A wounded American soldier at a press conference in Germany was asked this week if the war was as he had expected it. No, he said, it was not. He and his fellow soldiers expected to be greeted with carpets of flowers, not stiff resistance. The war in Iraq is far from being the war the US government expected, either.
Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defence and chief architect of the war, faces searching questions this week as it transpires military tops requested more troops than he was prepared to give. Six times he rejected their request. But now more troops are being sent. There is even speculation that the US may run out of some of their most important air-strike weapons.
Hi-tech aerial bombardment, coupled with a rapid advance to Baghdad, was intended to link with uprisings against the regime. Instead, US troops have been bogged down at Nassiriyah and Najaf, and British troops at Basra in the south of Iraq. The uprisings have so far failed to materialise (though all three of these cities were sites of mass uprisings in 1991).
US military chief Tommy Franks has faced criticism for unimaginative tactics, and overstretching the supply lines: US soldiers at the front have had their rations reduced. Morale has also taken a blow from repeated incidents of “friendly fire”, as well as casualties in combat.
Army top brass also, it seems, proposed delaying the military attack on Iraq following the Turkish parliament’s vote against allowing American troops to cross their territory; Rumsfeld dismissed their suggestions. As a result, the northern assault on Baghdad is less forceful than originally intended.
Kurds in the northern enclave have demonstrated against the presence of Turkish troops and the threat of more. Turkey’s murderous record with the Kurdish people is well-known. But Turkey, the current anti-American sentiments of 90% of its people notwithstanding, is a member of NATO and an American ally. The cracks there, too, are starting to show.
The day the war began George W Bush was warning it might not be over quickly. Now the people who promised us a quick, decisive war which would be greeted as liberation by the Iraqi people are speculating it could take a long time. The spectre of Vietnam has been raised in the American press.
The longer the war goes on, the more murders will be done, like the shooting of the carload of women and children at an army checkpoint outside Najaf on 31 March. Murmurs are coming from the American military that if they want to win the war they might have to kill more civilians. Already some of their supposedly super-accurate “smart” cruise missiles have landed in the wrong countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran) — let alone wrong street, or wrong building. And the Americans are likely to get more reckless.
The sieges of Basra and Nassiriyah give a grim warning of what the forthcoming siege of Baghdad might be like. Saddam, an admirer of Stalin, has promised street-by-street battles for control of Iraq’s capital, as at Stalingrad in World War Two. If things continue as they are, Bush and Blair might be faced with the stark choice: conquer Baghdad at terrible human cost, or accept defeat. For sure, they will choose the former.
This is the war for freedom and democracy.
Iraqi oppositionists complain that the US is refusing to make use of them. The latest reports of US plans (Guardian 1 April) detail post-war ministries headed by Americans with US-appointed Iraqi advisors. In reality the US has no use for the Iraqi opposition. In part this is because that opposition, Kurds aside, probably represents very little. In any case, what the US and UK would prefer is a coup within the regime, a new but more pliant strongman from within the Ba’athist state apparatus who can remove the dictator and assist in establishing pax Americana.
It is striking how little reliable intelligence the US authorities seem to have. In the Arab world, where even pro-American regimes like Egypt’s and Morocco’s are being forced to make anti-war noises, and where Saddam’s portrait is sported by thousands of demonstrators, editors criticise the Pentagon for listening too much to the Iraqi opposition — some of whom have been living in exile for a very long time. In fact, they seem to have nobody else to advise them.
Rumsfeld and the other extreme right wing ideologues of the Bush administration seem to have believed their own hype, and their own propaganda. It could go very badly for them.
The Ba’athist dictatorship, contrary to American expectations of a “cakewalk”, prepared well for the invasion. Its military strategy has been calculated to inflict maximum damage on coalition troops: guerrilla actions, harassing the armoured columns, and organised deep inside the civilian population.
The Iraqi people, despite the promises of the British and American governments (and their shameful apologists in the media), have reacted with anger at what they perceive as an invasion for conquest, not liberation.
Politicians and generals alike underestimated this nationalist sentiment.
However, Iraqi resistance is, for the most part, the work of the crack troops of the Republican Guard, the paramilitary “fedayeen Saddam”. It is not popular resistance to the invasion.
Claims that there have been no uprisings purely because of such terror should not be dismissed merely as imperialist propaganda. The capacity of the regime’s forces to terrorise the population should not be underestimated.
The Ba’ath regime is a totalitarian police state with a long history of terrorising its people. There are tens of thousands of Republican Guard, Special Republican Guard and fedayeen Saddam, and for sure they are able to impose their will, for now, on conscripts and civilians. The fedayeen Saddam is a militia of ardent loyalists, set up after the 1991 uprising under the control of Saddam’s homicidal lunatic eldest son, Uday, for the express purpose of crushing popular unrest.
Shi’a religious leaders in southern Iraq have issued fatwas (religious legal statements) declaring collaboration with the Americans and British to be treason (a fact little reported in the Western media). This indicates the depth of nationalist feeling even in the south, where support for the Ba’ath regime, the base of which is Sunnis from central Iraq, has always been low.
Many people will remember only too vividly how they were betrayed in 1991, at the end of the last Gulf war, when after being called upon to rise up against Saddam, they were abandoned, and thousands of them slaughtered by the regrouped Republican Guard. Whatever comforting sounds Tony Blair thinks he is making, the people of Basra and Najaf are unlikely to “rise up” in the face of Saddam’s repressive forces on the off-chance that this time it will be different.
Nevertheless, uprisings should not be ruled out. If the military fortunes of the regime suffer serious reversals, a space may open for popular opposition to express itself. It looks unlikely to be pro-coalition; but time will tell. The Iraqi people will inevitably be cautious, unwilling to find themselves trapped between the rock of US heavy artillery and the hard place of the masked thugs of the regime.
If there are signs of independent resistance to Saddam, the anti-war movement must support it. The anti-war movement should not however support the “resistance” of the Iraqi regime. It is the peoples of Iraq who deserve our solidarity against their brutal regime. The fact that the coalition say they want uprisings should not confuse us. Genuine uprisings against Saddam would serve the cause of freedom and democracy.
We can’t predict how things will unfold. But this is a reactionary war, waged by predatory imperialist powers and stoking the forces of reaction across the region. In the mass protests against war across the Middle East there is much that is positive; like the huge anti-war movement internationally, mass popular protests on the streets of Cairo or Rabat are a mark of a new generation entering political life, and reveal that the Arab “street” has not fallen silent.
But Saddam, or the Islamic fundamentalist groups who are organising in the mass protests, do not represent progress and democracy. We need to help independent democratic and socialist forces grow.
What could lie ahead is a grotesque political and military quagmire in which thousands die or flee for their lives, cities burn, and suicide attacks spread from the road to Baghdad to the West. Military fortunes can change, and suddenly. Socialists in Britain and internationally need to be prepared, however it unfolds.
No to war! Solidarity with the peoples of Iraq! No to Saddam!