By Martin Thomas
On Sunday 29 April, US troops in Baghdad fought a sizeable battle with Moqtada al-Sdar’s Shia-Islamist Mahdi Army. It was another indication that, as we reported in Solidarity 3/110, the US may be edging towards a “war on two fronts” in Iraq, against both the Sunni sectarian militias and the Mahdi Army.
The sequel to the battle, however, suggests very strong pressures on the US to avoid that development.
The official US military statement on the battle said that it was aimed at capturing certain individuals, presumably Sadrist commanders, and it failed.
Then the next day, in the Iraqi parliament, the Sadrists got a vote passed to ban US troops from going anywhere within one kilometre of the battle site, on the grounds that it was near a Shia shrine.
Six Sadrist ministers resigned from the Nuri al-Maliki’s Iraqi government in April jumping before Maliki moved on his previous threat to sack five of them. But evidently the Sadrists still have substantial weight in what passes for Iraq’s political processes as well as on the streets, where thousands of Sadr supporters marched to protest against the battle.
The Sadr movement has chosen to “duck” George W Bush’s new military “surge” in Iraq, telling its militias to get off the streets and lie low until the surge is over (and they can re-emerge to take advantage of blows the US has struck against their Sunni-sectarian rivals). And the tactic seems to be working.
Sadr himself has called on supporters to protest by painting anti-American murals on the unpopular security walls due to be built in Baghdad by the Americans to separate Sunni and Shia neighbourhoods.
On 31 May, deadlines are due to expire for the Maliki government to meet US-stipulated “targets” on such things as progress on the oil privatisation law and on reinstalling Sunnis (including low-level ex-Ba’thists) in the government machine.
The indications are that the “targets” will not be met, and that the US can and will do nothing about it except possibly resorted to wishful thinking and fudged reporting in order to claim that at least “progress has been made”.
The dominant forces in the Shia-Kurdish government are reluctant to reintegrate ex-Ba’thists. A framework for the oil privatisation law was decided by the Iraqi cabinet in February, but a vast amount of contentious detail is unresolved, not about the principle of privatisation, which the main Shia-Islamist and Kurdish-warlord parties all agree on, but about the distribution of revenues between the oil-rich southern and Kurdish regions and Baghdad.
At the end of April, sixty Iraqi officials met to try to advance negotiations on the detail, prudently chosing Dubai as their meeting place rather than Baghdad.
No doubt they all enjoyed their day out in Dubai, but the negotiations produced not progress but, according to Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, “heated exchanges”.
The official US position is that if the Maliki government does not meet the targets, then the US will punish it by reducing US troop numbers. But the USA will not do that any time soon. Its Iraq commander, David Petraeus, said at the end of April that he did not want to assess progress on the military “surge” until September, and plainly he will not want the “surge” aborted before time on the grounds that... the Iraqi government is too frail and incompetent.
Even longer-term, the US is caught in a dilemma. The Iraqi government does not want US troops out. According to the most recent survey of Iraqi public opinion, fully 78% “oppose the presence” of US/ UK troops, but 35% want troops out now and 66% want troops out when there is some stable administration, defined variously as “the government being stronger”, “the security situation improving”, etc.
Yet, if the US were to scuttle, the Iraqi government ministers could probably all get out in time, jumping on planes to London or elsewhere. The USA would still have to deal with the implications of the strategically-central and oil-rich Gulf region collapsing into chaos. The “punishment” which the US threatens to wield against the Iraqi government would hurt US interests more than it would hurt the Iraqi government ministers.
The peoples of Iraq would face the horrors of all-out civil war between sectarian militias, each trying to establish and expand its own mini-Taliban regime. But, as the polls show, they equally (and rightly) have no confidence in the US/ UK troops to improve anything, and detest those troops’ brutality and arrogance. Fully one-half of Iraqis polled say that they have had a family member killed or injured by the US/ UK troops.
A late-April official report on US-sponsored “reconstruction” in Iraq, studying eight projects previously deemed “successful”, gives some indication why things have got so bad. Seven out of the eight projects are no longer working properly, and not because of “resistance” attacks, either. The eighth is a police station. US Inspector General Stuart Bowen wrote: “If these projects are typical of the quality and effectiveness” — and in fact, they’re probably better than the average — “the value of the US investment in Iraq reconstruction will be at risk... corruption is a virtual pandemic in Iraq”.
Only by the Iraqi labour movement uniting the population behind it, in a struggle against privatisation, for jobs and social guarantees, and for democracy and self-determination, can a way be found out of the horror. Our job in Britain is to build solidarity for that labour movement.