Not a mistake but a state crime

Four years after the invasion, Iraq continues to sink deeper into the morass. Mike Macnair analyses the current situation

On February 21 Tony Blair announced a reduction of 1,600 in the current 7,200 British troops in Iraq. Officials briefing the press characterised this as part of a goal of gradual reductions leading to a total pull-out by 2008. Operational control in Basra has been technically 'handed over' to the Iraqi army, and the remaining British troops are to concentrate on patrolling the Iran-Iraq border and securing US supply lines from Kuwait.

Blair's announcement was cosmetic: the reduction of troops is more limited than had previously been spun, and the 'goal' is hedged about with ifs and buts: British troops will remain in Iraq to support local authorities into 2008 "for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do".

The announcement is unlikely to be the result of public pressure. Opposition to the war has grown in US opinion polls; in the UK, after a period of majority support for the war in 2003-04, the (increasingly infrequent) polls on the issue have shown consistent majority against the war, and between 2004 and 2006 increasingly large majorities for withdrawal of troops (www.ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/issues/iraq). But there are no polls on the issue more recent than October 2006; national demonstrations against the war have shown a pattern of declining numbers; and the spinmeisters have fairly clearly succeeded in keeping a lid on public dissent.

It is more likely that the pressure is coming from doubts in the state core and especially the military about Bush's 'troop surge' policy. General Dannatt's very public remarks last October indicating that the army was overstretched and seeking an early withdrawal were a pretty extreme move. The pressure will have been reduced by expectations of a US turn to 'Iraqisation' around the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group report, but Bush's open repudiation of this policy in favour of escalation ('surge') will have increased them again.

The Bush administration has formally expressed agreement with the British move. A spokesperson said: "While the United Kingdom is maintaining a robust force in southern Iraq, we're pleased that conditions in Basra have improved sufficiently that they are able to transition more control to the Iraqis. The United States shares the same goal of turning responsibility over to the Iraqi security forces and reducing the number of American troops in Iraq."

Several journalists are sceptical that this is the administration's real view - in private, there is thought to have been pressure on Blair to keep as many British troops on the ground as possible. Doubts about the withdrawal have also been expressed by Iraqi 'deputy prime minister' Barham Saleh (from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and Australian premier John Howard has announced the Australians will not follow suit.

Four years on

This weekend we are marching a few weeks short of the fourth anniversary of the March 20 2003 invasion; and a couple of weeks after the fourth anniversary of the massive demonstrations against the war on February 15 2003. For the US state, what was expected and planned to be a short war has turned into a long one, still with no end in sight. The US's and puppet government's "new security policy" was launched on February 14, and on February 17 'prime minister' Maliki and Condoleezza Rice claimed that after three days it had already led to a dramatic drop in deaths in Baghdad. No sooner was the claim made, than it was falsified by massive car bomb attacks on a market in east Baghdad.

So far, the new turn in US policy has produced a 'surge' in US casualties; guerrillas also seem to have acquired a new capability for shooting down US helicopters - though it may be that this is simply a result of expanded US military operations. Jaish Mahdi has clearly taken a decision to keep its head down for the moment, and Moqtada al-Sadr and other top leaders of this militia/movement have gone into hiding. So what the new policy has exposed is (1) the continuing military capability of the Ba'athist (called 'sunni') guerrilla resistance to the US occupation; and (2) the sectarian and ineffective character of the puppet 'police' and 'army'.

Meanwhile, deliberations continue on the draft law for the privatisation of Iraq's oil revenues and carving the remainder up among 'provincial confederations': a version of the draft has been leaked to the al-Ghad newspaper and is translated on the uruknet website (www.uruknet.info). And more information has been dribbling out about the thieving and incompetence of the US's 2003-04 'coalition provisional administration' (CPA) - for example, in The Guardian's extracts from Rajiv Chandrasekharan's forthcoming book Imperial life in the emerald city (February 19-21).


The invasion and occupation of Iraq has been in substance a crime on a very large scale. I do not mean by this the conventional point that the invasion was illegal in international law, with the result that all the Iraqis killed by the invading troops were in law murdered. 'Legality' and 'illegality' in international law are rather technical and debatable points. Moreover, the so-called 'sanctions' blockade which came before the invasion, and the occupation which came after it, were both approved by the UN, hence 'legal' in international law. But they have done far more damage and killed far more people than the invasion itself.

Nor am I simply saying that the invasion of Iraq is the sort of injustice which goes on all the time in capitalism: the bourgeoisie extracts surplus from the workers by virtue of its monopoly rights to the means of production; or the metropolitan countries extract surplus from the 'third world' by virtue of the dollar system, interest rates and 'intellectual property rights'. These mechanisms are exploitative, but within the framework of capitalist property rights are, of course, completely lawful.

Rather the whole operation has had two characteristics. Immediately, it has been a simple armed robbery. Coalition troops have gone into Iraq and stolen Iraqi assets for the benefit of a group of contributors to the US Republican Party and a few other businesses. The proposed oil law is the most striking symbol of something which took a half-hidden form in the kleptocracy of the CPA and the sweetheart deals for US 'contractors'.

Secondly, and on a larger scale, it has been an 'insurance fire' to stave off the threatened political-economic bankruptcy of the US-led financialised world order. Its effect in reviving the economy after the 2002 dot-com crisis was recognised in summer 2003 by The Economist. Indirectly, this must be why enough capitalist firms either backed the Iraq invasion project, or were willing to let the Bush administration go ahead with it.

Recognising that the invasion and occupation of Iraq is a crime, not a mistake, is important. The point is not to imagine that the perpetrators can be prosecuted: on the contrary, it is the US state and UK state which are the perpetrators. Even if the formal individual decision-makers - the groups round Bush in the US and Blair in the UK - were prosecuted and jailed or executed, the true perpetrators would escape justice.

The point is that, once we recognise that what has happened in Iraq is a matter of intentional wrongdoing with a view to material gain, we recognise that the problem is not one of persuading Bush-Blair to do things better, but of defeating the ongoing crime and deterring any repetition of it.

In responding to this situation, there are two fundamental errors widely committed. The first is, as I say, to imagine that the situation in Iraq is mainly about mistakes, and hence propose some sort of less nasty form of armed robbery by placing hopes in 'liberal' imperialists. The second is to recognise the criminality of the grand-scale gangsters of the imperialist centres, but to place hopes in the petty gangsters of the Iranian regime or the various militia operations as an alternative to them.

Liberal imperialism

The obvious proponents of 'liberal imperialism' are the so-called 'decent left' of the Euston Manifesto - Nick Cohen, Norman Geras and so on. These authors imagined that because Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti was a gangster and the Ba'athist regime a tyranny, and the US and UK are - internally - liberal-democratic regimes, that it was therefore justified to invade Iraq to 'bring democracy' to the country.

As it has become clear that what has been brought to Iraq is not democracy but ruin, destruction, death, local warlordism and sectarian gangs - with US and British troops episodically intervening in support of one or another group of sectarians in order to keep control - so the 'decent left' have become more and more vitriolic in their defence of their disastrous policy. See, for example, Nick Cohen's new book What's left? which has been unsurprisingly feted by journalists of the right.

Half-tagging along with the 'decent left' are the Alliance for Workers' Liberty. Initially, this expressed itself in the claim that the imperialists might remake the Middle East in ways which would improve the situation of the workers' movement by creating Latin American-style 'democratic' regimes: thus it would be wrong to hope for a British defeat. Then we got the line - still persisting after four years of catastrophe! - that socialists should not call for the immediate withdrawal of British troops, because to do so was to give "objective support" to the islamists.

It turns out that the 'islamists' the AWL are concerned about is not the actual Iraqi islamist political parties, which are in the puppet government, or the militias associated with the shia islamist parties, which have either been integrated into the puppet 'security forces' like the Badr Brigade or have infiltrated them and work under their umbrella like the Sadrists. These forces are as deeply concerned as any other in the assassination of trade unionists and leftists and the efforts to re-enslave women and to destroy secular education in Iraq. Instead, the AWL supposes that the presence of US and UK troops somehow protects trade unionists and leftists from the real bad guys ... the Ba'athists and the sunni islamists.

Finally, the AWL asks us to believe that, however bad the situation in Iraq is now, it would only get worse if the US and UK withdrew ... then there would be full-blooded civil war. But the US intelligence services in their February 2 national intelligence estimate finally admitted that at least part of the fighting in Iraq is already civil war.

In reality, once the US smashed the Ba'athist state in the wake of the invasion, civil war became inevitable and necessary in Iraq. Once the US has gone, it will be necessary for someone to create a state in Iraq. The conditions affecting the country are not ones in which statelessness is an attractive option. But a state can only be created by militarily defeating the militias. Even a Caliphate would require Mamluks or Janissaries to overawe the imams and ghazis. What the US-British presence does is keep the civil war going and prevent Iraqis reconstructing a state.

The 'decent left'/AWL arguments obviously serve to support the imperialist robbers. But there is also a liberal imperialism which overtly opposes them. This is the policy - held by a good many Labour leftwingers and a large part of the US anti-war movement - which us (and the Iraqis) place our hopes in the United Nations or in this or that capitalist politician who opposes the actual course of the war in favour of some 'alternative policy'.

The 'decents' and the AWL obviously imagine the imperialist powers as something other than the mere robbers and looters which - at the present date - they are. The advocates of a UN alternative do so too, but less obviously. Theirs is a so-called 'realistic' alternative to Bush-Blair: the Democrats, or perhaps in Britain the 'soft left' or the Lib Dems.

People who have views of this sort should ask themselves a series of questions. Who pays for the UN? What armed forces does it use? What have the effects of UN interventions been so far in the 1990s and 2000s? As to the 'realistic' alternative, what became of the 'Marshall Plan' widely advocated to help Russia and eastern Europe's transition to capitalism? Did the Democrats' rhetoric in opposition translate, when they were in power, into real action outside the frame of neoliberal globalisation? Did the Democrats actually oppose the invasion of Iraq when it came to the crunch? Did the 'soft lefts', or the Lib Dems, stand out against it when the troops went in?

Above all else, why was this war started? If we recognise that financialised US capitalism needed a war as an 'insurance fire', we can understand why the hesitations of the military and the intelligence and diplomatic services were in the end overridden. But then it should be clear that a Clinton regime in the US would perhaps not have robbed the Iraqis - but gone directly to rob the Iranians, or some other 'soft target' country. A Kerry administration would not have stopped the war.

Supporting 'the resistance'

Iraqis have the right to resist US invasion and occupation with armed force. This right includes the right to carry on military attacks against supporters of the occupation and those who serve in the puppet administration and its 'security forces'. Both are a matter of elementary self-defence. Thus far, the Socialist Workers Party is entirely correct.

The problem with ending there, however, can be most clearly presented by way of an analogy. Chinese people had the right to resist Japanese invasion in the 1930s with armed force, including guerrilla attacks, which the Japanese would no doubt have called 'terrorism' if the word had had its modern connotations. But this did not in the least imply that Chinese communists should give unconditional and uncritical support to the actions of the Kuomintang regime. On the contrary, the Chinese communists conducted an independent military resistance to the imperialists - collaborating with the KMT where it was appropriate. Submerging the communists in the KMT would have ended at best with the restoration of the pre-war state of affairs: warlordism in the bulk of the country, imperialist enclaves with 'Europeans only' parks, etc.

The 'Iraqi resistance' exists only as an aggregate name given to a large number of groups with very diverse political objectives. The Ba'athists have at least a national - nationalist - policy, and seem to have superior military capacity. The various jihadi groups have a policy which can at best be described as utopian-tyrannical. The politics of the groups have so far prevented the formation of a coherent common front which can offer an alternative to the puppet regime. As a result both elements of the sunni islamist parties and the Sadrists - who formally oppose the occupation - play footsie with the puppet regime from time to time, while pursuing their own sectarian agendas at the expense of the Iraqi people at large.

The actions of the 'resistance' are similarly diverse. Guerrilla attacks on the occupying forces are plainly justifiable military action. Attacks on the armed forces of the puppet regime are in principle justifiable military action. But, unless they are very precisely targeted, they may in the present circumstances in Iraq serve only to inflame sectarian disunity and thereby strengthen the occupiers. Simple sectarian attacks on religious and civilian targets certainly have this effect. The enforcement of religious 'law' against secular targets and women tends to produce no more than local extortion rackets.

The situation in Iraq is thus very precisely analogous to that in China in the inter-war years. The imperialists will not be got rid of by supporting the warlords - in this case, the religious gangsters - nor by supporting their ideological expression - in this case, the islamist parties and movements. The only road to national unity is through a workers' movement committed both to opposition to the occupation and to building up its own strength independent of the other components of the resistance.

At the moment, there is only one tendency which is visibly pursuing such a policy. This is the Iraqi Freedom Congress promoted by the Worker-communist Party of Iraq (www.ifcongress.com/English). There may be others whose ideas are not so readily accessible in English. But such a project is the only way forward out of the mess the invaders have created. The IFC therefore deserves the clear support of the workers' movement internationally.