Iraq: A colonial war of subjugation

Saddam’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison is now a US-run centre for the subjugation of the Iraqi people.

A colonial war of subjugation

The reports of systemic torture and abuse – including gruesome and degrading photos – have enraged people around the world. With 30 June looming – the date an interim puppet government nominally takes over – Bush and Blair’s plans lie in ruins..

There is more than a whiff of Saigon 1975 in the scenes being played out in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq today. US helicopters are not yet circling over the US embassy, or the ‘Green Zone’ seat of US power in Baghdad, ready to rescue the last US representatives, as was the case then. But as in Vietnam, the US is facing ultimate defeat, not at the hands of a ragbag of Saddam supporters or ‘foreign fighters’ – as the US propaganda machine maintains – but through a generalised national insurgency of the Iraqi people. This is the significance of the uprising and defeat of the US forces in Falluja, the Shia unrest – now admitted to be an ‘uprising’ by US military sources – in Najaf, Nasiriya and Baghdad, as well as the revelations of the nauseating torture of Iraqis at the hands of the ‘morally superior’ US forces. Right-wing Republican, Pat Buchanan, said that after Falluja, the defeat of US forces was ‘now an option’, while former US commander in the Balkans, Wesley Clark, put the odds of this catastrophe happening to the US at two to one!

The Abu Ghraib prison, with other torture centres throughout Iraq, became under US rule a modern manifestation of Dante’s circles of hell, with countless innocent Iraqis dragged through its gates and persecuted. The picture of a hooded Iraqi prisoner forced to stand for hours on a box with the threat of immediate electrocution if he fell off has become as symbolic an image of this dirty war as the famous photographs from the Vietnam war of a police chief publicly executing a Viet Cong guerrilla.

The published photographs of female US soldiers publicly humiliating and sexually abusing naked male Iraqi prisoners, the reported rape of a female prisoner by US guards, are just the tip of the iceberg. Literally thousands of photographs and videos have been seen by US congressmen, which ‘sickened’ them and probably will not be released for fear of adding to the already outraged feelings of the US people at what has been carried out ‘in their name’.

George W Bush and Donald Rumsfeld in the US, and Tony Blair and Geoff Hoon in Britain, pretend that they knew nothing about these practices and yet the Red Cross was warning about their existence for at least a year and had even compiled a written report three months before these revelations which warned both the US and British governments of these practices. It is sheer hypocrisy for Rumsfeld to pretend that he knew ‘nothing about them’ until recently. The same goes for Hoon and Blair. If they knew then, they stand condemned as war criminals. If they didn’t, they are equally culpable because these practices are a product of their policies. They are almost natural in a colonial war, which is what Iraq is. The purpose of this war was to subjugate a whole people, rob the country’s resources, and establish a firm US military and strategic presence in Iraq and the region.

The school of atrocities

The British army tops pursued similar methods in the colonial war in Malaya – including cutting off the heads of guerrillas and displaying them in photographs as trophies. The US did the same in Vietnam. They were the ‘teachers’ of the deranged Iraqi supporters of al-Qa’ida, who horribly beheaded the US citizen, Nick Berg, publicly on TV.

In all capitalist wars, the victorious capitalist army has the tendency to carry out atrocities, as one British colonel admitted during the first world war: "I have seen my own men commit atrocities, and should expect to see it again. You can’t stimulate and let loose the animal in man and then expect to be able to cage it up again at a moment’s notice". (The Guardian) Brutal US general, George Patton, during the second world war, predicted there would unquestionably ‘be some raping’ by US soldiers, and this was ‘a little r and r’ (rest and recuperation).

Those tendencies are even more pronounced in a colonial war where the ‘enemy’ is demonised as ‘human lice’, ‘gooks’ and ‘dinks’, as in the Vietnam war. Amnesty International has characterised the widespread torture in Iraq not as incidental events but as ‘systematic’. John Pilger correctly pointed out: "The essence of imperialism… is racism". The British in Kenya slaughtered an estimated 10,000 Kenyans and ran concentration camps where 402 inmates died in just one month.

Rumsfeld can hypocritically pretend to wring his hands about the recent revelations, but did he not sanction similar methods in Afghanistan and in Guantánamo Bay, which have now been transferred to Iraq? US commentators openly speak of these as ‘American gulags’. The Geneva Conventions – accepted by the US during the second world war in order to protect their own prisoners of war – have been completely suspended by Bush and Rumsfeld in Guantánamo, where prisoners are just designated as ‘enemy combatants’. Human Rights Watch condemned this as a ‘legal black hole’, which has led to the present regime of systematic torture.

Seymour Hersh – who first revealed the massacre at My Lai during the Vietnam war – has now shown that the Pentagon and Rumsfeld sanctioned these methods, authorising interrogators to use ‘special access’ methods under a heading of ‘do what you want’. Under codenames, like Coppergreen, it "encouraged physical coercion and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners" in an effort to generate more intelligence about insurgency. Yet, in the light of this, Bush has praised Rumsfeld as ‘courageous’, declaring that torture was deployed by just a few ‘out of control’ soldiers.

On the contrary, it is widespread and organic to the US’s perceived role in Iraq. Prior to the invasion, the Pentagon showed the film, Battle of Algiers, to military personnel. It showed that the French army managed to subjugate the Algerian quarter in Algiers, the kasbah. But at the end of the film, the French general asked his political masters how far they wanted him to go in ‘pacifying’ the Algerian insurgency, led at that time by the National Liberation Front. The French army used widespread torture. One million were killed in this war (1954-61) and yet French imperialism was forced to retreat. Despite showing this film, the US, like the French Bourbon kings of the past, remember everything and learn nothing. They are treading in the same footsteps as every colonial oppressor, with the same predictable outcome. In all ‘asymmetrical wars’, with a guerrilla force pitted against the forces of a state, attacks on the latter through hit-and-run methods inevitably result in retaliatory acts, which include torture.

The attempt to shift responsibility for this onto rank-and-file ordinary soldiers – like the US army reservist, Lynndie England, who infamously held a leash tied to a naked bearded Iraqi as if he was a dog – will not wash. Fish rot from the head downwards. These methods were sanctified and devised at the very summits of the Bush regime and prepared for by the racist terminology of the right-wing neo-conservatives who provided the ideological cover for the US war. Iraqis were described by Kenneth Edelman, who has frequently appeared on British TV justifying the war, as ‘snakes’, while his partner in crime, Paul Wolfowitz, Under-Secretary of Defense in the US regime, has talked about ‘draining the swamp’ of Iraq.

US/UK strategy in tatters

Blair’s government IN Britain also stands in the dock, with evidence that it knew about the torture in the US-controlled prisons in particular, but did or said nothing about it for months. Moreover, while the Daily Mirror photographs may prove to be ‘hoaxes’, they nevertheless depict real events: the torture by British troops of Iraqi detainees.

These revelations are a blow to Blair in particular. After the complete discrediting of his original justification for war – the mythical weapons of mass destruction – he fell back onto the ‘moral’ argument that has been consistently deployed by Bush. The ‘coalition’ allegedly occupied the high ground and was on a mission to remove a despot in the cause of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. That fig leaf has been completely snatched away from Blair, and with it has gone his popularity. A majority in Britain now believe that the war was wrong and link this through polls with the wish that Blair should depart as prime minister. If the revulsion against his support for the war is reinforced by disastrous results in the upcoming European and local council elections, then he could indeed go, vacating the premiership for Gordon Brown, the frontrunner to replace him. A growing body of New Labour MPs are even posing an ultimatum to Blair: ‘Get out of Iraq immediately or out of Number Ten Downing Street’. Instead, Blair is proposing to send more British troops to Iraq, which will intensify the opposition to him.

If Bush suffers the fate of Lyndon B Johnson during the Vietnam war – who decided not to stand for another term in office – and is defeated in November, Blair’s position could be impossible if he clings on to power till then. For Blair, Iraq is the elephant in his front room, something which he can’t escape from. Like Bush, he may proclaim the desire of the ‘coalition’ to ‘tough it out’ and hand over to a ‘legitimate’ government in projected elections in January 2005. However, events in the last two months have shown clearly that their stooges in the Iraqi Governing Council have no social basis in Iraq.

Despite the siege of Falluja, where upwards of a thousand people – mostly innocent men, women and children – were slaughtered, some by 500-pound bombs, the US was forced to ignominiously retreat, dramatically illustrating the limits of US firepower in what is predominantly an urban conflict. One resident, standing in the rubble of his home struck by 14 US missiles, declared: "The mightiest army in the world ran from the city like rats". (Financial Times) In simultaneously attacking Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, the US then succeeded in uniting Shias and Sunnis in opposition to its rule, something which the mass terror of Saddam Hussein had successfully prevented. The Sunni rebellion has now been joined by the uprising of the Shia, the largest religious/ethnic grouping in Iraq. The solidarity between Sunnis and Shias – manifested in the banners of ‘food to Falluja’, and the 200,000 Shias and Sunnis who jointly marched through Baghdad in April in solidarity – showed at bottom the potential for class unity in the teeth of the US military offensive.

Both in relation to Falluja and in the conflict with al-Sadr, the US has not been successful. It has, moreover, deepened the hostility of the majority of Iraqis who, in recent opinion polls, want the ‘liberators’ out. Indeed, all the plans of the Bush regime, together with the neo-conservatives, to have a pacified Iraq as a stepping stone to a ‘Greater Middle East’ prosperity and ‘democracy’ lie in tatters. The military doctrine of Rumsfeld, of the deployment of ‘limited forces’ for the war and occupation, is utterly discredited, not least amongst the military themselves. Unbelievably, General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in backing Rumsfeld over the revelations of torture, declared: "We absolutely have the high moral ground".

But that is not the view of the majority of troops, including officers. Sidney Blumenthal, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, revealed: "One high-level military strategist told me that Rumsfeld is ‘detested’ [in the armed forces], and that ‘if there is a sentiment in the army it is: support our troops, impeach Rumsfeld’." (The Guardian) The US newspaper, the Army Times, although a privately-produced journal, has authority amongst the military. It comments on the allegations of torture: "The folks in the Pentagon are talking about the wrong morons. This was not just a failure of leadership at the local command level. This was a failure that went straight to the top. Accountability here is essential – even if that means relieving leaders from their duty in time of war".

Imperialist overstretch

The majority of the officers opposed going into Iraq as a ‘diversion’ from the US’s war on terrorism, and are now seeing the consequences of this. Facing imperialist overstretch – as we and many other commentators predicted – the US has been forced to ‘privatise’ the war, itself a devastating commentary of the weakness in US imperialism’s ability to conduct effective foreign military operations today. Upwards of 20,000 highly-paid mercenaries, 6,000 of them armed, carry out ‘security’ duties, with even ‘private interrogators’ operating in the prisons! The use of these forces outside of military control and discipline, together with deployment of untrained US army reservists, has compounded the US’s difficulties in Iraq.

This has led to the reappearance of the previously unmentionable ‘C’ and ‘D words’ – conscription and the draft – in the US. However, it is impossible for the US to presently reintroduce conscription – particularly in view of the disaster in Iraq. The US army is a copy of US society itself. It is a professional army which is made up of quite highly trained and educated senior officers, but with the ranks coming from the most underprivileged working-class backgrounds, increasingly from black and Latino backgrounds, who have seen the armed forces as a route out of the terrible poverty and lack of prospects that blight millions of Americans today. This underlying weakness means that the US cannot hold in check a whole nation of 25 million people in Iraq with its present force. It certainly cannot engage in another Bush neo-conservative adventure elsewhere. In fact, Bush has announced the redeployment of 4,000 troops from South Korea to Iraq to bolster the US forces ahead of the ‘transfer of power’ on 30 June. This is despite the continuing stand-off between the US and North Korea.

Moreover, the mounting cost of the war, which together with the Afghanistan war now stands at $165 billion and is set to climb even higher, is an additional factor that forces even Bush to rethink his ‘strategy’ in Iraq. Before the invasion, Wolfowitz expected that a war in Iraq would "turn a profit [because] the country was ‘floating on oil’." (The Observer) As Paul Krugman has pointed out, Rupert Murdoch, media tycoon and slavish supporter of the Bush-Blair war, also expected a payoff: "The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy, if you could put it that way, would be $20 a barrel of oil". (New York Times) Yet now the price of oil is well over $40 a barrel, a 13-year high, and could stay around this level for some time. The Iraqi oil industry is running well below capacity, its installations subject to constant attacks.

Another word for occupation

Given all this, the Bush regime is looking for an ‘exit strategy’, but one which will maintain its strategic and economic interests intact. The reality, however, is that there is no easy exit, again as Vietnam demonstrated, from a ‘quagmire’. It is one thing to go in, it is another thing to come out!

Iraq is not Vietnam, it is true. It is potentially much worse! For the US ruling class, withdrawal from Vietnam was a strategic catastrophe, but it did not have immediate economic effects. The Iraq war has already had a huge economic effect on the increase in the price of oil, but a defeat in Iraq will have an immediate effect in the region, leading to the possible collapse of the Saudi Arabian regime and its replacement by a more ‘fundamentalist’ regime, with all the risks that could flow from this to the US and world economy. Such a development could strengthen al-Qa’ida and escalate terrorism throughout the world.

There are no reliable forces in Iraq upon which the US can base itself, as the assassination of the head of the Iraqi ‘Governing Council’ illustrates. US weakness, moreover, was underlined by the fact that after the failure of its siege it handed military control of Falluja over to indigenous Iraqi forces commanded by a former Ba’athist Republican Guard general. When faced with protests at this, the US then claimed that this was a ‘one-off’. However, it is clear that the US is attempting to reassemble an Iraqi army and security force that will, in effect, be staffed primarily by the very Ba’athist officers it sacked when it invaded. This, it is envisaged, can become the military force of a government that can be stitched together from the contending religious and ethnic groups and interests, which will be expected to collaborate with the US and maintain its hegemony over Iraq and the region.

Yet, in the short term, the US will probably be compelled to send in more troops, given the new ‘uprising’ of Moqtada al-Sadr and the ongoing insurgency amongst the Sunni. The attack on al-Sadr was calculated to build up the more ‘moderate’ Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani but recoiled on the US by boosting the former and undermining the authority of the latter. Al-Sadr’s force is made of a kind of Iraqi ‘sans culottes’, the very poorest of the poor of Baghdad, Najaf, Basra and the other cities of the Shia centre and south of Iraq. The US offensive against al-Sadr’s Mahdi army has resulted in Shias flocking to join him and his forces, which "may now be Iraq’s largest army". (The Guardian) At the same time, his ideas and programme – right-wing political Islam, the establishment of a theocratic, Islamic state – are thoroughly reactionary. Already, women in areas controlled by his forces have lost rights which they enjoyed even under the Saddam regime.

In the teeth of this, and despite much talk about a viable ‘exit strategy’, the US is stumbling from one expedient to another, ‘tobogganing towards disaster with its eyes closed’, as Leon Trotsky put it. ‘Sovereignty’ has now metamorphosed into ‘limited sovereignty’. What this means was shown by Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, who after the provisional government is established on 30 June, "expected that the Iraqi defence minister and generals would put their troops under the direction of the multi-force commander, who will be American". (The Guardian) He let the cat out of the bag when he said that the handover was "so that it no longer looks like occupation". (The Independent)

What will be the position after elections has not been spelt out, but the implication is that the US will maintain an estimated 14 military bases in Iraq as an ultimate ‘defence’ of the country but, in reality, to safeguard US strategic and economic interests. The US and Britain will have great difficulty now in persuading the United Nations (UN) – which does not have great authority with the Iraqis – to take over from them. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN representative in Baghdad, has demanded that everyone should stop talking about a "vital role for the UN", adding, "I won’t be involved myself". (The Independent, 18 May)

Bush’s action therefore, in announcing ‘withdrawal’, has conjured up the spectre of a repeat of Richard Nixon, who promised to end the Vietnam war when he came to power but carried on to deepen US involvement, resulting in more US troops being killed under him than under Johnson. The possibility, however, of Bush – in the event he is re-elected in November – being able to carry out a similar role in Iraq today is extremely problematical.

The interim measures proposed by the US and its stooge ‘Governing Council’, are not acceptable to the Shia majority, which demands ‘majority rule’ – that is, Shia domination of any government – as opposed to the ‘power sharing’ between Kurds, Shias and Sunnis that now theoretically exists. The Shia are also reported to be outraged at the Ba’athist ‘mini-state’ which the US has conceded in Falluja, as well as the demands for widespread autonomy for the Kurds. The Kurds, on the other hand, are opposed to an election in which ‘majority rule’ obtains. They interpret this as code for Shia domination. This reflects the inevitable scrambling for power and resources of different national and ethnic groupings – and in particular their most privileged layers – on the basis of stagnant or diminishing resources, which is Iraq today.


Trying to square the circle, Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, has proposed a federation of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish states to ‘avoid civil war’. He correctly identifies the possible fault lines of ethnic and religious divisions, which could result in the Balkanisation of Iraq, not in an ‘orderly’ fashion but along the lines of the bloody conflagration which accompanied the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Unbelievably, sections of the neo-conservatives in the US actually look forward to this outcome: the establishment of three separate states which they can play off against one another, but not linked together in any ‘federation’ as proposed by Galbraith. The repercussions of this in the region would be calamitous, with the inevitable involvement of neighbouring powers such as Syria, Iran and Turkey to protect their interests, which could result in endless wars and conflicts. Galbraith maintains that his proposal is the "best hope for holding Iraq together and avoiding civil war… [by allowing] each of Iraq’s three constituent communities the system it wants".

On a capitalist basis, such a lasting, voluntary federation is ruled out, given the inevitable scramble for power, for political and economic influence, that the tops of the various ethnic and religious groups would resort to. A voluntary ‘divorce’, along the lines of Slovakia separating from Czechoslovakia, is a completely utopian idea for Iraq.

A voluntary federation or confederation is, however, possible: one established by the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish masses on a socialist basis. This could include the coming together for the mutual benefit of all the peoples in Iraq and the region. In order to secure this, the tendency to unite, shown in the movement in April, must be cemented through a class programme involving mixed militias to defend the working people against attacks from imperialism and sectarian militias. It involves the rebuilding of the working class, its organisations and confidence: based on a programme linking the day-to-day struggles of the working class of Iraq with the idea of the socialist transformation of society. It also involves defensive struggles against the privatisation of Iraq’s resources and their handing over to foreign, imperialist multinationals.

Bush and Blair have no democratic way out of the nightmare which they have created in Iraq. Only a newly politically aroused working class can do this. Along the road of Bush and Blair, or whatever capitalist leaders replace them, is further suffering, the possible dismemberment of Iraq, and even a new dictatorship like Saddam or the nightmare of a theocratic Islamic state with everything that would mean for the peoples of the region and the world. The other road, which is a socialist one, offers the prospect not only of the transformation of Iraq but of the Middle East on the basis of the class unity of the peoples of the region through a voluntary coming together for a democratic and socialist Middle East.

This article will appear in the next issue of Socialism Today, theoretical journal of the Socialist Party.

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May 2004