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Socialism Today 107 - March 2007

Surging to disaster

BUSH IS MORE isolated than any other US president in modern times – apart from Nixon during the final, disastrous throes of the Vietnam war. Last November’s mid-term elections, which gave the Democrats control of Congress, were mainly a vote against Bush and the war. Since then, public opinion has moved even more strongly against the war, with only about a quarter of Americans approving of Bush’s policy on Iraq. Yet Bush rejected the report of the bipartisan (Republican/Democrat) Iraq Study Group, which aimed to provide Bush with political cover for some kind of exit strategy.

Despite the report’s devastating picture of the disastrous situation in Iraq, Bush has decided to mount a ‘surge’, sending another 20,000 combat troops to Iraq, mainly to Baghdad. The objective, Bush claims, is to stabilise the situation and pave the way for a phased withdrawal of US troops. In reality, Bush is escalating the war. This recalls the criminal policy of Nixon and Kissinger, when they claimed to be working for a peace settlement in Vietnam, while stepping up the bombing and launching secret incursions into Laos and Cambodia.

Eighty percent of Americans oppose the surge, roughly the same number as supported the war in 2003, in the aftermath of the 9/11 2001 attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon. Most of the top military commanders are against an escalation. The Maliki government in Baghdad is a reluctant partner in the surge. The new ‘security policy’ is aimed mainly against the Shia militia, particularly the Mahdi army. But this militia is linked to the party of Moqtada al-Sadr, which is a key element of Maliki’s coalition government.

Implementation of the surge has already been counter-productive. The stepped up US military presence in Shia and mixed Shia-Sunni areas of Baghdad has led, at least temporarily, to a retreat by the Mahdi militias. The joint US-Iraqi army security operation, however, has proved incapable of providing security. Two horrendous suicide bombings in the Shia Sadriya market in late January-early February claimed scores of dead and injured. A 28-year-old car mechanic, who helped rescue injured people from a wrecked building, told a reporter: "I wish they would attack us with a nuclear bomb and kill us all, so we will rest and anybody who wants the oil – which is the core of the problem – can come and get it. We cannot live this way any more. We are dying slowly every day". (New York Times, 5 February)

The imperialist occupation has reduced Iraq to a shattered, devastated country. The UN recently calculated that over 34,000 Iraqi civilians died during 2006, while over 36,000 were wounded (with totally inadequate medical facilities available). A report from the John Hopkins Medical School, published in The Lancet, estimates that there were over 600,000 deaths as a result of the conflict between March 2003 and July 2006. The US has now suffered over 3,000 dead, with between 20-50,000 injured. An unknown number of Western ‘security contractors’ have also been killed. Over 100 British troops have been killed


DESPITE DEPLOYING OVER 150,000 troops, the US-British occupying forces have been incapable of achieving stability and beginning serious reconstruction of the shattered country. The Maliki government, although the product of elections and supported by the US, is an empty shell that lacks real power on the ground. Its various ministries and security forces have been heavily infiltrated by the Shia parties and their militias, who run a shadow state within the framework of official state institutions. Neighbourhoods are dominated by networks of the Shia parties and militias, feudal warlords, death squads and criminal gangs. In many of the predominantly Sunni areas, it is the armed elements of the insurgency and al-Qa’ida who dominate.

Economically, Iraq is a disaster zone. Electricity production and oil output are still below pre-occupation levels. Over $100 million a year of oil is being smuggled to finance insurgent groups and militias. Unemployment is between 40% and 60%, while inflation is officially 60%.

Reconstruction is a grotesque farce. Around $16.5bn has been spent so far out of the $21bn allocated by the US for reconstruction. But there is very little to show for this expenditure. Huge amounts have been siphoned off in the form of security costs, the excess profits of US corporations like Halliburton, and outright corruption. The Iraq Study Group estimates that between $5bn and $7bn have been misappropriated every year – without anybody being brought to book.

Is it any wonder that more and more people are fleeing the country? Over two million Iraqis have fled the country since the start of the war, with many now living in Syria or Jordan. At the same time, there are over 1.7 million Iraqis displaced within the country.

Slide into all-out civil war

THE BUSH REGIME and its Iraqi stooges in the Maliki government continue to claim that a legitimate, elected government is being threatened by an insurgency of disgruntled Ba’athists and al-Qa’ida terrorists. They are in denial about the reality of a sectarian civil war, which is clearly escalating. The mainly Sunni insurgency is intertwined with a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia, which has steadily intensified since the attack by Sunni forces on the Golden Temple in Samarra in February last year.

A recent report from the Washington-based Brookings Institution, Things Fall Apart, warns that Iraq is now sliding into an all-out civil war that is likely to spill over into neighbouring countries. It warns of an upsurge in death and the flow of refugees, as well as disruption of Gulf oil supplies. Brookings, reports the Financial Times (29 January 2007), identifies six patterns from other civil wars that are already manifesting themselves in Iraq: "… large refugee flows, the breeding ground of new terrorist groups, radicalisation of neighbouring populations, the spread of secessionism, regional economic losses, and intervention by neighbours. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey are said to be ‘scrambling to catch up’ with rival Iran".

One of the authors of the report, Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA analyst who was previously a zealous advocate of the US invasion of Iraq, urges support for a ‘Goldilocks solution’, somewhere between ‘stay the course’ and ‘getting all out’. But what this means concretely, he does not explain. Like the Iraq Study Group, the Brookings report chases the illusion of a relatively painless exit. But either way, US imperialism now faces ignominious defeat. Cynics in Congress believe Bush is merely attempting to postpone withdrawal, handing the problem to a likely Democratic administration.

Bush’s ‘surge’

BUSH’S ‘NEW POLICY’, commonly referred to as the ‘surge’, recalls the ‘one last push’ syndrome of the Vietnam war, when presidents Johnson and Nixon, as well as notorious military commanders like General Westmoreland, backed a ‘final’ offensive against National Liberation Front forces to finally secure the stability of the pro-US government in the South. Each offensive proved more costly in terms of death, injury and destruction than the previous, and ended in utter defeat for US imperialism. This new surge is just the latest of a series of ‘new security plans’, which all ended in failure.

The surge, which involves sending an additional 18,500 US combat troops to Baghdad, is presented as a temporary measure. It will, it is claimed, provide a breathing space during which the Iraqi government can be strengthened and the national police and army forces trained and consolidated. At the same time, the US claims that it will implement new job creation schemes to provide employment and stimulate the economy, cynically described by some as "armed social work".

But it is too late. After three years of chaos and corruption, no one believes that US-directed reconstruction will bring any real benefit to the population. In the Shia areas, the militias associated with the parties of al-Maliki’s coalition government, SCIRI, the Mahdi army of al-Sadr, and the Dawa Party, are deeply entrenched. Maliki has been forced to pay lip service to the idea of the surge. But, in reality, he clearly has no interest in a US assault on the militia forces linked to the parties on which his government rests.

The Bush camp has great expectations for General Petraeus, who is credited with pacifying Mosul in 2004. "While Baghdad is too big to be cut off in the way Tal Afar was, the plan is to seal off districts of the capital, clearing out insurgents and remaining in place. These will be turned into ‘gated communities’, with entry controlled by gates and security staff. The American hope is that the sense of security created in these safe zones will spread to other neighbourhoods". (The Guardian, 12 January) In reality, this is a plan to turn large areas of Baghdad into prison camps, controlled by US forces. There is already overwhelming opposition to the occupation (with over 60% of Iraqis saying in polls that they consider attacks on US forces to be justified). Petraeus’s methods will provoke even greater resistance. A large part of the Iraqi forces to be deployed in the Petraeus plan will be Kurdish units, which are also seen as foreign occupiers in the Shia areas. Strengthened US forces may have initial successes, given their overwhelming firepower. But as always in this kind of urban conflict, the militias will adjust to the occupiers’ new tactics and respond with new methods of their own. An additional 20,000 troops will not hold the line. According to military experts, successful counter-insurgency operations require around one soldier per 40 inhabitants. This would mean 150,000 troops for Baghdad alone. Yet the retiring chief of the regional command, General Abizaid, recently told Congress that even the extra 20,000 combat troops could not be sustained indefinitely, such is the current overstretch of the US army.

Far from stabilising the situation for the occupying power, Bush’s ‘surge’ will escalate the conflict, intensifying the resistance of both the Sunni insurgency and Shia militias, while provoking even greater opposition from the majority of Iraqis.

Middle East crisis

BUSH’S GRANDIOSE PLANS for the transformation of the Middle East have been completely shattered. According to Bush and his neo-conservative hawks, the invasion of Iraq was just the prelude to the transformation of the whole region. A series of regime changes would replace the dictatorships with democracies, producing stable, free-market – and pro-US – governments. Yet on her recent visits to Egypt and other regional states, Condoleezza Rice has been silent about this ‘democratic revolution’.

The brutal imperialist occupation of Iraq, together with US support for the Israeli state’s barbarous assault on Lebanon, have plunged the whole region into its worst crisis since the end of the second world war. The region now faces the prospect of three civil wars: in Iraq, in Lebanon (as a result of Israel’s barbarous assault last year, in an unsuccessful attempt to crush Hezbollah), and in the Palestinian territories, where the US has supported Israel’s attempt to overthrow and crush the Hamas government, which won a majority in last year’s Palestinian Authority elections.

Contrary to the neo-cons’ aims, the overthrow of the Saddam regime and the emergence of a Shia government and powerful Shia militia forces, have strengthened the regional influence of Iran, US imperialism’s main enemy in the region. This has tipped the regional balance away from the Sunni regimes towards the region’s Shia forces. Alarmed by this development, Saudi Arabia has signalled its intention to intervene in Iraq in support of the Sunnis if the civil war escalates further. Moreover, the break-up of Iraq into Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions could precipitate the direct intervention of Turkey, Syria and Jordan. Yet in the face of this potential meltdown, Bush has rejected the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group that the US should open negotiations with Iran and Syria in order to try to stabilise the situation. In fact, Bush has launched a number of provocations against Iran in particular. A number of Iraq-based Iranian diplomats have been arrested, while US forces have been ordered to counter alleged Iranian incursions into Iraq. The new defence secretary, Gates, has declared that the US has "no military plans" directed against Iran. Leading congressional Democrats, however, do not rule out a military adventure by Bush, or an air attack on Iran’s nuclear processing facilities (or support for an Israeli attack). They have warned Bush not to do a Nixon, referring to the Nixon-Kissinger secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia. Any US attack, or US-sponsored attack, on Iran would be a disaster, not just for the US but for the Western powers in general – not to mention the unimaginable suffering it would impose on the people of the region.

Bush invaded Iraq to demonstrate the power of US imperialism. In fact, the occupation has demonstrated the limits of US military power, showing that even a mighty superpower is powerless to resolve any of the conflicts of the region.

Pressure on the Democrats

ON A WAVE of anti-war, anti-Bush anger, the Democrats took control of Congress in the mid-term elections. They have failed, however, to provide an expression for this anti-war mood. While proposing a non-binding resolution opposing Bush’s surge, they have stopped short of cutting off funding for the extra troops, let alone the financing of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only a small handful of Democrats have called for cutting off funding, which would be within their power if they chose to act. This reflects the fact that the Democrats, the alternative party of US big business, are completely compromised on the war. The overwhelming majority voted for Bush’s war powers, and for his repeated demands for more funding, and for a whole range of anti-democratic, if not dictatorial, measures adopted in the wake of 9/11. Moreover, they have no real alternative to Bush’s Iraq policy. Mostly, they favour a ‘phased withdrawal’, but have no idea how this can be achieved, and no solutions for the explosive repercussions throughout the Middle East.

Under pressure of public opinion, however, some of the Democrats have been pushed into a more anti-war stand. This pressure is reflected in the drift of John Edwards, one of the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. He has now stated that he was wrong to vote for the war in 2003, and is calling for a cut-off of funds for any escalation of the war.

The Democratic majority will come under growing public pressure to scrutinise and oppose Bush’s new budget, which includes defence spending of $481bn in 2008, a 10% increase over the current year. Bush will also ask Congress for an additional $100bn for Iraq and Afghanistan for the current year (which will be added to the $70bn already approved), and will seek an additional $145bn for the fiscal year 2008, which begins on 1 October. If approved the new war spending would bring the overall cost of the Iraq-Afghanistan wars to $745bn. Adjusting for inflation, this is more than the US spent on the Vietnam war.

Imperialism’s strategic defeat

LEADING DEMOCRATS, LINING up for the 2008 presidential race, are no doubt weighing up the consequences of a devastating defeat for the US in the Middle East. The war is now overwhelmingly unpopular within the US. But a devastating defeat for the US, a situation any Democratic president is likely to inherit from the Bush regime, will not be popular. Humiliation for US imperialism abroad, with all the unforeseen consequences it will bring, will rebound on domestic politics.

The scale of the US defeat has been underlined recently by some of the elder statesmen of the US foreign policy establishment. Zbigniew Brezinsky, former national security adviser to Democrat president Jimmy Carter, writes: "The president, and America’s political leadership, must recognise that the US role in the world is being gravely undermined by the policies launched more than three years ago. The destructive war in Iraq, the hypocritical indifference to the human dimensions of the stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the lack of diplomatic initiative in dealing with Iran and the frequent use of Islamophobic rhetoric are setting in motion forces that threaten to push America out of the Middle East, with dire consequences for itself and its friends in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia". (There is Much More at Stake for America than Iraq, Financial Times, 4 December 2006)

Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to George HW Bush and one of those who warned against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, writes: "An American withdrawal before Iraq can, in the words of the president, ‘govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself’ would be a strategic defeat for American interests, with potentially catastrophic consequences both in the region and beyond. Our opponents would be hugely emboldened, our friends deeply demoralised". Iraq, he continues, is "not just a troublesome issue from which we can walk away if it seems too costly to continue. What is at stake is not only Iraq and the stability of the Middle East, but the global perception of the reliability of the United States as a partner in a deeply troubled world. We cannot afford to fail that test". (New York Times, 4 January)

Scowcroft supports the ‘bipartisan’ – Republican-Democrat – approach of the Iraq Study Group, arguing that the situation in Iraq should be stabilised before the US withdraws. But he rejects the ISG report’s suggestion that, if "the Iraqis [that is, the leaders of the US-sponsored Iraqi state] be unable or unwilling to play the role required of them… we would have no choice but to withdraw, and then blame our withdrawal on Iraqi failures".

These comments, however, sum up the dilemma for US imperialism. If the US attempts to escalate the war in a futile effort to stabilise the Maliki regime, it will intensify the civil war and accelerate the disintegration of Iraq, with a massive spill-over into the surrounding states. But if they pull out, there will still be an intense struggle to divide territory and resources between the contending factions, with dire repercussions throughout the region. US imperialism is in a no-win situation.

US, British and all other imperialist forces must be withdrawn from Iraq immediately. The occupying forces are incapable of ending the internal conflict or preventing the spread of conflict to surrounding states. US withdrawal could lead to the fragmentation of Iraq – but continued occupation would, in any case, have the same result. Only working-class forces, appealing to other exploited sections of Iraqi society, have the potential to prevent an all-out civil war, with barbarous ethnic cleansing and the violent partition of Iraq. At present, parties dominated by feudal and tribal leaders, sectarian militias and right-wing Islamic groups dominate the situation. But for the future, we have to raise the need for working-class organisation and action. The first priority would be to organise democratic defence organisations that cut across sectarian, ethnic, and national divisions. Such organisations would have to fight for class unity on the basis of anti-imperialist and anti-landlord/capitalist policies. Moreover, it is clear that there are no solutions achievable within the boundaries of the existing national states. The fight for socialist change in Iraq or other states has to be linked to the idea of a socialist confederation of the Middle East, the only framework capable of resolving the region’s economic, social and national problems.


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