Nothing left to lose


Next Sunday, 30 January, a general election will be had for an American sponsored interim government in Iraq. Most Iraqis have never voted in a free election before – although they’ve turned up over the past three and a half decades, and desirous of keeping their heads, fingers, toes and relatives, have recorded 99 per cent plus majorities for Saddam Hussein. So, you would think, it should be a day of rejoicing, a time to celebrate new freedoms, the creation of one of the rarest of entities in the Arab world, a democracy.

Wrong. It will be a day when dozens of people – at least – will die violent deaths, and the most probable outcome is that it will mark the beginning of a civil war that will tear the country apart.

The spurious nature of the 30 January election was perceptively discussed by Ghali Hassan in ‘Iraq’s fraudulent election’ in last week’s NewMatilda Issue 21 (see article here ). Why should a phony election point the way to civil war? The answer begins with reports widely printed in US papers in the middle of this month. The Iraq Survey Group, set up by the US and its allies after they occupied Iraq, had finally concluded, after searching the whole country unhindered, that the Hussein regime had no weapons of mass destruction. As the New York Times said in an editorial on 13 January, ‘The search for weapons of mass destruction may have been one of the great non-events of the early 21st century…Fear of the non-existent WMD brought us a war.’

And that needless war has reduced Iraq to the bloody ruin that it is today, and during its course, created the guerrilla movement now ripping into the guts of the country. But regardless of this carnage, the election will be held, because the US has said it will happen. The Shi’a religious majority will elect some sort of Shi’ite régime, and the former ruling Sunni minority will largely be excluded, because there will be no voting in their home provinces.

There will be no voting because the Sunni militias have turned these provinces into no-go areas for election officials. These same militias are the forces who will lead the Sunni-Saddamist forces in the civil war that seems bound to come. Guerilla attacks now occur daily but a full blown war will follow when US nerve finally breaks, they declare victory, and head off home leaving their puppets to run or be slaughtered, and for the remaining Sunnis and Shias to decide whether they want to fight over the corpse of a dying Iraq – or maybe, and the Middle East is where miracles began, maybe, the two factions will combine to breathe some life back into the battered body.

What is happening in Iraq today is a magnified version of what happened in Lebanon in 1982, when Israel decided they would do what the Americans say they’re trying to do in Iraq – root out ‘terrorists’. In 1982, the Israelis invaded Lebanon to drive out the Palestinians, who lobbed the odd rocket into Israel from their bases in south Lebanon. They did drive out the Palestinian leadership, to Tunis, but then the Israelis did what the Americans have done in Iraq, they stayed behind, occupying a strip of south Lebanon which they said would be the barrier against cross-border attacks. But the longer they stayed, the more they united the Lebanese Muslims against them, and the constant battles against the Israelis produced a battle hardened, vastly experienced guerrilla force, Hezbollah , which became the first Arab force to defeat Israel, driving it out of the south, and remaining a threat across its border to this day.

Just as pushing Arafat to a villa in Tunis was the easy part for Israel, it is now clear that getting rid of Saddam was the easy part for the Americans. The next question is how long the Americans will stay in Iraq. This is a question that even the Americans, who got the Iraqis into this mess, cannot – or will, not answer. When Condoleezza Rice, the incoming US Secretary of State, was asked the question last week at her confirmation hearing, she replied, ‘I’m really reluctant to put a time table on that, because I think the goal is to get the mission accomplished, and that means the Iraqis have to be capable of some things before we lessen our responsibility.’

If I’d been a US Senator at that hearing, I would have jumped up at that point and asked, ‘What was the mission? What do you mean by “capable of some things” and what “responsibility” do you refer to?’

That exchange gives me a real sense of deja vu. As a foreign correspondent I’ve heard this sort of meaningless talk before, and I’ve been in place to see where it leads. I lived in Lebanon when the Israelis invaded, I was in Vietnam when the Americans had to get out, in Tehran when America’s favorite Iranian, the Shah, was toppled by the religious masses and with the US (tank) cavalry in the first gulf war in 1991. I came out of all that with little respect for US foreign policy and a great respect for the strength of militant, ordinary citizens.

Being in Vietnam was an interesting experience because I got there quite late, at the beginning of 1971, when the war was running down and a ragged American military was bugging out. Badly led, with zero morale among the embittered draftees who were doing the dying in the jungles, drug ridden – you bought your heroin, as I saw, at the water tanks in places like the airstrips in Quang Tri and in the bars of Saigon. The non-com officers were looting the PX stores, there was continual strife and a complete breakdown in relations between black and white soldiers and civilians were being killed in their tens of thousands. The then President, Richard Nixon, at least saw they had to get out, if only to save the military from imploding, and so was born ‘Vietnamisation’, a process by which the US declared that their allies – their ‘game little tigers’, the directionless South Vietnamese army – were now strong enough to defend themselves. The US more or less declared a victory, left it all to the South Vietnamese, and Vietnam has been communist since 1975.

The American military in Iraq is already fraying at the edges under the pressure of fighting a guerrilla enemy. They’ve had almost 1400 soldiers killed, and 10 000 wounded, military recruitment in the States is dropping, public opinion is turning against the war, there has been a mutiny by a unit which refused to drive supplies into a battle zone, and the Abu Ghraib torture scandals are typical of a force blindly determined to hurt someone, anyone, on the other side.

So anyone with a sense of history will wonder whether the upcoming Iraqi election will be the excuse for the Americans to declare victory and run, leaving the fighting to be done by their latter day little tigers. The process of Iraqisation, to coin a phrase, has already begun. There is an Iraqi ‘army’ of about 150 000 troops under training, but has proved helpless even to defend itself to date – new recruits die daily from bombings and frontal attacks on their bases from Sunni insurgents. If the Americans pulled out, even a year after the election, the insurgents, guerrillas, call them what you like, would certainly feel on past performance that they could take on any American trained Iraqi army. Anyone looking at the forces on the ground today would have to conclude that Iraq is now likely on the path to a bloody sectarian civil war between the natural majority, the Shi’ite community, and the now battle hardened Sunni militias who were literally created by the US army.

As the Americans in Vietnam and the Israelis in South Lebanon found, it is the foreign invaders who eventually have to leave – the locals always stay because they are in their homeland, and there’s no where else to go. The most prominent of the guerrilla leaders, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, summed up the American dilemma in a radio message this week. ‘The war could last for years,’ he said. ‘In the fight against the arrogant American tyrant who carries the flag of the cross, we find that despite its military might, it is being crushed emotionally and morally. Our battle with the enemy is a battle of streets and towns …Fierce wars are not decided in days or weeks.’

There’s not much point now in speculating what could have been done differently, although clearly, Americans and Iraqis are dying because the Bush régime refused to allow the UN to get involved in the campaign at any point. But I can’t help remembering what a US colonel I knew in the first gulf war told me. As the American buildup was gathering pace in 2002, and it was clear America would attack Iraq although there was no hard evidence Saddam had chemical or nuclear weapons, he said to me, ‘In every other campaign I’ve been involved in, we’ve been given the answers to three basic questions. œWhat is the objective, how do we achieve it, how do we get out? This time round, I haven’t heard the third question even mentioned…’

It may be that the commanders didn’t get the third answer because their bosses didn’t plan to get out. I think the US planned to stay in numbers, setting up a puppet régime lead by someone like their first favorite, the now discredited Ahmad Chalabi. Their most likely reasons for staying are the ones always quoted by opponents of the war. The US wanted to control Iraqi oil, they wanted to weaken a potential enemy of Israel, they wanted bases in the Middle East to replace those in the increasingly unstable Saudi Arabia. And of course, George Bush wanted to get Saddam, because as he famously explained at the start of all this, ‘He tried to kill my Daddy.’

What they’ve done is wreck a country, kill tens of thousands of its civilians, and in the context of this election, create a régime which when elected, will be marked immediately as American puppets. The only way that régime could prove its independence would be to kick the Americans out, but if they did they would immediately be attacked by a ruthless Sunni militia which is infinitely superior as a fighting force to the hapless army now being trained, sort of, by the Americans.

George Bush, in his bizarre inaugural speech last week didn’t even mention ‘Iraq’, by name, but used the words ‘free’ or ‘freedom’ at least twenty five times in twenty minutes. It sounded like a threat to impose what might be called a Freedom Reich on America’s perceived enemies. Until reality sets in, American is going to try to impose ‘freedom’ on Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea and any other enemy yet to be named. America has ‘freed’ people relatively recently after all, as in Chile in 1973, where they freed the country from its democratically elected Allende government and allowed Pinochet and his torturers to take over. Now it seems, the people of Iraq are to be the first in the twenty first century to find out that ‘freedom’, in the words sung by George Bush’s fellow Texan, the late Janis Joplin, ‘is just another word for nothing left to lose.’

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