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“They get their dead in neat, tidy caskets draped with a flag. We have to gather and scrape our dead off of the floors, and hope the US shrapnel and bullets left enough to make a definite identification.” So wrote the anonymous author of the internet diary Baghdad Burning, as she struggled to convey the tragedy of daily life in occupied Iraq.
The installation of a US protégé Iraqi Transitional Government is an alarming reminder of the tactics that led to the loss of millions of lives in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. For it is often forgotten that the seeds of the Vietnam war were sown by the US installing a client regime in Saigon. If Bush and Blair are not stopped, a similar catastrophe is in the making in Iraq.
Like Iraq today, South Vietnam was seen by Washington as the line that must be held at all costs. As the Vietnamese people’s rejection of the client regime grew stronger, the US bunkered behind its creation in Saigon to fight “communist infiltrators and insurgents”. The US-trained South Vietnamese forces grew to over a million, backed up by half a million US soldiers, “carpet” bombing and chemical weapons. Tens of thousands of people were arrested and tortured; secret US assassination squads targeted and killed about 41,000 people – victims of “Operation Phoenix”, which lasted from 1967 to 1971. By former US defence secretary Robert MacNamara’s reckoning, the Vietnamese death toll topped 3 million.
The US tactics in Vietnam (and more recently in Nicaragua and Honduras) are being gradually introduced into Iraq. US assassination squads, for example, are probably already active in Iraq. They were set up, with the help of Israeli experts, at Fort Bragg in North Carolina several months ago.
Thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the “end” of the war, adding to the uncounted thousands killed as “collateral damage” during it. The occupation has blocked any democratic gains that the Iraqis might have enjoyed as a result of the collapse of Saddam’s regime. For the US realised that the Iraqi people, if given the choice, would elect forces hostile to US policies. Elections for deans in Iraq’s universities, for example, were won by anti-occupation candidates, prompting the US to scrap elections for city mayors, and oppose calls for early national elections.
Mass democratic activity rapidly clashed with the occupation authority. The Union of the Unemployed quickly emerged as an effective mass campaigning force, and the Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions resurfaced. Students became similarly active. In response, the US proconsul, Paul Bremer, swiftly resurrected the 1984 Saddam law banning all strikes in the public sector and ordered the arrest of the unions” leaders. Meanwhile, the institutions that Bremer tried to establish have all failed to strike a chord with the people.
It has become fashionable to criticise the US for “having no plans” for Iraq after the fall of Saddam. The truth is that tens of policy committees drafted numerous plans. I know many Iraqi exiles who were well paid to join these committees, which worked in the US for months before the invasion. All these plans were jettisoned after colliding with the rock of the Iraqi people’s opposition. Had most of the people’s reaction been even mildly supportive of the invasion, these plans would have been implemented, and Bush and Blair might now be holding regular press conferences in downtown Baghdad.
The resistance also forced the US to abandon its plans to rule Iraq directly for at least two years and to “remould” the country, including privatising Iraq’s massive natural and human resources. The main purpose of the hastily arranged substitute plans was to empower pro-US Iraqis. The discredited Iraqi Governing Council, controlled by Bremer, has now given way to the transitional government, to be the custodian of “full Iraqi sovereignty” until elections scheduled for January 2005. Ambassador John Negroponte, infamous for his activities in Honduras, replaces Bremer to control the “sovereign” government from the biggest US embassy in the world, based at Saddam’s republican palace.
Though varied in political and social outlook, the opposition to the US-led presence and the armed resistance (as distinct from the terrorist atrocities that have targeted civilians) have been supported by Iraq’s mosques – the best organised social institution in the country. Saddam’s regime took great care to eliminate secular political organisations. Short of banning prayer itself, however, the mosque was the one institution that Saddam couldn’t fully control. Hence its central role in opposing both Saddam’s tyranny and the US-led occupation.
But the role of religion in Iraq is politically and socially contradictory. While the secular anti-occupation forces are concerned about the disproportionate influence of Iraq’s religious leaders, the latter are not all cut from the same cloth: for example, many support working with secular forces, holding democratic elections and upholding the rights of the Kurdish people. Some are also more enlightened on the rights of women, who have been the hardest hit by the sanctions and the occupation. There are others, however, eager to suppress women’s rights, in a society where women have been very active in most areas of the public domain since the 1950s.
Islamist leaders have organised people who rejected the strategy, advocated by other religious leaders, of ending the occupation by cooperating with the occupier. Shiah and Sunni religious leaders formed an anti-sectarian front, the Muslim Scholars Committee (MSC). The MSC has organised massive demonstrations in Baghdad, encouraging Muslims to unite and pray at each other’s mosques, where secular people are also welcome. The committee recently invited over 30 secular and Christian organisations and academics to attend the First Founding Iraqi Conference Against the US Occupation. This significant development attracted very little media coverage, as it contradicts the Western media’s line that Iraqis are incapable of working collectively.
This myth of implacable Iraqi sectarianism has been exploited by Bush and Blair in their latest package of pretexts to prolong the occupation. They say: “We will leave Iraq when the Iraqis ask us to& But the Iraqis want us to stay to prevent a civil war.” Which Iraqis? Bush named and thanked the new prime minister Ayad Allawi. A former Ba”athist intelligence officer and CIA “asset”, Allawi is leader of the Iraqi National Accord, composed of former Saddamist intelligence and military officers. This, and the torture of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and other prisons, is part of a systematic US policy of building new Saddamist state structures.
The media in Britain predicted that civil war was imminent after explosions at Shiah holy sites killed at least 270 people in March. But these explosions, instead of provoking civil war, generated massive unity across Iraq. People blamed the US (and Israel) for planning the atrocities or turning a blind eye to the perpetrators. Similarly, I saw personally how the Iraqi people helped each other in difficult circumstances when I visited in July 2003. People used street-based generators to supply electricity to homes during the daily power cuts, and cooperated to collect rubbish, guard neighbourhoods and tend the injured. Iraqis learnt self-reliance during the 13 years of sanctions (which did not affect Iraqi Kurdistan), when they managed, in spite of Saddam’s tyranny, to maintain agriculture, health and education services and a semblance of normal life. During the war, employees of many institutions, including universities, turned up to guard them against looting, only to be ordered away by the occupation forces, which carefully guarded the oil ministry and Saddam’s intelligence files. But in the teeth of the evidence, Bush and Blair continue to peddle the myth, beloved of colonialists, that Iraqis will instantly start a civil war if the “calming” presence of the occupation forces is removed.
But the US-led presence is dangerously dividing Iraqis now. The US is deepening a split between a minority for and an overwhelming majority against the US-led forces. It is here that the seeds of the “civil” war lie, threatening to engulf Iraq and the Middle East.
The immediate withdrawal of the US-led forces from Iraq is the only way to stop the impending “civil” war, in which these forces will back a “sovereign” Iraqi government to crush the people and their aspirations for liberation and democracy.
Sami Ramadani is a senior lecturer in sociology at the London Metropolitan University and a writer on Iraq. He was a political exile from Saddam’s regime for many years