After The Ba’ath

The Afghanistan stage of the war on Iraq seems to be over. We are now in the Jenin stage. The demos last weekend quite rightly moved the demand from no-war to no occupation. Perhaps it is important to say more than No Occupation, perhaps we need to hear what the organized Iraqi progressives have offered as a coherent map toward genuine peace. They call for a UN Conference and elections: we must support this demand.

Of course, Rumsfeld seems eager to march his forces up the Damascus road, in “hot pursuit” of the Ba’th leadership, but also to dispatch the Syrian regime. The Israeli Right and the Washington Neocons both have long wanted such a result and they may not be held back. So we are still in an anti-war mode, because war, it seems, has been unsheathed by this administration as the means of imperial diplomacy. [There is a phantasmagoric amnesia about Syria's desire for a US-Syria-Israel conference to continue the Madrid talks so that Bashir al-Asad may become the Sadat of the Levant]

Meanwhile looting continues in the cities, a situation that could have been revolutionary if there were a strong Left in the region. With the collapse of the regime, the Left could have taken advantage of the situation, provided its services to organize neighborhoods and condemned the Occupation in more than words. But the Left was the Ba’th’s first enemy and it continued to be terrorized by its regime: in 1963, when the Ba’th came to power, it killed at least three thousand cadre of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), at that time the largest Communist Party in the Arab lands. The Left is now in exile, either in Europe or else in the Kurdish autonomous region. The few that remained in Iraq provided indispensable accounts of barbarism for international human rights groups, but in this situation they have not been able to exert themselves even as they welcome the fall of the Ba’th. The Left has called for an end to the “murderous adventurous regime,” and if the US-UK invasion had the same credibility of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to overthrow the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge in 1979, then the Left may have indeed welcomed the war. They would then have accepted the US invitation to the conference of exiles held in London, but they refused because, as Salam Ali of the ICP said, “We reject the war on principled and moral grounds as being the worst and most destructive alternative.” The Left rejected war on two axes: (1) The sheer barbarity of the techno-military force would inevitably claim civilian lives whatever the intentions of the individual pilots and tank commanders. Furthermore, imperial location of the coalition forces would not be able to manage society in the short-term once the regime fell. (2) The coalition would rule by an Occupation and then make alliances with the status quo rather than transform Iraq toward a social democracy.

The first scenario has come to pass. The war produced suffering and grief, and the collapse of the regime left the troops unable to deal with the detritus that their air arm created. The second scenario is now our problem. The UK-US forces have invited “tribal leaders” and “community leaders” to meetings so that they may take charge of the situation, they have invited the older Ba’th police to change uniforms, and they have brought in their marginalized exiled Iraqi leadership (such as Ahmed Chalabi, and the quickly assassinated Abdul Majid al-Khu’ei). The turn to the “tribal leaders” mimics the British Empire’s creation of the tribal units from lineage clans into a patronage system rooted in control over land revenue. Revenue Commissioner and High Commissioner of the Iraqi Mandate Henry Dobbs was the architect of this reconstruction and his ghost now haunts the Iraqi people. The writ of the installed King and of the “tribal chiefs” only held, wrote the Colonial Secretary of State, “entirely due to British aeroplanes. If the aeroplanes were removed tomorrow, the whole structure would inevitably fall to pieces.” A British Foreign Office memo quite candidly noted, “What we want is some administration with Arab institutions which we can safely leave while pulling the strings ourselves; something that won’t cost very much but under which our economic and political interests will be secure.” The colonial rulers reconstructed the “tribal” set-up in the interests of rule and not to protect any sort of custom (these details are all in Peter Sluglett’ 1976 book, Britain in Iraq).

The conservative “tribal chiefs” had become such a block to democracy that after the relatively progressive 1958 coup led by Abd al-Karim Qasim, he introduced land reform legislation to break up their monopoly and give land to the peasantry. The pan-Arabists, such as the Ba’th, opposed the measure and tried out a coup against Qasim. Qasim spoke out against the conservatives and the Ba’th, the ICP tried to use this move to organize against the Right, but Qasim simply wished to take the opportunity to aggrandize himself (he called himself the Sole Leader, al-Za’im al-Awhad) while he got the green light from the Soviet Union to go after the ICP. There was no good playbook for progressive forces in those complex and convoluted times. Saddam Hussein, incidentally, brought back the “tribal chiefs” to full glory in the 1990s as a means to deepen his control over Iraq.

Given the location of the “tribal chiefs” in the maintenance of conservatism in Iraq, we should not only oppose the Occupation, but we must also be forthright in our opposition to the continuation of the “tribal” system.

We would not be alone, and for once the Euro-American progressive forces might deign to take the lead from elsewhere, from the broad Iraqi Left. On 23 March, the third day of the bombardment, from Shaqlawa in Iraqi Kurdistan, the ICP’s Central Committee released a memorandum that they had sent to the UN, the Arab League, Human Rights Organizations and “All Parties, Organizations and World Public Opinion.” The first demand in this document has been superceded by events (the immediate cessation of the war), but the next three are still applicable: lift the economic embargo and get basic needs to the Iraqi people; ensure the implementation of the Geneva convention; and demand that UN human rights monitors protect the rights of Iraqi civilians.

The fourth demand is simple: a refusal to submit to an Occupation and a call for some process whereby the Iraqis may “exercise their right to decide their destiny.” The ICP, along with other forces, call for an International Conference on the Iraq Issue, led by the UN, and to be attended by all “representatives of Iraqi democratic and patriotic forces” that might include the ICP based in Kurdistan, the ICP based in London, the mainstream Kurdish liberation formations (the KDP and the PUK as well as the Kurdish Islamic Party and the Kurdish Peace Party), the opposition wing of the Arab Ba’th Socialist Party, the Socialist Unity Party, the Arab Labor Party, the Arab Socialist Movement, as well, perhaps, as the State Department exiles and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Such a conference would be sponsored by the UN, held immediately and given the broadest mandate to take over the reconstruction of Iraq as well as prepare the ground for elections in the shortest possible time. The bill for the destruction of the infrastructure of Iraq must be sent to the US Congress and the UK Parliament and not fobbed off to either UN multilateralism or to Iraqi oil revenues. If you destroy things in war, you must pay for them: we teach our children to fix what they break, and we should abide by this principle at all costs. Iraq’s oil wealth and other resources belong, as the ICP noted, “to the Iraqi people who alone have the right to disposal over these resources through democratically elected constitutional bodies.”

It is only a type of international multi-racism that makes us stop before we allow that the Iraqis may be ready for elections in the short term (who are we to preach on elections, after Florida, anyway!). A secular, literate society with aspirations for freedom, liberty and justice is quite able to manage on its own without Occupation or Tribalism. We need to join with democratic and patriotic Iraqis in their call for the establishment of “a transitional broadly-based coalition patriotic government which would ensure democratic freedoms, and prepare conditions and prerequisites for free elections under UN supervision, as an essential step along the path of building a constitutional democratic Iraq.” Could you have said it any better?

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