Iraq - 3 years of occupation: the judgment of history has long been made

Mar/Apr 2006

The third anniversary of the Western invasion of Iraq has been met with near-deafening silence by the leaders of the imperialist countries.

In the US, thundering statements against Iran's "nuclear threat" have attempted to sweep any reminder of the West's criminal role in the Iraqi catastrophe under the carpet, while, at the same time, trying to revamp Bush's "state of siege" policy. Meanwhile, in Britain, the media's obsessive coverage of Tessa Howell's husband's dubious business dealings was used as a convenient diversion.

However, in a rare statement made on March 3rd, on ITV1's Parkinson show, Blair did draw a balance sheet of sorts of his dirty war in Iraq. It was a graphic illustration of the western leaders' cynicism towards the plight of the Iraqi people and a crass display of self-satisfied bigotry, into the bargain. There was no more mention of the original pretexts for the invasion. The old lies about "WMDs", "rogue states", "terrorism", "democracy", etc.. were all forgotten. The whole bloody affair was reduced to Blair mumbling that "the only way you can take a decision like that is to try to do the right thing according to your conscience and, for the rest of it, you leave it to the judgment that history will make", which "if you believe in God, is made by God as well."

Blair, however, did not elaborate. Nor did he bother to say whether this rather strange justification for British military ventures also applies to the war in Afghanistan, which is in its fifth year and where a new contingent of 4,000 British soldiers is about to be sent.

No-one knows what Blair's God tells him about his role in the bloodbath engineered by the West in Iraq over the past three years! It may well be that a few prayers are enough to wash away from Blair's bigoted conscience all the blood which has been and is still being shed in Iraq. But one can only doubt that such sanctimonious utterances will change anything to Blair's discredit - nor do they aim to. After all, Blair is on his way out. He knows it, everyone knows it and he is already preparing his next career move. In the meantime, as a "responsible" politician of the capitalist class, all he has to do is to take the blame onto himself so as to carry the can and leave as clean a sheet as possible for his successor, whether Labour or Tory.

As to the judgment of history, this is quite another matter, because this judgment has already been made beyond any possible doubt. And there is no appeal against it. The bloody pandemonium of the past weeks is there to prove it.

When all hell breaks loose

On 22 February, when the Shiite Askariyah shrine was bombed in Samarra, whatever remained of the thin illusion of the western-sponsored "democratic process" finally fell to pieces.

In the hours following the bombing, Reuters' correspondent in Baghdad reported that 27 Sunni mosques had been attacked in the capital alone, including two which were burned down. The same journalist added: "armed Mahdi army militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtadah al-Sadr took up positions on the streets of Baghdad and Shiites cities in the south, clashing in Basra and elsewhere with Sunnis. A Sadr aide said: 'If the Iraqi government does not do its job to defend the Iraqi people, we are ready to do so'."

No-one can be sure about who it was that really carried out the bombing of the shrine. But it was definitely a signal for all the rival armed militias which exercise the reality of power in the country to raise their profile and demonstrate their strength.

All over Iraq, protesters were marched onto the streets by weapon-wielding militiamen. Many, if not most, of the protesters may well have intended to show their anger against the occupation forces which they blamed, first for the Samarra bombing and then for the subsequent retaliations and tit-for-tat executions, bombings and kidnappings. But the fact is that these protests were marshalled by fundamentalist groups whose declared opposition to the occupation is only a means to an end - as a recruiting agent and a back up for their political ambitions.

Over the following days, mosques were attacked, torched or occupied. Residential neighbourhoods were sprayed with sniper fire and shelled with grenades, busy market places were bombed. There were countless reports of systematic cold-blooded executions at roadblocks set up by militia and during raids staged by armed thugs. In a number of cases, in particular, commandos raided workshops and factories killing all the workers they could find on site. Every morning, dozens of corpses of people executed during the night were found on the pavement, while minibus-loads of dead bodies were discovered along the main roads. Tens of thousands of people were forcibly evicted or fled their homes for fear of being chosen as the next target.

It is impossible to know how many died in this deadly spree - let alone how many will die in the coming days or weeks, since at the time of writing, there is still no sign that these attacks are abating. But in the early days of March, less than 9 days after this outburst of madness had begun, the Iraqi medical authorities were already reporting at least 1,500 civilian dead, on the basis of data obtained from city morgues. More Iraqi civilians had died during these 9 days alone than western soldiers during the first 21 months of the occupation!

As to the bogus "democracy" put in place by the occupation forces, it revealed its true face.

These so-called "democratic" institutions proved totally impotent in front of the wave of attacks, despite declaring round-the-clock curfews, banning marches, forbidding the circulation of cars in the main cities and threatening a clampdown on the carrying of weapons in public. In fact, the Iraqi authorities were so impotent that, in Mosul, the country's second largest town, the governor issued a proclamation in which he admitted that he could no longer guarantee the safety of the population and authorised adults to carry individual weapons for self-defence - thereby officially contradicting the orders of Baghdad's interim government

Far more damning was the fact that the machinery of the new "democratic" state proved to be a major part of the problem. Many units of the Iraqi police, army and special forces, which were originally recruited directly from the ranks of the armed militia, seem to have taken part in the killings of the last two weeks. Numerous reports mention that summary executions and raids were carried out by Iraqi police and Interior ministry squads - the so-called "Wolf brigades", which are really the Shiite Badr militia under a different guise - in full uniform, using their brand new US or British-made weapons and vehicles. Given the scale of the phenomenon, the usual fairy tale used by the authorities - both Iraqi and US-British - accusing "terrorists" of operating with stolen police equipment is hardly credible.

As to the occupation forces, they proved just as impotent in front of the wave of attacks as the puppet regime. But then, of course, they were cautiously kept away from the heat by their commanding officers, as it is usually the case whenever a powder keg put in place by imperialism explodes in its hands - just as in the past, in the former Yugoslavia or in Rwanda. Some observers have justified this policy by claiming that any attempt by British and US troops to at least provide some protection to the residential areas which were targeted by the armed gangs, would have just poured more oil onto the fire and probably would have led to more casualties without making a lot of difference for civilians. This may well be true since, after all, the occupation forces are themselves a major part of the problem in today's catastrophic situation in Iraq.

But isn't this precisely the "judgment of history" that Blair seems to be so confident about - the history of an invasion which caused tens of thousands of casualties and, after 3 years of occupation, has only managed to bring social and economic destitution to the population, while turning the country into an open battlefield for rival armed factions bidding to establish their own dictatorship?

The responsibility of imperialism

Of course, the western media were quick to explain away this bloody mayhem by referring to a religious conflict between Shiites and Sunnis. However, this is a cynical way of glossing over the responsibility of the western leaders.

Indeed, saying that the Islamic factions are using religious references and identification in order to whip the population into line behind them, in their power struggle against their rivals - which is certainly true - is one thing. Just as it is unquestionably correct to point to the pogrom atmosphere deliberately created by the militias.

But it is quite another thing to reduce the present bloodbath in Iraq to a religious conflict between two Muslim sects, whose ancient differences are probably unknown to the vast majority of the Iraqi population.

One of the features of Iraqi society, after the demise of the pro-British monarchy, in 1958, was a very rapid rate of urbanisation which accelerated the blurring of the old clan and sectarian divisions within the ranks of the urban population and, even more so, among the huge proletariat. Iraq came to be known as one of the most secular societies in the Middle East, where women had more rights than anywhere else, including in Britain's favourite "democratic" monarchy, Jordan. And while, during the last part of his reign, Saddam Hussein did resort to a degree of Islamic demagogy in order to win back the support of a section of clerics for his regime, Iraq still remained by and large the secular society it had been over the previous decades.

However, the western invasion of Iraq and subsequent collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime opened a political vacuum which Washington's and London's westernised stooges - Ahmed Chalabi and other CIA-backed exiles - proved unable to fill. Instead, the forces which came to the fore were either remnants of Saddam Hussein's state machinery or Islamic currents which had been able, and to some extent allowed, to gain some strength in the shadow of the former regime. The Iraqi political scene became dominated by rival Islamic fundamentalist militias, which immediately embarked on a struggle for political power. These factions used religion as a justification for their claim to dictatorial powers, terror to impose their rule on the masses and the anger caused by the western occupation to make new recruits and mobilise support.

Beyond the invasion itself, the policy of the western leaders in the occupation was instrumental in boosting the profile and influence of the fundamentalist militias. The on-going bombings and brutal repression carried out by the occupation forces acted as a recruiting agent for the militias. And so did the destruction and economic catastrophe caused by the invasion for the Iraqi population. But, above all, what gave the fundamentalist militias the prominent role they play today in Iraqi society was the conscious choice made by the western leaders to co-opt them into the pliable regime that they were building for Iraq.

In this respect, Blair's government carries a particular responsibility. From the very early days of the occupation, the British authorities resorted to the good old practices of the British empire, by "sub-contracting" the task of policing the population in the British-occupied south to the most reactionary forces available - the Shiite militias. In Basra, these militias were de facto granted the licence to impose their moral order on the population, particularly on women, without the British high command objecting to their brutal rule.

When British generals began to train and equip the new Iraqi police, the militias merely slipped into the uniform of the new police, but they carried on following the orders of their fundamentalist leaders. This allowed London to boast of its "success" in southern Iraq - meaning compared to the problems faced by the US in central Iraq. However, this self-complacency covered a lie. There were fewer bombings in the British-occupied zone - although even that was no longer true by the end of 2005 - but kidnapping, racketeering and other brutality against the population were daily events, just as was the case everywhere else in Iraq. Only, in the south, the police were more often than not on the same side as the gangsters.

As to Labour's smug claim, at the time of the Abu Ghraib picture scandal, that such a thing could never happen in the British-occupied zone, it has also been proven to be a lie time and again. Not only were pictures of British soldiers inflicting similar torture on Iraqi prisoners released, but probably what was most shocking was the video published by a British daily, showing British soldiers offloading their frustration by kicking to the ground and beating up stone-throwing children in Basra. This video must have caused a real outcry in Iraq since, following its release, the regional authorities of the two main provinces under British control decided to end any co-operation with British high command.

How many young Iraqis have been pushed into the arms of the fundamentalist militias as a result of such gratuitous brutality by the British army? How many of them have been lured as a result, into believing that they had no option but to go along with the murderous policy of these militias?

A struggle for political power

What has been taking place in Iraq over the past weeks is indeed not a religious conflict but the latest bloody episode in the struggle for political power between the various political factions. And, once again, it is the western leaders who have set the scene and provided the stakes for the rivals in this new episode, through their so-called "democratic process".

Three months after last December's assembly election, a new government has yet to be formed. Protracted horse-trading has been taking place, under the pressure of the US authorities, to put together a "national unity" government which would include representatives from the main Sunni and Shiite political forces involved in the process.

However, there are numerous obstacles to this. First, there are still a number of armed factions, religious or otherwise, which have not joined the process. Second, the Shiite forces which dominate the new assembly are proving most reluctant to make concessions to their potential Sunni partners.

But the main obstacles seem to have emerged within the ruling coalition itself. The nomination of the future prime minister, has been a complicated and protracted affair between the three main components of the Shiite alliance. After many weeks of bargaining in which the alliance came close to breaking point several times, former prime minister al Jaafari was finally nominated as its candidate, by a very small margin.

However, no sooner had al Jaafari been chosen than a new crisis emerged, when the Kurdish alliance, which has been ruling so far in coalition with the Shiite alliance, threatened to break ranks. This followed an official visit by al-Jaafari to Turkey, during which the Iraqi leader had not only discussed Turkey's economic involvement in Iraq, but also a possible military involvement at some point in the future.

For the Kurdish nationalists, such an initiative amounts to a provocation, given Turkey's long record of persecution against its own Kurdish minority. Hence the immediate reaction of the Kurdish alliance leader, Iraq's president Talabani, threatening to vote against al-Jaafari in the assembly's prime ministerial vote, and even to form an alliance with the smaller Sunni parties which could result in a hung assembly.

In the meantime, the power struggle between the three main components of the Shiite alliance is carrying on the ground. Much of the whipping up of religious loyalties over the past weeks, whether through the organisation of protest marches, mass prayers or revenge raids, is due to the overbidding which is taking place between these rival allies and their attempt at maximising their support in preparation for the constitution of the future government.

If all of this was taking place in a western country, it would only be politicking western-style for the sake of a few ministerial portfolios and would not have much importance. However, in the context of Iraq, such conflicts translate immediately into terrorist attacks on the ground, kidnapping and executions, with the population invariably caught in the cross fire, when it is not directly used as hostage by the various factions.

Besides, behind this power struggle looms the issue of the future shape of Iraq - an issue which is all important for the various factions, in particular because it will determine who gets the proceeds of Iraq's oil resources. Al Jaafari's sweet-talking to the Turkish government was not merely a manoeuvre. It really reflected the views of his faction which, like many other Shiite and Sunni factions, is opposed to any kind of federal Iraq. Whereas Kurdish nationalists as well as a number of other Sunni and Shiite factions are willing to go down that road - which, in passing, shows that the political agenda of the various factions is not determined by sectarian or even nationalist allegiances.

The fundamentalist dead end

One of the dramatic, and potentially dangerous, aspects of the situation of Iraq is that the invasion has allowed the most reactionary forces - Islamic fundamentalists - to appear as the only option available to those who want to fight against oppression.

In Britain, some commentators - and even some groups on the revolutionary left - keep toying with the idea that people like the Shiite cleric Moqtadah al-Sadr are "radicals" who are genuinely determined to fight the western occupation and, therefore, have something to offer which is worth fighting for.

But what does the word "radical" mean when it comes to a fundamentalist cleric whose declared aim is to enslave a whole population in the name of ancient beliefs and dictate every aspect of its life? In fact, the only "radical" aspect in al-Sadr's agenda, is the brutal way in which his Mahdi militia terrorise opponents to the cleric's rulings, even before having made it to power.

Beyond this, Islamic fundamentalism aims primarily at using the cover of religious purity in order to divert the attention of the poor masses from the social nature of their oppression. Al-Sadr may have won credit through providing social services otherwise unavailable in the Shiite slums of Baghdad. But dispensing charity does not help the poor masses to fight the social oppression which is the root causes of their condition - quite the contrary. All religions use such tricks to mislead the poor, not just Islam. Christianity has a long-standing tradition in this respect.

The young generation of Iraqis who are now joining fundamentalist ranks out of anger against the invasion, are being led towards a dead end. If and when the western troops leave Iraq, they will be stuck behind a leadership which is their worst enemy - because it has nothing to offer them but another dictatorship, which may well turn out to be even more repressive, and certainly more backward, than the previous one. That is, for those among these youth who will not have been used as live ammunition in suicide bombings. Is this a future that is worth fighting for?

This does not need to be the only option, though. Especially in a country like Iraq, which has a long tradition of class politics and even a long communist tradition. Beyond the existence of small organisations, we do not know what is really left of this tradition in the ranks of the Iraqi working class. But the fact that it exists should make it a duty for every revolutionary to expose the real nature of the so-called "radicalism" of these fundamentalist preachers and, by the same token, to denounce the responsibility of imperialism in giving a new lease of life to these reactionary remnants of an ancient past.

When is a civil war a civil war?

For years now, US and British politicians have been going round in circles over the question of deciding what was really taking place in Iraq - that is, whether it was a civil war or not. Meanwhile the number of Iraqi civilians murdered in terrorist attacks was steadily increasing.

Since the outbreak of terror following the 22 February bombing, their tone has changed, at least in the US, because in Britain, Blair's ministers have been keeping a resolute silence so far. So, Bush's personal envoy in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad admitted in an interview to the Los Angeles Times, "we have opened a Pandora's box", even alluding to the possibility of "a regional civil war".

Of course, such warnings are not new. Retired US generals, British and US diplomats, and all sorts of government advisers have been warning against such a risk for a long time - in fact even before the invasion started. What is new, maybe, is that they are now formulated by a leading member of the Bush administration. Whether this points to a change of policy on the part of the imperialist leaders is, of course, another question.

The fact is that the political vacuum created by the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime as a result of the invasion, the fractious make up of the Middle East, inherited from the way it was carved up by the imperialist powers, and the appalling poverty of the region's population - all this constituted the ingredients for a civil war. Whether this was going to be an all-out civil war as in the former Yugoslavia or a "slow-burning" one, as it has been so far in Iraq, did not change this fact.

Circling around this fact by arguing, as Blair's ministers still keep doing today, that one should welcome the demise of Saddam Hussein, is sheer hypocrisy. It is ignoring the fact that the material conditions in which the majority of the Iraqi population is forced to live have become intolerable and that in 3 years of occupation, the policy of the imperialist powers has probably resulted in a lot more victims in Iraq, directly or indirectly, than Saddam Hussein's repressive dictatorship did, over the previous decade.

Yes, what is taking place in Iraq is already a civil war, in the sense that rival gangs of armed thugs have taken the law into their own hands, are imposing their rule over the population and fighting each other by shedding the blood of the Iraqi people. There is no need to wait for a further escalation, let alone a regional conflict, to call the catastrophe in Iraq a civil war.

And yes, those responsible for this civil war, are the imperialist leaders who sent troops into Iraq, without any concern for the consequences this would have for the populations, for the sole purpose of consolidating the grip of their capitalist classes over this part of the world.

This too will be the judgment of history. And this is why Britain's lethal power game in Iraq must be ended, by withdrawing all British troops now, before their presence causes even more damage.