More ballots, more bullets

We are approaching the third anniversary of the big anti-war demonstrations before the invasion. Mike Macnair takes stock of the anti-war movement and the current situation in Iraq

On January 31 the government disclosed the name of the hundredth British soldier to be killed in Iraq. It is a significant landmark, albeit not comparable to the level of US casualties. Meanwhile, on January 20 the results of the December election to the Iraq national assembly (set up under the constitution 'agreed' in October) were finally announced. In January it was also reported, a lot more quietly, that the average of daily attacks by the insurgents had risen from 54 in December 2004 to 77 in December 2005; and a bomb attack on pipelines cut off Iraqi oil exports through Turkey for the next month.

We are approaching the third anniversary of the big anti-war demonstrations before the invasion. It is perhaps a moment to take stock.


The results of the elections in terms of percentages and seats gained are available on Wikipedia. The outline, which has been generally reported in the media, is that the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) coalition of shia islamist parties gained just less than an absolute majority, with the Kurdish nationalist list coming second, the sunni islamist coalition, the Iraqi Accord Front (IAF), was third.

The secularist Iraqi National List (INL), which includes not only groups which formed a coalition with Iyad Allawi in January 2005, but those which worked with the Iraqi Communist Party at that time, was a long way behind in fourth. The main gainer was the IAF, which included groups that had not stood in the January 2005 constituent assembly elections; and the main losers the INL (which had stood as two separate groups in that election), and the smaller parties.

The two shifts are fairly clearly connected. Voters in the 'sunni areas' were told by the same imams, as well as the guerrilla insurgents, to boycott the January 2005 election. This time they were told by their imams to vote IAF, and the insurgents did not make serious attempts to enforce a boycott. With a large increase in the sunni islamist vote, the real underlying marginality of the secular parties willing to collaborate with the occupiers became clear.

On this occasion, the Sadrists - a shia tendency of a more nationalist character, identified with Moqtada al-Sadr but including some forces not directly led by him - stood under the banner of the UIA. An attempt has been made to break down the UIA result according to party. Wikipedia analyses the breakdown as giving the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the most pro-Iranian party, 36 seats. Al-Sadr's immediate supporters will have 28. The Islamic Virtue Party, a Sadrist party independent of Moqtada and strong in Basra, will have 15. The two distinct wings of Dawa, the traditional shia islamist grouping, have respectively 13 and 12; and there are 24 miscellaneous independents. The Norwegian historian Reidar Visser argues that the main conclusions to be drawn from the elections are the relative importance of the Sadrist current, the limits on the power of SCIRI, and, underlying it all, the fundamental political influence of local imams in the current Iraqi political situation (see http://historiae.org/).

Political and military

Negotiations to form a government are only just beginning. They are likely to be difficult and will be complicated by two facts. The first is that neither the Iraqi 'government' nor the occupiers are capable of providing elementary day-to-day security: the 'government' because it has no reliable troops'; the occupiers because they simply do not have enough troops on the ground or enough willingness to take casualties in street fighting.

The second is that the political weightings revealed by the elections do not correspond with the military relation of forces on the ground. The Kurdish nationalists dispose, in the peshmergas, of the only organised body of armed men capable of fighting the insurgents, and control a compact territory. SCIRI has in the Badr Brigade a militia, now largely integrated in the 'Iraqi police' which is clearly capable of terrorism against local political opponents but shows no sign of being able to fight the insurgents. The Sadrist militia has repeatedly shown itself to be ineffective.

The IAF can be considered as representing 'sunnis' in some sense, but it quite clearly does not represent or control the insurgents. These constitute a body of armed forces capable of coherent action, including targeting the occupiers. Their politics are less clear. Juan Cole summarises an Arabic report from Al-Zaman newspaper which gives us some information. A group of guerrillas who were willing to negotiate, through intermediaries, with the US "said that [they] would cease their attacks if the US would sign a binding treaty guaranteeing the unity, sovereignty and independence of Iraq, in addition to a withdrawal timetable. They also demanded that the old Iraqi army be completely reconstituted and rearmed just as it had been. They also wanted compensation for damages. They said it would not be involved in politics. They wanted elections supervised directly by the United Nations. They demanded that all laws be abrogated that reflected foreign influence or contributed to a possible break-up of the country. They demanded that all militias of the religious parties be dissolved, especially those in the shi'ite south" (www.juancole.com, January 31).

This indicates a substantively Ba'athist project, which the IAF does not represent. But it is clear that there are also islamist wings to the guerrillas.

The occupiers' tactics

The Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003 with the wholly unrealistic idea that through a period of US direct rule it could reconstruct Iraqi politics and society along the lines of the post-war reconstruction of western Germany and Japan. The idea was unrealistic in the first place because it radically misunderstood what happened in Germany and Japan after 1945. This in turn had two aspects.

First, the purges of Nazi and Japanese imperial officials were radically less extensive than the US purges of Ba'athists and the post-war reconstruction in fact involved substantial compromises with the existing state apparatus.

Second, Germany and Japan could be restabilised because the Marshall Plan and the Bretton Woods agreements enabled a real economic reconstruction, which allowed substantial improvements in ordinary Germans' and Japanese' conditions of existence. The US administration of Iraq made no concessions whatever in the matter of neoliberalism and the corrupt assertion of the particular interests of those capitals which contribute to the Republican Party, and has hence been wholly unable to improve the material conditions of life affecting ordinary Iraqis.

The second general aspect of the unrealism of the administration's ideas was that Rumsfeld and his co-thinkers' 'war-lite' conception involved using sufficient troops to smash the Ba'athist regime, but not enough to hold ground. This was only remotely plausible because plainly the US state radically overestimated the support on the ground of its friends in the Iraqi opposition.

Since the evident failure of the proconsular administration, the US administration has shifted to a more conventional counter-insurgency tactic. This consists of the combination of, on the one hand, military attrition, and on the other, efforts to undermine the insurgents' political base. The aspect of military attrition consists in endeavours to seek and destroy the guerrillas, with an assertion that the guerrilla action 'will not force US withdrawal'. If continued over a long time (10 years has been one suggestion, from Condoleezza Rice - AP October 20 2005), it is expected that the guerrillas will run short of both trained men and military materiel - as long as they are prohibited from having 'sanctuaries' in neighbouring countries or external resupply.

The efforts to undermine the insurgents' political base have taken the successive forms of the 'Iraqi governing council', the 'interim government' (July 2004), the constituent assembly elections in January 2005, the creation of a 'government' on this basis, the 'agreement' to the constitution in October, and now the national assembly elections. The idea is to draw as many Iraqi political forces as possible into horse-trading about the future after the occupiers leave. By doing so, it is hoped that (a) some groups which have militias will be led to shift into 'politics'; (b) a coalition will be created which has some sort of legitimacy; (c) this will enable the creation of armed forces in support of the coalition which can be relied on to fight the insurgents; and (d) it will undermine the broad, passive mass support which allows the insurgents to operate.

Tactics of this sort have been tried repeatedly in 'counter-insurgency operations' since 1945. It has to be noted that on very few occasions can they be said to have been successful. These are, moreover, largely cases in which the guerrillas did not have broad mass support, even passively. For example, in the most celebrated case, the Malayan emergency, the British were able to mobilise Malay majority nationalism/racism against the ethnic Chinese cadre of the Malayan Communist Party.

In Iraq there is an additional problem: there is no coherent majority. The guerrillas represent a majority of Iraqi opinion in that they are struggling to get rid of the occupiers. But there is also a majority whose political representatives are prepared, at least for limited purposes, to play ball with the occupiers' political games. So far there is no sign that the guerrillas have a political programme which could win majority support and impose a government on the collaborators. There is also no sign that the collaborators are capable of putting together a coherent political coalition which is capable of imposing a government on the guerrillas.

The destruction of Ba'athism has left behind political incoherence. The UIA is the largest minority, but is itself split at least between SCIRI/Dawa and the Sadrists, who have a radically different policy. In this situation it is hard to see how the US can either negotiate effectively with anyone who represents the guerrillas or find a coalition which can support its efforts to defeat them.

A new Vietnam?

Iraq is like Vietnam in that eventually the occupiers will have to get out, and what they will leave behind them - whatever it is - will not be what they went in to get and to secure. It is also like Vietnam in that the outcome will probably be seen as a US defeat: unless, as is possible, Iraq ends up being overshadowed by US military action against Iran.

Iraq is unlike Vietnam, however, in the incoherence of Iraqi politics. There is no equivalent of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the National Liberation Front, still less of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, whose regular army eventually overthrew the puppet regime. Nor is there a USSR, as there was standing behind the DRV/VCP.

The reason for this incoherence is not the 'fault' of Iraqis. It results in part from the fall of the USSR and its implications worldwide; in part from the related ascendancy of neoliberal economics on the world stage, which spreads poverty and insecurity especially in the 'third world'; in part from the rise of political islam, which the US originally supported as a weapon against the left; and in major part from the sanctions war carried on by the US and Britain between 1991 and 2003, which ground down the Iraqi economy and society until the mosque was the only force left capable of expressing social solidarity.

Nonetheless, the result is that if the US pulls out of Iraq it will not look like the US defeat in Vietnam: the triumph of the national movement. It will look like the more recent US withdrawals from Lebanon and Somalia. The lesson to be learnt will be that the US can inflict barbarism on foreign countries, but cannot impose any sort of constructive order.

If the US goes for an attack on Iran this will be all the more true. With US failure in Iraq, this could only be an air attack, and there would be a strong temptation for such an attack to take the form of the terrorist use of nuclear weapons (see my article in Weekly Worker September 22 2005).

The ground of this destructive character is only immediately the neo-con ideology: Lebanon, Somalia and so on took place under earlier administrations with different ideologies. Underlying it is the need of the US economy to create instability abroad in order to suck in foreign capital, and the contradiction between US capital's needs for world hegemony and for low taxes. These deep roots rest in turn on the relative decline of mainland US productive capital. In other words, the destructive character of US overseas interventions will continue until these are stopped.

They can be stopped in one of two ways. The first is that the other capitalist states finally break free of US hegemony and begin to construct a military coalition against the US. This is only another route to barbarism, since its logic would be to end in a new full-scale global conflict along the lines of 1914-45. The second is that the workers' movement stops them by political action. It is this route only which leads to a way out of the downward spiral.

It is this fact which means that it is still the fundamental task of the workers' movement in Britain to fight for the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. The hopeless character of the apparent choice between the US and islamism in the Middle East makes no difference to this task: at the end of the day, the struggle against US aggression is global in scope and will inherently tend to undermine islamism. The present weakness of the anti-war movement is similarly no ground either for despair or for aiming for 'achievable' results - which turn out merely to be another form of support for the occupiers.

'Out now!' is still the only right answer.