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Iraq: ballots & bloodshed

After only a few days, the sham nature of the Iraqi ‘elections’ became evident as Iraq was shaken by a renewed wave of bombings and violent attacks on government officials and occupation forces. As each day passes, it becomes clearer that the elections have resolved nothing for either the Iraqi peoples or the imperialist powers. TONY SAUNOIS reports.

THE ELECTIONS TOOK place against the background of bloodshed and carnage which has left an estimated 100,000 Iraqis dead. They followed the levelling of Falluja, as an ‘example’ to other cities, which drove hundreds of thousands from their homes into refugee camps. Incidents of torture and repression by US and British soldiers have exposed the reality of the occupation.

Further evidence has revealed the economic rape of the country by imperialism. George Monbiot, writing in the London Guardian, highlighted a report by the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. It detailed the activities carried out after the fall of Saddam Hussein by the Coalition Provisional Authority which governed Iraq between April 2003 and June 2004. In just 14 months, $8.8bn went missing. A British adviser told the BBC radio File on Four programme that CPA officials demanded bribes of up to $300,000 to offer contracts to companies. Iraqi money seized by the US military simply disappeared. Some $800m was handed over to US commanders without being accounted for, $1.4bn was flown from Baghdad to the Kurdish regional government in Irbil and has not been seen since.

Contracts to US companies were awarded without any financial safeguards, in the form of ‘cost plus’ deals. This means that companies were paid expenses for the projects and then paid a percentage of these expenses as ‘profits’. In other words, they had an incentive to spend as much as possible. In one contract, a subsidiary of Halliburton (linked to US vice-president Dick Cheney) overcharged $61 million for imported fuel. When the payment was challenged by an officer from the engineering corps she was overruled by her superiors who insisted the prices charged were ‘fair and reasonable’!

Not surprisingly, the occupation forces are hated by the Iraqi people. Yet the elections, held under imperialist occupation and with no working-class alternative on offer, have done nothing to resolve the crisis or end the suffering of the Iraqi peoples. They have complicated the situation further by deepening sectarian and ethnic divisions, intensifying the unfolding civil war and the prospect of the ‘Balkanisation’ of Iraq. The price is being paid by the Iraqi peoples again for this bloody conflict which has unfolded as a direct result of imperialist intervention.

The pro-war media echoed the claims of Bush and Blair who heralded the elections as an important landmark in building a ‘democratic’ Iraq and stabilising the situation. Nothing could be further from the truth. The supporters of the occupation claimed the ‘high turnout’ – confined to Shia and Kurdish areas – was a rebuttal to the ‘terrorists’. The elections, they promised, would help strengthen the ‘democratic’ constitutional process and bring greater stability to the country. In fact, they have opened the way to new and even more bloody carnage for the Iraqi peoples and greater instability and conflict throughout the region.

The exaggerated optimism echoes the claims made by US president, Lyndon B Johnson, following presidential elections in South Vietnam in 1967. Then the New York Times reported (9 April 1967): "United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of the turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83% of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong. A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in president Johnson’s policy of encouraging the growth of the constitutional process in South Vietnam. The hope here is that the new government will be able to manoeuvre with a confidence and legitimacy long lacking in South Vietnamese politics".

The South Vietnamese elections in 1967 resolved as little as those held in Iraq on 30 January. As events since the elections have illustrated, the insurgency, mainly by Sunni forces at the moment, has not been defeated. The inability of the occupying powers to crush it is one of the main dilemmas facing them.

Armed insurgency

ACCORDING TO GENERAL Shahwani, director of Iraq’s new intelligence service, in January the insurgency had grown to 200,000, larger than the imperialist armies of occupation. About 40,000 are estimated to be hardcore fighters. Since then it has probably strengthened. This is despite the deployment of more than 135,000 US troops, now with an additional 15,000 on a ‘temporary’ basis, and nearly 30,000 troops from other ‘coalition’ members, including 10,000 British forces. However, many governments, like the Dutch and Ukrainian, are pulling out completely. Others are reducing their troop numbers.

The occupation has revealed the ‘privatisation’ of war, a feature of capitalism today. The second largest component is 20,000 ‘private’ soldiers. These mercenaries are not subject to military law or rules of engagement. Yet despite all this firepower the occupation forces have been totally incapable of defeating the insurgents.

The Iraqi people have every right to defend themselves, with arms, against the occupation and to fight for the removal of US, British and other imperialist powers from Iraq, and prevent sectarian attacks. Yet this does not mean that socialists can support or condone all of the actions of the resistance. The growing resistance in Iraq is made up of many different elements.

Undoubtedly, some are ordinary Iraqi youth who have taken up arms. However, it also includes distinct groups of a right-wing religious character which do not defend the interests of the working class and poor of Iraq. According to some reports, the resistance includes up to 40 Ba’athist organisations – remnants of the old regime of Saddam Hussein. It also includes organisations like al-Qa’ida Organisation for Holy War, led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Ansar al-Sunna, both based on right-wing reactionary political Islam and which do not represent the interests of the Iraqi masses.

Socialists would support the formation of a non-sectarian armed militia comprised of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish workers, peasants and others exploited by capitalism. A force of this nature would fight against both the occupation and sectarian attacks. It would not act indiscriminately but would conduct a struggle under the democratic control of elected committees of the Iraqi people.

US imperialism, however, is bogged down in a war and is unable to defeat the insurgents militarily. In an amazing admission, Colin Powell, when asked by Bush about the progress of the war, frankly admitted: "We are losing". Bush, in denial about the real situation on the ground in Iraq, simply dismissed him from his presence.

The calling of elections illustrated the insoluble problems confronting US imperialism. While needing to try and mollify the Shia population and attempt to give some legitimacy to the occupation, US imperialism was also confronted with the conflicting interests of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish political elites. The Shia majority (about 60% of the Iraqi population) faced brutal discrimination and repression by the elite of the Sunni population (about 20%) which had ruled Iraq ever since it was created by Britain in 1920. Shia political leaders were determined to use the elections to ‘get their hands on power’, while the Sunni population opposed them for fear that they will now become a persecuted minority. To have postponed the elections would have meant US imperialism confronting the prospect of a Shia uprising. However, having gone ahead, the US has alienated still further the Sunni population and fuelled the growing insurgency.

An important indication of the problems facing the occupying powers now is that all the Iraqi groupings, except Ayad Allawi, support the idea of ending the occupation, at least on paper. There are, of course, differences over the timescale for withdrawal.

The vote cannot in any way be regarded as ‘democratic’. Democratic elections cannot take place in a country under occupation by imperialist powers. No electoral rolls were published and only a handful of the candidates’ names were made known because of ‘security’ considerations, meaning that voters voted for unknown candidates! In the Kurdish north protests have taken place over allegations that tens of thousands could not vote, many of them Kurdish Christians, because ballot papers arrived late. Al-Jazeera, the more critical Arab TV network, was expelled from the country. And why was there a delay of two weeks in publishing ‘provisional’ results? The degree of instability which exists was reflected in the decision of the US Carter Centre not to even send election observers.

Sunni boycott

MANY CAPITALIST COMMENTATORS rejoiced that the level of violence was lower than they anticipated. Yet with over 260 separate attacks, Iraq suffered the greatest number of guerrilla attacks in a single day anywhere in the Middle East. They tried to present these elections as a great triumph, initially reporting a ‘massive turnout’, and expressing surprise even in Sunni areas. However, this became unsustainable. Even CNN was forced to concede that in Sunni-dominated Salahuddin the turnout was probably less than 20%.

After initial official claims of turnouts of 75% or more, and comparisons with the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa, capitalist commentators and officials have systematically revised downwards. Published results now admit to a disappointing 58%. In the Sunni province of Anbar, which includes Falluja and Ramadi, 13,893 people voted – 2% of those registered! Even in Sunni-dominated areas of Baghdad, like Adamiya, turnout was minimal. One Sunni leader in this district simply stated: "In this part of the city no election took place".

This means that Sunni representation in the national assembly will be minimal. Fearing that this will result in further alienation and strengthen the insurgency, sections of the Shia leadership, together with US imperialism, are making determined efforts to try and include Sunni leaders in drafting a new constitution.

Yet these overtures will not halt the insurgency and may not even get off the ground beyond a token Sunni involvement. Although 13 of the largest Sunni parties which boycotted the elections have agreed to be included in drafting a new constitution, the powerful Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars said it would not participate and that it "looks at the coming government as a puppet government". (International Herald Tribune, 3 February 2005)

Even if some Sunni groups participate in drafting a constitution this will not resolve the underlying conflicts. Already there are indications that sections of the dominant Shia want to step up repression of the insurgency. This will only strengthen it and reinforce sectarian divisions amongst the Iraqi population.

The overwhelming electoral victory has brought with it renewed tensions and divisions amongst the Shia leadership. Although at the time of writing the situation remains unclear, there is already a series of manoeuvres and jockeying for position between the various political alliances and parties. Provisional results give the Shia Muslim United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) – supported by the senior Shia cleric, Ali al-Sistani, and in effect led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim (who spent 20 years in exile in Iran) – 48% of the vote. This will make it by far the largest bloc in the new assembly but without an overall majority.

This alliance is extremely fragmented and politically unstable. It is made up of a collection of political and religious leaders. Within hours of the provisional results being announced, three candidates emerged for the post of prime minister from within the UIA. These include Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the US favourite for the job, the current finance minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi. The outsider is Ahmad Chalabi, onetime favourite of Dick Cheney and the neo-cons in Washington, who appeared to have fallen from grace after he was accused of passing US security codes to Iran. According to one report in the London Times, he has made a partial comeback and has won the backing of some key figures for the position of either prime minister or vice-president. Within this alliance are forces which favour collaborating with US imperialism and also those which support the establishment of Khomeini/Iran-style clerical rule.

Horse trading

ONE STRIKING FEATURE of the election was the wholesale rejection of US imperialism’s stooge prime minister, Ayad Allawi. Despite having the support, both material and political, of US and British imperialism, his Iraqi List received a miserable 14%! This was despite him running the ‘slickest’ campaign, costing an estimated $4 million.

The Kurdish Alliance won second place with approximately 26% and it is now in a pivotal position in the new assembly. Its leaders have announced that they want the Iraqi presidency and will propose Jalal Talibani for the post.

The Kurdish leaders clearly hope to use this position to secure recognition of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and have declared they will bloc with any group which declares its support for maintaining Kurdish autonomy. However, the question of Kurdish independence could still come back onto the agenda as the crisis worsens throughout Iraq. This was reflected in the unofficial referendum on independence amongst the Kurds in northern Iraq during the recent election, although as yet no results have been declared.

Any movement towards an independent Kurdish state will inevitably draw other countries in the region into the conflict – notably Turkey, Syria and Iran, all of which have significant Kurdish minorities.

Even the proposal for a Kurdish president has caused complications in the horse trading between the various parties and alliances. Other proposals include offering this, largely ceremonial, post to a Sunni politician as an attempt to include them in the process.

At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the UIA will form a coalition with the Kurdish Alliance or reject it, making it more likely that the Kurds will form an opposition grouping with Allawi and the tiny Sunni parties with a handful of seats.

Whatever government finally emerges will be inherently unstable. The possibility that Mahdi could become prime minister raises the prospect of widespread opposition developing to the next government from amongst the Shia population. The programme of the UIA included a timetable for US withdrawal. It also pledged to write off Iraqi debt, expand the public sector and keep control of the oil sector.

Yet this is not the programme supported by Mahdi. In October 2004, he told a meeting of the American Enterprise Institute that he planned to "restructure and privatise the Iraqi state-owned sector". In December, he promised to announce plans for a new oil law, "very promising to the American investors". Mahdi oversaw the signing of deals with Shell, BP and Chevron-Texaco in the run-up to the elections and negotiated an austerity deal with the IMF.

Unfortunately, the working class and poor of Iraq – Shia, Sunni and Kurd – did not have the opportunity to support any party or alliance fighting to defend their interests, opposing imperialist occupation and standing for the unity of all Iraqi peoples exploited by capitalism. The Communist Party, which historically had a powerful basis of support, failed to present such an alternative. It supports privatisation and, sitting in the ‘interim’ government, has failed to oppose the imperialist occupation. It paid the price and won only 69,920 votes – about 0.8%!

Four days after the elections, Bush made it clear where US imperialism stands on the question of withdrawal when he declared, ‘You don’t set timetables’. So those Iraqis who voted against the free-market policies of the occupying powers and the interim government, and supported a timetable for imperialist withdrawal, are to get exactly what they voted against: government under the heel of imperialist occupation and neo-liberalism!

Sectarian divide

THE INABILITY OF the occupying powers to suppress the insurgents is becoming a disaster for US and British imperialism. They have been driven to adopt policies which have fostered the sectarian conflict. This could even result in the break up of Iraq along religious and national lines – with the Shia concentrated in the south, the Sunni Arabs in the central belt and the Kurds in the north. Such a development would result in even more bloody slaughter than has already taken place. Yet so concerned are the occupying powers about the plight of the Iraqi people that they have not even bothered to keep a body count of the dead.

A break-up of Iraq along these lines would leave two of the oil fields in the south under Shia control, none in the Sunni areas and, probably, a battle involving the Kurds, the occupation forces and Turkey for control of the Kirkuk oil field, near the border of northern Iraq.

This danger is recognised by the more farsighted capitalist commentators. While this was clearly not the intention of US imperialism when it launched the invasion, its policies have fostered the sectarian divisions and propelled events towards the Balkanisation of the country. Prior to the elections, the International Herald Tribune warned: "When the United States was debating whether to invade Iraq, there was one outcome that everyone agreed had to be avoided at all costs: a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that would create instability throughout the Middle East and give terrorists a new ungoverned region that they could use as a base for operations. The coming elections… are looking more and more like the beginning of the worst-case scenario".

These warnings have fallen on deaf ears in the White House. The Bush regime is now considering using the ‘Salvadorian’ option of death squads to track down and execute those active in the insurgency. This policy, especially if implemented by US special forces together with elite units from the Iraqi military or police, will only deepen the widening sectarian divide.

Sections of the US ruling class are even welcoming this development. Articles have appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post arguing that, "we have to have a proper election in Iraq so that we can have a proper civil war". And that the US should "see Iraqi factionalisation as a useful tool".

The Balkanisation of Iraq, with a Shia-based state including most of the oil reserves, supported by US imperialism, would provoke much greater regional instability. Although the Shia form a majority in Iraq and Iran, Sunnis are a majority in most of the rest of the Arab world. This bloody prospect is becoming an increasingly likely scenario as a result of the US-led occupation.

The threat of a deepening sectarian and ethnic civil war is not supported by the mass of Iraqi workers, peasants and others exploited by capitalism. However, the absence of a strong, unified and organised movement of the working class means that there is not a sufficiently powerful force defending the interests of all the Iraqi peoples.

Some trade unions have reportedly been established. In May 2003, workers employed by Iraq’s largest oil company, the Southern Oil Company, formed their own union, SOCU. SOCU claims a membership of 35,000 and has opposed the privatisation of the oil industry. Other, small sections of workers are grouped together in the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), which is controlled by the Iraqi Communist Party. (SOCU is not affiliated to the IFTU.) But these steps towards building an independent, organised workers’ movement are at a very early stage. Moreover, it is being hampered by the policies of the IFTU, whose leaders have collaborated with the interim government and have not opposed the occupation.

Socialists support the building of independent, democratic trade unions that are free from any state intervention or involvement. We also support such trade unions conducting a struggle to force the withdrawal of all the occupying powers and opposing all Iraqi governments which defend capitalism. But it is necessary to counter the ideas and policies of the IFTU leadership in democratic debate and discussion. Socialists cannot support or condone the recent assassination of the IFTU leader, Hadi Salih. Such methods only deepen sectarian divisions and will be used in the future against leaders who defend workers’ interests.

Exit strategy

THE CELEBRATIONS BY the rulers of capitalism and imperialism following the elections are rapidly turning into nightmares. US imperialism is desperately searching for an exit strategy. Yet, faced with a growing civil war and its inability to crush the insurgency, it cannot find one.

The idea that an Iraqi state machine can now be rebuilt with its own army and security forces strong enough to maintain control of the country is almost comical. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spilled the beans when he admitted that fewer than 30% of the Iraqi security services are capable of carrying out ‘independent missions’: "Only about 40,000 can go anywhere and do anything". He also concluded that the 79,000 Iraqi police are not as well prepared as officials claim. Paul Wolfowitz told US senators that the Iraqi army has absenteeism of up to 40% at any one time. In one unit of 134 soldiers only 37 returned for duty after they had been paid!

According to recent reports, the most reliable and effective units are made up of Kurdish soldiers who clearly believe that they are, in effect, fighting to defend their areas from Arabs. This is potentially a further destabilising factor and an indication of the weakness of the Iraqi state machine. No wonder Iraqi interior minister, Falah al-Naqib, admitted: "It will be many months before Iraqis could take control of their own security… I would say within 18 months but the timing could also depend on the political situation in Iraq".

Far from a rapid exit strategy following these elections, US and British imperialism are locked into this deepening crisis for a period of years or they face the dismal prospect of a humiliating ‘declare victory and run’. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to president Carter, spelled out what a military victory would require: 500,000 troops, $500bn expenditure, a military draft and the introduction of a war-time tax. Even then, he estimates, it would take at least ten years – not a very enticing prospect for US imperialism.

The Iraq war has already provoked the largest ever anti-war movement in history internationally. It has aroused millions within the US to oppose it. If the kind of policy outlined by Brzezinski were attempted it would provoke a movement even bigger than that against the Vietnam war which rocked US society to its foundations in the 1970s.

The rising US army death toll, which is approaching 2,000 with over 25,000 injured, will fuel the growing anti-war movement in the US. The morale of the soldiers sent to fight this imperialist war is falling further and further as they are sucked into the deepening conflict. More than a third of the troops serving in Iraq are drawn from the National Reserve. Its commander, Lt Gen James Helmly, recently wrote a letter to the Joint Chiefs of Staff warning that the entire reserve of 200,000 was "rapidly degenerating into a broken force".

Within weeks of Bush winning the presidency for the second time, opinion polls showed a majority opposed to the war. The war in Iraq is increasingly linked in the consciousness of US workers to the war that Bush has declared on them by introducing vicious budget cuts. The poor are to pay for the tax cuts previously given to the super-rich, while the Pentagon’s budget is increased by 4.8% to $419.3bn!

A crucial part of the struggle of the Iraqi peoples against the occupation by the imperialist powers is the building of a powerful movement against Bush and Blair in the US and Britain. The alternative to the carnage that the imperialist occupation has meant for the Iraqi people is to build a united socialist movement of all Iraqi workers, peasants, young people and others exploited by capitalism. This movement will oppose the existing political alliances and parties, and establish a workers’ and peasants’ government in a democratic socialist confederation of Iraq as part of a socialist federation of the Middle East.


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