The Spark

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

Iraq:
The U.S. Changes Course to a Bloodier War

Jan 21, 2007

Pressure has been building on the Bush administration throughout the past year to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. The situation in Iraq has descended into full-blown civil war with horrendous casualties mounting daily. Public opinion in the U.S. has shifted strongly against the war. This was confirmed by the November election results that swept the opposition Democrats into control of both houses of Congress. For a few months in the fall, the wait for the report of the Iraq Study Group, headed by the Republican James Baker and the Democrat Lee Hamilton, deflected some of the political heat away from the Bush administration. When the report was released on December 6, it was trumpeted as recommending a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops – even though this is not what the report said. This set the stage for Bush to announce a “change in course” in Iraq. At first, he promised the announcement would be made before the Christmas holidays. But it was postponed, even while the administration prepared to send more troops to Iraq.

Finally, on January 10, flying in the face of public opinion, Bush announced that he was increasing the number of troops in Iraq by 21,500, what at one point he called a “surge,” marking another military build-up and stepped-up war, with all its increased danger and casualties.

In the days that followed, the Democrats were quick to pounce. In Congressional hearings, the Democrats excoriated Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, Rumsfeld’s replacement at the Department of Defense, drawing comparisons with the Viet Nam War disaster. Senator Joe Biden repeatedly said that the Iraq War was the worst foreign policy mistake in U.S. history.

Only two prominent Republican lawmakers, Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, defended Bush’s troop build-up, although even they distanced themselves from it by saying that they would have much preferred a bigger build-up, much earlier, but that it was better than nothing. On the other hand, a growing contingent of Republicans joined the Democrats in denouncing the Bush administration. Such conservative Republicans as Senators Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon Smith of Oregon came out against the war. In early December, Smith declared from the Senate floor, “I, for one, am at the end of my rope.” In describing Bush’s Iraq policy, Smith used such words as “criminal,” a “dereliction,” and “deeply immoral.” Of course, many of the Republican converts against the war face re-election in 2008. Others are considering a run for president, such as Sam Brownback of Kansas, a Senator from the most right-wing fundamentalist wing of the party, who used a recent fact-finding trip to Iraq to announce that he now opposed the war. But there has also been a wider denunciation of Bush’s “new course” expressed by many other Republicans.

Also voicing unease and disapproval of the troop build-up in Iraq was the Pentagon. In Congressional testimony last November, both of the top generals in Iraq at the time, Abizaid and Casey, strongly opposed any troop increase. When pushed, Abizaid even specified there was not one general in Iraq who supported such a proposal. No less than Bush’s former secretary of state and former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Colin Powell, seconded this. On December 17, Powell broke a year’s silence about the war, declaring in his usual very cautious language, “I have not seen a case that persuades me that [Iraqi security] would be better” with more forces. Powell explained why, from the military’s point of view, a troop increase was so risky: “I’m suggesting that what [army chief of staff] General Schoomaker said the other day before a committee looking at the reserve and national guard, that the active army is broken. General Schoomaker is absolutely right. All of my contacts within the army suggest that the army has a serious problem in the active force.

In his January 8 Washington Post Op-Ed article, former NATO commander and long-time critic of the Iraq war, Wesley Clark, was more blunt about the proposal to send more troops: “[it] wastes lives and time, bolsters the terrorists and avoids facing up to the interrelated challenges posed by a region in crisis.

In other words, Clark and Powell are charging that the Bush administration’s policy runs the risk of “breaking the army.” Powell’s critique echoed the old complaint from the Pentagon that the Bush administration had cut too many troops from the army and marines, something done mainly to free up money to subsidize the profits of the big military contractors. Eventually, the Bush administration agreed to partially accede to the generals’ demands and boost U.S. troop levels by 90,000 over 5 years. Clark also said that the Bush policy was making the entire Middle East region more dangerous for U.S. interests.

Such comments came from every part of the state apparatus, especially the uniformed military, the State Department and CIA, that is, the people responsible for carrying out policy.

The Blame Game

Bush would appear to be almost completely isolated. The Democrats, armed with an election mandate, are on the offensive. Bush’s own political base among the Republicans is fracturing, if for no other reason than their worry that Iraq could very well cost them future elections. Even the generals, to whom Commander-in-Chief Bush is supposed to be giving marching orders, are openly criticizing him.

Yet none of them have actually tried to stop or hinder Bush from carrying out this policy. No generals have run to Congress to demand an end to the new troop build-up in Iraq. No Republicans have called for Bush’s head.

The Democratic Congressional leadership has not demanded an immediate end to the troop build-up, not to speak of the war. On the contrary, in mid-December, the incoming Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, said that he would go along with a troop build-up, if Bush proposed it. The public outcry forced Reid to formally reverse himself a few days later. But Reid and the rest of the Democratic Congressional leadership made it clear that they would not stand in the way of Bush’s new plans. When a few Democrats proposed legislation that would require the Bush administration to first get Congressional approval for any escalation, the Democratic Party leadership refused to support it. Instead, they proposed a condemnation of the troop increase – a condemnation they themselves emphasized was only “symbolic.”

Democratic leaders simply threw up their hands, claiming that Congress does not have the power to stop Bush. Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, explained on “Meet the Press” on January 7, “...there’s not much I can do about it. Not much anybody can do about it. He’s commander in chief. If he surges another 20, 30, or whatever number he’s going to, into Baghdad, it’ll be a tragic mistake, in my view, but, as a practical matter, there’s no way to say, ‘Mr. President, stop.’” Of course, this is complete and utter nonsense. The 2004 election did not make Bush king for four more years. He still needs Congressional approval to continue the war. According to the Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war – which also means that it has the power to forbid wars. Congress also has the power of the purse. It could cut off funding for whatever war it decides, whenever it so chooses.

In addition, the Democrats could fight to impeach Bush and Cheney, thereby making the next-in-line, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, president. Maybe, by themselves, the Democrats don’t have the votes to do this. But shouldn’t they be able to get the support of at least some Republicans who now have come out so strongly against the war, backed up by a lot of generals and former generals who openly denounce what Bush is doing? That is, assuming they all meant what they said. Yet, after the November elections, the Democrats dismissed impeachment as being too divisive – as if the Iraq War were not a matter of life and death, in addition to being “divisive!” If the Democrats impeached Bush for lying to the world about weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in order to justify going to war in Iraq, it would be a lot more credible than when the Republicans impeached Clinton for lying about an extramarital affair.

If all those who criticize Bush’s policy decided to, they could stop the war, and they could even get rid of Bush and Cheney. If they don’t, it is quite simply because they go along with Bush’s policy. On the other hand, they want to distance themselves from the war, letting Bush take the blame for it, if and when the war turns into an even bigger disaster.

The Making of a Quagmire

After nearly four years of U.S. war and occupation, Iraq is an even bloodier quagmire. U.S. forces confront an insurgency that has become more effective and deadly. A multi-sided civil war for control has hastened the disintegration of Iraqi society.

U.S. imperialism had gone into Iraq because it wanted to use the country as a base for U.S. troops to impose order in the rest of the difficult and explosive Persian Gulf, and it wanted to put its hands directly on the spigot of the second or third largest oil reserves in the world. That is, they intended to turn Iraq into a semi-colony.

The architects of the war, those around Rumsfeld and Cheney, operated under the assumption that Iraq had become, as they said, “a low-hanging fruit,” just waiting to be plucked. From their point of view, the situation was very advantageous because Iraq had already been battered in the 20-plus years preceding the U.S. invasion. There had been the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, the U.S. bombing of Baghdad and the destruction of a big part of the infrastructure, and the economic strangulation brought about by the embargo. All this appeared to have bled Iraq and its people dry. Despite warnings from most of the U.S. military and foreign policy establishment, the Bush administration assumed that the Iraqis would not resist the U.S. occupation and its puppet government, and that the Iraqi population would acquiesce before the U.S. conquerors who put an end to the much-hated regime of Saddam Hussein.

But things didn’t turn out as planned. The U.S. invasion and occupation virtually decapitated and dispersed the Iraqi state apparatus, leaving large layers of it free to regroup to become the base of the insurgency, while leaving a power vacuum that competing militias and armed gangs tried to fill. The U.S. tried to quell the resistance through brute force and terror. But that only provoked more resistance. The U.S. tried divide and rule, playing the different militias off against each other, and this provoked civil war, a slide into ethnic cleansing and social implosion.

The longer this has gone on, the more it has increased the risk that the conflict would spread outside Iraq into one of the most explosive and dangerous regions in the world – also one of the most vital for U.S. imperialism. The U.S. war in Iraq could ignite a regional war that would undo more than a half century of U.S. policy in the Middle East, a policy that had aimed to maintain stability by imposing vicious dictatorships over the peoples of the region, and then by balancing power among those dictatorships, allowing the U.S. and the other imperial powers to drain the region of its wealth.

For U.S. imperialism, the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq was meant to be a demonstration of the United States’ overwhelming force, “shock and awe.” But it seems to have turned into its opposite. The big challenge for U.S. imperialism now is how to recover, how to keep the U.S. from appearing weak and impotent. As Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recently put it: “The United States has had a strong presence in the Gulf for a long time. We are simply reaffirming that [it will continue].”

In Search of a Policy

Last summer, the U.S. government formally admitted that it was seeking a way out of Iraq when Congress set up the Iraq Study Group or, as it was called, the Baker Commission, to give it options.

Of course, there was always the super-military option, to use overwhelming force of between half-a-million to a million troops to crush any and all resistance. But as the generals had to have reminded the Bush administration, that was the force they had wanted to use to invade Iraq to begin with, a proposal that the Bush administration turned down cold. Also, if such a huge mobilization of troops was always risky, how much more risky would be a massive re-invasion of Iraq today, given the high level of opposition to the war, not just inside the U.S. population, but among the troops themselves. Besides, the U.S. military is already stretched so thin, it doesn’t have the numbers for such a massive undertaking.

The Baker Commission ruled this out. It also ruled out leaving Iraq right away, as everyone knew it would. Instead, the commission recommended using more U.S. troops to train Iraqi forces – and even suggested sending more U.S. soldiers to Iraq. Of course, this was far from a new idea. From the beginning of the occupation, the Bush administration had been claiming that it was training Iraqis.

The one recommendation by the commission that was supposed to be new was to seek a diplomatic solution for Iraq by opening up negotiations with Iraq’s neighbors, Iran and Syria. But in fact, this was not new either. The Bush administration and the Iranian government had worked together in Afghanistan. And for years, there had been informal dealings about Iraq. At the end of May 2006, the U.S. had even broached a formal proposal to the Iranian government for negotiations.

Both the Iranian and Syrian regimes had common interests with U.S. imperialism. Neither wanted to have a worsening civil war spill over Iraq’s borders, provoking a wider regional war. While they wanted some kind of order in Iraq, neither wanted a massive U.S. presence on their doorstep. So, Iran and Syria were more than willing to use their influence and ties with various militias, religious figures and political parties in Iraq to help the U.S. withdraw some of its forces.

As for the U.S., it had every reason to try to look to those regimes to play such roles, especially since its closest allies and client states, such as Saudi Arabia and the tiny emirates in the Persian Gulf, were not in the same position. Those regimes were such artificial creations of imperialist rule, they were less stable, with a smaller base of support.

But as the U.S. position in Iraq became more difficult in recent months, with the outbreak of open civil war and the increasingly more deadly insurgency, the U.S. froze the negotiations with Iran and Syria, at least publicly. In early November the nomination of Robert M. Gates as Rumsfeld’s successor was interpreted as a signal that the U.S. might jump-start the negotiations. In 2004, Gates had co-chaired a study for the Council of Foreign Relations that recommended U.S. ties with Iran. And Gates had been a member of the Baker Commission just before his nomination to Bush’s cabinet.

But after Gates assumed office, the U.S. did not restart open negotiations with Iran and Syria. On the contrary, the U.S. took a more aggressive stance, charging Iran and Syria with supporting the insurgents, arming and training the militias, and providing more deadly weapons responsible for attacks on U.S. troops. In late December and early January, the U.S. upped the ante, on two occasions arresting Iranian diplomats in Iraq on official business, despite the protests of Iraqi government officials. Then, threatening an attack on Iran, the U.S. announced it was moving a second naval task force into the Persian Gulf.

When Gates, the former advocate of ties with Iran, was asked what had changed, he declared that Iran “was doing nothing to be helpful” for the U.S. in Iraq, that the Iranian regime’s behavior had worsened.

No, it was not the Iranian regime, nor that of Syria, which had changed. It was the situation in Iraq that had worsened, almost backing the U.S. into a corner. U.S. imperialism clearly did not want to take up the negotiations with Iran and Syria until the U.S. could improve its position in Iraq first. Otherwise the U.S. would be trying to bargain with Iran and Syria from a position of weakness. This would have meant to admit an even bigger defeat.

This is what is behind Bush’s troop “surge,” that is, the U.S. troop build-up. One more time, the U.S. was going to try to take the initiative to impose order in Iraq. On the one hand, the Bush administration has to try to promote some kind of political bargain and power sharing agreement between the disparate forces, parties, sheiks and warlords – something that it has so far failed to do. It will also continue to try to integrate elements of some of the militias, like the Shiite Badr Brigades and the Kurdish Pesh Merga, into the state apparatus, and use them in conjunction with the increased number of U.S. troops to weaken elements of other militias. At the same time, it will continue to play all the different forces against each other.

In fact, its newest troop build-up in Iraq, and its threats against Iran and Syria, are meant as a show of force, above all, a means to demonstrate its utter domination so that when, eventually, it opens formal diplomatic negotiations, it has an easier road to impose its terms.

The Stepped-Up War

U.S. intentions to step up the war should not be underestimated. Nor should the size of the force and what that force will produce.

First of all, the military is assembling a much bigger force than Bush admits to. The 21,500 additional troops will bring the U.S. military force inside Iraq to about 160,000 troops. But that is not counting the 40,000 U.S. troops in neighboring Persian Gulf countries, a portion of which could always be sent to Iraq. Nor does it include the two aircraft carrier groups that will be in the Gulf region, with their air wings made up of FA-18's, Hornets and Super Hornets, as well as guided missile cruisers and frigates, and an undisclosed number of marines. The enormous naval build-up is supposed to be used to threaten and possibly bomb Iran. But it could very well also be used to step up the ongoing U.S. bombing of Iraq, bombing that the U.S. media has not reported on, except in passing.

To increase its efficiency, the military build-up is to be concentrated in a few areas of the country. Most of the 21,500 additional troops are slated to go to Baghdad, doubling the number of troops there to about 40,000 soldiers and marines. A smaller number are slated to go toward reinforcing U.S. troops in Anbar Province northwest of Baghdad, where such cities as Falluja and Ramadi have been battlegrounds since the U.S. invaded four years ago. And they will be used in conjunction with Iraqi units, usually made up of opposing ethnic groups. For example, the U.S. has already sent for Kurdish Pesh Merga to go into predominantly Shiite areas of Baghdad.

Make no mistake: the fact that the U.S. continues to use the different ethnic groups against each other will deepen the hatred of the peoples against each other and continue to sow the seeds for future conflicts.

According to the White House, the U.S. will divide Baghdad into nine districts, seize each district, expel the “insurgents” and then move the U.S. troops from super-bases outside Baghdad into each of those districts. The U.S. says that this strategy is to “seize, hold and rebuild.”

What the U.S. intends to do to “seize” these districts is no mystery. They were already trying to do it only days before Bush spoke. Over 1,000 U.S. ground troops supported by tanks and the air force attacked a heavily populated Sunni neighborhood along Haifa Street that had already been under attack by Shiite death squads. Haifa Street is one of Baghdad’s main thoroughfares, and is only about half a mile from the heavily fortified “green zone,” which houses the U.S. embassy, U.S. troops and top Iraqi officials. The attack was backed up with air strikes by U.S.operated Apache helicopters and F16 combat aircraft, which fired missiles and strafed the buildings with their cannon.

In the past, U.S. forces have also laid siege to major population centers. For example, in early December, U.S. troops surrounded Haditha in Anbar Province, cut the population off from basic services and deprived them of vital food, water and electricity. At the same time, the U.S. imposed a 24-hour curfew in which people were forbidden from leaving their homes except for very short periods. This siege lasted for several weeks.

During the summer and fall of 2006, U.S. forces, in conjunction with Iraqi forces, carried out Operation Together Forward I and II. They were sent in to “secure” Sadr City, the sprawling Shiite slum in the east of the capital which is home to 2.5 million people. U.S. troops set up barriers of cement blocks and sandbags, closed several bridges across the Tigris River, making it impossible to move between east and west Baghdad. U.S. troops then went house-to-house, taking thousands of people prisoner, backed up by coordinated attacks with F-18s and Apache helicopters.

As in the past operations, the main victims of the new U.S. offensives to “seize” major parts of Baghdad and Anbar Province will be the Iraqi people.

The Feast of Death

No one can say if this strategy will let the U.S. increase control over Iraq. It certainly hasn’t succeeded so far. And even if the U.S. negotiates a settlement with Iran and Syria, nothing lets us say that they will be able to aid the U.S. in stabilizing the country. But no matter what the results for U.S. imperialism, one thing is absolutely certain: those who pay for the stepped up war will be those already plunged into suffering.

For the Iraqi people, the cost of the war has been truly staggering. The estimate by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health published this fall in the Lancet medical journal was that 655,000 Iraqis have died as the result of the U.S. invasion and occupation of the country, while the number of Iraqis wounded is many times higher. And the wounded are being treated by a health care system that has sunk to the level of those in some of the poorest third world countries. On top of that, between the war and the ethnic cleansing, more than 10% of the Iraqi population has already been uprooted, creating the biggest refugee crisis in the Middle East, even bigger than the Palestinian diaspora of the late 1940s. The number of refugees, both inside Iraq and in neighboring countries, is increasing by 100,000 per month. Most are forced to live on practically nothing. This is another price the Iraqis are paying for the domination of imperialism.

The U.S. soldiers are also paying a substantial price.

With the New Year, the government announced the death of the 3,000th U.S. soldier in Iraq. But for every fatality in Iraq, there are also 16 serious injuries, an unprecedented casualty level compared to other U.S. wars. This war has produced more than 50,000 wounded, by the U.S. government’s own admission. A still bigger number are disabled. Over 100,000 Iraq War vets have already qualified for disability payments and another 50,000 have applied, but have still not been processed by the slow-moving VA bureaucracy. Certainly, these numbers will increase, as various illnesses stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or exposure to harmful chemicals and substances manifest themselves over time.

This war, as well as the war in Afghanistan and perhaps a new U.S. war in Somalia, has certainly sent shock waves throughout the ranks of U.S. military forces. A growing sense of betrayal is palpable.

A large number of U.S. troops come from impoverished rural areas. They went into the regular army in order to gain a skill and an education. They have been sent back to the war zones over and over again. “Many men and women were in Iraq for the second or third time,” wrote the New York Times on January 1. “Some were going on their fourth, fifth or sixth deployments.” And those deployments have often been extended.

To supplement the regular army in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has depended heavily on the national guard and reserves, which often make up 50% of the combat forces in those countries. Up until this latest troop build-up, they had been limited to a total of 24 months in a combat zone over a six-year stint. But now, in order to cobble together forces for these extended wars, the Pentagon has done away with that limit. National guard members and reservists are generally at least 10 years older than regular army, more settled with families and regular jobs. Many are finding that even if they make it out of combat, much of their established life has been destroyed.

Many of these soldiers are voting with their feet. Out of the 1.4 million service members involved in the war effort since 2003, half a million, or more than one-third, have already left the military. One can imagine that they got out as soon as they could. How many more of the other 900,000 caught in the military will do the same, despite the seductive signing bonuses that the military is now offering? The military brass already has admitted that the change in regulations allowing them to send national guard and reserves back into combat will lead to a still larger number of those refusing to re-up.

There is no doubt that the military is already having trouble filling shoes. It has changed its regulations to allow sending soldiers already diagnosed with PTSD back into combat. It is also taking people with little education, which would have disqualified them before. And despite the military’s sunny claims that it has had no trouble recruiting fresh troops, it cannot deny that it is now taking in criminals, admitted members of racist gangs and those who are known to be emotionally unstable.

As U.S. imperialism prosecutes its wars of domination in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, it is creating difficulties for itself inside its own military apparatus. It is having a harder and harder time pulling together its cannon fodder.

The experiences of the 1.4 million Iraq war veterans touch millions and millions more family, friends and colleagues. And from them have already emerged protest groups of soldiers, vets, family members and friends. Just as the Viet Nam war produced resistance inside the U.S.’s own military, and repelled many from the military altogether – part of what U.S. policy makers called the “Viet Nam Syndrome” – so this current war is doing the same thing.

The government may label the new military build-up a “surge,” but there is no reason to believe that it will end any time soon. The top generals may predict that they will start bringing some of the troops home in the summer, but they made similar promises before, promises that proved false.

For the population in this country, there can be only one response: oppose the war and demand to bring all the troops home immediately! Bush’s latest proposals make it more than ever necessary to oppose this bloody war.