[Marxism] Tariq Ali on the current situation in Iraq
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Feb 14 12:18:21 MST 2004
The bloody price of occupation
How far will the US go to maintain its illegitimate primacy in Iraq?
Saturday February 14, 2004
The whole world knows that Bush and Blair lied to justify the war, but do
they know the price being paid on the ground in Iraq? First, the blood
price - paid by civilians and others this week as every week. More than 50
people died on Tuesday when a car bomb ripped through Iraqis queuing to
join the police force. The US military blamed al-Qaida loyalists and
foreign militants for this and other suicide bombings. But occupations are
usually ugly. How then can resistance be pretty?
Second, the price of internal conflict. Religion is the politics of the
unarmed opposition to the occupation. What we are witnessing on the streets
of Baghdad and Basra is a struggle for power within the Shia community.
What should be the character of the new Iraqi state? And, as the UN
continues to dither over the timing of elections, when will this come about?
Third, and related to this most pressing question of elections, is the
price of confusion. An intricate web of pacts and pay-offs is being
constructed between the American occupiers and their assorted interest
groups, but how long this will last is an open question.
As the events of this last week have shown, the key issue now is the one of
direct elections. Kofi Annan is ready to go into action. The United Nations
security council has recognised the puppet government in Iraq. Two weeks
ago a gathering in Munich brought France and Germany back on board. The
occupation of an Arab country is now backed by most of the northern
hemisphere. All that is needed is an official UN umbrella to pretend that
it isn't an imperial occupation and try to effect a compromise with the
Shia religious leaders.
Their position is awkward because the armed resistance has forced them to
organise mass mobilisations and put forward their own alternative to the
occupation. They have demanded immediate elections to a constituent
assembly whose members will frame a new constitution. So what might be the
result of such elections?
In the past secular politics cut across sectarian and ethnic divisions. The
Baath party itself was founded in Basra and its pre-Saddam leadership
consisted of many people of Shia origin. It was the combination of Saddam's
repression, the post-1989 turn to religion in north and south and US
opportunism (in the shape of money and weapons to the anti-Saddam religious
groups) after the first Gulf war that led to the total dominance of the
religious leaders in the south.
The two principal leaders of the unarmed opposition, Ali al-Sistani and
Moqtada al-Sadr, are vying for popular support. Al-Sadr is hostile both to
the occupation and plans to federate Iraq, which he sees as the first step
towards Balkanisation and western control of Iraqi oil.
Sistani, who represents the interests of Teheran and is friendly with the
Foreign Office in London, has been collaborative but, fearing that he might
lose support to his rival, he has demanded an immediate general election.
It is he who wants to talk to Kofi Annan so that he is not seen as talking
to the despised occupiers.
If Annan tells him that elections should be delayed, he might be more
willing to fall into line. But if elections are held and result in a Shia
majority, might not Iraq go the way of Iran in the late-70s? In terms of
religious laws it undoubtedly will. Both Sistani and al-Sadr have demanded
the imposition of the sharia.
But it's not just about politics and religion. Power leads to money and
clientelism. There are members of families and tribes linked to the main
clerical groups in the south and they are impatient. A great deal will
depend on two key issues: who controls Iraq's oil and how long US/UN troops
should remain in the country. As a result of the invasion and occupation of
Iraq, the clerical regime in Iran has become a key player. Once part of the
"axis of evil", its close ties with Sistani necessitate a
And how better to facilitate this than by dredging up the bogey of the
Wahhabite al-Qaida? The US may have sought to blame it for this week's car
bomb attacks. But this ignores the fact that "if you collaborate, then be
prepared to pay the price" has been the message of virtually every national
struggle over the last century.
In Vichy France and occupied Yugoslavia and later in Vietnam, Algeria,
Guinea and Angola, collaborators were regularly targeted. Then, as in Iraq
today, the resistance was denounced by politicians and the tame press as
"terrorists". When the occupying armies withdrew and the violence ceased,
many of the "terrorists" became "statesmen".
Some of us who were opposed to the war argued that while US military
occupation of Iraq would be easy they would face a resistance on different
levels. And, as becomes plainer every day, the achilles tendon of the
occupation is its incapacity to control a hostile population. Hence the
need for collaborators. Destroying states by overwhelming military power is
one thing. State building is a more complex operation and requires, at the
very least, a friendly if not a docile population.
Can US primacy be maintained indefinitely in the face of overwhelming
hostility? Obviously not, but neither can the US, regardless of which party
is in power, afford a setback in Iraq. That would be a major blow against
the "empire" and weaken its ability to control other parts of the world.
Add to this a small irony: under Saddam, al-Qaida was not present in Iraq.
If a few of its members are there now it is because of the Anglo-American
The occupation authorities are trapped. The occupation is costing $3.9bn a
month. Politically, if they permit a democratic election they could get a
government whose legitimacy is unchallengeable and which wants them out of
the country. If they go for a rigged, Florida-style vote, it would be
impossible to contain Shia anger and an armed resistance would commence in
the south, raising the spectre of a civil war.
Militarily, the capture of Saddam has not affected the US casualty rate,
and the number of nervous breakdowns and suicides in the US army occupying
Iraq has reached unprecedented levels. Sooner than anyone could have
predicted the occupation has become untenable. Regime changes in Washington
and London would be small punishment compared to what is being inflicted on
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