Iraq, empire and resistance


Bush in Babylon: the Recolonisation of Iraq
By Tariq Ali
Verso 2003
214 pages, $25


"I see a horizon lit with blood
And many a starless night.
A generation comes and another goes
And the fire keeps burning." — Iraqi poet al Jawahiri, on the 1948 anti-British uprising.

Tariq Ali has often commented on the importance of poets in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and in his latest book he quotes poetry freely, a move that heightens the sense of history and anti-imperialist identity in this narrative of Iraq, empire and resistance.

It's a timely release, with Iraqi resistance fighters almost daily killing and maiming bewildered US and allied occupation soldiers, continued protest actions by Iraqis, polls in the US showing a majority now opposing George Bush's Iraq policies, and conservative ruling-class organs like the British Economist now wondering if the invasion has failed. Bush in Babylon is an excellent guide to understanding the quagmire US imperialism seems to have got itself into.

Ali is a long-time socialist activist, was a leading figure in the campaign in Britain against the Vietnam War, and is currently an editor of New Left Review. He's now published eight non-fiction books as well as several novels and screenplays. These works cover a wide range of political and cultural topics, but a central concern of the Pakistan-born, England-based Ali is the role of imperialism in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East.

Bush in Babylon in many ways is a companion work to Ali's Clash of Fundamentalisms, published in 2002. In that, book Ali takes apart "clash of civilisation" type ideologies that are used to justify the "war on terror". He surveys the history of the Islamic world, from Morocco to Indonesia, its interaction with Western colonialism and imperialism, and relates the rise of religious fundamentalism to global exploitation and national class struggles.

In his more recent book, Ali takes a closer look at the Iraqi front of US imperialism's bid for a "new American century" of world domination. Its title sums up his theme that the latest intervention in Iraq, although also shaped by the current needs of the US ruling class and its allies, and the particular nature of the Bush regime, fits a familiar pattern of invasion and resistance that the imperialist high command seems oblivious to.

"As a born-again Christian fundamentalist, Bush obviously was aware of the wickedness of ancient Babylon (an old testament favourite) and the associated rhymes. Possibly he was also aware that its ruins were located in Mesopotamia, which was now Iraq, but did he know much else? Had anyone enlightened him on Baghdad and its history? Did he know why the US occupiers were being referred to as the 'new Mongols'."

Ali outlines how Iraq itself was a product of imperialism, knocked together by the British from three provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire in the Anglo-French carve-up of the Middle East following the first world war. The British imposed a king plucked from the Arabian Hashemite family (who were also given Jordan to run), and secured their access to rich oil fields by crushing a rebellion with tanks and chemical weapons (mustard gas) in the early 1920s.

The British used the tested strategy of cultivating a new landlord class as a social base for a pro-imperialist regime, and ran Iraq through a corrupt "oligarchy of racketeers". Continuing resistance was only partly checked by the apparent assassination of modernising King Ghazi in 1936, and another British invasion in 1941, aimed at crushing a nationalist coup. A mass insurrection in 1948, calling for a republic and social justice, was again drowned in blood, with leaders publicly hanged.

However, nationalist and leftist currents were growing rapidly in the Arab world, particularly after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and held off a British, French and Israeli invasion in 1956. An alliance of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), the Nasser-inspired Free Officers and the newly formed left-nationalist Baath (Renewal) Party swept away the client regime in 1958.

Land was distributed and a range of social reforms carried out. However, power was held by the pro-capitalist Free Officers, and their leader, Abdul-Karim Qasim, played off nationalists and Communists against each other. The latter, following the Stalinist strategy for Third World countries of insisting on bourgeois-nationalist leadership for the anti-imperialist, national-democratic revolution, refused to carry out an independent policy and uncritically supported Qasim, who attempted, in classic Bonapartist fashion, to balance the interests of all classes.

Inevitably, the revolution stalled and the Baathists and Nasserites seized the opportunity in 1963 to launch a coup, killing many Communists with lists supplied by the CIA.

A 1967 self-criticism by ICP leaders is relevant to the similar disaster that befell the Indonesian Communists, and to a program of national-democratic revolution in countries like Iraq that can open the road to socialist revolution: "Had we seized the helm and without delay armed the people, carried out a radical agrarian reform ... granted to the Kurds their autonomy and, by revolutionary measures, transformed the army into a democratic force, our regime would have with extraordinary speed attained the widest popularity and would have released great mass initiatives, enabling the millions to make their own history."

After 1963 one wing of the ICP was destroyed in a heroic but fruitless guerrilla struggle, while the remnants were drawn into Saddam Hussein's government in 1973, under pressure from Moscow, which made it all the easier for Hussein to isolate and eliminate them in 1978.

The Baathists have a similarly tragic history. The Arab Baath Socialist Party was founded by leftist Syrian intellectual Michel Aflaq in 1943 as an attempted synthesis of socialism and pan-Arab nationalism. Its influence had spread to Iraq by the 1950s.

In 1963, when Baath Party leftists won a majority at a joint Syrian-Iraqi party congress and adopted a avowedly socialist program, Aflaq showed the contradictions of his politics by ordering rightist, militaristic elements to seize control of the Iraqi party at gunpoint. Saddam Hussein used this militarised machine to seize power from the Nasserites in 1968 and set up a regime based on crony capitalism, the army and the secret police.

In the same year, a similar regime was set up in Syria when a left-Baathist government was overthrown by right-wing Baathist army general Hafez al Asad, who was succeeded after his death by his son Bashar, the current Syrian president.

Saddam Hussein, "both creature and master of the Baath apparatus", was throughout his rule led by contradictory desires to garner the lucrative support of Washington and win legitimacy in the Arab world. Anti-imperialist rhetoric was combined with waging a disastrous war against Iran from 1980 to 1988, with the backing of the US. Hussein was coaxed and tricked by Washington into invading Kuwait in 1990, leading to the wholesale massacre of Iraq's conscript armies and even more murderous UN sanctions through the 1990s.

Ali outlines the march to another Iraq war this year, with a sea of lies about terror weapons and al Qaeda links masking US imperialism's true aims of securing oil profits and military-political dominance in the Middle East. He puts the war in the context of imperialist interventions across the globe throughout the 20th century.

The Iraq war also highlights for Ali the failure of the UN and the capitulation of many liberals and some leftists to imperialism. An appendix compares the strident anti-Gulf War I polemics of Christopher Hitchens to the "vile replica" who smugly supports Bush today.

Ali focuses on the importance of imperialism, but a central occupation of his work is to insist that the masses of the Third World are the subjects and not just the objects of history. He is scathing towards indigenous exploiters and betrayers — "the self-inflicted wounds of the Arab world" — and insists that ordinary people North and South uniting in a movement that "can only be effective if it is global" is the alternative.

Ali's sense of history and his understanding of imperialism and how it can be resisted make him a vital author for today's left.

From Green Left Weekly, November 19, 2003.
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