The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Iraq War:
The U.S. Wading in Its Own Bloody Quagmire

Oct 18, 2004

It could have been expected that people who were supporting Kerry would strongly criticize Bush's "handling of the war," as Kerry likes to put it. And they certainly did. For example, the committee, "Diplomats and Military Commanders for Change," was formed with the express purpose of campaigning for Kerry around the issue of the war. The following indictment, taken from its basic statement, is typical: "...the Administration, motivated more by ideology than by reasoned analysis, struck out on its own. It led the United States into an ill-planned and costly war from which exit is uncertain."

But more striking is the open criticism coming from the Republican side. In the middle of September, four well-known Republican Senators, including John McCain and Lindsay Graham, openly took their distance from the Bush administration over the war in Iraq. Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee criticized the "incompetence" of the Bush administration, while Senator Charles Hagel of Nebraska said, "we're in trouble, we're in deep trouble in Iraq." These senators had been critical before, but their comments in September gained attention because they were uttered barely six weeks before the November election on Sunday news programs that were sure to be widely watched.

At the same time, the Bush administration was coming under attack from within the permanent state apparatus – the CIA and the military especially – or from people tied closely to it. In mid-September, for example, Anthony Cordesman, interviewed in the journal for the Council on Foreign Relations, denounced the Bush administration for making a "massive miscalculation immediately after the war...that the United States either would not face a serious insurgency, or [the insurgency] would be one it could quickly defeat." When asked whether it's possible for the U.S. to put down the insurgency today, he replied: "It is doable and not impossible. But we need to understand that the odds of success were 50-50 at best if we had adopted the right course of action after the fall of Saddam. Now the odds are probably one in four. We've wasted a year; we've wasted billions and billions of dollars. We've made serious military, political and economic mistakes."

Surprising as it might seem to hear such criticisms in the very last weeks of the election campaign, the fact is the news coming from Iraq day after day was driving home the point that the U.S. was, indeed, in "deep trouble" in Iraq. Suicide bombings, roadside bombs, mortar attacks, kidnapings, beheadings of hostages, helicopters shot down, even a spectacular bombing inside the Green Zone, the heavily fortified and defended area in which U.S. authorities and the new Iraqi government confine themselves – the news went from bad to worse.

Given the Bush administration's habit of ignoring the news, someone had to explain what was going wrong in Iraq. That task fell to the critics of the war – Democrats, main-stream Republicans or the CIA and the military – who were almost unanimous in their verdict: the American war in Iraq is foundering because of "mistakes" made by the Bush administration.

Maybe the Bush administration made "mistakes," maybe it was "arrogant," maybe it was filled with "ideologues" as many of its critics say. But all this talk about "mistakes" begs the issue here: the U.S. war on Iraq is a classic war of occupation, carried out by an imperialist power with the goal of controlling a country, in this case both for its oil and for its strategic possibilities as a new military outpost in the region. The Bush administration may have made some "mistakes" – but the decision to go to war was no "mistake," it was part and parcel of U.S. imperialism's policy aimed at controlling the whole oil-producing region of the Middle East. That policy has been led or supported, in turn, by both Democrats and Republicans. Talk about "mistakes" is nothing but a way to obscure the reality of what imperialism is, and the way it acts around the world. The "deep trouble" the official critics of the war bemoan stems directly from the fact that the U.S. is an occupying army in a country whose population does not want to be occupied.

Another War with No "Light at the End of the Tunnel"

In September, a letter was posted on the internet that had been sent originally by Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal reporter, to friends. If it circulated so widely, it was because of the picture that Fassihi gave of the situation, much grimmer than anything the U.S. media was reporting, including her own paper. After explaining that reporters can hardly go out any more, in fear of their lives, she says that the insurgency has spread "from isolated pockets in the Sunni triangle to include most of Iraq." The Iraqi government "doesn't control most Iraqi cities.... The situation, basically, means a raging barbaric guerrilla war. In four days, 110 people died and over 300 got injured in Baghdad alone. The numbers are so shocking that the ministry of health – which was attempting an exercise of public transparency by releasing the numbers – has now stopped disclosing them. Insurgents now attack Americans 87 times a day. A friend drove through the Shiite slum of Sadr City yesterday. He said young men were openly placing improvised explosive devices into the ground.... Behind the walls sits an angry Iraqi, ready to detonate them as soon as an American convoy gets near. This is in Shiite land, the population that was supposed to love America for liberating Iraq.... For those of us on the ground, it's hard to imagine what if anything could salvage it [Iraq] from its violent downward spiral. The genie of terrorism, chaos and mayhem has been unleashed onto this country as a result of American mistakes and it can't be put back into the bottle."

The U.S. today confronts a real and growing insurgency in Iraq – one which its very presence in Iraq provoked. Even the U.S. military's own figures about the insurgency make that point – whatever they were designed to hide. Month after month, U.S. military estimates reported there were more insurgents captured or killed than the number of insurgents said to exist – only to have the same number or more insurgents show up the next month in military figures. Then, in July, the estimate suddenly jumped up from 5,000 to 20,000. It's obvious the figures are useless for knowing in any accurate way what is happening on the ground. But at least they show that U.S. efforts to put down the insurgency are backfiring, doing little but creating more insurgents.

What is most striking about the current situation is that the number of attacks on U.S. troops has continued to escalate, even as the U.S. has been pulling its troops back as much as possible from open confrontations. For the most part, U.S. troops are either holed up in their bases, or sent out massively in large convoys, protected by heavy armor. In part this is simply an electoral calculation on the part of Bush, who has to sign off on any major offensives – he doesn't want a bloodbath coming just before the elections.

But it also reflects the difficulties confronting the U.S. military in responding to the growing insurrection.Cordesman, in the same Council on Foreign Relations interview, gives a picture of the Catch-22 situation the U.S. finds itself in today: "Putting more U.S. troops there would simply strengthen the image of the occupation.... The United States has already rolled back much of its operations. It has moved its forces out of the most difficult cities. It has changed its patrol patterns. Wherever possible it is bringing Iraqi police and security forces into the mission, either on a joint basis or to replace the United States. It certainly has not forced the issue in areas like Falluja or Najaf."

On the other hand, Cordesman notes: "The difficulty here is that the United States can reduce its level of activity. But if it eliminates it, then it basically gives up the country to the insurgents."

Trying to Deal with a Hostile Iraqi Population, the U.S. Creates More Hostility

The U.S. may have pulled back from using its own troops to enter a number of cities, as Cordesman says, but that does not mean it is not attacking those cities. The U.S., rather, is relying more on air power and quick raids into a city or town, when it does move against them.

The U.S. announced in early October that it had taken control of Samarra – for the third time since last April, as a matter of fact. This meant that the U.S. pulverized parts of the city with bombing, then invaded it with massive force, only to find that most of the insurgents that were supposed to have been there had fled, apparently tipped off in advance about U.S. intentions. The Samarra population suffered the brunt of the U.S. attack. According to an account in the Los Angeles Times: "Humanitarian officials described a hellish scene within the city after a two-day offensive by 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops. The morgue in Samarra's main hospital was overflowing, so some of the dead had to be laid out on the floor of an unrefrigerated hall.... Ambulances were unable to travel into the neighborhoods to pick up the injured, and in some places bodies lay in the street." A Red Crescent official accused the U.S. of refusing to let them deliver water, blankets or medicine to homes, where people had been forced to hole up by the 4000 U.S. and 1000 Iraqi troops forcing people off the streets.

The Pentagon began to speak of Samarra as the model it intended to follow in dealing with the insurgency. The military increased its air attacks on Falluja. After a number of days of brutal bombing, one Pentagon official was quoted by The New York Times as saying, "If there are civilians dying in connection with these attacks, and with the destruction, the locals at some point have to make a decision. Do they want to harbor the insurgents and suffer the consequences that come with that, or do they want to get rid of the insurgents and have the benefits of not having them there." According to the Times, a number of Pentagon and senior administration officials explained that the air campaign against Falluja was "in part intended to present a stark choice to the people of Falluja, especially those who may be supporting Iraqi insurgents or the foreign fighters' network."

The U.S. is "winning the hearts and the minds" of the Iraqi people, just as it did with the Vietnamese, using terror against them. Whether the bombing of Falluja is aimed at forcing the appearance of a negotiated deal just before the U.S. elections, or whether it's only a preliminary "softening up" of the city, preparing for a more massive assault, probably after the U.S. elections, the fact remains that civilians there are falling victim to U.S. terror tactics.

Nothing, up until now, however, gives any indication that the armed resistance in Iraq is soon about to recede. It's possible that massive U.S. firepower will batter down the will of the Iraqis to resist – no one can say for sure, no more than anyone could say before the "shock and awe" bombing campaign that preceded the U.S. invasion exactly what the Iraqi population would do. But up until now, whatever "shock and awe" the population has felt served only to make larger parts of the Iraqi people hostile to the U.S.

The polls that the U.S. itself has commissioned show a large and increasing part of the Iraqi population hostile toward the U.S. – ranging from 72% last February to over 80% today. In fact, these figures understate the situation, since they include the Kurds, who have come under little attack from the U.S. so far. In the Iraqi Arab regions, little more than one percent of the population is favorable toward the U.S. occupation forces.

In early October, in an attempt to kill U.S. troops in Baghdad, insurgents apparently instead killed 35 Iraqi children who had been attracted to the area by candy the soldiers were offering. According to U.S. reporters on the scene, the most often heard Iraqi reaction was anger at the U.S. for its very presence (an indictment heard regularly in incidents where civilians are killed in such situations). But the U.S. media also reported there were people who believed that the U.S. soldiers had purposely given out candy in order to use the children as human shields or even that the soldiers had organized the bombing itself. "I don't see how people can blame U.S. forces," complained U.S. Rear Admiral Greg Slavonic. But they did.

Whatever the Iraqi population might think about the insurgents and some of their methods, the fact is that the U.S. is their biggest enemy, and it's this which has given the insurgents a "safe haven" inside significant areas of the country, including most of its major cities.

One of the most ironic commentaries on how much the Iraqi people oppose the U.S. came in the letter of the Wall Street Journal reporter, who told of an Iraqi man who said, "If Saddam Hussein were allowed to run for elections, he would get the majority of the vote."

After the U.S. Elections, Then What?

While the U.S. elections may be putting a damper on U.S. ground assaults in Iraq today, there are already indications that a much larger campaign is now being put in place for the weeks after November 2. There is a steady drumbeat, coming from nearly all the critics, about the necessity of keeping to the January timetable for Iraqi elections. It's being said that these elections, the next step in the so-called "transition" from U.S. military rule to Iraqi civilian rule, must be held – but they can't be held so long as insurgents control parts of Iraq. In other words, the ground has to be cleared by military force to prepare Iraq for "democracy." In reality, the Iraqi January elections are only a pretext for launching a major offensive against the insurgency and more widely against the Iraqi population.

Writing in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs, Larry Diamond, who was the Senior Adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority through April of 2004, described what he thinks lays ahead. "The post-handover transition is going to be long, and initially very bloody. It is not clear that the country is going to be able to conduct reasonably credible elections by next January. And even if those elections are held in a minimally acceptable fashion, it is hard to imagine that the over-ambitious transition timetable for the remainder of 2005 will be kept.... But there is no alternative to this transitional program that does not involve one awful scenario or another: civil war, massive renewed repression, the establishment of a safe haven for terrorist organizations – or quite possibly all three."

Even if the elections were to be held, it's likely that the result will end up in one of Diamond's "awful scenarios" – if not all three. What the U.S. is doing today in fact is opening the door to them.

In order to impose its order, the U.S. has increasingly been playing on the ethnic and religious divisions in Iraq. For example, the troops that the U.S. has been using to go into Samarra, a Sunni city – were drawn from an Iraqi National Guard unit formed from a Kurdish militia and from a regular Iraqi Army battalion formed from a Shiite militia – just as a Kurdish unit was sent into the Shiite city of Najaf. And the deals that are continually made with the various tribal and religious leaders also reinforce the division of Iraq into ethnic or faith-based enclaves. It seems obvious, that the various leaders now contesting for power, with nothing to offer their followers, could revert to ethnic or faith-based "cleansing."

Today, there are people who float the idea that the solution in Iraq is to divide the country into three areas: one Kurd, one Shiite Arab, and one Sunni Arab, pretending that this would be nothing more than a reasonable solution to the divisions that exist among the Iraqis. In fact, it would mean a grave worsening of the bloody civil war already going on.

The U.S. has opposed any such division up until now for a number of reasons, not least of which is the impact this could have on the whole region, including possibly pulling Iran, Turkey and Syria into the fray. But if Iraq were to be divided, this will have been prepared for by what the U.S. is doing today.

In any case, what the U.S. is attempting today is to cut deals with the various representatives of the ethnic and faith-based militias, to give them a cut of the pie, in exchange for their agreement not to attack the U.S. and also to help impose order in the country.

The "negotiations" with the different "representatives" don't seem to have had any real impact on the situation inside Iraq. And in reality, these "negotiations" seem mainly to be part of a holding pattern – aimed at getting through the U.S. elections without a big disaster.

There is every indication that after the U.S. elections, however, a wider offensive is being prepared, one that can only lead to more of a bloodbath than we have already seen. Statements coming from both the Bush and Kerry camps promise only a longer, and more stepped up war. Kerry, in fact, up until now, has outbid Bush on the matter, speaking openly of the need for more troops in Iraq – and promising in the debate, "I'm going to lead those troops to victory."

What About the Troops?

By all accounts, more troops will be required if the U.S. is to carry out a wide-ranging offensive against the insurgents. Today, troop levels in Iraq stand at 140,000, but call-ups have already been issued that should push that number higher by another 5,000 if not more in the months following the election. (In reality, the total number of troops involved in the war now totals about 170,000, when the troops stationed in Kuwait and on aircraft carriers are added to those directly in Iraq.) The military has been saying all along that it needs more "boots on the ground" if it is to wipe out the insurgency (a refrain that was heard more than once during the Viet Nam war).

Even just to keep the number of troops in Iraq at the current level, while letting troops rotate out of Iraq after 12 months service there (or seven months for the marines), the Armed Forces command has been forced to call up ever larger numbers of Reserves and National Guard. After the next batch goes, it's estimated that one half of all troops on the ground in Iraq will be either Reservists or National Guard. In effect, the National Guard and Reserves, which didn't expect to be sent into combat, are effectively now being drafted.

The combination of these call-ups, double rotations for active duty soldiers and the worsening of the situation in Iraq have all combined to create what the Army itself admits is a "morale" problem. That's one way of putting it. On the last call-up of Reservists, only one-third reported for duty on time and ready to go. A few active duty soldiers have left for Canada, seeking asylum. Families back home get letters from the field, many of which find their way into the newspapers. Some returning Iraq war troops have begun to speak at rallies against the war when they come back, and even to form organizations against the war. Interestingly enough, the media has reported that the most popular movie showing on troop bases in Iraq is...Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."

What has happened to the troops has created a group inside the U.S. of people determined to continue opposing the war – the parents, wives, husbands, and other relatives and friends of the troops in Iraq, or of many of the ones who were killed there. The mother of one of those dead soldiers confronted Laura Bush during a Republican election rally, asking her, "If the war is so just, why don't your children serve?" An organization which started out two years ago with just a handful of families against the war, Military Families Speak Out, now says it counts over 1700 families. That may still be small, but it has consistently made itself heard during these last months.

In mid-October, reports surfaced about a mutiny by a group of 18 U.S. Reservists, plus their staff sergeant, who refused to transport fuel trucks into a dangerous area. Stories like this have made the rounds before, but this is the first one to break widely in the news. When it did, army spokespersons made every effort to downplay it, going so far as to describe what the Reservists did, as "declining an assignment." Nonetheless, the 19 who "declined" their assignment had been put under arrest and kept there until their families pushed the story onto the front pages of newspapers throughout the country. At that point, the 19 were released from custody, and their whole brigade was "stood down" for "vehicle overhaul and repairs."

Only one incident? Perhaps. But it seems consistent with other things that can be seen, showing that U.S. troops, whatever they might have thought they were doing when they were sent to Iraq, have come to realize that their role is not to help the Iraqi population, and that their own lives are being put at risk in a bloody war fought over oil.

An interesting sidelight to the story about the Reservists was a poll taken by the Detroit News, asking its readers what they would do if confronted by the same situation. Almost two-thirds of the people who either called in or replied by internet, indicated they agreed with those who refused the orders.

A veteran from Vietnam explained his readiness to refuse in the following way: "This is an example of the hushed up happenings that occurred in Vietnam....Anyone who thinks that everyone who has ever been in uniform is some kind of patriotic icon has never been in battle. Military life is not easy for the grunts who have to face the enemy up close. Self preservation sometimes drives men to defy idiotic orders. A lot of "crimes" were committed in Vietnam. Stressed out kids who lost close friends and were sure that they were next did some things that were never reported. How many officers were "fragged" will never be known, but the vets know it happened. I know it happened. I was there."

The War is No Mistake

Bush may continue, blithely, to pretend that things are going according to plan in Iraq. And his critics may continue to maintain that although it's going badly, that's essentially only a matter of "mistakes."

No, the U.S. today is caught in a deadly situation derived from its move to control the Middle East. That is no mistake – it's the central part of U.S. imperialism's policy today.

And whatever problems the U.S. is facing now come from the fact that the people of Iraq are not ready to accept U.S. control.

Neither should the workers of this country accept the war the U.S. is carrying out in Iraq – a war which is laying waste to the people of that country, to the U.S. troops being sent over there as cannon fodder, and to the population here at home, whose own living standards go down as money is siphoned off into that war.

The elections up until now certainly seem to have derailed opposition to the war – in the sense that so many of the people who opposed it have focused their opposition so entirely on Bush, their energies gone into defeating him, that the war seems to have gotten lost. It will be even worse if the outcome of the elections, no matter which one wins, serves only to provide another detour away from the question at hand.

If Bush wins, obviously he will declare his victory a mandate for continuing the war. But if Kerry wins, he also will declare his victory a mandate – for continuing the war, without Bush's mistakes. We should not be led astray by either claim.

The fact is the majority of the people in this country oppose the war. Forget who gets to occupy the White House in January. No matter which one is there, the population will have to mobilize against him and the war carried out by both parties. To get the U.S. out of Iraq requires a larger and more determined mobilization of the population, a tougher fight. But that's the only thing that can bring U.S. troops home.