Britain - Blair is not yet out of the Iraqi quagmire

Nov/Dec 2003

If it were not for the extravagant prominence given by the media to the Tory Party's protracted in-fighting, Blair's policy in Iraq would have been, once again, under the spotlight, over the past weeks.

The charade of the Hutton enquiry may well have helped to give Blair a breathing space. But the success of the last national march against the US-British occupation of Iraq and the resilience of anti-war feelings in opinion polls show that Blair is not likely to recover from the discontent caused by his criminal policy in the near future - assuming he ever does. And the publicity given by the tabloids to the medal awarded to a British soldier for "bravery under friendly fire" is not likely to be of much help!

Despite this, Blair felt it necessary to expel Glasgow-Kelvin MP George Galloway for "bringing the party into disrepute" over his stance on the government's policy In Iraq. Of course, this is rather ironical because if anyone has brought the Labour Party into disrepute, it is certainly Blair & co, by forcing down the throats of working people and, indeed, a majority of the Labour Party's own members, not only his invasion of Iraq, but a whole range of pro-business and anti-working class policies ranging from benefit cuts and tuition fees to PFI and foundation hospitals.

The real reason for Galloway's expulsion, of course, lies elsewhere. After all, if the issue was only his opposition to the war, many other anti-war Labour MPs should have been expelled as well. But these MPs, who sat through the war and the occupation signing petitions and making respectful gestures of protest, are actually an asset for Blair. Without them, the illusion that the Labour Party is a "democratic broad church" would have faded away long ago and many more voters and party members would have given up on Labour.

Concern about the troops?

So why pick on Galloway? Certainly not because he is more radical than his fellow anti-war MPs, let alone a danger to Blair - as some among the revolutionary left like to describe him. After all, despite occasional vocal outbursts of opposition, Galloway has been a Labour MP for 16 years, thereby condoning, de facto, the main thrust of Labour's policy, both in opposition and in government. The real reason for Galloway's expulsion is that, whatever one may think of his politics, he has been consistent in his stance against the war, at least as far as his statements went. First by stating clearly that should Blair force his deselection on his constituency party, he would stand against Blair's imposed candidate. Second, and most importantly, by suggesting in a television interview that British soldiers should disobey orders and refuse to fight Blair's war.

Here is the crux of the matter. Galloway dared to defy the sacrosanct authority of the state! For Galloway, of course, this was merely a comment on television, made in the name of what he calls the "illegal" character of the occupation ("illegal" according to which law, no-one knows, given the imperialist powers' long record of waging war against the poor countries of their choosing) and for him this suggestion was certainly never meant to have any practical consequences.

But when one million marchers on the streets of London and a long series of opinion polls showing anti-war majorities fail to stop the government's war drive, what other option is there but to defy a state which stands against the majority and to encourage soldiers not to allow themselves to be the instruments - and possibly the victims of such an act of great power terrorism? For a movement determined to oppose the occupation of Iraq effectively and conscious of the limits of what even the biggest marches can achieve, this is a proposition that would have to be taken very seriously, among other types of actions.

There is a tradition of taking such action among soldiers. During the period of WWII, there were many mutinies in the army, both against the useless bloodshed demanded by the general staff and the unbearable conditions imposed on soldiers - in particular when, after the end of the war, Attlee's Labour government refused to repatriate soldiers from South East Asia and the Middle East and tried to use them in order to put down social unrest in India and other poor countries.

If Blair resorted to such a drastic measure against Galloway, it was certainly to remind all politicians that they should not allow themselves to toy with issues which are so important for the state and the interests of the capitalist class, not even for the sake of sounding "radical." But this may also reflect a very real concern among the army general staff that the dramatic deterioration of the situation in Iraq over the past months could result in growing discontent in the ranks.

After all, although very little is known about the state of mind of British troops, apart from their bitterness at the fact that British generals have not bothered to provide them with facilities remotely comparable to the luxury available to US troops, the growing disaffection among US soldiers is now common knowledge. Even the US army's Stars and Stripes magazine had to acknowledge it when it published a poll which showed how morale had deteriorated among soldiers who saw less and less justification for their presence in Iraq. Just as significant was the fact that, despite the US government's attempts at minimising the event, the US media reported the refusal by up to 20 GIs to return to Iraq after having been on leave at home.

Conditions in the British zone of occupation may not be as bad as in Baghdad, but there is every reason to believe that a growing number of British soldiers are likely to find that they have spent already far too much time in Iraq and that the justifications for this war, and for the risks they are made to take, are increasingly flimsy.

Bush in search of allies

In the US, Bush is facing growing problems in the run-up to next year's presidential election. So far, he seems to have been relying on an economic upturn to retain his seat. But the promised recovery is still proving elusive. Meanwhile opinion polls are showing increasing opposition to his policy in Iraq as the list of US soldiers killed in Iraq grows inexorably. In a recent poll, 40% said that "Bush's mishandling of the war in Iraq led them to distrust him in every other matter", while 23% "remained confident in Bush" and 37% did not know what to think. If anything, this is bad news for the Bush administration.

This is why, since it became obvious that the occupation of Iraq was facing serious resistance, Bush has been seeking allies to share its political cost, and to a lesser extent its economic cost. Sharing out the political cost was, in fact, so important that the US government proved prepared to pay the entire bill for the deployment of thousands of Polish soldiers. But outside Poland, the US administration's attempts have been in vain. While Bush was celebrating the growing size of the US-led coalition, closer examination showed that most of these new allies had only committed themselves to sending a symbolic force, and even then in most cases only for humanitarian purposes. Even the Spanish government, the US's most vocal ally in the European Union after Blair, did not offer much more. One of the difficulties was, of course, that in all these countries, including virtual US satellites like South Korea and Pakistan, the governments were confronted with strong protests at home against the idea of sending troops to Iraq to do the US's dirty job.

In fact, the only country which proved willing to make a substantial military effort was Turkey. But the violent opposition triggered in Iraqi Kurdistan by Turkey's proposal to send 10,000 troops to help out, forced Washington to drop the idea.

So Bush had no option but to turn again to the UN in order to get its endorsement. On 16 October, after numerous diplomatic approaches and, probably, much horse-trading, Bush and Blair managed to get the Security Council to endorse unanimously a new resolution which, effectively, provides the UN's patronage to the occupation forces in Iraq, although these forces remain under US command. Just as for the resolution already passed on 22nd May, which had recognised the Coalition Provisional Authority as the only legal authority in Iraq, the so-called "peace-front" on the Security Council (Russia, France, China and Germany) voted for the US-sponsored resolution without a murmur. Taken together, these two resolutions constitute, de facto, an unconditional endorsement of the war and the occupation of Iraq, which are brought, after the event, under the sponsorship of the UN. So much for the "peaceful" role that the UN is meant to play and for the "international law" it is meant to enforce according to anti-war politicians here, whose only argument against this war was that it was "illegal"!

However, the odds are that behind the unanimity of the Security Council some concessions were made by the US to the countries which had previously purported to oppose to the war, particularly to Russia and France. One of these concessions, for instance, is the setting up of the Iraq International Reconstruction Fund (IIRF) which will be run jointly by the World Bank and the UN. Since Washington has a controlling position in the World Bank, this still means that Bush more or less retains a veto on the decisions made by the IIRF, in particular with regard to the allocation of contracts, but it does provide a framework for French, Russian and German companies, for instance, to share some (although probably not many) of the reconstruction contracts and profits.

The sticking point, however, remained the funding of the IIRF. The so-called "donors' conference", which took place in Madrid just one week after this UN resolution was passed, opened on a rather bad note. Christian Aid, a British NGO, chose this occasion to release a statement denouncing the disappearance "into a financial black hole" of $4bn worth of funds released by the UN to the Coalition Provisional Authority. This revelation came after the disclosure by a US Congressman that US company Halliburton was importing oil to Iraq "using the Iraqis' own money" at inflated prices. At the same time, a lawyer working for USAID, the main US agency in charge of using US state funds to allocate contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq, had exposed the agency's practice of hugely exaggerating the funding required for each contract to the benefit of the contracted company.

Nevertheless, despite this background of corruption, the donors' conference went ahead and was hailed as a success by all participants, particularly the US. However the target $36bn deemed necessary by UN estimates was not even nearly reached. In fact only $13bn of grants and loans were promised by the participants. But out of this total, $5.7bn was pledged by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and $5bn by Japan, meaning that the other participants pledged only a miserly total of $2.3bn!

Rather than a "success", this was a resounding flop! Apparently, not for everyone however. Next to the main conference hall, another conference was taking place between a host of international companies and members of the US puppet Iraqi Governing Council. And according to business correspondents who attended this meeting, many promising contracts were discussed and agreed "in principle". Of course there was no question of Western companies risking a penny of their own money in Iraq. For these parasites, all this was about was how best to milk the reconstruction bounty!

Sliding into murderous chaos

Beyond Bush's electoral predicament, the occupation of Iraq is confronting imperialism with a more general problem - and not just US imperialism, but also the other minor imperialist countries which all have some sort of economic interest to preserve in the Middle East as well as some hope to gain a share of Iraq's natural resources. This community of interests is also one of the reasons for the unanimity behind Bush's latest resolution on the UN Security Council.

Indeed, the political vacuum caused by the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime opened a Pandora's box, out of which sprang the only political forces which had been allowed to more or less survive under Saddam's dictatorship. Some of these forces were were political currents which were integrated into the Baath party, while the others were Islamic currents which had been allowed to exist around the mosques from the late 1980s onwards, so long as they confined themselves to religion. These are reactionary forces and these is nothing to choose between them and the Baath dictatorship itself. Today, these currents are vying for power. Some have chosen to integrate into the puppet structures set up by the occupation forces; others have embarked on a bloody terrorist escalation in order to capitalise on the deep resentment caused by the war and the occupation among the population; others still, are probably playing both games.

The more time passes, the clearer it becomes that the US-British war and occupation has created such a mess in Iraq, that it is threatening to turn the country into a bloody quagmire, in the face of which even the US army, the most powerful in the world, may turn out to be impotent. Moreover, the resulting instability in Iraq could shatter many of the region's states, starting with the Gulf oil kingdoms, including Saudi Arabia, where all imperialist countries have sizeable investments. Whereas initial plans established last May involved a reduction of US troops to 70,000 by last September, US strategists are now talking about the need to maintain a force of at least 100,000 until mid-2004, which would be reduced to 50,000 by mid-2005. By then these forces would be assisted by 40,000 soldiers from the new Iraqi army, 25,000 from a new Iraqi civil defence force, while the Iraqi police would be doubled to 80,000 in addition to the 20,000 Iraqi guards already protecting oil and power generating installations. But these projected figures for US troops are published in the course of an election campaign and they are likely to play down the US military deployment rather than the opposite.

The impotence of the US army today can be gauged by the situation in the Baghdad area, where the average number of terrorist attacks against US forces stood at 70 a day in mid-October. Neither the systematic mopping-up operations carried out jointly by the Iraqi police and the US army, nor the thousands of Iraqis who have been arrested and parked in Saddam's former prisons and in huge prison camps outside the capital, have stopped the number of attacks and suicide bombings from growing. Against this backdrop, Bush's reiterated claim that the increasing number of attacks only reflects a desperate reaction to the US's "increasing progress towards democracy" is absurd.

When the US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz visited Baghdad, the terrorist groups used the opportunity to defy the US occupation authorities while demonstrating their degree of organisation. On 25 October, a Blackhawk helicopter was shot down near Tikrit, shortly after Wolfowitz had visited the town by helicopter. Then the next morning, a rocket attack against the al-Rashid hotel where Wolfowitz was staying - one of the best protected buildings in Baghdad - killed a US army colonel and injured 15 people.

But even worse came on 27 October, the first day of the Muslim Ramadan fast, when four Iraqi police stations were attacked by suicide-bombers almost simultaneously, while another attack hit the headquarters of the International Red Cross. On that day alone, 35 people died and 234 were injured, most of them Iraqis. Since then, a US Army Chinook helicopter was shot down near Falluja, leaving 15 soldiers dead - the largest number of casualties to date in a single attack aimed at the US.

Nor are these bombings confined to the so-called "Sunni triangle" around Baghdad. On 18 October, for instance, two US soldiers were shot in an ambush near Kirkuk, a town where such attacks had been virtually unheard of so far. Even in the Basra area, which, we are told here, is supposed to be the safest in Iraq due to the good work of the British army, terrorist attacks against the occupation forces have increased over the past three months. And although few soldiers have been killed, the number of soldiers injured is rising - although it would be hard to find any reports about this in the British media.

Although the terrorist attacks are virtually never claimed by anyone, some of them seem to carry the signature of Islamic fundamentalist groups, particularly the coordinated suicide bombings on the first day of Ramadan. Among these groups, Muqtaba al-Sadr's faction has been rising to prominence over the past months and appears now to dominate the myriad of smaller fundamentalist groups which have not been invited to join the Iraqi Governing Council. The main strength of this faction is that it has established virtual control over the gigantic Shiite slum-district of Baghdad, formerly known as Saddam City and now renamed Sadr City (after al-Sadr's father who was a victim of Saddam Hussein's purges of prominent clerics). With over two million inhabitants, this is by far the largest Shiite city in Iraq and it is also one of the poorest. Al-Sadr's group established its hold by combining the use of terror, enforced by its armed militia, and the provision of some welfare facilities at a time when everything had collapsed due to the war.

Significantly, since September there have been several armed confrontations between al-Sadr militias, on the one hand, and Iraqi police and US soldiers on the other, in Sadr City, but also in the holy town of Karbala, where al-Sadr's group is trying to eliminate rival fundamentalist militias. This means that, by now, al-Sadr feels he has enough support among the population to take the risk of appearing openly in opposing armed resistance to the occupation forces.

Against all evidence, the US occupation authorities are still trying to maintain the pretence that the terrorist attacks are either the last jolts of Saddam's regime or the work of some shadowy al-Qaeda operation. Whenever terrorists are arrested, great prominence is given to the fact that some of them are "foreigners", meaning by implication that Iraqis are "law-abiding" and would never indulge in such outrages. Of course, this does not stand up to scrutiny, given the rate and spread of the attacks. However, there are definitely 160,000 "foreign" armed combatants in Iraq - but they are American and British!

The population caught in the cross-fire

As a result of this situation, the Iraqi population is now caught in the cross fire between the occupying forces and an armed resistance which is demonstrating day after day its contempt for the Iraqi people who bear the brunt of their terrorist policy. Indeed, while the head count of US soldiers killed since Bush's "end of combat action" on 1st May, is available, no count is kept of the Iraqi victims of this on-going war. The only certainty, judging from the partial counts made by NGOs like Human Rights Watch, is that it is significantly larger.

The situation of the population can be summarised by one singe official figure: 70% unemployment. There are no welfare provisions of any sort, no distributions of food are made and public utilities are still not restored to normal working order, specially not in the poorest areas. Those workers who are in work are paid the standard $60/month decided months ago by the US authorities. This is more or less the equivalent of what they earned under Saddam Hussein, except that the food and housing subsidies which existed at the time have been stopped. And the 30% wage increase announced by the occupation authorities in the summer has still to be paid.

The US authorities have repealed all the legislation which provided some protection to the population. But they have not repealed a 1987 decree which banned unions and strikes in all state companies. According to a statement issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority last summer, anyone breaking these rules can be arrested and treated as a prisoner of war.

However unions were formed immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein. The largest grouping is the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions in which the old Iraqi Communist Party is reported to be the dominant force. But other unions have been formed illegally in state companies and some have been waging successful strikes. A recent delegation of US Labor against the War reported, for instance, a strike over wages and conditions in the industrial complex of Nahrawahn, 30km east of Baghdad, where 15,000 people are employed to produce bricks, working 14-hour shifts on a wage of $1.50/day, with virtually no protection against the heat of the furnaces. On 11 October, the workers went on strike for a wage increase, an employment contract, on-site medical facilities and a retirement scheme. When the site manager threatened them with the sack, they went back home to get their weapons and came back to set up an armed picket around the site. Eventually they won a 25% wage increase.

We do not know what the state of mind of the working class in Iraq is, how developed these forms of class resistance are, nor the level of organisation which exists on the ground in working class areas. But there is no doubt that it is this working class which holds in its hands the future of the entire Iraqi population and possibly that of the region as a whole. It is the only force which has the capacity to unite all its sections - whether Shiite, Sunni, Kurd, etc.. - around a common programme based on its class interests, and therefore to oppose an effective counter-offensive to the fundamentalist threat. It is also the only force which can appeal to the solidarity of the oppressed masses of the region on the basis of a programme aiming at the revolutionary transformation of the Middle East - for a Middle East of the toilers, free of the parasitism of its present privileged classes and of the plundering of imperialism.

For this to happen, the Iraqi working class will need a party of its own, a party which does not capitulate in advance to fundamentalism and to imperialism, in the name of "national unity" as the Communist Party of Iraq has already done by joining the puppet Iraqi Governing Council where it sits next to the two major fundamentalist parties. No, a party is needed which stands clearly on a class basis, for the overthrow of capitalist exploitation. We can only hope that such a party emerges before it is too late. In any case the working class of Iraq must be able to rely on the total solidarity of the British working class.