IRAQ: THINGS FALL APART
Things are coming apart in Iraq. The U.S. occupation is blundering from one crisis to another with no guiding strategy beyond “staying the course” (keeping a permanent military presence in the country). The occupation-fueled Shiite-Sunni conflict is growing in fury, casualties and dangers. The ripple effects of both the occupation/resistance and Sunni/Shiite conflicts are spreading throughout the region. The longstanding effort to cover up U.S. torture and related brutalities has collapsed. Support among the U.S. public for Bush’s Iraq policy has plummeted to record lows and several of Washington’s few remaining international supporters are jumping ship. Divisions within the U.S. governing elite have turned into open and nasty fights.
Analysts across the political spectrum are calling this a “tipping point” moment. The future is up for grabs in a way it has not been since before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
Among the new developments that have pushed matters to this point are:
A newly released secret poll commissioned by senior British military officers showed “the true strength of anti-Western feeling in Iraq” according to London’s Daily Telegraph (Oct. 23). According to the poll more than 82% of Iraqis “strongly oppose” the U.S. occupation and less than 2% believe Coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security.
According to official U.S. figures, the average number of insurgent attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces is at its highest level ever: more than 550 attacks per week.
The top U.S. government watchdog agency overseeing Iraqi reconstruction released a report at the end of October saying that Washington had “no comprehensive policy or regulatory guidelines” for staffing the management of postwar Iraq. Three weeks later the first charges were brought in a case involving large-scale corruption and kickbacks by U.S. contractors and former officials of the Coalition Provisional Authority. “This is the first case, but it won’t be the last,” said a spokesman for the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
The myth that the new Iraqi government is truly sovereign was punctured by no less than the Iraqi President himself. On November 1 Iraqi President Jalal Talibani told the U.N.: “I categorically refuse the use of Iraqi soil to launch a military strike against Syria or any other Arab country….But at the end of the day my ability to confront the U.S. military is limited and I cannot impose on them my will.”
The discovery of at least one Ministry of the Interior detention site where mostly Sunni detainees have been tortured by Shiite special police fueled already intense Sunni anger at the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government. Simultaneously, suicide attacks on Shiite civilians – including gatherings at Mosques – reached a new level with at least 70 killed in two Shiite Mosques Nov. 18. This combination, according to the New York Times (Nov. 18), “underscored the growing divide between ethnic and religious groups in Iraq, even as the country moves toward elections in December for a full, four-year government.” Less cautious observers simply state that Iraq is already immersed in a low-intensity but high-casualty civil war.
November 9 suicide bombings in Amman, Jordan – claimed by Al-Qaeda in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – killed 38 people attending a wedding and overall resulted in 57 dead and 90 wounded. The bombings, which were denounced at massive demonstrations in Jordan, heightened fears of terrorism and warfare spreading from Iraq throughout the Middle East.
WASHINGTON BUSTED ON TORTURE, CHEMICAL WEAPONS
The Washington Post published a new investigative report November 2 about the CIA holding and interrogating suspects at a secret facility in Eastern Europe. The Post reported that the Soviet-era compound is part of a network of “special rendition” prisons that has included sites in eight countries. The report has sparked investigations in at least four European countries.
The Pentagon admitted in mid-November that its earlier denials were wrong and it did use incendiary “white phosphorus” weapons against insurgents in Fallujah. White phosphorus bombs aren’t totally banned by international law, since they can be used to create illumination in battle. However, when used for chemical properties that burn on contact and keep burning when exposed to oxygen, they can be a horrific force for civilian terror, and are prohibited by Protocol III of the 1980 convention on Certain Conventional Weapons from being used in this fashion.
A newly released report explains that the U.S. has detained some 83,000 people during the four years of the “war on terror,” most of them in Iraq. Some 14,500 remain in detention there. Many detainees are not guilty of anything, but still cannot obtain their release.
Amnesty International, along with the British organization Reprieve, issued a press release in November that “called on the U.S. government to stop blocking meaningful U.N. access to its Guantanamo detention centre.” Amnesty Secretary General Irene Khan said: “Denying meaningful access to those held in Guantanamo Bay is totally unacceptable. Guantanamo is just the visible tip of an iceberg of abuse, the most notorious link in a chain of detention camps including Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, prisons in Iraq and secret facilities elsewhere.”
Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies summed up the impact of all these developments and more November 17: “What the New York Times editorializes as ‘the ultimate Iraqi nightmare’ does not just, as the Times claims, ‘seem to be drawing closer.’ Rather, the realities of ‘civil war, the persecution of minority populations in the new states, an alliance between the Shiites and Iran, and a complete breakdown of American moral and military influence in the Middle East’ are very much in existence today in Iraq.”
HEARTS AND MINDS AT HOME
In the U.S., meanwhile, more and more people have decided that Bush’s Iraq policy is a failure and that Washington must change course. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released November 17 showed 63% opposed to Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, with 52% saying U.S. troops should be pulled out now or within 12 months. A Harris Interactive Poll released the same day showed Bush’s job rating reaching a new low: just 34% approval. This compares with 88% soon after 9/11, 50% at this time last year, and 40% in August. A majority of the U.S. population now believes that Vice-President Dick Cheney (whose approval rating is just 30%) manipulated the intelligence on Iraq before the war.
The few remaining international participants in Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” are likewise leaving the President adrift. Right in the midst of Bush’s visit to Asia November 19 South Korean defense officials said they are seeking to reduce their troop contribution in Iraq (the second-largest among U.S. coalition partners, after Britain) – by nearly one-third next year. Bulgaria has announced that it will begin pulling out its small contingent of troops after the December 15 Iraqi vote; likewise the Ukraine.
Faced with this level of policy failure, opposition and isolation, the differences of opinion which have long existed within U.S. ruling circles about Iraq have exploded into bitter public disputes. The first bombshell in the latest round of intra-elite warfare was dropped by Lawrence B. Wilkerson, who had served as chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell from 2002 to 2005. First in a major speech and then in an Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times (October 25), Wilkerson declared that “vital decisions about postwar Iraq” had been made by a “secretive, little-known cabal….made up of a very small group of people led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.” Wilkerson added that this “secret process was ultimately a failure” that had “produced a series of disastrous decisions.” He concluded that “Today, we have a president whose approval rating is 38% and a vice president who speaks only to Rush Limbaugh and assembled military forces. We have a secretary of Defense presiding over the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of our overstretched armed forces….It’s a disaster.”
Three days later, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief-of-staff, Scooter Libby, was indicted in the “Plamegate” investigation (which is a key legal front in the elite’s internal conflict over manipulated intelligence and the decision to invade Iraq). Then Republican Senator Chuck Hagel publicly suggested that the Middle East is worse off after the invasion of Iraq because the administration failed to anticipate the consequences of removing Saddam Hussein.
Reflecting these political shifts, the Senate took a small but symbolically important step November 13 by endorsing a “phased redeployment” of U.S. troops from Iraq. Though toothless, the measure (a Republican substitute for a slightly stronger Democratic resolution) passed overwhelmingly – 79 to 19 – and was universally interpreted as an effort by a large number of Republicans to distance themselves at least a little from their President’s policy.
SHOCK AND AWE IN CONGRESS
Then, November 17, the battle escalated dramatically. Democratic Rep. John Murtha – a hawkish decorated Marine veteran who “has long been influential on military matters on both sides of the partisan divide” – issued a blistering critique of Bush’s Iraq policy and called for U.S. troops to withdraw “as soon as practicable.” Shocking and awing top policy-makers, Murtha said bluntly:
“The war in Iraq is not going as advertised. It is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public is way ahead of [Congress]. … The future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action is not in the best interests of the U.S., the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf Region…before the Iraqi elections, scheduled for mid-December, the Iraqi people and the emerging government must be put on notice that the U.S. will immediately redeploy. All of Iraq must know that Iraq is free. Free from U.S. occupation.”
Republicans immediately baited Murtha for embracing a “cut and run” policy that would surrender to the terrorists. They followed by utilizing control of the House to put an “immediate withdrawal” resolution (somewhat different than Murtha’s actual position) up for a vote in hopes of splitting and embarrassing the Democrats. In the bitter House floor debate that followed an Ohio congresswoman essentially called Murtha a coward, causing such a backlash she was forced to withdraw her remarks from the record.
The fact that immediate withdrawal from Iraq is still a position subject to baiting rather than serious consideration in Congress (only three Congressmembers, all Democrats, voted in favor of Out Now in the final vote) shows the distance the antiwar movement has yet to travel. But the main upshot of this controversy was to sharpen the criticism of Bush’s Iraq policy and put the question of quickly and completely getting out of Iraq on the mainstream political agenda with new force and urgency. Murtha did not back off an inch from the position he staked out, saying on television Sunday Nov. 20 that “I’m absolutely convinced that we’re making no progress at all [in Iraq]…They’ll have to work this out themselves. This is their country. We’ve become the enemy.” He added that his sentiments enjoyed private support in circles in the Pentagon – a certainty no Republican even tried to deny.
ATTACK AND SMEAR DIDN’T WORK THIS TIME
Bush, on the other hand, was forced to signal a retreat from the vicious attacks on Murtha that had come from other members of his administration and party. “People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq,” Bush said, “I know the decision to call for an immediate withdrawal of our troops by Congressman Murtha was done in a careful and thoughtful way.” This was one time that the Bush/Rove formula of “attack, smear, discredit, attack” was not working – a clear sign of just much trouble the administration is in. (This trouble only got worse when the next day representatives of almost the full range of Iraqi political parties collectively called for a timetable for withdrawal of all U.S. forces at the conclusion of a reconciliation conference in Cairo.)
It all added up to a terrible month for Bush. Both within the U.S. elite and in the populace at large, critics of the Iraq occupation have been emboldened, and the White House placed almost irreversibly on the defensive.
Still, this does not yet mean Iraq policy is going to change. Both Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld repeated their “stay the course/stay in Iraq” formula November 20. Bottom line, the White House still clings to its “lower expectations”/fallback strategy (see Month in Review #4/September) of maintaining a permanent military presence in Iraq even if it cannot establish the kind of stable, credible, pro-Western puppet government it once fantasized about. Washington’s current plan (if it can be called that) is to (1) muddle through the December Iraqi elections; (2) make a great fanfare of spring 2006 withdrawals of some U.S. troops in hopes of lowering antiwar sentiment and avoiding Republican losses in the 2006 elections; and (3) hope that in alliance with Kurdish and (on a shakier basis) Shiite leaders the occupation will be able to continue, with Kurdish and Shiite forces taking up more of the fight against the Sunni-based insurgency, U.S. troops suffering fewer casualties and increasingly removed to permanent bases, and together this alignment exercising enough muscle to keep oil flowing even if life for most Iraqis gets more miserable than it already is today.
It is a plan as shaky as all Bush’s previous ones. A host of things – from the Shiite population taking action on its anti-occupation sentiments to Sunni-Shiite conflict sharpening even further – could send it wildly off track. But there is no reason to believe the Bush administration will abandon it (or some other version of permanent occupation) until it is unmistakable that the political, social, economic and/or military costs of “staying the course” are greater than those of getting out. A huge factor in this calculation is the domestic political consequence of staying in Iraq. This defines the challenge facing the antiwar movement: building such broad and deep support among the U.S. people for an end to the occupation that whoever is in power in Washington is afraid to defy the demand to Bring Them Home Now.
BUSH’S IRAQ-RELATED WEAKNESS SHOWING UP ALL OVER… NEW ORLEANS AND THE GULF: SOLIDARITY IS URGENT…
For the full text of this November 2005 Month in Review, including items under the subheads just above, go to http://war-times.org
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The War Times/Tiempo de Guerras Staff