Iraq: The tragedy of Baghdad

The tragedy of Baghdad – with almost 1000 Shia pilgrims killed in Iraq’s bloodiest day on 31 August – competes with the catastrophe of New Orleans in a kind of “league of horrors”.

Both events are organically linked through the original decision of Bush to invade and occupy Iraq, using National Guards from Mississippi and Louisiana who could have been used to rescue the desperate, beleaguered people of New Orleans.

The Socialist Party warned Blair and Bush that Iraq would prove to be their Vietnam, a quagmire from which there would be no easy escape. It has proved, however, to have been immeasurably worse. Even the right-wing journal The Economist points out: “The Americans are increasingly anxious to leave, even if they know they can’t.”

It is very difficult to get into a quagmire but well nigh impossible to get out without help. This was supposed to come from the constitutional exercise in the Iraqi parliament – farcically compared by Bush to the US’s Philadelphia convention of 1787 which drew up the US constitution. Once the constitution was ‘fixed’, “declare victory and get out”, are the tactics of the US. However, the document that has emerged has the support of the Shia bloc – dominated by the pro-Iranian parties of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa, who hold 35 of the 41 provincial seats – and the Kurdish representatives but not the Sunnis. As a US-based Middle East expert commented to the Financial Times: “It is a recipe for separation based on Shia and Kurdish privilege.”

Under the cloak of ‘federalism’, it seeks to give the oil-rich provinces of the north and the south to the Kurdish and Shia elite respectively, with the 5 million Sunni Arabs abandoned to their fate in the oilless centre of Iraq. Sharing their fate will be the Shia poor, left outside such a ‘federation’, in Baghdad and elsewhere. This is one of the reasons why the Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Shi’ite leader of the Mahdi army, and his representatives in the government and parliament voted with the Sunnis to reject the constitution. Al-Sadr himself also represents an Iraqi Arab nationalist opposition from the Shias to the Iranian influenced SCIRI and Dawa: “Their ideas [SCIRI and Dawa] are Iran first, then Iraq,” al-Sadr’s representatives commented to the Wall Street Journal (31 August).

Both of these parties fought on the side of Iran against Iraq in the war of the 1980s and, as a consequence, excite ferocious opposition amongst the Sunni. Al-Sadr has been forced into an uneasy coalition with the Sunni protesters against the constitution. How long this will last, given the extreme polarisation which has resulted from the adoption of this constitution, is open to question. The constitution is in violation of Bush’s original aim to “democratise” Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. If implemented it will install an undemocratic Islamicist state, with Islam and religion designated as a “fundamental source of legislation”.

Rather than representing ‘progress’, if accepted and implemented it would mean a repudiation of Iraq’s largely secular recent history. Reactionary clerics who dominate the courts and lawmaking would bring the Shia-controlled south in particular nearer to the theocratic Iranian model. Women, many of whom are already compelled to wear the hijab and the veil to protect themselves from assault, rape and kidnap, would suffer greater repression.

Ultimately, all capitalist constitutions are merely “scraps of paper”, which the ruling elites easily dispense with whenever their class interests demand. This “constitution” is seen as monumentally irrelevant by the Iraqi people. They are besieged by the daily horrors of queuing for days for petrol in an oil-rich state, unemployment, and facing kidnap and sectarian violence. It is therefore unlikely to see the light of day. It will only take three provinces to achieve a two-thirds majority against in the planned ‘referendum’ in October to torpedo it. And while the largely Sunni insurgency will continue, there could be enough Sunni and Shias who would untie to ensure such an outcome.

Therefore, this ‘turning point’ will take its place amongst other ‘turning points’: the capture of Saddam, the transfer of power to the ‘Interim Iraqi Government by the US and British, the Iraqi ‘elections’ of January this year and the formation of a ‘genuine government’. These are similar to US imperialism’s ‘Vietnamisation’ attempts. These are designed to allow the formal withdrawal of the US-led coalition ensuring, of course, a ‘residual force’ is maintained alongside its military bases.

But now, in the words of one British commentator, Timothy Garton Ash, the “weary titan” will be compelled to “stagger on”. In the Boer War at the beginning of the twentieth century, he pointed out that 450,000 British and colonial troops (compared to only 150,000 US troops in Iraq) were used to hold the Boer population in check. Even then, the British herded one quarter of the Boer population into concentration camps.

US imperialism, and particularly Bush, possesses neither the moral, political or material means of carrying out a similar policy in Iraq. Domestic pressures in the US have forced Bush to promise the hasty withdrawal of the National Guards, which will be accelerated in the light of the mayhem in New Orleans. The recruitment campaign in the colleges and schools for “volunteers” is failing as the body count rises alongside the thousands horribly injured.

Gone like the snows of yesteryear is the idea peddled by Rumsfeld that the US is capable of fighting “two wars” at the same time. It does not even possess sufficient troops to defeat the insurgency in Iraq. Moreover, its efforts to construct through ‘Iraqification’ an army, police and security forces that could take over its role are stillborn. In many areas, in the south for instance, the Iraqi army and police are, in reality, sectarian-based militias “made up of criminals and bad people. Some of the police are involved in assassinations” [Basra’s chief of police speaking to The Guardian in May]. Many have been involved in tit-for-tat sectarian retaliation against Sunni-inspired attacks on Shias.

The American people, therefore, have turned decisively against Bush and at least one third are calling for an immediate withdrawal of the troops, with a majority opposed to Bush. The same mood exists in Britain, symbolised by the Tory leadership contender Ken Clarke who parades his ‘stop the war’ credentials in an effort to be elected as party leader.

While opposition to the Iraqi occupation and particularly the continued presence of British troops has grown, this does not mean that a simple call for the withdrawal of the troops will result in mass support in Britain and elsewhere for this. Nor will an insurgency based on a minority, the Sunni, alone succeed in evicting imperialism. The spectre of a terrible sectarian conflagration engulfing Iraq, which the Socialist Party has consistently warned of unless a class approach is adopted, now looms. This threat will be exploited by the pro-war lobby to justify continued occupation.

Civil war, however, is not inevitable. Huge sections of Iraq still have a mixed population. Moreover, in the horrific events of 31 August, although the stampede on the bridge was probably provoked by al-Qa’ida leader Zaqarwi’s mortars, in the Adhamiya district of Baghdad Sunnis rushed to help the Shias: “They rescued people, they gave us water, food, they donated their blood.” [The Guardian.] The possibility of cementing class unity is still there.

Therefore, a programme to unite Shia, Sunni and Kurdish workers and poor – tied in unity through the organisation of common class-based militias – offers the only real hope of preventing Iraq from plunging into an even darker period than it experienced under Saddam and under US-British occupation. On one road lies the prospect of a Balkans-type disintegration or the spectre of the Lebanon and even the partitioning of the country as with India and Pakistan in 1947. On the other lies unification of the country on a federal socialist basis through the actions of the working class – Shia, Kurds and Sunni as well as Turcomen and others – establishing a workers and peasants Iraq. This road is the only one that can end the nightmare of the Iraqi people.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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September 2005