SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Bogged down in Iraq

A RARE outbreak of apparent ‘good news’ from Iraq sparked a flurry of activity from US and British politicians. In quick succession, it was announced that the ‘government of national unity’ had finalised its cabinet, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been killed, and the British state is withdrawing its troops from a region of Iraq. These events were seized on by the main prosecutors of the occupation: US president, George W Bush, and British prime minister, Tony Blair.

The withdrawal of 150 soldiers from Muthanna, a largely unpopulated stretch of desert in the south bordering Saudi Arabia is not such a big deal, especially given the explosion of violence in Basra, Iraq’s second city, which British troops are supposed to control. A state of emergency was declared there on 31 March.

The killing of al-Zarqawi, who was leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, is more significant. Infamous for his internet and video images of hostage beheading, he represented the most reactionary extreme of the myriad forces fighting the occupation. But in all likelihood, his death will only serve to raise his standing. Although many people in the Middle East and throughout the world are repelled by his barbarity, he is being depicted as an uncompromising warrior against Bush and Blair’s ‘anti-Islamic crusade’.

Al-Zarqawi’s role has been exaggerated, but not only by himself and his supporters. Bush (who called him "the operational commander of the terrorist movement in Iraq" – The Guardian, 15 June) and the neocons have promoted al-Zarqawi to legitimise the ‘war on terror’ and occupation.

Their portrayal of al-Qa’ida as the leading guerrillas has boosted its popularity among Iraq’s five million Sunni Arabs, of whom 88% approve of armed attacks on US forces. (Independent on Sunday, 30 April) The US and Britain have turned Iraq into the primary training ground for Islamic mujaheddin fighters, just as the Russian invasion did in Afghanistan.

Of course, Bush and Blair have not mentioned the fact that there was no al-Qa’ida in Iraq before the invasion. That would mean admitting that one of the main reasons Bush gave to secure support for his war was false: the link between the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks on the US and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime.

Bush flew to Baghdad on 13 June to pat on the back the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shia Islamist. The visit echoed the ‘mission accomplished’ farce three years ago, when Bush announced that major hostilities had ended, although he avoided such bravado this time. After all, since then, 2,500 US troops – predominantly working-class youth – have lost their lives and a further 18,500 have been injured, nearly half of them seriously. On 20 April, the invasion and occupation of Iraq became as long as the Korean war.

The fact that al-Maliki only knew of the visit five minutes before Bush shook his hand demonstrates where the real power lies. The cabinet, which ‘governs’ Iraq from within the heavily fortified sanctuary known as the Green Zone, took 25 weeks to put together after December’s flawed elections, but only after much wrangling reflecting deep sectarian divisions.

Back in the US, Bush said: "You can measure progress in capacity of Iraqi units. You can measure progress in megawatts of electricity delivered. You can measure progress in terms of oil sold on the market on behalf of the Iraqi people". (Washington Post, 15 June)

By his own standards, therefore, he has failed totally. Life under occupation for Iraqi people is a nightmare. The most basic necessities of life are scarce, the economy shattered, society unravelling. According to the US State Department, three years after the invasion, crude oil production remains below pre-war levels, when UN sanctions were breaking the economy and causing widespread suffering.

On average, electricity is supplied for under half the day. The situation is even worse in the capital, Baghdad, home to a quarter of the population. Here, electricity is available between five and eight hours a day, less than half the pre-war level. The Guardian (23 May) reported that Iraq’s only bus factory employed 30,000 in the 1980s, producing four buses a day. Now it produces four a month and employs 1,500.

What little help is provided by this failed state is under threat. The IMF wants to end subsidies on fuel and food. Between 40-50% of foreign aid ends up outside Iraq, in the pockets of foreign advisers and security personnel who usually come from the same country making the ‘donation’. The US has spent around $10 billion on infrastructure projects. The Washington-based Brookings Institute estimates that $4 billion of that went on security. Up to December 2005, ‘donors’ other than the US pledged $14 billion but only $3 billion has been given. (Financial Times, 7 June)

Violence is increasing, the arbitrary nature of the attacks wrecking any possibility of stability in people’s lives. On 4 June, twelve Iraqi students were dragged from a bus and killed because they were the ‘wrong kind’ of Muslim. On 5 June, gunmen dressed as police kidnapped 56 people near the bus station in central Baghdad and took them away. They have ‘disappeared’.

A US State Department survey in January showed that all seven provinces where US and British troops are primarily deployed, are "seriously or, in one case, critically unstable". Mosul is ‘defended’ by an Iraqi brigade of 3,000 but does not patrol in the daytime because it is "too dangerous". (Independent on Sunday, 30 April)

Iraq Body Count, which uses media reports to calculate the number of Iraqi deaths, estimates that 43,000 civilians have been killed during the occupation. The medical journal, The Lancet, stands by its much higher estimate published last year of over 100,000.

The Iraq insurgency is made up of many groups, the vast majority of whom are Iraqi. And the nature of the conflict has changed. There is a guerrilla war by Sunni and Shia against the occupation forces. And there is sectarian conflict over who will gain in post-Saddam Iraq. This is played out in the struggle of Sunnis against Shia and Kurds, but also between rival militias within these ethnic/religious groups.

A deliberately provocative campaign by al-Qa’ida in Iraq and other Sunni groups targeting Shia mosques escalated throughout last year. Then, on 22 February 2006, the Al-Askari shrine, Samarra, one of the holiest Shia sites, was bombed. Although nobody was killed, the significance of the target gave a massive push towards civil war, with retaliatory attacks on Sunni mosques.

In Baghdad, Sunni vigilante groups have mushroomed to defend their own mosques and districts. Sunnis have no large militias to compare with the Kurdish peshmerga forces or the Shia Badr brigades and Mahdi army. That is one of the reasons many back the anti-occupation insurgency, as a kind of surrogate militia. People are being driven out of formerly mixed areas. In May in Baghdad, sectarian killings, not including car bombs, numbered 1,400.

Sectarian violence is being perpetuated by the fast-growing Iraqi security forces. Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador in Baghdad, promotes the ‘government of national unity’ and says that he wants to disarm the militias. He was right when he called them the "infrastructure of civil war". (The Guardian, 14 April) Yet the militias are the bedrock of the security forces being put in place by the US and Britain and on which Iraq’s new state is being based. They are the only part of Iraq’s infrastructure the occupying forces have helped to build.

Al-Maliki has launched a security clampdown in Baghdad, with the blessing of the US, involving dusk-to-dawn curfews and checkpoints, mobilising 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and police, and 7,200 coalition forces. Again, the sectarian nature of the forces involved will determine how they carry out this operation.

The New York Times (13 June) carried news of recent police reports in Basra which record the murder of oil company employees, the discovery of 20 caches of Russian rockets, shootouts between militias and the police, a shootout between police officers, and a tank of stolen oil found in a fake mosque!

The Shia Fadhila party, linked to Moqtada al-Sadr, controls Basra province. Aqeel Talib, a senior member of the party, said: "We as Fadhila, we want to make our province our own region. We have two million people, an airport, a port and oil – everything we need to be a state". He could have been speaking for any of the groups.

At present, crude oil from this province makes up all of Iraq’s exports. Basra’s current chaos can be traced back to the formation of the new police force – under British direction. It has 37,000 men – 50% more than authorised. On top of that there exists the Facilities Protection Service, which guards schools, oil rigs and mosques, and which has 25,000 men and is heavily infiltrated by militias. It is the perfect environment for systemic corruption and the flourishing of organised crime.

The militias and security forces are busy establishing facts on the ground. In the Kurdish north, the peshmerga have become the army and police. This area had enjoyed a relatively high degree of autonomy under the no-fly zone imposed by the UN on Saddam and enforced by US military might after the first Gulf war. They are consolidating their grip on the region, above all, on the oil wealth.

On 12 June, the Norwegian oil company, DNO, announced the discovery of a new oilfield in Kurdistan. The constitution allows regional governments to explore and develop new fields. This find is the first time this will be tested in practice. The DNO contract gives it a 40% stake, with 60% going to the Kurdish authorities. How much of this 60% goes to central government is the next bitter dispute.

The Sunnis (around 20% of the population) are desperate to avoid being stuck in the resource-poor centre of Iraq, without any political power and squeezed between the Kurds and the Shia in the south. They want to amend the constitution to prevent the Shia majority (60% of the population) monopolising political power and taking charge of most of the oil revenues, or the Kurds keeping the oil wealth in the north. But they have no real political clout and increasingly feel they can do nothing but fight.

Another sign of the desperation of the situation is shown by the numbers of people leaving Iraq. The US Committee for Refugees counted 644,500 Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan in 2005. By the end of 2005, 889,000 Iraqis had moved abroad as refugees since the invasion in 2003, making it the "biggest new flow of refugees in the world", according to the committee’s president, Lavinia Limón. (New York Times, 14 June)

Bush, Blair and their cronies constantly moan that the only news out of Iraq is bad and that the ‘good stuff’ goes unreported. That’s untrue. These neocon politicians are constantly on the media peddling their propaganda about bringing ‘liberty’, ‘democracy’ and ‘stability’. They pass laws which curb our civil liberties – in the name of the ‘war on terror’, of course – restricting our ability to speak out and organise against their brutal policies. It is not good news that is stifled. It is the truth which is underreported and distorted.

Take the massacre at Haditha. On 19 November, a bomb exploded under a marine Humvee, killing its driver. A group of marines then spent between three and five hours entering houses and gunning people down in cold blood. Twenty-four civilians were killed, including eight women, a child and an elderly man in a wheelchair. Time magazine, the first to break the story, interviewed Eman Waleed, aged nine: "First, they went into my father’s room, where he was reading the Qur’an, and we heard shots… I watched them shoot my grandfather, first in the chest and then in the head. Then they killed my granny". She described how other adults died shielding her and her brother from the shooting. One man was allowed to bleed to death for hours, pleading for help in front of the marines. (The Guardian, 27 May)

This is now being investigated by the US military and Bush has promised to take action. However, had it not been for mobile phone photos taken by a marine and a video filmed the following day by an Iraqi journalist student, this might never have come to light. The marines tried to block the investigation, changing their story three times.

This is being compared with the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese villagers in 1968 for the devastating effect it will have on Bush’s ‘war effort’. Most such atrocities go unreported. If the truth leaks out, ‘rogue elements’ are blamed and scapegoats made out of individuals who are really carrying out the policy set from the regime at the top.

Bush seized the opportunity presented by the death of al-Zarqawi, and saw his approval rating rise from 31% in May to 38%. (Washington Post, 14 June) The Republican Party engineered a vote in the House of Representatives to endorse Bush’s Iraq policy and portray the Democrats as weak and unpatriotic in the run-up to November’s midterm elections. The respite will be short-lived, however.

Bush and Blair are two lame-duck politicians who look increasingly desperate. They want to go down in history. And they will, probably for a number of reasons, one of which will be Iraq. It won’t, however, be because they rid the country of a vicious dictator and brought freedom and prosperity. It will be because of the horror they have wrought, the shattered lives and human misery. It will be because of their assault on civil rights – the ‘extraordinary rendition’, Guantánamo Bay.

It will also be because their arrogance has exposed the limits of US imperialist power. Both the US and British states are bogged down in a quagmire in Iraq and also Afghanistan, and a tense standoff with Iran. Somalia, too, has also come back to haunt the US administration. One parallel with Vietnam will be the deep scar Iraq leaves behind: in how the US superpower is viewed, by people around the world and by its own working class.

Manny Thain


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page