Iraq: Stark choices in Iraq

The US regime desperately wants to hand over the day-to-day running of Iraq, so it can pull the strings but avoid the political, military and financial costs of direct occupation.

Since this article was finished the UN has said that, in its view, elections could only be held at the end of this year at the earliest. In response Ayatollah Sistani has demanded “clear guarantees” that elections are held no later than the end of this year. Clearly the stage is set for a continued struggle. At the same time 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.

Stark choices in Iraq

However, Bush’s Middle East policy is being undermined in the face of increasingly organised Iraqi opposition.

USAID, the US government’s aid agency working in Iraq, reported in its latest review that, “January has the highest rate of violence since September 2003”, with 614 “high-intensity attacks” compared to 316 in December. USAID fears a ‘Balkanisation’ of the country – the break-up into warring ethnic and religious areas. A similar process led to the 1975 civil war in the Lebanon and the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. February saw further attacks, including massive car bombings and the highly organised, simultaneous daytime assault on police, military and official buildings in Falluja.

The US is aiming to cut the number of its troops in Iraq from 130,000 to 105,000, but the continuing attacks on the Iraqi army and police have the capacity to undermine Bush’s plans to step back from the front line. The US has tried to claim that these attacks are all the work of ‘foreigners’, organised by the Jordanian, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for whom they are now offering a $10m bounty. In this way the US hopes to rally Iraqi support and isolate the insurgents. But while only a minority of Iraqis are taking part in the attacks, even the pro-war Daily Telegraph recognised the real situation in its 12 February editorial: “Certainly the occupation is loathed by Iraqis”.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is having an impact inside and as well as outside Iraq. The Times reported Iraqis saying, ‘it was good to get rid of Saddam Hussein because he was a tyrant, but they should have told us the real reason why they came here’. Others complained that if there were no WMD what justification was there for the years of sanctions? Indeed, the Times’s reporter spoke of the “surprising degree of venom directed at the US invasion” in Hillah: “Almost no one in Iraq believes that the US and Britain invaded to find [WMD]”. (28 January)

There is every sign (as we go to press) that last November’s US transition plan, itself a hasty replacement of the previous one, is on its way out, undermined by mass opposition within Iraq itself. This plan was an attempt to give the appearance of the occupiers handing ‘sovereignty’ back to the Iraqis by 30 June. The US hoped that this earlier handover from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) would erect a more effective screen behind which it could continue to pull the strings, as well as helping Bush’s re-election campaign. But this proposed ‘sovereign’ government is not to be elected. It is to be nominated by Iraqis selected by the CPA. Furthermore, the occupying powers would continue to be the ‘armed bodies of men’ within the country.

The increasingly vocal Iraqi opposition to occupation has shown itself in events ranging from mass Shia demands for elections, to the mounting military attacks. Bush is now facing a series of conflicting pressures. On the home front, his popularity is slipping fast. Bush wants to continue to withdraw US troops, reduce causalities and declare some kind of ‘victory’ before the November presidential elections. His credibility is suffering from the failure to find any WMD, made far worse by the admission by David Kay, former head of the Iraq Survey Group, that the pre-war intelligence was wrong.

Meanwhile, the financial costs of Bush’s adventure continue to escalate. George Soros, billionaire financier who opposed the war, said that the cost to the US alone is $160bn for two years – $73bn for 2003 and $87bn for 2004. But only $20bn of the 2004 sum is for reconstruction. Bush is also under pressure to try to secure one of the invasion’s main objectives, a stronger US imperialist presence in the Middle East. This has actually been made much more difficult by the invasion and its chaotic aftermath.

Shia call for elections

The third call for direct elections by the most prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in mid-January, triggered mass demonstrations, mainly by Shias. The protesters’ slogans in Basra – ‘Yes, yes, to Sistani; Yes, yes, to Islam; No, no, to America!’– were significant, reflecting opposition to the US and a power play by al-Sistani. The scale of the protests stunned the US government. Almost immediately, its proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, was rushed back to Washington for urgent talks. Initially, the US had ignored al-Sistani’s call for elections, first made last June. The January protests, however, were too important to be brushed aside.

Al-Sistani himself is struggling against rivals, including Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric whose father was killed by Saddam’s regime and who leads Jamaat al-Sadr al-Thani. He has been building a power base in the Shia holy city of Najaf and in Baghdad, where the former ‘Saddam City’ quarter has been renamed ‘Sadr City’. Another rival, the Iranian backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) seems to have been weakened since its leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, was killed in a massive car bombing in Najaf last August. Al-Hakim’s brother, Abdel Aziz, took over as leader of Sciri and went onto the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), since when he has had a lower profile.

Al-Sistani was partly forced to sanction the January protests out of fear that rivals, especially al-Sadr, would seize the initiative. However, after less than two weeks al-Sistani stopped the demos, fearful of them getting out of the clerics’ control. Significantly, at the same time as demanding elections, al-Sistani’s followers have been enforcing reactionary edicts in the name of Islamic law, a sign of what their rule would mean.

While the IGC has hardly any real influence in the country, al-Sistani is currently the dominant force amongst the Shia majority. The former United Nations (UN) director of communications in Baghdad, Salim Lone, summed up the situation when he spoke of “Sistani’s effortless overshadowing of the US-appointed IGC”. (Guardian, 3 February) Responding to the mass Shia pressure, the Iraqi National Congress leader, Ahmed Chalabi, one of the US’s staunchest allies, has also called for elections, mischievously adding that al-Sistani could not vote as he was born in Iran.

“One of the key reasons Bush and Blair reject immediate elections”, we wrote in Socialism Today No.80, “is precisely their fear that Shia parties would win a majority, thereby posing dangers and threats to imperialist interests… 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”. Now, faced with mass protests amongst the Shia, Bush has decided to use the UN to try to defuse the call for immediate elections. He is also desperate to get out of the embarrassing situation that, having ostensibly launched a war for ‘democracy’, the US is now resisting calls for direct elections.

On fundamental issues, the UN always acts on behalf of the major imperialist powers (as we have consistently warned). From the beginning of the agitation for early elections – something that is, in fact, a coded demand for an end to the occupation – the UN has sought to give a ‘reasonable’, even ‘humanitarian’, cover to continued imperialist control over Iraq.

The Financial Times quoted one unnamed UN senior official saying that, “early elections tend to favour the extremists rather than the moderates”. (19 January) And there were reports towards the end of January that UN general secretary, Kofi Annan, had written to al-Sistani saying that it would not be possible to hold elections by the middle of the year.

Then in mid-February, Annan sent the UN’s chief official in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, to discuss with al-Sistani. Brahimi himself has a dubious ‘democratic’ record. He was Algerian foreign minister between 1991-93. During that time, the military annulled the December 1991 general election and banned, in February 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which would have won that election. The resultant civil war has so far cost around 120,000 lives. In Afghanistan, Brahimi organised an unelected assembly that last December agreed a new constitution without a single vote. All the delegates did was simply stand up at the end of the meeting to show their agreement.

Brahimi has been warning about elections for some time: “If you get your priorities wrong, elections are a very divisive process. They create tensions. They create competition. And in a country that is not stable enough to take that… one has to be certain it will not do more harm than good”. (Guardian, 28 January) Interestingly, Brahimi does not comment about who should run Iraq before the elections. Perhaps he wants to repeat his Algerian experience of de facto military rule.

Meanwhile, the US-controlled ‘democratisation’ process is tightly controlled and limited. Recently, the Washington Post reported a ‘town hall’ meeting in Baghdad on Iraq’s future where the invited participants were not allowed to discuss elections.

It is possible that mass pressure may force elections of some kind this year. It seems that some British officials, with the historical experience of colonial rule, said in January that an election was possible before June. Dominic D’Angelo, British spokesperson for the UK-led ‘southern zone’, suggested in the Financial Times (20 January) that voting would perhaps only take place in the South. Clearly, they are hoping that such a concession would enable them to form a friendly Iraqi government that has some credibility amongst the masses. It could not be ruled out that the occupiers will try to include moderate religious leaders in a government based on partial elections or subject to some kind of referendum. How long such a government would last, and what would follow it, are open questions.

Power struggle

The immediate problem facing the US government is its failure to put in place structures which would enable it to pull back from the day-to-day running of Iraq. The IGC has only a minute amount of authority, the reformed Iraqi police and army are weak and unreliable, while any government formed under last November’s plan risks having no basis amongst the majority Shia, let alone other groups. In this situation, the US may be forced to concede early elections in the hope that it will be able to work with whatever government emerges. A key question will be how long the occupation troops remain because that is the basis of US imperialism’s direct power in Iraq.

In the absence of a workers’ movement able to unite ordinary Iraqis in common struggle, however, the Lebanonisation or Balkanisation of the country is continuing, as religious and ethnic-based movements build their support.

The military opposition to the occupation and those Iraqis seen as collaborators is currently stronger amongst Sunnis, but there is less support for elections. Elections are seen as posing the danger that they will be oppressed under Shia domination. The much smaller Christian minority fears elections for similar reasons.

Meanwhile in the North, Kurdish fears are growing that their demands for autonomy are being rejected by the occupying powers. Bremer wants to divide the Kurdish autonomous region into three parts and prevent Kurdish control of the oil regions. At the end of January, Bush told Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Washington did not support expanded Kurdish autonomy. In the North, ethnic tensions are growing after the massive bombs at the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Arbil at the start of the Muslim festival, Eid al-Adha. These followed ethnic clashes and assassinations between Kurds, Arabs and Turcomen in Kirkuk, the main city in Iraq’s Northern oilfield. In mid-January, Muqtada al-Sadr started a mobilisation of Shias against Kurdish demands for autonomy. Apart from the armed resistance to the occupation, there are already at least four major rival ethnic or religious militias: those of the KDP and PUK; Sciri’s Badr Organisation; and the Mahdi army formed by sh:Muqtada al-Sadr.

In this situation, the absence of a nationally-based independent workers’ movement means that there is a growing danger that ethnic and religious movements will dominate events. Social issues are also raising their head. In early February, the IGC’s representative in Washington warned: “We are in danger of creating a feeling of alienation between those who have the money to create the work and those who carry out the menial jobs. It could create a revolution”. This was a reference to the development, alongside mass unemployment, of a minority that is starting to gain from the wages paid by the occupiers, or by trading with them – part of a conscious policy to win support.

Recently, six secular parties, including the KDP, PUK and the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), formed an alliance, the Consortium of Democratic Forces, in an attempt to challenge the religious-based forces. But this is unlikely to develop nationally. Five of these parties, including the ICP general secretary, Hamid Majid Mousa, sit on the IGC and will be seen as allies of imperialism, especially in the non-Kurdish areas. Furthermore, they all have pro-capitalist policies that will not be able to meet the needs of the Iraqi workers and poor.

While opposing the occupation and supporting the democratic demands of the Iraqi workers and poor, socialists have to strive to aid the building of independent workers’ organisations within Iraq. Without such organisations, fighting for a break with imperialism and the creation of a workers’ and poor peasants’ Iraq, the danger looms of a combination of Balkanisation, ethnic or religious wars, and imperialist puppet, or reactionary theocratic, regimes. This is the stark choice facing Iraq.

From the March edition of Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi England and Wales cwi online.

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February 2004