46. Preparations for the Iraq invasion


The bombings by the US and Britain of Afghanistan, commencing on 7 October 2001, met with protests in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, the US, indeed throughout the world. We intervened in Britain in the protests in London and elsewhere. At the London demonstration, there were comrades from the US and Austria who also spoke at an impromptu rally. They were in London for an international meeting of the CWI to discuss the prospects of war and the plans of the CWI to oppose it. In the following period, practically every section of the CWI – then in 35 countries throughout the world – was involved in protest, which indicated that the opposition to this war was greater than at the equivalent stage before the first Gulf War.

On the actual bombing itself, Robert Fisk remarked in the Independent newspaper: “There are no Saudi Arabian or Kuwaiti pilots in the night skies over Afghanistan. This is not a Western-Muslim coalition. This is the West on its own, bombing a Muslim country that has a standard of living close to the Middle Ages.”1 What was at stake, however, was the prestige of the US ruling class, severely dented by 9/11. Crushing military measures were perceived as the only way to re-establish its power but rather than eradicating terrorism from the skies, we said that this would only create even greater terrorism below. Then, in an ominous development within days of the 9/11 attack, the US Republican right raised the prospect of completing what was started in 1992 but not  carried through, namely the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. This was even before the invasion of Afghanistan. David Owen, former British Foreign Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, and Tony Blair, in a debate in the British Parliament, all either stated explicitly or implied that after the Taliban was ‘dealt with’, Iraq could be the next target!

Blair fully committed himself and his government to supporting Bush when visiting the latter’s ranch in Crawford, Texas in April 2002. He effectively misinformed the House of Commons one week later when he stated: “I repeat, however, that no decisions on action have been taken. Our way of proceeding should be and will be measured, calm and thought through. When judgments are made, I shall ensure that the House has a full opportunity to debate them.”2 Everything that was necessary to justify the war flowed from this, including the completely false ‘dodgy dossier’ which indicated that Iraq had substantial stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This was subsequently found to be completely false by every reputable source including Hans Blix, Un chief of weapons inspectors and Dr David Kelly, British government specialist (who was later found dead in mysterious circumstances) and, especially, by the majority of the population. Blair later tried to pretend that “the intelligence was wrong and we should have, and I have, apologised for it”.3 But he steadfastly refused to apologise for the war and justifies it at every turn. As a result, Blair is widely considered to be a war criminal, as is George Bush.

Undoubtedly, bin Laden and his supporters were grist to the mill of imperialism and their plans to intervene in Iraq and the Middle East. Shortly after 9/11, he made a video which was carefully constructed to appeal to the downtrodden and oppressed throughout the Arab and Muslim world. The contrast between his video, shot in the caves of Afghanistan, and the broadcasts of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War, dressed in a western suit, could not have been greater. Moreover, he appealed not just to the Arab world, but to all ‘Muslim people’. This immediately resonated with the oppressed, like the Palestinians in Gaza who came out onto the streets in a mass demonstration of support. In Pakistan 10,000 demonstrated in Quetta in Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan itself.

This signified, we believed, that the world was at the beginning of what the strategists of imperialism/capitalism said would probably be a ‘long war’. In effect, the capitalists used the term ‘Muslim fundamentalist terrorism’, as they had previously used ‘Stalinism’, as a scarecrow to frighten the masses in the West. They hoped this would bolster support for building up the military apparatus, attacks on civil liberties (symbolised by the obscenity of Guantanamo Bay), torture, the national security state and infringements of civil liberties. Step by step there were attempts to condition the population in western countries to tolerate new repressive measures. This was especially the case in the US, Britain and Germany where new security measures were either rushed into law or preparations were made to do so. The authorities were unapologetic about an estimated 1,000 people arrested immediately after 9/11.

Measures taken against anti-war activists were part of a process to roll back the growing opposition to war and capitalist globalisation. The issue boiled down starkly to “Those who are not with us are against us.” Hilary Armstrong, Labour chief whip in the House of Commons, told a Labour MP who had dared to question the war policy and asked for a free vote, that he must follow Blair’s line as “war is not a matter of conscience… It is government policy that we are at war!… I am not going to have a dialogue with you about that. It was people like you who appeased Hitler in 1938.”4

However, it took time for Blair and Bush to assemble their ‘coalition’ in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. The counter-pressure began to build as the anti-war movement, with the recent experience of Afghanistan, began to amass its forces. The demonstrations that took place in an effort to prevent the war were some of the biggest in history. And the US did not always get its own way. Lesser rivals to the US, such as France, Germany, Russia and China, who had already agreed oil and trade deals with Iraq, were opposed to  US unilateral action against Saddam. There was an intense debate within uS ruling circles as well. Such was the opposition, Bush was compelled by the pressure of his own side, particularly the likes of Secretary of State Colin Powell, to seek legitimacy for the war through a resolution of the United Nations. Therefore, despite allowing weapons inspectors back into Iraq, an eventual US-led war seemed extremely likely.

The anti-war movement in Britain prepared to mobilise mass pressure to prevent war. In January 2003, 800 attended the Stop the War Coalition’s national conference. Tony Benn, in a rousing speech, said, “We speak for humanity. This is an argument between the people of the world and the rulers of the world.” The former president of Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, received a standing ovation when he declared: “There is terror in the world – the terror of George Bush… The world system keeps 85% of the population in poverty and dependency.” He called on the British anti-war movement to “take the smile off Tony Blair’s face”. The conference cheered when George Galloway MP paid tribute to the train drivers in Motherwell who refused to drive trains loaded with ammunition intended for use against Iraq. The conference agreed to campaign with the trade unions for such decisive action on a mass scale to stop the war.

Dave Nellist, Socialist Party councillor, called on the recently elected left union leaders to plough at least some of the money they were giving to New Labour into the anti-war movement and to drive on this campaign. Later in the day, an announcement that soldiers in the north of the country were refusing to go to Iraq was met with huge applause. The conference agreed that the immediate priority was to aim for an unprecedented turn-out on the national demo called for 15 February. The British demonstration was to be synchronised with demos in most European capitals and many other countries. Plans were laid for the day war broke out, including proposals for mass occupations, walkouts, strikes at schools, colleges and workplaces all over the country. On behalf of the Socialist Party, Dave argued that “demonstrations alone won’t shift a capitalist government like New Labour”. But referring to the political and economic interests of the US, “Only sustained, organised mass civil disobedience can stop a war in progress and force a government to retreat.”

He gave the example of the poll tax, led by Militant, which was rooted in the estates, schools, colleges and workplaces and was organised through democratic structures locally, regionally and nationally. To great applause he also stressed that as well as fighting against the war, “we have to raise an alternative, and be just as determined to build a new world… a socialist world.”

The anti-war coalition was a broad-based campaign built around support for three minimal demands: stop the war, no to a racist backlash and defend civil and democratic liberties. The Muslim Association of Britain agreed to these demands and, via the mosques, mobilised tens of thousands for anti-war demonstrations. This strengthened the anti-war movement and also gave an opportunity to reach a wide layer of Muslims with socialist ideas. We supported a resolution that “unreservedly condemns terrorist attacks”, which was opposed by the Socialist Workers Party and was defeated at the conference. We made it clear that we thought this was a serious mistake for the coalition to take this position. It was further proof of how out of touch some of the groups involved in the anti-war movement, without real connections with working class people, really were.5

The US and British-led coalition gained a relatively easy victory in Afghanistan over the Taliban government. The Taliban were not equivalent to the National Liberation Front (Vietcong) in Vietnam, who appealed to the peasant masses in particular with a social programme of land to the peasants and unification of the country. Moreover, the rule of the Taliban was a nightmare for the people of Afghanistan. During the previous 23 years more than one and a half million Afghans had been killed as a direct result of the wars that had taken place on Afghan soil. Most of those who had been killed were civilians, including children who were out on the street playing or in the mountains shepherding their animals. Much of Afghanistan was like a scene from ‘Mad Max’ or some futurist, brutal war movie. Present everywhere was the debris of war. When the Taliban entered Kabul in 1996 they dragged the former President Najibullah from the United Nations compound, tortured him to death and hung him from a lamp-post. This set the scene for Taliban rule.

Lacking any real political alternatives after the invasion of the country, the US desperately cast around for a government. They even flirted with the return of the previous deposed king, or his nephew, who had deposed him. Various brutal warlords, who dominated the country, were courted and then discarded before Karzai was installed as a puppet of the coalition.

Bolstered by the ‘victory’ in Afghanistan – hollow as it proved to be in the long term – Bush and Blair turned to preparations for the invasion of Iraq. Intense discussion took place within the labour movement and outside as to whether or not the war would actually go ahead. There was a certain incredulity that Blair, still nominally considered by some working people as ‘Labour’, would actually proceed. After all, Harold Wilson could not support US President Lyndon Johnson in the prosecution of the Vietnam War. Even the Blairite Labour Party was forced to reflect, however feebly, the unprecedented anti-war mood.

There was a public division between Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon. In fact, in his biography, Straw, with his usual touching modesty, writes: “I could have prevented the United Kingdom’s involvement in the Iraq war.”6 Yet his contribution amounted to a few squeaks before the actual war began, then full support for Blair and the war, and thereby his complicity in this war crime. More seriously, a survey of local Labour Party officials indicated mass resignations of rank-and-file members were threatened if Blair was to go ahead with backing the US-led war, particularly without UN approval. We warned that, despite this and other negative repercussions, “Bush could still, with the support of Blair, push ahead with war in the next couple of months.”7

The price of oil was climbing in anticipation of an attack on Iraq in early 2003. Moreover, the build-up of troops and weapons had a momentum of its own. Sustaining public opinion, let alone financing and maintaining the morale of 100,000 troops in the desert, or bringing them back, would have been extremely difficult, if war were to be delayed. Anti-war protests exploded before the war began in many US cities and across the world. Two hundred thousand people marched in Washington and 100,000 in San Francisco, with tens of thousands in other cities around the country. In Washington, the march was so vast that as the front completed encircling the White House, the last quarter of the march had not even begun moving! There were also big demonstrations in many European cities. In Germany the Schröder government’s anti-war rhetoric slightly lessened the degree of opposition as compared to the massive opposition in Britain to Blair’s sycophantic support of the uS. In Stockholm and Gothenburg thousands marched, as they did in Barcelona, Copenhagen, Madrid, Rome, Mexico City and Seoul.

Although there was opposition within the Labour Party from the likes of Tony Benn, it did not have much effect on Blair’s drive towards war. The whole character of the Labour Party had changed decisively. When the war was at its height and when the bodies of those killed and maimed were piling high, the Labour Party conference endorsed Blair’s support for the war! Even the constituency Labour parties, who were firmly on the left in the past, were decisively pro-war this time. It was a measure of just how far the Labour Party had been purged of fighting oppositional left activists.

Tony Benn, in his diaries, recorded his disgust at Blair’s bellicose approach: “On the radio I heard Tony Blair had warned the Afghanistan government, the Taliban, that if they didn’t give up Osama bin Laden they would face the consequences. The man has absolutely no capacity to deliver on his promise. He’s just the voice of President Bush.”8

Tony Benn’s policy for opposing the war amounted to appealing to world leaders, the un, even former Tory leader Ted Heath. His conversation with the latter is revealing both about his lack of a real class alternative on the war and the desperation felt by what remained of the Labour left. He wrote: “I rang Ted Heath again.  ‘Who is it?’ ‘Tony Benn. Ted, you got my letter? What advice can you give me? What should I say at the Conference today?’ ‘Oh I don’t know, I can’t advise you.’ ‘Well what do you think?’ He said, ‘I think Blair should pipe down! He’s pretending he’s the leader of the whole world. It annoys the Europeans and the Americans; he should pipe down!’ He was very candid, and actually just about got it right.”9

The appeal to the United Nations to stop the war, to oppose Bush, was the equivalent of appealing to Beelzebub against Satan! The United Nations, reflected in its name, represents the ruling class and elites of the world. It can sometimes be a forum for the solution of secondary problems. Some of the work of the un agencies, on food relief for instance, can play a certain humanitarian role but when the fundamental interests of nations, of the ruling classes in these nations to be more precise, are at stake then the UN will be bypassed. This has been the case in previous wars, such as the Korean War. Commenting on Blair’s speech to the conference, Benn wrote that it had been reported all over the world: “This Churchillian figure warning the Taliban to give up Bin Laden or surrender power in only a few days. It’s absolutely pathetic! We haven’t got enough forces in Britain to recapture the Isle of Wight.”10

The drive towards war flew in the face of the overwhelming majority opinion in Britain and throughout the world, with the mood hardening in early 2003 against the war. January 27 was set as a deadline for the first weapons inspectors’ report to be presented to the UN. The hundreds of site inspections in Iraq finally produced 12 empty rocket shells!

Blair committed 34,000 UK troops to the war, joining 150,000 US troops. Spokespersons for US imperialism like Colin Powell attempted to refute the idea that war with Iraq was all about oil: “The oil of Iraq belongs to the Iraqi people…” he claimed, “It will not be exploited for the United States’ own purpose.”11 Few people believed him then or since. It was true that the oil was not the only reason why the US wished to crush Iraq. The prestige of US imperialism – as the world’s policeman – and its geopolitical interests worldwide were at stake. The calculation was that if the war against Iraq was successful this would be enough to make any other ‘upstart’ in the Middle East and elsewhere contemplating opposition to the US think again. Iraq had at that stage the world’s second largest proven oil reserves. The US and world capitalism was dependent on this. An amazing 20% of all US military war spending at that stage went on defending oil installations.

Due to these factors, the US and Britain, through Bush and Blair, were determined to brush aside all objections, including any evidence from the weapons inspectors that proved that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, which was the only real argument to justify going to war. Hans Blix had commented that he “told the Security Council many times he had found no weapons of mass destruction.” However, many today, like Dr Jafar Dhia Jafar, criticise him for not screaming louder: “You could have stopped the war. You should have still stood up and said there were no weapons.” Blix replied: “I could not prove a negative… we would have lost all credibility if we had claimed the evidence was conclusive.”

This is just a lame excuse by Blix. As with the case of David Kelly, which had all the features of a frame-up by the establishment over the so-called ‘dirty dossier’, it indicated the iron determination of imperialism, particularly the US and Britain, to go to war come what may. It is true that even if Blix had stood up and said there was no evidence of weapons, it would have been brushed aside and the war launched on some other pretext. Today, Blix admits that “I do weep over the results of the mad rush to war by Bush and Blair. Tragically, the US and UK trusted their own faulty intelligence more than the inspection reports we gave.”12

Even before the war began, it conjured up one of the greatest mass movements in history, which the CWI and the Socialist Party in England and Wales fully participated in. We conceded before it began that, because of its overwhelming military supremacy, the ‘coalition’ would win any war with Iraq, but at what cost in humanitarian terms for the world economy and in the instability and unrest worldwide?

The anti-war mood infected the trade unions that were coming into opposition to the Blair government on other issues. The firefighters, for instance, took action at the end of January 2003, with widespread public support. Labour minister Nicholas Raynsford, responsible for the fire service, complained that the FBU was “no longer credible” because they would not come to heel! According to press reports, Blair was compelled to reduce the number of troops covering the dispute and make those deployed work longer shifts because of the thousands of troops they were sending to the Gulf. John Prescott announced in Parliament that he would consider reactivating the 1947 Fire Services Act, repealed in 1959, to take control of the fire service and impose a pay settlement on the firefighters. Many firefighters thought that it would be necessary for an all-out strike to take place which would compel the government to retreat and at the same time give confidence to other workers involved in, or contemplating, industrial action.13