Iraq: Worldwide protests demand: End Occupation Now!

While these demonstrations may be smaller than the monster worldwide anti-war protests of millions held in mid-February, they will represent the continuing opposition, not only to invasion of Iraq, but also to Bush and Blair’s imperialist and militarist policies.

International demonstrations on February 27, in around 40 countries, will see hundreds of thousands protesting against the continuing occupation of Iraq by foreign imperialist armies. Robert Bechert, from the CWI, looks at the catastrophic situation in Iraq today. cwi online

Worldwide protests demand: End Occupation Now!

Across the world hundreds of millions see that Bush and Blair’s war on Iraq was nothing to do with their so-called “war on terror”, but an assault to secure control over Iraq’s oil wealth and to give a demonstration of US imperialism’s military power.

Today, the US army’s “shoot first, ask questions later” tactics towards Iraqi civilians speaks volumes about the hostility their presence is creating amongst increasing numbers of Iraqis. The US forces are so nervous that they regularly mistakenly attack their own allies, as they did recently when US soldiers shot up an Italian diplomat’s car, killing his interpreter. It is not accidental that the US military does not keep a count of the numbers of Iraqi civilians they have killed or injured. But, according to the journalist Robert Fisk, some 10,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in the chaos of the occupation.

The disaster of occupation

Five months since the fall, in mid-April, of Tikrit, the last major city to be captured by the US or British troops, have seen the victory speeches of Bush, Blair and co. turn into dust in their mouths. Leading US neo-conservative Wolfowitz lamely said, “some important assumptions turned out to underestimate the problem” (Financial Times 24/7/03), while going on to pretend that, “killings-for-hire” were “the principle tactic” of the forces still attacking the US army.

Today there are no more victory speeches from Bush and co, or predictions of the rapid introduction of a “pax Americana” throughout the Middle East. On the contrary the US administration now talks about a long haul. Asked about a timetable for Iraq, US Vice-President Chaney, recently told NBC TV, “How long does it take? I don’t know. I can’t say. I don’t think anybody can say with absolute certainly”.

The neo-conservatives’ hopes of being welcomed as liberators and thanked for introducing the Iraqi people to the joys of neo-liberalism have vanished. Bremer, the US pro-consul running Iraq, complained this week, “the reality of foreign troops on the streets is starting to chafe. Some Iraqis are beginning to see us as occupiers and not liberators.”

Bush’s highly orchestrated “Top Gun” moment, on May 1, when he declared that major combat “was over” is now widely seen, within the US, as an electioneering stunt. Since then there has not been a let up in attacks on the occupation forces, indeed assaults have been become more sophisticated and are spreading to Shia areas from the Sunni heartland in central Iraq. Significantly, the US military command is attempting to conceal its real level of causalities. For example, fatalities are only announced to the press if they occur on the day of an attack, not if an soldier dies later as a result of his or her injuries.

US military stretched

Despite the occupation powers’ propaganda there are regular reports of the poverty and chaos that Iraq has been plunged into. The Iraqi people are suffering terribly, whether it is from the lack of basic services, the extreme mid-year heat, mass unemployment, the huge amount of discarded munitions, especially cluster bombs, or at the hands of the occupying forces.

Neither Bush nor Blair has been able to enjoy the glow of victory. For Blair it hardly existed at all and for Bush the almost daily bad news out of Iraq, combined with the US’s own economic crisis, has undermined his support and made his re-election next year more difficult.

Within the US armed forces, and amongst military families, there are increasing fears about serving in Iraq and questioning about why the US forces are there, particularly as it has becoming obvious that events are not going to plan.

Original Pentagon plans saw troop levels falling to 30,000 to 60,000 by July. But currently there are at least 130,000 in Iraq and 40,000 in Kuwait. Of these 20,000 are part of 170,500 US reservists or National Guard members who have been called up and are now on active duty, not knowing when they will return to their families and jobs.

Military experts speak of the occupying forces needing up to 500,000 troops, but the US army is stretched. 16 of its 33 combat brigades are currently in Iraq, another 5 are on other assignments and the remaining 12 are needed for rotation in Iraq or to be on standby in relation to North Korea.

Bush does not dare to re-introduction conscription that could rekindle the “Vietnam syndrome”: the hostility inside the USA to foreign wars that arose after the Vietnam War. Thus Bush is begging other countries to provide substantial forces. Immediately, he needs 15,000 troops extra to go to Iraq, so that the 101st Airborne division can be withdrawn early next year. However, apart from Britain, which has 11,000 troops currently in Iraq, no other country has sent more than 3,000. For example a request to India to send 15,000 to 20,000 troops has, so far, met with refusal.

Socialists’ analysis confirmed

Events have moved at an amazing speed, confirming the general analysis that socialists made when the Saddam regime fell. In early April the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), argued that Bush and Blair’s military success against Saddam’s army would turn out to be Pyrrhic.

Analysing the US and British military capture of the major cities, the CWI argued: “this will prove to be a hollow victory in relation to Iraq, the Middle East and internationally. It will not be a repetition of the US victory in the first Gulf War in 1991which took place against an entirely different international background following the collapse of the former Soviet Union. The euphoria with which Bush and Blair will eventually proclaim their “victory” will eventually be followed by further social upheaval, conflict and mass anti-imperialist protests throughout the region…

“Opposition and resistance to a new stooge government are certain to develop amongst the Iraqi people. Urban guerrilla fighting, including the use of suicide bombers threatened by Saddam, is likely to develop following the ‘victory’ of imperialism. This is certain to increase in intensity the longer the occupation continues…

“Blair and Bush will attempt to use this ‘victory’ to strengthen their support. They may be able to do this to some degree for a temporary period. However, they will pay a heavy price as the consequences of the conflict erupt in the Middle East and internationally.”

(‘The bloody occupation of Iraq: Triumph of the US Empire?’ 8 April 2003)

Political Fallout

Today Bush’s approval rating is at 50%, a figure below his ratings immediately before 11 September 2001. Blair is also suffering badly in polls. The recent parliamentary bye-election in Brent East, which saw a large Labour majority fall to the Liberal Democrats, who were ‘anti-war, was a decisive display of Blair’s crumbling credibility and the continuing opposition to the Iraq war in Britain.

The complete failure to find any so called, “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMD), has played a key role in deepening the opposition to both the war and now the US/British occupation. Blair has been undermined, possibly fatally, by the claim that Saddam could get WMD ready for use in 45 minutes. In an attempt to wriggle out of this self-inflicted mess, the British government has now, a year later, claimed this was only referring to short-range “battlefield” weapons. Even so, none of these weapons have yet been found.

The pro-war, Murdoch-owned, London Sunday Times, reported recently that the publication of an initial report, originally scheduled for September 15, by the 1,400 strong Anglo-US Iraq Survey Group on Iraq’s WDM, has been delayed “indefinitely … after inspectors found no evidence that any such weapons exist”. Hans Blix, head of the UN inspectors (and bitter that the US and Britain prevented his team finishing their search) has said that Saddam probably had destroyed almost all of his WDM over a decade ago. Blix added that Blair and Bush “were convinced that Saddam was going in this direction …but in the Middle Ages people were convinced there were witches. They looked for them and they certainly found them.” In the past few days leaks in Washington have also stated that when the Survey Group’s interim report is finally published it will not be able to report the discovery of actual WDM.

Iraq under occupation

The US and British capture of Iraq has not brought peace. The US military command report a daily average of 13 to 15 attacks on the occupation forces. Contrary to what the Bush administration claims this is not simply carried out by individuals isolated from the wider Iraqi population. It reflects growing hostility to foreign occupation.

This was confirmed by the first post-occupation national opinion poll in Iraq. Predictably, it found massive opposition to lengthy British and US rule. It reported that 58.5% of those polled did not want “help from US and UK”, as against 31.5% who did. 65.5% wanted troops to leave within a year. Half the population said that the US would hurt Iraq, while 35.3% believed it would help the country.

The daily reality of life under foreign military rule has not helped the occupier win local support. Even the Wall Street Journal, a staunchly pro-war paper, recently ran a story under the revealing headline, “US Detention System In Iraq Erodes Support From Local Population”. The current US overall military commander in Iraq, General Sanchez, has now spoken of attacks by Iraqis seeking “revenge” against occupation forces, not just the categories of “former Baathists, foreign al-Qa’ida elements and criminals released from prison by Saddam,” which the Washington administration generally speaks about.

Against this background, the US has had to retreat and rewrite its original plans. Gone, for instance, is the immediate privatisation of the oil industry, nationalised in 1972. The US appointed Iraqi oil minister, Ibrahim Bahr al-Uloum, argues that the “Iraqi oil sector needs privatisation, but its a cultural issue. People lived for the last 30 to 40 years with this idea of nationalism.” Privatisation needs “a lot of effort to educate the public”.

But the Iraqis’ opposition to privatisation is not simply “cultural”; it is popular opposition to national assets coming under private, predominately imperialist, control and ownership. Any immediate attempt at privatisation would merely confirm to both Iraqis, and much of the world, that one of the Bush’s key motives for war was to allow US imperialism to get its hands on Iraq’s oil.

Faced with a collapsed economy the US administration has decided to force through a brutal neo-liberal agenda. The US appointed Iraqi Governing Council has announced wide-scale privatisation of the economy (except, significantly, oil and land) and the complete opening up of the country to the multi-nationals, including free repatriation of profits. This is a recipe for a total collapse, even worse than what happened in the former Soviet Union when capitalist “shock therapy” was applied there in the early 1990s.

Even the Financial Times denounced this “hyper-free market blueprint” which suffers from an “almost total” “disconnect between theory and reality”. It fears that this plan will, “stoke further the rising anger of many Iraqis at the occupation authorities’ failure”. The fact that the Governing Council is “largely made up of Iraqi exiles” means that “there will be no shortage of forces in Iraq and the Arab world to present it as a second looting of the country”.

The official hopes that this “opening up” will lead to foreign investing is highly unlikely in view of the unstable security situation. As the US treasury secretary bluntly put it: “Capital is a coward. It doesn’t go to places where it feels threatened.”

A possible UN solution?

The deep-rooted opposition to imperialist control and exploitation is undermining the Iraqi Governing Council and is forcing the US-led occupation to keep changing its tactics. Already in June, “US commanders suddenly scrapped plans for local elections across Iraq, for fear that radicals would seize power, and installed their own choice of mayors instead” (Times 24/7/03). An opinion poll recently carried out in Baghdad showed that 75% believed that the Council’s actions were “mostly determined by the coalition’s own authorities”. So now the Governing Council is attempting to show that it is independent of its US masters by calling for sovereignty to be rapidly granted to itself.

August’s assassination of Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), and the massive bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed, amongst many others, the UN Special Representative for Iraq Sergio Vieira de Mello, was in many ways a turning point. It exposed the weaknesses of the US occupation and pushed the Bush administration to try to spread the burden it is now carrying. This burden is not simply military; it is also financial. Bush has had to ask Congress for a further $87 billion, mainly for the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq, on top of the $79 billion it has already spent on this adventure.

Currently the US are trying to make deals with local tribal leaders, in much the same way as in Afghanistan where they restored to power the warlords who had been suppressed by the Taliban regime. Additionally, especially since Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim’s assassination, both the US and British military have made local policing deals with the emerging Shia militias, including Sciri’s Badr Brigade and the Security Committee led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric whose main base is in Sadr City in Baghdad. But neither Bush or Blair are being thanked for their actions, the recent Baghdad opinion poll found that the most popular foreign leader amongst the city’s inhabitants was Chirac with 42% followed by Bush with 29%.

Against this background, Bush, and Blair have approached the UN for help. This is some climb down. Back in March, Richard Perle, the leading Pentagon hawk, and advisor to US defence secretary Rumsfeld, triumphally stated that Saddam would go quickly and, “in a parting irony, he will take the UN down with him”. But things have not gone to the neo-conservatives’ plans, resulting both in increasing infighting within Bush’s own administration and the turn to the UN.

However the other powers in the UN are not going to run to help Bush. Firstly, in most countries there is widespread opposition to the Iraqi war and occupation. This was one of the reasons why the Indian government declined to send a division. Secondly, the occupation is meeting increasing opposition within Iraq itself and many governments fear the effects of any casualties at home. Thirdly, those governments who were brushed aside by Bush and Blair in their rush to war will want to exploit the US’s difficulties for their own advantage and will make things tricky for Bush, particularly as he faces an election in less than 14 months. Finally, many governments are insisting that a condition for help is that the US must give up its sole command of the military occupation, something that Bush is not yet prepared to do. Sure some governments, like Schröder’s in Germany, are increasingly talking about their countries’ companies getting a share of profitable contracts in Iraq, but making a profit out of Iraq will be difficult in the situation of mounting resistance.

Yet, even if the march of events forces Bush to hand over substantial powers in Iraq to the UN, this will not liberate the Iraqi people. It is true that the only national opinion poll so far taken in Iraq shows that there are some hopes in the UN: 50.2% said they thought the UN would “help”, while 18.5% believed it would “hurt” Iraq.

But illusions in the UN (and Chirac) are misplaced. The fundamental change UN control would bring would be that instead of the decisions concerning the occupation being made by one power, the US, decisions would be made collectively by the leading imperialist powers running the Security Council, along with Germany and Japan. For the Iraqi people the alternative to US occupation is the withdrawal of all foreign armies and the right to decide their own future.

Jockeying for power

Today there are different forces starting to contend for power within Iraq. Some of these are based on nationality, like the main Kurdish parties and groups; others are based on religion and tribe. Among the Arab population, especially the Shias, it has been the religious leaders who have channelled some of the anti-imperialist mood, using the mosques and other religious structures as their organisational basis.

Already there are many different strands emerging in Iraq, but it is clear that many of the religious leaders are attempting to utilise populist issues and many Iraqis’ devout beliefs to prevent the development of independent secular movements and full democratic rights. They are helped in this by the fact that Bush and Blair hypocritically fought their war under the banner of “democracy”, despite both the long history of both US and British government support to Saddam’s dictatorship up until he invaded Kuwait in 1990. This has meant that “democracy”, or more accurately, “democratic rights”, are associated with the occupiers. One result is that the national Iraqi opinion poll reported that 58.5% of Iraqis felt, “democracy is a western idea and will not work here”.

The US is already trying to make deals with different religious leaders, as it has already down with the leaders of the two main Kurdish parties. Seeing the rapid rise of opposition to the occupation, and fearing the effect that this radicalisation could have throughout the Middle East, there are already mounting pressures on the Bush administration to develop a quick exit strategy. The occupiers are looking at how they can set up a client regime as quickly as possible so that imperialist control is hidden behind an Iraqi façade.

If the occupation, and imperialist control, of Iraq is going to be permanently ended, the key task is the building an independent workers’ movement that has support amongst the urban and rural poor.

Scandalously, the leaders of the Iraqi Communist party, which once was a mass force, have renounced the idea of socialism and are collaborating with the US occupation. The party has even taken a seat on the Iraqi Governing Council.

Internationally support has to be given to those activists seeking to build workers’ organisations and especially those who oppose the occupation and fight for democratic rights for all, including women and all nationalities and religions. Socialists call for decisive measures to deal with the social and economic questions affecting the masses. This requires struggling for a socialist Iraq that would decisively break with capitalism and imperialism.

The international demonstrations taking place this weekend are centred on the demands for the immediate withdrawal of all occupying forces for Iraq and for the Iraqi people to democratically decide their own future.

These two demands are key issues at the present time, but they are not the end of the matter. The Iraq war has, by stimulating huge worldwide mass protests, deepened the radicalisation already under way around the world. It has added opposition to militarism and imperialist war to the increasing protests against neo-liberalism, capitalist globalisation and the international offensive against working people’s living standards. The Iraq war has helped lay the basis for the rebuilding of the international socialist movement that can change the world, ridding it of war, poverty, oppression, dictatorship and repeated economic crises, by ending capitalism and starting to build a socialist world.

An edited version of this article appears in the current issue of the Socialist, weekly paper of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales)

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September 2003