by Bill Weinberg
The most recent attack came Sept. 30 at a vegetable market in Hilla, a Shi’ite town south of Baghdad. With a modest toll of eight dead and 41 wounded, the car bomb only rated a story at the bottom of page eight in the New York Times. The previous day’s triple truck bomb attack at Balad—again on a crowded market frequented by Shi’ites—racked up a more impressive 102 deaths, including 18 children, and at least rated a slim one column on the front page of Times. The entity calling itself “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” claimed responsibility in an Internet communique. The group’s leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has pledged “all out war” on Iraq’s Shi’ites.
This nearly metronomic ritual of serial mass murder is now hardly newsworthy. And it is but the most obvious sign of Iraq’s disintegration. US commander in Iraq Gen. George Casey told senators in Washington Sept. 30 that the new Iraqi army is in disarray, with the number of “combat effective” battalions—those that can operate without US assistance—having fallen from three to one in recent weeks. As Sunni insurgents seize control in towns along the Syrian border, Shi’ite militias increasingly control the south and even much of the capital. On Aug. 9, one such militia, the Badr Brigades, stormed Baghdad’s municipal building, ousted the mayor at gunpoint and installed one of their own, Hussein al-Tahaan, in his place. On Sept. 18, a Kurdish MP, Faris Nasir Hussein of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was assassinated by insurgents north of the capital. That same day, 24 bodies were found in the Tigris River—the apparent fruit of a dialectic of assassination by Sunni and Shi’ite death squads. The Shi’ites themselves are violently divided. In Basra, the Badr Brigades and rival Sadr militia have been shooting it out in street skirmishes in recent weeks. In his Senate testimony, Gen. Casey retreated from his July assessment that US forces in Iraq could see “fairly substantial” reductions in 2006.
Prince Saud al-Faisal, Saudi Arabi’s foreign minister, warned Sept. 22 that Iraq is headed towards disintegration. “There is no dynamic now pulling the nation together,” he warned reporters at the Saudi embassy in Washington. “All the dynamics are pulling the country apart.” He urged that he was trying to get this message out “to everyone who will listen” in the Bush administration. He warned that the fracturing of Iraq along religious and ethnic lines would “bring other countries in the region into the conflict.” He concluded gravely: “This is a very threatening situation.”
One who doesn’t appear worried is British left-wing journalist Robert Fisk. He wrote for The Independent Sept. 15: “There will not be a civil war in Iraq. There never has been a civil war in Iraq. In 1920, Lloyd George warned of civil war if the British Army left. Just as the Americans now threaten the Iraqis with civil war if they leave. As early as 2003, American spokesmen warned that there would be a civil war if US forces left.”
If his point is that the US has pitted Iraq’s religious and ethnic groups against each other, it’s an obvious one. If it is that the US military presence is actually playing a destabilizing role, it is an arguable one. But his opening sentence is one of simply bewildering denial.
How interesting that Fisk actually agrees with the sanguine statements of Bush. “The terrorists will fail,” Bush told a Rose Garden press conference Sept. 28. “See, the Iraqis want to be free.” He also, of course, said that “the terrorists” will “do everything in their power to try to stop the march of freedom,” which is why more troops are headed to Iraq ahead of this month’s referendum on the new constitution.
So both the anti-war left and the White House have something invested in denying the reality in Iraq. For the left, the admission of imminent civil war would be a concession to an argument for the continuing occupation. For the White House, it would be an admission of defeat and error. But nothing is to be gained by willful blindness. By any objective standard, there is already a civil war in Iraq.
CONSTITUTIONAL MANDATE—FOR ENTROPY
The new constitution, approved by parliament Aug. 29 despite its rejection by Sunni Arab negotiators and MPs, goes before the voters Oct. 15, and everyone is expecting an increase in violence before then. If two-thirds of the voters in any three out of 18 governorates reject the charter in the referendum, it will be defeated. The Sunni Arabs, who appear to almost universally oppose it, make up 20% of Iraq’s 27 million people, and form a majority in at least four governorates.
Behind the Sunni rejection of the constitution’s call for federalism is the question of control over Iraq’s oil wealth. It is articles 109 and 110 that address this issue directly:
Article 109: Oil and gas is the property of all the Iraqi people in all the regions and provinces.
Article 110: 1st. The federal government will administer oil and gas extracted from current fields in cooperation with the governments of the producing regions and provinces on condition that the revenues will be distributed fairly in a manner compatible with the demographical distribution all over the country. A quota should be defined for a specified time for affected regions that were deprived in an unfair way by the former regime or later on, in a way to ensure balanced development in different parts of the country. This should be regulated by law.
2nd. The federal government and the governments of the producing regions and provinces together will draw up the necessary strategic policies to develop oil and gas wealth to bring the greatest benefit for the Iraqi people, relying on the most modern techniques of market principles and encouraging investment.
This seemingly innocuous language masks a nearly irreconcilable struggle. The language about correcting the discriminatory policies of “the former regime” clearly means not only that the Sunni center will lose its role as the favored region, but also that the formerly disfavored regions will receive a disproportionate share of oil revenues for a while. Corrective measures may be warranted, but this can only be seen as threatening by a Sunni Arab population already facing economic agony. And the new system could also be subject to abuses. For instance, the Kurdish north was certainly “deprived in an unfair way” under Saddam. But today it is the most prosperous part of the country—because it was effectively independent throughout the years of sanctions (while still receiving aid under the oil-for-food program), and was spared bombardment by the US. The Sunni center, meanwhile, faces 70% unemployment.
So if the constitution is blocked, Iraq will remain divided. And if it passes, the Sunni insurgency is likely to grow.
The constitutional dilemma also fuels the Sadr-Badr violence in the Shi’ite south. Militant Shi’ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr rejects the constitution, and opposes the occupation. The rival Badr Brigades are the armed wing of one of the principal groups in the current Iraq government, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and favor the constitution. Behind this split is the question of Iran’s influence in Iraq: SCIRI is backed by Tehran, while al-Sadr is a Shi’ite Arab nationalist. Al-Sadr fears that federalism could lead to a Shi’ite statelet in the south falling into Iran’s orbit.
And there is plenty of “deep politics” behind the struggle for oil wealth. Kurds and Shi’ites remember massacres and atrocities as well as discrimination at the hands of Sunni Arab-dominated regimes—most recently Saddam’s. The Sunni Arabs, in turn, recall how what is now Iraq was 1,200 years ago the seat of the most powerful Islamic Caliphate, the Abbasids—only to spend the ensuing centuries under foreign rule. As the Shi’ite Safavid dynasty in Iran vied with the Ottoman empire in Turkey, the border between the two shifted back and forth across contemporary Iraq. Ottoman rule was followed by British until independence in 1932. Today, faced with the unlikely of alliance of the pro-Iran SCIRI holding seats in the US-backed Baghdad government, many Sunnis look to the insurgents as the defenders of Arab self-rule.
A second issue is the role of Islam in the constitution. The pending document overturns Iraq’s 1959 “personal status” law which directed cases concerning divorce, custody and inheritance to secular courts. The new document assigns such cases to different shariah courts—Shi’ite or Sunni—depending on the sectarian affiliation of the litigants. This is protested most fiercely by women’s rights advocates, who note that neither version would afford much protection. This debate reveals another fault line—between secularists and fundamentalists of either the Shi’ite or Sunni variety.
Yanar Mohammed of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI), which opposes both the constitution and the occupation, blames the US for acceding to this policy, and making common cause with fundamentalists. She writes: “Since the beginning of the occupation, the US administration has recognized Iraqis according to their ethnic/nationalist and religious identities. This predetermined polarization of the society around its most reactionary forces has resulted [in] a most lethal weapon, which is a government of division and inequality—a potential time-bomb for a civil war that has already started.”
THE REAL RESISTANCE?
However legitimate the fears and grievances of the Sunni Arabs, the armed insurgents are seemingly the most reactionary forces in Iraq. While they appear not to have any unified leadership, their most extreme exponent is apparently behind the serial mass murder of Shi’ites. In Qaim and other villages along the Syrian border where insurgents seized power early last month, prompting brutal US air-strikes, they declared an “Islamic kingdom.” Presumed Sunni insurgents blew up a gathering of Sufis outside Baghdad in June, killing ten. In the areas they have “liberated from occupation,” Taliban-style interpretations of shariah are being enforced.
Throughout Iraq, women who dare to walk the streets unveiled are having acid thrown at them—even in Baghdad. In Baghdad and Basra, liquor stores and beauty parlors are fire-bombed. These are certainly not icons of liberation, but neither should the penalty for owning or patronizing one be death.
For all their enmity, the Sunni and Shi’ite militants share this harsh cultural agenda. Both Sadr and Badr militiamen are enforcing shariah in the streets of Basra. In April 2004, when the Sadr militia was making headlines by fighting US forces, it wiped out a Roma (“Gypsy”) village, torching homes and forcing residents to flee. Local Shi’ite government authorities applauded the Sadr militia for “cleansing the town,” which had been a hotbed of such “un-Islamic” activities as music and dance.
While these armed insurgents are too frequently referred to as “the resistance,” they are not the only resistance in occupied Iraq. OWFI helped coordinate a campaign that led to a shariah measure being defeated in the interim constitution, and is organizing opposition to the similar measure in the new charter. The Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq (FWCUI) opposes the constitution and the occupation, and is organizing for workers’ self-management in factories from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north. Its affiliated Union of the Unemployed in Iraq is demanding jobs and restitution for the thousands thrown out of work in the chaos since the US invasion. The Oil and Gas Workers union succeeded through work actions in getting the Halliburton subsidiary KBR kicked out of the installations of Iraq’s Southern Oil Company, where it had been granted a no-bid contract by the occupation authority.
All the leaders of these organizations are under threat of assassination by death squads linked to the regime and insurgents alike. OWFI’s Yanar Mohammed has remained in Iraq in defiance of numerous death threats.
This is the resistance that seeks a democratic, secular future for Iraq, free from either imperialist domination or rule by what they call “political Islam”—reactionary fundamentalism. They oppose sectarianism and the fragmenting of Iraq. It is axiomatic that they receive no aid from Western governments. Unfortunately, too many in the so-called “anti-war” movement in the West are cheering on their deadliest enemies.
The US group Troops Out Now comes closest to taking an open stance in support of the armed insurgents, calling in their literature for the anti-war movement to “acknowledge the absolute and unconditional right of the Iraqi people to resist the occupation of their country without passing judgement on their methods of resistance.”
Does this include truck bombs designed to kill the maximum number of Shi’ite civilians? Posing the question in terms of the abstract “right to resist” is an obfuscation. At a certain point you have to look at the question of who is actually wielding the guns and bombs, and at whom. In this case, the criminal tactics of mass murder are directly tied to the totalitarian ideology of “political Islam.” These are the very forces which seek to exterminate Iraq’s secular left, along with their perceived ethno-religious enemies.
The jihadi insurgents—presumably aided by some remnant Baathists—are aiming their guns and bombs at Shi’ite, Kurdish or secular civilians far more often than at US troops these days. Groups such as Troops Out Now are actually supporting civil war in Iraq.
These groups play a cynical numbers game in order to hide the grim reality of Iraq’s insurgents. For instance, Paul D’Amato of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), another US group supporting the insurgents, has a piece on the group’s wesbite cheering on the Iraqi “resistance” and attempting to absolve it of massively targeting civilians. The piece is favorably cited by the journal Left Hook in an article entitled “Does the Resistance Target Civilians? According to US Intel, Not Really.”
D’Amato’s piece touts the findings of Anthony Cordesman, top wonk at Washington’s elite Center for Strategic and International Studies, who assembled a report from Pentagon data, “The Developing Iraqi Insurgency: Status at End—2004.” But the ISO picks from the data selectively to make its case. The sleight-of-hand relies on an obfuscatory distinction between “targeting” and “killing” civilians. Table 1 in the Cordesman report indicates more than 3,000 attacks in which coalition forces were the target and only 180 in which civilians were the target—but it also indicates around 2,000 civilians killed and nearly 3,500 wounded, with only around 450 coalition forces killed and 1,000 wounded in the same period. D’Amato doesn’t mention these numbers.
So the insurgents are given a pass for exactly the kind of insensitivity to “collateral damage” that we rightly decry in US military tactics. And D’Amato’s piece ran in the March-April issue of the ISO’s journal International Socialist Review—after the insurgents had adopted the tactic of mass murder of Shi’ites, something not reflected in Cordesman’s 2004 figures.
In July, the team that maintains the website Iraq Body Count made a minor media splash when they announced that the number of Iraqi civilian deaths they had arrived at through media monitoring since the US invasion had passed the 25,000 mark. This figure is now used by the anti-war movement to imply 25,000 dead at hands of US forces. (So, often, is the 100,000 figure published in the Lancet medical journal last year, based on the far less cautious findings of a team from Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities that conducted interviews with Iraqi doctors.) However, the Iraq Body Count website states that its toll “includes all deaths which the Occupying Authority has a binding responsibility to prevent under the Geneva Conventions and the Hague Regulations. This includes civilian deaths resulting from the breakdown in law and order…” In other words, this figure includes deaths at the hands of the insurgents.
Thirty percent of those 25,000 deaths occurred during the March-May 2003 “major combat” phase of US operations. This is not surprising, as aerial bombardment is a very effective way to kill large numbers of people, even as “collateral damage.” But since then, the majority of the deaths is attributed to criminal and insurgent violence, with the insurgents claiming an ever-growing share.
So those who cite this figure as representing directly US-inflicted casualties while simultaneously cheering on the Iraqi “resistance” engage in the most disingenuous of numbers tricks—actually attributing deaths by the forces they support to the forces they oppose.
Equally dishonest is the pretension that what is happening in Iraq is anything other than a civil war—a delusion that the anti-war left shares with its enemies in the White House. Amnesty International recently noted that the armed conflict in Colombia—which nobody hesitates to call a civil war—has claimed 70,000 lives over the past 20 years. Obviously, if the current rate of slaughter continues to obtain, the figure in Iraq 20 years hence will be around 200,000. When do we admit this is a civil war?
U.S. LEFT BETRAYS IRAQI LEFT
Behind these intellectual subterfuges is a fundamental betrayal of Iraq’s secular left by the anti-war forces in the US. Whether the US stays in Iraq or leaves, whether the current regime remains in power or is toppled by the insurgents, those fighting for women’s rights, labor rights and other basic liberties in Iraq are going to need our support. And we have a special responsibility to loan that support, as it is our government’s intervention which has plunged Iraq into civil war.
Too much of the anti-war movement seems to assume that once we achieve our aim of a US withdrawal we can wash our hands Pilate-like and walk away. Any notion that we owe Iraqis our support is dismissed with words like “patronizing” and “passing judgement”—as if it were impossible to distinguish between imperialist meddling and citizen-to-citizen solidarity.
The hard-left elements of the anti-war movement—groups like ISO and Troops Out Now—affirm the abstract right of the Iraqi people to resist the occupation, but fail to grapple with the realities of Iraq’s actually-existing armed resistance. The more moderate elements, like United for Peace and Justice, simply dodge the question entirely. They are both oblivious to an active left opposition in Iraq that opposes the occupation, the regime it protects and the jihadi and Baathist “resistance” alike. It is this besieged opposition, under threat of assassination and persecution, which is fighting to keep alive the same elementary freedoms that we fight for against the forces of authoritarianism and fundamentalism here in the US. For all the incessant factional splits in the US anti-war movement, providing this real, progressive Iraqi resistance concrete solidarity is not even on the agenda.
The foremost responsibility of the anti-war forces in the US is to loaning a voice to our natural allies in Iraq, this secular left opposition, the legitimate resistance—and this responsibility is being utterly betrayed.
It is too late to avoid civil war in Iraq. The civil war has arrived. But the question of how disastrous it will be is directly related to that of whether this civil democratic opposition is completely silenced—or crushed—by utterly ruthless armed actors. History has seen these sorts of betrayals before—for instance, in Spain in 1939. We can expect no better of Great Power politics. But what explains the willful blindness on the left?
Text of the pending Iraqi constitution, online at the Salt Lake Tribune website http://www.sltrib.com/portlet/article/html/fragments/print_article.jsp?article=2 973485
Robert Fisk, “Why is it that we and America wish civil war on Iraq?” The Independent, Sept. 15 http://www.selvesandothers.org/article11523.html
Sarah Ferguson quotes Troops Out Now on the Iraqi “resistance,” Village Voice, March 17 http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0512,ferguson1,62240,5.html
Paul D’Amato, “The Shape of the Iraqi Resistance,” International Socialist Journal, March-April http://www.isreview.org/issues/40/shapeofresistance.shtml
M. Junaid Aam, “Does the Resistance Target Civilians? According to US Intel, Not Really,” Left Hook, undated http://lefthook.org/Politics/Alam041605.html
Anthony Cordesman, “The Developing Iraqi Insurgency: Status at End—2004,” Center for Strategic and International Studies
“25,000 civilians killed since Iraq invasion, says report,” The Guardian, July 19 http://www.guardian.co.uk/print/0,3858,5242694-103550,00.html
Iraq Body Count
Yanar Mohammed of OWFI on the new constitution
“Islamic Kingdom” declared on Syrian border
Iraq “resistance” blows up Sufis
Acid attacks on “immodest” women
David Bacon, “Iraqi Unions Resist Occupation and Assassination,” WW4 REPORT #113
Bill Weinberg, “Iraq: Memogate and the Comforts of Vindication,” WW4 REPORT #111
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Oct. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution