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Since US and UK troops conquered Iraq in April 2003, the country has slipped further and further into gangster chaos, and, since early 2006, into outright civil war.
The USA's perspective in 2002-3 was that a short, sharp military blow would shatter Saddam Hussein's regime, and after it Iraqi society would generate a reliable, world-market-friendly government with no more trouble than that with which more-or-less parliamentary, IMF-friendly, WTO-friendly governments emerged in Eastern Europe after the fall of Stalinism.
This new Iraqi regime would, in turn, give a powerful impulse to the reconstruction of the whole Middle East on US-friendly terms.
The politicians who pushed the invasion were keen on the use of military force to project US world power, but at the same time loud in their opposition to the US military being used for "nation-building" or long-term military occupations.
The USA had been unable to put together an agreed Iraqi "government-in-exile" before the invasion, which started on 20 March 2003. Different sections of the US government favoured rival exiles, Iyad Allawi for the State Department and Ahmed Chalabi for the Pentagon. Presumably they agreed to wait and see which group of exiles would do best once the Ba'thist carapace was knocked off Iraqi society.
The fall of Baghdad was followed by immediate chaos and descent into gangsterism, with widespread looting and widespread resentment that the US troops did nothing to prevent the looting except around selected buildings such as the Oil Ministry.
A new Iraqi labour movement was able to emerge. But what emerged faster and on a larger scale was a collapse of Iraqi society into communal and sectarian identities.
The USA's first choice as ruler of Iraq was General Jay Garner, who started off with plans for Iraqis to hold elections within 90 days and for the US to quickly pull troops out of the cities to bases in the desert.
The destruction of the Ba'thist state had opened the way for the emergence of an independent labour movement and a more or less independent press. But the overwhelming fact was chaos. Presumably alarmed, the US replaced Garner within a few days (on 11 May), putting Paul Bremer in his place.
Bremer disbanded the Ba'th party (16 May) and purged "Ba'thists" from the public administration, which meant purging thousands of people who had been Ba'th party members only as necessary lip-service in order to get their jobs. He dissolved the Iraqi army (23 May) and police.
In July he appointed an Iraq Governing Council of 25 members - Allawi, Chalabi, and other exiles, calibrated to "represent" the different communal-sectarian interests (13 Shi'ites, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds (also Sunnis), one ethnic Turk and an Assyrian).
The IGC was only a consultative body; like all subsequent Iraqi government bodies to date, it did not even have well-attended meetings. Most of the exile politicians proved to have very little support inside Iraq.
Bremer resisted pressure to call elections, and busied himself with issuing decrees which would later be given retrospective "constitutional" authority by way of the Transitional Administrative Law (pro-constitution) installed by the USA via the IGC. He decreed the whole Iraqi economy (other than the actual oil reserves, under the ground) open to privatisation (order 39, 20/12/03), and a 15% flat-tax system (order 37, 21/09/2003).
Those decrees could not be implemented because of the chaos, but they did alarm and anger Iraqis.
Meanwhile, the practical running of everyday life - amid power cuts, lack of drinking water, huge fuel shortages, and mass unemployment - fell into the hands of religious authorities, religious or warlord militias, and tribal chiefs. There was no Iraqi state to administer society. In so far as the US army took on the role of a state authority, it did it arrogantly, clumsily, brutally, nervously, in short in a way that did almost nothing to restore everyday life and a lot to antagonise Iraqis.
In Fallujah, for example, radical hostility to the Americans started with an incident on 28 April 2003, when US troops killed 15 people and wounded 53 by opening fire on a crowd of 200 people protesting at a curfew and the closure of a school (by conversion to a military HQ).
Ever since then, things in Fallujah have gone from bad to worse, from almost every point of view (that of the Iraqi working class; that of Fallujah's ordinary inhabitants; and that of the US, too). In April 2004 US forces tried to reconquer it. That ended in an uneasy compromise, and soon the city was under the control of even more extreme Sunni Islamists than before.
In November-December 2004 US forces launched a bigger attempt to reconquer Fallujah, first telling the entire population to leave the city. By all accounts this US attack killed many hundreds of civilians and reduced much of the city to rubble. Yet even today Fallujah is not "secure" for anyone, and by late November 2006 US military commanders were considering giving up on the whole province of which Fallujah is part (Anbar), withdrawing all forces from that area.
US-organised reconstruction efforts were almost all channelled through contracts given to US corporations. They made a very bad job of it, and vast amounts of money disappeared in corruption (one official US estimate is $9 billion).
Involvement by the UN and aid agencies in reconstruction began to diminish drastically with the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad (19/08/2003), and since then has dwindled to practically zero.
Sectarian militias emerged very early. Some writers have speculated that Saddam deliberately decided to have Iraqi army resistance collapse quickly, so that Ba'thist soldiers could disperse in good order in order to start a guerrilla war against the Americans and the Shia leaders who, with a majority of the population behind them, were likely to take control, thus reversing many centuries of Sunni hegemony in Iraq.
Maybe, maybe not. In any case, very soon there were a lot of Sunni-sectarian armed groups fighting the Americans and the Shia. The same day as the bombing of the UN headquarters (19/08/2003), a car bomb in Najaf kills more than 120 people, including the Shia leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim. The background to this was that the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq had been dominant, and the Shia Arab majority disadvantaged, for centuries; the Sunni feared the rise of the Shia.
Over the last four years, the Sunni-sectarian groups have grown in strength, organisation, and popular support among the Sunni Arab population.
According to all accounts, these Sunni-sectarian groups involve many former army officers and Ba'thists. Whether they are Ba'thist now is another matter: the balance of evidence seems to be that most of them are "genuinely" Islamist, not just "Ba'thists who have grown beards".
Bremer wanted to leave a long period before holding elections, presumably in the (mistaken) belief that his decrees, and his administration of Iraq through direct US military force, would provide a more stable basis for a strong and US-friendly government to be elected. The USA's hand was forced to some degree by the Shia religious leader Ayatollah Sistani, who in April 2004 issued a "fatwa" calling for elections.
April 2004 marked the first watershed in developments since April 2003. It saw not only Sistani's statement and the USA's first attempt to conquer Fallujah, but also the USA start a small "extra" war to try to wipe out the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, the most militant and the most anti-American of the Shia militias. That small war dribbled on for months, leaving Sadr undefeated; today the US has to deal with an Iraqi government whose leader (Maliki) got his post only thanks to Sadrist support, and in which Sadrists serve as ministers.
On 30 April 2004 the scandal of US troops torturing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib broke in the media. Meanwhile it had become plain that the Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction", cited by Bush as his pretext for the invasion, did not exist.
The USA shifted course somewhat, formally "transferring sovereignty" on 28 June 2004 to an Iraqi Interim Government (an appointed one, headed by Allawi). Bremer quit, being replaced by successive US ambassadors John Negroponte (2004-5) and Zalmay Khalilzad (since June 2005).
The "sovereignty" of Allawi's Interim Government - as of the succeeding Iraqi governments of Jaafari and Maliki - was mostly notional. It had no effective machine of administration. It controlled very little outside the "Green Zone" in Baghdad - and that Green Zone was controlled by the USA. It did not even have notional command over the Iraqi army. To this day, only two or three of the ten divisions of the Iraqi army are under even notional Iraqi command, and even those two or three can do practically nothing without logistical support from US forces.
The purpose of the Interim Government was to prepare for elections in January 2005, and presumably to boost Allawi as the USA's favoured candidate. (Chalabi had fallen well out of favour by then, and was being investigated for fraud).
As the elections approached, Iraq's Sunni Arabs became more and more alienated. Almost all Sunni groups boycotted the elections, and some threatened to kill anyone who voted.
That the election took place at all (as it did on 30 January 2005), and with a respectable 57% turnout, was in the circumstances something of a triumph for the USA - about the first they'd had since April 2003. In the aftermath of the election, there was a fall in Sunni-insurgent activity; reported dissent within the "resistance" (some groups objecting strongly to the threats to kill voters); and much talk of the USA now being able to begin to withdraw, starting by pulling back into its bases and using air power to support the Iraqi army rather than troops on the streets.
But the election had been primarily a sectarian-communal headcount, and the Shia bloc which won the majority was a loose alliance of groups each with its own militia and local bases of strength. It took two months (to 07/04/05) until it could agree on a prime minister, Ibrahim al Jaafari, and another month (28/04/05) until it could agree on ministers.
Any slight chance there might have been of the elections producing an Iraqi government commanding wide assent, and able to run the country even minimally, was lost. The government did not much except draft a new constitution (under relentless US pressure).
The constitution deleted even the weak recognition that the US-shaped Transitional Administrative Law had given to the right to strike, tilted Iraq heavily in the direction of accepting sharia as the basis at least for family law, and allowed for the formation of almost-entirely-autonomous regions within Iraq. This last provision was, reasonably enough, seen by the Sunni Arabs as a move by the Shia Arabs of the south, and the Kurds of the north, to grab all the revenue from Iraq's oilfields, and leave them with an oil-less, impoverished, landlocked statelet in the centre.
On 15 October 2005 the constitution was approved in a referendum (again, a sectarian-communal headcount). On 15 December 2005 new elections, for a new government under the new constitution, followed.
Again, the holding of the election, as such, was a minor US triumph.
By relentless arm-twisting the US, at the last minute, had secured modifications to the constitution, and a promise to have it amended later, sufficient to convince some Sunni Arabs to semi-accept it and to take part in the December 2005 elections.
Again, any hopes for the creation of a stable or effective Iraqi government were illusory. From the point of view of the USA, seeking a reliable Iraqi partner, and probably also from the point of view of an ordinary Iraqi citizen wanting a minimum of ordered social life, the new government resulting from the elections, headed by Nouri al Maliki, is worse than the Jaafari government, which in its turn was worse than the Allawi government. Far from functioning well even in its own terms, the Maliki government is unable even to gather a quorum for meetings of parliament: many Iraqi politicians have fled the country, and now live most of the time in London.
After the December 2005 elections it took not two but four months for the victorious Shia-Islamist/Kurdish warlord parliamentary majority to agree on a prime minister (22 April), or for the parliament to meet for a full session (3 May); longer again for ministries to be agreed. The chaos resulting from the delay increased ordinary Iraqis' propensity to look to local warlords or imams for help and redress, and of course did nothing to diminish the Sunni Arabs' fear of Shia domination.
Even within the Shia-Islamist spectrum, the USA preferred a different candidate to Maliki, and Maliki won the position only thanks to the support of the Sadrists, the Shia ultra-Islamists with whom the USA was at open war in spring 2004. US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley are fairly open about regarding the Sadrists as a worse problem than the Sunni "resistance", and the Maliki government machine as disastrously infected with Shia sectarianism.
According to the Sunday Times (10/12/2006), the appointment of Maliki was the final straw in bringing the breakdown of secret talks (in January-April 2006) between US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Allawi, and representatives of a large section of the Sunni-Arab "resistance". The USA has been trying to get such talks going for some time, probably since early 2005, and may not have entirely given up even now, but all attempts to negotiate have failed.
On 22 February a bomb attack severely damaged an especially holy Shia shrine in Samarra. From that point, sectarian civil war has been coming closer and closer to the boil. Around one and a half million Iraqis have fled the country, and a similar number have fled within the country to areas where their "own" sect or community is stronger.
In August 2006, the USA responded by reversing its policy of the previous year and a half, and put large numbers of troops on the streets of Baghdad in an attempt to "re-conquer" the city. The exercise has produced no results other than an increase in sectarian violence in Baghdad, and an increase in US military deaths (previously somewhat reduced, since the troops were staying in their bases more).
Working in collaboration with Iraqi government forces, the US troops in Baghdad cannot but be seen by the local Sunnis as accomplices in Shia-sectarian "ethnic cleansing". Several areas of Baghdad previously mixed have in fact been converted to Shia domination.
Where the US troops go into a solidly Sunni area, they may be able to kill or drive away a number of insurgents, but they are incapable of policing the area continuously; as soon as they move on, the area reverts to Sunni-sectarian domination, only more embittered.
There is sectarian civil war in Baghdad and some other towns and cities. In Anbar, Iraq's mostly-desert and heavily-Sunni western province, there is a fairly straightforward war of conquest by the USA against almost the whole local population. In the Shia south, there is less sectarian conflict (though many Christians and Sunnis have fled), but a lot of gangster violence involving rival militias.
Almost everywhere, the local militias have been "radicalised", making their local rule more and more like "mini-Talibans".
Electricity supplies are still poor, indeed worse than in the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion. Supplies of clean water are said to be a bit improved, but are still poor. There is 50% unemployment. This year, runaway inflation has been added to the economic mix. Schools and universities, which operated relatively normally even in 2005, now have very small attendance. The two great good by-products of the 2003 invasion, the creation of space for an independent labour movement and an independent press, still survive after a fashion, but under continual harassment and continual threat of being overwhelmed by the chaos.
Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively prosperous and peaceful, though under a sort of "soft-Stalinist" regime run by the two Kurdish warlord parties, KDP and PUK. Even there, sharia law is being written into the constitution; and on the edges of the Kurdish region, notably in Kirkuk, there are other incipient sectarian civil wars.
The Brookings Institute, in the USA, publishes regular statistical measures of the condition of Iraq.
Its set for November 2006 shows:
* Iraqis fleeing Iraq: up to 1.8 million by November 2006 (double the figure up to November 2005).
* Iraqis fleeing inside Iraq: 650,000 by November 2006 (other estimates are higher: in any case, three times the figure in November 2005).
* Unemployment: 33% (other estimates are higher: in any case, the same figure as in 2004).
* Electricity production: the same figure as in 2003.
* Household fuel available: 54% of estimated need (was 76% in November 2003).
* Daily average number of inter-"ethnic" attacks: 15. (Was zero in November 2003).
* Number of Sunni insurgents: 25,000 (was 5,000 in 2003); of Shia militiamen, 50,000 (was 5,000 in 2003).
* Iraqi civilian casualties: 4000 (was 1250 in November 2003).
The Pentagon's latest official report, "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq" (November 2006) fills out the picture: "About 26% of Iraqi children examined were stunted, severely or moderately, in their physical growth-a symptom of chronic malnutrition..." "Iraq averaged 11 hours of power per day nationwide... Baghdad averaged only 6 hours of power per day..." "Unlike in previous years, when inflation was confined mainly to rents, fuel, and transport, prices are now increasing rapidly in all sectors. [Officially] the annual inflation rate from October 2005 to October 2006 was 53%. It is widely believed that the official inflation rate underestimates the actual inflation rate".
"Sectarian violence has steadily increased... Attack levels - both overall and in all specific measurable categories - were the highest on record during this reporting period... In the past three months, the total number of attacks increased 22%... Shi'a death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraq Police Service and the National Police... Death squads are armed groups that conduct extra-judicial killings; they are formed from terrorists, militias, illegal armed groups, and - in some cases - elements of the Iraqi Security Forces... Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM)... has replaced al-Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous accelerant of potentially self-sustaining sectarian violence in Iraq".
In short, the US neo-cons' experiment in Iraq in their variety of imperialism, following on decades of economic and political pulverisation in the country (totalitarian regime since the late 1970s, war 1980-88, war again 1991, sanctions 1991-2003) has taken Iraq into the abyss.
A victory for the Sunni-sectarian "resistance" - i.e. scuttling by the US - would predictably mean:
a) Full-scale civil war, with great bloodshed;
b) Probably, invasion by neighbouring countries such as Iran, maybe Turkey, maybe others;
c) The carving-up of Iraq into a number of statelets, and, probably, the extinction of any possibility of democratic self-determination for the peoples of Iraq for a long time to come;
d) The destruction of the new Iraqi labour movement and the limited press freedom and civil liberties which now exist.
[Section voted on in parts.Carried]
We are against the status quo in Iraq. But at this moment in time all we can do is try to build the forces which can change the situation for the better. We have no immediate answer.
In these conditions, the question, when should the US/UK troops get out, is in reality a question between the various ruling-class and reactionary factions.
To respond the US talk of future withdrawal by saying “no, no, now!” is simply to try to dictate one or other option to the ruling class. It is fantasy to think we can do that. In any case, their withdrawal as a result of failure and defeat at the hands of the sectarian militias is not our programme for Iraq.
Our programme is for a democratic, secular Iraq (with the right of the Kurds to self-determination, rights for other minorities, etc.) and for working- class power throughout the Middle East.
The victory of the sectarian militias would push any near-term feasibility of this programme even further away, and bring the rapid destruction of the force that might (as it becomes stronger) lead a successful struggle for the programme, i.e. the Iraqi workers’ movement.
The only way to answer the question “should the troops withdraw immediately, or stay until whatever?” is to say: in fact it is beyond our collective power to determine when they withdraw. It is a fantasy of “anti-imperialist” politics that somehow the Western anti-war movement, in abstraction from the sectarian militias in Iraq, is going to drive out the troops. In any case, it is the wrong focus.If we care about the peoples of Iraq, we should build solidarity with those forces who can ensure that when the troops withdraw, Iraq can be a democratic and secular country.
George W Bush's new "surge" policy in Iraq is a recipe for more bloodshed on the lines of the assault on Fallujah in November 2004 - but also, so it seems more and more, a botched compromise which makes no sense from any angle at all.
It is a compromise between those in the US ruling class who argued for a big increase in US forces, and those who argued for winding down the US military presence. Between those who argued for "betting on the Shia", focusing fire on the Sunni resistance, and those who wanted a simultaneous or fiercer push against the more militant Shia Islamists. Between those who want to boost the Maliki government, and those who want to push it aside. Between those who still want to seek a deal with elements of the Sunni "resistance", and those who see no alternative but to try to beat down that "resistance" by crude force.
Between those who want to try to do a deal with Iran and Syria, and those who want a "hard line" and exclusive alignment with Iran's enemies, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, etc.
None of the "pure" alternatives can be judged to have any great probability of producing good results. The botched compromise has even less.
The only hope for democratic self-determination for the peoples of Iraq lies with non-sectarian forces like the harassed Iraqi labour movement. Our duty is solidarity with the Iraqi workers against both the US/UK forces and the sectarian militias.