By Clive Bradley
The suicide attack on a police station in Nasiriyah, which left 19 Italian soldiers and 8 Iraqis dead, confirmed the pattern of recent weeks. The violent resistance to the US-led occupation, which seems to consist mainly of those loyal to the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, has increased the scale of its attacks. A week earlier, another bomb laid waste to the Red Cross in Baghdad - one of four that day; the day before, a missile hit a hotel where Donald Rumsfeld was staying.
Panicked by these developments, Paul Bremer, the US civilian administrator, flew back to Washington for emergency talks. A new programme for transferring sovereignty to an Iraqi government has been agreed.
The Interim Governing Council, appointed by the US earlier this year, will craft a law allowing a transitional government to be formed. By Spring 2004, each of Iraq's 18 provinces will hold conventions consisting of notables, elders and tribal chiefs, which will elect a 200-300 strong interim parliament. This will elect a prime minister. The Coalition Provisional Authority, which now rules Iraq, will hand over power to this interim parliament, although American and other troops will remain. The interim government will hold elections for a "constitutional convention", and there will then be full elections with one person, one vote.
Whether this plan can be put into effect, and on its intended timescale, remains to be seen. It is, in substance, what was proposed earlier in the year by the French government. That the US administration has taken this course, aiming to install a fully Iraqi government at the earliest time they feel realistic, reflects their concern at the continuing instability of the country (in particular as a presidential election looms).
The problems seem to run very deep. A report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the author of which was given unprecedented access to the US military in Iraq, concluded that US soldiers are dying because of the ideological approach of the administration, and "four years into office, the Bush national security team is not a team". It accuses the administration of preparing the ground for "a defeat by underplaying the risks, issuing provocative and jingoistic speeches, and minimising real-world costs and risks." (The Independent, 19 November). More US soldiers have been killed since George Bush declared combat officially over than during the war itself.
The confidence of the "resistance" does not reflect its roots in the country, however. Several recent reports suggest that the main guerrilla activity is organised by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein; suicide attacks are thought to be the work, mainly, of non-Iraqis looking to start a jihad.
The most militant Iraqi Islamist forces, on the other hand, have notably moderated their stand over the past weeks. Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of what seems to be the strongest, and the most anti-American, of the Shi'ite Islamist movements, based especially in the poor neighbourhoods of East Baghdad, whose followers are certainly responsible for violent attacks on more moderate Shi'ite groups, has now declared the Americans "guests", who are welcome in Iraq. Other leaders have offered him a place in the Interim Governing Council, which previously he scorned. This shift is probably because it seemed likely the Americans would arrest him if he continued to be provocative; but it looks, so far, to be a genuine and not purely rhetorical shift.
The Governing Council, however, is a shambles, widely criticised by Iraqis for its sectarian composition, the over-representation of exiles who only returned to Iraq this year, and its complete paralysis. Its meetings are poorly attended, and some of its members believed to be busier lining their own pockets than taking action over things of concern to Iraqis.
An interim government based on tribal leaders, etc, will not ease those current problems. The US is concerned to bolster forces of authority which are an alternative to religious movements which they fear, otherwise, might come to power.
Tribal chiefs are a source of such authority, with a genuine local legitimacy (and indeed, in many places, the occupation troops have been criticised for failing to involve local tribal leaders sufficiently). But government based on old clan loyalties and patronage (which survived under the Ba'th in part because of the crushing of all other aspects of civil society), cannot be the basis for a democratic and pluralistic system. The plan only stores up problems for the future.
What is needed is a strengthening of forms of democratic participation from below, in communities, in workplaces, through the trade unions which are beginning to appear, local councils, and so on. Military occupation, of course, is not the best instrument to develop these forms of democracy; indeed, may find itself violently opposed to them. International solidarity can help such real democracy develop and flourish.
The threat to it from the so-called "resistance" should not be underestimated. More Iraqis have been killed, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, by the "resistance" than by occupying troops. It is an ever-present threat: on the first weekend in Ramadan, Ba'thists called a general strike in Baghdad, issuing death threats for those who did not comply. The strike does not seem to have been very successful; but people are afraid.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to deal with the problem militarily, the US launched attacks, including the demolition of homes, in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's home town, in the heart of the Sunni triangle where loyalty to the old regime is believed to be strongest. This has been widely criticised as heavy-handed and probably counter-productive. Throughout Iraq, the occupation is increasingly unpopular.
It seems false to describe the US presence as "colonial" in its longer-term aims. Right now, their priority is trying to find an "exit plan", to enable them to leave Iraq - but in the hands of a reliable, friendly government. If things don't go according to that plan, they may be forced to rely on less formally-democratic arrangements.
The priority for activists outside Iraq should be to build solidarity with those forces who stand for secular, and working class democracy, to help them grow, and resist others - Ba'thists, Islamists, and the occupying armies - who seek to crush them.
- Campaign for Solidarity with Iraqi Workers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 07761 580157