The mass revolt that broke out across Iraq last week has exposed the hollow claim that the occupation has won a “strategic victory” in Iraq.
The Iraqi army launched an assault on Basra that claimed to be an effort to deal with the presence of “criminal gangs”, but which was in reality an attempt to crush the popular resistance to occupation.
In an angry response to the army, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets.
The US and Britain had invested heavily in the belief that Iraqi troops could police the country on their behalf while they slowly draw down their own troops. George Bush declared the assault a “defining moment” for his “surge” strategy.
But many Iraqi soldiers and police refused to fight, while others retreated or defected to the rebels.
Now Britain’s defence minister Des Browne has ripped up plans to cut the number of British troops in southern Iraq.
The revolt began when Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki attempted to seize control of the oil rich city of Basra from the Mehdi Army, a popular nationalist movement led by rebel Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
The leader of Iraq’s main oil workers’ union Hassan Juma relayed a message to Socialist Worker which explained how whenever Iraqi troops attempted to move into Basra’s poor neighbourhoods, they met determined resistance.
“The Iraqi army assault began with intense shelling and fire from all sorts of weapons,” the message states.
“The heroic neighbourhood of Hayania prevented the puppet Iraqi army from entering the city.”
British troops had been training Iraqi forces for the decisive showdown with the rebels who had driven the British out of the city six months ago. This strategy has now fallen apart.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets in mass demonstrations – taking control of the southern cities of Nassiriya, Kut, Hilla, Diwaniya, Ammara, Kerbala and Shia Muslim neighbourhoods of Baghdad.
The Sunni Muslim resistance organisations also declared their support for the rebellion – overcoming the crippling sectarian divisions that have plagued the country for the last two years.
In a statement the Association of Muslim Scholars, the mouthpiece for the predominantly Sunni resistance organisations, called for “all Iraqis to show unity and solidarity and prevent the threats against the people who oppose the occupation”.
By last Saturday the assault on Basra had stalled, with a large part of the city under the control of the resistance. The occupation responded with ferocious attacks.
Coalition warplanes killed scores of people in the cities of Hit and Basra, while US troops fired artillery barrages into Baghdad’s poor neighbourhoods in a desperate attempt to cover the Iraqi army’s rout.
Finally, with the Maliki government facing humiliation, Iraqi officials brokered a truce with the help of Iranian officials.
On Sunday the government offered to stop their raids and release some of the captured fighters if Sadr ordered an end to the revolt. The government dropped all demands that rebels hand over their weapons. Later that evening Sadr instructed his commanders to withdraw from the streets.
This latest uprising comes after Sadr ordered a ceasefire last August.
He argued that a key element of the US surge was to “disarm the militias” – a thinly veiled threat against his movement – and feared a direct confrontation would see a repeat of the murderous attacks by US warplanes on the densely crowded neighbourhoods already visited upon the country.
Although the truce has thrown a lifeline to a government that had staked its credibility on crushing the resistance, the uprising has revealed the depth of anger at the occupation.
Izzat al-Shahbander, a pro-occupation Iraqi MP, admitted to the Reuters news agency, “What has happened has weakened the government and shown the weakness of the state. Now the capability of the state to control Iraq is open to question.’”
This is not exactly the “decisive moment” that George Bush had hoped for.