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"The greatest strategic disaster in American history"
FOR READERS who are familiar with Patrick Cockburn's incisive reports from Iraq in the Independent, they will appreciate his new book, The Occupation. It's a cut above the virtual mountain of books purporting to explain the impact of US and British foreign policy on Iraq.
Cockburn reminds us that the war and invasion was "the high tide of imperial self-confidence. The US had just achieved a swift victory in Afghanistan... To Tony Blair, support for Bush must have looked like a safe bet."
Referring to Iraq today, however, Cockburn's quote from the former head of the US National Security Agency is apposite: "The greatest strategic disaster in American history".
As the socialist predicted at the time of the March 2003 invasion, the US-led occupation would be opposed by most Iraqis, apart from the Kurdish leaders and Washington's exiled Iraqi carpetbaggers. Cockburn confirms this: "It was the overwhelming unpopularity of the occupation among the 5 million Sunni Arabs in Iraq which led to the speedy start of guerrilla warfare. The Shia were also hostile to the occupation but were not going to oppose it in arms if they could take power through the elections."
The failure of Bush's 'neo-conservative' clique to understand the complex political, social and ethnic make-up of Iraq was compounded by a breathtaking ignorance and arrogance by the US occupiers - typified by the disastrous rule of US pro-consul Paul Bremer during the first phase of occupation.
"The US administrative apparatus was more incompetent, bureaucratic, corrupt and divided than most Iraqis imagined. Its inability to respond swiftly and effectively to a crisis was demonstrated in New Orleans in 2005..." when Hurricane Katrina hit that city, says Cockburn.
Two wars, a decade of United Nations sanctions and Saddam's regime had reduced Iraq to "a barely floating economic wreck". US policies only compounded the problems. Under the 'reconstruction' drinkable water in Iraq fell from covering 50% of the population in March 2003 to 32%. $4 billion was spent on increasing electricity supplies but this supply also fell below pre-invasion levels. Similarly with the production and export of oil.
Capitalism and its attendant corruption was also a major weakness of the occupation. "The free market principles of the Bush administration and simple greed meant that Iraq became the hunting ground for the world's shadier characters."
As the socialist reported last year, the special investigator for Iraqi reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, revealed that under Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority $8.8 billion was unaccounted for! The various political groups in control of the different ministries also milked them for profits.
Cockburn gives the example of a security contractor in charge of protecting Basra's oil refinery. He witnessed SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq - the main Shia political group) siphoning off fuel and selling it for a sizeable profit. After the contractor closed down their activities SCIRI complained to the British authorities and the contractor was duly sacked!
With mass unemployment, widespread poverty and destitution many young men, desperate for work, simply joined the various militias or the now abundant criminal gangs involved in looting, kidnapping and carrying out murders.
The hated occupation also became a cause célèbre for reactionary Islamists throughout the world, who streamed into Iraq to fight the Americans. Of course, the US authorities deliberately hyped-up the numbers of foreign Jihadists in order to downplay the domestic insurgency. Paradoxically, Zarqawi's suicide bombers made Iraqis even more opposed to the occupation for failing to bring security and stability.
Cockburn catalogues the failure of every political initiative that simply resulted in institutionalising political sectarianism. The current Iraqi government, he points out, is incapable of functioning not least because the various ministries were carved up between the different political factions. Each ministry is a source of jobs and profits for these factions, each of whom have their own militias.
Political sectarianism is increasingly fracturing Iraq along ethnic lines. In this low-intensity civil war whole districts of Baghdad and many regional cities have been 'ethnically cleansed' by the various militias.
Recently, Bush and Blair have berated the Iraqi government, saying that they must take over responsibility for security and law and order. This is nothing less than an admission of failure of the occupation by blaming their own approved Iraqi politicians. It is also a way to save face in announcing their intention to withdraw. But withdrawal under present conditions can only mean humiliation for imperialism.
The Occupation, by Patrick Cockburn
Published by Verso, 2006. £15.99 Hardback, 222 pages
In The Socialist 7 December 2006:
War and terrorism
Socialist Party news and analysis
International socialist news and analysis