- Created: Wednesday, 06 May 2009 14:50
- Written by Jim Craven
Much of the British media has fallen silent on Iraq. However, most recent attempts by the US, Britain and the Iraqi puppet government forces to secure the imperialist occupation of Iraq is meeting fierce resistance from sections of the Iraqi working class. The present onslaught began on 24 March when 15,000 Iraqi troops and another 15,000 members of the Iraqi police force attacked militia forces in Basra. At least 40 people were killed and 200 injured in the first two days of fighting. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki demanded that the militia disarm within three days. He proclaimed there would be, ‘No retreat, no talks, no negotiations.’ Al Maliki labelled the militias ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists’, but the only target of his attack was the Mehdi Army, supporters of the Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. The militia supporting Al Maliki’s own Dawa Party and the Badr Organisation, supporters of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), were not targeted. Many of the Iraqi government forces are Badr militia in uniform. Jim Craven reports.
The Iraqi government campaign turned into a rout as the Mehdi Army fought back in Basra and widened the struggle to Baghdad and a string of towns including the four southern provincial capitals of Kut, Amarah, Nasariya and Diwaniya. Within four days the Mehdi controlled three quarters of Basra and half of Baghdad, where they called a general strike. They captured Nasariya and in Kut took over five districts, expelling the police. Two brigades from the Iraqi army 14th Division, around 1,200 men, refused to fight. Two Iraqi colonels were suspended. Iraqi officers held fist fights with soldiers from the ranks, trying to force them into battle. In Basra, police loyal to Al Sadr fired on government forces. One hundred soldiers changed sides and joined the Mehdi. Iraqi Defence Minister Jassam Al Obeidi said, ‘We were very surprised by a very strong resistance that made us change our plans.’ Brigadier General Kathum Alwan said, ‘This failure takes Iraq to point zero or worse.’ Al Maliki was forced to extend his disarmament deadline to 14 days and offer cash payments for weapons surrendered. Rather than the Mehdi Army disarming, Iraqi TV showed pictures of government forces handing their weapons to Sadrist clerics in return for an olive branch and copies of the Koran. The campaign intended to demonstrate that Iraqi government forces were strong enough to operate independently of their imperialist masters, but proved precisely the opposite.
Imperialist forces take charge of slaughter
The US pretended to be surprised by Al Maliki’s initiative but such independent military action is inconceivable given the range of US military support and that US Transition Teams operate within all sectors of the Iraqi forces. At the start of the attack US Colonel Bill Buckner admitted that ‘coalition forces were providing intelligence, surveillance and support aircraft for the operation’. Within a few days, seeing Iraqi government forces being overwhelmed, the US sent in missile firing aircraft and helicopters to rescue them. By day six US ground forces took part in the fighting.
The British too declared they knew nothing of the offensive until it had begun. But Iraqi commandos had a few days previously been training in house-to-house fighting with the British. In Basra, around 150 British military ‘advisers’ accompanied the Iraqi forces and British artillery bombarded the city.
The imperialists declared curfews in both Basra and Baghdad to give them free-fire zones. By the end of the first week over 300 people had been killed, mostly from air and artillery attacks. The main markets in the Sadr City area of Baghdad had been destroyed. President Bush called it the ‘defining moment of the history of Iraq’.
The attack on the Mehdi Army signifies a heightening of the class nature of the war in Iraq. Al Sadr gains most of his support, an estimated eight to ten million people, from the Iraqi working class and urban poor. His stronghold, Sadr City in the poorest part of Baghdad, houses three million people. These people have suffered most from the violence and from the collapse of jobs and services due to the imperialist occupation. Unlike the middle classes they do not have the resources to seek refuge elsewhere.
Al Sadr has consistently opposed the occupation. He has also stood against regionalisation, for a united Iraq, and against the privatisation of Iraqi oil. Sadrist deputies withdrew from the Iraqi parliament in protest at the proposed oil law allowing foreign multinationals to plunder the industry.
Al Maliki’s Dawa Party and ISCI, the Shiite group with the largest block in Iraq’s parliament, always supported the occupation. They represent the elite Iraqi merchant classes who are keen to benefit from the privatisation of Iraqi resources. As commander of US forces General Petraeus emphasised, ‘Mr Maliki is very keen on getting large Western corporations re-engaged in the oil and electricity sectors. The (Basra militias) have to be addressed in Iraq.’
The oil law, devised by the oil giants, has stalled because of widespread opposition within Iraq, not least from the oil unions. The unions have been banned by the Iraqi government, using anti-union laws from Saddam’s dictatorship. They remain, however, in control of most of the oil fields. Impatient with the lack of progress, the Kurdish regional government has taken autonomous decisions on the northern oil fields and signed contracts with foreign companies. ISCI now wants to do the same in the massive Basra oil fields. Provincial elections scheduled for October could decide the issue, but ISCI realise they have no chance of winning the election while Al Sadr commands huge support.
Clearing the way for plunder
The imperialists have for a long time wanted to crush Al Sadr and the Mehdi Army. They removed the previous Prime Minister Al Jafaari for refusing to carry out their demands. In this respect it is no coincidence that the present attack was launched a few days after US Vice-President Cheney’s visit. The US has previously favoured a united Iraqi solution to oil deals, so as to better keep control in their hands, but, as the Wall Street Journal recently reported, Exxon, Mobil Corp, BP and Royal Dutch Shell are increasingly frustrated by the present situation. Cheney’s visit was intended to secure arrangements for permanent US bases in Iraq, but he also talked with Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders on ways of moving ahead with oil contracts and of the Iraqis taking on more of a fighting role. Even as the attack took place representatives of Exxon, Chevron and BP were negotiating contracts with the Iraqi oil ministry for the Rumaila oil field near Basra.
Imperialists ignore ceasefire
The Mehdi Army fought ferociously against the US onslaught in Najaf in 2004. However, Al Sadr has always been cautious about his supporters being in direct confrontation with the imperialists or with Iraqi government forces or other militias. In February he extended, for six months, a unilateral ceasefire that he announced in August 2007. The imperialists took this opportunity to arrest over 2,000 members of the Mehdi Army. General Petraeus’s spokesman, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, claimed, ‘We’ve degraded their capability.’ Republican presidential candidate John McCain, when visiting Iraq in early March, said, ‘Moqtada’s influence has been on the wane for a long time.’ Two weeks later he was forced to pretend he had never said this.
After the first week of the present attacks Al Sadr called on his militia to end ‘armed appearances’, saying, ‘I’m giving the last warning and the last word to the Iraqi government. If they don’t come to their senses and curb the militias that have infiltrated the government, we will declare an open war until liberation.’ He emphasised that the Sadrists’ ‘strategic objective’ was the ‘liberation of Iraq from the occupier’ and that the US would be ‘defeated just as they were in Vietnam’. A ceasefire was brokered by Shia leaders and Brigadier General Qassem Sulaymani, head of the Quds Brigade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a man designated a ‘terrorist’ by the US government. The reality on the ground, however, has sometimes forced Mehdi commanders to take a different perspective from Al Sadr. One Mehdi leader said, ‘We are not ready to stay home waiting to be arrested by the army.’ Another pointed out, ‘They used Moqtada Al Sadr to publish this truce order so they could enter difficult areas which Iraqi forces could not otherwise control in Basra. They are bluffing and cheating us.’
He was correct. The imperialist and Iraqi forces continued attacking. A demonstration of one million people called by Al Sadr was stopped by the Iraqi army. Al Sadr’s second in command was assassinated by Badr militia. US forces laid siege to Sadr City and began building a concrete wall to isolate it from the rest of Baghdad. British armoured vehicles went into Basra on 6 April to be joined two weeks later by US troops. The siege of Sadr City intensified throughout April. Under attack from US bombs, Predator Hellfire missiles and Apache helicopters at least 900 people were killed and 2,600 wounded. On 23 April the Red Cross reported that civilians were cut off from food and water supplies and hospitals were running out of necessities. A Sadrist MP, Dr Al Dori, reported, ‘They have now completely surrounded Sadr City. The hospitals are jammed with dead bodies…the occupation forces completely ban and open fire at any convoy trying to deliver humanitarian aid. People here suffer from shortage of food supplies. The occupation forces have burnt the city’s market.’ He went on to compare the atrocities being perpetrated by the Israeli forces in Gaza and what the imperialists were doing in Sadr City.
The people of Sadr City resisted into May. The imperialist forces and their stooges only managed to penetrate the outskirts of the city. Government troops were forced to abandon their positions under fire from the Mehdi. Resistance fighters continued firing mortars into the Green Zone, previously the only bastion of safety for imperialist and Iraqi government officials. On 12 May Al Sadr allowed Iraqi soldiers, but not US troops, to enter Sadr City, and halted Mehdi Army bombardments of the Green Zone.
Al Maliki threatened that the Sadrists would not be allowed to contest the October elections unless the Mehdi Army disbanded and disarmed. This will not happen. So, if the imperialists fail to crush the Sadrists they may have to cancel the elections. The elections, however, were proposed by the US primarily to give Sunnis in the ‘Awakening Councils’ some share in the government. The Awakening Councils consist of 90,000 former resistance fighters who give tacit support to the US occupiers in return for $16 million a month. The imperialists claimed their defection as one of the successes of the ‘surge’. However, the Awakening Councils new-found allegiance is very fragile and could explode in the imperialists’ face if the US reneges on its promises.
Claims for the success of the US ‘surge’ are sounding hollow. The official monthly death toll among Iraqis doubled between January and March. 49 US soldiers were killed in April, the worst month since August. The reduction of US forces has been halted so that, for the foreseeable future, there will be more troops in Iraq than before the ‘surge’. The planned British force reduction has been cancelled indefinitely. Labour Foreign Secretary David Miliband admitted, ‘It is evident that the mission has not been accomplished. The building of the peace [sic] has gone much worse than people expected. That is the basic truth and we might as well accept that.’
FRFI 203 June / July 2008