Between Iraq and a hard place

Manny Neira calls for an end to the US-UK occupation

On the afternoon of Sunday July 27, under the scorching Iraqi sun, a group of young westerners in civilian clothes but with trademark military crops sit sweating in a car parked in downtown Baghdad. They are noticed, but puzzled locals do not disturb them. They loiter for two hours, and pull away. Soon, a loud explosion is heard: it seems to come from a couple of blocks away.

These ‘incognito’ foreigners are, of course, soldiers: part of the rather video-gamishly named ‘Task Force 20’, the US military unit formed to find and capture Saddam Hussein. Their small group joins others outside the home of prince Rabiah Muhamed al-Habib, whom they suspect of harbouring the ex-dictator or one of his remaining sons. Presumably to prevent their quarry’s escape, they have established roadblocks on some, but not all, of the roads around his property.

Now armed and terrifying in body armour and gas masks, some of their number raid the house, while others enforce the road blocks. A civilian car is approaching, and for some reason fails to slow. The soldiers fire on the windshield, killing both driver and passenger. They drag their bodies away. A second car noses out of a side street. At the wheel is a disabled local man, driving his wife and son away from their home. He turns into the main road towards the road block, and is fired upon. He is killed, and his injured family are hauled off by the soldiers.

By now, the ‘elite’ Task Force 20 is trigger-happy. Bullets hit the doorway of a local shop, the generator providing power to a restaurant over the road, and the fuel tank of a parked Mercedes, causing it and a nearby vehicle to burst into flames. A third car, this time not approaching the road block but merely slowing on another road to peer into the commotion, is also fired upon, and this driver too is killed.

In all, the local Iraqis who provided this account witnessed at least four civilians killed and two injured during the operation. Saddam, needless to say, was not home. Prince Rabiah was bemused, admitting the fugitive dictator had been acquainted with him, but claiming no knowledge of his whereabouts: “If they want to find anybody in this house they just have to knock on the door.” Aside from confirming that Task Force 20 was responsible for the operation, the coalition press minders refused to comment.

Iraqis are facing more than merely the humiliation and danger imposed by an occupying force clearly contemptuous of their lives. Power supplies are intermittent. Sewage has flowed through the streets of their cities. Public transport has not been restored: a few private cars and ubiquitous military vehicles form most of the traffic. The economy and infrastructure of Iraq have been damaged so severely that daily life has become, for many, a bitter struggle.

During and after the war, the mass defections from the army and liberators’ welcome from the people, predicted and even counted on by the US and UK governments, never materialised. The occupation began with, at best, a sullen acceptance of conquest.

Desperate to engage Iraqi popular opinion, the occupying forces not only turned a blind eye to, but positively encouraged, the looting of Ba’ath Party offices, contributing to a pattern of crime which they belatedly found they could not break. They promised reconstruction, and even brought with them Iraqis from abroad who they formed into an Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council.

One member of this body, academic Isam al-Khafaji, resigned on July 9. In his resignation letter he wrote: “People cannot understand why a superpower that can amass all that military might can’t get the electricity back on.” The body it set up was a sham, he continued: “… although the reconstruction council has an office within the presidential palace, there seems to be little done there apart from members reading their email.”

No doubt Iraqi peoples are angry at the chaos. But what really infuriates a substantial and growing part of the population - in all likelihood the majority - is the fact that their country is under the heel of an occupying force.

Since president Bush declared the war over on May Day, Iraqi resistance fighters have killed over 50 American soldiers. The heaviest casualties have fallen in the last week or so: three were killed in a grenade attack in Baquba, another in a raid on a convoy in the outskirts of Baghdad, and another by a bomb floated under a bridge they were repairing. On one day - Monday July 28, the day after Task Force 20’s raid in Baghdad - five US soldiers were killed in three separate incidents.

Only now is the US administration and military belatedly coming to terms with the fact that the war is neither over nor likely to be so soon. A US central command official has now estimated that there may be between 4,000 and 5,000 resistance fighters, though how this figure was arrived at is unclear. He said: “Iraq is more than a guerrilla war. It is a low-intensity conflict where you have to fight terrorists, you have to fight guerrillas, you have to fight criminals and you have to achieve stability. It’s a multi-faceted effort, and most of the country is stable.”

This claimed ‘stability’ notwithstanding, young US soldiers are scared. Each new US death is a shock and, as the enemy they face wears no uniform, they begin to regard every Iraqi as a potential threat to their lives. This psychology has led to a gradual, brutal, hardening in the treatment they mete out to the people they are policing. An inclination not to take risks and the absence of any constraining authority are forcing an ever harsher occupation.

Naturally, this is quickly using up the limited tolerance many Iraqis initially allowed them. As the occupiers fail to repair the damage they have done, and more and more Iraqis hear of, or witness themselves, the casual killing of civilians, the people of Iraq become more bitter in their suspicion and their opposition.

L Paul Bremer, ‘top US administrator’ and effectively US military governor in Iraq, claims that the resistance is simply a remnant Ba’athist force: “A small minority of bitter-enders - members of the former regime’s instruments of repression - oppose … freedom. They are joined by foreign terrorists, extreme islamists influenced by Iran and bands of criminals.”

This might be considered mere propaganda. After all, if Iraqis welcomed the US invasion to free them of Saddam, as the US and UK governments claimed they would during the build-up to the war, they would be unlikely to be fighting a guerrilla war now. For political reasons, this is best presented as merely stubborn Ba’athist opposition.

In a curious Orwellian doublethink, though, the Americans particularly seemed to have convinced themselves of the truth of their own propaganda. Their strategy has been to crush the remaining Ba’athist leadership in the belief that this will destroy the will and effectiveness of any forces still loyal to it. The grisly obsession they showed to prove to Iraqis that they had killed Saddam’s sons, by showing pictures of their mutilated corpses on television and in the press, is evidence of this.

Ironically, implementing their strategy may have the opposite effect. Most Iraqis would indeed have feared a return of Saddam’s regime, and would be reluctant to consider themselves acting in its interests. As the Ba’athist threat is removed, the scope for independent Iraqi resistance may be increased.

The US now hopes to divert Iraqi opposition by engaging its leadership in a new ‘governing council’. Though they appointed this body, and can veto its decisions, the Americans have succeeded in attracting at least some members with real social constituencies. Clever diplomacy, the bribery of power-broking and above all the playing off of one group against another have won them a significant political and propaganda victory. Some who might have seen this council as a mere collaborators’ club have been persuaded to join. It is indicative that supporters of the Organisation of Islamic Action, not represented on the council, protested not against the imposition of this US-sponsored body, but actually against their exclusion from it.

The occupiers may have paid a high price for their council, however, as the inherent contradictions in its status begin to tell. In order to have it taken seriously, they could not simply stuff it with members of the Iraqi National Congress, a group so clearly favoured by the Americans as to be viewed with great suspicion. Some of the council’s members are credible precisely because they have the capacity to act independently and with wide support.

Significantly, amongst the members of the council is Hamid Majid Moussa, secretary of the Iraqi Communist Party. While politically hampered by a tradition of Stalinism, the ICP has a real base in the Iraqi working class. Its decision to support the council is surprising, and the party’s own formal statement on the subject, expanded on in an interview with the Greek left weekly Epohi and reproduced in the Morning Star, seems somewhat awkward.

The ICP claims a victory in securing a ‘governing council’ rather than the originally planned advisory ‘political council’, but seems conscious that its decision will be controversial - perhaps not least amongst its own membership. With good reason. Already the party has condemned “acts of sabotage targeting public services and installations”, which it claims are “carried out by remnants of the ousted regime” (Morning Star July 22).

Frankly this is an example of ‘communist’ collaboration with imperialism and can only heighten the risk that resistance to the occupation will find its expression in islamism, not secular, independent, working class politics.