Iraq: Still no Exit sign

IN THE RUN-UP to last year’s invasion of Iraq much was said in the media about the ‘fog of war’, the confusion spread by the combination of the incomplete knowledge of fast changing events and propaganda during military campaigns.

Celebrations by Bush and Blair at Saddam’s capture were brief. Armed resistance to the occupation of Iraq continues. Protests against poverty, the lack of jobs and services continue along with growing demands for direct elections. Now in the last few days both David Kay, the US’s top weapons inspector, and Colin Powell have admitted that there were no “Weapons of Mass Destruction” in Iraq before last year’s invasion. In this article, written for Socialism Today the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party in England and Wales, Robert Bechert reports on the chaos in Iraq and the political consequences in the region and the West. cwi online.

Still no Exit sign

This was not only a feature of the fighting during March and April, however. Both before and after the invasion, Tony Blair and George Bush have deployed large amounts of the ‘fog of propaganda’ to hide, confuse and distort the issues.

The most striking aspects of this were obviously the lies concerning the so-called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMDs) and the concerted attempt to bury the fact that the West, including Britain and the US, supported Saddam’s dictatorship up until his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Now Paul O’Neill, Bush’s former treasury secretary, has revealed that while he was in Bush’s cabinet he never saw any evidence that Iraq had WMDs, but that Bush was determined to oust Saddam from the moment he became president in January 2001.

December’s capture of Saddam Hussein provided the occasion for another propaganda fog blanket to be pumped out. Saddam’s arrest was obviously a psychological boost for US and British imperialism and something they attempted to exploit to the maximum. A mighty propaganda wave swept over the world, trumpeting this ‘success’, and trying to present it as a fundamental change in Iraq. However the jubilation did not last long.

Events soon confirmed the previous view of the top US military commander in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, that, “The killing or capturing of Saddam Hussein will have an impact on the violence, but will not end it”. (New York Times, 7 December) By early January, Saddam’s capture was history, barely affecting the ongoing crisis facing the occupying powers in Iraq. As before, it was the growing opposition to the continuation of US rule that was setting the agenda within Iraq.

The development of British and US spin since Saddam’s capture is a textbook illustration of the barefaced hypocrisy of the war leaders. Both Blair and Bush have attempted to use Saddam’s seizure to sidestep the issue of the still AWOL WMDs which they presented as the major justification for war. They try to taunt opponents of the war by asking whether they would rather have Saddam’s dictatorship still in power. Clearly, Blair hopes that his opponents have short memories. Just before the assault on Iraq began, on 20 March, Blair told the House of Commons: “If he would cooperate with Hans Blix on the whereabouts of his WMDs, Saddam can stay in power”.

Blair’s flexible attitude to dictators was not a new imperialist policy. After the second world war the US allowed the Japanese emperor, Hirohito, to remain on his throne – albeit after making him give up his claim to be a god! – in order to use him to help secure the continuation of capitalism in Japan. To this day, US imperialism protects former dictators, like Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Mohamed Suharto in Indonesia, who, when they were in power, were important friends of Washington. If Saddam had not invaded Kuwait in 1990, and had remained in power, he would likely still be an ally of Washington.

Notwithstanding all the talk of a ‘turning point’ or a ‘new start’ in Iraq, Saddam’s arrest did not resolve the crisis facing Iraqi society. The circumstances in which Saddam was found, living in primitive conditions, showed that he was not directing the continuous daily attacks on both the occupying forces and the Iraqi police. To a certain extent, Saddam already represented the past even before his seizure

The severe problems gripping the country will not disappear overnight, and Saddam’s incarceration has further boosted Iraqi demands that the occupying powers quit Iraq. Now it is not so easy to accuse those opposing Iraq’s occupation of wishing to bring Saddam back to power. Violence is still continuing. While recently there seems to have been fewer attacks on the occupying forces due to the scaled down US operations, there are reports of increasing assaults on the newly reconstituted Iraqi police, on those working with the occupiers’ Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), and between different ethnic, religious and political forces.

When the West backed Saddam

IN OPPOSITION TO the capitalist leaders of the US, Britain, France and other countries, the Committee for a Workers’ International never supported Saddam and his dictatorial regime. By the time Saddam came to power in a US supported coup in 1979 he already had been instrumental in the murder of many members of the Iraqi Communist Party and trade unionists. Saddam’s first period in office witnessed a bloody purge of the Iraqi left. The Socialist Party always supported any efforts by Iraqi workers and poor to overthrow Saddam’s brutal dictatorship and to establish their own rule, which is the complete opposite to Bush’s attempts to create a client state.

At different times, many regimes and leaders, both inside and outside Iraq, created opportunistic alliances with Saddam. Former US president, Ronald Reagan, supported Saddam during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. Moreover, as recently as 1996, the leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party, currently allies of Bush and Blair, appealed to Saddam to send 40,000 troops to help fight against their then rivals in the Kurdish Patriotic Union (PUK).

Socialists unreservedly condemned the Saddam regime’s vicious repression of the left, the Shia, the Kurds and others, at the time it was happening. But we did not join in Bush and Blair’s celebrations over Saddam’s capture. In reality, they were cheering another success for their imperialist aims, not for democratic rights or justice. Bush’s support for democratic rights is only skin-deep. Only last November he was congratulating the new president of Azerbaijan on his election, praising him as an ally in the ‘war on terror’, while “his security forces were arresting the opposition, and after independent observers had criticised the election”. (Financial Times, 27 November) The limits of Bush’s support for the ‘rule of law’ is shown by the fact that currently around the world at least 15,000 people – including over 3,000 in Iraq and up to 3,000 at the US base in Bagram, Afghanistan – are currently being held indefinitely in detention without trial as part of the ‘war against terror’.

Like Osama bin Laden, Saddam in many ways developed under the sponsorship of the West. While bin Laden’s al-Qa’ida originated as a creation of the Western powers, Saddam in the 1970s moved more and more to a pro-West position. It is not accidental that today pro-war propagandists, like the prominent British historian Michael Burleigh, only mention Saddam’s brutalities from 1991 onwards, after the invasion of Kuwait, and do not mention Saddam’s tyranny during the 1980s. But then, of course, in the 1980s Saddam was the West’s ally, waging war on Iran. He played friendly host to guests like Donald Rumsfeld, today’s US defence secretary, who in 1983 and 1984 went to Baghdad as president Reagan’s special messenger.

Amongst Iraqis there were mixed reactions to Saddam’s capture. Some, especially Kurds and Shia, shed no tears. Others, seeing him as a symbolic fighter who opposed the West, were bitter at this further success for the occupying powers. There was also dismay that Saddam seemingly just surrendered without a fight, unlike his two sons and a 15-year-old grandson.

Even amongst those Iraqis who welcomed Saddam’s capture there is a growing call for the occupation forces to withdraw and for the Iraqis themselves to determine their own future. After all, Bush’s proclaimed war aim was to ‘decapitate’ the old regime. Now, with Saddam in custody, this aim has been achieved. But Bush and Co had other objectives, of course, namely to install a pro-US imperialist regime in Iraq. That is why for US imperialism it is not a question of now letting the Iraqi people democratically decide their own future.

US transition plan

THE US IS on the horns of a dilemma. It was much easier to invade Iraq than it will be to withdraw. Bush is facing pressures at home and within Iraq. With the next US presidential election looming in less than ten months Bush wants formally to be out of Iraq as soon as possible, while in practice the US troops will remain in Iraq under a different guise. However, he cannot risk chaos developing and potentially destabilising the entire region, which is a major source of the world’s oil resources. But at the very least Bush has to be able to present some semblance of progress and withdrawal before the November elections. At the same time, in Iraq there are the growing demands for self-determination and elections.

This was the background to the Bush government’s sudden abandonment last November of its previous plans and the announcement of a new timetable that would see, on 1 July, a formal transfer of sovereignty from the CPA to an Iraqi government. This would be a client regime, however. The US wants to ensure a handover of power only to what they would see as ‘safe hands’.

The US government’s plans still cut out the Iraqi people democratically deciding their future for themselves. Currently, the US-appointed 25-member ‘Iraqi Governing Council’ is drafting a ‘fundamental law’ that is meant to serve as an interim constitution. Later this year a series of ‘grass root meetings’ of selected individuals are meant to select the 250 members of a ‘transitional assembly’ that, in turn, will choose the members of a government. Clearly, this whole process will take place under the supervision of the US occupation authorities.

The US wants no elections before 2005 at the earliest. Throughout this whole period the US will try to determine what happens. Real state power, ‘armed bodies of men’ in Friedrich Engels’s words, will be the occupying forces whose US and British commanders have said will remain in Iraq until at least 2006 or 2007.

One of Bush’s dilemmas, however, is whom to hand formal power over to? The different political, ethnic and religious factions can barely agree with one another. Even Bush’s own administration is divided. While the Pentagon sponsors the banker Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, the State Department supports the Iraqi Independent Democrats of the pre-1968 Iraqi foreign minister, Adnan Pachachi, while the CIA backs the Iraqi National Accord led by Iyad Alawi, an Iraqi businessman.

But these tensions are mild compared with the ethnic and religious divisions within Iraq. Already there have been clashes in Kirkuk between Arabs and Turcomens, on the one hand, and Kurds on the other. Arabs and Turcomens are opposing Kurdish attempts to have the oil-rich Kirkuk area put back into the Kurdish region from which it was previously removed by Saddam. This is not just an internal Iraqi conflict – the ruling classes of neighbouring states, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are deeply disturbed at the prospect of Iraqi regional autonomy proving attractive within their own countries.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the main religious leaders of Iraqi’s majority religious community, the Shia, has rejected the US’s transition plan. In January, he repeated, for the third time, his call for the direct, popular election of a government. Al-Sistani’s opposition to the US’s original plans was an important factor in their replacement by this new timetable and the occupiers fear that this will repeat itself. Currently, the occupiers are still rejecting the calls for an elected government. Recently, however, there have been hints that they would like to make some kind of deal with leaders like al-Sistani by, for example, holding votes to approve either the nominees to the unelected assembly or on the constitution itself. The decision of the Governing Council in January to replace the previous civil family law with one that would allow the application of Sharia law to family life is clearly part of an attempt to build links with Islamic leaders like al-Sistani.

Al-Sistani’s repeated calls for elections have crystallised the demand by Iraqis, not only Shia, for elections to form a government. Last autumn the Governing Council set up a multi-ethnic and multi-religious commission to judge the mood in the country and then voted unanimously for an elected assembly. Faced with these demands, it is not at all certain that Bush and Blair will be able to avoid some kind of elections, although they will naturally seek to control the outcome of any vote. January 15 saw the first mass demonstration in Iraq in favour of elections when tens of thousands of Shia rallied in Basra and chanted, ‘No, no to America. Yes, yes to Sistani’.

Socialists support the call for immediate elections, and the withdrawal of the occupying forces. However, even an elected government, so long as it bases itself on capitalism, would be totally incapable of solving the many crises facing Iraq, whether it be the over 50% unemployment or the ethnic and religious tensions. Indeed, an electoral victory for Shia parties could rapidly lead to clashes as the Kurds fight to retain their autonomy and other groupings like the Sunnis and Turcomen mobilise to defend themselves against the threat of Shia domination. In other words, Iraq could become divided like the Lebanon and, as in the Lebanon, face the possibility of civil war. Only the rebirth of the Iraqi workers’ movement on socialist lines could prevent this type of development by uniting workers and the poor in a common struggle against occupation and capitalism.

One of the key reasons Bush and Blair reject immediate elections is precisely their fear that Shia parties would win a majority, thereby posing dangers and threats to imperialist interests. Significantly, while they have allowed some local elections in a few areas as ‘experiments’, the US cancelled others, most notably in Najaf, the city where al-Sistani himself is based. The US is sceptical that they could work with a Shia majority, fearing a Lebanon-style ethnic and religious division of the country and the emergence of a regime hostile to the US, developments which would destabilise the region. Bush and Blair are therefore making all kinds of excuses as to why elections have to come later, in other words, when they have been able to find a way out of this impasse.

Warning from Afghanistan

WHAT HAS TAKEN place is the exact opposite of what Bush and Blair hoped for. Instead of their war leading to a stabilisation of the region and the creation of more client states, the war has destabilised the Middle East. They are finding it increasingly difficult to find a workable exit strategy from Iraq that leaves a reliable pro-US regime behind. In this sense Bush’s war is already turning into a disaster for the long-term interests of imperialism.

US policy in Afghanistan is a warning for the Iraqi people of what the US would now like to impose on them. The recent adoption of Afghanistan’s so-called new ‘constitution’ was an utter farce. This document was decided by the completely non-elected ‘loya jirga’, but even these selected delegates were not allowed to vote. All the loya jirga’s “main decisions were made behind closed doors or in sub-committees, the 502 delegates endorsed the full text… by rising silently to their feet. Not a single article was put to the vote in full session”, reported the Financial Times (5 January 2004).

What becomes of this Afghan ‘constitution’ is open to question in the face of resurgent Taliban activity and the undiminished rule of warlords in much of the country.

At the end of last year the US commander in Afghanistan, General David Barno, told the Financial Times that a ‘terrific effort’ was now being made to win ‘moderate Taliban’ to support the new regime. This is linked to the concessions given to pro-Taliban elements in the new constitution. An attempt to oppose the description of Afghanistan as an ‘Islamic Republic’ was denounced by the loya jirga’s chairman as the work of an ‘infidel’. What this means in practice was illustrated barely a week later when, on 14 January, the Afghan Supreme Court formally complained to the government about the state television broadcasting a film of a female singer, the first time a women has been seen singing on Afghan TV since 1992 when they were banned as ‘un-Islamic’.

Nevertheless, despite these overtures to the Taliban, the French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, reported Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative for Afghanistan from 2001 until January 2004, as saying that an extra 5,000 to 10,000 foreign troops needed to be sent to ‘strategic points’ (12 January). It is no accident that there are reports that Brahimi’s replacement will be a military man, the British general, John McColl. Clearly, Afghanistan is not going according to Bush’s plans.

As it becomes clear to Iraqis that Bush and his gang are determined to shape Iraq as a client state, the resistance will deepen and start to develop a mass character. The 15 January protest in Basra could be the first of many. At the turn of year, Jeremy Greenstock, the British deputy to the US administrator Paul Bremer, admitted that the Iraqi resistance was getting “more sophisticated… We will go on seeing bigger bangs”.

Resistance continues

THESE ATTACKS ARE not simply carried out by Saddam loyalists. The German daily, Süddeutsche Zeitung, reported that allied secret services have identified fifteen different armed groups with diverse ideological, regional or religious origins, but all sharing ‘anti-American’ sentiments (16 December). Their strength is hard to judge, but in November the CIA estimated that there were 50,000 insurgents operating against the occupying forces.

The former British Conservative foreign secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, has written: “Most of these insurgents are Iraqis resentful of the American occupation of their country. Others are Arabs or Islamic extremists from other countries who have moved into Iraq, seeing it as an opportunity to wage jihad against the West. These elements will have no incentive to end their violence”. (Guardian, 15 December) An irony of this situation is that before the war Bush falsely claimed that Iraq was one of al-Qa’ida’s bases. That was not true, but since the war al-Qa’ida has begun operating in Iraq, and after Saddam’s capture Islamic groupings like al-Qa’ida claim that they are the most resolute fighters against occupation.

All the US government’s attempts to install a puppet regime are overshadowed by widespread Iraqi opposition to foreign occupation, particularly against the US, the closest ally of the Israeli government. Rifkind commented: “Now that threat [of Saddam] has finally disappeared, Iraqis will be less persuaded than ever that they need American tutelage in order to educate them on how to govern themselves… However delighted they might be to be relieved of Saddam’s tyranny, they feel humiliated by foreign occupation, and they should not be expected to be any less anti-American than the rest of the Arab world. If the Americans ignore these sensitivities then the insurgents, with Saddam out of the way, will seem even more like freedom fighters to ordinary Iraqis”.

The US military’s brutal methods in Iraq, including the re-introduction of aerial bombing of civilian areas as their answer to terror attacks, have only served to deepen resentment and opposition. Likewise, the economic and social crisis gripping the country – a situation made worse by the occupiers’ neo-liberal policies – has created despair and anger against what is correctly seen as the occupiers opening up Iraq to naked exploitation by the predominately US-owned multinationals.

The strengthening Iraqi opposition to foreign occupation is the background to 300 of the 700 members of the newly created First Battalion of the new Iraqi Army either deserting or being discharged last December after protesting at their pay and conditions. Even if the US succeeds in rebuilding the Iraqi army it could never be certain of the loyalty or reliability of the soldiers.

The most recent opinion poll in Iraq illustrates the depth of the Iraqi peoples’ anger: 57% did not trust the US and British occupation forces ‘at all’ and a further 22% did not trust them ‘very much’; 43% did not trust the US-appointed Provisional Authority ‘at all’ and 30% ‘not very much’. The United Nations (UN), after years of running sanctions in Iraq that led to many deaths, was also not ‘at all’ trusted by 37% and ‘not very much’ by 28%. (Guardian, 13 December) It was the religious leaders who had the greatest trust and this is why the US is trying to find ways to involve them in a puppet regime. Given the deep divisions and rivalries between these forces, however, this US policy is fraught with problems.

A UN role?

IN MANY COUNTRIES, including both the US and Britain, there are calls from capitalist politicians and strategists for Bush to change course and let the UN attempt to defuse the Iraqi situation by taking over more control of the occupation. These proposals are partly linked to the continuing tensions and differences between the main imperialist powers over whether the war was the best course of action. It also reflects imperialist rivalries in the Middle East. But, in a situation of rising Iraqi opposition to US occupation, there could be an attempt to bring the UN in, possibly to work alongside some kind of nominal Iraqi administration.

Opinion polls in Iraq show large-scale doubts about the UN, understandable given its record. And any hopes in the UN that do exist are misplaced. The only big change under UN control would be that, instead of domination by one occupying power, the US, decisions would be made collectively by the leading imperialist powers running the UN Security Council, along with Germany and Japan. Socialists argue that the real alternative to US occupation is the withdrawal of all foreign armies and the right of the Iraqi people to decide their own future.

Throughout the Middle East there were mixed reactions to Saddam’s capture. The New York Times commented: “While the Arab public harbours no particular love for the deposed dictator or other oppressive governments in the region that were similar to his, it despairs that an outside power can humiliate the Arab world by capturing such a significant figure with relative impunity, underscoring the masses’ powerlessness”. (15 December) Saddam was seen by many Palestinians as one of the few Arab leaders who ‘stood up’ to imperialism during the 1990s, and some will feel disheartened that he was captured without a fight or suspect that there was some kind of conspiratorial plot behind what happened.

Within the US, talk about Saddam’s arrest forming the basis upon which Bush can win re-election rapidly subsided. Indeed, continued US casualties could well undermine Bush’s support, apart from any dramatic weakening in the fragile US economy, which currently seems to be in a ‘jobless recovery’ based upon massive debts. In fact, Saddam’s capture added to the calls for the withdrawal of the troops. Charley Richardson, a co-founder of Military Families Speak Out and whose son is a marine who served in Iraq, said that Saddam’s seizure removed “the last excuse that the Bush administration has been using to continue the occupation. It will bring to a head the question of why we are in Iraq”. Already US deaths in Iraq are over 500 and mounting, while there are increasing signs of resentment amongst the US troops stationed there, particularly the reservists and National Guard members who have been called up.

The initial calls for a quick open trial of Saddam have currently disappeared. Now it is not at all certain what will happen to Saddam. If a trial takes place it could well be a rushed affair to try to limit its scope. Significantly, when discussing possible charges that Saddam might face many Western commentators brushed over the eight-year war – and war crimes – that the former dictator launched, with Western support, against Iran in 1980. Instead, they concentrated on his oppression within Iraq and the invasion of Kuwait. As a former British air marshal, Sir Timothy Garden, coyly explained, “Certain elements of the US/Iraq relationship during the 1980s might be embarrassing if revealed in open court”. (London Evening Standard, 15 December)

Workers’ organisation

A REAL SETTLEMENT of accounts with the Saddam regime can only be carried out by a trial run by representatives of the Iraqi workers and poor that investigates all aspects of Saddam’s regime, including which powers, inside and outside Iraq, supported him during his 24 years of rule. Although, of course, it is doubtful whether someone like Rumsfeld would honestly testify over what he discussed with Saddam in 1983 and 1984!

But a fundamental break with the past dictatorships can only be successfully completed if it is part of the struggle to end the occupation and imperialist control of Iraq. To achieve this goal a key step is building an independent workers’ movement that has support amongst the urban and rural poor.

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 for women and for all nationalities and religions.

Within such organisations socialists would campaign for a programme based upon the following main points:

  • Immediate withdrawal of all foreign occupying forces. Removal of the US-appointed Governing Council. No to an unelected ‘transitional assembly’ and government.
  • Immediate formation of democratic popular bodies at all levels to take over the running of Iraqi society. Convening of a national assembly of democratically elected delegates to appoint a government representing the Iraqi workers and poor peasants.
  • Democratically controlled, multi-ethnic militias to provide security for working people.
  • Defence of democratic rights and protection for women, all nationalities, and all ethnic and religious groupings. No to any laws based on religion. Right of self-determination for all the peoples in Iraq.
  • An end to censorship.
  • Full rights for trade unions and workers’ organisations.
  • An emergency programme, using Iraq’s oil revenues, to immediately provide work or full maintenance, including food and medicine, to all Iraqis.
  • Reversal of all privatisations and neo-liberal measures imposed by the occupation powers. Cancellation of Iraq’s foreign debt. Implementation of workers’ control and management in all nationalised industries, to stamp out corruption and looting and to ensure that the economy is run in the interests of the Iraqi people. Preparation of an economic plan to utilise Iraq’s economic resources to rebuild the country in the interests of the Iraqi people.
  • For a democratic socialist Iraq, and a socialist federation of the Middle East.

The coming months will probably see Bush and Blair pursue a policy of ‘Iraqisation’ similar to the ill-fated ‘Vietnamisation’ during the Vietnam war. In other words, they will attempt to erect a screen of local leaders behind which the occupying powers pull the strings, while hopefully also attempting to withdraw at least some of their troops. But the extreme weakness of the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan is a warning that the success of such a scheme is not guaranteed, even if the threat of a Lebanon-style development is avoided for the time being.

On a capitalist basis, there is a grim perspective for the Iraqi people. Rifkind predicts that, “the end result will not be a liberal, capitalist Iraq that is a beacon of democracy in the Middle East… New, tough, authoritarian Iraqis will emerge to take over the levers of power. If Iraq is lucky, it will end up like Egypt”.

Any formal handover of sovereignty to a form of ‘Iraqi government’ is likely to increase demands for genuine independence from foreign control and for democratic rule. But unless the workers’ movement is rebuilt there will be the danger that ethnic and religious tensions could cut across the development of a struggle for a complete break with imperialism and the creation of a workers’ and poor peasants’ Iraq. Only if this socialist transformation is begun can the country’s huge resources begin to be used in the interests of the people, something that really would be an example for all the peoples of the Middle East.

15 January 2004

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January 2004