Iraq’s Year of Blood

Monday 4 October 2004, by Gilbert ACHCAR

What is happening confirms what we were saying right at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq: “The difficulties for Washington and London are only beginning”. It was guaranteed in advance that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the military occupation of the country wouldn’t pose any problems for the American army, given the enormous disproportion between the forces involved. But it’s quite another thing to control a country like Iraq. To do that the overwhelming technological advance of the American army is no longer so decisive.

In the first place, you need a much greater number of soldiers than are necessary for a simple military victory. But the Bush administration believed it could occupy Iraq with a very limited number of soldiers. That’s one of the Achilles heels of US power: the human factor, too quickly considered to be a thing of the past after the technological revolution that has profoundly transformed “the art of war”.

In the second place, you have to be dealing with a controllable population, that is to say a population that shows a certain degree of resignation, or even acquiescence to the occupation. But that’s very far from being the case. The majority of the Iraqi population welcomed the American army with feelings that could be summed up as follows: “You overthrew Saddam Hussein, thanks. Now be on your way, we don’t want you as an occupying power”.

These feelings are the basis of the movement of opposition to the occupation, which is snowballing and is expressed almost daily by armed operations. In my opinion, however, that is not what is decisive. What is most important is the mass character of the rejection of the occupation, for example the gigantic demonstrations which took place during the confrontation between the proconsul Bremer and the “Grand Ayatollah” Sistani on the question of elections.

That’s why the project of the Bush administration is failing and Iraq has already become a “quagmire”: the American army is bogged down there and the situation is only getting worse, with no perspective of an honourable way out. In this sense there are points of comparison with Vietnam. Not on the military level - there is no common measure between the Iraqi guerrilla war and the Vietnam War - but on the political level: as was the case with Vietnam, Iraq has become an enormous weight dragging the American ruling class down. The United States has already spent nearly 130 billion dollars on its presence in Iraq, with the aim of controlling the considerable oil wealth of the country. But today, they are no longer sure of being able to stay...

American Defeat

On this level too we can see a first American defeat: Washington has not yet found it possible to reorganise the exploitation of Iraqi oil, which was however its fundamental objective.

The United States didn’t launch this war for the few processing industries or services that exist in Iraq. In this domain, the Bremer administration has applied its programme to the letter, by privatisations and by assigning markets to American companies, without putting them out to tender, which works to the detriment of other American companies - and which has been the cause of numerous scandals.

On the other hand, the United States has continually put off decisions concerning oil, precisely because they have been obliged to take account of the hostility towards them in the country. But the more time goes by, the more the popular hostility that has led them to put off these decisions will intensify.
The project of the Bush administration wasn’t, as is sometimes said, to purely and simply privatise Iraqi oil resources. It would be too difficult to get that accepted. Its objective was privatisation in all but name, in the form of agreements allowing US oil companies to “co-exploit” Iraqi oil along with the state oil company. But today, the main worry of the United States is working out how to stay in the country and on what conditions.

“Transfer” of sovereignty

It was last autumn that Bremer officially announced his plan for a so-called Iraqi government, consisting of people appointed by the occupying power or chosen by assemblies themselves appointed by the occupying power. The result was a confrontation, in which his main opponent was Sistani, the highest Shiite dignitary in Iraq.

The “Grand Ayatollah” Sistani is an arrant reactionary on social issues, a medieval traditionalist. However in this battle he has come across as the person who is standing up to the proconsul Bremer. So an out and out reactionary has become the spokesman for his community and for a majority of the Iraqi population, in opposition to the plans of the occupying forces. In spite of the important differences between Sistani and Khomeini, in particular concerning their conception of the relations between political power and religious authorities, this situation has some points of resemblance with the role that Khomeini played in the struggle against the Shah. Every bit as reactionary on social issues or over women’s rights, Khomeini became the main figure of the opposition to the Shah of Iran at the end of the 1970s, taking up at first the theme of democracy.

When in November 2003 Bremer wanted to force the hand of the Iraqis, Sistani took up the challenge and called demonstrations, which took on considerable scale and forced Bremer to back down.

The Bush administration then turned again to the United Nations, for mediation and to save face. The mediation led to the so-called promise to organise elections in January 2005. I say “so-called” because I don’t believe that the United States - in any case the Bush administration - is really ready to organise free elections in Iraq.

In this context, no one is being fooled by the date of June 30. The Iraqi government that is established will remain de facto appointed by the occupying powers: even if this government is formed through the intermediary of the UN, it is the United States who will in the last resort establish it. Furthermore, this government will not be sovereign: it will have no control over the occupation forces; moreover, it won’t even have full control over its budget.

In fact, on June 30, the real transfer of power will take place not between Bremer and the new Iraqi “government”, but between Bremer and the new US ambassador in Baghdad, John Negroponte. Negroponte got his experience in Vietnam and he was involved up to the hilt in the most sordid episodes of American intervention in Central America in the 1980s. He is at present US ambassador to the UN, while waiting to preside over in Baghdad the biggest US embassy in the world, with more than 3,000 employees.


The situation is difficult to decipher, with social and political forces that are in part allied, in part in competition or in opposition to each other: those who participate in the Interim Governing Council (IGC) set up by the Americans and those who are not involved in it; those who are defined on religious or ethnic bases; the divisions within the Shiite community; sectors of the Baath Party reintegrated by the American army in order to control Falluja...

The most important fracture is not between Shiites and Sunnis, but between Arabs and Kurds.

Today, the Kurds are the only section of the Iraqi population that approves of the occupation and believes that it is in its interest that it should continue. It is true that Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed, since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, real autonomy and a very privileged status by comparison with the rest of Iraq. It escaped from the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. It was even able to prosper economically by acting as a lifeline for the rest of the country, which was subject to the UN embargo, a situation which favoured the development of all sorts of illicit trading. All this took place under the protection of the United States and Britain.

For the rest, the political landscape is fractured. There exists no hegemonic force, capable of governing the country.

For this reason, there is in my opinion a real perspective for a certain form of democracy in Iraq, on condition, of course, that the occupation is brought to an end. I say that in the sense that, for example, we can say that Iran is today infinitely more “democratic” than the Saudi kingdom. In Iran, there are electoral battles, which are not just sham affairs. There is a plurality of political forces, even if it is within certain well-known limits. There exists in Iran a real political life, with conflicting opinions, which is quite unlike the totalitarian Islamic fundamentalism of the Saudi kingdom, or the semi-fascist former dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

The potential for a certain democratic life in Iraq is even greater than in Iran, because there is no hegemonic Iraqi politico-clerical force. Furthermore, within the population, the Shiite majority cohabits with a Sunni minority, not to speak of the other minorities, and moreover none of the communities is homogenous. All this contributes to the existence of the objective conditions for pluralist political life, even if it remains within certain limits.

The United States has, involuntarily, created the conditions for a certain democratisation. The Americans really believed that they would more easily control the country by destroying its state machine, Saddam Hussein’s machine. In the United States, almost everyone today agrees that the dissolution of the army and of all the different kinds of services, as well as the “de-Baathisation” - which got rid of tens of thousands of civil servants, most of whom were members of the party for strictly opportunist reasons and who are not easy to replace - was a monumental blunder. The United States in this way deprived itself of the only force that would have been able to maintain control over the population: a repressive and well-oiled state machine.

This has created a situation that is difficult to undo. You can’t easily rebuild a state machine that you dissolved more than a year ago. We saw in Falluja that the attempt to fall back on a general of the former Republican Guards to stabilise the situation provoked such a furore that the American army had to partly retreat.

In this context, the only possibility of reconstructing an Iraqi state is to do it in a pluralist framework, at least in the first instance.

Social Movements

On this question there is enormous disappointment. One could be optimistic before the invasion: Iraq had had in its history a massive Communist left, particularly in the 1950s and 1960s. Although it had been crushed within Iraq by Saddam Hussein, it continued to represent in exile - where four million Iraqis lived before the start of the war - a real force.

We could have expected that this tradition, which kept roots inside the country, would rise from its ashes. But the Iraqi Communist Party, after having had a relatively correct attitude before the war - it was opposed to Saddam Hussein, which goes without saying, but also to the war which was being prepared and to the United States’ aim to dominate the country - agreed to participate in the Interim Governing Council appointed by the occupiers. The Iraqi Communist Party thus pulled off the exploit of going from participating in the Baathist government, in the early 1970s, to participating in a council of collaborators of the American occupation. This has largely discredited the party and the Communist tradition.

There exist other forces that are more to the left, but they are not strong enough, given what is at stake in the country. As in Palestine and in the whole region, it is the Islamic fundamentalists who take the most radical line against Western domination who have the upper hand, and who have exploited popular resentment at the situation. From this point of view, the consequences of the attitude of the Iraqi Communist Party are very serious.

US Debates

The main difference on this subject, between Kerry and Bush, lies in Kerry’s greater willingness to share out the cake, with France and Russia in particular, in order to make it possible to govern Iraq in a more international way, via the UN. He thinks that this will make it possible to disarm the violent opposition to the occupation of the country. That’s what Kerry means when he claims that he would be capable, unlike Bush, of renewing links with the allies.

The Bush administration, on the other hand, persists in trying to modify the American presence without giving ground over control of Iraq. Taking into account the way the situation is evolving, that seems to me almost impossible.

But nor does that mean that a Kerry type of solution has much more chance of squaring the circle: maintaining US control over Iraq - including its military presence in the country - and at the same time pacifying the country.

In fact, if it comes to a process that is directly controlled by the UN Security Council, the pressure for free elections will be too strong to resist. And I can’t really see how elections in Iraq could bring to power any government that would accept the presence of American troops.

Having said that, there are many unknown quantities. It is a very unstable region, where changes can occur brutally. No one, for example, should count on the Syrian or Iranian regimes lasting forever. The situation is even becoming critical in the Saudi kingdom, which had however up to now been kept under close control.

In reality, the policies pursued so far by the United States in the Middle East, which have a lot in common from one administration to another, can only increase disorder and a form of descent into barbarism - I spoke after the 11 September of the “clash of barbarisms”.

On the one hand, the scandal of the torture and brutal treatment inflicted by American soldiers in Iraq and in Afghanistan, the hundreds of prisoners deprived of all rights at Guantanamo, in violation of international conventions, illustrate how far things have gone in this regressive spiral on the American side.

On the other hand, in the Middle East, all the popular heroes are today Muslim fundamentalists: Bin Laden, the Hamas leaders, Moqtada Al-Sadr, etc. That is a measure of the regressive dynamic that is weighing on the region and making the situation particularly gloomy.


In this very alarming situation, there are fortunately some small glimmers of hope. The world movement against neo-liberal globalisation and against war is beginning to have an impact, very modest for the moment, in countries like Morocco, Egypt and Syria, and is giving rise to activities that are inspired by what is happening in Europe. The first Moroccan Social Forum thus brought together several hundred people in 2003 and there will be a second one this summer. A small movement against globalisation is trying to develop in Syria. These few rays of hope are thus essentially due to external factors; the internal factors tend to reinforce the radicalisation on the terrain of Islamic fundamentalism.

The new impact of the anti-globalisation movement is a result of important changes: information circulates infinitely more than in the past in the Middle East and the Arab world. The Arab-language satellite TV channels have breached the strict control imposed by the authoritarian regimes of the region, which furthermore cannot completely control access to the Internet.

This new context can also favour the emergence of new left currents. To develop, these currents would need to concentrate on the questions on which the fundamentalists are by definition incapable of competing with them: social issues, women’s rights, the denunciation of uncontrolled capitalism and its ravages on a world scale. Of course, any left worthy of the name must also oppose Western occupation and plans to dominate the region. But on this terrain it can’t hope to defeat the fundamentalists, who very largely occupy the scene.


The second Intifada has unfortunately been part and parcel of this regressive dynamic. It has been much less effective than the first one in the struggle against the Israeli occupation.

This flows from the fact that the Palestinians have in a way fallen into the trap of the militarisation of the Intifada. I think that, quite deliberately, the Israeli side has encouraged this militarisation of the conflict. This has enabled them to take extreme measures, on the pretext that it is no longer a question of controlling demonstrations, but of conducting a war - the term is employed systematically on the Israeli side.

On the Palestinian side, this dynamic has led to a big drop in popular involvement. There is a striking difference between the mass character of the first Intifada and the second one. The direct involvement of women is an indicator: it was remarkable in the first Intifada; it is completely absent from the second.

This corresponds perfectly to the aims of someone like Ariel Sharon, who played a decisive role in the initial provocation in September 2000, and who subsequently rode on the crest of the wave of the situation that had been created, to win the elections of February 2001. Since then, he hasn’t stopped throwing oil on the fire, because it is from this fire that he draws his own strength.

Today, the situation of the Palestinians is worse than it has ever been in the whole history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There has never been such suffering. These people are in the process of being completely strangled; a policy of creeping expulsion is de facto under way. The policy of the Israeli government is creating a situation that is so unbearable that it is forcing a growing number of Palestinians into exile. Those who remain, prisoners of this stranglehold, will subsequently be concentrated in a few enclaves placed under close surveillance.

This dynamic favours the extremes on both sides. Sharon draws advantage from it on the Israeli side. On the Palestinian side, it is Hamas that is gaining the upper hand, because this movement is the most violent of all in its opposition to the occupation and to Zionism. That aggravates the historical impasse that this part of the world finds itself in.

Geneva initiative

The criticisms that we could make of this initiative from the point of view of the rights of the Palestinians are obvious. But I wouldn’t polarise the debate around that, because in the present situation, this initiative is stillborn: those who are behind it, on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, are completely marginalised.

If the political context were to change and a new space for this kind of initiative to open up, I would adopt the same attitude that I took in relation to the Oslo agreement of 1993. That consisted of, on the one hand, explaining that the agreement in no way satisfied the fundamental rights of the Palestinians and that it would therefore not resolve the conflict. But on the other hand, it seems to me obvious that to go back to a situation more or less similar to the period that followed the Oslo agreement would be better than the present inferno and the asphyxia to which the Palestinians are now condemned. In short, I wouldn’t support this kind of initiative, but nor would I take the attitude that the worse the situation gets, the better it is. We will have to continue the struggle for the rights of the Palestinian people, starting from the modest gains that it can manage to obtain, rather than rejecting such gains.

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