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Iraq under occupation

Just over a year ago on the 1st May 2003 US President George W. Bush made the official announcement of victory in the war against Iraq.  Clad in a pilot’s jumpsuit he had been flown to the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier on a fighter plane to make his address.  Surrounded by military personnel and with the banner “Mission Accomplished” in the background he announced to the world that the US and its allies had triumphed and that major combat operations in Iraq were at an end.  In the space of only four weeks Iraq had been defeated and the regime of Saddam Hussein overthrown.  This was a moment that seemed to confirm the supremacy of US power and to vindicate the strategy of the Bush administration.


However, a year on that triumphalism has completely faded.  With much of Iraq in revolt, an escalating guerrilla war, and a diminishing coalition of allies, the perception is one of failure rather than success.  Already comparisons are being made between Iraq and the historic defeat suffered by the US in the Vietnam War.

It is clear that the Bush administration made a number of misjudgements about Iraq.  The fundamental one being that the Iraqi people would accept occupation.  After thirty years of dictatorship, twenty years of continuous war, and ten years of crippling sanctions, it was assumed that Iraqis were a broken people who would welcome anything that appeared to offer a change.  There were predictions that cheering crowds, singing and throwing flowers would greet the invading troops.  None of this happened.  Rather Iraqis had a mixed response to the invasion.  Their relief that the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein had been overthrown was accompanied by deep suspicion over the motives of the US and its allies.

There was no honeymoon period for the occupation.  Its character was displayed early on with mass arrests and the shooting of demonstrators in cities such as Mosul and Fallujah in the months following the invasion.  The initial suspicion of Iraqis quickly turned to hostility.  Instead of the democracy and freedom proclaimed by Bush the experience of Iraqis under occupation has been one of repression.  Hundreds of people are killed every month, towns and cities bombarded, thousands are imprisoned and subjected to torture. While some commentators have put this down to an aggressive American mentality, as opposed to the more “sophisticated” approach of the British, the reality is that these methods are an essential element of occupation.  Because the purpose the invasion and occupation is the exploitation Iraq’s resources for the benefit of US capitalism, there is really nothing on offer to any significant section of the Iraqi population.  In this scenario the option of a “softer” occupation or of “buying peace” does not exist.  There can be no concessions to Iraqis, only repression of the opposition that inevitability arises to the wholesale plunder of their country.   

Neo-liberal agenda

The predatory nature of the occupation can be seen clearly from the so-called reconstruction programme for Iraq.  Its main beneficiaries have not been Iraqis but the corporations that are the main backers of the Bush administration.  These corporations include Bechtel Corp., which has been awarded a $1 billion contract to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure; Halliburton; which has won a contract worth $1.4 billion to provide support services to the US army in Iraq; and its subsidiary, Brown & Root, which has a contract worth $1.3 billion to upgrade Iraq’s oil wells.  The affect of the Iraq war on Halliburton’s balance sheet has been dramatic.  Its turnover in the third quarter of 2003 rose by 39% over the comparable period a year before to $4.1billion, with its subsidiary seeing an 80% rise in turnover to $2.3 billion, of which Iraq accounted for $900 million, and a rise in profits to $49 million, $34 million coming from its operations in Iraq.  Of course, it is no co-incidence that the former chairman of Halliburton is the current US Vice-President Dick Cheney.  He remains a major shareholder in the company, and continues to receive a $500,000 annual payment.  As Vice-President he has been heavily involved in the awarding of Iraq reconstruction contracts.

While the initial funds for these contracts have come from the US Treasury, eliminating any risk for the companies involved, ultimately the burden will fall on the people of Iraq.  The key to this is using Iraq’s oil wealth to repay the cost of these contracts.  The US has therefore moved to effectively take control of Iraq’s oil industry.  Although still notionally state owned, the US has restructured Iraq’s oil industry on the model of a private company, with a chief executive, and a board of directors, approved by American officials, who answer to a “multinational” board of advisors.  This board contains officials from the IMF and the World Bank, two institutions effectively run by the US, and approves any oil contracts signed by Iraq’s government.  Ultimately, the purpose of restructuring Iraq’s oil industry is to set it up to be privatised and to come under the ownership of foreign companies.

Although there are sensitivities surrounding the oil industry, given the promises by the US and its allies that it would remain under Iraq’s control, there is no such reticence when it comes to rest of the economy.  Every sate-owned industry and service will be privatised, with no restrictions on foreign ownership.   Iraq is to be subjected to the “shock therapy”, in an even more brutal form, that devastated the economies of Eastern Europe in the 1990’s.   This agenda was spelled out by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, when he said that decision taken by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), “will favour market systems, not Stalinist command systems . . . The Coalition will encourage moves to privatise state-owned enterprises.”   Thomas Foley, who is head of private-sector development for the occupation authority, has published lists of Iraqi state enterprises that are to be privatised, describing his goal as making Iraq into a “fully thriving capitalist economy.”  Order No. 39, a law decreed by the CPA, allows for 100 percent foreign ownership and repatriation of profits; another law sets a flat tax rate of 15 percent.   The Iraqi dinar has been replaced with the US dollar, wiping out savings and pensions at a stroke, while the system of price controls, which kept electricity, food and other necessities at an affordable level, has been abolished.  Iraq is also expected to honour the nearly £300 billion in foreign debt incurred during the Saddam Hussein period.  This amounts to a vicious neo-liberal programme designed to bleed Iraq dry.  Under such an onerous economic regime the prospect for development and a general rise in living standards in Iraq is non-existent. 

As in all societies the section of the population hit hardest by these polices has been the working class.  In Iraq there is now a 70 percent unemployment rate.  This amounts to 12 million people out of a total population of 24 million.  While wages in Iraq continue to be set by the state, the wage scales remain the same as they did under the Baathist regime, ranging from $60 to $180 a month.  However, what the CPA did was to abolish the subsidies that supplemented workers’ incomes.  Things like subsidies for food, housing and bonuses were all abolished, drastically reducing incomes.  The CPA has also retained a law from 1987 that bans trade unions from state owned industries.  It has declared strikes to be illegal.   Anyone encouraging or involved in a strike can be arrested and treated as a prisoner of war.  These anti-worker measures are an integral part of forcing a neo-liberal economic agenda on Iraq and of denying its people any democratic rights.  They also demonstrate a fear that Iraq’s working class has the potential to become a key force in the struggle against the occupation.   

Puppet Government 

While power in Iraq is exercised by the occupiers in the form of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), a continued occupation in the from of US-led administration issuing decrees to be imposed on the population by a 160,000 strong military force is not tenable in the longer term.  This is why the US and its allies have attempted to create an Iraqi government and state institutions that while notionally independent are in reality under their control.  Occupation, but with an Iraqi face.  This objective was set out by Donald Rumsfeld: “in staffing ministries and positioning Iraqis in ways that will increase their influence, the Coalition will work to have supportive Iraqis involved as early as possible – so that Iraqi voices can explain the goals and direction to the Iraqi people.”

To try and achieve this the CPA set up the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC).  This body, whose 25 members were handpicked by US administrator Paul Bremmer, was made up Iraqi politicians who had supported the invasion.  Most of them represented exile groups, with little support inside Iraq.  Some like Ahmed Chalabi and Iyad Allawi are closely associated with the CIA.  In the eyes of the Iraqi people the IGC has little credibility.

Despite the talk of handing over sovereignty to the Iraqi people on the 30th of June the US and its allies will continue to exercise power.  The new “interim government”, which is due to take office on this date, will merely be an expanded version of the IGC.  It will contain the same political leaders who are totally dependent on the US for their position.  Its powers will also be extremely limited.  It will continue to be bound by the terms of the “interim constitution”.  This was drawn up by Bremer and endorsed by the IGC in March 2003, it entrenches US control over all aspects of Iraqi society.  All laws enacted by the occupation authority since May 2003 will remain in force after the 30th June. The interim government will guided be a number of supervisory bodies created by the CPA.  A US-appointed licensing commission has been crated with extensive powers over the Iraqi media and communications industry, including shutting down news agencies.  A Board of Supreme Audit, appointed by Paul Bremer, will have representatives embedded in every Iraqi ministry, monitoring all contracts and expenditure.  These “advisors” will report to the US embassy in Baghdad.  With over 3,000 staff, the largest in the world, this embassy will be the effective government of Iraq.  The interim constitution also placed the Iraqi military under US command, and allows for the continued presence of Coalition troops in the country.  Though the occupation may officially end on 1st July, the reality is that it will continue. 

Elections are scheduled for 2005, but these are likely to be tightly controlled with restrictions on who can vote and be candidates.  One of the final decrees of the CPA, Order No.90, bars anyone standing for the election who is opposed to the occupation.  The US also favours holding electoral caucuses of appointed delegates rather than direct elections.  Under these restrictions any future “elected” government of Iraq is unlikely to be truly representative.  Even it were, its hands would be completely tired because all the major decisions on the politics, security, and economy of Iraq would have already been made and implemented by the US. 


Not surprisingly the occupation has provoked opposition from the Iraqi people.  This has taken a number of forms, including an armed struggle that has claimed the lives of over 800 Coalition troops.  Although the incessantly intense guerrilla war has attracted most media attention, there had also been massive anti-occupation demonstrations.   In January 2004, more than 100,000 Iraqis took to the streets of Baghdad and Basra to reject the US plan to appoint an interim government and call for direct elections.  The response of the US to this opposition has been to attempt to crush it with military force.  This crackdown came to a head at the end of March when the US military laid siege to the rebellious town of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, and also tried to smash the movement of radical Shiite cleric Mogtada al-Sadr.  The significance of Al-Sadr’s movement is that it represents the poorest section of Iraq’s Shiite population that was the most oppressed under Saddam Hussein.  The fact that this layer of the population has moved into opposition really shows how little the occupation has to offer Iraqis. 

The recent flare-up of violent opposition has exposed the weakness of the US military.  Despite its overwhelming firepower the US has been unable to gain control over the country.  The US Marines were forced to withdraw from Fallujah in the face of fierce resistance.  Al-Sadr’s militia remained in control of the city of Najaf, despite claims by the US military that it would “kill or capture” him.  In April alone, more than 150 troops were killed and 1,110 wounded.  Another indication of the occupation’s lack of support was the failure of the Iraqi security forces created by the Coalition to confront the resistance.  Faced with the uprising many of the Iraqi recruits deserted or sided with the rebels.  Two battalions of the new Iraqi army mutinied rather than join the attack on Fallujah.  Even the docile IGC criticised the US actions, with two of its members resigning in protest.  

Despite US claims that the opposition is being directed by former regime loyalists or by foreign fighters, it is clear that it made up of Iraqis and enjoys popular support amongst the population.  The nature of the opposition also disproves US claims that Iraq may fall into civil war if it left.  Increasingly the ethnic groups in Iraq are coming together in opposition to the occupation.  Although, some of the opposition groups have a religious aspect, the overriding political motivation driving them is Iraqi nationalism and the struggle for self-determination.  So although al-Sadr is identified with the Shiite population he is projecting himself as a leader of a nationalist movement.  He has also appealed to the populations of the countries whose troops are in Iraq to oppose the policies of their own governments.  This is in complete contrast to al-Qaeda, which has a sectarian approach to other Muslims, and writes off the populations of western states as complicit and legitimate targets for attack.

Tasks of solidarity     

The tasks of socialists who oppose the occupation should be clear. We support the Iraqi opposition in its fight against the occupation.  We look for the defeat and expulsion of the US and British occupiers and the rag-tag of other military support groups.  However, socialists should not offer political support to Arab nationalism or to political Islam.  It is many decades since the programme of any Arab nationalist group has had that ‘generally democratic content’ that Lenin urged socialists to support.  Even less should we bow to Islamicist ideas.  There is nothing remotely progressive about a political ideology that supports the oppression of women and gays.

A movement led by these forces is unlikely to defeat the US.  In the region as a whole political Islam, as represented by Iran, has made desperate attempts to come to an accommodation with imperialism. Secular nationalism, represented by the majority of Arab regimes, has been the corrupt force supporting imperialism and suppressing any resistance.  If an anti-occupation movement were to succeed under these leaderships, history shows that they would continue themselves to oppress and plunder their own working class. Only a socialist movement led by the working class can hope to liberate the Arab masses from the yoke of imperialism.

The call for a socialist opposition is not mere wishful thinking on our part.  The working class in Iraq are to the fore in both the military resistance and in the mass demonstrations.  Sections of the class support socialist parties and there is wide support for trade union demonstrations against the occupation and the immiseration of the country.  A strong global solidarity movement, based on the working class, would have a decisive influence on the future development of that resistance.

But the case for building a working-class resistance across the globe rests not just on the struggle in Iraq and the demands of solidarity. The fact is the US offensive stretches well beyond the borders of Iraq to every corner of the globe.  It involves:  All-out ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from their own land and the establishment of a ‘greater Israel’ to police the middle east with its own nuclear arsenal. At the same time the US makes ever more blatant threats against other countries in the region.  The abolition of all restrictions on the state’s ability to torture and intern, not only in Iraq, but also in the US, Guantanemo Bay in Cuba and across the globe.  The doctrine of pre-emptive strike, where the US reserves the rights to attack other states where it believes they might pose a threat.

The refusal of the left to put forward their own politics within the anti-war movement has had some striking results.  The movement has been distorted and a number of significant gains blunted.  In France and Germany the movements are small, partly because there is little challenge to the claim of the capitalist governments that their manoeuvrings to gain a share of the spoils represents “opposition” to the war.  The more respectable elements within the anti-war coalition who argued for UN leadership are now silent, as Bush’s plans for Iraq have won the endorsement of the UN.  Rather than obstructing the occupation, the UN has legitimised it.

Even the victories are blunted.  Perhaps the most significant gain has been the defeat of a right-wing Popular Party government in Spain and the withdrawal of Spanish troops.  What is ignored is the fact that the new government is in the Blairite ‘New Labour’ mould; it is committed to supporting other elements of the imperialist offensive and to a full-scale offensive on workers rights in Spain itself.  Even more dramatic has been the decline of the fortunes of Tony Blair.  British voters give him a drubbing at the polls because of his lies in support of war but those who gain are the right-wing UKIP.  The Liberal Democrats run as the anti-war party and gain votes even though their mild objections were shelved on the outbreak of war to be replaced by wholehearted support for ‘our boys’.


Iraq is unlikely to settle down after the hand over of “sovereignty” on 30th June.  The occupation will continue and so will the opposition.  Indeed, the level of oppression and the resistance will increase, with the US and its allies sending more troops there.  We can’t predict how the struggle in Iraq will end, but we can say that it has already dealt a blow to the grand design of the neo-conservative Bush administration to reshape the world.  A defeat in Iraq would be a setback for imperialism.  As the future of Iraq is key to all western capitalist states a defeat there would be an inspiration for those in the world battling the neo-liberal agenda. The task now is to transform the confused and contradictory alliance against the war into a class-conscious militant political resistance to the imperialist offensive.  


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