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NEWS & LETTERS, May 2004

Lead Article

Siege of Falluja underscores bloody cost of Iraq occupation

by Kevin Michaels

The fierce fighting that erupted in Baghdad, Falluja, and cities of the Shia south of Iraq in early April and the seizing of dozens of foreign civilian personnel has provided solid evidence that events in Iraq are not under the control of the U.S. government. Far from exercising its will militarily, after insisting for months it would never negotiate with its adversaries in Iraq, the U.S. was willing to do so in Falluja.

In the occupation and in the Marine siege of Falluja, the tactics of the Americans and the heavy civilian casualties resulting from the fighting have further alienated a population growing impatient with an occupation that has provided them with little other than relief from Saddam Husseinís oppressive rule.

Neither do the insurgents speak for Iraq. "The track record of these groups, especially after the collapse of the fascist Baath regime, is clear: they have created a nightmare for Iraqi women, youth and freedom lovers," declared an Iraqi leftist.

Facing George W. Bush and his advisors now, as a nominal hand-over is looming June 30, is an ongoing, armed resistance, a Governing Council with hand-picked members reluctant to stand too close to an increasingly hated occupier, and a growing list of coalition members and other international entities backing away from the administration.

This situation, taken together with revelations produced by the testimonies before the commission investigating the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and the rising level of war fatigue among the American people, is producing great anxiety for the Bush administration and its hopes for winning a second term to extend and deepen its socially conservative and pro-business agenda.

FIGHTING BREAKS OUT

The rebellions took place on two separate fronts. Residents of the city of Falluja ambushed and brutally killed four American private security professionals, mutilating their bodies in front of cameras. This action provoked an intense reprisal operation by U.S. Marines. Their efforts to take back the city included aerial bombardment and helicopter gunship attacks. Hundreds of civilians, including women and children, were killed in the fighting that effectively and harshly punished all the cityís residents for the actions of the mob that killed the Americans. The intensity of the combat forced at least 60,000 men, women and children to flee the area and seek shelter wherever they could find it.

At the same time, in the Shia areas south of Baghdad, followers of the young cleric Moktada al-Sadr, organized into a militia called the Mahdi Army, initiated a well-planned regional insurrection April 4. This action, a response to the earlier heavy-handed closing of al-Sadrís newspaper by the occupation authorities resulted in several of the Shia cities completely escaping U.S. control.

The U.S. authorities reacted strongly, disclosing that an arrest warrant for al-Sadr had been issued long before for responsibility for the murder of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei only days after his return from exile and just after the collapse of Husseinís government.

Al-Sadr appears to have massively overplayed his hand and is now in seclusion in the Shia holy city of Najaf. The fighting, however, was an inkling of the worst fear of the Americans, whose precarious arrangement in Iraq absolutely depends on a lack of active opposition from the Shia communities yet to be heard from and who make up an estimated 60% of the countryís population.  While intercommunal antipathies remain, Shia and Sunni united for a relief caravan into Falluja in defiance of coalition control over such movements.   

To be sure, disdain for the occupation springs from other sources as well. Not insignificant among them is the U.S.ís refusal to allow free elections after the defeat of Husseinís dictatorship. Also hated is the drive to privatize Iraqi services and industry with a bonanza coming for corporations like Halliburton. The immiseration of a population promised better times after Hussein is feeding mass anger. Most of all the sweeps, harassment and detentions of large groups of Iraqis has engendered resentment.

The U.S.ís military offensive in Falluja was so severe that even some of the U.S.ís closest allies inside the country denounced the actions. Adnan Pachachi, groomed by the U.S. for the leadership of Iraq and with no ties to Hussein or al-Sadr loyalists in Falluja, denounced the assault on that city as alienating to all Iraqis. Moderate Islamic leaders like Ali Sistani, who favors a degree of separation between politics and religion, have likewise distanced themselves from the U.S., even as the occupiers seek their role in negotiations.

Furthermore Aprilís assault on Falluja and escalation of attacks on occupying forces and non-military targets were, taken together, the last straw for some members of the coalition Bush cobbled together for the war and occupation. Military forces from Spain and Honduras, in response to dissent at home, are headed toward the door with the Polish and Ukrainian governments considering the same course.

THE PAST YEAR IN IRAQ

A steady and effective campaign of paramilitary harassment of the American military forces occupying Iraq has persisted since shortly after the collapse of Husseinís government. These attacks were for the most part carried out by Iraqis from the social base of the overthrown regime and were most prevalent in the area of the country called the "Sunni Triangle," the old Baath Partyís demographic heartland.

This campaign was supplemented with fierce suicide bombings directed at international institutions like the UN and the Red Cross, as well as the offices of the Kurdish nationalist parties of Iraqís north.

The sleeping giant is the Shia population of Iraq--the majority of the countryís population--which suffered long and hard under Husseinís rule. Their worship was interfered with and their clerics were murdered from time to time, most notably Moktada al-Sadrís father, Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr. The Shia were also excluded from the social benefits made possible by Iraqís oil wealth.

Husseinís removal was welcomed, but the Shia adopted an attitude of caution toward the occupiers. The U.S. had betrayed them in 1991 by withholding support of their large scale uprising after the first Gulf War and those who remember the resulting bloodbath are not inclined to extend the Americans more faith and credit.

Violence directed at the Shias from new and unidentifiable quarters was an additional concern. Deadly recurring events such as the horrific multiple-bomb attack on the religious festival of Ashoura in March in which at least 140 were killed raised suspicions that agents or sympathizers of the old regime were actively trying to provoke wholesale intercommunal violence as a means of destabilizing the situation for the American occupiers. The killings of day workers shaping up for jobs at the U.S. compound in Baghdad and the blowing up of markets and school buses attest to the inhuman goals of the perpetrators.      

POLITICAL POWER

Crucial for the American position in Iraq after the demise of Husseinís regime was the fact that representatives of powerful elements of Iraqi society were willing to offer at least token cooperation with the provisional structure the U.S. put into place.

This arrangement gave rise to a strange situation in which American representatives were dependent on deeply conservative leaders of Islamic organizations like the Dawa party, a longstanding Shia fundamentalist organization, and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a group with strong ties to the conservative mullahs of the Iranian government. Many of the religious groups--not only al-Sadrís--are connected to militias that surreptitiously defy the American ban on private armies.

The U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council was the forum in which these religious forces vied with secular representatives like the Kurdish nationalist parties; Adnan Pachachi, an old politician from pre-Baathist Iraq; newly returned exiles sponsored by competing wings of the U.S. government such as Ahmad Chalabi,  and even an official of the old Communist Party. All sought to extend their influence and position themselves for maximum power in the new Iraq.

However the composition of the Governing Council reflects the hold, albeit tenuous, of the U.S. on the political direction of Iraq. The rise of fundamentalist forces to positions of power threatens to scuttle the participation of Kurdish parties in the new government. And if Pachachi is the best the U.S. can seat in a transition authority, thereís little hope that the rest of the technocrats assembled for the job can galvanize support from the populace.

Whatever cohesion the Council possessed, however, has been dissipated by the recent events, especially the fighting in Falluja. Council members who tried to negotiate periods of cease fire were sidelined by U.S. military officials. At least two Council members have resigned because of their treatment and, adding insult to injury, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, invited to make recommendations for the process of the handover of political power, concluded that the Governing Council should be disbanded in favor of a larger body.

THE HOMEFRONT

That hasnít stopped Bush from seeking, in an hour of need, the mediation and cover of the UN, the same body that resisted and was iced by a White House hell-bent on invasion. Notwithstanding the UNís role in the decade-long embargo which starved and killed thousands of Iraqis, especially children, Bush has welcomed Brahimi to arrange for very limited sovereignty by a caretaker government after June 30. Iraqis are sure to find objection to this veneer for U.S. occupation as they are to the credentials of Brahimi who, as undersecretary of the Arab League, argued against helping the Shia, Kurds and Marsh Arabs rising up in 1991.

Exactly what will happen on June 30 is unclear, but whatever it is, it will take place in an environment of massive unemployment and political and social insecurity.

This war has never enjoyed a great deal of popular support at home. The public attitude at the onset seemed to be that if George W. Bush was determined to have his war, at least it would be a short one. A long trail of setbacks since then has extinguished that hope and contributed to a significant and rising level of dissatisfaction, most notably among family members of service men and women in Iraq (See "War comes home")

The recent violence has prompted the Pentagon to freeze in place units scheduled for rotation home of 20,000 troops. The family members of reservists have been especially hard hit by this new reliance on their loved onesí units--a cornerstone of Defense Secretary Rumsfeldís reorganization of the American armed forces. And casualties are mounting and for each fatality there are approximately five seriously wounded.

Congressís check for the war and occupation, for $87 billion, has already been cashed and spent, and Bush may well return with a request for $73 billion more. The 20,000 hired guns from security firms alone cost upwards of $1,500 per day, per person. Going deeper into deficit hole is the only way to come up with the money for increasing the occupation forces and replacing the armaments destroyed or seized.

As large a blow as the admission of inspector David Kay that Iraqís weapons of mass destruction had been decommissioned long before the war was to the Bush administration, the testimony coming out of the September 11, 2001 investigation may prove to be much more detrimental. Particularly damning is the recurring confirmation of the Presidentís overriding insistence on using the terrorist attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq, a point driven home by former anti-terrorism chief Richard Clarke.

All this looks bad for the administration, but the Kerry campaign has been busy looking militarist, buffing his Vietnam War medals while lining up behind Bushís galling approval of Ariel Sharonís annexation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank (See "Bush endorses Sharon's annexation plan").

Iraq is ready for self-rule and democracy. It has a history of large-scale organizations of workers and women who supported freedom and secularism. On the scene are groups like the Organization of Women for Freedom in Iraq who are organizing independently amidst threats from indigenous elements hostile to womenís liberation. This is a history covered over by both the long nightmare of the totalitarian Baath Party and the ideology of free-market liberalization that the Defense Department intellectuals around George W. Bush espouse.

The brutal and heavy-handed military tactics used by the U.S. military to suppress the recent uprisings have exacerbated the hostility felt by most Iraqis towards even the normal, everyday conduct of the occupation. This hostility is contributing towards a situation in which the most reactionary elements of the resistance to the Americans--the Saddam supporters, the Osama bin Laden sympathizers, and the fundamentalist clerics--are gaining confidence and support. These forces are already seeking to suppress the real forces of radical change in Iraqi society--the employed and unemployed wage workers seeking to organize in their interests, the women and girls striving to throw off both Baathist and religious constrictions, and the oppressed national minorities fighting to determine their own future.

Though some, still disoriented by a narrow anti-imperialist posture, havenít found their voices of solidarity with these revolutionary dimensions, others like U.S. Labor Against War, are making the connections between the other Iraq and the other America (See "Iraqi labor defense").

The recent events in Iraq have had repercussions far beyond the borders of that country. A sober look at them is necessary by those who oppose Bush and his wars, to help create the conditions for creating real alternatives to capitalist imperialism.

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