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Peter Hadden

Iraq five years on

Invasion & occupation – An unmitigated disaster

(Spring 2008)

From Socialist View, Spring 2008.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Party Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

As the fifth anniversary of the fateful decision to launch the invasion of Iraq passes, the claims by the US administration that the 2007 troop surge has succeeded in quelling the insurgency and checking the slide to sectarian break up – claims that were being made loudly at the start of this year – are becoming fainter by the day.

More recent events have given pro-surge enthusiasts a cold shower, confirming that violence and instability remain the order of the day despite the extra 30,000 US troops.

A series of suicide bombings, including the late February attack on Shi’ite pilgrims making their way to the shrine of Iman Hussein in Kerbala, which left at least 40 dead, have served as a reminder of how little has changed for ordinary Iraqis and how precarious and fragile is the political and sectarian balance that constitutes present day Iraq.

So also has the other “surge” – the mini invasion of the Kurdistan Region by 10,000 Turkish troops. This was ostensibly to attack and destroy the mountain bases of the separatist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), but in fact it was intended more as a warning to the rulers of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq not to push too hard for independence. This invasion showed the potential for the Iraqi nightmare to very quickly escalate into a regional conflict.

Then, to cap it all, the US administration has had to put up with the spectacle of Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on a stately visit to Baghdad.  On his arrival he was warmly greeted by Iraqi government ministers; a salutary reminder to George Bush that his military adventure in Iraq, designed in part to lessen the influence of Iran in the region, has had precisely the opposite effect.

Of course a real balance sheet of the invasion and occupation has to be measured over five years, not a few months. Looked at in this way there is no question that the whole thing has been an unmitigated disaster.

A disaster first of all for the US establishment, especially the neo-conservative cabal surrounding Bush, who were the architects of this war. It was conceived firstly as a war for plunder, particularly intended to put US and other foreign oil corporations in control of the Iraqi oil fields, which contain the second largest known reserves in the world. Five years on, the idea of cheap oil gushing through Iraqi pipelines has faded. Production, at 2.4 million barrels a day, has not yet reached pre-war levels.

The war was also about prestige; it was meant to provide the world with a brutal demonstration of US military prowess. Instead, it has shown the limits of US power, exploding the myth that superior technology, devastating ordnance and control of the skies are all that is necessary in modern warfare. The US has the military capacity to destroy any force put in its way, but Iraq – and now also Afghanistan – have shown that holding ground that has been gained is a different matter.

The US military has been seriously overstretched by the Iraq conflict. Soldiers now have to endure gruelling 15 month tours of duty with obvious effects on morale. The five star chiefs at the Pentagon are well aware that the surge troop levels are unsustainable.

Almost 4,000 troops have been killed and around 60,000 injured. Troops today are provided with better body armour and better medical care than in previous wars. Because of this soldiers who are injured have a higher chance of survival, but this means that many of the 60,000 wounded are going home with severely life-changing injuries and disabilities.

$500 billion and rising

All this comes at a cost to the US of some $500 billion and rising – rising in fact by $275 million every day, with projections that expenditure will eventually reach $1 trillion or even $2 trillion, depending on how optimistic you are about the war.

And in military terms for what? US and British forces are not in control of Iraq. They are bunkered in fortified bases from which they make heavily armoured raids along the main thoroughfares, into town and city centres and some residential areas.

The Iraqi police and army are not in control either. Successive attempts to build local forces, made up of and commanded by Iraqis who would take the front line in the fight against the “terrorists”, have failed. In the main the first loyalty of the ranks of the police and the army is not to the government, but to one or other of the sectarian-based militias.

It is little wonder that opinion in the US has swung decisively against the war. Three out of every five people in the US want the troops home.

This is not to say that the war has been bad news all round! There are some people who have done very nicely indeed out of this mess. Iraq has been a bonanza for the private companies who have been handed lucrative no-bid contracts for security, construction and reconstruction and for provision of supplies and services in this the most privatised of all wars. In the wake of the US troops who charged into Baghdad followed the biggest army of private contractors ever assembled in a war; at one point there was one contractor/mercenary for every US soldier.

Death toll mounts

These profiteers aside, the Iraqi debacle is now a major headache for the US establishment. But whatever anxiety and discomfort they have been made to feel pales into insignificance when set alongside the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq and its people. Iraq Body Count records the number of civilian deaths at just under 90,000. This is the figure for documented deaths, but since the US has not bothered to keep an accurate count and since their accounting methods deliberately understate the true figure – only those shot through the back of the head are regarded as victims of sectarian attack by militias, while those killed in some other way are recorded as criminal killings and therefore not counted – the true figure is much higher. Some estimates put it at 600,000, some at closer to a million – and this in a country of 28 million people!

On top of this are the deaths due to malnutrition, poverty and disease. The Iraqi economy and most of its public services have been devastated. Official figures put unemployment at 17% and underemployment at 38%. The true figure is much much higher and in impoverished areas like the massive east Baghdad Shia slum, Sadr City, home to more than 2 million people, around 70% are out of work. Most Iraqis now have electricity for one or two hours a day. Many have no access to clean water. Services are at breakdown point in a country where everything is paralysed by war, occupation and civil war. Patrick Cockburn, journalist for The Independent, recently asked a Fallujah doctor what his hospital lacked and was told: “drugs, fuel, electricity, generators, a water treatment system, oxygen and medical equipment.” A woman patient cradling a child added: “The Americans provide us with nothing. They bring us only destruction.”

The US invasion destroyed the Iraqi state apparatus and put nothing in its place. In local communities, militia like the Mahdi army or the emerging Sunni groups have stepped in to fill the vacuum. They hope to build and consolidate their support base by organising and providing rudimentary services which the state no longer provides – much as Hizbollah has done in parts of the Lebanon.

Real power in Iraq has now become localised. It is the rival and warring militias who now have effective control. With the breakdown of the central state and centralised economy has come the emergence of parallel localised economic activity and, with it, the development of corruption on a massive scale.

The 2006 Baker Report estimated that 500 million barrels of oil per day were being stolen. One Iraqi expert has recently estimated the annual cost of corruption by state officials (insofar as it can be estimated) as $5–7 billion. A recent and quite ominous development has been the switch by farmers in large areas to the north and east of Baghdad from growing oranges, pomegranates and other fruits to cultivating poppies for opium.

Another Afghanistan

If Afghanistan, with its growing insurgency and its suicide bombers, has become another Iraq, then Iraq, with much of its territory now under the control of local militias – some seeking to fund themselves through the heroin trade – is fast becoming another Afghanistan.

This is the backcloth against which any claims about the success of the surge must be measured. It is true the number of soldier and documented civilian deaths dropped off in the last months of 2007. All such figures are, however, relative. The figures are down on the horrific upsurge in killings that took place in 2006 and the first half of 2007. But the civilian death toll for the last six months of 2007 is higher than it was in the first years of the occupation.

As far as military casualties are concerned, 2007 saw more US and other coalition soldiers killed than in any previous year since the invasion. The British were effectively pushed out of Basra by Shia militias, especially the local groups linked to the Mahdi army, and are now bunkered in their last main base in the airport.

The reason the violence dipped for a time – figures for February 2008 show that it has started to rise again – had little to do with extra troops guarding intersections in Baghdad. The real explanation lies in the decision of Moqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi army to call a six month ceasefire from August 2007 and, alongside this, the emergence of a 70,000-strong Sunni militia, the Awakening, which has co-operated with US forces in taking on the Iraqi variant of Al Qaeda in its former strongholds in the Anbar province and other Sunni districts around Baghdad.

The answer to the question of whether the recent fall in the death toll was a temporary blip, or whether it indicates a longer term trend, is to be found in the reasons these militias have acted as they have.

Leaving aside the occupying forces who have been responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, the violence over the last few years has fallen into two main categories. On the one hand there has been the insurgency conducted mainly, but not exclusively, by various Sunni militias targeting the occupying troops. On the other, there has been a sectarian conflict, mainly between Shia and Sunni groups, but at times involving fighting between Arabs and Kurds in divided northern cities like Mosul and Kirkuk.

Most commentators now point to the February 2006 destruction of the Shia Askariya mosque in Samarra by the Sunni-based Al Qaeda as the event that sparked civil war. In fact the Samarra bombing was one of a series of atrocities carried out by Sunni groups going back to the killing of Shia leader Al Hakim and 94 of his followers in Najaf in 2003. The main Shia Militias, the Madhi army and the more directly Iranian-linked Badr Brigades, have retaliated with a campaign of assassinations, carried out with the co-operation and assistance of their members in the police.

Battle for Baghdad

However, there is no doubt that in the aftermath of Samarra the battle between Sunni and Shia reached new levels. The conflict centred on Baghdad, home to 25% of the Iraqi population, where Sadr’s Mahdi Army launched a major offensive to drive Sunnis from large parts of the city.

The battle for Baghdad, which lasted into 2007, was won by Sadr and his Shia fighters. Two thirds of the city was left under Shia control with the Sunnis driven out; some to the remaining Sunni areas in the city or to surrounding provinces, others to join the 4.2 million refugees either in exile or in the desert camps that have been set up in Iraq to accommodate them.

Facing the prospect of military defeat at the hands of the Shia, a section of the Sunni population was prepared to lean on the US to get some military breathing space. The Awakening militia was formed by Sunnis to crack down on Al Qaeda, whose bombing campaign was fuelling the Shia backlash and whose attempt to declare a Sunni Islamic state in their areas of influence was alienating big sections of the Sunni population.

The US, acting on the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, agreed to provide this force with weapons and pay its recruits, ignoring the fact that these were, in the main, former insurgents including former members of Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, the loosely organised Mahdi army was growing and local units were determined to extend the sectarian offensive beyond Baghdad. Sadr called a six month ceasefire, which has now been extended, in order to consolidate the gains made in Baghdad and gain a firmer control over his forces – in part to curb some of the excesses which threatened to repel sections of his own support base.

Not surprisingly the violence dipped. All that the extra US troops have done is draw military lines around the new sectarian realities created by the Shia gains in the battle for Baghdad. Twelve-foot walls are being built, Belfast style, to separate the rival communities.

International parallels

In any conflict of this character there will be pauses, even temporary periods of equilibrium where the rival forces balance each other out and the protagonists choose to step back for a time. In Northern Ireland the exhaustion of a generation of paramilitaries who had fought for thirty years led to the decision to call a halt to their campaigns. The civil war in Lebanon ended when Syrian troops intervened, effectively freezing in place the front lines that had been established in 15 years of fighting.

In neither case did the end of the fighting represent a solution or even a step towards a solution. Peace processes left in the hands of the same old sectarian forces are nothing more than a continuation of conflict by other means. They will be prone to break down at any point.

The particular conditions of Northern Ireland and the Lebanon have meant that the equilibrium has lasted for an extended period. There is no such prospect in the turbulent conditions of present day Iraq.

There are any number of directions from which things can quickly unravel. Past precedents of arming and financing “former” insurgents will give the US generals little comfort in their dealings with the Awakening. In the spring of 2004 they faced the threat of a simultaneous revolt by Sunni militias and the Mahdi army. Their recently constructed Iraqi army fell to pieces, its forces deserting or going over to the insurgents en masse. Having failed to capture Fallujah, they formed and armed a Fallujah Brigade and handed the city over to them. The Fallujah Brigade was made up of the very people the US had been fighting. Thomas Hicks, in his book Fiasco, accounts what happened next:

“It wasn’t long before the Fallujah Brigade became indistinguishable from the insurgency. Wearing their old Iraqi uniforms some of their members, far from being ‘helpful’ began shooting at Marines … The eight hundred AK-47s issued to the Brigade wound up in the hands of insurgents, as did some heavy machine guns and rocket propelled launchers.”

The relationship with the Awakening militia is likely to have a similarly unhappy ending. The group has already been involved in skirmishes with the police and government forces, who are also armed by the US. An Awakening member recently told The Independent correspondent, Patrick Cockburn, that they “intend to renew the battle for Baghdad whenever they think they can win it”.

The decision of the US to partially depend on armed Sunnis is only one of many lit and smouldering fuses that could easily and rapidly set off a rapid re-escalation of the violence. Another is the situation that is brewing in the north – up to now the only area of the country that has remained “stable” since the occupation began.

Kurdish independence

The Kurdish region is now independent of Baghdad in all but name. Because Turkey refused to allow invasion forces to enter from the north, the entire Kurdish area was seized by the militias of the two main Kurdish parties, the PUK and the KDP. They are nominally united, running a common list in elections, but in reality they have divided the region between them.

There has been no open declaration of independence, but in practice the Kurdish region is now a separate entity. Officially it is known as the Kurdish Region of Iraq, but its representatives routinely drop the words “of Iraq”. It is the Kurdish flag and not the Iraqi flag that is flown.

So far the Kurdish leadership has accepted this status of statehood without a formal state, because they know that to openly take the next step could provoke a Turkish invasion. The Turks for their part, are using the waning influence of Baghdad to secure their interests in the region. The Turkish government is negotiating oil concessions with the Kurdish “Regional” government and Turkish companies have been heavily investing in the area.

Another key factor in staying the hand of the Kurdish leadership is the still unresolved status of the major cities of Kirkuk and Mosul, both of which have mixed populations and are ethnic tinderboxes primed to explode.

Kirkuk is of key importance as it sits on top of massive oil reserves that would be essential to fund a Kurdish state. A referendum, due at the start of 2008 on whether Kirkuk will become part of the Kurdish “Region”, has been postponed for six months. The Kurds are using the extra time to try to increase the Kurdish population of the city, thus establishing facts on the ground that they hope will decide the referendum in their favour.

The White House may in public be sticking to the strategy of building up a centralised power-sharing Iraqi government and alongside it, a national army that will take the front line in the battle against insurgents. But in practice what the Americans are doing on the ground is somewhat different. Along with their lapdogs in Downing Street, they have in effect ceded power in Basra and the south to rival Shia militias, in and around Baghdad they are now building a Sunni militia. In the north it is the Peshmerga who are in control.

Iraq is being torn apart as an entity. However, the idea that there can be a solution to all this through the emergence of three new ethnically homogeneous and therefore stable, states – a Kurdistan, a “Sunnistan” and a “Shiastan” – is well wide of the mark.

The ethnically mixed population of the major cities where the majority of Iraqis live, and the fact that Baghdad – geographically in the Sunni centre – is mostly under Shia control, rules out any such clean cut division. Any attempted partition would follow the Bosnian, not the Slovakian, model.

A more likely scenario is that there will be more of the same; a continuation of the chaotic fragmentation and the ever present danger of overspill into much worse conflict – not only in Iraq but with its neighbours drawn in. Turkey has already demonstrated its military intent. Had its recent invasion been extended, it could have been the final nail in the coffin of any notion of a unified Iraq.

Teheran’s increasing influence

The fragmentation of Iraq and the rise of the Shia has massively increased the influence of Teheran. The current situation suits the Iranian government who are happy to see US troops bogged down in this quagmire, knowing that this and the threat of massive retaliation by the Shia militias make it much more difficult for the US to launch any form of military assault against them.

Teheran’s support for the Shia militias does not mean that they want to see a separate Shia state. A genuinely independent Shia state controlling the Basra oil fields and with close ties to Iran’s minority Arab population could destabilise rather than strengthen Iran.

Similarly Saudi Arabia would view with apprehension the emergence of what would probably be a radicalised Shia state on its doorstep, fearing that it could trigger a revolt by its Shia minority, who just happen to live where much of the oil is.

Faced with this mess of its own making the US has no workable exit strategy. Ultimately the Americans may be forced into a Saigon style exit. Otherwise they will be forced to wheel and deal with the various forces that emerge, hoping against hope that circumstances will arise some time in the future that allow them to pull back most of their forces while leaving the oil wealth in friendly hands. A Democrat in the White House would no doubt tweak things, but would be faced with the same dilemmas as the current occupant.

Among serious commentators there is now almost universal agreement that the crude methods employed at the start of the occupation fuelled the insurgency and brought about the present mess. There is no doubt that this is the case. However in the arguments that are put forward, there is also an inferred opposite conclusion that is not true.

This is the idea that if they had gone in with enough troops; if they had employed Iraqis, not outside contractors, on reconstruction; if they had not sacked thousands of public servants through de-baathification; and if they had not stood down the Iraqi army; things might have turned out OK.

This idea that there could have been some kind of benign invasion by a velvet-gloved imperialism is false. In Northern Ireland it is now generally accepted that the crude repressive methods of the Heath government, including internment and Bloody Sunday, were mistakes that swung the Catholic working class youth behind the IRA.

This does not mean that, had the British State acted differently, the upheavals of the 1970s would have been largely avoided. By the time internment had been introduced the options open to the British government were limited. A different approach by the government would only have meant that the Troubles would have unfolded in a different manner – unless, that is, the working class had been able to intervene to stop the development of sectarianism and the emergence of powerful sectarian organisations.

The same is true in Iraq. With the decision to invade, the die of a violent backlash that would most likely lead to the disintegration of Iraq was cast. The Iraqi state, like other Middle Eastern states, was an artificial creation of Imperialism carved out of the crumbled Ottoman Empire. Under Saddam Hussein it was held together by the coercive methods of a brutal military state machine.

Blunders and mistakes

The US invasion toppled this machine, but could not replace it. Had they gone in with a larger force it would have made little difference in the long run. The invading troops were never going to be seen as anything other than an army of occupation. Even those Iraqis who welcomed the overthrew of Saddam Hussein had the attitude; “thanks very much – now go”. Resistance in some form was inevitable.

In order to attempt to rebuild an Iraqi administration, Rumsfeld, and his underling in Iraq, Paul Bremer III, decided to lean on the majority Shia and turn a blind eye to the Kurds. De-baathification and the decision to stand down the army were concessions made to try to keep the Shia groups onside.

Had they chosen differently and decided to keep the administrative and repressive structures of a beheaded Saddam regime in place, they would have been forced to base themselves on the Sunni minority and would have faced a revolt by the Shia majority. The country would still have unravelled – but from a different direction. Whatever the US had decided to do to consolidate their hold on Iraq would gone down in history as a “mistake”. The real mistake was the invasion. Once there, the army did what imperialist armies do in such circumstances. They embarked on a policy of brutal and blunt military repression, indiscriminate killing and torture, all intended to bludgeon the population into submission.

This does not mean that sectarian civil war, chaos and division was inevitable from the outset. If an opposition to the occupation had developed which united the people of Iraq – Sunni, Shia and Kurd – things could been very different. Indeed it has all along been the greatest fear of the US that such an opposition could emerge – as their obvious nervousness at the co-operation between Sunni and Shia militias at the time of the 2004 siege of Fallujah clearly showed. They have preferred to deal separately with the various sectarian-based militias, parties and religious leaders, balancing them off against each other, partly to make sure the Iraqi people stay divided.

There is no possibility of a united resistance so long as it is led by tribal and religious leaders, or by those who act as local shadows of outside powers like Iran. This fact alone makes a nonsense of the stance imposed on the anti-war movement by the Socialist Workers Party in areas like Ireland, where they run the movement in a typically undemocratic manner. The SWP’s refusal to criticise either the policies or the methods of any of the insurgent groups and militias in Iraq leaves the questions and doubts workers and young people have about what is going on unanswered and thereby limits the support the anti war movement can develop.

Workers struggle

Over the past five years there have been significant struggles that have brought workers into confrontation with the occupying forces, the government and tribal and religious organisations. There have been demonstrations by the jobless, strikes over wages and powerful campaigns against privatisation. Last June oil workers took strike action against the new draft oil law, which will, in effect, hand control of Iraq’s oil over to the foreign oil companies.

These movements have faced stern opposition. Demonstrations demanding jobs have been attacked. The British have used thugs supplied by tribal leaders to break up the picket lines of oil workers on strike for wage increases. One of the first acts of the Bremer administration was to cut wages, while maintaining Saddam’s anti-union laws that prohibit strikes in the public sector, which is defined that it includes virtually the whole workforce. The al-Maliki government responded to last year’s oil workers’ strike by calling out the army and issuing arrest warrants for the union leaders involved.

The only way a united opposition to imperialism can develop in Iraq is if is built around class issues and is based on the working class and the urban and rural poor. This means adopting an independent class position – not only against the occupation forces, but also independent of and in opposition to the present al-Maliki-led government, the sectarian religious parties and any sectarian attacks carried out by their militias. Much time has been lost, but there still exists the basis for the emergence of such a class-based movement in the workplaces and the communities.

How could this be done? If there were, for example, a campaign against privatisation that fought for the industry and resources of Iraq to be publicly owned and run democratically under a system of workers’ management and for the wealth created to be used to provide jobs, electricity, clean water and proper services, could, even at this late stage, gain major support among the working class.

These issues are already linked in the minds of the Iraqi people with the Occupation. Any struggle to take democratic control of the resources of the country would be inextricably linked with the struggle to force the occupying troops out. This is not just a military question, but one also of ideas and programme. A socialist programme that offered a real answer to the day-to-day problems faced by Iraqis could unify the resistance and leave no safe haven for the Occupation. It would also allow the resistance to appeal to the US troops in a class language they would understand. Given the discontent already there among the troops, this could lead to levels of discontent not seen in the US military since Vietnam.

Similarly an emerging socialist movement would immediately come face to face with the problem of sectarian attacks and with the forces who carry these out. The emergence of the Awakening militia and the Madhi army ceasefire have shown, albeit in a distorted form, that there is opposition among ordinary Iraqis to the atrocities carried out by the religious based militias.

The question that is now to the forefront is the need to organise defence of all working class communities, not just against the occupation but also against attack by sectarian forces. Northern Ireland has shown that mass mobilisations by the working class can have an impact on even quite powerful paramilitary organisations.

Democratically organised defence committees in every community could organise this defence and – again as Northern Ireland has shown – these bodies are most effective when they establish links across the sectarian divide. It goes without saying that under present conditions in Iraq where virtually every home has a weapon, such a defence would be an armed defence.

The National Question

Then there is the national question. A socialist movement would need to take account of the reality that there is no longer a unified Iraqi state and that the aspiration of the Kurds is unquestionably for independence. 80% of Kurdish adults voted in an unofficial referendum in 2005 and 95% of them opted for independence. A socialist programme for Iraq, as well as guaranteeing the rights of all national and religious groups, would also need to include support for the rights of the Kurds to set up an independent state.

An Iraqi socialist federation would certainly be faced with the unrelenting opposition of every surrounding regime. Rather than trying to resolve this through diplomatic deals, an emerging Iraqi socialist movement, for the sake of its own survival, would need to establish links with the working class of Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran. This could prepare for mass opposition in these countries to any attempt by these regimes to intervene militarily. It could also lay the basis for “regime change” on a regional basis and the building of a socialist federation of the region, in which boundaries that genuinely reflect the wishes of the local populations could be established.

This might seem a tall order – and indeed it is. But there is no other way out that does not offer a future of unrelenting suffering to the people of Iraq and its neighbours. Those who find the idea of a socialist solution too hard a task should consider the question – is the alternative presented by US capitalism which has led already to perhaps 600,000 deaths and over 4 million refugees and which offers a future of hell without end, any easier?

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