Australian troops are a cover


Pip Hinman, Sydney

Anthony Arnove, US author and activist, made a compelling case for why the occupying troops should leave Iraq immediately at a forum hosted by Sydney University's peace and conflict studies department on September 5. Asked why it shouldn't be a "phased withdrawal", his answer was simple: "Because each day the US [military] stays, the worse the situation becomes."

Arnove's new book, Iraq: the Logic of Withdrawal, centres on this question. "Three years into the occupation of Iraq, the anti-war movement has been proved correct. There were no WMDs, no connection between al Qaeda and Iraq, and no wave of democracy has swept through the Middle East", Arnove said. Yet, the US administration is continuing to spend enormous sums of money on the war. A Columbia University study found that the war has already cost close to US$1.6 trillion.

With the mid-term US Congressional elections nearing, Arnove said, President George Bush's demagogy is exposing the US's real policy. While Bush is trying to "paint a rosy picture" and downplay the prospect of civil war, at the same time he has to play up the threat of civil war as a justification for US troops staying in Iraq.

Despite the supposed "turning points" — the capture of Saddam Hussein, a new constitution and prime minister, the killing of Abu Musab al Zarqawi — things have gotten worse, Arnove said. Iraqis today have less access to water and electricity, and less security. Unemployment is higher and inflation has skyrocketed.

"Staples are out of reach for most Iraqis", Arnove explained. "They are afraid to go to the mosque and school. Women, who once lived secular lives, are afraid to leave the house, and when they do they cover themselves up."

Arnove also cited the British medical journal The Lancet's findings that there has been an increase in "excessive deaths" — people dying prematurely — since the invasion in 2003. More than 98,000 Iraqis have died, mostly in aerial bombardments, and this figure does not include the April and November sieges of Fallujah in 2004. Last month, more than 3000 people were killed.

The US occupiers have a lot at stake in Iraq today, Arnove said. While it is "simplistic" to suggest that the US invaded Iraq for its oil — it only imports 13% from the Middle East — the geopolitics of oil remains key, he added. Having the second-largest oil reserves in the world and a lot of natural gas, Iraq is well placed for use by the US as a "counter power" base to Iran and Syria in the Middle East.

"The US wants to widen the gap between itself and potential 'peer competition'. India, China and Russia are all potential threats as they become more dependent on oil and gas from the Middle East. So the invasion of Iraq can also be seen as a lever against world economics and militarism. Regional hegemony gets the US global hegemony", Arnove said.

Commenting on the bombing of Lebanon, Arnove said that the US used Israel for a proxy war, and lost the gamble. The danger, he added, is that Washington will do it again in Iran and Syria. "In 1967-68 in Vietnam, the US was clearly losing. But rather than retreat, it escalated the war to Laos and Cambodia. So it's plausible that the US will expand the war from Iraq."

Arnove said the Iranian regime "is taking advantage of the US's current weakness in Iraq, and is keen to increase its influence on Iraq". The recent failure of the US-Israeli attack on Hezbollah has also emboldened the Iranian government. Arnove thinks the US is unlikely to launch a ground invasion of Iran, but that aerial bombardments are not out of the question.

The US military is relying on reservists and a "back-door draft" in which it forces soldiers who have completed their tours of duty to return — "stop loss" orders — because it does not have enough volunteers. Offers of military support from other countries, no matter how small, are important to the US administration, Arnove said, because "it needs to show that it still has allies".

Australian defence minister Brendan Nelson announced on September 4 that 38 more soldiers would be sent to Iraq to train Iraqi troops in Tallil in the southern province of Al Muthanna. Arnove described Australia's troop commitment, given other countries' withdrawal of troops, as a favour to Washington and urged the Australian anti-war movement to keep up the pressure. "If you can force your government to pull the Australian troops out, the multilateral cover Washington is using will end and you'll be greatly helping the US anti-war movement."

Activists at the forum pledged to give Bush the welcome he deserves when he visits Sydney for the APEC gathering in 2007.

[Iraq: the Logic of Withdrawal is published by The New Press. Pip Hinman is an activist with Sydney's Stop the War Coalition and the Socialist Alliance candidate for Marrickville in the NSW state election. ]