SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 77, September 2003

Bogged down in Iraq

American soldier in Iraq"WE HAVE MADE good progress", claimed Bush on the hundredth day after he declared the end of major military operations in Iraq on May 1. "Iraq is more secure. The economy is beginning to improve". (International Herald Tribune, 9 August) This was in the realm of political fantasy, as recent events make clear.

The killing by US troops of Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay, on 22 July was a ‘turning point’, according to the Bush leadership, despite the fact that Saddam himself has not been captured or killed. The number of attacks on US and British forces, however, has continued to increase, with two or three US troops being killed every day. Between 1 May and 26 August, 139 US troops were killed, 62 in combat and 77 in accidents – exceeding the 138 killed between the start of the war in March and 1 May.

The growing resistance partly reflects rising frustration and anger at electricity and water shortages, aggravating chaotic and intolerable conditions. It is also a reaction to the provocative weapons searches and arrests carried out by US forces, often involving fire-fights and the deaths of unfortunate bystanders. In July, over 700 ‘criminals and Baath loyalists’ were arrested – hundreds, including children, were thrown into primitive, make-shift jails – including many innocent people. (It was punishment without trial, Guardian, 15 August) The US commander, General Ricardo Sanchez admitted (8 August) that his iron-fist policy had alienated Iraqis, and promised a change in tactics. Armed clashes and killings have continued unabated.

During 9-12 August, Basra, occupied by British forces, erupted in major riots and clashes, mainly in protest at the continuing lack of electricity supply and petrol for vehicles (despite the re-opening of the Basra oilfield).

After a US helicopter removed an Islamic banner from a communications mast in Sadr City, Baghdad, on 14 August, US commanders only averted an explosion by paying compensation for those killed in the ensuing protests and by promising to avoid further provocations.

On 7 August a car bomb – a new weapon in the Iraq conflict – exploded outside the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, killing eleven and injuring at least 65 people.

On 21 August, Saddam’s notorious henchman, Ali Hassan al-Majid, the notorious ‘Chemical Ali’, was captured. This brought the number of the US’s top 55 ‘most wanted’ captured to 42. But still no trace of Saddam.

On 19 August, a massive truck-bomb (containing military bombs and grenades) exploded outside the Baghdad headquarters of the UN, killing at least 20 and injuring over 100 people. This really was a turning point, demonstrating the strength of resistance forces and the inability of the US-dominated occupation to control and stabilise the situation. Widespread sympathy among Iraqis for the bombing reveals that the UN is widely seen as an arm of the US occupation. No doubt the aim of the attack was to sabotage the occupying powers’ attempts to rebuild the infrastructure and install a pro-US regime. It will undoubtedly deter other international agencies from working in Iraq – the International Red Cross has already scaled down its operation. Despite the lure of highly profitable contracts, many US firms are delaying their arrival until, as they hope, the security situation improves. To the US public, currently being wooed by candidates lining up for the 2004 presidential primaries, the UN bomb helped crystallise a growing recognition that the US occupation of Iraq will cost far, far more in terms of lives and public funds than Bush and the Pentagon hawks will acknowledge even now. Moreover, the difficulties of the US extracting itself from Iraq are now evoking more and more ominous comparisons with Vietnam.

Breakdown of services

IRAQ HAS BEEN reduced to a state of intolerable chaos. This time, the US did not deliberately target the economic superstructure as they did in the 1990-91 Gulf war; but the occupiers were totally unprepared for the looting and sabotage that took place in the aftermath, wrecking hospitals, power plants, and other vital facilities. Bremer’s coalition provisional authority, which replaced Jay Garners’ inept interim authority, lacks the funds and personnel required for a rapid restoration of basic services. Above all, as an occupying power it lacks local knowledge and the cooperation of Iraqi specialists and workers. Despite the US’s deliberate destruction of utilities during the 1990-91 war, Saddam’s regime managed to restore electricity, fuel and other essentials relatively quickly. Ghazi Sabir-Ali, a former head of the North Oil Company, Kirkuk, points out that oil production was resumed within weeks, while now the US has to import oil into the country. (Let Iraqis rebuild their own country, Guardian, 1 August)

Electric power supply is still below pre-war levels, and some regions get only two or three hours of electricity a day. Refrigeration and air-conditioning are very limited, when typical summer temperatures reach 50C/122F. Without sustained electricity, there is an acute shortage of clean water, while raw sewage is being dumped into the rivers. Children especially continue to suffer and die from gastro-intestinal diseases. Hundreds of thousands in Baghdad went without water for several days when a water main was sabotaged on 17 August (the same day the northern oil pipeline was blown up). The scarcity of petrol – in oil-rich Iraq – restricts deliveries of food and other essentials, while paraffin/kerosene (used for cooking stoves) is in short supply. Hospitals clearly cannot function properly without electricity, and still lack essential equipment and drugs.

Most of the workforce remains unemployed, and the coalition provisional authority has not been allocated enough funds to pay salaries, even in key sectors of the economy. Contracts have been handed out to big US companies for rebuilding key facilities, printing new currency notes, etc, but the economy is only functioning at a primitive level. Only the black-market and smuggling are thriving.

The occupying US forces, moreover, have not brought even a semblance of security to the population. Armed robberies and looting are widely prevalent; there is a horrifying wave of rapes and murders. This appears to be a combination of criminal predation and ‘scorched earth’ resistance to occupation. The prolonged chaos, combined with provocative US military searches, roadblocks, etc, is arousing deep feelings of humiliation and anger. Under these conditions, support for resistance to the occupation is undoubtedly growing. Recent opinion polls in Ramadi and Falluja – centre of many of the attacks on US forces – indicate that 90% of respondents attribute these attacks either to a response to US provocations or to ‘resistance’ motivated by nationalism, Islam or revenge. (Iraqi hearts and minds, International Herald Tribune, 21 August) Internationally, and within the US itself, any prestige the Bush regime hoped to acquire through its lightening military defeat of Saddam’s rotten regime has been negated by its total failure to restore basic services or secure the safety of the population. And what of the claims of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz that the US, in destroying Saddam’s vicious dictatorship, would be greeted as ‘liberators’? The current situation, as the commentator Thomas Friedman aptly says, "underscores how much the Pentagon’s ideological reach exceeds its military grasp".

Oil and the cost of war

IN TESTIMONY TO the House Appropriations Committee, the deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz assured Congress on 27 March: "We are dealing with a country that really can finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon". (Wall Street Journal, 5 August.) Iraq’s oil, it was claimed, would pay for rebuilding the shattered country, as well as bringing down the world price of oil. Oil revenues were projected at between $15 billion and $20 billion a year. The post-war reality is very different. The country’s oil fields are currently producing only around 300,000 barrels a day, way below the pre-war production of three million barrels a day. Oil experts are scornful of the claim that oil revenue will reach $3.5 billion this year, itself less than half the $7 billion expenditure that Bremer had budgeted for the rest of 2003.

Systematic looting and sabotage attacks have prevented the full restoration of oil production. Many of the big US corporations awarded contracts for reconstruction have not yet moved in because of the danger to their staff from sabotage and attacks. The pipeline from the northern oil field to the Caspian via Turkey has been repeatedly sabotaged and is still not operating. The pipeline through Syria has not been reactivated – mainly because the US wants to deprive the Syrian regime of transit revenues.

Much more honest than his political masters in Washington, Paul Bremer recently told the press: "For at least the next couple of years, we’re going to have to spend a lot more money than we’re going to get in revenues, even once we get oil production back to the pre-war levels, which we intend to do by the end of 2004". (Wall Street Journal, 5 August)

The cost of redeveloping the oil fields alone may be over $30 billion, according to the Centre for Global Energy Studies. (Observer, 13 July) Even before the damage caused by the recent war and its aftermath, the oil fields were in a dilapidated state. The severe damage inflicted by the 1991 Gulf war was quickly patched up, but the US-enforced sanctions regime made the replacement and modernisation of equipment impossible.

Where is the capital for such massive investment likely to come from? One proposal being pushed by the Bush regime is for the ‘securitisation’ of future Iraqi oil receipts to pay for reconstruction. In other words, the occupying power would mortgage Iraq’s future oil revenues to pay big contractors like Halliburton and Bechtel to carry through highly profitable contracts. Not surprisingly, these Pentagon favourites enthusiastically support the idea. Such an ‘oil mortgage’ would be added to the $220 billion which Iraq owes to foreign governments and banks, as well as the massive (and recently resumed) reparation payments to the Kuwaiti government for damage during the 1990-91 occupation.

Before the war, Bush and Company gave the impression that the ‘liberation’ of Iraq would mean cheaper oil internationally. After an initial fall, however, oil has risen to over $30 a barrel on the world market. Given the uncertainty of Iraq’s production, it seems unlikely that it will fall very soon. US drivers are now paying $1.53 a gallon (one US gallon equals 3.78 litres), cheap by European standards but 14 cents more than this time last year.

The Bush regime has deliberately and consistently attempted to conceal the real cost of the war. The US military campaign has so far cost around $48 billion, and the occupation (involving approximately 140,000 US troops) is currently costing around $3.9 billion a month. Funds for both the military operation and reconstruction ($7 billion more required until the end of 2003) will soon run out, and Bush will have to go to Congress for additional funds. Bremer recently put the bill for repairing the shattered infrastructure at "probably well above $50 billion, $60 billion, maybe $100 billion. It’s a lot of money". (Wall Street Journal, 5 August) Private estimates put the cost at over $50 billion.

In Washington, however, Wolfowitz and Bush’s budget director, Joshua Bolten, refused to give the Senate Foreign Relations Committee even a rough estimate of future costs of the Iraqi occupation. While Republican senators severely criticised the administration’s evasiveness, one Democratic senator asked Bolten: "What the devil are you going to ask us for?" (International Herald Tribune, 31 July)

US faces guerrilla war

ON 16 JULY, General John Abizaid, head of central command, was the first US leader to admit the obvious: US forces are facing a ‘classical guerrilla-type campaign’ in Iraq. With ten to 20 serious attacks every day, local US commanders admitted that the attacks were heavier than during the war, more carefully targeted, and carried out more skillfully. Abizaid’s comment inevitably evoked the spectre of the Vietnam war. Questioned by journalists about the growing attacks, Bush arrogantly replied: ‘My answer is, bring ‘em on!’ A Washington-based think-tank, the Centre for Strategic Studies, warned that Bush had not learned the lessons of Vietnam: "even the best military victories cannot win the peace". A repressive, prolonged US occupation, insufficient resources for reconstruction, and, above all, no time-table for US withdrawal could lead to "a third Gulf war against the Iraqi people… It is far from clear that the US can win this kind of asymmetric war". (Anthony Cordesman, How to slide into a third Gulf war, Financial Times, 31 July).

Seething discontent amongst US troops in Iraq became headline news on 16 July when soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division called on Rumsfeld to resign. ‘We were told that the fastest way home was through Baghdad’, but Baghdad fell on 9 April, and ‘we’re still here’. Abizaid threatened them with disciplinary action, claiming that morale was generally high. ‘Morale is non-existent’, came the answer from soldiers using the internet. "Somewhere down the line, we became an occupation force in Iraqi eyes. We don’t feel like heroes any more", said one private. "We are outnumbered, we are exhausted. We are in over our heads. The president says, ‘Bring ‘em on’. The generals say we don’t need more troops. Well, they’re not over here". (Observer, 10 August)

With guerrilla attacks increasing, troops feel they are on a roller-coaster of nerves. "Life for US troops is permeated with uncertainty. Attackers can be anyone, anywhere, anytime", writes a US reporter from Baqubah. Most attacks miss their mark or result in minor injuries to troops, so go unreported. "Near misses are militarily insignificant but psychologically damaging. Soldiers said the daily, relentless uncertainty and randomness weigh heavily on them". (Wall Street Journal, 1 August)

The toll of deaths and casualties is rising, and the true figures are higher than the official figures usually reported. Total combat deaths between the beginning of the war and 8 August were 166 (19 more than the death toll in the first Gulf war). But if deaths from all causes, including accidents and suicides, are included, the total was then 248. Similarly with injuries: the Pentagon says there have been about 1,000 ‘wounded in action’. However, Col. Allen DeLane, in charge of airlifting the wounded into Andrews air base, said that at least 4,000 wounded had been received by Andrews and many other wounded had passed through, to be treated elsewhere. (The unreported cost of war, Guardian, 8 August)

Many messages from troops in Iraq also complain about inequality within the army. While the ranks sleep in tents without basic sanitation, senior officers are quartered in Saddam’s former palaces.

The stresses on an over-stretched army, commented Michael O’Hanlon of the US Brookings Institute, "has the potential to threaten the quality and the basic fabric of the US military more than anything since Vietnam". (Financial Times, 18 July)

Troops in Iraq have been flooding their families and friends with angry emails, and wider and wider protests are being organized by groups such as Military Families Speak Out, Veterans For Common Sense, and the National Gulf Resource Centre. Veterans are especially angered by Bush’s cuts in medical benefits for veterans and the move to cancel the recent increases in ‘imminent danger’ payments to troops in combat zones. More and more military families and veterans are calling for the troops to be brought home from Iraq. In July, a colonel attempting to reassure 800 angry spouses at Fort Worth, Georgia, had to be escorted from the meeting for his own protection.

As the toll of US military deaths and injuries in Iraq grows, opposition to the occupation and calls for the withdrawal of US troops will strengthen, not only among military families but also among wider sections of workers. Opposition to Bush’s aggressive foreign policy will be reinforced, moreover, by further revelations about bogus intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and the prolonged stagnation of the US economy.

Military overstretch

LATE LAST YEAR, Rumsfeld boasted that the US could, if necessary, fight two wars simultaneously – a warning to North Korea. Yet in relation to Liberia, the vice-chair of the joint chiefs of staff recently warned of "potentially a very dangerous situation… we need to make sure we do it [intervene] with the proper numbers of troops". (International Herald Tribune, 26 July) The occupation of Iraq, however, has already produced ‘imperial overstretch’. The US is facing difficulties in maintaining a force of 160,000, the optimum number according to Abizaid, head of central command. In reality, even that would not be enough for the US to keep control of the situation. A former officer and defence expert, Michael Yardley, told the Independent on Sunday (24 August): "You need at least half-a-million troops to police this country effectively, which we do not have".

The US is running out of forces. Of the army’s 33 active duty combat brigades only three are currently available for new missions. Twenty-one are on overseas assignments – 16 in Iraq (147,000 ground forces). Most of the others are already earmarked for other missions. The Pentagon is now planning to send two Army National Guard brigades (part-time reservists) to Iraq. It also wants to take on extra civilian personnel in order to transfer 300,000 uniformed ‘pen-pushers’ to active service duties (International Herald Tribune, 27 July).

Rumsfeld’s pre-war strategy is in tatters. He proclaimed a ‘military transformation’, with smaller rapid-intervention forces relying on hi-tech communications and weaponry. After smashing Saddam, he believed, the US would leave only around 50,000 US forces, relying mainly on ‘willing allies’ to carry out ‘peacekeeping’, that is mopping-up and occupation duties. Bush, however, is meeting extreme difficulties in trying to muster an international force. France, Germany and others are not prepared to contribute forces without UN involvement – which would give them a say in the occupation. But even the ‘willing’ are finding it hard to send troops. The US was hoping that the Indian government would send 17,000 to the Kurdish region. Although the BJP government was eager to please Bush, they eventually decided against it, because of overwhelming feeling at home against Indian troops being used as US cannon-fodder and because even they recognized that support for the occupation would destroy their credibility throughout the neo-colonial world. The Polish government, on the other hand, is sending a contingent of 420 troops, together with 100 Latvians and 45 Lithuanians – but hardly ‘tried and tested’ forces. Moreover, public opinion in Poland is against the move and any Polish casualties will result in strong pressure for the withdrawal of the Polish-led force.

The US has used the bombing of the UN HQ in Baghdad to put pressure on the UN and Nato to contribute more forces. But France, Germany and most other major states are unlikely to send forces so long as the US and Britain insist on control of the occupation.

Unrepresentative government

BREMER PROMISES THERE will be elections in Iraq in about a year, an implausible claim given the present situation. Meanwhile, the new 25-member Governing Council, launched in mid-July, is supposed to be preparing the way for some kind of representative government. Bremer claims it will have ‘governing powers’ under the paramount authority of the occupying powers. It is an uneasy alliance, dominated by the predominantly Shia exile groups (notably, Chalabi’s Iraqi National Council) and the Kurdish parties which participated in the US-backed ‘leadership council’ formed last February. Also participating are figures with support within Iraq, for instance leaders of the Islamic Da’waa party, the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and some sections of the powerful al-Sadr clan. The revived Communist Party, which has renounced socialism, is also participating, on the grounds that the Council is a step towards democracy. (Morning Star, 22 July) Agreement was reached, however, only on the basis of a monthly-rotating chair. The Council is supposed to appoint ‘well-qualified, technocratic ministers’, but seems to have done little or nothing. Typical comments from the street were: ‘They don’t have credibility. They won’t have any real authority as long as they represent the occupying authority’. ‘It’s just a tool for the Americans’. Many of the Council members ‘were raised abroad. They’re not capable of running a country’. ‘Do you think they can make a decision without the Americans?’

The new council is unlikely to be any more effective than the 140-strong Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council, set up by Jay Garner and continued by Bremer to ‘advise’ the occupying authority on reconstruction. Resigning from this body, Isam al-Khafaji, an economics professor at Amsterdam University, complained that members had nothing to do except sit in their offices and read emails. "Even the [US] soldiers here bluntly say they take their orders from their general not from Bremer… Even though Bremer has the formal authority within Iraq, it seems like each and every decision must go back to Washington, and we are the victims of indecision". Al-Khafaji resigned because the "reconstruction council was sliding… to collaborating with occupying forces". (I did not want to be a collaborator, Guardian, 28 July)

Moreover, the SCIRI, the best organised Shia force, is following a dual tactic. While participating in the Governing Council, it is also strengthening its own militia forces. In the North, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) have resisted US pressure to disband their militias, which are at least 70,000 strong. While sections of the al-Sadr tribe, the biggest Shia movement, are supporting the Council, others have denounced it as a tool of the US occupation. Maqtada Sadr, for instance, a militant, junior cleric with strong support among the youth of the poor Sadr City area of Baghdad (formerly Saddam City), is calling for a struggle against the US occupation, and claims to be organising a jihad army of over 10,000 volunteers. The attempted assassination in An-Najaf (25 August) of the Grand Ayatollah Saeed al-Hakim, who opposes the US occupation but has called for ‘calm’ and an end to violence, reflects a struggle for influence between the Shia groups.

Up to now, the main armed resistance to US forces has come from the so-called Sunni triangle (involving wider forces than the ‘remnants of the Saddam regime’), but the outline is taking shape of even more powerful, organised resistance forces among the majority Shia population. Their aim is an Islamic republic on the lines of Iran under Khomeini after the 1979 Iranian revolution. Already, they are attempting to enforce strict conditions, for instance forcing women to wear head-scarves and closing liquor shops, tolerated under Saddam, often through shooting their owners as ‘infidels’. Ever since the Iranian revolution, US imperialism has regarded ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ as a major threat to its interests. Through its occupation of Iraq, however, the US is creating all the conditions for the growth and possible coming to power of right-wing Islamic forces.

As the attacks on US and British forces have grown, the Pentagon hawks have increasingly claimed that they are the work of foreign Islamic militants, probably linked to al-Qaeda, who have infiltrated across the border into Iraq. They now see Iraq, as they previously saw Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, as the front of a new jihad, this time against the US (their former sponsors!). ‘Al-Qaeda terror chief runs Iraqi hit squads’, echoes the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times (10 August). It is far from clear whether there is any evidence for this ‘infiltration’. Clearly, the US is reluctant to recognise the strong resistance to occupation within Iraq, especially in the central Sunni triangle region. If, however, there does prove to be such an infiltration it is another ironic result of the US occupation. Rumsfeld and company could never prove any link between Saddam and al-Qaeda – but their intervention has created conditions in which it is conceivable that reactionary Wahabbi forces, like Ansar al-Islam, could be operating in Iraq.

The US occupation authority claims that over 30,000 Iraqi police are now operating again. They are also attempting to recruit and train Iraqis into new security forces: a 40,000-strong army, a para-military militia, and a security force to guard the oil fields and pipelines. So far, they have managed to recruit only a handful, who are poorly equipped – and who are inevitably seen as collaborators. Several British military police involved in training Iraqi police have been killed. The history of colonial occupations shows that such collaborationist forces, while they may be brutal, are never very effective against guerrilla struggles that have the sympathy and support of a majority of the subjugated people.

End the occupation!

US IMPERIALISM, DESPITE its unprecedented military power, is losing its battle to control Iraq. The grand plans of Wolfowitz and Condolezza Rice to reconstruct Iraq on the US model as the first step towards the reconstruction of the whole Middle East on ‘democratic’, pro-American lines, is already in tatters. The US ‘road map’ for Israel-Palestine has already been blasted full of holes by new suicide bombings and the Israeli state’s savage retaliation. Under US occupation, Iraqis will join Palestinians as symbols of resistance to US imperialism.

The escalation of attacks on the occupation forces, and especially the bombing of the UN Baghdad HQ, make it clear that the US, if it insists (with British support) on unilateral control of the occupation, will not be able to hold on to the country. Already, Bush and Rumsfeld have appealed to the major UN powers to help by sending forces. But it is far from certain that they will agree, fearing that they will have no real say on Iraq’s direction and that the UN, if it is used as a cover for US domination, will be totally discredited, not only in Iraq but throughout the neo-colonial world.

Bush is adamant that the US is in Iraq ‘for the long haul’. Without the support of other major powers and some semblance of multilateral legitimacy, however, US imperialism will be forced to retreat from Iraq. Despite its enormous resources, the US is already suffering from imperial over-stretch, not only militarily but economically as well. If the US does not retreat, however, the super-power will become bogged down in a morass, just like Johnson and Nixon, who continually saw victory around the next corner in Vietnam. The decision, of course, may well be taken out of Bush’s hands. The ‘9/11 effect’ is wearing off rapidly. A recent Newsweek poll found that 69% of Americans were concerned that the US would become bogged down for years in Iraq without any improvement in security, while 49% said they were very concerned. Bush’s approval rating was down to 53%, the lowest since 9/11. While 43% said they were prepared to give Bush a second term, 49% said they would not. (25 August) Any successful Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2004 will be an anti-war candidate, though a new US leadership will face considerable problems in extracting themselves from the mess created by Bush and his hawks.

The crisis in the US economy will also be aggravated by the occupation (cheap oil, even if it materializes, will not by itself lift the world economy). The US is now a debtor to the rest of the world, while the Federal budget deficit is likely to soar above $500 billion – and the full cost of the Iraq war and occupation have yet to be factored in. While Bush has handed huge tax cuts to the super-rich, millions of workers and sections of the middle class are paying for the recession and the war through unemployment, squeezed incomes, and public-sector cuts. Social and economic grievances will drive a revival of working-class opposition to imperialist militarism and big-business attacks on living standards and rights. The anti-war movement, mainly consisting of students and young people up to now, will be strengthened by the involvement of politically conscious workers – and will fuse with a broad anti-capitalist movement.

Socialists in the US and Britain have a special duty to fight against the occupation of Iraq. We call for the withdrawal of all occupying forces. The transformation of Iraq is the task of the Iraqi people. The alternative to imperialism, capitalism and feudal and tribal exploiters is, in our view, socialist revolution – with the aim of establishing socialist democracy, with a democratically planned economy, guaranteeing the right to self-determination for all national minorities.

The struggle for socialism, moreover, has to be based on an internationalist perspective, supporting the struggle of workers, peasants and all oppressed people throughout the Middle East.


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