CAN IRAQ AVOID CIVIL WAR?
(And Can the U.S. Anti-War Movement Help?)
by Bill Weinberg
The anti-war movement in the U.S. is at its lowest ebb since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Two broad, mutually hostile tendencies have emerged: one increasingly supportive of the armed resistance, the other increasingly equivocal about supporting an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. They hold separate marches (as they did in New York City on May 1) for which they marshal radically diminishing numbers. They seem equally oblivious to their manifest inability to meaningfully communicate with the general populace, and equally uninterested in meaningfully engaging the Iraqi people they claim to support.
This inability and this disinterest appear to indicate that they are no more serious about really looking squarely at the situation in Iraq than the Bush administration they love to hate. Iraq has been drifting towards civil war virtually since the day Saddam fell two years ago. Like the White House, the remnants of the anti-war movement seem to have everything invested in ignoring this reality and holding out for a deus ex machina--whether it is to be delivered (against all evidence) by the occupation or resistance. There is virtually no interest in the hard, realistic work of offering solidarity and a stateside voice to Iraqis who will have to seek a semblance of freedom and control over their own lives no matter what kind of regime or situation obtains in their country. Yet this is precisely the kind of work which can give us the moral legitimacy we need to rebuild a disintegrating movement.
THE NEW REGIME: IMBALANCE OF POWER
For a third time now, Iraq has undergone a transition towards supposed self-govenment and stabilty. The first was the transfer of official "sovereignty" to the interim regime in June 2004. Then came the elections of January 2005. Now, after months of tense haggling, a government coalition has congealed and taken power. But it represents largely a coalition of the two demographic sectors which had been marginalized under the Saddam Hussein dictatorship: the Kurdish north and the Shi'ite south. The Sunni center, where Saddam had his primary base of support, is nearly excluded from the new order, and arguably has greater support for the insurgents than for the new regime. And the new ruling coalition itself appears precariously fragile.
On April 7, interim prime minister Iyad Allawi submitted his resignation. The new government is to be led by President Jalal Talabani, leader of the Kurdistan Alliance, itself made up of two rival Kurdish nationalist parties, including Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Talabani is to share power with Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of the Dawa Party, one of the prominent Shi'ite opposition groups under Saddam, founded by Muhammed Baqir al-Sadr, a dissident executed by the regime in 1980. It is today one of several Shi'ite religious factions, all fiercely conservative but, to varying degrees, mutually suspicious, and each with an armed militia yet to be brought under any real centralized control.
The new interior minister is Bayan Jabr of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Shi'ite faction traditionally backed by Iran.
Ahmad Chalabi--a secular Shi'ite and the one-time Pentagon favorite to rule a post-Saddam Iraq, who had been arrested on charges of spying for Iran just a year ago--is now acting oil minister. His relative Ali Allawi is finance minister.
There are two vice presidents, largely ceremonial posts. One is Adel Abdul Mahdi of a Shiite Islamist bloc inappropriately named the United Iraqi Alliance. The other is Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni leader of Iraqis Party, who is the most hostile to the U.S. occupation of the new regime figures, and the only Sunni in a position of power--although not much power. The Defense Ministry post is also said to be reserved for a Sunni, but a suitable one has apparently not been found yet. The speaker of the transitional national assembly is Hajim al-Hassani of the United Iraqi Alliance, which holds the large majority of seats.
In short, the new governing coalition is both dominated by clerical or ethno-nationalist authoritarians, and a seeming recipe for further instability.
WOMEN UNDER ATTACK
A New York Times story of April 13 highlighted the emerging role of women in the new Iraq, painting a picture of general progress while acknowledging harsh obstacles. It noted that Nasreen Barwari, the Harvard-educated public works minister in the interim government who is said to represent secular women, will be retaining her post, the only woman in the cabinet. The article also noted that she is the "third wife" of Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar--a polygamous rather than serial affair. It failed to note that Barwari is a Kurd, and has been subject to much abuse in the Kurdish nationalist press for betraying her people by marrying an Arab. The Kurdistan Observer ran a letter last Oct. 12 stating that it is "strange and insipid" that "a reasonably attractive and well-educated Kurdish girl" is so "naive" as to become "emotionally involved with a polygamist tribal sex maniac."
Also quoted in the Times was Songul Chapuk Omer, a Turkmen women's leader from Kirkuk, who voiced suspicion of the Shiite women in the new government, saying they "want to hinder woman, put shackles on her. They despise secular women. They consider that she has committed crimes."
The Times has failed to report on the ongoing wave of assassinations of outspoken women across Iraq. On March 21, the UN news agency IRIN ran a little-noticed story on the chilling string of misogynist murders. It led with the case of Baghdad pharmacist Zeena Qushtiny, who was seized at gunpoint from her pharmacy--"by insurgents," the account said. Her body was found 10 days later with two bullet holes in the head, covered in a traditional abaya veil with a message pinned to it: "She was a collaborator against Islam." Qushtiny, the divorced mother of two young girls, had been working for women's rights and greater democracy in Iraq, according to her friends and colleagues. The report also said "her dress was seen as being too extravagant for Iraq."
A Baghdad police commander, Col. Subhi al-Abdullilah, told IRIN that decapitated female corpses have been turning up around the city in recent weeks with notes bearing the word "collaborator" pinned to their chests. Authorities in Mosul were cited reporting 20 women killed by Islamic militants so far this year, including three gynecologists, two pharmacists and several students. In Latifiyah, south of Baghdad, where 11 women have been killed so far this year, Sunni militants have pasted leaflets on the walls prohibiting women from leaving their homes without the traditional abaya under penalty of death.
Last November, Amal al-Mamalachy, a well-known women's rights activist and government adviser, was killed in a hail of 10 bullets on her way to work. Her car was hit by a total of 160 bullets, and many of her security guards were also killed. Akilla al-Hashimia, a member of the interim government, was killed in October 2003.
The IRIN story also quoted the Turkmen women's leader Songul Chapuk saying she has received numerous death threats, and that several women have been attacked with a spray containing acid in Kirkuk because they weren't wearing the veil. The story also noted that public works minister Nasreen Barwari survived an attack last year in which two of her bodyguards were killed. The New York Times coverage which cited both these women deemed fit to overlook these rather salient details.
IRIN quoted Houzan Mahmoud, UK representative for the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) warning that the new government seems little better than the insurgents as far as the status of women is concerned: "With the win of the United Alliance in the election, the Islamization can grow fast and the women in Iraq could lose more... I just ask for everyone to open their eyes to this issue and help the true entities that are looking for their rights as women."
THE INSURGENTS: "RESISTANCE" OR ETHNIC CLEANSING?
The insurgents that many stateside activists glorify as the Iraqi "resistance" have been very busy lately, with deadly explosions becoming a nearly daily affair. On May 6, at least 26 were killed and twice as many wounded when a suicide bomber struck a marketplace in Suwaira and another bomb blew up a bus carrying Iraqi police in Tikrit. On May 4, a suicide bomber infiltrated a line of police recruits in Irbil, killing 46 and injuring nearly 100--a rare but exceptionally deadly attack in the Kurdish north. On May 2, at least 24 were killed in a string of car bomb attacks, including six residents at a Baghdad apartment complex and a child in Mosul. On April 29, an impressive 17 car bombs exploded, killing 50, mostly in Baghdad. On April 14, twin car bombs detonated as a police convoy was passing the Interior Ministry, killing 14 and wounding 50. While many of these attacks were ostensibly aimed at government targets, the victims were typically civilians; all but one of the dead at the Interior Ministry were civilians.
And the same forces which have taken up arms against the occupation also seem bent on war against perceived ethnic and sectarian enemies within Iraq. On April 9, thousands of followers of militant Shi'ite cleric Moktada al-Sadr marked the two-year anniversary of the invasion by marching on Baghdad's Firdous Square, where the statue of Saddam Hussein had been toppled on that day in 2003. They chanted "No to America!" and called for U.S. troops to leave Iraq. But this apparently won them little solidarity from Sunni insurgents who share this demand. Unknown gunmen--said to be Sunni militants--opened fire on the protesters as they gathered, injuring two. Protesters also carried the coffin of an al-Sadr movement leader who had been gunned down the previous night.
On March 31, Shi'ites across Iraq celebrated Arabaein (also rendered: Arbayeen), the festival marking the end of Ashura, the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed killed in the 680 CE Battle of Karbala. This is the most sacred day in Shia Islam. It was marked--for a second consecutive year--by bloody attacks on Shi'ite worshippers throughout the country. This year the death toll fell far short of 2004's 143, but was still grisly enough. A suicide bomber drove a van full of explosives into a crowd of worshippers in the northern city of Tuz Khurmato, killing four, including a child. A similar attack in the Shi'ite holy city of Samarra--although ostensibly aimed at a U.S. military vehicle--left one civilian dead and several injured.
Samarra holds the tombs of two of Shia's revered twelve imams--the tenth, Ali il-Hadi and the eleventh, Hadi al-Askari--and is said to be where the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, went into "occultation" to await judgement day hidden from the eyes of mortals. It is the third holiest site in Shia after Karbala and Najaf, which holds the remains of Imam Ali, the first imam and the Prophet's son-on-law, killed in 661.
All three of these cities saw violence around the Ashura period. Pilgrims in Karbala slept on the city's streets for nights following the celebrations because they feared travelling by night following threats and attacks. On April 8, four civilians were injured as a bomb exploded at the Najaf bus station.
On March 10, a suicide bombing at a funeral at a Shiite mosque in Mosul left 40 dead, mostly Shiite Kurds and Turkmen.
New mass garves are also being unearthed--most recently in northeast Baghdad, where a worker using earth-moving equipment discovered 12 bodies approximately a week old May 6, shot in the head and showing signs of torture and beatings. It is uncertain if this is the work of "insurgents" or the new paramilitary groups said to be overseen by the regime and U.S. forces to fight the insurgents.
OIL: BROKEN PIPELINES, BROKEN DREAMS
Iraq has the second greatest oil reserves on Earth after Saudi Arabia, but it has never been efficiently exploited--and now the situation is worse than ever. A March 2 New York Times story, "A Promise Unfulfilled: Iraq's Oil Output is Lagging," noted:
"As recently as this April, a senior Iraqi leader evoked the eternal dream that Iraq could produce 10 million barrels a day--close to the Saudi levels--within 10 to 15 years. Far less than that could alter the global oil market and aid consumers everywhere. But two years after Saddam Hussein was toppled production is limping along at about two million barrels a day, less than before the war, and even at that rate it may be causing long-term damage to poorly maintained fields. Americans had hoped that output at this stage would be at three million barrels a day, generating badly needed funds for reconstruction. That level of production could also reduce oil prices, which are now around $50 a barrel and a global source of inflationary pressure. But close to $2 billion worth of American technical aid to the oil sector has brought only limited gains. Sabotage of a pipeline to Turkey has choked off exports from Iraq's northern fields, around Kirkuk, and violence has slowed efforts to renovate the larger southern fields."
While Iraq's oil remains officially in the hands of state-owned companies, the new government is awaiting the results of a technical study by BP and Royal Dutch Shell on how to best revive the faltering industry, the Times informs us. There are apparently only 2,300 wells in all Iraq--compared to over a million in Texas, with far less (and less geologically accessible) oil. And Iraq's existing infrastructure eroded dramatically under the economic sanctions in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, as U.S. aid pours into patching up oil infrastructure that the insurgents quickly blow up in a vicious cycle, social development projects that were supposed to be funded by oil revenues are dying on the vine. The Times reported April 16 that a $10 million potable water project for Halabja--the same Kurdish city that was gassed by Saddam in 1988, leaving 5,000 dead--was cancelled for lack of funds.
SOCIAL COLLAPSE: BITTER FRUIT OF "LIBERATION"
A March 30 BBC report, "Children 'starving' in new Iraq," notes a bitterly paradoxical result of the country's supposed "liberation." According to a new report prepared for the annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva, malnutrition rates in children under five have almost doubled since the US-led intervention--to nearly 8% by the end of last year. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, who prepared the report, blamed the worsening situation in Iraq on the war which has ensued since the 2003 invasion.
U.S. and U.K. officials wasted little time in challenging Ziegler's findings. "He is wrong," charged U.S. envoy to the UN, Kevin Moley, saying American and British studies indicated the rise in child malnutrition actually began under Saddam. But Ziegler is not alone in offering such grim news. An April 21 USA Today report on languishing water projects in Iraq noted a hepatitis outbreak in Baghdad's impoverished Shi'ite neighborhood, Sadr City, and the emergence of typhoid in another Baghdad neighborhood. The LA Times reported May 2 that the daily output of Iraq's electrical grid is 4,000 megawatts--400 megawatts below the pre-war average. Last Dec. 4, UPI, citing Iraqi government figures, noted that unemployment had dropped in 2004 from from 28% at the start of the year to a still-ghastly 26.8%. But an Al-Jazeera report from Aug. 1, 2004, citing a study by Baghdad University, contested the government figures, putting unemployment at a disastrous 70%.
SECULAR LEFT REPUDIATES "TWO POLES OF TERRORISM"
Despite the growing violence and polarization, a secular left continues to exist in Iraq, caught between the occupation and collaborationist forces on one side, and the Islamist insurgents on the other. This besieged, principled opposition remains universally overlooked by both the world's mainstream and--shamefully--left media.
On the occasion of the two-year anniversary of the invasion, the Left Worker-Communist Party of Iraq issued a statement addressed "To All Civilized Humanity," calling on progressives around the world to "support our struggle for the immediate expulsion of the US/UK troops from Iraq, and the disarm[ament] of all reactionary Islamic/nationalist groups." The somewhat awkward English translation read, in part:
"The world is witnessing the 2nd anniversary of the US war on the people of Iraq. This war has been causing the killing of thousands of innocent people...the ruining of the foundation of Iraqi civil society, and the subjugating of its fate to the will of a handful reactionary powers... The domination of these forces will further drag society [in]to the worst division based on religious, ethnic, and sectarian conflicting cantons... the trans[formation] of Iraq into an open confrontation grounds between the forces of international terrorism: the terrorism of the US state from one side and the terrorism of international Political Islam and Saddam Hussein's supporters on the other. The victims of this reactionary war are the innocent citizens of Iraq. This war has turned people's lives in Iraq into a living hell."
The statement called for:
"The immediate expulsion of the occupying forces provided they are replaced by international peacekeeping forces of the United Nations, with the exclusion of the current occupying countries of Iraq and the regional countries that support Islamic groups...
"The disarmament of all Islamic and nationalist forces that arose after the fall of the Baathist regime and which have their hands stained with people's blood.
"Putting military...officials and personnel of both the occupying forces and the nationalist and religious groups [on] trial as war criminals.
"Securing [a] social and political environment which would guarantee all political groups in Iraq...free political activity, in a secure environment, and thus the possibility of people's conscious participation in the formation of a state that suits them in Iraq.
"To this end, we call on all humanitarian, egalitarian, and progressive people all over the world to support our demands to rescue the people of Iraq from the destructive ...war between the two poles of terrorism...in order to create the suitable circumstances for the people to achieve their freedom and political choices."
It ends with the slogans: "Immediate Expulsion of the US-UK forces from Iraq! Disarmament of All Islamic and Reactionary Nationalists! Long Live Freedom [for] the people of Iraq, Away [with] Terrorism and Intimidation!"
We can take issue with this program, and certainly the question of who is to disarm the Islamist insurgents, and how it is to be done without escalating the war, has no easy answer. But the Left Worker-Communist Party of Iraq has at least raised a call for solidarity around principles of secularism, pluralism, socialism and basic respect for the rights of civil society.
The anti-war movement in the U.S. and Britain exhibits little interest in answering this call or even engaging in dialogue with what should be its own natural allies in Iraq. Instead, it either allows its fetishization of armed resistance to betray its own supposed values of elementary freedom and equality, or else looks to the day the U.S. can honorably leave a stable and democratic Iraq--a day which inevitably recedes further and further beyond the horizon.
The two tendencies appear too busy demonizing each other to meaningfully engage either the American public or Iraqi progressives--much less offer desperately needed solidarity. The anti-war movement's current isolation is, alas, well-earned.
"Iraq: Focus on threats against progressive women", IRIN, March 21, 2005
"Children 'starving' in new Iraq", BBC, March 30, 2005
"Security costs drain funds for water projects in Iraq," USA Today, April 21
"To All Civilized Humanity", Left Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, March 15, 2005
Previous WW4 REPORT Iraq updates:
"Is There a 'Third Alternative' in Iraq?", March 2005
"Iraq & Afghanistan: Is Bush Hallucinating?", October 2004
"Iraq: Civil War Inevitable?", March 2004
"How the Anti-War Movement is Blowing It," September 2003
"Beware Bush's Boomerang," April 2003
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, May 10, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution