The fragmentation of Iraq?
The following article, by Lynn Walsh, was written for the forthcoming September edition of Socialism Today, prior to the terrible human stampede in Baghdad on 31 August. This disaster, up until now, has left 965 Shia Muslims dead and many more injured; amongst them many children. Panic broke out amongst the one million or so pilgrims after rumours spread that a suicide bomber was amongst them. While many Sunni Muslims came to help people who were drowning in the Tigris and donated blood in the local hospitals, this terrible incident will most likely accelerate the process towards civil war in Iraq, as different political organisations and groupings exploit discontent and anger along ethnic lines. There is also increasing dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government and its handling of the situation. Alongside the continuing anger, especially amongst the Arab population, at the foreign occupation, the Iraqi government has hardly any credibility at all.
These developments come as it has now been revealed that the cost of the war and the occupation is outstripping the cost of the Vietnam War. This will have a knock-on effect on developments in the US, especially after the Bush administration’s complete failure to protect, rescue and aid the hundreds of thousands of Hurricane Katrina victims.
All of this makes once again clear that it is time to end the occupation of Iraq, and to spend the money wasted on imperialist occupation on rebuilding the lives of the millions who are left with next to nothing, both in Iraq and in the flooded areas of the southern US. The anti-occupation protests planned in many cities around the world on 24 September will be a further powerful demonstration of continuing international opposition to the war policy of Bush and Blair.
After the constitutional stitch-up…
Life under US-British military occupation is a living hell for most Iraqis. Despite sending over 100,000 troops and spending over $300bn, US imperialism has failed to defeat the insurgency or restore vital services to the people. Facing a rising tide of anti-war opinion at home, the Bush regime is desperately searching for an exit strategy. It has pushed for the early adoption of a constitution that is likely to accelerate the slide towards civil war and the break-up of the country.
Invasion by the armed forces of US imperialism, Britain and other powers, has turned Iraq into a living hell. The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was bad enough. Opponents of his regime suffered brutal repression. Saddam plunged the country into an eight-year war with Iran. Kurds were attacked with poison gas, and the Shia uprising in 1991 was savagely suppressed. But overthrowing Saddam was a task for the Iraqi people. Military occupation by the Bush regime, supported by the Blair government, has created a far more barbarous situation.
The scale of civilian casualties is horrendous. In July, over 1,000 corpses were brought to the Baghdad morgue, making it “the bloodiest month in Baghdad’s modern history”. (Robert Fisk, Independent 18 August)
In its latest report, Iraq Body Count (19 July) estimates that 24,865 non-combatant civilians were killed between 2003-05, half these women and children. Nearly 40% were killed by US-led forces, the others by criminal violence and insurgents. But the medical journal, The Lancet (28 July 2005) describes this as “an absolute minimum … the figure is necessarily an underestimate”. Last year, The Lancet published a survey indicating “that the death toll associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq is more likely than not about 100,000 people, and maybe much higher”. (The Guardian, 28 October 2005) A huge number of people have suffered injuries, and many will be maimed for life. Even now, the US-British military authorities are making no attempt to keep account of the dead and wounded. Whole sections of cities, such as Fallujah, have been reduced to rubble by US assault tactics.
Over 15,000 prisoners are held in Abu Ghaib and two other prisons, with a fourth now being built. Despite the presence of 138,000 US-led coalition troops, there is no ‘security’. Violent crime and looting, kidnapping and rapes, are rampant.
There is an increasing number of incidents in which Iraq’s new security forces are using aggressive methods against civilians – rounding up suspects and abusing them in detention. Recently, over 20 doctors at Baghdad’s Yarmouk hospital went on strike in protest against abuse of patients and doctors by Iraqi soldiers. (Al Jazerra, 19 July)
The Iraqi writer, Halfa Zangana, who was imprisoned under Saddam, sums up the situation: “Despite all the rhetoric of ‘building a new democracy’, Iraqis are buckling under the burdens and abuse of the US-led occupation and its local Iraqi sub-contractors. Daily life for Iraqis is still a struggle for survival. Human rights under occupation have proved, like weapons of mass destruction, to be a mirage… In a land awash with oil, 16 million Iraqis rely on monthly food rations for survival. None have been received since May. Acute malnutrition among children has doubled. Unemployment, at 70%, has fuelled poverty, prostitution, back-street abortions and honour killings. Corruption and nepotism are rampant in the interim government”. (Chewing on meaningless words, Guardian, 17 August)
The US claims that $9bn of Iraqi oil money has been spent on ‘reconstruction’ but much of this has been diverted into security, with no real results in terms of essential services. The emphasis has been on mega-projects, with big bucks for contractors, and forcing through privatisation. There is corruption everywhere, both among US contractors and Iraqi politicians and middlemen.
Oil production is still below the pre-war level and declined this year because of sabotage. Iraq cannot produce enough refined fuel to supply the growing number of vehicles, and queues stretch for miles. In most areas, there are only a few hours’ electricity a day, with no power for fans or air conditioners, with summer temperatures of 120 degrees F.
Asked for his views on the constitution, one Iraqi responded: “What constitution are you talking about? We are fed up with this thing! We would prefer to solve our problems first, such as electricity, water and security. How come they gathered to approve the constitution while Iraqis are being slaughtered?” (New York Times 26 August)
The ‘shock and awe’ invasion of Iraq was intended by Bush to demonstrate the unchallengeable power of US imperialism. Instead, this military adventure has exposed the limits of US power, undermining US prestige and its ability to intervene around the world. The US is bogged down in an unwinnable war, worse in many ways than the Vietnam quagmire.
In June vice president Cheney claimed the insurgency was in its ‘death throes’. At the same time, the US Mideast commander, General Abizaid, admitted that the insurgency’s “overall strength is about the same”. (New York Times 24 June) In reality, insurgency stronger than ever before. Iraqi civilians and police officers have been dying at a rate of more than 800 a month between August 2004 and May 2005, with over 2,000 injuries a month.
“It has been clear since the government of pm Ibrahim al-Jaafari took over after the January 30 elections that the insurgency is taking an increasing toll, killing Iraqi civilians and security workers at a faster rate”. ( New York Times, 14 July)
In reality the US has given up hope of militarily defeating the insurgency with US forces and is now relying on Iraqi-ization — training and equipping Iraqi security forces to take over the fight. “It’s a race against time because by the end of this coming summer we can no longer sustain the presence we have now”, said retired General Barry McCaffrey, who visited Iraq in June: “The thing is, the wheels are coming off it”.
US imperialism has reached the limits of its military resources with respect to ground forces, which are crucial to sustaining an occupation. Despite lowering enlistment standards, the army and the marines are failing to meet their recruitment targets, falling 40% short in some months. Recruiters are meeting more and more resistance in high schools, and their morale is falling. “According to the army, since October 2002 some 30 army recruiters have gone AWOL”. (Michael Bronner, The recruiters’ war, Vanity Fair, September 2005)
Up to 35% of US forces in Iraq are from the Reserve and National Guard. But as more of these troops are now approaching their two-year maximum call-up limit, the supply of these forces is running out. “By next fall, we’ll have expended our ability to use National Guard brigades as one of our principle forces”, commented General McCaffrey. “We’re reaching the bottom of the barrel”. (New York Times, 11 July 2005) The chief of the Army Reserve, Lt-general James Helmy has repeatedly warned that the Reserve is “rapidly degenerating into a broken force”.
By intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq, US military forces have been stretched to extreme limits. Even Rumsfeld recognises the political impossibility of returning to the draft after the experience of the Vietnam war, when demoralisation and dissatisfaction of conscripted troops played a major parting the disintegration of US forces. “There isn’t a chance in the world that the draft will be brought back”, Rumsfeld told Congress. (New York Times, 24 June) An AP-Ipsos poll found seven out of ten Americans oppose any return to the draft, with opposition especially strong among younger people and women. (New York Times, 24 June)
While Bush continues in public to beat the drum about ‘the war on terrorism’, his regime has been forced to abandon this empty propaganda slogan masquerading as a strategy. In July, the Bush administration began to play down the war on terror (WOT) in favour of the ‘global struggle against violent extremism’ (GSAVE). (UPI 26 July)
Incredibly, in view of the prominence of the WOT strategy, General Meyers, chief of the general staff, announced (1 August) that he had “objected to the use of the term ‘war on terrorism’ before, because if you call it a war, then you think of people in uniform being the solution”.
What is this, if not an admission that the US military cannot win? Another US general, Chiarelli, writing in the Military Review, warns that the US cannot succeed in Iraq unless it adopts ‘broad spectrum’ operations, embracing economic, social and political reconstruction. “A gun on every street corner, although visually appealing, provides only a short-term solution”, he writes. It “does not equate to long-term security grounded in a democratic process”.
“The cultural reality is that no matter what the outcome of a combat operation, for every insurgent put down, the potential exists to grow many more if cultural mitigation is not practiced”. (New York Times, 22 August)
But it is too late for US imperialism to recover any real control in Iraq. “The stark reality”, comment Samuel Berger and Brent Scowcroft, veterans of the US foreign policy establishment who warned Bush against invading Iraq, “is that the US does not have the right structural capacity to stabilise and rebuild nations”. (Washington Post, 27 July)
What is the character of the insurgency?
The insurgency in Iraq is, in reality, a predominantly Sunni insurgency, which operates mainly in the so-called ‘Sunni triangle’ and Baghdad. While it draws wider support from overwhelming hatred of foreign occupation, its active forces appear to be mainly ex-Baathist members of Saddam’s former state apparatus and right-wing Sunni Islamists. Most prominent is Tawhid al-Jihad, recently re-named Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by the Jordanian al-Zarqawi. Although there appears to have been an increase in foreign ‘jihadists’, most of the Islamist insurgents come from within the country. Over recent months, the Islamists appear to have become a stronger element within the Sunni insurgency.
This is not a national liberation movement on the model of third-world liberation movements during the 1960s and 1970s, such as Algeria, Vietnam, Angola, and others. We unreservedly defend the right of the Iraqi people to take up arms against imperialist occupation. But we should have no illusions in the character and aims of the Sunni resistance. The insurgency is fighting US imperialism, but that in itself does not give it progressive aims.
In Vietnam, for instance, the National Liberation Front led a long and savage guerrilla war against US imperialism and its quisling governments in South Vietnam. As a by-product of the guerrilla war, there were many episodes of attacks, bombings, assassinations, etc, which resulted in the death of non-combatant civilians. Some of the methods of the NLF, which was linked to the Stalinist regime in North Vietnam, would not have been the chosen tactics of the working class. But such ‘excesses’, inevitable during a guerrilla war, were outweighed by the struggle for national liberation and progressive social change – which had the support of the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese. The NLF stood for the reunification of North and South Vietnam and the abolition of landlordism and capitalism, with the extension of the planned economy into the South.
In contrast to this, the Baathist-Islamist insurgency in Iraq does not stand for progressive social aims. The two main elements within it are either fighting for the restoration of Baathist power or the establishment of a Sunni Islamic state, not for national liberation for the Iraqi people. Even if they were able to take control of the central provinces, within a loose federation, they would re-establish a dictatorship, which would mean the continued repression of the Shia population and minorities. They have not come out against landlords and capitalists, or tribal leaders, and have not even put forward a programme against the sweeping, US-sponsored privatisations now taking place.
As the Sunnis form a minority of the population (about 20%), and are in a minority in Baghdad, the insurgency cannot hope to recapture the dominant position in the country they enjoyed under Saddam. Their aim is to make the US-sponsored occupation regime unworkable and block the formation of a Shia/Kurd-dominated state in which Sunnis would be a marginalized minority. The Islamists in particular are motivated by the aim of preventing the formation of a Shia-dominated state, which they see as strengthening the regional influence of the Iranian (Shia) state.
Their lack of positive objectives is reflected in their nihilistic tactics, especially the use of suicide bombers and indiscriminate car bombings which take a horrendous toll on civilian lives. In the first period of the occupation, the Sunni forces directed their fire mainly against US and other occupying forces. But as the US has adopted more cautious, defensive tactics, the insurgents increasingly turned their attacks against Iraqi collaborators, such as members of the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Sunni Association of Muslim scholars, who are participating in the occupation regime. But they have also attempted systematically to kill doctors, lawyers, and other professionals in an attempt to bring about complete social break-down. Suicide bombers have also targeted would-be recruits to the police and army, mostly driven by unemployment and poverty to seek jobs in the ramshackle security forces.
Sunni insurgents have repeatedly attacked Shia targets, mosques, clerics, pilgrims, festivals, and so on. Clearly, the aim has been to provoke a sectarian civil war. Shia leaders have tried to prevent retaliatory attacks, fearing that all-out, sectarian civil war would cut across their efforts, through partial collaboration with the occupying power, to create a constitutional framework for a Shia-dominated Iraq in which they can consolidate their power.
A growing number of retaliatory attacks are taking place, however. “The army and police recruits killed by the suicide bombers are mostly Shia”, writes Patrick Cockburn. “There are also near-daily massacres of working-class Shias. Now the Shias have started to strike back. The bodies of Sunnis are being found in rubbish dumps across Baghdad. ‘I was told in Najaf by senior leaders that they have killed upwards of a thousand Sunnis’, an Iraqi official said. Often the killers belong, at least nominally, to the government’s paramilitary forces, including the police commandos. These commandos seem to be operating under the control of certain Shias, who may be members of the Badr Brigade, the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI], and the country’s largest militia with up to seventy thousand members”. (Looking for someone to kill, London Review of Books, 4 August 2005)
“Since the Shia parties took over the government in April”, reports the New York Times, “the number of killings of Sunnis has increased, especially in mixed neighbourhoods of Baghdad, like Ur. Fifty or more families have moved out to areas where Sunnis predominate” – an escalating process of ‘ethnic cleansing. (Killing off Sunnis, One by One, New York Times, 5 July)
The thoroughly reactionary character of Sunni Islamic insurgent forces is shown by their role in towns like Haditha (pop. 90,000) in the Sunni triangle (140 miles north-west of Baghdad), which they control, despite occasional sweeps by US forces. A report by Omer Mahdi (Guardian, 22 August) reveals that the town is completely controlled by a coalition of Ansar al-Sunna and al-Qaeda in Iraq, who run it like “a miniature Taliban-like state”.
Alcohol and music are banned, and women’s conduct is closely monitored. Summary ‘justice’ is meted out on the town square, with public floggings, mutilations and beheadings. Other towns in the region, like Qaim, Rawa Anna and Ramadi, appear to be run in the same way.
This report presents a horrifying vision of what a Sunni insurgent regime could be like in the Sunni triangle, with the real possibility of such a Taliban-like regional regime developing within a loose Iraqi federation. A struggle for territory and resources between Sunni, Kurdish and Shia regional states or sub-states would open the prospect of Balkan-type ethnic cleansing and protracted sectarian conflict.
Moves by Shia and Kurdish leaders to form separate sub-states in the North and the south, taking control of the main oil resources, may in the short run increase support for the Sunni insurgency. But the leaders of this rebellion, whether ex-Baathists or right-wing Islamists, offer no real way forward for the people of the Sunni-majority areas. The workers, small traders, peasants and other exploited layers carried the main burden of exploitation, oppression and war under Saddam and now carry it under imperialist occupation. If in the future they are subjected to a Taliban or Saudi-type regime, that would be exchanging one form of hell for another.
Some Shia leaders, like Moktada al-Sadr, whose base is in mixed Shia-Sunni areas, such as Baghdad, the South and even in parts of the ‘Sunni triangle’, have tried to cut across sectarian and communal divisions, calling united demonstrations of Shia and Sunnis. “After all, we are one united people whether we are Sunnis or Shiites, Kurds or Arabs”, proclaimed a prominent Sadr supporter. (Associated Press/IHT 20 August) A Shia-Sunni conflict in Baghdad, for instance, could trigger a conflict throughout the country, as there are Shias living in almost every region.
Al-Sadr’s Islamic aims and support for clerical rule, however, severely limit his movement’s ability to appeal to broad layers of workers and the oppressed. To defend themselves against imperialist occupation, defend their communities, and fight for change in the interest of working people, the working class needs its own democratic organisation. As opposed to some form of Islamic theocracy, in which the landlords, capitalists and tribal leaders would dominate society, workers’ organisations will have to fight for a socialist economy and a democratic socialist solution to Iraq’s complex national problems.
Bush’s best-laid plans …
The bush regime’s ‘plan’ for Iraq has had two main planks: ‘Iraqi-ization’, handing over security to Iraqi forces, the new national army, police, and security services; and establishing a new political framework, legalised by a new constitution and legitimised by a referendum, creating a new ‘democratic’ Iraq. On this basis, the US hoped to establish a stable, pro-US state and rapidly begin withdrawing US troops, possibly in spring 2006. But things have not worked out as they intended.
From March 2003 to May this year, the US directly controlled the occupation regime. They ruled through their proconsuls, Jay Gardener and Paul Bremer, and then – after the bogus handover of ‘sovereignty’ – through the Allawi government, composed of wealthy exiles like Chalabi and Allawi himself, long sponsored by the Pentagon and the CIA. After the January elections, however, it was no longer possible for the US to dictate every aspect of policy to the Jafaari government, despite the armed ‘authority’ of imperialist forces and a 1200-strong US diplomatic-intelligence bureaucracy operating within the ‘green zone’. The Jafaari government is undoubtedly collaborating with the US, but it is also subject to immense pressure from the forces it represents.
It is based on an alliance-of-convenience between political forces that have strong support on the ground, including powerful militias. On the basis of a high turnout in the January election, the Kurdish nationalist leaders of the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and DUK (Democratic Union of Kurdistan), won 26% of the votes and 75 seats (out of 275). The Shiite list, sponsored by the Grand Ayahatollah Ali al-Sistani, emerged as the biggest bloc (with 48% of the votes and 140 seats). It includes various Shia parties and secular Shia groups like that of Ahmed Chalabi, but is dominated by the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Aziz al-Hakim, and the Dawa (‘Call’) of Iraq’s prime minister, Ibrahim Jaafari. Bush tries to present the war in Iraq as a struggle between the democracy-loving people of Iraq and the evil forces of terrorism. In reality, the occupation would already have become completely untenable without the US’s collaboration with the Shia and Kurdish parties, which have established de facto rule in the their respective regions and are more and more openly pursuing their own aims – which will come into conflict with US imperialism.
Kudistan already has a high degree of autonomy. After the first Gulf war (1990-91), western imperialism provided military protection for the Kurdish region (the “no fly zone”) as part of its strategy of strangling Saddam’s regime. The Kurdish nationalist leaders collaborated with US imperialism during the invasion and peshmerga militia have actively supported US forces against the Madhi army and Sunni insurgents – “building up a rich storehouse of future vendettas” as the Financial Times put it (8 August). The quid pro quo, as far as Kurdish leaders are concerned, is effective autonomy within a loose Iraqi confederation.
In June, the Kurdish National Assembly was convened, with KDP leader Masood Barzan elected president of Kurdistan. The government has at least 50,000 persmergas under its control in Kurdistan, with other contingents forming units of the Iraqi army throughout the country. There is mass support, moreover, for independence. Two million Kurds voted in a referendum in January, with 98% favouring independence.
The main aim of the Kurdish leaders in negotiations on the constitution has been to preserve the widest possible interpretation of the ‘federalism’ prescribed by the US-imposed Transitional Administrative Law (TAL). By the same measure, they are happy for the Shia south to implement a high degree of autonomy. As Kurdish society, historically Sunni, is overwhelmingly secular, they do not want a constitution that imposes an Islamic state. But they may well calculate that they can live with loose wording in the constitution that will allow them to follow the region’s secular traditions.
The Kurdish leaders, however, are determined to consolidate and extend their autonomous region. A key aim is to take control of Kirkuk and the north’s major oil field. They claim that the city is historically ‘a Kurdish city’ and call for Kirkuk to be the capital of the Kurdish region. But this is strongly opposed by the Turcoman, Arabs, Assyrians and Chaldians who also live there. Officially, the status of Kirkuk has been postponed until a later date, and was not part of the current constitutional negotiations.
Earlier this year, there were demonstrations in Kirkuk by Turcomen and Arabs against the takeover of the municipal administration by the Kurdish-dominated Kirkuk Brotherhood List. The conflict between Arabs, who were moved into the city under Saddam’s ‘Arabization’ programme, and displaced Kurds, who want their property back, is potentially explosive, as is the sharing out of oil reserves between Kirkuk and the Kurdish region. “We are encouraging our people to claim their rights peacefully”, says Ali Mehdi, a local Turcoman leader. But if talks with the Kurds break down, “that will be the beginning of the civil war”. (International Herald Tribune, 12 August)
Moreover, the Turkish state has repeatedly warned that it will intervene militarily if the Kurds take over Kirkuk. There is unfortunately the horrendous possibility of Kirkuk becoming Iraq’s “Sarajevo”.
The Shia forces
In the shiite list, SCIRI and Dawa are the most powerful Shia parties, and dominate the south. Both have well-armed militias, and the SCIRI’s Badr Corps dominates the Iraqi army in the south. They both stand for a form of Islamic state, and seek to replace Iraq’s civil code with religious law administered by clerical courts, which would particularly affect the status of women (marriage, divorce, custody of children, property rights, access to education, employment etc).
In fact, Shiite religious parties have already established control over the southern cities, imposing a conservative religious code on dress, alcohol, beards etc. The religious authorities lay down the law, which is enforced by Iranian-style religious police.
At the beginning of August, Al-Hakim came out in favour of a loose federal arrangement that would allow an autonomous state in the south. The proposal undoubtedly had the support of Al-Sistani. Although Shias are roughly 60% of the population, the SCIRI and Dawa leaders recognise that they cannot dominate a centralised Iraqi state and impose on the whole of Iraq the kind of Islamic regime they favour. Given that the Kurds insist on autonomy (and currently have US backing on this issue), the Shia leaders no doubt concluded that they should demand autonomy for themselves in the south. This would confine the Sunni leaders to a relatively weak central region. At the same time, it would have the enormous advantage of giving the southern Shia decisive control of the Basra oil fields, which account for about 80% of Iraq’s reserves.
Dawa, and especially SCIRI, look to Iran for support. Al-Sistani is, in fact, an Iranian. SCIRI supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Aziz al-Hakim advocates Iraqi reparations to Iran for the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88). The new Iraqi oil minister has proposed building a pipeline from Basra to the Iranian port of Abadan. In July, the Iraqi defence minister signed an agreement with his Iranian counterpart for Iran to provide military support and train the Iraqi military. ‘Nobody’, the Iraqi minister said, clearly referring to the US, ‘can dictate to Iraq its relations with other countries’.
Al-Hakim’s call for loose federation that would allow autonomy for the south raises the prospect of a southern Iraqi statelet that would, in effect, be a satellite of Iran. The biggest irony of the Bush regime’s adventure in Iraq would be a strengthening of the regional influence of Iran, viewed by Washington as the US’s arch enemy ever since the 1979 revolution which brought the mullahs to power.
There is another Shia force, however, which has increasingly come into conflict with the SCIRI-Dawa alliance. Moktada al-Sadr has attacked the collaboration between SCIRI-Dawa and the occupation authority, leading the Mahdi Army in two uprisings last year against US forces. Although Sadr agreed to join the ‘political process’ in January (and has a contingent of deputies in the National Assembly), the tension between the Madhi Army and SCIRI’s Badr Corps has sharpened during the constitutional negotiations.
Al-Sadr also wants an Islamic republic, but he has criticised Sistani and al-Hakim’s alliance with Iran and he opposes a loose federation that would allow an autonomous south or even an independent southern statelet. His base is among the Shia poor of Baghdad (particularly the vast Sadr City slum) and other cities, including in the south (for example, Basra, Nasiriyiah, Amara, etc). Sadr has called demonstrations demanding water, electricity and food for the poor. There is a strong Iraqi nationalist element in his appeal and, unlike al-Hakim and others, he has called for unity between Shias and Sunnis. With a powerful base in Baghdad and its surrounds, Sadr is strongly opposed to a loose federation, fearing that the South would take the lion’s share of the country’s oil resources, leaving Baghdad and the central provinces severely impoverished. Tensions around the constitutional negotiations undoubtedly fuelled the violent clashes between the Mahdi Army and SCIRI’s Badr Corps that flared up on 24-25 August, following attempts by Badr militia to prevent Sadr reopening his office in Najaf. The fighting that followed showed that Sadr has armed support in most of the country’s Shiite cities.
Stitching up a constitution
Following the protracted negotiations (February-April) that produced the Jafaari government, the Bush regime exerted intense pressure on the new national assembly to produce a draft constitution by 14 August, to be put to a referendum in October. This completely arbitrary timetable was dictated by Bush’s domestic agenda, with the US mid-term Congressional elections just over a year away. Bush needs to be able to proclaim ‘progress’, with the suggestion (if not promise) of an ‘exit strategy’ and US troop reductions by next spring.
In reality, however, the chances of reaching a consensus on a constitution were effectively zero from the beginning. At the US’s insistence, additional, unelected, Sunni politicians were included in the negotiating commission, with the aim of avoiding a complete schism between the Shia-Kurdish majority and the Sunni minority. But the Sunni politicians, who in any case appear to have a very limited political base and are denounced by Sunni insurgents, had no weight in the negotiations. The real bargaining took place between the Shia (SCIRI-Dawa) and the Kurdish leaders, and the Sunni negotiators were effectively sidelined. More fundamentally, even if the commission had been able to agree on a compromise constitution (even vaguer and more contradictory than the final draft), it would not have in any way resolved the real conflict between Iraq’s contending forces.
The three most contentious issues throughout the negotiations were Islam, the status of women, and federalism. According to Article Two, “Islam is the official religion of the state and the basic source of legislation” and “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam”. It also says that no law may contradict “the principles of democracy” or “the rights and basic freedoms outlined in this constitution”. While guaranteeing the “Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people”, it also guarantees “full religious rights for all individuals and the freedom of creed and religious practices (like Christian, Yazidis, Sabaean, Mandeans)”.
Secular Sunni and Shia parties, Kurds and especially women’s organisations fear that, in practice, these provisions will mean Islamic law and mores being imposed on women. The provision that 25% of the National Assembly seats should be reserved for women, while superficially progressive, will actually do nothing to safeguard the democratic and civil rights of women. If a loose federal structure is implemented, dominant religious parties will, in practice, be able to impose an Islamic order. This could be reinforced, moreover, by the appointment of a majority of Islamic clerics to the new Supreme Court.
Such is the desperation of the Bush regime to get agreement on the draft, that US diplomats, led by US ambassador Zalmay Khalilizad, put intense pressure on the secular parties to drop their opposition to an Islamic Iraqi state. This totally contradicts Bush’s claim, repeated recently from his Crawford ranch, that the US invaded Iraq to promote the rights of women.
According to one report, “the US has eased its opposition to an Islamic Iraqi state to help clinch a deal on a draft constitution before tonight’s deadline. American diplomats backed religious conservatives who threatened to torpedo talks over the shape of the new Iraq unless Islam was a primary source of law. Secular and liberal groups were dismayed at the move, branding it a betrayal of Washington’s promise to advocate equal rights in a free and tolerant society.
“According to Kurdish and Sunni negotiators, the US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, proposed that Islam be named ‘a primary source’ and supported a wording which would give clerics authority in civil matters such as divorce, marriage and inheritance … ‘We understand the Americans have sided with the Shias. It’s shocking’, an unnamed Kurdish negotiator told Reuters. “They have spent so much blood and money here, only to back the creation of an Islamist state’.” (Rory Carroll & Julian Borger, US relents on Islamic law to reach Iraq deal, The Guardian, 22 August)
On federalism, Chapter Five confirms “the region of Kurdistan and its existing power as a federal region” and endorses “the new regions that will be established”. Provinces will readily be allowed to combine into regions and set up their own legislative assemblies. This has to be seen in conjunction with the provisions on oil (articles 109-110). “Oil and gas are the property of all the people of Iraq in all the regions and provinces”. The federal government will administer extraction from “current fields” in cooperation with provincial governments, distributing revenues fairly according to population distribution. However, there will be extra “quotas” for “a specified time” for “regions that were deprived in an unfair way by the former regime” – undoubtedly referring to the Shia south and Kurdistan. As on other issues, the language is ambiguous and contradictory, allowing plenty of scope for interpretation. The reference to current wells has been interpreted as allowing regional governments to take over all future oil development. In practice, distribution of oil wealth will be decided by the balance of power between the regions. The implications for the resource-poor central provinces and Baghdad are clear to everyone.
The central government, the ‘federal authority’, is charged with maintaining the national unity of Iraq and given exclusive powers on foreign policy, international agreements, and defence. At the same time, regional authorities will have “the right to amend the implementation of federal law in the region”. Once again, the balance between the central government and regional governments will depend on the strength of the contending forces.
In negotiations, the Sunnis also objected to clauses banning ex-Baath party members from public office. The final version no longer bans the Baath ‘party’, but excludes “the Saddamist Baath and its symbols, under any name” from participation in the “multilateral party system”. On Sunni-Iraqi nationalistic grounds, the Sunni negotiators oppose reference to “its Arab people are part of the Arab world”, demanding characterisation of Iraq as an “Arab nation”. They also object to recognising Kurdish as a second official language. (Independent, 27 August)
Towards the end of the negotiations, Sunni leaders protested that they had been strung along and ultimately ignored. Saleh Mutlak, one of the Sunni negotiators said: “I don’t trust the Shiites anymore. Frankly, I don’t trust the Americans”. “If this constitution passes, the streets will rise up”. (Iraq faces rage over draft, International Herald Tribune 24 August)
After three extensions of the 15 August deadline, the draft Iraqi constitution was presented to the National Assembly on 28 August – without the agreement of the Sunni negotiators. Despite intense pressure from the US, including personal phone calls from Bush to Shia leaders, no substantial concessions were made on federalism, the decisive issue for the Sunnis. Proclaimed a ‘triumph’ by most Shia leaders, and celebrated on the streets in many Shia areas, the constitution (in the words of Sunni negotiator Mahmoud al-Masadani) “contains the seeds of the division of Iraq”. This was inevitable, given that the negotiating process has taken place under conditions of military occupation and incipient civil war. Bush’s push for a constitution is now likely to push the country even more rapidly towards all-out civil war.
The draft constitution is likely to be passed by the Assembly, which is dominated by the SCIRI-Dawa alliance and the Kurdish parties. This in itself will undoubtedly lead to an intensification of the insurgency, with increased support from Sunnis incensed by a constitution that appears to politically marginalize them and exclude them from a proportionate share of the country’s oil wealth. As a warning insurgents launched some of their most daring and deadly attacks in the centre of Baghdad during the last stages of the constitutional negotiations.
However, in the constitutional referendum due before 15 October, Sunnis, who probably form a majority of the population in four provinces, have a good chance of vetoing the new constitution (which can be blocked by a two-thirds majority in any three provinces). It is also possible that others, secular people, women, and minorities, dismayed at the legalised dominance of Islam and the implicit denial of human rights, will vote against the charter. Alternatively, there could be a mass boycott among the Sunni population. The Sunni negotiators, effectively appointed by the US occupying authority, have no real political base among the mass of Sunnis, and have been further discredited by their failure to win any real concessions from the Shia parties. During the negotiations, insurgents assassinated two Sunni members of the negotiating committee and also attacked members of Sunni parties campaigning for voter registration for the October referendum.
If the constitution is carried in the referendum, the insurgency in the Sunni areas will become even more intense, opening the possibility of an all-out civil war. It cannot be ruled out that, if the SCIRI-Dawa and Kurdish leaders feel their plans are being derailed, they will try to use their powerful militia forces to attempt to smash the Sunni insurgency. Until now, they have been happy to sit back and allow the US military to take on the insurgency. But this could change if they feel they are within reach of implementing a constitutional carve-up that satisfies their respective ambitions.
If, however, the constitution is defeated in the referendum, the SCIRI-Dawa block and the Kurds are likely to move towards the de facto implementation of the loose federal structure outlined by the constitution. In fact, if they are no longer constrained by a (rejected) constitution, they may well go even further. If the referendum fails, says Peter Galbraith, a former US diplomat and an advisor to the Kurdish leaders, the Kurds may push for full independence from Iraq: “If this constitution is rejected, the next negotiations are going to be about partition of the country”. (Iraqis finish draft charter, Washington Post, 29 August) However, they may not wait for negotiations, but first seek to establish ‘facts on the ground’.
There is growing mass discontent with the Jafaari government, which has not improved security or public services. “They are interested in their personal interests only and not in the public interest of Iraq and its people”, said Haydar al-Saad, 34, a painter and a Shiite. There is similar scepticism about the politicians involved in negotiating the constitution. “What can I do with a constitution if I have no water, gasoline and electricity?” asks a young Shiite woman.
The political leaders who fill the assembly are overwhelmingly linked to landlords, capitalists, merchants and tribal leaders, together with wealthy exiles who returned under the US occupation. They do not represent workers, the urban poor, the rural poor, or even most middle-class layers. They do not represent the majority of their claimed confessional constituencies, whether Shia, Sunni or whatever. Interestingly, the New York Times recently reported that “in spite of the obvious sectarian divides among the country’s political parties, and a sectarian tinge to some of the country’s violence, a random sampling of ordinary Iraqis here and in several other cities this week revealed that sentiment about the constitution often does not hew to any such divisions. In fact, many Iraqis say, religious allegiances rarely intrude on everyday life: Shiites marry Sunnis, Muslims shop alongside Christians, everyone waits in the same long lines to get gas and suffers the same power and water shortages”. (26 August)
But in the coming months, with the prospect of increased tensions being fomented between the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions by sectarian and nationalist groups, there will be a potentially explosive situation in Baghdad. Roughly a third of Iraq’s population lives in the capital. It has huge poverty-stricken layers, many migrants from provincial towns and the countryside, drawn from all communities and regions. The capital is a centre of the Sunni insurgency, and also of al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
But neither the politicians nor the militias can provide solutions for workers and the poor. If the capital is starved of resources as oil wealth is diverted elsewhere, there will be a horrendous situation. Baghdad could become like Beirut during the Lebanon civil war in the 1970s – a hotbed of sectarian and communal rivalries, a bloody battleground for rival warlords and militias – and for outside imperialist and regional powers.
They only way to ensure that such a fate is averted is for the working class to organise and take action to defend the interest of working people and all oppressed strata of society. For a start, they need their own democratic organisations, defence committees embracing all sections of the community to provide protection and fight for essential services, food, and employment.
There has been some revival of trade unions, particularly the oil workers in the Basra region. But the leaders of the main trade union federation, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, has to some extent collaborated with the occupation authority, and trade union struggles have mainly been on an industrial and economic level. The unions have not taken any political initiatives. There is an urgent need, however, for the working class to rebuild its own mass political organisations and develop a socialist programme. It is essential to unite workers and the rural poor with a programme that cuts across religious, communal, and ethnic divisions. A revived workers’ movement is required to fight to end the occupation and imperialist domination of the economy, particularly the sweeping programme of privatisation which is placing Iraqi assets into the hands of multinational corporations.
A fight for democratic and trade union rights has to be combined with a struggle against capitalism, landlordism, and tribal fiefdoms, which provide the basis for oppressive feudal practices. Given the explosive character of the nation question in Iraq, it is vital that the workers’ movement puts forward a socialist programme on the national question. This should be based on the right of the national groups to self-determination, while guaranteeing the rights of minorities. Such a programme, however, has to be linked to the idea of a planned, socialist economy — the only way of avoiding a divisive struggle over scarce resources.
Given the current weakness of the working class in Iraq, such a revival of workers’ organisations and socialist ideas may seem somewhat distant. Working-class solidarity and socialist policies, however, offer the only way of avoiding civil war and bloody ethnic clashes. Without a powerful initiative from the working class, Iraq faces the prospect of a vicious cycle of bloody national conflicts, ethnic cleansing, and so on, on the lines of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The constitution now being proposed by the majority parties is not a recipe for stability and the harmonious co-existence of peoples and regions. On the contrary, it is likely to be a catalyst for disintegration and conflict, which will spill over into the surrounding states.
The Iraq storm-centre
Bush has interrupted his Crawford ranch holiday several times to make speeches proclaiming that the US will ‘stay the course’ in Iraq. Behind the scenes, however, the Bush regime is preparing to cut and run. Faced with a growing anti-war mood, strengthened by Cindy Sheehan’s protest, Bush is desperate to demonstrate ‘progress’ in Iraq and prepare the way for US troop reductions next year – before November’s mid-term elections.
This accounts for the tremendous pressure applied on Iraqi negotiators to come up with a constitution by the 14 August deadline, in time for a referendum and elections by the end of the year. For the White House, the timetable was more important than the terms of the constitution, which effectively sacrifices democratic and women’s rights to Islamic authority. Moreover, by sidelining the Sunni population, it is likely to pave the way to the fragmentation of the country and a slide towards civil war.
Apart from the overthrow of Saddam, formerly US imperialism’s favoured ally against Iran in the 1980s, the US has achieved none of its objectives in launching the war against Iraq. The primary military objective of taking secure control of Iraq has not been accomplished. US generals frankly admit that US, British and other western forces will never defeat the insurgency. Recently, top commanders, including Middle East chief, Abizaid, have been pushing for withdrawals, fearing the disintegration of the army if it is stretched any further. “We believe”, said director of operations, General Douglas Lute, “at some point, in order to break this dependence on the coalition, you simply have to back off and let the Iraqis step forward”. Ultimately, the minimum objectives will be to maintain four permanent bases (now being built) as a basis for future US interventions in the region.
The US has not struck a devastating blow against the enemy in Bush’s declared ‘war against terrorism’. The CIA recently reported that, on the contrary, US occupation has turned Iraq, which had no connection with 9/11, into “a training ground in which novice terrorists are schooled in assassinations, kidnappings, car bombings and other terror techniques … Iraq could prove to be more effective than Afghanistan in the early days of Al Qaeda as a place to train terrorists who could then disperse to other parts of the world, including the US”. (Bob Herbert, It just gets worse, New York Times, 11 July 2005) Now, General Myers, chief of the general staff, has repudiated the concept of ‘the war against terrorism’, and even Rumsfeld has quietly dropped it.
The Bush regime has not realised the neo-conservative hawks’ fantasy of imposing a democratic, secular, pro-American state on the Iraqi people from outside. Bogged down in a post-Vietnam quagmire, the second-term Bush and Condoleezza Rice administration have embraced a ‘new realism’, approving a constitution that opens the gates to a dictatorial Islamic state, or collection of rival sub-states.
The strategists of US imperialism and many of the top military commanders are well aware that the new constitution places open civil war on the agenda. For instance, despite growing demands from the Iraqi army leaders for heavy weapons, the US is refusing to supply them with armoured vehicles, tanks, helicopters and heavy artillery. A senior US officer in Baghdad told the New York Times that they are worried that heavy arms could end up aimed at US forces or feeding a “civil war or a coup”. (29 August)
Before the invasion, the Bush regime proclaimed that the ‘democratisation’ of Iraq would be part of a sweeping democratic transformation of the whole Middle East, a cartoon comic scenario elaborated by Rice in particular. As a result of its intervention, however, imperialism now faces a far more unstable, volatile situation in the region.
This will be exacerbated by moves towards the break-up of Iraq and conflict between the different sections of the population. Predominantly Sunni states, like Syria and Saudi Arabia, will not sit idly by as Sunni Iraqis are excluded from power, ghettoised in an impoverished central region, or attacked by sections of the Shia majority. On the other hand, the Iranian state will inevitably have close links with a Southern Iraqi sub-state, using it to extend its regional influence. At the same time, if the leaders of Kurdistan attempt to incorporate Kirkuk and precipitate a Sarajevo-type conflict, the Turkish state will undoubtedly intervene in some way.
US intervention in Iraq, in short, has triggered a process of Balkanisation that will have devastating repercussions throughout the Middle East. This is precisely why Bush senior, wiser than his son, decided not to occupy Baghdad at the end of the Gulf war in 1991.
Oil has gone above $70 a barrel, in no small measure due to turmoil in the Middle East. US expenditure on the war, which one Harvard economist estimates could cost $1.3 trillion (in direct and indirect costs) if it continues for five years, will increasingly weigh down the debt-ridden US economy.
The US is facing military defeat in Iraq, despite its overwhelming superiority of military technology and armed forces. Bush has signally failed to bury the ‘Vietnam syndrome’, and now faces the same problem as Nixon had in Vietnam. An early retreat, without having secured a stable, pro-US regime, would be a defeat. Hanging on, only to retreat later, under even worse conditions, would lead to an even more ignominious defeat.
US imperialism has already suffered a devastating political defeat internationally through its adventuristic war on Iraq. Its prestige among international and regional powers has slumped, while its conduct of the war, the abuse of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and other locations, US support for the Israeli state’s policies, and Bush’s trampling on democratic rights at home, have all stimulated an unprecedented global wave of anti-Americanism.
A key element of Bush’s Iraq policy has been handing over security to newly recruited Iraqi security forces, and a huge proportion of ‘reconstruction’ funds have, in fact, been diverted to training a new national army and police force.
US officials claim Iraqi security forces now have 77,000 soldiers and 94,000 police. However, Kurdish leader, Mahoud Othman, believes the real figure for the army and the police is only about 40,000 – the rest appear only to draw their pay or never actually existed in the first place. "The few government [army] battalions ready to fight are recruited from Kurdish or Shia militiamen and are detested in Sunni areas". (Patrick Cockburn, Looking for someone to kill, London Review of Books, 4 August 2005)
A report in July by US General Peter Pace concluded that only a ‘small number’ of Iraqi forces are capably of fighting insurgents without US assistance, while two-thirds were "partially capable of fighting insurgents with US assistance". But senior Pentagon officials said, "some US troops will likely accompany Iraqi forces indefinitely, particularly in hostile areas of the country". (Washington Post, 22 July 2005)
In Baghdad and the Sunni triangle, the police force is heavily infiltrated by insurgents, while the army is dominated by Kurds, former Pashmerga units. The Iraqi army and police are not developing into a national security force – they reflect the divisions within Iraqi society, their loyalties are to their own leaders, and these ‘national’ forces will shatter in the event of the break-up of Iraq or civil war.
The cost of war
IN 2003 the Bush administration projected the cost of the war in Iraq and its aftermath at between $50bn and $60bn. Iraq would be able to ‘shoulder much of the burden’ of reconstruction because of its oil wealth, claimed Bush’s spin doctor, Ari Fleisher.
So far, the total cost of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, including four ‘emergency supplementals’, is $300bn, or $1,180 per person in the US.
"Since the 9/11 attacks, Congress has given the president $350 billion to fight terrorism and for combat and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan". (House readies more war spending, USA Today, 16 June 2005) "That matches the cost of the Korean war in today’s dollars, according to Steve Kosiak, director of budget studies for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments".
The Iraq war is now costing about $5bn a month – a similar amount (adjusted for inflation) to average spending on the Vietnam war between 1965-75. The Iraq war could easily cost $600bn by the end of Bush’s second term, in 2008.
"The US spent $623bn on the Vietnam conflict, according to the [Congressional Research] Service, using figures adjusted for inflation. If president Bush’s new $81.9bn emergency request is implemented, US war costs since the September 11 attacks will be half that". (War costs may exceed $300 billion, Fox News/Associated Press, 17 February 2005)
The Pentagon’s 2005-06 budget is a phenomenal $409bn. Total military spending, however, including Pentagon spending, Homeland Security and military-related R&D, is $511bn. Including the four ‘special appropriations’, the Pentagon’s annual budget has increased by 41% since 2001.
Linda Bilmes, a professor of public accounting at Harvard University, gives an even higher estimate of Iraq war spending. To the direct military costs, she adds estimates of other costs, such as disability and health payments to returning troops, the increased cost of oil, increased subsidies to states like Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey, and increased Federal debt payments resulting from a bigger deficit. "If the American military presence in the region lasts another five years, the total outlay for the war could stretch to more than $1.3 trillion, or $11,300 for every household in the United States". (Waging the trillion-dollar war, NYT 22 August 2005)
War spending on this scale will inevitably act as a drag on US capi