Socialist View - Spring 2004

Iraq - imperialism's quagmire no exit in sight

The millions who took to the streets across the world last year against war on Iraq were attacked by George Dubya Bush and his poodle Blair as apologists for the brutal record of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Arguments that Saddam was an immediate threat, that he was linked to al-Qaeda and other arguments for going to war are now treated with derisory contempt. But it is events in Iraq which have proven that the millions who opposed the war were correct.

By Gary Mulcahy

No weapons of mass destruction have been found. David Kay, the neo-conservative CIA official picked by Bush to head the Iraq Survey Group to find WMDs, resigned his position after failing to find any evidence of WMDs. Kay said "I don't think they existed. What everyone was talking about is stockpiles produced after the end of the last Gulf War (1991) and I don't think there was a large-scale production programme in the 90s."

Even one of the most hawkish members of Bush's administration, Condoleeza Rice, is on record saying "I think that what we have is evidence that there are differences between what we knew going in and what we found on the ground". The Bush administration never believed Saddam had WMDs or believed that Saddam was a serious threat. The issue of WMDs was needed as a pretext for going to war. The real reasons for invading Iraq was to gain access to the great oil reserves of the country and to strengthen the influence of US imperialism in the region and across the world. However, all has not gone according to plan for US imperialism. The collapse of the Saddam regime and the occupation of Iraq has dragged US imperialism into a nightmarish situation.

The signing of a constitution for Iraq by the US-appointed and un-elected Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) has been heralded as a historic breakthrough in delivering democracy for the Iraqi people. Council President Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum called the event an "historic moment, decisive in the history of our glorious Iraqi people".

In reality this tentative agreement, by representatives of the various ethnic and religious elites, only papers over the real and deep cracks and differences which exist over the future governing of Iraq.

Since the signing of the constitution which had been delayed by the opposition of Shia delegates, Abdel Adel Mahdi of the Shia Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) announced that the Shias still had reservations and that the interim constitution could be amended "later on". Future amendments are likely to be met with opposition by the different members of the IGC.

Conflict escalating

In response to the Shia representatives announcing their intention to sign up to the constitution, at least 10 rockets were fired at the Baghdad Convention Centre, the Coalition headquarters, by Shia forces opposed to any US-imposed deals.

The deadly bomb attacks on Shias celebrating the Ashoura ceremony in Kerbala and Baghdad, leading to over 270 deaths and hundreds more injuries also show how efforts to throw together a transitional government can be ruined by an escalation of sectarian conflict.

It is impossible to say with any certainty who carried out these attacks. The US predictably blame al-Qaeda. But the US has continually blamed al-Qaeda for attacks in Iraq without providing any names or intelligence to link the group with many of the attacks.

In an article in the British daily paper the Independent (3 March 2004), journalist Robert Fisk asked if it is a mere coincidence that American fuelled talk about civil war preceded the attacks of Tuesday.

"I don't believe the Americans were behind yesterday's carnage...but I do worry about the Iraqi exile groups [groups like Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress] who think that their own actions might produce what the Americans want: a fear of civil war so intense that Iraqis will go along with any plans the United States produces for Mesopotamia".

Robert Fisk goes on to draw comparisons with the attempts of the French OAS, in Algeria in 1962, to set Algerian Muslims against Algerian Muslims by exploding bombs amongst France's Muslim Algerian community. Fisk also compares the carnage in Iraq with the 1974 'loyalist' bombings in Dublin and Monaghan, which have been linked to elements of the British state.

History has shown us the lengths to which imperialism is prepared go in order to maintain its power by dividing nations along religious and ethnic lines. But the atrocities in Baghdad and Kerbala also threatened to destroy the progress made in agreeing the new constitution.

The majority of Shias reacted angrily to the bombings by attacking the US occupying forces. This comes as little surprise given the reaction of US and other occupying troops to the bombings. As tanks and army vehicles approached the scenes of devastation, crowds began to confront the troops. The response of the US troops was to shoot at the crowds and retreat. These latest developments are just a flavour of the nightmare scenario opening up for imperialism in Iraq.

It is estimated that over 10,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in 2003 during the war. Over 500 US troops have been killed since the invasion began, over half of them being killed after Bush declared the war to be over on 1 May. Estimates on the number of US soldiers, sailors and Marines evacuated from Iraq by the end of 2003 because of battlefield wounds, illness or other reasons, range from 11,000 to 22,000, a staggering figure.

In recent months the resistance against the occupation has intensified. According to the USAid (the US aid agency) report January national review of Iraq, " January has the highest rate of violence since September 2003". It went on to say that high-intensity attacks involving mortars and explosives grew 103% from 316 in December to 642 in January; non-life threatening attacks, including drive-by shootings and rock-throwing, soared by 186% from 182 in December. It also recorded an average of eight attacks a day in Baghdad alone, up from four a day in September, and a total of 11 attacks on coalition aircraft.

The US dominated Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is attempting to create an Iraqi police and army to try and establish some credible structure in order to pull troops out and control Iraq politically and economically rather than directly militarily. But the new police force is being targeted as collaborating with the occupiers. So far more than 300 have been killed in attacks. In the space of two days over 100 were killed. In Iskandariya a suicide car bombing killed around 53 recruits to the Iraqi police, followed by a similar attack the next day in Baghdad resulting in 46 deaths. The US has so far attempted to blame the resistance on outside 'terrorists', trying to link the attacks to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian for whom they are now offering a $10m bounty. This is a desperate effort to turn the Iraqi people against the resistance. But the resistance is mainly coming from Iraqis. Not only that, but the resistance against occupation troops is gaining support. A standard quotient among 'counter insurgency' experts is that for every 100 active insurgents fielded, there must be 1,000 to 10,000 active supporters in the local population. Even victims of the attacks on the police force have blamed the Americans. One wounded Iraqi told reporters from his hospital bed in Baghdad "I hate the Americans. I hate them. They did nothing to protect us. They don't protect Muslims."

The occupation is also being undermined by the difficulties in establishing a transitional governing authority which would be compliant with US imperialism. The US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) has no real authority in the country and is seen as a puppet for US interests. Last November, plans were made for tribal and religious leaders to be picked by the IGC throughout Iraq, which would then later appoint a Provisional Government. But these plans have now been shelved.

Direct elections

The call for direct elections by the most prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in January triggered mass demonstrations by Shias. 100,000 from all over central Iraq marched cheering - "Yes, yes, to Sistani; Yes, yes, to Islam; No, no, to America!"

Sistani walked away from IGC meetings under pressure from the Shia demands for an end to the occupation and for direct elections. Being the largest ethnic grouping within Iraq, Shia candidates would win a majority in direct elections. Fearful of Shia dominance, Sunnis, Christian and other minority groups are opposed to direct elections.

Sistani is also under pressure from other groups within the Shia population.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric whose father was killed by Saddam's regime and who leads Jamaat al-Sadr al-Thani, has built a significant base in Najaf and Baghdad. Sadr has managed to mobilise tens of thousands of followers against the occupation. In a recent sermon, held in the nearby mosque of Kufa, he urged volunteers to come forward and join an Islamic army. He called it the "army of al-Mahdi", the so-called "hidden imam" who disappeared in AD874, where the former 'Saddam City' quarter has been renamed 'Sadr City'.

There are also other groups based on the Shia population like the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) all competing for power. All of these Shia based groups are promoting various forms of reactionary Islamic fundamentalism to one degree or another. While proclaiming to stand for democracy, they are at the same time implementing Sharia-type law in their own areas. The election of a Shia-majority could also represent a potential threat to imperialism's interests.

In the north, 1.7 million Kurds have signed a petition demanding a referendum on whether their zone should remain part of a federal Iraq or declare independence, both of which are opposed by the US. The oil-rich north is a key part of imperialisms plans for Iraq. Ethnic clashes are also taking place between Iraqi Arabs, the Turcomen and the Kurds over control of the oil-fields.

There is already tension between Arabs and Kurds in the North because of the repression of the Kurdish people under Saddam, and the conscious policy of Arab-isation of Kurdish areas. Attempts to appease the different Kurdish forces, who have achieved semi-autonomous status in the North, will be carefully watched by neighbouring Turkey, who are vehemently opposed to any moves towards independence of the Kurds. Independence would threaten moves towards the break-up of Turkey, which has a considerable oppressed Kurdish population.

Because of the pressure of mass demonstrations and Iraqi resistance and the increasing dissatisfaction in the US, Bush may concede some form of elections to take place this year. But, it will still be necessary for Bush to maintain a significant US/Coalition military presence. There are currently 145,000 US troops in Iraq and Bush hopes to reduce this figure down to 105,000. Already, US troops are stretched and have been forced to reduce the amount of patrols on the streets. Increasingly, the bulk of US troops are involved in merely protecting their bases and oilfields, while the suburbs and districts are being controlled by warlords and different ethnic/religious groups.

After attacking the UN in the lead-up to war, Bush has now approached the UN to play a role in establishing a pro-Western Iraqi regime. Bush hopes that the involvement of the UN would cut across demands for direct elections and gain broader support amongst the population. But the UN is far from enthusiastic to enter this political and military minefield. UN Secretary General, Koffi Annan, has already made it clear that the UN would not be in favour of full elections before 30 June. The UN can play no progressive role in Iraq. In the last analysis, the UN is another tool for the major imperialist powers. And the people of Iraq have not forgotten the economic sanctions dictated by the US which the UN enforced on Iraq for twelve years.

Economic disaster

The effects of the war and occupation have been devastating for Iraqi workers and poor. An estimated ten million (70%) Iraqis are unemployed. Infrastructure is in ruins. Hospitals are left without adequate electrical supplies. At Baghdad's Central Teaching Hospital for Children, gallons of raw sewage wash across the floors. The drinking water is contaminated. According to doctors, 80% of patients leave with infections they did not have when they arrived.

While the Iraqi people are forced to endure these conditions, US multi-nationals are being awarded lucrative contracts. Companies like Halliburton (who still pay US Vice-President Dick Cheney, ex-chief executive of Halliburton, $150,000 a year in deferred compensation), which is being investigated by Congress for overcharging the supply of oil to Iraq from Kuwait, are receiving billions of dollars in reconstruction contracts.

Likewise, Bush is coming under criticism at home for failing to deal with the economy. George Soros, the billionaire capitalist who has spoken out against the Bush administration's policy on Iraq, has stated that the cost of the occupation is estimated at $160 billion for the fiscal years 2003-2004. Of the $87 billion supplemental request in 2004, only $20 billion is for reconstruction, but the total cost of reconstruction is $60 billion.

A Time-CNN poll taken in February showed support for Bush fall dramatically. Asked if the Bush administration has a clear plan for handling the situation in Iraq, 59% said no. 45% approved of Bush's dealings on the economy. 52% approve of his handling of foreign policy (down from 68%). 51% approved of Bush's handling of Iraq, down from 76% last April. The number who say the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over has dropped from 63% in August to 58%. 51% are opposed to Congress authorising the additional $87 billion Bush requested for Iraq and the war on terrorism.

Iraq has also seriously weakened Blair. On the back of Labour MP backbench revolts on tuition fees and foundation hospitals, Blair is still haunted by the decision to go to war. The Hutton Enquiry was discredited universally as a whitewash. The dropping of the case against former Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) employee Katharine Gunn by the Attorney General for leaking US spies' request for British help to bug UN delegates ahead of the Iraq invasion, was a political decision to avoid producing evidence on advice given to the Government on the legality of going to war with Iraq.

Clare Short's revelation that the British and American governments were spying on Kofi Annan's office in the run-up to the war has further discredited Blair. For the Labour Party, Blair is damaged goods. It is possible that he may be replaced before the next election.

As the resistance against occupation in Iraq intensifies, a movement of a harder character than last year's anti-war movement can develop against the occupation.

Anti-war movement

The historic anti-war movement which swept the world last year, was able to bring together broad layers of society into political struggle. However, mistakes were made during that movement which limited the impact that could have been made.

The orientation of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain for example, whose leadership was heavily influenced by the Socialist Workers Party, was to appeal to capitalist parties like the Liberal Democrats and rebel Labour and Tory MP's. By promoting Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy on platforms to speak to mass demonstrations, the STWC sowed illusions in the right-wing parties. As soon as the war began, these 'progressives' predictably announced their support for the war and continue to support the occupation to this day.

Instead, the Socialist Party and our sister organisations in the Committee for a Workers International, argued that the anti-war movement needed to orientate, not to the right-wing politicians, but to the working class. The ability of the organised working class to shutdown the system by withdrawing their labour is the most effective way of resisting imperialist war. The union leaders were compelled to speak out and march against the war. But the right-wing leaders never had any intention of taking industrial action to stop the war.

By appealing to workers to take strike action using slogans like "money for wages and services, not for war" support amongst the ranks of the unions could have exerted pressure on the union leaders.

Socialist Youth, the Socialist Party's youth wing, played a central role in launching Youth Against the War which led the mass walk-outs of schools on 5 March last year. In the South, schools in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and many other towns saw students take part in walk-outs. Across Northern Ireland, over 15,000 school students took strike action against the war. In many instances, Socialist Youth and Youth Against the War organisers in their schools were physically confronted by school authorities. Hundreds of school students were locked in, an act which broke health and safety laws. The walk-outs were front page headline news. Youth Against the War won support from the INTO, the teachers union and the Fire Brigades Union for their right to protest, but many figures attacked school students for taking part in walk-outs. The Irish News carried an editorial, nervous of the support the walk-outs were receiving, saying protests should be held on weekends and walk-outs were wrong. Even former Northern Ireland Assembly Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness, came out opposing the walk-outs. But the determination and anger of school students against the war and at the attempts to deny them their right to protest brought thousands out in protests and city centre rallies on 5 March and Day X, the day war began.

A new generation is being radicalised by the war and occupation of Iraq. The war was correctly seen as a war for oil and profit by the major multi-nationals, and many have drawn anti-capitalist conclusions. They are being exposed to the true nature of capitalism. But an alternative to capitalism has to be presented.

Socialist alternative

The only way out of the hell created in Iraq by imperialism is the development of a workers' movement. Such a movement would have to put the end of the occupation to the top of its agenda, while also campaigning for full democratic rights, decent jobs for all, self-determination for oppressed nations with guaranteed rights for all ethnic and religious minorities. This would have to be linked with the need public ownership of Iraq's resources under democratic workers' control to draw up a socialist plan of production.

Only on this basis can the trend towards civil war be cut across and the struggle against imperialist aggression be fought. Internationally, there has never been such a need for a socialist alternative. Socialism would mean instead of profit as motive, peoples and the environment's needs would come first. Arms spending alone accounts for $1 trillion worldwide each year since the end of the cold war - a fraction of this could be used to wipe out malnutrition. Under socialism, the huge resources wasted under capitalism would be used to tackle the needs of humanity and would consign wars to the dustbin of history.

The Contents Page for this issue of Socialist View
Other material on the Iraq War