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The Occupation and the Resistance
George W. Bush declared victory and an end to combat operations on May 1, 2003, but the war in Iraq was, in fact, just beginning.
The U.S. military would hunt down the Baathist leadership one by one, eventually killing most of them, including Saddam Hussein himself, who was captured and ultimately hung in December 2006. But this was only a sideshow to the U.S. war on the multiple and fractured Iraqi resistance movements.
Bush’s colonial viceroy in Iraq, Paul Bremer, carried out a campaign of terror and repression. Yet the resistance managed to bog the U.S. down in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign, preventing Bush and Co. from their neoconservative plan to topple regimes in Iran and Syria.
Occupation Triggers Resistance
The dominant explanations for why the resistance forces grew are simply wrong.
One common argument made by figures like Gen. Eric Shinseki is that the U.S. didn’t have enough troops to enforce order after toppling Saddam Hussein. But the truth is that the Iraqi people, like any other oppressed people in history, from colonial America under the English king to Vietnam in the 1960s, were going to rise up against occupation.
The second explanation, made by Democrats like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, is that the U.S. didn’t have a plan for how to reconstruct Iraqi society. This, too, is false. However bungled, the Bush administration did have a plan to transform Iraq. It wanted to impose a neoliberal democracy on the country, open up the economy to multinationals and establish permanent U.S. military bases from which the neocons could carry out their plans for rolling regime change.
That plan to occupy and transform Iraq into a servile state actually sharpened the Iraqi resistances.
While the U.S. had promised that Iraq would have the first free and fair election in decades, it did the opposite. The Bush administration delayed elections and instead installed Bremer as head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in April 2003. Bremer ominously declared himself “the only paramount authority figure–other than dictator Saddam Hussein–that most Iraqis had ever known.”
Bremer’s first three orders transformed the smoldering Sunni and Shia frustration with the U.S. invasion into active resistances.
His Order Number One commenced the de-Baathification of the Iraqi state and society. The 2 million members of the Baath Party had been disproportionately Sunni. They had joined the party not out of any conviction, but in order to get jobs in state-run industry. Bremer’s order was thus a direct attack on both the Sunni elite and Sunni workers–it drove them into opposition to the occupation.
Bremer’s Order Number Two dissolved the Iraqi military and security forces, immediately pushing 450,000 people into unemployment and destitution. The military was the last integrated Arab institution, made up of predominantly Sunni officers and a majority of Shia conscripts. One U.S. general told the New York Times that this order “made 450,000 enemies on the ground in Iraq.” Sunni soldiers joined the burgeoning guerilla resistance, and the Shia gravitated toward Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Bremer then issued Order Number Three that postponed democratic elections and declared that his CPA would rule Iraq. The U.S. realized that the main Shia Islamist parties–the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and Dawa–would win any election and would ally with Iran, nominally America’s next target for regime change.
So Washington nixed an early election, and in doing so, alienated the Shia majority. As one Army colonel admitted, “When they disbanded the military and announced we were occupiers, that was it. Every moderate, every person that had leaned toward us, was furious.”
The Neoliberal Deconstruction of Iraq
Bremer’s dictatorship then proceeded to impose the neoliberal deconstruction of Iraqi state-based capitalist economy.
Iraq’s people had wrongly expected the U.S. would actually rebuild their economy, as promised, and bring back the country’s “Golden Age” during the 1970s oil boom, when Iraqi living standards rivaled those of Greece. Instead, Bremer inflicted a free-marketeer’s fantasy on Iraq, impoverishing Iraq’s population in the process.
The CPA slashed the top tax rate from 45 percent to a flat tax of 25 percent; abolished import-export duties to the advantage of multinational corporations; established foreign investment protocols that allowed Iraqi companies, including, crucially, the state oil industry, to be at least partly foreign-owned; and started the privatization of state monopolies.
The CPA’s neoliberal plan was a failure–but a very profitable failure for American capital. In his book The Occupation, journalist Patrick Cockburn reports:
Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, 50 percent of Iraqis had access to drinkable water, but this figure had dropped to 32 percent by the end of 2005. Some $4 billion was spent by the U.S. and Iraqi governments on increasing the electricity supply, but in April 2006, this fell to 4,100 megawatts, below the pre-invasion level, which represents half the 8,000 megawatts needed by Iraq. Oil production touched a low of 1.4 million barrels a day. These figures meant that most Iraqis lived on the edge of destitution, surviving only because of cheap government rations. At least 50 percent of the people who could work were unemployed.
Nevertheless, Bush’s favored corporations–Halliburton, Bechtel and Blackwater–secured no-bid contracts in Iraq and raked in untold profits. Bush thus replaced Hussein’s decrepit state capitalism with a crony neoliberalism that shattered Iraqi expectations of a rejuvenated economy. As a result, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh concluded, “The disaster that is the reconstruction of Iraq has been the key cause of the insurgency.”
To control the growing resistances, the CPA diverted more and more money to policing and repression. It ploughed billions into constructing five massive military bases throughout Iraq. It spent approximately 25 percent of its budget on security.
By early 2006, the U.S. had paid $1 billion to the private security firm Blackwater. In total, there were 60,000 of these so-called private contractors in Iraq–about half of them were, in fact, mercenaries hired to repress Iraqis.
Bremer’s dictatorship, his unilateral general orders and the imposition of neoliberalism detonated multiple, fractured resistances among Iraq’s Arab Sunni and Shia communities.
The Sunnis quickly organized multiple centers of resistance, especially in the city of Falluja in Anbar Province, west of Baghdad. Author Nir Rosen showed that the movement was not monolithic:
Instead, there are resistances and insurgencies and terror movements. They differ in location, motivation and ideology. The majority of anti-coalition fighters in Iraq are part of an indigenous resistance to the American occupation. They are motivated by factors such as nationalism, religion, and a sense of disenfranchisement.
By early 2004, some 10,000 Sunni guerillas had formed militias, commanded by ex-military officers in many cases and armed with weapons taken from unguarded storehouses. At first, the guerillas targeted Iraqi collaborators, especially Bremer’s new police force. They also created the infamous improvised explosive devices (IEDs), planted on roads and elsewhere, to attack U.S. patrols.
But the Sunni resistance was never able to galvanize a genuine nationalist uprising. Their elite leadership was hostile to the Shia and especially their parties, ISCI and Dawa, which had supported the invasion in the hopes of claiming power under a new Iraqi state. The Sunni resistance also harbored elements of a new group, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, organized by Jordanian Abu Musa al-Zarkawi, after the occupation. It staged attacks on innocent Shia as “infidels.”
The Shia resistance developed through completely different channels. Their parties ISCI and Dawa vacillated between opposition to the occupation and collaboration with it. The wild card among the Shia elite was Moktada al-Sadr, who had built up his Mahdi Army on the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon. It had become a mass movement with an armed wing capable of guerrilla struggle. The Sadrists regularly denounced the occupation through their newspaper Hawza.
Faced with this growing, if divided resistance, Bremer turned to brutal repression of the Arab population, which culminated in the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Falluja. Sounding very little like a liberator, Bremer raged, “We are going to fight them and impose our will on them, and we will capture or, if necessary, kill them, until we have imposed law and order upon this country.”
In his book Fiasco, Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks, describes how “[S]enior U.S. commanders tried to counter the insurgency with indiscriminate cordon-and-sweep operations that involved detaining thousands of Iraqis. This involved ‘grabbing whole villages, because combat soldiers were unable to figure out who was of value and who was not.'” The U.S. military put thousands of people in Saddam Hussein’s dreaded jail, Abu Ghraib, where they were subjected to torture to extract information about the resistance.
The U.S. brought in the head of its Guantánamo Bay prison camp, Major Gen. Geoffrey Miller, to head up the torture regime. Miller told his second in command, Brigadier Gen. Janet Karpinksi, to “treat the prisoners like dogs.” He went on, “[I]f you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog, then you’ve lost control of them.”
Capt. William Ponce wrote a memo telling interrogators “the gloves are off with these detainees” and informed them that the second-highest intelligence officer in Iraq had “made it clear that we want these individuals broken.”
The underlings responded by torturing Iraqi prisoners. In April 2004, exposes by 60 Minutes II and Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker, included pictures of the abuse taken by Specialist Lyndie England and others. They showed American interrogators dragging prisoners around by leashes, giving the thumbs up sign over corpses, sitting on top of gagged and blindfolded prisoners, and forcing them to engage in various humiliating sexual poses.
The actual torture was far worse than the photos. The New York Times reported that U.S. interrogators poured phosphoric acid on their victims, sodomized them with batons, threatened them with venomous snakes, dragged them with ropes attached to their penises, and shot them, not to kill but to seriously wound them.
One photograph encapsulated this nightmarish abuse of Iraqis. It showed an Iraqi man standing on a box with a hood over his head and electrical wires attached to his hands. That image rightly replaced the concocted toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue as the true symbol of the U.S. war on Iraq.
The Potential for Unity Undone
As their minions tortured prisoners for information, Bush and Bremer ordered the military to simultaneously crush the Shia and Sunni resistances.
Bremer targeted Moktada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army. He shut down the Sadrists’ newspaper after it published an edition with the headline, “Bremer Follows in the Footsteps of Saddam.” Bremer ordered the military to “kill or capture” Sadr himself.
The Mahdi Army responded by seizing control of an entire section of Baghdad called Sadr City. The U.S. military went on the offensive, laying siege to the holy city of Najaf, where Sadr had fled for shelter in a mosque. But the U.S. overplayed its hand and was forced to cut a deal with Sadr and the rest of the Shia establishment. Sadr escaped unscathed.
At the very same time, Bremer launched the first assault on the city of Falluja, where Sunni clerics and tribal leaders had organized their own autonomous government that provided a base for the resistance. The alibi for the assault was the killing of four Blackwater mercenaries who had lost their way in the city.
Bremer ordered the military to crush Falluja. One sergeant whipped his troops into a frenzy, telling them, “Marines are only really motivated two times. One is when we’re going on liberty. One is when we are going to kill somebody. We’re not going on liberty…We’re here for one thing: to tame Falluja. That’s what we’re going to do.
In its first siege in April 2004, the U.S. killed 1,000 civilians. The assault on the city became a rallying cry, not only for the Sunni, but for the Shia resistance. Sadr proclaimed “the union of Sunnis and Shiites toward an independent Iraq, free of terror and occupation…Our sentiments are the same, our goal is one, and our enemy is one. We say yes, yes to unity, yes to the closing of ranks, combating terror and ousting the infidel West from our sacred lands.”
The simultaneous assault on both resistances had the effect of driving them toward the unity the U.S. most feared. Therefore, as Patrick Cockburn argues, “After a month of besieging Falluja and Najaf, it become clear that U.S. did not have the political strength to assault and capture either city. Any attempt to do so risked alienating the Sunni and Shia communities at the same time.”
The U.S. backed off the simultaneous repression of both resistances and regrouped with a new plan. It realized it needed to put an Iraqi face on the occupation. So it appointed Ayad Allawi, a former CIA collaborator, as the prime minister of a new Iraqi government. This enabled the U.S. to pretend to transfer power to a supposedly sovereign state.
The U.S. then began to stoke tensions between Sunnis and Shias. It lured Shia leaders by promising elections that they, representing the majority group in the Iraqi population, were confident they could win. This appeal opened space for al-Qaeda and other Sunni jihadists to incriminate the Shia as collaborators with the occupation. At the same time, the jihadists escalated attacks on Shia civilians, breaking the fleeting unity that had emerged around the first siege of Falluja.
The U.S. military pounced on its opportunity to attack a now isolated Sunni resistance. It got Prime Minister Allawi to order a second assault on Falluja and its 300,000 inhabitants. The U.S. conducted a “shock and awe” aerial assault for three weeks, bombarding the city to smithereens. Some 10,000 of the city’s 50,000 buildings and 60 of its 200 mosques were completely destroyed.
Over 250,000 people fled the city in panic to become the first of untold numbers of internally displaced Iraqis. The New York Times wrote that the city had become “a desolate world of skeletal buildings tank-blasted homes, weeping powers line and severed palm trees.”
Then, 10,000 American soldiers and 2,000 Iraqi troops went in for the kill, dropping incendiary bombs and white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that burns the flesh off its victims. The invasion force gunned down nearly 1,2000 resistance fighters and captured another 1,000, who were thrown into the torture cells of Abu Ghraib.
The U.S. government’s divide-and-rule tactics successfully isolated the Sunni resistance in Falluja, which received next to no Shia solidarity, even from the Sadrists. But in so doing, the U.S. set in motion the logic of sectarianism, which would detonate a civil war between Sunnis and Shia that ripped the country apart.