Iraq: bloody reality behind the lies

FRFI 199 October / November 2007

September’s report by General Petraeus on the progress of the so-called ‘surge’ was always going to be ambiguous, for the reality is too obviously horrific. Accordingly Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq, claimed modest success in reducing sectarian violence and in preparing the Iraqi security forces so that he could plead more time was necessary for the ‘surge’ to work. Since the military aims of the ‘surge’ were vague, Petraeus’s report was never going to give a clear judgement on the success or failure of the supposedly short-term strategy. He was left, therefore, to say that the undefined tasks were unfinished and so make the continuing US occupation of Iraq seem inevitable. The political purpose of the ‘surge’ was to give a new impetus to the occupation and defuse the mounting criticism of President Bush. In that sense, the ‘surge’ and Petraeus’s report have done their job. Jim Craven reports.

General Petraeus was clearly the man to tell the Bush administration what they wanted to hear. Following his much-lauded ‘hearts and minds’ campaign in Northern Iraq in 2003-4, he wrote, ‘I see tangible progress. Iraqi elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. The institutions that oversee them are being re-established from the top down and Iraqi leaders are stepping forward.’ As soon as Petraeus withdrew, the Iraqi forces he had trained and praised either deserted or joined the resistance.

US will stay in Iraq
Petraeus made some concessions to congressional concerns that the US army is over-stretched, by suggesting there could soon be a token withdrawal of troops and that numbers might be reduced to pre-surge levels by next summer. However, there was never any question that he would recommend a major withdrawal. The US cannot afford to do so, for military occupation of the region and control of its resources, particularly oil, is a crucial part of US imperialist global strategy to maintain economic hegemony against potential rivals such as Russia, China and the EU by the use or threat of military power. If the US is ever able to significantly reduce its forces in Iraq it will still keep substantial numbers at the big military bases it is building. Indeed, in a speech broadcast two days after Petraeus’s report, President Bush argued for a continued troop presence ‘beyond my presidency’, adding: ‘The success of a free Iraq is critical to the security of the United States.’ Bush later compared Iraq with South Korea, where US troops have been stationed for over 50 years.

A series of reports leading up to that of Petraeus had prepared the ground for justifying the occupation. They variously claimed that Iraqi government forces needed continued Coalition assistance but were improving, that although the Iraqi police and Ministry of the Interior were ‘plagued by dysfunction’, ‘uneven progress’ was being made, but overall Iraqi security forces were unlikely to be able to take over in the next 12 to 18 months.

Much was made of the situation in Anbar Province as an example of what the ‘surge’ could achieve. President Bush, Defence Secretary Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a flying visit there at the beginning of September. However, resistance forces in Anbar were not subdued by the US ‘surge’. Rather, local Sunni tribal leaders had made a pact with US forces. This was reportedly because of the hostile attitude of Al Qaida fighters towards the local population. However, Sheikh Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who initiated the pact, ran a profitable import-export business and owned several houses in a heavily fortified compound guarded by US tanks next to the US base in Ramadi. Some local people, not only the Al Qaida fighters, regarded him as a traitor, particularly when he was photographed shaking hands with President Bush. This chimera of exemplary peace blew up in the imperialists’ faces when Abu Risha was assassinated by a roadside bomb in mid-September.

Iraqi resistance grows

The imperialist forces are meeting increased resistance from the Iraqi people. Abduljabbar Al Kubaysi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance, estimates that well over 100,000 resistance fighters are now involved, with a further 300,000 Iraqis taking part in support and intelligence gathering roles. Other resistance leaders have pointed out that, contrary to imperialist attempts to characterise the resistance as so-called Al Qaida terrorists, only a little over 1,000 of the fighters have an allegiance to Al Qaida. Al Kubaysi maintained that all sectors of the population in all parts of the country (although he did not mention the Kurdish north) backed the resistance and that most of the sectarian bombings attributed to Al Qaida were perpetrated by the occupying forces and puppet government supporters. Interestingly, Al Kubaysi criticised the ambivalent role of Moqtada Al Sadr and the Mehdi Army even though they are one of the main targets of the US ‘surge’. Al Sadr has been aware for some time that rogue elements in the Mehdi have been responsible for sectarian killings. At the end of August he called a six-month ceasefire for his forces in order to ‘rehabilitate the Mehdi army in a way that will safeguard its ideological image’. What that will entail remains to be seen but all Al Sadr’s most recent action and rhetoric has been to oppose the puppet government and call for unity between Shias and Sunnis in resisting the occupation. In August he said the priority was to form a united nationalist front. ‘The Prime Minister is a tool of the Americans...It will probably be the Americans who decide to change him... We don’t have a democracy here we have a foreign occupation,’ he said.

The surge of violence
The US Defence Department has admitted that the average daily number of attacks on US and Iraqi puppet forces in June was 178, the highest figure since the invasion. More members of the US military were killed in August than in July, though both were down on the peak figure of 126 in May. The imperialists have increasingly turned to the air. In the first half of 2007 the US dropped five times as many bombs as in the first half of 2006 and three times as many as in the second half. Extra squadrons of attack planes have been added to the US force and air reconnaissance flights have doubled.

The consequences have been disastrous for the Iraqi people. There are almost daily reports of Iraqi citizens, including many children, being killed by indiscriminate US air raids. When US helicopters killed at least 18 people in Husseiniya at the end of July, witness Hazim Hussein described the attack as ‘a war against civilians inside their houses’. Mahmood Taha from Jboor reported, ‘Each time they bombed our area, civilians were killed by the dozens and houses were destroyed. They could not fight the resistance face to face, and so they take revenge from the air.’

On the ground, the number of patrols by US and Iraqi puppet forces has risen from 1,000 to 5,000 per day since the surge began. They are carrying out brutal house-to-house searches and trying to isolate whole areas of towns and cities. Samarra was placed under curfew in August. In Fallujah all vehicles, except buses and food trucks with special permits, were banned for two months. The local hospitals were running short of medicines. At least three areas of Baghdad were cut off by concrete barriers, without electricity, water or fuel for generators. US troops sniped at local people from rooftops and many were arrested and abused.

Between February and August the number of Iraqis held in US detention camps rose by more than 50% from 16,000 to 24,500, almost all without charge or access to legal process. One Iraqi government camp had three times the number of detainees it was designed for, many with wounds and diseases that were not being treated.

Petraeus claimed there had been some reduction in casualties since the ‘surge’ began. Tragically, this claim is ludicrous. Official US figures do not match even those of the Iraqi government or independent organisations. The Brookings Institute says that around 10% of all US patrols result in a firefight. US rules of engagement, for what they are worth, allow US troops to annihilate any civilian if in pursuit of an ‘insurgent’. Michael Schwartz, writing in the US journal Counterpunch, estimates around 10,000 Iraqis are killed every month by imperialist forces and their stooges, a figure in line with the findings of The Lancet survey last year.

The depth of the imperialist savagery is being illustrated by the few prosecutions that have reached the US courts and by statements from former serving US soldiers. They reveal casual murder, kidnap and rape, indiscriminate revenge, covering up crimes by planting evidence, massacre of children and ‘dead-checking’ – the routine slaughter of wounded Iraqis rather than providing medical help. ‘A lot of guys really supported that whole concept that if they don’t speak English and they have darker skin, they’re not as human as us, so we can do what we want’, reported Specialist Josh Middleton of the 82nd Airborne Division.

British troops defeated
When British troops withdrew from the Basra Palace complex to their sole remaining base at Basra airport in early September, the Labour government and British military would have had us believe it was part of the orderly hand-over of security to Iraqi forces in the region. The Iraqi people, however, knew it was an ignominious defeat for the British. ‘The British have given up...They are retreating because of the resistance they have faced’, said Al Sadr. Anthony Cordesman, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, pointed out, ‘The British decisively lost the south more than two years ago.’ In recent weeks British troops have been subjected to around 60 rocket and mortar attacks each day. Resupply convoys were described by one soldier as ‘nightly suicide missions’. By early August Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institute was describing Basra as ‘out of the wild, wild west’.

The 550 British troops only managed to escape from Basra Palace relatively unscathed under cover of darkness and after an Iraqi general had brokered a truce with local resistance fighters. The British will claim that Iraqi government forces are ready to take responsibility for Basra province later this autumn. In the other three southern provinces where the British have already ceded control, things are not going well for them. Two Iraqi puppet governors and a police chief have been killed in recent weeks.

US reaction to the British move was scathing. The US had been using Basra Palace as an intelligence gathering centre against Iran and worried that any major British withdrawal from the area would leave its supply routes from Kuwait exposed and force it to divert thousands of US troops from the north. The retreat from Basra Palace had already been delayed by six months because of these concerns. US government officials complained of British ‘inaction’ against the Basra militias and General Jack Keane said the British had allowed the situation to deteriorate into ‘gangland warfare’.

Fred Kagan, an architect of the US ‘surge’, said the special relationship with Britain was under threat because British defence cuts meant they were unable to sustain their commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Former head of the British army General Sir Michael Jackson retaliated by describing US plans for the occupation of Iraq as ‘intellectually bankrupt’. Any major rift with the US, however, is inconceivable since British imperialism uses US military power as the vanguard for defending its own global interests. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown reassured the US that British forces will not quit Iraq prematurely and ‘will continue to have an important job to do’.

It is likely that some of the 5,000 remaining British troops in Iraq will be pulled out in the autumn to reinforce those in Afghanistan but the rest will, as the jargon goes, be ‘repostured’ at the Basra airport base. Whatever posture they adopt will not be comfortable, for the airport has received 600 rocket and mortar attacks in the past four months.

Imperialists at full stretch

The problem facing both imperialist powers is that their armies are over-stretched. Tours of duty for US forces have already been extended from the usual 12 months to 15 months and unprecedented numbers of the National Guard are on active service. Petraeus knew that if he did not announce some troop withdrawals in the next year then tours of duty would have to be further extended. 35% of US soldiers seek mental health treatment after returning home and suicides are at their highest level for 26 years, prompting a 25% increase in army psychologists and mental health staff.

The British army is presently at its smallest since the early 1840s. It is several thousand under strength and experienced troops are leaving faster than they can be replaced. One battalion went on service at only 60% of full strength. The Territorial Army is also smaller than at any time since its formation in 1908, despite a big advertising campaign.

The imperialist forces would be even more overstretched were it not for the use of private security firms. There are no official figures for the number of these mercenaries but estimates put the figure at around 50,000. They have the same immunity from prosecution by the Iraqi authorities as do regular troops and have been filmed indiscriminately firing on Iraqi civilians. Billions of dollars have been paid to organisations such as DynCorp, Triple Canopy and Blackwater USA – private armies that rival many national armies in size and strength. British companies Erinys and Aegis Defence Services received $548 million over three years to protect the US army Corp of Engineers using forces equivalent to three battalions. Armor Group, another leading British mercenary force, is headed by Tory MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind who has also been acting on behalf of oil giant Shell and Australian oil company Biliton. On 16 September Blackwater mercenaries opened fire in a Baghdad street killing 28 civilians. The Iraqi government revoked Blackwater’s licence to operate but it is still employed by the US government. Its killers are paid $600 a day.

Get the imperialists out

According to Oxfam the incidence of child malnutrition now stands at 28% and more than 11% of Iraqi babies are born under-weight – three times the rate of 2003. 43% of the Iraqi population live in absolute poverty, largely due to massive unemployment. A third of the population need emergency aid. Of five million Iraqis dependent on food aid only 60% had access to the government distribution system because of displacement and military actions. 70% of the population are without adequate water supplies and 80% lack effective sanitation. In Northern Iraq, at the end of August, 5,000 people contracted cholera, which has spread to Baghdad. 2.2 million Iraqis have left the country, including 75% of all doctors and pharmacists. Of these refugees, just 173 were allowed into the US in the first eight months of 2007. Last year Britain rejected 88% of Iraqi asylum applications and granted entry to just over 1,000 people.

Criticism of the war among US Democrat and a few Republican politicians is little more than electioneering. The Democrats refused to block Bush’s war budget, which was the only significant opportunity they had of forcing a change of policy. What really fuels any criticism from within the US ruling class of the US government’s policy in Iraq is a fear that the concentration of military power in Iraq leaves their wider regional and global interests at risk. Opposition in Britain to the Labour government’s wars is feeble.

Legislation drafted by the IMF and western oil multinationals giving foreign companies control of 85% of Iraq’s oil reserves has been stalled in Iraq’s parliament by opposition from across Iraqi society. Workers have pledged to fight any privatisation or foreign take-over of Iraqi oil. The delay has not, however, prevented the multinationals from continuing to make preparations for their bonanza. Prominent among them is the Anglo-Dutch company Shell. The International Taxation and Investment Centre, a US-based think tank funded by Shell and six other oil companies, is currently in negotiation with Iraqi officials to create regulations that would allow their future oil profits to be free of tax. Shell is also well advanced with a plan to pipe Iraq’s natural gas through Turkey to Europe. Shell’s executive Jeroen van der Veer said last year, ‘We have done our homework on Iraq. I’m not going to speculate on the time, but we are ready to move.’ The imperialists are digging in for the long term. We must support the resistance and get them out.