Iraq war - From the "war on terror" to a bloody tinderbox

Nov/Dec 2005

Over the past weeks, Blair has been tying himself in knots for the sake of his personal "war on terrorism".

His legislation to criminalise "incitement of terrorism" finally got through by jus one vote - which was already a big setback, considering Labour's 66-seat majority. But even then, this legislation was only passed thanks to potential opponents like Liberal-Democrat frontbencher Vince Cable being held up by police outside the Commons during the vote and Respect MP, George Galloway not turning up for the session.

Distrust in Blair has built up to such a level that, even within his own party, many suspect that this legislation will end up being used against people who have no intention of embarking on terrorist activities in Britain.

And for good reason. After all, there are one or two lessons that can still be remembered from the history of Northern Ireland:. How many people were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, despite having nothing to do with terrorism, simply because they were known for their opposition to Britain's occupation?

The rest of Blair's "anti-terror" legislation looks set to come up against even more opposition. The right for the police to detain alleged terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge (instead of the current 14 days), which is one of the main planks of this bill (although not the only unacceptable aspect), was rightly dubbed as "disguised internment". Even the Tories, despite their usual keenness to play the law and order card, have refused to go along with it - no doubt because they want to please the liberal middle class electorate they are trying to regain, but, above all, because the state has no need for such additional powers.

As we went to press, Blair, who certainly does not want to risk losing the vote on this bill, was looking for some sort of compromise with the two other main parties. This was turning into farcical horse-trading over how many detention days without charge would achieve a consensus - whether it would be 28, as an amendment moved by a Labour backbencher suggested, or 42, as some government advisor was proposing, or something in-between...

Everyone knows, of course, including Blair, that the present powers of the police and courts are already extremely elastic. And the inertia of the justice machinery is so overwhelming that even when the police does blatantly bend the rules too far, they and the government which issues the orders, can get away with it. This was what cost the life of Jean-Charles Menezes last July. And so far, neither those who pulled the trigger nor the Home minister who cleared the "shoot to kill" policy for use against a suspected terrorist (disclosed by the police after the event in order to cover their backs), have been charged, let alone brought to trial.

So, if the government has been pushing its "anti-terror" legislation so doggedly so far, it is certainly not because the state and police are short of legal powers, nor for the sake of "national security" as Home minister Hazel Blears keeps claiming, but for political reasons, which have nothing to do with terrorism itself. But these reasons have everything to do with the war in Iraq.

Because, what transpires day after day, behind the clichés of an Iraqi "democracy in the making" offered by the media, is a situation which is deteriorating further and further. More than two and a half years after starting a war which was overwhelmingly unpopular in Britain, Blair and his government have to justify, one way or another, both the continuation of the occupation and its abysmal failure to improve the country's situation. And this is where Blair's "war on terror" - just as Bush's own version - comes in.

Having forcefully denied, against all evidence, that London's 7 July bombings had anything to do with the war in Iraq, Blair turns the issue on its head, by arguing that the occupation of Iraq is a necessity in order to effectively fight a "threat of global terrorism" which, according to him, has been hanging above Britain's head long before the war in Iraq.

Except, of course, that this threat, if it does materialise, does not exist independently from the atrocities caused by western imperialism in the poor countries and, more specifically in the Middle East. And the British occupation of Iraq is not part of the solution, it is part of the problem.

Another "democratic" sham

Unlike the media, the government was careful for once, not to hail the constitutional referendum held on 15th October in Iraq as "democracy in the making".

But then, Blair had even less to brag about this time than at the time of the assembly election. Not only is this constitution instituting a state in which "no law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam can be enacted", thereby establishing what amounts to a religious state dominated by Islam, in a country which was once one of the most secular in the Middle East. But, in addition, it contains nothing that could protect women from the oppressive and backward diktats that local fundamentalist strong men are already imposing on them today, including in British-occupied Basra. This is the kind of "progress" that the imperialist invasion has brought to the Iraqi population. Certainly nothing to write home about!

Besides, the way in which this referendum was organised, under the watchful eye of the occupation forces, was worthy of a banana republic and speaks volumes about what those in power today have in store for the population.

Many of the people who turned out to vote probably never had a chance to read the text they were supposed to vote on, except maybe in the largest towns where the document was circulated by shopkeepers. But what the voters could not know was the last minute deal passed, under the auspices of the US, between the Iraqi government and the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (one of the local affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood). In return for this party's endorsement of the constitution, the government agreed to add an amendment to the draft which provides that the National Assembly, due to be elected next December, will be able to introduce amendments to the constitution by a simple majority, provided a new referendum is organised to endorse it. In other words, what Iraqi voters did not know is that they were voting for yet another "transitional" constitution and not for the real thing.

The vote itself was a catalogue of irregularity. Observers reported that in some Sunni areas, the polling stations had not opened or had been moved at the last minute without voters knowing about it. Others reported the threatening presence of armed militias outside polling stations. Still others told hilarious stories about ballot boxes disappearing mysteriously after the vote and re-emerging in the provincial capital, carried by militiamen who knew exactly what sort of result they wanted and how to get it.

After the vote, it took no less than 10 days for the authorities to declare the results. Officially, this delay was due to complaints filed in the British-occupied south over the incredible scores (over 95%) achieved by the "yes" vote. The Electoral Commission promised a recount - but this changed nothing to these extraordinary results.

In fact, the Electoral Commission's problem appears to have been a different one. In order for the draft constitution to be rejected, at least 3 of the 18 provinces had to vote "no" by a 2/3 majority. In two provinces - Fallujah and Tikrit - this 2/3 majority against the constitution was indisputable (even if there had been as many irregularities there as everywhere else). But there was also another province where the "no" vote had achieved a majority - Mosul. And the problem may well have been how to prevent Mosul from tilting the result towards rejection without provoking the "no" voters into causing mayhem.

In the end, when the official results were announced on 25th October, the "no" vote was credited with a 55% majority in the Mosul province, short of the 66% majority which would have been necessary to affect the outcome of the referendum, but significant enough to ensure that the "no" voters in Mosul would not feel totally disenfranchised.

There were some rather strange results however. 13 provinces were said to have voted by 94% or more, for the constitution and in the case of one, against it. Among these was Basra, where there was a 96% vote in favour of the constitution. Yet, Iraq's large industrial towns, like Basra, have a long secular tradition, far more so than the rural areas and smaller towns. And this result, which does not tally with this tradition, is all the more remarkable because in all the other comparable towns - Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk - opposition to the constitution was quite substantial. But then, the British high command may well have chosen to turn a blind eye to the tricks of Basra's all-powerful fundamentalist militias. After all it was not "democracy" that really mattered, but to get a "yes" vote!

A further intensification of the war

The US army has increased its troops level to 157,000 over the past weeks, officially to facilitate next December's Assembly election. But in fact, the figures available show that casualties among US soldiers in October were the highest since last January (99 killed) and the number of US soldiers wounded (722) was the largest monthly figure for the year.

True, in the course of October, there have been a number of US offensives against several towns close to the Syrian border, usually described as being aimed at "al-Qaeda fighters" - as if there was some sort of "al-Qaeda army" fighting US troops in Iraq! However, US soldiers do not get killed or wounded in such operations, which mostly involve bombing villages into the ground without the attackers taking any risks. On the contrary, most of the casualties are caused by rocket attacks or roadside explosive devices in areas which are supposed to have been under US control for a long time.

In other words, far from receding, the armed resistance to the occupation is at least holding its ground. And it is proving capable of going on the offensive whenever a political event such as the recent referendum (and probably the December election) warrants it, whether it is with the aim of undermining the US-backed regime, reminding the population of the fact that it has not given up the fight against the occupation, or trying to prove to the western leaders that they will have no choice but to provide more political space for the resistance groups, or probably a combination of all these things.

Judging from mainstream media reports, the British-occupied south seems to be spared this rampant guerilla war, apart from some recent spectacular suicide bombings. But in fact, this impression is a delusion caused by the self-censorship of the British press.

There is the case of the Maysan province, for instance, which covers an area traditionally occupied by the "Marsh Arabs", between the Tigris river and the Iranian border. It is an area which had a long record of guerilla fighting under Saddam Hussein, partly due to the fact that the marshes provided a natural protection against the army. In the 1970s, groups of communist activists even tried to escape the repression and survive there.

In this province, a low-level guerilla war has been going on without interruption since the invasion. When British troops occupied the area, local guerilla groups had already taken control of the province's capital, Amarah, and the British army was not welcomed by the population. Later, it was in this province that soldiers from the British Military Police were besieged and killed in a police station, in retaliation for a brutal search operation in the town of Majar.

In the Spring of 2004, there was a 3-month battle between the British army and guerilla forces linked to the fundamentalist Shia cleric Moqtadah al-Sadr, for control of Amarah. In the end, predictably, the much better armed western troops won the battle, having killed 800 insurgents in the process. But nine months later, in January this year, the same supporters of Moqtadah al-Sadr stood in the provincial election, which they won. And once again, the authority of the occupation forces was challenged in the streets.

In April this year, a new operation involving the Staffordshire Regiment was ordered by British high command in order to regain full control of the province. Again, British troops won the upper hand. But this turned out to be a pyrrhic victory, when local guerillas switched to the methods more commonly used in other parts of Iraq - roadside bombs and hit-an-run attacks against British patrols. Ironically, the government's reaction to this guerilla activity has been to complain bitterly about the fact that the guerillas were becoming more effective thanks to having received "sophisticated weapons from Iran". But surely Iran's "sophisticated weapons" cannot be more "sophisticated" than those used by British soldiers?

All the occupation forces can do now, is to run after elusive guerillas, carry out always more house searches looking for weapons and arrest more and more "suspects". And each time they carry out such policing operations, they generate more sympathy for the guerilla forces and, probably, more recruits.

In any case, all the elements are in place, both in the US-controlled part of Iraq and in the British-occupied south, for an even stronger resurgence of the resistance in the run-up to the December election. And many more casualties are to be expected.

However, while it cannot be acceptable that western soldiers who did not choose to be sent to the killing fields of Iraq should die or be wounded there for the sole benefit of western companies, one should not forget that it is the Iraqi population itself which suffers the largest number of victims month after month. So, in October, the official statistics published by the Iraqi government (which are likely to understate the casualties rather than the opposite) showed that there were almost 10 times more Iraqi killed during that month than US soldiers: 893 Iraqi killed, among which 400 were civilian, 282 were "insurgents" and the rest were members of the various Iraqi police and army corps.

A ballot box which conceals a tinderbox

The deadline for political parties and alliances to register for the 15th December election was set for 28th October, both for the National Assembly and the provincial assemblies. By that time, around 200 entities had registered.

On a national level, the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, led by the two largest Shia religious parties - al-Dawa and SCIRI - will include the main faction supporting Moqtadah al-Sadr. However the Fadilah party, which is also more or less linked to al-Sadr, but based mainly around Basra, will stand its own independent list. The Iraqi Islamic Party will be leading a Sunni list, while the two main nationalist Kurdish parties will stand a joint list as they did in the last election. Only one list seems to be standing on a secular basis - the Iraqi National Bloc list, led by the former US-sponsored prime minister Ilyad Allawi, which is hardly attractive for those who object to the western occupation, even if this list also includes candidates from the Iraqi Communist Party.

In other words, this election will be contested on an almost purely sectarian and religious basis. But this is characteristic of the situation created by the occupation.

Indeed, it is not the collapse of Saddam Hussein which, in and of itself, has created this situation. In history, whenever dictatorships have collapsed out of wear and tear or, even better, under the pressure of the oppressed, this has generated a contagious desire for freedom, an aspiration for a new life turned towards the future and an enthusiasm for organising collectively in order to do what was previously banned by the regime.

But the invasion has deprived the Iraqi population of such a new beginning. Instead of this overwhelming sense of rediscovered freedom, they have been subjected first to the bombs of the invasion and then to a new dictatorship under a different uniform.

So, instead of a popular explosion of enthusiasm producing new organisations capable of taking the population forward, the invasion has produced today's political landscape. Having wooed the religious parties in exile, long before 2003, and brought them back to Iraq inside the trucks of the invading army, London and Washington are reaping the harvest of their policy. But, it is the Iraqi population which is footing the bill. Because, as far as Blair and Bush are concerned, any reactionary force will do just fine, as long as it is repressive enough to keep the population under its thumb, willing to facilitate the looting of the country by western companies and capable of maintaining a certain degree of political stability.

But it is on this latter point that the west's calculations may prove wrong. Because the reactionary forces unleashed by the invasion have no particular interest in maintaining any kind of political stability, at least not as long as they are not themselves in power. And in their rivalry to gain political power, these forces have been germinating even more seeds of instability, using all the levers of religious hatred and ethnicity that they could find to whip up support for themselves.

In this they have been helped by the occupation forces. Kurdistan is a case in point. There, shortly after the invasion, the US authorities promised funds to help with the return of Kurds, who had been deported to the South by Saddam Hussein, and with the resettlement of Arabs who had come to Kurdistan to replace the deportees. But these funds never materialised. 350,000 Kurds are said to have moved back to Kirkuk alone, but many are still waiting for somewhere to live, parked in stadiums and empty jails. Meanwhile, understandably, Arabs are clinging to their homes, waiting for the promised help. This has led to numerous clashes between returning Kurds and Arabs, which the Kurdish nationalist parties have been inflaming even more, with their nationalist demagogy insisting that Kurdistan should belong to the Kurds alone.

Similar tensions have been developing in certain areas of Baghdad and its satellite towns, as rival groups wage turf wars to enlarge the territory they control. In the last week of October, for instance, 25 members of Moqtadah al-Sadr militias were killed in an ambush after organising a raid to free one of their members who had been kidnapped by a rival group.

Because all these groups claim to act in the name of religion, these frequently bloody clashes often take the appearance of a conflict between Sunni and Shia. In reality things are more complex than they may seem as, on both sides, rival factions are fighting between themselves for the control of the same territories.

But there is a real danger, which is compounded by the "democratic process" and its essentially sectarian workings, that these rivalries will build up at some point into a wholesale confrontation between Shia and Sunni in areas where they coexist, or between Kurds and Arabs in Kurdistan. If so, this would be a catastrophe for the whole population, far worse than the terrible past 15 years it has already been through. And the responsibility for this would lie entirely with Blair, Bush and their capitalist mentors.