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US caught in a vice

This article is over 20 years, 3 months old
The latest stage in the occupation is the most dangerous for the Bush gang, argues Alex Callinicos
Issue 1897

THERE IS something symbolic about the fact that one of the southern Iraqi towns from which the American-led occupation was forced last week was Kut. It was here that in 1916 a British invasion force was besieged by the Turkish army and eventually forced to surrender. Of course, the present occupation of Iraq doesn’t yet face a disaster on this scale.

But the sense that the US and its allies-chief among them Britain-are becoming bogged down in a situation of which they are losing control is growing. It was crass stupidity to open two fronts simultaneously-ordering the Marines to crush the resistance in Fallujah and seeking to break the power of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr.

But the roots of the present crisis lie in contradictions inherent in the very project of Bush and his neo-con advisers. The military campaign was an advert for the model of “transformational warfare” that US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld has been seeking to impose on the Pentagon. A relatively small, highly mechanised and heavily armed force overwhelmed the Iraqi army and seized the main population centres within a few weeks.

A long term military occupation of Iraq would allow the US to dominate the Middle East and control access to its huge oil reserves. But here was the first contradiction. Rumsfeld’s military doctrine calls for small, highly mobile, high-tech forces. But such an army isn’t geared to occupying a large, socially complex country like Iraq. The task of occupation required a large army spread in small, often vulnerable packets around Iraq, creating the risk of politically embarrassing casualties for the Bush administration.

Earlier imperial powers like the British relied heavily on locally recruited mercenaries like the Indian army. But Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army, depriving the occupation of useful auxiliaries.

The US has tried to fill the troop gap by encouraging sympathetic governments to sign up to the “coalition of the willing”. But the limits of this policy were exposed last week when the Ukrainian soldiers occupying Kut fled in the face of the insurgents.

Rumsfeld has accelerated the privatisation of the American military, filling Iraq with contractors and the ex-soldiers they hire as security guards. But these mercenaries aren’t a military asset that the occupation chiefs can use, and are vulnerable to attack and kidnapping, as we have seen in the past fortnight.

The second great contradiction stems from the fact that, in the early 21st century, the US can’t declare itself the colonial power in Iraq as Queen Victoria proclaimed herself Empress of India in the 1870s. So Bremer has had to try to assemble an Iraqi government that both is compliant with American wishes and enjoys democratic legitimacy.

The trouble is that the best way to gain legitimacy is through elections, and Iraqis would almost certainly use their votes to support political forces unpalatable to Washington.

Hence all the manoeuvring over what happens on 30 June, when the occupation is supposed to end. Till a few days ago the plan was for the US to hand “sovereignty” over to its hand-picked governing council with elections by the end of the year. Even these elections would change only appearances.

The US military occupation would continue, and Bremer is putting in place laws that will bind the hands of any elected government, leaving real power in the hands of the US embassy and the American corporations. Events of the past fortnight have now thrown this scenario into chaos. Bremer and the US military intended to avenge the lynching of four American mercenaries in Fallujah with a massive show of force.

All they have succeeded in doing is widening support for the resistance and exposing the weakness of the occupation. The siege of Fallujah is a terrifying reminder of the slaughter American firepower can inflict-600 people killed by last weekend. But it also revealed how skin-deep the power of the occupiers is.

Patrick Graham wrote in The Observer, “In the areas outside Fallujah, the US army controls only what it can shoot. Everything else is up for grabs.” The US reliance on overwhelming force has so far secured no clear military victories and a severe political setback.

A battalion in the new Iraqi army refused to fight in Fallujah. Even the timeservers on the Iraqi Governing Council were forced into revolt. Some resigned, others publicly denounced American tactics. They knew that identification with an occupying power bombarding Iraqi cities would destroy them politically.

Bremer has been forced to back down and agree to a truce in Fallujah. Meanwhile, in southern Iraq, far from being crushed, Moqtada Sadr’s forces were entrenched in the holiest places of Shi’ite Islam in Karbala and Najaf. Tony Blair has adopted a defiant tone, declaring that “dictators would rejoice, fanatics and terrorists would be triumphant” if the occupation were defeated. Rumsfeld announced that more American troops would be sent to Iraq to defeat the “thugs, gangs and terrorists” fighting his forces.

But Rumsfeld can’t respond to the crisis in Iraq by sending ever larger numbers of troops there, as President Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam. American conscripts fought in Vietnam, but the US now relies on volunteers serving in an active duty army that, at 480,000, is proportionally the smallest in US history.

In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Lawrence Korb, former US assistant secretary of defence, describes the enormous pressure this army has been put under by the demands of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. He quotes one expert who says, “Our volunteer army is closer to being broken today than ever before in its 30-year history.”

According to Korb, “Only two of the army’s ten active divisions are ready for conflict outside Iraq and Afghanistan.” The conquest of Iraq was the first test of the Bush doctrine of preventive war. But it has made it difficult, if not impossible, for the US to apply that doctrine elsewhere in the world, for example in north east Asia or Latin America.

The Bush administration is caught in a vice. Iraq is turning into a quagmire, but withdrawal would be the biggest defeat for US imperialism since Vietnam. Iraq was meant to demonstrate America’s unrivalled global “hegemony”. But it is beginning to look like a trap from which Bush and Blair cannot escape.

‘Sunni and Shia forces united’

THE TOP US business paper the Wall Street Journal is getting increasingly worried that the US forces are losing in Iraq as popular anger against the occupation grows:

‘SIGNS THAT the new fighting is convincing some Iraqis to reassess their view of the insurgency are increasingly easy to find. Long lines have formed for blood drives and charity drop-offs to aid the besieged residents of Fallujah. Residents in many Baghdad neighbourhoods signed up to host displaced families from Fallujah, and banners and signs are posted at every corner declaring that the Sunni and Shia forces are now united.

A cigarette seller in Baghdad said yesterday he has decided to collect tax from customers and contribute the money toward any militia that is fighting the Americans. The American public and its news media are raising questions about Iraq becoming another Vietnam for its troops.

The Iraqis and the Arab media have already started drawing a parallel between Iraqis and the Palestinians, tapping into feelings of Arab national pride, honour and victimisation.

Despite US officials’ claims that the uprisings have no grassroots support, the public’s adherence to a cleric’s call for a general strike demonstrates just how much the relationship between Americans and Iraqis has deteriorated in the past few weeks.

The streets of Baghdad were largely empty over the weekend, with the majority of businesses closed. Schools, universities and government buildings also closed. American military officials have so far contended that the 129,000 troops stationed in Iraq are sufficient.

But much depends on whether the battle remains between marginalised insurgents and coalition forces, or whether it spreads to a civilian population, Sunni and Shia alike, eager and willing to take arms against a common enemy.’

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