The following article was published in Proletarian Revolution No. 69 (Winter 2004).
December 14, 2003
The White House celebrated the capture of Saddam Hussein in the hope of distracting attention from the fact that the world’s dominant economic and military power, eight months into the occupation, has proved unable to force the Iraqi masses into submission. Guerrilla resistance has dealt stunning blows to the imperialist occupying forces. While the U.S. tries to claim that these attacks are solely the work of remnants of Saddam’s old dictatorship and foreign terrorists, popular opposition to the occupiers continues to grow. Even Bush’s photo-op Thanksgiving visit to troops in Baghdad had to be unannounced and in disguise, so worried were his handlers that the resistance might shoot him down.
The overwhelming majority of Iraqis are fiercely opposed to the occupation and want the imperialists out. Decisive are the Shi’ites, who represent a majority of the population but were long oppressed by Saddam’s minority Sunni-based dictatorship. Their opposition to the U.S. is only exceeded by their hatred of Saddam’s Ba’athists. They have become increasingly vocal in their demands for elections and for resistance to the U.S. They have pushed “moderate” leaders who planned to collaborate with the U.S.—most prominently their supreme religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani—to take stands against the occupation, while many others, particularly from the poorest section of the working class, have abandoned such “moderates” and rallied in support of the radical-sounding anti-U.S. Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The growing threat of an uprising by the Shi’ite masses is the imperialists’ greatest fear. Ironically, by capturing Saddam, whose return many still feared, they may have emboldened the increasingly rebellious Shi’ites.
At home, the Bush Administration has lost the enormous popularity it enjoyed as a result of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the wave of patriotism that followed. Its main justifications for the war—Saddam’s supposed threat of “weapons of mass destruction” and Iraq’s alleged ties to Al Qaeda—have been exposed as tissues of lies. Its dreams of Iraqis welcoming the invaders have been replaced with the harsh reality of increasing numbers of soldiers returning home in body bags. Behind the increasing disenchantment with Bush are also the worsening conditions for the working class at home, first hit by sharply rising unemployment as economic decline set in, and now still watching jobs disappear even though the capitalists are feasting on tax cuts and boasting of revived profits.
By September, the White House was in crisis mode, becoming increasingly desperate to hand the U.N. direct responsibility for the situation in Iraq, along with much of the economic costs, before the presidential elections next year. But it is caught between contradictory forces from which there is no easy escape:
Recent months have seen a series of about-faces and policy shifts by the Bush Administration that show its rising anxiety as it searches for a way out. These shifts culminated in the White House’s dramatic announcement in mid-November that it had reversed its commitment to occupy and run the country until an Iraqi government had been democratically elected.
Instead, U.S. pro-consul in Iraq Paul Bremer announced in mid-November that he would hand over power to a sovereign Iraqi government by July 2004 following what White House officials privately describe as “partial elections”—where the only people with the right to vote will be political “notables, elders and tribal chieftains” pre-approved by the U.S. So much for bringing democracy to Iraq! Further, U.S. troops will continue to occupy the country for years, with over 100,000 committed at least until the end of 2006. But this new plan may also collapse in the face of rising struggles of the Iraqi masses and the developing crisis of world capitalism, which increasingly limit the U.S.’s ability to take decisive action.
As we have repeatedly explained in these pages, the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq was not simply the result of neo-conservative politicians’ dreams of dominating the world. Rather it was an attempt to answer fundamental needs of U.S. capitalism that had the bipartisan support of both Republicans and Democrats and to which bourgeois critics had no alternative. Seeing economic crisis spreading around the world and stagnation setting in domestically, the U.S. ruling class knew it would face increasing struggles of the workers and poor, at first most explosively in the “third world.” Imperialist stability demands an all-powerful military threat to keep the masses down and rival states in line. The September 11 terrorist attacks challenged the authority of the U.S., the world’s lone superpower, and it had to respond with a massive show of strength that would terrorize the Arab masses in particular, and force the whole world to cower. The invasion of Iraq fit the bill.
Further, the U.S. imperialists knew that as the world economy continues to deteriorate, its competition with rival imperialists will intensify. By seizing Iraq’s oil wealth, the U.S. aimed at strengthening its control of world oil supplies, giving it a tremendous advantage over competitors like Germany and Japan, more dependent on Middle Eastern oil. It also gave the U.S. oil leverage over Saudi Arabia, which has become a trouble spot for U.S. imperialism. Understanding that economic strength must be backed by military power, it defied even the imperialists’ international law and used its superpower military to brutally enforce its interests in Iraq—necessary preparation for using its huge military advantage elsewhere in the future.
Thus the U.S. had to dispense with the relative cooperation among the imperialists that marked the post-World War II period of economic boom and Cold War, and increasingly assert its power unilaterally. The Clinton Administration had taken steps in that direction when it bypassed the U.N. a few years ago in going to war against Serbia over Kosovo. By invading Iraq, the Bush Administration boldly advanced this drive toward unilateralism. In Bush’s hoped-for “New World Order,” the U.S. would be prepared to defy the will of its rivals while retaining the U.N. and invoking international law when useful.
For a time, the invasion of Iraq had seemed to work. The U.S.’s quick victory appeared to give its rival imperialists, anxious to secure even a tiny amount of influence in post-Saddam Iraq, no choice but to swallow their earlier objections and approve the occupation. Thus in May, the U.N. Security Council recognized Bremer as the ultimate authority in Iraq. But by late August, with an over-extended military facing unexpectedly effective armed resistance, the administration was already discussing ways to get a U.N.-sanctioned military force into Iraq.
The U.S. was not looking to give up even a share of its command in Iraq—that would undermine all the aims behind its invasion and occupation—but was looking for help: finances, troops, and official approval to give other governments more of a cover under which to provide assistance.
The U.S. met with an embarrassing failure at the U.N. By September, France and Germany knew that the rising problems allowed them to bargain for political and economic concessions, leverage which would continue to grow over time. In response to the U.S. resolution, they raised demands for a greater U.N. role in shaping Iraq’s political future and for a significantly faster transition to Iraqi self-rule. U.S. refusal to accept these demands would provide them cover for refusing to send troops and aid to Iraq.
The suicide bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and scores of others only encouraged the rival imperialists’ stalling. By the beginning of October, after Secretary General Kofi Annan added his own voice to the French and German criticisms, U.S. hopes for achieving the resolution it wanted were dead.
The rival imperialists have an interest in restraining the U.S. in order to limit the growth of its military and economic advantage. But even they cannot afford to allow the U.S. to suffer too great a defeat: militarily weak in comparison, they rely on the U.S.’s power to maintain international stability in their own interests. Should the U.S. ever be threatened with a real defeat by the masses in Iraq, rather than the black eyes it is currently suffering, its rivals would rush in to try to stabilize imperialism’s overall rule.
The military resistance in the form of guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings has shocked the U.S. with its scale and effectiveness. There is no immediate prospect of the U.S. suffering anything near an outright military defeat. But the resistance could prove so costly that growing opposition and rising class struggle at home in the future could force the U.S. to withdraw, though that too is not an immediate prospect. What scares the occupiers far more is the rising anti-imperialist sentiment of the Iraqi masses and its very real potential to explode into a mass struggle that could threaten its authority in Iraq and spark a firestorm of revolt throughout the region.
The backbone of the resistance in central Iraq is certainly made up of elements from Saddam’s former Ba’athist army and security services. And the suicide bombings, which make up a tiny percentage of the total attacks on the occupying forces, have almost certainly been the work of foreign terrorists. But this does not mean that the armed resistance is coming solely from Saddamists and terrorists.
First, there are numerous anti-Ba’athist armed political groupings, ranging from Islamists through Iraqi and pan-Arab nationalists and pseudo-socialists. These groups draw members from the ranks of Saddam’s military, and have announced themselves and claimed responsibility for various attacks. While Saddam’s capture will undermine those forces still loyal to him, it will do little to deter the probably far greater guerrilla forces who had already declared their opposition to him.
Second, it is true that most attacks have taken place in the “Sunni Triangle,” where most of the occupation forces are concentrated. But approximately 40 percent of attacks have taken place outside of this area, from the predominantly Shi’ite South to Kurdish areas in the North. The guerrillas in these areas clearly rely on at least the loyalty if not active support of the local population for their operations. Recent studies of captured, injured and killed guerrillas have confirmed that the guerrillas come from among not just the Sunnis, but Shi’ites, Christians, Turkomen and Kurds as well. In fact, while the Western media have tried their best not to report it, occupation forces deep in the predominantly Shi’ite South of the country, where there are few Sunni Muslims, face frequent and increasing attack, sustaining deaths and many casualties. Spanish forces around the Shi’ite centers of Najaf and Diwaniyah have even come under artillery attack. In the North, major attacks have been conducted by the guerrillas of the nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), forcing the U.S. to promise Turkey that it will launch an offensive to “eradicate” the thousands-strong group.
The biggest threat to the imperialists has been the increasing anti-imperialist attitude of the masses of Iraqis, particularly the Shi’ites. Iraqis are well aware of the U.S.’s role in supporting Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians and its backing of various Arab regimes’ oppression of their own people (including Saddam’s past repressions). Accordingly, the most common attitude toward the U.S. is that it aims to seize Iraq’s oil wealth, not to free the Iraqi people from oppression. But in the absence of a viable secular alternative to the Islamic religious leaders, all the masses hear is talk of launching a “holy war” against the “infidel” invaders.
As we described in the last edition of PR, by far the fastest growing political organization in Iraq since Saddam’s downfall has been the militant Islamic organization Jimaat-i-Sadr-Thani (JST) led by Muqtada al-Sadr. While most other opposition groupings were crushed by Saddam or forced into exile, the Sadr movement won a reputation as courageous opponents of Saddam. As the U.S. began its invasion, the Sadrist armed forces drove Saddam’s police and security forces out of the main Shi’ite working-class neighborhoods and slums in Baghdad and elsewhere, seizing key installations including large caches of weapons as well as mosques, schools and hospitals. Baghdad’s “Saddam City” area, home to millions of Shi’ites, was renamed “Sadr City,” and a Sadrist cleric was established as the predominant religious figure. The JST also confirmed its deeply reactionary character, imposing the forced veiling of women and their murder for various “immoral” offenses.
The JST also went on an offensive against rival Shi’ite leaders and groupings. First, when the U.S.’s favored Shi’ite cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, returned from exile to the Holy City of Najaf and held a meeting with the city’s previous Shi’ite leader and collaborator with Saddam, Haidar al-Kilidar, Sadr supporters killed them both. Most provocatively, Sadrists rallied at the home of Iraq’s preeminent Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, threatening him with death if he did not leave the country.
Sistani, however, still claims the following of the majority of Shi’ites, and he survived these attempts, forcing Sadr to accept a subordinate role for the moment. To maintain his base of support, Sistani has made increasingly strong condemnations of the U.S. occupation. Having refused to oppose Saddam during the latter’s reign, Sistani responded to the U.S. invasion’s successes by calling on all Shi’ites to not interfere with the occupying forces. But as anti-U.S. sentiment rose in the following months, pressure mounted. When occupation head Bremer announced the formation of an appointed and essentially powerless Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), Sistani had no choice but to condemn it in a fatwa (religious edict) and call on Shi’ites to work for democratic elections.
Meanwhile, mass pressure grew on Sadr to launch a struggle against the occupation, leading him to announce the formation of an Islamic army and calling for volunteers. But despite his frequent denunciations of America, Britain and Israel as the “great imperialist infidels,” he has no intention of leading a real struggle against them. Rather, he hopes that following a U.S. withdrawal he will be able to seize power against the much weakened Sunnis and his Shi’ite rivals. As committed to capitalism as his co-thinkers in the Iranian clerical dictatorship, Sadr does not want to mobilize the masses in a struggle he cannot control.
Sadr has alternated between fiery rhetorical denunciations of the occupation and hints that he would be willing to cooperate with and even participate in a future “democratic” government. Sadr’s refusal to follow through on his promises of struggle have cost him support. But in the absence of a genuine proletarian alternative, he still retains the following of the most militant masses of Shi’ite workers and poor.
The U.S. has similarly hesitated to move against the JST. At various points they have threatened to arrest Sadr, only to back off. They are aware that any move against him would likely trigger an uprising of millions. The U.S. would fear such a confrontation under any circumstances, but they know that as long as they fail to win the support of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, they cannot hope to restrain the response of the overwhelming majority of Shi’ites.
By early November, the U.S. occupation of Iraq was in crisis. Its puppet Governing Council consists of pro-capitalist Iraqi leaders with no significant following among the masses and thus no ability to restrain them. Fears that the Shi’ite masses would eventually join with the ongoing guerrilla struggle rose to a fever pitch, and the White House summoned Bremer to Washington in early November for emergency meetings of the National Security Council (NSC).
At the first of those meetings, a top secret report on the state of the occupation by the CIA’s Station Chief in Baghdad was discussed, the contents of which were later leaked to the media. The report gave a “bleak assessment” that the armed resistance to the occupation “is broad, strong and getting stronger.” Junking the White House’s line that the insurgency is limited to Saddamists and Al Qaeda terrorists, it explained that “there are thousands in the resistance—not just a core of Ba’athists … and growing every day,” and “that the coalition’s inability to crush the insurgents is convincing growing numbers of Iraqis that the occupation can be defeated, bolstering support for the insurgents.”
This assessment echoed a report by British Intelligence based on their experience of occupation in the relatively more stable South. It warned of the danger of a “massive uprising” by Shi’ites, and urged a swift transfer of full governing powers to an Iraqi government to avoid such a fate.
The problem was how to create a government composed of Iraqi leaders who could be trusted not to challenge imperialist interests and yet have a level of popular support that could restrain the masses. One sure threat to such a solution would be to hold democratic elections. As the New York Times commented on the debate inside the White House:
Officials are concerned that a grassroots election held in the current atmosphere of rising antipathy to the U.S. among ordinary Iraqis could produce a result counter to Washington’s real interests. (Nov. 12.)
Within days, through its puppets in the Iraqi Governing Council, the White House announced its “dramatic change of course”: by the end of June 2004 it will hand power to an Iraqi government that will not be elected but rather selected by regional “caucuses”—whose members, however, will have to be approved, in advance, by the occupying powers. Elections would be postponed indefinitely, and whether they ever take place would be up to the new Iraqi government.
While threatening Iran over its nuclear program, the White House at the same time held secret meetings with the Iranian government to secure its support for the plan. The implied payoff to Iran would be the U.S.’s backing off from threats against it. Anxious for just such a solution, the Iranian government played along, and President Mohammed Khatami took advantage of a visit by IGC Chair Jalal Talabani to announce his support for the U.S. plan.
While Sistani probably wanted to find a way to accept the plan, demands for an end to the occupation and for democratic elections were becoming louder. That pressure forced him again to come out in opposition to the U.S. plan and demand immediate elections and an end to the U.S. occupation.
The White House was once more thrown into a crisis, caught between confronting the Shi’ites by opposing democratic elections and its fear of elections leading to a hostile Shi’ite government. After several days of equivocating, the White House decided that it would be better to deny democratic rights in advance, before the masses became more organized, than to rig elections or overturn an elected government after the fact. So the U.S. got a majority of the IGC to back its plan and announced that it would reject Sistani’s demands; it will hand over nominal sovereignty to an essentially unelected government by the end of June.
In order to intimidate Sistani and Sadr, the U.S. made two significant moves. First, it announced the merging of the private militias of various parties of the IGC into a new state paramilitary organization. Thus it guaranteed the permanent influence of these unelected parties in the future Iraqi state and legitimized the armed forces they use to assert their power. Importantly, the new force will include troops not just from the slavishly pro-imperialist parties like the Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and Iyyad Alawi’s Iraqi National Accord, as well as Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, but also the Iranian-trained forces of SCIRI’s Badr Corps and even those of the Communist Party! Further, this paramilitary group will be directed by the IGC’s Interior Ministry, controlled by the ex-Ba’athist Alawi, long trained in the Saddam school of repressing the Shi’ites!
Second, the U.S. sent more direct warnings to Sadr. Immediately after announcing its rejection of elections, the U.S. launched a military operation to arrest one of Sadr’s key lieutenants, Amar al-Yasiri, in connection with an October firefight between Sadrists and the U.S. army, which produced US casualties. As we go to press, we are yet to see what Sistani and Sadr’s responses will be. Immediately following the U.S. and IGC’s announcement, Sistani’s key representative, Sheik Abdel Mehdi al-Karbalayi, spoke to the media condemning the decision. “The time has come for us to get our rights,” he declared, but immediately qualified his remarks, saying “I’m not saying there will be military action. Maybe it will be civilian. But there will be instability.”
Meanwhile, the Sadrists moved to hold a series of relatively small demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere demanding elections as well as the freeing of their arrested supporters. Further, Sadr called for a nationwide general strike to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination by Saddam’s security forces of his father, Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. The anniversary of Sadiq al-Sadr’s assassination is marked by Shi’ites well beyond those who directly support his son. Sadr’s call for a general strike that day is designed to put pressure on Sistani to back the call himself, as well as further associating resistance to the U.S. with Sadr’s movement.
But Sadr’s delaying of immediate action against the U.S. also shows his weakness, and there is little reason to think that an immediate call by Sadr for a general strike would be widely followed: his following is stronger among the unemployed than among employed workers, who generally embrace more secular traditions and are weary of Sadr’s reactionary fundamentalism.
Overall, while the growing rebelliousness of the Shi’ite masses is forcing Sadr to threaten mass action and Sistani to make threats against the U.S. through his representatives, it is likely that both will try to avoid a real confrontation. Time will tell, however, if they will be able to restrain the masses or will be forced into further protest moves.
The U.S. knows that a showdown with the Shi’ite masses would make a mockery of its claims to have freed them from tyranny, and would likely spark a new firestorm of anti-imperialist struggle throughout the region. It will continue to try to avoid a major confrontation and try to divide the main Shi’ite groups. Meanwhile Sistani and Sadr will similarly seek to avoid a decisive confrontation. If the U.S. fails to find a solution, it will have no choice but to find a pretext for a general military crackdown and the reimposition of effective colonial rule with the flimsiest of Iraqi facades.
While the forms of neo-colonial rule that the U.S. will pursue in the near future are somewhat unpredictable, the longer-term perspective is clearer. Throughout the Middle East, U.S. imperialism has had to recognize the impossibility of stabilizing its grip without reforming its regional junior-partner regimes and making cosmetic “democratic” concessions. But what the imperialists mean by “democracy” is really pluralism. They seek to divide the “Arab street” in each country in order to prevent working-class-wide revolts that could overcome the old and newly-whipped-up ethnic, religious and political differences. They pit the various bourgeois nationalists, clerics and politicians within each sector in a war of all against all, to determine how the small pie allotted by imperialism will be divided.
In Iraq the U.S. tacks and veers, playing off the Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’ite politicians and clerics against each other while at the same time seeking to militarily overawe the masses and guarantee that its promised “democratic” institutions do not result in anything like democratic control by the workers and peasants. As we go to press, the U.S. has stepped up its use of repressive techniques practiced by the barbarous Israeli occupiers of Palestine. Through the use of Special Forces troops it is engaging in collective punishment of families and villages of armed fighters and targeted assassinations of resistance leaders.
As Proletarian Revolution has stressed over the years, Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution pointed out the key objective importance of democratic and anti-imperialist tasks, especially in colonial, semi-colonial and neo-colonial countries. It reasoned that no bourgeois force in those countries could go too far in attacking imperialism or to obtain such gains in a lasting fashion, despite mass pressure during popular uprisings to do so. Only the proletarian socialist revolution, fighting against economic exploitation and tyrannical oppression and extending across national borders, could achieve the democratic goals through the creation of a regional federation of workers’ states.
In Iraq, only the working class can lead the masses out of their present nightmare. The working class has no interest in maintaining capitalist exploitation and imperialist domination. The revolutionary overthrow of imperialist capitalist rule in Iraq and the building of a workers’ state committed to socialism is the only way the masses’ democratic rights will be secured.
The imperialist invasion and occupation has no doubt thrown the working class into disarray. Mass unemployment has skyrocketed, and many industries are yet to resume work. Yet outbreaks of working-class struggle are on the rise. Protests and riots by unemployed and unpaid workers began soon after the occupation and are becoming more frequent. There have been wildcat strikes by workers in a number of industries, including the crucial oil industry.
Revolutionaries in Iraq must participate in these struggles, helping their fellow workers learn their class interests. But they must not ignore the masses’ struggle against imperialism and for their democratic rights—on the contrary, those struggles are crucial. The Shi’ite clerical leaders are mobilizing most of their support—not because of their religious edicts but because of their claims to fight against imperialism and its local enforcers. In turn, the bourgeois Kurdish leaders are encouraging pogromist attacks on Arabs to deflect attention from their betrayal of the Kurds’ fundamental demand for an independent state.
These demagogues’ support can be undermined by working-class revolutionaries fighting as the most consistent champions of anti-imperialism and democracy, primarily against imperialism but also against religious and nationalist attacks on democratic freedoms. Revolutionaries favor the defeat of the imperialists in every clash with Iraqi forces of all stripes, but would at all points seek to mobilize and arm the working class independently for its own self-defense. Revolutionaries also distinguish between attacks on the imperialist occupiers and those designed to disrupt the lives and livelihoods of the Iraqi masses.
Working-class militants and even genuine democrats would fight for a revolutionary constituent assembly, organized against the imperialists and their collaborators, to decide on a constitution and government; authentic communists would explain that the struggle will prove that the only way to secure that demand is through the defeat of imperialism by overthrowing capitalism and establishing working-class rule. They would champion the cause of a united and independent Kurdistan and the democratic rights and freedoms of all ethnic minorities and oppressed groups like the Shi’ites.
In the battles between the imperialist occupiers and the armed resistance, it officially takes no side, failing to see that the greatest threat to the masses is imperialism. It condemns the guerrilla resistance as “reactionary,” refusing to offer it military support in the struggle against the greater and more immediate imperialist enemy, and even pays lip-service to the imperialists’ current “de-Ba’athification” campaign. But the masses will only be able to do away with their indigenous Saddamist, nationalist and clerical enemies through an uncompromising struggle against the greater power these forces serve: imperialism. Refusing to take sides against imperialism only leaves the masses in the hands of the counterrevolutionaries fighting the imperialists now. Accordingly, the WCPI timidly talks of favoring the “withdrawal” of the occupying forces, not their defeat.
Instead of the U.S. occupation, the WCPI favors interim rule by the imperialist United Nations. This is a grotesque capitulation to imperialism, since it was the U.N. which approved the first bloody Gulf War, starved millions with over a decade of economic sanctions, oversaw the division of the country and regular bombings in the so-called “no-fly zones” and has now endorsed the U.S. as the official governing power of Iraq.
Today the Iraqi masses are increasingly supporting the fighters against the imperialist occupation. They will only be able to break with the counterrevolutionary nationalists and clerics if revolutionaries play a courageous role in the struggle against the occupation, proving in practice that only the working class can lead the struggle to victory. They will find the road to victory only if a genuinely revolutionary communist party leadership of the most class-conscious workers is built to help show the way. As the struggle goes on, the growing mass resistance will inspire workers’ and oppressed everywhere to not be “shocked and awed” by imperialism’s military might nor bowed down by the poverty and exploitation they enforce.
One democratic right the U.S. occupation is clearly not defending is the right of labor to organize freely. Iraq had a rich tradition of trade-union organization in the years after the fall of the British-backed monarchy in 1958. But Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship eliminated all labor rights.