Editorial: From Iraq to Louisiana, the bloody chaos of an exploitative system

Sep/Oct 2005

It is impossible not to see a link between the catastrophe faced by the US population which lives along the Gulf of Mexico, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the catastrophe experienced by the Iraqi population since the US-British invasion.

On the face of it, the two situations are totally unrelated. One was caused by a natural phenomenon (although one which has become largely predictable, thanks to scientific progress), whereas the other was man-made, being the result of a deliberate greed- and power-driven policy of aggression on the part of two of the world's richest powers.

But there ends the obvious difference. What these two situations have in common, of course, is that behind them is the same Bush administration. Beyond this, down to the most ugly details, both bear the mark of a system which cares nothing for populations in general and the poor in particular. Because it is a system which has no purpose other than to protect the parasitism of a tiny layer of very rich capitalists who own and control everything. It is this parasitism which is the cause of so many social catastrophes. But the parasites and their trustees in government could not care less, so long as profits and dividends keep flowing in!

A criminal contempt for the Iraqi population

From the very first days following the invasion of Iraq, it became obvious that the US and British governments had made no plans whatsoever to restore a semblance of "normal" life for the population. Nothing was done, as a matter of urgency, to repair the damage caused by the western bombings to the most vital parts of the social infrastructure.

Nor had the US-British strategists made plans for the predictable breakdown of law and order which followed the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. So organised gangs were allowed to loot everything they could lay their hands on, including in hospitals and power stations, without the occupying troops doing anything about it. The only exceptions were, predictably, the oil installations, which were given some protection right from the beginning. After all, the invasion was designed, among other things, to benefit the western oil majors!

Subsequently came the claim that the occupying powers planned to "reconstruct" Iraq. Enormous funds were pledged to finance this reconstruction. But to date, less than 10% of these funds have actually been disbursed and most of that has gone straight into the pockets of western companies, mainly in the security and oil industries, and in the construction or refurbishment of military facilities.

The result is that, after over two years of occupation, essential services such as water, electricity and transport are still very unreliable, when available at all. There are chronic shortages of just about everything, including oil derivatives which are produced in Iraq, but used mostly to generate export revenue. Hospitals lack the most basic medical equipment and medicines. Many qualified nurses and doctors are still waiting to be vetted for any former involvement with the Baath party, before being allowed to work, despite the explosion of diseases caused by the bad quality of the water, in particular. For the occupation authorities, the health of the population is, obviously, of secondary importance.

The criminal disregard of the western "democratic crusaders" for the welfare of the Iraqi population was illustrated once again on 31st August, with the stampede which claimed over a thousand lives during a pilgrimage in Baghdad.

According to news reports, the tension was high among the crowd of Shia pilgrims after they had been targeted by a mortar attack in the morning. When rumours that a suicide bomber was hidden among the marchers began to circulate, there was a movement of panic on a bridge across the river Tigris. Many people were trampled to death while others were pushed over the parapets and drowned in the river.

What most reports forgot to mention however, is the fact that the end of this bridge had been blocked by a check-point manned jointly by US and Iraqi troops, who were searching everyone. As the pilgrims knew nothing about this, the marchers kept piling up on the bridge to the point where it became virtually impossible to move. It is at this moment, when the crowd could neither move forward nor backwards, that the panic broke out, leading to the huge number of casualties.

In fact, as was pointed out later, no measures had been taken by the authorities - American or Iraqi - to avoid incidents during a parade which was expected to attract several hundred thousand pilgrims. No provisions had been made to ensure that emergency services would be on stand-by for the occasion, with additional staff and resources. No attempt had been made to design the route of the march so as to minimise the number of bottlenecks. For the top dogs of the military bureaucracy, it was business as usual. All Iraqis being considered as potential terrorists, check and search-points had to be set up as usual and they were set up with the aim of protecting the troops rather than the pilgrims.

Hence the catastrophic bottleneck on the Tigris bridge. Hence, also, the subsequent absence of emergency services to take care of the injured - which seems to have increased the casualties by a significant number. As to the US military urgently reacting to the disaster, by mobilising their ambulance service or sending their speedboats up the river to help the injured and those who were drowning, there was never any question of that.

In any case, had a terrorist group launched a mortar attack or staged a suicide bombing on this bridge, the carnage would have been catastrophic in the best of cases. But due to the incompetence and irresponsibility of the generals and their contempt for the Iraqi population, a simple movement of panic was enough to cause the worst bloodbath seen in Iraq since the US attack on Fallujah!

From invasion to civil war

The contempt of the US and British governments for the population is illustrated even more blatantly by the political consequences of their invasion.

By precipitating the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, the invaders opened the way to all sorts of reactionary forces which had been waiting in the shadow of the regime. After so many years of dictatorship, various Iraqi politicians, would-be or actual warlords and clerics saw their chance to carve out their own fiefdoms within Iraq, by using the many centrifugal forces and local rivalries which had been more or less suppressed by the heavy hand of Saddam's regime. Using the political vacuum created by the invasion, they filled this with their own armed militias, with the aim of establishing their own territories and defending themselves against potential rivals as well as against the population itself.

The invasion planners in Washington and London had not anticipated such a development. In the run-up to the war, Bush and Blair had derided those who warned that the invasion could produce all the ingredients for a civil war and, possibly, for a regional explosion. When the militias started to appear on the ground, the occupation forces looked on and even sought their co-operation in order to maintain law and order. This was how, for instance, in Basra, the Badr Organisation, the armed militia of SCIRI, one of the two main Shia religious parties, was allowed by the British authorities to patrol the streets. They were thugs, who frequently attacked women who failed to abide by the strict Islamic dress code, but they were "useful" thugs in the eyes of the British army. Never mind the fact that these thugs were in the business of establishing their own dictatorship over the town's population!

By the time the US and British authorities started to build up the various Iraqi security forces, the militias were strong enough to either impose their control over these new security forces, like the Kurdish militias, or to infiltrate them, as was the case for the Badr Organisation in the South and various Sunni groups in the central and northern parts of the country. So much so, that according to a report published in August by the Washington Post, in Basra, where the number of people abducted and murdered has been steadily increasing over the past months, most abductions are carried out by policemen.

Today, Bush and Blair may well hail the "new democracy" which is supposedly emerging in Iraq and brandish the draft constitution which may, or may not be adopted in a referendum due to take place in October, to support their optimism. But their so-called "democracy", assuming it does materialise eventually, will be actually be a theocracy, since the draft constitution provides that no law will be enacted if it contradicts the teachings of Islam. For a country which has been for decades, one of the most secular in the Middle East, this would be a huge step backwards, particularly for women.

However, all these "democratic" fairy tales are only designed for the consumption of western public opinion, anyway. The chances of this constitution being adopted, let alone implemented, are slim. But whether it is the case or not, the clock has already started turning back in Iraq, thanks to the western invasion which has opened the way to the religious parties and thanks to the contempt and brutality of the occupation forces towards the population, which has pushed many more people into the arms of these religious parties out of despair and anger.

For the time being, the reality on the ground for the population is the rule of the armed gangs, from those which operate openly in the uniform of the Iraqi security forces or in their own uniforms, to those which operate underground - not to mention, of course, the most powerful of all, the occupation forces. And in one way or another, all these militias use terrorist methods, whether it is abductions, suicide bombings or aerial bombings. Because they all share the same objective - to terrorise the population into submission in order to impose their own rule.

The reality, also, is that far from decreasing the rivalries between the militias is increasing. During the drafting of the Constitution, for instance, there was a significant increase, not just of suicide bombings, but also in sectarian attacks against the Shia and Sunni populations, resulting in dozens of casualties on both sides. Apart from the Sunni-based factions, most of which have been opposed to the Constitution from the beginning, in the knowledge that they were bound to lose out as a "punishment" for their relatively privileged position under Saddam Hussein, the coalition of Shia religious parties itself is beginning to split 3-ways, with one faction opposing any form of federalism, another favouring a southern "Shialand" enjoying the same right to self-determination (and therefore possible independence) as Iraqi Kurdistan and another seeking to establish itself as a counter-weight to both the Kurds and the Sunni in a federal Iraq. And behind these differences, among the Shia factions, as well as between the Shia factions and the Kurdish and Sunni faction, lies also the vexed issue of who will control the oil bounty and in what proportion.

For months Iraq has been in a state of bloody chaos. The occupation forces' attack against Fallujah, was justified as an attempt to end this. They bombed the city into the ground but the terrorist attacks went on at a renewed pace and spread further north. No amount of repression is likely to prevent the country from sliding into civil war. In the end, the balance sheet of the invasion's achievements will be the replacement of one dictator with a host of aspiring dictators waging a merciless civil war at the expense of the whole of the Iraqi population. And all this for what? Because of the need of the richest capitalist classes to tighten their domination over the resources and markets of the poor countries, in order to protect their profits.

Natural disaster? Man-made as well...

The population of Louisiana was not subjected to bombings nor to a military invasion. But they were treated no better than the Iraqi population, both in the run-up to the catastrophic hurricane and in its aftermath.

When, on 28th August, 3 days after the warning issued by the US National Hurricane Centre, the order to evacuate New Orleans completely, was issued by the authorities, no provisions were made for emergency transport. People were told to leave the town by their own means. Those who had them, used their cars in order to get away from the coastal area, resulting in a gigantic traffic jam on the roads out of the city.

But not everyone was able to leave the town. It is estimated that up to 100,000 remained. Many among them were aged, in particular a number living in old people's homes for whom the authorities had simply failed to provide any transportation. But mainly those who remained were among the poorest, whether it was because they did not own a car, or because they were not aware of the fact that being built partly under sea-level, the town was particularly vulnerable to floods.

Despite the romantic image that New Orleans has from a tourists' point of view, it is one of the poorest cities in the US. It is estimated that 30% of its population lives at or below the poverty line - with a large proportion of black people among them. Apparently, it did not occur to the town, state or federal politicians that this large, poor population might need some help in order to evacuate the town. Or more likely, they did not care: the fate of the poor is the least of the politicians' concerns, at least as long as they do not take angrily to the streets. In any case, this is probably the main reason why such a large number of people remained in the town when the hurricane struck on 29th August.

The next day, the protective system of levees alongside a nearby lake broke, flooding the town, over and above the flooding already caused by the massive rains of the previous day. Now, was this just due to natural causes? There is abundant evidence that this was in fact a man-made disaster. According to several reports, the levee was badly maintained and its upgrading had been postponed for lack of funds. A report published in the Financial Times mentions that federal funding for hurricane-protection projects in the area has been nearly halved since 2001, down to $82m, while Bush's 2006 budget includes the biggest cut ever in the flood and hurricane protection budget specifically allocated to New Orleans. These cuts, according to the same report are due to the transfers made by Bush to his Department of Home Security, which is in charge of the "war on terrorism". What these figures mean, is that for the Bush administration protecting the half-a-million people living in New Orleans from hurricanes and floods is not even worth the military cost of five days of war in Iraq!

Shooting looters before saving lives

However, the real scandal came with the rescue operation. During the four days after the hurricane first struck the city, no help came from the outside world. There was no sign of the army, which is supposed to be permanently on stand-by and should therefore have been able to intervene immediately. Only a handful of helicopters started appearing at the end of the second day, but they carried no supplies and were not equipped to lift people from the buildings.

Thousands of people seeking protection from the hurricane had crowded into the town's SuperDome from the first day. But its metal roof was not strong enough and the 100mph wind soon opened breaches. From 9,000 on the first day, the number of people huddling in this place, without any food or blankets, or any place to lie down for that matter, went up to 25,000 on the third day, before they were finally bussed to larger inland facilities on the fourth day.

In fact the first "rescue" did not come to rescue people from the flood, but property from people. Many of those who were in the streets were poor people who, often, had lost everything in the flood. They did not have any food. Quite naturally large numbers of them helped themselves in the shops which had been deserted by their better-off owners.

But this looting for survival was considered by the Bush administration far more of an emergency than to send food and soldiers to rescue the population. People may die in their thousands, but private property must be protected, particularly from the poor. This was the message that New Orleans US Attorney Jim Letten had to give to the press, on Bush's behalf: "The streets of New Orleans belong to its citizens, not the violent thugs who have stuck their heads up out of holes in an attempt to exploit a national tragedy. Not one inch of that city is going to be ceded to the criminal element". Indeed, for people like this Letten, the poor are little more than criminals and they should be treated as such.

This was the task of the first National Guards who arrived in New Orleans. It was not to rescue people who had been stuck in the flood for four days, nor to provide them with food, nor even to take care of the elderly and the sick. No, it was to arrest the looters at gun point and shoot them if necessary - and quite a few seem to have been shot dead.

This was, transposed to the mud of the flooded US town, the same contempt and brutality that the US and British army display in the cities of Iraq. No doubt, this will help the American working class to understand the frustration, hatred and anger felt by many Iraqis when they are subjected to the arrogance and harassment of the heavily-armed, trigger-happy western troops.

Maybe, also, the state or federal authorities suddenly realised that they may be faced with a full-scale riot in the town, by a population angry at having been let down in such a way? Which may explain why no estimate of the number of casualties has been published in the US so far.

The US leaders may think they have defused the anger in New Orleans with their heavy-handed pre-emptive tactics. However, the poor population of New Orleans who went through this four-day ordeal will not forget what the criminal way in which they have been treated. And one day, together with the rest of the US working class, they will stand up and make the profiteers and their politicians pay for it.