Britain - "Honest Tony" and Labour's military occupation of Iraq

Jul/Aug 2003

More than seven weeks after Bush proclaimed the "end" of the war in Iraq, the announcement that six British soldiers had been killed in a gun battle with Iraqi demonstrators, in the small town of Majar al-Kabir, north of Basra, on 24 June, came as a shock for many people.

But this announcement did not only shed crude light on the reality behind the allegedly "benign" role of the British occupation forces in southern Iraq. It also exposed the hypocrisy of the politicians' squabbles over Blair's policy, here in Britain, since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime.

It should be recalled that when the first British missile was launched against the Iraqi population, on 20 March, all MPs lined up to a man behind Bush's and Blair's imperialist aggression, under the pretext that "our boys need all our support." Only a handful among those who had previously opposed the war stuck to their positions - one of them being the Scottish MP George Galloway, who was suspended from the Labour party precisely for this reason, before becoming the target of a smear campaign by the Tory press on the basis of forged documents.

However, once the war was officially declared over, it soon became obvious that the occupation forces would be unable to produce one single Iraqi "weapon of mass destruction" to vindicate Blair's policy in front of the electorate, which was still largely hostile to the war. At this point, Labour politicians began to run for cover, particularly after the May local elections demonstrated that a sizeable number of Labour voters were determined to use their ballot papers to show their opposition to Blair's warmongering.

Protecting the institutions by denying Blair's lies

Thus began the saga of the parliamentary "scrutiny" of Blair's famous "dossiers" on Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction". All of a sudden, Labour politicians "discovered" that these dossiers had been fakes - although this was old news, since the forgery had been extensively and verifiably documented long before the beginning of the war! Nevertheless, many of these politicians started to complain bitterly about the way in which they had been "conned" into supporting Blair's warmongering - or so they hypocritically claimed.

Of course, there is a significant element of politicking in all of this - a factional fight between Blair's loyalists and a host of aspiring careerists who are busy preparing their next step for what they hope will be Blair's succession at the head of the Labour party. Among the latter, there is in particular a long list of former Blairites and ex-government ministers - including Robing Cook, Clare Short, Chris Smith, Frank Dobson, etc..- and none of these characters has ever been known for making a clear stand against the on-going lies of the present Labour government on any issue - whether it be over the Iraq war, the state of public services or the increasing threats against workers' standard of living caused by the rolling-back of the pension system, to take just a few examples.

But at the same time, there is a general consensus on both sides that, come what may, the sacrosanct image of the institution of the prime minister must remain unblemished. Never mind the fact that Blair's deliberate campaign of disinformation and lies may have been designed to justify a war which caused thousands of casualties in Iraq, while driving the population even deeper into poverty! Even if Blair is forced out at some point as a result of the unpopularity of his policy in Iraq (not to mention his other policies), every effort will be made to ensure that the country's parliamentary institutions are not discredited.

But given the Churchill-like way in which Blair, almost single- handedly, waged his warmongering campaign through the media, the political establishment is having a hard time giving some credibility to the idea that a "British prime minister just doesn't lie", as a "left" Labour MP put it in a recent Question Time programme.

Nevertheless, it is this rather incredible fairy tale of "Honest Tony" being misled into "exaggerating the issue of weapons of mass destruction" out of a genuine concern for humanity, which is now being put forward - which has the obvious advantage of confining Blair's responsibility to that of not being very careful at choosing his closest advisers. So the usual suspect, Blair's chief spin-doctor Alistair Campbell, gets a grilling from the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, while being implicitly accused by a BBC programme of having "sexed up" Blair's infamous dossier on Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction."

Campbell was not the only member of Blair's team to get this treatment. So did Jack Straw, and no doubt others will follow. But the important point in these carefully stage-managed shows, is that they should steer the attention of the electorate away from Blair himself while slowly reducing the issue of Blair's deliberate lies to that of "over-spin" on the part of his advisers.

And all Labour MPs, regardless of their stands on the issue of the war, connive in this manoeuvre to rescue the image of the prime ministerial institution - and by the same token, Blair. Indeed, which among the so-called "rebel" backbenchers, has stood up in the Commons or elsewhere to expose loudly and clearly this ludicrous parody of "accountability"?

After all, once again, the stakes here have nothing to do with those of the usual "spin-doctoring" used by this government. Even if Blair's decision to send the troops to Iraq was not decisive in the war - since Bush had the political and material means to wage it on his own anyway - British bombs and missiles did kill and maim thousands of Iraqis as a result of Blair's policy. But who among the "anti-war" MPs, Labour or otherwise, has stood up to denounce the fact that what is in question here is not the method used to dress up the decision to participate in the war against Iraq, but the decision itself - that is sending the troops against the population of a poor country which had no responsibility whatsoever in the actions of a dictator who was largely manufactured by Western leaders!

The reality of military occupation

Just as significant and hypocritical is the unanimity with which politicians have responded to the deaths of the six British soldiers who were killed on 24 June. Of course everyone has duly deplored the deaths of these six men. And so do we. Not because they were British soldiers, but because these men never chose to die in the killing fields of Iraq. It was Blair and his government who decided from the comfort of their offices in London, that these young men would risk their lives in Iraq. And for what? For the profits of the few large City business which may stand to gain from the looting of Iraqi resources!

It is sickening to see these politicians who did nothing to oppose Blair's warmongering shed a few tears over the fate of the six deceased - when most of the "anti-war" MPs did not even dare to show their faces in the large anti-war marches, let alone seek to mobilise the population actively against the war! What hypocrisy! They issued calls to "support our boys"? But what better way was there to "support our boys" than to prevent them from being sent to Iraq in the first place? And what better way is there, today, to support them, than to demand their immediate withdrawal? But there is only a deafening silence among Labour MPs on this issue.

Just as there is an almost total silence, both among politicians and in the media, over the Iraqis who have been killed, tortured or jailed by the British occupying army since the collapse of Saddam's regime. In particular, nothing has filtered through on any follow-up to the evidence of torture inflicted on Iraqi civilians by British troops, which surfaced totally by chance at the beginning of June. On such issues, politicians see no need for parliamentary enquiries, not even bogus ones. Why would the Commons' Select Committee be bothered about the fate of tortured Iraqis? After all, they do not vote, do they?

It is in the nature of military occupation that it involves repression, particularly in a country whose population shows a deep hostility to this occupation. So far, however, the official line was that British occupation forces were proving much more "clever and skilled" in "securing" their occupation zone in southern Iraq than the American forces around Baghdad. In the British-controlled Basra area, British forces were supposed to be busy "rebuilding the country" and "preparing the ground for the return of democracy." Or such was the official story.

By contrast, the British media has been commenting frequently, with a large degree of contempt, on the difficulties experienced by US forces in Baghdad, particularly shooting incidents involving US soldiers who were often presented as undisciplined or unreliable "cow-boys". And the fact is that, according to the figures officially released by both the US and British authorities, the level of casualties among soldiers has been much higher in the US zone of occupation than in the British zone - so far, at least.

What is even more significant is that the number of US soldiers killed began to increase drastically around the beginning of June. By 21 June, the US general command admitted to 57 US soldiers killed since the official "end" of the war, on 2nd May - that is, more than half the number of US soldiers who had died in combat during the war itself - together with a significant number of US vehicles burnt or destroyed, including one Apache helicopter. In addition, during the first three weeks of June, at least two "terrorist explosions" were reported on the oil pipeline between Kirkuk and Turkey and one on the main North- South pipeline linking Basra to the Mosul area.

Moreover, the large-scale repressive operations carried out by US troops between the 11 and 17 June, which involved massive use of armoured vehicles and air support and resulted in the detention of nearly a thousand Iraqis, seem to have changed nothing. In fact the rate of attacks against US troops, from snipers to commandos using rocket launchers, has actually increased since then, according to official figures.

Of course, the US authorities have been quick to blame these attacks on "pro-Saddam forces". But the young demonstrators who were shot at and killed in Fallujah, for instance, at the end of April, were only protesting against the occupation of their schools. Since then Fallujah has become a regular flashpoint and the scene of many armed attacks against US troops. And the odds are, that when the US authorities announced the sacking of most of the country's 400,000 soldiers, without offering them any alternative employment, thereby depriving up to 3 million people of their only source of income, they created a large pool of potential recruits for any force determined to fight the US occupation - and such forces are just as likely to be anti-Saddam forces.

British troops out of Iraq!

Up to 24 June, no such developments seemed to be taking place in the British occupation zone. This may mean that there were no attacks against British troops, although neither army headquarters nor the government can be trusted to report such attacks, but more likely, it probably means that there were no casualties among British troops.

However, the absence of British casualties says nothing about the treatment meted out to the Iraqi population by British forces. Shortly after British troops occupied Basra, for instance, the BBC reported a shooting incident in which soldiers fired at "looters robbing a bank", leaving five dead on the pavement - which, in passing, shows that in Basra, banks were much better protected than hospitals and power stations, a typical example of Blair's priorities in Iraq as well as in Britain!

Since then, the almost complete blackout by the media on what was going on in Basra makes it impossible to know what the British forces have been up to on the ground and what armed opposition, if any, they have met. Nevertheless there have been numerous reports of demonstrations in Basra - which is Iraq's second-largest town and its largest industrial centre. Workers have demonstrated over unpaid wages, civil servants to demand the sacking of officials associated with Saddam's regime, students to demand the reopening of universities under new management, the population in general to protest against the occupying forces' failure at restoring water and electricity supply, etc..

In addition there have been many demonstrations against the military occupation itself and against the British authorities' attempts to appoint a pliable ruling body for the town. In fact, so far, General Bradshaw has had to disband three such bodies under the pressure of mass protests in the town. At the same time, Bradshaw prides himself on his diplomatic "flexibility", involving the de facto recognition of the rule of Islamic fundamentalist militias in some minor towns - thereby relieving British troops of the task of policing these towns, but which can only encourage the political ambitions of these militias.

There can be no doubt, therefore, that there is a groundswell of opposition to British occupation in the Basra area. The information

available does not make it possible to measure the extent and determination of this opposition.

But what has filtered out after the events of 24 June gives an indication of the methods used by the British authorities and the reactions of the population to these methods. According to the reports published in the press, the incident was initially triggered by the brutality used by soldiers from the 1st Parachute regiment carrying out a house-to-house search for weapons, Northern- Ireland style - that is humiliating people and breaking everything in their way. The operation sparked off a spontaneous protest from the population and the soldiers fired into the crowd, killing between 8 and 18 people depending on the account. Later on, following these events, an armed crowd attacked a police station where six British military police were training the local police. And it was in the ensuing gun battle that these six soldiers were killed, although they had apparently nothing to do with the initial incident.

If British troops are using such methods against a population which already has every reason to want them out after the bombing and hardship due to the invasion (not to mention the impact of the past UN sanctions) and which, in addition, is traditionally heavily armed, it is not hard to imagine what will follow - more and more repression resulting in more and more protests. And sooner or later, guns will replace today's banners in the protests.

There is no more justification today for British troops to occupy southern Iraq than there was yesterday for their participation in the invasion of the country - except, of course, for the sake of satisfying the greed of a few giant British companies. The working population of this country has no interest in lending its support to this imperialist occupation of Iraq. Its interest is to side with the Iraqi population against the oppression of the Western powers and the plundering of Iraq by their companies. Far too much Iraqi and British blood has already been spilled for the big City shareholders. British troops out of Iraq now!

30 June 2003