Chaos in Iraq

FRFI 187 October / November 2005

Writing in The Independent (15 September 2005) Robert Fisk asks a leading question, ‘Why is it that we and America wish civil war in Iraq?’ The ‘we’ is the British state. A little history of colonial wars provides a few ready answers: divide and rule; an excuse to prolong the military occupation; deflect the violence away from the occupation armies; isolate and target the main source of resistance; get others to do the fighting for you etc. Entangled in an escalating war the US and British governments are seeking to reduce and focus their military forces in Iraq, but in doing so threaten to ignite a wider conflagration. The Iraqi people’s suffering continues; their death rate accelerates. Trevor Rayne reports.

On 14 September a suicide bomber lured labourers in a Shia part of Baghdad with the prospect of jobs. As they gathered around his van it detonated, killing 114 people. There were no Iraqi or occupation forces in the vicinity. The attack was claimed by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, as ‘revenge for the Sunni people of Tal Afar’. The statement declared war on the Shias. The victims of the suicide bomb had not attacked Tal Afar, a city close to the Syrian border; they had not joined and were not joining the interim government’s forces. The victims were poor Iraqi workers seeking an income from work. Their slaughter was sectarian and serves the interests of the occupying powers.

Several Iraqi resistance groups issued their own joint statement in response to the al-Qaida in Iraq claim. They said, ‘the aim of the Iraqi Resistance and their military strikes will be directed at the occupiers and collaborators and nobody else, and the call for attacking the Shi’ites in general is nothing but a fire that will burn all Iraqis, Sunnis and Shi’ites’. Sheikh Jawad al-Kalisi, imam of Baghdad’s al-Kazemiya mosque, told the French newspaper Le Monde that al-Zarqawi was killed at the start of the invasion of Iraq and that he ‘is a ploy used by the Americans, an excuse to continue the occupation’. What the imperialists fear is united Iraqi resistance; their military capacity could not cope with Shia and Sunni populations mobilised across Iraq to demand the removal of the invaders.

Iraq Body Count estimated that from 20 March 2003 until July 2005 average daily civilian deaths due to the conflict was 34, with the occupation forces responsible for 98.5% of these. The death rate in the second year of the conflict was twice that of the first year. Women and children constitute a fifth of the dead. One in 200 is less than two years old.

A growing political toll in the US
On 16 September officially declared US military deaths in Iraq were 1,899. 96 British soldiers had been killed, including three by late September. For the four months up to September the monthly average US military personnel killed was 78.5, compared with 60.4 for the same period in 2004. Estimates of occupation forces’ wounded and not returned to combat range from 7,000 to 20,000. Approximately one million US servicemen and women have now served in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iraqi resistance inflicts a growing attrition on the occupation forces; sufficient to reduce their presence on the streets and to force them to resort to increased use of Iraqi forces. Furthermore, the resistance is eroding the US people’s support for the war. The war is seen as inflicting sacrifices with no reward in sight.

Iraqi oil production reaches a maximum of 2.2 million barrels a day, about 0.5 million barrels below the pre-war level. Some days it is half this amount. The US has imposed long term contracts to buy Iraqi oil at $20 a barrel, less than a third of its world market price.

Two US research groups put the cost of the war to the US at $5.6 billion a month. This is $0.5 billion more than the monthly cost of the Vietnam War, discounting for inflation. However, it should be noted that today’s costs constitute a smaller part of the US economy than did those at the time of the Vietnam War.

Sections of the US ruling class always opposed the war on Iraq and they are anxious. Writing in the Financial Times (6 September 2005) Michael Lind uses Paul Kennedy’s concept of ‘imperial over-extension’ to describe the US predicament. He blames the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for reducing funds available for New Orleans flood defences. He says that with declining US army recruitment the state is forced to turn to National Guard reservists and private security firms and he claims that the border with Mexico is inadequately guarded due to overseas commitments. ‘The attempt to establish American global hegemony without paying for it was a disaster – actually, several disasters – waiting to happen…Supporters of the war in Iraq predicted that the dominos would fall in the Middle East. Instead, the dominos are falling across America.’

There are some in the US ruling class who are aware that the preoccupation with Iraq leaves their interests exposed to attack in the Americas. Iraq consumes resources and diverts the political attention needed to tackle the rising demands of Latin American people led by Cuba and Venezuela. US ruling class hegemony in the continent is being challenged. In capitalist terms, the invasion of Iraq is seen as a poor investment.

On 9 September The Los Angeles Times reported that the US has suspended major reconstruction projects in Iraq. ‘We do not have the money’, a senior US advisor on Iraq told the US House Appropriations Subcommittee. Security accounts for 22% of any Iraqi reconstruction project. Private security staff receive up to $1,000 a day.

Conditions in Iraq remain dire: some areas get less than four hours electricity a day; a quarter of $200 million worth of US-funded water projects do not work because of, according to a Government Accountability report, ‘looting, unreliable electricity or inadequate Iraqi staff and supplies’. $2.6 billion has been spent on water projects, half the original budget because the rest was diverted to security. There is a reported surge in diarrhoea and dehydration among children and the elderly. Unemployment remains around 50% of the workforce. Corruption takes place on a breathtaking scale with billions of dollars stolen.

Enlisting allies

The imperialists are trying to cement their relationships to the Iraqi bourgeoisie and integrate local militias into their occupation force. The draft constitution presented at the end of August was described as ‘serving Kurdish and Shia privilege’, meaning their bourgeois leadership. The 15 Sunni representatives on the drafting committee rejected the draft. By providing a weak central state and proposing a more federal structure, the draft constitution intends to allocate oil revenues to the southern Shia leadership and the northern Kurdish leadership. Existing oil fields would be controlled by central government, but provincial authorities would control newly discovered fields.

The Sunni representatives said the proposed constitution would ‘splinter’ Iraq and give Iran a foothold in the south. Shi’ite Muqtada al Sadr and the Mahdi Army opposed the draft with Al Sadr referring to ‘the noble resistance’ of the Sunnis and saying that Iraq was ruled by a colonial regime. Joint Sunni and Shia protests against the proposals took place in several towns.

A referendum on the constitution is scheduled for 15 October. A no vote by two-thirds of voters in three of Iraq’s provinces would nullify the charter and new elections would have to be held and a new drafting committee would produce another constitution. Saddam Hussein’s trial is due to start on 19 October. The referendum and the trial are intended to give the impression that a new order is underway and getting things done.

Journalists report the local police in Basra, under British control, as being ‘infiltrated’ by Shia militias. Two US journalists investigating this ‘infiltration’ were shot dead, the first by men in police uniforms. Those who report this so-called ‘infiltration’ have not studied British counter-insurgency methods in the north of Ireland, Kenya, Malaya etc. The British military seek to associate with and then absorb militias into the imperialist forces. As the events in Basra demonstrated (see box) this tactic is not without dangers to the imperialists. There is a consistent strategy going all the way back to the British occupation of India. Recently, Shia military units have been deployed alongside US troops in the chiefly Sunni Fallujah. In Tikrit, former home of Saddam Hussein, the US uses Kurdish forces. This is deliberately using and fomenting sectarian divisions as an element of political strategy. In Tal Afar in September the US deployed Kurdish and Shia battalions alongside its own units to attack a mainly Sunni town.

The main Shia militia are the Badr Organisation and the Mahdi Army, led by Muqtada al Sadr. The Badr Organisation is attached to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which sided with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. The Badr Organisation has been recruited into the Iraqi army and police and also serves as an auxiliary to the occupation forces. The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn writes of 65 assassinations of mostly Sunnis in the Basra area since May. There have been death squad abductions of scores of Sunnis in different parts of Iraq. These are conducted in a similar fashion to those in Central America and Peru two decades ago: bodies mutilated and left to be discovered to intimidate local populations.

The outcomes of this divide and rule strategy are increased sectarian tensions, strife and a tendency towards civil war. On 31 August approximately 1,000 Shia pilgrims were killed in a stampede on a bridge in Baghdad. The bridge spanned between predominantly Shia and Sunni areas. The stampede was triggered by a false rumour of a Sunni suicide bomber.

Whatever imperialism planned for Iraq it seems to be reconciled to now having no alternative to Balkanisation if it is to dominate the territory and the region. The national resistance can present itself as defending the integrity of Iraq while the puppet government looks increasingly to represent factional privileges. The route imperialism is taking is fraught with dangers for it. Autonomy for Iraq’s Kurds could provoke the Turkish state to attack its own Kurdish population and amass its army along the frontier with Iraq. Syria and Iran have their own Kurds struggling for independence. Greater powers for the Shia bourgeoisie strengthen Iranian influence in Iraq. The perceived inability of the US and Britain to impose their will on Iraq, and the straining of their military powers in the effort to do so, reduces their ability to intimidate and attack Syria and Iran.

Despite President Bush’s talk of reducing US troop commitments to Iraq, the numbers of US soldiers in the country are being increased from 138,000 to 160,000 ahead of the constitution referendum. The US Army’s Chief of Staff, General Schoomaker, said the US may have to keep 100,000 troops in Iraq for another four years. Following the occupation forces’ transfer of military responsibility for Najaf to the Iraqi army, three other Shia cities are to be placed under Iraqi army control. This is intended to allow US troops to concentrate on Baghdad and Sunni areas. The imperialists reckon on containing the Sunni-led resistance and drawing former Ba’athist leaders into their political process.

US forces are building major military bases in Iraq for a permanent presence and they have no option but to strive to control the oil reserves and distribution. From the first Gulf war to the sanctions, no-fly zones and bombing raids, imperialism has been at war with Iraq for 15 years. The British military has mounted approximately 30 separate military interventions in the Middle East since 1945. Imperialism is at permanent war in the Middle East. The Labour government’s part in the war was crucial to its waging. The continuing British occupation is vital for the US occupation. Socialists demand self-determination for Iraq. British troops out of Iraq and the Middle East.

Basra: the lie exposed

The sight of a British soldier fleeing a burning armoured vehicle surrounded by Iraqi protesters exposed as a lie the carefully cultivated image of British soldiers as peacekeepers in Iraq. In its place were plainclothes SAS soldiers killing Iraqi police officers and British tanks bulldozing Basra’s police headquarters.

It began when the occupation armies captured Iraq and sacked the Ba’athist police and army. Anyone who opposed the Ba’athists was eligible to join the new police and army, among these were the militias. Earlier this year Basra’s police chief said he had lost control of three-quarters of his men. On 18 September British troops arrested leading members of the Mahdi Army. The following day Iraqi police stopped an unmarked car containing the two SAS soldiers, an anti-tank weapon and assault rifles. The SAS shot dead a police officer. They were then taken into police custody. If they were passed to the Mahdi Army no doubt the British military feared they would be used to barter for the release of the Mahdi Army commanders. The British said that Iraqi forces must handover British personnel to the coalition forces. When they were not released, ten tanks demolished the police headquarters.

On 21 September hundreds of Iraqi civilians and police protested outside the headquarters demanding that the two SAS soldiers be tried by an Iraqi court. The next day Basra’s city council ended all co-operation with British forces and banned them from all government buildings. Basra’s governor described the British actions as ‘barbaric, savage and irresponsible’. Iraq’s National Security advisor called the British operation ‘a flagrant breach of Iraqi sovereignty’. A Basra judge issued an arrest warrant for the two SAS soldiers. British troops kept a low profile.


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