Blair's 21 February statement, announcing that 1,600 British troops were to be withdrawn from Iraq, was yet another conjurer's trick. Because, contrary to what most of the media implied, when and how this withdrawal is to be carried out, remains anybody's guess.
Indeed, Blair steered clear of setting a definite date for the soldiers' departure. Instead, he confined himself to stating that "over the coming months, we will transfer more of the responsibility directly to Iraqis, adding that "none of this will mean a reduction in our combat capability. And since the army's "combat capability" would clearly be reduced by withdrawing 1,600 troops out of the present 7,100, one can only infer from this that the announced withdrawal may well take place not within the "coming months, but at some later, possibly distant point. All the more so, as, in the same breath, Blair went on to add that "the UK military presence will continue into 2008.
No-one could seriously believe, therefore, that Blair's statement signalled a retreat from his government's imperialist stance in the Middle-East. And, in any case, whatever illusion may have been created in this respect by the media, was soon dispelled when, within 5 days of Blair's announcement, Defence Secretary Des Browne stated in the Commons that 1,400 additional troops were to be sent to Afghanistan, bringing the total British contingent there to 7,700. This time, there is neither ambiguity nor fudge about the time table: the reinforcements are to arrive by May at the latest, in order to be deployed in Helmand province and around Kandahar - which means, in passing, that the territorial scope of Britain's role in the occupation of Afghanistan is being expanded even more.
Blair's announcement had, therefore, very little to do with any new development in Iraq itself. Its reasons were mainly to do with domestic politics. In the short-term, it had two obvious objectives. On the one hand, it was certainly designed to pave the way for Des Browne's impending announcement on Afghanistan, in order to make it more palatable for the sizeable section of public opinion which opposes the war in Iraq, while being in two minds about Afghanistan. On the other hand, the fact that Blair made his announcement at the very moment when he was facing a backbench rebellion over a motion calling for a public enquiry on his government's policy in Iraq, was no coincidence.
Not that such an enquiry would, in and of itself, have forced Blair to change his policy in the Middle East, of course. Public enquiries are merely one of the many devices which the parliamentary system uses to sweep political scandals under the carpet. But by attracting a lot of media coverage, such an enquiry would have focused the electorate's attention even more on Iraq - which is certainly the last thing Labour needs, both in the run-up to this May's local elections and in preparation for Brown's takeover from Blair.
The Maysan fiasco
Beyond these short-term objectives, Blair also needs to be able to present some sort of positive record to back up his policies. And his announcement had this purpose as well, by intimating that at last, some progress is being made in bringing Iraq's bloody chaos to an end. But it is not the first such attempt. The last one, less than six months ago, goes a long way towards showing that the optimistic view of the situation in Iraq presented by the government should not be taken at face value.
In August last year, it was announced with much fanfare that the British army was to hand over control to the Iraqi authorities in the eastern province of Maysan, which borders Iran. Accordingly, the 1,000 soldiers of the Queen's Royal Hussars evacuated their base at Camp Abu Naji, which they had been occupying for three years. Judging from official statements, this was all a very orderly handover. By September, commentators were bristling with speculation about a "British exit strategy" and ministers were coming close to promising a prompt reduction of British troops in Iraq.
However, none of this ever materialised. Not only was there no troop reduction, but, in fact, Maysan province was never handed over to Iraqi control. As Blair himself admitted in his 21st February speech in the Commons, "we hope that Maysan province can be transferred to full Iraqi control in the next few months - 6 months after the initial handover announcement!
What seems to have really happened, according to reports from news agencies, is that the transfer of the Queen's Royal Hussars from Camp Abu Naji to new barracks near Basra was due to a sudden increase of mortar attacks against the Camp, which threatened both equipment and men. According to a spokesman of the provincial governor, quoted by IPS, "British forces evacuated their military headquarters without coordination with the Iraqi forces. A report by the same agency added: "Looters promptly moved into the empty base and removed an estimated half-a-million dollars worth of equipment the British left behind in their hasty retreat" This was hardly evidence of an orderly handover!
In fact, the MoD itself was far less triumphant than Blair's ministers in its account of the move, stressing that the regiment "will be deployed in the harsh environment of Eastern Maysan, living off their vehicles for weeks at a time. Their new role, cracking down on militia and smugglers. In other words, the regiment was being redeployed for counter-guerilla purposes. This was a far cry from the official government line which claimed that the "extremists", to use Blair's language, had been more or less reduced to impotence!
That unrest was still rife in the province was illustrated in a spectacular way, at the end of October, when gun battles broke out in the streets of Maysan's capital, Amara, lasting 2 days and leaving 31 dead and 100 injured. This fighting involved two Shia militias - the uniformed Badr brigade, the militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which controls the provincial police, and cleric Moqtadah al-Sadr's Mahdi army. Al-Sadr's militiamen had been reacting to an attempt by the Badr brigade to use its position in the police to put the local leader of the Mahdi army in jail. And neither the Iraqi army nor, of course, the militia-led Iraqi police, were able to stop the confrontation. In the end, it took the threat of a full-scale intervention by the British army to bring the two factions to the negotiating table and end the street-fighting - until the next time.
Far from being the "law-abiding" oasis pictured by government officials last August, Maysan has proved to be - and remains to date - a battle-ground for rival militias, where hostage-taking and gangsterism is part of daily life. This may explain Blair's caution, after last year's over-optimism, when saying "we hope rather than "we will"!
Basra's "factionalised kleptocracy"
Both politically and economically, Basra province, home of Iraq's second largest city, is far more important than any of the other British-occupied provinces - economically, because it is the main industrial and trading centre for Iraq's southern oil fields and politically, because of the size of its population, its large urban proletariat and its traditional prestige in the country.
But, again, the official tales about a "law-abiding" Basra province offering a sharp contrast with Baghdad's lawlessness, fly in the face of reality. A report published at the end of February by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and reproduced in the Financial Times(which no-one would suspect of being an "anti-war mouthpiece") describes the area in the following terms: "Instead of a stable, law-abiding region with a representative government and police primacy, the deep south is factionalised, lawless, ruled as a kleptocracy, and subject to militia primacy.
In Basra, like in the rest of the British occupation zone, London's policy has been to seek the cooperation of local strong men. This is what Blair calls Britain's "hearts and minds" approach - nothing to do with the "hearts and minds" of the population, of course, but everything to do with wooing the greed of local capitalists and politicians. After a series of failed attempts at promoting tribal leaders who had been previously more or less associated with Saddam Hussein's regime, the British authorities finally decided that the safest bet was to try to broker an alliance between the three main fundamentalist militias in town - namely SCIRI and its Badr brigade, al-Sadr's faction and its Mahdi army, and the Fadila (Virtue) party.
Since then, these factions have been running the elected institutions of the province and town as well as the various wings of the security forces, equipped and trained by British forces. And, just like in Amara, this has resulted in endless factional fights between the rivals, within the new Iraqi institutions themselves. Above all, the security forces have become weapons in the hands of the militias to exercise their rule over the population and use in their rivalries.
A major incident reported last December, also by the Financial Times illustrates this state of affairs. On 25th December last year, says the FT "over 1,000 British troops participated in the raid that culminated in the demolition of the Jamiat police station, in Basra The newspaper went on to quote a British spokesman saying that "127 prisoners were discovered in the basement, some of them with their kneecaps shot off, their hands or feet crushed, or with cigarette or electrical burns. The report explained that this police station had been the base of a "criminal gang" operating within the local Serious Crimes Unit, which had "access to weaponry, vehicles and police intelligence used in death squad activities and was suspected of being linked with the murder of 17 police employees in October 2006 and the abduction of 2 British soldiers in September 2005.
Although no details were provided about the background of this "criminal gang", it is obvious that it must have been one of the local fundamentalist militias - "criminals" do not abduct people when there is no financial gain to be made, nor do they organise death squads for the sake of it.
In this case, the army chose to stage a confrontation, because of the role of this particular militia group in the abduction of 2 British soldiers. But one can only wonder how many more police stations and other Iraqi security units are being used in this way, as fronts for the murderous activities of the militias, with the British authorities turning a blind eye, simply because, allowing these thugs to impose their rule is an expedient way of having some sort of "law and order" - by terrorising the population! So much for Britain's "hearts and minds" approach!
Such is the real face of the "epochal struggle between the forces of progress and the forces of reaction that Blair was celebrating in his 21st February speech. The only "progress" brought to the population by the occupation forces will have been their subjection to the bloody diktats of the militias!
As to the progress boasted by Blair in the same speech regarding the security situation in Basra, one way of measuring it is by looking at British casualties. These casualties have always been much lower than those of US troops, partly due to the lower level of terrorist activity in the South, but mostly due to the fact that the British contingent was always, with the exception of a short period during the invasion, nearly 20 times smaller than the US contingent. And yet, the fact is that the number of British casualties over the past 12 months is nearly 3 times larger than in the previous 12 months, whereas over the same period US casualties increased by 33%. So, to talk about an "improved" security situation in Basra, whether in absolute terms or in relative terms, by comparison with Baghdad, is merely a cynical lie!
Into the 5th year of the occupation
From this point of view, the situation in the British-occupied south is no different from that in the rest of Iraq. Whatever the claims of political leaders in London and Washington, the war in Iraq has been a total failure, in every respect, including for the western multinational companies on whose behalf this war was launched. With the exception of a handful of security and military contractors, none of the big multinationals has been able to get their hands on the huge profits they were expecting from the end of the blockade of Iraq and the opening up of its oil fields and market.
True, the Iraqi government has just agreed on a new Oil Law. According to this law, all known, but yet unexploited oil fields will be conceded to joint ventures between the National Iraqi Oil Company and foreign oil majors. As to new oil fields, they will be contracted for exploration and production to foreign companies under a system known as "production-sharing agreements" - a system which is heavily biased in favour of western multinationals and had disappeared from the Middle East since the setting up of nationalised oil companies, in the 1970s. For good measure, the Federal Oil and Gas Council, which will be responsible for approving exploration and production concessions, will include representatives of the "foreign oil companies concerned.
But so far, this is only on paper and the odds are that it will remain this way for the foreseeable future. And this is not only because the Iraqi National Assembly has still to pass this law - which may well result in a lot of overbidding and posturing by its various factions and a protracted horse-trading process. The main obstacle to the implementation of this law is the fact that even in the existing oil fields, the state of disrepair of the infrastructure, together with the regular terrorist attacks targeting pipelines, oil storage and oil rigs, keep production to very low levels.
In this context, as has already been seen in various conferences organised by London and Washington to entice potential investors, the oil majors are very unlikely to risk their money in Iraq. It is one thing for a giant oil service company like Halliburton to underwrite a vastly over-paid contract funded and guaranteed by the US administration, which involves risks for its workers, but not for its profits. But it is quite another for the oil majors to risk their own capital in Iraq, knowing that it may be blown to pieces even before the first drop of oil is produced!
Far from receding, terrorist activities have become more effective across Iraq and not just in the central "Sunni Triangle". The growing number of helicopter gunships downed by guerilla groups - a rare occurrence in the first years of the occupation - is there to show that despite the resumption of systematic bombings to destroy alleged "guerrilla bases", including in urban areas, the military equipment of the militias has become more sophisticated and powerful.
Adding to this, the bloody turf war waged by the militias in order to whip up sectarian tensions to their advantage, turns the country into a powder keg, which could explode in the hands of the occupation forces at any point, with unpredictable regional consequences.
Besides, particularly for the US administration, the Iraqi quagmire is threatening to turn into the biggest domestic political disaster since the Vietnam War. With over 3,400 soldiers killed and over 32,000 officially wounded, the casualties of this war, which no longer makes any sense for a large proportion of the US public, are becoming a collective cause of grief and resentment for the growing section of the population which is directly affected - far more than in Britain, where the 133 military deaths directly concern a few hundred families, at most. So far, the worst that the British government seems to fear is further losses in the ballot box - although, of course, this could change if Labour chose to dig its heels further into Afghanistan, in addition to Iraq. But in the US, the memories of the social backlash linked to the Vietnam war are still there among the population and among the ruling class. And even if the opposition to the Iraq war has not yet reached a comparable level of anger and bitterness, the US capitalists and their politicians have to take this past into account.
Towards a western "exit strategy"?
It is in this context that the conference of Iraq's neighbouring countries, which is to start on March 10th, takes all its significance, especially since Condoleezza Rice, Bush's secretary of State, has announced that the US plan to participate alongside Iran, Syria, the neighbouring Arab states and the European Union.
Indeed, after years of demonisation of Syria and Iran, portrayed by the Bush administration as "terrorist states", after the protracted US-stage managed saga over Iran's nuclear activities, the fact that the US government chooses to join Iran and Syria at negotiations is, in and of itself, an admission of its hopes that both countries could play a role in helping to stabilise the situation in Iraq.
This option was only formulated recently in a semi-official way, in the report published by the "Baker commission" - a bi-partisan study group on the situation in Iraq set up by the American Congress. But although it was immediately dismissed contemptuously by Bush, it has been more or less in the air, in practice, for a long time.
After the resounding failure of the host of CIA-sponsored politicians brought in by the invading armies in the back of their armoured vehicles, Washington and London had no option but to deal with a political majority which has strong links with the Iranian state. SCIRI, in particular, the largest of the Shia parties which dominates the Shia alliance today, was based in Tehran for a large part of the Saddam Hussein period, while the cadres and many militiamen of its Badr brigade acquired their military training in the Iranian army, during and after the Iran-Iraq war.
Whether they liked it or not, the US administration made the choice of putting up with the pro-Iranian Shia majority emerging in the new institutions, regardless of the influence that Iran could have on them, just as London did in the British-occupied zone. Both London and Washington went much further than simply tolerating these pro-Iranian religious parties - outside Kurdistan, they actually allowed them to take control of many units in the new Iraqi police and army, which the occupation forces were setting up and providing with weapons and training.
After all, what really mattered for the Western powers was to fill the political vacuum left by the collapse of Saddam Hussein and the mass dismissal of his functionaries, as quickly as possible, so as to keep the population under control and create the conditions required by western companies to plunder the resources of the country. They did not care too much about the allegiances of the strong men they were propping up in power, so long as they were willing to do the job and capable of doing it.
What Bush and Blair had not planned for, however, was the explosion of sectarian tensions caused by the rivalries between the various militias - between Sunni and Shia factions, but also between the Shia factions they had brought to power. But since all these factions depend, one way or another, both financially and militarily, on the support they find in neighbouring countries and since Iran and Syria both have some influence over them, it is only logical for the West to seek some form of cooperation from these regimes.
In the case of Syria, this would not be for the first time. When the Syrian army invaded Lebanon in the 1970s, during the civil war, to avoid a defeat of the far-right Christian militias by the alliance of the Lebanese left and Palestinian forces, it did so with the approval of the imperialist powers. Besides, beyond the stabilisation of Iraq, Syria's logistical connections with Hamas in Palestine and Hizbollah in Lebanon, could also be useful at some point for imperialism.
The case of Iran may be less obvious in view of the provocative anti-semitic attitude of its regime. But it is certainly not the fact that Iran is a theocratic fundamentalist regime, nor that it peddles an anti-semitic demagogy that bothers the imperialist leaders. After all, what is there to choose, in this respect, between Iran and an erstwhile ally of the US, such as Saudi Arabia? In any case, after making all these noises about Iran's nuclear capability, to the extent of mobilising the UN, the European Union, and Blair of course, it is certainly significant that Bush himself has finally recognised the right for Iran to have its own civilian nuclear programme - a right that the US still denies to North Korea, for instance.
The form which this cooperation could take, if it happens, remains an open question - if only because it depends on the bargaining chips that the various protagonists can use at the negotiating table. And it is unlikely that the March 10th conference will provide more than a hint in this respect. Indeed, if this cooperation does eventually take shape, it will be the result of protracted negotiations in which Iraq will be one issue, but by far not the only one, as it will have to take into account the roles and ambitions of all the major players in the region, including regarding the situation in Palestine.
In the meantime, the western powers are likely to carry on using double talk. For the past year or so, the Iranian regime's "arming of Iraqi militias" has been one of the main excuses used both by Blair and Bush to explain away the murderous chaos caused by the invasion. This is not likely to change. Nor probably will the denunciation of Iran's "nuclear weapons" stop. After all, this aggressive rhetoric and the diplomatic show business that comes with it, are also bargaining chips for the imperialist powers to get Iran, but also Syria, to play the role they want them to play.
Likewise, as was shown by the US decision to send 21,000 additional troops to participate in a large-scale clampdown on Baghdad's militias, the military pressure of the western powers in Iraq will not be eased. If the imperialist powers are to negotiate with the militias at some point, they will want to do it from a position of strength, not from a position of weakness. And this may well prove to be even more lethal for the Iraqi people, who will be caught even more than ever, in the crossfire between the occupation forces and the militias.
This is another reason to be suspicious of the latest announced British troop reduction. In fact, Blair has been cautious to keep his options open by stating that any deterioration of the security situation in Iraq was likely to postpone the planned withdrawal. This is not idle talk. It could even pave the way for the sending of reinforcements under the pretext of "rescuing" the population from an upsurge of "extremism".
This also means that, no matter how much the western leaders would like to get out of the Iraqi quagmire, the occupation of Iraq is not likely to end in the foreseeable future, nor is the shedding of Iraqi blood likely to stop - that is, not as long the ruling classes of Britain and the US do not feel the danger of a serious backlash at home.
The working class of this country has every reason to refuse to be an accomplice to the crimes of this government. More than ever its solidarity should go to the victims of this imperialist war and demand: troops out now!