Ticked off and many headed

Eddie Ford reviews The insurgency, BBC2 April 2 Sunday 9-10pm

With the United States administration now making threatening noises against Iran, this commendable documentary exposed the brutal reality - and consequences - of imperialist war and occupation. Additionally, The insurgency performed the valuable service of revealing the idiocy of those who shrilly demand that the left in general, must declare its "unconditional" commitment to the "victory" of "the resistance".

As we saw, alongside the usual 'divide and rule' tactics, US imperialism and its allies have attempted to subjugate the Iraqi people by the application of murderous force. This was most evident in the 'battle of Fallujah'. A "hot house" lying in the rebellious sunni triangle area, insurgency forces - as explained in an interview with an Iraqi nationalist fighter - initially consisted of no more than small, leaderless groups of 5-7 men. However, confronted everyday with the living humiliation of occupation, these rudderless groups started to integrate and develop some form of central organisation and leadership.

Then in March 2004, after three US civilian contractors in Fallujah were openly killed and then mutilated by a Sunni mob, US troops invaded the city in the biggest urban combat operation seen since the Tet offensive of 1968. Some 200,000 civilians fled in terror, with the US - who lost 38 soldiers - claiming to have killed "thousands" of fighters, though there appears to be very little (if any) concrete evidence to substantiate this claim. 

But vainglorious boasting aside, US imperialism was unable to defeat the insurgents and was forced to negotiate a ceasefire. The marines withdrew, erecting an utterly ineffectual cordon sanitaire around the city - and from then onwards, Fallujah became an essentially secure area for resistance factions. More significantly still, the documentary pointed out that the militant core of these forces consisted of young, fanatical - and mainly foreign - jihadist fighters from Yemen, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc. To use the words of an Arab journalist who witnessed the events of Fallujah, the islamicist fighters are "not like us" and are "happy to die".

Here is one of the central messages to be gleaned from The insurgency. Rather than bringing a 'normal' democracy to Iraq, the big lie sold to us by Bush and Blair, the traumatic chaos engendered by the imperialist invasion - and continued occupation - has precisely created the very conditions which enable the jihadists to prosper and gain more recruits. Indeed, thanks to the sterling efforts of imperialism, the jihadists are now in a position to actually implement aspects of their reactionary, anti-working class programme.

Thus, one Iraqi journalist described the "dangerous" plight he and others faced - being targeted by "both sides", governmental and insurgent. In particular, islamicists like al-Qae'da have a murderous hatred for journalists - especially western ones, of course.

Much of the first hand information found in The insurgency was supplied by Michael Ware - the Time magazine's bureau chief in Baghdad. Almost from day one of the invasion, he had contacts in the resistance factions. The first wave of insurgents were basically "ticked off" Iraqis, as Ware put it, who felt humiliated by the US-UK invasion. Normally, they took a few wild and invariably inaccurate pot-shots at coalition forces and then scarpered.

And, of course, Iraqis had a lot to be "ticked off" about - something the BBC documentary did not shy away from stating. With the sudden and violent removal of the Ba'athist state-party regime, the country had its "central nervous system ripped out". Anarchy immediately ensued - a situation  intensified by the US strategy of 'de-Ba'athisation', prompted by the delusion that Iraq was the equivalent of the defeated Nazi Germany. All at once, tens of thousands of civil servants and - even more crucially - upwards of half a million soldiers suddenly found themselves jobless. And angry.

Ware comments that the "fledgling resistance" he encountered - and spoke to at some length - consisted mainly, if not overwhelmingly, of former members of the army. He also described how he knew from the onset that the war was going to be a "long one" - the people he met looked determined, albeit unsure of the best or most effective way forward.

Interestingly, an US major admitted that he felt a degree of "sympathy" for the non-jihadists who joined the insurgents - not that he "wouldn't try to kill them any the less", of course. As he explained, given the chronically high levels of unemployment, and the plain fact that there was "no alternative" on offer, if tempted with $500 to blow up a tank - a job they had been trained for, after all - it was hardly surprising that so many signed-up to the resistance.

Quite naturally, "the resistance" is composed of "a little bit of everything" - as the same US major said. But as Michael Ware convincingly argued in The insurgency, the 'original' resistance was of a broadly nationalist-cum-Ba'athist stripe. We were shown a video clip of an insurgent who called himself a "member of the Iraqi national resistance army" - going on to say that taking up arms is a "natural reaction to occupation", given that the imperialist occupation was an "insult to me and my people".

When interviewing and talking to fighters in its early phase, Ware found very little jihadist sentiment or fervour.

However, by 2004 the Ba'athists were running out of funds - and political vision. The jihadists, on the other hand, were being backed by wealthy, foreign patrons - most notably Saudis, of course. And the young Saudi fighters who were joining the insurgency in increasing numbers were motivated by a fanatical Wahhabist ideology - or, as the Arab journalist phrased it, the Saudis "make good suicide bombers". Then, in turn - in the view of Ware - the nationalist-Ba'athist forces became "islamicised" - keen to emulate the apparent political and military success of the jihadists.

One especially interesting aspect of The Insurgency was its focus on al-Zarqawi - a "former small town crook" originally from Jordan. Under the impetus of the invasion he became a major figure - meeting Osama Bin Laden and pulling off a series of murderous 'spectaculars'. In pursuit of the global caliphate, Al-Zarqawi and his odious followers have a conscious policy to ferment sectarian/communalist civil war in Iraq, labelling the shias as "kaffirs" and such-like .

Al-Zarqawi is no marginal figure - or an imperialist "agent", as some on the left have stupidly, and dishonestly, suggested. He is now a key player, with his own distinct agenda. Or to put it another way, al-Zarqawi is an important element of "the resistance".

In the towns or areas controlled by his forces, he has unleashed a regime of terror against inhabitants. Kidnapping, extortion, torture and beheadings - as has occurred in Tala'far, for instance - are virtually a matter of routine. Furthermore, come September 2004 al-Zarqawi-loyal forces began a "take-over bid" in parts of Baghdad - lining the boulevard with their flags and emblems. Ware himself came within a whisker of being captured and killed by the Zarqawists - owing his life to the determination, and bravery, of a local Ba'athist commander.

No wonder that Ware concludes that the "main beneficiary" of the occupation has been the likes of al-Qae'da and al-Zarqawi.

Obviously, it is hard to accurately ascertain the actual numerical size of the insurgent factions - but the programme came out with the figure of some 15,000-20,000 'regulars'. We were also told that road side bombs - an almost completely unknown tactic at the beginning of the war and occupation - now accounts for two thirds of all deaths in Iraq. According to The insurgency, coalition occupation forces only exercise control - or exert influence - over 30% of the country. The islamicists - now gaining more of an indigenous as opposed to a foreign character - are on the ascendancy.

Communists draw two central conclusions from all this. Firstly, and most importantly of all, we are for the defeat of British and US imperialism - our main enemy. We demand the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all imperialist troops from Iraq. The war has brought nothing but barbarism and misery, and even the occupiers' own soundings demonstrate that over 80% of Iraqis are opposed to the occupation.

And we all know that whatever the huff and puff from the likes of Bush and Blair about 'staying the course', 'never betraying the brave Iraqi people', and all the rest of that crap, the US and UK governments are looking for a way out. Modern imperialism does not want permanent colonies. It prefers to rely on its economic might, backed by the threat of military force, to maintain the much vaunted 'new world order' - with the United States, of course, as top dog, and the Iraqi people as cowering subjects. Or at least that is the theory.

However, and here is the second conclusion, does our defeatism equate with automatic support for all those fighting the occupiers? Absolutely not - this would be a betrayal of the working class of Iraq. As highlighted by the BBC documentary, the fragmented and fractious nature of the opposition just serves to underline the operative absurdity - and vacuity - of the slogan, "Victory to the resistance". Self-evidently, we are not in a situation like Vietnam, where Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front clearly had total hegemony over the anti-imperialist struggle against the US.

What we are currently confronted with in Iraq is a combined armed struggle which is part directed against the US-UK occupiers and part directed against other Iraqi forces and national/religious elements. Especially given the fragmentation, that means that the occupation forces and this or that Iraqi faction engage in a crazy dance of conflict/compromise/cooperation. There are not two sides. There are many sides.

There is a certain parallel with the situation in British-mandate Palestine. The Zionist colonists rebelled against the colonial power after World War II and launched a violent struggle for independence. But that does not detract from the original colonial-settler and reactionary nature of Israel. They were struggling to oppress the Palestinians. Therefore, the first war against the British (United Nations mandate) colonial power was a combined war - against Britain and against the Palestinians.

In the case of forces like those of al-Sadr, al-Zarqawi, etc, they have made it clear in action and words their desire to defeat the other and subjugate whole populations to their particular version of islamist autarchy. Indeed, it is plain that there are those who simply want to crush - preferably physically exterminate - the Iraqi workers' movement and their trade unions and political organisations.

Flowing logically from this, the notion that there is some sort of neat, well-defined Chinese wall between military actions against the occupiers and murderous attacks on the population is utterly untenable - and un-Marxist.

They are part of the same political campaign - so, frankly, communists treat with contempt the idea that you can give 'military' support without necessarily lending political support to the jihadists. Nonsense of the first order.

We in the Weekly Worker have recognised from the very first day of the Iraqi war that an imperialist defeat would objectively open up possibilities for the working class, and we would therefore welcome it even if it came at the hands of reactionary anti-imperialists. But that is not an outcome we seek - let alone eagerly anticipate.

Communists do all in their power to support, defend and advance  progressive and working class organisations and movements that promote secularism, democracy and socialism. That is precisely why we call for the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of  US-UK forces. The occupation is feeding the fires of sectarian fanaticism and social disintegration - and thanks to programmes like The insurgency this fact will become more and more apparent.