The war in Iraq - Five years on and no end in sight!

Mar/Apr 2008

On March 20th, it will be exactly five years since the first US and British missiles hit Iraq, in 2003. Yet, if the British media are anything to go by, at the time this journal is going to press, it would seem as if Britain's involvement in the Iraq war is already a thing of the past. It gets barely mentioned these days, and when it is mentioned at all, it is more often than not in reference to events that took place in the early years of the war.

So, for instance, some space was devoted to the Information Commissioner's decision that the minutes of cabinet meetings where the invasion of Iraq was discussed, back in 2003, should be released to the public. Likewise, there were reports on allegations that the army tortured and killed 20 Iraqi civilians, back in 2004. But, overall, prince Harry and his public school boy Rambo games in Afghanistan certainly got more coverage in just one week, than the British occupation of Iraq got for the previous six months.

As far as current events are concerned, very little is filtering out of Iraq through the British press. Clearly, there are some uncomfortable facts that both the government and the media barons would rather sweep under the carpet.

However, one of these facts was leaked, although without much fanfare, in an article published in the Observer, on 24 February. This paper revealed that the "drawdown" of British troops, which was meant to be completed by the end of last year or, at the latest, by March this year, has now been cancelled. And since the MoD has not denied this revelation, this can only mean that it is accurate. However, the government has been careful to keep quiet over this issue. What with the May local elections on the agenda and Labour's score in opinion polls being at its lowest since 1997, ministers obviously prefer prince Harry to grab the headlines!

Brown had announced this "drawdown" last October, at a time when he was still considering calling an early general election and wanted to prevent Iraq from becoming an issue in the upcoming campaign. His announcement implied that more than 3,000 soldiers would be repatriated (although, as Defence Secretary Des Browne, pointed out, they were likely to be sent to Afghanistan afterwards) while a total of 2,500 soldiers would remain based outside Basra, "merely" to provide training and "reconstruction assistance" to the 10th Iraqi division, which was to take over responsibility for Basra, Iraq's second largest city, and its surrounding province.

Instead, 6,800 British military personnel will remain in Iraq for the foreseeable future: over 1,000 in onboard Navy support units, 5,500 at the huge air and army base set up in what used to be Basra's international airport and the remaining 300 scattered across Iraq, in joint operations with the US or in semi-diplomatic postings in Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.

A long drawn out "drawdown"

In fact, there are a number of reasons to doubt that this "drawdown" was ever really part of the government's plans.

For instance, the 24 February Observer's article already mentioned, notes: "Far from the 35sq km British garrison at Basra airbase now being dismantled, a £12m military hospital and five rocket-proof dining facilities are under construction. A £4m barrier dubbed the 'Great Wall of Basra', made of 13ft high concrete blocks each weighing 6 tonnes, will soon stretch 7.5km around the base." This certainly does not look like a military base which is about to see the departure of well over half its personnel - but rather like one which is being built up for a very long haul and which may be able to accommodate even more soldiers in the future!

Another similar example is provided by a March 6th Associated Press report about a joint training session involving US and British officers, held in Kansas (USA). According to this report, this 3-week session "teaches them how to think and assess battlefield situations and to integrate infantry, armour, artillery and other types of military units. The program also helps each side examine how the two nations make military decisions. Officers are given an Iraq scenario and then develop a plan for both armies to fight cohesively against an insurgency." Apparently, the army's general staff still sees the need to train its officers to fight an insurgency in Iraq, meaning that the "drawdown" is not really on their horizon!

Moreover, there were political reasons which, even last October, made it unlikely that London would take the course announced by Brown. This "drawdown" was primarily based on a rosy portrayal of the situation in Southern Iraq. The government boasted of having significantly improved the security and material situation of the population in the south of Iraq (as opposed to Baghdad's bloody mess). It claimed that, thanks to the Iraqi government's "democratic" authority and the "good work" of the British army, there was no longer any need for British soldiers to do any police work in Basra.

The facts were, however, somewhat different. If anything, the serious clashes which had taken place in September, between British troops and units of the Basra police, had illustrated the influence that the main Islamic militias had among the police forces. And since the same militias also dominated the municipal and provincial administrations, this meant that, by the time Brown was drawing his rosy picture of the situation in Basra, the Islamic militias were firmly in control of the town.

The September clashes were not, as the MoD hurriedly claimed, due to a mere misunderstanding. In fact, army personnel themselves contradicted this misleading picture of the situation. According to an article published on October 29th by the Daily Telegraph, two Royal Welsh officers it had interviewed "described missions into Basra that were so intense that they had to call in Tornado jets to strafe enemy positions, missions in which colleagues were killed, and firefights that lasted for hours as they tried to get their casualties out of danger. At the same time, troops back in the base at Basra airport were enduring a daily barrage of rockets. Many in Britain were unaware of the sheer scale of the attacks. At one stage, 300 rockets a month were raining down on the camp."

This was causing disarray in the ranks of the army itself. A senior officer posted in Iraq was reported saying to the Daily Telegraph: "We would go down there [Basra], dressed as Robocop, shooting at people if they shot at us, and innocent people were getting hurt. We don't speak Arabic to explain and our translators were too scared to work for us any more. What benefit were we bringing to these people? We are tired of firing at people. We would prefer to find a political accommodation." This disarray was highlighted in a study published last December by the army-linked Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), which found that the army was now "losing a battalion a year to drugs". This study showed a 50% increase of hard drug use among soldiers between 2003 and 2006, with a 300% increase for cocaine. But what was significant was not just the scale of drug usage, but what it implied about soldiers' morale: as former Chief of Staff Chris Parker noted in an interview to the BBC, "young soldiers, if they want to leave the Army, have to give a year's notice, and if you take drugs, and you are basically found out by the Army's drug testing programme (..) you could be discharged almost immediately," The fact that in November, for instance, 17 soldiers of the Argyl and Sutherland Highlanders stationed in Iraq had been discharged after testing positive for drugs was certainly not a mere coincidence. Drug-taking had come to be considered as the quickest way out of the killing fields of Iraq.

These were undoubtedly some of the reasons which led to the government's decision, announced in September and completed in December, to move the troops out of Basra and to regroup them at the Basra airport base. But contrary to Brown's claims, this move certainly had nothing to do with the situation improving in Basra. Being unable to defeat the militias, either militarily or politically (over 80% of the Basra population think that British troops were responsible for the insecurity, according to opinion polls), the government chose to retreat, leaving the town and its population to the rival militias and their on-going turf war - for the time being at least.

The idea that the British government might reduce its military presence in an area which is so vital for the interests of British capital is highly implausible. After all, as Iraq's only deep-sea port, Basra is the country's trading heart, in addition to being at the centre of its most promising oil region.

Predictably, after British patrols were replaced with British-trained Iraqi patrols, the situation did not improve. According to colonel Richard Iron, the top British adviser with the 10th Iraqi division, interviewed in the 24 February issue of the Observer: In Basra, "there's no-one in charge. The unwritten rules of the game are there are areas where the army can and can't go and areas where JAM [Jaysh al-Mahdi, Moqtadah al-Sadr's fundamentalist Mahdi army] can and can't take weapons."

The main target of the three militias which are fighting for control of Basra - the armed wings of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the Sadrist movement and the Fadhila party (also known as the Islamic Virtue Party, an offshoot of the Sadrist movement) - are primarily fighting for the control over the very profitable petrol smuggling business. This is a black industry which generates a total income that some estimates put at just under a billion pounds a year - enough to finance the weapons and livelihood for all the recruits of a large militia.

The Basra police chief, Major General Jalil Khalaf, who has himself been the target of several murder attempts, has gone on record many times to complain about the impotence of the Iraqi police and military in front of the militias and all kinds of criminal gangs which carry out activities in their name. For instance, he declared to the Associated Press agency in December last year: "women of Basra are being horrifically murdered and then dumped in the garbage with notes saying they were killed for un-Islamic behavior, (..) Those who are behind these atrocities are organized gangs who work under cover of religion, pretending to spread the instructions of Islam." According to Khalaf, 40 women were recorded to have been murdered in this way in Basra, over the last few months of 2007.

Meanwhile, press agencies report regularly on rocket attacks against the British base at Basra airport, or roadside bombs targeting British manned convoys of petrol travelling to Baghdad (one of the tasks of the British contingent is to ensure that the US army gets its petrol supplies).

So much for the "peace" that the British occupation has supposedly brought about in southern Iraq! Under-reported as it may be, therefore, the war still goes on as much as ever.

The "surge" - a success?

The US-led war in the rest of Iraq has been the subject of a similar cover-up - all the more so, because of the politicking surrounding the US presidential election due to be held this November.

One element of this cover-up was the persistent claim made by Bush that the bloody chaos in Iraq should be blamed on the shadowy "foreign-driven" al-Qaeda, rather than on rival Iraqi forces engaged in a fight for political power, in which attacking occupation forces is just one means among others. Of course, in so doing, Bush hoped to kill two birds with one stone, since it allowed him to integrate the war in Iraq into his "war on terror", thereby justifying the state of siege policies of his administration and its repressive measures against the US population itself. Ironically, by the same token, Bush has provided bin Laden - the world's enemy number one according to him - with a huge amount of unwarranted, free publicity, which certainly plays a role in encouraging isolated Islamic fundamentalist groups scattered in the Muslim world, to claim allegiance to al-Qaeda, despite having no contact with it.

At the same time, it was vital for Bush's Republican party that his administration should be able to show some sort of progress in Iraq, in order to deflect at least some of the discontent generated by the war in front of the electorate. And to a large extent, Washington's policy over the past year has been defined by these electoral concerns. Its aim has not been, however, to seek a road towards some sort of political settlement which might have allowed the US leaders to pull their troops out of the Iraqi quagmire - assuming such a road exists. Nor has it been even to try to defuse the explosive anger generated by the brutality and mindlessness of the western invasion - for instance by addressing some of the most urgent material problems which confront the Iraqi population. Bush's policy has been mainly statistical: to cut the numbers of US soldiers killed, to cut the number of terrorist attacks and, more generally, to curb the expression of any opposition to the invaders and their puppet government.

This was the starting point for the so-called "surge", which was announced by Bush in January last year. It was supposed to uproot "al Qaeda", especially in Baghdad, which had been at the centre of a rising wave of terrorist attacks since mid-2006. It was a two-pronged policy. On the one hand, it involved a frontal attack against the insurgent groups, with 30,000 additional combat troops being sent to Iraq for this purpose. On the other hand, overtures were made to the milieu which provides recruits to the Sunni insurgents, for the purpose of setting up a kind of counter-insurgency militia, which would not be bound by the military rule book, although still under US army control - in other words, armed gangs that could be given "dirty tricks" missions without the army having to be accountable for them. This militia, which is said to be 80,000 strong, has come to be known locally as the Sahwa ("Awakening") or, in Bush's speeches, as "concerned local citizens".

Predictably, as soon as they had the chance to do so, the US leaders hailed the "surge"'s success. In September last year, this opportunity came in the form of a sharp fall in the number of terrorist attacks and casualties among coalition soldiers and Iraqis.

Concerning terrorist attacks, there are no figures available, other than those released by the Pentagon. These claimed a fall from 130 "major" attacks (whatever this means!) in June 2007 down to 40 by December. Over the same period, the number of US soldiers killed fell from 101 in June to 23 in December, while the number of US soldiers injured in combat fell from 749 to 211.

The US authorities famously refuse to do "body counts" when it comes to Iraqis civilians - or Iraqi soldiers, for that matter. However, some voluntary bodies have taken upon themselves the task of compiling casualty figures from various sources such as press reports and government agencies. Among these, the sets of figures posted daily on two websites ( and have become generally accepted as reliable benchmarks by most NGOs and reporters operating in Iraq. Both of these voluntary groups reckon that their figures, which are different, due to using different sources and compiling methods, can only underestimate the real figure, since many deaths go unrecorded by anyone at all.

Nevertheless the trend indicated by both is remarkably similar. According to their figures, the monthly number of Iraqi victims began to fall sharply, by around 50%, in September (down to between 848 and 1120). Thereafter, this downward trend was sustained, although at a much slower pace, since, after the initial one-month 50% drop, it took the whole of 5 months for the casualty figure to fall by no more than 35%. But the number of casualties bottomed out in January, with February showing a 22% increase (up to between 674 and 947).

However, many commentators have noted that the decision of the Sadrist movement to declare a unilateral cease-fire in August last year, even if they came directly under attack, is likely to have been a decisive factor in bringing casualty figures down, by depriving the Sunni militias of their usual justification to strike back. Besides, if one looks back further into the past, it turns out that the daily toll of violent deaths among Iraqis, while lower today than it was in 2006, is still higher than in any of the previous years, with the exception of the short period of the invasion itself.

The recent increase in Iraqi casualties may well be partly attributable to the US offensive outside Baghdad, from the end of 2007, after high command considered that its operations in the capital had reached their objectives. However, policing an urban area by means of checkpoints and house-to-house raids is one thing. Hunting down mobile armed units of insurgents in vast rural areas is quite another, even with the elaborate airborne facilities used by the US. So the generals resorted to a tactic they have already used in the past with little effect, except that of killing lots of civilians, for no reason other than to terrorise them into refusing their support to insurgents - they resorted to the systematic bombing of villages suspected of harbouring insurgents or sympathising with them. Of course, many of the resulting casualties go unrecorded. But those which are recorded, particularly in areas close to Baghdad, undoubtedly helped to increase casualty figures.

The very limited success of the "surge" in curbing terrorist capabilities was illustrated during the visit to Iraq made by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, the main mover behind the "surge", on December 5th. In a matter of just six days, 111 people were killed in 14 bomb attacks across the centre and north of Iraq, including the vocally pro-US police chief of the Babil province in eastern Kurdistan.

Given this situation, any display of self-satisfaction on the part of the US leaders is nothing short of obscene. In fact, as if to highlight the bloody hypocrisy of boasting of their "success" in bringing peace and quiet to the streets of the Iraqi capital, a twin bomb exploded in central Baghdad, on March 7th, leaving 68 dead and 130 injured. But then, according to the Pentagon's arithmetic, this was "only" the fifth terrorist attack causing more than 50 deaths since the beginning of the year, something which apparently the Washington bureaucrats see as a vast improvement!

Ending sectarian strife?

There is obviously no way to separate the casualties which are due to sectarian attacks from those which are not, if only because sectarianism is also used by insurgents as a lever against the occupation forces. So that claims that the US "surge" has reduced sectarian killings are impossible to assess.

What the "surge" has certainly failed to do, however, whatever US officials may claim, is to reduce the basis for sectarian tensions and the use that rival militias can make of these tensions. Baghdad is quoted by the US authorities as a showcase in this respect. But in reality, following the US troops' show of strength and their threat to wage a frontal attack against the local militias, last summer, the city has been subdivided into isolated, homogenous Shia and Sunni districts, separated from one another by walls 3 to 4 metres high. These districts can only be accessed by going through numerous checkpoints which have required an estimated 100,000 blocks of concrete to set up. To all intents and purposes, therefore, the majority of the capital's population is corralled like unruly horses, inside their districts without being able to get out.

In the process of partitioning Baghdad in this way, most of the already few mixed Shia-Sunni districts that remained have now disappeared. In their "fight against sectarianism", the US occupation forces colluded with the militias to cleanse these mixed districts of "unwanted" elements. These militias are, of course, the ones who control the streets, because their political wing happens to dominate the western-backed government and provincial administration - in other words, the Shia militias. Which means that the bulk of those who were displaced in this process were Sunni families, many of whom were forced to flee, for fear of having their homes raided by the militias or their male members arrested under suspicion of terrorism.

One of the preferred methods used by US command in the "surge" has been, indeed, wholesale arrests among Sunni milieus which were suspected of providing support to militias. Official figures of prisoners recorded by the International Red Cross speak for themselves, although they certainly understate the reality: from 16,000 in February 2007, the prison population "surged" to 24,500 in August and to over 60,000 in November. Of these, the head of the Red Cross in Iraq reckoned that 85% were Sunnis! Fear of arrest was, therefore, well founded among Baghdad's Sunnis, regardless of whether they had links with the Sunni militias or not. All the more so, as these arrests were often carried out on the basis of so-called "intelligence" provided by the Iraqi police and army which are, themselves, heavily infiltrated, if not controlled, by the Shia militias.

An idea of the scale of this cleansing of Baghdad's districts is provided by a report published in January this year, by the Iraqi Red Crescent, which states that 1,364,978 residents of Baghdad were displaced as a result of the "surge" - almost one fourth of the town's 6 million population! This brings the total of internally displaced Iraqis to over 2.5 million, in addition to the 2 million who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

Setting up sectarian militias?

To back up its claim of fighting sectarianism and "working for reconciliation", the Bush administration points to the mostly Sunni armed militias set up as part of the "surge" to "fight al-Qaeda".

In fact, these Sahwa militias originated long before the "surge", as an offshoot of the US assault against Fallujah. While the Sunni insurgents had been defeated militarily in Fallujah, the brutality of the US attacks had only succeeded in strengthening anti-US feelings in the surrounding mostly Sunni Anbar province. To make matters worse for the US leaders, the only political party involved in the political process so far which had any influence in the province - the Islamic Party - decided to boycott the 2005 general election. The province remained, therefore, in a state of total denial of central power, with the Islamic Party using its monopoly control over the provincial institutions as a bargaining chip to get positions in Baghdad. To act as a counter-weight to the influence of the Islamic Party, US strategists resorted to a well-tried method: bribing local strongmen into supporting the US, even if only indirectly, given the very strong anti-US feelings in the province. This was the origin of the Anbar Salvation Council, which was used last year as a blueprint for the setting up of the mostly Sunni Sahwa militias across the central part of Iraq.

It is impossible to gauge how much these militias, with their 80,000 members, have been of any real use to the "surge". In some areas, the Sahwa seem to have delivered what the US expected, judging from the way in which they were accused of operating as unofficial death-squads by the population, particularly in mixed districts and provinces, such as some of Baghdad's former mixed areas or the Diyala province, around the town of Baquba.

The Sahwa may have kept a number of potential recruits away from the Sunni militias by offering them a regular income ($300 a month or £149 per month), in a situation where it is virtually impossible to find any kind of job. Except that, nothing could really prevent the Sahwa members from keeping all their options open by informing the insurgents. As to their regular income, the problem seems to have been that it was not all that regular, after all - whether because it was pocketed by the local strong men in charge of distributing it or because, in the general mess in which the US occupation bureaucracy seems to operate, the Sahwa's wages were the least of the authorities' concerns. In any case, there have been a number of reports about Sahwa units going on strike over the non-payment of their wages.

Nevertheless, whether the Sahwa units were of some use to the "surge" or not, they represent yet another danger for the Itaqi population. Bribing and arming strong men in order to turn them and their supporters into auxiliaries of its policies, is one of the oldest tactics used by imperialism, from Afghanistan's anti-soviet Mujahideens to Sierra-Leone's pro-western Kamajors. But this tactic has invariably backfired, sometimes on imperialism itself, as it did in Afghanistan, but always on the populations concerned.

In the case of Iraq, which, thanks to the western invasion, is already suffering from an overpopulation of rival militias vying for political power, the Sahwas could very well develop into yet another armed militia, which, like the others, would take the population hostage to satisfy its ambitions. So far, this may not be the case, as the Sahwas do not seem to form a homogeneous national organisation with a single common identity, but rather a collection of more or less local structures with no natural links between them.

But already, the Sahwas are involved in provincial-level conflicts. For instance, on February 29th, the Reuters agency reported that the 4,300 members of the Sahwa units in the Diyala province had announced their intention to stop recognising their masters' authority (which they can do easily) and possibly to disband (which they cannot do without losing whatever clout they may have). They were protesting against the non-payment of their wages and what they considered as the unacceptable tolerance of the province's Shia-dominated police towards the criminal activity of Shia gangs. Diyala is a mixed province with an 80% Sunni majority, where the police's hierarchy is dominated, as it is all over Iraq outside Kurdistan, by associates of the main Shia militias. Predictably, one of the demands of the striking Sahwas, was also that the provincial police should include a mixture of Sunni and Shia at every level of the hierarchy.

This is not the only case of a protest staged by Sahwa units which has extended far beyond the level on which they were originally set up and this makes all the more credible the possibility of their transformation into yet another full-blown Sunni militia pursuing its own objectives by drumming up sectarian tensions. This would be yet further evidence that Bush's anti-sectarian "surge" only ended up feeding sectarianism!

Weak government and factional power

The suffering inflicted by the "surge" on the Iraqi population has failed to attract any noticeable reaction, whether from the Iraqi government or from the various legal political forces (including those which have postured as "anti-occupation" in the past). This only illustrates the impotence of this government in front of the invaders and, in fact, its dependence on the occupation forces.

Another striking example of this impotence came in February, when the Turkish army crossed over into Iraqi Kurdistan, in an attempt to destroy the logistical bases that the PKK - a Kurdish nationalist organisation originating from Turkey - keeps in the Iraqi mountains along the borders with Turkey. When confronted with this breach of Iraq's territorial integrity (in so far as there is such a thing in a country occupied by imperialist armies!), the Iraqi government only managed to mumble a few words of protest, through its president, Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish parties. Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates was patting Turkey on the head magnanimously, stressing that the military operations of its NATO ally should be "a matter of weeks, not months." But then Turkey was already receiving satellite intelligence on the PKK's whereabouts in Iraq. The PKK is, after all, on the US's "terrorist list". Adding two and two together, the odds are that Ankara's invasion had Gates' go-ahead and the Iraqi government was meant to swallow its pride and keep quiet. And so it did. In a television interview, Talabani went even further in his show of servility to imperialism: not only did he fail to demand the departure of Turkish soldiers from Iraq, but he insisted that since the PKK is a terrorist organisation, that its members should evacuate their bases in Iraq. Such a statement was rather ironical coming from the leader of a party which, for most of its existence, used terrorism as one of its main political methods!

Of course, the impotence of the Iraqi government is primarily due to its fractious make-up and to its absence of a real social base in the population. Since its painstaking formation after the 2005 general election, this government has been through a long series of changes, in response both to pressures from the US and to the changing relationship of forces between the various militias which are represented in its midst. The proportions of the ingredients in the mixture forming the government have changed, but not the fact that it is a mixture of forces whose main objective is, in the best of cases, to pursue their own particular interests and, in the worst, to get rid of all their partners.

The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which brought together the bulk of the forces which were courting Shia votes in the 2005 elections, formed the corner stone of the first post-2005 government in alliance with the two main Kurdish parties, the PUK and PDK. However, the UIA was soon rendered useless as an alliance, by the lack of any kind of discipline in its ranks. And the National Assembly became full of small blocs, parties or even individuals, which began to use their votes as a bargaining chip to win portfolios in government, jobs in the administration for their proteges and other privileges.

But the number of seats in the National Assembly is not the only criterion that comes into play in the allocation of ministries. The Islamic Party which has no seats in the Assembly, because of its boycott of the 2005 election, was able to gain two ministries due to its influence in the Anbar province. Likewise, the Fadhila party was allocated two ministries, not on the basis of its strength in the Assembly, but because it leads the provincial institutions of Basra. As to the Sadrist movement itself, the fact that it has four ministries is merely an acknowledgment that its militia, the "Mahdi army", controls some of the poorest areas of Baghdad and many urban districts in the southern part of the country, rather than being an award based on its 30 seats in the Assembly.

After losing the unconditional support of a series of smaller groups, the government now rests entirely on a coalition between the religious Shia SIIC, which remains the country's largest party, a fraction of the Dawa party (a Shia religious party which used to be the second largest in the Assembly, but is no longer, following a split in its ranks) and the two largest Kurdish parties (PUK and KDP). However, this coalition can only muster an absolute majority in the National Assembly by renegotiating circumstantial agreements with a host of smaller groups, for each important vote. As a result the National Assembly is paralysed by unending politicking.

An example of this paralysis was provided by a planned law designed to allow former members of the Baath party, who had not been involved in criminal activity, either to get their pensions or else to be allowed to take government jobs. Ironically, it was the US authorities who were the most vocal advocates of this law, despite being responsible for the rash action of sacking of all ex-Baath members in the early days of the occupation! However, despite this wholesale sacking, many former Baathists were recruited back into state jobs, either because they had the right connections, or because the lack of skilled personnel forced ministers to recruit former state employees - who all had to join the Baath party.

In any case, this law generated a huge amount of opposition. Some feared that the return of ex-Baathists would threaten their newly-acquired jobs, while others, because they were ex-Baathists, feared that the new law would expose their past and compromise their jobs. Some parties, including among those with the least links with the Baath party, had both concerns - like, apparently, the Sadrist movement which, despite being publicly among the most vocal opponents of this rehabilitation on principle, turned out to have former Baathists among its most prominent political representatives. So a long series of draft versions of this law were submitted to the National Assembly and amended, before, eventually, a text was passed with the Sadrists' support. But then, this text provides that the commission in charge of the Baathist rehabilitation will be the same one which dealt formerly with the Baathists' sackings - a commission whose president "happens" to be a Sadrist!

Oil and federalism

Over the past months, there has been an attempt by some parties to challenge the domination of the "Big Four" as they are called, not so much by providing the basis for an alternative government, but by aiming to prevent the ruling coalition from achieving its plans on several important issues which are significant of the situation - at least not without some changes.

The leading grouping in this platform, both in terms of parliamentary influence and in terms of weight among the population, is the Sadrist movement. But it also includes another Shia group (the faction of the Dawa party which withdrew from the government coalition), two Sunni Islamic groupings, two groups representing respectively the Turkmen and Yezidi minorities and the secular Iraqi National List of Ilyad Allawi (which includes the Iraqi Communist Party and various socialist groupings, in particular).

Three issues are on the platform's agenda. First the participants want to stop SIIC from going ahead with its plans to set up a Shia southern region bringing together at least the 4 provinces around Basra, plus maybe another 2 or 3. Such a possibility was provided for by the Constitution, whereby several provinces could agree to form a single region, which would then enjoy a large degree of political and financial independence from Baghdad - comparable to the status enjoyed by Iraqi Kurdistan today. The south region proposal was made long ago by SIIC, but under US pressure, a decision was made in September 2006 to postpone the discussion for 18 months, until March this year. The platform's members do not all have the same reasons to oppose this plan. The Sadrist movement knows that SIIC would have a majority in the planned southern region, where the Sadrists' large base of support in Baghdad would be of no use. The Dawa faction, the Sunni and the secular members of the platform are simply hostile to any form of federalism - particularly one which threatens to remove from Baghdad its control over 80% of the proven oil reserves of the country (which are all in and around the Basra province). As to the Turkmen and Yezidi groups, they are simply against a constitution which provides no real protection for minorities like theirs.

The second issue on which the participants agree is connected with the first, although not identical. Article 140 of the constitution provided for a referendum to be held in Kirkuk over its integration into Iraqi Kurdistan, no later than at the end of last year. However it was postponed, due to the difficulties in organising a proper census of legitimate voters - something which the Kurdish parties agreed all the more willingly, as it gives them more time to get loyal Kurdish voters to move back into the town so as to boost the nationalist vote. Of course, the real issue here, is once again oil, since the Kirkuk province is home to a number of large exploited and un-exploited but known, oilfields. And the Kurdish parties are determined to get the income of that oil for their province. All the platform's participants are opposed to a referendum and want the problem to be settled through negotiations from above - which really means that they would agree to Kirkurk being integrated into Kurdistan but only provided the Kurdish leaders agreed to subject their control of Kirkuk's oil to the authority of Baghdad.

The last issue concerns the Oil Law, which is meant to define the framework according to which Iraq's oil will be exploited and sold in future, and what part of this income will go back to Iraq. The first draft of the law was merely preparing the ground for a return to the pre-nationalisation days, when the oil giants dictated their terms to a government which had no control over the country's oil. The draft was sent back to the drawing board after sparking off much protest inside and outside the National Assembly and it has still to return to the National Assembly. On this law, all the platform's participants agree that all Iraqi oil should remain under the control of the central government, that its management should be made through a state agency and the state should retain property rights over the country's natural resources.

Such a position brings the platform's participants into direct confrontation with both the Kurdish parties, which have been happily signing Production Sharing Agreements with a host of smaller oil companies from Turkey, China, India and Britain, among others. It also brings them into conflict with the government's Oil ministry, which has been anticipating the Oil Law, by initiating discussions with a number of western oil majors aimed at entrusting them with the exploitation of whole oil fields on a long-term basis - meaning, precisely, that once these contracts are signed, the state would have no control over its oil fields any more.

There can be no "pause" for the Iraqis

What is significant about these issues is that they are going to dominate the political agenda in the coming months, in the middle of the present on-going simmering civil war, and that, one way or another, the militias, which are the main Iraqi actors in this war, also have high stakes to defend over these issues. Moreover, there are also strong feelings among the population on all these issues, for different reasons, but which could result in explosions of anger that the militias will be quick to use, or to provoke. In other words, the fact that these issues are going to be on the political agenda is bound to increase significantly the potential explosive power of the on-going civil war.

However, Washington's plans have nothing to do with this potentially explosive situation. In view of the November election in the USA, the official line is that "success" has been achieved and the troops which have been sent to Iraq for the "surge" can be repatriated - this should be completed by the end of July according to the announcement made by Robert Gates in January. Then there will be what he called a "pause" of three months or so to "assess the situation". In passing, it must be noted that this "pause" will not mean that troop levels will go back to the 130,000 they were before the "surge". Indeed only the five combat divisions which had been sent for the "surge" will be repatriated, but not the accompanying support troops.

Of course, to talk about a "pause" even with "only" 130,000 soldiers in Iraq, would still be a cynical joke. This may be a "pause" for the military hierarchy, which is confronted with the difficulty of finding enough soldiers for the military ventures of US capital. But this certainly will not be a "pause" for the Iraqi population, which will remain subjected to the threat of a US patrol going wild, a stray bullet or an "intelligence-targeted" aerial attack. And in any case, the deluge of blood which is staining Iraq will certainly not "pause".

Going back to the schemes of the White House, by the end of this so-called "pause" the presidential election will be over and done with and the new president will be free to increase the level of troops if he wishes to, without having to fear an electoral backlash.

In the meantime, the Bush administration will have got itself busy preparing the next stage of the occupation, by initiating negotiations over a framework agreement with the Iraqi government. Above all, Bush wants to get rid once and for all of the symbolic constraint that ties the US occupation to a UN endorsement which has to be renewed every year. As Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, was quoted saying: "we would rather have an arrangement that is more in line with what typically governs the relationships between two sovereign nations", which would seek to establish "a strong relationship with Iraq, reflecting our shared political, economic, cultural and security interests."

To put it more bluntly, this agreement will be meant to recognise that "US forces will need to operate in Iraq beyond the end of this year for progress in stabilizing Iraq to continue. In these negotiations, we seek to set the basic parameters for the US presence in Iraq." In other words what is being sought is the kind of "mutual assistance" treaties that Washington has signed with so many of its client states in the past, in order to institutionalise the US occupation as resulting from a request made by the Iraqi government on the basis of common interests.

This will give Bush the legitimacy he wants for retaining the "15 bases, 38 supply depots, 18 fuel-supply centres, 10 ammunition dumps, dining halls, office buildings and acres of living quarters" (to paraphrase a Time's report) occupied by the US army in Iraq, not to mention the world's largest US embassy, and, above all, for ensuring that US imperialism remains at the heart of the Middle East, its natural resources and its markets, for the foreseeable future. And it is very unlikely that his successor, whoever this may be, will undo what will have been done - regardless of the very vague electoral promises that were made.

The question that remains unanswered is this: what will happen to the Iraqi simmering civil war in the meantime? Unlike Bush, it is not tied by the November election. What will happen when centrifugal forces emerge, as parties like SIIC and the Kurdish nationalists bid for regional power, against centralist forces which are prepared to fight in order to keep a united Iraq? And how severe would such a conflict be, should it become open, given that these militias are now equipped with all the experience and ruthlessness acquired during five full years of a simmering and relatively low-level, but nevertheless bloody civil war? Only the future will tell. But the odds are that the complacency and cynical self-satisfaction of the Bushs and Browns of this world will be wiped off their faces, if and when the powder keg explodes. If so, unfortunately, it will be the Iraqi population who will foot the bill, once again, when the criminal policies of imperialism finally backfire.

And this tells us what no amount of media blackout should make us forget - that our side, the side of the British working class, is with the Iraqi population against the power games of western capital and that our responsibility is to impose on this government the withdrawal of all British troops and paramilitaries from Iraq!