The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

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

Three Years of Imperialist Occupation—The Appalling Balance Sheet of a Criminal Policy

Mar 27, 2006

March 20, the fourth year of the imperialist occupation of Iraq, began with an explosion of violence. The population was caught between air strikes by the occupation forces and violence orchestrated by the armed militias and a wave of terrorist bombings.

But it takes more than that to shake the Bush administration’s smug self-satisfaction. If one believed Bush, Western forces continue "to make progress in building democracy in Iraq." On March 20, the day of Bush’s statement, 39 Iraqis were killed, according to the official tally. In one Baghdad neighborhood a 13-year-old girl was murdered along with 17 adults during a series of night time executions! And this was considered a relatively "quiet" day compared to the usual bloody violence that erupts in Iraq. The population’s blood doesn’t count for much in the policy of the imperialist leaders!

Nevertheless, the leaders of the U.S.-British coalition cannot get away with bragging about how their soldiers were greeted as "liberators’ by the Iraqi population, as they once did. Their claims about the "weapons of mass destruction," which served as a pretext for the invasion, have been exposed as myth. And although "the war on terrorism" is, as always, on their agenda, the coalition leaders don’t talk about it much when they talk about Iraq. They do not want to focus attention on the fact that instead of reducing the terrorist threat, the invasion gave it a huge boost. And it is the Iraqi population paying the price. Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush’s right-hand man, first in Afghanistan and today in Iraq, admitted it. In an interview in the Los Angeles Times in early March, Khalilzad said that the invasion of Iraq "had opened a Pandora’s box" and that there is now the possibility of a "regional civil war." Almost as soon as Khalilzad opened this breach in the official propaganda line, the White House rushed to close it. On March 21, Bush conceded, "We all recognize that there is sectarian violence." But then he added, "They looked into the abyss as to whether or not they want a civil war or not, and chose not to." As if civil wars were the result of conscious decisions made by the population! Bush came up with this torturous formula just to deny the reality of the civil war. Nonetheless, a little later in his press conference, Bush said that he was not going to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq. Instead, he said, that would be decided by "future presidents and future governments of Iraq." So even if Bush refuses to acknowledge a civil war in Iraq, he still plans to extend the occupation into at least 2009.

It was a clear admission that Bush’s famous march toward "democracy" in Iraq is nothing but a grotesque fable, used to cover up the bloody defeat of his policy. Certainly, the American public has not been fooled. According to the latest opinion polls, less than 40% agree with keeping troops in Iraq.

The Militias Take Center Stage

On February 22, the Shiite Askariyah shrine was bombed in Samara; whatever remained of the thin illusion of the Bush-sponsored "democratic process’ fell to pieces.

Whatever the aims of those responsible for the bombing, it was definitely a signal for all the rival armed militias to raise their political profile and demonstrate their strength, stirring up divisions and hatred among the population.

In response to the Samara bombing, spontaneous demonstrations broke out all over the country. All the accounts suggest that protesters wanted to show their anger against the occupation forces, which they blamed for the Samara bombing. But from the very beginning, the armed militias had a massive physical presence in the demonstrations in order to better control them. They put themselves at the head of the movement in order to use it for their own political purposes.

The militias also organized the attack on competing forces in Iraqi society. In the hours following the bombing, a Reuters journalist in Baghdad reported that 27 Sunni mosques had been attacked in the capital, including two that were burned down. The same journalist added: "armed Mahdi army militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtadah al-Sadr took up positions on the streets of Baghdad and Shiite cities in the South, clashing in Basra and elsewhere with Sunnis. A Sadr aide said, "If the Iraqi government does not do its job to defend the Iraqi people, we are ready to do so.""

In the period following February 22, Shiite as well as Sunni mosques were attacked or occupied. In mixed residential neighborhoods, where Shiites and Sunnis have been living together for decades, snipers targeted members of one or another community. Houses in these mixed neighborhoods were marked with death threats, forcing tens of thousand of inhabitants to flee. Busy marketplaces and bus stops were attacked by rockets or car bombs. There were countless systematic cold-blooded executions at roadblocks set up by militia under the pretext of "defense of their community." In other places, commandos raided workshops and factories owned by people belonging to the "enemy sect" and killed all the bosses and workers they could find. Every morning, dozens of corpses from all the communities were found on the pavement. They had been executed during the night in so-called "targeted" attacks, attacks aimed at terrorizing the population and above all creating a ditch of blood between the communities. It is impossible to know how many more died since February 22 in this orgy of violence, let alone how many more will die in the coming period. The only rough estimates were made during the first week of March, when a woman working for a humanitarian organization in Iraq added up the number of bodies held in the morgues in the big cities since the bombing in Samara. She reported 1,500 victims in nine days. Of course, not included in this number are all the corpses that never reached the morgues in the big cities, to say nothing of all those killed in small towns, where morgues don’t exist. Nonetheless, to put this casualty toll into some kind of perspective, it means that there were more Iraqis killed in those nine days than U.S. and coalition forces during the first 21 months of the occupation!

Disabled Institutions—or Accomplice?

Confronted with this wave of attacks, the so-called "democratic" institutions put in place by the occupation forces proved totally impotent. They declared round-the-clock curfews, banned marches, banned cars from the roads in the main cities and threatened prison for anyone carrying a weapon in public. It made no difference. The Iraqi authorities were so powerless that, in Mosul, the country’s second largest town, the governor issued a proclamation admitting that he could no longer guarantee the safety of the population. He authorized adults to carry weapons for self-defense—thereby officially annulling the orders from Baghdad’s interim government.

Moreover, it was often the institutions of the new "democratic" state that were behind much of the violence. Many units of the Iraqi police, army and special forces, which were originally recruited from the ranks of the armed militia, apparently took part in the killings. Numerous reports state that among the commandos responsible for the deadliest raids were men wearing uniforms of the Iraqi police and squads from the Ministry of the Interior—especially the infamous special forces known as the "Wolf Brigades."

This is not surprising. The head of the Ministry of the Interior is a former chief of the Badr Brigades, the militia of one of the main Shiite parties. And he filled the special police units with members of the Badr Brigade. These men, placed in positions of power by the occupation forces, made use of their own militias, whether they wore the uniform of the new "democratic" state or not.

The occupation forces proved just as powerless to stop the wave of attacks as was their puppet regime. But this was for different reasons. The U.S. and British high commanders kept their troops in the barracks, removed from any contact with the population.

Some observers and military officials justified this policy by claiming that any attempt by British and U.S. troops to try to protect residential neighborhoods by surrounding them with armored vehicles would have enraged people more, probably causing more casualties amongst the troops, without stopping the violence against the civilians. These observers were probably correct. After all, the presence of heavily armed occupation forces who behave as if the country belonged to them is a major factor behind the existence of the militia and their ability to gain support from the population.

The outcome of U.S. and British policy, during three years of occupation, has caused tens of thousands of casualties among the population, and brought social and economic destitution. The imperialist policy has turned Iraq into an open battlefield for rival armed factions in their bid to establish their own dictatorship.

The Responsibility of Imperialism

Western commentators were quick to explain away this bloody mayhem as a continuation of the religious conflict between Shiite majority and Sunni minority that the Saddam Hussein regime had used. This interpretation hypocritically glosses over the responsibility of imperialism.

It is true that to further their side in a power struggle, the rival Islamic factions are stirring up religious divisions in order to force the population to line up behind them. It is also unquestionably correct that the militias have deliberately created the pogrom atmosphere now prevailing in certain urban zones.

But the present bloodbath in Iraq cannot just be reduced to a religious conflict between two Muslim sects.

After the demise of the pro-British monarchy in 1958, one of the features of Iraqi society was its rapid urbanization. The growth of the urban population accelerated the blurring of the old clan and sectarian divisions. Iraq came to be known as one of the most secular societies in the Middle East. Women had more rights than anywhere else, including countries considered to be more or less Westernized (and considered by Western powers as "democratic") such as Jordan. During the last part of his reign, Saddam Hussein did resort to a degree of Islamic demagogy in order to win back support from a section of the clerics. But until the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq remained a somewhat secular society.

However, the Western invasion of Iraq and subsequent collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime left a political vacuum, which the Westernized stooges of Washington and London—Ahmed Chalabi and other CIA-backed exiles—proved unable to fill. Those forces that did come forward were either remnants of Saddam Hussein’s state machinery or Islamic currents that had been gaining some strength in the shadow of the former regime, sometimes allowed by Saddam Hussein. Using terror to impose their rules on the masses, these factions used religion as a justification for their demand for dictatorial powers. They used religion to recruit people and mobilize support, presenting themselves as the political answer to all the anger caused by the Western occupation.

It was not only the invasion that boosted the profile and influence of the fundamentalist militias. So did the policy of the Western leaders in the occupation. How many recruits for the fundamentalist militias were produced by the bloodbath of the Fallujah siege in November 2004? Or the brutality toward and torture of thousands of prisoners that the British and American forces keep in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere? And what about the daily harassment and repression of the Iraqi people by soldiers who consider any Iraqi a potential terrorist by definition?

There is also the social catastrophe for the Iraqi population caused by the invasion. The U.S. Congress has allocated 316 billion dollars for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, a colossal amount of money, practically equal to the entire annual government budget of the biggest European countries. These billions have gone to pay for the military occupation: rebuilding roads and airports used by the occupation forces, supplies for the troops, the cost of the myriad mercenary forces which supplement the troops, the cost of the new Iraqi institutions, and rebuilding a few oil platforms in the south, etc. The money that was supposed to go to the reconstruction of Iraq has produced a ridiculously low number of reconstruction projects. The big American construction companies that descended on this fortune like vultures simply used it to feed their enormous profits.

For the population, nothing was done. Today, production of electricity is at its lowest level since the invasion. Those power plants destroyed in the invasion or occupation have not been rebuilt. The ones that continue to function are not being maintained. The system of electricity distribution is in ruins. As a result, in Baghdad, the population gets only three or four hours of electricity per day, on average.

These conditions help to push the most desperate into the arms of the fundamentalists. The fundamentalists have made their opposition to the occupation their main selling point, even though their policy, especially their use of terrorism, does nothing to weaken the occupation. On the contrary, it is the population that pays with its own blood.

But the imperialist leaders’ responsibility for the rise of fundamentalist militias goes much further than all this. By coopting the militias into the repressive apparatuses of the new Iraqi state, under the pretext of tearing them away from the control of their chiefs and imposing another discipline on them, Bush and Blair have provided them legal cover and a powerful lever, which they then use to impose their rule on the masses. How they make use of this lever can be seen very clearly in the wave of violence over the past few weeks.

Militias Struggling for Political Power

What has been taking place in Iraq recently is not a religious conflict but the latest bloody episode in a struggle for political power among the various fundamentalist factions. And, once again, Western leaders are the ones who set the stage and provided the stakes for the rivals in this new episode.

These stakes are the composition of the future Iraqi government, and the stage was the parliamentary election of December 15, 2005.

During the elections, support eroded for the parties directly associated with the earlier provisional governments. The majority, made up of the coalition of the Shiite fundamentalists in alliance with the two Kurdish nationalist parties, which had dominated the regime, lost votes. The forces that increased their representation inside the new assembly are the ones most tied to the armed militias, both Shiite or Sunni. Thus, the Shiite coalition could lose on important votes that require a two-thirds majority.

The election of the new assembly was supposed to lead to the formation of a new government. More than three months after the election, the various rival factions have still not settled on its composition. Even worse, after two months of horse-trading, the Shiite coalition reversed itself after first agreeing on a candidate for the post of prime minister. Now three candidates are running for that post, all in the name of the coalition. As far as institutions are concerned, the rivalries between factions go well beyond the division between Shiites and Sunnis. Inside the government alliance, there are rivalries between the Shiites and Kurds, as well as rivalries between the different components of the Shiite coalition.

In spite of promises made to the Kurdish leaders, a growing majority inside the ruling Shiite coalition does not favor autonomy for Kurdistan. And that begins to create tensions with the Kurdish parties. All the more so since the Kurdistan Islamic Alliance, the main Kurdish opposition to the provincial regime, has gained ground by playing on the discontent of the population toward the corruption of the current regime.

In February the prime minister of the provisional government, Ibrahim al-Jaaffari, who is a member of one of the three main components of the Shiite coalition, almost provoked a major crisis. In discussions with the Turkish regime during a visit to Turkey, he raised the possibility of a Turkish "military peacekeeping force" in Iraq. For the Kurdish leaders in Iraq the proposal amounts to a provocation, given Turkey’s long record of persecution against its own Kurdish minority. So the Kurdish leaders threatened to leave the alliance with the Shiite coalition if al-Jaaffari was not publicly disowned.

Over the last three years, the three principal components of the Shiite coalition, each of which has its own large and well-armed militia, have fought over who should be the exclusive spokesman for the Shiite population. One of them, the SCIRI (whose militia is the Badr Brigade), made a political turn in 2005. SCIRI came out in favor of partitioning Iraq into three autonomous provinces—even three independent countries. The southern half would be for the Shiite majority (which is where SCIRI is most implanted). The Sunni minority would get the much smaller northwest, and the northeast would go to the Kurds. The other two components of the Shiite coalition—the Dawa Party of al-Jaaffari and the groups linked to Muqtadah al-Sadr—are opposed to any partition of the country and even any form of federalism.

The three rival Shiite factions each tried to benefit from the reaction of the population to the bombing of the mosque in Samara. Each of the militias posed as the champions of the Shiite cause. In reprisal for the attack on the Shiite shrine, they attacked Sunni mosques, even trying to annex some of the Sunni mosques, supposedly as compensation. They occupied Shiite mosques, under the guise of protecting them. In order to get more people to turn to them for protection, they deliberately encouraged more violence and threats by provoking Sunnis into carrying out more reprisals against Shiites.

At the same time, some of these Shiite factions preached national reconciliation—based on Islam. Imam Muqtadah al-Sadr called on the population to hold common prayers on Friday in the spirit of reconciliation, and proposed meetings with the leaders of the Sunni militias in order to "restore agreement." Of course, this is just political rhetoric and has little to do with the reality. Just look at how the young militiamen of the Mahdi Army torture and murder Sunni "suspects’ who are unlucky enough to have gotten through the blockades that crisscross Sadr City, the Shiite slum of Baghdad.

Bush Confronted by the Catastrophic Failure of his Policy

In the first period after the invasion, there was an explosion of gangsterism when the state power collapsed. Gangsterism continues to play a role in the Iraqi chaos, but the line between terrorism, political racketeering and banditry pure and simple becomes ever more blurred. From the first months of the occupation, the Shiite militias surfaced and offered their services to the occupation forces to police the population. It took a while longer for the Sunni militias to appear on the scene. But these militias did not really develop rapidly until after Washington ordered the Iraqi army disbanded, thus depriving hundreds of thousands of families of any income. The arrogant stupidity of the Bush administration furnished the Sunni fundamentalists (as well as the Shiites, since the army was mixed) a great number of skilled combatants and military experts.

In fact, war has torn apart Iraq for more than two years, a rampant civil war in which much of the horror is muffled by the silence of the servile Western press. But that doesn’t make it any less terrible for the population. The recent weeks give a hint of its explosiveness and destructiveness. But this very limited hint could take a turn that is infinitely worse.

The highest spheres of the state apparatus and the American bourgeoisie understand this. For a long time high functionaries, retired generals, prominent politicians including from Bush’s own party, have criticized his Iraq policy. They do not oppose the actual invasion of Iraq. They are not pacifists. They are partisans of an aggressive imperialism, just as Bush is. But what they blame Bush for is his failure to prevent the worsening development that a number of his own advisors had predicted. These predictions are contained in a 4,000 page report that Bush ordered the State Department to prepare two years before the invasion. The report contains many references to measures that should be taken to avoid a political vacuum and civil war. It stressed that in order to assure the neutrality of the population, reconstruction was necessary to really improve its living conditions, conditions that had been considerably worsened by the preceding decade of the economic blockade.

Of course, even if Bush had carried out these recommendations, the evolution of the situation in Iraq might not have been different. But Bush and his acolytes did not bother with them. They ignored the military, which had warned that considerable forces would be necessary to assure a transition in case of a vacuum of state power. They ignored the advice of those who called for a rapid reconstruction in order to satisfy the immediate needs of the population. Bush wanted to carry out a prestigious war—but at a minimal political cost in terms of victims in the American army. And he wanted his associates in the business world to gain the maximum profit—but at the fastest possible speed. But the American bourgeoisie wants permanent U.S. control over the resources of Iraq, and a guarantee of American imperialism’s hold over the strategic region of the Middle East.

All the Bush administration accomplished, even from the point of view of imperialism, was to create a monstrous waste. No doubt Halliburton, Bechtel and the arms merchants pocketed a fortune. But most American companies, including the "major" oil companies, are finding it impossible to do any business in Iraq. At the same time, the war has created bigger problems for them to do business in the entire region. At least a part of the American bourgeoisie has begun to become impatient with this failure, and it is letting everyone know it. Moreover, if the war continues and gets worse—which appears more and more likely—opposition to this war among the American population could take a more radical turn. This is a risk that the American bourgeoisie would also prefer not to take.

Dangerous Political Tricks

This may explain why Bush in recent months dredged up the specter of Iran. In fact it is an old trick used by one U.S. administration after another since the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979.

There is no way to know at this point if Washington’s campaign against the Iranian government’s nuclear program is a prelude to a new military adventure. Even if Bush’s current campaign is unanimously supported by the rest of the imperialist powers, and even China. In any case, it seems obvious that this campaign is tied to the situation in Iraq.

Since the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration had soft-pedaled its propaganda against Iran. And the Iranian regime had condemned Saddam Hussein, remaining neutral toward the American-British occupation. But Iraq has turned into a quagmire for the United States. So Bush, Rumsfeld and others have turned to blaming Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. Lately the Bush administration has claimed that the Iranian government has provided explosive devices used by terrorists against American military vehicles—even though General Peter Pace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, formally denied it. In a recent Bush speech on his strategy on Iraq, one American journalist counted at least 26 references to these devices of supposed Iranian origin.

Bush’s insistence that Iran constitutes a threat obviously is a way to hide the defeat of his policy in Iraq, to divert American public opinion from Iraq to a new threat. Could the U.S. decide to carry out limited acts of war, like air strikes? Perhaps, even if a new war against Iran does not seem realistic.

Finally, Zalmay Khalilzad organized a summit with the Iranian government to discuss "security problems in Iraq." And this throws the Iranian issue up in the air. In any case, the propaganda about Iran does not constitute a policy that would allow Bush to extract the American army from the Iraqi quagmire.

The only thing the U.S. has done in recent months which might be aimed at getting out of Iraq was the American-led campaign in Tal Afar, which Bush recently claimed was a model for American forces. He took a great deal of time to develop this idea in a speech that he gave in Cleveland on March 20, where he declared: "The strategy that worked so well in Tal Afar did not emerge overnight—it came only after much trial and error. It took time to understand and adjust to the brutality of the enemy in Iraq. Yet the strategy is working... I wish I could tell you that the progress we made in Tal Afar is the same in every part of Iraq."

What happened in Tal Afar, a city of 250,000 people situated near Syria? For months, the occupation forces encircled the town so that it was hermetically sealed. All communication with the outside world was cut off, while day in and day out American planes carried out air strikes against supposedly suspected resistance groups. After that, the population of Tal Afar, with a majority of Turkmen and Sunnis, was subject to raids by units of the Iraqi Army made up of Shiites and Kurds. How effective was the strategy that Bush said "worked so well"? On March 27 a suicide bomber killed 40 people—right after Bush pronounced that the city had "gotten rid of all the terrorists!"

If the American army carried out this policy not just in Tal Afar but in dozens or hundreds of Tal Afars throughout the country, it would be a war to the death. Either Bush’s supposed strategy in Tal Afar is just political rhetoric, or he will have to considerably increase the number of American troops on the ground. Will Bush go this far? And can he? We do not know, especially since he already confronts such displeasure from the highest levels of his army. If he does go ahead with what he says, he risks aggravating tensions between different parts of the Iraqi population, which the Iraqi militias can then try to take advantage of. In any case, simply talking about creating more Tal Afars helps the armed militias recruit and leads to more setbacks in the field. Either way, far from pushing back the specter of civil war, the policy of American imperialism can only, one more time, feed it.