Iraq: humbling the mighty

FRFI 175 October / November 2003

President Bush and Prime Minister Blair might believe the US to be almighty but it is fast dawning on sections of the US and British ruling classes that it is not. By September the invasion of Iraq had cost the US $138bn. The victorious coalition forces of April were looking futile and tarnished by the end of the summer. On 7 September Bush called on Congress for an additional $87bn and an extra 10,000 foreign troops for ‘the war on terrorism’. On cue British Defence Secretary Hoon announced that the first of up to 5,000 British troops were on their way to join the 11,000 British soldiers already in Iraq. Labour’s £3bn extra for defence in April’s budget will soon be used up. Guns and money are not working and do not exist in inexhaustible supplies. The occupation of Iraq takes place in the context of imperialist crisis and division that magnifies the impact of the Iraqi resistance. On 23 September Bush was forced to return to the United Nations (UN) that he had turned his back on in the spring. TREVOR RAYNE reports.

Estimates of Iraqi civilian dead since the start of the invasion range from 8,000 to 10,000 people. Delayed explosions of cluster bombs have killed and maimed approximately 1,000 children. US and British soldiers hold over 5,200 prisoners without trial. Amnesty International condemned the ‘torture and mistreatment’ of these prisoners and said that some had been killed in prison by coalition forces. This suffering raises no concerns in US and British ruling circles. It is their inflated budgets and sagging credibility, falling as the toll of soldiers’ lives rises, that strikes doubt into their brains.

On 1 July, 19 US and six British soldiers had been killed in combat since 1 May when President Bush declared victory and the combat over. By 8 August the number of US troops killed was 57, by 21 September the number of US soldiers killed in combat since 1 May was 79 with 11 British soldiers dead. These are the official figures from military sources. Unofficial sources say the US and British military dead from combat and other causes are over 300 with a dozen attacks on coalition forces each day and 250 US soldiers wounded in August alone.

US and British military spokespeople refer to the attackers as ‘terrorists’, ‘Ba’athists’, ‘Al Qaida’ and so on – they probably have little idea of who they are. In August people of Basra fought British troops with stones in protest at fuel and water shortages. The main oil pipeline to Turkey was blown up as was the main water pipeline to Baghdad. The Jordanian embassy was bombed killing 11 people. On 19 August the UN was attacked in its Baghdad headquarters killing 23 people including Sergio Vieira de Mello, special representative of the UN Secretary General. On 29 August 129 people were killed by a bomb at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. Among the dead was a senior Shi’ite Moslem leader, Ayatollah Hakim, who agreed with participation in the US appointed governing council. His brother is one of the nine rotating presidents of the council. Ayatollah Hakim’s followers blamed the coalition for letting the attack happen and formed militias in defiance of the ruling US and British Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to patrol Shia areas. The Financial Times cautioned, ‘The relative quiescence of the Shia after the Anglo-American invasion is the most valuable political capital the occupation forces possess.’ On 2 September the Baghdad police academy was blown up killing one officer and wounding 20 others.

Faced with a guerrilla war they cannot tame, the coalition forces have resorted to their customary terror and mayhem. Men, women and children shot at checkpoints, random shootings out of the back of armoured vehicles, demonstrators gunned down. On 9 August, as people rebelled in Basra, US troops shot dead six Iraqis including a father and three children when they failed to meet a curfew. On 12 September US soldiers killed ten Iraqi police whom the coalition had selected and trained. The police were pursuing a suspect vehicle occupied by ‘anti-coalition gunmen’. The US troops continued firing for ninety minutes. These are glimpses of what is happening that made their way into the British press. The Independent’s Robert Fisk, unable to obtain reliable information on the violence, visited mortuaries. He concluded that in September almost 1,000 Iraqi civilians were being killed each week.

The campaign in Iraq is stretching the US military to its limits. Of 33 US combat brigades 16 are in Iraq and all the rest but three are committed to strategic reserve activity and operations from Afghanistan to Korea. Senior British defence officials describe British forces as ‘over-stretched’, with troops having less time for training and recuperation between missions. With the US and British strategy of dominating the world and controlling the Middle East’s oil supplies at risk from Iraqi resistance, the US government intends to solve the problem by buying the country. As the head of the CPA Paul Bremer put it, $87bn is ‘ten times more than the US has ever spent in a year on a country.’ It is about four times the size of the entire Iraqi economy!

Deluded ideologues

Announcing his request for $87bn from the US Congress, President Bush said Iraq had become the ‘central front’ in the war on terror, ‘We will do whatever is necessary. We will spend what is necessary to achieve this essential victory in the war on terror.’ These are the delusions of a coterie in power that believes itself to be almighty. By September the US Army had drastically cut back patrols in parts of Iraq to try and reduce its casualties. US troops were unable to control the roads in the north of the country. Top US generals told Bush that foreign troops were needed; the US could not deploy any more of its own. Soldiers’ families had launched a campaign ‘Bring them home now’. Opinion polls showed the US president’s popularity waning. Democratic Party leaders took their opportunity: $87bn is more than the US spends on educational initiatives for its own people, more than it spends on child care. More is to be spent on Iraq’s electricity supply than on the US system, it is more than the US spends on homeland security. These and similar refrains reflect serious misgivings among the US ruling class and US people about the costs and consequences of the US bid for world domination or at least the way the Bush administration is managing it.

The US government has been forced back into haggling over the future of Iraq with those it seeks to subordinate: France, Germany, Russia and China. The US wants these countries and others to share the costs of ruling Iraq and to provide troops and a cover of UN legitimacy for the occupation. US and British misfortunes are used by the French and German ruling classes to reassert their interests in the Middle East. Their governments call for a speedy surrender of US and British control of Iraq to the Iraqi governing council. The council, with the help of the UN, would then control decisions on oil revenues, foreign investments and moves towards elections; the CPA would not feature and so the attempt at US and British monopoly in Iraq would end. Elements of the British ruling class want to ally with Europe and not the US. European Union external relations’ commissioner Chris Patten said it was vital for the US to hand over power to an Iraqi government as soon as possible. US Secretary of State Powell said a quick transfer of power was ‘unrealistic’. Blair will try to negotiate the terms of French and German engagement in Iraq and the timetable for decommissioning the CPA, but he may be brushed aside as irrelevant. Thus far France and Germany have said they are willing to train Iraqi police and not to veto a new US resolution to the UN on the UN’s role in Iraq.

Of the $87bn requested, $800 million is allocated for coalition forces that cannot afford to deploy their own troops. With the monthly bill to the US of its own troops in Iraq running at $4bn this suggests that the US is not expecting many takers or that they will come pretty cheap. Noticeably the US and British governments have had some success in deploying troops from ‘new Europe’: 2,000 from Poland, 2,300 from the Ukraine, 520 from Romania, 300 from the Czech Republic. Bulgaria and Lithuania have pledged troops. Right-wing European Union governments have also sent forces: 2,800 from Italy, 1,200 from Spain, 1,100 from the Netherlands and 130 from Portugal. Germany has said it will not send troops to Iraq as has India. In October Madrid will host a donor’s conference for Iraq. Unless the US and Britain offer up more of the spoils, proceeds are likely to be slender.

The US and British delay in transferring power away from their CPA is to ensure that Iraq is bought and owned by US and British capital before an Iraqi government is formed. Any serious intention to rebuild Iraq would have meant calling in the German, Swiss and French firms that built the power stations and telephone systems in the first place. Siemens’ engineers who installed the generating equipment inspected broken turbines and went home. The US government is intent on denying ‘old Europe’ any contracts in Iraq. On 21 September at the behest of the CPA the governing council announced in Dubai that it was putting up for sale to foreign investors everything from industry to health, and water to electricity, but not oil. The deluded ideologues in the Bush administration believe there will be queues of buyers. But for as long as the armed resistance to occupation in Iraq continues at its current intensity there will either be no buyers or the assets will have to be given away. French and German capital will negotiate their own price with the US for entrance to the fire sale.

Figuring large in these negotiations will be Iraq’s $100bn-plus debt. France, Germany and Russia are among Iraq’s main creditors. They believe Iraq’s debt should be re-scheduled without write-offs or forgiveness and with interest continuing to accrue and compound. That is, they claim a big share of any future Iraqi oil revenues. These financial vultures may accept debt for equity swaps in which Iraqi assets are exchanged for debt write-offs. The US government favours a complete write-off freeing up the oil revenues for their own interests. This write-off may be restricted to the principal so that the interest or part of it would still be owed. In July the US Treasury permitted US investors to trade in Iraqi debt. Currently that debt is traded at 30 cents for a dollar of debt. This means that investors expect to recover 30% of the debt. This would be impossible for Iraq to sustain.

Only capitalism can demonstrate such diabolical ingenuity as to turn the ruins of Iraq into a multi-billion dollar casino. Ultimately the division of the spoils will be determined politically and the Iraqi people have every interest in overturning the table and driving the entire deadly circus out of their country.

Remember Vietnam
In Afghanistan the war on terror is faring little better than in Iraq. The US is spending $900 million a month on its military operations in Afghanistan and $900 million a year on economic assistance and training the Afghan army. The Taliban has regrouped and is mounting daily attacks on government posts and US and NATO soldiers. In August NATO took command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the first time NATO has been deployed outside Europe. On 11 September 2003 two rockets hit close to the NATO camp in Kabul. The ISAF does not venture far from Kabul. US Treasury Secretary Snow announced on 18 September that Afghanistan was a ‘critical priority’ and called on other countries to match the US pledge of $1.2bn in aid for the country. He also announced the first two commercial banking licences to be issued, one going to Britain’s Standard Chartered, the other to a fund dominated by the mega-rich Aga Khan. There is little prospect of the US government luring other contributors to Afghanistan.

US military adventures are exacerbating a structural crisis in the US economy. The US budget deficit for this year increased from a forecasted $300bn to $450bn. This is before the $87bn request. The total budget deficit is 4.7% of the US gross domestic product (GDP). The US current account deficit is running at $529bn or over 5% of GDP. Repeated current account deficits require funding and the US net external debt is now 25% of GDP. US consumer indebtedness is growing twice as fast as incomes. In the past three years the US has lost three million manufacturing jobs, or one in six in the sector. Sections of the US ruling class understand that a day of reckoning may be at hand and that the limited immediate rewards of the military adventures is bringing that day closer.
US and British military planners and their political rulers might care to reflect on the Vietnam War. The US did not lose a major battle but it did lose the war.

Privatising war

They call it ‘military outsourcing’; it used to be known as using mercenaries: one in ten of the personnel on the ground in Iraq are privately contracted. US and British firms provide body guards, trainers, pilots, messengers, a whole range of military functions. The Pentagon employs 700,000 personnel through private contractors. The private military industry generates $100bn annually from operations in over 50 countries.
British armed forces have 18 out of a target of 43 general surgeons, 11 out of 28 orthopaedic surgeons and 195 out of 416 general practitioners (GPs). To close this gap, British Ministry of Defence use of private health care has risen sharply: up 50% to £300,000 a month this year. Oh what a lovely war for private enterprise.

Same old demonstration – same old Labour

On Saturday 27 September FRFI supporters joined the national march organised by the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) against the occupations of Iraq and Palestine. The police estimated its size as 15,000, STWC as 100,000. Despite an occupation which has brought increased anarchy and poverty, despite the endless lies from our government, why did only 100,000 come out on 27 September compared to the 1-2 million people who marched in February?

The main responsibility must lie with the STWC’s refusal to build a mass movement challenging the Labour government. This was the first national demonstration in six months! Rather than build on the momentum created by the February demonstration, the STWC let the government off the hook.

The key problem is that the STWC leadership is committed to the Labour Party either as members or supporters. The same Labour politicians made the same tired old speeches in Trafalgar Square: George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn. Before the demonstration STWC chairperson Andrew Murray said ‘The Labour Party has taken a wrong turn and we must bring it back to how it was – the party of peace’. So which ‘peaceful’ party would that be? The one which helped create Israel? The one which defended apartheid in South Africa? The one which supported the US in Vietnam? The one which handed Vietnam back to French colonialism, and brutally repressed the Malayan freedom struggle? The one which sent troops into Ireland in 1969? Labour has always been a warmongering imperialist party. The STWC leadership pretends otherwise, and therefore will not break with Labour imperialism. That is why it cannot build a mass anti-imperialist movement.


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