Britain - Labour bombs Iraq on behalf of British capital

Jan/Feb 1999

The participation of the RAF in the US air raids against Iraq, in December, had a particular significance. For the first time since they came into office, Blair's Labour government had to choose a policy, not just in terms of rhetoric, but in terms of military action. Once again the policy of the Labour leadership proved indistinguishable from that of the past Tory governments. Blair just endorsed the US leaders' gunboat policy against Iraq as well as their cynical pretexts without any reservation.

This time the four-day bombing campaign may not have been as devastating as the systematic carpet-bombing of the Gulf War, almost eight years ago. But it was nevertheless an act of murderous state terrorism carried out by two of the world's richest powers, against the impoverished and defenceless population of a Third World country.

What makes this act of terrorism even more objectionable is that it may also have been a ploy by Clinton to extricate himself from the impeachment procedure resulting from "Zippergate". However, while the timing of the attack may well have been determined by Clinton's domestic manoeuvres, the attack itself was entirely consistent with the past years of half-suspended war waged by the US against Iraq, with the more or less tacit support of the other imperialist powers.

Pretending to "punish" Saddam Hussein's regime for its "crimes" by bombing the Iraqi population is indeed a cynical excuse and a fraud. This is making the regime's victims pay for the acts of their tormentors. But then, of course, taking whole populations hostage in order to impose their law on regimes which fail to toe the line, is a "normal" policy on the part of the imperialist bourgeoisies. Large sections of the Third World have had to pay dearly for this policy, in some cases with millions of casualties and the destruction of entire countries. The imperialist powers' domination of the world was built and is still based on such cynical terrorism.

Besides, what are the "crimes" of Saddam Hussein's regime for Blair and Clinton? The fact that the Iraqi leaders demand an end to the eight-year blockade which is strangling the country's economy? That they object, and rightly so, to the constant harassment imposed on Iraq by all sorts of international agencies, whose role is to enforce the victory of the imperialist forces over Iraq during the Gulf War, using the cover of the United Nations? But on both counts, the criminals are in London and Washington, not in Baghdad. It is the blockade enforced by the imperialist powers which was responsible for the premature deaths of tens of thousands of children in Iraq over the past years, and the deprivation imposed on large sections of the Iraqi population. As to the UN agencies, why don't they turn their attention first to the enormous stocks of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons which are known to exist in the industrialised countries, particularly in Britain and the US?

The British and US governments did not have even the flimsiest justification for these new bombings. They were just determined to make a show of strength, in order to demonstrate once again - to the Iraqi as well as to the rest of the poor vast majority of the world population - their lethal aggressive capability against any regime, or any people, who might dare to defy their imperialist order.

The West's fraudulent lies

Many doubts have already been raised over the UN inspectors' report which is alleged to have prompted Clinton's decision to bomb Iraq. Some US commentators claimed that it had been "rewritten" under CIA guidance, to fit in with Clinton's political objectives. And a former Irish member of the inspectors' team, writing in the Irish Times, accused its head, Richard Butler, an Australian veteran of the Korean war, to be out to "get" Saddam Hussein at any cost.

Whatever might be the case, Clinton's and Blair's claim that as long as Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" are not destroyed, Saddam Hussein will remain a threat for the region, is ludicrous.

What "weapons of mass destruction"? It must be recalled that in the period around the Gulf War, the Western powers' main accusation against Iraq was its alleged "nuclear threat" to the world - which was rather ironical coming from the handful of states which control the bulk of the world's nuclear arsenal. Since then, these accusations have more or less been dropped, no doubt due to the inability of UN inspectors to forge convincing enough evidence.

Yet, there is a real "nuclear threat" in Iraq, except that Saddam Hussein is not responsible for it. According to newspaper reports the US Department of Defence admitted itself that 40 tonnes of what they called "depleted uranium" - a material used to coat high-velocity rounds to increase their ability to penetrate metal - were scattered by the coalition forces in the battlefields of Southern Iraq during the Gulf War - most of it in the form of dust which may have been blown away very far from the war zone. British and US forces used the Gulf War as a testing ground for this high-powered ammunition. But this "depleted uranium" is also radio-active and traces of it can still be found today in the war areas. A number of surveys and research now points to it as being responsible for an abnormal increase in birth defects both in Southern Iraqi villages and among the children of Gulf War veterans in the West. If these reports are accurate, it is not Saddam Hussein's but the imperialist powers' "nuclear threat" which has taken its toll in Iraq!

Having had to drop the pretence of Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons, London and Washington turned to chemical and biological weapons. Again, there is a cynical irony in Blair's accusations against the Iraqi regime in this field. Was not Britain the first power ever to use chemical weapons in Iraq - against a Kurdish uprising, in 1926? And if the Iraqi dictatorship did indeed use chemical or other weapons against their own population or neighbouring countries at various points in the past, was it not first of all because they had been equipped willingly with such weapons by their British, French and German "trading partners" of the time?

In any case, no-one can believe that Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" could be a threat to London and Washington. Iraq does not have aircraft carriers in the Channel or off the coasts of Florida. Nor can they use a West Indian or Mediterranean island as a forward base for their heavy bombers, as the US do with the so-called "British Dependent Territory" of Diego-Garcia, in the Indian Ocean. Only the Western powers have the means to threaten Iraq with their "weapons of mass destruction", and not just threaten but actually use them as they just have.

Of course, there is Blair's claim that British Tornadoes destroyed what "appears to be an experimental unmanned aircraft designed to drop anthrax". By now, Iraq's "anthrax threat" is an old myth in the British media. But no-one has bothered to explain why Saddam Hussein would persist in trying to use a bacterium like anthrax, which can be killed by a very common antibiotics and for which, in addition, there exist vaccines - when there are so many chemical or bacteriological substances for which there are still no known antidotes. As for Iraq's technological ability to build an unmanned aircraft, when it has always depended for its air force on western manufacturers, it is a farce. But then, of course, scare-stories are not meant to be credible, but just to be scary!

In any case, say Western officials, Saddam Hussein is a "threat to the Middle-East". This may be true. Although, one can think of a few regimes which enjoy the unequivocal support of imperialism despite being at least as much of a "threat" to the region - for instance Israel's gung- ho government or Saudi Arabia's Islamic dictatorship. And, in any case, the only time Saddam used his military power on a large scale was during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. At the time no- one in the West raised any objections. Far from it, since in those days the region's "evil" for the West was the Iranian regime - whose "crime" was, in addition to having toppled the pro-US dictatorship of the Shah, to show too much independence to Washington's liking. Saddam Hussein was a convenient instrument in helping imperialism to isolate Iran and there were no questions asked about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" - for good reasons since they came straight out of the West's weapons factories, with the benediction of the imperialist governments. In the end, this eight-year war left the Middle-East with over one million dead and Western arms companies with billions of profits.

Who proved, on that occasion, to be a "threat to the Middle- East"? Saddam Hussein, the pawn in the west's great power game, or the imperialist governments who masterminded this proxy-war against Iran?

It was only when Iraq's army occupied the artificial oil-state of Kuwait, in 1990, that the imperialist powers suddenly woke up to Saddam Hussein's "threat to the Middle-East". Yet Saddam Hussein had not changed since the Iran-Iraq war. Only, this time, instead of playing to the tune of imperialism and doing its dirty work, he had chosen to attack a Trojan Horse of the Western oil majors in the Middle-East. Overnight Saddam Hussein became an "evil" dictator, the US government and its allies suddenly discovered his "disregard for human rights" - and, more discreetly, but much more importantly, for the dividends of western shareholders - and the full thrust of imperialism's military might for turned against Iraq.

"Out to get Saddam Hussein"?

During this latest attack against Iraq, both Clinton and Blair have put a special emphasis on their determination to see Saddam Hussein replaced.

This emphasis was particularly noticeable in Clinton's public statements. Clinton seems to have gone out of his way, not only to give a detailed "justification" for the bombing, but also to convince American public opinion, which no doubt is getting tired of this endless saga around the UN inspectors, that the conflict with Iraq is progressing toward some sort of solution, involving Saddam Hussein's removal by the Iraqi opposition. This line was illustrated earlier this year by the Iraq Liberation Act passed by the US House of Representatives, which pledges $100m for opposition groups in Iraq.

This line is not altogether new, of course. During the Gulf War, the imperialist leaders also proclaimed their determination to topple Saddam Hussein and see the "democratisation" of Iraq. But the events which followed the war told a different story. When the Northern Kurdish minority and the Southern Shiites rebelled against Saddam Hussein's regime, the coalition command did nothing to use its huge military resources to deter Saddam Hussein from unleashing ferocious repression against the rebels. Clinton used these rebellions as a pretext to paralyse further Baghdad's air force, by imposing "no-fly zones" (which are still strictly enforced today) over Northern and Southern Iraq. But that was it. Saddam Hussein was allowed to crush the rebellions using his remaining ground troops and, by the same token, to re-consolidate his regime which had been weakened for a while.

So much so for the "democratic" objectives of the imperialist leaders and their professed rejection of Saddam's "violation of human rights"!

Of course, the imperialist leaders would have probably liked to see Saddam Hussein toppled, if only as a sort of final touch to their demonstration of strength against Iraq. But they did not want this to happen without certain guarantees. In particular they did not want it to upset the regional status quo, neither through the emergence of an embryonic independent Kurdistan due to the Iraqi Kurds' victory, nor through a possible pro-Iranian secession of the predominantly Shiite population in the South-East of Iraq. For much the same reasons, the imperialist leaders did not want just any replacement for Saddam's regime. Their talk about "democracy" was for public consumption only. But their interests required a strong man in Baghdad, a dictator capable of keeping the country together by force and imposing on its poor population the rule of the oil and other Western companies which plunder the region - in other words, someone capable of doing what Saddam had done so well for so long. The main problem for the imperialist leaders at the time was that they just did not have such a would-be dictator at hand, at least not one who had already enough authority in the country to be a credible successor for Saddam.

Eight years on, the requirements of the imperialist leaders remain precisely the same. Whether they have now found a possible replacement for Saddam, is an open question. One may have doubts about this, judging from the complaints of political commentators about the atomisation of the Iraqi opposition and its lack of influence at home. And the attempts by Western intelligence to find members of the army hierarchy willing to take on Saddam, do not seem to have been too successful - as was shown by the series of farcical episodes in which "defectors" belonging to Saddam's extended family returned to the dictatorship's fold, apparently... with the funds they had been offered by the West. However, according to the media, Blair would have a real trump up his sleeve - the former head of Saddam's Military Intelligence during the Gulf War, who is now based in London. A candidate with such credentials would present obvious advantages for the imperialist order as he would have very little to change with regard to the regime if he was to replace Saddam - that is, of course, with the exception of the giant portraits of Saddam which are scattered around the country! In any case, this is the kind of "democratisation" that the imperialist powers have in store for the Iraqi population!

Of bombs and deals

Whether imperialism really wants to replace Saddam, however, is not even certain today. After all, the catastrophic impact of the Gulf War, the stranglehold of the eight-year blockade and the resulting ruin of the country's economy, the tit- for-tat around the issue of weapons control over the years and the constant military threat hanging over the country, may be seen by the imperialist leaders as having achieved their aims. They wanted to meter out an exemplary "punishment" to Saddam's regime for having dared to defy the rule of the Western oil giants in Kuwait. They wanted this "punishment" to be a deterrent for any other Third World regime, particularly in the region, who might be tempted in the future to defy the imperialist order. Finally, they wanted to use the opportunity to blast away any hope among the world's poor populations, in Iraq and elsewhere, that opposing the imperialist order might get them somewhere. On all counts, the imperialist leaders may well consider now that the "punishment" has been severe enough and that it is time to find some form of normalisation - including with Saddam Hussein at the helm, and all the more so as this would save them a lot of potential problems by guaranteeing the preservation of the present status quo in the region.

It would seem that at least some Western European powers are increasingly taking this view. France, in particular, which formed with Britain the second line of the Gulf War coalition, behind the US, has been increasingly dragging its feet over the use of military threats against Saddam, but mostly against the continuation of the economic blockade against Iraq. This does not mean that French imperialism is dissociating itself from the general policy implemented by the US: its interests with regard to the poor countries in general are the same as those of the other imperialist powers. This is why, while complaining that Clinton had failed to consult him before the latest bombing campaign against Iraq, the French president Chirac did not condemn it while it was taking place, even providing US forces with military data necessary to adjust the course of their cruise missiles. But once the air strikes were over, the same president Chirac immediately resumed his diplomatic offensive in favour of negotiations aimed at ending the economic blockade.

It is true that French companies have probably more reason than most to want a normalisation of the situation in Iraq. Before the Gulf War these companies supplied Iraq in many areas (with weapons in particular). French oil companies controlled a large share of Iraq's petrol production and French banks were major lenders to Iraq. This gives the French government many reasons to want the blockade to be lifted. In fact, French oil companies have already entered into negotiations with Saddam's regime over the modernisation of refining and pumping facilities and the acquisition of new exploitation rights.

To be sure, there is a long list of other international companies which, if the blockade was to be lifted even partly, would be keen to resume the profitable relationships they used to have with Iraq, or to move into this potential market. And in so far as their French rivals have taken the initiative, these companies are now putting pressure on their respective governments to help them to be in the best possible position. It is not yet a stampede for the Iraqi market and resources, but clearly a lot of people are preparing for it.

This is why, eight years after the Gulf War, the coalition against Iraq is becoming increasingly patchy.

But the US government itself also has to look after the interests of its own companies. Its aim will be, as it has been in Kuwait when the coalition troops "freed" the oil-state from Iraqi occupation, to ensure that US companies get the lion's share of whatever contracts and markets are on offer. To this end, the US leaders must remain, at all costs, the arbiter in the region. They must be in a position to decide when and how negotiations will begin, to dictate their own agenda and conditions - this, regardless of the minor deals which are being made on the side with Saddam's regime by French and other companies. And this may well turn out to be one of the reasons for Clinton to launch this latest bombing campaign against Iraq.

There are indications that the brutality of this attack may have been designed to prepare the ground for a withdrawal of the UN weapons inspectors, without allowing Saddam Hussein to claim a victory. There was, for instance, the series of official statements issued by the US and British military authorities, which insisted on the fact that all suspect installations had been eradicated (thereby implying that the UN inspectors were no longer needed). At the same time Clinton himself expressed publicly his doubts as to the UN commission's ability to ever do its job. This was further spelled out, at the end of the bombings, by a US official quoted in The Observer: "We would welcome the return of the weapons inspectors, but their ability to do the job seems highly unlikely from here on out. If the UN can't do its job, we have to find other ways." "Other ways", that is, precisely, bombing campaigns like the latest one, decided unilaterally by the US leaders if need be, without even the thin veil of the UN mantle.

Armed with such a permanent threat and the more or less tacit backing of the other imperialist powers, US imperialism could indeed decide to wind up the conflict. As the victor and the supreme arbiter of the situation, it may open the way for negotiations with Saddam's regime and the normalisation of economic relations with Iraq that US companies are awaiting with great expectation. And who knows? By a cynical twist of history, one of these US companies may even win the contract to rebuild the Basrah refinery, which was destroyed by American B52s in December!

"Lapdog" - for Clinton, but mainly for the City

In this great powers game, Blair's government appears to have been playing the role of Clinton's sidekick, thereby earning Blair the widespread accusation of acting as "Clinton's lapdog". In many respects this is true. But this does not in any way diminish Labour's criminal role in imposing the imperialist yoke on the Third World in general and Iraq in particular.

There was certainly a great deal of politicking in Blair's attitude during the four days of the attack. The RAF's real involvement was blown out of all proportion, when it was really limited to a dozen Tornados or so. The attack was authorised by Blair, in the most dramatic fashion, from a bunker located 60 ft under the Ministry of Defence - as if Saddam's missiles were about to hit London and Blair to switch to Churchill's top hat and cigar - although the RAF was not even involved in the first day of the bombings. And then, of course, there were the constant references to Blair's direct "man to man" contact with Clinton, not to mention Blair's rhetoric, boasting that, thanks to the RAF, Saddam was now "caged in".

All this posturing was obviously not addressed to Saddam but to British public opinion, or rather to the section of the electorate which is most receptive to the populist "great power nationalism" which was so effective in boosting Thatcher's support at the time of the Falklands war, back in the early 1980s. It is also this same section of the electorate that Labour has been aiming at, since coming to power, by never missing an opportunity to stress its determination to cultivate Britain's "special relationship" with the US. All the more so as, in addition, Blair needs to soothe the misgivings of these voters, most of whom are still terrified by the prospect of Britain joining the euro- zone. In any case, this was an opportunity to stress Labour's commitment to the "special relationship" and Blair did not miss it.

But beyond these domestic and largely electoral reasons, the fact that Blair appears to act as "Clinton's lapdog" is a rather accurate reflection of the situation and policy of British imperialism in many parts of the world. In much of its former empire, British imperialism has been superseded as the biggest player by US imperialism, forcing British capitalists to compromise with their US rivals and be content with the remnants they left to them. In Africa, where American capital had made only limited inroads until relatively recently, British capital has chosen to form an alliance with US imperialism in an attempt to reduce the sphere of influence of its main local rival, French imperialism - a drive which is largely responsible, in particular, for the regional war currently developing in Congo.

It is the same strategy which is being played out in Iraq, and more generally in the Middle-East, today. Blair's "lapdog" policy is the policy of the City. It is aimed at allowing the British government to be admitted at the negotiating table, at the second best place, next to the US arbiter, so that British companies can get the second best choice in the sharing out of the spoils of the Iraqi market (and possibly, tomorrow, of the Iranian market, when its re-opening comes onto the agenda), at the expense of their French and German rivals in particular.

The role of British imperialism in conflicts such as that of Iraq may appear marginal - if not farcical at times - in military terms. But for the poor populations who are at the receiving end, it spells death and deprivation for today and increased exploitation for tomorrow, for the benefit of the City sharks. In the Iraqi conflict, just as in its domestic policy, Labour's government is acting as an agent of the City, of its banks, large companies and shareholders. This is why it is in the interest of the working class of this country to side with the Iraqi population against Blair's pro-imperialist policy, just as it is in its interest to fight Labour's pro-business policy in Britain.

4 January 1999