex-Baathists also began to oppose Al-Qaeda’s vision of an Islamic caliphate modelled on Taliban-rule in Afghanistan because it risked support for the insurgency in the Gulf states.


Saddam’s trial

What reinforced the anger of the Sunni’s and Iraqi nationalists was the hypocrisy shown by the Western Imperialist powers during the trial and execution of Saddam in December 2006. While seeking to cover up their own role in his brutal rule they could not stop Sadaam railing in anti-Western rhetoric which gained an echo. His hanging had a provocative sectarian element, with his executioners chanting the name of Al-Sadr, the Shia cleric.

From 2006 a situation akin to sectarian “civil war” existed in Baghdad and across Iraq. Al-Qaeda bombed Shia shrines in February and the Shia Mahdi army and Ministry of Interior responded with kidnappings, killings and attacks on Sunni mosques that killed hundreds. As the state had collapsed and the US forces had partitioned neighbourhoods Abdul-Ahad describes how “gunmen” now took over. Sometimes sectarian divisions opened over class divisions, such as tensions with landlords in rural areas. The US administration leant on the Shia militias against the Sunni’s which exacerbated the violence.

Abdul-Ahad gives snippets of how working class people continued to exist and even inter-marry across sectarian lines, teach lessons in schools that defied religious edicts, as well as protect each other, heroically defying the gunmen, even swapping houses for safety.


Protection profits

The most thuggish gunmen from this period became cash rich from intimidation taxes and kidnappings, using the proceeds to gain access to the capitalist market. Some are now large property investors in Dubai, as well as major political figures.

Abdul-Ahad shows it is not religious fervour and principles that fuelled the sectarian war, but the profits of kidnap and protection money. He must acquire a succession of fake IDs showing different surnames implying affiliation to different religious denominations just to travel around his home city. Whole Christian communities disappear. A particular slum, the Sadda, on the edge of Sadr city in Baghdad, becomes a killing field and burial ground for those killed in the violence, numbering tens of thousands.

The corrupt state and the sectarian militias even make profits from much wanted visas and passports, many middle class and working class Iraqis desperately try and obtain to leave the country. As well as millions killed, millions have left in the last decades. By 2007-09 many Sunnis had been driven out of their homes and whole areas of the capital cleared of Shia.


Maliki regime

Sunni tribal leaders reached out to the US forces striking a deal to keep the Shia militias out of their areas if they fought and got rid of the jihadists.  This was termed the “Sahwa” awakening. A commander explains to the author, “The Americans will leave one day, if the Shia occupy an area they will stay”. By the end of decade America began to withdraw its forces having created a new army equipped with American hardware and a state tainted with Shia sectarianism headed by a new leader, Maliki, an exile returned from Iran who promised to unite Iraq.

Abdul-Ahad explains how Maliki’s family quickly became rich big business tycoons and how the intelligence services came to be dominated by his family, his clan and his party members. He built a state-like organisation, comparable to Saddam’s in its scale and corruption, that today, out of power, he still uses. The sectarian ethnic quota system devised by the Americans didn’t curb Maliki’s power but enhanced it through patronage as he distributed resources, jobs and wealth to Shia, Sunni and Kurdish elites.

The extent of US control was shown by Maliki losing the 2010 election to the secular mixed list of Ayad Allawi, but the US and Iran agreed to support Maliki for a second term as it suited their interests. Incredibly they got a chief judge to declare the winner would be the candidate who could form the biggest list of supporting parties after the election! Maliki’s second term was marked by his paranoia that a Sunni or Baathist coup was imminent. He launched attacks on the Sunni leaders, even those who had turned against the jihadists, even assassinating commanders.

In this new capitalist state of Iraq “bribes ruled everything”. Hundreds of billions of oil revenues since 2003 had been squandered. Ministers occasionally left the country with millions never to return. Security forces were back to torturing people in prisons and getting bribes from relatives to release prisoners.


Arab Spring

At the end of 2011, revolution swept across the region toppling military dictatorships. Eventually, the uprising reached the Iraqi border in Syria. Abdul-Ahad recounts, “when the Syrian uprising began, I watched hundreds of civilians bravely demonstrating in the Northern towns and calling for the end of the regime. But I also saw how small bands of fighters were taking a leading role … and how the same sectarian rhetoric that destroyed Iraq was seeping into Syria”. The genuine elements of anti-Assad rebellion, the poor and working class are described as demanding an end to dictatorship and corruption, but lacking disciplined leadership and a programme based on the organised working class. This his left a vacuum for the sectarian forces in the Free Syrian Army.

Abdul-Ahad insightfully explains how “outside Syria a set of players was conspiring to direct events… there were the Saudis who never liked Bashar, but were wary of more chaos… the Qataris who with their television network were positioning themselves at the forefront of the Arab spring to mobilise support and their wealth to advance the interests of their Muslim Brotherhood clients… Turkey was intent on using the war to further its own interests… and of course there were the Americans, British and French who thought toppling Bashar would help contain his ally Iran…”

Various armed groups and “battalions” resisting Assad were therefore being backed by Qataris and the CIA and the jihadis in opposition to Assad had their own funding. Iran, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shia militias backed Assad as did Russia. Sectarianism became a way of disciplining the roaming Sunni fighters, the majority of whom were Syrian rural poor, to fight against Assad and his Alawite clan backed by Shia Iran.

The Salafist Sunni Jihadis, including Al-Qaeda, who had by now been driven out of Iraqi cities by the Sunni tribes as part of the agreement with the US forces, now went to fight in Syria. Already their ideas had been spread by migrant workers in Syria from the Gulf states in the 1990s. This radicalism gained an echo amongst the Syrian rural poor, disenfranchised by the neo-liberal turn of Assad’s ex-Baathist regime in the 1990s. During the insurgency in Iraq, Al-Qaeda, and the fighters that would become IS, got shelter across the border in Syria.

The Sunni population in Iraq were initially inspired by the uprising in Syria. In December 2012, Maliki issued a warrant for the arrest of the bodyguards of the Sunni finance minister. Mass demonstrations erupted. The police and army were pelted with stones after Friday prayers in Ramadi and Fallujah. Demonstrators were killed as were security forces. This “Friday of anger” led to the Dignity and Steadfastness sit-in camps, inspired partly by other sit-in movements internationally. This spread across Sunni cities as demonstrators demanded the release of all female Sunni prisoners, an easing of the anti-terror laws and an end to ‘de-Baathfication’.

Maliki reacted with sectarianism, even attacking Sahwa Sunni leaders terming the demonstrations as terrorist. This only spread them into Baghdad, which was then locked down by the government. This was done, as Abdul-Ahad rightly points out, to prevent any Shia sympathy emerging for the movement.

Boxed in, the Sunni “Dignity” movement itself assumed a more sectarian character, attacking Shias as a whole, and even flying the Baathist flag. In the end it fractured along tribal divisions under the pressure of the rising influence and reemergence of the jihadis in Syria.



Foreign jihadi fighters and funding were pouring into the Syrian civil war by 2013. The jihadis captured lucrative oil and gas fields in eastern Syria. Their new wealth transformed them into the most powerful fighting force in the mountains and deserts in the border area of Iraq and Syria.

They had links to big business in Turkey, and, the author highlights, created their own “Bait al- Mall” economy with a centralised treasury, contrasting with the disorganised looting of other armed groups. The most prominent of these was IS, a split from Al-Nusra (Syrian Al Qaeda). IS aimed to create a Islamic state wiping away the borders created by the colonial powers. The split with Al-Nusra was not over religious doctrine. IS tended to use more brutal methods, mainly to control resources and to dominate the Iraqi Al-Qaeda leadership.

Initially, IS fighters often restored needed infrastructure and brought ‘order’ to war-torn areas gaining the sympathy of the local Sunni population. Abdul-Ahad points out all the IS and Al-Nusra fighters he met feared another Sahwa with Sunni tribes turning on them.

By 2014 the Sunni Dignity movement had dissipated in Iraq and Sunni leaders were once again turning to the Gulf states for financial support for armed uprisings. This vacuum was filed by IS who now swept into Fallujah. As they attacked the Iraqi army thousands of Iraqi soldiers deserted and sectarian killings escalated in the areas around Baghdad. Sections of the Sunni tribes around Ramadi joined the government forces against IS but others backed it. Maliki, by sending Shia militias to fight IS, further deepened the sectarian divisions. Whole army units now deserted on mass as IS advanced on Mosul in northern Iraq. Abdul -Ahad describes the brutal fall of Mosul and the atrocities committed by IS at the ex-American base of Camp Speicher, where 1,700 Iraqi soldeirs were shot and thrown in a pit. This ignited a mass outpouring of anger from Shia and other communities in Iraq.

IS had completed a blitzkrieg-like advance to the gates of Baghdad. Only 50,000 of the 250,000 strong Iraqi army and police remained in service after Mosul fell. Sunni towns and villages rose in revolt. In response, following a fatwa urging protection of the Shia shrines, tens of thousands of young Shia men from the poor south and the Baghdad slums flocked to recruiting centres. The author says Baghdad reminded him of the Iraq-Iran war. He once again meets the ex-Communist Abu Hashem volunteering.


People’s Mobilisation Force

Abdul-Ahad references the creation of the People’s Mobilisation Force, created by the now-US assassinated Iranian general Qassam Sulaimani. This was an umbrella organisation for the anti-IS paramilitaries. The effect of the military drive against IS in the Diala area of around Baghdad was to clear Sunni villages. Abdul-Ahad describes the years-long occupation of Mosul by IS. Al-Qaeda and other militants had long had a presence in the city and operated lucrative rackets. They were bolstered, despite Mosul’s secular traditions, by Maliki’s repression of Sunni demonstrations during the Dignity movement.

In June 2014 many residents hoped IS would be liberators, or at least a lesser evil. In the initial few weeks of the occupation they adopted a low-key presence, restoring order and reducing prices. Elements of the old Baathist regime remerged in the city to join IS. But after a period of months IS became more repressive and attacked even the Baathists. They opened land registers to find out who owned property and land, forcing Christians out and taking over their properties. Other minorities either fled or were killed. After dealing with minorities, they then enforced attacks on women forcing the wearing of the Niqab through their security apparatus.

Abdul-Ahad highlights the economic pressures that were eventually a key factor in the collapse of IS-rule. “Because, Islamic state, in its essence was a massive Ponzi scheme set up in a perfect echo chamber. It used the wealth of a captured city or oilfield … to finance further expansion and pay for its patronage network … like all aggressive states, once the expansion stopped the Ponzi scheme crumbled”.

In Mosul, IS were also reliant on the Iraqi state paying the wages of civil servants and other public sector employees. Tensions began in to simmer and resistance brewed as IS fighters got preferential treatment at hospitals and access to medicine in conditions of shortage as siege conditions developed. By 2015, IS faced pressures that their profits from oil and wheat exports were inadequate to respond to. In Syria and Kurdish areas, they were now in long drawn-out conflicts struggling to retain territory. And now, in Iraq, Shia and government forces were regrouping and becoming more formidable. US imperialism and its allies began bombing IS’s fuel trucks in Iraq and Syria. They were forced to implement unpopular austerity in cities like Mosul, including cutting the pay of their own fighters when the Iraqi government stopped paying salaries. Abdul-Ahad describes the colossal house to house and street to street battle in the rubble of Mosul to recover the city from IS in 2016-17.



Abdul Ahad’s epilogue is a cause for hope. In October 2019, hundreds of thousands of protestors surged into the centre of Baghdad and other cities in the Tishreen Uprising. He calls it the most “existential threat to the post 2003 Iraqi state”. He says this was an uprising unlike any other. It was not sect- or religious-based, but driven by “young secular activists and the Shia masses from the poor suburbs of Baghdad and Southern Iraqi cities”. Importantly these same Shia masses turned against the sectarian parties they had for a period been voting for. The majority of those on the streets were youth. All they have known growing up is the sectarian capitalist system.

As Abdul-Ahad says about post-invasion Iraq, “a state was created that had all the trappings of a liberal democracy – elections, free press, parliament, a free market … and yet its lethargic, inflated administration … behaves like other Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes. It is a wealthy, oil exporting country, whose citizens live in  poverty, without employment, an adequate healthcare system, electricity or drinking water, where sectarian parties and their militias have built statelets of corruption, and fiefdoms of commercial interests within the state, and where a new class of the super wealthy – the so called whales of corruption – have emerged with a panache for spending fortunes in nightclubs and private gambling rooms”.

Abdul-Ahad traces developments that in the view of the CWI will lead to new revolutionary movements in Iraq in the future and the further emergence of class politics. Mass unemployment has developed in previously fertile farming regions and in the big urban cities. The young Iraqi working class and poor can see in front of their very eyes the wealth from oil and other commodities flaunted by the sectarian politicians the imperialists brought back. A Basra fisherman is quoted, saying, “it’s been ten years since I last wore a new shirt, we borrow money to eat, to teach our children, we survive on debt … when the war started in 2003 and we saw the British tanks drive through town, we were told life will be very beautiful”. Later he says, “I can see the money in this city everywhere, in malls and big houses, but I can’t touch it”. The concrete shacks hastily built in 2003 still ring Baghdad and are still without clean water.

The mass demonstrations of 2017-19 saw protestors fly the old Iraqi flag, not that of the religious sects. This is a confused rejection of the past period. Protestors demanded better electricity, better water supplies and jobs. They burned tyres and blocked roads. Political party headquarters were ransacked. “Iran out”, was a rallying cry and youth burned pictures of the ayatollahs.

The state forces responded brutally, firing into crowds, jailing hundreds and torturing activists. In October 2019, the protests swelled after the sacking of an army general who had fought IS. Young, unarmed people were killed while building barricades, shot by snipers. There was a major reaction in the Shia slums to their children being shot. Artists created a ‘freedom monument’ depicting the 1958 left revolution of Qasim. Abdul-Ahad points out that the movement was directed at the whole ruling class. He quotes an ex-sectarian paramilitary who joined the demonstrations, because, after years of fighting, he still has nothing from the government.

Abdul-Ahad is emotional and inspired by these protestors. Finally he can see solidarity replacing the cruelty he has witnessed for decades. He gets concerned, understandably, when the demonstrators, in a disorganised and sometimes counter-productive way, use violence to defend themselves against the state forces. This is lesson youth and workers in Iraq need to learn – about the need to build powerful mass independent trade unions and a workers’ party with a socialist programme, that can organise effectively and democratically against the capitalist state and its sectarian proxies. In order to cut across sectarian and national divisions such forces will also need a sensitive unifying socialist programme on the right to self-determination, dealing with Iraq’s national and religious minorities including the Kurds and Turkmen.

Abdul-Ahad does not mention the important strikes in Baghdad of workers in schools and law courts during the mass movement in 2019 that point to the way forward. He also does not touch on the dangers that populist figures like Al-Sadr currently pose. He plays to a working class Shia base, initially led an insurgency against the occupation, but later worked with the US against IS. Al-Sadr veers between encouraging sectarian conflict with the Sunnis and opposing it, as well as supporting and then opposing Iran. The Iraqi CP has stood in elections in a “popular alliance” with his forces rather than fighting to build a mass independent working class force.

Currently based in Turkey, Abdul-Ahad puts forward an unclear position in conclusion, tinged with both hope and pessimism, or possibly fear, of inevitable revolutionary change, saying “like all revolutions and uprisings Tishreen eventually failed, another compromise prime minister was elected and the domination of the kleptocracy continues to this day. But Tishreen showed the power of the people when not cowed by sectarian fears …. the failures of consecutive regimes that ruled Iraq – from the British mandate to the monarchy and the military dictatorships and finally Saddam – to reform and listen to the demands of their people led to their demise eventually … the failure of the ruling class, the religious parties, regional bosses, the clergy and militias to heed the warnings of the Tishreen will lead to their eventual demise”.


What kind of Iraq?

The question then arises what kind of Iraq is possible after this? The CWI fights for a socialist democracy based on the interests of the working class and the poor from all backgrounds, with the right to self-determination for all peoples. One demand raised in the Tishreen movement was for an elected parliament that did not contain political parties (understandable given the betrayals of sectarianism and Stalinism) but experts. Socialists would pose the idea of a truly democratic revolutionary constituent assembly representing workers and the poor.

A fundamental transformation of the lives of ordinary working people in Iraq, whose voice Abdul-Ahad bravely amplifies in this book – with secure jobs, funded education, decent housing and full democratic rights – is not possible under capitalism. Only socialist nationalisation of industries like oil and water, under public ownership, managed and democratically planned by workers and communities, can provide this. This would be a step towards a voluntary socialist confederation of the region.

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April 2024