Most people in Britain want troops withdrawn from Iraq – and so do most Iraqis, according to opinion polls. Trade unions are calling for early withdrawal, as are some Labour MPs and the Liberal Democrats. But many well-intentioned people argue that the US-led occupation must end only when the country is stable. A swift withdrawal, they fear, would plunge the country into civil war.
In one sense this position is the same as that of Bush and Blair, who consistently say troops will not stay in Iraq “a moment longer than necessary” and will withdraw when asked to do so by a democratically chosen government. In reality, with over 200,000 foreign troops and auxiliaries in control of Iraq, even an elected government will owe its survival to the occupation.
It was a reflection of Iraqi popular hatred of the occupation that 82 of the national assembly’s 275 members signed a petition calling for a speedy withdrawal, after the prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, appeared to be breaking his election promise to insist on a scheduled pullout. Jaafari went on to renege in the most humiliating fashion, standing next to George Bush at the White House as the US president declared: “I told the prime minister that there will be no scheduled withdrawal.”
It would be wrong to dismiss the fears of those who argue for “withdrawal but not now” just because it is also the position of Bush and Blair. But those who are genuinely concerned about withdrawal should examine the facts on the ground before giving support to continued occupation.
Some pro-war commentators warned early on that the country would be blighted by sectarian violence: oppressed Shias would take revenge on Sunnis; Kurds would avenge Saddam’s rule by killing Arabs; and the Christian community would be liquidated.
What actually happened confounded such expectations. Within two weeks of the fall of Baghdad, millions converged on Karbala chanting “La Amreeka, la Saddam” (No to America, no to Saddam). For months, Baghdad, Basra and Najaf were awash with united anti-occupation marches whose main slogan was “La Sunna, la Shia; hatha al-watan menbi’a” (no Sunni, no Shia, this homeland we shall not sell).
Such responses were predictable given Iraq’s history of anti-sectarianism. But the war leaders reacted by destroying the foundations of the state and following the old colonial policy of divide and rule, imposing a sectarian model on every institution they set up, including arrangements for the January election.
When it became clear that the poorest areas of Baghdad and the south were even more hostile to the occupation than the so-called Sunni towns – answering the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s call to arms – Bush and Blair tried to defeat the resistance piecemeal, under the guise of fighting foreign terrorists. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was promoted to replace Saddam as the bogeyman in chief, to encourage sectarian tension and isolate the resistance.
This propaganda has been more successful abroad than in Iraq. Indeed, Iraqis habitually blame the occupation for all acts of terrorism, not what is fondly referred to as al-muqawama al-sharifa (the honourable resistance). But in Britain and the US many people feel ambivalent or antagonistic towards the mainstream popular resistance.
The occupation’s sectarian discourse has acquired a hold as powerful as the WMD fiction that prepared the public for war. Iraqis are portrayed as a people who can’t wait to kill each other once left to their own devices. In fact, the occupation is the main architect of institutionalised sectarian and ethnic divisions; its removal would act as a catalyst for Iraqis to resolve some of their differences politically. Only a few days ago the national assembly members who had signed the anti-occupation statement met representatives of the Foundation Congress (a group of 60 religious and secular organisations) and the al-Sadr movement and issued a joint call for the rapid withdrawal of the occupation forces according to an internationally guaranteed timetable.
There is now broad agreement in Iraq to build a non-sectarian, democratic Iraq that guarantees Kurdish national rights. The occupation is making the achievement of these goals more difficult.
Every day the occupation increases tension and makes people’s lives worse, fuelling the violence. Creating a client regime in Baghdad, backed by permanent bases, is the route that US strategists followed in Vietnam. As in Vietnam, popular resistance in Iraq and the wider Middle East will not go away but will grow stronger, until it eventually unites to force a US-British withdrawal.
How many more Iraqis, Americans and Britons have to die before Bush and Blair admit the occupation is the problem and not part of any democratic solution in Iraq ? “
Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005