by Colin Foster
In Iraq the USA is edging towards a war on two fronts. If that happens, the almost certain result will be another big lurch into further sectarian civil war and social chaos.
Over the last four years, since April 2003, the US has mainly been fighting Sunni-sectarian “resistance” groups. Since April 2005 the US has been in alliance with Iraqi governments led by Shia Islamists.
George W Bush’s new military “surge” in Iraq, since February, has mainly targeted Sunni militias. Now it looks as if the USA may simultaneously go to war with one of the Shia Islamist militias, Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
The one-sided “surge” is doing no good. Sectarian killings still run high. US troop deaths in Baghdad have risen 21% over the last two months, as there are more troops on the streets rather than back in their bases.
The Sunni population is angered because the US “surge” is targeting their areas, and doing it in collaboration with Shia-dominated Iraqi army and police. The Shia population is angered, too.
The Mahdi Army has so far chosen to “duck” the surge by coming off the streets and keeping a low profile for a while. (After the “surge” they can reappear and take advantage of the blows that the US troops have struck at their Sunni militia rivals).
However, the Mahdi Army has also protected Shia areas against Sunni gangs. US troops that push the Mahdi Army off the streets are much less effective at protection. So the “surge” has brought several big sectarian massacres in Shia areas, for which many Shia blame the US.
A more “even-handed” US operation will almost certainly, however, just increase the bloodshed and heighten those effects.
When US troops go into a Sunni or a Shia area, they have the firepower to kill or drive away militia people (and many other people, too). They cannot police the area continuously; they do not have stable non-sectarian Iraqi allies who will police the area continuously; as soon as they move on, the area reverts to sectarian domination, only more embittered.
In November 2006, the New York Times leaked a memo written on 8 November by US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley lambasting the Baghdad government for “non-delivery of services to Sunni areas, intervention by the prime minister’s office to stop military action against Shia targets and to encourage them against Sunni ones, removal of Iraq’s most effective commanders on a sectarian basis and efforts to ensure Shia majorities in all ministries...”
Hadley proposed that the US try to push prime minister Maliki into breaking his links with Sadr and basing himself on “a new parliamentary bloc” of “moderate politicians from Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and other communities”. This mythical “moderate bloc” would, so Hadley hoped, become an Iraqi force which could take advantage of American firepower-surges to establish functioning civil administration.
Other people in or around the Bush administration advised against Hadley. The Maliki government is fragile, they said. Push it, and it may break. In any case, the US is in too weak a position to risk a “two-front” war. It should first try to stabilise and build up the Shia-Islamist-dominated government.
It looks as if the US administration never made a clear choice between those two options, but is stumbling in botched compromise.
The Sadr movement has had its six members of Maliki’s cabinet resign (16 April), saying that it wants to free its hands to campaign for a timetable for US withdrawal; it called a big demonstration for US withdrawal on 9 April; and Sadr has called on his gunmen to turn their fire on the Americans.
Actually these steps are not quite what they seem: they are more about the Sadrists manoeuvring in response to increased US pressure than them going on the offensive.
Small-scale clashes between US troops and the Sadrists have increased, on US initiative.
The cause of the Iraqi labour movement, of self-determination for the peoples of Iraq, and of democracy and secularism, has nothing to gain from the victory of any force in this multi-cornered war.
The brutal, corrupt US occupation is grinding Iraqi society into dust. All the sectarian militias, from their different angles, offer only sectarian civil war and, if they win, expansion of their current “mini-Taliban” local regimes into full-scale fundamentalist dictatorships.
The Iraqi labour movement is already much-harassed, and risks being crushed if the Islamists triumph. But it is the main non-sectarian movement in the country, and the one cause for hope.
It has not had sufficient aid and solidarity from the international labour movement. But, with increased resources, the Iraqi labour movement could unite large numbers of the population around it in a campaign against the new oil law, which allows for privatisation and sell-off to foreign interests under regional control.
It could rouse millions in a campaign to demand jobs or adequate dole, in a once-prosperous country where now 28% of all children suffer from malnutrition and one child in ten has a chronic illness. Millions of Iraqis depend on government rations to survive. With vast numbers of people fleeing their homes because of sectarian conflict, and a corrupt administration, distribution of the rations is erratic.
It could combine support for the right to self-determination for the Kurds with opposition to Kurdish revanchism and energetic mobilisation on social and economic grievances within the Kurdish areas, where something nearer normal conditions for trade-union and political activity exist but where the relative prosperity is monopolised by the machines of the Kurdish-nationalist warlord parties, the PUK and KDP.
That is the programme to end the horror of the US/UK occupation without tipping the country into the more rapid horror of full-scale sectarian civil war and militarised Islamist rule. The odds against it are huge, and becoming larger. But our task is solidarity with the Iraqi labour movement, ten or a hundred times than it has received so far.