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US prepares for attack on Iraq

JM Thorn

6th August 2002

A US-led attack on Iraq now seems inevitable; the only question is when it will happen.  Although the prospect of a strike against Iraq seemed to diminish in the shadow of events like the nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan, and Israel’s re-occupation of the West Bank, it is now firmly back on the agenda.  This should not be a surprise.  The Bush administration has always made clear its determination to remove Saddam Hussein from power.  This was the case before the September 11th attacks, and in their wake the administration has proclaimed this objective even more boldly.  At a White House press conference in July , Bush declared that : “It is the stated policy of this government to have regime change  . . .  and we’ll use all the tools at our disposal to do so.”  These “tools” are now being readied.

Invasion plans

In recent months the United States has been progressively constructing its political and military strategy for such an attack on Iraq.  It has placed record orders placed for the precision-guided munitions that would be used in any attack.  The US has also been building up military bases and airfields throughout the Persian Gulf and deploying thousands of troops.  Two thousand US Special Forces have been sent covertly to Jordan in preparation for possible armoured invasion along the Amman to Baghdad highway.  This was accompanied by a US offer to double its aid budget to Jordan.  Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz recently visited Turkey to hold talks with its government over an attack on Iraq.   Turkey is the most important staging post for an attack, with the US air base at Incirlik key to aerial operations in the north, and Turkish ports and land transport necessary for any large-scale ground operations.  While the Turkish government has stated its opposition to an attack, in reality it is only manoeuvring to extract the best possible price for its co-operation.  It is particularly concerned that no independent Kurdish regime should emerge in northern Iraq that could become a pole of attraction to the Kurdish minority within the Turkish state.  Wolfowitz directly addressed these concerns when he declared that the US opposed an independent Kurdish state.  In addition, Turkish officials pressed Wolfowitz for a commitment that after a US-led ear on Iraq, the Kurds would not be left in control of Kirkuk and Mosul, the two main centres of oil production in northern Iraq.  They also pressed the US to write off more than $4 billion in debt owed by Turkey.  Outside the Middle East, Russia, which has traditionally been supportive of Iraq, has been placated by being made a full member of the G8 and further rewarded with $20 billion to clean up its obsolete nuclear installations.

In terms of invasion plans, there are a number of possible scenarios.  These range from a full scale invasion, to the use of opposition forces within Iraq backed by air power and small numbers of special forces.  The plan for an invasion would involve up to 250,000 troops moving into Iraq from southern and northern land routes, and from the sea.  However, this force would take some time to assemble and would not be able to go into action until Spring 2003.  It has been reported that the US is currently considering a smaller scale invasion of Iraq, which would involve a quick strike on Baghdad.  This “inside-out” strategy, aimed at killing Saddam Hussein and destroying the central command structures, is based on the assumption that the main Iraqi military forces will not fight on their own if cut off from the capital.  This plan, involving around 80,000 US troops, could be put into action by October 2002.  It also has the attraction for the Bush administration of coinciding with domestic elections due to be held in November.  A quick victory could give a boost to the popularity of the Republican party, which has been damaged by its close association with recent corporate scandals.  However, a surprise war in the autumn carries high risks.  If the attack were unsuccessful, it could leave a relatively small force of US troops isolated in or near Baghdad, surrounded by Iraqi forces.   In that event, the US government might well decide to use nuclear weapons rather than allow its invasion force to be overwhelmed.  Given that Baghdad is a huge, highly developed urban area of more than three million people, the number of casualties caused by a nuclear strike would be colossal.

A war against Iraq also carries a financial cost financial cost, both in terms of outright expenditures on military supplies and personnel, and in terms of the economic dislocation resulting from the disruption of oil supplies.  Unlike the 1990-91 Persian Gulf war, when the first Bush administration pressured US allies such as Japan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia into paying the bulk of the cost, a war in 2002 or 2003 would be paid for almost entirely by the United States. The first gulf war cost the US Treasury nearly $13 billion, out of a total cost estimated at $61 billion. The second gulf war would likely require upwards of $80 billion—six times the previous US outlay—under conditions where the US federal budget has plunged into deficit.  The Bush administration has already moved to buttress the US against the economic dislocation that would result from a war in the Persian Gulf.  Within a month of the onset of war in Afghanistan, Bush directed Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham to begin adding more than 100 million barrels to the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve. One estimate is that US government acquisitions for the reserve have accounted for more than one half of the growth in the demand for oil this year.  This is designed to minimise any upward pressure on oil prices.

All the political, military and economic preparations for a war against Iraq are being progressively put in place.  When they are complete, the only question will be the timing of an attack.

Creating a pre-text

To trigger that attack the Bush administration is focusing on the alleged threat Iraqi from “weapons of mass destruction”, hinting that Saddam Hussein could provide biological, chemical or even nuclear devices to terrorists for attacks on US soil.  In the immediate aftermath of  September 11th, Iraq was being linked to the attacks.  There were reports that one of the hijackers met an Iraqi agent in Prague just months before.  It was also reported that Iraq was the source of the anthrax sent through the post to various US politicians and media figures.  Both these stories died when it became obvious that no such links existed.  If there was evidence of any Iraqi involvement the Bush administration would not have hesitated in making it public, as it would have provided the perfect pre-text for an invasion.

In the absence of a link between Iraq and the terrorist attacks, the US has shifted its attention to the alleged possession of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD).  However, there is no evidence that Iraq possess such weapons or is pursing any programme to develop them.   In reality, it doesn’t matter to the US, the issue of WMD is merely a pre-text for an attack.  The instrument for triggering a crisis with Iraq will be the demand for the return of UN weapons inspectors.   US officials have been working with the UN in drawing up an ultimatum for Iraq on new weapons inspections.  The nature of these inspections was made clear by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he stated that they would “have to be far more intrusive” and involve “the Iraqis not controlling when they come in, where they could go, and what they could do”.  Rumsfeld added, “the Iraqis aren’t going to agree to something like that.”  The new demands on weapons inspections are designed to provoke a negative reaction from Iraq, thereby creating a crisis and a pretext for an attack.

Indeed, it is doubtful that the US wants a return of weapons inspectors, as their presence on the ground may delay or complicate its battle plans.  If they do return their only purpose will be to provoke another crisis.  This was the role that UN inspectors were playing when they were expelled in 1998.  At that time Iraq alleged that they were working with US and British intelligence agencies to spy on the Iraqi security apparatus and track Saddam Hussein movements in preparation for an assassination attempt.  Subsequent support for this allegation came from Scott Ritter, the former US Marine, who headed the Concealment Investigations Unit for the United nations Special Commission Unit (UNSCOM) that operated in Iraq.   He claimed that his team had been infiltrated by agents who were using the inspections to generate confrontation.  Ritter has also testified that by the time UNSCOM was expelled from in 1998, Iraq’s weapons programme had been destroyed and the country had effectively been disarmed.  The issue of WMD is merely being used by the US to justify its targeting of Iraq.

Political fall-out

The major problem facing the US over Iraq is not so much the practicalities of an attack, but the political consequences that may follow.  Already under pressure because of the war in Afghanistan and the collapse of the Oslo Accords, a US led invasion of Iraq could be the breaking point for pro-western Arab regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  Unlike the first Gulf War in 1991, the US is not even going through the pretence of coalition building or making gestures towards a settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict.  There is nothing to cover the political bankruptcy of these regimes.  Resentment among the Arab masses against the US and their own governments’ craven submission to imperialism has been increasing.  This found expression recently in the eruption of massive demonstrations over Ariel Sharon’s assault on the occupied territories.  An invasion of Iraq could produce even greater upheavals in the Arab world.

Another political problem for the US is the possibility that a post-Saddam Iraq could break up and cause further instability.  These concerns focus mainly on the emergence of an independent Kurdish sate in northern Iraq and a Shia Muslim sate in the south.  It has been a long-term policy of the US to deny self-determination to these groups.  However, any major attack on Iraq requires their co-operation.   Indeed, one of the possible scenarios for the overthrow of Saddam envisages the Kurds and the Shia Muslims acting as an infantry force on the ground.  Yet why would these groups fight for an outcome that would potentially be worse than the current situation?  Given the inability of the Iraqi government to exercise its authority beyond the centre of the country, these groups, particularly the Kurds, already enjoy a large degree of autonomy.  They are unlikely to support the installation of a new government in Baghdad that would seek to take this freedom away.  At the same time, all the possible successors to Sadaam Hussein, which the US has lined up, insist that they will preserve the “territorial integrity” of Iraq.  Many of them are former Iraqi army officers who in the past have been involved in committing atrocities against Kurds and Shia Muslims.  In a post-Sadaam Iraq there is likely to be a struggle between the new central government seeking to exert its authority, and the national minorities seeking greater independence and autonomy.  In this struggle the US, given its determination to hold the state together, will back the government of former Saddam henchmen against the forces in Iraq that are struggling for democratic rights and national self-determination.  As one Pentagon official told the Washington Post, “I think it is almost a certainty that we’d wind up doing a campaign against the Kurds and Shi’ites”.   The war against Saddam Hussein could end up  as a war against those forces, which had been the strongest opponents of his regime.   Although the US has stated that its aim in Iraq is regime change, in reality it is only the head of the regime it wishes to change.  As the state of Iraq can only be maintained through repression, its repressive character will not be altered by the removal of Saddam Hussein.  The difference is that the regime responsible for that repression will be under the control of the US.  The overthrow of Saddam Hussein will not mean the end of oppression in Iraq.

It must also be remembered that only fifteen years ago, Saddam Hussein was a strong ally of the west. The US and Britain had no problem when he invaded Iran, gassed the Kurds, or drove the Shia Muslims from their homes.  Indeed, they actively encouraged him in the pursuit of these policies as they coincided with their own interests.  They also supplied the means through which he could carry out his atrocities.  The bulk of the weapons of mass destruction that Bush and Blair are now so concerned about much were originally transferred to Iraq from the US and Britain during the 1980’s.  The reason Iraq is a target is not because it has weapons of mass destruction, or oppresses its own people; it is because Saddam Hussein defied the west with his invasion of Kuwait and continues to offer defiance over issues such as Palestine.  While this much of this is empty rhetoric it does present an alternative to the subservience of other Arab leaders and act a rallying call for the Arab masses.  This was demonstrated recently when Iraq led the calls for an oil boycott in protest at US support for Israel. Indeed, as the repression of the Palestinians becomes even greater, the need for the removal of any source of defiance that could rally the Arab masses becomes more imperative.   The ousting of Sadaam Hussein would act as a powerful demonstration that there is no alternative to US domination.


The coming war against Iraq fits into a wider reformulation of US foreign policy.   This is often described in terms of a shift of a policy from “containment” to “rollback”, where the US is increasingly prepared to force a military solution to the challenges it faces rather than depend on international laws and treaties.  The “rollback” strategy is seen as a reassertion of US military power, which had been restrained to some degree by the Cold War and the existence of the Soviet Union.  Evidence of the increasing use of military power has been number of US-led wars in the period since the end of the Cold War.  There was Iraq in 19911, Yugoslavia in the mid to late nineties, Afghanistan in 2001, and now Iraq again in 2002.   Bush’s new doctrine of “pre-emptive strikes” gives the US scope to attack any country at any time.

There is also a movement from the use of client states and allies to unilateral action and the assertion of direct control over areas of strategic importance.   To exercise that control the US is establishing permanent military bases in an increasing number of countries.  It now has bases in over a hundred countries, including the Balkans, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia and the Pacific.  The US no longer sees the need to sponsor client regimes or allies, such as Saddam Hussein or bin-Laden who developed their own interests, or build broad political coalitions before it acts.  Within this perspective what determines events is the unilateral use of US military power.  In many ways this new imperialism is a return to old-style colonialism in which the local political authority was directed by a foreign power.  The model for this is Afghanistan where the new government is completely dependent on the US for its existence.

Those who thought the “war on terror” would not go beyond Afghanistan, or that the “axis of evil” was just a piece of rhetoric, or that the US was spending a billion dollars a day on the military just to prop up the defence industry must think again.  All the indications are that the US is preparing for a series of major military engagements over the next number of years.  Afghanistan has been attacked, Iraq is being targeted, and other countries are likely to follow.  Given that the war is essentially about the power of US capitalism its scope is potentially limitless.  And why would the American ruling class want it to end, it is the perfect cloak for pursuing their interests both at home and abroad.

All the possible political scenarios of will be factored into the US plans for an attack on Iraq.  While these may delay or modify the action that the US takes, its objective of exercising control over Iraq will remain unaltered.  The contradictions and conflicts inherent within a war with Iraq, or more generally within the “war on terror” are not sufficient in themselves to bring it to an end.

The anti-war movement

The only thing that can stop the “war on terror” is an opposition movement that has an understanding of the class character of this war.  The experience of the opposition to the war in Afghanistan shows that it is not enough to simply say, “stop the bombing”.  When the bombing did stop in the wake of the US victory, the anti-war movement had nothing to say.  This is despite the fact that many of the other aspects of the “war on terror” were continuing.  Peoples’ civil rights were still being curtailed, immigrants and refugees were still being harassed, people were still being attacked because of their race or religious background, and workers were still losing their jobs.  All these abuses were being justified by reference to the attacks of September 11th and the need to make sacrifices in the cause of “fighting terrorism”, yet the anti-war movement had nothing to say about them.  Any serious anti-war movement therefore must address the whole range of issues thrown up by the “war on terror”, challenging the policies of imperialism and also putting forward alternative solutions.  The anti-war movement must also develop convincing answers to the legitimate concerns working class people have over issues such as terrorism, religious fundamentalism, weapons of mass destruction, dictators etc.  Dealing with these questions should not be looked on as a distraction or a concession to imperialism, but an essential part of building political consciousness.

There is the potential for emergence of a very large anti-war movement over Iraq.  The last time Iraq was attacked in 1998, opposition to the war developed rapidly.  This was particularly the case in Britain where the Blair government was directly involved in the attacks.  Undoubtedly the development of that opposition was aided by ongoing campaigns around the issue of sanctions, and the consistent work of left-wing journalists such as John Pilger in exposing the hypocrisy over Iraq. That base is likely to still be there for a new anti-war campaign.  One positive element is that Iraq had no connection to the September 11th atrocities.  This makes it much harder for the US to justify an attack, and its actions are more likely to be seen as aggression rather than self-defence.  Indeed, one of the problems with building opposition to the war in Afghanistan was that many people accepted that the US had to respond to attacks on New York and Washington.  In contrast, there is general scepticism over the motives of the US on Iraq.  This may not translate into active opposition, but it does create a more favourable environment for the growth of an anti-war movement.

Another important development is the growing scandals around the Bush administration over its links to corporate corruption.  This has put a dent in the huge popularity achieved by Bush in the wake of the September 11th attacks and the successful military campaign in Afghanistan, and provided a basis for the re-emergence of political dissident in the US.  While it may be weak at the moment this could represent the first stirrings of wider opposition to the politics of the Bush administration, including the “war on terror”.  This is an essential development.  For in reality it is only a powerful opposition movement in the US that can bring this war to an end.

Overall, the prospects for the development of an anti-war movement are relatively good.  Yet, if the potential of such a movement is to realised it must learn the lessons of previous campaigns.  If we return to square one, discarding the experience of what went before, then a new campaign is likely to make the same mistakes.  The key to avoiding this is to raise the political level of the anti-war movement, and to address the broad range of questions raised by the “war on terror”.  This is essential if the anti-war movement is to sustain itself beyond the duration of the bombs falling.  What is needed  are socialist politics, which clearly identify the class and imperialist character of this war, and see the working class as the force in society that must play the leading role in opposing it. Ultimately it is only the conscious effort of the working class in overthrowing capitalism that can bring these wars permanently to an end.



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