Iraq - "Democratic process" or civil war?

Jul/Aug 2004

As this issue of our journal goes to print, Bush is expected to proclaim the "end of the occupation" of Iraq within 10 days, on 30 June, together with the "handover of Iraqi sovereignty" to the new Iraqi government which replaced the puppet Interim Government Council on 1st June.

The 30 June deadline was part of a timetable mapped out back in November 2003 in order to appease US voters in the run-up to the presidential election, in November this year. By maintaining the illusion that he is sticking to this timetable, Bush must hope to convince a section of US public opinion that, despite the hundreds of US soldiers killed in Iraq and the thousands injured, despite the scandal caused by the torture of Iraqi prisoners by the US military and despite all evidence of the increasing strength of the resistance against the occupation forces, the Bush administration is delivering at least on some of its promises.

However, this announcement will be even more of a cynical lie than the "cessation of hostilities" he declared in May 2003. At the time, the US president may not have expected that the western invasion would turn Iraq into a tinderbox, although he knew that western troops would need to remain in the country in order to oversee the consolidation of a pliable regime. But today, Bush knows full well that he is facing an overwhelmingly hostile population and a political powder keg and that if US and British imperialism are to preserve their interests in Iraq and in the region, the military occupation of the country will have to carry on for the foreseeable future.

It is worth noting in passing that the so-called "anti-war" camp on the UN Security Council - Germany, France, Russia and China - has proved willing to play along with Bush and Blair by unanimously passing a resolution which endorses Bush's proclamation and, by the same token, his policy - without securing any guarantee whatsoever for the Iraqi population. So much for the fairy tale - floated by so many pacifists and "anti-war" politicians in Britain - of a United Nations which is primarily concerned with the interests of the Iraqi people!

In fact, not only are western occupation forces to remain in Iraq, but there are now plans to increase their numbers. Fresh US troops are to be brought in from their bases in South Korea, Germany and the US. They will be relocated to Iraq to replace and reinforce existing combat units. In Britain, now that the election period is over, Blair has revealed plans to send another 3,000-strong contingent. These troops will allow the extension of the British occupation zone to include Najaf, which was previously occupied by Spanish troops, before they were withdrawn by the Socialist Party-led government elected in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings. Other countries have committed themselves to send fresh troops - like South Korea, for instance, which has promised 3,000 combat troops in addition to the 600 engineers it already has in Iraq.

There is no reason to believe, therefore, that the new set-up put in place from 30 June will do anything to end the bloody chaos into which the western invasion has plunged Iraqi society. Nor that it will reduce the risk of this chaos crossing Iraq's borders and generating further political instability in the whole region.

The labels change, not the content

If the situation after 30 June is not military occupation, what is it? But, say Bush and Blair, western troops will no longer be occupation forces since they will be there "at the request" of the new Iraqi authorities, in order to help them to prevent terrorists from derailing the "democratic process", which is supposed to lead to the adoption of a democratic constitution by the end of next year.

Such a sleight of hand is a very old ploy on the part of imperialism. Britain used it for 26 years in Iraq itself - from the country's formal independence in 1932 to Qasim's nationalist coup, in 1958 - to maintain RAF bases which were used to crush every explosion of popular discontent "at the request" of Bagdad's puppet monarchy. And a large section of the US public undoubtedly remembers how the "helping hand" offered by successive US presidents "at the request" of Saïgon's anti-communist government escalated into a full-blooded war against North Vietnam as well as against the South Vietnamese population.

In fact, just as in Iraq under the British and in Vietnam under the US, the so-called "sovereign" Iraqi government is no less a puppet regime hand-picked by the western powers than the old Interim Governing Council. The only difference is that instead of being under the official control of Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, it will be under the unofficial control of the US embassy in Bagdad which, with 3,000 staff, will be the largest in the world!

The composition of this government, the result of much horse-trading between the US and its Iraqi partners, speaks for itself.

Of the 36 portfolios in the new government, the most important ones are held by people who were either members of the previous Interim Governing Council or of parties represented in it - thereby showing an unmistakable continuity with a council which has come to be generally despised by the population for its corruption and servility towards the occupiers.

The career of Iyad Allawi, the government's strong man and prime minister puts in a nutshell what this government is really about. A former informer for Saddam's regime while he was a student in Britain, Allawi turned his coat to serve MI6 and subsequently the CIA. While making a lucrative career as a consultant with various UN agencies, Allawi took part in launching the Iraqi National Accord (INA) with disaffected Baathist dignitaries, under the patronage of the Saudi royal family and with the assistance of the CIA and MI6. In the early 1990s, the INA staged a campaign of terrorist attacks in Iraq (the most famous being the bombing of a cinema, which killed dozens of people) and finally a CIA-backed military coup, in 1996 which failed, reducing the INA to a non-entity in Iraq and a mere appendage of western intelligence agencies. In passing, this shows that Bush and Blair, the anti-terrorist crusaders, see no problem in choosing a former terrorist to head the government which is supposed to lead Iraq to "democracy"!

Like Iyad Allawi, most of his ministers made lucrative careers for themselves in the rich countries, far away from the hardship in Iraq, either as businessmen or as academics. A few are former Baathists who either held positions before the invasion or had fallen out of favour only shortly before. Only a small minority - mostly among the Kurdish representatives - have any actual record of opposition to Saddam's regime in the country itself.

In other words, this government is well under the control of the occupation powers. Some of the parties which are represented in it may have a real social base in the country - like the two Kurdish parties and the two main Islamic parties - al Dawa and SCIRI (Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). But so far they have been prepared to play ball with the US. As to the other forces represented in this government, they owe their political profile and patronage to being recognised by the occupation forces. And they are unlikely to rock the boat, knowing that they would expose themselves to the same fate as Ahmed Chalabi - the CIA's former favourite to head the future government - whose Iraqi National Congress was completely sidelined in May after Chalabi tried to distance himself from the US in the hope of winning some support from the Shia religious hierarchy.

A "democratic" sham

The rules of engagement defined for the so-called "democratic process" are contained in a sort of transitional constitution, called the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). It was adopted by the Interim Governing Council last March after what seem to have been very bitter negotiations with the Shia hierarchy, whose endorsement Paul Bremer was desperate to secure (but did not).

This document outlines the limits of the transitional government's powers and, to some extent, the nature of the political regime which is supposed to come out of the process - which is, in and of itself, a contradiction since the form of this regime is supposed to be determined in a "democratic constitution" to be adopted by universal suffrage in October 2005.

Come what may, the TAL states in its article 7 that "Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation. No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam (..) may be enacted during the transitional period." In other words, the sharia returns as a legal reference - which amounts to turning the clock back to before 1958.

Of course, the TAL pays lip service to democratic rights and, in particular, the rights of women. But it stops short of condemning explicitly the oppressive practices against women which are justified by the sharia. And since the sharia is declared to be a source of legislation, women are left high and dry, between an abstract statement of principle and the risk of such practices being legalised or tolerated in the name of Islam.

Ironically, the TAL explicitly bans the new government from repealing any of the laws passed by Bremer's CPA. And since, in its early days, the latter issued an order confirming that unless otherwise stated by special decree, all the legislation of the Saddam Hussein era remained valid, the new government cannot repeal such legislation either.

So, for instance, the TAL recognises explicitly the right to strike and to organise in trade unions "in accordance with the law." But for whom, since according to a law passed under Saddam Hussein, state employees - still the overwhelming majority of those in employment today - were deprived of these rights?

A National Assembly is supposed to be elected by January 2005 under the provisions of the TAL in order to draft the country's final constitution. How this will be done remains an open question, thereby leaving open the possibility of a hand-picked assembly similar to the assembly set up in Afghanistan to legitimise the US puppet regime. But whatever happens, the TAL prescribes that its members should be at least 30 years old and have "at least a secondary school diploma or equivalent" - which, given the situation in Iraq, excludes the vast majority of the population and, more specifically, most of the radicalised youth which has been at the forefront of opposing the western occupation.

The most important aspect of the government's powers, given the situation in Iraq today, concerns the field of internal security and its relationship with the occupation forces. These are not explicitly defined in the TAL, but in a series of agreements passed at the beginning of June between Bremer, Iyad Allawi and the main parties.

To cut a long story short, the government retains formal responsibility for the Iraqi police and a new Iraqi Intelligence - which the western intelligence agencies are busy setting up, using former officers of Saddam's hated secret police. Likewise the government will have responsibility for the new Iraqi army - which is already being formed with elements of Saddam's army and trained by western forces. But while the US and British general staffs may choose to consult with the Iraqi government about the military operations they plan, this will not be an obligation. However, operations carried out by Iraqi security forces will be subject to western clearance, and these forces will be placed under western command whenever this is required by circumstances. In other words, not only does the occupation continue, but the Iraqi forces will remain auxiliaries of the US and British troops.

Of course, with Iyad Allawi as prime minister, western leaders can trust the new government to adopt a tough stance, not only against the resistance but in fact, against any opposition. So, hardly a week after his government had replaced the Interim Governing Council, Allawi announced that he was considering declaring a "state of emergency". However, there is already an undeclared state of emergency, aimed at the armed resistance, which is enforced by the Iraqi police and the occupation forces, complete with night curfews, roadblocks and regular body searches. So one can only guess that Allawi is now aiming at the wider opposition - in particular at the groups which have been organising marches in the main cities against electricity shortages, unemployment or for women's rights, or against the re-emerging unions, which have been organising strikes against the present slave level of wages, for instance.

Right from the word go, the Bush-Blair-sponsored "democracy" has a strong taste of dictatorship!

Radical Islam raises its head

For the US leaders, the run-up to the 30 June handover has been marred by the emergence of what amounts to an insurgent wave, starting from the beginning of April. This wave spread through most of Iraq - except Iraqi Kurdistan - and showed two things: that radical Islamic militias now felt confident enough to confront the occupation forces and that, in the process, they were able to gain a significant amount of support among the population. The extent of the insurgency was such that, in at least two major flashpoints, Falluja and Najaf, the US authorities chose to compromise, rather than using all the resources of their military arsenal, for fear of sparking off a much wider uprising.

It was the brutal retaliation of the US authorities, following the murder of four US mercenaries in the Sunni town of Falluja, east of Baghdad, which triggered the first episode of the insurgency. When the Marines entered Falluja, after residential areas had been bombed repeatedly by F-16s and helicopters, instead of a cowed population they were faced with organised armed groups and snipers who opened fire on them, causing a significant number of casualties in US ranks. For nearly four weeks, the town was besieged by 2,000 US Marines with abundant air support.

In the end, having killed over 600 people among the town's population, the US authorities were left with only two possibilities: either launch a full-scale assault which would have led to a bloodbath and probably triggered a violent reaction across the so-called Sunni Triangle, including in Baghdad; or leave the town in the hands of an Iraqi force. Bremer chose the latter. Negotiations took place and the so-called "Falluja Brigade" was formed, under the command of a former high-ranking officer of Saddam Hussein's army, and incorporating both elements from the Iraqi police and from the insurgents' militias. Falluja was now de facto in the hands of the insurgents.

Meanwhile, another of the US's heavy-handed operations had set alight the population of Sadr-City, the huge Shia slum of Baghdad. By closing down the little known paper of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, arresting some of his followers and threatening to bring al-Sadr to justice over the murder of a rival cleric, the US authorities triggered large protests in central Baghdad. When US troops fired on the protesters, al-Sadr seized his chance and called his supporters to demonstrate across Iraq.

Before this, leaving aside his radical anti-western rhetoric, al-Sadr had not been particularly noted for having a confrontational attitude towards the occupation forces. He owed his following to the network of religious schools and welfare centres set up in the 1990s by his father, a respected grand ayatollah, in the poor Shia areas. When his father was murdered by Saddam's thugs, in 1999, al-Sadr took over and consolidated this network. Since the US invasion, most of his activity had been devoted to eliminating rival Shia factions from Sadr City and from Kufa, the headquarters he had chosen near Najaf. In August 2003, he had formed a militia, the Jaish Mahdi, whose activity had been mostly confined to policing the population in al-Sadr's strongholds, while avoiding direct contact with the occupation forces.

Following al-Sadr's call, the insurgency seemed to spread like wildfire. Members of the Jaish Mahdi paraded and took over public buildings, including police stations, in Sadr City, Najaf, Kerbala, Basra, Amara, Kut, etc.. And everywhere, when they fired back at US or British troops trying to disband them, they seemed to win the support of a section of the population. In Kut and Amara, which were both fiefdoms of the Iraqi Hizbullah (or "Marsh Arabs"), the Hizbullah militias joined ranks with the Jaish Mahdi, while in Basra, elements of the Badr Brigade (the militia of the SCIRI party), who were already integrated into the police, handed over their weapons to the insurgents.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr himself had moved his headquarters to Najaf, where he posed melodramatically as a heroic defender of the Shia holy shrines located in this town against foreign invaders. It took nearly two months before the stand-off in Najaf was resolved. A compromise was agreed whereby the US would withdraw their threats against al-Sadr and US troops would leave the city. In return al-Sadr's Jaish Mahdi would not be disbanded, but they would have to remain invisible in Najaf's streets.

For the second time, therefore, the US authorities were ceding ground publicly to the resistance. After two months in which al-Sadr's militias had appeared as the only force determined enough to stand up to the occupation forces, this compromise must have been felt as a victory over the occupants by at least a section of the young Iraqis who were looking for a way to fight back. And the odds are that during these two months of confrontations, al-Sadr has been able to recruit a significant following across the country - particularly in the Shia south.

This being said, al Sadr's ambitions and outlook may well go further than the narrow Shia agenda that most commentators concede to him. This was what was implied, for instance, by a worried report published in the Wall Street Journal, which read: "Signs that the new fighting is convincing some Iraqis to reassess their view of the insurgency are increasingly easy to find (..) Residents in many Baghdad neighbourhoods signed up to host displaced families from Falluja, and banners and signs are posted at every corner declaring that the Sunni and Shia forces are now united. (..) American military officials have so far contended that the 129,000 troops stationed in Iraq are sufficient. But much depends on whether the battle remains between marginalised insurgents and coalition forces, or whether it spreads to a civilian population, Sunni and Shia alike, eager and willing to take arms against a common enemy."

Indeed, given that Sadr City was among the neighbourhoods which organised help for besieged Sunnis in Falluja, it may well be the case that, on the basis of the credit he has earned, al Sadr now seeks to emerge as a symbol of radical nationalism, with the aim of uniting all Iraqi Muslims behind his banner. This would be consistent with his announcement that he intends to form a political party and will support Allawi's government as long as its aim is to end foreign occupation of, and interference with the country.

Of course, this changes nothing to the deeply reactionary nature of al Sadr's politics. But it means that the west's power game of playing Sunni against Shia may end up in failure. One of the consequences of the western occupation of Iraq may well be to allow Islamic fundamentalists like al-Sadr to grab the flag of Iraqi nationalism, thereby providing them with a social base they had never enjoyed before. If so, the US leaders will have no partners to bargain with other than the radical Islamic factions - exactly what they wanted to avoid.

From chaos to civil war

The wave of insurgency since the beginning of April is only one aspect of the bloody chaos which has engulfed Iraq. In June, in addition to the usual guerrilla operations against occupation forces, there has been at least one suicide car bombing each day - with an official death toll of 180 to date. Most of these attacks have been aimed at "collaborators" - Iraqi police stations, official buildings of the new Iraqi administration or high-ranking functionaries and ministers of the new government.

Allawi and the western authorities have blamed these suicide bombings on the group led by a Jordanian associate of al Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. This may be true and it would certainly be very convenient for Bush and Blair, in order to demonise the resistance to the occupation. However, given the past attempts of western governments to blame the resistance on Saddam's supporters and then on so-called "Syrians", one can only be suspicious of the al Qaeda connection. All the more so because, thanks to the western occupation, there are now more than enough small fundamentalist groups seeking to make a name for themselves by using such methods. Not to mention the more "respectable" Islamic parties, which would be in a far better bargaining position should the US leaders become convinced that the stability of the country - and the flow of its oil - depends primarily on their cooperation.

There are, however, other potential sources of destabilisation. Kurdistan has been, so far, relatively unaffected by guerilla and terrorist activities. But this may change.

First, tension has been rising between ethnic parties over the issue of who will control the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, whose future remains unchartered in the TAL. There have been demonstrations and armed confrontations in the towns between ethnic militias. Leading Turkoman figures, who advocated an alliance with Kirkuk's Arab groups against the Kurdish parties, have been mysteriously murdered. The forced expropriation of Arab families in favour of Kurds previously deported under Saddam Hussein has provided recruits for radical Arab Islamic groups. The town of Kirkuk is a powder keg waiting to explode.

Second, the settlement leading to the 30 June has caused a lot of resentment in Kurdistan. Formally the TAL promotes a federal structure for the future Iraq and defines the Kurdish language as the country's second official language. It also gives the Kurdish parties an implicit veto on the future constitution by stating that it should not be rejected by a 2/3 majority in 3 governorates (Kurdistan covers 3 governorates). So, on paper, the Kurds have been given guarantees that they will be able to secure a large degree of autonomy in the future Iraq. However, the UN resolution which endorsed the "democratic process" makes no reference to the TAL or to the Kurds' national rights - probably to avoid upsetting the Iraqi Islamic parties. This has precipitated a flurry of protest in Kurdistan. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there have been factions both inside and outside the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK, which argued in favour of an independent Kurdistan and it seems that the latest protests together with the on-going chaos in the rest of Iraq has allowed them to raise their profile significantly. This could lead to the resurgence of an armed separatist movement in Iraqi Kurdistan which, in turn, could raise again the flag of a greater Kurdistan, bringing together Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian and Turkish Kurds.

Outside Iraq itself, the terrorist wave in Saudi Arabia, which seems to aim at capitalising on anti-western feelings, exposes the weaknesses of the Saudi monarchy - which is still one of the pillars of imperialism in the region. The civil war in Iraq may not have direct consequences in Saudi Arabia - although some Iraqi Islamic factions belong to the strand of Islam which is dominant in Saudi Arabia and the oppressed Shia minority of Saudi Arabia could be driven to rebellion by the example of their religious brothers in Iraq - but the western occupation of Iraq certainly feeds anti-western, and therefore anti-monarchist feelings in Saudi Arabia.

Far from heading towards "democracy" as Bush and Blair claim, Iraq is, therefore, more than likely to slide even further into bloody chaos and, possibly, outright civil war in the coming months. If so, this could affect the whole of the Middle East and provide far more recruits to the likes of al Qaeda than the West will ever be able to cope with. However, as always, those who will pay with their blood for the West's criminal venture in Iraq, will be the poor masses of the region - first because of the war and occupation themselves, second because of the resulting civil war and third because of the reactionary dictatorships which are likely to come out of this mess.

As to the British and US soldiers who have been sent to the killing fields of Iraq, they must have realised by now that their role was never to help the Iraqi population but only to boost the profits of western shareholders. Whatever they do now will be directed against a whole population who wants them to go. But who wants to risk his life killing innocent people for the sole benefit of parasites waiting for their dividends to drop into their bank accounts? Those who try to sweep Blair's crimes in Iraq under the carpet under the pretext that the lives of British soldiers should not be put at risk are cynical hypocrites. The only way to avoid exposing their lives needlessly is to withdraw all British troops from Iraq now!