Iraq - The making of a dysfunctional pawn in the imperialist regional game

Oct/Dec 2010

In the run-up to this November's "mid-term" congressional election in the US, Obama had to be seen delivering at least on one thing - his promise to withdraw the troops from Iraq. Hence the media fanfare surrounding the "end of combat operations" declared on August 31st. Never mind that this may be the second such declaration by a US president since the 2003 invasion and, according to some commentators who bothered to keep such records, the fourth time at least that Iraq is declared a "sovereign" state by Washington!

Whether this actually changes anything on the ground is quite another matter, of course - either from a military point of view, or in any other respect. No decree, not even one enacted by the world's richest and most powerful country, will make up for the human and material catastrophe inflicted on Iraq as a result of its invasion and 7-year long occupation. Nor will the US "draw-down" clear the bloody mess left by the occupation in the social and political make up of the country. The Iraqi population will carry on suffering from the scar of this war for the years, if not the decades to come.

But then, such concerns were never part of the US leaders' imperialist agenda - nor that of their second-rate allies such as Britain. Ever since the downfall of the Shah's pro-imperialist regime in Iran, in 1979, Iraq has always been used as a pawn in the regional game of the imperialist powers - a pawn which was meant to act as a counter-weight to Iran's regional ambitions and to guarantee the looting of the Middle East by Western capital. This was true in the heyday of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and it remains just as true today. But there is, now, one major difference.

Saddam Hussein was the latest and most brutal of a series of rulers who had been riding the mass nationalist wave which began in Iraq with the overthrow of the British-imposed royalty, back in 1958. To the extent that nationalism remained a powerful ferment in Iraqi society, the imperialist powers had to allow Saddam Hussein's regime a degree of political independence - which eventually backfired on them when Saddam Hussein chose to force concessions from his Western masters by invading Kuwait.

Since then, the invasion and the occupation of Iraq have dramatically transformed the fabric of Iraqi society. The fanning of religious divisions by the occupation authorities and the resulting bloody chaos - which is far from being over - have undermined, if not totally destroyed, the sense of unity that the Iraqi poor had inherited from their past mobilisation. Today, the Iraqi politicians' nationalist language hardly conceals their dependence on a state machinery which is largely controlled by US advisors and reliant on US funding. The imperialist powers have no reason and certainly no intention of allowing any degree of political independence to any Iraqi regime, whether today or tomorrow. Despite Washington's talk about Iraq's sovereignty, the country is meant to remain an imperialist satellite in the region, kept on a short leash by its western masters, under the constant threat of their missiles if need be.

When is an occupation not an occupation?

The August 31st withdrawal deadline passed without anyone noticing much change on the ground. Indeed, since July last year, US soldiers had been largely confined to their bases - partly to stop the number of casualties from increasing, which would have been politically untenable for Obama. In most parts of Iraq, US military involvement was confined to special US forces providing backup to the Iraqi army in operations prepared by US planners.

In the meantime, the Iraqi military had been reinforced, through a massive recruitment campaign, which was facilitated by the fact that the Iraqi army and police were by far the largest providers of jobs in a country where well under 40% of the potential workforce has some kind of employment. Officially, 20,000 ex-officers from Saddam Hussein's army have been brought back in order to provide a cadre for the new army, while thousands of former members of the various militias - mostly from the SIIC's "Badr Brigade" - were promoted directly to commanding posts after being given a basic training by US advisers. By now, the headcount of the Iraqi army is estimated to have reached 660,000 men, far more than the peak reached by all the Western forces put together during the occupation, although, of course, its equipment is no match even for that of the reduced remaining US forces - but certainly good enough to turn any popular rebellion into a bloodbath.

And this was precisely the aim of this "military transition". Long before August 31st, American units began to leave progressively, while the Iraqi army was raising its profile. Everything was carefully planned to ensure that, when the day came, no military vacuum would be felt anywhere in Iraq and that the passing of the deadline would not generate any sense of elation among the population.

Officially, the remaining 50,000 troops are meant to leave by December 31st, 2011. Not only that, but they are no longer "combat" troops, being there supposedly only in a "training capacity". And to hammer in this alleged changed mission, Obama has made a point of changing the name of the on-going occupation of Iraq from "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to "Operation New Dawn".

But, as one American commentator noted earlier in September, the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment had just been sent back to Iraq after three deployments in some of the occupation's bloodiest battlefields. With 1800 vehicles (including 123 heavy-duty Abrams tanks) and 24 Apache attack helicopters, among other lethal hardware, it is, according to the US army's official blurb, "the most powerful, flexible and capable brigade-level combat formation in the world". If this is not a "combat" unit, what is?

In fact, within days of the "end of combat operations", on 6 September, US troops took part in a gun battle with insurgents outside an Iraqi barracks in Baghdad, which left 12 dead and dozens injured. Meanwhile, US troops were reported to be patrolling areas around the northern town of Mosul, on their own and in full combat gear. On 15 September, US helicopter gunships were used in an early morning raid against three civilian targets within the town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad. Two days later a similar US intervention was reported in Baquba, in the north east of the capital. Surely, this can hardly be described as acting in a "training capacity only"!

But what will happen after the "final departure", at the end of 2011? By then, all US troops will have left - or, will they? It seems that it will all depend on what one calls "US troops".

For instance, it seems that, in this respect, the personnel of the US Air Force are not considered to be "US troops" (let alone "combat" troops). At present, the number of air bases is being cut from 26 to 12. But are these going to be dismantled? Probably not, judging from the hundreds of millions of dollars which are, according to reports, being spent at present on the infrastructure of the largest of these bases - at Balad, 40 miles north of Baghdad. There, a whole American city has been built around the air base, complete with drugstores, swimming pools, cinemas, gyms, etc., with enough lodgings to accommodate over 20,000 people on the base's 10 square miles!

Today, the Iraqi generals have no air force to speak of (it was all destroyed in 2003) and Washington seems to be planning to stay on for the foreseeable future under the pretext of providing Iraq with the air cover it does not have against potential "enemies". Moreover, although "sovereign" on paper, the sky of Iraq is still not under the control of the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority. Up to 3 September, any aircraft flying below 24,000 feet automatically came under the control of the US Air Force. After that date, this ceiling is meant to be reduced progressively to 15,000 feet! But this still means that the US Air Force retains total control over any plane taking off or landing in Iraq - and the required equipment to enforce this control.

So the odds are, that after the end of 2011, these US air bases will remain, possibly with some sort of Iraqi involvement, but under direct Pentagon control - just like US air bases which have been established in so many other parts of the world, including Britain.

In addition, Obama and his advisers have invented another trick to give the occupation a new "designer" look - claiming that the day has come for "diplomacy" to take the place of from military action. So the State Department (the US Foreign Office) is to take over many of the tasks of the US army. In addition to the giant US embassy in Baghdad (the size of 80 football pitches put together!), four "enduring presence posts" are to be opened in the country. One of them is already operating in Basra, in what used to be the British base there, next to the international airport. Its task, so far, seems to have been to organise the security of the southern oil fields and to prepare the ground for foreign oil companies to start operating in the area. Another such outpost will be set up in Kirkuk, at the centre of the main Kurdish oil fields. No doubt the others will not be far from the remaining largest oil producing areas!

But since the "diplomats" operating in these outposts are not so sure that they will be welcome in the country and since, above all, they are not particularly willing to put their lives at risk, the number of private mercenaries working for the State Department will be officially doubled to 7,000 and they will be equipped with a large complement of armoured vehicles and Apache attack helicopters provided by the US army.

As to the other 100,000 or so foreign contractors currently employed in Iraq by the US army (of which 12,000 at least were still armed last April according to the Guardian), no-one knows exactly what will happen to them after the US' troops "final withdrawal". There have already been a number of reports that some of these contractors are now being transferred to adhoc Iraqi bodies - which would obviously be a convenient cover for a kind of privatised occupation of Iraq.

In short, the occupation of Iraq will continue for the foreseeable future, in many shapes and forms, with all the deadly potential it implies for the population. In particular, it will continue to protect the looting of Iraq by the oil majors and to ensure that imperialism remains in full control of the region.

Factions' rivalries alive and kicking

The Iraqi "regime" provides a graphic illustration of the chaos caused by the occupation.

Its institutions were shaped by US consultants to allow Washington to boast of having brought "democracy" to Iraq, while offering the various Iraqi factions a mechanism through which they could all hope to get their piece of the cake.

Today, the imperialist powers claim credit for the fact that, thanks to the repressive activity of the occupation forces, most of the militia-based factions appear to have put their weapons aside to integrate into these political institutions, on both sides of the Shia-Sunni divide.

However, given the material and political links which exist between these factions and the region's states, credit for the normalisation in Iraq should go at least as much to the pressures exercised on them by their regional backers - which were not particularly keen to allow an on-going Iraqi civil war to threaten the stability of their own regimes. In particular, there is no doubt that the Iranian state was instrumental in getting the three main Shia militias to scale down their attacks against the Sunni minority and to join forces in the political process - something that, of course, the US administration will not acknowledge given its current diplomatic tit-for-tat with Iran.

Nevertheless, behind the "democratic" facade of the political process, the rivalries between the various factions remain as rife as ever, all the more so because, in addition to their own specific interests, each one of them is also promoting the particular agenda of its regional backers. And this is just as true of the main Shia factions, which, although pro-Iranian, also reflect the internecine power struggle within the Iranian regime itself.

How much these rivalries are still alive and crippling for Iraqi society was illustrated, once again, by this year's general elections, held on 7 March, and what really came out of them.

One should say first, that contrary to Obama's claim that these elections were a "victory for democracy", the election campaign and the ballot itself were marred by blatant, highly undemocratic, manoeuvring and cheating.

In the run-up to the elections, a "Justice and Accountability Commission" (JAC) - the revamped version of the body set up by the US authorities in the early days of the occupation, in order to hunt down former members of the Ba'ath party - instructed the so-called "Independent High Electoral Commission" to bar 499 candidates from standing, including a few well-known Sunni figures, due to their alleged past association with Saddam Hussein's regime. As it happened, most of the candidates banned were part of Ilyad Allawi's al-Iraqiyya list, which stood on a secular ticket and was the main rival of the two Shia lists. But then, of course, this was hardly a coincidence considering that the JAC's two main leading figures are both closely linked to one of these lists: they are Ahmed Chalabi - a dubious businessman, who was a US "asset" before the invasion - and Ali al-Lami - a member of the Sadr current who was briefly arrested this year under suspicion of involvement in anti-Sunni terrorist attacks. Predictably, this transparent manoeuvre only succeeded in propelling the religious issue back into the forefront of the election campaign.

On election day itself, the turnout was 62%, significantly less than the 79% turnout in the 2005 election. Even then, this 62% figure is probably an overstatement as there was plenty of evidence of tampering with ballot boxes, vote-rigging and other tricks.

It should be added that this day of "victory for democracy" also saw a long series of rocket and mortar attacks in the main cities - despite the ban on all traffic - which claimed 42 dead and at least 110 injured. In total it is estimated that the 186 people were killed by terrorist attacks during the 23 days of the official election campaign and another 176 were killed between election day and the release of the final results, thereby increasing the average weekly death toll to 64 over that whole period.

Thereafter, it took nearly three weeks for the ballot's final results to be announced, on 27 March.

Both in terms of votes and in terms of seats, the winner was Ilyad Allawi's al-Iraqiya list, with 24.72% of the votes and 91 seats (out of 325). Very close behind, with 24.22% and 89 seats, came the mostly Shia "State of Law" list of incumbent prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, which stood on a national unity ticket, focused on law-and-order, and a not-very-convincing rejection of sectarian politics (al-Maliki himself is the leader a Shia religious party, Al-Dawa, which dominates his list). Far behind came the Shia National Iraqi Alliance (based on the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, SIIC, and imam Muqtada al-Sadr's Sadr Movement), with 18.15% and 70 seats, and the Kurdistan Alliance list (formed by the two main Kurdish parties).

The paralysis of the political system

These results were very different from what had been anticipated. Following the success won by al-Maliki's "State of Law" list in last year's local elections, it was expected to come well ahead of the poll, thereby allowing al-Maliki to remain in office with a large majority based on an alliance of the Shia and Kurdish parties - which had been more or less the format of most governments since the invasion.

The fact that the secular al-Iraqya list had come first threw a spanner in the works of Iraqi politics. Not that the policies promoted by Ilyad Allawi's and his allies are all that much different from those of the other Iraqi parties. After all, Allawi is an ex-member of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath party who turned his coat to become an MI6 "asset" and was finally hand-picked by the US authorities to become Iraq's first post-invasion prime minister - that is, until they decided to play the Shia card in 2005! However, these election results make it much harder for al-Maliki to hang on to his post, since according to the constitution, the normal procedure was for president Jalal Talabani to ask al-Allawi, as the leader of the list with the largest score, to form a government. What is more, these results threaten the fragile equilibrium which, since 2005, has allowed the Shia parties to run the show on the basis of an implicit agreement with the Kurdish parties to share out the loot on a territorial basis.

All this triggered frantic attempts by the Shia parties to try to reverse the election results. Prime minister al-Maliki himself blamed the result on vote-rigging in Baghdad and obtained a court order for a recount of the Baghad votes. When this failed to change anything, Chalabi and his "Justice and Accountability Commission" were called in again and they disqualified another 52 candidates, including 6 who had been elected. In addition, the Commission decided that the votes won by the 6 disqualified elected candidates would be ignored and, of course, parliamentary seats would be re-allocated accordingly. This would have reduced al-Iraqya to 88 seats, while al-Maliki's list would have gained at least one seat, up to 90. This manoeuvre was so absurdly transparent that even the Shia-dominated Iraqi Supreme Court did not dare to endorse it, allowing other candidates from al-Iraqya to replace its disqualified MPs.

According to the constitution, it is the coalition list which comes first in the election which is allowed to nominate a prime minister in order to form a government. However, as a sop to the Shia parties and, more specifically to al-Maliki, the Supreme Court decided that the Constitution did not really mean what it said. It decided that realignments of parties and lists can take place after the election, right up until the first parliamentary session, thereby allowing the Shia parties to join forces against al-Iraqiya, constitute a majority in terms of seats and therefore be invited to form a government.

This decision was, of course, quite convenient for the Shia parties, since it allowed them, in theory at least, to form a coalition of the two Shia lists, which, with the support of the Kurdish Alliance, would have been able to control almost two thirds of the parliamentary seats (202 out of 325), thereby making it possible to maintain the existing status quo. Except that this, in turn, opened another can of worms.

Indeed, it was one thing for al-Maliki's "State of Law" list and the National Iraqi Alliance to agree on joining ranks in a new coalition. But it was quite another thing for them to come to an agreement on whom this new coalition would put forward as new prime minister.

The problem was that al-Maliki was determined to remain in office. However, this was absolutely out of the question for the Sadr Movement - the largest component of the National Iraqi Alliance, with 40 of its 70 seats - for the simple reason that al-Maliki had sponsored a bloody joint offensive of the Iraqi and US armies against al-Sadr's militia, the "Mahdi army", in Basra, causing many casualties in its ranks and driving the Sadr Movement out of many parts of the city that it controlled previously. And although there were other potential and aspiring candidates to the post of prime minister in the new coalition, none of them had enough credit among the various parties within the coalition

In April, the Sadr Movement moved to try to put pressure on al-Maliki to desist and clear the way for other candidates. To this end it organised a mock "election" in its Baghdad strongholds, asking voters to choose which future prime minister they wanted out of a list of 9 names representing some of the main parties (7 linked to religious Shia currents, one secular and one religious Sunni). According to the figures released by the Sadr Movement, 1.4 million voted, giving the largest vote (24%) to Ibrahim Jaafari (a former leading figure of al-Maliki's Shia al-Dawa party, who was prime minister in 2005-6).

However this did not change much in the endless horse-trading that was taking part behind the scenes between the various political factions. And this horse-trading was not just over who going to become prime minister, but also over which parties were going to the awarded the most profitable portfolios - Interior, Defence, Oil and Public procurement, in particular.

The occupation authorities kept a low profile for the occasion, no doubt wary that any public interference on their part might backfire. Some commentators claimed that their favoured option was Ilyad Allawi. This may be the case. On the other hand, for years the US strategy has been to bet on a Shia-led regime, hoping that Iran would help to stabilise it and prevent a resurgence of Iraqi nationalism. So Washington may just as well be waiting patiently for the Shia parties to sort out their differences.

It is worth noting, in this respect, that there have been a number of well-publicised high-level meetings between the Iraqi parties organised under the auspices of the Iranian religious authorities. Worth noting too, is the fact that the Western powers have ostensibly refrained from commenting on these meetings, let alone from accusing Iran of "interfering in Iraqi affairs" as they did so often in the past - which shows that, beyond the war of words in which they are engaged with Ahmadinejad, they are betting on Iran taking responsibility for bringing some sort of order into Iraqi politics.

While this horse-trading was dragging on, the new parliament finally convened, on 14 June. But its first session was just a parody. According to a Radio Free Europe journalist, it "adjourned after less than 20 minutes. That short time was used to complete the official ceremonies that accompany any new parliament's opening, including the playing of the national anthem and the newly elected parliamentarians' collective taking of their oath of office. But once those ceremonies were finished, there was nothing more for the deputies to do but disband." Such has been, so far, the first and last full session of this new ghost parliament!

Another three months of horse-trading between the various Shia parties finally produced two new possible combinations, apparently under Iranian pressure. One would be centred around the National Iraqi list and, as potential prime minister, vice-president Abdul Mahdi - a former member of the Iraqi Communist Party who turned to Islamism after Khomeini's seizure of power in Iran and took part in the launch of the SIIC religious party in Iran. The other combination would be centred around the previously unlikely alliance between al-Maliki "State of Law" list and the Sadr Movement. However, before any of this combination can produce a working government, many problems have to be resolved, so that neither of them can be considered a foregone conclusion.

In the meantime, predictably, the power struggle that was taking place in the top political spheres has paved the way for a new surge of terrorist activities, on a scale not seen since 2008 - with a weekly average death toll of 124 in July and 101 in August. Ironically, behind the so-called democratic process, quite a few of the protagonists in the parliamentary horse-trading are known to be connected with this new wave of killings, thereby illustrating the fact that, in the context of the factional rivalries left over by the occupation, war is the continuation of politics by other means.

A social disaster

The past six months of politicking at the top of the state institutions have certainly provided the media, in Iraq and elsewhere, with plenty of material for speculation and gossip. But for the Iraqi population, it has had dire consequences, partly due to the resulting paralysis of these state institutions and partly due to the policies of al-Maliki's government, which has remained in office in a "caretaker" capacity. So much so that, judging from the opinion polls regularly carried out in Iraq, if a new election was held today with the same lists as last March, al-Maliki's list would be left far behind its two main contenders with al-Iraqiya and the Sadr Movement being the main beneficiaries of its losses.

And how could it be otherwise when this politicking can only be resented as a cynical diversion by a population, which is at the receiving end of the catastrophic social chaos inherited from the occupation and is confronted with far more urgent problems than that of allocating government portfolios.

An Iraqi fisherman interviewed last May by a journalist of US news agency McClatchy, put this resentment in a nutshell: "We continue to clean the streets by ourselves with or without a government; the electricity is still off with or without a government; water is still down with or without a government and, finally, security is bad with or without a government. So why should the people care about a government?"

Why indeed? Every indicator which reflects social deprivation in any society - life expectancy, death rate at birth, death rates from common diseases, illiteracy rate, average calorie intake, joblessness, etc., - is now far worse than it was before the invasion. The clock has been turned back by several decades for the poor majority of the population. Despite this, the only preoccupation shown by the Iraqi politicians is to enlarge their share of the cake!

UN officials admit that there are over 1.5 million "internally displaced people" in the country - i.e., internal refugees forced out of their homes by the civil war or the threats of the militias. Many of these internal refugees find nowhere to go and flock to illegal squatter camps in the main towns. US journalist Nir Rosen made this report in March: "In the Abu Dshir district of Baghdad, an immense and sprawling squatter camp houses thousands of Shiites who fled rural areas around the capital; they now live in tents and makeshift shelters built from scrap metal and mud. The enormous Sadrein camp, in Baghdad's Sadr City, contains more than 1,500 families, who live on a rubbish dump with the choking stench of sewage clotting the air. Most of the men are unemployed. Children play in mountains of rubbish." Moreover, the number of these urban squatters is increasing, by 25% over the past year only, reaching half-a-million according to the UN's figures - which are generally considered a vast underestimation - with more than half that number in the capital.

Due to the combined effect of the western powers' failure to rebuild what they had destroyed during the invasion and of the militias' pogroms, 11 million (58%) of today's 19 million urban dwellers live in slums, compared to around 20% before the invasion - at a time when living conditions had already been considerably aggravated by the western blockade of Iraq.

The Iraqi government's own statisticians acknowledge the terrible rise of poverty. Their figures show that 23% of the population lives on less than £41/month and 5% on less than £21. Yet, the food rations which have been the only means of survival for the poorest ever since the pre-invasion blockade have just been reduced by al-Maliki's caretaker government.

Any reconstruction effort would create a huge need for hands and create jobs for the unemployed majority. But neither the western powers nor the Iraqi state are in the business of rebuilding the country - that is, except for oil and military facilities and wealthy urban districts for the tiny layer of the very privileged. Reconstruction is supposed to be left to "private initiative". Except that even when "reconstruction funds" do not "disappear" in the maze of the US state machinery (it was recently discovered that the "petty sum" of £5.7 billion had mysteriously disappeared in this way), there are so many intermediaries on their way - US and Iraqi officials and contractors - that very little, if anything, materialises at the end of the chain. As to the al-Maliki government, it even dares to boast of having "underspent" its budget!

The state machinery remains, by far, the largest provider of jobs. But, as a McClatchy news agency report says, "111,000 state jobs that were approved by the outgoing parliament have yet to be filled because the new parliament must form an employment council to make the hires". As if the population can afford such delays!

Electricity shortages spark off anger

For some time, the population's patience seems to have been wearing out. Already, in the early months of the year, there were protests in some towns over issues like on-going problems with food ration cards and the breakdown of drinking water supplies in slum areas.

From June onwards, however, at a time when the summer's unbearable heat was taking its toll, the on-going electricity shortages triggered a long series of protests in the main towns, which went on until late August.

Power shortages are an old problem in Iraq since the US-British carpet bombing of the country preceding the invasion put most power stations our of service and destroyed a large part of the power transmission network. After that, restoring even a low level of power production was never going to be simple, but rebuilding the transmission network was even more of a problem.

So, for years, a large section of the Iraqi population has had to make do with no electricity at all. Those who could afford it bought fuel-powered generators, which were often shared between several households.

Eventually some power stations were restarted. Some, as a result of the efforts of the occupation and Iraqi authorities, due to the fact that electricity was indispensable for oil production and pumping stations. But in most cases, power stations were restarted thanks to the efforts of electricity workers who often worked without being paid in order to fix what had been damaged, despite the lack of spare parts or funding. Meanwhile, the task of restoring power transmission facilities was left by the government to municipalities which, in most cases, did only the minimum.

The upshot of all this is that after seven years of this process, whole urban areas - the poorest - are still getting no electricity at all, while the other areas, get only a 3 or 4 hours' supply each day, on a largely random basis. Only highly militarised areas, such as Baghdad's so-called "Green Zone", where most foreign and government facilities as well as the lodgings of the richest are located, get a reliable 24h supply.

Finally the last straw was a big increase in electricity prices introduced in early June. On 19 June, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Basra, staging a running battle with riot police armed with batons and water cannon. During the scuffles two protesters were killed. This immediately triggered a wave of similar protests, in Nasiriyah, Karbala and several other main towns in southern Iraq.

Within two days, prime minister al-Maliki moved hastily to try to defuse the situation. Electricity Minister Karim Waheed was told in no uncertain terms to resign. His portfolio was then incorporated into the Oil ministry, currently run by former nuclear scientist al-Shahristani, while al-Maliki was making reassuring speeches, promising that the previous target of at least 9 hours electricity a day (which was meant to be delivered in June) would be achieved before the end of the year.

However, al-Shahristani's first move was to blame consumers for using too much electricity needlessly and to announce a new system of electricity rates designed to reduce consumption - which would make electricity unaffordable for the majority!

Predictably these announcements did not defuse the simmering anger. The protests carried on until the end of August in the southern towns, spreading to the central areas of the country, including Baghdad where they became daily occurrences. Significantly, while protesters were using the opportunity to raise all sorts of other material demands on their placards and banners, these protests, very quickly, took on an anti-government character, demanding that al-Maliki and all his ministers should resign.

A prison for the Iraqi population

Despite the two protesters killed in Basra and the hundreds arrested across the country, the government was careful to restrain its thugs during this summer's protests. But this probably had a lot to do with the political vacuum created by the politicians' horse-trading over the formation of the next government. Al-Maliki probably felt that he could not afford to pour oil on the discontent for fear of sparking off a far bigger explosion of anger which was likely to be used by his rivals against him - especially as the Sadr Movement was initially quite prominent in the protests.

But outside these exceptional circumstances, no dissent is tolerated and everything is done to cow the population into obedience, especially the working class. In the early days after the invasion, the same orders issued by Bremer's occupation authority which cut basic wages by 30% in the state sector, also retained Saddam Hussein's Public Law 150, which made strikes in state-owned facilities illegal and turned trade-unions into appendages of management. The 2005 constitution recognised an abstract "right to join a trade union" and implied that labour laws would be introduced in order to regulate their operation. But this never happened and the previous drastic rules remained in force. In fact, they were tightened that same year with decree 870 which made it illegal for unions to set up bank accounts or collect dues, while giving the authorities the right to take control of unions which failed to toe the line.

This did not prevent unions from emerging. After the fall of the Ba'ath regime, the former state-controlled unions were taken over by workers, who were determined to keep them independent from management and state interference. Since then, workers in the oil and power generation industries as well as dockers, teachers and health workers, among others, have been waging an on-going guerilla war against the government, in order to defend this independence, at the same time as fighting against the aggravation of their conditions and the new Iraqi regime's privatisation plans. In July, for instance, the new Oil and Electricity minister al-Shahristani went on the offensive, blaming power shortages on the "disruption" caused by the Iraqi Electrical Utility Workers Union and using decree 870 to take over the union - thereby forcing it to operate virtually underground. As a rule, strikes almost invariably result in arrests and criminal charges against union leaders while the army intervenes to try to intimidate workers into returning to work. But behind the scenes, many union activists have been mysteriously murdered by armed gangs, which may have been anti-communist Islamist thugs, but may just as well have been thugs acting under the instruction of some government department.

Meanwhile, the security issue and the on-going tit-for-tat between rival militias provide the Iraqi state with a convenient excuse to impose stringent constraints on the day-to-day life of the population. The blast walls and barricades of barbed wire which separate Sunni areas from Shia areas in the big towns, turn them into ghettos which are isolated socially and economically from the rest. It is impossible to go anywhere without being harassed, on the way, at army or police check points. These check points have proved largely useless in preventing terrorist attacks, but they act as a constant pressure on the population, keeping it under surveillance and treating everyone as a criminal suspect. Worse even, in May, the government announced plans to build a wall which, by mid-2011, should encircle the whole of Baghdad, with eight checkpoints through which anyone entering or leaving the town will have to go. Not only will Baghdad be ruled by Islamic politicians harking back to pre-medieval religious practices, but it will now be turned into a medieval fortress!

To enforce this comprehensive system of control over the population, the Iraqi regime now has its own colossal repressive machinery, including its 660,000-strong army, a 150,000-strong police, plus a number of elite forces, such as a the Oil Police Corps (which is supposed to guarantee the security of pipelines, but has also been used against oil workers). And this machinery is permeated by the practices of the armed militia, their brutality and their gangsterism - but also their rivalries. It is not uncommon for the police to arrest people without cause and refuse to release them from local police cells until their families pay a "fine" in cash - in fact, a ransom. As to soldiers, they often impose a "tax" on people or vehicles going through their check-points. Indeed, like in most poor countries, the soldiers' wages are often paid after long delays, when they are not partly or totally pocketed by their officers. So, for these soldiers, "taxing" the population is often the only way to make a living. But then, aren't the very top spheres of the state leading the way, in terms of lawlessness, by, for instance, keeping 30,000 prisoners in prison without charge - according to a report published this September by Amnesty International?

So Blair may well pride himself, in his Memoirs, of having freed the world from Saddam Hussein's "evil dictatorship". But the regime built by the imperialist powers, which they hope to be able to use as a stooge in the region, is not only very unstable due to the rivalries of its many factions: it also looks increasingly like just another dictatorship designed to squeeze as much as possible out of the country's population and resources, in order to bolster the bank accounts of big shareholders in Washington and London.