Iraq - From an imperialist occupation to a bloody quagmire

Sep/Oct 2003

Six months after the beginning of the war in Iraq, there is no end in sight for the imperialist occupation of the country. The past tales about "peace and reconstruction" and "restoring democracy" have long been forgotten by politicians in London and Washington. Instead, this occupation has increasingly been taking the form of an undeclared war, against a growing number of faceless armed groups, for whom any target associated with the US-British coalition is legitimate. Meanwhile, the hostility of the population towards the occupying forces has become more and more vocal.

Once again in the history of imperialism, a military venture designed to boost the profits of imperialist companies is backfiring and threatening to turn into a bloody quagmire - for the invading forces, but above all for the Iraqi population, which finds itself caught between the repression meted out by the imperialist troops and the military and terrorist actions carried out by the armed Iraqi resistance.

For months now, on every single day, there have been attacks against the occupation. US and British patrols and convoys have been ambushed, army and Iraqi police buildings have been attacked and oil installations sabotaged. The attackers' weaponry is certainly nowhere near as deadly and sophisticated as the heavy weapons used by Western soldiers or by their helicopter gun ships. It ranges from the common AK-47s to heavy automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, but ground-to-air missiles have also been used, as during Rumsfeld's latest visit to Iraq at the beginning of September.

These attacks used to be confined mostly to a relatively small area around Baghdad. This is no longer the case. They have now spread across a large area of the country, from Mosul in the north to Basra in the south. Only the northern Kurdish areas seem unaffected, so far at least. What is more, these attacks are becoming increasingly bold. For instance, on 6 August, for the first time, a group of armed Iraqis attacked a US patrol in Baghdad in broad daylight and, instead of the usual "hit and run" tactic, went on firing until the patrol's vehicles were set alight, killing two soldiers.

Compounding what amounts now to a guerilla war against the occupying coalition, there has been a wave of significant terrorist bombings since 8 August, when the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad was blown to pieces. This was followed by the bombing of the UN Iraqi headquarters in Baghdad, on 19 August, which left 21 dead, and that of a mosque in Najaf, on 29 August, which left another 119 dead - among a long list of other, less spectacular similar attacks.

Towards a backlash at home?

By now, in any case, Blair and Bush can no longer deny that the armed opposition to the US-British occupation is growing and that it is increasingly organised and coordinated. Whatever their efforts to shift the blame onto "remnants of Saddam's regime" or al-Qaeda, the number of attacks against the occupying troops and the wide geographical distribution of these attacks can only indicate that the forces involved are much more numerous and varied than US and British generals are prepared to admit.

And the fact is that they are unable to suppress this armed opposition, or even to contain its growth despite the colossal fire and policing power of the 150,000-plus Western soldiers currently in Iraq and the assistance of tens of thousands of Iraqis recruited out of Saddam's former police force. So much so, that Bush has been calling up new contingents of reservists, while in Britain, Straw has just sent another 1,200 troops and is said to be ready to send another 3,000 or more, on top of the 12,000 remaining on the ground (and that is not counting the Navy and the troops stationed in Kuwait and Qatar).

Of course, it is not the military capacity of the armed resistance which poses a problem to the imperialist leaders, but the political and economic implications of its activity.

So far, the US troops have taken the brunt of the casualties - even though, in proportion to the number of soldiers involved, the British casualty rate is actually higher than that of the US. To date, the official casualty figure stands at 287 US soldiers and 50 British soldiers, not counting civilian back-up staff for whom there are no official figures. Out of these figures, 148 and 17 respectively, have been killed since May 2nd, when Bush made his official announcement of the "end" of the war from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln.

But beyond the number of deaths, many more have been wounded in combat, and in fact a lot more than is officially acknowledged. In the case of US troops (there are no figures available for British troops), the official count is 1,450 soldiers wounded since 20th March. However, in July, during an interview to the National Public Radio station, Lieutenant-Colonel DeLane, the officer in charge of the airlift of wounded soldiers into Andrews air base outside Washington DC, explained: "Since the war has started, I can't give you an exact figure because that's classified information, but I can say to you over 4,000 have stayed here at Andrews and that number doubles when we count those people who have come here at Andrews and then we send them to other places." And DeLane added that the monthly figure was over 1,200 in April, 1,500 in May and has increased ever since. Obviously, the US government is doing its best to play down the real human cost of the war.

Understandably this is affecting the morale of the occupying troops. Bremer, the US supremo in Iraq, had to take drastic disciplinary measures when US soldiers began to give interviews to the media in which they demanded immediate repatriation. Back in the US, the National Guard and the Army reserve, the two organisations of part-time soldiers which provide most of the manpower for Bush's "war on terrorism", are said to be experiencing shortages for the first time on record. Indeed, since the occupation started in Iraq, people have become increasingly weary of being called up so frequently, often for lengthy periods and dangerous duties, and existing members have been resigning in droves while recruits have failed to materialise.

Besides, how long will public opinion in the US and Britain tolerate the fact that soldiers keep getting killed and wounded in Iraq's "low-intensity" war? Already, the US papers, which used to be 100% aligned behind Bush's war effort, carry more and more reports about the complaints of US soldiers in Iraq. And when the media begins to circulate such reports, one can be sure that they correspond to real feelings in the population. In any case, with a presidential election coming up next year, this is something that Bush could do without.

In Britain, the situation is somewhat different, partly due to the fact that most of the soldiers involved are professional soldiers (although there have been casualties among TA reservists) and partly due to the self-imposed near-blackout by the British press concerning anything dealing with the activities of British troops in Iraq. But the British press does devote a lot of space to the difficulties met by US troops. And the on-going resistance and casualties in US ranks help to keep on the agenda the scandal caused by Blair's policy before and during the war itself - thereby making Blair's situation even more fragile.

Occupation for the foreseeable future

However, the imperialist leaders can hardly afford to withdraw their troops while the present state of affairs persists. Not because they care about the consequences for the population of the political instability and economic catastrophe they have generated in Iraq. The example of Afghanistan, where the Western invasion has merely resulted in subjecting most of the country's population to the rule of warring warlords, including the Taliban themselves in some areas, shows that the British and US leaders have no such concerns.

But, by withdrawing their troops from Iraq today, or in the near future, London and Washington would risk compromising the very objective for which they invaded the country in the first place - the profit boost that big companies in the City and Wall Street expect from this war. How, for instance, will the US and British oil majors share out Iraq's oil bonanza as long as there is no state machinery in Iraq capable, at the very least, of protecting pipe- lines, refineries and port facilities?

Despite all their rhetoric, the imperialist leaders never intended to "restore democracy" in Iraq. But they certainly hoped to establish a local state apparatus, loyal to their interests and strong enough to provide effective security guards for Western- owned assets in the country. After all, in the days when the Iraqi Petroleum Company (which was owned jointly by the forerunners of Shell, BP, Exxon and Total, until its nationalisation in the 1970s) was exploiting the Iraqi oil fields, they could rely on military dictatorships which guaranteed the security of their profits and the permanent back-up of Britain's air and navy bases - first in Iraq itself and later, in Kuwait.

Today, however, the puppet "governing council" set up by Bremer to rubber-stamp his decisions and hide the fact that Iraq is now effectively ruled from Washington, does not seem to have any authority whatsoever in the country, let alone over the groups which constitute the armed resistance. Some of its own members have been targeted by terrorists, presumably due to their co-operation with the occupation forces. London and Washington know that this "governing council", riven with factional quarrels as it is, cannot become the basis for the setting up of a strong state apparatus. All the more so because the invasion has effectively destroyed Saddam's old state machinery in which the Western leaders seem to have had a lot more illusions than they dare to admit.

In this respect, the many blunders of the US occupation authorities contributed in accelerating the disorganisation and dismantling of what remained of Saddam's state apparatus after the fall of Baghdad.

Having overestimated the willingness of Saddam's generals to change sides in the first phase of the war, Bush made a U-turn in his policy towards the Iraqi army after the first attacks against US troops. All Iraqi army personnel were sacked, leaving them with the promise of a derisory one-off payment and no income after that. The outrage caused by this decision was expressed in large protests held by former soldiers in all the main towns, which eventually forced Bremer to make another U-turn by promising a monthly payment of between $50 and $150 for every former member of Saddam's army. But this did not stop the anger. Due to the closure of all of Iraq's state banks, ordered by the occupying authorities, there was no mechanism available for ex- soldiers to get these payments rapidly.

Likewise Bremer's decision to sack all members of the Baath party who held positions of responsibility in the state administration and public services at every level, caused even more chaos. His decree probably had a dual purpose. On the one hand it aimed at depriving the only organised potential opposition to the occupation forces of the vital logistical resources which their jobs gave them access to. On the other hand, it provided new Western-appointed Iraqi officials with a way of creating a system of patronage designed to strengthen their position, as they could select their own men for vacancies. But this manoeuvre has backfired on Bremer. He has thus deprived himself of the services of a large layer of skilled workers and professionals whose role was vital for the operation of the state.

In any case, the end result of the war and the occupying authorities' policy has been the total disorganisation of the Iraqi state from top to bottom. And this means that for the foreseeable future, there is no alternative for the Western leaders but to maintain the occupation and, if possible, to step it up, in an attempt to defeat the armed opposition. This is why Bush is now working hard at trying to get the UN Security Council to endorse an international military intervention in Iraq, so as to be able to share out the political and financial cost of the occupation and conceal its colonial nature. Of course, the main stumbling block so far, is that Bush wants this UN force to be under US command and does not want to relinquish US control over the Iraqi economy. But he still has plenty of room for bargaining. The so- called "anti-war camp" on the Security Council (France, Russia and China) may well prove more accommodating should Bush promise them some crumbs from the future plunder of Iraq's resources.

Anger and despair among the population

Casualties make the headlines of British newspapers only when they concern US and British troops. And yet certainly the largest numbers of casualties since the official "end of the war" have been among the ranks of the population. These are not casualties due to terrorist attacks or sniper fire, but mostly people killed by the bullets of the occupying forces.

There are no statistics about these casualties, official or otherwise. Who would even try to count them when all the information is in the hands of the occupation forces? But with time, some reports have filtered through in the press about the brutal behaviour of the occupying troops. By now, how many Iraqis have been killed "due to misunderstanding" at one of the countless checkpoints set up across the country, or as a result of retaliation carried out against "a building" where a sniper was suspected to be hiding? In fact, more often than not, the methods used to carry out police operations can only be described as terrorist. For instance, in early July, in suburban Baghdad, a residential block was attacked by three helicopter gun ships using missiles and heavy machine-gun fire, under the pretext of rounding up supporters of the former regime. According to the neighbours interviewed by a journalist, 12 people were killed in the attack and five arrested - and yet there had been no gunfire coming from the targeted house during the attack.

In an attempt to curb the armed resistance, the occupying forces have been arresting tens of thousands of Iraqis suspected of being "Saddam sympathisers". Again, there are no figures available for the numbers detained in the British-controlled zone. But according to human rights organisations, over 20,000 have been jailed by US forces, many of them at Abu Ghriad, which used to be Saddam's largest prison and torture centre in Baghdad - one of the very few buildings in the capital that the US high command has bothered to repair. And these organisations have already published a number of reports denouncing the use of torture in these jails. Judging from the revelations made in June by some British papers, of brutal treatment inflicted on prisoners by Irish Regiment officers, the methods used by British forces are likely to be similar in the area, around Basra.

The threat of repression, patrols and check-points are, therefore, a permanent feature of Iraqi daily life. And this comes on top of the drastic worsening of living conditions due to the war. The invasion of Iraq has been a social catastrophe for most of the population. Not only were the main towns deprived of water, electricity and fuel, but the distribution of food rations was suspended. For months, nothing was done about this - simply because the US and British strategists who had planned the bombing had not bothered to plan for repairs and supplies.

Today, electricity and running water are still only available for a few hours each day, when at all. There is a massive shortage of petrol which paralyses the transportation of goods and people - not due to sabotage, but because Western troops keep most of the fuel which is being produced for themselves. The majority of the population has no income of any kind, since the coalition authorities ended all welfare payments. Not to mention the tens of thousands of families who are still homeless after the bombing. In short, six months on, conditions for the Iraqi population are significantly worse than they were under Saddam! And it is not the promise of a mobile phone network, soon to be set up in the country (the only investment which Western companies seem prepared to make in Iraq!) which will make their day-to-day life any easier.

Bremer's above-mentioned decree, which sacked former Baath members in public services, has aggravated the lack of basic facilities and caused even more discontent. Many former Baath Party members who were dismissed had only joined the party because this was a pre-condition for doing their job. So doctors, teachers, engineers, etc.., who had never been active Baathists and whose competence was appreciated as such, were sacked despite the fact that their skills were vitally needed. This has not only caused chaos in hospitals, schools and other public services, but also huge resentment, particularly when at the same time, former well-known Baath thugs have been appointed instead, by the new US-British proteges who are now "in charge".

The anger and despair felt by the population due to this catastrophic situation has sparked off countless demonstrations in the main towns. There have been protests against the on-going shortages (of water and electricity in particular), against the dismissal of much-valued staff and the promotion of former Saddam thugs, against the ridiculously low wages paid to workers, but more often than not against the fact that they are not paid at all, and, of course, against the casualties caused by trigger-happy Western soldiers. There have been marches calling for the re-opening of schools (which are often still closed for lack of teachers or because the buildings have not been repaired), for the payment of unemployment benefits to the jobless, for the right to organise independent unions (which are still banned) and, of course, for the departure of the occupying forces.

At one point in August, the British press did carry reports about the social unrest in Basra - this time, probably, the explosion of anger was too big to be hushed up. It turned out that on 9 August, a protest against an abrupt end to fuel supplies had been met with a brutal reaction on the part of the British army. This led to two days of rioting across the town, forcing the British high command to order their troops to withdraw rather than risk a confrontation which could have resulted in numerous casualties (on both sides). It is worth noting that one of the complaints of the protestors was that individuals associated with the British forces were making money on the side by laying their hands on the available petrol and getting smugglers to sell it in Kuwait at a high profit!

Ironically, the very same forces which destroyed Basra's residential areas under the pretext of "restoring democracy" are now busy bashing in the heads of Iraqis because they are exercising their democratic right to stage a protest in the streets against the corruption and criminal incompetence - of these invading forces. How can anyone expect the Iraqi poor not to be angry?

The dangers ahead

In such a situation one can only expect that a significant number among the Iraqi poor population would be looking for a way to fight those they consider responsible for the present social catastrophe and its continuation - i.e. the US-British coalition. To this end, they can choose, at least on paper, between a huge variety of political parties and organisations which have emerged since the fall of the dictatorship.

Although it is virtually impossible to gauge what policy most of these parties advocate and what they actually represent on the ground, many of them seem to have been set up merely as a vehicle for the ambitions of one or a few individuals trying to occupy as much space as possible in order to win some form of recognition from the coalition authorities.

A number of these parties claim to belong to the communist tradition, including the old communist party of Iraq (CPI), which appears to be the largest and is probably the only national organisation among these groups. However, after having declared that it would have nothing to do with the occupation authorities (when these authorities did not want to have anything to do with it), the CPI finally decided to join the "governing council" when Bremer invited them. So today, the CPI has one representative sitting on this puppet body and justifies this by the need to avoid breaking "national unity". From this point of view, therefore, the CPI has changed nothing with respect to the catastrophic policy of its stalinist past, which, in the 1970s for instance, led it to commit political suicide by joining the Baath party in government, in the name of "national unity", while its activists were being massacred by Saddam's thugs. Today, in the name of the same policy, the CPI has chosen to join what is a mere appendage of imperialist rule, next to representatives of Islamic fundamentalist parties and a raft of reactionary politicians. This kind of unity, which has nothing to do with the interests of the Iraqi poor, is likely to repel the most determined among those who want to fight for their interests.

However, at this stage, the forces which really occupy the front of the political scene are, on the one hand, the Islamic fundamentalist parties, which existed underground during Saddam's era, but which were allowed a certain amount of elbow-room during the last years of the dictatorship, and, on the other hand, the two Kurdish nationalist parties. In addition, a number of minority- based and tribal-based parties have won the favour of the occupation forces, which has enabled them to develop a social presence which they had never had before - in particular in the British-occupied zone where Blair's emissaries have turned the use of tribalism into a principle of government.

Although no-one can be absolutely sure, it is probably from among these forces, as well as from factions which came out of the collapse of the Baath party, that the present armed resistance groups have emerged. Whatever the case, the Iraqi poor have certainly nothing to expect from such groups. Their advocacy of terrorism shows their contempt for the victims of their "military actions" - whether these are foreign soldiers who never chose to fight in this war, or Iraqis who happen to be caught in the wrong place or are subsequently victims of retaliation by the occupying troops. Should these forces take power, they would rule over the country with the same contempt for the poor population.

As to the Islamic fundamentalist parties, the fact that some of them appear less reactionary than others, because they argue in favour of a secular state, does not change the reactionary nature of their programme. It should be recalled that through its fight against British rule in the 1920s and 30s, the Iraqi population succeeded in confining the clerics to their mosques. The fact that the clerics are back in the forefront of the political scene, the result of 35 years under Saddam's vicious dictatorship, is already a major setback. But allowing them to take power would be agreeing to turn the clock back to the pre-colonial period, when clerics and tribal leaders acted as political auxiliaries in enforcing the rule of the Ottoman empire over the country.

At this point, the two largest among the Islamic fundamentalist parties, the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iran (SCIRI) and the Dawaa party, are both represented in the "governing council". But in fact, they have consistently played two cards at the same time - that of "respectability" and co-operation with the Western forces on the one hand, and, on the ground, radical-sounding rhetoric against the foreign occupation, on the other. A new third party, led by Muqtada al- Sadr, a relative of a popular martyr of the Shia resistance under Saddam Hussein, is competing with SCIRI and Dawaa for the leadership of Shia Islamic fundamentalism. Each one of these three main parties, as well as their smaller aspiring rivals, has its own armed militia. Some of these militias, like SCIRI's al-Badr brigade, have been in existence for many years in Iran and now control entire rural areas of Iraq, particularly in the south-east, as part of an agreement with the British forces. Others have been set up after the collapse of Saddam Hussein, when the rival factions proceeded to take over control of Shia urban districts.

The intensity of the rivalry between the various fundamentalist factions can be measured by the fact that most of the political figures targeted by terrorist bombings have been leading figures in the two main fundamentalist parties. In particular, the 29 August bombing against a mosque in Najaf, was clearly aimed at Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI. Significantly, in the eyes of those who ordered this bombing, the elimination of a leading rival justified the killing of 119 people in the bargain! This gives an idea of the kind of regime these people would impose on the population, should they ever get into power.

These are the reactionary forces which have been unleashed by the imperialist invasion of Iraq and which are strengthened by the current US-British policy of promoting different (and rival) Shia and Sunni identities. In their competition for power, these forces indulge in a radical overbidding, both in rhetoric and in action. And by generating anger and despair among the population, the imperialist coalition risks pushing the poor, who are at the receiving end of its policy, into the arms of these reactionary forces.

Such is the real danger in Iraq - that the Western invasion ends up giving birth to a regime far worse even than Saddam's dictatorship. Nor would it be for the first time. After all, it was the US financing of Islamic fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan which led, eventually, to the emergence of the Taliban!

This is why this criminal occupation of Iraq must be opposed by all possible means - not just the occupation, but its underlying cause, the profiteering of this capitalist system which keeps generating such tragedies. It is not just in Iraq that "regime change" or rather - social change - is required, but across the planet as a whole, in order to get rid, once and for all, of this parasitic system of worldwide exploitation.

13 September 2003