Iraq is a country, not a war

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

IT takes a paragraph to explain why the Washington neo-conservatives wanted to capture Iraq. In 2000, the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) published an influential report, "Rebuilding America's Defences." Angered by the slowdown in the astronomical Reagan-era growth of the United States military, the PNAC produced a "blueprint for maintaining global U.S. pre-eminence, precluding the rise of a great power rival, and shaping the international security order in line with American principles and interests." The U.S. government needed to maintain its unmatched military, whose power it had to demonstrate to those who might harbour ambitions counter to U.S. primacy. Iraq was a PNAC obsession. "The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein."

In 2002, the PNAC created the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq to lobby its enthusiastic former members: Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. The 2000 report argued that the U.S. government would only follow this strategy if the U.S. suffered a "catastrophic and catalysing event, like a new Pearl Harbor." 9/11 provided the pretext; Iraq (and its sweet oil) the windfall. It takes a few pages to explain how the Atlantic governments rode roughshod over their populations. The public in neither the U.S. nor the United Kingdom had come over to the PNAC's calculations or to Bush-Blair's attempt to manufacture consent. In the U.S., where the media became a conduit for the White House's propaganda barrage, a CBS poll in March 2003 found that equal numbers supported and opposed the war. In Britain, meanwhile, 86 per cent of those polled by The Times in early February 2003 wanted the weapons inspectors to persist.

On February 15, 2003, these polls came to life on the streets as eight million people crowded the world's capitals to say what United Nations General-Secretary Kofi Annan told the BBC 19 months later: that the war on Iraq was "illegal". The Bush-Blair menu of war justifications included yellowcake uranium, suitcase bombs, linkages to Al Qaeda, U.N. Security Council resolution violations and what not. Conditioned by a long history of stereotypes about dangerous Arabs and fanatical Muslims, sections of the Atlantic population were tinder for misinformation's fire. The bombs began to fly three years ago. They continue to explode daily. All this is easy to establish, and there are now many books that do this work. What is harder to understand is how Iraq, with its considerable history, fell prey to the machinations of "Bush & Co."

Founded in 1934, the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) was able to galvanise the consistently anti-colonial sentiment of the population (the ICP was also the largest Communist Party in the Arab lands). Between January 20 and 22, 1948, the Iraqi population, led by the ICP, moved decisively to block the assertion of imperialism and its local subcontractors (the monarchy and its oligarchy of racketeers). These events, known as al-wathbah (The Leap), signify the immense political confidence of the Iraqi people. Between The Leap and the 1958 republican coup, the Iraqi people's political maturity grew. When the colonels took charge, they turned to the ICP for aid and assistance. The ICP's social programme had been absorbed by all political parties, itself a testament to its relevance and probity. Even the Ba'ath, no friend to socialism, adopted the ICP's programme, and went one step further at its 1963 Sixth Congress (much to the consternation of its founder, Michel Aflaq, and to its future leader, Saddam Hussein).

In May 1959, Husain ar-Radi, first secretary of the ICP, entered a Politburo meeting and argued that the time had come for the party to make a move for power. He was outvoted. The Ba'ath took the initiative; the U.S. backed it. The ICP defended the nationalist-military regime when the Ba'ath attempted its coup in October 1959. It quickly took charge of the Ministry of Defence and the communication network. This terrified the colonels, who began to decimate the ICP, their only organised defenders. The way for the Ba'ath had been prepared, and it eventually captured the state in 1963. The window to the future closed for the moment.

When Saddam Hussein's legions entered Kuwait in 1990, I remember turning to Hanna Batatu's impassioned scholarly book The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements in Iraq (Princeton, 1978) to understand the tragedy of modern Iraq. Batatu, a Palestinian Arab who taught at Georgetown University in the U.S., produced a measured account of the political economy of Iraq, of the nationalist sentiment of its population, and of the opportunities and vacillations of the ICP. The book has guided me since, as it has provided the British-Pakistani author and activist Tariq Ali with the basis for his own understandings, and of his 2003 book (now published in India with a special introduction).

Bush in Babylon is an "updated" edition of Batatu's book, although it is so much more than that. In 1990, when Ali heard a senior BBC interviewer say that Arabs are a people without culture, he began an extensive study of Arab society and history. In particular, Ali studied the cultural world of Spain during the rule of the Arab sultans. His studies resulted in four novels, the Islam Quartet (published in India this year by Seagull). In Bush in Babylon, Ali writes, "Perhaps there are some things in life too painful to be recorded in history and which are best left to fiction which can sometimes be more honest than history."

His book, unlike Batatu's study, gets under Iraq's skin. It begins with Arab (some Iraqi) poets who offer us a picture of hope and struggle, of betrayal and hesitation. Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri (1900-1997) commemorates the 1948 uprising with a poem that now appears timeless, "I see a horizon lit with blood/And many a starless night/A generation comes and another goes/And the fires keep burning."

Ali's book recounts the basic facts of Iraqi history from the 1920 uprising against the British to the ongoing resistance against the Atlantic Occupation. It reminds us that Iraq's hope was suffocated by imperialist intrigues of the Atlantic powers, by the unresolved class contradictions of its society and by the heavy hand of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the otherwise brave cadre of the ICP. The extirpation of radicalism by the Ba'ath nevertheless could not dampen the deep urge for freedom in the Iraqi people.

During the Ba'ath years (1963-2003), an opposition within and without Iraq fought for freedom and justice. Of this resistance, the most bold and quixotic came from the Popular Front for Armed Struggle, led by Khalid Ahmed Zaki. In 1968, this breakaway faction of the ICP organised an armed uprising in the southern marshes of Iraq and fell to the regime's guns. They acted a decade too late, by which time ar-Radi's assessment had become anachronistic. The revolutionary moment had passed. A grotesque tragedy unfolded in its aftermath, including the Iran-Iraq War and the Long War that ran from 1991 to the present (including the diabolical sanctions regime).

Of this current Iraqi resistance, one fighter told a Canadian journalist: "When we see the U.S. soldiers in our cities with guns, it is a challenge to us. I don't know a lot about political relations in the world, but if you look at history - Vietnam, Iraq itself, Egypt and Algeria - countries always rebel against occupation. The world must know that this is an honourable resistance and has nothing to do with the old regime. Even if Saddam Hussein dies we will continue to fight to throw out the American forces. We take our power from our history, not from one person."

Their history is well retold in Ali's offering. The resistance has already won, even as Iraqis have suffered casualties that number in the tens of thousands. They have begun to set the agenda. No longer is the White House able to dictate the pace of reconstruction of the country to its own ends, or even to control the most basic element of power: security. When the army began to use the word "pacification", it meant that it too conceded that it had no control over the population. The White House plan to move on Syria and Iran is on hold. The resistance is as uncompromising as it is brutal, but why should it bear the brunt of our displeasure? As Ali notes, "When you have an ugly occupation, you can't have a beautiful resistance." Ali's book reminds us that Iraq is not just the name of a war. It is also the name of a country.

Bush in Babylon: The Recolonisation of Iraq by Tariq Ali; Leftword, New Delhi, 2006; pages 280, Rs.195 (paperback).

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