SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 88 - December-January 2004/05

Fanning the flames in Iraq

DESPITE THE attempt by the Bush administration to give a positive spin on developments in the last weeks of the US elections, the reality in Iraq is worsening daily.

The disappearance of 380 tonnes of high explosives from the Al Qaqaa weapons depot was a major embarrassment for Bush since his campaign team had said that the explosives were removed by Iraqi security services before Saddam Hussein had been overthrown. On 6 October, the Iraq Survey Group (set up by US occupation forces to discover weapons of mass destruction) had said, in effect, that there were no WMD and it was unlikely they existed after the first Gulf war (1990-91). Yet when dangerous weapons were found, the occupation forces let them slip through their hands! The irony was not lost on hundreds of thousands around the world.

Embarrassing revelations intertwine with horrific ones. A survey published in The Lancet, the British medical establishment’s journal, estimates that 98,000 Iraqis have died since the occupation began, over 50% women and children. The survey excludes Falluja, the scene of some of the most intense US bombardment. According to the report, risk of violent death is now 58 times higher than it was before the invasion.

While the real figures will probably never be known, the levels of violence lurch upwards almost daily with new outbreaks in previously quiet areas. The insurgency continues to control 24 towns and cities. Thirty-nine car bombs exploded in September compared to 34 in August – one killed over 30 children in Baghdad. Responsibility for this horrific incident was ostensibly claimed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his Tawhid wa-Jihad group. US imperialism’s propaganda has attempted to portray al-Zarqawi as the main ‘bogey-man’ of the insurgency, ascribing to him much greater influence than he actually has, in order to tar all those fighting against the US occupation with the same brush.

Socialists, however, whilst explaining that the US invasion created the chaos – the breeding ground for these tactics – cannot support methods of indiscriminate car and suicide bombings. Such tactics cast the working class and poor peasantry in the role of onlookers in the battle to rid the country of imperialist forces. Bloody incidents which these tactics create can be manipulated by reactionary forces to increase sectarian tensions between different Iraqi communities. Most importantly, as the recent hostage taking and barbaric assassination of people like Ken Bigley have shown, these tactics actually undermine support for the struggle to drive out imperialist forces in Iraq and internationally.

The most brutal military repression has not stopped car bombings. Even in the most strongly fortified areas, US forces and the stooge Iraqi government are not safe. This was shown in the triple car bombing inside the Green Zone in Baghdad on 4 October which killed 21 and was a huge blow to US prestige.

Events like this have compelled US occupation forces to admit that the size of the insurgent forces are closer to 20,000 than previously mentioned figures of two to seven thousands. Despite this, US imperialism intends to attempt to bring all areas under the control of ‘coalition’ forces and the interim government, particularly in the Sunni Triangle, in the run-up to planned elections in January 2005. US officials hint that unless this is done, large areas will be unable to participate, undermining the legitimacy of the elections and US authority in the process. Iraqi commentators say the opposite is the case and the response to new offensives could be to bar such hardline Sunni areas from taking part.

The US strategy is a high-risk one, a ‘carrot-with-stick’ policy offering reconstruction aid in negotiations conducted by representatives of the interim government (and, no doubt, handsome bribes and contracts for influential individuals) while conducting brutal bombing raids against insurgent forces.

This is what happened in Samarra before high profile attacks on US forces led to a change in tactics, with a joint US-Iraqi invasion and takeover of the insurgent held city on 1 October. This was hailed as a major victory for the interim government and US occupation forces. But Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies commented: "The US can probably win any given tactical engagement but, as in Vietnam, that is irrelevant to the political outcome or winning any meaningful form of strategic victory". (Financial Times, 21 October)

Moreover, militarily it was not as significant as portrayed. Samarra originally was overrun mainly by forces of the former Republican Guard allied with Islamist insurgents. During its recapture, only Islamist forces were prepared to fight, as former Republican Guard leaders had been bought off by the interim Iraqi government.

Samarra was a dry-run for Falluja which has become a national symbol of opposition to the occupation, the scene of an ignominious withdrawal of US marines in April. Relentless nightly bombing raids and attempts to foster divisions between the militias entrenched in the city have led US army strategists to believe they can win a similar victory here. But thousands of fighters occupy the city. The retaking of Samarra did not have more widespread consequences because it was achieved in such a short time. A drawn out siege of Falluja would lead to a repetition of April’s events when US military action sparked a wave of uprisings in other towns and cities. This time the effects could be even more widespread.

The Iraqi president, Ghazi al-Yawar, explained that if a new assault is carried out, Mosul, home to three million Iraqis, could explode into uprising. As a result, it was no wonder that the Bush administration ‘requested’ the redeployment of the British army’s Black Watch regiment to near Baghdad to release some US forces for the assault on Falluja.

If, as is likely, British troops get pulled into drawn out confrontations with insurgent forces and are part of military operations which result in thousands of civilian casualties, much bigger and more radical anti-war protests could become commonplace. Involvement in the Sunni Triangle could open them up to greater attack in southern Iraq as well.

Under such circumstances, questioning among the ranks of the army, combined with an overwhelming mood to bring the troops back, will make things more difficult for British imperialism. Complaints about the lack of equipment are now being made public and, in part, reflect a questioning by the troops of the whole military operation.

This was highlighted by the arrest of 17 US army reservists for refusing to deliver fuel to troops in Taji, north of Baghdad. Those arrested explained that the fuel had already been refused by other US troops because it was contaminated with water and also because their vehicles were ‘deadlined’ – deathtraps incapable of speeds greater than 40mph and without aerial or humvee support.

Even the highest echelons of the US military have complained about equipment provision. Former head of US ground forces in Iraq, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, wrote to the Pentagon: "I cannot continue to support sustained combat operations with rates [of equipment replacement] this low". Paul Bremer, ex-US viceroy of Iraq, complained that, during his period in Iraq, the main problem was that there were never enough troops on the ground. The latest blow to the claimed efficiency of the US high-tech war machine came from Iyad Alawi, Iraq’s prime minister, who blamed the recent killing of 50 Iraqi soldiers on the border with Syria by insurgent forces on the failure of the US forces to provide suitable training, equipment and protection to the new Iraqi army.

This does not bode well for the build-up to the elections. The agreement of Moqtadr al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia to hand in some heavy weaponry in return for cash, especially in Sadr City in Baghdad, was seen as a boost to US fortunes. This is linked to an apparent change of tactics by many of the opposition militias in relation to participation in the elections. Representatives of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have called for all Shia groups to take part, and it appears for the moment that even al-Sadr will participate in a so-called ‘monster list’ which would include representatives of the present interim government. This may indicate that Shia leaders fear that they could lose the opportunity to entrench their political influence if they do not take part in the elections.

However, all this could be shattered if there are major civilian casualties in the attempt to take cities like Falluja or if house-to-house searches for remaining heavy weapons are undertaken in areas like Sadr City, as threatened by the government. The country remains a quagmire for US and British imperialism. The instability caused by the invasion will continue to reverberate around the world, demanding a socialist solution to the endemic chaos and violence that capitalism brings on a daily basis.

Kevin Simpson


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