Over the last year, a rash of clashes between small groups of armed Iraqis and the US and its allies have taken a steady toll of occupying soldiers. In mid-April they gave way to to serious fighting in a number of Iraqi cities between US forces and large groups of the political-Islamist militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric. The USA has simultaneously been fighting armed Sunni forces, some of which were linked to the Saddam regime.
Large numbers of civilians have been killed.
The USA has been claiming that the attacks on its forces over the last year have come from partisans of Saddam Hussein and that, in any case, they have had the support of only an insignificant proportion of Iraqis. Al-Sadr has the following of only a minority of Shia, but his militia can neither be classified as Saddamite nor dismissed as insignificant,
Those on the left who backed the Saddam regime against the US and Britain, and have indiscriminately supported all opponents of the occupation, can now talk more plausibly of an Iraqi "war of liberation". Nonetheless, they are still wrong.
Certainly, the USA's forces, proclaiming themselves the liberators of the Iraqi peoples, behave with the arrogance of boorish conquerors and blundering, brutal overlords.
They have been playing a police role, while they try to assemble and train a police force to replace the police of the old regime, who were swept away, along with the Ba'thist state and army, by the invaders. In the best case, soldiers do not make good policemen, especially when they do not even speak the language.
Yet socialists have no reason to complain that the USA smashed and dismantled the old fascistic Saddamite state. That state had held the Iraqi working class in the iron grip of a totalitarian state, which in its later phases was comparable to those of Hitler and Stalin. The once-powerful Iraqi labour movement was destroyed by repression in the 1960s.
The destruction after 40 years of that fascistic Ba'thist state has allowed an Iraqi labour movement, trade unions and working-class political organisations, to begin to rise once more.
The Iraqi working class is today, compared with the labour movement that was crushed in the 1960s, augmented in numbers, and therefore in potential social and political strength. It is a class which, given time to organise and clarify itself politically, can carry through a socialist revolution in Iraq.
The rise of an Iraqi labour movement, though it is still in its early stages, is the most encouraging and important event in the Middle East for decades.
Without a doubt the occupation forces will themselves do the bloody work of Saddam against the working class and its renascent movement if their masters decide they need to. But without the destruction of the Ba'thist state by the US and Britain, that movement would not exist.
Solidarity opposed the war, but the anti-war socialists who think that the existence and survival of the Iraqi labour movement is of little or no importance have, we suggest, lost the plot.
Not only the labour movement has revived in post-Saddam Iraq. So have other, Islamic, forces long repressed by the Ba'thist dictatorship, and new strains, like the al-Sadr movement, which wants to see a regime in Iraq like that of the reactionary clerics who have ruled Iran for 25 years.
The Iraqi state is made up of disparate and sometimes antagonistic elements, brought together in a British-controlled unit when the territories of the old Turkish empire were carved up between Britain and France, at the end of World War One. The Saddam regime put an iron hoop around that state. Basing itself on the Sunni minority, it repressed the majority Shia and the Kurds.
Now the invasion and the destruction of the Saddamist state have unleashed all the centrifugal forces curbed by Saddam. Those who are fighting the Americans have no common ground other than opposition to the occupation. Left to themselves, they would fight each other.
Al-Sadr is no Ayatollah Khomeini (the medievalist cleric who led the reactionary Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979). He is not the leader of most Shia. But he is a Khomeini in what he wants to impose on Iraq.
If Islamic reactionaries come to win power in Iraq, then the result of the US-British destruction of Saddam's state will have been only bloody repression - of women's rights in the first place - and a vast regression of Iraqi society as a whole after decades of secularism. Such a regime would strangle the reborn Iraqi labour movement, and crush Iraq's Kurdish minority (unless Turkey invaded to crush them first).
That fact should induce working-class socialists to pause before they rush to hail al-Sadr and his clerical-fascist movement as the leaders of an "Iraqi war of liberation". Our romantic middle-class "anti-imperialists", for example the SWP and their Respect coalition, do just that. But they are people for whom nothing matters except opposing the USA. They would hail the Devil himself as an ally if they saw him setting fire to the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack!
A war of liberation may indeed develop, if the occupation should turn into a long-term war of repression by the USA and its allies. But that has not happened yet. It may not happen.
In so far as there may have been deliberate US "provocation" to draw out Sadr's militia, its aim will have been to destroy an armed clerical-fascist armed force that would challenge the secular Iraqi government the USA is trying to set up.
Socialists have no reason to give any political support or political credence to the US and British forces. But we have no reason to be other than hostile to the forces of Shia clerical fascism, of Sunni sectarianism, or of neo-Ba'thism. We support the Iraqi working class and Iraqi socialists against all those enemies.
Will the 2003 invasion to topple the Saddam regime turn into a war of imperial-colonial conquest on one side, and, on the other, war for self-determination and liberation by the peoples of Iraq?
That depends on events.
Will the USA muster, or be forced into, sufficient flexibility in economics and politics to assemble an Iraqi government which can command some stability and popular consent?
Will the Americans be able to establish a replacement Iraqi state - police, army, bureaucracy - that will enable the "power-sharing" bourgeois government which they want to sustain itself and deal with centrifugal forces like Sadr's militia?
Can large democratic freedoms be won and consolidated in Iraq?
Will UN "peacekeeping" forces enter Iraq and establish a serious stabilising presence there?
Will the USA and its allies withdraw most of their occupation forces from Iraq within a short time?
Can socialists in Iraq create a working-class movement able to make the working class a powerful force in shaping post-Saddam Iraq?
Will the forces of Shia clerical fascism - which already has a powerful incipient political party in the hordes of clerics, as the clerical counter-revolution in Iran had - be able to use democratic freedoms to do what was done in Iran and destry political and social freedom in Iraq?
Can civil-communal war between the component elements of Iraq's population be avoided?
Will the potential of the reviving Iraqi labour movement be realised? Or will it be destroyed in a bloody colonial war on one side, and, on the other, an Iraqi war against the US forces in which clerical fascists and other reactionaries - who start with tremendous advantages over the working-class and socialist forces - will lead the independence movement, as reactionary Stalinists led the Vietnamese and Cambodian wars of liberation?
Events have not yet answered these questions. That Bush wants to withdraw the bulk of US forces before too long seems certain. It is still conceivable that a workable Iraqi government can be established, and the bulk of the occupation forces withdrawn.
It would be wrong to rush way ahead of events, and answer all the questions posed above in the negative; wrong to rush to identify forces like Sadr's clerical fascists as waging a progressive "war of liberation" in Iraq. If the situation in Iraq does evolve into a long colonial war, it will be a stark tragedy for the Iraqi working class - and for the working class of the entire Middle East, for whom the reviving Iraqi labour movement could be a model and encouragement.
No socialist or consistent democrat who knows the history of US and British imperialism will trust Bush or Blair, or rely on them to do anything positive, in Iraq or anywhere else. That is why we opposed their war. But right now, the proclaimed programme of the US-UK in Iraq and their Iraqi clients and allies - the setting-up of a viable democratic Iraqi government, and ultimate US withdrawal - is relatively progressive, and that of their armed opponents is reactionary by any measure you choose to use. Certainly the intentions of people such as al-Sadr cut radically against the interests of the Iraqi working class and the nascent Iraqi labour movement.
To argue, as the SWP does, that what really matters is that the USA is "given a bloody nose" in Iraq, is to counterpose a half-baked and hysterical "anti-imperialism" to the interests of the Iraqi working class. Their "anti-imperialism" is as contemptuous of and indifferent to the rights and needs of the working class of "Third World" countries like Iraq as any imperialist ever was or will be!
For all these reasons we condemn slogans like "troops out now" as inappropriate to the situation in Iraq. It is inconceivable that the US troops will withdraw "now", or after relatively light guerrilla clashes, or that livable conditions for the Iraqi labour movement could survive if the US occupation somehow suddenly collapsed. In real politics, slogans like "troops out now" signify support for forces like al-Sadr's in a long and very bloody war. At the very best they are grossly premature.
Those who now rush to the conclusion that there is a war of liberation in Iraq merely continue along the trajectory they have been on since 11 September 2001. For these "anti-imperialists", the Iraqi working class might as well not exist. They are negative and only negative, anti-American and nothing but anti-American.
Working-class anti-imperialists are against colonialism and imperialism because we are positively for certain things - for the self-determination of every people; for political democracy even if for now it is only the stunted and inadequate pluto-democracy of the bourgeoisie; for the development of working-class movements everywhere.
For us the central value is freedom for the working class everywhere to develop, organise, educate itself, think, and function with the freedom without which it will never become what Marx called a "class for itself", a class able to remake the world according to the principles of solidarity into a socialist commonwealth where people are free and socially equal.
That is our programme. We analyse the world in the light of that programme. We explain that programme, at the heart of which is the working class and its movement; that is, we make propaganda for it.
Where there is national oppression and struggle against it, we support those fighting for self-determination - but in the first and foremost place we support the working class within an oppressed people.
The idea that we might rush to "recognise" the clerical fascists - who will, if they can, destroy the Iraqi working-class movement - as the authentic embodiment and leadership of a "war of liberation" in Iraq - that has nothing to do with working-class "anti-imperialism" or support for the self-determination of peoples.
For Marxists, slogans are spun from our basic programme and our analysis of a situation. They are not raised just because someone thinks that "militancy" will help them recruit new members.Our basic slogans now are: solidarity with the Iraqi workers; help build the "Third Camp" against both the US and Sadr.