Between Iraq and a Hard Place

The US is not in control of Iraq, thanks to overwhelming resistance. Contrary to US claims, the insurgency is primarily Iraqi, enjoys wide societal support, spans religious and ethnic lines, and is only growing stronger. As Iraqis struggle to make ending the occupation a key issue in the upcoming elections, people wonder if the elections will actually resemble anything mildly democratic. Iraq is one mess the US made but cannot clean up; the US is the mess.

The US may be winning battles, but it is losing the war. Every time the US destroys a city — the mosques, random homes, hospitals — more resistance fighters stand up. With the hearts and minds battle lost long ago, US strategists want overstretched US troops to continue random carnage and destruction in search of “terrorists.” But it’s the US commanders who are committing the war crimes. The ruling class interests fueling the war — the desire to control not only the oil reserves but also the Chinese and European economies dependent on the same stock — won’t give up. The US strategy for control works only when everybody’s playing the same game, imperial capitalism. The Iraqi people aren’t playing this game; they’re not being proper pawns, in fact they’re shoving Improvised Explosive Devices up the butts of the US. The US strategy is failing.

Who is this resistance? An inventory of groups from Sept. 19, 2004 published in the Baghdad paper Al Zawra lists three main Sunni coalitions, two Shi’ite militias, and nine groups tactically based on kidnappings. Four of the latter are specifically associated with Al-Queda, like Zarqawi’s cell which has become the recent terrorist darling of the US media. The kidnappers do not enjoy as much popular support as the other groups: “Without a shred of evidence, Bush, Blair, and [Iraqi president] Iyad Allawi’s quisling regime shamelessly declare that they are only pursuing the Jordanian kidnapper Zarqawi and other ‘foreign terrorists,’“ writes Sami Ramadani in the Saudi Arabia-based Arab News. “The people of Falluja, their leaders, negotiators and resistance fighters have always denounced Zarqawi and argued that such gangs have been encouraged to undermine the resistance.”

Although the US media repeatedly has said the resistance is the work of Saddam’s Ba’ath party, sources differ on the strength of these ties. Several of the smaller Sunni factions are opposed to Saddam, while groups that are explicitly Ba’athist reportedly are involved in supplying weapons and financing the operations, rather than actual fighting. Sunni groups tend to use offensive, guerrilla warfare tactics of attacking when the enemy is weak and then slipping away. Sunni Muslims, who comprise 20% of the Iraqi population but were in power with Saddam, may lose significant influence if an elected government reflects the 60% Shi’ite majority.

The main arm of Shi’ite resistance is young fundamentalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia of poor urban youth. Shi’ite leaders, particularly the head cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, generally have not directly targeted the occupation. Al-Sadr did criticize the occupation and his group repeatedly has been targeted by US forces, starting with the closing of his newspaper and culminating in a violent fight and cease-fire in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf at the end of August.

Unifying the resistance

In a context where the traditional internal divisions can only aid the US, several groups are working to unify the resistance. Muslim scholars emphasized avoiding sectarian conflict as they issued a fatwa (religious edict) November 20, calling resistance to occupation forces a religious duty for all Muslims. “Iraq today is targeted by a serious conspiracy that aims at destroying its social structure, even if it remains as one state. This would be by stirring up sectarian and ethnic strife and augmenting the points of disagreement. Religious and national duty requires that such differences be renounced. Everybody should be united to expel the occupation and build a unified Iraq for all its population,” said the statement from the International Federation of Muslim Scholars. They condemned hostage-taking, attacks on media and humanitarian workers, and said prisoners of war should be treated well.

The widely-supported Iraq National Foundation Congress sponsors joint Sunni-Shia prayers, a key force in the 1920 revolution that ended colonial British rule. Established in July of this year, the group brings leftists, Kurds, and Christians together with pre-Saddam Ba’athists and members of powerful Sunni and Shia cleric associations. Although the Congress does not reject armed resistance, it advocates peaceful resistance instead of fundamentalist militias like Al-Sadr’s. In an interview with The Guardian (UK), Congress spokesman Wamidh Nadhmi said the real division in Iraq is not between Arab and Kurd, Sunni and Shia, or secular and religious, but between “the pro-occupation camp and the anti-occupation camp. The pro-occupation people are either completely affiliated to the US and Britain, in effect puppets, or they saw no way to overthrow Saddam without occupation. Unfortunately, the pro-occupation people tend not to distinguish between resistance and terrorism, or between anti-occupation civil society and those who use violence.” Sheik Jawad al-Khalisi, general secretary of the Congress, points out, “The media focus on violence, and the generally positive foreign coverage of the efforts of Ayad Allawi’s new government “to defeat the insurgency,” has created a false impression that the government’s opponents use only force, and those who support peace support the government, and so the occupation.”

The resistance is not limited to extremist fringes of society, as US media coverage suggests. It includes Arab nationalists, Muslim mujahideen, and Iraqis not particularly religious but “outraged to see their country’s resources robbed while they live in slums, drink water mixed with sewage and have no say in the political process,” Haifa Zangana writes in The Guardian. Thousands of people demonstrated across Iraq in support of Falluja, a city that never fully submitted to either colonial British rule or to Saddam’s regime.

“Iraqis are not focused on whether things would be better had the invasion not happened. What they want to know is how and when the manifestly unsafe world they face every day… is going to change. They also constantly argue whether the presence of foreign forces makes it better or worse,” notes The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele.

Radical Islamic cleric Al-Sadr has earned wide support not for his religious views per se, but because he has been repeatedly targeted by the US. The continual rampage by US troops appears to be pushing public opinion towards fundamentalism: February polls reported only 21% of Iraqis wanting an Islamic state, up to 70% by August. These polls didn’t make the important distinction between a radical and a moderate Islamic state, but the trend is clear. According to Sheikh Khalisi, “Iraqis are looking for security, and can be seduced by hope. Extreme dictatorships are always formed in a context when nations seek stability. It happened when the shah took power in Iran, with Ataturk in Turkey, and Saddam Hussein here.”


Groups like the Iraq National Federation Congress would like the elections set [as of press date] for January 30 for 275 National Assembly members to focus on ending the occupation. Key players in the election span the country’s religious and ethnic groups, and the potential for a representative democracy exists. But CIA tampering seems imminent. Ahmed Chelabi, the old Pentagon favorite, has been befriending Shia power structures and may end up in the new government even though he is not respected by many Iraqis.

“Bush and Blair are terrified of the Iraqi people voting for anti-occupation leaders. They will accept nothing sh
ort of the legitimization, through sham elections supervised by the occupation authorities, of an Allawi-style puppet regime,” writes Sami Ramandani. “How much more should the Iraqi people be subjected to for Bush and Blair to have their ‘democratically’ chosen puppets installed in Baghdad?”

A wide variety of Iraqi organizations are calling for a boycott of the elections, while an equally wide assortment of groups are running candidate lists. The US press says the boycott merely reflects minority Sunni fear that they will lose power to a Shia-dominated government — but boycotting groups say legitimate elections are impossible under US occupation. As of press date, it appears possible that elections will be postponed in the hope that security can be improved, although if the occupation continues, it is hard to see how that could happen. Two senior Sunni clerics were mysteriously assassinated in early November after their organization called for the boycott — an organization actually created by US-led forces after Saddam’s ousting to fill an anticipated Sunni power vacuum, according to al-Jazeera.

The solution is extremely complicated. The US expects ethnic and religious groups with a centuries-old history of conflict to unite graciously and form a ‘representative democracy’ — with massive slaughter and carnage committed by US troops glowing rosily in the background. The US has created a gaping wound in Iraq; continued foreign military presence can only exacerbate the situation. The United States should pull out immediately and let the Iraqis pick up the pieces from Saddam themselves.

Apparently the US enjoys staring down the throat of a fourth world war, as neocon Frank Gaffney, one of the Project for a New American Century crew, speculates grandly. Everytime Bush mentions bombing Iran, the prospect of regional war increases. The US government likes having a war on, because it’s a grand excuse for all sorts of civil liberties clampdowns and defense spending. Crisis stimulates capital. But the truth is the US does not have enough troops to fight more than one major war at once. A draft is unlikely, imperial inclinations and rumors aside; the poverty draft is working well enough. An official draft would bring the war home to the middle classes, potentially sparking the kind of sixties-style anti-war movement that could stop the war.

What if there was armed resistance on US soil like that in Iraq? Iraqi people want an end to violence; many people there just want to get on with their lives with some degree of safety and stability. People in the US, particularly the middle and aspiring middle classes, have the ability to just get on with their lives, even as the government here creates a disastrous mess elsewhere. A recent CNN/USA Today poll reports almost half the people in the US think it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq. What are these 125 million people doing to stop the war?

Anti-war people can’t be stymied by the gross destruction, or by the mind-boggling complexities of the occupation. We don’t know how to stop the US government, but neither do they know what they’re doing. They didn’t plan the war well, and they don’t know how to counter the strong and creative resistance in Iraq. Yet they plow ahead, dogmatically following capitalism’s edict to build a puppet democracy on a foundation of dead Iraqi bodies. Unlike government bureaucrats, we don’t have to numbly stumble along in our daily lives, because we have a million people and therefore a million ways to resist the war. Just like there’s not one group masterminding the resistance in Iraq, there’s not a blueprint for the anti-war movement here at home, so we should stop looking for it and follow our own hearts and minds. If we turn up the volume, doing all we can to stop the occupation within the context of our daily lives, the resistance here will be so varied and unpredictable that it will be the definition of political instability.

Ultimately, the US can bomb the shit out of Iraq only as long as troops there cooperate and things remain stabilized — paralyzed — stateside. The troops are voting with their feet; of 4,000 reservists recently called to serve, 1,800 filed lawsuits against the military, and 700 simply didn’t show up. A National Guard unit recently refused its mission. When will we wake up here at home?