The Empire Strikes Out
“It is my hope, therefore, that by means of an Arab government supported by a moderate military force we may be able to discharge our duties without imposing unjustifiable expense on the British Exchequer. The fact that we shall be calling into being an Arab administration in Bagdad [sic] makes it indispensable that we should treat the Arab question as a whole so far as it concerns British interests. Unless Arabian affairs can be handled as to secure tranquility among the tribes at this critical time, the early withdrawal of large numbers of troops from Mesopotamia, and consequently of the reduction of the expense, may be very greatly hampered.”
—Winston Churchill, 1921 (quoted in Churchill’s Folly, Christopher Catherwood)
This is how the colonial secretary of the British Empire outlined his policy for the Middle East in a letter to Sir George Ritchie, one of his wealthy constituents. A massive Shiite rebellion a year earlier had shaken colonial authorities who, fearing further upheavals, were anxious to lower the imperial profile in the area. Soon after writing to Ritchie, Churchill chaired the Cairo Conference, where Mesopotamia became “Iraq,” and plans were laid for the creation of an Arab administration.
In 2003, when the leaders of the American empire conquered Mesopotamia, they expected to immediately derive substantial material benefits from the acquisition of an oil-rich colony in the center of a geopolitically vital region. They intended to rapidly put in place a puppet regime which would enable them to withdraw most U.S. forces, leaving only enough to garrison a few strategically positioned military bases. “Modernization,” i.e., takeover, of Iraq’s oil and other economic assets, could then proceed in a manner maximally beneficial to American corporations. But, like the British colonizers of the 1920s, the new crusaders have been unpleasantly surprised by the intensity of indigenous resistance and dismayed by overheads which are running far in excess of projections.
In removing Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, which had long been supported by the U.S. as a reliably anti-communist ally, Washington’s “coalition of the willing” shattered an ethnic and religious jigsaw puzzle that is proving extremely difficult to re-assemble. The powerful American military has not only failed to make headway against a raging insurgency, but has also been unable to secure even the highway connecting their Green Zone redoubt to the Baghdad airport. The Iraq adventure—supposed to “shock and awe” neo-colonies and imperialist competitors alike—has showcased the limitations of the world’s only superpower abroad, while reviving the dreaded “Vietnam syndrome” at home.
The deteriorating military situation is creating deep rifts within the American ruling class, with a growing defeatist minority openly questioning the wisdom of the war, as well as the Bush gang’s ability to prosecute it. Frank Rich, reflecting the bitterness of the liberal bourgeoisie toward the whole venture, commented:
“We have long since lost count of all the historic turning points and fast-evaporating victories hyped by this president. The toppling of Saddam’s statue, ‘Mission Accomplished,’ the transfer of sovereignty and the purple fingers all blur into a hallucinatory loop of delusion.”
—New York Times, 28 August 2005
While Iraq’s new constitution will be no more significant than previous “turning points,” the torturous wrangling that produced it illuminated the dimensions of Washington’s conundrum. Desperate to stabilize its disintegrating military/political position and bring the Sunni-based insurgency to heel, the U.S. opted to try to make a deal with the reactionary Shiite clerics in the south and Kurdish bourgeois nationalists in the north, whose interests are neither congruent with Washington’s, nor with each other’s.
Iraq: Construct of Imperialism
Prior to World War I, the territory today known as Iraq constituted three distinct provinces of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire: Mosul, which was mostly Kurdish; Baghdad, which was primarily Sunni Arab; and Basra, which was predominantly Shiite Arab. As the Ottoman Empire declined in the latter half of the 19th century, Britain, France and eventually Germany, began to exert influence within its boundaries. The Arab population of the region was saddled with enormous debts to British and French banks to pay for the construction of the Suez Canal and a network of rail lines to provide European capitalists better access to the resources and markets of the Middle East.
Britain seized Mesopotamia from Turkey during World War I. When British troops entered Baghdad in 1917, their commander assured its residents: “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators” (quoted in Harper’s Magazine, May 2003). But the British then, like their American counterparts today, were only interested in “liberating” the petroleum resources of the region.
After the war, when imperialist spheres of influence in the Middle East were formalized by the League of Nations (forerunner to the United Nations), France received a “mandate” over Syria, Lebanon and Mosul, while Britain was awarded Palestine and the provinces of Basra and Baghdad. The British subsequently extorted the oil-rich Kurdish province from the French, and proceeded to forcibly amalgamate it and the predominately Shiite and Sunni Arab provinces into an artificial entity they dubbed “Iraq.”
The expectations of the British colonial office that its new Mesopotamian holdings could be controlled by manipulating ethnic/religious tensions among the diverse populations were shattered by the “Great Rebellion” of 1920. One contemporary estimated that there were 160,000 insurgents in the provinces of Baghdad and Basra, and another 480,000 in the Kurdish north. The Arab participants were predominately Shiite, although a significant number of Sunnis were also involved. Britain’s merciless response was captured by Churchill’s infamous racist declaration: “I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes” (quoted in Banking on Baghdad, Edwin Black). In addition to mustard gas and aerial bombardments, British ground forces systematically destroyed villages in areas considered sympathetic to the rebels.
After suppressing the uprising, the British sought to create an “Arab government,” described by the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, as an:
“Arab facade ruled and administered under British guidance and controlled by a native Mohammedan and, as far as possible, by an Arab staff….There should be no actual incorporation of the conquered territory in the dominions of the conqueror, but the absorption may be veiled by such constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer state and so on.”
—quoted in Behind the Invasion of Iraq, Research Unit for Political Economy
A member of the prominent Arab Hashemite family from Mecca (a thousand kilometers from Iraq in what is now Saudi Arabia) was brought to Baghdad and installed as King Faisal I. A cabinet was appointed, a constitution proclaimed and a pseudo-parliament established, although in reality Faisal exercised near-dictatorial powers. The British authorities employed their standard divide-and-rule tactics, supporting the less numerous Sunnis against the majority Shiites and Kurds. To insure against future insubordination by their royal puppet, the colonial authorities insisted that government positions remain the monopoly of a narrow Arab Sunni elite:
“Faysal, conscious of the need to broaden his political base, tried to include Shi’is and Kurds by promoting a number of them (along with the token Jews and Christians). Both the Sunni elite and the British resisted the initiative and made sure that the Shi’is remained woefully under-represented. Sunni dominance was also evident in the provincial governments even in Shi’i dominated areas.”
—A Short History of Iraq, Thabit Abdullah
The new “government” granted the British-dominated Turkish Petroleum Company a monopoly over Iraqi oil. When anti-British protests flared up again in the late 1920s, London deftly responded by withdrawing most of its forces, retaining only a few strategic bases, while also signing a “common defense position” with its puppet—in effect a blank check for future British intervention. The ersatz Iraqi monarchy managed to keep a lid on the restive Shiite and Kurdish populations and enforced imperial “order” until its overthrow by a mass popular uprising in 1958 (with the exception of a brief interlude in 1940-41 when a pro-German faction seized power).
The American conquest of Iraq in 2003 presented the Pentagon with a situation very similar to that faced by Britain’s colonial office after World War I. Washington’s plan to secure the oil fields and impose a government of pliable satraps went wrong almost from the beginning. The Bush administration’s crude attempts to retroactively change the ostensible purpose of their crusade (which resulted in the “collateral” slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians) from preventing the use of “weapons of mass destruction” to spreading “freedom” and “democracy” fooled few.
While any Iraqis ungrateful enough to resist the occupation were declared to be motivated by an irrational antipathy for “liberty,” in fact, democracy, even of the bought-and-paid-for capitalist variety, was never on the agenda. The American war planners were well aware that Iraq is a very unstable political entity, and intended from the outset to impose “order” by creating a reliable indigenous leadership willing and able to enforce imperialist edicts. This is why the initial plan for Iraqi elections proposed the creation of a national assembly through regional “caucuses,” the composition of which could be easily influenced by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
The plan for caucuses was shelved in early 2004 after hundreds of thousands of supporters of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful and revered Shiite cleric, held mass protests to demand immediate elections. Washington is anxious to avoid a repetition of the Shiite “Great Rebellion” of 1920, and regards an accommodation with the Shiite leadership as essential.
The January 2005 election posed a problem for the occupation. Fearful that a Sunni boycott would give the Shiite religious parties an overwhelming majority, the U.S. covertly supported candidates running on the ticket of their preferred strongman, Ayad Allawi. According to Seymour Hersh, this involved funding as well as “voter intimidation, ballot stuffing, bribery, and the falsification of returns” (New Yorker, 25 July 2005). The international “observers” who approved the results which, in accordance with the preferences of the U.S. State Department, produced a much smaller majority for the candidates Sistani favored than anticipated, were either stationed across the border in Jordan, or hunkered down in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The on-site Iraqi observers who certified that the vote had been free and fair had all been trained by representatives of the twin parties of U.S. imperialism (the National Democratic Institute and its Republican equivalent) or by the CIA-connected National Endowment for Democracy, all of which have considerable experience in helping neo-colonial elections turn out the right way.
The imperialist media trumpeted voter turnout as an endorsement of the American mission, but in fact most Kurdish and Shiite voters participated because their leaders told them that doing so would help end the occupation. As one UN official observed: “The election was not an election but a referendum on ethnic and religious identity. For the Kurds, voting was about self-determination. For the Shiites, voting was about a fatwa issued by Sistani” (Ibid.).
The idea that Iraq is on the road to establishing a viable bourgeois democracy is a fantasy chiefly designed to prop up sagging domestic support for the Middle East adventure. An equitable division of wealth and political power between Iraq’s different ethnic and religious groupings is simply inconceivable under capitalist rule. In a piece written prior to the January 2005 election, Edward Luttwak of the Center for Strategic and International Studies observed:
“The plain fact is that there are not enough aspiring democrats in Iraq to sustain democratic institutions. The Shiite majority includes cosmopolitan figures, but by far its greater part has expressed in every possible way a strong preference for clerical leadership. The clerics, in turn, reject any elected assembly that would be free to legislate without their supervision—and could thus legalize, for example, the drinking of alcohol or the freedom to change one’s religion. The Sunni-Arab minority, for its part, has dominated Iraq from the time it was formed into a state, and its leaders have consistently rejected democracy in principle because they refuse to accept a subordinate status. As for the Kurds, they have administered their separate de facto autonomies with considerable success, but it is significant that they have not even attempted to hold elections for themselves, preferring clan and tribal loyalties to the individualism of representative democracy.”
—Foreign Affairs, January/February 2005
The Kurds have since conducted elections for three provincial governments, as well as a regional authority, but power remains in the same hands.
Washington is deeply concerned by the centrifugal forces unleashed by the fall of the Baathist regime. Plundering its new oil colony and securing a permanent military beachhead to exert control of the Middle East requires stability. Without a brutally repressive regime at its center, Iraq will inevitably break apart, thereby triggering a series of major regional conflicts:
“A fractured Iraq could dangerously destabilize the broader region. Turkish hostility is guaranteed for any Kurdish statelet, which Ankara worries might set an attractive example for Turkey’s own restive and oppressed Kurdish minority. Iran would find it irresistible to manipulate a semiautonomous Shiite region dominated by Iranian-financed parties and Iranian-armed militias, and spiritually guided by an Iranian-born ayatollah [Sistani].
“If Iraq starts to fragment along these lines, no one should be surprised to see the orphaned Sunni west looking for whatever allies it can find in Baathist Syria, in the Islamist opposition circles of Saudi Arabia and among Jordan’s Palestinian majority. The threat of civil war is obvious.”
—New York Times, 27 August 2005
Iraqi Constitution: Exercise in Delusion
While Kurdish nationalists and most of the Shiite leadership have, for their own reasons, tolerated the occupation, the Sunni Arab elites see no reason to collaborate. After the successful January 2005 Sunni election boycott, the U.S. was anxious to draw some influential Sunni leaders into discussions on a new constitution, in the hope that this might help defuse an insurgency that was growing steadily more dangerous.
Ordinary Iraqis, irrespective of national or religious affiliation, were too involved in the struggle to survive to take much notice of the constitutional wrangling going on in the Green Zone. Hanan Sahib, a Shiite worker, summed up a common view when she asked: “What can I do with a constitution if I have no water, gasoline and electricity?” (New York Times, 26 August 2005). At least a third of the workforce is unemployed, electricity and clean water are available only sporadically, and malnutrition has nearly doubled since the imperialist takeover. The “reconstruction” program has ground to a halt—today there is only funding for “security.”
The entire constitutional process has been scheduled to produce some “political progress” in time for the November 2006 U.S. congressional mid-term elections. The original 55-member constitutional committee included only two Sunni Arabs, but, at the insistence of the U.S., 15 more were added. After missing three “deadlines,” the Shiite and Kurdish delegates announced in August 2005 that the document would have to be finalized without Sunni approval. Under U.S. pressure, two months later, on the eve of a referendum to approve the draft document, a rider was added to permit the forthcoming parliament to propose unspecified alterations to the text. This was sufficient to win the endorsement of the Sunni-based Iraqi Islamic Party, but, as the 13 October 2005 New York Times observed:
“Plainly, this isn’t textbook democratic procedure. Voters are being asked to approve the constitution—which many have had no chance to read—with the assumption that it may soon be radically rewritten.”
While attention focused on the objections of the Sunni Arabs, there are also plenty of differences between the Kurdish and Shiite leaderships. They are prepared to engage in limited collaboration with each other and with occupation authorities against their mutual enemy, the Sunnis, but the alliance is purely one of convenience. On many contentious issues, including the future status of the ethnically-divided northern city of Kirkuk, there is no agreement. Each considers some form of decentralized federalism preferable to a unitary state, but where the Shiite elites look forward to finally dominating a unitary Iraq, the Kurdish rulers want the maximum amount of autonomy for their region. Kurdish leadership has announced that the Iraq Supreme Court cannot overrule legislation passed in their region, and have also announced that units of Iraq’s new army will not be permitted in the north without Kurdish permission. Conflict between the Kurds, whose peshmerga is the most formidable indigenous military formation in Iraq, and a future Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad, seems highly likely.
Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador who participated in the constitutional talks, reported:
“The Kurds saw the constitution largely as a threat to their continued independence, and examined every proposal from that perspective. As the majority faction, the Shiites controlled the drafting of the text—and whether through inexperience or self-serving intentions, they often simply disregarded agreements others thought had been reached. Naturally, this fed Kurdish suspicions. The Sunni Arabs objected to practically everything that was proposed, frustrating the Shiites and Kurds to the point that they stopped negotiating with them. In the end, [Zalmay] Khalilzad [U.S. ambassador to Iraq] had the US embassy prepare drafts, record agreements, and incorporate them into the text.”
—New York Review of Books, 6 October 2005
It is entirely appropriate that the final text of Iraq’s new “constitution,” a document initiated by occupation authorities, and guided by them at every step, was finally drafted in the U.S. embassy.
The destruction of Iraq’s once-flourishing economy by a decade and a half of unrelenting imperialist attacks and sanctions means that its peoples will remain dependent on oil (which currently provides 90 percent of government revenue) for the foreseeable future. This makes control over territory with known oil deposits, almost all of which are in the Shiite south or the Kurdish north, a question of life or death. The Sunni Arab elites who traditionally accessed Iraq’s oil wealth through their control of the central government are well aware that they will be the big losers if Iraq becomes a decentralized, federal state.
Oil also divides the Shiites. The two Shiite Islamist parties which dominate the United Iraqi Alliance favored by Sistani (the Dawa and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI]) are based in the oil-rich south, and are particularly strong in Basra, where production is centered. Muqtada al-Sadr, the militant Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army has fought several battles with the occupation forces, has his largest following among the residents of Baghdad’s Shiite slums. Sadr’s opposition to federalism is couched in theological terms, but it is probably not coincidental that his supporters would suffer if oil revenues were assigned to the provinces under a new federal arrangement.
In the end, an ambiguous formula was adopted giving the central government control of oil revenues from current production “in cooperation with” the provincial authorities. While supposedly guaranteeing an equitable distribution to all regions, the critical issue of “cooperation” was not defined, nor was there any agreement on revenue from new sources of production.
Under the secular Baathist regime, clerics had no role in the legal system. Women enjoyed more equality under the law than elsewhere in the Arab world, and family disputes were settled by civil law, applicable to all regardless of religious affiliation. In a graphic illustration of imperialism’s tendency to ally itself with everything backward and reactionary in the neo-colonial world, the draft constitution declares Islam to be “the official religion of the state” and “a basic source of legislation.” Occupation publicists sought to portray this as a partial victory for secularism because Islam was not identified as the only “source of legislation,” even though any law that “contradicts the fixed rules of Islam” was prohibited, and it was agreed that “a number of judges and experts in Shariah (Islamic Law)” must sit on the highest court (New York Times, 15 October 2005). Under the guise of religious freedom, the constitution permits religious law to be used in family and civil disputes.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, leader of Iran’s Guardian Council of theocrats, pronounced himself well pleased with the new consitution: “after years of effort and expectations in Iraq, an Islamic state has come to power and the Constitution has been established on the basis of Islamic precepts.” As Katha Pollitt put it, in the new “democratic” Iraq:
“women have a lot to look forward to: being married off at the age of 9, being a co-wife, having unequal rights to divorce and child custody, inheriting half as much as their brothers, having their testimony in court counted as half that of men, winning a rape conviction only if the crime was witnessed by four male Muslims, being imprisoned and flogged for premarital sex, being executed for adultery, needing mandatory permission from husband or father to work, study or travel.”
—The Nation, 19 September 2005
Cracks in the Citadel
In his 1921 letter to Ritchie, Churchill was distressed by the unexpected overheads of the Mesopotamian venture and the limitations it imposed on the empire’s capacity to intervene elsewhere:
“On the one hand it is perfectly clear that we cannot go on spending these enormous sums on Mesopotamia and that the forces that we maintain there must be promptly and drastically reduced. Even the reduced forces which it is hoped will be sufficient after this year are estimated to cost ten or eleven millions. This is far more than we should have any right to spend in such a quarter, more especially when we remember the immense fertility and values of our West African and East African territories and the far better opportunities that they offer for Imperial development than the Middle East.”
—quoted in Catherwood, op. cit.
Churchill also worried that a precipitous withdrawal would significantly weaken Britain’s international position, concerns that closely parallel those of U.S. strategists today:
“On the other hand, the disadvantages and even disgrace of such a procedure should not be under-rated. We marched into Mesopotamia during the war and uprooted the Turkish Government which was the only stable form of government in that country at that time. We accepted before all the world a mandate for the country and undertook to introduce much better methods of government in the place of those we had overthrown. If, following upon this, we now ignominiously scuttle for the coast, leaving sheer anarchy behind us and historic cities to be plundered by the wild Bedouin of the desert, an event will have occurred not at all in accordance with what has usually been the reputation of Great Britain.”
The British did eventually succeed in extricating most of their troops and creating a viable quisling regime, something that seems beyond the reach of the U.S. at present, for reasons Harvard historian Niall Ferguson recently discussed:
“What has gone wrong? History suggests two answers. The first is that the coalition forces are simply too few to impose order. In 1920, when British forces quelled a major insurgency in Iraq, they numbered around 135,000. Coincidentally, that is very close to the number of American military personnel currently in Iraq. The trouble is that the population of Iraq was just over 3 million in 1920, whereas today it is around 24 million.
“The second problem is qualitative rather than quantitative. The plain fact is that controlling disaffected urban populations is a great deal harder than it was in Kipling’s time. In On the City Walls, a British Assistant District Superintendent of Police—a ‘boy of 20’ on horseback, armed with a ‘long dog-whip’ and at the head of 30 constables—succeeds in containing a full-scale Muslim-Hindu riot until 500 regular troops have had time to get to the scene.
“I hesitate to say ‘those were the days’, but they were certainly the days before rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices.”
—Sunday Telegraph (London), 25 September 2005
Of course the military cadres who have trained the young resistance fighters to use their rocket-propelled grenades and other ordinance so skillfully against the occupation forces were the products of the efficient police and military apparatus developed with the active assistance of the U.S. In those days, the Baathists were seen as a bulwark against Iran and before that, left-nationalist and Communist rebels. The other highly competent skilled military component of the resistance—the jihadists—derive from the Islamist mujahedin that the CIA trained to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Reflecting on an idea that is becoming increasingly popular in the think tanks, institutes and policy centers that litter Washington, Ferguson asks: “Is it time, then, for the Americans to revive their tried-and-tested policy of proclaiming victory and getting the hell out?”
The media attention showered on Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, during her August 2005 vigil outside Bush’s Crawford Texas dude ranch, was a bad omen for the pro-war faction in the U.S. ruling class. On 1 October 2005, a group calling itself “Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities” took out an advertisement in the New York Times, complaining:
“Mr. President, we are told you are a ‘CEO president.’ A good CEO shuts down a disastrous enterprise before it destroys the health of the entire corporation. That is what you must do: Rebuild America. Start bringing the troops home now.”
The Iraq invasion was a grand gamble that has gone very wrong. But much has been wagered, and the cost of retreat is so high that the majority of the ruling class, though pessimistic about victory, still shrinks from openly recognizing defeat. One of the favorite journals of the neo-conservative ideologues, whose glib assurances of an easy triumph helped propel the U.S. into the adventure in the first place, now insists that retreat is not an option:
“America has no choice but to succeed in Iraq. The country’s collapse could fuel chaos in the Middle East; a terrorist base there could support new attacks in America, in the region, in Europe and worldwide. The consequences of defeat in Iraq extend beyond this as well. As the only global superpower, the United States can afford to make mistakes—even big ones. But it cannot allow itself to be defeated in a priority-defining project like Iraq. After investing lives and well-being of American soldiers, $200 billion in taxpayer funds and substantial amounts of international political capital, failure could be very damaging both abroad and at home.”
—The National Interest, Fall 2005
Yet even the proponents of “staying the course” are distressed by the inability of the American military to bring the situation under control. And the White House views discussion of an exit strategy as tantamount to defeatism. When General George Casey, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, suggested that, at some future point, the U.S. might be in a position to make “some fairly substantial [troop] reductions,” Bush quickly countered: “Pulling the troops out now would send a terrible signal to the enemy” (New York Times, 12 August 2005).
With few signs of progress, and the November 2006 congressional elections looming, many Bush-backers have been turning sour. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska put it bluntly: “Things aren’t getting better; they’re getting worse. The White House is completely disconnected from reality….It’s like they’re making it up as they go along. The reality is that we’re losing in Iraq” (U.S. News & World Report, 27 June 2005). Even North Carolina congressman Walter Jones, who originally proposed that french fries should be renamed “freedom fries” to protest France’s refusal to participate in the war, is now calling for setting a timetable for pulling out.
Despite the growing unpopularity of the occupation, congressional Democrats were very slow to advocate a withdrawal because they feared that, in the words of Senator Hillary Clinton: “If we were to artificially set a deadline of some sort, that would be like a green light to the terrorists, and we can’t afford to do that” (The Nation, 29 August 2005). Even Barbara Lee of the Democrats’ “Progressive Caucus,” pitched her proposal to prohibit permanent U.S. military installations in Iraq as the best way “to defuse the insurgency and improve the security situation on the ground” (In These Times, 29 September 2005).
Various reformist leftists complain that the Democratic Party has been hijacked by right-wingers and opportunists who fear that appearing “soft” on Iraq will hurt their electoral chances. But the real reason the Democrats were so reluctant to call for ending the occupation was because, like their Republican twins, they considered that the U.S. ruling class cannot afford to lose in Iraq.
With Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld speculating that the insurgency may perhaps go on for another dozen years, the White House has floated the idea of outsourcing the fighting to the new Iraqi army and police force as soon as they are strong enough to stand on their own. This is the same straw Richard Nixon clutched at in Vietnam when the U.S. was finally forced to recognize that a clear-cut military victory was beyond its grasp. “Vietnamization” turned out to be a prelude to the greatest defeat ever suffered by U.S. imperialism, and prospects for “Iraqification” do not seem much better.
The Baghdad puppet government is weak and fractious, but the attempt to create a viable repressive apparatus is little short of disastrous. In October 2005, after two years of “training,” General Casey estimated that only one of 115 Iraqi battalions was fully operational. Much of the Iraqi military apparently does not even exist:
“The Iraqi army nominally has 115 battalions, or 80,000 troops. This figure, often cited by those who see the Iraq occupation as a success, corresponds only to the number of troops listed on the military payroll. However, when the Ministry of Defense decided to supervise the payment of salaries, a third of the payroll was returned. (In Iraq’s all-cash economy, commanders receive a lump sum for the troops under their command; this acts as an incentive for them to maintain ghost soldiers on the payroll.) One senior official estimated that barely half the nominal army actually exists.”
—New York Review of Books, 6 October 2005
And then there is the problem of morale. Practically every time the puppet troops have engaged in serious combat with the resistance there have been many desertions. In much of Iraq, ethnic and political militias, including the Kurdish peshmerga, Sadr’s Mahdi Army and SCIRI’s Badr Brigade, exercise control over many official police and army units. In Basra, the police chief was fired for publicly admitting that three quarters of his force were loyal to one Shiite faction or another (Telegraph [London], 22 September 2005). Things are so bad that the Pentagon is now hesitant about equipping those Iraqi army units that are ready to deploy:
“Simply put, Iraq remains too fragile for any planner to know what shape the country will be in six months or a year from now—whether it will reach compromises and hold together or slit apart in a civil war.
“And that presents a conundrum for American military planners. With those questions up in the air, they have to fear that any heavy arms distributed now could end up aimed at American forces or feeding a growing civil conflict. And the longer Iraq’s army has to wait for sophisticated weapons, the longer American forces are likely to be needed in Iraq as a bulwark against chaos.”
—New York Times, 28 August 2005
Meanwhile, the resistance, which, unlike the U.S. and its Iraqi hirelings, is nourished by a wellspring of popular support, is becoming increasingly effective. In addition to Baathist cadres and Sunni fundamentalists, it includes many ordinary Iraqis whose homes have been destroyed, whose relatives and friends have been rounded up and sent to be tortured in the imperialists’ jails, and whose families and loved ones have been among the “collateral” damage of “coalition” air strikes. According to a report in the New York Times (11 November 2005) American intelligence officials estimate that, in addition to foreign jihadists, “ordinary, disenchanted Iraqi Sunnis make up perhaps 70 percent of the insurgency, with supporters of Saddam Hussein’s former regime and Shiite groups accounting for the balance.”
Millions of Iraqis burn with hatred for the occupation, not out of religious zeal, but as a result of the humiliations, indignities and suffering inflicted upon them. In April 2005, on the second anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, 300,000 Shiites participated in a massive demonstration, chanting “No, no to America! No, no to occupation” (Los Angeles Times, 10 April 20 05). Similar demonstrations, with tens of thousands of participants, have occurred throughout the Shiite south. Sadr’s supporters, the organizers of these demonstrations, also claim to have collected a million signatures on a petition calling for U.S. withdrawal.
A leaked poll by the British Ministry of Defense revealed that 82 percent of Iraqis are “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops, and 45 percent of Iraqis consider that attacks on British and American troops are justified. It also reported that: “71 per cent of people rarely get safe clean water, 47 per cent never have enough electricity, 70 per cent say their sewerage system rarely works and 40 per cent of southern Iraqis are unemployed” (Sunday Telegraph [London], 23 October 2005).
At this point Washington seems to have few viable options. Its “coalition of the willing” has largely crumbled away, with British forces, which numbered 45,000 at the outset, dwindling to fewer than 10,000 today. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “stay the course” mantra has seriously weakened him domestically, and behind the scenes London has long been urging Washington to set a timetable for troop withdrawals (Telegraph, 20 January 2005).
Without a reliable indigenous army, the Pentagon is forced to use its own forces to battle the resistance. Yet, despite adding 1,000 recruiters and lowering admission standards, the U.S. Army has consistently failed to meet its recruitment goals. Reserve and National Guard units have been used to fill the gap, at times making up 40 percent of U.S. forces in Iraq. This is unsustainable:
“Some retired and active duty senior officers fear that another year of combat duty in urban areas of the Sunni triangle will break the military cohesiveness and morale of the regular Army, reserve and National Guard units being rotated into Iraq on multiple tours. Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey says the National Guard already is ‘in the stage of meltdown and within 24 months will be coming apart.’”
—New York Post, 21 August 2005
Something has to give. One option the U.S. high command is considering involves vacating the 100-odd bases they presently occupy and concentrating their forces in four heavily fortified locations where, in the words of a senior U.S. official, they could provide “logistical support and quick reaction capability where necessary to Iraqis” (Guardian, 23 May 2005). The obvious problem with this plan is that the U.S. has virtually no “Iraqis” to support.
Drive Out the Imperialists!
Revolutionaries are not neutral in conflicts between imperialist predators and their victims. As the U.S./UK axis powers prepared to invade, the International Bolshevik Tendency raised the slogan “Defend Iraq Against Imperialist Attack!” While giving no political support to Saddam’s blood-drenched Baathist regime, we recognized that the defeat of the imperialist coalition in Iraq would be a victory for all victims of global capitalism—including the working people and the oppressed in the imperial metropoles.
After a few weeks of resistance, the Iraqi military, including the elite Republican Guard concentrated around Baghdad, simply melted away. This appears, at least in part, to have been the result of a strategic decision by the Baathist leadership, which had threatened to wage a protracted guerrilla war against any occupation. At the time, the Western media scoffed at these declarations and the parades of white-uniformed fedayeen Saddam suicide bombers. An article published just after the fall of Baghdad noted that these elements had proven more formidable than originally estimated:
“The one surprise in the conflict was Saddam’s Fedayeen, Baath Party militiamen who blended in with the population and launched ambushes and sniping attacks on U.S. convoys. While those attacks dominated the news early in the war and gave commanders pause, they proved to be more of a nuisance to the military than a genuine impediment. In military terms, said retired Rear Adm. John Sigler, a former chief planner for the U.S. Central Command, ‘Their impact will be a footnote in the history of this war.’”
—Washington Post, 10 April 2003
A few days prior to Bush’s premature celebration of “Mission Accomplished” aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May Day 2003, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld was fielding questions at the U.S. military headquarters in Qatar:
“‘There were a lot of hand-wringers around, weren’t there?’ Rumsfeld said when asked by a soldier in the audience whether he had been flooded by apologetic calls from critics.
“‘You know, during World War II, Winston Churchill was talking about the Battle of Britain and he said, “Never have so many owed so much to so few,”’ Rumsfeld said. ‘A humorist in Washington…sent me a note paraphrasing that [in which] he said, “Never have so many been so wrong about so much.”’”
—Washington Post, 29 April 2003
But what appeared to be an easy victory and a launching pad for further “preemptive” conquests has turned into a quagmire. Today even the most bellicose White House chicken hawks have little appetite for spreading the war to Syria and Iran or attacking the North Korean deformed workers’ state.
Marxists support blows struck by the resistance fighters against the imperialist occupiers, their surrogates and hirelings. Those who willingly sign up to enforce imperialist rule in Iraq, even if driven to do so by economic desperation, are legitimate targets. This elementary proposition is apparently rejected by the Third-Camp centrists of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) who declare: “We oppose the targeting of recruits to the Iraqi army, who the great majority of the time have refused to fire on fellow Iraqis when the occupation or the puppet governments have tried to use them against the resistance” (Proletarian Revolution No. 75, Fall 2005). The Iraqi army is indeed riddled with agents and sympathizers of the various wings of the insurgency, but it nonetheless remains an agency of the imperialist occupation. Some of its predominantly Shiite and Kurdish units have been successfully deployed in Sunni Arab areas. In the summer 2005 offensive against the Sunni city of Tal Afar, in which thousands of civilians were driven from their homes and hundreds killed, it was the mercenaries in the puppet army who did most of the dirty work.
It seems odd that the LRP, which is generally not overly solicitous of scabs, cops or other agents of their own ruling class, is concerned about the welfare of Iraq’s volunteer quislings. We can only interpret this as an expression of guilty liberalism. The overwhelming majority of Iraqi recruits enlist to escape desperate poverty, but this is true of imperialist armies as well, which is why the ranks of the American military are overwhelmingly composed of poor whites, blacks and Hispanics, whose objective interests are diametrically opposed to those of their rulers. But, as we explained to the Spartacist League in 1983 when it called for saving the U.S. Marines in Lebanon, communists have never considered the “economic draft” as a reason for giving imperialism’s trained killers a free pass.
Sectarian attacks upon worshippers in mosques or ordinary people out shopping are another thing entirely. They are not only reprehensible criminal acts, they are also profoundly stupid, as their only effect can be to drive the targeted population into the hands of the imperialists and their puppets.
Iraq’s Working Class Reviving
After 15 years of imperialist sanctions and military terrorism, much of Iraq’s industrial capacity has been destroyed, and its working class pauperized. According to a 17 March 2005 Associated Press report, the per capita average income is roughly a quarter of what it was 25 years ago. The new pseudo-constitution calls for “encouraging and developing the private sector.” Article 110 directs Iraq’s federal and provincial governments to develop oil and gas production by “relying on the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment.” Article 25 states:
“The state shall guarantee the reforming of the Iraqi economy according to modern economic bases, in a way that ensures complete investment of its resources, diversifying its sources….”
Persistent insurgent attacks upon oil infrastructure and foreign contractors has thus far deterred the oil majors, but the puppet regime has announced plans to open petroleum refining and exporting to private investment (i.e., takeover by imperialist corporations) while retaining control, at least for the time being, of drilling and pumping.
Despite enormous obstacles, the Iraqi working class has shown remarkable resilience. There has been a resurgence of union activity, particularly in the oil sector. The General Union of Oil Employees (GUOE), which claims 23,000 members in the southern oil fields, has militantly resisted privatization attempts. In August 2003, the union successfully shut down all oil exports and forced Halliburton’s KBR (Kellogg, Brown & Root) unit to pull out of Basra. Two months later, the threat of strike action was enough to force Paul Bremer, the American proconsul, to cancel plans to cut wages. In July 2005, Basra oil workers staged a 24-hour strike to demand higher wages and land allowances, as well as the removal of Baathist managers and the investment of more oil revenues in the local economy (Iraq Occupation Focus, 17 July 2005). One unionist commented: “We’ve been like the camel that carries gold, but is given thorns to eat” (The Progressive, October 2005).
In August 2005, hospital and medical workers in Kirkuk and the surrounding region struck against Health Ministry pay cuts. The next month textile workers in Baghdad struck to win higher wages. In a blatant attempt to curtail growing labor unrest, the puppet government announced that it was “taking control of all monies belonging to the trade unions to prevent them from dispensing any such monies” (Occupation Watch, 25 August 2005). It is perhaps significant that they felt it necessary to resort to such measures despite the fact that Iraq’s only legal trade union, the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), is led by the collaborators of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) with the support of Allawi’s pro-imperialist Iraq National Accord. (The Stalinist ICP, which has two members in the sham parliament, supported the sharia constitution, meekly suggesting that its “civil-democratic elements” could perhaps be strengthened.)
The Worker-communist Party of Iraq (WCPI), which falsely equates the Islamist/Baathist resistance with the U.S./UK axis forces, has at least consistently opposed both the imperialist occupation and its Baghdad puppets. WCPI supporters have also helped organize significant mobilizations by the Union of Unemployed in Iraq. While the pro-WCPI leadership of the Federation of Worker Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCIU) is more militant than the openly collaborationist IFTU, they have proposed that: “one way to end the occupation itself would be for the forces of the United Nations to keep the peace” (Voice of Iraqi Workers, 5 June 2005).
The UN is not a neutral, classless organization of international do-gooders. The 1991 “Desert Storm” invasion of Iraq, which is estimated to have cost the lives of 100,000 Iraqi civilians, was conducted under the auspices of the UN, as were the subsequent sanctions that killed over a million. The UN Security Council has also voted to approve the current occupation. While it is barely conceivable that the tattered U.S. “coalition” will be replaced by UN gun-toting “peacekeepers,” if it were, nothing fundamental would change. Revolutionaries advocate the immediate, unconditional withdrawal of all imperialist forces and their vassals, not a reconfiguration of the occupation under a UN fig leaf.
The working class is the only element in Iraq with both the objective interest and the social power to drive out the occupiers and overturn the oppressive rule of the dictators, sheiks, mullahs and other imperialist allies who have dominated the region for so long. The military defeat of the imperialist predators in Iraq would blunt their appetite for launching similar murderous adventures, at least in the short term. But national and social liberation for the peoples of the Middle East requires the revolutionary intervention of the multi-ethnic working class.
The imperialist occupation has increased the likelihood of a sectarian conflagration, as the leaders of the various ethnic and religious groups maneuver to maximize their share of land, oil and government resources. The leaders of the petty-bourgeois Kurdish parties have subordinated any struggle for national rights to the maintenance of cordial relations with Washington and its puppets. While Kurdish and Shiite bourgeois leaders manipulate the justified grievances of their peoples to advance their own agendas, the Sunni Arab leaders similarly play on the anxieties of their base. Working people will have to face a future of grinding poverty regardless of which faction, or combination of them, ultimately gains ascendancy. They have nothing to gain from the sectarian tit-for-tat killings taking place with increasing frequency.
The only way forward for the working class and dispossessed is through a social revolution that expropriates Iraq’s capitalists and landlords, and ignites a wave of revolutionary struggle throughout the region. By constructing a planned, collectivized economy in which production is determined by human need rather than private profit, a workers’ state would dramatically improve living standards and thus lay the basis for eliminating sectarian rivalries and national oppression. Within a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, the artificial borders imposed by imperialism could be erased, and the peoples of the region freed to determine their own future while enjoying the benefits of unprecedented economic development.
In reflecting on the disastrous defeat of the 1927 Chinese Revolution, Leon Trotsky observed:
“With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of the permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.”
—The Permanent Revolution
A successful proletarian struggle for power requires the leadership of a revolutionary party, rooted in the working class, that is committed to vigorously combating every form of religious, ethnic, sexual and national oppression, and championing the strict separation of mosque and state. The courageous Iraqi women who have dared to openly oppose sharia law and the re-imposition of the veil will undoubtedly provide many of the best cadres for such a party and the most militant fighters for a socialist future.
A revolutionary workers’ party would bloc militarily with all those forces resisting the occupation, while actively building independent organs of working-class self-defense. In defending existing housing and food subsidies for workers, and opposing all privatization moves, it would not seek merely to constrain or pressure the occupation authorities and their puppets, but would rather demonstrate to all the oppressed the necessity of supporting a revolutionary, proletarian solution to the intractable problems of life in the prison of imperialism.
The fundamental problem faced by humanity in the 21st century is the need to eliminate the entire global system of international capitalism that generates massive poverty, irreversible ecological destruction, racism, sexism, tyranny and war. The history of Iraq has repeatedly demonstrated the inextricable connection between the social and national liberation of the peoples of the Middle East and the struggle for a socialist world. The U.S. today is a superpower in decline, and while its military strength still far surpasses that of its rivals, its impasse in Iraq is accelerating the rate of its descent. Despite their reactionary ideology, the blows struck by the Iraqi resistance fighters against the occupation show downtrodden people around the globe that it is possible to successfully resist.
As the U.S. sinks ever deeper into the Iraqi quagmire, Washington’s imperialist rivals are looking for opportunities to improve their position relative to the American leviathan. Some of the most senior figures in the American foreign-policy establishment are profoundly concerned by the destabilizing effects of Bush’s reckless doctrine of “preemptive” attack. Robert McNamara, the U.S. Secretary of Defense under Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, and one of the preeminent war criminals of his time, recently expressed concern over current American nuclear doctrine, which he characterizes as “immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous.” He pointed out that:
“The United States has never endorsed the policy of ‘no first use,’ not during my seven years as secretary or since. We have been and remain prepared to initiate the use of nuclear weapons—by the decision of one person, the president—against either a nuclear or nonnuclear enemy whenever we believe it is in our interest to do so.”
—Foreign Policy, May-June 2005
McNamara also observed that U.S. plans to begin testing a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons:
“says to the nonnuclear weapons nations, ‘We, with the strongest conventional military force in the world, require nuclear weapons in perpetuity, but you, facing potentially well-armed opponents, are never to be allowed even one nuclear weapon.’”
The ultimate logic of global capitalist competition is thermonuclear imperialist war. The only thing that can save humanity from this nightmare is a victorious socialist revolution that establishes an internationally-coordinated planned economy which can free the vast productive potential of the industrial technique developed under capitalism from the irrationality of a social system based on production for profit. A collectivized world economy could completely eradicate hunger and poverty in a matter of only a few years. The alternative to a socialist future is the destruction of human civilization, as the great German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg observed nearly 90 years ago:
“Socialism has become necessary not merely because the proletariat is no longer willing to live under the conditions imposed by the capitalist class but, rather, because if the proletariat fails to fulfill its class duties, if it fails to realize socialism, we shall crash down together to a common doom.”
—“Our Program and the Political Situation,” 1918