Iraq elections sham: Imperialism’s continuing bloodshed threatens sectarian break-up

After only a few days, the sham of the Iraqi ‘elections’ became evident as Iraq was shaken by a renewed wave of bombings and violent attacks on government officials and the occupation forces. As each day passes, it becomes clearer that the elections have resolved nothing for either the Iraqi peoples or the occupying imperialist powers.

The elections took place against the background of bloodshed and carnage which has left an estimated 100,000 Iraqis dead. They follow the levelling of Falluja, as an ‘example’ to other cities, which drove hundreds of thousands from their home into refugee camps. Incidents of torture and repression of Iraqis by US and British soldiers have all exposed the reality of the imperialist occupation. Within days of the election, further evidence has been published revealing the economic rape of the country by imperialism.

George Monbiot, writing in the British ‘Guardian’, highlighted the contents of a report by the Inspector General for Iraq reconstruction, which detailed the activities carried out after the fall of Saddam Hussein by the Coalition Provisional Authority (which governed Iraq between April 2003 and June 2004). In just 14 months, US$8.8 billion went missing. A British adviser told the BBC ‘File on Four’ programme that CPA officials demanded bribes of up to US$300,000 to offer contracts to companies. Iraqi money seized by US army officials simply disappeared. Some US$800 million was handed over to US commanders without ever being accounted for. US$1.4 billion was flown from Baghdad to the Kurdish regional government in Irbil and has not been seen since.

Contracts to US companies were awarded without any financial safeguards and issued without competition in the form of "cost plus" deals. This means that the companies were paid expenses for the projects and then paid a percentage of these expenses as "profits". In other words, they had an incentive to spend as much as possible.

Auditors at the Pentagon have shown that in just one contract, a subsidiary of the firm Halliburton, (linked directly to US vice-president Dick Cheney) overcharged for imported fuel to the tune of US$61 million and that this was officially sanctioned. When this payment was challenged by an officer from the engineering corps, she was overruled by her superiors who insisted the prices charged were "fair and reasonable"!

Not surprisingly, the occupation forces are hated by the Iraqi people. Yet the elections, held under imperialist occupation, and with no working class alternative, have done nothing to resolve the crisis in Iraq or to end the suffering of the Iraqi people. They are complicating the situation further by deepening sectarian and ethnic divisions, intensifying the unfolding civil war, and leading to the prospect of the ‘Balkanisation’ of Iraq. The Iraqi people are again paying the price for this bloody conflict, which has unfolded as a direct result of imperialist intervention.

The pro-war press and media echoed the claims of Bush and Blair, who heralded the elections as an important landmark in building a democratic Iraq and stabilising the situation there. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The supporters of the occupation claimed the ‘high turnout’, although confined to Shia and Kurdish areas, was a rebuttal to the ‘terrorists’. The elections, they promised, would form part of a strengthening of the ‘democratic’ constitutional process and bring greater stability to the country. In fact, the ‘elections’ have opened the way to a new and even more bloody carnage and to greater instability and conflict throughout the region.

Echoes of Vietnam elections

The attempt to present the elections with such optimism does not bode well for US and British imperialism. It echoes the claims made by US President Johnson following Presidential elections in South Vietnam in 1967. Then the New York Times reported (9/4/1967): "United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of the turnout in South Vietnam’s Presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83% of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong. A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson’s policy of encouraging the growth of the constitutional process in South Vietnam. The hope here is that the new government will be able to manoeuvre with a confidence and legitimacy long lacking in South Vietnamese politics."

The South Vietnamese election in 1967 resolved as much as those held in Iraq on January 30th. As events since the elections have already illustrated, the insurgency, mainly by Sunni forces at the moment, is growing in strength and has not been defeated. The inability of the occupying powers to crush the resistance is one of the main dilemmas facing them.

According to General Shahwani, director of Iraq’s new intelligence service, in January, the insurgency had grown to 200,000 people (larger than the imperialist armies of occupation), of which about 40,000 are estimated to be hardcore fighters. Since then, the resistance has probably been strengthened. This, despite the deployment of more than 135,000 US troops, now with an additional 15,000 on a "temporary" basis, and nearly 30,000 troops from other "coalition" members. However, many governments, like the Dutch and Ukranian, are completely pulling out, while others are reducing the number of troops they deploy.

The occupation of Iraq by the imperialist powers has revealed the ‘privatisation’ of war, which is a feature of capitalism today. The second largest component of the occupation forces are 20,000 ‘private soldiers’ – more than twice the size of the British force of 9,000. These mercenaries are not even subject to any military law or rules of engagement. Yet, despite all this firepower, the occupation forces are totally incapable of defeating the insurgents.

The Iraqi people have every right to defend themselves, with arms, against the occupation forces, and to fight for the removal of US, British and other imperialist powers from Iraq, and to prevent sectarian attacks. Yet this does not mean that socialists can support or condone all the actions of the resistance or give political support. The growing resistance in Iraq is made up of many different elements.

Undoubtedly, some are Iraqi youth who have taken up arms against the occupation. However, the resistance also includes distinct groups of a right-wing religious character, which do not defend the interests of the working class and poor of Iraq. According to some reports, the resistance includes up to 40 Ba’athist organisations – remnants of the old regime of Saddam Hussein – organisations like ‘al-Qaida Organisation for Holy War’, led by the Jordanian, Abu Musab a-Zarqawi, and the ‘Ansar al-Sunna’, which are based on right-wing reactionary political Islam and which do not represent the interests of the Iraqi masses.

Socialists support the formation of a non-sectarian, armed militia, comprised of Shia, Sunni and Kurdish workers and peasants, and others exploited by capitalism. A force of this nature would fight both against the occupation and also against sectarian attacks. It would not act indiscriminately but would conduct a struggle under the democratic control of elected committees of the Iraqi people.

US imperialism is bogged down in a war and is unable to defeat the insurgents militarily. In an amazing admission Colin Powell, when asked by Bush about the progress of the war, frankly admitted: "We are losing". Bush, who is in denial about the real situation on the ground in Iraq, simply dismissed Powell.

The calling of the elections illustrated the insoluble situation confronting US imperialism. While needing to try and mollify the Shia population, and attempt to give some legitimacy to the occupation, US imperialism is also confronted with conflicting interests between the political elites of the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities.

The Shia majority (about 60% of the Iraqi population) face brutal discrimination and repression by the elite of the Sunni population (about 20% of the population), which ruled Iraq since it was created by Britain in 1920, including during Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. The Shia majority political leaders were determined to use the elections to ‘get their hands on power’, while the Sunni’s population opposed them going ahead for fear that they will now become a persecuted minority. To have postponed the polls would have meant US imperialism confronting the prospect of a Shia uprising. However, having gone ahead with the elections, imperialism has alienated still further the Sunni population and fuelled the growing insurgency.

The elections have resolved nothing and have brought with them further contradictions, which will only worsen the crisis and deepen the quagmire in which the occupying powers are trapped. An important indication of the problems that the occupying powers will now face is that all of the Iraqi groupings (except Allawi), on paper support the idea of ending the occupation – there are, of course, differences amongst the various political leaders over the timescale for withdrawal.

Not democratic

The elections cannot in any way be regarded as ‘democratic’. It is clear that democratic elections cannot take place in a country under occupation by imperialist powers. No electoral rolls are published and only a handful of the names of the candidates were made known because of ‘security’ considerations, meaning that voters voted for unknown candidates! Even in the Kurdish north protests have taken place since the elections because, officials claim, tens of thousands could not vote (many of them Kurdish Christians), because ballot papers arrived late. Al-Jazeera, the more critical Arab TV network, was expelled from the country. Why the delay of two weeks in publishing ‘provisional’ results? The degree of instability which exists was reflected in the decision of the US Carter Centre to not even send election observers.

Many capitalist commentators rejoiced that the level of violence during the polls was much lower than anticipated. Yet, with over 260 separate attacks, Iraq suffered the greatest number of guerrilla attacks carried out on a single day, anywhere in the Middle East.

The capitalist press and media tried to present these elections as a great triumph. Initially, they reported a ‘massive turnout’ and expressed surprise at the turnout even in Sunni areas.

However, this argument became unsustainable. Even CNN was forced to concede that in the Sunni dominated Salahuddin area the turnout was probably less than 20%. After initial official claims of turnouts of 75% or more, and comparisons being drawn with the first post apartheid elections in South Africa, the capitalist commentators and officials have systematically revised downwards.

Published results now admit to a disappointing turnout of 58%. In the Sunni province of Anbar, which includes Falluja and Ramadi, 13,893 people voted – 2% of those registered! Even in the Sunni dominated areas of Baghdad, like Adamiya, Sunni turnout was minimal. One Sunni leader in this district simply stated that, "In this part of the city no election took place".

Minimal Sunni representation

This means that Sunni representation in the National Assembly will be minimal. Fearing that this will result in further alienation and strengthen the insurgency, sections of the Shia leadership, together with US imperialism, are making determined efforts to try and include Sunni leaders in drafting a new constitution.

Yet these overtures will not halt the growing Sunni insurgency and may not even succeed in getting off the ground beyond a token Sunni involvement. Although 13 of the largest Sunni parties which boycotted the elections have agreed to be included in drafting a new constitution, the powerful Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars said they would not participate and that they "Look at the coming government as a puppet government". (International Herald Tribune 3/2/05)

Even if some Sunni forces agree to participate in drafting a constitution this will not resolve the underlying conflicts and tensions. It will certainly not end the growing insurgency. Already there are indications that sections of the dominant Shiite forces want to step up repression of the insurgency. This will only strengthen resistance and re-enforce sectarian divisions amongst the Iraqi population.

Shiite forces jockey for positions

The overwhelming victory of the Shiite forces has brought with it renewed tensions and divisions amongst the Shiite leadership. Although at the time of writing the situation remains unclear, there is already a series of manoeuvres and jockeying for positions taking place between the various political alliances and parties.

Provisional results give the Shia Muslim ‘United Iraqi Alliance’ (UIA), effectively led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who spent 20 years in exile in Iran, and which has the support of the senior Shia cleric, Ali al-Sistani, 48% of the vote. This will make them by far the largest block in the new assembly but without an overall majority. Yet this alliance is extremely fragmented and politically unstable.

It is made up of a collection of differing Shia political and religious leaders. Within hours of the provisional results being announced, three candidates emerged for the post of Prime Minister from within the UIA. These include Ibrahim al-Jaafari and the US favourite for the job, the current finance minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi. The third outsider is Ahmad Chalabi, onetime favourite of Dick Cheney and the neo-cons in Washington, who appeared to have fallen from grace after it was revealed that he had passed some US security codes to the Iranians. According to one report in the British Times, Chalabi has managed to make a partial come back and has won the backing of some key figures to become either prime minister or vice-president.

Within this alliance are forces who favour collaborating with US imperialism and also those which support the establishment of Khomeini-style Iranian clerical rule in Iraq.

One striking feature of the election was the wholesale rejection of US imperialism’s stooge Prime Minister, Ayad Allawi. Despite having the support, both material and political, from US and British imperialism, his ‘Iraqi List’ coalition received a miserable vote of 14%! This was despite Allawi running the ‘slickest’ campaign, which cost an estimated US$4 million.

Kurdish question still explosive

The Kurdish Alliance has won second place with approximately 26% of the vote and is in a pivotal position in the new Assembly. Its leaders have announced that they want the Iraqi Presidency and will propose Jalal Talibani for the post.

They clearly hope to use this position to secure the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and have declared they will block with any group which declares its support for maintaining Kurdish autonomy. However, the question of Kurdish independence could still come back onto the agenda as the crisis worsens throughout Iraq. This was reflected in the calling of a separate referendum on independence amongst the Kurds in northern Iraq during the recent election although no results have been declared.

Any movement towards the establishment of an independent Kurdish state will inevitably draw other countries in the region into the conflict – notably Turkey, Syria and Iran, all of which have significant Kurdish minorities.

Even the proposal for a Kurdish President has caused complications in the horse trading which is taking place between the various parties and alliances. Other proposals have included offering this, largely ceremonial, post to a Sunni politician, as a means of trying to include them in the process.

At the time of writing, it is unclear if the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance will accept the Kurdish proposal and form a coalition with the Kurdish Alliance, or reject it, making it more likely that the Kurdish Alliance will form part of an opposition grouping with Allawi, and the tiny Sunni parties with a handful of seats in the National Assembly.

The jockeying for positions amongst these parties will undoubtedly take place against the background of a continued Sunni insurgency, which the occupation forces have been unable to crush, and a deepening crisis throughout Iraq.

Inherently unstable government

Moreover, whatever the makeup of the government which finally emerges as a result of the trade offs between the various alliances and parties will be inherently unstable. The possibility that Abdul Mahdi, the favourite son of the US in the UIA, can become Prime Minister, illustrates the prospect which exists for widespread opposition developing towards the next government from amongst the Shia population. The programme of the UIA included a time table for US withdrawal. It also pledged to write off Iraqi debt, expand the public sector and keep control of the oil sector.

Yet this is not the programme supported by al-Mahdi. In October 2004, he told a meeting of the American Enterprise Institute that he planned to, "restructure and privatise Iraqi state-owned sector" and in December he promised to announce plans for a new oil law, "very promising to the American investors". This is the same al-Mahdi who oversaw the signing of a deal with Shell, BP, and Chevron-Texaco, in the run up to the elections, and who negotiated an austerity deal with the IMF.

Unfortunately, the working class and poor of Iraq, Shia, Sunni and Kurdish, did not have the opportunity to support a party or alliance which would fight to defend their interests by opposing imperialist occupation, capitalism, and standing for the unity of all Iraqi people exploited by capitalism. Unfortunately, the Communist Party, which historically had a powerful basis of support, failed to present such an alternative. It supported privatisation and, sitting in the interim government, failed to oppose the imperialist occupation. It paid the price for these policies and polled only 69,920 votes in the elections – about 0.8%!

Four days after the elections, Bush made clear where US imperialism stands on the question of a timetable for withdrawal (defended by the UIA) and declared, "You don’t set timetables".

So those Iraqis who did participate in these elections, and voted against the free market policies of the occupying powers and the interim government, and supported a timetable for imperialist withdrawal, are to get exactly what they voted against!: Government under the heel of imperialist occupation and neo-liberalism.

Danger of break up of Iraq

The inability of the occupying powers to suppress the insurgents is a disaster for US and British imperialism. Unable to secure military victory, US imperialism is driven by the conflict itself to adopt policies which have fostered the sectarian conflict. This could even result in the break up of Iraq along religious and national lines – with the Shia people concentrated in the south, the Sunni in the central belt, and the Kurds in the north.

Such a development would result in even more bloody carnage than has already taken place, which has led to the slaughter of an estimated 100,000 Iraqis. Yet so concerned are the occupying powers about the plight of the Iraqi people they do not even bother to keep a body count of the dead.

A break up of Iraq along these lines would leave two of the oil fields in the south under Shia control, none in the Sunni areas, and probably a battle involving the Kurds, the occupation forces and Turkey for control of the third oil field in Mozal, near the border of northern Iraq.

The danger of a break-up of Iraq is recognised by the more far-sighted capitalist commentators. While this was clearly not the original intention of US imperialism when it launched the invasion, their policies have fostered sectarian divisions and propelled events towards the Balkanisation of the country.

Prior to the elections, the ‘International Herald Tribune’ warned: "When the United States was debating whether to invade Iraq, there was one outcome that everyone agreed had to be avoided at all costs: a civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that would create instability throughout the Middle East and give terrorists a new ungoverned region that they could use as a base for operations. The coming elections…are looking more and more like the beginning of the worst-case scenario."

These warnings have fallen on deaf ears in the White House. The Bush regime is now considering using the ‘Salvadorian’ option of death squads to try and track down and execute those active in the insurgency. This policy, especially if implemented by US Special Forces, together with elite forces from the Iraqi military or police, will only deepen still further the widening sectarian divide.

Sections of the US ruling class even welcome this horrific development. Articles have appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post arguing that, "We have to have a proper election in Iraq so that we can have a proper civil war", and that the US should "see Iraqi factionalisation as a useful tool".

The Balkanisation of Iraq, with a Shia- based state holding most of the oil reserves, supported by US imperialism, would provoke greater regional instability. For although the Shia form a majority in Iraq and Iran, the Sunni population forms a majority in the rest of the Arab world. Yet this bloody prospect is becoming an increasingly likely scenario as a result of the US-led occupation.

The threat of a deepening sectarian and ethnic civil war is undoubtedly not supported by the mass of Iraqi workers, peasants, and others exploited by capitalism. However, the absence of a strong, unified, organised movement of the working class, means that there is not a sufficiently powerful force that can fight to defend the interests of all the Iraqi peoples.

New trade unions

Some trade unions have reportedly been established amongst some sections of workers. In May 2003 workers employed by Iraq’s largest oil company, the Southern Oil Company (SOC), formed their own union, the SOCU. The SOCU claims a membership of 35,000 and has opposed the privatisation of the oil industry.

Other, small sections of workers are grouped together in the Iraqi Communist Party- controlled Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions. (The SOCU is not affiliated to the IFTU).

However, these steps towards building an independent organised workers’ movement are at a very early stage. Moreover, this is also hampered by the policy defended by the IFTU, which wrongly collaborated with the interim government and has not opposed the occupation.

Socialists support the building of, independent, democratic trade unions that are free from any state intervention or involvement. We also support such trade unions conducting a struggle to withdraw all of the occupying powers in Iraq and oppose all Iraqi governments which defend capitalism. It is necessary to oppose the ideas and policies of the leadership of the IFTU by democratic debate and discussion. Socialists cannot support or condone the assassination of the IFTU leader, Hadi Salih. Such methods will only deepen sectarian divisions and will also be used in the future against leaders who defend workers’ interests.

The celebrations by the rulers of capitalism and imperialism following these elections are rapidly turning into nightmares. US imperialism is desperately searching for an exit strategy. Yet, faced with a growing civil war, and its inability to crush the insurgency, the Bush administration cannot find a way out.

The idea that an Iraqi state machine can be rebuilt following the elections, with its own army and security forces strong enough to maintain control of the country is almost comical. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spilled the beans when he admitted that fewer than 30% of the Iraqi security services are capable of carrying out ‘independent missions’ in Iraq.

"Only about 40,000 can go anywhere and do anything," he admitted. Myers also concluded that the 79,000 Iraqi police are not a well prepared as officials are claiming. Paul Wolfowitz told US Senators that the Iraqi army has absenteeism of up to 40% at any one time. In one unit of 134 soldiers, only 37 returned for duty after leave having been paid! In a masterly understatement, Myers concluded: "It’s a different culture and it is difficult for us to understand."

According to recent reports, currently the most reliable and effective units of the new Iraqi army are made up of Kurdish soldiers who clearly believe that they are, in effect, fighting to defend their areas from Arabs. This is potentially a further destabilising factor and indication of the weakness of the Iraqi state machine.

No wonder the Iraqi Minister of the Interior, Falah al-Naqib, speaking in Saudi Arabia admitted: "It will be many months before Iraqis could take control of their own security…I would say within 18 months but the timing could also depend on the political situation in Iraq."

Far from a rapid exit strategy following these elections, US and British imperialism are set to be locked into this deepening crisis for a lengthy period of years or face the dismal prospect of a humiliating "declare victory and run". Zbigniew Brzezinski, former President Carter’s National Security Adviser, spelled out what a military victory would require: 500,000 troops, US$500 billion expenditure, a military draft, and the introduction of a war-time tax. Even then he estimates it would take at least ten years to secure a victory – not a very enticing prospect for US imperialism.

Biggest anti-war movement in history

The Iraq war has already provoked the largest ever anti-war movement in history internationally. It has aroused millions within the US to oppose it. If Brzezinski’s sort of policies were attempted it would provoke a mass struggle even bigger than the anti-Vietnam war movement which rocked US society to its foundations in the 1970s.

The rising US army death toll, which is approaching 2,000, with over 25,000 maimed or injured, will fuel the growing anti-war movement in the USA. The morale of the soldiers sent to fight this imperialist war is falling further and further as they are sucked into the deepening conflict. More than one third of the troops serving in Iraq are drawn from the national reserve. The commander of the national reserve, Lt Gen James Helmly, recently wrote a letter to the Joint Chiefs of Staff warning that the entire national reserve of 200,000 was "rapidly degenerating into a broken force."

Within weeks of Bush winning the Presidency for the second time opinion polls showed a majority opposed to the war. The war in Iraq is increasingly linked in the consciousness of US workers to the war that Bush has declared on them by introducing vicious budget cuts.

These include cuts in the food stamp programme which helps the poorest feed themselves. This will be cut by US$1.1 billion, housing grants will be slashed by US$3.7 billion, or 11.5% of the total budget, and Medicare, which gives some medical care to help the poorest, will see its budget cut by US$60 billion over the next 10 years. The poor are to pay for the tax cuts given to the super-rich. This goes hand in hand with a 5% increase in the Pentagon’s budget to US$419.3 billion!

A crucial part of the struggle of the Iraqi people against the occupation of the country by the imperialist powers is the building of a powerful movement against Bush and Blair in the USA and Britain.

The alternative to the carnage that the imperialist occupation has meant for the Iraqi people is to build a united socialist movement of all Iraqi workers, peasants, young people, and others exploited by capitalism. This movement will oppose the existing political alliances and parties which defend capitalism and establish a workers’ and peasants’ government and a democratic socialist confederation of Iraq as part of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East.

A version of this article will appear in the forthcoming edition of Socialism Today.

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February 2005