Uncivil war: Imperialism and resistance in Iraq

By Rohan Pearce
"I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today will last five days, five weeks or five months, but it won’t last any longer than that”—US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, cnn, November 15, 2002.

“Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators”—US Vice President Dick Cheney, NBC’s Meet the Press, March 16, 2003.

Three years on from the invasion of Iraq, the imperial ambitions of the Bush junior White House are running smack-bang into the reality of what seems to be a militarily unwinnable counterinsurgency war. The reserves of imperial might on which the White House can draw are formidable and the victory of Iraqis over occupying forces is neither inevitable nor just around the corner. But if victory for Iraqis is not a certainty, the prospects of victory for the us appear far more remote.

Waging the ongoing war in Iraq (and few are any longer willing to claim that it is anything other than a war) is costing Washington at least $200 million per day. In January 2003, Rumsfeld told reporters that “the Office of Management and Budget has come up with a number that’s something under $50 billion for the cost [of the war]. How much of that would be the us burden, and how much would be other countries’, is an open question”. At least one estimate, conservative in its assumptions, puts direct budgetary costs of the war at up to us$1.2 trillion.1

“Will there come a day … when there will be no more American forces in Iraq?”, a journalist asked us President George Bush at a March 21 press conference. “That, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq”, Bush replied. In response to a follow-up question—“So it won’t happen on your watch?”—Bush said, “You mean a complete withdrawal? That’s a timetable. I can only tell you that I will make decisions on force levels based upon what the commanders on the ground say”.

The fact that the White House has, in essence, admitted that us troops will remain in Iraq beyond the expiry of Bush’s presidential term in January 2009 is a significant backdown. It appears a tactical decision by the us ruling class to try to defuse the disappointment and sense of betrayal in the working class as the long-term nature of the Iraq deployment becomes increasingly apparent. It’s a significant admission for an administration seeking to prevent the haemorrhaging of working-class support for the war. In Washington’s view, perhaps, it’s better to end talk of victory being just around the corner.

How the us ruling class is “selling” the Iraq deployment to a sceptical us population has evolved since the war began. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, the “threat” posed by Iraq and its non-existent weapons of mass destruction was the key thrust of Washington’s propaganda campaign, exploiting the post-9/11 sense of insecurity of the us working class. An October 7, 2002 speech by Bush was an example of the tenor: “I want to take a few minutes to discuss a grave threat to peace and America’s determination to lead the world in confronting that threat. The threat comes from Iraq. It arises directly from the Iraqi regime’s own actions, its history of aggression and its drive toward an arsenal of terror.”

When, after Baghdad had fallen to the invading forces, the lie became unsustainable, Washington placed more emphasis on the “liberation” and “democracy” that it had brought to Iraq. In particular, and in spite of the steady flow of us casualties and the failure to establish a stable Iraqi repressive apparatus to suppress the insurgency, the elections in January and December 2005 were seized on as evidence of progress.

Now, with 20,000 us casualties—2400 dead and 17,600 wounded—and more than 200 occupation troops from other countries killed,2 with Iraq clearly a substantial distance from conforming even to the “democratic” norms of the West and with dramatic incidents of sectarian violence such as the February 22 bombing of the golden-domed Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, the rhetoric has shifted again.

Although for a while it was officially denied by the White House, the key message being pushed about Iraq is no longer cloaked in saccharine rhetoric about freedom but is instead a dire warning of the consequences of us forces leaving the country: sectarian civil war between the Arab Shiite majority and the Arab Sunni minority. The irony is that, just as the us-led occupation forces are the greatest barrier to Iraqis achieving meaningful liberation, it is the occupation that is stoking sectarian strife.

Predictions of a sectarian civil war in the country are nothing new. In 2003, Sydney Morning Herald correspondent Paul McGeough argued:

Lately, us President George Bush … has been spinning his wheels. He has slid from asking Americans to “support our troops”, a cover for the questionable means by which he landed an army in Iraq, to talking about thousands of troops coming home in the northern spring, a foil for the realisation that Iraq is not an easy land to tame.

But there is a risk that Bush’s plans for a quick getaway ahead of next year’s us presidential election may set the scene for civil war in post-Saddam Iraq ...3

After the Samarra mosque bombing, such claims reached fever pitch, as Sunni mosques were attacked by angry Shiite mobs. Up to 168 Sunni mosques were burned, damaged or occupied, according to the Association of Muslim Scholars (ams), a Sunni group.

While undoubtedly some of the sectarian incidents were spontaneous, it is also obvious that some groups were doing their best to heighten sectarian tensions. On February 24, Britain’s Independent reported:

… gunmen at a makeshift checkpoint south of Baghdad murdered 47 people who had been demonstrating against the destruction of the Shia shrine at Samarra, bringing Iraq close to a sectarian bloodbath.

The victims were Shia and Sunni returning from a demonstration in the town of Kenaan, when they were dragged from their cars and killed. Their bodies were left in a ditch by the side of the road ... A particularly worrying factor in the present wave of violence is that frequently the sectarian killers either disguise themselves as army or police officers or really are soldiers or policemen.

A February 22 statement released by the ams, which is often linked to the resistance, said, “As long as the occupation remains, the sanctities of Muslims will be desecrated and targeted, and matters in our country will only go from bad to worse”. In a similar vein, rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr said it was not Sunnis but the occupation that was to blame for the bombing, according to a February 23 Radio Free Europe report. In some cities, Sunnis and Shias held joint demonstrations that blamed the mosque’s destruction on the occupation forces, and resistance groups put out statements distancing themselves from the bombing.

In the aftermath of other tragedies in occupied Iraq, there were also predictions of widespread armed conflict between adherents of the two major Islamic sects. For example, at least 1000 people died in a stampede on Baghdad’s Al Aaimma bridge on August 31, 2005, after rumours of an impending attack on a procession caused people to panic. The September 14 Green Left Weekly reported:

The September 1 London Daily Mirror commented: “The incident raises the spectre of civil war erupting in Iraq with tensions already running high among rival religious and ethnic communities before a vote on the new constitution.” But the opposite happened: “As pilgrims tumbled off the bridge, scores of young Sunni men from Adhamiya leapt into the river to save them”, reported the September 4 New York Times.

From the tragedy emerged a Sunni hero—Uthman al Ubaidi, a 19-year-old man who dived into the Tigris and saved the lives of six Shiites who had gone into the water, before drowning while trying to rescue a seventh. According to a September 6 Reuters report, portraits of Ubaidi now sit outside both Sunni and Shia mosques in the districts near the site of the tragedy.

Sunni clerics called for donations of blood to help ease a shortage in the tragedy’s aftermath. Residents of Fallujah, a predominantly Sunni city noted for putting up fierce armed resistance to the us occupation (usually treated by the corporate media as cut from the same cloth as terrorist attacks on mosques), gave more than 1800 bottles of blood, according to the United Nations’ irin news service.

“Some Iraqis used the disaster as a reminder that for all the divisive politics of recent weeks, most Iraqis still do not define themselves first and foremost by sect”, the New York Times explained.

This does not mean that sectarian tensions don’t exist, but the corporate media’s reporting has frequently presented the roots of the current violence in an ahistorical manner. For example, a March 3 article by Tom Lasseter and Nancy Youssef for Knight Ridder Newspapers was headlined “Ethnic hatred in Iraq has become entrenched, political solutions elusive”, as if Sunni and Shiite Arab Iraqis were different ethnic groups.

In an interview in International Socialism #109, Sami Ramadani, a refugee from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University, argued:

On the communal, street level, there aren’t these sharp divisions between people. People don’t go killing each other because they are on the wrong side of the religious divide, or even national divide.

The wars against the Kurdish people, for example, were not communal wars whereby hundreds of thousands of Arabs went to fight Kurds, but rather a repressive state that was launching a chauvinist war against the Kurdish people, and it was the state against the people. Progressive Arabs from the South used to flee and use Kurdistan as the safe area to conduct their struggle against the regime. Thousands of soldiers used to flee to the Kurdish forces, for example, at the height of these wars.

There has never been a sectarian conflict in Iraq on the communal, street level. Saddam’s regime had obvious sectarian dimensions, especially after the 1991 uprising, which was centred in the South, and since most of the South is Shia, it appeared to be a campaign against the Shia. Iraq is not an apartheid society, and never was. Saddam’s regime rested on using social strata and security services from across the sects and nationalities of Iraq. Saddam’s regime could not have ruled the South or Kurdistan without people from the South and Kurdistan participating in that. So there was a social base, a narrow social base of course, that backed that fascist set-up, but it was a social base that was drawn from all sects and religions and nationalities.

Iraqi identity is still strongly national (with the obvious exception of the Kurds), although there has been a heightened level of religious identification among the Shiite population, a legacy of the suppression of Shiite religious rituals under Saddam Hussein and the emergence of Shiite religious-based parties as the most important Iraqi political groupings in the post-invasion governments. But Judith Yaphe, senior fellow of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, dc, argued in a November 23, 2003, article posted at Menavista.com:

Iraq does not divide logically or neatly between Sunni Arab and Shia Arab. They live intermixed in much of Iraq and in Baghdad, where an estimated 60 percent of the population is Shia, 20 percent Sunni Arab, and 20 percent Kurd and Turkman. Sunni Arabs live in the southern cities of Basra and Zubayr and along the borders with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s Arabs—Sunni or Shia—do not now and never have sought division. There is a long tradition of inter-communal cooperation and intermarriage. Many Sunni Arab clans and families, including Saddam’s, have Sunni and Shia branches. Moreover, Kurds, Shia Arabs and Sunni Arabs have worked together in Iraq’s past and could again in the future.

Far from holding back sectarian conflict in Iraq, the us has been part of promoting it. “Iraq has strong nationalist political traditions that run counter to sectarianism, and Shia and Sunni have lived side by side, worked together and intermarried for many decades”, an April 28 article in the us Socialist Worker notes. “The religious divide isn’t natural or inevitable. But the forces the U.S. set in motion, if not opposed, could nevertheless plunge Iraq into a civil war.”

Ramadani explains:

Generally speaking they [the occupation forces] have encouraged it [sectarianism], even before the occupation, because they dealt with the Iraqi opposition forces at the conference in London and a couple of other pre-occupation conferences increasingly in terms of who is a Kurd, who is an Arab, who is Shia, who is Sunni, who is Turkoman, who is Christian, and so on. And they deliberately tried to foster this—that was quite evident. They continued that after the occupation, to an even greater extent. So any institution that they had a hand in forming had to be divided on a sectarian basis—even the army units they wanted to set up earlier were run on a sectarian basis.

It is also clear that some of the violence reported in the media is being falsely attributed to sectarian causes. Such is frequently the case with the numerous death squads linked to the Iraqi Interior Ministry. These death squads are not unlinked to sectarianism—they’re partly a product of the us-established security forces being created on sectarian lines. The victims, however, have included large numbers of both Sunni and Shiite Iraqis.

The factor that holds the key to keeping sectarian violence from tearing Iraq apart is the overwhelming common ground that Iraqis have when it comes to the occupation. The majority of Iraqis are clearly opposed to the presence of foreign troops, and most view the occupying forces as the root cause of sectarian violence. A Zogby International poll conducted in January 2005 found that 69 per cent of Shiite Iraqis and 82 per cent of Sunnis “favor us forces withdrawing either immediately or after an elected government is in place”.

A poll conducted by the British Ministry of Defence, the results of which were reported by the London Telegraph in October 2005, found that 82 per cent of Iraqis overall “strongly opposed” the presence of foreign troops. In this, Iraqis’ views are remarkably in line with those of the majority of people in the countries of the “coalition of the willing”.

A sectarian resistance?

In light of the very real sectarian violence in Iraq that has dominated headlines, an assessment of the resistance in Iraq needs to consider whether the armed resistance represents, as is frequently claimed, a sectarian response by Sunni Iraqis to the new political dominance of Shiites. The evidence that would indicate that this isn’t the case includes:

n the existence of groups that primarily target occupying forces and their Iraqi proxies;

n the indications of widespread sympathy for clearly anti-occupation armed actions (as opposed to provocations targeting Iraqis);

n the evidence that the success of Iraqis guerrilla forces has been dependent on tacit support among the broader population.

Iraq Body Count: A Dossier of Civilian Casualties 2003-2005, published by the Oxford Research Group, found that “us-led forces alone” produced 37.3 per cent of the total civilian casualties in the period assessed, compared to 9.5 per cent for anti-occupation forces. “Predominantly criminal killings” accounted for 35.9 per cent of the total civilian deaths. The Iraq Body Count methodology—basing figures on media-reported deaths—means that it almost certainly underestimates the number of casualties caused by occupation forces and overestimates the civilian casualties caused by anti-occupation forces. In the case of the latter, it almost certainly lumps together armed attacks by indigenous nationalist groups and attacks by anti-Shiite terrorist groups with ideological outlooks akin to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network, such as Zarqawi’s Jama’at al Tawhid wal-Jihad. This is certainly the case in reporting on the Iraq war. The corporate media often lump together terrorist attacks with anti-occupation guerrilla assaults and common criminality, presenting their audience with an undifferentiated morass of rootless violence, with only the occupation forces capable of bringing some kind of stability.

The Pentagon, with the complicity of the corporate media, has painted Zarqawi and his ilk as the mainstream of the resistance. The Washington Post reported on April 10:

The U.S. military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program. The effort has raised his profile in a way that some military intelligence officials believe may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war to the organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The documents state that the U.S. campaign aims to turn Iraqis against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, by playing on their perceived dislike of foreigners. U.S. authorities claim some success with that effort, noting that some tribal Iraqi insurgents have attacked Zarqawi loyalists.

Groups like the (Sunni) ams that have close links to the resistance draw distinctions between terrorist attacks by Zarqawi and the patriotic armed resistance. Zarqawi’s sectarian terrorist attacks are so damaging for Iraqi nationalist forces and handy for the occupation that they have even led to rumours and speculation that he is a puppet of Washington. Iraqis, unlike, to their shame, some Western leftists, have typically proven able to distinguish between Zarqawi-style attacks that inflict mass casualties on Shiite civilians and attacks that target the occupying forces.

There are some reports, however, that the distinction between the “honourable resistance” (al muqawama al sharifa)—the nationalist anti-occupation groups—and terrorist groups that adhere to al Qaeda-style ideologies has been blurred somewhat by the number of spectacular callous attacks that Zarqawi and his ilk have managed to carry out. Zarqawi himself seems to have been eager to blur the distinction by claiming that only fighters affiliated with him should be considered part of the “honourable resistance”, in a recording released on the internet on July 5, 2005.

Even though the bulk of the fighters now engaged in attacks on occupying troops are from Sunni backgrounds, there is evidence that they enjoy sympathy from Arab Iraqis of all religious backgrounds. A poll secretly commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence found “that up to 65 per cent of Iraqi citizens support attacks and fewer than one per cent think Allied military involvement is helping to improve security in their country”, according to a report by the Telegraph on October 23. The level of support for armed attacks varied throughout the country, but in Maysan governate in Iraq’s east—a majority Shiite province—65 per cent “believe that attacks against coalition forces are justified”.

After travelling through Iraq, Zaki Chehab, the political editor of the London-based Al Hayat and the first journalist to broadcast interviews with members of the Iraqi resistance, estimated that 99 per cent of the Sunni population were opposed to the occupation: “This is the conclusion that one makes after touring the country—in specific, Sunni-populated areas—and talking to people, including intellectuals and tribal leaders, not all of whom supported Saddam Hussein’s regime. To them, both the American occupation and Saddam Hussein have treated Iraqis badly.”

In his book Iraq Ablaze: Inside the Insurgency (I.B. Tauris, December 2005), Chehab dismisses the idea that Sunni insurgents are motivated by loyalty to the previous regime: “With the American victory, the Sunnis felt tarred for having been Saddam supporters, even though thousands had suffered under his regime.” According to Chehab:

Many of the Sunni intellectuals I have spoken to agree that Saddam ruled the country under the Sunni banner, but this didn’t mean that Sunnis were automatically spared his wrath or torturous behaviours. The fate of many high-ranking officers from the Sunni-dominated cities of Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, and even Mosul, is well known. Many of them were executed in the throes of planning to eliminate his dictatorial regime.

Popular support for the resistance groups is high in Sunni areas, he told Green Left Weekly in a February interview. This is because the groups are part of the population, not separate from it. “Just to give an example”, he explained, the December election in Iraq

… was extremely peaceful in spite of the threats made by Zarqawi … The difference between his stance and other insurgency groups [is that] they say we don’t believe in elections but we have to respect the will of Iraqis; they didn’t attack, and [election] day was extremely peaceful in Iraq. So this reflects that the majority of insurgency groups realise, because they are part of the people, they felt at some stage that it’s the will of the Sunnis that day to go out [and] participate because Sunnis in Iraq at some stage have felt that they have been given a chance to participate and they want a chance to show that they are willing to do so. That’s why that election … [was] extremely peaceful in spite of the threats. Zarqawi, that day, he did not dare to carry out a single attack in spite of the statements he made.

If there is no schedule for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq developed, then it is likely that there will be an influx of Shiites into armed resistance groups over the long term, Chehab told GLW. “This can be reflected in the kind of statement they made in Cairo two months ago. There was a meeting for all Iraqi political parties and groups and the one thing they agreed about [is] that they all together want to see a timetable for American forces to withdraw from Iraq.” A November 26, 2005, Los Angeles Times article reported that the Cairo conference, attended by Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups, had adopted a statement that recognised “Iraqis’ ‘legitimate right of resistance’ to foreign occupation”.

An article in the December 7, 2005, issue of Green Left Weekly commented, “The fact that all of the representatives of the political parties in Washington’s puppet Iraqi regime had to accept the legitimacy of the nationalist armed resistance movement is a reflection of the huge antipathy among the Iraqi people toward the us-led occupation”.

While the armed resistance has been strongest in areas with a Sunni majority (particularly the so-called Sunni triangle) the occupation has never been free of the danger of widespread Shiite participation in the armed struggle. This was particularly so during the two periods of intense armed struggle between the occupation forces and the Mahdi Army militia of Moqtada Al Sadr in April and August 2004. During these periods, Shia-Sunni alliances against the occupation forces signalled the potential for broad unity among armed groups.

Chehab told Green Left Weekly, “Very few Shia have made it clear they are into using military force to fight the occupation”. However, he added, “Even the Sadr group and other Shia, they said that they want to see a scheduled timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, but definitely the kind of insurgency which is very active in terms of attacks and something similar to that, is carried by Sunnis”.

After the intervention of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in the August stand-off in Najaf, an uneasy peace was established. The conflict with the occupation forces cemented Sadr’s popularity among Iraqis (rivalling Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, who has a far higher religious rank than Sadr). Sadr inherited some prestige from his father (a cleric who was murdered by Hussein’s regime), and welfare work by his followers in the aftermath of the invasion added to this, but his popularity really started to take off when he started challenging the occupation regime and when his followers took up arms to defend themselves against the occupation forces.

The roots of resistance

The claims of conspiracy by Washington and its apologists about a pre-planned response to the invasion by pro-Saddam forces and a resistance dominated by foreign Al Qaeda-linked fighters have now been largely discredited by events. At almost every turn, the fierce resistance that’s greeted foreign forces has been shown to be an indigenous Iraqi response to occupation and repression.

Fallujah is a clear example, as well as an indicator of the kinds of difficulties Washington faces in trying to win a counterinsurgency war militarily. Fallujah illustrated that while the occupation forces have proved their aptitude for destruction, an ability to convince Iraqis to accept occupation—through either cajoling and offering an ever-thinning facade of sovereignty or brute force—has been elusive.

The violent reoccupation of the town was a pyrrhic victory for the us. In a November 6, 2005, New York Times article, with the headline kicker “Why the Iraqi city the Americans conquered a year ago is still a threat”, Chris Allbritton explained, “… like much else about the war in Iraq, Fallujah hasn’t turned out as the us had hoped. In many respects, the city reflects less the progress of the us enterprise than its troubles”. In an attempt to control the city’s still-hostile population, us forces have implemented extreme police-state measures (even by the far from liberal standards of the rest of the “new Iraq”), which seal off Fallujah from the rest of the country. “The military has closed the city to the outside world, allowing people in only after they show ID cards that they are residents of Fallujah. The Marines man five entry checkpoints turning away anyone who can’t provide proper credentials or who seems suspicious.”

Despite the city’s lock-down, us forces continue to suffer attacks—insurgents taking potshots at them during patrols, mortar attacks, car bombs and ieds (improvised explosive devices). According to Allbritton, the movements of us patrols are sometimes announced by the loudspeakers of Fallujah’s mosques in an attempt to aid rebels’ attacks. Fallujah’s residents are unwilling to aid the us forces or their armed Iraqi proxies in their efforts to hunt down armed resistance fighters. On April 12, a us marine died due to “enemy action” according to a Marine Corps report. On April 13 China’s Xinhua news agency reported that a us military base near Fallujah came under mortar fire. On April 15 Xinhua reported that an ied attack destroyed a us humvee.

Washington’s “failure” to end armed resistance in the city is a surprise only for those who bought the line of the Pentagon, that us troops in Fallujah faced mainly foreign jihadists and terrorists lead by Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

Casey told journalists at his 2004 press briefing that Fallujah was the “centre of terrorist and insurgent activity in Iraq”. “From Fallujah”, the rebels “have exported terror across Iraq against all Iraqis”. In reality, however, it was the us that imported terror to Fallujah. The town’s transformation into a bastion of resistance to the us-led occupation occurred more than a year before “Phantom Fury” levelled a large portion the town, located some 70 kilometres west of Baghdad, in the name of “freedom”.

The bulk of the resistance in Fallujah was apparently home grown. In a November 24, 2004 article, the Boston Globe reported that the leaders of the resistance in the city were a local electrician and a cleric from a Fallujah mosque. The origins of armed resistance in Fallujah can be traced almost precisely to April 28, 2003, when us troops, who had arrived in the city five days earlier, massacred 17 apparently unarmed protesters. Two days later, another three Iraqis were killed by us troops. The April 28 protest had demanded an end to Fallujah’s occupation and, more specifically, that us troops vacate the al Qa’id primary school, where classes had been scheduled to resume on April 29. On April 30, another three Iraqis were killed by us soldiers during a protest. The response was immediate—that night a grenade attack injured seven us troops. Less than a month later, the first us troops had been killed in Fallujah.

By early February of the next year, the incessant resistance to their presence forced us troops to abandon the city. The February 8, 2004, Washington Post reported, “U.S. troops have abandoned fixed positions in the city”. “On any given day in Fallujah, it is hard to know who really is in charge”, it added. “U.S. forces are seen less often than before in the muddy streets. The U.S.-sanctioned local government operates behind barricades, and police hunker down in fortress-like compounds.”

The challenge that Fallujah represented to Washington’s attempts to impose a us-friendly order on Iraq could not go unanswered. Using the March 31, 2004, lynching of four us mercenaries employed by Blackwater usa as justification, us Marines launched an attempt to reoccupy Fallujah. Widespread Iraqi opposition to a vicious siege of the city forced the attempt to be called off. A cease-fire brought a formal handover of responsibility for the city’s security to the Fallujah Protection Army—an Iraqi-led force that began to recruit the city’s resistance fighters. “Many of the guys who were shooting at the marines have simply put on their old army uniforms and joined the Fallujah Brigade”, a us official told the May 6 Washington Post.

The cease-fire agreement amounted to a us backdown—an acknowledgment that the political costs of proceeding with crushing the resistance in Fallujah through brute force would be too great. Of particular concern was the outbreak of armed resistance in the predominantly Shiite areas of the country’s south, led by the followers of rebel cleric Moqtada al Sadr. In early November 2004, however, with the us presidential election safely out of the way, Washington launched an ultimately successful attempt to recapture the city.

The composition of the Fallujah resistance does not appear to be an isolated case. In April 2004, the New York Times noted, “There is no way to estimate the size of the mushrooming insurgent force”, but that “demonstrations in several cities by armed and angry people indicate that it probably runs in the tens of thousands”. Far from being some secret army under the command of Saddam loyalists or Zarqawi, many of the rebels “said they did not consider themselves full-time freedom fighters or mujahedeen; they have jobs in vegetable shops, offices, garages and schools. But when the time comes, they say, they line up behind their leaders—with guns”.

Foreign fighters have obviously been a part of the insurgency, although as the Pentagon itself has repeatedly admitted, only a small part. There are indications that many of the suicide bombings have been carried out by foreign-born fighters (the character of such bombings has varied—some are clear provocations, while others fall within the scope of genuine attempts to strike against the occupation forces).

Moreover, not only do resistance groups have a high proportion of working-class members and supporters, but their key political demand—the end of the occupation—expresses the objective interests of the working class in Iraq. This is true not only in the immediate sense that us-led forces in Iraq, and their armed Iraqi proxies like the Special Police Commandos, are used to repress Iraqis and protect multinational corporations’ pillaging of the country, but also in the sense that until Iraq wins independence, the occupation will distort and retard the development of working-class struggle against the Iraqi ruling class.

An Iraq syndrome?

The ultimate criterion by which socialists should judge the Iraqi resistance cannot be whether their political programs—which for the most part are limited merely to the eviction of the occupying forces from their country—conform to a Marxist-Leninist program for national liberation and the socialist overthrow of capitalism or whether they act in a manner acceptable to Western liberalism. Instead it must be on their objective impact on the class struggle.

In the case of a country like Iraq that is very directly under the thumb of imperialism, success in challenging the imperialist us occupation needs to be the key criterion by which political forces can be judged by Marxists. The assessment must be that, despite its political limitations and diffuse and contradictory nature, the armed Iraqi resistance has mounted a formidable challenge to imperialism.

Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky explained this approach in a 1935 letter to the secretariat of the International Communist League (the successor organisation to the International Left Opposition and the precursor of the Fourth International) that addressed the approaching conflict between Ethiopia and Benito Mussolini’s Italy.4 Trotsky wrote:

Of course we are for the defeat of Italy and the victory of Ethiopia, and therefore we must do everything possible to hinder by all available means support to Italian imperialism by the other imperialist powers, and at the same time facilitate the delivery of armaments, etc., to Ethiopia as best we can. However, we want to stress that this fight is directed not against fascism, but against imperialism. When war is involved, for us it is not a question of who is ‘better’, the Negus [the title of Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia] or Mussolini; but rather, it is a question of the relationship of classes and the fight of an underdeveloped nation for independence against imperialism.5

In a 1936 letter, Trotsky criticised the position of members of Britain’s left-reformist Independent Labour Party who opined:

… that the Italo-Ethiopian war is “a conflict between two rival dictators”. To these politicians it appears that this fact relieves the proletariat of the duty of making a choice between two dictators. They thus define the character of the war by the political form of the state, in the course of which they themselves regard this political form in a quite superficial and purely descriptive manner, without taking into consideration the social foundations of both “dictatorships”.

If Mussolini triumphs [Trotsky continued], it means the reinforcement of fascism, the strengthening of imperialism, and the discouragement of the colonial peoples in Africa and elsewhere. The victory of the Negus, however, would mean a mighty blow not only at Italian imperialism but at imperialism as a whole, and would lend a powerful impulsion to the rebellious forces of the oppressed peoples. One must really be completely blind not to see this.6

In a 1938 interview, Trotsky expanded on this reasoning, giving the hypothetical example of a conflict between Brazil, a nation oppressed by imperialism and then under the rule of the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship, and “democratic” Britain, an imperialist power:

In Brazil there now reigns a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat.7

Even in the absence of the successful creation of an Iraq-wide front against the occupation (although attempts have been made) and despite the reactionary role of figures like Zarqawi who have tried to hijack the resistance for their own ends, the resistance has sown the seeds of a crisis for us imperialism. An article by Fred Barnes in the November 28 Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard, a paper that’s been an ideological guiding light for the neoconservatives in the Bush regime and of which Barnes is executive editor, declared that the war “must be won in Washington as well” as in Iraq. His article sounded the alarm for the war’s backers:

By themselves, the events are small. A normally hawkish Democratic congressman, John Murtha calls for an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq. The Republican-controlled Senate passes a resolution that says 2006 is the year to begin a “phased redeployment of United States forces from Iraq.” Democrats continue their attacks on President Bush for allegedly hyping or falsifying the prewar intelligence on Iraq.

And on top of all that, former President Bill Clinton changes his mind about the liberation of Iraq by military force. Clinton was a strong supporter of the war—but no longer. “Saddam is gone,” he said at the American University in Dubai. “It’s a good thing. But I don’t agree with what was done. It was a big mistake.” By “it,” Clinton meant the invasion that deposed Saddam Hussein.

Taken together, these events are ominous. They may not represent an irreversible new consensus among the political class toward America’s intervention in Iraq. But at a minimum, they suggest that troop removal has superseded victory as the primary American concern. The current shift in attitude is reminiscent of the one that followed the Tet Offensive in 1968, which consisted of Democratic defections, Republican anxiety, and a general loss of confidence in America’s ability to prevail in Vietnam. And we know where all that led: directly to the 1975 collapse [when Vietnamese liberation forces entered Saigon].

The fears of the consequences of steadily deepening and highly public differences on the sagacity of the war emerging within the us ruling elite are not unfounded. Casualties and Consensus: The Historical Role of Casualties in Domestic Support for U.S. Military Operations (C&C), a 1996 report published by the RAND Corporation, examined the contexts in which troop casualties can begin to lead to a precipitous drop in public support for war.

An important factor, C&C argued, was that when “support or the preferred strategies for concluding [a military] operation fall prey to partisan divisions among leaders, the public will typically also become divided ... when political and other opinion leaders fail to agree with the president that much (or any) good is likely to come of an intervention, there should be little surprise that the public also becomes divided”.

In short, when deep divisions on participation in an ongoing war emerge among the us political elite, there is the potential for already shrinking public support to plummet further. The role of us causalities in the erosion of public support for overseas military interventions is well known (the “Vietnam Syndrome”). C&C argues, however, that without clearly defined goals or a moral veneer, support for imperialist wars can erode dramatically under the impact of even small numbers of casualties: “Whenever the reasons for introducing us forces lack either moral force or broadly recognized national interests, support may be very thin indeed, and even small numbers of casualties may often be sufficient to erode public support for the intervention.”

The erosion of much of the war’s veneer of legitimacy has had an impact on the morale of us troops within Iraq. On March 1 Stars and Stripes reported that a poll of active-duty us troops in Iraq found that 29 per cent believe that us military forces should be withdrawn “immediately”; 22 per cent said they should be withdrawn within the next six months. This will not be helped by the abject failure, so far, of “Iraqisation”. In February General Peter Pace, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a us Senate committee that there was only one Iraqi army battalion (about 700 troops) capable of fighting the insurgents without us military support.

Socialist critics of the resistance

The Iraqi resistance has not been without its opponents on the left, even among groups that proclaim themselves revolutionary socialists. The Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, a small leftist party that operates within Iraq and has conducted some courageous organising of workers and the unemployed, is hostile to the armed resistance. The roots of its opposition are in its implacable opposition to Islamic forces, a product of the repression their members have faced from Islamicists, and an anti-Leninist view of national liberation struggles.

Parties from the Worker-Communist tendency (the wcpi, the Worker-Communist Party of Iran and the offshoots in both countries) typically draw an equal sign between all groups with Islamic-based ideologies, for example groups as diverse as Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Sadr movement. There is an interesting antecedent to the wcpi’s anti-Islam sectarianism. A People’s History of Iraq: The Iraqi Communist Party, Workers’ Movements, and the Left 1924-2004 (by Ilario Salucci, Haymarket Books, 2005), notes:

In 1929 this political circle [a “communist circle composed of young people” founded in 1927-28 in the southern city of Basra—RP] was transformed into the Liberal Association (as the “antireligious party” was known), and it published a radical democratic program aimed at the promotion of freedom of ideas, words, and actions; a secular state; women’s liberation; Arab unity; and modern social and scientific ideas. The promotion of this association was of a strictly atheistic, antireligious nature, but the peasants and dockers at whom it was aimed showed no great interest. That was the last time the Iraqi Communists came out with anti-Islamic propaganda.

The Islamic groups associated with the armed resistance (some of which are fundamentalist and some of which are not) have typically gained their authority not because of their religious ideology but because of their opposition to the occupation. Trying to challenge this on an abstract “antireligious” basis instead of winning support on the basis of being the most effective fighters against the occupation is a recipe for isolation (us government figures put the percentage of Muslims in the Iraqi population at 97 per cent—Shia 60-65 per cent, Sunni 32-37 per cent). wcpi members face repression at the hands of Islamicists, but by isolating themselves from the mass of Iraqis who support these groups because of their anti-occupation credentials, not their ideology, it is harder for them to mount a political challenge to such groups.

The wcpi has a “left communist” approach to national liberation struggles. An article on its website (http://www.wpiraq.net) argues:

Left nationalism stands in stark opposition to the Worker Communist movement on the issue of the us war and occupation of Iraq. Worker Communism opposes the us war and occupation of Iraq not on the ground of “nationalism” and “national liberation” but on the basis of freedom, equality, abolition of wage system, and human liberation. Worker Communism despises nationalism as an anti-human sentiment. It fights against Islamism as a right wing and extremely reactionary current. Its struggle against Imperialism is a struggle against capitalism, that is, it strives for abolition of wage slavery and establishment of socialism.

Such an approach is at odds with that advocated by the Third International under Lenin. The Theses on the Eastern Question, adopted by the Fourth Congress of the Communist International on December 5, 1922, argue:

The refusal of Communists in the colonies to take part in the fight against imperial tyranny, on the pretext of their supposed “defence” of independent class interests, is the worst kind of opportunism and can only discredit the proletarian revolution in the East ... A dual task faces the Communist and workers’ parties of the colonial and semi-colonial countries: on the one hand, they are fighting for a more radical answer to the demands of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, directed towards the winning of national political independence; on the other hand, they are organising the mass of workers and peasants to fight for their own class interests, making good use of all the contradictions in the nationalist bourgeois-democratic camp ... The working class of the colonies and semi-colonies must be firmly convinced that it is only the overall intensification of the struggle against Great-Power imperialist oppression that can promote it to revolutionary leadership. On the other hand, it is only the political and economic organisation and the political education of the working class and the semi-proletarian layers that can increase the revolutionary scope of the anti-imperialist struggle.

The Communist Parties of the colonial and semi-colonial Eastern countries are still in a more or less embryonic stage and must take part in every movement that gives them access to the masses.

The wcpi negates the national liberation struggle in a country where freedom from neo-colonialism is clearly a burning issue for the proletarian and non-proletarian masses. In its place the party places an undue emphasis on trade union struggle (which is just as bourgeois as any national liberation struggle) despite the limitations of doing so in a country suffering mass unemployment and when a struggle against a military occupation has widespread support.

Iraq’s challenge to imperialism

From the point of view of revolutionary socialists, the consequences of the defeat or victory of us imperialism in Iraq are profound. Victory would free resources for Washington to carry out “regime change” in Iran and invigorate its campaign to topple Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez, whose alliance with the Cuban revolutionary state has, over the years since Chavez’s initial electoral victory in 1998, become an important element in maintaining the island nation’s socialist system in the face of continuing hostility from its imperialist neighbour.

By contrast, defeat would signal a heavy blow to us imperialism’s goal of a “new American century”. Che Guevara’s famous Message to the Tricontinental, delivered in 1967, described the significance of the Vietnamese workers’ and peasants’ struggle against their imperialist oppressors:

Let us sum up our hopes for victory: total destruction of imperialism by eliminating its firmest bulwark: the oppression exercised by the United States of America. To carry out, as a tactical method, the people’s gradual liberation, one by one or in groups: driving the enemy into a difficult fight away from its own territory; dismantling all its sustenance bases, that is, its dependent territories.

This means a long war. And, once more we repeat it, a cruel war. Let no one fool himself at the start and let no one hesitate to start out for fear of the consequences it may bring to his people. It is almost our sole hope for victory. We cannot elude the call of this hour. Vietnam is pointing it out with its endless lesson of heroism, its tragic and everyday lesson of struggle and death for the attainment of final victory.

There, the imperialist soldiers endure the discomforts of those who, used to enjoying the U.S. standard of living, have to live in a hostile land with the insecurity of being unable to move without being aware of walking on enemy territory: death to those who dare take a step out of their fortified encampment. The permanent hostility of the entire population. All this has internal repercussion in the United States; propitiates the resurgence of an element which is being minimized in spite of its vigour by all imperialist forces: class struggle even within its own territory.

How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world!

While there is much about the dynamics of the Iraqi struggle and its leadership that is different from the experience of Vietnam, and the creation of a workers’ state in the Middle East is a distant prospect, success in expelling the us imperialists, even a partial victory, would represent a major victory for the world’s oppressed.

The armed resistance has so far been key to forcing the us onto the back foot in Iraq. Whether Washington will find a political solution that allows it to retain control of Iraq or whether the armed resistance will be derailed by widespread sectarian violence are both still open questions. It is clear, however, that as long as the imperialist occupation of Iraq continues, peace and freedom will remain elusive for Iraqis.


1. A study by economists Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, presented at the January 6-8 meeting of the American Economic Association, estimated the cost of the war in Iraq to be between $750 billion and $1.2 trillion, assuming that us troop withdrawals begin this year and proceed over the next five years.

2. As of April 4, according to http://icasualties.org/oif/.

3. Cited in “Iraq: Media’s ‘civil war’ talk conceals colonial war”, Doug Lorimer, Green Left Weekly #659, March 8, 2006.

4. The letter was written in July. Italy invaded in October of that year.

5. “The Italo-Ethiopian Conflict”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36), Pathfinder Press, 1970. Emphasis in original.

6. “On dictators and the Heights of Oslo”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36).

7. “Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation”, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39), Pathfinder Press, 1974.

[Rohan Pearce is a staff writer for Green Left Weekly and a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia.]