Two years after the invasion of Iraq, writer and activist Tariq Ali spoke to Socialist Worker about US strategy in the Middle East and the growth of the Iraqi resistance to the occupation
Socialist Worker: The Iraqi resistance is demonised by Bush and Blair as terrorists, supporters of Saddam Hussein, Islamic fundamentalists and so on. Tell us what you think of the resistance.
Tariq Ali: Every resistance movement against imperialism has been categorised as terrorist â€¹ the Mau Mau in Kenya were demonised and brutally tortured by the British; the Algerian FLN by the French; the Vietnamese by the French and the Americans.
Today Israelâ€™s Ariel Sharon refers to Palestinians as terrorists, Russiaâ€™s Vladimir Putin crushes the Chechens in the name of fighting terror and Tony Blair is assaulting traditional civil liberties in this country in the name of fighting terror. Itâ€™s hardly surprising that the Iraqi resistance is characterised in the same fashion.
Obviously the means used to drive out imperial occupiers are determined by the nature of the occupation. The brutality of the US troops and systematic torture they have used has been well documented. So how can the resistance be beautiful?
During the Algerian war a leader of the national liberation front, the FLN, was asked about using terror against French civilians in cafe bombings in Algiers. He replied, â€œIf we had an air force I promise you we would only target French barracks, but till thenâ€¦â€
SW: How does the struggle between imperialism and the resistance in Iraq compare with the struggles against French colonial rule in Algeria or against the US in Vietnam? Have the techniques of empire changed? Is the nature of the resistance different?
TA: The techniques of empire have not changed at all. The tally in Vietnam was two million Vietnamese dead and 50,000 US soldiers. The tally in Iraq today is over 100,000 Iraqis dead and 1,500 US soldiers. The proportions donâ€™t change.
What has changed is the world in which we live. With the collapse of the traditional left there is a big vacuum. In Vietnam and Algeria the movement was led by people who were either communists (Vietnam) or secular nationalists (Algeria).
In Iraq today the heirs of the Iraqi Communists – whose leaders were hanged by the British empire – are crude collaborators on every level.
The armed resistance is led by religious groups, ex-Baathists and in certain areas by Iraqi nationalists. The political failure to create a national liberation front is the Achilles heel of the resistance.
Zarqawiâ€™s al-Qaida group only entered the country after the US occupation. It is a tiny minority whose tactics are denounced by most Iraqis opposed to the occupation.
There is also the political resistance of Moqtada al-Sadr and his faction, which is based in the Shia slums of Baghdad and the poor sectors of Basra and other cities in the south of Iraq. He will demand the withdrawal of all foreign troops and say no to permanent US bases in the country.
If the leading figures in the United Iraqi Alliance, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, and Shia cleric Ali Sistani – not to mention the fraudster Ahmed Chalabi – cave in, the resistance will spread to the south of Iraq.
In my opinion, to demand and accept an election under the protection of an occupying imperial army could only lead to further collaboration. Sistani models himself on Gandhi, but India had a very different history to Iraq and Gandhi called on the British to quit India at the height of the Second World War.
The US administration was split over who should lead Iraq. The first option was Iyad Allawi, the second option is Sistani/al-Hakim/Chalabi. But the house of cards could collapse quickly if a Sistani regime cannot deliver a rapid withdrawal.
SW: Since 2003, we have seen the two assaults on Fallujah, the rebellion in Najaf, the elections and the installation of another interim government. How has the Iraqi resistance developed and changed since 2003?
TA: Fallujah is the Guernica of the Arab world. A city was destroyed, its people killed, tortured, dislocated, its children orphaned. Tragically, in contrast to the first assault on the city, Sistani remained silent in November.
In other words the bloc he heads acquiesced in the destruction of Fallujah in return for power sharing. This event marks the first serious breach in the unity of Iraq.
The elections were initially regarded by Washington as a concession, though US journalist Thomas Friedman argued strongly for them in the New York Times on the grounds that it was best that Sistani crushed the insurgency rather than the Americans. Just like itâ€™s best if Abu Mazen crushes the Palestinian resistance rather than Sharon.
In an occupied country imperialism always divides and rules – India, Africa, Vietnam, Korea, Cyprus, Ireland and the Arab east are examples from the past. The American empire will want a client regime in place and it will use each group against the other.
Allawi against Sistani; armed resistance groups against al-Sadr. That is why some elementary unity on a political level is vital. If Sistani, as the voice of the majority community, had denounced the destruction of Fallujah, it would have created the basis for some form of unity. So the resistance, in my opinion, has progressed little over the last two years. This is a tragedy for Iraq.
SW: There are several elements to what the US is doing in Iraq – military, political and economic. To what extent is the resistance countering in these three areas?
TA: Militarily the resistance has made the country ungovernable, including Baghdad, a city of several million people. Economically the targeting of foreign companies and the pipelines has been effective. Oil firm Halliburton is welcomed in Basra, but not Baghdad.
This is the first serious neo-liberal occupation and the third largest presence – after US and British troops -is the privatised armies run by firms.
A few months ago a South African mercenary was shot dead. It later emerged that he had been one of the torturers of Steve Biko. I was in South Africa at the time and many people rejoiced.
SW: Can the resistance win – and what would this mean?
TA: The withdrawal of all foreign troops, no military bases and Iraqi control of Iraqi oil would constitute a victory. But will the US allow this to happen?
Henry Kissinger has called for the Balkanisation of Iraq. The only grouping ready for this are the Kurds, provided they get the oil wells. Neither Turkey – for its own vile reasons – nor the rest of Iraq will accept this willingly.
So itâ€™s a mess, but the lack of an overall political project on the part of the military and political resistance is a very serious weakness.