Iraq: not civil war, occupation

Sami Ramadani
7 December 2006

When he was asked by the BBC whether he thought Iraq was going through a civil war, United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan said that clashes in Lebanon and elsewhere in the past were described as civil war and that the situation in Iraq "is worse than civil war."

I don't know what Kofi Annan had in mind as to what exactly is going on in Iraq, but it is clear to me that it is certainly worse than a civil war. However, I must swiftly add that it is not a communal civil war. Civil wars come in all shapes and sizes, and some are more brutal than others. The 15th century English "wars of the roses" were a series of civil wars, and so were the French, Russian and Chinese revolutions. The clashes in the Lebanon of the 1970s and 1980s, the implosion of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s all had strong elements of a communal civil war.

But we don't describe the war in Vietnam from the 1950s to the 1970s as a civil war, even though it had aspects of civil war, because the National Liberation Front (NLF) was fighting against the South Vietnamese government forces, numbering well over one million soldiers, backed by United States forces. The US policy to withdraw from Vietnam - following the 1968 Tet offensive, the withdrawal of President Johnson from the presidential election race, and the election of Richard M Nixon - went through a process of strengthening the South Vietnamese forces and relying on them to fight the NLF. It was known as "Vietnamisation".

Sami Ramadani was a political refugee from Saddam Hussein's regime. He is a senior lecturer in sociology at London Metropolitan University

It took the US seven more years finally to admit defeat and withdraw - and only after its "exit strategy" included a massive escalation of the war, bombing Hanoi, spreading the war into Laos and carpet-bombing Cambodia. Most Vietnamese people and their supporters called it a war of liberation (and in Vietnam's historiography it is designated the "American war"). The US media called it the "war in Vietnam" or the "war against communism".

With the blood of the innocent being spilt abundantly in many parts of Iraq, all this might sound like a scholastic exercise and an argument about semantics. Widely used terms, however, can inform and help us to understand, while misused or abused terms have the power to misinform and confuse. They can also mislead the public into supporting or acquiescing in policies on vital matters.

If the global public sees the war as a "war on terrorism" coupled with an Iraqi communal civil war (raging now or threatening to do so) then it is unlikely to demand the swift withdrawal of the troops. If, however, the public sees the war for what it really is, it will probably demand the immediate withdrawal of the troops. And that is why the argument about how to describe the war in Iraq and what exactly is the nature of this war become immensely important. Furthermore, correctly diagnosing what goes in Iraq, and going beyond the expressions of sympathetic platitudes, is an essential first step to finding a solution for the bloody tragedy engulfing the people of Iraq.

The terms "Iraqisation" and "Iraqi-isation" were introduced about two years ago, following Pentagon efforts to involve more Iraqis in the fighting; neither has caught on. They are wholly unable to address the vital questions that remain: what is the nature of the war in Iraq, and what is the way out for the Iraqi people?

How it started

Despite suggestions to the contrary, the answer to the first question hasn't changed ever since the United States-led forces occupied Iraq in March-April 2003: a war of bullets and politics between the occupying powers and most of the Iraqi people who want them out. The feelings of the Iraqi people towards the occupation became abundantly clear within two weeks of the fall of Baghdad to United States tanks on 9 April 2003.

According to the BBC, about 4 million people from all over Iraq marched on to Karbala to commemorate the anniversary of Islam's (particularly Shi'a Islam's) most famous martyr, Imam Hussain. The most popular slogans on that march, which was boosted by people from all religions and none, must have sent alarm bells ringing in Washington and London. For several days they chanted Kalla, Kalla Amreeka - Kalla, Kalla Saddam ("No to America, no to Saddam"). If this is how the Shi'a felt, how would the Sunni, not to mention the atheists?!

From that moment on most of the Iraqi people never ceased making their feelings clear towards the occupation. First they used words and engaged in peaceful protests, which quickly led to using bullets too. The latter Rubicon was crossed on 28 April 2003, one week after the march on Karbala, when US soldiers opened fire on parents and children who gathered in front of a primary school in Fallujah demanding the US forces stop using it as an outpost and to allow their children to go back to school. They killed eighteen of them in cold blood and injured about sixty others.

Until the killing of those demonstrators, not a single bullet had been fired at US soldiers in Fallujah or any of the cities north of Baghdad. This was the event that reverberated across Iraq and sparked the armed resistance to occupation. Fallujah being a predominantly Sunni town, and the occupation authorities' having a keen eye for attempting to split the opposition, led to the production of a myth as big as the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) deception that launched the invasion and occupation of Iraq: the fiction that the armed resistance is predominantly Sunni and that they are in a fight against the Shi'a.

The US-led forces responded by using even more bombs, bullets, warm words, and money to reverse the popular odds piling up against them. But within six months of the occupation the CIA boldly warned, "the resistance is broad, strong and getting stronger." Despite attempts to muddy the waters of what is going on in Iraq, it is clear that the resistance is even broader, stronger and getting stronger with every passing day.

What of the mindless violence, terrorism and sectarian murders? This is where the occupation authorities and the establishment media have succeeded in convincing most of the public in the US and Britain that, after thousands of years of living together without even a whiff of communal civil war in their history, the people of Mesopotamia don't want to "live and let live" anymore, but have decided to kill each other instead. Add to this scenario the exaggerated presence of foreign terrorists led by al-Qaida, trying to take control of Iraq's oil according to George W Bush, and you have a distorted and highly misleading picture of Iraq. It appears that an old colonial frame of mind has taken root in relation to Iraq; for some, the natives are at it again. In this mindset, the occupation forces are made to appear as a benign, almost virtuous presence in the middle of raging sectarian violence.

As a result, it has become easier for the White House and Downing Street to appear concerned and reasonable when they argue that the troops should stay in Iraq, until such time as the "job is done", "democracy is established", "the terrorists are defeated", "the Iraqis could be in charge of security" or "security is restored".

Of course they talk less of democracy nowadays, for the natives are not ready for it. There is even more talk - as there has been since the very start of the occupation - of backing a "strong man". (Someone like Saddam perhaps?) Indeed, an image of Iraq imploding and generating even greater levels of bloodshed, once the troops withdraw, has convinced even some anti-war writers and most of the anti-war public that the troops should not be withdrawn too quickly.

Also in openDemocracy on modern Iraq's history and politics:

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq, Britain, and the United States: new perspectives, old problems"
(3 June 2003)

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Omar A Omar, "Kirkuk: microcosm of Iraq"
(21 March 2005)

Sami Zubaida, "Iraq's constitution on the edge" (22 August 2005)

Anwar Rizvi, "Iraq: civil war or no civil war?" (10 April 2006)

Reidar Visser, "Iraq's partition fantasy"
(19 May 2006)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Iraq's war of elimination"
(21 August 2006)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Saving Iraq: a critique of Peter W Galbraith"
(26 October 2006)

Gareth Stansfield & Liam Anderson, "Iraq: divide or die"
(22 November 2006)

Reidar Visser, "Iraq lives"
(22 November 2006)

How it must end

The long-awaited and much-leaked Iraq Study Group report (under the direction of James A Baker and Lee Hamilton) is likely to feed into this falsehood. It suggests reducing the troops and relying more on Iraqis to do the killing (more "Iraqisation"). And to appear even more concerned and reasonable, they suggest asking Syria and Iran to help restore peace in Iraq. They do not even dare to go as far as the chief-of-staff of the British army, Richard Dannatt, and suggest that the occupation forces, which "kicked the door in", are "exasperating" the situation and creating more violence. They do not tell us about some of the disturbing facts on the ground.

They do not tell us about the "Salvador option" and the presence in Iraq of US death-squads, trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and Israel, nor will they spill the beans (as US generals have started to do).

They do not tell us about the secret militias trained and financed by the US, partly uncovered by the Wall Street Journal (in February 2005), but in any case common knowledge in Iraq.

They do not tell us why the occupying power should secretly smuggle 200,000 Kalashnikovs and tons of explosives into Iraq from Bosnia within one year (2004-05); nor to whom these weapons were supplied.

They do not tell us about the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on covert political operations and the backing of proxy political forces.

They do not tell us about continuing work on building the biggest US embassy in the world in Baghdad's Green Zone embassy (fortress), about the roughly fourteen permanent military bases (including four massive ones) being constructed.

They do not tell us about the post-Abu Ghraib contracting-out of most of the torture to the Iraqi state, the backing of Iraqi state-sponsored violence against civilians.

They do not tell us - last but very from least - about the silent killers of Iraqi people.

Some Iraqi doctors think that more people are dying prematurely because of other occupation-related factors than from the violence itself. More than 654,000 Iraqis are estimated (by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) to have been killed since the US-led invasion. But the silent killers are claiming lives almost unnoticed.

The country's infrastructure has all but been destroyed; people are exposed to the health danger of depleted uranium from US and British military ordnance; the health service is near collapse and hospitals have been reduced to impotence in the face of mounting injuries and disease, particularly water-born diseases affecting children. The electricity shortage is affecting the sewage plants, which are pumping raw sewage into the rivers.

About 300 of the country's leading academics and scientists have been assassinated and its educational system is approaching collapse. How much more should the Iraqi people be subjected to for Bush and Blair to have their chosen puppets firmly installed in Baghdad?

There is another striking aspect of the war that gets rarely reported, and which I think is vitally important to bring to the attention of the public outside Iraq. There is near unanimity amongst Iraqis, outside the ruling circles and parties, particularly amongst the people most affected by the terrorist violence, that the indiscriminate violence is generated and backed or turned a blind eye to by the occupation authorities.

Anyone who cares to track the daily footage of scenes of murder and mayhem in Baghdad and elsewhere in the aftermath of terrorist atrocities would immediately notice this attitude. The raw film, broadcast by Iraqi and Arab satellite stations, is striking for the anger expressed by the injured and their families against the occupation. Some of this carnage is shown on British TV but always stripped of the comments made by the angry crowds and the injured.

It appears to be alright to state, without any evidence, that Sunni this and Shi'a that caused the explosions but it would be highly speculative to broadcast the opinions of the victims of the violence.

In reality, and this is also backed by the latest large-scale opinion poll conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, most Iraqis see the occupation as the poison running through the veins of Iraqi society. Whether it is the heightened sectarian tensions, the occupation violence or the indiscriminate atrocities, the occupation's tentacles are perceived to be behind it by the people that matter: the battered and bloodied Iraqi people.

No way out of the tragedy is feasible without looking at the occupation itself and identifying it for what it is: the source of and magnet for most of the violence and antagonistic divisions. Moreover, if the US-led occupation forces are not fully and swiftly withdrawn from Iraq, then the US 'exit strategy' will mushroom into new, devastating wars against Lebanon, Syria and Iran.

Iraq will not be suddenly turned into a bed of roses once the occupation ends. Some of the violence might also continue. But the Iraqi people will get the chance to resolve their own problems without the presence of a United States-led occupation in their midst. It's called the right to self-determination.

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