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After the victory in Iraq
Can the U.S. be stopped?

May 2, 2003 | Pages 6 and 7

FROM THE moment the statue of Saddam Hussein was pulled down in Baghdad, the gloating began. The Bush administration "hawks" who let nothing get in the way of a new U.S. war on Iraq spent the following weeks claiming that the rapid collapse of the Iraqi regime proved that they were right all along. As if the defeat of a country already devastated by 12 years of U.S. military and economic warfare proves that a slaughter for oil and empire was just!

Nevertheless, for opponents of the war, the U.S. victory poses stark questions. What can stop the U.S.? What force is powerful enough to challenge Washington? ERIC RUDER and ALAN MAASS look at how U.S. power was defeated in the past--and what the future holds for the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

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DURING THE 1991 Gulf War on Iraq, George Bush Sr. declared that a "new world order" had begun. The undisputed top dog of the "new world order" was the U.S. government--the world's lone superpower following the collapse of the ex-USSR that ended the Cold War.

The use of overwhelming force against Iraq--and the decade of crushing economic sanctions that followed--was meant to show who was boss. But in important ways, the 1991 Gulf War wasn't a break with what came before.

Bush Sr. prided himself on his "multilateralist" approach--that is, he organized a large number of countries, including major European powers and key Arab governments, to not only support the war, but to contribute military forces and help pay for it. This helped Bush win United Nations (UN) support. And when the war ended, Bush declared that the "new world order" would allow "the United Nations…to fulfill the historic vision of its founders." This is a stark contrast to Bush Jr.'s sneering contempt for the UN and longtime U.S. allies.

Nevertheless, the 1991 Gulf War--and the string of U.S. "humanitarian" interventions carried out during the 1990s--set the stage for the second Bush administration to pursue the vision of a "new world order," but all the more ruthlessly.

A hard core of neoconservative "hawks" in the Bush Jr. administration has been planning for a new war on Iraq for years--not just to "finish the job" that Bush Sr. started, but as a crucial step in using U.S. power more aggressively around the world.

In September 2000, before Bush had even stolen the White House, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Lewis Libby--now all key figures in the administration--wrote a report for the right-wing Project for a New American Century (PNAC) think tank that explained why.

War against Iraq was just one step in "maintaining global U.S. pre-eminence…and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests," they wrote. Selling a pre-emptive war would be a problem, Wolfowitz and Co. admitted. So the PNAC report looked forward to "some catastrophic and catalyzing event--like a new Pearl Harbor."

One year later came the September 11 attacks. While most people were still grieving for the victims, Wolfowitz and his co-thinkers moved into action to exploit the opportunity to launch their war on the world. The first stepping stone was Afghanistan. And now Iraq is another--in the drive to expand U.S. military power around the globe.

The U.S. may have been successful at carrying out "regime change" in Iraq, but the war has also revealed the fault lines that can undermine Washington's dominant position. First, there's the opposition of other big powers. The governments of France, Germany and Russia opposed the U.S. war on Iraq--not because they're run by peaceniks, but because this expansion of U.S. power threatened their own ambitions.

Such opposition is limited. Challenges by Washington's imperialist rivals represent an effort to carry out their own agenda--to reshuffle power in their favor. That's why a genuine struggle against imperialism depends on opposition from below--both from those under the thumb of imperial powers in the less developed world, and those who live in the imperialist countries, but pay the price of their government's attempt to impose their will on the world.

History is filled with examples of how war and oppression breed resistance. One of the most famous is also an example of how the mighty U.S. government was defeated by a much weaker military force--in Vietnam.

The U.S. claimed that its soldiers were defending "democracy" and "freedom" in South Vietnam from an assault by the Communist North. But nothing could hide from the Vietnamese themselves the fact that the U.S.-backed regime in the South was an undemocratic tyranny. The commitment of the Vietnamese to fight for liberation was the decisive factor in defeating the U.S. military giant--despite the extraordinary odds.

The victory in Vietnam, though, depended on the antiwar movement in the U.S.--the development of a struggle that turned the Vietnam War from something on the margins of most people's consciousness into a key political issue that dominated all others.

As the cost of the war spiraled upward and thousands of U.S. soldiers lost their lives, millions of people began asking the question: Why is the U.S. at war? The antiwar movement spread into every corner of U.S. society--including, crucially, into the army itself, as rank-and-file soldiers began to organize their own resistance.

The struggle against the Vietnam War proved that the U.S. can be stopped. Today, the movement against the war on Iraq gathered many more people and much more quickly. But we have a job ahead of us to deepen that struggle--to turn opposition to the war on Iraq into opposition to every one of Washington's imperialist adventures, and to link the antiwar fight to wider struggle against a system that breeds war and poverty.

Iraq's resistance to occupation

WASHINGTON'S WAR planners hoped that the pilgrimage of Shiite Muslims to the city of Karbala last month would be a celebration of the downfall of a dictator. Instead, it was a show of opposition to Iraq's new dictators--the U.S. military.

An estimated 1 million people took part in the religious ceremony, which for years was repressed by Saddam Hussein's government, along with other displays of faith by Iraq's Shiite majority. But the pilgrimage had an explicit political message. "No to imperialism, no to Israel, no to America, no to Saddam," went one of the slogans. "Yes to Islam."

Even the media's most gung-ho commentators had to admit that the Islamists had become a powerful political force in postwar Iraq--and an obstacle to Washington's plans to impose a pliant regime.

Coming only a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad, this and other shows of opposition to U.S. power across Iraq have cooled some of the Bush administration's victory celebrations.

At the beginning of the invasion in March, U.S. and British forces met stiff resistance in southern cities--precisely where the Pentagon had counted on Shiites greeting U.S. soldiers as "liberators." Administration officials now say that they relied too much on the claims of Iraqi exiles--like Ahmed Chalabi, the crooked con artist airlifted into Iraq to be the Pentagon's puppet--who said that Shiites would welcome a U.S. war.

But the Bush gang's own arrogance made it inevitable that they would underestimate the determination of ordinary Iraqis--even the Shiites and Kurds who suffered the brunt of Saddam's dictatorship--to resist foreign domination.

In fact, the actions of U.S. forces during the war confirmed--for anyone who doubted it--that the talk of "liberation" was a smokescreen. Washington's first priority was to protect Iraq's oilfields--no matter the scale of the humanitarian crisis taking shape. When looting broke out in Baghdad, U.S. Marines refused to lift a finger, except to guard the Ministry of Oil building.

Parts of Baghdad were still without electricity and water as the U.S. convened a second conference of its stooges to determine the shape of the new Iraqi government. Washington's plan is for that new regime to look very similar to the old one--only with Saddam Hussein and a few of his Baath Party henchmen lopped off the top.

"We identify the top person in a department, then go to his deputy, and the man below that, and ask what the top man was like," said Marine Major Michael Griffin in a remarkably honest statement of the Pentagon's "rebuilding" methods. "It's hard for people to understand that. They think being a Baathist is automatically bad. We want to show we are not here to take over. We are trying to put across the theme 'Iraq for the Iraqis.' The goal is to show that by working with us, you can get things working the way they were before, minus Saddam." But "things working the way they were before" isn't what the mass of Iraqis have in mind.

Anger with the U.S. occupation is widespread across Iraq, and has played out in different ways, for example, in the north, where the Kurdish minority is the dominant force. But attention is focused now on Shiite leaders in the south because they emerged so quickly to fill the political vacuum left behind by the disintegration of the old state.

The U.S. brought in a bought-off exiled cleric, Abdul Majid Khoei, to take charge, but he was stabbed to death shortly after returning to Iraq. And the top Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has been threatened by other Shiite leaders for being too pro-U.S.

In part, this is because Sistani's rivals have ties to the government in Iran, which has been run by conservative Shiite clerics since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Sistani has been critical of the Iranian government.

These and other divisions among Shiite leaders will continue to play out. But what has frightened Washington is the show of unity against occupation in Karbala. In many southern areas, Shiite leaders and their followers have taken charge of food distribution, organized militias to keep order and even paid municipal workers to return to work. They now represent a force on the ground that will oppose any attempt by the U.S. and its Iraqi puppets to impose a new regime that doesn't represent them.

The U.S. could try to co-opt a section of the clergy, but the Bush administration's hawks would view this as the greater evil--a concession to Iran. The stage is set for new conflicts--which is why the U.S. will find it harder to win the "peace" than the war that came before it.

The last war against the occupiers

"OUR ARMIES do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators." Sound familiar? But this quotation comes not from George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld, but Lt. Gen. Frederick Stanley Maude--part of a March 1917 proclamation, when the British army laid claim to Iraq during the First World War.

"It is [Britain's] wish that you should prosper even as in the past, when your lands were fertile, when your ancestors gave to the world literature, science and art, and when Baghdad city was one of the wonders of the world," Maude went on to say.

What the British brought instead was death and destruction. Britain received a "mandate" from the League of Nations to rule Iraq after the First World War, and it occupied Iraq with a colonial administration. In July 1920, Iraqis revolted--killing British soldiers and taking over some towns. In response, the British launched an all-out assault.

"The only way to deal with the tribes is wholesale slaughter," British Col. Gerald Leachman declared. It took five months and the murder of thousands of Iraqis before the British were able to put down the rebellion.

Winston Churchill, Britain's famous prime minister during the Second World War, who at the time was the minister for the colonies, decided that the best way to crush the rebellion was to use poison gas--one of the first major aerial chemical attacks. "I am strongly in favor of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes," Churchill said, proclaiming that the gas had "an excellent moral effect" on the locals.

To prove how little they cared for the freedom of the Iraqi people, Britain installed a king in Iraq--who promptly signed over all economic and military power to the British. In 1930, the British government forced a new treaty on Iraq, under which London could continue to keep troops in the region to protect its growing interest in Iraqi oil.

This was the price that Britain exacted before it ended its mandate in 1932. Today, the U.S. will try to paint a human face on its occupation. But the "liberation" of today is as big a sham as it was in 1917.

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