The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 73 (Winter 2005).
During the Vietnam war, a U.S. military officer asserted that his forces had to destroy a village “in order to save it.” Now the war criminals who run the White House and the Pentagon, with unanimous support from their Democratic Party “rivals” and their “watchdogs” in the bourgeois media, have widened their sights by several degrees of magnitude: they have already leveled the city of Fallujah and are ready to destroy as much of Iraq as necessary in order to save it for “democracy” – that is, for imperialist exploitation.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Fallujah became the center of support for the resistance by Sunni Muslims, the Iraqi minority whom Saddam Hussein had bribed and cajoled into forming his base of support. There, the underground network of former Baathist soldiers and secret police, as well as groups of Islamic terrorists, plotted their anti-occupation ambushes and car bombings, as well as terrorist abductions and executions.
Now that the U.S. election freed the warmongers of both parties from worrying about what voters might think, Fallujah, a city of 300,000 people, has been laid to waste. Its mosques, stores and homes were bombed, shelled and riddled with bullets. As one U.S. commander summed up, “There isn’t a building in this city that doesn’t have a hole in it.”
We will never know how many thousands of civilians died in the bombings or were killed by troops whose orders were to shoot anything that moved. U.S. forces made sure of that, beginning by occupying the city’s main hospital and barring it from receiving victims. Then they kept Red Crescent ambulances and convoys with food and water out of the city for more than two weeks.
One small indication of U.S. vindictiveness was seen in the videotaped execution of a severely wounded, unarmed Iraqi in a mosque by a U.S. Marine. That Marine may be charged with a war crime, but the entire assault, not to speak of the whole war and occupation, are themselves unspeakable war crimes.
But the post-election escalation cannot extricate the imperialists from the quagmire they have dug themselves into. As we wrote in Proletarian Revolution No. 71, “[the U.S.] cannot stay in Iraq without greatly escalating its bloody attempts to suppress the masses, thereby abandoning the invasion’s vital goals of pacification and stabilization.”
The U.S. occupiers’ nightmare is a united, nationwide resistance. They know, as surely as Saddam did, that if the Iraqi people are to be conquered, they have to be divided. Towards this end, the occupiers received ample assistance from bourgeois forces among Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites, as well as Kurds.
Fallujah’s fighters succeeded previously in driving back U.S. assaults. The key to their success, however, was not their ample military skill and ruthlessness, but the simultaneous uprisings of the Shi’ite majority who had been brutally oppressed by the Baathists. In April 2004, during the U.S.’s first attempt to subdue Fallujah, Shi’ites rallied in protests and organized donations for its victims. Fallujans responded similarly to U.S. attacks on Najaf and other Shi’ite cities. Whatever the cynical ends of the communal leaders, who called for solidarity, the positive mass response showed the potential for bridging the sectarian religious and ethnic divisions that had been sowed by both colonial and Iraqi rulers.
The Sunni resistance is dominated by groups of former members of Saddam’s dictatorship who are widely hated for their vicious oppression, particularly of the Shi’ite masses. There are also the ultra-reactionary Sunni terrorist organizations, which brand as infidels both foreigners and Shi’ites. They targeted not just agents of the occupation but also do-gooder aid workers and even truck drivers and other workers (often from neo-colonial “Third World” countries like Turkey) for ambushes, abductions and grisly executions.
Searching for soft targets they could attack without the risks involved in confronting the U.S. forces, these Sunni groups launched murderous attacks on applicants and unarmed recruits to the new Iraqi army. The recruits, drawn overwhelmingly from desperately poor Shi’ites, have refused to fight every time the U.S. has ordered them to and could easily have been won to the struggle. Further, Sunni terrorist groups are suspected, with good reason, of numerous bombings of Shi’ite and other political and religious gatherings.
As months of these attacks wore on and killed more civilians than imperialist invaders, the sense of solidarity among Iraqis opposed to the occupation waned. Among Shi’ites in particular, the anger at years of oppression by Saddam and his mostly Sunni henchmen came to the fore.
The U.S. made a major breakthrough in subduing the Shi’ite resistance in August. Its third offensive against the armed forces of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr again met with fierce resistance. (See PR 71.) But Sadr’s forces could not win the battle. They not only lacked the necessary firepower, but more crucially, their reactionary acts had also succeeded in isolating them from the broad masses of Shi’ites. Sadr had won support among workers and poor with a populist message of opposition to the imperialist occupation. But the areas controlled by Sadrists suffered from their vicious Islamist practices, most notably aimed at women. Also, the Sadrists often used military tactics that unnecessarily endangered the civilian population.
Supreme Shi’ite religious leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had been searching for a way to balance between the masses’ hatred of the occupation with his desire to collaborate with the U.S. The increasing animosity of the Shi’ite masses toward the Sunni resistance, coupled with the deadlock between the U.S. and Sadr, gave him the opportunity he had been looking for.
Sistani refused to explicitly side with Sadr in the Najaf battle, instead calling for an end to the fighting by both sides and a negotiated solution. The deal he finally brokered got Sadr to agree to disarm his militia and direct his forces into participating in the coming U.S.-dominated elections. In return, Sistani promised to allocate a quota of seats in the future parliament to Sadr through a common Shi’ite electoral ticket, one that would unite anti-occupation forces with the major pro-imperialist Shi’ite parties. Sadr agreed to the U.S. and Sistani’s terms, and with that the fate of Fallujah was sealed.
The U.S. certainly scored victories in dividing the armed Iraqi opposition, forcing Sadr to retreat and destroying Fallujah. But for the U.S., every step forward in Iraq leads deeper into the mire. While the Sunni resistance was certainly set back, it is far from defeated. In the first days of the U.S. offensive, Sunni fighters initiated armed actions across the country, including taking over for days the city of Mosul, which is much larger than Fallujah. Since then they have launched numerous attacks on occupation forces across the country. Furthermore, the U.S.’s devastation has hardened the Sunni masses’ opposition to the occupation. As a result, it seems likely, at this point, that almost all Sunni political groups will boycott the planned elections. The tactic of terrorizing Iraqis so that they fear to vote, instead of trying to convince them, shows how reactionary the Sunni insurgent leaders are.
Not only would a Sunni boycott rob the future government of claims to be representative. It would also deny the U.S. its aim of balancing the various religious, ethnic and national powers against one another. Significantly, two prominent Sunni clerics were assassinated after calling for a boycott of the elections. In late November, when Sunni and Kurdish factions called for a delay, U.S. ambassador John D. Negroponte, showing just who is in charge, asserted “National elections will be taking place on the 30th of January.”
Tensions are also rising among the Shi’ites. Sadr at first demanded more seats on Sistani’s ticket. In the absence of a large Sunni vote, Sadr could be tempted to run independently. However, one of his aides called for a boycott in response to Fallujah and was promptly arrested by the U.S. Sadr had no choice but to organize protests in his defense, and thousands rallied for him in Baghdad. As we go to press, it is unclear whether Sadrists will be on the United Iraqi Alliance slate that Sistani is organizing.
While the U.S. continues to insist that the elections will go ahead on January 30, it is difficult to imagine how they will, with the Sunni resistance undefeated and promising to attack voters. Further, there is pressure for the elections among Shi’ites who are anxious to wield political power after so many years of oppression. But the masses also understand that no matter what government is formed, real power will remain in U.S. hands. The one thing certain is that no new government will be able to hold power without a massive U.S. military presence behind it. A year and a half after Bush’s self-promoting “mission accomplished” stunt aboard an aircraft carrier near San Diego, the imperialist mission is even further at sea.
It was inevitable that if bourgeois-clerical forces continued to lead the resistance, it would inevitably collapse into sectarian warring. The only alternative is to mobilize the workers and poor around their common class interests in a struggle against imperialism as well as local bourgeois forces. This struggle can only be led by genuine communists who are committed to ending the entire capitalist system.
As previous issues of PR have pointed out, the Iraqi working class has a long history of struggle and socialist organization. It continues to suffer horribly under the occupation, but it has waged recent strikes in the oil industry, as well as made efforts to organize trade unions and protests around issues like unemployment and the need for essential social services. Expanded struggles could spark the masses of the entire Middle East to rise up against their own rulers and their U.S. backers.
Revolutionaries in Iraq would champion and participate in every such struggle they could. But the workers’ movement will not be rebuilt through trade union struggles alone. The main issue on the minds of the masses is the imperialist occupation; they burn to end it. They know their other demands will find no satisfaction outside of this struggle. Indeed, that is why they remain trapped in supporting the bourgeois anti-occupation leaders in spite of policies that are often repulsive to the masses of workers and poor.
Socialists would fight for united mass struggle for all the masses’ democratic rights – from ending the occupation, to self-determination for the Kurds and ending ethnic and religious persecution, to women’s liberation from sexual oppression. But they would also explain in the course of struggle that capitalism can only exist based on oppression and exploitation. Democracy and freedom can only be secured by the rule of the workers and poor established through a socialist revolution that overthrows imperialism and local bourgeois forces.
To achieve these ends, it is of the greatest urgency that revolutionary socialists advocate the most effective and thoroughgoing struggle against the occupation. We are for a mass insurrection that would swamp the present sectarian and elitist efforts. In preparing such a struggle revolutionaries would seek to organize militias and councils of the workers and poor independent of the bourgeois forces. Revolutionaries would take the lead in organizing armed self-defense of the masses against attack by U.S. forces, seeking to arm and train the masses. To unite the diverse sectors of the population, revolutionaries would call for a united struggle for a revolutionary constituent assembly. We would stress that such an assembly could only be organized by a revolutionary workers’ state. The proposed January elections, in contrast, would set up another puppet assembly subject to the U.S. These elections should be boycotted as an imperialist fraud.
In this struggle, revolutionaries would make absolutely clear that the imperialists are the main enemy; we oppose the occupation forces in every conflict with Iraqis. However, revolutionaries would also seek to lead armed defense of the masses against terrorist and criminal attack. And revolutionaries would warn that the bourgeois leaders of the resistance will continue to betray the struggle with religious and ethnic fighting, on the one hand, and deals with the imperialists, on the other.
This is the Leninist tactic of military support, whereby revolutionaries agree to fight the same enemy as the insurgents while not giving the bourgeois resistance an ounce of political support. With such tactics, they could win the confidence of the masses across religious and ethnic lines and expose leaders like Sadr when they retreat. And in the course of struggle, more and more workers and poor could learn that to win their democratic rights and open the way to vastly improving their lives, not just the occupation, but capitalism itself has to be overthrown.