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On the pending Political Front of the Iraqi Resistance

19. May 2005

US-sponsored elections did not stabilise puppet regime, but reveal unresolved task of the resistance

Elections…—the last asset of the occupation

Two years into the occupation all efforts of the United States to stabilise their puppet regime by providing it with a stable social base have been frustrated. The resistance movement has not only remained militarily powerful, but is wielding considerable influence within the popular masses.

In the upper reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates and the Sunni population in general, where traditional family and clan ties have been more preserved, the resistance enjoys overwhelming support providing the base for popular insurgencies as we have seen in Falluja, Ramadi, Samarra, Ba…‘quba and even in parts of the metropolises Mosul and Baghdad. Another unmistakable proof of the resistance´s strength is the total boycott of the elections. In this section of the Iraqi people the resistance can count even on the support of large parts of the middle classes as well as of the social elites which have been deprived of their historic role within the state apparatus.

The urban poor and the South…—both predominantly Shia…—also reject the occupation. However, there the military resistance is much weaker and does not have systematic and permanent character. There were two armed uprisings, one in April 2004 coinciding with the battle over Falluja and then later a second in August 2004 in Najaf. Although both were politically successful rallying enormous support, they could not be sustained militarily. The leadership around Muqtada al-Sadr withdraw calling for de-commissioning which diminished the political success. This kind of wavering has been characterising the entire policy of the movement of al-Sadr since the beginning of the occupation. This is being expressed as well by the fact that Muqtada al-Sadr did not call for the boycott of the elections. Some elements close to him even ran on the list inspired by al-Sistani without, however, endorsing it publicly.

In the aggressive and offensive spirit of the ruling neo-cons, the US tried to get rid of these two main components of the resistance by brutal military force. They attempted to clear the ground in order to later allow for an integrative political operation co-opting some sectors of the traditional elites and their areas of popular influence to the regime. The first big operation took place in April 2004. Nearly at the same time, Falluja was besieged and Muqtada´s movement was provoked. This resulted in the convergence of the two resistance currents, paving the way for a first general uprising in a dozen or so towns. As a result, the resistance came out enormously strengthened politically, and it suffered no major military losses. Thus the so-called “power transfer” of mid 2004, which was designed to bring the US-imposed regime out of its isolation, did not yield the results desired.

The US, including the neo-cons, understood that holding elections was the only possible means to give the legitimacy to their regime which they needed so urgently. Otherwise they would have run the risk of its complete disintegration. Thus they conceded a demand of large parts of the Shiite population, mainly the middle classes. While the latter are tired of being excluded from any participation in political power as it was granted by the Saddam´s regime, they seek to avoid the escalation of the liberation struggle. They follow the cleric leadership around Ayatollah al-Sistani which stands for a negotiated settlement with the US. They have the strong backing of Tehran which fears the anti-imperialist popular resistance. However, the problem of this socio-political bloc is that the US does not want to give them the influence they want and they need to preserve their sphere of influence.

At the same time, the appeal of the idea of democratic participation by elections also within the poor classes should not be underestimated. The big mobilisations of al-Sistani for elections in January 2004 was the evidence for that. The soft position of Muqtada also partially reflects this popular sentiment. Despite the fact that the urban poor staged armed uprisings twice, they nevertheless hope that the new, hitherto unknown means of elections could bring about a “regime change”.

So everything depends on whether these promises and hopes attached to the elections will be fulfilled. If the US do not concede anything, the elections will not only perpetuate their isolation but also decompose the middle class bloc which for the time being is the main political obstacle for the resistance.

The impact of the elections

While there was a nearly complete boycott in the Sunni areas, the list composed by al-Sistani gained by far the majority of votes cast, based on a certain turn-out in the Shia areas. Meanwhile, the openly collaborationist forces where defeated with the exception of the Kurdish list which is the only pro-occupation force with deep popular roots.

Nonetheless the selection of the new government shows that al-Sistani´s list does neither have coherence nor consistence. It simply disappeared, dissolved in its parts without being able to impose on the US any space of manoeuvre or to display at least some traces of independence. This very fact proves that the clerics are hardly able to build a political leadership representing middle class interests.

Talabani of the PUK as president and Jaafari of one faction of Dawa as the prime minister is indeed a slap in the face of those who had voted for the Shia list. It is nothing else than the continuation of the puppet regime ruling before the elections. The Kurdish leadership has no credit whatsoever within the Arab masses, because it is the main ally of the occupation within Iraq. Dawa might not be worn out in the same way as the CIA operatives like Chalabi or Alawi, but they are not far from that. They have a known record of co-operation with the US before and since the war and have lost most of their historic implantation.

So it is unlikely that the newly formed government will extend it influence. It is doomed to remain essentially the same as before, sooner or later frustrating the hopes of those having cast their votes. The middle class project seems to be hampered both by the unwillingness of the occupiers as well as by the lack of an able leadership. Therefore the ground is being prepared for the further growth of the resistance not only to isolate the puppet regime but also to marginalise the collaborationist leaderships who are trying to use the authority of the clerics. Whether this possibility will materialize largely depends on the ability of the resistance to provide a political alternative.

Lacking political front

In order to topple a regime imposed by imperialism and to build a new one, independent from imperialism, the forces contesting power must prepare a comprehensive counter-power based on a wide popular consensus. The influence in the military, the political and the cultural spheres must more or less go in parallel. Without arms, political power cannot be seized, but without the political organisation of the popular masses the military measures will be in vain…—at least in today´s situation of the US Empire.

Therefore the political intuition of the “Iraqi Patriotic Alliance” led by Abduljabbar al-Kubaysi calling for a Political Front of all forces resisting the occupation was of utmost relevance. Therefore al-Kubaysi constituted a great danger to the occupation which led them to kidnap him.

Al-Kubaysi hoped for quick results of his attempts. However, it soon turned out that it would be a longer process as the political obstacles met turned out to be strategic.

Baath´s burden

It is obvious that the main military forces fighting the occupiers are those coming from the former army, and they have a strong Baathist flavour. Yet the resistance movement, which has a really popular character, is much broader, and it is not under the sole command of Baath, which no more exists as a state party but more as a current (which does not rule out the existence of an organised political leadership). We could characterise the resistance as Arab-Islamic nationalist. This blurring of Arab national and Islamic sentiments should not be confused with Islamism. Islam is seen as part of the national heritage and does not contradict it. It even goes together with a secularism represented by Baath which actually forms part of the tradition of Sunni statehood, where the temporal ruler never was dependent or subordinated to the religious institutions.

Nonetheless the followers of Baath claim not only that the party is the uncontested leading force of the resistance but that there even is a “plan B” previously worked out by Saddam Hussein personally. There a several elements of this assumption which are a result of the Baathist or more general Arab nationalist reading of history. We believe this conception neither to be a reflection of reality nor to be appropriate to provide a political guiding line able to maximally mobilise the Iraqi people.

However, the determination to fight the US occupiers does not only flow from the Jacobin character of Baathism. We have seen that Baathism was also ready for a rapprochement with imperialism from 1975 onwards, which does not imply a full capitulation.

We have also seen that the Baathist armed forces were not ready to mount a serious defence against the US onslaught in 2003. Actually the US blitz was won by the political momentum which let the Baathist hierarchy collapse, driving them to capitulation. This was helped by the fact that the popular masses of Baghdad were not ready to back the defence, leaving the top leadership around Saddam isolated. The common Arab nationalist reading of this chapter of history…—expressed in thousands of articles and told on the street…—is a conspiracy theory. They blame it on the use of a new generation of nuclear bombs which would have convinced Saddam to withdraw from state power and activate guerrilla warfare, called plan B. We do not doubt the readiness of the US to use the most sophisticated deadly weapons with genocidal impact. We have seen this before in many places like Korea and Vietnam. If their application is considered necessary, Washington does not even have reasons to hide its sophisticated weaponry. (On the contrary, the US military doctrine explicitly states that its enemies should be deterred by knowing both the technological superiority of the US and its determination to make use of it.) Even the most primitive form of homicide, i.e. starving to death of two million Iraqis during the twelve years of the embargo, was not hidden away but legitimized because of its “educational value”. But these experiences also teach us that even imperialist determination to resort to genocide can not stop a people fighting for liberation. So the reasons for the collapse of Baghdad´s defences must be searched for within Iraqi society and the Iraqi state itself.

We cannot deceive ourselves about the apparent fact that Baathism had lost the popular support it enjoyed in the 70s. Only to mention the most disastrous event which fuelled this process, there was the reactionary war against Iran which was bleeding white both Iraq as well as Iran, in the interest of US imperialism according to the strategy of “dual containment”. Hopes of the Persian clergy, that the Arab Shiite population would pass to the Iranian side, were not realised; they actually defended Iraq. Nevertheless, one decade of war, which the Shia majority did neither want let alone had a say on, completely alienated them from the Baath regime and accentuated the dictatorial character of the regime. The unmistakable proof was the Shia uprising in 1991.

With the attack of the imperialist “Holy Alliance” of 1991 things turned around once again. Unlike so many other regimes which emerged from national liberation movements, Baathism did not surrender. There is certainly an uncompromising nationalist momentum in Baathism, represented first of all by the personal steadfastness of Saddam Hussein…—which clashed with the intransigency of the US, which intended to set an example to the world in Iraq. During the period of the embargo, Saddam gradually lost the support of the social elites who were longing for re-integration into the world economy. But he had the support of an anti-imperialist intellectual layer and the passive acceptance of the popular masses which regarded the Baathist regime as the lesser evil compared to imperialism. Relying more and more on his al-Tikriti family ties than on the party hierarchy, Saddam´s regime was able to withstand the embargo, but not the direct imperialist onslaught. The state apparatus imploded, the military elites surrendered, while the masses remained passive.

The main reason why the resistance sprang up so swiftly was the deliberate choice of the US to completely smash the Baathist state apparatus while having no alternative at hand. By the way, this lack of an alternative and the fear of an Iranian-sponsored regime had made the more cautious Bush senior and Clinton not support the Shia uprising and maintain the status quo. In their militarist and avant-gardist approach the neo-cons apparently did not consider possible post-Saddam scenarios, as they still were in euphoria of omnipotence.

This pushed big parts of the former Baathist state apparatus…—and especially of the army…—into resistance, which was also supported by the Sunni social elites which seriously feared to lose their historic leading role. Unlike in the urban Shia environment, the traditional patriarchal socio-cultural unity between the different social layers was preserved in the Sunni environment to a much stronger extent. The fact that even the elites support the resistance, gave a big push to the popular masses, and among them especially the former soldiers, to join the resistance movement which in certain places enjoys the overwhelming support of the entire social hierarchy. Falluja is only the most outstanding example for a situation which is predominant on both upper reaches of the two main streams of Mesopotamia.

Actually, many supporters of the resistance…—and especially Baath party members…—openly wish to continue Baath rule. Others, who are more aware of the need to unify all forces that oppose the occupation (thus implicitly admitting the loss of political consensus), nevertheless stick to a bonapartist model of a state with the Sunni elites in the top executive positions, backed by their social bloc, also including lower classes. The imperialist media and thus international public opinion usually tout this as a result of the past thirty years of Baath rule. But in fact this model is much older, dating back to the Abbasid Caliphs, later adapted to capitalism by the Ottomans and the British. Actually, the revolutionary process which climaxed in 1958, tried to overcome it. Qasim and his successors, including Baath, partially succeeded in at least mitigating exclusive Sunni rule. But with the exacerbation of both inner contradictions and the conflict with imperialism, this historic feature of Sunni bonapartism culminated in the exclusive rule of Saddam and his al-Tikriti clan.

Capitalism without Sunni rule?

This leads to the question whether a stable regime with capitalist social relations, and not based on this historic model…—as the US is right now trying to establish…—is viable.

Let´s have a look into the case of Afghanistan. Revolution and counterrevolution have irreversible destroyed the British creation of the monarchy which from its very existence hopelessly tried to follow the Kemalist model while preserving the traditional social relationships. The communists…—which understood the need for a radical social change…—failed to gain the support of the majority for a forced march into state capitalism. Actually the communists did nothing more than to really implement the failed Kemalist programme of the Shah. Maybe the Taliban with their idealistic Islamic appeal were the only ones in modern Afghan history to have enjoyed…—though for a very short time…—the support of the majority, including nationalities awakened by the forced introduction of capitalist relations by the civil war. However, their mediaeval merchant capitalism (whose advent by the way required a phase of fundamentalism also in Europe) failed because of their intrinsic tendency to Pashtun nationalism which alienated the other nationalities. The current US attempt to build a national ruling class is based on their conception of liberal capitalism. Yet there is at maximum a rachitic merchant capitalism, but no nation in the sense of an operative territory defended by an industrial bourgeoisie. Actually the pro-US regime is based on an alliance of the elites of the national minorities gathered around the Panchir Tadjiks. Without a strong industrial capitalist development in the East Asian sense…—something hardly imaginable…—it is highly improbable that this regime can get the support of the Pashtun elites let a lone the Pashtun popular masses. The survival of the Taliban…—ranging from a collaborationist to an intransigent guerrilla current…—reflects this situation. Therefore, US attempts for national and state building are doomed to fail.

Iraqi history is certainly different, as Mesopotamia has been an integral part of the world economy. Following the current events back in history, one must come to the conclusion that also in Iraq the US attempts to build a completely new state are likely to fail if the neo-cons´ stubbornness blocks the retreat back to the Ottoman-British model.

One must break with the positivist conception that the development of capitalism automatically leads to the dismantlement of old social relationships, successively establishing pure capitalist classes, i.e. the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Even in the first capitalist nations this did not take place. What actually took place was the destruction of those social formations which mounted resistance to the advent of capitalism. But once subdued, their remnants were integrated into capitalism, transforming them into armour for the rule of the bourgeoisie. Actually, the longest and most stable expansive period of capitalism in the West was characterised by the growth of strong corporatist associations not being part of the liberal model of capitalism. What actually happened was the transformation of class organisations into corporatist associations. Even in today´s leading capitalist nation, the United States, where the the formation of the working class as a political subject was successfully impeded, there is not just the completely “free individual” deprived of any social link other than the market as it is conceived by the liberalist ideologues. Actually US capitalism is organised around “ethnic communities”, thus securing and perpetuating the leadership of the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). The growth of Protestant fundamentalism to become the dominant political-cultural tendency within the US proves that such kind of social organisation…—which does not exist in the classical model of capitalism…—is necessary to strengthen social cohesion for the permanent war the US regime is waging. Apparently it is a condition for the creation of the American Empire, as Nazism was a condition for the German war of expansion.

This general tendency of capitalism is even truer for the oppressed countries that form an integral part of the capitalist world system. For example in Iraq, the introduction of capitalism by the Ottomans and the British meant the creation of a feudal-capitalist class of landowners which had not existed before. The Sunni-Shia divide was accentuated by the Tanzimat reforms which had as their aim the capitalist modernization of the Ottoman Empire. The Tapu private land ownership titles were given to the Shia elites, introducing a capitalist class contradiction. The growing landless peasantry provided a steady stream of labour force to the urban centres, as in the classical model. At the same time, the Sunni population did not undergo this drastic transformation. One element that hindered this development was the lack of irrigable land, another element might have been stronger social cohesion in Sunni culture.

The introduction of modern school and army with a respective educational system was limited to the Sunni population providing thus the cadres to the state apparatus strengthening an inherited historic tendency and not abolishing as capitalism should have brought about according to positivist historiography.

A small Shia elite was adopted, while the regime remained essentially built on the Sunni environment. This colonial configuration led to the creation of a Shia urban proletariat and poor who provided the base of a powerful communist mass movement. The social reforms of Qasim and later Baath as well as the tremendous effect of the oil rent after the nationalisation of the oil industry created a wide educated and commercial urban middle class which, though being of Shia origin, underwent rapid secularization. Nevertheless they were excluded from the top executive positions.

The result was that the Shiite population did not have an organic link to the ruling class. There was no social layer mediating to them the Sunni elite´ control and influence. There was no socio-cultural force prepared to play the role of “civil society” in the sense of Gramsci. Thus not only the proletariat was pushed into political opposition, but also the middle classes. Only in the early 70s with their tremendous social transformation thanks to the influx of petrodollars, this structural situation was mitigated but not overcome.

To acknowledge this historic divide does not question Iraq as a nation (or at least its predominant Arab component), as the Western media machine suggests. Although colonialism had drawn somewhat arbitrary frontiers, the national liberation movement affirmed Iraq as a nation…—in contrast, for example, to Afghanistan, which does not constitute one nation. One must understand that capitalism has used and developed an inherited divide attributing capitalist social functions to pre-capitalist formations. The social differentiation along the Sunni-Shia line does in no way imply a national differentiation.

Originally, the British had tried to establish direct colonial rule, importing their social model. But the anti-colonial revolution of 1920 made this project untenable. The rebellion of the Sunni elites coincided with the movement of the Shia lower classes pushing for a social revolution. To break the common front, the British established a monarchy around the Sunni elite, leaving the Shia revolution…—led by the clergy…—isolated.

The current situation shows some analogies, though the US seems to attempt to stake on the other hourse. While the insurgency of the Sunni socio-political bloc is in full swing, the Shia clergy leadership vacillates between collaboration and opposition. While the middle classes tend to collaboration, the lower classes push towards resistance. However, we strongly doubt that the Shia community will be able to provide a leadership to rule a capitalist Iraq, at the same time pleasing imperialism and keeping a sufficient support base within their community and appeasing the Sunni resistance…—as the Hashemites were able to do a century ago. It would be the turn of the clergy to play this role but both for historic and current reasons they seem unable to take the place of a bourgeoisie administering capitalism as their Iranian homologues actually did.

Iraqi Shia: from communism to political Islam

Although the Communist Party was largely based on the Shiite lower classes, it stood for a break-up of the colonial setup built on the Sunni-Shia divide and its capitalist underpinnings. It could have overcome the historic division by abolishing its very base, the specifically unequal property relations, by building a new social formation implementing collective property of the means of production and social equality. Given the failed experience of the societies which endeavoured this transformation, it certainly would not have been easy and without conflicts. The historic divide would have continued to play an important role and without finding a mode to develop the new society out of the existing traditions, it doubtlessly had failed. However, the ICP did not even try, although during a certain period around 1958 it would have been possible to seize power. From that moment on, the ICP was no longer regarded as an independent leadership proposing a new historic option, but as an appendix of the different regimes which were to follow the progressive coup of 1958.

Actually, there is an astonishing paradox within Iraqi Communism. One element of its ascendancy was its project of an Iraqi nation with an explicit difference and demarcation from pan-Arabism. It provided the platform to integrate both Shiites and Kurdish which did not feel represented by the different pan-Arabist currents associated with the historic Sunni model of rule. From an anti-imperialist point of view this approach was basically correct, as it could help to overcome the historic divisions. Nonetheless the confrontation with pan-Arabism was much too strong, neglecting the anti-imperialist momentum of that current. Different to the communists, the pan-Arabists had the determination to seize power. The ICP opportunistically subordinated to those regimes, once they had taken office. Thus they provided the necessary popular social fundament which these bonapartist-type regimes could base themselves on. At least partially implementing the anti-imperialist social reforms the ICP stood for (first of all the nationalisation of the oil industry), the ruling Baath party did not need the ICP any more, even more as after 1975 and especially with the attack on Iran turned back towards imperialism. Thus the ICP fell victim to the bonapartist system it had helped to build. Eventually the ICP turned completely to imperialism, supporting the aggression since 1991 onwards.

Together with the ICP, the only concrete historic model to overcome Sunni-based bonapartist rule vanished. First within the Shiite middle classes and later also within the urban poor, a new tendency arose, namely political Islam. This phenomenon can not be understood without taking a look at the role of the Shia clergy.

Unlike the Sunni societies, the Shiites developed a clergy similar to the catholic one, though not centralised. However, the role of the Iraqi Shia clergy in modern history was always somewhat marginalised in comparison to their Iranian counterparts. They did neither have the Waqf property nor the support of the commercial bourgeoisie at their disposal, so they substantially remained dependent on the Iranian clergy and were to a large extent also of Persian origin.

One important feature of the Imamiyya (12er Shia) is that, despite the fact that it became the Persian state religion, it remained largely independent and often in opposition to the state. This not only provided the base for an anti-Western stance, while the monarchy had to co-operate more and more with imperialism; it also allowed for some reformist and democratic tendencies. For example prominent currents of the clergy supported the constitutional reform in the beginning of the 20th century.

The Iraqi clergy sided with the revolt of the popular masses of 1920. The British thus marginalised the Ayatollahs and their relationship to the king remained tense.

With the ascendancy of communism and the growing secularisation among the urban Shiite community, parts of the clergy understood the need for thorough changes to avoid its extinction. They countered the ICP by also embarking on the formation of mass parties of laymen, standing for reform to mitigate the social differentiations brought about by capitalism. The crucial problem remained, however, the role of the clergy which was to be preserved. There were very conservative tendencies like those of Ayatollah Khomeini advocating the exclusive rule of the clergy in his conception of Vilayat-e Faqih. Others stood for more mass participation, like the trend represented by the Sadr family, later on paving the way for anti-imperialist social reformism such as the Lebanese Hezbollah. This differentiation also reflects the different national environment. While in Iran the clergy was strong enough to figure out its exclusive rule, such a conception must necessarily lead to self-isolation and failure if applied in Iraq or even more in Lebanon.

With the Baath-Communist coalition, political Islam became the main opposition force against the Baath regime. First it took hold mainly in the middle classes, but with the decay of the ICP it gained influence also within the poor. The decisive turning point was the war against Iran. Albeit all the Shiite Islamist currents supported Persia, the Shiite popular masses did not so. This is convincing evidence for the fact that the importance of the Iraqi-Arab national identity largely outweighs the Shiite religious-cultural identity. However, over a decade of an extremely bloody and reactionary war, Baathism largely had been losing the popular support it had enjoyed before within the Shia community. The Sunni character of the regime was once again accentuated. The clerical leadership was the only political force able to fill the vacuum within the alienated Shiite community.

An unmistakable evidence for that fact was the Shiite uprising in the immediate aftermath of aggression of the Holy Alliance in 1991. Despite the fact that the revolt had a popular character, it was furthering imperialist interests (although the US decided not to exploit it). During the period of the embargo, most of the clerical forces not only kept their close ties to Tehran, but to a greater or lesser extent also participated in US attempts to form a pro-imperialist opposition front with the clear perspective to substitute the Baath government.

The US occupation led to a further differentiation within the political field led by clerics, for there is no clear hierarchy, but conflicting tendencies. On one hand there is the pole represented by the Marja Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani which provides an umbrella for all the forces heading for a negotiated settlement with the US, some even openly collaborationist like the al-Hakim groups with the al-Badr militias. Sociologically speaking, they are backed by a Shiite middle class. But this middle class is rachitic building a continuum to the poorer layers. It was the very election manoeuvre which provided them important backing within the lower classes.

The movement of Muqtada al-Sadr

The other pole is gathering the urban poor, clearly asking for an end to the occupation led by the minor cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who can, however, build on the reputation of the Sadr family, one of the few Arab cleric lines. The position of Muqtada towards the resistance was ambiguous from the very beginning. On one side he calls for the immediate withdrawal of the occupation troops, declaring the institutions set up by the US illegitimate. This attitude reflects the interests of the popular masses. Thus, when he rose up in arms for the first time in April 2004, at the same time as Falluja was defended against the US onslaught, his leadership got widespread support far beyond his sphere of influence. Not only followers of al-Sistani and other Shia parties joined in, but even Sunni and Christian forces were reported to participate in a movement which led to popular uprisings in a dozen of towns. This scenario was repeated in August of the same year. The unequal confrontation between the Mahdi army of Muqtada and the US forces in Najaf was ended by the arrival of al-Sistani who was forced to secure the unharmed withdrawal of Muqtada´s forces. A nearly certain military defeat could be turned in a political half-victory.

These two episodes showed the unifying dynamics of the anti-occupation struggle and the enormous potential power it could unfold. There were not only multiple expressions of the will to join hands between the Sunni and Shia forces opposing the occupation, but also concrete mutual support.

On the other side, Muqtada does not break the bridges to the collaborationist forces and their backers in Tehran. He keeps the door open to a possible settlement with the US if they concede some degree of independence and enough space to move.

The call for de-commissioning and the dissolution of the Mahdi army after the standoff of Najaf was a clear backing down, even if his followers claim that the arms were not really surrendered, which might be even true to a large extent. Politically it means that Muqtada´s movement does not engage in a systematic armed resistance. The logic consequence of this line is the equivocal position on the US-sponsored elections. Muqtada did neither call for boycott nor for participation. He simply left the initiative to the collaborationist forces, while some of his cadres ran on the ticket of al-Sistani. Had Muqtada joined the boycott campaign, the elections would have lost any legitimacy whatsoever.

The recent mass demonstration on the second anniversary of the fall of Baghdad expressed the dilemma. Several hundred thousand of Muqtada´s followers took to the streets demanding the end of the occupation but at the same time a swift trial to Saddam Hussein. They burnt not only the effigies of Bush and Blair but also of Saddam putting all the three on the same level. Here we touch the core problem which reminds of the problem of 1991´s Shia uprising.

It is understandable that the Shia anti-occupation forces continue their refusal of a Baath rule and voice their criticism to Saddam. To equalize Saddam with the imperialist leaders does, however, completely neglect the resistance the Baath regime had mounted against the US alliance. Worse, it denies today´s powerful popular resistance movement, which is…—if not directly led…—at least inspired by Baathism. Asking under today´s circumstances for a trial of Saddam means to call for a trial of the resistance.

Overcome the Baathist-Sadrist deadlock

The problems to form a common resistance front not only have historic roots but are also can be blamed on both sides. On one hand, it is evident that the decisive military capacities of the resistance are provided by the Sunni national-Islamic forces which Baath is an integral part of. But they are associated with a model of rule…—which one could call Sunni Bonapartism…—the Shia majority strongly rejects. On the other hand, there are the Shia lower and middle classes who reject the occupation with various shades of intensity and radicalism. They push for the end of Sunni Bonapartism and a full participation in the state. However, their demand for democracy is being canalised for the purpose to set up a US vassal of US-type democracy. This we have seen with the at least partial participation in election farce of January 2005. It expresses the largely bourgeois character of the democratic hopes.

In order to foil US attempts to stabilize the puppet regime and thus to prepare for the politico-military defeat of the US driving them out, the resistance led by the Sunni national-Islamic forces must win the Shiite popular masses to join the armed resistance movement. Without the armed resistance expanding into a popular liberation war victory cannot be achieved.

To achieve that aim, it is not enough to simply deny the divide, blame imperialism for it (which is certainly true) and to beseech unity. Neither is it possible to solve political problems only by military means. The only possibility to bridge the historic gap is the perspective of popular sovereignty. That means a government based on the organised will of the broad majority of the people. Therefore a patriotic constituent assembly seems an appropriate instrument bringing together all the popular forces fighting the occupation representing them according to their strength within the people. The patriotic assembly elected by the people can obviously take place only after the end of the occupation. This perspective can, however, close the gap between the different popular resistance forces already in the course of the struggle for it. It is the only imaginable common base of the political front laying the fundament for the embryo of a future popular government.

Furthermore, the mentioned divide is only one aspect; there is also the tendency towards unity. Historically, national unity of Iraq became prevalent in the major popular mobilisation against imperialism. This tradition can be traced from the anti-British rebellion of 1920 and the revolution of 1958, to the defence of the county when the war with Iran took the character of an aggression to the defiance of the UN embargo up to today´s resistance movement. We have seen both spontaneous and organised unification during the two latest uprisings. We have the constant appeal of both components to unity and against sectarian strive…—which is being instigated by the occupiers and probably also some Wahhabi groups trying to copy Pakistani-type conflicts.

Efforts to build this political front are being made by several forces. There is the “Iraqi Patriotic Alliance”, still carrying on even after the arrest of its chairman al-Kubaysi. There is the non-sectarian, multi-party “Iraqi National Founding Congress” (INFC) led by Shiite Sheikh al-Khalesi which was formed to boycott the elections and which is attempting to grow into a civil anti-occupation front. (The anti-Saddam bias, however, remains a strong limitation excluding de-facto the Baathist forces. Deprived of the necessary backing by the armed forces, though their legitimacy is being recognised, they tend to appeal to democratisation of the current regime instead of its destruction.) Or, to mention only a third example out of countless, the mass demonstration of April 8, 2005, led by the Sadrist movement were endorsed also by the Sunni “Association of Muslim Scholars” (AMS).

Last but not least the resistance is faced by another historic problem, namely the Kurdish one.

The Kurdish question

The Kurdish parties are the only ally of the occupation with a mass popular base. The big majority of the Kurdish people hope that under a weak government in Baghdad, controlled by the US, they will keep a maximum of autonomy rights. That is why they support the puppet regime, which their leadership became a main pillar of. It is not by accident that the newly instated president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani of the “Patriotic Union of Kurdistan” (PUK), proposed to use the Kurdish peshmerga militias to quell the Arab insurgency.

Beside the Baathist-Sadrist rift, the Kurdish-Arab conflict is the main problem for a resistance front pushing the Kurdish people on the side of imperialism.

Historically, the suffering of the Kurds in Turkey and their situation in Iraq can not be compared. Turkish nationalism strategically coalesced with imperialism…—after a very short initial phase. It is one of the most racist nationalisms in the world, having perpetrated the genocide on the Armenians. The Kurdish people have been denied the very existence and were called “mountain Turks”.

Arab nationalism, on the other hand, is inherently anti-imperialist; it tends to have a popular character. However, leading a liberation struggle does not automatically imply to be immune to chauvinist deviations.

The regions populated by a Kurdish majority are socio-economically backward, which goes hand in hand with collective disadvantages…—something which is not specific for the Iraqi case but can be observed as a general rule. Also the Kurdish people on their part engaged in a half century struggle to build a nation, which came into conflict not only with Turkish reactionary nationalism, but also with progressive Arab nationalism.

Arab nationalism and Iraqi Baathism always has been regarding the Kurdish regions as Arab territory, substantially denying the Kurds the right of national self-determination. But in contrast to Turkey, there were several attempts to find settlements with the Kurdish leadership in order to stabilise the Iraqi state. These agreements led to an autonomy status which nonetheless remained partial and were not fully satisfying the Kurdish demands. The decisive turning point was in 1975 when Baath entered the agreement with the Iranian Shah…—with the obvious blessing of Washington…—mutually guaranteeing the oppression of Kurdish national aspirations. This pushed the Kurdish forces strategically on the side of imperialism when they were offered support from 1991 onwards against Baghdad.

Today´s situation can only further deepen the national divide. Historic Arab predominance which carries with it always elements of chauvinism is today combined with the rejection by the Kurdish people as allies of the occupiers. The fact that Kurdish peshmerga forces helped to massacre Falluja is deeply inscribed in the memory of the Arab people.

The Iraqi resistance is fighting for the defence of Iraq and its territorial integrity. The circumstances push them to refuse any federative solution let alone self-determination. Politically, this firm stance, however, can only strengthen the US-Kurdish alliance.

At this point we shall look at the lessons of the Russian revolution. To prevent the nations and nationalities oppressed by Russia to side with imperialism, Lenin proposed to refrain from coercive measures which would push the popular masses to follow their capitalist pro-imperialist elites, but instead to grant them the right to self-determination in order to win the popular masses for the side of revolutionary Russia. For him, the creation of this political alliance between the dominant nation opposing imperialism and the minor nations being oppressed by the former was more important than formal territorial unity. That did in no way mean to call for the territorial disintegration and for secession. On the contrary, it was a means to maintain the unity on a stronger, voluntary base, which, however, under certain circumstances could be reached only through the detour of separation.

The Iraqi resistance is right to defend the unity of Iraq against imperialism. However, if a political resistance front would write on their banner a federative solution or even better the right to self-determination for the Kurdish people, that could enormously help to break the Kurdish alliance with the US. If the resistance would accept Kurdish national rights, the pro-imperialist Kurdish leadership could be successively isolated and the Kurdish people be won over to a new unity with the Arab Iraqi people.

The rise of the ICP in the 40s and 50s was connected to their inclusion of the Kurdish nation into the Iraqi nation. Also today there are similar tendencies under the banner of Islam which provides the bond between Arabs and Kurdish. Therefore Ansar al-Islam, a Wahhabi-type organisation with links to the Afghan network, is the only Kurdish anti-imperialist force fighting the occupation. The problem is that their zealotry and cultural rigidity seems neither digestible for rural Kurdish society nor for Arab Iraqis, who refuse Wahhabism. Especially the Pakistani-type anti-Shiite bias represents pours fuel into the Sunni-Shia fire.

Nevertheless, despite the appeal of Islam as a modern identity against imperialism, it can not supersede the national aspirations. We have mentioned the failure of the Taliban in Afghanistan in connection with the national question. In Iraq, it is in substance an Arab national resistance struggle, integrating Islam as a trait of the Iraqi nation and not vice versa. Cancelling the national Arab-Iraqi momentum and substituting it with pan-Islamism is doomed to fail. Therefore the only viable way to mend the Arab-Kurdish rift and to forge an anti-imperialist alliance is the mutual affirmation of the right of national self-determination against imperialism.

Historic challenge

The Iraqi resistance is an outstanding and decisive challenge of the American Empire in construction. In two years it prevented the most powerful army in humankind´s history from creating a stable puppet regime. The effect of their last remedy, the elections, is also likely to evaporate soon. The incapacity to build a government enjoying at least a certain consensus and their fall-back to the worn-out puppets, which were due to be substituted in the elections, is a sign of continued isolation. The potential of the resistance thus remains intact. Its military power to strike against the occupying armies and their allies was not reduced after the elections. The main obstacle for further expansion of the resistance is the pending integration of the Shiite urban poor and their organisations and representatives. This is not only a military question but first of all a political imperative, for only a political resistance front can unify the people and lay the ground for a popular patriotic counter-power.

Victory to the Iraqi resistance!
Build an international anti-imperialist support movement!
Down with the American Empire!

Willi Langthaler
April 2005

Article written for the Austrian magazine “Bruchlinien” and the Italian review “Eretica” and reproduced with their permission.