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Stark Choices in Iraq

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The Bush Administration desperately wants to hand over the day-to-day running of Iraq so it can pull the strings but avoid the political, military, and financial costs of direct occupation. However, Bush’s policies are being undermined in the face of increasingly organized Iraqi opposition.

USAID, the U.S. government’s aid agency working in Iraq, reported in its latest review that “January has the highest rate of violence since September 2003” with 614 “high-intensity attacks” compared to 316 in December. USAID fears a “Balkanization” of the country – its break-up into warring ethnic and religious areas. February saw further attacks, including massive car bombings and the highly organized, simultaneous daytime assault on police, military, and official buildings in Fallujah.

The U.S. hopes to cut the number of its troops in Iraq from 130,000 to 105,000, but the continuing attacks on the Iraqi army and police could undermine Bush’s plans. The U.S. has tried to claim that these attacks are the work of “foreigners.” But while only a minority of Iraqis are taking part in the attacks, even the pro-war British Daily Telegraph recognized the real situation in its February 12 editorial: “Certainly the occupation is loathed by Iraqis.”

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) is having an impact inside and outside Iraq. The Times of London reported Iraqis saying, “It was good to get rid of Saddam Hussein because he was a tyrant, but they should have told us the real reason why they came here.” Others complained that if there were no WMDs, what justification was there for the years of sanctions? Indeed, The Times reporter spoke of the “surprising degree of venom directed at the U.S. invasion” in Hillah: “Almost no one in Iraq believes that the U.S. and Britain invaded to find [WMDs].” (1/28/04)

Last November’s U.S. transition plan, itself a hasty replacement of the previous one, is on its way out, undermined by mass opposition within Iraq. This plan attempted to give the appearance of the occupiers handing “sovereignty” back to the Iraqis by June 30. The U.S. hoped this earlier handover from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) would erect a more effective screen behind which it could continue to pull the strings, as well as help Bush’s re-election campaign.

But this proposed “sovereign” government was not to be elected. It was to be nominated by Iraqis selected by the CPA. Furthermore, real state power, “armed bodies of men” in Friedrich Engels’ words, will be the occupying forces whose U.S. and British commanders have said will remain in Iraq until at least 2006 or 2007.

[Faced with mounting opposition, in a humiliating retreat, Bush has been forced to drop the plans for Iraqis selected by the CPA to select a provisional government, but till claims that power will be transferred over to an Iraqi government by June 30. – Editor]

The increasingly vocal Iraqi opposition to occupation has shown itself in events ranging from mass Shia demands for elections to the mounting military attacks. Bush is now facing a series of conflicting pressures.

On the home front, his popularity is slipping fast. Bush wants to withdraw U.S. troops, reduce causalities, and declare some kind of “victory” before the November elections. His credibility is suffering from the failure to find any WMDs, made far worse by the admission by David Kay, former head of the Iraq Survey Group, that the pre-war intelligence was wrong.

Meanwhile, the financial costs of Bush’s adventure continue to escalate. George Soros, billionaire financier who opposed the war, said that the cost to the U.S. alone is $160 billion for two years – $73 billion for 2003 and $87 billion for 2004. But only $20 billion of the 2004 sum is for reconstruction.

Bush is also under pressure to secure one of the invasion’s main objectives, a stronger U.S. imperialist presence in the Middle East. This has actually been made much more difficult by the invasion and its chaotic aftermath.

Shia Call for Elections
The third call for direct elections by the most prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in mid-January triggered mass demonstrations, mainly by Shias. The protesters’ slogans in Basra – “Yes, yes, to Sistani; Yes, yes, to Islam; No, no, to America!” – were significant, reflecting opposition to the U.S. and a power play by al-Sistani.

The scale of the protests stunned the U.S. government. Almost immediately, its proconsul in Iraq, Paul Bremer, was rushed back to Washington for urgent talks. Initially, the U.S. had ignored al-Sistani’s call for elections, first made last June. The January protests, however, were too important to brush aside.

Al-Sistani was partly forced to sanction the January protests out of fear that rivals would seize the initiative. However, after less than two weeks al-Sistani stopped the demos, fearful of them getting out of the clerics’ control. Significantly, while demanding elections, al-Sistani’s followers have been enforcing reactionary edicts in the name of Islamic law, a sign of what their rule would mean.

While the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) has hardly any real influence in the country, al-Sistani is currently the dominant force among the Shia majority. The former United Nations (UN) director of communications in Baghdad, Salim Lone, summed up the situation when he spoke of “Sistani’s effortless overshadowing of the U.S.-appointed IGC.” (Guardian, 2/3/04)

“One of the key reasons Bush and Blair reject immediate elections,” we wrote in Socialism Today No.80, “is precisely their fear that Shia parties would win a majority, thereby posing dangers and threats to imperialist interests… The U.S. is skeptical that they could work with a Shia majority, fearing a Lebanon-style ethnic and religious division of the country and the emergence of a regime hostile to the U.S., developments which would destabilize the region.”

Now, faced with mass protests among the Shia, Bush has decided to use the UN to try to defuse the call for immediate elections. He is also desperate to get out of the embarrassing situation that, having ostensibly launched a war for “democracy,” the U.S. is now resisting calls for direct elections.

On fundamental issues, the UN always acts on behalf of the major imperialist powers. From the beginning of the agitation for early elections – something that is, in fact, a coded demand for an end to the occupation – the UN has sought to give a “reasonable,” even “humanitarian,” cover to continued imperialist control over Iraq. Kofi Annan and the UN, in fact, are now supporting Bush’s position that elections cannot be held before June 30

In mid-February, UN General Secretary Kofi Annan sent the UN’s chief official in Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, to discuss with al-Sistani. Yet, Brahimi himself has a dubious “democratic” record. He was Algerian foreign minister from 1991-93, during which the military annulled the December 1991 general election and banned, in February 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which would have won that election. The resultant civil war has so far cost around 120,000 lives.

Power Struggle
The immediate problem facing the U.S. is its failure to put in place structures which would enable it to pull back from the day-to-day running of Iraq. The IGC has only a minute amount of authority, the reformed Iraqi police and army are weak and unreliable, while any government formed under last November’s plan risks having no basis among the majority Shia, let alone other groups. A key question will be how long the occupation troops remain because that is the basis of U.S. imperialism’s direct power in Iraq.

The military opposition to the occupation and those Iraqis seen as collaborators is currently stronger among Sunnis, but they have less support for elections. Elections are seen as posing the danger that they will be oppressed under Shia domination.

Meanwhile in the North, Kurdish fears are growing that their demands for autonomy are being rejected by the occupying powers. At the end of January, Bush told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Washington did not support expanded Kurdish autonomy. In the North, ethnic tensions are growing after the massive bombs at the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Apart from the armed resistance to the occupation, there are already at least four major rival ethnic or religious militias: those of the KDP and PUK, Sciri’s Badr Organization, and the Mahdi army formed by Muqtada al-Sadr.

In this situation, the absence of a nationally-based independent workers’ movement able to unite ordinary Iraqis in common struggle means there is a growing danger that ethnic and religious movements will dominate events.

However, social issues are also raising their head. In early February, the IGC’s representative in Washington warned: “We are in danger of creating a feeling of alienation between those who have the money to create the work and those who carry out the menial jobs. It could create a revolution.” This was a reference to the development, alongside mass unemployment, of a minority that is starting to gain from the wages paid by the occupiers, or by trading with them – part of a conscious policy to win support.

Recently, six secular parties, including the KDP, PUK, and the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), formed an alliance, the Consortium of Democratic Forces, in an attempt to challenge the religious-based forces. But this is unlikely to develop nationally.

Five of these parties, including the ICP General Secretary Hamid Majid Mousa, sit on the IGC and will be seen as allies of imperialism, especially in the non-Kurdish areas. Furthermore, they all have pro-capitalist policies that will not be able to meet the needs of the Iraqi workers and poor.

While opposing the occupation and supporting the democratic demands of the Iraqi workers and poor, socialists have to strive to aid the building of independent workers’ organizations within Iraq.

Without such organizations fighting for a break with imperialism and the creation of a workers’ and poor peasants’ Iraq, the danger looms of a combination of Balkanization, ethnic or religious wars, and imperialist puppet, or reactionary theocratic, regimes. This is the stark choice facing Iraq.

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