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Socialism Today issue 75

Iraq after the war

By Peter Taaffe

"They have promised to leave the country but if they don’t we will fight them with knives and stones. More even than the Palestinians". (The Independent)

"This war was imposed on the nation… If people had been asked, they would have said ‘no’ to war and ‘no’ to the president [Saddam Hussein]. But nobody did ask". (The Economist, 19 April)

The Spoils of WarTHE WAR IN Iraq, the fourth ‘high-tech’ victory for US imperialism in a little over a decade, has had a more decisive effect than previous ones. It has underlined further the military might of US imperialism, the world’s only hyperpower. It has set the scene for an even greater aggressive military posture by the US, with further conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere flowing from this. 

It has effected a serious breach between the US and Britain on the one side, and their erstwhile European ‘allies’, the more powerful ‘old Europe’ bourgeois powers like France and Germany, on the other – thereby possibly further widening inter-imperialist rivalries, more reminiscent of the period leading up to 1914 than the post-1945 period. It has provoked a mass anti-war movement, the biggest in history. Lastly, and most decisively, it has exercised a huge effect on mass consciousness worldwide, including on the working class.

This will be reflected in a contradictory fashion in the next period. Some will draw the conclusion that the US is, indeed, ‘invincible’. But this will not be true of others, numbering millions, already mobilised before the war into opposition to capitalism by the anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist movement. Indeed, this laid the basis for, and coalesced with, the anti-war movement.

In the run-up to the war the long-term, strategic aims of the Republican right, gathered around the Bush junta, were well rehearsed in the pages of Socialism Today and by the CWI. Their plans for overthrowing Saddam go back to the period immediately before the last Gulf war. This was followed up in the mid-1990s with the Perle-Rumsfeld group pressing the Clinton regime to prepare the ground for a military assault on Iraq.

Only when the Bush junta cheated its way to power in the last presidential elections, however, did the Republican rightwing have the instrument to pursue its long-term strategy. The pretext for realising this military/strategic goal was provided by 11 September. It has now been revealed that soon after the attack on the Twin Towers, Rumsfeld and Co urged Bush to launch an immediate war against Saddam. It seems Bush was dissuaded from this course by Blair, who has assumed the role of a ‘consigliore’ to Bush, ‘the Don’. ‘First Afghanistan, then Iraq’, urged Blair.

The military outcome of the war was clear in advance. The length of the war, however, determined by US military strategy and the degree of Iraqi resistance, could not be fully anticipated before the war itself. Given the military triumph of US imperialism, the Rumsfeld doctrine – the deployment of leaner, more mobile, high tech military forces – appears to have been vindicated over the use of ‘overwhelming military force’, as enunciated by Powell and the military chiefs. But this was a high-risk military strategy, involving the stretching of supply lines, making US forces vulnerable to guerrilla-style attacks, as witnessed in Nasiriyah, Najaf, as well as in Basra.

This raised the possibility of a setback, at least in terms of the ‘timeline’ of a projected war. Originally, the war strategy was to bypass important population centres, particularly in the south. This was linked to an expected ‘uprising’ of the Shia population against Saddam’s forces, along the lines of the failed 1991 rebellion. However, the Shia population was not about to oblige the US once more by acting as the shock troops for an invading army. This led to the resistance in Basra by forces loyal to Saddam, particularly the ‘Fedayeen’, parts of the army and the Ba’ath militia. A similar resistance movement initially took place in Nasiriyah and Najaf. In the event, the war unfolded over a period of 21 days rather than the seven envisaged by Rumsfeld, three times longer than the ‘whirlwind’ victory projected by the US.

Nevertheless, the US did secure a victory in a relatively short time, with few ‘coalition’ victims. Before the war, and in its early stages, it was not possible to gauge which would predominate in the consciousness of the Iraqi people: hatred of a massively unpopular dictatorship or Iraqi nationalism which, in turn, could lead to stubborn resistance to the US-led occupying forces. Events demonstrated, however, that Saddam rested on a very narrow base, composed largely of the Fedayeen and the elements of the Ba’ath party who were prepared to fight. In this situation, no real ‘national defence’ was undertaken by the Iraqi people. The relative ease with which the US-led forces entered Baghdad was largely a result of the passivity of the masses, the refusal to fight for Saddam, and the wish that the whole nightmare would be over as soon as possible, rather than support or a welcoming attitude for the occupying forces.

An Islamic upsurge

YET IF THE war itself was ‘fast-forwarded’ then so has been the Iraqi reaction to it. Within a day, commented Robert Fisk, the noted Middle East correspondent, "America’s war of liberation is over. Iraq’s war of liberation from the Americans is about to begin. In other words, the real and frightening story starts now". So sure were Rumsfeld and Co that they would be greeted in the manner that ‘allied’ troops allegedly were in Paris in 1944 – showered with rose petals by a grateful population – that they made no real plans to effectively administer the country. The chaos, water shortages, looting and general disintegration of Iraq, compounded by the massive bombing and shelling campaign, have reinforced the intense opposition to the US as an occupying force. There are widespread comments even in the bourgeois press of the ‘inept’ character of this occupation which saw troops standing by while widespread looting, robberies and intimidation unfold. The Iraqi middle class in particular, who were supposed to be the most welcoming section of society, a firm social basis for a new regime, have become embittered by the post-Saddam situation. One woman complained to a reporter: ‘In a month, Iraq has gone back centuries’.

A real frisson of concern has shaken bourgeois strategists, both in the US and Europe, because of the explosion of anger at this as the masses have poured onto the arena in the huge demonstrations which have convulsed Iraq. There are many examples in history where an invasion and victory by a foreign power can then trigger an uprising or revolution (the Paris Commune, which was obviously different in its class character from what is unfolding in Iraq today, was prompted by the defeat of the French army at the hands of German invaders in 1871). They are like an ‘accidental’ obstetrician’s forceps, delivering a ‘baby’ which the bourgeoisie certainly does not want.

The Shia uprising, in particular, has contained in it under the camouflage of religion, elements of revolution in the sense of the entry of the formerly inert masses onto the scene. Within days of the overthrow of Saddam, in towns such as Kut, Kerbala, Najaf and Nasiriyah, there were also strong elements of ‘dual power’, not in the classical sense of independent workers’ committees, but of rival centres of power, some controlled from the top down by Islamic clerics but others having a more independent character.

Committees around the mosques appear to have been formed in these towns and reports have also appeared of committees in some of the northern towns having been established on a secular basis without the involvement of the clergy or the mosques. The same kind of organisation appears to have taken shape in the suburbs of Baghdad where even looted goods have been returned to their owners under instructions from these committees.

At the same time, there has been an explosion of political life with myriad parties and organisations formed – from the newly re-emerged Iraqi Communist Party to the different Islamic organisations including the Shia al-Dawa which seems to be the biggest Islamic ‘political party’ at the moment – as a scramble takes place to fill the vacuum left in the wake of Saddam.

Amongst the Iraqi people the most significant development has been the explosion of Islam, including ‘political Islam’, amongst the Sunnis but particularly amongst the majority, the oppressed Shias. In the first demonstrations in Nasiriyah and Najaf, as well as in Kerbala, the spiritual capital of the Shia, the slogans were, ‘No to the US occupation, No to Saddam, Yes for Islam’, usually accompanied, it is true, with a linked call, ‘Shias and Sunnis unite for Islam’. The pilgrimage to Kerbala – which was suppressed under Saddam – saw a mass eruption of the Shias. According to some reporters, it numbered up to three million. These demonstrations horrified the bourgeoisie both in US and Britain, the ‘victors’ in this war. Compounding this are the slogans which have been chanted demanding that the ‘ayatollahs rule’.

Inevitably, this has conjured up a vision of Iraq following the same path as the Iranian revolution of 1979. Undoubtedly, Iraq has some similarities with the Iranian revolution, the seemingly ‘sudden’ outpouring of Islamic sentiment, a tendency of the mullahs and the mosques to rush into the vacuum, and even the creation of popular committees and the involvement of the masses from below. However, in Iran, it was not just the Shah but the system which sustained his rule, capitalism and imperialism, which was the target of the masses, who struggled for a ‘Republic of the Poor’. There was also an economic ‘model’ for radical Islamic fundamentalism in the Stalinist states, a nationalised planned economy but with power in the hands of a bureaucratic elite. This does not exist today.

Moreover, events in Iraq are taking place against an entirely different background, and with a different internal situation in Iraq. As soon as the pro-Islamist demonstrations began, Rumsfeld, the military architect of the US victory, stated bluntly that a state with power in the hands of the ‘Islamic clerics’ would not be tolerated by the US. Unlike Iran in 1979, when the Shah’s army completely disintegrated, a powerful rival military power exists, in the form of the occupying foreign troops (initially 300,000 but due to be significantly reduced).

It is true that substantial sections of the Iraqi population are now armed, partially because Saddam distributed arms in the immediate period before the invasion, while other Iraqis acquired arms when the Ba’athist forces collapsed. This undoubtedly is a potential rival power and a long-term threat to US imperialism but is not a coherent force, at this stage, capable of immediately evicting the US from the country. The ethnic, religious composition of Iraq differs from Iran as well. The majority of the population is Shia Arabs (60-65% of the population), with 15-20% Sunni Arabs, 15-20% Kurds and the rest Turcoman, Assyrians and others (2.7% of the population are Christian). Iran, on the other hand, was, at least from a religious point of view, relatively homogenous, with the majority of the population overwhelmingly Shia. Nevertheless, the dark shadow of an Iraqi, Shia-dominated, Islamic state, allied in some way to Iran, is there in outline.

The Shia forces in Iraq

THIS WAS A foreseeable outcome of an invasion. How many times did the phrase ‘winning the war but losing the peace’ feature in countless commentaries before the war took place? Rather than the dream of a ‘democratic’ state, favoured by the US neo-conservative right – which would then become a model for the rest of the Middle East – the net result of the war could be a fundamentalist state in Iraq and in other countries in the Middle East. Only Rumsfeld and Co did not take this possibility into account.

Already the statements of the conservative Muslim clergy are bitterly hostile to socialism and an independent working-class force. Their outlook is not shaped by the radical Islam of 1979 but the pro-bourgeois, pro-Western degeneration of the revolution. They are a conservative, reactionary caste who, rather than radicalising the masses, will seek to restrain them. They favour a form of Islamic (sharia) law. One commented to a Guardian reporter: "Ninety-eight percent of the people are Muslims. The Iraqi constitution must not commit to anything that will go against anything in sharia (Islamic law)". Another declared: "The West calls for freedom and then liberty. Islam is not calling for this. Islam rejects such liberty. True liberty is obedience to God and to be liberated from desires". In other words, the Iraqi people having shaken off one dictator must be saddled with other despots in religious garb. At the same time, however, there is no Shia monolith, no more than there was, or is, in Iran.

The Hawza in Najaf is the leading Shia seminary in Iraq. The leading figure in this is the Ayatollah Saed Ali al-Sistani, a conservative cleric who lost some credibility for never publicly criticising Saddam while the latter was in power. A rival group involves the followers of the late Mohammad al-Sadr, who was killed by Saddam and whose picture adorns many of the Shia areas. The Shia area of Baghdad has been changed, from ‘Saddam City’ to, variously, ‘Revolution City’ or ‘Sadr City’. The followers of Sadr are generally more extreme, in a religious sense, in demanding the strict adherence to sharia, but there is no evidence that they have a different social or political programme to other Shia sects. The third grouping, of Ayatollah Mohammad Bakri al-Hakim, who heads the Iran-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), is not recognised by the two more dominant groups. However, this grouping is well organised and has a private army, the 15,000-strong Badr Brigade.

On his return to Iraq, after a 20-year exile, Bakri al-Hakim has echoed the call for an Islamic state but has also warned against ‘extremism’. His benefactor, President Khatami of Iran, has visited Lebanon and called for ‘calm’ in the region. The head of Hezbollah has even raised the possibility of the disarming of the Shia guerrillas in Lebanon and their incorporation into the Lebanese army. The model which these Islamic clerics have in mind for Iraq is not where the Iranian revolution started but where it has ended, as a reactionary, theocratic trap for the masses. The al-Dawa party, the only one that has formed, at this stage, a distinct party, is the fourth group but also suffers from having been in exile. It is a political ‘offshoot’ of the Sadr grouping set up in the 1950s as a ‘bulwark against secularism’. Iraq, historically, has been the most secularised society in the Arab world.

Even under Saddam, women formally had equal rights with men, freedom to dress in whatever clothes they chose, and even a certain laxity in relation to the sale of alcohol, etc. Now, however, the emergence of Islam, particularly under the dominant Shias, is itself a reflection of the discrediting and failure of previous political creeds – Arab nationalism, the ‘socialism’ of the Ba’ath party, the Stalinist-backed ‘Communist’ parties, together with the intensified impoverishment and national humiliation of the Arabs at the hands of Israel and the US. As in Iran, the mosque became, in effect, the underground organisation of the most oppressed and poorest sections of society. This has allowed the mullahs to establish a grip, at this stage, over perhaps the majority of the population.

Fergal Keane, a well-known journalist, has written: "All in all I feel a deep sense of foreboding about Iraq. Nobody has any idea of dealing with the looming possibility of an Islamic state. Have democratic elections and the religious parties will likely win. Have no democratic elections and you will have a guerrilla war sometime soon. The US troops I met wanted badly to go home; many of them were scared of the people in the country. Do they understand all, or any, of this in Washington?"

Securing US interests

THE US GENERALS and Pentagon strategists seem impervious to this as they seek to combine the use of force, repression, with preparations to establish a stooge regime. The shootings at Basra, at Falluja twice (against unarmed demonstrators wanting an occupied school to be returned to them by US troops), and the killing of demonstrators on two occasions in Mosul, are a warning to the Islamist opposition of the force that the US is prepared to employ to secure its position in Iraq. At the same time, its representatives will seek to play out and widen the schisms already present amongst the different ethnic and national groupings and particularly amongst the Shias.

The US and British bourgeoisie are capable of reconciling themselves to a form of ‘political Islam’, and even a state constructed on this basis. The Saudi Arabian regime is a right-wing fundamentalist regime, as is the ‘liberated’ regime of Karzai in Afghanistan. US imperialism, however, fears that even a right-wing fundamentalist regime in Iraq would not do its bidding. It could prevent it from controlling Iraq’s oil and establishing military bases in the country; and this, after all, was the main reason why the war was undertaken in the first place by the Bush junta. Therefore, the US has a difficult, if not impossible, job to achieve its aims in Iraq without conjuring up a mass, national resistance of the Iraqi people which it cannot defeat. In the absence of any substantial social forces upon which the US can lean, it will have to manoeuvre skilfully – a rare commodity amongst the reckless Bush gang – in the rapids of a turbulent Iraqi political situation.

Alarmed by the sight of armed Islamists guarding hospitals, dispensing justice, patrolling parts of the major cities, and given the pretext for doing so by the widespread looting that the US forces turned a blind eye to, the putative US administration has quickly moved to begin to assemble a police force. This is made up, in the main, of the very same Saddam police, but with different uniforms. The same process is under way in reconstituting the state, the civil service and, undoubtedly, as a precondition for a withdrawal of US forces, the reformation of a ‘safe’ Iraqi army, ‘de-Ba’athised’ of the more entrenched supporters of Saddam, well-known torturers and oppressors. But this has met with resistance and hated Ba’athists, like the head of the health ministry, have been sacked after mass demonstrations.

It is highly unlikely that the demand of the oppositional forces for a process similar to the limited ‘de-Nazification’ in post-1945 Germany can be implemented in Iraq. To debar all those members of the Ba’ath party – over a million Iraqis – some of whom were compelled to join the party as the price for having a job as a low-grade teacher, civil servant, etc, would mean that the US would have no alternative but to lean on the forces of political Islam which, as we have seen, are seeking to acquire more and more power. Retired US general Jay Garner, the de facto ruler of Iraq until his replacement by Bremer, a ‘counter-terrorist expert’, announced his hope to set up an interim administration for the country as early as June. A list of Iraqi ‘leaders’ has been put forward to form an ‘interim government’. These include Ahmad Chalabi, (exiled from Baghdad for 45 years) the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Jalal Talibani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and representatives of the Iraqi National Accord, and the SCIRI. This is an attempt to harness openly pro-bourgeois elements in the hope of legitimising an ‘interim administration’.

The very recitation of these names and organisations, however, indicates the fractious future even for this ‘interim’ regime, if it ever takes flight. Important political forces from both the Shia majority and Sunni minority are excluded. But the US, in a desperate attempt to seek legitimacy, must go down this road of trying to form an alternative government in order to deflect the inevitable nationalist resistance to its presence in the country. A fair election would probably give an overwhelming victory to the religious parties, to ensuing civil war between the different national and religious minorities, and the break-up of Iraq.

It seems that the US has a planned three-stage process for an Iraqi government. The first, which exists now, is a purely American administration. The second, according to Wolfowitz, is described as a "bridge, an interim authority or quasi-government which will gradually take over the day-to-day administration". The third ‘with luck’ will be a "permanent and elected Iraqi government". Various ‘timelines’ have been advanced, from two years according to Blair to five years according to ‘unattributable US sources’. But even if the minimum time of two years is accepted, resistance, probably of an armed character, is likely.

If, and how long before, a guerrilla war unfolds is not possible to say. But if an open US military occupation continues even for two years, it is likely to begin. Even a ‘reconstructed’, essentially stooge, Iraqi regime would have no legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of Iraq’s population. It too would be faced with armed resistance. This, moreover, is not likely to be restricted to the Shias but could involve the Ba’athists – shorn of the hated Saddam. They have not completely collapsed and could rebuild and form an important part of an Arab nationalist resistance to the occupation.

Direct military rule by the US will stoke up the opposition of the Iraqi people and will reverberate throughout the region. For this reason, while seeking to establish a firm hold on the economic levers of the Iraqi economy, and seeking to maintain military bases in Iraq, the US will withdraw as soon as possible. How soon this will take is not possible to predict and depends on the scale of opposition it meets.

Even the presence of US and other foreign troops is not sufficient for an effective occupation, the holding of a whole nation in chains. Half-a-million US troops in Vietnam could not defeat 17 million largely ragged South Vietnamese, together with their compatriots in the North. It will take time for armed resistance, including a guerrilla war, to begin and even longer to succeed in evicting the occupiers. But the idea that Iraq demonstrates that the forces of ‘national liberation’ are too weak to resist mighty US imperialism will be tested and disproved in the coming period.

A new period of instability

ONCE RESISTANCE BEGINS, moreover, the alleged ‘justification’ for engaging in the war in the first place will be subjected to severe criticism, particularly if the US and British contention that Iraq possessed ‘weapons of mass destruction’ proves to be false. Both Blair and Bush are politically vulnerable on this issue. The bitterness and anger, evident in the unprecedented anti-war mass movement, has risen in the aftermath of the war, although this is not, as yet, reflected in mass demonstrations. If Bush and Blair can sell the idea that Iraq has been stabilised, that the war has eliminated a ‘clear and present danger’, and that the average Iraqi will demonstrably benefit from their actions, they may be able to rationalise the reasons for the war and get away with it temporarily. But that is not at all guaranteed, particularly in the case of Blair, where the issue of ‘misleading’ British public opinion and, above all, the hallowed British ‘parliament’, will be posed.

Failing to discover these weapons, the US and Britain have now retreated to the fall-back position of arguing that Saddam did possess them but they were ‘destroyed’ just before the war began. One anonymous official in the Bush administration said he would be "amazed if we found weapons-grade plutonium or uranium" and it was unlikely large volumes of biological or chemical material would be discovered. Now there is the breathtaking claim from a ‘senior administration official’ who "insisted the US never expected to find a huge arsenal. He said the US was concerned by Mr Hussein’s team of 1,000 scientists, whom he termed ‘nuclear mujaheddin’. These scientists, he argued, could have restarted the weapons programme once the crisis had passed". If this is criteria for an invasion against a regime – not actually possessing WMD but having the potential to do so – it could be invoked against any number of countries.

This indicates that the Bush administration is now prepared to take pre-emptive military action against a country that has "deadly weapons in mass quantities". The administration will "act against a hostile regime that has nothing more than the intent and ability to develop such weapons". The different approaches of the US – war on Iraq, but for Korea, ‘diplomatic engagement’ – will convince any regime threatened in this way by the US in the future that it should develop nuclear and biological weapons (WMD) as soon as possible. Rather than freeing the world of dangerous maniacs armed with nuclear weapons or WMD, the opposite will now be the case.

All of this means that the mass anti-war peace mood, seen spectacularly during the run-up to the Iraq war, will be sustained and even deepened given the increased insecurity now felt by the peoples of the world. It will, moreover, feed into and strengthen the anti-capitalist movement and labour movement revival.

Brushing aside any domestic opposition, Bush and Rumsfeld used the Iraq ‘victory’ to turn the attention of the American people once more outwards to other perceived ‘rogue states’. Syria became almost immediately a focus for accusations for harbouring the fleeing Saddam forces and possessing its own WMD. For a few days, the spectre of a new invasion was flagged up by Rumsfeld, by Bush himself, and reinforced by ‘warnings’ from the State Department and Colin Powell.

If the US finds it impossible to occupy Iraq effectively with 300,000 troops there is no prospect, despite the threats of Bush and Co, that it could do so in the case of Syria, let alone Iran, the other target of the US administration’s threats. (Syria’s population is 17 million, whereas Iran’s is 66 million.) In reality, these threats were connected to the launch of Bush’s ‘road map’ for Israel and Palestine. The new Palestinian prime minister, Abu Mazen, is to take action against Islamic militants and Assad is to rein in Hezbollah in Lebanon and deny any bases or offices for the Palestinian terrorist organisations in Syria. This ‘road map’ has no more possibility of succeeding than the Oslo agreement which was launched after the first Gulf war. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is intractable on a capitalist basis.

If US imperialism believes that its victory in Iraq means that it can repeat the same actions in other parts of the world, irrespective of the concrete conditions, it is mistaken. It has once more heightened tensions in Cuba. Neo-conservative circles in the US have made threatening noises about repeating the experiences of Iraq against the guerrillas in Colombia. Undoubtedly also, Hugo Chávez sits a little more uneasily in power in Venezuela than he did before the war. A new attempt at toppling him is possible, although reaction may be now constrained to wait to see if they can achieve their objectives in elections (in which, however, it is not excluded that Chávez could win again). One thing is certain: there will be no tranquillity or ‘peace’ throughout the capitalist world in this new period that has opened up.

The Riyadh bombing

THE DEVASTATING ATTACK on the foreign compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, by a suicide squad, probably of al-Qa’ida operatives, comes after boasts by the US intelligence community that, in the wake of the Iraq war, Bin Laden and his organisation were ‘on the run’. Yet an al-Qa’ida spokesman had warned in the London-based Arabic weekly al-Majalla that the organisation had been thoroughly restructured and was planning spectacular attacks against US targets. This underlines the fallacy of Bush and Blair’s claim to have succeeded in ‘the war against terror’, which was one of the proclaimed aims of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

In promising US reprisals against the terrorists, Bush asked the rhetorical question that if there were any doubts about this ‘ask the Taliban’! However the Taliban are still in business. Mullah Omar remains at large, as does Bin Laden himself and Saddam Hussein. These synchronised bombings have already claimed many more lives than the attack on the housing complex for the US military at Khobar Towers seven years ago. These were residential complexes, not military targets, and this was an attack on Westerners in general, not just those seen as armed occupiers.

Even bourgeois commentators have drawn the conclusion that the ‘victory’ in Iraq has not had the deterrent effect on terrorism so fervently hoped for by the Americans and the British. Indeed it has had the opposite effect and is the first expression of the massive backlash in the Arab world, in particular from the fundamentalists and the Arab masses. At the same time, however, Washington will use this to acquire more powers for the ‘war on terrorism’ – further undermining democratic rights and civil liberties – underlining once more the reactionary effects of terrorism.


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