Iraq: Occupation leaves devastated nation


The article below is an abridged US Socialist Worker editorial in response to United States President Barack Obama's October 21 announcement that all US soldiers would be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year.

* * *

More than a million Iraqis dead. Nearly 5000 US military personnel killed, and about 32,000 more maimed, physically and psychologically.

About US$4 trillion spent on war ― money that could have paid for schools, health care and programs to create jobs.

Yet those staggering numbers don't even begin to capture the full horror of the war that the US unleashed on Iraq in March 2003.

Retooling imperialism

And while the US is finally winding down its occupation, Washington is maneuvering to keep its dominant role in the Middle East by maintaining Iraq as a US client state while ratcheting up pressure on Iran.

Obama announced on October 21 that all US forces will be withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year. But the pullout doesn't represent an abandonment of Washington's aim to dominate the Middle East, but rather a rationalising and retooling of US imperialism.

As the savage war in Afghanistan grinds on ― along with frequent military drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and the "humanitarian" intervention in Libya ― the Obama administration has hardly embraced the just foreign policy that Democratic voters hoped for back in 2008. The anti-war movement in the US and internationally still has its work cut out.

When the 2003 invasion began, Iraq was still staggering under the weight of economic sanctions imposed by the US after the 1991 Gulf War. The US had formally launched that war to expel the Iraqi army from neighbouring Kuwait, but took the opportunity to slaughter large sections of the Iraqi military.

The severe sanctions regime ― backed by the United Nations ― plunged what had been the most developed country in the Arab world into poverty and hunger.

When confronted with the fact that an estimated half a million Iraqi children had died in the 1990s as a direct result of the sanctions, the Clinton administration's secretary of state Madeleine Albright declared that "we think the price was worth it".

But a decade later, according to George W Bush's neoconservative handlers and a complicit corporate media, Saddam Hussein's Iraq remained the greatest threat to US security.

Tony Blair, then Britain's prime minister, made the bogus claim that Iraq could launch an attack that would hit Europe with weapons of mass destruction "in 45 minutes".

Secretary of state Colin Powell one-upped Blair with a ludicrous show at the United Nations in which he sought to prove Iraq had WMDs ― an unsubstantiated claim puffed up by pro-war propagandists in the media.

Anti-war critics who made the obvious point that the US was more interested in control of Iraqi oil than peace and democracy were dismissed as left-wing ideologues blind to the dangers of the modern world.

Yet at the same time as the neocons painted Saddam Hussein as capable of killing millions with chemical weapons or even a "dirty bomb" made from radioactive materials, they also promised a "cakewalk" for the US military in Iraq. Vice-president Dick Cheney predicted that the US troops would be "greeted with flowers".


Instead, the US was faced with a tenacious resistance through guerilla warfare.

The US military unleashed its full arsenal on the resistance in Fallujah in 2004 in two battles that levelled the city and turned what remained into an open-air prison. Civilian casualties ― "collateral damage" in military jargon ― mounted as US troops increasingly saw any fighting age male as a likely insurgent.

Next came the sectarian civil war fomented by US attempts to organise Iraqi politics along religious lines. The Shiite Muslim majority, long oppressed by Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, got the backing of US soldiers as it drove Sunni Muslims from entire areas of Baghdad.

Once the Sunni-dominated resistance was sufficiently weakened, the US offered bribes and protection to Sunni politicians and guerilla fighters if they would join US troops in fighting Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda.

This effort to buy off the resistance succeeded in winding down the civil war, but it hardly delivered the peace and prosperity that Bush promised Iraqis.

The economy remains in tatters, with the oil industry generating 95% of the country's revenue, but just 1% of its employment. Despite the big increase in oil prices in recent years, about 25% of Iraqis live under the poverty line, and at least 15% of the workforce.

Joshua Foust reported in August in The Atlantic: “Amnesty International estimated in its 2011 report that unemployment remained above 50 percent. And just last month, the UN Population Fund noted that extremely high unemployment in Iraq's youth was driving record emigration.”

To ensure a business-friendly climate for the major oil companies and other investors, the Nuri al-Maliki government has retained Saddam Hussein's hostility to free and independent trade unions. Labour repression is rife.

In its 2011 survey of Iraq, the International Trades Union Council said: “In January, staff from Baghdad's most famous hotel went on strike demanding a safety bonus after numerous mortar attacks and the death of two staff.

“Also in January, the president of Basra's Iraqi Teachers Union was imprisoned, and the government sought to interfere with its elections. Iraqi police raided and shut down the offices of the electricity unions.

“In March, after oil workers protested over low pay and their union's illegal status, union leaders were transferred, while in June, dockworkers protesting at the prohibition of unions in ports south of Basra were surrounded by troops and their leaders transferred. Trade union rights in law are very restricted.”

The all-out war has ended, but Iraq remains a murderous place, with assassinations and bombings still routine. In August, a synchronised bombing campaign targeting Shiite Muslims in 13 cities killed at least 74 people and injured about 250 others.

Even Iraqi Kurdistan, supposedly a model for a free and democratic Iraq under US protection for the region since 1991, is dominated by thuggish and corrupt political parties. Riot police attacked peaceful pro-democracy protests last spring, injuring about 100 people.

The push for greater democracy in Iraq has come in spite of the US occupation, not because of it. When a protest movement took off in February in the wake of the Egyptian Revolution, it was challenging the US-installed Maliki government for its corruption and failure to provide basic necessities like electricity.

Mission unaccomplished

So much for Bush's infamous "mission accomplished" claim in 2003.

Iraq was supposed to be a showpiece in Washington's effort to remake the Middle East. It was the low-hanging fruit in the drive to establish a revived US empire ― the first step towards knocking out the Syrian regime and squaring off militarily against Iran, which also faced a big US military presence on its eastern border with Afghanistan.

Instead, Iraq is a shaky client at best. Maliki's top rivals for political influence, Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr and Ahmed Chalabi, the ex-favourite of the neocons, both look to Iran for political support.

Maliki, too, has carefully tended to relations with Iraq's biggest neighbour, receiving Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a state visit that left Washington fuming.

The US still hopes to secure an agreement with Maliki to keep a few thousand US military advisers to train Iraqi troops on the use of US military equipment. But that would be only a shadow of the footprint that the US once hoped to have in Iraq.

Now the US will have to jockey with Iran for influence in Baghdad ― and it's already clear that Iran has the upper hand.

That's why the Obama administration preceded its announcement of the troop pullout from Iraq with a loud but highly dubious accusation that Iranian agents were plotting to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US.

The message: the US may be getting out of Iraq, but it will continue to ratchet up pressure on Iran.

The exit of US troops from Iraq won't be followed by a going-out-of-business sale on US military assets. Nick Turse reported on “Last year, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. had deployed special operations forces in 75 countries, from South America to Central Asia.

“Recently, however, U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Colonel Tim Nye told me that on any given day, America's elite troops are working in about 70 countries, and that its country total by year's end would be around 120.

“These forces are engaged in a host of missions, from Army Rangers involved in conventional combat in Afghanistan to the team of Navy SEALs who assassinated Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, to trainers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines within U.S. Special Operations Command working globally from the Dominican Republic to Yemen.”
That's a good summary of US imperialism, Obama-style: ignore US and international law to launch an undeclared air war in Libya while assassinating "enemy combatants" including US citizens, with commando raids and drone strikes.

Rather than sweeping ― and prohibitively expensive ― invasions and occupations, the new military doctrine calls for weaving US Special Forces and CIA operatives into military operations in scores of countries worldwide.

And in place of Bush's narrow "coalition of the willing" in Iraq, Obama is building military alliances as cover for the kind of action the US wants to see ― from dragging NATO into funding the Libya intervention to strengthening US military ties with China's rivals in Asia.

Under this plan, the big war in Iraq ― and, the administration hopes, eventually in Afghanistan, too ― will end, giving way to countless small conflicts in which the US acts as weapons supplier and adviser.

The grand imperial dreams of February 2003 may be gone. But US imperialism remains ― as deadly as ever.