When the government revealed Washington's latest request for British soldiers to be sent from Basra into central Iraq, in order to relieve the overstretched US occupation forces, there was widespread opposition. Opinion polls showed a 2 to 1 majority of the British public against agreeing to Washington's demand.
Nevertheless, after going through the motions of "checking the security situation on the ground", the government announced that it would send the 500-strong Black Watch regiment - which was within days of returning home (and due to be disbanded!) - with an additional support force of 350. Predictably, this triggered controversy in the media and among politicians, raising the question of the real motives behind Blair's decision.
It is not the first time that the Bush administration has tried to get British troops involved in central Iraq. Last April a similar request was made for British troops to replace Spanish soldiers who had pulled out. But at the time, Blair was anticipating the local and Euro elections and he turned down the request. What was probably even more decisive, though, was the fact that Bush, being in the middle of the US presidential election campaign, decided to postpone his attempt to crush resistance in Fallujah, fearing the electoral consequences of what could turn out to be a bloodbath. So in the end, the American request was quietly put on ice.
This time round, there were no such constraints and Blair yielded to yield to Bush's demand just before the US election actually took place. This led a number of critics, particularly in the anti-war Labour and trade-union milieu, but also among pro-war Labour MPs, to accuse Blair of making this gesture in order to boost Bush's vote. An explanation of Blair's motives which rather smacks of "little England" chauvinism! It is doubtful that many American voters would take that much notice of the fact that 850 British troops were sent to join the far larger US contingent in central Iraq, or that they would somehow see this as a vindication of Bush's policy in Iraq. In any case, the news certainly did not even make US newspapers' headlines. Of course, many US voters were certainly wary of voting for Bush, because they feared that his re-election would result in more body-bags coming back from Iraq. But why these voters would have changed their minds on the grounds that there would be more body-bags returning to Britain, is anybody's guess!
There were other accusations against Blair's decision, which, in some cases, were rather laughable. For instance, some tabloids, both pro-Tory and pro-Labour, whined that Blair was somehow "betraying British interests" by putting the Black Watch regiment under US command. As if the British army had not been de facto under US command, at least from a political point of view, right from the beginning of the war, if only due to the relative sizes of the two forces on the ground! And as if the government had not joined the invasion primarily because it hoped that, by doing so, it would be tolerated by the US as a junior partner in crime, when the time comes to share the spoils of the war!
More seriously, some Tories close to the military criticised Blair's decision from a different point of view. So, for instance, Michael Smith, the Daily Telegraph's "defence correspondent", quoted a high-ranking officer of the Black Watch as saying, "I hope the government knows what it got itself into. I am not sure it fully understands the risks" and Smith added that according to an ex-Black Watch officer, "there was an acceptance that the troops might suffer up to 20% casualties." There were many similar complaints, from the military and a number of Tories, about the fact that by sending such a small contingent into central Iraq to hold a dangerous position on its own, Blair was risking the men's lives pointlessly.
There is indeed an element of truth in this. But what it shows is that Blair's motives have little to do with the actual military situation, nor of course, with the risks involved for the soldiers he ordered into central Iraq. His motives - as well as Bush's reasons for requesting a British force - are political rather than military.
Indeed, initially the role of the Black Watch was presented as mere back-up for the US, in order to take over temporarily from US soldiers who were to be moved into the so-called "triangle of death". However, it soon turned out that the Black Watch's mission would be quite different. Firstly, because they were sent to camp Dogwood, 20 miles south-west of Baghdad, which is not only right in the middle of the "triangle of death", but on the main southern supply road to the rebel stronghold of Fallujah. Secondly, because it was later revealed that the British force would take an active part in the US-planned "final assault" against Fallujah, not in the front line (at least not for the time being), but by securing strategic positions very close to the town in order to block the insurgents' lines of supply and to prevent them from escaping.
Of course, the government and the British and US military must have known this all along. At the time of writing, the land offensive against Fallujah has just began. The US army has gathered 20,000 soldiers outside the town including two battalions of the Iraqi "Special Forces" led by one of Saddam Hussein's former heads of intelligence, general Shahwani. Certainly, from a military point of view, the US generals could have done without the 850 British soldiers sent by Blair. But from a political point of view, it is quite another matter.
Indeed, it seems increasingly likely that this assault on Fallujah will end in a bloodbath. The statements made to the press by some of the US officers in command speak for themselves. For instance, one colonel belonging to the attacking US forces, denounced in front of the BBC the "faceless enemy" which had attacked his men so far and he added: "But the enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He lives in Fallujah and we're going to destroy him". And it seems that such bloody-minded bigotry is quite widespread among officers' ranks. To date, half of the 300,000-strong population of Fallujah is said to have fled from the town. According to a CNN correspondent, the word now is that any man under 50 will be considered as a potential "terrorist" and any car as a potential suicide bomb. If such is the brief of the attacking marines, there is no doubt that it will be a bloody massacre - and this, in addition to the casualties caused by the systematic pounding by aircraft, helicopters and heavy artillery, which began just after the US election.
If such a bloodbath does take place, the US leaders would definitely prefer not to take responsibility for it on their own. And from this point of view, the presence of the Black Watch is far more than a token gesture on the part of the British government. It is a way of showing that it is prepared to share this responsibility, regardless of the amount of bloodshed involved.
A bloody myth
In any case, Blair's decision to order the troops to help with the US-planned "clean up" of the Sunni "death triangle", makes a mockery of the past claim that the British occupation of southern Iraq was somehow more "humane" and "benevolent" than the US occupation of the rest of the country.
So far, this government had kept up its boast that if the insurgency appeared weaker - or at least less bloody - in the British-occupied zone, this was due to the "know-how" acquired by the British army in places like Northern Ireland (presumably during the centuries of Britain's occupation of Ireland and brutal repression against its population!) - and its success in "winning the hearts and minds" of the Iraqi population.
Of course, this was complete fabrication. Some of the very first British casualties after the fall of Saddam Hussein were killed as retaliation against the heavy-handed policing methods used by the army against ordinary Iraqis. Subsequently, there has been a string of revelations over the killing of Iraqi civilians by British soldiers, either shot on the spot for no reason other than the fact that they were at the wrong place, at the wrong time, or as a result of so-called "questioning" while in military custody.
If, in the British zone, the torture scandal never reached the scale it reached at the US-run Abu-Ghraib prison, it was partly because the MoD was quick to pay off the families of the victims in return for their silence, and partly because the British authorities have proved to be very effective at sweeping such embarrassing issues under the carpet - like, for instance, when they managed to prevent the Red Cross' damning report about the British army's brutality against Iraqi civilians from being made public and to get the media to simply "forget" about it.
In any case, the alleged "benevolence" of the British occupation troops did not prevent Basra and Amarra, the two main towns under British control, from being just as shaken by the Shia insurgency last March, as were other Shia towns outside the British occupied zone. Nor did it prevent southern Iraq from becoming a highly dangerous territory for western troops travelling without heavy armoured protection. If the rate of attacks there has been lower than in central Iraq - although it has increased regularly over the past few months - this may reflect the fact that, unlike the Sunni resistance, some of the Shia armed resistance groups, including the militia of the leading figure in the March insurgency, Moqtadah al-Sadr, seem to be keeping a lower profile in order to win a role in the electoral process.
But these differences certainly do not reflect any support for the British occupation among the population, if only because, just like in the rest of Iraq, the occupation authorities have done little or nothing to restore public facilities to working order so as to make day-to-day life at least bearable for the majority.
And the reality of the "success" of the British occupation is illustrated by the overall British casualty figures - 83 dead since the beginning of the invasion - which is only marginally lower than the US casualty figure as a proportion of the number of troops involved.
To the bitter end in defence of British capital
The objective of this government in taking part in the invasion of Iraq in the first place was to ensure that British companies would get a share of the spoils, even if it is only a minor one compared to their US rivals. Everyone remembers the complaint of BP's chief executive during the month before the invasion, arguing that his company had "historic" rights over Iraq's oil because in the days when the country was still part of Britain's backyard, the company, which later became BP, controlled the majority of Iraqi oil. It is to this kind of pressure that the Labour government is bowing - pressures which are not only coming from the oil giants, but also from arms manufacturers for whom the Iraqi market has been closed by the UN sanctions over the past decade, and the manufacturing and finance industry in general, for which Iraq used to be a substantial market, at least up until the beginning of the Iran-Iraq war.
But what guarantee is there that British companies will indeed get their share of the loot, unless the British government sticks to its policy of alliance with US imperialism to the bitter end, particularly if the going gets really tough? Even then, this guarantee is limited, as was shown by the way the so-called "reconstruction" contracts were distributed, with a small number of US companies getting all the contracts and a few British companies being merely allowed to act as subcontractors for them. This leaves British capital only a narrow margin for manoeuvre. If it wants its share, however small, the US leaders must not be able to fault Blair's commitment to the occupation. This is something that Blair and his government understand very well and accept without second thoughts. But this comes at a price - and sending the Black Watch regiment to the "death triangle" may well turn out to be only a first instalment.
Over the past six months, Bush has been constrained by electoral need to keep the number of body bags returning to the US to an "acceptable" level. Now this constraint is gone. As long as there is no mass movement of protest against the war in the US, his hands are free for the coming four years - and he seems determined to use them. Already, there are reports of an increase in the number of US troops being trained for, sent to, or kept in Iraq, so that the overall number of US troops is increasing. What is more, the proportion of the National Guard and the Reserve - i.e. part-time soldiers - which is already at an unprecedented 40%, is rising. By sending as many part-time soldiers as possible to the killing fields of Iraq, the US military ensures that its professional army remains mostly intact for other purposes, in particular for use against the US population if need be. The fact that the proportion of part-time soldiers is increasing, may well mean that the US military expects casualties to rise dramatically.
And this is not just a matter for speculation. Leaving aside the battle for Fallujah itself, there is a distinct risk that a bloodbath there could trigger an explosive reaction right across the Sunni triangle and, possibly beyond, including in the Shia areas.
Contrary to the impression given by the media, Fallujah is not, by far, the only power base of the resistance. Despite the offensive launched by US troops in September and October to "reclaim" the other towns of the Sunni triangle which had become no-go areas for them and despite the claims of the US authorities that law and order was restored in these towns, this appears to be a fairy tale produced for the benefit of western public opinion. In fact, US daily papers such as the New York Times or the Washington Post are full of reports concerning not only explosive devices, mortar attacks and suicide bombings, but also armed clashes between resistance groups and the occupation forces taking place in towns like Ramadi, Samarra and Baqubah. Ramadi, for instance, with a 400,000 population is larger than Fallujah and is described by the New York Times correspondent as a town in which "the resistance rules" and the most likely haven for resistance fighters retreating from Fallujah. As for Baqubah, another journalist coined this description: "the occupiers rule by day, the resistance rules by night"
It is not hard to imagine what might happen should a wholesale attack on Fallujah result in a new wave of insurgency in these towns. Not to mention in Baghdad itself, including the sprawling Shia slum of Sadr City in which, according to TV footage, a local version of the Intifada seems to be taking off, involving very large numbers of youth fighting bare handed or with stones against the over-armed armoured US patrols.
If such an explosive reaction takes place, the US forces will have no choice but to escalate the war. The declaration of a state of emergency by the US-appointed prime minister Iyad Allawi, on 7 November, involving restrictions on people's movements, curfews and the right of the police to detain anyone indefinitely, may seem irrelevant in a country already occupied by 160,000 troops or so. But it could turn out to be a declaration of war against the urban population, whose movements, so far, were not so easy to control, due to the relatively small number of checkpoints compared to the size of the large towns' populations.
If such an escalation of the war takes place, the US will need more military personnel - possibly a lot more - especially if insurgency develops along the lines it did last April. And the number of casualties, among the soldiers and even more so among the Iraqi population, may then rise dramatically.
In such circumstances, Bush will probably seek to share the political and military cost of the war with his closest partners. And as the smaller partners like the Eastern European countries are pulling out one after the other, while most of the larger industrialised countries are still refusing to dirty their hands in Iraq, Bush will turn to Blair and demand another instalment in the form of more troops, this time in substantial numbers. And there is no doubt that, if he can get away with it, Blair and his government will once again yield to the request, especially now that he has made the first foray out of southern Iraq and got a section of British opinion to go along with it.
Will Blair and Bush get away with it?
However, regardless of the US election results, a whole section of public opinion, both in Britain and the US, remains adamantly opposed to this war. Neither Bush nor Blair can be sure that such an escalation will not result in a mass movement of opposition, large and radical enough to be seen as a political hazard both by the capitalist class and by the governments.
For the time being, there is no sign of such a movement. Protest marches do not, in and of themselves, represent such a political hazard for the capitalists. This was why the huge anti-war demonstrations in Britain and those in the US, although smaller but more numerous, did not stop the invasion of Iraq.
However, there are developments that the capitalist class just cannot afford to let happen - in particular protests in the army itself. Because what these put into question is the reliability of its own state machinery. So far there have been very few known cases of protests. In the US, there have been a number of cases of AWOL (absent without leave) soldiers who melted into thin air while on leave at home. But these are individual protests which leave those concerned isolated or dependent on friends, making it difficult for them to agitate against the war among their comrades still in the army - unless of course they are part of an organisation which has a presence in the army. But no such organisations seem to exist at present.
As to cases of collective protest, there are only two which have been publicised in the US army. One took place in Iraq, when a platoon of 19 army engineers - all from the Reserve - refused to carry out a mission which they considered suicidal, because the trucks in which they were meant to deliver fuel to another base were not roadworthy due to lack of repairs and because they were being refused armed protection for the trip. Another such case took place in camp Shelby, a National Guard training camp in Mississippi, where a platoon and its NCOs rebelled against their immediate superiors and refused to do any training until they had been received by a senior officer in order to table their grievances - which were over late wages, poor facilities and the contemptuous attitude of their officers. Undoubtedly many similar small scale collective protests have taken place in the US army, only to be immediately hushed by the army hierarchy.
In Britain no such development has so far filtered through the very effective wall of silence that the MoD maintains around everything concerning military matters. But it is certain that there is widespread discontent in the army. This was illustrated by the case of the three Black Watch soldiers who died in an ambush on the second day of the regiment's operations in central Iraq. As their relatives told the press, all three of the dead men had been against the war and convinced that Blair was risking their lives for oil! So far it is around the relatives of soldiers who have been killed in Iraq, such as Rose Gentle from Glasgow, that a campaign is just beginning to take off the ground, with the aim of getting the troops out of Iraq. And we must hope that it will gain momentum, if only because it has far more potential to reach soldiers in the army than the pacifist campaigns which have existed so far.
But ultimately, for soldiers to rebel against their own officers, takes far more than a campaign. It takes the confidence that they will not be left on their own facing the pressure of the army hierarchy, the threat of a military tribunal and possibly a long prison sentence. There have been examples in history when such strong movements of rebellion have developed in the army. During the latter part of the Vietnam war, US soldiers were reinforced in their resistance against following orders by the on-going protests which were taking place back in the US. And on a much larger scale, in the aftermath of World War II, tens of thousands of American soldiers held demonstrations in the Philippines in order to be demobilised, while in the British army, there were strikes in India and Egypt over the same demand. Significantly in these cases, many of the soldiers who were instrumental in organising these movements were former working class activists - CIO organisers in the case of the US army who had been actively involved in the big strike wave of 1934-40 and former militant shop-stewards from the engineering industry in the case of the British army.
There are probably very few such experienced working class activists among the soldiers in Iraq, but there are many soldiers who joined the army through "economic conscription", because of unemployment and the cost of getting proper training. And these soldiers, who belong to working families, could be reached through their relatives who are at work in Britain. This is why, in the absence of a genuine workers' party capable of organising the fight against the war through its influence among workers, no effective opposition to the war will be built without developing deep roots within the strongholds of the working class of this country.