Iraq: CWI comment and analysis – Imperialist invasion of Iraq meets widespread resistance

Stop the war in Iraq. cwi comment and analysis.

Imperialist invasion of Iraq meets widespread resistance

  • End the war on Iraq
  • US, British and Australian troops out of Iraq and the Gulf
  • Workers’ action to stop all supplies to the invading forces
  • Organise Strike Action
  • Turkish troops out of northern Iraq
  • Let the Iraqi and Kurdish peoples decide their own future

The first days of war have seen the original battle plans of US and British imperialism – for a short sharp conflict – suffer a serious setback even by their own yardstick. Bush and Blair’s strategy has fallen apart at the first real engagement. They launched their assault believing that this would be a short war. They thought that a combination of massive technical and military superiority and, basing themselves on what some Iraqi exiles told them, popular hostility to Saddam would result in the US and British troops being welcomed as liberators. 

But this has not yet occurred and, as an analyst on TF1, France’s biggest TV station, commented on 24 March: "The scenario of a regime as a clan that is cut off from its people is just not happening". The Financial Times Deutschland wrote: "The Iraqi population are obstinately fighting against ‘liberation’ from Saddam" (25 March). Just a week after the attack began, the Pentagon has been forced to change tactics and is rushing 30,000 reinforcements from the US to join the fighting.

This war is being fought against the background of massive popular opposition around the world and sharp division between the main powers. These factors have played an important role in how the war has been fought up until now. The original plans for the US’ "Shock and Awe" bombing campaign have, so far, been scaled down from what was originally threatened. Partly this was due to the fear of provoking even wider worldwide opposition, including within Britain and the US. Furthermore carpet-bombing is not a "war of liberation" and would only deepen Iraqi opposition to the invasion.

But the war is not going to Washington and London’s plan. Apparently learning a lesson from the 1991 Gulf war, the Iraqi army has so far avoided large scale fighting in the desert where they would be exposed to US and British air power. Instead they have sought to engage the invading forces in urban areas where high technology weapons do not have such an advantage.

Stubborn Iraqi resistance

Already the US and British have been stung by the extent of resistance in small towns like Umm Qasr and fear that their 480 kilometre-long supply lines from Kuwait to front line units are vulnerable to ambush. The pre-war arguments within the US military establishment have resurfaced as US Defence Secretary Rumsfeld is again being criticised by some former senior officers for his over-reliance on air power and failure to involve more heavily armoured infantry units in the attack.

However, it is not just the use of different tactics by the Iraqi military that has created this situation. Fundamentally the political assumptions upon which Bush and Blair based their policies are being shown to be false. The US and British leaders are guilty of the biggest mistake in war of believing their own propaganda. They thought that their own fine words about "liberation" from Saddam’s rule, plus Bush cynically announcing a vague "road map" for Palestine, would ensure them popular support among the Iraqi people and acquiescence in the Middle East.

Bush and Blair dismissed any notion that the ideas of Iraqi nationalism, anti-imperialism and Islam would fuel deep opposition to this invasion led by what are seen as two fundamentalist Christian leaders. But Washington’s unflinching support for Sharon’s brutal daily repression of Palestinians, all the discussion about who would control Iraq’s oil and even the granting of the profitable post-war reconstruction contracts to US companies all merely served to confirm to Iraqis the imperialist character of this war. Furthermore the General named by Bush to be co-ordinator for civilian administration in a defeated Iraq, Jay Garner, has links with the right wing Jewish Institute for National Security affairs. The Bush administration also did not see that the Turkish people’s deep hostility to imperialism would also undermine their plan to use Turkey as a staging post for a northern advance into Iraq.

The reality now is that report after report speaks of US soldiers being shocked and surprised at being drawn into street fighting in the few towns and villages they have so far sought to enter. Speaking of the resistance put up by the young Iraqi paramilitary units, the New York Times quoted one top US officer saying: "We did not expect them to attack" (26 March). Another US officer said: "We did not put much credence in their abilities".

The ordinary US soldiers are paying the price of their political commanders’ arrogance and imperial ambitions. As US casualties mount increasing numbers will draw the comparison with Bush and vice-president Cheney who planned this war for years but in the past, both made sure they avoided being sent to fight in the Vietnam War.

The US has been claiming victories that did not occur. Rumsfeld declared on 21 March that Umm Qasr was "taken" yet the fighting continued for four more days and even now it is only safe for the US-led invaders during daylight. One US Marine officer complained, "The fighting has got worse each day. So much for the walkover we were told to expect" (Times, London, 24 March). This was in a small town of only 4,000 inhabitants, the size of an average housing scheme in Europe. The continual fighting in much larger Nasiriyah, a city of 400,000, where the US appears to control two bridges arose the Euphrates, is a warning of what battles in Basra and Baghdad could mean. Again the US forces were, "Taken aback by the ferocity of the Iraqi defence of the city" (Guardian, London, 25 March) especially because they expected to be welcomed by its majority Shia Muslim population.

One thing is clear, not once in the first week of fighting have the US or British governments dared to claim that the Iraqi people are welcoming them. On the contrary, every report from within Iraq speaks of the deep hostility towards Bush in particular.

The course of the fighting is already brutalising young US soldiers. One journalist reported how US Marines, "Reacted to ragged sniping with an aggressive series of house searches and arrests" – a sure way to win the gratitude of the population! Fearful of attacks, US and British soldiers are now shooting Iraqis who simply look suspicious. US General Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme commander, has written about the need, "To control the civilian population in the areas we have occupied", because, "Among the population will be Iraqi agents" (Times, London 25 March). The mere fact that Clark uses the term "Iraqi agents", not even "Saddam’s agents", is an indication of how the entire Iraqi people are increasingly being seen as potential enemies of the US and British forces.

The events around Basra, Iraq’s second largest city with a population of around 1.5 million have exposed the false assumptions in the US and British governments’ plan. Their scheme was based on being welcomed by its mainly Shia population, but that has not happened so far. Originally, as the New York Times reported on 18 March, "Military and allied officials familiar with the planning of the upcoming campaign say they hope that a successful and ’benign’ occupation of Basra that results in flag-waving crowds hugging British and American soldiers will create an immediate and positive image worldwide, while also undermining Iraqi resistance elsewhere."

Civilian casualties

One result of the absence of "flag-waving crowds" was that the US and Britain have bombed and shelled parts of Basra. On March 22 alone, using cluster bombs amongst other munitions, they killed over 50 civilians in the city. Such tactics only strengthen the distrust of the "liberators". The Arabic TV channel, al-Jazeera, had a team working in the city and it sent back graphic pictures of dead and wounded civilians. These were widely shown, to great effect, throughout the Arab world, and stiffened the opposition to the US-led invasion, as have the subsequent pictures of the wrecked Al Shaab market in north Baghdad. There has been hard fighting around Basra; in one incident around the city British troops were forced to retreat 15 kilometres.

Early on 25 March, local British military commanders said the status of Basra had changed and, instead of being under "benign occupation", the city was now a military objective, giving the propaganda spin that this was, "In order to get humanitarian aid through". But what does this mean? Traditionally, there are three main methods of militarily attacking a city: direct assault involving house-to-house street fighting, artillery and air bombardment – as launched by the Israelis in Beirut and the Russians in the Chechen capital Grozny – or by laying siege to the city.

However, the civilian causalities and suffering implicit in all three of these options do not fit in with the so-called "war of liberation" on behalf of the Iraqi people supposedly being conducted by Bush and Blair. In a situation where already there is rising fury within the Arab world and worldwide opposition to the war, the employment of any of these tactics in Basra, Baghdad or other Iraqi cities would provoke a dramatic increase in international anger and could provoke "regime change" in Arab countries.

On 25 March, the US and British commanders started to report an "uprising" beginning in Basra, however steadily the scale of this was downgraded. On the next day British Defence Minister Hoon had to admit that the situation was "unclear", while al-Jazeera reported that the city was quiet and showed pictures of people calmly queuing for water. By 27 March the Financial Times was reporting "Basra ‘uprising’ evaporates". As is always said, one of the first casualties of war is truth. We are also witnessing a stream of propaganda and "psyops" from both sides. It is entirely possible that the British and US were speaking of a rebellion as a pretext to assault the city.

But even if a revolt took place in Basra, it would not automatically follow that the same thing will develop in Baghdad. Nor would a Basra uprising against Saddam mean that the US and British armies would automatically be welcome. Even if the US and British troops were suddenly greeted as liberators by some Iraqis, who long who that last? When the British army was first deployed in Northern Ireland, and when the Israelis first entered south Lebanon, they were both welcomed by many sections of the local population. But rapidly these forces came into bitter conflict with the very communities that had first greeted them.

Already on 25 March, Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, a leader of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main Shia groups which have been working with the US and Britain, issued a warning that: "Coalition forces are welcome in Iraq as long as they help the Iraqi people get rid of Saddam’s dictatorship, but Iraqis will resist if they seek to occupy or colonise our country". However, Baqir al-Hakim is deluded in welcoming US troops and hoping they will quickly leave. The very next day Colin Powell made clear the US’s plans for Iraq when he told the US Congress: "We didn’t take on this huge burden … not to be able to have significant, dominating control over how it unfolds in the future." This is a formula for colonial rule and most of those Iraqis who misguidedly welcome the US-led invaders will start to oppose them as the imperialist character of their occupation becomes clear.

The US and British initial battle plan involved a combination of the fast, independent armoured advances and air assaults which were supposed to cause Iraqi resistance to collapse. Partly this was based upon the strategies developed by the British and German officers, Liddel Hart and Guderian, before the Second World War – ideas which were the basis for the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg strategy between 1939 and 1942. However, behind the Nazi Panzer divisions were large numbers of infantry. But currently, the US and Britain have only 100,000 troops either in Iraq or in the region ready to move in.

Rumsfeld evidently thought that the Saddam regime was so isolated that the war would be over in a matter of days, and overruled those US generals who wanted a larger military force. Only weeks before the invasion, the US army chief of staff, General Sinseki, told the US Congress that 200,000 ground troops were needed. The original strategy of the Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld gang relied on air power and mobile forces, with relatively fewer numbers of infantry. In reality, the Bush administration believed their propaganda that one push would bring down the Iraqi regime. That was the reason for the "decapitation" attempt at the outset of this war.

Now the US army especially finds itself in a potentially dangerous situation and is having to rush in reinforcements. The rapid advance of a spearhead through the desert has created a 480-kilometre supply chain. Leaving aside any rotation of fighting units this armoured force has huge logistical requirements. For example it needs 500,000 gallons of fuel a day. But much of this supply chain is largely unprotected, vulnerable to attack by Iraqi units that have been bypassed and the US military fears that it does not have enough troops to guard their supply lines.

The US and British invaders completely underestimated the Iraqi people’s hostility to imperialism which has led to the common, correct, belief that this war as a struggle against re-colonisation and to defend national independence. It is the belief, on the Iraqi side, that this war is against foreign enslavers that has spurred on the resistance. The bombing campaign, and now the British artillery bombardment of Basra, is not winning the support of the Iraqi masses. The stridently pro-war Wall Street Journal wrote that, "Far from being hailed as liberators, US and British forces in southern Iraq have faced deep hostility and gunfire from residents desperate for food and water, and upset about the invasion… The initial muted welcome is turning to open hostility as civilian casualties keep rising. ‘How can we be happy? They are killing our people here’, said farmer Majid Simsim. ‘We want our country to be independent again and the Americans to leave.’" (24 March)

Again and again reporters have come across Iraqis who have no time whatsoever for Saddam’s regime and who want to fight the invaders. The Financial Times reported, "Soldiers are not being welcomed as liberators but often are confronted with hatred", (March 25). It is not a question of support for Saddam’s regime. Countless reporters quote Iraqis saying, "Our country comes first", and, "I’m not fighting for Saddam, I’m fighting for Iraq".

The pro-war Evening Standard newspaper in London reported one Iraqi collecting $400 for his journey home from Jordan, the fare used to be $8. This Iraqi declared "I’m going back to defend my family and my land against the Americans and British. I can’t understand why the Americans thought we would welcome them and throw flowers at them. They are invaders. We will never surrender to them. I am a Shia Muslim – not a Sunni like Saddam – and they thought we would fight against the Sunnis. But we are not. We are uniting to fight a common enemy" (25 March). This is the motivation for the Iraqis currently trying to return home from other countries in order to join the battle. In the first week of war over 5,200 Iraqis crossed the Jordanian/Iraqi land border on their way back into Iraq. And other Arabs looking to fight the invaders are joining them.

Deep-rooted hostility to imperialism

This hostility towards imperialism has deep roots. Firstly it is directed against British imperialism, which, from the end of the First World War, tried to dominate the area and installed a king who had nothing to do with Iraq, but who was out of work after the French imperialists had ousted him as a short-lived King of Syria! When in 1920 the Iraqi people rose in rebellion, the British air force invented the idea of punishment bombings of rebel areas and the British commander, General Haldane, called for poison gas to be used against civilian areas – another new idea. It was only in 1958, as radical Arab nationalism was sweeping the Middle East, that the British-backed puppet regime was finally removed.

Today the Arab masses as a whole see US imperialism as their main oppressor – supporting the Israeli government’s oppression and occupation of Palestinian land, being responsible for the years of sanctions against Iraq, backing the corrupt semi-feudal Arab elites which dominate the region, and exploiting the Middle East’s oil. The mere fact that Iraq has now held out longer in its battle with the US, the world’s hyper-power, than three Arab states which together fought Israel in 1967 has produced an immense sense of pride amongst the Arab masses who have become used to repeated betrayals by corrupt Arab leaders.

This "war for oil" is seen very concretely in the Middle East as a war to allow the US to control the region’s main natural resource directly by occupying Iraq and indirectly by bolstering its support for rotten feudal elites ruling Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. It is not accidental that the Saudi regime is keeping secret the fact that the bombing campaign is being directed from a US base within Saudi Arabia. An Arab diplomat told the New York Times, "If people knew that, they’d be in the streets" (25 March). Similarly in Jordan King Abdullah is desperately trying to hide the fact that US troops are using the country as a base to attack targets in western Iraq.

The declarations of Bush and Blair that this war is for liberation are viewed, at the very least, with deep scepticism. The years of US and British imperialism’s support for and arming of Saddam’s dictatorship, up until the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, are not forgotten. Nor is the fact that these powers allowed the 1991 uprising to be crushed. It is clear that US and British imperialism wish to keep intact as much of the Iraqi power structure as they can. In reality they want ’Saddamism’ without Saddam. The imperialists fear mass movements of the working class people because they can develop into challenges to capitalism and imperialism’s exploitation of the region. This is why Bush plans military rule for a whole period after a battlefield victory, there will be no support for popular uprisings against the US and any stooges it puts in office.

Bush and Blair will promise all things to gain support in the war. What happens afterwards is a different question. The Kurdish leaders collaborating with the imperialists are preparing the way for yet another defeat of the Kurdish people’s national aspirations. Bush and Blair will not allow the Kurdish people to freely decide their own future.

Saddam’s strategy was firstly to politically base the defence against an invasion upon Iraqi nationalist and religious opposition to the foreign invader and to draw the US and British armies into urban warfare where their air power is more difficult to use. Indeed US and British aerial bombardment could actually complicate urban fighting by enraging the local population and providing more difficult fighting terrain.

Saddam aims for a lengthy conflict in and around the urban areas that will fuel international pressure, particularly within the Arab world, on both the US and Britain for some kind of compromise. In such a situation of drawn-out fighting, or even some kind of stalemate, there would be mounting questions and opposition to the war in both the US and British as casualties increase. However even the future of the Bush administration is at stake in this conflict. In the administrations’ own words, they are determined to "prevail" and secure the removal of Saddam. The prestige of US and British imperialism is at stake in this war and, like a wounded beast, they can retaliate to initial military setbacks by setting aside restraints and launching a ferocious bombing and ground campaign.

Only revolutionary upheavals in other Arab countries and international action by the working class could force an end to this war. Such a development would be a devastating defeat for US and British imperialism, and they will strive might and main to avoid it. But military victory, in the sense of occupying Baghdad, will come at an enormous price economically and in the repercussions internationally, especially throughout Arab and Muslim countries.

Bush has placed his future on the line and desperately needs a victory. But nevertheless, he still faces a dilemma inside the US. Despite the impact of 11 September, the Vietnam syndrome has not been completely broken within the US. This is the reason for the US military’s desperate attempt to minimise their own casualties. Some US officers, like retired General McCaffrey, head of an infantry division in the 1991 Gulf War, argue that the US must be prepared to take at least between 2,000 to 3,000 casualties in a battle for Nasiriyah alone. "If the Iraqis actually fight, clearly it’s going to be brutal, dangerous work", he says. Large numbers of dead and injured would inevitably increase opposition in the United States to Bush’s premeditated attack on Iraq. In the rest of the world, particularly the Middle East, there would be a furious reaction to the civilian suffering that street battles in Baghdad would entail.

A sudden collapse of Iraqi resistance in the face of savage attacks, although now not the most likely perspective, cannot be ruled out. The US is still desperately attempting to encourage an internal coup to remove Saddam. There are reports of the US army starting to try to bribe tribesmen – a tactic they extensively used in Afghanistan. However Iraq is not Afghanistan and the Saddam regime has spent much time consolidating support amongst the tribes.

It cannot be ruled out that the war will continue for a longer time, with sieges of cities and urban fighting. But even if the US and Britain secure control of Iraq’s cities and oil fields, this would not mean an end to resistance. After a period of time, there is the probability that increasing resentment at and resistance to foreign rule will express itself both in mass protests and guerrilla attacks in the cities and the countryside. Already the Financial Times has warned: "It is not clear…whether ordinary Iraqis are happy to be invaded, however much they hate Mr. Hussein. It is even less certain how they will react to being occupied" (25 March).

The anger outside Iraq in the rest of the Middle East is rapidly growing and a longer war will stoke the anger among Arabs. Such a development would open the way for a strengthening of opposition to the pro-imperialist Arab regimes.

Huge global anti-war protests

The outbreak of war was met with huge protests in a large number of countries around the world, including hundreds of thousands demonstrating in the US and Britain. In both London and New York up to 500,000 marched on March 22, in New York this protest was larger than the previous one on February 15. Workers in Italy, Greece and Spain took protest strike action as did school and college students in many countries around the world. It is very significant that these protests have taken place both in countries with and without large Muslim populations.

Currently in both the US and Britain the opinion polls show an increase in support for the war. In Britain, and to a lesser extent the US, this reflects patriotic support for the troops and a feeling that now the war has started it should be finished quickly. Obviously an important factor within the US is the aftermath of 11 September, particularly because a lengthy propaganda campaign has succeeded in erroneously convincing many in the US that Iraq was involved in that attack. But the support for this war remains shallow, particularly in Britain. Clearly the war on Iraq increases the chances of more terrorist attacks on the US, Britain, Australia and other countries. These could increase support for the war, although in Australia, after the Bali bombing, many blamed the pro-Bush policies of the Howard government for provoking it.

In the US and Britain there are large minorities, particularly amongst young people, that oppose the war. The development of events will strengthen the opposition. A lengthy war will mean continually mounting numbers of dead. This will undermine the support for a war, as will the huge financial cost. Already Bush has presented a bill for an extra $74.7 billion. This includes $62.6 billion for the war and military, but only $2.4 billion for humanitarian relief and reconstruction. This imbalance is a sure way of showing the Iraqi people that they are Bush’s first priority! But this is totally consistent. When the US federal budget for this year was first published it was discovered that the Bush administration had forgotten to include any provision for aid to Afghanistan!

A quick overthrow of Saddam would produce a sense of relief, rather than lasting celebration, within both the US and Britain. This could, for a short time, boost Bush and Blair. But a continuing guerrilla conflict in Iraq and the longer-term destabilisation of the Middle East, along with the mounting domestic economic and social problems, will undermine this.

Within the Middle East, socialists fight to support Iraq’s struggle against this imperialist invasion and to defend the Iraqi people. But this is without any illusions in, or support for, the Saddam regime. The CWI argues that only rule by the workers and poor peasants of the region can defend democratic rights and break imperialist domination by carrying through socialist policies, through the creation of a democratic, voluntary and socialist confederation of Middle eastern states.

The international workers’ movement has a responsibility to mobilise for action now to stop this war. Thousands are being killed and injured by this imperialist war. Decisive action now could have a big effect. Bush and Blair’s propaganda needs to be answered, showing how US and British imperialism supported Saddam until he "stepped out of line" in 1990 and invaded Kuwait. Bush and Blair’s pious talk about democracy and liberation can be revealed to be nothing more than a democratic gloss on plans to demonstrate the dominating might of the US imperialist hyper-power and to secure control over Iraq’s oil reserves.

Action in countries without military forces involved in invading Iraq could have an impact in the US, Britain, Australia and Turkey if the anti-war protests were linked to direct appeals to workers in those countries. Such appeals to workers would have to answer the pro-war propaganda of Bush, Blair and Co., and urge them to take action to stop the war.

Such action could also show to working people in the Middle East that the workers’ movement can offer a real alternative – a socialist alternative – to the crisis that grips their region. Without such an alternative there is every likelihood that this imperialist attack will strengthen Islamic fundamentalism and encourage revenge terrorist attacks.

Action is urgently required now. The school students and students who have been protesting against the war can play a crucial role in building these wider movements.

The trade union and political leaders who verbally declare themselves against this war have the responsibility to act and to immediately initiate industrial action as a prelude to general strikes against the war. At the same time, rank and file activists must take every initiative to build protests that can be examples for others to follow.

CWI members and supporters around the world have already played an important role in the mobilisations in a number of countries. We will continue to do so in the struggle against this imperialist war and simultaneously strive to build a socialist movement against the capitalist system that produces war, oppression and poverty.

CWI International Secretariat, London

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March 2003