#64 -After the imperialist occupation of Iraq - the Middle East under siege

May 2003


Predictably, the US-British war against Saddam Hussein has turned into what amounts to a colonial occupation of Iraq. Blair and Straw may still insist hypocritically that their only objective is to bring "democracy" and "humanitarian aid" to the Iraqi population, but Bush no longer makes such claims. When tens of thousands of heavily armed soldiers occupy a Third World country against its population's will and proceed to mortgage out its natural resources in order to line the pockets of imperialist companies, under the pretext of reconstructing what they have just bombed to rubble - what word can describe such a situation better than "colonialism"?

Of course, talking about colonialism is not considered politically correct these days. So instead, Bush's and Blair's latest draft resolution to the UN Security Council demands that a UN "mandate" over Iraq be granted to an "occupation authority" controlled by the "coalition of the willing" - that is by the US - and policed by a US-led force. This "mandate" would last until the setting up of a "viable" Iraqi government and administration - which, according to Straw, might take anything between one and two years, or, according to Washington, "whatever it will take".

This is a worn-out imperialist trick. It is the same trick that the British used, back in 1920, as a figleaf for their colonial occupation of Iraq, when they carved this country out of the Middle East under the auspices of the forerunner of the UN, the League of Nations. Only today, US imperialism is in the driving seat while Britain is confined to the role of sidekick.

There are other differences with the situation in 1920, however. At the time, the carving up of the Middle East into colonial spheres of influence, or "mandates", was only one aspect of a repartitioning of the world market between the three victors of the war - a repartitioning in which each one of them got a substantial share of the spoils, thereby reflecting their more or less comparable strength.

Today, however, US imperialism is so overwhelmingly dominant that it has no real rivals and is in a position to dictate its will. This leaves the other minor imperialisms with only two possible options. Either they keep in the tow of the US, like Britain, Spain and Italy, in the hope that Bush will leave them a few crumbs from the loot. Or else, they can try to put up a symbolic resistance in the name of the UN, like France and Germany. But by doing so, they have only been able to expose their weakness so far, while complaining bitterly about being left out.

At the end of the day, just as for the war itself, US leaders will go ahead with their occupation plans with or without the UN's endorsement. In fact, Bush has already put the UN in front of a fait accompli. Now that the war is over, a long list of governments, ranging from the Philippines to Albania, are queueing up to offer their support in return for political and financial dividends. And some of these governments have already made a commitment to contribute to the 250,000-strong occupation army that the Pentagon considers necessary in order to "secure" Iraq.

In any case, whether or not the members of the UN Security Council find a face-saving formula allowing them to endorse this fait accompli, they will have to put up and shut up - not just because of the balance of forces, but also because, in the long term and assuming Bush's occupation of Iraq allows the successful policing of the Middle East as a whole, this will benefit not just US companies but all imperialist companies in the form of larger and steadier profit flows from the region.

As to Bush's policy, it is obviously primarily concerned with providing US companies with new sources of profits out of the looting of Iraq. But the scope of this policy extends to the Middle East as a whole. In fact, the war against Saddam Hussein and the present occupation of Iraq are consistent with the policy followed by Washington for more than two decades - a policy known as the "Carter doctrine", which was first formulated in 1980, following the overthrow of the Shah's regime in Iran.

During the course of these two decades, the US political and military involvement in the Middle East was stepped up in stages. US missiles and gun ships have increasingly become an immediate threat for the populations of the region, whether by proxy as in the days of the Iran-Iraq war and in Palestine, or directly as in Iraq.

For the populations of the Middle East, the rise of US military involvement has spelt increasing instability, oppression and poverty. For the US, far from resolving the problems this involvement was meant to tackle, it has mainly resulted in the piling up of problems which the Washington strategists had never envisaged - such as the Sept 11th terrorist attacks in New York and the recent Riyadh bombing. Today, the wholesale occupation of Iraq adds an entirely new dimension to the Middle East's permanent instability and may result in the stoking of many more powder kegs, both inside and outside Iraq, than US imperialism can handle.

The collapse of Saddam's regime

When US and British troops invaded Iraq, on 20 March, their overwhelming superiority in terms of military hardware and control of the sky left no possible doubt as to the outcome of the war. Nevertheless how long and how much it would take for the West to defeat Saddam Hussein remained an open question.

Initially at least, Bush and the White House strategists seem to have banked on massive defections within the Iraqi military hierarchy, particularly in the southern part of the country. They were proved wrong. Despite Bush's appeals to Iraqi generals and a long series of false announcements about entire divisions surrendering to the invaders without a fight, it took heavy bombardments and a 3-week siege for British troops to be able to parade safely in the centre of Basra, the country's second largest town. Only during the battle for Baghdad itself was there some evidence that the Iraqi generals may have decided to give up any meaningful resistance - but by that time, the regime was already busy melting away into the landscape and there was probably nothing left to defend anyway.

The prompt collapse of the regime after US troops reached the suburbs of Baghdad, showed how narrow its social base had become - no doubt as a result of so many years of dictatorship and horrific repression, but also probably due to the hardship experienced during the sanctions period. All of a sudden not only the military and repressive machineries of the dictatorship disappeared from sight, but also most of its civilian machinery. Clearly neither the regime's privileged caste nor the hundreds of thousands of functionaries who made up its state machinery saw any point in defending it. Given this state of affairs, the regime's calls for the population to rally around it against the invaders could only be unconvincing. In any case, there was no sign of any significant armed resistance on the part of the population, despite the fact that in this country, virtually everyone has a weapon of some sort.

However, probably Bush's and Blair's most important initial miscalculation was to believe that the Iraqi population would welcome Western troops as liberators. They did not - not even in the south. The tenants of the White House and Downing Street must have been led by their own bigotry into thinking that it would be enough to woo Shiite clerics in order to win the support of the southern population. As it turned out, southern Iraqis were not as bigoted as Western leaders assumed. Many among them remembered how the West had allowed Saddam Hussein to turn their uprising into a bloodbath in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Many more had experienced the catastrophic consequences of the economic sanctions over the previous decades. They quite rightly blamed the invaders.

Right from the beginning, therefore, Western troops were faced with a reluctant and often hostile population. And predictably, after the many casualties and much damage caused by the bombing of their towns, and the unnecessary destruction of power and water plants which deprived millions of people of basic necessities, this hostility increased dramatically.

Western priorities - not for the population

A recent document written by a bureaucrat working for the US general staff set out the priorities of the occupation authority in the following order of decreasing importance: "banking, law and order, communications, education, health, food, water and sanitation." This is almost exactly the reverse order of priorities needed by the population in the present situation.

Who cares about the Iraqi currency when the only things that can be bought at present are black market goods which most people just cannot afford? Not to mention the fact that the vast majority of the population is either unemployed or has not had any wages for two months!

So far, nothing has replaced the food distribution system which used to provide 60% of the population with vital food rations. Despite the country's enormous oil wealth, there is no petrol for people in Baghdad because this supply is monopolised by the occupation forces. More than five weeks after the fall of Baghdad, electricity and drinking water have still not been restored in large areas of the main cities.

In Basra, the "humanitarian" mission of the British army did not stretch to fixing fix the town's water purification plant - no doubt, Royal Engineers were far too busy taking care of the neighbouring oil installations! In the end, it was the Red Cross who did it, by flying in engineers from Africa in order to get the water pumps working. Having done that, they discovered that the network of water pipes had been so badly damaged by the bombing that it could not take the pumped water to the population. Still the British High Command was not interested.

Yet, in the meantime, experts from the World Health Organisation had announced that a cholera epidemic had broken out in the town - not surprisingly since a large part of the population had no water supply other than the muddy flows of the Shatt al-Arab estuary. The excuse provided by British officials was that the security situation in the town was so bad that patients were "unable to go to hospital and doctors to go to patients." But, as a World Health Organisation spokesman pointed out to the BBC, "there is a real shortage of intravenous fluids and intravenous needles needed to rehydrate people who become dehydrated through cholera."

In other words, the problem in Basra was not the security situation at all. The problem was the criminal failure of the British army to make any provisions for the population - whether in terms of engineering repairs or medical emergency supplies - following their criminal bombing of the town's civilian infrastructure.

What is happening in Basra, is also happening in Baghdad, Nasiriya, Najaf, Kerbala, and even Mosul and Kirkuk - even though these two Northern towns have been relatively less affected by the bombing. Everywhere, despite their enormous resources and technological capabilities, US and British generals are showing the same disregard for the needs and desperate situation of the population. Not all soldiers feel the same way however, as this bitter remark on the lack of humanitarian aid made by a US army sergeant to a Washington Post journalist shows: "From a soldier's point of view, the destruction is over. You need to stack aircraft end to end. They could be flying crap from everywhere. It's pathetic. I have no answers for the people. I feel like a paid liar."

The occupation authorities' total contempt for the population has already caused angry reactions. In Baghdad and Basra many demonstrations have taken place to demand the resumption of water and electricity supplies. Last week, health workers marched in the streets of Baghdad, to protest against the re-appointment by US authorities of the former health minister. They carried placards against corruption and for democratic rights for the population. And in all the main cities there have been protests against unpaid wages.

Some of these demonstrations have taken a dramatic turn. In Fallujah, for instance, a town close to Baghdad with a population of 600,000, US forces opened fire twice on 28 and 30 April on a protest staged by youth against the use of their school by the invaders as their headquarters, thereby preventing the resumption of classes. 13 demonstrators were killed and dozens injured. At first US officials denied any casualties, then they accused supporters of Saddam Hussein of having fired first. Predictably, the next day, seven US soldiers were injured by a grenade which had been thrown into their compound in the same town.

Judging from the experience of this first month of occupation since the collapse of the dictatorship, the Iraqi people have every reason to distrust the US's commitment to "reconstruct" Iraq - or to put it differently, they have every reason to think that whatever "reconstruction" is done will be designed to facilitate the looting of the country by Western companies rather than to meet the needs of the population.

Western domination means social regression

The plundering of the poor countries by imperialist companies is responsible for their social backwardness. But when this plundering is exercised directly, rather than through the mechanisms of the world market, it becomes a factor of even greater social regression.

Iraq has already paid a heavy price for this in the past. In the latter part of the 19th century, the traditional tribal system had entered a process of decomposition. By the time British troops set foot in what was to become Iraq, the tribal hierarchy had taken second place while the educated urban population had become the recognised driving force of the country. But this was precisely what the new colonisers feared - an educated urban class, with a tradition of independence both towards the former Ottoman rulers and towards the religious hierarchy, and a sense of collective strength due to its concentration.

So, one of the first steps taken by the British authorities was to revive the tribal hierarchy by providing it with a legal and material basis. In July 1918, they issued the Tribal Disputes Regulations, which provided tribal leaders with absolute judicial powers over the countryside and protected them against the towns' legal institutions. At the same time, tribal chiefs were awarded the full ownership of the collective land of their tribes, thereby ensuring their lasting loyalty to the British Crown. To all intents and purposes tribesmen became serfs. This was the one and only case of a fully-fledged feudal system being instituted anywhere in the world in the 20th century. And it remained in force, as part of Iraq's constitution, for as long as Britain had any authority over the country, that is until the monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958.

Ironically, during the period preceding today's war, Saddam Hussein's regime was often derided for its "tribal" nature - but never was it mentioned that Saddam had only followed the example set for him by the British empire. Even more ironically, one of the first steps taken by the British High Command after taking over Basra, was to pull a tribal chief out of their cupboard to preside over a future puppet municipal council. Not surprisingly, this appointment prompted an angry response from the town's population, with demonstrators brandishing placards on which they had written "we are not tribesmen but citizens - elections now!" However this did not prevent the British authorities from indulging even further in their colonial fever, since according to some reports, Blair's bureaucrats proceeded to dust off the colonial legislation of the 1920s to provide a legal framework to restore law and order in the British zone of occupation.

In the rest of Iraq, a similar process is taking place under the auspices of US authorities. And although US officials are probably less obsessed with antiquated traditions than their British counterparts, their approach is no less reactionary. So, for instance, among the measures being discussed to eradicate the remnants of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, a number of Bush's experts have been advocating that the successive land reforms carried out since 1958 - that is long before Saddam Hussein came to power - should be reversed. If such a measure was implemented, several million farmers could be forced to rent the land they have been cultivating for decades, from a handful of big landlords. For the rural population this would be a dramatic step back into the past, which would probably result in a massive exodus towards the towns and a sharp increase in the number of urban poor.

Far from modernising the country, the Western occupation is therefore more than likely to reinforce its most archaic features, thereby making it even less developed than it was before.

The rise of the clerics

One of the most prominent features of the Western occupation so far is the progressive return of Saddam's state machinery. The wave of looting and the subsequent on-going lawlessness provided the occupation forces with a pretext to get Saddam's police back onto the streets of Iraq. All the past promises about bringing the torturers to justice have been forgotten - except, possibly, for 30,000 top dignitaries, most of whom have probably left the country by now anyway. Not only are many top cadres of Saddam's administration back in their former positions - prompting angry protests from the population who wants, at least, an end to the past corruption - but all mayors who have been appointed so far by the occupation authorities, happen to be former generals in Saddam's army.

To Washington's dismay, however, this policy has failed to restore law and order. Even US soldiers keep getting shot at, and sometimes killed by gangs and snipers. As a result the retired general Jay Garner has been replaced by Paul Bremer, a former diplomat whose main qualification for the job seems to be that he was, for most of his career, an "expert" in countering terrorism. The odds are, therefore, that the repressive drive will be stepped up. And since the Western leaders cannot afford to risk the lives of their soldiers in law and order operations, Saddam's police officers and military will probably be called in, to do the dirty work.

But since, in the present situation, all repression is bound to be blamed on the occupation forces, some sort of "Iraqi authority" must be set up urgently to take the blame for the unpopular measures that will need to be taken. However, even the setting up of this "authority", which will have no independence whatsoever according to the US leaders' latest statements, presents them with a major headache.

Since the collapse of the regime, there seems to have been a mushrooming of dozens of political currents, at least in the capital, ranging from the revolutionary left to religious fundamentalists. Some of these currents are real political parties which managed to survive during the dictatorship, either underground or in exile, others are totally new groups and, among the latter, many represent only a handful of aspiring politicians who have set up shop in the hope of being appointed to a good position.

However, few of these currents seem to have a real following among the population. Exile groups such as the Iraqi National Congress (INC) - the so-called "silk-suited opposition" as it used to be described among emigre circles - which has lived comfortably for many years thanks to Washington's subsidies, have only managed to generate hostility among the population. The INC leader, Ahmed Chalabi, left the country as a child, in 1958. His only claim to fame in Iraq is to be a thief, having had to flee from Jordan in order to avoid being convicted for embezzlement. It seems that the US may have found a replacement for him, an 80-year old former foreign minister called Adnan Pachachi, who left the country shortly after the Ba'ath coup in 1968. But although Pachachi is known to have opposed the war, he is largely unknown in the country and, at best, associated with the military dictatorships of the 1960s, which is unlikely to make him very popular.

In stark contrast to the weakness of the US's hand-picked "partners" on the ground, however, stands the emergence of the religious currents.

One should probably not be too impressed by the recent TV footage of flagellant pilgrims converging towards the holy town of Kerbala. In and of itself this is not a new phenomenon. Such events have taken place before, under Saddam Hussein, after the regime chose to widen its social base by allowing more space to clerics, both Sunni and Shiites.

Much more important, and possibly decisive for the future, is the emergence of Islamic currents as the main political force in the poor areas of the large towns. Thanks to the positions they were allowed to occupy under the dictatorship, the clerics were able to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the regime. Armed militias were set up around mosques, under the pretext of defending the community, and a power struggle developed between rival currents vying for recruits among the poor, particularly, but not only, among the Shiite majority.

In Baghdad, for instance, the huge slum district of Saddam City (now Sadr City), with over one million mostly Shiite inhabitants, is controlled by the militias of two of these factions. They man roadblocks and checkpoints and enforce the US-declared curfew themselves. They also control power generators and all food distribution goes through them. As soon as they were set up, these militias immediately proceeded to impose their backward ideas on the population. Hospitals, for instance, have been the target of a power struggle. Where the Islamic militias have taken control, women have been forced to wear a hijab and wards have been segregated, while religious students took it upon themselves to tell doctors what they were allowed to do and not to do according to their interpretation of the Koran!

The three main Islamic factions - the Dawa party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Sadr al-Thani - have four things in common: they aim to build an Islamic republic, they have strong ties with Iran, they have well-armed militias and they try to demonstrate their radicalism by indulging in a strident anti-American demagogy. Among the religious currents, the US has no other possible partners. Or rather, there was one which was committed to collaborating with the West, but its main figure was murdered soon after arriving from exile in London.

It seems unlikely that, in the present context, the US authorities will take the risk of allowing too much space to the Islamic currents in their future Iraqi authority. Not so much because they are worried about the reactionary nature of their ideas, of course, but because they cannot take the risk of facilitating the emergence of a powerful Islamic current in Iraq, which would inevitably reinforce the Shiite clerics in neighbouring Iran at the expense of the already fragile position of president Khatami's pro-Western Iranian reformists.

However, there is a real risk that the Islamic currents will become the main political opposition to the Western occupation. This would only be a minor inconvenience for the US leaders. After all they could allow the clerics to control some areas in the country without this affecting the ability of Western companies to loot its resources. For a whole section of the population, however, this would mean that Saddam's political dictatorship would be replaced with the social dictatorship of the Islamic currents - and this would have long term consequences for the country as a whole.

Likewise, the US leaders are not likely to risk allowing too much space to the reactionary political forces which are using ethnic tensions in order to build up a base of support for themselves - be they Shiite, Sunni, Arab, Turkomen, Assyrian, Kurd, etc.. - if only to avoid the threat of a breakup of Iraq. But as long as the clashes resulting from the ethnic rivalries and in-fighting caused by these forces do not interfere with business and can be contained within limited areas, the US leaders can allow a number of more or less open local civil wars to carry on forever, regardless of the consequences for the population. Western bombs will always be there to ensure that oil wells remain safe and that these civil wars do not spread beyond certain geographical limits, particularly to the neighbouring countries - i.e. just as the US forces have done in Afghanistan over the past 17 months.

The scramble for oil

Oil is obviously the biggest loot in Iraq, which is why the invading troops devoted all their efforts first to protect this resource against Saddam's army and looters and then to do repairs and restart production.

The big problem, however, is that Iraq's oil fields are in a dire state. Only 24 of the 73 oil fields which were in production before the first Gulf War, in 1991, were still producing some oil at the beginning of this year. The lack of spare parts and investment during the period of the sanctions after the destruction of the first Gulf War mean that a large part of the infrastructure needs to be rebuilt from scratch. Bush and Blair have already announced that all investment in oil would have to be financed, like all reconstruction work, by the country's future oil income. But in order for the country to have an income from oil, oil production must be increased and investment found urgently. According to US estimates, just to bring production back to its pre-invasion level by 2005 would require a $5bn investment. And a further $50bn would be needed to bring production to 6m barrels per day by 2010. The question is: who will provide this kind of money?

Of course, there is no shortage of candidates queuing up to benefit from Iraq's oil bonanza. In the run-up to the war, many meetings were been organised in Washington and London between representatives of the Iraqi opposition, the big oil companies and government officials. Plans for a post-Saddam oil industry have been drawn up. And they are already beginning to take shape in the form of a so-called "assistance fund for Iraq" which will be fed by oil income and administered by the occupation authority under the control of the IMF - which guarantees 100% US control, since the US has a built-in majority in the IMF structures. This fund is supposed to be used for humanitarian needs, economic reconstruction and to pay for the maintenance of the occupation administration. As to the oil administration itself, it will be overseen by a committee led by a former chief executive of Shell-US, Philip Carroll. So, everything is in place to allow the US leaders to organise the sharing out of the oil bonanza between oil companies.

However, this is where the whole process is turning into farce. Obviously, just as with the reconstruction contracts, Bush would much rather allocate all the oil contracts to US companies. This would probably allow the two British giants BP and Shell to get a fair share of the loot, not because they are British, but because both are major companies operating in the US and because a large proportion of their shares (a majority in the case of BP) are actually US-owned. But some of the potential beneficiaries are not happy with the prospect of an equal distribution between the big players. In particular, BP and ExxonMobil, who were two of the four shareholders of the Iraqi Petroleum Corporation before it was nationalised between 1972 and 1974, are now claiming that they should get some compensation for Saddam's nationalisation of their assets - and this, despite the fact that they were generously compensated at the time.

Then there are a number of companies which signed deals with Saddam Hussein during the sanctions period - two of the largest Russian companies, two Chinese companies, another from Malaysia, one from Korea, the London- quoted company BHP and the world's fourth largest oil major, the French company Total. The US's Iraqi puppet politicians have already said that they will not recognise deals signed by Saddam Hussein. However, the situation may be slightly more complicated than this, as all the big oil companies are tied together by various kinds of joint- ventures across the world. If one of them is left out, it could retaliate against successful rivals in some other part of the world. So the US companies, including ExxonMobil for instance, which has a number of joint ventures with Total in Africa, have adopted a more cautious approach than Bush himself.

This being said, while many companies are willing to take their share of the profits from Iraqi oil, they are much less keen to invest any significant amount of money in Iraq in order to produce this oil. To resolve the problem, Bush and the Pentagon are said to be in favour of privatising the entire oil industry in Iraq, while the State Department is said to be in favour of leaving it in the public sector.

No-one can tell which solution will be adopted. But it is not inconceivable that the US leaders will try to use this opportunity to reverse the worldwide trend set by the nationalisation of Libya's oil in 1969, which set the ball rolling for the nationalisation of the Middle East's the oil industry. After all, at a time when everything else is being privatised, there is no reason why the oil industry should not go down the same road.

Not that the oil majors lost out in these nationalisations, far from it. They got enormous compensation while losing very little in reality since they made most of their profits through refining, transport and retail. Besides, none of the producing countries imposed the nationalisation of their assets on the oil companies without agreeing to long-term oil supply contracts at a very low price. What is more, the consequence of the nationalisations was that the oil companies no longer had to fork out the large investment needed to find new sources of oil - this was now financed by the producing states out of their oil revenue and the oil companies even managed to get a share of the investment by providing these states with their expertise.

In fact it is not impossible that the oil companies themselves prove reluctant to reverse the nationalisation of oil in the Middle East, or that they prefer some form of intermediate formula, such as the setting up of publicly quoted joint-ventures with the producing countries' states, whereby these states would retain a large enough share and still provide most of the investment - the sort of framework which has been adopted, for instance, in Qatar for the exploitation of this country's large natural gas reserves.

Oil, OPEC and Saudi Arabia

However, if Bush's target had been only to ensure that the profits from Iraq's oil went to US companies, this war would have been largely unnecessary. After all, given their financial resources and their share of the oil market, the US and British oil giants had the means to lure Saddam Hussein into forgetting the contracts he had signed with other companies during the sanctions period and to ensure that they would have got the largest share.

In fact, even in the limited field of the oil industry, Bush had a wider and longer term aim than Iraqi oil itself - that is, the ability for the US to control oil production and prices according to the interests of the US oil companies and the US economy. Within certain limits, the US already exercises such control, both through its oil majors and through its allies in OPEC, an institution which plays some role in determining oil prices and production levels - its main ally in OPEC, so far in any case, being Saudi Arabia, whose regime has been a vehicle for US policy since the 1930s.

However, the US leaders are less and less confident of Saudi Arabia's future support. Not that the king's ruling family is likely to let the US down - although it should be recalled that Bin Laden's own family has close links with the Saudi royals. Rather it is the increasing instability of the regime which is worrying the US.

The time when Saudi Arabia was an oil paradise for its own population, which provided a comprehensive free welfare system for all citizens, guaranteed jobs on high salaries, virtually free housing, etc.., came to an end over a decade ago. The cost of the Gulf War to the Saudi state coffers, then of the enormous arms procurements which were imposed on it by the US (for a total $43bn between 1991 and 1999) and the low oil prices on the world market compared with the 1970s has led to the building up of a massive foreign debt. Most of the menial jobs in the country are still done by six million immigrant workers, mostly from Asia. But in an effort to reduce state expenditure, the number of well-paid jobs available to Saudi citizens has been cut.

So, more and more Saudi youth have found, once they had finished their studies, that the only jobs they can find are the low-paid jobs traditionally done by immigrants. Many of them have become unemployed and easy prey for Islamic fundamentalist groups in a country where there is no channel whatsoever for them to express their discontent. For the young Saudi unemployed, attending a Koranic school is an honourable way of spending their time, justifying their inactivity and allowing them to vent their frustrations and hatred at the arrogant and fabulous luxury in which the 8,000 or so princes who make up the royal family live, thanks to the country's oil.

The fact that bin Laden and the majority of the September 11th terrorists came from Saudi Arabia was not a coincidence. It reflected the state of decay into which the parasitism of the Saudi royals and the plundering of the Western majors are precipitating society. At the same time, it also reflected the fact that, in this dictatorship where religion is all-powerful, there is no political outlet for rebellion other than radical Islamic fundamentalism - as it is the only tolerated form of political opposition, within certain limits at least, in so far as it is so close to the state's official religion.

So, in view of this instability, the US leaders have reason to fear that, at some point, the Saudi regime will be forced to distance itself from its US masters, in order to survive. The US decision to move their aircraft and troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to Qatar is certainly designed to pre-empt such a risk, by reducing the pressure exercised on the Saudi royals by a whole section of the population, and also by some in the ruling circles, who consider the presence of US forces on their territory as a permanent provocation. But the danger remains of OPEC shifting to an anti-American policy under the influence of a future hostile Saudi regime. This is why the US leaders prefer to have a second powerful ally among OPEC's member states. Only Iran and Iraq could play such a role. But since Iran is not an option, "regime change" in Iraq becomes a prerequisite for this to work.

The US regional policy in the Middle East

More generally, the war and the occupation of Iraq is consistent with the requirements of US regional policy in the Middle East as these were formulated over two decades ago.

It should be recalled that, up until 1979 and the overthrow of the Shah in Iran, US policy in the region was based on its ability to rely on the military capabilities of two regional states - Israel and Iran - without any need to intervene directly in the region.

Israel played a vital role because the siege atmosphere maintained in the country by the Israeli state on the one hand, and the demagogy of the Arab leaders on the other, ensured the support of the majority of the Israeli population for a permanently aggressive policy towards the Arab countries. The Israeli army could therefore be called upon for any military intervention in the region at minimum risk to the stability of the Israeli state.

Iran, however, had some influence in the Arab countries. It was the region's richest country, the largest in terms of population, and it had large oil and gas reserves. Besides, during the Cold War, it acted as a buffer between the Middle East and the USSR. And although it was a very repressive dictatorship, its relative wealth fed a rather affluent middle-class which provided a sizeable social base for the regime.

The overthrow of the Shah's regime by a popular uprising, in 1979, and its replacement by an Islamic regime which resorted to anti-American demagogy to harness the support of its population, forced the US leaders to adopt a new policy. It was formulated by the then US president, Jimmy Carter, in his last State of the Nation address, in 1980, as follows: "Any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the US" and Carter pledged to defend these interests "by any means necessary including military force." The threat of an "outside force" attempting to "gain control of the Persian Gulf" was, of course, just as empty as the threat of Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" used by Bush today. The important part in Carter's statement was that US imperialism had now formally incorporated the Middle East not only into its sphere of influence (of which it was already an integral part), but into its sphere of direct military intervention.

Five weeks later, the US Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force was set up in Florida, at MacDill Air Force base, with 150,000 soldiers and marines. Its explicit mission was to implement the Carter doctrine in the Middle East. During the following months it was decided to get Saudi Arabia involved in a number of dubious projects - among others, there was the financing and arming of the far-right Contra guerillas against the radical nationalist government of Nicaragua and an Islamic fundamentalist rebellion against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

Three years later, in 1983, this Task Force was renamed, to become US Central Command (USCENTCOM). Shortly afterwards a naval task force of 40 ships was sent to the Gulf under USCENTCOM control with the pretext of protecting oil tankers against attacks by Iran. However, once the Iran-Iraq war was over, this flotilla remained in the Gulf permanently.

In 1990-91 it was USCENTCOM which was behind the military build-up to the first Gulf War. This war allowed the US army to gain unlimited and permanent access to almost all Gulf states, while increasing its military presence in Turkey.

Later in 1991, it was again USCENTCOM which organised the botched up US intervention in Somalia, after the overthrow of the pro-US president Siad Barre, who had just granted 2/3 of the country's territory as oil concessions to US oil companies Amoco and Conoco.

And finally it was USCENTCOM which organised the war against Iraq this time round. In the process, another series of US military bases have been set up in Central Asia, thereby completing the US military encirclement of the Middle East.

Obviously, as long as the US intervention in the Middle East was carried out by proxy, the benefit its companies drew from it was also indirect, most through the mechanisms of the world market and, in some cases, through bilateral agreements. But from the moment the US army began to intervene directly, US companies demanded immediate profits out of its intervention, in the form of military and civil procurement from US allies, guaranteed market share, financial investment, etc..

The case of Kuwait is particularly significant in this respect. After the first Gulf War, the Kuwaiti regime was ordered to move the assets of its Kuwaiti Investment Organisation (a £60bn fund invested in British shares and government bonds, which was designed to provide for the welfare of the country's population) from the London City to Wall Street, where it was invested in US government bonds. To measure the importance of this shift, it should be said that in 1958, for instance, the British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd considered that British interests in the Gulf were three-fold: access to and availability of cheap oil; stopping the spread of communism and Arab nationalism; and ensuring that Kuwait's surplus revenue was invested in London. In other words, the US leaders had no qualms about nicking their favourite ally's imperialist perks.

Today, in the political sphere just as in the oil sphere, the US are now able, theoretically at least, to try to rebuild a regional position as strong as the one they had up until 1979. Of course, this would require building up a pro- Western dictatorship in Iraq, both capable of keeping the various components of its own population under control and willing to police the region on behalf of the US if necessary. Given the political situation in Iraq today, this is a very tall order. It is not even certain that the US leaders contemplate such a possibility in the short term. It took the British colonial authorities more than 12 years, until 1932, to build up a relatively reliable state machinery to serve their interests in Iraq. It would certainly take a long period of occupation, maybe not quite as long, but still, for the US to achieve a similar result - that is provided the time bomb they have created by shelling and occupying Iraq does not blow up in their hands.

The Palestinian time bomb

The Palestinian struggle is certainly the most striking example of a time bomb created by the power games of imperialism in the Middle East. For over 30 years the Palestinian question has been the major cause of instability in the region and this, for one reason and one reason only - because of the choice made by US imperialism back in 1948 to use the state of Israel as "warden" for its regional interests and the backing it provided to the Zionist parties to achieve this objective.

It should be recalled that the physical presence of the Palestinian population goes far beyond Israel's borders. Palestinians make up the majority of the population in Jordan, a significant minority in Syria, the Lebanon and Egypt, and hundreds of thousands are dispersed among the Gulf states. The high level of politicisation which resulted from the seizure by Israel of Palestinian land in 1967 spread across the whole of the Middle East and influenced every local political movement by its radicalisation. It led to an open confrontation in Jordan and a fully fledged civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s. Since then every new surge in the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression has become a major focus of attention for the entire region. This was true of the 1st Intifada of 1987, to the point where it forced George Bush Snr, after the 1991 Gulf War, to be seen to twist the arm of the Israeli government to participate in a peace process which was eventually to lead to the Oslo Agreement of 1993.

But this was both too much and too little on the part of the US. Bush Snr, and afterwards Bill Clinton, did not wish to undermine the loyalty of the Israeli state by forcing it into making the major concessions which would have given the Palestinians a meaningful country to live in. Nor did the imperialist powers choose to pour into the new Palestinian statelet the resources required to pull the population out of its chronic poverty. As a result, the Palestinian people were left to rot in a so-called autonomous territory, which was little more than a collection of refugee camps, surrounded by Israeli army blockhouses and new Israeli settlements. So, predictably, another explosion came, due to the frustration caused by this situation in the form of the second Intifada in September 2000.

Today's "Roadmap" for peace heralds another attempt by US imperialism to get rid of the problem, rather than to solve it. It is worth noting in this respect that the first reference to this Roadmap was by Bush in a speech in June 2002, as a distant project. It was certainly designed as a sop to the Arab countries, to keep them on his side, at a time when he was about to launch his rhetorical war against Iraq. But this announcement had another purpose. Since March 2001, Sharon had been involved in a vicious offensive against Palestinian towns, without the US making more than symbolic remonstrations. To promise that the US would sponsor a peace initiative at some later time amounted to a clear sign to Sharon that he could get on with his offensive in the meanwhile. And not only to "fight terrorism" in the Palestinian areas, but also to terrorise the population itself, in order to eradicate its radical tradition so that any future deal would be made in the context of a politically much weakened Palestinian side.

Coming after this long period of severe repression against the Palestinians by Sharon, the occupation of Iraq by US troops can only be an additional factor in this conscious demoralisation of the Palestinian population. And this is why it is now, and only now, that the "Roadmap" has finally been released.

Predictably, it is another dead-end for the Palestinians. To start with, Bush and Sharon jointly insisted on choosing their future Palestinian "partner" in the negotiations. They would not have Yasser Arafat under any circumstances, not because he is too radical, since he certainly is not, but because of the prestige he still holds among the Palestinian population. Indeed, while Sharon was merely acting out the US leaders' policy of literally rubbishing the Palestinian Authority and Arafat in particular, by besieging and destroying his compound and turning the PA's infrastructure into rubble, paradoxically he actually reinforced Arafat's support amongst the Palestinian population. So Bush and Sharon saw to it that Abu Mazen was appointed as prime minister on 7 March to replace him.

Of course, while Bush takes credit for being the originator of the Roadmap, it is theoretically at least, the product of a selected panel from the so-called international "Quartet" that is, the UN, the EU, Russia and the US, formed in July 2002. And Blair, who supposedly raised this Roadmap with Bush in a meeting held in Belfast during the Iraq war, no doubt wishes everyone to remember his claim to be the main Middle Eastern peace broker, having been such a success in Northern Ireland.

So what is new in the Roadmap? The answer, in short, is nothing. Like previous plans, it calls for an ultimate withdrawal by Israel behind the pre-1967 borders. But its first phase proposes only a return to the pre-September 2000 status quo. And how to get even there? This is as vague as ever.

Phase 1 - which is supposed to be completed by June 2003 - although it speaks of a parallel process, depends first on a cessation of violence on the part of the Palestinians, placing the onus on a new Palestinian security force, to be trained by Jordanian and Egyptian officers under the supervision of the CIA, to disarm and arrest the Palestinian terrorists. But there is absolutely no question of putting any pressure on Sharon to stop immediately his shelling of Palestinian towns. And yet this is precisely what is recruiting volunteers to the terrorist policies of Hamas and justifying these policies - sterile and intolerable as they may be - in the eyes of an increasingly desperate Palestinian population.

If the Palestinian Authority embarks on disarming terrorist groups and meets the test of this Phase, they will come out of it with a reduced base of support among the population. But this is exactly what Bush wants. That is, to negotiate with a Palestinian side which is in as weak a position as possible and which will therefore have to accept gratefully the least concessions possible. But this is assuming that things even get that far. Having so effectively sidelined Arafat, Bush and Sharon may well find themselves with only one possible partner for the negotiations - that is, Hamas itself!

In return for the Palestinians squaring this circle, Phase 1 merely requires from Israel a freeze on the building of new settlements in the Palestinian territories, and the dismantling of only those settlements built since March 2001! Which leaves the majority of settlements intact, since the doubling in their number took place between 1994 and 2000.

Phase 2 - pencilled in for the six months between June and December 2003 - is meant to set only "provisional" borders for the new Palestinian micro-state. Most importantly, it involves the re- establishment of all the trade links between Israel and the Arab states, which had been cut off after September 2000. An International conference in December 2003 is meant to launch the new Palestinian state which would, supposedly, have "the maximum territorial contiguity". Another way of saying that the bits and pieces of land which Israel has conceded to the Palestinians would be linked with, to use Sharon's words, "bridges and tunnels". But there is no mention at all of Israel's 25-foot separation wall under construction inside the West Bank, which will bring an estimated 300,000 settlers at present on Palestinian land under Israel's wing, thus encroaching on the northern Palestinian territory.

If both sides pass the test set for them by the Quartet, i.e. the Palestinians duly prove during 2004-2005 that they can set up state institutions which the Quartet and Israel approves of, Phase 3, the "Permanent Status Agreement and the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" will have been achieved. It is only in this final phase that the new borders would be properly set.

There are just 6 weeks left for Phase 1 and it cannot possibly completed as planned. Of course, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine all condemned the Roadmap and say they will continue to fight Israeli occupation. Colin Powell met the new Palestinian prime minister Abu Mazen in Jericho, rather than in Ramallah, the seat of the PA. But in Jericho, where the decimated official Palestinian security forces have reassembled after bing pushed out of their bases on the West Bank and Gaza by Israeli tanks, reporters tell us that most of the men they speak to are reluctant to crack down on Hamas or the PLO's Al-Aqsa Martyr Brigades. For one thing, many of them have relatives in these organisations.

On the Israeli side, Sharon has made a gesture of releasing 200 prisoners and said he will allow 25,000 Palestinians permits to seek work in Israel again. But the day after the official publication of the Roadmap, the Israeli army launched a massive helicopter and tank offensive in the Gaza Strip, killing 15 Palestinians, including a 2-month old baby. How many young Palestinians will have been convinced as a result of this attack alone that suicide bombings are the only way out of this nightmare? As for the freeze on settlements, outlined in the Roadmap, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz quotes Sharon as saying to Powell "what do you want, for a pregnant woman to have an abortion just because she is a settler?" In fact Sharon has already explicitly committed himself to the maintenance of settlers on the West bank under Israeli sovereignty.

Of course, if Bush really wanted to see his Roadmap through he would have the means to put pressure on Sharon, in a way that Sharon would not be able to resist - if only because the catastrophic state of Israel's economy, mostly as a result of Sharon's war, makes Israel totally dependent on US subsidies. But no matter how much Bush fears the risk of another Palestinian explosion, he will not risk weakening Israel's loyalty to imperialist interests nor will he risk confronting the pro-Israeli lobby in the US.

So yes, the Roadmap leads into a cul-de-sac, even if it at some point there is a temporary cessation of Israel's offensive against the Palestinians. But some already see it heralding "Intifada number 3".

Stoking up more fire in the region

While the occupation of Iraq is likely to have a demoralising effect on a large part of the Palestinian population, it could also have the opposite effect, by boosting even more their resolve to fight. When a whole population feels it has had enough and has nothing to lose any more, there is nothing that will stop it, not even the presence of 250,000 Western troops in nearby Iraq.

But this is precisely the kind of situation that imperialism is incapable of addressing, except by drowning the resistance it faces in blood, thereby paving the way for further explosions at some point in the future.

What is true of the situation in Palestine is true of a whole number of time bombs which are spread across the region and connected one way or another with Iraq. The situation in Kurdistan in probably the most threatening among these. It is complicated by the involvement of four different countries each with its own Kurdish minority - Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria - and by the existence of many armed Kurdish militias, whose traditional way of dealing with their rivals is to make an alliance with the government of one of these four countries in order to crush them.

For the time being the two largest Iraqi Kurdish militias - the KDP and PUK - are allied with the US and involved in the political process which is supposed to produce an Iraqi authority in which both hope to play a prominent role. But both still have their own separate territories in Iraqi Kurdistan. And both are engaged in a race for time in order to establish themselves as the only legal authority in their respective fiefdoms. The PUK is even reported to have signed oil prospection contracts with two Turkish companies, in an obvious attempt to defuse the present tension on the Turkish border and to convince the Turkish generals that they have everything to gain out of a collaboration with the Iraqi Kurds. But what will happen when the KDP and PUK are told that they must open up their fiefdoms to others? Will they resume their traditional turf war? And with what consequences? Will it give the Turkish generals the pretext they want to invade Northern Iraq, allegedly to "protect" the Turkish border, but in reality to reinforce Turkey's demand to be part of the reshaping of Iraq if not to assert its old claim on the Kirkuk oil fields?

Having promised a "democratic federal system" for Iraq for a long time, US officials are now insisting that they are in favour of Kurdish rights, but not of an Iraqi federation, for fear of upsetting Turkey (but also the Shiite clerics and Arab nationalists in Iraq, who are against granting Kurdistan control of its oil). But the Kurdish nationalists will not go for less than a federation, since this would mean losing what little autonomy they won during the sanctions period and losing face in front of their supporters. So what will come next? Another Kurdish uprising, like so many others in the past and another bloodbath to get rid of the problem until the next explosion? But, in that case, who can tell what the reaction of the neighbouring Kurds will be, especially if, like their brothers and sisters in Iraqi Kurdistan, they have been fed with the illusion that the US was serious about protecting Kurdish national rights? Wouldn't the US leaders be taking the risk of triggering a regional Kurdish uprising and not just one in Iraq?

There are also more distant time bombs that the occupation of Iraq might trigger in the Middle East. For instance in Egypt, the region's second largest country in terms of population and one of its poorest, as well as the largest recipient of US aid. Behind occasional "democratic" pretenses, Mubarak's regime is a brutal dictatorship in which the repression against all forms of dissent and against the population in general has increased in parallel with its poverty. In the run-up to the war, however, the country's repressive machinery was unable to prevent public anger from expressing itself in large demonstrations. To the point that it finally decided to entrust the banned organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood with the stewarding of the last demonstration before the war broke out, which was also by far the largest. This decision reflected the reality of the political balance of forces. The main opposition to the regime is led by a variety of traditional fundamentalist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and a host of more radical ones. And, together, these groups have a mass following which can only have been boosted by the US war and occupation of Iraq, just as the opposition to the regime can only be strengthened by the regime's utter dependence on the US. What would it take for such a social and political powder keg to ignite?

Who will be next?

Even before the fall of Baghdad, several of Bush's sidekicks began to turn their rhetorical guns against Syria, as if it was the next target in line for the "Iraq treatment". But they were soon rebuffed by Bush himself. Colin Powell paid a visit to Syrian president Assad and received assurances that Syria would not allow Saddam's family to hide there. Shortly afterwards a number of Saddam's relatives arrived back in Iraq from Syria. As Bush stated later, with his usual arrogance, Syria "had understood the message."

Why should Syria be targeted by the US in the first place? Because it is on Bush's list of "terrorist" states? Judging from the case of Lybia, with which US companies are now unofficially allowed to do business, this is not a good enough reason. After all, if Syria has tried repeatedly (and still tries) to play a regional role, for instance by providing some material support to various militias in Palestine and the Lebanon, it has, on the other hand, often demonstrated its willingness to act in accordance with US policy, most prominently during the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s, where it intervened against the Palestinian-progressist militias which had become too strong for the US's liking.

However, Syria, like Iran, remains one of the few regimes in the Middle East, which has a certain amount of political support at home and which displays a measure of independence towards imperialism. It might be tempting for some hawks in the Bush stable to use the opportunity to settle this account as well, using the "war on terrorism" and Syria's support for the Palestinian PFLP for instance, as a pretext for "regime change" and punishment. After all, given Syria's relatively small size, it would be comparatively easy. Nothing can guarantee that this will not happen at some point in the future. But at this point Syria is probably considered too close to Palestine, geographically and politically, for an invasion not to pour yet more oil on the Palestinian fire.

Iran could be another target, as a member of the "axis of evil" club, and was explicitly mentioned by individuals such as Richard Perle. But Iran is a very big fish, with around 70m inhabitants. Besides, the social basis of its regime is quite large and it is not a destitute country, weakened by 13 years of bombings and sanctions. Moreover, attacking Iran at this point would almost certainly prompt Islamic Shiite currents in Iraq to risk a confrontation if not an outright uprising against the US-British occupation - too much of a risk for the time being.

But today, does US imperialism really need to embark on yet another demonstration of strength when its aircraft, missiles and even soldiers are now able to reach any point in the Middle East within at most an hour, from one of the many military bases where they are stationed? Probably not, at least not as long as they do not have to deal with entire populations rising against the oppression and poverty to which they are subjected by imperialism.

In Iraq itself, the US leaders have won the war but they have still to win the occupation. Of course, if imperialism was prepared to invest in Iraq massively i.e. if Bush did what he is implicitly promising - a real reconstruction of the country - in such a way as to guarantee real gains for the better-off layers and some gains at least for the poorest, the situation could eventually stabilise itself. But at a time when Western companies do not invest in their own countries and even the richest imperialist states reduce social and public expenditure to a bare minimum, neither Bush, nor Blair, let alone US and British companies, will pay the price that would be needed in Iraq.

In what area will the US be confronted with the most difficulties? No-one can tell in advance. The Iraqi working class, which the US needs at least to produce oil, could well rebel against the conditions to which it is subjected. Or the countryside poor may resist the present plans to rob them of their land. Other difficulties may arise out of ethnic or religious clashes, or from concerted nationalist resistance against the occupation of the country.

But Western companies could not care less. Their outlook never goes beyond the short term, while they keep on dropping explosive material along the way. For them the on-going arms race and massive sales of weapons to dictators in the poor countries, which are features of the imperialist era, are not just a means to make profits. They also provide the means to crush the resistance of the populations of these countries against their exploitation and plunder. That is, until one day the explosion of revolt will be too strong, even for the enormous power of the US army.

Annex: a short chronology of the war in Iraq

02/08/1990 - Iraqi troops invade Kuwait. Within days the UN imposes a trade embargo and later authorizes use of force against Iraq.

17/01/1991 - US-led forces launch air war against Iraq. Ground offensive begins the following month.

26/02/1991 - US troops enter Kuwait. Subsequently Iraq capitulates.

03/1991 - Uprising against Saddam Hussein across Iraq. US and Britain stand by while Saddam Hussein uses his helicopters to crush the rebellion. After the collapse of the uprising air exclusion zones are set up over Kurdistan and the southern half of Iraq and economic sanctions are imposed.

16/12/1998 - Operation "Desert Fox" in retaliation to Baghdad's expulsion of UN arms inspectors: four days of US-British air and missile strikes on Baghdad.

10-12/2001 - US-British war against Afghanistan.

29/01/2002 - Bush's State of the Union speech exposes the "axis of evil" formed by Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

06/2002 - Bush announces a future "roadmap" for a new "peace process" in Palestine. Within weeks, he launches his rhetorical war against Iraq.

04/09/2002 - Blair speaks in support of Bush's position against Iraq at press conference in Sedgefield.

12/09/2002 - Bush urges the UN to confront and disarm Saddam Hussein.

24/09/2002 - Blair releases his famous "dossier" on Iraq - which will be exposed as a fraud shortly after.

10/10/2002 - US Congress votes to give Bush authority to use force against Iraq.

08/11/2002 - UN Security Council adopts resolution 1441 threatening Iraq "serious consequences" if it does not disarm.

18/11/2002 - UN inspectors return to Iraq.

07/01/2003 - Geoff Hoon announces that call out notices are to be sent to 1,500 British reservists and additional naval forces are to be deployed in the Gulf.

06/02/2003 - Geoff Hoon announces that 100 additional aircraft and 7,000 troops are to be sent to the Gulf.

15/02/2003 - Millions protest worldwide against threatened war with Iraq.

01/03/2003 - Turkish parliament votes not to allow US troops to use Turkey to open a northern front against Iraq.

17/03/2003 - Bush declares Saddam must flee Iraq or face a US-led invasion. Leader of the House Robin Cook resigns.

18/03/2003 - Commons approves use of military force against Iraq by 412 votes to 149.

20/03/2003 - US-British forces launch war against Iraq.

22/03/2003 - British High Command claims to have "secured" Basra - which turns out to be a crude lie.

25/03/2003 - Bush requests and obtains an additional $75bn for the war from the US Congress.

02/04/2003 - Beginning of land battle for Baghdad.

07/04/2003 - British troops enter the suburbs of Basra after a 17-day siege and heavy bombing using cluster shells.

09/04/2003 - Fall of Baghdad and collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. Almost instantly a wave of looting starts in the capital.

10/04/2003 - Pro-Western Shiite cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoi is murdered in Baghdad by fundamentalist rivals on returning from exile in London.

12/04/2003 - In British-occupied Basra, Sheikh Muzahim Tamimi, a tribal leader and former general in Saddam's army, is appointed mayor while Saddam's police is brought back on the streets. Kirkuk is occupied resulting in ethnic clashes between Arabs and Kurds, which claim dozens of casualties.

14/04/2003 - Tikrit and Mosul occupied. Demonstrations in Basra against the return of Saddam's police. Armed clashes between rival Islamic fundamentalist militias in Najaf. Rumsfeld threatens Syria with retaliation if it gives sanctuary to Iraqi refugees.

15/04/2003 - US-sponsored meeting in Nasiriya is boycotted by most of the political forces enjoying real influence among the population while demonstrators condemn US occupation. Eastern town of Kut is taken over by the Badr brigade, a fundamentalist militia linked to Iran. In Mosul a US attempt to appoint a mayor sparks off demonstrations: US troops fire on the protesters, leaving 12 dead and over 100 wounded.

18/04/2003 - 20,000 march in Baghdad behind Islamic fundamentalist banners to protest against US plans to set up a "democratic federal system" and demand the departure of all foreign troops.

20/04/2003 - Thousands of Saddam's police are brought back to the streets of Baghdad. The New York Times discloses that Bush plans to keep permanent access to four Iraqi air bases after the end of the occupation (although this is unconvincingly denied by the Pentagon).

23/04/2003 - Warnings of threatening cholera outbreak in Basra due to shortage of clean water. Bush declares that the US has no plans for further military action in the region.

24/04/2003 - Guardian reports British plans to reinstate colonial regulations from the 1920s in its occupation zone.

27/04/2003 - US appointments to oversee "reconstruction" in Iraq: a former executive of US food giant Cargill for agriculture and a former CEO of Shell-US for oil.

28/04/2003 - US soldiers open fire on protesters in Fallujah, killing 11 people. A meeting held in Baghdad decides to set up an interim government within a month.

29/04/2003 - US reinforcements are sent to Baghdad, Nasiriya and Mosul in order to restore law and order. US announces the transfer of all troops stationed in Saudi Arabia to Qatar.

30/04/2003 - US soldiers kill another 2 protesters in Fallujah (the next day 7 US soldiers are wounded by a grenade in retaliation). US deny any plans for a federal Iraq.

02/05/2003 - Bush announces the end of military operations in Iraq shortly after a similar announcement by Rumsfeld in Afghanistan. Iraq will be divided into 3 zones under US, British and Polish command.

07/05/2003 - World Health Organisation announces that a cholera epidemic has broken out in Basra, where the water and electricity systems are still not restored.

12/05/2003 - Suicide attack in Saudi Arabia kills over 30 people.

14/05/2003 - New US administrator Paul Bremer declares that plans to set up an interim Iraqi government have been dropped. Other official statements point to an occupation lasting at least two years. Wave of protests across Iraq following these announcements.

16/05/2003 - Armed clashes between Arab and Kurds in Kirkuk leaving untold casualties.

17 May 2003