SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 86 - September 2004

Get out now!

FOR MOST OF August, Iraq was convulsed by the conflict in Najaf. A second attempt by US forces, backed by the stooge Allawi government, to smash Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi army, brought three weeks of intense, brutally destructive fighting in Najaf, where al-Sadr’s militia seized control of the Imam Ali shrine. Al-Sadr’s resistance sparked uprisings in at least seven other cities in the Shia south of the country.

The fighting ended on 26 August, with the intervention of the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, previously absent in London for medical treatment. Al-Sadr’s forces were allowed to disperse, ready to fight another day. Scores of civilians were killed in the conflict, many hundreds wounded. The old city of Najaf now resembles Stalingrad after the 1943 siege. Far from strengthening the US occupation or the Allawi government, the assault on al-Sadr’s forces has strengthened the resistance throughout Iraq. All the political tensions remain. Once again, reconstruction has taken second place to further destruction.

The Najaf siege shows a number of things. Despite giving himself emergency powers, reintroducing the death penalty, etc, Allawi’s government is extremely weak. It is entirely dependent on US and other imperialist forces. Zigzagging between ultimatums to al-Sadr and offers of ‘inclusion in the political process’, Allawi’s ministers were incapable of resolving the Najaf crisis. No one doubts that they wanted to see al-Sadr and his militia crushed. Their escape has left Allawi’s government even weaker than before, a transparent camouflage for imperialist occupation.

Allawi’s government has not be strengthened by the selection of an interim assembly by the Iraqi National Conference (15-18 August). The first two days were dominated by Najaf. The delegation they sent to negotiate with al-Sadr was effectively ignored. The 100-person interim assembly selected by the thousand-plus conference delegates is completely dominated by the parties which participated in the defunct Interim Governing Council and now dominate Allawi’s government – two Kurdish parties, the Communist Party, two Shia Islamic groups and a Sunni Islamic party. The conference was boycotted by al-Sadr’s movement and by the Council of Sunni Muslim Clerics. Smaller, independent parties are excluded from the new assembly. "It is a rubber stamp and not a watchdog to oversee the government", said Jabbar Mustaf, head of the Iraqi Pilots’ League and chairman of an umbrella group of trade unionists. "This parliament is not representative". (Daily Telegraph, 19 August)

Moqtada al-Sadr is a powerful force, who has gained strength from his rejection of the ‘political process’ sponsored by the occupying powers. Despite his diplomatic retreat from the Najaf mosque, his resolute resistance has widened his support. His main base is among the Shia poor of Baghdad and southern cities. But his stand in Najaf had the support and sympathy of many Sunni Muslims, who sent food and medical supplies. There are signs, moreover, that al-Sadr is attempting to reach out politically to other opposition forces, putting more emphasis on national resistance and less on the call for a Khomeini-type Islamic republic in Iraq.

Najaf also shows the limits of US power. US imperialism undoubtedly has the military firepower and resources to annihilate guerrilla forces like al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. But the atrocious death and destruction caused by US heavy weaponry arouses an ever deeper anger among Iraqis and around the world. The US is enmeshed in a political war, where military strategy has serious political repercussions in Iraq, internationally, and at home in the United States. They dared not launch an assault on the Imam Ali shrine, which would have provoked an explosion throughout the Islamic world. When al-Sistani launched his march on Najaf, the US was forced to back off and allow al-Sadr to withdraw.

From Vietnam to Iraq…

THERE IS AS much destruction through continuing military operations by US, British and other imperialist forces as reconstruction. Millions of Iraqis still lack continuous power supply, clean water and sanitary waste disposal, let alone adequate hospitals, schools, etc. The New York Times recently described reconstruction as a ‘fiasco’. "Of the $18.4 billion that Congress approved last autumn, only about $600 million has actually been paid out". (Editorial, 10 August)

Weak, erratic and unpredictable oil supply from Iraq has contributed to the surge in the price of oil, which reached almost $50 a barrel on 20 August (though it has declined slightly since then). "Poor planning for the post-war period, a raging insurgency and more than 700 attacks on Iraq’s oil facilities have left it hamstrung and unable to revive its dilapidated oil infrastructure". (The Costly Barrel, International Herald Tribune, 14 August) Rising energy prices and fears of insecurity of supply are exerting more and more of a drag on the US and world economy.

After the 1991 Gulf war, Bush senior boasted that the US had ‘kicked the Vietnam syndrome’. The syndrome is back with a vengeance, however. There are many differences, of course, between Vietnam and the situation today. Nevertheless, the fundamental problem is the same: US imperialism is bogged down in an unwinnable war which is undermining its power and prestige internationally and arousing growing opposition in the US.

The situation was recently summed up by Scott Ritter, a former US marine assigned to the UN’s weapons inspectorate in Iraq from 1991 to 1998. His case, put forward before the US invasion in March last year, that Saddam had destroyed his so-called weapons of mass destruction and their production facilities, has been completely vindicated. Though he is not a socialist, his summing up of the present dilemma of US imperialism could hardly be better put:

"Regardless of the number of troops the US puts on the ground or how long they stay there, Allawi’s government is doomed to fail. The more it fails, the more it will have to rely on the US to prop it up. The more the US props up Allawi, the more discredited he will become in the eyes of the Iraqi people – all of which creates yet more opportunities for the Iraqi resistance to exploit.

"We will suffer a decade-long nightmare that will lead to the deaths of thousands and more Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. We will witness the creation of a viable and dangerous anti-American movement in Iraq and will one day watch as American troops unilaterally withdraw from Iraq every bit as ignominiously as Israel did from Lebanon…

"There is no elegant solution to our Iraqi debacle. It is no longer a question of winning but rather of mitigating defeat". (International Herald Tribune, 23 July)

November reckoning

FOREIGN AFFAIRS – Iraq – are now the key issue in the US election. This is unusual, given that domestic issues, particularly the economy, usually predominate. Moreover, it is in spite of the weakening of the US economy. Bush will be the first president since Hoover in 1929-33 to preside over a decline in total employment (a net loss of 1.2 million jobs). Moreover, weekly earnings for the majority of workers have declined in inflation-adjusted terms.

Opinion polls in July and early August show that over 50% disapprove of Bush’s Iraq policy. Overall, 58% do not believe that Bush has a ‘clear plan’ for bringing Iraq to a ‘successful conclusion’. Among swing voters, 62% take this view. Only 45% now believe that the Iraq invasion has helped the ‘war on terrorism’, down from 62% in February.

With even a half-effective opponent, Bush would be facing certain defeat in November. Unfortunately for the Democrats, most people are not convinced that Kerry has a clear plan for Iraq either (54% compared to only 15% who believe he does). (Washington Post, 19 August)

In his struggle to pre-empt Howard Dean in the Democratic primary elections, Kerry highlighted his Vietnam war record and subsequent opposition to the war. His ‘anti-war’ stance, however, is hollow rhetoric. While criticising Bush’s handling of the war, Kerry recently admitted that, despite the fraudulent WMD pretext for war, he would still have voted to give Bush congressional authority for the war against Iraq. While advocating cooperation with US allies, Kerry defends the US’s right to take unilateral action if necessary. He wants to spend more on active combat forces, increase the size of the US armed forces, and send more troops to Iraq if necessary.

On balance, Bush’s prospects of re-election are weakening. Kerry, however, is also a big-business candidate who offers no real alternative either on Iraq or the economy.

The situation cries out for a real alternative, a party that opposes the capitalist corporations and their global imperialist outreach – which speaks for the working class, oppressed minorities, women, and youth. Ralph Nader’s independent campaign, on an anti-war platform and radical demands in the interests of workers, points in the right direction. The dirty tricks being used by the Democrats to keep Nader off the ballot in many states, including California, highlight the limitations of ‘American democracy’.

The Iraq debacle and economic and social convulsions within the United States will create the conditions in which socialists and the politically conscious sections of workers and young people will fight for the creation of a new mass party on the left – a party that stands not only for ‘regime change’ but for system change.


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