To say that Iraq is descending into civil war is not to say anything new. It has been a fact at least since the beginning of April this year, when a wave of insurgency broke out simultaneously in the so-called "Sunni Triangle", with Falluja as its focal point and in most of the Shia-dominated towns, from the slum-town of Sadr City, in Baghdad, to Basra in the British-occupied south. It takes all the hypocrisy of a Blairite mouthpiece such as the Guardian to "discover" this fact and come out, more than five months later, with a headline across its front page saying: "Iraq: a descent into civil war?" (issue dated 15 September) - and, even then, with a question mark!
As if there was any space for such a question mark today, when day after day, western bombings, street fighting and terrorist attacks claim dozens of victims and sometimes hundreds? The US and British high commands acknowledge themselves, that the number of attacks against their troops has reached an unprecedented level - 87 a day for the US troops alone, an increase of 74% compared to the daily average over the previous three months. And this figure includes neither the attacks aimed at the Iraqi police and Iraqi National Guard - who suffered, by far, the largest number of casualties in July and August - nor the murders and abductions of individuals accused of co-operating with occupation forces - whether they be ministers, senior governorate or police officials, ordinary civil servants or just contract workers.
Even Bush had to admit, in an interview to the New York Times, on 27 August, that he had "miscalculated" the post-war situation in Iraq. Of course, having uttered this understatement of the year, he immediately went on to say that US strategy was "flexible" enough to deal with the situation. But what a change, compared to his past arrogance, when he boasted how US policy had worked wonders in Iraq! Obviously, however, Bush has had to find something to say in order to reassure the US electorate, given the rising casualties among US troops and, more specifically, the fact that there have been more US soldiers killed since the "handover of Iraqi sovereignty" to Iyad Allawi's puppet government than during the two months of the invasion period itself!
The west's political failure
Indeed, regardless of Bush's reassuring words to voters, the recent reallocation by US leaders of $3.4bn reconstruction money to "security" - that is, to funding the fight against the insurgency - is, in and of itself, an admission that the occupation forces have a civil war on their hands. That this money is taken out of funds originally earmarked for US contractors who were to undertake the restoration of water and power supply and the rebuilding of sewage systems, is also an indication of the pressure of events on the US leaders.
Back in March, it was commonly estimated by leading figures of the occupation authorities that the core of the insurgents did not number much more than 5,000. But by the end of August, a US colonel based near Baquba, one of the most bloody flashpoints of the insurgency since the beginning of July, estimated in an interview to the Financial Times that the real figure was probably closer to 120,000 - not counting the probably much larger milieu who sympathise with the insurgents.
The situation has become so much worse that, today, members of the US military establishment intervene regularly to condemn openly Bush's policy. To be sure, this rift between the top spheres of the military and the White House is not new. It began at the time of the invasion itself, when the Republican administration was criticised either for embarking on an unnecessarily dangerous military venture, or for failing to provide the army with enough manpower to achieve the objectives which it was assigned. Since then, however, all the predictions made by Bush's critics among the military have come true, thereby paving the way for more of them coming out into the open.
No preparation had been made to cater for the most immediate needs of the population and repair the damage done during the invasion. Despite the $18bn demanded by Bush from the US Congress for the rebuilding of Iraq, virtually nothing has been done since (in fact, only $1bn of this amount has been spent and only probably a small part on facilities which are actually of any use for the population). This has generated enough anger to provide a willing audience for the Islamic currents which stepped into the vacuum left by the collapse of Saddam's regime. Once these currents went onto the offensive, the Anglo-American troops and the token forces of their allies soon found themselves far too overstretched to face up to what amounted to a rising insurgency - at least not without exposing themselves to casualty levels which would have been politically unsustainable for the US and British governments in front of public opinion.
Subsequently, the "democratic" farce surrounding the "handover of sovereignty" has done nothing to disarm the insurgents. In fact, on the contrary, this handover has raised the stakes in the rivalry between the many factions vying for a share of political power, resulting in an over-bidding between them in their attacks against the occupation forces and their local stooges. Much more importantly, these factions - or at least the armed resistance against western occupation as a whole - enjoys the undeniable sympathy of a significant section of the population, including within the ranks of the Iraqi government forces. And not only does this allow the various guerilla groups to melt into the landscape whenever the occupation forces get too close, but it also provides them with a pool of potential recruits to replace their casualties.
Hence the present scathing attacks against Bush's policy from within the ranks of the US military establishment, such as for instance that of retired general William Odom, a former head of the National Security Agency, who declared recently in an interview: "Bush hasn't found the WMDs. Al-Qaida, it's worse, he's lost on that front. That he's going to achieve a democracy there? That goal is lost too. (..) This is far graver than Vietnam. There wasn't as much at stake strategically, though in both cases we went ahead mindlessly with a war which was not constructive for US aims. But now we're in a region far more volatile and we're in a much worse shape with our allies."
If the documents leaked by the Daily Telegraph on 17 September are anything to go by, Blair and his government knew in April 2002 that Bush intended to invade Iraq as a "first step in destroying the 'axis of evil'", involving "nation-building over many years" but that there was a glaring absence of post-invasion plans, thereby raising the spectrum of a bloody civil war. This did not stop Blair from following the US administration in its drive to war. This did not even prompt the British and US governments to take preventive measures in order to reduce the predicted "collateral damage" of their policy, whether for the Iraqi population or for the region as a whole. In the While House as well as in Downing Street, it was considered that enforcing the imperialist order and the rights of imperialist companies to plunder the resources of the Middle East was well worth the risk of a civil war and a bloodbath, in Iraq and possibly beyond. And it is the price of this policy that the Iraqi population is paying today.
As far as the "democratic process" in Iraq is concerned, this is obviously a mirage. But then, since when have the imperialist powers allowed any space for democracy in the poor countries over which they exercise their plunder? It was never "democracy" that they wanted in Iraq, not even in the limited sense that we know it in the rich countries, but a stable regime capable of subjecting the masses into submission despite their poverty, while western imperialist companies looted the country.
After the farce of the "handover of sovereignty" to Allawi's hand-picked government, on 28 June, the "election" of the National council which is meant to control this puppet government's actions turned this into pantomime.
A national conference was supposed to convene in Baghdad on 31 July in order to elect this National Council. It was based on the same model as the "loya jirga" used in Afghanistan to provide the US-backed regime of Hamid Karzai with an appearance of legitimacy. Out of the 1000 delegates to the conference, 548 were meant to be "elected" by the 18 governorates (but since there were no elections, they were effectively appointed by local strong politicians) while the rest were appointed by the government and its "independent" UN advisers to include various parties and personalities. However, by 31 July, the power struggle over the delegates' appointment was still carrying on, so that the conference was postponed until 15 August.
By that time, Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militias were fighting a full-scale battle with US marines for the control of the city of Najaf. So, as soon as the conference opened, delegates belonging to the Shia Council walked out to demand that a delegation should be sent to Najaf in order to bring the two sides to the negotiating table. The conference was then suspended for two days, pending the return of the delegation.
When it reopened on 17 August, hundreds of delegates threatened to walk out when they discovered that 19 of the 100 seats of the future National Council had been allocated in advance to members of the former ICG (the Iraqi Governing Council originally appointed by the US after the invasion) who had failed to win a portfolio in Allawi's government. The voting procedure, which required voting for a full slate rather than for each individual candidate, provoked another furore and more threats of a walkout. The climax was reached when it turned out that there was only one list to vote for - a list compiled by the five main parties in Allawi's government, which was moved by Allawi himself. As the Washington Post's correspondent reported, "Four cardboard ballot boxes placed on the stage remained unused and many delegates abandoned the meeting hall to collect their $100 per day payment instead of participating in a show of hands."
Even though the only control that this National Council will be able to exercise is to veto new legislation introduced by the government - and this only by a two-thirds majority - the occupation authorities did not take any more chances than they had to, in selecting the members of Allawi's government. Among those "elected", no-one will use the National Council as a platform to oppose the pro-US regime - at least not for the time being.
While this pantomime of "democracy" was taking place, however, Allawi's government was busying itself with a recruitment drive which has failed to make the headlines (or even the inside pages) of the western media. Not only have former senior officers of Saddam Hussein's army been recruited to run the new Iraqi National Guard (although it is said that many turned down the offer, preferring less conspicuous posts as "consultants" for the US and British armies, no doubt for fear of retaliation), but former torturers of the Mukhabarat, Saddam's notorious political police, have been drafted in to form the regime's new intelligence agency.
So, behind the rags of this western-sponsored parody of "democracy" what is being recreated is the skeleton of a new dictatorship, using the same personnel as the old one, regardless of the blood it has on its hands.
US containment tactics
The methods used by the US in Afghanistan have not proved to be very successful there. But they are totally nonsensical in the context of Iraq.
Indeed, in Afghanistan's predominantly rural society, where a majority of the population remains subject to semi-feudal social relations, the US-backed regime of Hamid Karzai may hope to achieve political stability through a de facto power-sharing agreement with its main rival, the western Afghan warlord Ismael Khan, while allowing local Taliban-like warlords to survive in mountainous areas on the backs of the population. Even then, this arrangement does not prevent on-going terrorist attacks against the regime (including one in September against Karzai himself) and the need to maintain a western security force comprising nearly 10,000 soldiers to protect the capital. Artificial as this may be, however, the regime has been able to remain in place and it has allowed Afghanistan to become an imperialist outpost.
In Iraq, however, unlike in Afghanistan, there is an additional decisive factor which comes into play - the threat represented for the plans of imperialism by a highly-urbanised population (over 70%), with a broad spectrum of political traditions and whose aspirations and sense of strength can only be reinforced by its social and geographical concentration.
US high command discovered this fact, when, back in April, it was forced to withdraw first from Falluja and then from Najaf, after failing to crush the insurgents' resistance, despite having massacred hundreds of inhabitants in these towns. Far from depriving the insurgents of their base of support in these towns, the US bombings only bolstered this support and provided the resistance with more recruits.
Over the following months, an increasing number of towns became no-go areas for US and British troops, in the Sunni Triangle, of course, but also Shia towns like Sadr City in Baghdad's suburbs, Kut near the Iranian border, Kufa, Najaf and Samawa in the south west, Amara in the south-eastern British zone, and mixed towns like Baquba in central Iraq and Tal Afar, near the northern Syrian border.
The occupation authorities seem to have hoped that handing over power to Allawi's government and getting Iraqi forces to police these towns would divert the attention of the resistance away from the occupation forces and weaken the population's support for the insurgents. But none of this has happened.
The Iraqi forces have proved so unreliable - where they did not side purely and simply with the resistance - that, for instance, early in September, Allawi had to disband the so-called "Falluja brigade" to whom the US forces had relinquished control of this town before withdrawing at the end of April.
Throughout the summer, these no-go urban areas became the strongholds of radical Islamic groups, which used this respite to recruit and consolidate their authority over the population, by the use of force when necessary, under the pretext of enforcing the sharia. At the same time, these towns became the logistical bases out of which the growing number of terrorist attacks against western and occupation forces were organised.
At the beginning of August, when the US troops re-entered Najaf, this time under the cover of a request allegedly made by Allawi's government, the town's population did not prove any more sympathetic to their intervention. The resistance they met from al-Sadr's Mahdi army and their supporters proved to be even fiercer than in June, before their first withdrawal. And this time again the US generals had no option but to order their troops out of the town for fear of a bloodbath, while allowing al-Sadr and his men free passage with their weapons.
By the beginning of September, in response to the growing number of terrorist attacks - but also probably due to the fear that the very high numbers of casualties among Iraqi National Guards might deter potential recruits and undermine the loyalty of existing soldiers - the US general staff embarked on a containment operation aimed at these no-go towns. This time, Iraqi forces were used as cannon-fodder to substantiate the fairy tale of an Iraqi-led law-and-order operation and minimise US victims. US forces confined themselves to bombing from the air and blockading the targeted towns from the outside, only entering them once they were confident that the resistance was weak enough for them to avoid substantial casualties.
Among the towns targeted were Amara (for the British forces) and Samarra, where the occupation troops carried out hit-and-run operations, designed to disorganise the resistance, rather than to crush it, by taking over its weapons caches and forcing it to go underground or flee elsewhere. In Ramadi, Tal Afar and Sadr City, however, similar operations resulted in bloody street fighting without the occupiers reaching their objectives, despite the large numbers of casualties among the insurgents (and the population). In Falluja and the immediately neighbouring area, the US adopted a different tactic, using Sharon's favourite method in the Palestinian Occupied territories - that is, selective missile-bombing of alleged terrorist "safe houses" and "planning meetings". Like in April last year, estimates run into hundreds of victims, although the total blockade imposed on the town makes it impossible to have precise figures. The aim of this strategy, however, is no less clear - to terrorise the population in order to deprive the resistance groups of their base of support.
Of course, the tactics of the US leaders are, to a very large extent, determined by the November presidential election in the US. The last thing Bush wants is a sharp increase in the number of casualties among US troops or a new wave of insurgency across the country - like in April - because this time, it would probably be much more visible - which would undermine the credibility of his policy and his chances to make it to a second term. Hence the relative moderation of the US in their attempts to regain control of the no-go towns.
At the receiving end of the factions' rivalries
Already, following the bloody fighting of the past two months, western leaders are preparing the ground for a postponement of Iraq's general election originally planned for January 2005. The sinister irony of this, however, is that, whatever course they choose, the US leaders can only make things worse. If these elections are held, they will become a target for the armed resistance. The odds are that the turnout will be so low that the resulting elected institutions will have no authority whatsoever. If, on the other hand, these elections are postponed, not only will it give the parties which are currently cooperating reluctantly with the US an axe to grind against the occupation, but it will alienate those among the US's most loyal allies, who are waiting impatiently for these elections to bring about the autonomy they had been promised within a federal Iraq - particularly the Kurdish nationalists.
Meanwhile, however, the political partners inside and outside the "democratic process" are preparing themselves for these elections, whether they have to be postponed or not. So the two largest Shia parties, al-Dawa and SCIRI (Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) have entered talks aimed at merging forces. Such a merged party, if the talks are successful, would muster the overwhelming majority of the Shia religious vote (that is among those who will bother to vote) and would probably become the country's largest party by a big margin.
Others, including among the "democratic process" partners, are preparing for the election using far more brutal means. In the northern Kurdish-controlled areas, a violent campaign of intimidation is being conducted against the local minorities in order to "kurdishise" as much territory as possible, thereby allowing the Kurdish nationalist parties to increase their bargaining position in the discussion over Iraq's future federal borders, after the election.
Kirkuk, the oil capital of the north, has been the scene of a 3-way battle between Kurdish, Arab and Turkoman nationalists virtually since the invasion of Iraq. The Kurdish nationalists' policy has been to encourage Kurds to move to this town, whether they had been formerly displaced to the south under Saddam Hussein, or they simply wished to escape lousy conditions in other parts of Kurdistan. As a result, the relative importance of the three ethnic components of the town's population (which had been about equal so far) has been tilted significantly to the Kurds' advantage. Fuelling further resentment is the Kurdish authorities' policy of expropriating non-Kurd families so as to provide shelter for returning Kurds. All this has resulted in a rising wave of armed confrontations and terrorist attacks in Kirkuk, which the Kurdish-dominated police seems increasingly unable to contain.
But Kirkuk is not the only flashpoint in the Kurdish area. In the north-western zone, where the Turkoman population has a long-standing presence, the Kurdish militias have been accused of harassment against the population. The US attack against the predominantly Turkoman town of Tal Afar, under the pretext of disarming local insurgents, may well have been prompted by biassed intelligence supplied by the Kurdish Democratic Party, which also happens to control the local Iraqi police. In any case, the eagerness showed by the Iraqi police to push Turkoman refugees from the town as far south as they could, would point in this direction.
Likewise for the Chaldo-Assyrians (who are predominantly Christians) who are located, in particular, in the Mosul area and along the upper Tigris river up to the Turkish border. These areas are also part of the Kurdish nationalists' targets, not least because this region contains the main water source for central and south Iraq, is one of its most fertile and is predicted to hold vast reserves of gas. There has been an upsurge of bloody attacks against Chaldo-Assyrian localities in the area, obviously aimed at terrorising their population into fleeing further south. These attacks have been generally blamed on Kurdish militias.
The Kurdish nationalists who are behind these attacks against ethnic minorities are not the only ones to resort to such methods against any group seen as a potential rival.
So, for instance, the Chaldo-Assyrians have also been targeted from other quarters. In August, for the first time, Christian churches were the target of coordinated bomb attacks, simultaneously in Mosul and in Baghdad (so far there had been only one instance of such an attack, in Basra). This time, it would seem that the perpetrators were Islamic fundamentalists who have extended their "holy war" to include the Chaldo-Assyrians. By a cynical irony, this wave of attacks may have been prompted by the arrogant proselytism of US-based Christian fundamentalist sects which moved into Iraq after the invasion and which have been flashing their dollars at potential converts and disseminating hundreds of thousands of copies of the bible in Arabic.
More blood on imperialism's hands
Once the November election deadline is past, there is every reason to fear that the US - whether under Bush or under Kerry - will go for a full-scale offensive, even if this means a series of bloodbaths and taking the risk of sparking wide scale insurgency. The imperialist leaders just cannot afford to risk allowing the resistance groups to grow roots in the large pool of potential support represented by the poor masses of Iraq's largest cities.
Contrary to claims widely spread in the media, over 18 months after the invasion, the conditions have hardly improved for the vast majority of the population. As a Financial Times correspondant was forced to admit, "Bandits wearing stolen police uniforms set up random checkpoints to trap potential victims (..) Water is not the only critical service in trouble. Two of Iraq's three oil refineries are down for servicing; only Basra's refinery is producing any petrol, benzine, diesel or kerosene. Fuel smuggling is rampant and petrol queues have increased. Astonishingly, Iraq, one of the world's most oil-rich countries, still relies on oil imports (..) Electricity supplies are improving but distribution problems persist (..) At best Basra's electricity runs three hours on, three hours off."
If this is the situation in Basra, a comparatively affluent town where resistance to the occupation has remained comparatively low-key (although not as low-key as ministers would have us believe), one can only guess the terrible conditions prevailing for Sadr City's 2 million population. Not only are there shortages of water and electricity and blocked and leaking sewers, but enormous piles of rubbish accumulate in the streets because no-one in the new administration bothers to get the rubbish collection service back into operation. The level of overpopulation equals that of the worst slums in India. Houses may be made of concrete, but they are falling apart, and always provide shelter to several generations, with 5 to 7 people squeezed in the same room. As to its inhabitants, most of them are unemployed and depend on the unreliable system of food rations established under Saddam Hussein and restored belatedly by the occupation authorities. The youth, who are not even entitled to these vouchers, are left to scrape a precarious living as street peddlers or metal scrap collectors. No wonder, against such a background, that the contemptuous arrogance of the occupation forces has won so many recruits to the radical-sounding demagogy of someone like al-Sadr.
It is precisely the explosive power of large urban concentrations such as Sadr City or Falluja, that the imperialist powers have every reason to fear. They can deal with parties such as al-Dawa and SCIRI despite their links with Iran because, whatever their demagogy, these parties are responsible towards the interests of the Iraqi bourgeoisie and capitalism in general. But they are not so sure how to deal with people like al-Sadr or the radical Sunni resistance, not because they are social radicals who are prepared to put the interests of the masses first - on the contrary, the ideas they represent and the terrorist methods they use reflect their determination to crush the social aspirations of the masses. However, the imperialist leaders cannot be sure how far these radical factions are prepared to go in their fight for power, nor whether, in the process, there is not a risk that they might set alight the urban proletarian powder kegs - something which would confront the west with a hugely more difficult problem to solve than the present insurgency.
This is why the occupation troops may well escalate their use of terror tactics, primarily against the population, even if the official justification remains the "war on terrorism" or the fight against some alleged offspring of al-Qaida. This is why also, in the absence of a powerful proletarian movement capable of uniting the ranks of the Iraqi masses, across ethnic and religious divisions, and threatening imperialism with a possible proletarian uprising, not just across Iraq, but across the entire region, the Iraqi poor are left with few options. They are trapped between the imperialist troops, for whom they are "legitimate targets" and resistance groups led by reactionary clerics, for whom they are at best cannon-fodder.