Iraq - The US "surge" - dividing to rule

Nov/Dec 2007

The following article is reprinted from Class Struggle, the quarterly journal of the American Trotskyist group The Spark.

From late August to early September, the media were inundated with reports on the "surge," the latest re-invention of the US war in Iraq. The "National Intelligence Estimate" was followed by a report from the Government Accountability Office, which was followed by a report from the Independent Commission on Security Forces in Iraq, which was followed by the Bush Administration's "Benchmark Assessment Report." The US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, both flew in for special appearances in front of Congress.

When Bush had addressed Congress this past February arguing for the "surge" - that is, the rapid increase in the number of US troops - he justified it as a way to increase "security," providing a "breathing space" to the Iraqi government of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki so it could work on "reconciliation" among the various ethnic and religious factions in Iraq.

The multitude of reports on the "surge" have all agreed on three basic points. First, the "surge" of US forces has improved "security" somewhat - and some reports came loaded with charts, graphs and reams of statistics trying to prove it. Second, not only have the Iraqi military and police forces made little "progress" - they are actually moving backwards, as Petraeus admitted when he said that the number of "fully ready" Iraqi battalions had decreased from 15 to 12 since the "surge" began. Third, the Iraqi government hasn't done enough toward "reconciliation."

Bush, responding to the reports, declared: "We are still in the early stages of our new operations." And he dredged up the spectre of Viet Nam, warning that pulling out of Iraq at this stage would be another defeat, leading to chaos in the region, and haunting US foreign policy for decades.

The US government intends to stay in Iraq

There can be no doubt about US intentions to stay in Iraq - but not for the purpose of providing "a breathing space" for the Iraqi government. Every word of this administration, every action it has taken, as well as every criticism of Bush's handling of the war made by leading Democrats and disaffected generals all agree on one point: that the US has a strategic interest in the region, and that it cannot leave Iraq until "order" is imposed there.

In an August interview given to Die Presse, an Austrian newspaper, the current US ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, warned that the Middle East is now so disordered that it could inflame the world. He made the comparison to a "Europe [which] was just as dysfunctional for a while. And some of its wars became world wars. Now the problems of the Middle East and Islamic civilization have the same potential to engulf the world." He estimated that "foreign forces" will need to be kept in Iraq for perhaps 10 to 20 years.

Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, the former top commander in Iraq, recently called the Bush Administration's handling of the war both "corrupting" and "incompetent," characterising the war as a "nightmare with no end in sight." But this did not lead him to propose leaving Iraq.

The same can be said of Bush's Democratic critics. John Edwards, one of the three top Democratic candidates for president and generally considered to be the most critical of the war, reiterated Bush's argument in a recent candidates' debate in Chicago, saying, "we've got to be prepared to control a civil war if it starts to spill outside the borders of Iraq," and he voted for Bush's recent resolution threatening Iran. Hillary Clinton, the acknowledged front-runner, reaffirmed remarks she had made earlier in the year to the New York Times, that there are "remaining vital national security interests in Iraq [requiring] a continued deployment of American troops."

The world wars that Khalilzad referred to were not produced by the "disorder" of Europe, but by the struggle between its various imperialist powers to control the resources of the rest of the world, just as US imperialism today is using its military forces to try to control Iraq and the Middle East.

The US went into Iraq to give it a base of operations in the Middle East. Certainly, Iraq sits on large reserves of oil. But the main aim of US imperialism was not Iraq's oil, but the oil of the whole Middle East. The weakening of Israel and the lack of one other solid regime acting as a US surrogate in the region brought the US to look for its own base of operations. And Iraq was to be it. Iraq is strategically located in the centre of the main oil-producing countries; the Saddam Hussein regime - vastly unpopular inside Iraq - had been weakened by two decades of war; and 9-11 gave the Bush Administration the possibility of going to war with the support of the US population.

Practically as soon as the US arrived in Baghdad in 2003, it began to build bases and then a new embassy from which its interests could be directed. The new embassy is already the largest embassy in the world, and construction continues - even as mortars fall into the Green Zone. When finished, it will have 21 buildings, covering 104 acres of land, occupying an area two-thirds the size of the mall in Washington DC - or, to put it another way, an area six times as large as UN headquarters in New York City.

More important than the embassy are the permanent US military bases. Reports made just before the "surge" began, listed 55 US bases in Iraq, with 14 of them characterised as "enduring" bases - located strategically around the country, each permitting military control over a region of Iraq, built around full size airfields. Work on those bases continues with no let-up.

On October 22, the Washington Post, citing revisions by Petraeus and Crocker in the "surge" plan, reported that the updated plan "calls for accelerated talks with the Iraqi government to secure a renewal of the UN Security Council resolution that allows the US military to operate in Iraq through 2008 (...) By the end of next year, the plan calls for the negotiation of an accord on a long-term strategic relationship between the two countries. Such an agreement would spell out the remaining US forces' authority to operate in Iraq; senior Pentagon and military officials expect them eventually to number fewer than 50,000. It would be likely to provide for US aviation and other military assets to protect Iraq's borders..."

In other words, the US government may withdraw troops at some point, but it clearly intends to keep a permanent US force and military installations in Iraq.

But there's an elephant in the room

Whatever plans the US has for the future of Iraq, the US military has a big problem right now: its volunteer army is running short of volunteers. But not one of the September reports took notice of it.

The US Army today has a total of 38 combat brigades - about 135,000 men, if those brigades were up to full strength. That is not the Army's total strength, only its combat units. With the "surge," the Army currently has 18 combat brigades in Iraq, with 13 more scheduled to rotate in; two other brigades are in Afghanistan; with another two waiting to go there. That adds up to 35 brigades, leaving only three other combat brigades for the whole Army, and they are either in action elsewhere, or scheduled to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan in 2009. In addition, the Marines have the equivalent of 6 of their 11 combat regiments in Iraq or Kuwait, with a few specialised groups in Afghanistan, and most of the remainder awaiting rotation. When the generals go to the cupboard for troops, the cupboard is increasingly bare.

The Iraq war has dragged on many times longer than anyone in the Bush Administration and longer than many military leaders ever envisioned. It is second only to the Viet Nam war - or third longest, if we count the Revolutionary War. And the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are being fought by an all-volunteer military. According to a study released by the Congressional Budget Office, over one million active duty troops and almost 400,000 National Guard and Reserves had served at least once in one of those wars by December 2006, with most active duty troops serving more than once. Of those 1.4 million troops, 500,000 of them had either left active service or definitively quit the National Guard by then.

Without a draft to look to, the military moved to counteract the pressures on recruitment and re-enlistment by resorting to a series of exceptional measures.

Even before the war started, the military had relied on "contractors" for logistics and maintenance work on its bases in this country and around the world, as well as transport and guard duty. But with the push into Afghanistan and then Iraq, the number of "contractors" who took over such work immediately increased. In 2004, estimates put total private forces working in Iraq for the US military at about 28,000 to 30,000 people, or about 20% of the military's own forces at that time.

That was nothing, compared to today. By the middle of 2007, the number of private forces had reached between 190,000 and 200,000 working for the Defence Department or the State Department - more than the actual number of military personnel in Iraq, which numbers somewhere around 169,000, not counting the 27,000 troops in Afghanistan.

About 30,000 to 50,000 of this "private military" are military forces in the full sense of the term, as Blackwater's September killing of dozens of civilians once again demonstrated. Most of these so-called "security" forces are highly paid and usually dredged out of special forces units from the US military or from the military of regimes in Africa and in South America. The others, much less well paid, perform transport, construction or base maintenance. Some are recruited from poor rural areas in the US, attracted by the promise of double their US wages, tax-free; about 70,000 come from Iraq itself, offered work in a country where nearly half the men have no work; the rest come from underdeveloped countries, particularly from Asia, often shipped to Iraq without having any idea of where they were going, and paid less than half the US minimum wage - from which the cost to transport them to Iraq is often deducted.

In the middle of the second year of the war, with most of the Army's units having seen service at least once in Iraq or Afghanistan, the high command turned toward the National Guard and Reserves. In 2005, those two forces actually made up 40% of all US troops in Iraq. This may have stopped the gap for six months or so, but it also led to a big increase in National Guard troops opting out as soon as their commitment allowed.

The top command then did what it had never done in Viet Nam - it ordered regular Army troops back for a second combat tour. After awhile, it sent them back for a third or even a fourth tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. It also did what it had done with only very particular specialties during Viet Nam - froze people in longer than the 12 months they had expected to serve in a war zone. To scrape up enough people to go back to Iraq, the Army also violated its long-standing practice that no one should be sent back into combat without a two-year relief. Last year, that relief was reduced to one year, and increasingly it has been cut to nine or even six months.

The top command transformed the logistics brigades of the Army into combat brigades, as it pushed more of the logistical work onto private contractors. Finally, the military high command began to forcibly transfer members of the Navy and the Air Force into the Army in order to fill out combat units that were lacking numbers.

In the short run, such measures kept the force strength stable. But in the long run, such measures only encouraged more people to leave military service as soon as they could, including the next generation of commissioned officers. By 2006, nearly half the recent West Point graduates quit service within a year of fulfilling their five-year service obligation. That was more than double the pre-war rate.

The military was forced to increase the enticements it held out for re-enlistment or enlistment. In 2004, re-enlistment bonuses amounted to $143m; in 2005, $506m and in 2006, nearly $1.5bn - that is, over ten times what the military had paid out two years earlier. Re-enlistment bonuses for the Army National Guard went from $27m in 2004 to $235m in 2005, almost nine times as high. Recently, the military came up with a new inducement: so-called "quick-ship" bonuses, amounting to $20,000 for any new recruit who enlisted and appeared for service within a few weeks.

The other inducement has been citizenship - a speeded-up form of US citizenship for immigrants with green cards, and the possibility of legal papers for those without. The number of immigrant soldiers with documents - either those with a green card, or those recently granted citizenship - total 70,000 today, that is, nearly 15% of the Army's total force. As for immigrants without documents, the Army gives no official report. Technically, someone without papers cannot sign up for military service. In reality, the Army and the Marines - those most in need of cannon fodder - admit they have turned a blind eye to obviously false documents and "occasionally" even waived the requirement for papers. How "occasionally," no one says.

Up until now, the military has steadfastly and publicly insisted that it does not want to go to a draft. Nonetheless, the Congressional Budget Office recently issued a study comparing the advantages and disadvantages of the volunteer army to the draft army. Maybe it's only for the joy of churning out one more report - but at the very least it is an acknowledgment that the US military finds itself cornered into a war where its options are increasingly limited by a "volunteer army" that has been volunteering to quit!

Thus... the "Surge"

The "surge" in US troops may have been depicted as a brief increase in US action in Iraq, in order to provide the Maliki government a "breathing space." In reality, the "surge" was accompanied by a shift away from support for the Maliki government and dependence on the central Iraqi military apparatus - toward setting up ethnic or sectarian enclaves, policed by sectarian militias, some of which have already been installed as the local police by US forces.

One of the strongest recommendations included in the public "Report of the Independent Commission on the Security Forces in Iraq" is that the US should do exactly this. (See page 126, "The Commission believes that it should be acceptable for local police to reflect the ethno-sectarian make-up of the communities they serve. This pragmatic accommodation may be necessary until such time that national reconciliation efforts have succeeded in making sectarian and ethnic associations secondary to a prevailing sense of Iraqi national identity. The make-up of Iraq's police forces is key to bringing stability to the neighbourhoods.")

The unvarnished version of this recommendation was provided in a study of Anbar province by Anthony Cordesman of the Institute of Strategic Studies. Cordesman was the former Director of Intelligence Assessment for the Secretary of Defence. He held top offices in the Reagan and George HW Bush Administrations, including in the State Department and NATO. Today, he is acknowledged by the US military to be an expert on military affairs in the Middle East generally, and Iraq specifically. Here is Cordesman's description of how the US has been carrying out "this pragmatic accommodation":

"These local forces have formal ties to the government. They are being created in ways that follow a precedent set in creating similar forces in the Kurdish area. They only get weapons, training and pay if they formally enroll as supporting the police and swear allegiance to the government...

"The net result, however, is to create a Sunni or Shi'ite force whose ties to the central government are uncertain and opportunistic. It is also to create a force built on uncertain tribal and local coalitions. This makes it far from clear what kind of political power such forces will support...

"The continuing failure of the central government's effort to develop an effective police force, and one that can 'hold' the wins of Coalition forces and the Iraqi Army, is leading to more and more reliance on sectarian and ethnic local security forces in other areas, or to reliance on local police under the de facto control of local political leaders. Almost all of these local political groups or forces are divided along sectarian and ethnic lines....

"This increasing reliance on local security forces with cosmetic or tenuous ties to the Iraqi force development effort is parallelled by a steady process of sectarian and ethnic displacement on a local and national level. This process of displacement and sectarian and ethnic "cleansing" is largely ignored in unclassified US reporting on the war that focuses on attacks, killed, and sectarian incidents. The fact that much of the country [is divided] into local factions and authorities - most unelected or elected under conditions that made effective campaigning impossible - is making a weak central government steadily weaker. It also is doing more and more to separate the country."

Congress - particularly the Democrats - may pretend to take issue with Bush over the conduct of the war. But on September 26, that same Congress called for dividing Iraq into Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish regions, pretending that this is just another form of "federalism." With a 75-to-23 vote, almost all the Democrats and a majority of the Republicans approved what has been called a "soft partition."

Thomas Friedman had already put the New York Times on record as approving the division of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines on September 16, when he wrote: "The only possible self-sustaining outcome in the near term is some form of radical federalism."

Partition based on ethnic cleansing

In one sense, this is all a tacit recognition of events as they have unfolded in Iraq over the last 20 months (essentially since the bombing of the Golden Dome shrine in Samara). Shi'ite and Sunni militias have fought each other over control of Baghdad's neighbourhoods. To the extent that Iraqi military forces have played a role, it has usually been to support one of the Shi'ite militias. The Iraqi National Police as well as most parts of the Iraqi Army are intertwined with those militias. Arab or Turkoman militias have fought the two main Kurdish militias over Kirkuk and Mosul. And various Shi'ite militias have fought each other over control in the south of Iraq, especially in Karbala and Basra. These fights involved not only the Badr brigades, connected to the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), and the Mahdi Army, connected more or less to Moqtada al-Sadr, but also several important local militias in Basra. Sunni tribal forces have been fighting Sunni "insurgents" over Anbar. And the struggle in the North between the two big Kurdish militias, although it may have subsided into an uneasy armed truce, still breaks out occasionally.

The population, caught in the middle of this fighting, is being pulverised. To establish and increase their control, the various militias have terrorised whole neighbourhoods and districts, using spectacular violent attacks as a means of forcing out those who were not killed, taking over their property and goods. The militias have cut off electricity to neighbourhoods or shut off the water supply, as a Sunni militia did recently to the Shi'ite town of Khalis.

The end result has been an Iraq increasingly divided into enclaves based on ethnic or sectarian political forces. The centre of Iraq, which once was the most diverse, is being drained of its population. Shi'ites continue to flee to the South, while Sunnis escape from the South to the West and near-North of the country. In northeastern Iraq, the area around Kirkuk is a battlefield, with Kurdish forces camped on its outskirts, carrying out a blockade around the city, imprisoning Arabs and Turkomens inside the city.

According to one source, Baghdad has gone from being 65% Sunni and 35% Shi'ite before the war to 75% Shi'ite today - with the Shi'ite proportion still increasing. As recently as 2006, the majority of Baghdad neighbourhoods were still mixed neighbourhoods. Civil officials estimate that before the war as many as 50% of all marriages crossed sectarian lines. Today, there are only two neighbourhoods that remain mixed and mixed couples are commonly forced to live apart. The Mahdi Army not only exercises military control over Shi'ite neighbourhoods in the capital, it also sells fuel and electricity and rents out the housing confiscated from Sunnis.

Basra, the southern port city, had been among the most cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East before the war, with a mixture not only of Shi'ites and Sunnis; but also Kurds; Chaldaean, Assyrian and Armenian Christians; African Muslims, and many secular Shi'ites. Today it is almost totally Shi'ite, and overwhelmingly fundamentalist. The situation of women has severely degraded, with physical attacks reported on women who dare go out without being fully veiled, or who walk in the street alone or with a man other than a relative.

The US military, claiming that the "surge" has "improved security," reported that the number of people killed in ethnic or sectarian violence took a steep dip in July. In fact, this casualty report covers only Baghdad and only sectarian violence - not all the other ways that Iraqis die every day, including from US military action, official or otherwise. And deaths from all causes increased sharply in August.

Nonetheless, it probably is true that fewer people are being killed lately in Baghdad in sectarian violence, but for a sinister reason: so many people have already been either killed or forced to move in previous waves of sectarian violence that the militias who were carrying it out have fewer targets today.

At the same time, some of those same militias now openly attack "their own" civilian populations - Shi'ite in Baghdad or Basra or Sunni in Anbar province - in acts of simple criminality or gangsterism. They are becoming mafias in the real sense of the term.

Behind this human disaster stands US imperialism

Oxfam International, the humanitarian organisation, estimates that more than two million Iraqis have left the country since the war began, with another two million displaced inside the country. Out of Iraq's pre-war population of 23 million people, four million have fled or been driven from their homes. In the earlier years of the war, those who left were the well-off, those with some way to leave the country. Today, the displaced are more often people without means to emigrate, who are simply moving around inside Iraq, trying to stay ahead of forces clearing them out of the way.

The International Office for Migration calls this Iraqi refugee crisis one of the worst in modern history - and also one of the least noticed. It certainly escaped anything but a perfunctory mention in the plethora of US reports in September.

A recent UN account gives some idea of the conditions under which people are living. Already bad, because of the destruction caused by the US war, the conditions have become immeasurably worse as a result of the forced migrations. There have been no provisions made for this vast movement of the population. People who cannot get to a relative's home have little option but to stay in abandoned or bombed out buildings, or tents and shacks set up in desert scrub beyond urban areas. Faced with an increase in the number of internal refugees, the Iraqi government cut each family's rations by 35%. Five million people depend on those rations to survive, but two million of them live in areas so dangerous that rations can't be delivered. Unemployment, which was rampant before, is worse. Even people who continue to live in their own homes have little electricity, except in some parts of the North of Iraq. And 70% of the population today does not have access to clean water, according to Oxfam. Cholera has become epidemic throughout northern Iraq, with 60,000 reported cases, and how many more unreported?

Some of this can be attributed to actions of the sectarian militias, but the US war itself has created most of these refugees - with the number increasing rapidly in the months since the "surge" began. According to the Iraqi Red Crescent, more people have been displaced from their homes into another part of Iraq since the "surge" began than in the whole of the rest of the war. From February to August this year, 601,000 people were displaced; from March 2003 up to February 2007, 499,000. These figures count only displaced Iraqis who apply for aid, so they are much lower than UN estimates. But the comparison is significant, showing what a big role the US "surge" has played in displacing people.

One of the least noticed facts about the "surge" is the rapid increase in bombing that accompanied it. In the first nine months of this year, there were 1,140 "Coalition" air strikes on Iraq, compared to only 229 for all of last year. In October, the US Air Force was flying as many as 70 bombing missions a day, not counting cannon attacks from helicopter gunships. Concentrated on urban areas, the bombing has produced widespread civilian casualties.

When US forces prepared to go into certain neighbourhoods in Baghdad, they called on bombing sorties to soften them up first. To the extent that the bombing did not drive civilians away, the wide-spread sweeps that US forces subsequently carried out in many Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad did - opening the door, in fact, for Shi'ite militias to come in. In May, the US military launched a ground offensive in Dyala province, after intensive bombing, driving 5,000 people from their homes, opening the way for a Sunni tribal militia to take over.

The US military, or the Iraqi army working with it, shut off electricity to whole neighbourhoods for days on end, as a means of clearing them out. The lack of electricity has long been a product of this war, but it is increasingly being used as a weapon of war against the population.

Divide in order to conquer

Whatever role historical sectarian and ethnic tensions played in the development of the Iraqi version of "ethnic cleansing," the conscious policy of the US government has played a much bigger one.

From the beginning of the invasion, US policy was based on dividing Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) established by the US invasion organised the new Iraqi government according to such divisions, even setting up elections in such a way that most people could only vote for slates representing their religious sect or ethnic group. Those elected to the parliament came as representatives of the different ethnic groups or sects. In a country that had long been among the most secular in the Middle East, and one whose urban areas were mixed, including not only where people lived, but through marriage, the CPA created a government based on religious divisions.

Even in indirect ways, the US invasion played a role in dividing the country. The electricity grid, for example, is no longer centralised, as a result of US bombing during the invasion and the looting that happened immediately afterwards, power can no longer be sent from where it is produced to other areas of the county through a centralised switching system.

Much more significantly, the US military used Iraqi forces drawn from one ethnic group or religious sect against another. The most notable early example was the siege of Fallujah. The US military, supported by Kurdish or Shi'ite units, drove almost the whole population of 200,000 people, most Sunnis, out of Fallujah. Early in the war, the US reinforced the Kurdish militias in the North, relying on them as a counter to the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime - but also as a force to control the Kurdish population itself.

So, divide in order to rule has been US policy since the beginning. The difference today is that the US military is more and more basing itself on local militias, if not in opposition to the central government, at least in ways that circumvent the central government. Bush drove that point home in early September when he made a surprise visit to Iraq, completely bypassing Baghdad, and going instead to Anbar province to meet with Sunni tribal sheiks. Maliki may have been "invited" to meet Bush and the sheiks in Anbar, but the whole arrangement was a flagrant slap in the face for Maliki. And Bush pointedly ignored Maliki's protests that the Sunni sheiks might turn their new found armaments against the central government. Only last year they were part of the "insurgency," but this year they have become "staunch allies" of the US, fighting against "al-Qaida." In exchange for their readiness to control their areas, the US military has been paying the Sunni tribal sheiks about $350 a month per tribal member in the militias. Not only did US marines use them in Anbar, the Army imported some of them into Sunni neighbourhoods surrounding Baghdad to help set up so-called "Volunteers" or "Concerned Citizens" groups, that is, Sunni tribal militias, in an attempt to bar the further extension of Shi'ite militias.

To the extent one can judge from news accounts, the US military seems to be trying to repeat this same exercise with Shi'ite tribal sheiks in southern Iraq. But it is unlikely that these tribal militias will be able to compete with the exceedingly entrenched urban Shi'ite militias, which today exert effective control over Basra and Karbala. The US military can, however, use them as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Badr brigades or the Mahdi army of al-Sadr. The US has more or less openly had an understanding with the Badr brigades, the militia of the SIIC (formerly, the SCIRI). But in recent months, reports have hit the news media about contacts between representatives of al-Sadr and the US military going back to the beginning of this year. None of this means that US forces have stopped attacking the Badr or Mahdi militias. In the last two weeks, for example, US planes bombed Baghdad's Sadr City, the fiefdom of the Mahdi army.

There is a kind of shaking out going on in Iraq, which the US military has not only encouraged, but facilitated - a shaking out to see which forces can become the guarantors of order in a divided Iraq. The US may prefer one to the other, may even have been trying to attack one more than the other during the "surge," but it has shown itself ready to work with any of them.

From the outside no one can tell exactly what these fights mean, and who has what strength. But no more than the US government's aim yesterday was to install democracy, its aim today is not to prevent these fights, but to let them play out. Having decided it can't bank on the Iraqi national army or police to maintain order in Iraq, the US is now looking toward the sectarian militias to maintain order in particular regions - allowing the US military to relieve pressures on its own troops.

A senior US commander responsible for the surge told the Wall Street Journal: "If the central government doesn't want to take control, maybe the locals will. It is too early to tell. We are riding a tiger. It may take us where we want to go." And it may not. It is obvious, for example, that the de facto division of Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines can set in motion struggles that will spill over into other countries. The clashes between the Turkish army and Kurdish guerrillas from Turkey, currently based in northern Iraq, give a hint of that.

Viet Nam all over again

What the US is doing today in Iraq has its parallels to the last years of the Viet Nam war - just not the right-wing myths that Bush dredges up. By the early 1970s, the US army, which, by all the usual measures, was superior to the Vietnamese armed forces - in any case, numerically superior, superior in terms of armaments, superior in terms of reinforcements, superior in terms of money - that army was literally falling to pieces, where it wasn't in revolt. The Vietnamese war had, as the generals later referred to it, "broken the army."

When the US got out of Viet Nam, not only did it turn to China and the USSR to help maintain order in the rest of Southeast Asia and other nearby areas; it also carried out a last brutal assault on the Vietnamese population, intending that the Vietnamese victory would not provide an attractive example for other countries also living under the imperialist boot. During the war as a whole, more explosive power was rained on Viet Nam than on the whole world during World War II. But starting in 1971, as the US military began seriously to draw down its ground forces, it stepped up bombing, not only in Viet Nam, but also in Laos and Cambodia. And the single most intense period of that bombing came in a two-week period in December 1972 and January 1973, just before the US signed the January 1973 peace accords.

What the US military is doing today in Iraq is comparable, only by other means, since it does not intend to pull up and leave Iraq completely as it once left Viet Nam. It is trying to lessen the growing stresses on its Army so it doesn't "break" - as it did in Viet Nam.

Thus, the US continues to pursue quiet diplomatic contacts with Iran and Syria, even while threatening them publicly. Whatever the Bush Administration may say publicly today, major parts of the government and the military understand that the US will need help from Iraq's neighbours to impose order in Iraq. And both Syria and Iran have made it clear they are ready to engage in efforts to prevent the chaos currently reigning in Iraq from spreading more widely in the region. In the middle of August, Iran's foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, commented, after announcing the visit of Iran's president to Iraq, "We understand America's condition in Iraq," and, he said, the Iranians are "not without hope" that a practical solution can be found to the problems everyone faces in the current situation.

Just as in the last years of the Viet Nam war, the US today is pulverising a population. But it is also pushing the resettlement of people into ethnic and sectarian enclaves, helping to install local police and military apparatuses to control that population, apparatuses that the US hopes it can play off against each other, since those apparatuses are organised according to religious sect or ethnic group.

So the blood-letting continues. Last July, when interviewed by New York Times reporters in Baghdad, Ambassador Ryan Crocker said this: "In the States, it's like we're in the last half of the third reel of a three-reel movie, and all we have to do is decide we're done here, and the credits come up, and the lights come on, and we leave the theatre and go on to something else. Whereas out here, you're just getting into the first reel of five reels, and as ugly as the first reel has been, the other four and a half are going to be way, way worse."

We can be sure that whatever happens will be worse. But it's not so sure that the US military has four and a half more reels. Resistance among US troops has obviously grown, even if it usually is expressed only as the desire to get out. But there have been notable public statements of opposition to the war, and clearly some level of anger among the troops. It is the one positive result coming out of this war so far.

The disintegration of the US army in Viet Nam created big obstacles for US imperialism for several decades. We may not yet be at that point today, but the evolution of the situation in the army is going in that direction.

Today, there is also a profound opposition among the US population to this war. The more clearly it is expressed, the more it reinforces opposition among the troops and in those milieus that supply cannon fodder for the military. Generals cannot fight without troops. That is what gives the best hope for those who want to end this war.