Bush's speech on board the USS Abraham Lincoln, on May 2nd, hailing the "liberation of Iraq", was celebrated with all due cynicism by the media as a stage-managed kick-off for his 2004 presidential campaign. For once, they were telling the truth. Since the first US soldiers entered Baghdad, the "victory" in Iraq - regardless of the thousands of casualties, the massive destruction suffered by the population and their subjection to an occupying army - has become part of Bush's electoral arsenal, next to his previous "victory" against Afghanistan.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more revolting illustration of the corrupt nature of a system whereby politicians of the rich countries can build their careers on the blood of the poor populations of the world!
In Britain, Blair did not dare make such a triumphalist show. With a large section of public opinion still opposed to his policy in Iraq, particularly among Labour's traditional electorate, he chose not to take the risk of fanning the flames of discontent by boasting of a "victory" - especially as a large contingent of British troops is to remain in Iraq, at great cost, in order to "secure" the southern oil fields surrounding Basra on behalf of the oil majors. And, as Labour's poor results in the local elections indicated, he had good reason to show some restraint.
Blair's ministers, however, have been less cautious, claiming time and again that the rapid collapse of Saddam's regime has vindicated the government's decision to ignore public opinion by joining Bush in this war. As if this rapid collapse could make this war more legitimate in any respects!
Given the overwhelming military superiority of the invading forces in terms of their hardware and monopoly of the air, Saddam's defeat was never a matter of "if" but only of "when". The fact that his regime collapsed after less than four weeks of combat merely showed two things. Firstly, the patchy resistance opposed by the Iraqi army confirmed what many people already suspected - that contrary to the lies hammered out by the Western propaganda machine, this army was far too decrepit to be a threat to the region, let alone to the West. And secondly, the regime's failure to mount significant resistance against the invaders from within the ranks of at least a section of the Iraqi people showed the limits of its social base after all these years of dictatorship and, particularly, after the extreme deprivation experienced by most of the population as a result of UN sanctions for over 12 years.
A bloody war against the population
Short as it may have been, this was nonetheless a bloody war against the population. The actual casualties caused by British cluster shells or American "daisy-cutter" superbombs among Iraqi ranks (whether soldiers or civilians makes no difference in this respect) will probably never be known. In fact the Pentagon has already declared that it would make no attempt to provide an estimate of Iraqi casualties: as far as the West is concerned, lives come cheap in the poor countries! And although the war has been declared "over", its direct death toll continues to rise - due to on-going "shooting incidents" involving Western troops, unexploded ammunition left over by Western air raids, the growing number of cases of disease induced by the lack of clean drinking water in the main towns, or simply the dire state of hospitals, which can no longer carry out even the simplest procedures.
Nor will there be any way of measuring the material damage suffered by the population as a result of the bombing. According to some NGO estimates, tens of thousands of households have been made homeless by US and British "smart" bombs. In most cases, this may not have been because they were targeted by these "precision" lethal devices. Only army strategists "forgot" that their "selective military targets" in Basra, Nasiriya or in the outskirts of Baghdad, were surrounded by, or close to slum areas, where dwellings were bound to be blown to pieces by the shock waves of the explosions. But what do the US and British general staff care about the poor?
Likewise for the country's infrastructure. We are told that "precision bombing" ensured that collective infrastructure suffered less than during the first Gulf War, in 1991. However, since only a fraction of the infrastructure destroyed in 1991 had actually been rebuilt, there was less of it to destroy anyway. And the fact is that in all the major towns, from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north, power and water plants were targeted by British and US air raids - as if depriving the population of electricity and drinking water could, in any way, be said to have a military purpose, except that of weakening any potential resistance from the population.
And yes, as much as this was a war targeted at Saddam Hussein's military machine, it was a war targeted at the Iraqi population itself. In the early days of the war, Blair and Bush were apparently wrong-footed when it turned out that the Iraqi population was not exactly welcoming Western soldiers with rose petals. Of course, it had taken all the arrogance of the rich powers' leaders to assume that the Iraqi population would be gullible enough to be conned by speeches about "democracy" coming from the same people who had subjected them to the first Gulf War and then to 12 years of hardship under the sanctions regime. But once London and Washington realised, very early on, that they would have to face hostility from the population, this population itself became one of the prime targets of their war.
So, in Basra and Nasiriya, the first large towns on their way to Baghdad, US and British forces not only ensured that the populations would be deprived of vital electricity and water supply, but they also stopped all traffic into the towns, thereby preventing any supply of fresh food from reaching the population. The same pattern was more or less repeated in every one of the main towns until the collapse of the regime.
And when these towns were considered safe enough for the invading troops to risk occupying them, their first act was not to meet the population's desperate need for drinking water, it was to mount brutal house-to-house searches, under the pretext of finding dignitaries of the regime who were allegedly hiding. But in reality the main purpose for such a show of strength was to terrorise the population into submission. In fact, this was unwittingly acknowledged by a British senior officer at Basra, when he boasted of the "special expertise" acquired by his troops in Northern Ireland when it came to "controlling hostile populations." It would be hard to find a more cynical - and accurate - way of spelling out the tasks set out for the troops.
A war of imperialist banditry
That this war would have nothing to do with Saddam's alleged "weapons of mass destruction" - which have yet to be found - let alone with "democracy" or the "humanitarian" aims claimed hypocritically by Blair, had been obvious long before it even started.
This was an imperialist war, driven by the greed of the rich countries' capitalist classes and their determination to tighten their stranglehold on the Middle East - purely and simply because this region is vital for Western companies' profits, and all the more vital today as the present worldwide recession threatens to dent these profits.
The true nature of the war was highlighted by the plans for the "post-Saddam era" which were already being discussed in the US even before the first soldier had set foot in Iraq. Today, these plans are unfolding before our eyes and what they mean, first and foremost, is the total takeover of Iraq's natural resources and domestic market by Western companies. But since the law of the jungle is the rule among the thieves as well, it is the strongest thief of all - US imperialism - which is taking all the pickings, regardless of the wimpish complaints made by the City and the other minor allies of the US in this war.
The provisional civil administration which is being put in place, allegedly for the purpose of "reconstruction", is a graphic illustration of these US plans. Its head - Jay Garner - is a retired general close to US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, an avowed supporter of Sharon, a boardroom member of a US arms company - responsible, among other things, for the production and maintenance of the Patriot anti-missile defence system - and, more generally, a prominent figure in the arms manufacturing lobby. His main political adviser is to be Zalmay Khalilzad, another of Rumsfeld's close associates, who is a defence specialist, an ex- advisor for US oil company Unocal and Bush's former special envoy in Kabul after the Afghan war.
Another of Garner's right-hand men, in charge of agriculture, is Dan Amstutz, a former senior executive of Cargill, the giant food processor and the world's biggest grain exporter. As an Oxfam spokesman, quoted by The Guardian, stated "putting Dan Amstutz in charge of agricultural reconstruction in Iraq is like putting Saddam Hussein in charge of a human rights commission." Predictably, Iraqi oil will be given special attention in the "reconstruction" process. A special commission is to be set up to oversee the operation of the former state-controlled oil exporting organisation. This commission will be chaired by another US heavyweight, Philip Carroll, a former chairman and CEO of the US arm of oil giant Shell - certainly someone who will know how to use Iraq's massive oil reserves to the best advantage of the US oil majors!
With such a combination of associates of Bush's clique and representatives of US big business, it is not difficult to figure out how Garner and his team will handle the so-called "reconstruction" of Iraq. The few reconstruction contracts which have been awarded so far give an indication of what is in store. USAID, the US agency in charge of allocating these contracts, has simply ruled out offering them to any non-US company. But as a spokesman for USAID indicated, there is nothing to prevent the winners from subcontracting part of the job to others - including to non-US companies. The bitter remonstrations made by Balfour Beatty, Costain and other British construction giants have proved useless. Not only will they have to be content with modest subcontracting jobs, but they even had to leave the contract to rebuild the port of Umm Qasr to an American companies - despite all the noises made by Blair about Umm Qasr being the first victory in the "liberation of Iraq" and a "British victory" at that!
Obviously the US giants are determined to get the bulk of the Iraqi loot - and Bush will see to it - while British and other companies from the smaller imperialist countries will have to fight it out between themselves for the privilege of getting a few crumbs.
A foretaste of what is to come
As to the Iraqi people, the US leaders have already made it clear that whatever "reconstruction" takes place in their country will have to be entirely paid by the proceeds of its oil. In other words they are made to pay twice - once through the destruction of the war (not to mention the casualties, of course) and a second time, by having to give up a large part of the country's income to the very same people who bombed it to rubble!
And what "reconstruction" will that be? First and foremost the reconstruction of anything connected to the oil industry, and possibly long-distance transport infrastructure, which will be vital if foreign companies are to be able to tap the country's internal market. But beyond that?
The main oil giants are already reluctant to commit their funds to long-term investment anywhere in the world, let alone in Iraq where the political situation is still far from stable. And who will put any money into rebuilding the houses and public amenities destroyed during the war? Certainly not private bodies. International and aid agencies then? The contract awarded by USAID to a private US company to run Iraq's state hospitals speaks for itself in this respect: it only concerns the hospitals which are in "good maintenance condition." As to the majority of those which are in poor condition, they will be left to rot, with the sparse help provided by NGOs as their sole means of surviving.
In fact, in this respect, the Iraqi people have already been given a foretaste of what is in store for them. Despite Bush's and Blair's talk about "humanitarian aid", their total contempt for the needs of the population has been obvious right from the beginning. Leaving aside bombs, missiles and bullets, the invading troops brought little or nothing with them that could in any way bring relief to the population - neither medicines, nor food rations in significant quantities, nor engineering units with the equipment and the manpower to reactivate power and water purification plants. So at the time of writing, three weeks after the fall of Baghdad, most of the capital's inhabitants are still deprived of these necessities. And the situation is not much different in the country's other main towns.
Given the deprivation caused among the population by several weeks of bombing, the wave of looting which broke out after the collapse of the regime was entirely predictable. Would it have been impossible for the rich countries' governments to organise emergency relief there and then, using the considerable resources they have at their disposal? Was it impossible for the B-52s based here, at Fairford, to swap their usual lethal cargo for dozens of tons of vital medicines, of which there is no shortage in Britain? Or for the huge engineering repair plants housed by each one of the numerous modern aircraft carriers anchored in the Gulf to provide large numbers of engineers with the necessary equipment to fix power and water plants in Basra and other Iraqi towns?
But no way! The US and British general staff did nothing, neither to prevent the looting of vital equipment, in hospitals for instance, nor to provide any relief for the population. In Baghdad, the only buildings which were protected by US troops were, significantly, the Interior ministry and the oil ministry.
What is more, stockpiles of food, medicines and camping equipment prepared by aid agencies in the neighbouring countries are still prevented from entering Iraq until the situation is considered safe by the occupying forces. Just as the "humanitarian aid" which was meant to come through Umm Qasr, according to the British high command, has still to materialise.
In the meantime, the population has been left to fend for itself. In Basra, those who cannot afford to buy bottled water imported from Kuwait at nearly $2.40 a bottle (when wages for non-skilled construction workers have been set by the British authorities at $10 a month!) are left to get their water supply from muddy rivers. Elsewhere, people use the stagnant water that remains in water pipes. So even in Baghdad, the town with the most modern facilities in the country, there are fears of a cholera epidemic due to bad sanitation and dirty water.
A Pandora's box
Quite apart from their contempt for the population's needs, it is quite possible that Western leaders have cynically considered the wave of looting in Iraqi towns as a political opportunity. Indeed, the fear of looters was bound to prompt the better-offs to turn to the invaders for protection. And this was immediately used as a pretext by the occupying authorities to bring thousands of Saddam Hussein's former police officers back onto the beat. Never mind their past role under the dictatorship - painstakingly documented in Blair's famous "dossier on Iraq." When it comes to repressing the poor, the Western powers have never been very choosy as to whom they use to do the dirty work!
But at the same time, another phenomenon was beginning to take shape. Here and there armed militias were being formed, probably in most cases by people who sought genuinely to protect themselves collectively against looters. Due to their geographic nature, these self-defence militias often tended to be organised along ethnic lines - something which, given the tensions born out of the past divisive policies of the dictatorship, represented a potential danger. But more importantly, this was the device used by the Islamic clergy to step into the vacuum created by the collapse of the regime.
Although secular in theory, since the end of the 1980s Saddam's regime sought increasingly to rally the support of Islamic clerics. Islamist organisations were encouraged to take over the social role that the Baath party used to play. Mosques were built in large numbers by the regime. The growing influence of religion among the Shiite population was illustrated by the 2 million pilgrims who went to the holy town of Karbala in 1999 according to official figures. But it also affected the Sunni population since, by that time, it had become virtually impossible for a woman to walk in the streets of the predominantly Sunni town of Mosul without a hijab.
To all intents and purposes, the Islamic currents were the only form of opposition which was allowed to exist under Saddam Hussein - provided, of course, they confined themselves to religious activities. When the regime collapsed, the Islamic clerics were, therefore, solidly entrenched in their mosques and immediately proceeded to use them as a platform to drum up political support, while organising armed self-defence militias around them. Since then, many different rival factions seem to have emerged - some formed by pre-existing clandestine parties, others apparently new - which are competing for the same mostly Shiite constituency (but not only Shiite, as some Sunni clerics seem to have followed this example). And given the general discontent caused by the war, the occupation and the material conditions imposed on the population, their rivalry tends to take the form of an anti-American overbidding, in addition to on-going bloody skirmishes between their militias.
As a result, the US and British leaders find themselves in a situation which they probably did not expect. They brought with them selected partners whom they had groomed in New-York and London - namely the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a coalition of more or less unrepresentative exile groups led by a Ahmed Chalabi, a banker who left the country when he was 12 years old and whose only claim to fame is to have been sentenced to jail in Jordan for embezzlement. But, so far, the INC has only managed to generate hostility in Iraq. True, the US do have the support of the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK, but the influence of these parties is limited to Iraqi Kurdistan and, anyway, allowing them to acquire too much weight would be taking the risk of encouraging their ambitions. As to the one well-known Shiite cleric that the British were able to bring back to Baghdad from his exile in London, he was murdered within days of his return!
The only Islamic party of any weight which has ever been associated with the INC, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has now distanced itself from the US. It has embarked on a vocal campaign against foreign occupation - not out of any radicalism, but more likely because it can hope to use the support it wins among the population on this basis as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the forces of occupation. In the meantime, the SCIRI is busy occupying as much ground as it can, using the forces of its Iran-based militias, the Badr brigade. So, for instance, it has managed to take control of the city of Kut by imposing its own local administration on the US authorities.
A host of potential powderkegs
Given the choice, the US and British leaders would certainly prefer to pull out of Iraq earlier rather than later, provided of course they can keep enough control over the country to allow Western companies to plunder its resources and, if need be, to use it as a forward base against the rest of the Middle East.
But will the US and Britain have the choice to pull out as soon as they would like? Or will the Pandora's box they have opened by launching this war blow up in their faces?
Today, in central and southern Iraq, the US leaders are confronted with a mushrooming of political forces, including many would be strong men, who try their luck by proclaiming themselves into various positions - such as, for instance, an aspiring politician by the name of al-Zubaidi, who managed to act as the self-proclaimed mayor of Baghdad for over a week at the end of April and to start recruiting supporters before being removed by US troops. However, among these political forces, the only ones which seem to have any real support among the population are the Islamic currents, so far in any case.
Bush's problem is not so much, of course, the reactionary nature of the ideas advocated by these currents - regardless of the fact that if they were implemented in Iraq, this would mean a drastic turning back of the clock for a large section of the population. His problem is that the most influential among these currents, SCIRI and the somewhat smaller Dawa party, are all closely connected to Iran. And the last thing the US leaders want to allow in Iraq is a regime which might prove willing to form a block with Iran at some point in the future, as this would defeat the whole purpose of the invasion of Iraq as a means of tightening imperialist control over the region.
But this raises a dilemna because, should the main Islamic currents be kept outside the future institutions of the country, no-one can tell what may emerge from the overbidding taking place between the Islamic currents. The utter deprivation of the Iraqi population could push them into the arms of the clerics' demagogy, out of despair. This could lead to unpredictable developments, beyond Iraq itself, in a region where Islamic fundamentalism already has a large following in every country. It could even re-invigorate Islamic fundamentalism in Iran itself, which, despite Bush's demagogic relegation of Iran to the "axis of evil", would be a setback for imperialism by wiping out president Khatami's pro-Western wing of the Iranian regime.
Even northern Iraq is not without its own problems, despite the present support given to the Western occupation by the two main Kurdish parties. These parties have expectations that the US and Britain will have to contain at some point and so do the Kurdish people themselves, although these are not necessarily identical.
For instance, the Kurdish parties have referred to the need to organise the return of property to Kurdish families who were deported under Saddam's regime. Some Kurdish leaders have gone further by demanding the return of land to big Kurdish landowners who were dispossessed as part of the land reform since 1958. The implicit corollary of these demands is the deportation of large numbers of Arabs who were brought in by the previous regime to take the place of the Kurds, sometimes several decades ago. To these demands, US officials have responded by proposing to use the same methods used in Bosnia to reverse ethnic cleansing. But by fanning the flames of ethnic division with such plans, it is not a Bosnian-type "solution", but a Bosnian-type war that the US may take the risk of triggering - and one that would almost automatically spread across Iraq, given, for instance, the 1 million Kurds living in Baghdad who would inevitably become the target of Arab demagogues.
Of course, most of these dangers could be pre-empted if the rich countries were really prepared to put the resources needed into rebuilding Iraq - not just for the sake of restarting and developing the few industries which are profitable for Western companies, but with the objective of providing a decent standard of living to all Iraqis, from Kurdistan to the southern marshes, decent enough in any case to make all ethnic and religious infighting irrelevant, simply because they would have something worth living for. And given the huge natural wealth of the country, such a rebuilding programme would be quite feasible - that is, of course, assuming that the Western vultures abandoned their plans to loot the country's resources.
But this was never part of Bush's plan. The aim of this war was never to bring any improvement for the Iraqi population. Its only purpose was to boost profits in Wall Street and the City and, like all capitalist enterprises, it must bear profits as soon as possible, whatever the cost for the population.
Towards a dictatorship and/or a long-term occupation?
While the official line in Washington remains that the US military occupation would not last more than 3 months, Garner himself has made it clear that he would not put a limit on his tenure. Far from pulling out, the US are seeking reinforcements. So they have been taking steps to get other countries - including possibly NATO - to send troops to Iraq, in addition to the present occupying forces.
The series of incidents in which US troops opened fire on demonstrators in Mosul, Kirkuk and Fallujah, living a total of 23 dead and over a hundred injured, shows what these reinforcements might be used for if necessary. In and of itself the hardship imposed by the invasion has created much resentment. But this resentment may increasingly turn into anger, as it did in Fallujah, when US soldiers set up their headquarters in a school, thereby preventing the resumption of classes. And the odds are that there will be more shooting of Iraqi demonstrators by US soldiers - just to give them a taste of what the West means by "democracy".
Because, in the meantime, the occupation authorities are busy bringing back into activity chunks of Saddam's state machinery, so that the task of keeping the population under control can be handed over to locally-recruited bodies. In Basra, for instance, the British authorities have taken one of Saddam's former generals, who happens also to be a tribal leader, out of his cupboard in order to promote him as leader of the town's new ruling authority, where he will sit with "honest" former members of the Baath party. At the same time, London is considering restoring the colonial legal system which was put in place in the 1920s - a highly divisive and archaic system which gave tribal leaders (i.e. mostly large landlords) huge powers over poor farmers in the countryside, while depriving the poor of any rights in the towns!
If an Iraqi regime emerges, eventually, out of the efforts made by the occupation forces, the odds are, therefore, that it will be a kind of Saddam's regime without Saddam, and all the more repressive as the situation in the country becomes more explosive.
However, judging from what has happened in Afghanistan, Bush may not even bother to put in place a regime that will have any real authority in the country. In Afghanistan, Rumsfeld has just declared what he described as "the end of the war" - 19 months after it began. But there is still no question of withdrawing the 17,000 Western troops which are protecting the government put in place by the US in Kabul. The rest of the country is in the hands of rival warlords, all fundamentalists of various descriptions, who are allowed to impose their quasi-feudal rule on the population as long as their rivalries do not threaten Kabul itself. Even Rumsfeld had to admit: "there are still pockets of resistance". So from time to time US bombers remind the unruly armed gangs that they are being watched, by dropping a few bombs on them - and sometimes on innocent villagers, "by mistake".
Imperialism could have such a future in store for Iraq. The US leaders could decide to isolate the oil fields from the rest of the country, with heavy forces to guard them. A few of the main towns, Baghdad among them, could be turned into international business centres, again under heavy protection. The rest of the country could then be left in the hands of warring fundamentalist and nationalist factions, with the population being caught between the warlords and the big guns of a permanent imperialist occupation force. In such a case, instead of "liberation" or "democracy" as they were promised, the Iraqi population would be forced into a state of barbarism dominated by on-going localised civil wars.
Of course, given the geographic situation of Iraq and the close links of its various ethnic components, there would always be a risk that these local civil wars would cross the Iraqi borders and spread to other countries. But imperialism never thinks so far ahead. As long as profits can be made, it is prepared to destroy the very fabric of a whole country. After all, what may happen as a result to the population will never show on its balance sheets!
3 May 2003