From Tal Afar to Basra: fanning the flames of discontent in Iraq

Iraq is in flames like never before. The iconic scenes which we saw in Basra last week reminded us once more of the dreadful state of affairs in Iraq. Now the south is in a mess too. Imperialist troops cannot bring peace. Pull them out now!

Iraq is in flames like never before. The iconic scenes which we saw in Basra last week reminded us once more of the dreadful state of affairs in Iraq. Torched by flames, we saw a British soldier running for his life as he fled a burning tank surrounded by a large group of Iraqis. British troops apparently used up to ten tanks – supported by helicopters – to smash through the walls of a police station in order to free two British “servicemen” who were in reality members of the British secret service.

The drama unfolded when two British nationals were detained by the Iraqi police at a checkpoint. Later it emerged that they were British secret agents dressed in Arab clothes. They were stopped at the checkpoint and a confrontation followed in which shots were fired. Two Iraqi policemen were shot, one of whom later died. The British undercover agents were subsequently arrested, much to the dislike of the British command, after which the storming of the police station followed.

Gentlemanlike imperialism?

The alarm bells must be ringing in the British headquarters. Though a few protesters shot dead and the demolition of a police station are trivial compared to the daily suicide bombings in the American-controlled north, it is very significant that these events took place in the British-controlled southern zone around Basra, that was long thought to be quiet and relatively stable.

Now the British consulate in Basra has come under rocket attacks for the first time in several months, which, let us remember, is located in the heartland of the country’s Shia rulers and the repository of most of Iraq’s oil. Losing control of this area would be a disaster for the occupation forces, which is why, even when weighed on the bloody scale of Baghdad, the slightest sign of weakness and desperation in the “peaceful south” is so worrying from their point of view because it can transform the whole situation.

As The Economist points out: “For America’s more embattled troops, under fire in the Sunni areas farther north, it will be little consolation to know that if, as is often said, the British are better-loved by the locals, the love is quickly lost.” (September 22, 2005)

If there ever was any “love” on the part of the local population towards their occupiers, by their own actions the British troops are quickly destroying any credibility they might have had before. The myth of peaceful British soldiers who are supposedly champions of “peace-keeping” is gradually being destroyed. Insofar as this myth had not already gone down the drain with their divide and rule policy in Northern Ireland – and in fact in the whole history of British imperialism, with its brutal colonial wars in Africa and the Indian subcontinent – the real nature of the whole operation cannot remain covered up.

Robert Fisk made the following sharp observation:

“Indeed, much of the war in Northern Ireland appeared to revolve around the use of covert killings and SAS undercover operatives who blew away IRA men in ambushes. Which does raise the question, doesn’t it, as to just what our two SAS lads were doing cruising around Basra in Arab dress with itsy-bitsy moustaches and guns? Why did no one ask? How many SAS men are in southern Iraq? Why are they there? What are their duties? What weapons do they carry? Whoops! No one asked.

“What we were actually doing to “keep the peace” in Basra was to turn a Nelsonian “blind eye” on the abuse, murder and anarchy of Basra since 2003 (including, it turns out, quite a bit of abuse by our very own squaddies). When Christian alcohol sellers were murdered, we remained silent. When ex-Baathists were slaughtered in the streets – including women and their children, a civil war if ever there was one – our British officers somehow forgot to tell the press. Anything to keep our boys out of harm’s way.” (The Independent, September 24, 2005)

At this point the main problem for the British army is not that for the majority of the Iraqi population it is no longer seen as an ally. After all, so-called  “peacekeeping” from the barrel of a gun has never been popular in occupied nations. The bigger problem they face is that they can no longer put any trust in the Iraqi police force, which they claim has been infiltrated by “insurgents”. And when you lose control of the monopoly on violence, the chickens indeed come home to roost.

Historically speaking, an occupying force has never been able to keep control of the situation for a long time if it could not find local allies with which to enforce its rule. Things are no different in Iraq, where even the mightiest army on earth ‑ and its British junior partner ‑ would not be able to stay for long without the consent of a local elite of collaborators, including the present puppet government headed by prime minister Ibrahim al Jaafari. In that sense, the words of the governor of Basra, Muhammad al-Waili, do not bode well for them. He condemned last week’s raid as “savage, barbaric and irresponsible.”

Tal Afar

Up north, things are heating up for the Americans as well. Two weeks ago, the city of Tal Afar, some 80 km east of Mosul city, and near the Syrian border, was taken by a combined force of 6,000 Iraqi soldiers and 4,000 American troops. Against an overwhelming force of tanks, gunships and helicopters, the resistance was soon outnumbered and defeated. U.S. air strikes sent residents into a panicky flight from the city, which is populated by a majority of Sunni Arabs and also Shiite Turkomans. Last week, the Iraqi army announced the end of the three-week offensive, in which it said 157 “rebels” had been killed and 683 suspects captured.

As in Fallujah in November last year, that is the official account of the story. What the official stories do not say is that almost the entire city has been destroyed. After having fled from the bombardment, the returnees are complaining of clean water shortages and power outages after the infrastructure was battered to pieces.

Ironically, the Bush administration, which after all is a foreign occupier in Iraq, has justified the whole operation with the excuse that they were merely neutralising Islamic extremists coming into Iraq from neighbouring country Syria. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, has said that the U.S. is “running out of patience” with Syria. These tough words concealed the real reasons for the assault, i.e. once again to bully into obedience anybody not toeing the line of the American diktats. The great majority of the resistance in Tal Afar were Iraqis and not foreigners. As in Fallujah, the strategy of destroying a whole city seems to be based on the claim that it hosts foreign fighters. No doubt, however, in the eyes of most Iraqis, the real foreigners are the American troops and its “foreign” allies!

The assault on Tal Afar has to be seen against the background of a broader offensive by the US army to stifle any opposition to their presence, but also in light of the referendum on the draft constitution on October 15. The Iraqi government and its American masters risk getting into serious difficulties now that various organisations, mainly Sunni and Turkomen, have advised their members to vote against this piece of useless paper. Given the fact that hundreds of thousands of Sunnis, who boycotted the elections in January, registered to cast their no vote on the draft constitution, it did not require much imagination to see how U.S. imperialism would react to this.

As in Fallujah, here too the method was to bomb a city into obedience. And they will not stop there. Iraqi Defence Minister Saadun Al-Dulaimi revealed on September 10, that Iraqi and US forces would strike “insurgents” in the four north-western towns of Ramadi, Samarra, Rawa and Qaem, all heavily populated by Sunnis. This threat is now being carried out in the city of Ramadi, near the river Euphrates. From there on U.S. forces will undoubtedly continue the military onslaught along the Euphrates. This operation in reality is a sign of weakness on the part of an imperialist power that is overstretching itself.

A safer Iraq?

On the home front, things are not going well for the ruling circles. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll last week found that 67 per cent disapproved of the way George W. Bush was handling the situation in Iraq, whereas 57 per cent disapproved of his handling of the response to hurricane Katrina. Interestingly, asked about how the government will make up for the costs of Katrina, 54 per cent said spending on the Iraq war should be cut in order to pay for the rebuilding.

On the other side of the ocean, only 12 per cent of the 1,009 people questioned by an ICM poll published in The Guardian said the British troops’ presence in Iraq was helping improve the situation and 51 per cent said Tony Blair’s government should set a date for the withdrawal of the soldiers from Basra. Only 39 per cent were satisfied with Blair’s work as prime minister compared with 47 per cent the previous month. Only 41 per cent of voters are persuaded by the prime minister’s argument that troops have a duty to remain in the country until things improve, the poll said.

Not surprisingly, Blair said that no arbitrary date should be set for withdrawal. In a BBC interview he said, “I have absolutely no doubt as to what we should do. We should stick with it.” Blair added that there is absolutely no doubt in his mind that “what is happening in Iraq now is crucial for our own security. Never mind the security of Iraq or the greater Middle East. It is crucial for the security of the world.”

What security are we talking about here? Are things any better now in Iraq than when Saddam Hussein was still in power? Despite the monstrous regime of Saddam, the simple answer is no. Iraq is now a less safe place to live and work than ever before. Nobody can go to work without the fear of not seeing his family again in the evening. Iraqi sovereignty has been trampled underfoot by foreign armies pretending to deliver “democracy” but only bringing mayhem. Hundreds of people are dying on a daily basis as a direct result of the occupation. It is true that a lot of casualties are taken by suicide bombings, which also kill innocent Iraqis. However, the fact of the matter is that the bulk of these innocent casualties are the result of American and British fire, although this basic fact is obviously never mentioned in the press coverage of the bourgeois media.

The threat of civil war

To counter the growing calls for immediate withdrawal from Iraq, government officials usually bully any opposition to the war with the threat of civil war. “You see, our boys are needed to keep the peace. If they pull out the result will only be chaos and mayhem”. This is precisely the same tune that Lloyd George was already singing in 1920, when he warned of civil war in Iraq if the British army left. But wait a minute. Is there not already widespread terrorism in Iraq? Is there not already a guerrilla war against occupation forces? Are there not already sporadic clashes between Sunnis and Shias? “Yes,” one might reply, “but things will only get worse when our armies pull out.” This kind of reasoning overlooks the simple fact that the presence of foreign armies does not deter but rather contributes to a possible civil war.

Firstly, the U.S. forces are already killing more civilian Iraqis than would probably die in any ensuing civil war. Every single day Iraqis are killed at checkpoints by nervous soldiers not always able to make a distinction between resistance fighters and ordinary civilians. Every single day Iraqis from all ethnicities and religions die in firefights by patrolling troops who are instructed to use “overwhelming force” in clashes with suspected “insurgents”. Whenever they meet any resistance, the instructions are to demolish the whole building and to treat everybody inside as an enemy. Needless to say, dozens of innocent people die as an immediate result of this, which is thousands of dead a year. Add to that the number of ordinary Iraqis dying in American air raids in highly populated areas, and we come closer to putting all the talk about “civil war” in its proper context.

Secondly, we may ask: why is there so much terrorism all over the country? Indeed, it is due precisely to the presence of a foreign invader. Some of the resistance does indeed take despicable forms (such as the suicide bombing of some weeks ago in Baghdad killing unemployed Iraqis queuing up to get a job). Nevertheless the vast majority of the resistance still comes from wide layers of the population and is targeted directly against the occupying forces. In other words, if it were not for the presence of an occupying army, there would be no need for all this bloodshed. Much of the current violence would undoubtedly subside once the Americans left because the killing spree of the occupation forces themselves will have disappeared. Is it so hard to understand then that to take away the cause of a disease, you will most likely cure the symptoms of the disease?

Nevertheless, because the disease has become so severe and the patient is very ill, civil war in Iraq is a real possibility if it is not remedied very soon. Lately there have been several reports of violent clashes between Sunnis and Shias. Islamic fundamentalism recently showed its reactionary face once again when Al Qaeda in an audio fragment declared an all-out war against the Shias. The likes of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the leader of the so-called jihadists, are merely interested in creating a separate state for all Sunni Arabs in the Middle East. Instead of uniting the different religions and affiliations against the common enemy, i.e. the occupation forces, they play into the hands of the divide and rule policy of imperialism by openly calling for war against the Shiite population. Needless to say, this can only put petrol on the flames of sectarianism.

However, we have to clearly point out who is responsible for this mess. For the greater part, sectarian reprisals against the Shias are a consequence of American interference in Iraq. Reactionaries like al Zarqawi would get no real echo without the presence of American troops. After all, his main source of support stems from his claim that “the Shias are helping the Americans”. The success of Islamic fundamentalism depends on its ability to recruit people willing to give their lives in a suicide attack. But recruitment in turn depends on the discontent of the possible recruits, which clearly is the result of the havoc that imperialism is creating in Iraq. A country cannot be free under the boot of a foreign invader. This can only end in tears and will inevitably feed the flames of discontent in the whole region, as is happening now.

That is why the immediate withdrawal of all foreign troops is the necessary condition to prevent civil war and any further sectarian attacks. Let the Iraqis decide their own fate! End the occupation of Iraq!