Exit Iraq now!


Pip Hinman

PM John Howard has announced that Australian troops in the southern Iraqi province of Al-Muthanna will not be pulled out in May, as previously mooted. Howard was quoted by the February 13 Australian as saying he was "not going to be part of a policy which leaves the job unfinished and leaves behind one or two other countries the responsibility of completing the job. That is not the Australian way of doing things."

Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James was quoted by the same Australian article saying that Australian troops would be vital to operations in Iraq long after May. "Because the British are stretched you can mount a good argument that we should stay to help the British transition out of Iraq so they can reinforce their contingent in Afghanistan", James said.

Washington's quadrennial defence review released by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on February 6 sets out the US's post-Cold War military strategy — a "long war" on "hostile nation states" and "non-state enemies".

The report notes that the US's strategic defence vision rests on the US's "enduring alliances". It says: "The United States places great value on its unique relationships with the United Kingdom and Australia, whose forces stand with the US military in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other operations. These close military operations are models for the breadth and depth of cooperation that the United States seeks to foster with other allies and partners around the world." (See <http://www.defenselink.mil/qdr/report/Report20060203.pdf>.)

The review is explicit: the US expects Australia to be one of its long-term military partners, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. Leaving Iraq — especially while the US and British troops are under such pressure from the growing Iraqi resistance — is not an option.

Compared to the 138,000 US troops (with the army making up 99,000) and Britain's 8500 troops in Iraq, Australia's 850 troops hardly constitute a pivotal military intervention. But as more countries pull their troops out (including South Korea, Poland, Italy) Australia's partnership in the US-led occupation takes on greater political importance both for Washington and for the Iraqis, who overwhelmingly want the foreign occupiers out.

What is involved in "getting the job done" in Iraq has never really been detailed by the occupiers. Reports indicate that the training of a new US-trained Iraqi army is only happening in fits and starts, as many new recruits join only to leave with their equipment to join the resistance.

The privatisation of Iraq's mineral and oil wealth is proceeding apace, delivering massive profits to companies such as Bechtel and Halliburton. Australian companies such as Worley and ANZ also have their snouts in the trough. Meanwhile, ordinary Iraqis continue to suffer from the criminal neglect of basic services. Access to health care, electricity and water are now far worse than under Saddam Hussein. Unemployment in Iraq is now estimated at 60%. A quarter of Iraqi families are subsisting on less than $1 per day.

The anti-war movements in Britain and the US have grown in breadth and size over the last three years, in particular due to the growing organisation of the soldiers' families who oppose the war. Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a US soldier killed in Iraq, and George Galloway, the Respect MP, and their supporters have acted as a lightening rod, reinvigorating the anti-war movements in those countries to the point where they pose a big challenge to the pro-war agendas of Bush and Blair. Hence all the talk about "exit strategies" and "troop reductions".

Here in Australia, the anti-war movement faces some particular challenges. We don't have a Sheehan, or a Galloway, and neither has the movement been able to connect up in any significant way to the troops' families. But the end of the Al-Muthanna mission and the Labor Party's call for an "exit strategy" are opportunities for the anti-war movement to ratchet up the pressure on the government to bring the troops home.

Howard knows Australia's participation in the occupation of Iraq is still unpopular (polls say increasingly so), and his appeal to nationalism and xenophobia is part and parcel of a racist wedge strategy that, to some extent at least, is designed to deflect that pressure. It remains to be seen how much the dirty business of bribes to Saddam Hussein officials will impact on the government.

The difficulties of turning the widespread passive dissent against the war into something more active has been compounded by bipartisan support for Howard's new terror laws — laws that have promulgated a climate of fear about Muslims, and equated "people of Middle Eastern appearance" with "terrorists". The new terror laws and the state's response to the riots in Cronulla have reinforced Howard's racist-nationalist propaganda drive.

Nevertheless, the movement has responded well, arguing and organising against the state-inspired racism that scapegoats Muslims. Besides campaigning for the Australian troops to be brought home, we also need to keep demanding religious tolerance and reject racism outright. Racism is the political glue that the invaders use to try and justify the invasion and occupation.

Recent revelations of British troops' torture of Iraqi civilians, including young boys, and before that the Abu Graib scandal involving US soldiers, help expose the imperialists' madness in Iraq. The United Nation's recent recommendation, made public on February 13, that the US close Guantanamo Bay and revoke all special interrogation techniques authorised by the US Defense Department, serve as a further reminder of the ongoing brutality of this war.

The British and US anti-war movements are an inspiration to us all, and we should use their successes to motivate the movement here. Across Australia, planning for the global day of action to mark the third anniversary of the invasion on March 17-19 is now well underway (see ad on page 15). Anti-war coalitions may be struggling against a tide of resignation about the war, but we have no choice but to keep going until our job is done. The Iraqi people have a right to live in peace and dignity. All foreign troops must exit now.

[Pip Hinman is an activist in the Sydney Stop the War Coalition.]

From Green Left Weekly, February 22, 2006.
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