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Socialism Today 87 - October 2004

‘Graver than Vietnam’

DURING SEPTEMBER, THE conflict in Iraq reached a new level of intensity. The countrywide insurgency, a national resistance made up of many different forces, grew stronger and became more extensive. It is clear that the US, British and other imperialist forces have lost control of most of the cities of the Sunni triangle (north and west of Baghdad), as well as large areas of the Shia south. The puppet government of Iyad Allawi, which rests on US-British military forces, has only very limited control even of Baghdad itself.

The US and other occupying military forces operate from heavily guarded enclaves, making increasingly bloody forays into areas largely controlled by insurgents. In mid-September, US forces subjected the city of Tal Afar, with a majority Turkic population, to a brutal siege which displaced tens of thousands of residents. This brought strong protests from the Turkish government, which threatened to withdraw all regional cooperation from the US.

The conflict in Iraq since the US-led invasion in March 2003 has resulted in between 12-14,000 Iraqi deaths, according to Iraq Body Count. The Iraqi Human Rights Organisation estimates that there have been at least 30,000 deaths, and tens of thousands more have suffered terrible injuries.

Speaking in London, en route to Washington, Allawi claimed "the insurgents are a small minority, and the media are feeding on this…" Moreover, Tony Blair also claimed that there is now "a second war" in Iraq, fed by international terrorism. Colin Powell, however, admitted that the insurgency draws support from indigenous sources: "Our real problem is the self-generating insurgency…" (International Herald Tribune, 18 September) General Michael Jackson, head of the British army, publicly stated that British troops were "back at war". "Soldiers are now fighting a counter-insurgency war". (Daily Telegraph, 19 September) The average number of attacks on occupation forces has risen from an average of 60 a day in April (at the time of the intense conflicts in Najaf and Falluja) to an average of 87 a day in August.

Andrew Terrill, the top Iraqi expert at the US Army War College, spelled out the current situation: "We have a growing, maturing insurgency group. We see larger and more coordinated military attacks. They are getting better and they can self-regenerate. The idea there are x number of insurgents, and that when they are all dead we can get out, is wrong. The insurgency has shown an ability to regenerate itself because there are people willing to fill the ranks of those who are killed. Political culture is more hostile to the US presence. The longer we stay, the more they are confirmed in that view". (Sidney Blumenthal, Far Graver than Vietnam, The Guardian, 16 September)

Recent bombing raids on Falluja appear to confirm suggestions that the US is planning a major assault to retake the city, one of the main bases of the Sunni insurgency. Possibly, this will be postponed until after the US presidential election, to avoid the appearance of intense conflict and heavy US casualties immediately before election day. There has also been an increasing number of US air strikes against targets in the huge slum sector of Baghdad, Sadr City, aimed at Moqtada al-Sadr’s supporters.

Far from re-establishing the control of the occupying powers, major assaults on Falluja, Sadr City, or other population centres, which would inevitably cause enormous destruction and casualties, would only reinforce the national insurgency.

Attacks on Iraqi police and would-be police recruits have soared. The number of kidnappings of foreign workers and journalists has also increased. Over 130 kidnappings have taken place. Many victims were later released, but over 30 have been killed, some by barbarous beheading (shown by video on the internet). More and more contractors, aid workers and journalists are withdrawing from the battle zones. Hijackings of lorries on the two major routes from Syria and Jordan have reduced supplies to a trickle.

Reconstruction of the shattered infrastructure has been virtually abandoned. Reports of the spread of hepatitis and typhoid suggest epidemics of serious proportions are developing. This is mainly due to the collapse of the water and sewage systems and the unreliability of power supply. (International Herald Tribune, 24 September) One of the worst effected areas is Sadr City.

Reports of the growing threat to public health come just as the Bush regime has proposed shifting $3.46 billion of reconstruction money to security programmes, that is, the training and equipping of Iraqi police and national guard. Even Allawi’s deputy minister for public works, Kamil Chadirji, said "nobody believes this will benefit Iraq… For a year we have been talking with beautiful documents [waving a coloured brochure produced by US officials], but without a drop of water". (International Herald Tribune, 22 September)

Double act

IN A SYNCHRONISED double-act, Bush and Allawi presented a ludicrously rosy picture of the situation in Iraq to both the US Congress and the UN General Assembly. In Congress, where military commanders were paraded wearing all their medals, both received rapturous applause from the Republican majority. The right-wing media played up the claims of progress towards democracy being made in Iraq.

In contrast, Bush was heard in stony silence at the UN General Assembly. Never has a US administration been more divided from the majority of major capitalist powers. At the same time, Kofi Annan belatedly spelled out the obvious: that from the standpoint of the UN charter, the invasion of Iraq was ‘illegal’. Capitalist leaders around the world, however, are less concerned about legality than about the disastrous international repercussions of the Iraq conflict.

A series of official reports and media leaks in the past few weeks have destroyed the last shreds of the phoney justification used by Bush and Blair to launch the invasion.

Press reports of the draft report of Charles Duelfer, who replaced David Kay as the head of the Iraqi Survey Group, reveal that further investigation by the US arms inspectors have still found no evidence of programmes to make chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. In other words, it confirms the results of Kay’s initial findings. Duelfer told Congress in March that Iraq did have dual-use facilities capable of producing biological or chemical weapons. "But officials who have seen Mr Duelfer’s report say it describes no conclusive evidence that any effort was underway to use these facilities for weapons production". (New York Times, 17 September)

Even Bush’s nominee as new head of the CIA, Porter Goss, had to admit in Senate confirmation hearings that claims by Bush and his officials that Saddam possessed so-called WMD and was linked to al-Qa’ida "appeared to have gone beyond what was spelled out in intelligence reports at the time". (International Herald Tribune, 21 September) This follows the unanimous conclusion of the Senate Intelligence Committee in July, which described the CIA’s intelligence assessment as "unwarranted and unfounded".

Despite Bush’s rapturous applause in Congress, a number of senior Republican senators have begun to question publicly Bush’s assessments, saying that the US is in "deep trouble in Iraq" and denouncing the ‘incompetence’ of the administration. Referring to the diversion of reconstruction funds to security, senator Chuck Hagel, said "It’s beyond pitiful, it’s beyond embarrassment. It is now in the zone of dangerous". (International Herald Tribune, 17 September) Another Republican, John McCain, called for more "boots on the ground" in Iraq, demanding another 90,000 or more troops. The gloomy assessment of these senators was confirmed by media reports of the administration’s latest classified National Intelligence Estimate which, according to the New York Times, "lays out a dark view of security prospects for Iraq, including the possibility of civil war…" (17 September).

In Britain, Blair’s position has also been undermined by the sharpening conflict in Iraq. Countering the Bush-Blair claim that the occupation of Iraq is a necessary element of a ‘war against terrorism’, the British ambassador to Italy, Sir Ivor Roberts, bluntly spelled out the truth (in what he thought was an off-the-record meeting): "Bush is al-Qa’ida’s best recruiting sergeant".

At New Labour’s annual conference, Blair is trying to dismiss Iraq as a side issue – a ‘fringe issue’ in the same category as the banning of fox hunting, according to his minister, Peter Hain. Anger at the lies and deception used to take Britain to war with Iraq, however, are a major factor in the profound undermining of mass support for Blair. The desperate appeals of the kidnapped Ken Bigley and his distraught family have brought intense pressure on Blair. Bigley is only one of many hostages, it is true, but his personal plight, which affects people deeply, epitomises the catastrophic situation in Iraq and Blair’s responsibility in bringing it about.


UNBELIEVABLY, IN Washington Allawi, a loyal puppet trying to boost Bush’s election campaign, claimed that they could hold elections ‘tomorrow’ in 15 out of Iraq’s 18 provinces. This was contradicted, however, by the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. If stability in major cities is not established by January, he commented, Iraq could opt to go ahead with partial elections, perhaps "in three quarters or four fifths of the country". "So you have an election that’s not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election? You bet". (Washington Post, 24 September)

The Bush regime places great emphasis on elections as a means of legitimising the puppet interim regime and creating the impression that Iraq is progressing towards democracy. In reality, elections organised by the puppet government of an occupying power under conditions of mass insurgency will inevitably be fundamentally undemocratic.

Even from the point of view of the occupying powers attempting to co-opt a wider layer of Iraqi political leaders, however, the proposed elections, whether they take place in January or later, are unlikely to be successful. Partial elections, even if it were possible to go ahead with them, would inevitably exacerbate the conflict. If most of the population of the Sunni triangle are excluded from elections, or boycott rigged elections, the new national assembly will have no more legitimacy in their eyes than the current stooge interim assembly.

On the other hand, the Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, leader of the biggest section of Shia population, fears that postponement beyond January will give prolonged de facto power to the Allawi government. He is also raising the alarm about current attempts to stitch up the elections through a common ‘consensus’ or ‘unity’ list composed of the current collaborationist parties participating in the interim government and the present assembly.

The elections are supposed to take place on the basis of a party list system, and the current negotiations amongst the bigger parties are attempting to consolidate all of the candidates onto a single slate. A vote for the slate, in effect, would be rubber-stamping the authority of the current interim government.

"The goal is to have a united front", said Adil Abdul Mahdi, the Iraqi finance minister and a member of the Shia party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "We think it would be better for the unity of the country".

"Sistani’s underlying concern", comments the Financial Times (Editorial, 24 September), "is that the predominantly exile parties Washington has promoted in Iraq are already stitching up the results of the election by negotiating a share-out of seats and putting forward a joint, single slate of candidates. Such a pre-agreed national list, favouring well financed, US-allied expatriate politicians and excluding Sunni nationalists and Shia insurgents, would amount to a referendum rather than a contested election. It would lead to further alienation of internal Iraqi forces and almost certainly prolong and widen the insurgency". Al-Sistani warns that if such an arrangement results in the under-representation of the Shia population, which is around 60% of Iraq’s population, he will withdraw support from the elections.

The boycotting of the elections by a large section of Sunnis and/or the major Shia movements, led by al-Sistani and al-Sadr, would destroy the credibility of any elections, even if they took place.

Kofi Annan, the UN general secretary, has publicly expressed doubts over whether legitimate elections could be carried out under present conditions. There seems little possibility, moreover, of the UN supervising elections in January. There are currently only about 30 UN personnel in Iraq, following the evacuation after the attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad last August, which resulted in the death of over 20 people including the UN special representative De Mello. Appeals by Bush and Blair to Nato and other countries to provide a multinational UN protection force have so far produced no results.

Failed US strategy

US IMPERIALISM HAS failed to achieve any of its strategic aims in invading Iraq. Despite the ‘handover’ to the Allawi interim government, this is not a stable client regime capable of securing a long-term base for the US in the region. As in Vietnam, the US is trapped in a quagmire. The insurgency is growing, while US and other imperialist forces have less and less control of the country. Attempts to build up Iraqi police and national guard forces will not succeed in securing imperialist control.

"I see no exit", comments Jeffrey Record, professor of strategy at the US Air War College. "We’ve been down that road before. It’s called Vietnamisation. The idea that we are going to have an Iraqi force trained to defeat an enemy we can’t defeat stretches the imagination. They will be tainted by their very association with the foreign occupier. In fact, we had more time and money in state building in Vietnam than in Iraq". (Blumenthal, The Guardian, 16 September)

Nor has the US furthered its strategic aims in the region. Embroiled in Iraq, the US is in a weaker position vis-à-vis Iran. The Bush regime’s unconditional support for Ariel Sharon’s policies, moreover, has exacerbated the Israel-Palestine conflict. This further fuels anger towards US imperialism throughout the Arab and Muslim world. The idea of a ‘democratic transformation’ throughout the Middle East, envisaged by Condoleezza Rice and others before the war, is now universally derided as an absurd fantasy.

Far from effectively combating terrorism, as Bush and Blair claim, the occupation (even by Blair’s own admission) has turned Iraq into a ‘crucible’ for terrorist groups. The presence of relatively small numbers of foreign Islamic activists in Iraq has been seized on by Blair and others as evidence of the global threat posed by al-Qa’ida. Internationally, al-Qa’ida has now become a brand name for a variety of terrorist groups attempting to further various local religious and ethnic causes. According to the US State Department’s revised 2003 Patterns of Global Terrorism report, the number of significant terrorist attacks increased from 124 to 175 (41%) between 2001 and 2003.

All Bush’s efforts in the US have been dedicated to painting an optimistic, rosy picture of the situation in Iraq. His priority is to preserve the illusion of progress, at least until the presidential elections on 2 November. Very late in the day, John Kerry has finally gone on to the offensive against Bush on his disastrous policy in Iraq, calling it "a crisis of historic proportions". But Kerry’s previous wavering and lack of any plausible alternative may cost him the election. Whoever wins, US imperialism will still face a catastrophic situation in Iraq and a serious undermining of its power and prestige on the world arena.

Another retired US general, William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, comments: "This is far graver than Vietnam. There wasn’t as much at stake strategically, though in both cases we mindlessly went ahead with the war that was not constructive for US aims. But now we are in a region far more volatile, and we are in much worse shape with our allies". (Blumenthal, The Guardian, 16 September)

Moreover, according to Odom, the tension between the Bush administration (and especially Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Co in the Pentagon) and top military officers is even worse than during the Vietnam war. "I’ve never seen it so bad between the office of the secretary of defence and the military. There is a significant majority believing this is a disaster. The two parties whose interests have been advanced have been the Iranians and al-Qa’ida. Bin Laden could argue with some cogency that our going into Iraq was the equivalent of the Germans in Stalingrad. They defeated themselves by pouring more in there. Tragic".

"The proper response to difficulty", asserts Bush, "is not to retreat, it is to prevail". But US imperialism, whether under his leadership or Kerry’s, will not prevail. Despite US imperialism’s colossal military power, it will be forced to retreat.

The people of Iraq, however, are paying a heavy price for the Bush-Blair military adventure. The global repercussions of the conflict, moreover, will impact on workers everywhere. US, British and other imperialist forces should get out of Iraq now. The people of Iraq must be allowed to decide their own future.


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