The January Iraqi elections forced the U.S. anti-war movement to grapple more seriously than ever with its attitude toward the Iraqi resistance and, more generally, toward all the forces contending for power in Iraq.
Some liberal figures in the anti-war movement argue that, given the right-wing Islamic fundamentalist character of some of the resistance groups, it is necessary for the U.S., or a UN force, to stay in Iraq to maintain order. More radical sections of the movement argue that the Iraqi people have a fundamental right to self-determination and to resist the occupation. Does this mean the anti-war movement and socialists should uncritically support the Iraqi resistance?
Many prominent liberal leaders who initially opposed the invasion of Iraq now support the idea that foreign troops need to remain in Iraq to repair the damage done and help the transition to democracy. Such arguments simply leave aside the central fact of the whole situation: the occupation of Iraq has nothing to do with spreading democracy, as Bush continues to assert, and everything to do with controlling Iraq’s oil and extending U.S. domination over the region.
The Iraqi people are living under a brutal military occupation that has already led to the death of over 100,000 civilians, destroyed entire cities, imprisoned and tortured countless innocents, smashed apart vital infrastructure, and economically plundered the country.
Under these conditions, the Iraqi people will inevitably try to defend themselves, including with arms, and fight to end the imperialist occupation of their county. The U.S. occupation and domination of Iraq is the problem, not the solution. The anti-war movement should stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people and support their efforts to resist, while explaining that we oppose Bush and big business sending U.S. soldiers, overwhelmingly working class and poor, to die in a war for oil and empire.
The Iraqi resistance is composed of many different political forces. Undoubtedly, many fighters are drawn from the ranks of workers and the poor, especially from youth. But many resistance forces are led by distinctly reactionary, anti-working class groups. According to some reports, the resistance includes up to forty Ba’athist organizations and right-wing Islamic groups like “Al Qaeda Organization for Holy War,” led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and “Ansar al-Sunna.”
These Islamic Fundamentalist groups want to impose a theocratic dictatorship and are already carrying out brutal repression of women in an attempt to impose a system of sexual apartheid. Some groups even carry out bombings directed at ordinary Shi’as in an effort to foment a religious civil war.
While the anti-war movement should stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people, this does not mean we should support the aims and methods of those resistance groups that stand in complete contradiction to the interests of the Iraqi people and act as a barrier for them to advance their struggle to end the occupation.
However, some leading forces in the anti-war movement, like the Workers World Party (the main group behind the ANSWER coalition), and the International Socialist Organization (ISO), which plays an important role in the student anti-war movement, argue against such an approach, urging the anti-war movement to uncritically support the Iraqi resistance.
In an editorial, the ISO argued: “Even if it were true that the resistance was dominated by Baathists and hard-line Islamists, this wouldn’t be the central issue. Whatever the religious and political affiliations of the different resistance organizations and groupings, the main goal – the one that unites various forces of the Iraqi resistance – is ‘to liberate their country from foreign occupation.’ It is precisely this agenda of the resistance that requires our support.” The article argues we should limit our program to simply “‘Iraq for the Iraqis’ – any other position is a capitulation to chauvinism” (Socialist Worker, 2/4/2005).
Another editorial explained: “The antiwar movement must not lose sight of the fact that its main enemy is at home – and any resistance to that enemy deserves our unconditional support” (Socialist Worker, 1/21/2005). In essence, this position reduces to “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
To follow this logic out to its ultimate conclusion would imply support for terrorist attacks on U.S. workers, like September 11, 2001. Indeed, there are right-wing Islamic organizations in the Iraqi resistance who openly aim to carry out similar attacks on U.S. civilians, and who continually target Iraqi civilians. In reality, these terrorist methods only end up strengthening U.S. imperialism. 9/11 allowed Bush to stir up nationalism, racism, and war frenzy, and go on the offensive with his war on working people in the U.S. and internationally.
Socialists cannot support sectarian bombings aimed at Shi’as, indiscriminate attacks which overwhelmingly hurt ordinary Iraqis, or brutal kidnappings and beheadings. Such tactics cast the Iraqi working class and poor in the role of onlookers, not participants, in the battle to rid their country of imperialist forces. Bloody incidents which these tactics create can be manipulated by reactionary forces to increase sectarian tensions between different Iraqi communities.
These incidents only make it easier for Bush to rally U.S. public support for the occupation. If the anti-war movement supports these methods, or fails to condemn them, it will create an obstacle to expanding our support among U.S. workers, military families, and rank-and-file soldiers who could otherwise be won to the anti-war movement. Instead, the anti-war movement should publicly separate itself from terrorist tactics, while explaining that the U.S. occupation is the root cause of the violence in Iraq and that the only solution is to immediately bring the troops home and let the Iraqi people determine their own fate.
Building the U.S. anti-war movement is not a secondary question. Alongside an enormous resistance movement in Iraq, ending the occupation will require a massive anti-war movement in the U.S. that reaches deep into the American working class, threatening the stability of U.S. capitalism, as the example of Vietnam shows.
But what right do U.S. anti-war activists have to offer advice or criticism to the Iraqi resistance? Of course, the anti-war movement first and foremost should stand in solidarity with the Iraqi people against U.S. imperialism. But genuine internationalism needs to go further. Because we support the Iraqi people, socialists have a duty to raise our ideas on what policies and strategy are necessary to end the U.S. war on Iraq. Iraqi activists should also raise their ideas on how we can most effectively build the anti-war and socialist movements in the U.S. These are not “foreign” or distant issues. The development of the Iraqi resistance will have a huge impact on our struggles in the U.S., and events in the U.S. can be decisive for Iraq and the whole world.
Only the Working People of Iraq Can Provide a Way Forward
The continuing U.S. war will inevitably fuel massive Iraqi anger and bitterness towards the occupying forces. But given the deep divisions running through Iraqi society, and the absence of strong workers’ organizations, resistance to the occupation could manifest itself in the growth of right-wing Islamic forces and a sectarian civil war. Such a development would be catastrophic for the Iraqi people, leading to even more bloody carnage.
Undoubtedly, most Iraqis do not want a sectarian civil war. The potential for unity across religious lines was shown during the national uprisings in April and August of 2004 in response to the U.S. attacks on Falluja and Najaf. Both times, there were important elements of unity between Sunni and Shi’a forces. Most of the fighters come from the working class and the very poor, and there were important seeds of class solidarity.
This tendency to unite can only be secured in a lasting way, however, through building an ongoing mass movement of working and oppressed peoples of Iraq. If a powerful workers’ movement is not built, right-wing Islamic and sectarian forces will fill the vacuum, posing the danger of the “balkanization” of Iraq. A powerful workers’ movement, on the other hand, would act as the backbone of a united campaign of national liberation which seeks to improve the conditions of ordinary people regardless of their ethnicity or religious background.
This would mean fighting for an emergency socialist reconstruction program by harnessing the wealth of Iraq’s oil industry to provide jobs for the 50% of Iraqis who are unemployed through a massive public works program, providing clean water, electricity and housing for all, rebuilding the healthcare and education systems, and land and credit for impoverished farmers.
Given the daily U.S. attacks on Iraqi communities, as well as the growth of sectarian violence and general gangsterism, the need for ordinary Iraqis to organize to defend themselves is sharply posed. To provide security and defend communities, democratically controlled, multi-ethnic militias need to be formed.
Historically, Iraq had a rich tradition of workers’ struggles, socialism, and secular nationalism. However, this has been largely dissipated by decades of brutal repression by Saddam’s dictatorship and the breakdown of society created by the two U.S. wars and economic sanctions. While there are now some encouraging signs of a rebirth of Iraqi labor unions and strike actions (including in the crucial oil sector), organized working-class forces are currently still very weak but they remain the only possible force that can take Iraqi society forward.
It would be a mistake to adopt an uncritical stance towards groups that, while opposed to the imperialist occupation, are tied to reactionary forces in Iraqi society and are opposed to the interests of workers and the poor. A crucial task of the anti-war and labor movements internationally is to provide resources and solidarity to support those activists trying to build workers’ organisations opposing the occupation.