New tensions in Iraq
An opinion poll conducted by the Coalition Provisional Authority in May - but not initially released to the US public - revealed that 55% of Iraqis would feel safer if the occupation was to end. 41% wanted it to end immediately, and 45% immediately upon the interim government taking power (which it has now done; formal sovereignty is passed to it at the end of June). Over half thought the behaviour of US troops in Abu Ghraib was typical. 78% have no confidence in the CPA, and 81% no confidence in the US. Only 11% expressed approval for the CPA (against 47% last November). 81% had an improved opinion of Muqtada al-Sadr - the radical cleric who led an uprising in the Shi'a south from the beginning of April.
Indeed, al-Sadr came second on the list of popular political figures (67%) after Grand Ayatollah Sistani (70%). Leader of the Shi'a Islamist Da'wa Party Ibrahim Jaafari came third (58%). The highest scoring secular politician was Adnan Pachachi (41%), the veteran nationalist shunted aside by the US in the recent battle over who was to be appointed president of the provisional government.
But these figures are slightly misleading. Much support for al-Sadr is general and not organised - though his organised base is considerable, and is thought to have grown enormously in the past three months (numbering at least in the tens of thousands). Asked who they would vote for president, only 2% said Muqtada (the largest support went for Jaafari, who regularly scores very high in such polls). Iyad Allawi, the ex-Ba'thist who is the newly appointed Prime Minister, scored only 23%. But there is no question that the occupation is deeply unpopular, and becoming more so.
The Abu Ghraib scandal, coming on top of the occupier's heavy-handed treatment of unrest first in the "Sunni triangle", then in the south, has deeply alienated much of even that part of the Iraqi people who viewed the invasion with sympathy. After a negotiated settlements in Fallujah an Iraqi security force now runs the town. It includes elements from the resistance and the old Ba'thist army. But heavy-handedness continues, as do brutal attacks, by insurgents, on civilians and Iraqis believed to be collaborating with the occupation. However, compared with a few weeks ago, things have calmed down considerably.
Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has withdrawn from the shrine city of Najaf, where it was becoming increasingly embroiled in fights with rival Shi'a groups as well as the Americans. But the American campaign against al-Sadr must be judged a failure. Originally they insisted on his arrest and trial (for involvement in the murder of another cleric). Then US proconsul Paul Bremer stated that al-Sadr would not be allowed to participate in the parliamentary system now being established. But the US authorities have retreated from this, too.
Al-Sadr has announced he will be forming a political party to contest elections (although it is unlikely he will stand as a candidate). He has promised to accept the new caretaker government provided it draws up a programme for US withdrawal. Meanwhile his base in East Baghdad, the slums of so-called Sadr City have been declared a "no go area" for Americans.
Al-Sadr lost perhaps 1,500 militants in fighting with the US military but the ranks of his armed supporters seem to have grown. For many unemployed, dispossessed young men, Muqtada al-Sadr has become a symbol of resistance to the occupation. Those who join up with the Army get paid a wage through the mosques. The Mahdi Army in fact is a poorly organised gang and its military defeat should have been less in doubt.
The withdrawal from Najaf and the announcement of the formation of a party does not seem to mean that the Army is being disbanded. It is still illegal according to a deal struck earlier this month to disband the large number of militias active in Iraq. Since even major signatories to this deal, such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, seem ambivalent about it, it is as yet unclear what it will mean.
One index of growing support for the Sadrists is that for three weeks they have prevented a cleric associated with SCIRI from giving a Friday sermon at the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. This no doubt indicates thuggish behaviour; but SCIRI has an armed militia of maybe 20,000 - if al-Sadr can face them down it suggests very considerable strength.
Politically, the Sadrists are reactionary. Were they to come to power they would trample on democratic rights, and to that extent bear comparison with European fascism. Although they tap deep reservoirs of resentment, it is wrong to see this movement as one of national liberation. Nonetheless democrats cannot ignore the anger towards the occupation. Secular, democratic working class forces in Iraq need to fight to win over the dispossessed layers who are now turning to the Sadirists. And the demand for independence and genuine sovereignty is a democratic one which socialists should support.
The CPA will formally dissolve at the end of June, and the transition process now underway has some democratic content.
A new interim government has been formed, superseding the old Interim Governing Council. It will hold power until January 2005, when there will be direct elections to a parliament. Early elections are due to pressure from Sistani and his movement. US policy has not been coherently heading in this direction: it has been a catalogue of bungles and shifts, dictated by the fact that the goals of the war, after the overthrow of Saddam, were all along unclear.
For some in the US ruling class there was a desire to bring the benefits of American democracy to the Middle East; for others the aim was more limited and pragmatic. One consequence of "sovereignty" is that US policy in Iraq will pass from the Pentagon (where the neo-cons are strong), to the State Department, which is much less ideological.
The occupation has become very unpopular in America - and the Abu Ghraib scandal seems to have traumatised a large part of the US public. "Getting something done" before America's elections in November is crucially important for the Bush administration.
Some of the resistance forces are trying to derail the transition process - blowing up politicians and collaborators. Others are adopting a more wait-and-see approach.
New tensions underlie the apparent relative calm. The United Nations voted to endorse the transition process. That the UN was involved at all was a defeat for Bush (who fought the war without the UN, and partly in an effort to delegitimise it) and a victory for Sistani and the clerical leadership.
But the UN resolution (under pressure from Sistani, it seems) explicitly did not mention the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) agreed by the various Iraqi groups which included guarantees of Kurdish autonomy. Of course this has enraged the Kurdish parties and they have threatened to boycott any elections - and at one point seemed to be threatening to secede from Iraq. They also attack the new interim government for under-representing Kurds.
In a letter to George W Bush, the leaders of the two main Kurdish parties point out that their militias fought alongside the US in the overthrow of Saddam, yet they have been discriminated against by the occupation. That strong allies are now vocal critics of US policy is a worrying sign for Bush.
Kurds forcibly evicted from their homes in the northern towns by Saddam are returning. A particular flash point is Kirkuk, which the Kurds want as their regional capital, a town sitting on vast oil reserves, but containing dangerous ethnic rivalries. So far, there has been relatively little ethnic strife - but things threaten to deteriorate. It is notable that Sistani, who in many ways is a moderate figure politically, is helping to inflame anti-Kurdish passions.
The transition is going ahead. Although the final agreement allowed for more genuine control by Iraqis than Bremer and the US had originally wanted, it is far short of genuine independence. The Americans got "their man" in as Prime Minister - Iyad Allawi. For sure a central US objective in the war was to secure US military bases in Iraq, to protect its regional interests. These bases, of course, are to stay.
But according to a report in the New York Times (16 April): "Multibillion-dollar Pentagon contracts to support military operations and reconstruction in Iraq have been plagued by 'inadequate planning and inadequate oversight,' the government's chief budget investigator told Congress... citing management deficiencies that have fostered waste and cost overruns."
American academic Juan Cole adds: "And now... the [CPA]... is rushing to give away $2 billion in Iraqi oil revenues in reconstruction bids before the so-called turn-over of sovereignty on 30 June. This move is obscene. When the US knows very well that an Iraqi government is going to be recognised in only a couple of weeks that will have rightful claim on how that money is used, it is... ethically wrong for the Americans to commit the money now." (http://www.juancole.com/).
This is typical of how the Iraqi economy is being handled - vast sums handed out for private contracts to reconstruct the country, mainly American. Iraq contracts have added $5.7 billion to US giant Halliburton's profits since January 2003. (Time magazine, 1 June).
Bremer will cease to be Washington's man in Baghdad at the end of June. The Ambassador who will take over his offices is John Negroponte, who notoriously supported the Contras in Nicaragua and other Central American death squads.
Although the policy of the Bush administration shifted, under Bremer, more explicitly towards the neo-conservative strategy of "nation-building", local democracy received very little attention. Where local elections were held, secular forces tended to do well. But there were many instances of imposed mayors, elections called off, and so on. Some observers believe this lack of grass-roots democracy has had a profound effect on developments in Iraq.
Trade unions have grown; working class action has been a feature of post-Saddam Iraq (three general strikes in Basra, for example). George W Bush promised to help the development of labour unions - but the CPA keeps Ba'thist anti-union legislation in place. For the US this was useful for the implementation of aggressive privatisation and Polish-style shock-therapy economic policies.
The workers' movement remains divided between the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, which is dominated by the Communist Party (and has links to the erstwhile Governing Council), and unions influenced by the Worker-Communist Party. Workers' unity is an urgent task.
The workers' movement can put it faith neither in the armed "resistance" forces, nor in the US-backed new government, which includes many Islamist parties, and ex-Ba'thists. Every step towards independence and democracy should be nurtured and defended; but strong, independent, democratic organisation at the grass roots will secure the future.
What will happen if the transition process is derailed - either because of chaos resulting from further armed actions by the resistance, or some other cause? What will happen if elections produce a government not to the US's liking? Some observers think al-Sadr would win an election; others think the largest party is likely to be al-Da'wa.
Al-Da'wa is the oldest Shi'a Islamist party, dating from 1958 and parent to all the others. It is a right-wing party, but long committed to elections and peaceful politics (in that respect much less traditionalist than some other Islamist groups).
Given the demography of Iraq, elections would be unlikely to produce a clear victory for any one party. A rational policy from the occupation authorities would look to co-opting more radical figures, encouraging the horse-play of legal politics, and so on. The zig-zags of US attitudes towards al-Sadr suggest such an approach is far from certain. If things descend into chaos, there remains the possibility that the US will sponsor a coup; this was, initially, their intention in the war against Saddam.
Democrats and socialists in Iraq and elsewhere need to keep a firm eye on developments and respond accordingly. If democracy is to win in Iraq, it will depend on active solidarity internationally, to help powerful grassroots and workers' organisations blossom and flourish.