A high-level debate between intelligent and knowledgeable Marxists, conducted with civility and strong arguments, which adds to understanding the difficult politics of the situation. Excellent.Part OneGilbert Achcar 'On the Forthcoming Election in Iraq' (January 03, 2005)
The hypocrisy of the Bush administration is limitless: when George W. Bush and his buddies boast about the forthcoming election in Iraq as an achievement of the civilizing mission that they supposedly took upon themselves in bringing democracy to backward Muslims, they sound like a boss boasting about having raised the wages of the workers in his factory as an illustration of his eagerness to improve their living standard, when, in reality, the raise was imposed on him by the workers going on strike.
The fact of the matter is that democracy has never been more than a subsidiary pretext for the Bush administration in its drive to seize control of the crucially strategic area stretching from the Arab-Persian Gulf to Central Asia, a pretext ranking after others such as Al-Qaida or the WMD. Most of the vectors of US influence in this area are despotic regimes, from the oldest ally of Washington and most antidemocratic of all states, the Saudi Kingdom, to the newest allies, the police states of such post-Soviet Mafia-like republics as Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan, operating through such great champions of democracy as generals Mubarak of Egypt and Musharraf of Pakistan.
Washington favors elections only if and when they are most likely to be won by its henchmen. When Arafat, facing Bush and Sharon's challenge to his legitimacy, suggested holding elections in the Palestinian territories, the proposal was categorically rejected, since it was clear he would win overwhelmingly, as the Palestinian people would vote for him in defiance of Israel and the US. It is only after his death that they accepted that elections be held, not without heavily interfering in the process, intimidating another candidate into withdrawal, harassing others, and campaigning blatantly for the man of their choice -- as did Blair, who paid Abu Mazen visit for this purpose.
True, elections were organized in Afghanistan, but only because there were no real stakes: the Taliban and other anti-US forces were prevented from participating, and no Afghan warlord would have risked antagonizing the US seriously for the sake of winning a position as nothing more than a representation of US authorities in Kabul. The Afghan warlords know that their control of their fiefdoms is much more effective and unfettered than Karzai's control over the capital, which is the only piece of real estate where he exerts some kind of power, by proxy. They accepted him for "president" a second time through a mockery of elections in the same way that they accepted him the first time through their horse trading with Washington before the fall of Kabul -- though he was a non-entity in terms both of social basis and military force, his collaboration with the CIA being his "credentials." Karzai was accepted precisely because he was perceived as no real threat to any of the warlords.
A parallel does not exist in Iraq. There the US occupation has been faced from the start with a power-vacuum that its invasion created, aggravated by Bremer's neocon-inspired move to dismantle whatever remained of the Baathist power apparatuses. Apart from the de facto autonomous Kurdish area in the North, there were no warlords in Iraq with any real power. Thus Washington faced the "democracy paradox" (Huntington), created by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Arab Iraqis were -- and are even more now -- hostile to US control of their land, and hence any truly representative democratically elected government would seek to get rid of the occupation.
This "paradox" led to another: the US, the standard-bearer of democracy, which had altruistically occupied Iraq to bring the benefits of democracy to backward Muslim people, tried to postpone as far as possible the prospect of holding elections and to replace them with appointed bodies and a US-designed permanent constitution. This is what Proconsul Bremer sought to impose in June 2003, only a few weeks after the end of the invasion. He was countered by none other than one of the most traditionalist members of Iraq's Muslim Shia hierarchy, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani. The confrontation between the two men escalated until the Ayatollah called for demonstrations to impose democratic elections on the occupiers: in January 2004, huge numbers of people poured into the streets of several Iraqi cities, especially in the Shia areas, with hundreds of thousands shouting "yes to election, no to designation."
To be sure, the Ayatollah had his own motivations, which were no more a "pure," "Jeffersonian" (as they like to say in Washington) attachment to democracy than Bush and Bremer's were. His calculation was simple: the Shia constitute the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi population, almost two-thirds, and yet they have always been downtrodden by various kinds of despotic rulers. Instituting an electoral mechanism would allow the Shia to legitimately dictate the fate of the country. The electoral process is the best channel through which the Shia can exert their majority rights and sort out the balance of forces among them at one and the same time -- since there is no more or less unified Shia political movement in Iraq comparable to what existed in Iran under Khomeini's leadership. Sistani -- who never adhered to Khomeini's doctrine of velayat-e faqih ("leadership of the jurisprudent," a formula pointing to the pyramid-like rule of the Shia quasi-clergy) -- would still see to it that the laws and regulations of the country conform to Islamic rules (the Shariah, his own most rigorist fatwas, etc.). On this issue, too, Sistani is intransigent.
Bremer had to backtrack, for fear of facing a massive anti-US pro-democracy insurgency that would have ruined the last pretext for Washington's occupation of Iraq. Through a face-saving mediation by the UN, Bremer, and his bosses in Washington, agreed reluctantly to hold elections no later than the end of January 2005. (The UN envoy was none other than Lakhdar Brahimi, who as a member of the military-backed government supported the interruption of the electoral process in Algeria in 1992, when the Islamic Salvation Front was about to win a majority of seats.) The Bush administration thereby bought itself several months in order to devise a way out of its dilemma.
Had the elections been organized in the first months following the invasion, as Sistani insisted, they would have taken place in a much more orderly, all-embracing and therefore legitimate fashion. Washington would have been faced with an indisputably legitimate government asking it to withdraw its troops from Iraq. To prevent that from happening, Bremer argued hypocritically that there were no available electoral lists and that it would take a long time to prepare them. Sistani replied that the food-rationing lists and cards established under UN supervision were perfectly suitable for the purpose. The occupation forces eventually agreed, but with a delay of more than one year, during which time the situation in Iraq deteriorated to its present tragic condition.
In a sense, the US occupation produced this deterioration -- whether deliberately or not, it is difficult to tell, though the most likely scenario is that, once again, the apprentice-sorcerers in Washington have gotten results they were not consciously seeking. Having accepted to hold elections, Washington went into a thorough revision of its policies in Iraq: a vicious onslaught against the most prominent rebellious forces in the country -- the Fundamentalist-Nationalist-Baathist alliance in the Sunni city of Fallujah, as well as the Shia Fundamentalist movement of Moqtada al-Sadr -- in order to try to strengthen its hold on the country. The neocons' buddy Chalabi was replaced with the CIA-collaborator Allawi as the key Iraqi US stooge, and a farcical "transfer of sovereignty" was organized surreptitiously on June 28, 2003. Allawi tried to play it tough, proclaiming a state of emergency, reinstating the death penalty, etc. and, above all, endorsing with his very transparent Iraqi cover the continuing onslaught by US forces.
The attempt at crushing Moqtada al-Sadr's movement culminated in the Shia city of Najaf. Sistani, after having let the young al-Sadr reach a situation where he was on the verge of a crushing and bloody defeat, obviously in order to tame him, intervened to stop the US onslaught and thereby confirm his unchallengeable leadership of the Shia community. The second assault on Fallujah, in the immediate aftermath of the US elections, seemed to make no sense. The US occupation could not have any illusion -- at this point in time -- about its ability to stop the violence in the country by resorting to such violent means. Instead, there is serious reason to believe that the real purpose was precisely to aggravate the chaotic conditions in Iraq in order to diminish the legitimacy of the outcome of the January 30 elections.
Washington's duplicity could not be more blatant: on the one hand, Bush and his Iraqi official stooges state their firm commitment to hold the elections on time; on the other, Allawi's "party" joined a coalition of Saudi/Wahhabi-linked Sunni groups in demanding the postponement of the elections. The Iraqi Sunni "president" echoed staunch US allies in the region, like the Saudi and Jordanian monarchies, in warning of an Iranian conspiracy to get hold of Iraq as a major step toward establishing a "Shia crescent" stretching from Lebanon to Iran, a new version of the "axis of evil," more formidable than even Bush's original one. The Saudi/Wahhabi-linked Muslim Brotherhood, the key component of which is its Egyptian branch, denounced the elections under the guise that they are to be held under occupation. Its Iraqi branch, the Islamic Party, after having registered for the elections, announced its withdrawal, and joined the Sunni "Council of Muslim ulamas" in denouncing the elections in advance.
The fact is that the sharp increase in the level of violence fostered by the US occupation's own onslaughts jeopardized greatly the likelihood of a meaningful turnout of electors in the areas where the Sunni mixture of Fundamentalist-Nationalist-Baathist forces is active. Therefore, whatever their intentions, the Sunni forces proclaiming their withdrawal from the electoral race, are just acknowledging the fact that the major part of their potential electorate will very probably stay cautiously at home on the day of elections. Not that the Sunni population is politically convinced of the need to "boycott" the elections: earlier polls had shown them to be massively willing to enjoy, like their fellow citizens, this first pluralistic election after decades of despotism in their country. But they have been definitely frightened by deadly threats from various "resistance" groups into shunning the elections.
The so-called Iraqi resistance is a heterogeneous conglomerate of forces, many of them purely local. For a major part, these are people revolted by the heavy-handed occupation of their country, fighting against the occupiers and their armed Iraqi auxiliaries. But another segment of the forces engaged in violent actions in Iraq is composed of utterly reactionary fanatics, mainly of the Islamic Fundamentalist kind, who make no distinction between civilians, Iraqis included, and armed personnel, and resort to horrible acts, like the decapitation of Asian migrant workers and the kidnapping and/or assassination of all kinds of persons who are in no way hostile or harmful to the Iraqi national cause. These acts are being used in Washington to counterbalance the effect of the legitimate attacks against the US troops: the task of presenting the "enemy" as evil is thus made very easy.
This means, incidentally, that any unqualified support for the "Iraqi resistance" as a whole in Western countries, where the antiwar movement is badly needed, is utterly counter-productive as much as it is deeply wrong (when paved with good political intentions). There should be a clear-cut distinction between anti-occupation acts that are legitimate and acts by so-called "resistance" groups that are to be denounced. One very obvious case in point are the sectarian attacks by Al-Zarqawi group against Shias. This being said, it has been clear until now that the most fruitful strategy in opposing the occupation is the one led by Sistani, and that attempts at derailing the elections and de-legitimizing them in advance can only play into the hands of the US occupation.
Those most active in trying to derail the elections are not really concerned by the fact that they will be held under continuing occupation. After all, the history of decolonization is full of instances of elections or consultations held under occupation as major steps toward independence and the evacuation of foreign troops. For many years, the Palestinians have been fighting for the right to hold elections under Israeli occupation. This argument is a thin disguise for the fear of holding elections on the part of forces who know that they are condemned to be in a minority or to be completely marginalized in free elections. (This also holds true for Allawi, whose total lack of popularity would be expressed in the outcome of any fair elections, though he is compelled to act according to his mandate and cannot state openly his true wishes.)
To this is added the argument of the likes of Zarqawi, recently endorsed by Bin Laden: the elections are impious because they are held under "positive," i.e. man-made, law, whereas the only "legitimate" elections are those held under the rule of the Shariah. The utterly reactionary character of this argument needs no comment. But the truth is that there is a common ground here between Bin Laden and Sistani: both of them believe that the Shariah should be the main, if not unique, source of legislation. The difference is that Bin Laden, aside from being much more fanatical, is dedicated to his crazy belief that he could achieve victory through terrorist violence, whereas Sistani -- who warned the UN and others against any consecration of the regulations introduced by the occupation (for example, through referring to them in a UN resolution) -- wants to secure control of power through elections first, in order to have the parliament elaborate a constitution and laws to his taste.
The real mood of the Shia population and their view of the elections was pretty well expressed in a report by Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid, commenting on the main Shia popular neighborhood of Baghdad:
"Shiite empowerment is just one facet of the clerical campaign, and it is usually couched in coded language. More common are visceral appeals to an electorate that has grown fatigued and disillusioned with the carnage of war... At one end of the road, banners promised a new era of stability with the vote. At the other, they cast the election as the surest way to end an occupation that has grown increasingly unpopular. 'Brother Iraqis, the future of Iraq is in your hands. Elections are the ideal way to expel the occupier from Iraq,' one white banner proclaimed. 'Brother Iraqi, your vote in the elections is better than a bullet in battle,' an adjacent sign read" (December 7, 2004).
The electoral slate prepared under the auspices of Sistani, the "Unified Iraqi Coalition," encompasses the broadest range of Shia forces, from Chalabi (definitely a "man for all seasons") to al-Sadr (who tries actually to hedge his bets: while having people of his entourage on the unified slate, he states that he won't personally "enter the political game"). The slate gives pre-eminence to the pro-Iranian "Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq." To its credit, this list took pains to include Sunni, Kurdish and Turkmen candidates, including tribal leaders, so as not to be a sectarian slate -- though it is being labeled as such by the media. The list will certainly receive an overwhelming majority of the votes if the elections proceed on January 30. This will give way to a Parliament and a government in which Shia Fundamentalist forces, more or less friendly with Iran, are hegemonic. A central item in the program of the coalition, which says it will assert the "Islamic identity" of Iraq, is to negotiate with the occupation authorities a date for the withdrawal of their troops from the country.
What will Washington do after the January 30 elections? It is difficult to predict. The Bush administration has a clear strategic objective: securing control of Iraq for the long haul. But Washington does not know how to achieve this goal or how to reconcile it with the forecast result of the elections, which an anonymous senior official residing in Baghdad's Green Zone aptly described to the New York Times as a "jungle of ambiguity" (December 18, 2004). One scenario, which has been greatly facilitated by the behavior of the occupying forces, is the one that many neocons came to favor after the collapse of their illusions about securing control of Iraq "democratically": a de facto, if not de jure, carving up of the country along sectarian lines (Israel's favored scenario from the beginning).
In order to retain control of the land, Washington could very well resort to the well-tried imperial recipe of divide and rule, taking the risk of setting Iraq on the devastating fire of a civil war -- both sectarian (Shia v. Sunni) and ethnic (Arab v. Kurd). The way in which the US occupation is letting the situation deteriorate between Kurds and Arabs in the North, without trying earnestly to broker a compromise that would be satisfactory to all, as well as the way it has dealt with the issue of the elections fostering tensions between Shia and Sunnis, is very revealing in that regard.
This grave danger will keep hanging over the heads of the Iraqi people unless the situation quickly reaches a point where Washington's objective would shift to getting out of Iraq at short range and at minimal cost and damage to US interests. For that point to be reached, the combination of pressure from the Iraqi people from within and pressure from the antiwar movement abroad -- above all in the US -- is indispensable. This means that the most urgent task outside of Iraq is to supplement the January 30 elections, and the legitimate actions of resistance to the US occupation and its allies in Iraq, with building as widely and effectively as possible for the March 19 global antiwar demonstration.
(January 1, 2005 )Part Two
Reply by Alex Callinicos (12 January 2005 )
You know how much I respect your judgement – both about revolutionary politics in general and more particularly about the Middle East. Your writings over the past few years have been enormously important as a source of orientation through the tortuous twists and turns of imperialist strategy. Your ‘Letter to a Slightly Depressed Anti-War Activist’ has become a classic. But precisely for these reasons I read your piece ‘On the Forthcoming Election in Iraq’ (published on ZNet
at the start of the year) with a growing sense of dismay.
It’s been clear for some months that the Iraqi resistance, in the broad sense of the range of forces opposed to the occupation, was split on the question of whether or not to participate in the elections: the radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s vacillations on the issue are a symptom of this since he is something of a weather vane. (It is interesting that the Association of Muslim Scholars, which has links with the insurgents in the so-called Sunni Triangle, has just said that it will call off its boycott of the elections in exchange for the US setting a date for its withdrawal.) I agree with you that whether or not to take part in elections under foreign occupation or colonial rule is a tactical question, not one of principle. But precisely for that reason, I’m very unhappy about the kind of absolutist tone of your discussion, which doesn’t really capture the dynamic of the situation.1
You write: ‘attempts at derailing the elections and de-legitimizing them in advance can only play into the hands of the US occupation.’ Of course it’s true that the elections were forced onto Bush and Bremer by the mass protests that the Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called just under a year ago. But things have moved on since then. Now, whenever any member of the puppet regime shows signs of wavering in the face of the insurgency, it is Bush, Blair, and their creature Iyad Allawi who are adamant that the elections must not be postponed. This reflects the fact that the US has developed a strategy that seeks to use the elections to legitimize the occupation, pressurize the European Union and the United Nations to become more involved in Iraq, and so on. The idea that, as you suggest, the military offensives against Najaf and Falluja were designed by Washington to stir up chaos and delegitimize the elections seems to me pretty fanciful.
One important dimension of the real US strategy is more and more to play on the division between the Shias and Sunnis. I don’t know if you saw the article by Charles Krauthammer a month or so ago that argued that it didn’t matter whether or not the Sunni areas voted (after all the American South didn’t vote in the 1864 presidential election when they were rebellion against the US government), and demanded that the Shi’ites join the occupation in fighting the insurgents because ‘It’s their civil war.’2 Though over-stated, this argument meshes in with administration thinking. For example, see the Financial Times
of 8 January 2005, reporting remarks of Bush that the elections should go ahead because 14 out of 18 Iraqi provinces were ‘relatively calm’:
The president’s acceptance of the possibility of a low turnout among Sunni voters in Iraq reflects the administration’s determination to press ahead with the polls. Donald Rumsfeld … has also said the results would be seen as legitimate if Iraqis could vote in a majority of provinces.
In private, US officials say a 30 per cent turnout among Sunnis … would be acceptable.
Given the disastrous overall position of the Americans in Iraq, the Shia card is almost the last in their pack (the very last of all is the Israeli strategy of breaking the country up, but I don’t think Washington is ready for this yet). Let me quote the Financial Times
again (5 January 2005):
the US has shown growing acceptance of the Shia parties’ likely poll victory.
Colin Powell … said he thought Iraq’s Shia would ‘stand on their on own two feet’ even if there was some increase in Iranian influence.
In itself this is a sign of their weakness – that the Bush administration’s current ‘least bad’ option is an assembly dominated by a Shia establishment closely aligned intellectually and politically with its counterparts in Lebanon and Iran. But it means that the US has an interest in provoking Shia-Sunni conflict. I don’t doubt that Sunni Islamist groups have made communalist attacks directed at Shi’ites, Christians, etc., and of course we should condemn these. But I find some incidents – for example, the drive-by killings of Shias in towns south of Baghdad, allegedly by Salafist militants – very suspicious. Confronted with this kind of pattern, it is only rational to ask Quis profuit?, and also to remember the long and bloody history of the CIA, SIS, and the rest of the Anglo-American dirty tricks empire. This danger is widely perceived: Ali Fahdi, an Iraqi doctor who helped make a terrifying film just shown on Channel 4 here in Britain portraying the devastation of Falluja says ‘the US military’ have ‘increased the chance of civil war by using their new national guard of Shias to suppress Sunnis’ in Falluja.3
Against this background, we have simply to accept that the Iraqi resistance remains divided over whether or not to participate in the elections. You may be right that the turnout will be very big – it was in Afghanistan, even in areas where the Taliban are militarily active. But will the elections produce a legitimate democratic regime in Iraq? No, no more than they did in Afghanistan. The occupation will continue. The puppet regime will remain in office. This means that if there is a relatively authentic popular vote at the end of January, the anti-war movement should demand that the Americans and their allies should withdraw immediately, allowing the new assembly to select a government that reflects the real wishes of the Iraq people.
But this doesn’t imply for a moment that we should, as you do, endorse Sistani’s as ‘the most fruitful strategy in opposing the occupation’. You can’t justify this on the grounds of his having genuinely democratic goals: as you note, in his own way Sistani is as committed to achieving an Islamic state as Khomeini, Bin Laden, or Zarqawi. But more than that – is it really a ‘fruitful strategy’ to stand by while the US forces reduced Falluja to rubble and butchered many of its inhabitants? Why didn’t he call for mass demonstrations throughout Iraq demanding an end to the assault on Falluja? This lack of elementary solidarity certainly ‘play[ed] into the hands of the US occupation’.
Although you mention ‘legitimate attacks against the US’, the thrust of your argument is to sideline the armed struggle against the occupation. Thus you say ‘any unqualified support for the “Iraqi resistance” as a whole in western countries, where the anti-war movement is badly needed, is utterly counterproductive’. What does this mean? In Britain – where a robust mass anti-war movement does exist – we are very clear that the Stop the War Coalition should not campaign in support of the resistance (in the narrower sense of those engaging in armed struggle) because it seeks to unite everyone, irrespective of their politics, who wants to see the occupation ended and Western troops withdrawn. We have had some measure of success in this: the British military is blaming a decline in recruitment on the impact of the anti-war movement and in particular of the unprecedented campaign by Military Families against the War.4
OK, so the platform of the anti-war movement should not include support for armed resistance to the occupation. But what about the anti-imperialist left wing of the movement? You do stress the heterogeneous character of the resistance, but you home in on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. In framing the issue like this I fear you veer dangerously close to Tony Blair, who says that, whatever our opinions about the original invasion, everyone must now recognize that the struggle in Iraq is between ‘democracy’ and ‘terrorism’. Further to the left, Fausto Bertinotti argues that the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista should renounce violence, refuse to support a resistance represented by ‘fascists’ like Zarqawi – and go into government with the social-liberal Olive Tree coalition.
Of course we should condemn the kind of kidnappings and beheadings perpetrated by groups like Zarqawi’s. This is not a new problem. I remember very well the arguments we had in the 1970s with your sometime comrades in the Fourth International in Britain when they campaigned around the slogan ‘Victory to the IRA’ and refused to condemn the Birmingham pub bombings. We have never given ‘unqualified support’ to any national liberation movement.
But I refuse to equate ‘the “Iraqi resistance” as a whole’ with the obscenities practised by Zarqawi. What about the other tactics that are being used – for example, road-side bombs that kill American soldiers and attacks on Iraqi recruits to the puppet regime’s army and police and on its officials, like the Governor of Baghdad, who was assassinated last week? If you condemn these in Iraq, then you must condemn similar methods that were used again and again in anti-colonial guerrilla struggles – from Ireland to Vietnam to Cyprus to Algeria to Zimbabwe. I presume that you do in fact regard these as ‘legitimate attacks’, but why then warn us at such length against supporting Zarqawi, when only the radical Islamist hard core and a few sectarian-leftist idiots would contemplate doing so?
The reason why this is so important is because what has created such a crisis for the Americans in Iraq is neither Sistani’s campaign for elections nor Zarqawi’s beheadings. It is, as Walden Bello has so eloquently argued since the first Falluja crisis last April, the guerrilla insurgency mainly in the Sunni areas. It is this that is killing American soldiers, that is forcing the Pentagon to maintain troops in Iraq in far higher numbers than planned and threatening to erode the entire American military establishment (the head of the US Army Reserve complained last month that it is ‘rapidly degenerating into a “broken” force’), that is preventing the creation of stable administrative structures and scaring away large sections of the Iraqi elite from participation in the regime.
Whatever the overall balance-sheet we make of Lenin’s contribution to revolutionary politics, one thing he was dead right about was the potential of nationalist revolts in colonial and semi-colonial countries to create or exacerbate crises of imperialism. This is precisely what is in happening in Iraq today. Understanding this doesn’t require us to endorse the politics of those engaged in armed resistance to the occupation – any more than it did (or should have) in the case of the FLN or the Viet Cong or the Provisional IRA. Of course it is a tragedy that secular nationalist and socialist forces are so politically weak in Iraq, but this is a historical legacy that we just have to live with, in the short term at least, while confronting the immediate political realities.
I’m sure you want to see the US defeated in Iraq as much as I do. But the way in which you polarize the argument between those who are for or against the elections and, in your discussion of the armed resistance, your focus on Zarqawi, is much too close to the dominant discourse in Washington and London. I don’t doubt that your intention is to help the anti-war movement, as you have so much in the past. But in the next few weeks the movement in the US and Britain especially will face a huge ideological offensive that seeks to portray us as anti-democratic supporters of terrorism. Just in the last few days the assassination of an Iraqi Communist Party leader who supports the occupation has provoked a hullabaloo in the media and the unions here in Britain, with pro-imperialist ex-leftists like Nick Cohen ranting about ‘the totalitarian nature of the leadership of the anti-war movement’, which ‘lets Iraq’s fascists fight freedom with terror’.5
In this climate, quite contrary to your own intentions, your piece is, to say the least, not helpful. It is, in my view, badly misjudged, with respect to both the situation in Iraq and the debates about the war in the rest of the world. I hope you will excuse my frankness, but what sort of friend would pull their punches about issues as important as these?
All the best for the New Year,
1. A very good analysis of this dynamic has just appeared in the latest issue of International Socialism
: A. Alexander and S. Assaf, ‘Iraq: The Rise of the Resistance’.
2. ‘A Fight for Shiites’, Washington Post
, 26 November 2004.
3. ‘City of Ghosts’. Guardian
, 11 January 2005.
4. ‘Army Blames Iraq for Drop in Recruits’, Observer
, 19 December 2004.
5. ‘Our Illiberal Elite’, Observer
, 9 January 2005.Part Three
Achcar replies to Alex Callinicos (18 January 2005)
Thank you very much for your letter. I am very pleased at this new opportunity to have an exchange with you, all the more because I admire your rare ability to sustain demanding intellectual activity and an academic career simultaneously with very active involvement in practical politics. Both of us are deeply committed to building the antiwar and anti-imperialist movement, as we have been consistently doing for so many years. It is this very reason that gives our discussion some value as a reflection of different views on the militant left -- not an exercise in armchair rhetoric. Moreover, we are able to hold a discussion that sets a good example of a comradely and friendly exchange between people who make real arguments, instead of throwing various epithets in each other's faces and distorting each other's views.
Now to comment on the content of your letter. You say that you read my article "On the Forthcoming Election in Iraq" on ZNet
"with a growing sense of dismay." I'm sure I won't surprise you if I say I'm not surprised. The fact is that I wrote my piece with a view to warning sections of the Western anti-imperialist movement against a misreading of the situation in Iraq that might lead to dire political consequences -- especially with regard to the efforts being made to restore the level of mobilization reached by the antiwar movement before the invasion of Iraq. Among those sections I wanted to warn, the antiwar movement in the US and Britain -- the two countries whose armed forces play the major role in the occupation of Iraq -- were prominent in my mind. I have myself felt a "growing sense of dismay" at various positions held in some left-wing circles on these issues.
From this angle, I must say that after reading your letter carefully I was both pleased and bewildered. I was pleased at the fact that my arguments have apparently had an impact on your views -- perhaps a further instance of the very kind confidence in my judgment as a "source of orientation" that you express at the beginning of your letter. I was bewildered though by the inconsistencies in your letter, stemming from the fact that you only go halfway in accepting my views and therefore fall into contradictions that are unusual for a sharp mind like yours.
These contradictions revolve around the three key issues discussed in my article: the forthcoming elections, the Iraqi resistance and US designs. 1) The forthcoming elections: I am glad you agree with me that the argument that the elections are being held under foreign occupation is not relevant per se (though most of those on the left who "denounce" the elections resort to this specious argument). You also acknowledge the indisputable facts: that "the elections were forced onto Bush and Bremer by the mass protests that the Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called just under a year ago." To remind you of the atmosphere at that time, let me quote from the press of your own party. In the Socialist Worker
(London) of 31 January 2004, an article titled "Deeper into the Quagmire" reported: "In the predominantly Shia Muslim south there were demonstrations tens of thousands strong last week calling for immediate direct elections. The US plan is to hand over authority to a fig leaf Iraqi council in June, while maintaining the levers of power. The council would not be elected, but instead would be endorsed by local meetings of notables. Those notables would be invited to the selection meetings by the very council members who they would in turn back. The plan has infuriated most people in Iraq." I am sure that, were you involved closely in the situation in Iraq at that time, you would not have hesitated to express your full support to the Iraqi masses in their struggle to impose elections on the occupiers. Now how would you justify your later shift of position toward the elections? You write: "But things have moved on since then. Now, whenever any member of the puppet regime shows signs of wavering in the face of the insurgency, it is Bush, Blair, and their creature Iyad Allawi who are adamant that the elections must not be postponed. This reflects the fact that the US has developed a strategy that seeks to use the elections to legitimize the occupation, pressurize the European Union and the United Nations to become more involved in Iraq, and so on."
The core of your argument appears to be as follows: the Iraqi masses -- or at the very least the Shia, who constitute nearly two-thirds of the Iraqi population, including the most downtrodden and impoverished sections, and were practically disenfranchised until now -- have through their mass protests forced elections on the occupiers. We could support them as long as the occupiers were rejecting their demand. But since Bush and Blair have backtracked and grudgingly accepted their demand, and are now naturally trying to make the most of the elections (with quite limited success actually, as the world press is not failing to report), we should oppose these masses' aspirations to have elections. Do you seriously believe that this is a mature way of defining a political attitude? That is, by just saying the opposite of what Bush and Blair are saying, no matter why they are saying it and even if it has been "forced" on them? How would you explain the shift in your attitude to the overwhelming majority of the population of Iraq, who insist on having these elections and consider that they have won the right to have them through their struggle? What would you tell those millions who see any attempt at postponing or delegitimizing the elections as a maneuver by the occupiers or by sectarian forces among the Sunnis, neither of whom can tolerate the idea of majority ("Shia") rule in Iraq? Even if you were not concerned with addressing the Iraqi population, how could you explain to public opinion in the West that the elections that were forced on Bush are illegitimate only because Bush ended up backing them?
More importantly, how will you defend the outcome of these supposedly "illegitimate" elections if the majority of the elected assembly clashes with the occupation (a scenario that is quite likely, though not certain since it depends among other things on Washington's attitude)? It is precisely here that your first inconsistency becomes clearest. You write: "But will the elections produce a legitimate democratic regime in Iraq? No, no more than they did in Afghanistan. The occupation will continue. The puppet regime will remain in office." (You seem to be unaware of the fact that the mandate of Allawi's puppet government ends on 30 January and that the new assembly is supposed to select a new government.) Then you continue: "This means that if there is a relatively authentic popular vote at the end of January, the anti-war movement should demand that the Americans and their allies should withdraw immediately, allowing the new assembly to select a government that reflects the real wishes of the Iraq people."
Now if one deems the elections illegitimate, how can one possibly defend their outcome? How could the new assembly reflect the real wishes of the Iraqi people and be illegitimate at the same time? Don't you see how incongruous this attitude is? My point was precisely to warn you and the whole anti-imperialist left against falling into the trap of declaring the forthcoming elections "illegitimate" just because some armed groups based among the Sunnis and some reactionary Sunni parties are trying to delegitimize them with contradictory arguments. Please note that I am not saying that the antiwar movement or the anti-imperialist left should support the elections -- as long as Washington does not try again to cancel them -- and still less that we should support their outcome regardless of the circumstances.1 I am just saying that it is dead wrong for the movement and the left to condemn the elections in advance, thus probably putting us at odds with the great majority of the Iraqi people. Now, the majority coming out of the forthcoming elections could very well negotiate a deal with Washington granting the US some concessions in Iraq. The Vietnamese Communists (in 1954) and the Algerian National Liberation Front (in 1962) both agreed to major concessions to get rid of the French occupiers of their respective countries; this did not make them less legitimate as representatives of the majority of their people.2 2)The Iraqi resistance
Excuse me for quoting my article and underlining some phrases: "The so-called Iraqi resistance is a heterogeneous conglomerate of forces, many of them purely local. For a major part, these are people revolted by the heavy-handed occupation of their country, fighting against the occupiers and their armed Iraqi auxiliaries. But another segment of the forces engaged in violent actions in Iraq is composed of utterly reactionary fanatics, mainly of the Islamic Fundamentalist kind, who make no distinction between civilians, Iraqis included, and armed personnel, and resort to horrible acts, like the decapitation of Asian migrant workers and the kidnapping and/or assassination of all kinds of persons who are in no way hostile or harmful to the Iraqi national cause. These acts are being used in Washington to counterbalance the effect of the legitimate attacks against the US troops: the task of presenting the "enemy" as evil is thus made very easy. "This means, incidentally, that any unqualified support for the 'Iraqi resistance' as a whole in Western countries, where the antiwar movement is badly needed, is utterly counter-productive as much as it is deeply wrong (when paved with good political intentions). There should be a clear-cut distinction between anti-occupation acts that are legitimate and acts by so-called 'resistance' groups that are to be denounced. One very obvious case in point is the sectarian attacks by Al-Zarqawi group against Shias." You reply by explaining first that "the platform of the anti-war movement should not include support for armed resistance to the occupation" -- a statement with which I fully agree, and a principle of which I recently tried to convince some of your own French comrades and others in an antiwar organization I belong to in France.3 Then you introduce surreptitiously a major shift in the attitude of your party -- you write: "Of course we should condemn the kind of kidnappings and beheadings perpetrated by groups like Zarqawi's." "Of course"? Was it really so obvious? Then why have you refrained from such an explicit condemnation until a vicious campaign was launched against your party and the antiwar coalition you have so effectively built and led in Britain, by some right-wingers in the trade union movement who seized on the pretext of the atrocious torture and murder of Iraqi Communist Party member and trade unionist Hadi Salih?4 But in any event, aren't we now in full agreement on this issue? Instead of acknowledging this reality, you try to downplay the shift in your own attitude by saying that you "refuse to equate 'the "Iraqi resistance" as a whole' with the obscenities practised by Zarqawi." Then, "presuming" rightly (isn't it clear enough in my quote above?) that I regard many type of armed activities against the occupiers and their armed auxiliaries as "legitimate," you ask me: "why then warn us at such length against supporting Zarqawi, when only the radical Islamist hard core and a few sectarian-leftist idiots would contemplate doing so?" The answer to your question is easy: you are the one who chose to "home in" specifically on Zarqawi.5
My warning was much broader and more general. I only mentioned Zarqawi's as a group practicing some of the most obviously reprehensible activities carried out in the name of "resistance" to the occupation.3) US designs
Another aim of my article was to stress the fact that Washington is applying a "strategy of tension" in Iraq (to borrow the formula used in Italy to describe the manipulative and deliberate increase of tensions by state or parastate apparatuses in order to sharpen a state of emergency or its practical equivalent). I explained that the way the occupiers are handling the relations between Kurds and non-Kurds in the North and between Shias and Sunnis in the rest of the country might portend a perilous last-ditch "solution." Washington could switch to "the well-tried imperial recipe of divide and rule, taking the risk of setting Iraq on the devastating fire of a civil war." I described the occupiers' handling of the elections issue as an element in this strategy, and wrote that "there is serious reason to believe that the real purpose [of the violent assault on Fallujah] was precisely to aggravate the chaotic conditions in Iraq in order to diminish the legitimacy of the outcome of the January 30 elections."
You write about my assessment: "The idea that, as you suggest, the military offensives against Najaf and Falluja were designed by Washington to stir up chaos and delegitimize the elections seems to me pretty fanciful." Then a few lines later, you write the following: "But I find some incidents -- for example, the drive-by killings of Shias in towns south of Baghdad, allegedly by Salafist militants -- very suspicious. Confronted with this kind of pattern, it is only rational to ask Quis profuit?, and also to remember the long and bloody history of the CIA, SIS, and the rest of the Anglo-American dirty tricks empire. This danger is widely perceived: Ali Fahdi, an Iraqi doctor who helped make a terrifying film just shown on Channel 4
here in Britain portraying the devastation of Falluja, says 'the US military' have 'increased the chance of civil war by using their new national guard of Shias to suppress Sunnis' in Falluja."
Fanciful when I write it, realistic when you write the same? Let me finish this letter, which is already getting too long, by quoting you one last time. You write that "in the next few weeks the movement in the US and Britain especially will face a huge ideological offensive that seeks to portray us as anti-democratic supporters of terrorism." Then you add: "In this climate, quite contrary to your own intentions, your piece is, to say the least, not helpful." I have tried to show you why, on the contrary, my piece is much more helpful than the stance you took until now, if we want to counter effectively attempts at portraying the antiwar movement "as anti-democratic supporters of terrorism."
My piece of 1 January has seemingly already contributed to some shifts in your own position. Let me repeat its conclusion on which I hope we fully agree: "the most urgent task outside of Iraq is to supplement the January 30 elections, and the legitimate actions of resistance to the US occupation and its allies in Iraq, with building as widely and effectively as possible for the March 19 global antiwar demonstration."
With my very best regards, Gilbert Achcar
Notes 1. Nor do I call on the antiwar movement, as you seem to believe, to "endorse Sistani's as 'the most fruitful strategy in opposing the occupation.'" This is only my personal opinion; I do think that the mass mobilizations he called for (that's what I meant by the strategy he led, not any other position he has taken) were clearly more effective in forcing Washington to retreat than the armed actions. (In the same way, I do believe that the first Palestinian Intifada with its mass demonstrations and stone-throwing was much more effective than the second one with its resort to firearms and suicide attacks; the use of violence, provided it is not indiscriminate, is not a matter of principle, but a matter of the adequacy of means to ends, the balance of forces and other concrete circumstances.) This does not mean that the armed actions in Iraq are ineffective; they are effective, much more so than in Palestine. I have stressed on numerous occasions the dimensions of the Iraqi quagmire and have spoken in public of a "new Vietnam" (by which I mean only the prospect of a US political defeat in the face of a military quagmire) beginning in the very first months after the invasion.
2. Of course, this does not mean that we should support any concessions a nationalist leadership makes (you know my attitude toward the PLO's concessions culminating in the "Oslo agreement," for instance).
3. Since you mention my "sometime comrades" in Britain (?) -- and, incidentally, some British and Irish friends told me that you distorted the position that the IMG held in the 1970s on Ireland -- why didn't you mention instead my "sometime comrades" in the American SWP who played a key role in organizing the anti- Vietnam War movement in the US, and who championed the principle of the "single-issue movement," choosing very rightly to unify the mass movement around the single demand of bringing the US troops back home?
4. I am referring to the recent letters to The Independent
(7 January) and The Observer
(9 January) by leading figures of the Stop the War Coalition. The Iraqi CP's participation in the institutions created by the occupiers belong to an age-old tradition of opportunism, which previously led various CPs to collaborate with colonial authorities in their countries when the colonial metropolises were allied with Moscow against the fascist Axis in the 1930's and 40's. It was not right then, and is no more right today, to target them for brutal killings. (The way Hadi Salih was killed suggests that the criminals were very probably remnants of Saddam Hussein's dreadful political police.)
5. Your assertion that some of my arguments "veer dangerously close to Tony Blair" or are "much too close to the dominant discourse in Washington and London" are rare instances of polemical excess of a kind that the rest of your letter is fortunately devoid of.
--Alex Callinicos 'REPLY TO GILBERT ACHCAR' (January 23, 2005)
Thank you for your reply to my letter which sheds some light on your original article ('On the Forthcoming Election in Iraq
'), but leaves much else in obscurity. It is clear at least that the dismay your piece caused me was, in a sense, welcome to you, since it might be a therapeutic shock, helping you to educate 'sections of the Western anti-imperialist movement,' and in particular 'the antiwar movement in the US and Britain.' I fear, however, that, for this member of your target audience, neither your first article nor your reply has succeeded in this pedagogic purpose.
You accuse me (somewhat inconsistently, I have to say) of both inconsistency and of shifting my position under the influence of your analysis. The two charges are connected. The inconsistency is that, you claim, I say that it was OK to support elections in Iraq when the Iraqi masses were demanding them a year ago but not now that Bush, Blair, & Co are supporting them. Excuse me, but can you point out where I said this, either in my letter to you or elsewhere? The pathos you seek rhetorically to build up to expose the absurdity of the position you attribute me is a waste of words.
What I did in my letter was to criticize your assertion that the United States is currently seeking to undermine the elections, and to argue that Bush and Blair are now adamant that the elections should take place, so that they can confer some legitimacy on the client regime they are trying to construct. You implicitly concede this point, saying that 'Bush and Blair ... are now trying to make the most of the elections (with quite limited success ...).' (I'll come back to the reason for this 'quite limited success.')
You are quite right that it would be politically immature and indeed plain silly to oppose the elections just because of this shift in stance on the part of the imperialist political leadership. To repeat, nowhere do I say this. Indeed, I say that 'we have simply to accept that the Iraqi resistance remains divided over whether or not to participate in the elections,' the implication of which is that one should accept that, in principle, participation (on the basis of opposition to the occupation) is, like armed resistance, a legitimate political response to the present situation.
You take this position as evidence that your 'arguments have apparently had an impact on [my] ... views.' Despite my great respect for you, I'm afraid that in this case you have had no influence on me. The Iraqi elections have been a looming issue for months, long before you wrote your piece. You further accuse me of 'declaring the forthcoming elections "illegitimate,"' but you have not read my letter with sufficient care. What I deny is that 'the elections [will] produce a legitimate democratic regime in Iraq.' Do you think Bush and his proconsul John Negroponte will surrender control of the country to a popular assembly after the elections? Come off it.
As to whether the elections themselves will be a genuine expression of the Iraqi people's will, this is an open question. Robert Fisk is one of many to have pointed out that half the population of Iraq lives in the four provinces where the US says elections will be hard to hold. The Financial Times
reports the United Nations' concern that the elections will not be properly monitored -- hardly surprising given the carnage in much of the country.
You are very keen to discover (in my case imaginary) inconsistencies in others, yet your own position is hardly straightforward: 'I am not saying that the antiwar movement or the anti-imperialist left should support the elections ... and still less that we should support their outcome regardless of the circumstances. I am just saying that it is dead wrong for the movement and the left to condemn the elections in advance.' I won't engage in chop logic and make fun of this rather tortuous formulation, because I recognize that the situation in Iraq is complex and dynamic, and that the demands we pose should reflect this. I think you should extend this courtesy to others.
Where I do get a little irritated is when, apropos of Zarqawi, you claim that I
'refrained from such an explicit condemnation [of the atrocities committed by Zarqawi's group] until such a vicious campaign was launched against your party and the antiwar coalition you have so effectively built and led in Britain, by some right-wingers in the trade-union movement who seized on the pretext of the atrocious torture and murder of Iraqi Communist Party member and trade unionist Hadi Salih.'
This assertion is both false and mischievous. The Stop the War Coalition is much broader, at every level from its national officers downwards, than the Socialist Workers Party (to which I belong). Rightly, as I pointed out in my earlier letter, the Coalition does not take a stand for or against the armed resistance and campaigns for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq. It is therefore not primarily its responsibility to take a position on this or that armed action by Iraqi groups, but rather to denounce and help to bring an end to the much larger violence being perpetrated by the US, Britain, and its allies.
Nevertheless, the Stop the War Coalition, did, for example, together with the Muslim Association of Britain, issue a statement in September 2004 calling for the immediate release of the British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who was later killed by Zarqawi's group. The statement specifically states: 'It is not possible to condone the kidnapping, still less execution, of hostages.' In June 2004, Michael Berg, father of Zarqawi's first Western victim, travelled specially to London to speak to a Coalition protest. As for myself, speaking on behalf of the SWP at one of the largest plenaries at the European Social Forum in London last October, I made a specific point of attacking Zarqawi. So, here again, my 'shift in ... attitude' is a pure invention.
You know perfectly well the political context in which the row over Salih's murder has unfolded in Britain. The Communist Party of Iraq, which controls the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), has (as you acknowledge in a footnote) supported the occupation from the start and participated in Paul Bremer's Quisling 'Governing Council.' At the Labour Party conference last October an IFTU leader spoke from the platform successfully to help persuade the delegates to vote down a resolution calling for a date to be set for British withdrawal from Iraq. In doing so he gave cover to the leaders of the main trade unions, allowing them to help Blair out a hole, and in the process to violate the troops out policy of their own unions and of the Trade Union Congress.
It was when the Stop the War Coalition criticized the IFTU for its role at the Labour Party conference and for its collaboration with the occupation that right-wing elements in some unions (notably the largest, UNISON, which has provided offices for the IFTU in its headquarters) launched an assault on the Coalition. This campaign has been fuelled by the disruption by some sectarian idiots of an ESF plenary where an IFTU representative had (mistakenly) been invited to speak, and now by Salih's murder.
Of course, the IFTU's collaborationist role doesn't for a moment justify torturing and killing Salih. But it is important to distinguish sharply between condemning atrocities such as this and supporting a 'union' whose 'Communist' leaders simultaneously benefit from Saddam's authoritarian trade-union law and acquiesce in the occupation's illegal attempt to remake Iraqi society along neo-liberal lines. And where were hypocrites like the British pro-war columnists Nick Cohen and Johann Hari who have waxed so indignant over Salih's killing when the US Marines were storming Falluja?
Of course you know all this, but the point is an important one -- Salih's assassination is being used to split one of the most important antiwar groups in the US, Labor against the War. And, in this context, to misrepresent the attitude of supporters of the Stop the War Coalition towards thugs like Zarqawi is -- once again -- not helpful. If you dislike my criticism that sometimes you veer too close to the official Anglo-American rhetoric you should choose your words with more care.
In some ways, however, important though all these issues are, they are secondary to the main point, which is your ambivalent attitude towards the armed resistance to the occupation. You insist that you consider some attacks 'legitimate,' but in a footnote you say: 'I do believe the first Palestinian Intifada with its mass demonstrations and stone throwing was much more effective than the second than the second one with its resort to firearms and suicide attacks ... This does not mean that the armed actions in Iraq are ineffective; they are effective, much more so than in Palestine.'
Your position then seems to be that you would prefer it if Iraqis took part in peaceful mass demonstrations, but you acknowledge that armed struggle, though less preferable, is 'effective.' I think it's important to distinguish one's preferences from realities. I would prefer to see in Iraq the kind of mass movement that developed during the Revolution of 1958, whose history has been so magnificently reconstructed by your friend Hanna Batatu. Indeed, I would prefer mass strikes and workers' and peasants' councils (a little Utopian perhaps, given that unemployment is 70% plus) ... But the reality is that it is classical guerrilla warfare waged by a variety of political forces, most of them very far ideologically from the two of us, that has brought the occupation to its present plight. The elections -- wrested from the US by the demonstrations a year ago -- have contributed to this crisis, but are not at the heart of it. The reason why armed struggle is more effective in Iraq than in Palestine is very simple. The Palestinians confront a settler state with a mass base and a heavily armed citizen army that leaves them outnumbered in Israel and the Occupied Territories. In Iraq a couple of hundred thousand occupation troops face a population of 26 million that, outside the Kurdish areas, overwhelmingly rejects their presence. This is a recipe for defeat for the US -- not, of course, military defeat in open battle, but the remorseless attrition of the political will of the occupying powers to remain.
This is why the Shia card is so important to them. The worst moment for Bush so far came in April last year, when Bremer foolishly launched an offensive on two fronts -- against Falluja in the Sunni Triangle and against the Sadrists in Baghdad and the south. After making the necessary retreat, the Americans (perhaps learning from their British predecessors, who were masters of this kind of imperial tactic) adopted a salami strategy -- attacking Sadr in August and then Falluja in November in an effort to eliminate piecemeal the most maximalist centres of resistance to the occupation.
This strategy has been facilitated by Sistani, the key figure in the Shia establishment. He used the Najaf crisis in August to sideline Sadr, his most important political rival among the Shi'ites. And he stood by while Falluja was flattened. I wonder why you don't respond to what I said about this in my earlier letter. I also wonder what you think about the apparent retreat by the electoral list endorsed by Sistani from demanding an American pull-out after the election. The Financial Times reports:
'The United Iraqi Alliance, bringing together the country's main Shia Islamist parties, also included a call for the negotiation of a withdrawal timetable.
'Although it was a top priority in the draft, the proposal has been "diluted," calling instead for building Iraqi capabilities to achieve "security independence," said Mouwaffak al-Rubbaie, national security adviser to the government and an Alliance candidate.'
In one sense, your claim that the US is seeking to envelop Iraq in chaos may well be vindicated. Chaos -- barbarous bloodshed, the breakdown of everyday life, sectarian strife in what was once among the most advanced Middle Eastern societies -- may indeed prove to be the real legacy of an imperialist mission to bring the 'democratic revolution' in Iraq. This is the dirty little secret behind Bush's inaugural sermon about the 'untamed fire of freedom.' Seldom has the judgement Tacitus passed on the Roman Empire -- 'Soliditudinem faciunt, pacem appellant' -- They create a wilderness and call it peace -- been more apt. Whatever our differences, we stand together against this monstrous American Empire.
All the best,
1. 'UN Worried over Monitoring of Iraqi Elections,' Financial Times
, 21 January 2005.
2. 'MAB and STW urge for immediate release of Kenneth Bigley,' 23 September 2004, http://www.stopwar.org.uk/
3. H. Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq
4. 'Election Hopefuls Pay Lip Service to Idea of US Troop Withdrawal,' Financial Times,
19 January 2005.Achcar's Second Reply (posted 27 January 2005)
Thank you for your reply
to my reply
. We are discussing important issues here. Unfortunately, I think you've resorted to some regrettable polemical tricks. Let me deal with those briefly before addressing the substantive issues.
You begin by trying to ridicule me by distorting what I wrote. Had I in fact said that I wanted to "educate" sections of the Western anti-imperialist movement, etc., your sarcasm about my alleged "pedagogic purpose" would have been warranted. But what I actually wrote is that I wanted to "warn" those sections -- as brothers and sisters in struggle, not as kids and pupils -- against what I considered to be a very serious error of judgment over the situation in Iraq. Isn't it the duty of every person who is dedicated to building the movement to warn it against the pitfalls one sees looming ahead, especially on issues and areas of which one can legitimately claim to have some specific insider knowledge?
The key argument in your rejoinder, regarding the elections, is your claim that you did not write that they will be illegitimate, but only that they will not produce "a legitimate democratic regime" -- with a new emphasis on "regime." Then you explain (I leave the style aside) that you only meant that "Bush and his proconsul John Negroponte will [not] surrender control of the country to a popular assembly after the elections."
If that were indeed what you wrote and meant, I would certainly not have objected, since I already wrote in my original article, the one to which you were reacting: "What will Washington do after the January 30 elections? It is difficult to predict. The Bush administration has a clear strategic objective: securing control of Iraq for the long haul." I added that they might resort, if faced with an assembly wanting them out, to carving the country up along religious sectarian and ethnic lines according to the tried-and-true imperial recipe of "divide and rule."
But the truth is that you quoted only one bit of a sentence from what you wrote in your previous letter, whereas I commented on the whole argument. You actually wrote: "But will the elections produce a legitimate democratic regime in Iraq? No, no more than they did in Afghanistan. The occupation will continue. The puppet regime will remain in office." [emphasis added]
One doesn't need to be an expert in philology to understand that what you meant was not (only) that there will be continuing occupation and control of the country by the US, but that the "puppet regime" will remain in office. The Iraqi equivalent of what exists in Afghanistan is the Allawi government. But if Allawi's list were to "win" the elections as Karzai did in Afghanistan, there would be no doubt in anybody's mind that these elections would be quite illegitimate (rigged, or whatever) in light of what is known of the mood of the Iraqi Arab population. Then immediately after this absolutist assertion, you write:
"This means that if there is a relatively authentic popular vote at the end of January, the anti-war movement should demand that the Americans and their allies should withdraw immediately, allowing the new assembly to select a government that reflects the real wishes of the Iraq people." [emphasis added]
So which is it? The assured continuation of the puppet regime or a government reflecting the real wishes of the Iraqi people? Can't you see the inconsistency here?
I take note gladly of what you write about the position you took in Britain regarding some reprehensible types of violence in Iraq. Any quibble about that would be misplaced on my part, since I am fully in solidarity with your anti-imperialist struggle against the Blair government. What is essential in my view is that your position on the resistance in Iraq, whether new or consistent from the start, coincides substantially with the one I expressed. Therefore, in light of that and of what you say about the elections in your recent letter -- where you acknowledge that "participation (on the basis of opposition to the occupation) is, like armed resistance, a legitimate political response" -- the "dismay" you felt at reading my original article and the urge you felt consequently to write a letter reproving it, appear now to be largely overcome. Whether I contributed to this outcome is quite secondary.
But let me move on. You believe that the armed actions in Iraq are more effective than the mass movement of the Shias. I beg to differ, as they say in aristocratic English. If Washington only faced an armed insurgency among the Sunnis (20% of the population) and had the support of the Shias (60%) as well as the Kurds (another 20%), do you seriously think that it wouldn't be able to crush the insurgents -- even if that meant several Fallujas or worse? On the other hand, even if there were no armed insurgency at all in Iraq, isn't it obvious that Washington and London would have all the trouble in the world keeping their troops there in the face of mass demonstrations of the population to get them out? Just imagine how much easier your task in Britain would be, and the task of the whole antiwar movement in the US and worldwide -- and how much more effective the movement would be -- if Iraq had been experiencing mass demonstrations to kick the troops out, like those that toppled the Shah of Iran or, again, those Sistani called in January 2004, rather than indiscriminate killings and beheadings.
Of course, these are my preferences. You declare that "it's important to distinguish one's preferences from realities" (though the mass mobilization strategy has already been used in Iraq). Nevertheless, expressing strategic preferences is a legitimate and necessary component of what we as fighters for social justice are supposed to do, namely learn from historical experience and promote the best forms of struggle (those entailing the lowest cost in human lives and destruction provided they are effective in achieving our legitimate objectives) in the appropriate places.
To conclude, let me address your question about Sistani's attitude. What I wrote about him in my original article should be clear enough. Sistani is a socially retrograde Islamic leader -- a category toward which your co-thinkers are generally much more conciliatory than I am. It is obvious that I cannot share his strategic goals. He wanted elections and wants a timetable for the withdrawal of the occupation forces because he is committed to majority (Shia) rule under his own tutelage. I am definitely in favor of majority rule -- as a permanent rule, not as a means to any non-democratic end whatsoever -- but with a radically different social and political agenda. Moreover, Sistani is definitely not a "staunch anti-imperialist" and the kind of attitude he will end up adopting toward the US is certainly not clear. That is why I wrote in my previous reply to you this passage that seems to puzzle you, although it is perfectly understandable:
"Please note that I am not saying that the antiwar movement or the anti-imperialist left should support the elections -- as long as Washington does not try again to cancel them -- and still less that we should support their outcome regardless of the circumstances. I am just saying that it is dead wrong for the movement and the left to condemn the elections in advance, thus probably putting us at odds with the great majority of the Iraqi people."
It seems we now agree on that, to my satisfaction as I've already said. The attitude to be adopted toward what will come out of the election is something we shall define in due time according to the concrete circumstances, not on the basis of useless guesses in advance. Now you ask me about Sistani: "He used the Najaf crisis in August to sideline Sadr, his most important political rival among the Shi'ites. And he stood by while Falluja was flattened. I wonder why you don't respond to what I said about this in my earlier letter." Well I had already written the following in my original article
"The attempt at crushing Moqtada al-Sadr's movement culminated in the Shia city of Najaf. Sistani, after having let the young al-Sadr reach a situation where he was on the verge of a crushing and bloody defeat, obviously in order to tame him, intervened to stop the US onslaught and thereby confirm his unchallengeable leadership of the Shia community."
As for Falluja, I definitely condemn Sistani's belated half reprobation of the US onslaught, if that's what you want to know (and had any doubt about it!). However, the whole picture should be taken into consideration. It is well known that the Shias have been specifically oppressed for decades, in addition to the terrible oppression suffered by the Iraqi population as a whole under Saddam Hussein. Very soon after the fall of the Baathist regime, they started being targeted indiscriminately in deadly attacks claimed by Sunni groups, using a vicious sectarian -- quasi-racist -- vocabulary to describe the Shias. One has to acknowledge one thing at least: the Iraqi Shia forces, inspired by Sistani, have had until now the great merit of not falling into this trap and not retaliating with the same kind of violence and the same type of language, choosing instead to draw a clear distinction between sectarian fanatical groups and the bulk of Iraqi Sunnis. Given what Sistani knew -- or was told -- about the nature of the forces that were dominant in Falluja before the last US onslaught, a mixture of Baathists and Sunni fanatics according to most reports, it is hardly surprising that he did not mobilize against it. Note that Moqtada al-Sadr himself, though verbally more disapproving, did not mobilize either.
You ask me again: "I also wonder what you think about the apparent retreat by the electoral list endorsed by Sistani from demanding an American pull-out after the election." My answer: I don't think anything about a non-event. Mouwaffak al-Rubbaie, who is quoted in the Financial Times
article you cite, is not a leading figure of the "Unified Iraqi Coalition" (the key leaders being al-Hakim and Sistani himself behind the scenes) and he represents no force but himself and some family connections (though the real forces could use him at some point, for this very reason, as a compromise figure). It is obvious and certain however that a Shia dominated government won't call for the immediate withdrawal of all US troops -- the main Shia forces never said they would. They want to negotiate a withdrawal timetable designed to enable them to build up armed forces under their own control capable of countering Baathists and Sunni fanatics who will never abide by majority rule, and who doubtless will carry on and intensify their sectarian attacks after a Shia-dominated government comes to power.
Anyway, one has to keep always in mind the issues at stake. Regardless of what this or that Shia figure might say, it is indisputable -- and all the reports are unanimous about it -- that the overwhelming majority, if not the totality, of the Iraqi Shia masses (two-thirds of the Iraqi population, and the poorest of the poor) badly want three things: the elections, majority rule and the occupation troops out. No anti-imperialist should forget this decisive fact when defining his/her stand on the situation in Iraq.
Finally, allow me to amend your concluding sentence. Instead of: "Whatever our differences, we stand together against this monstrous American Empire," I would rather end with: Whatever our differences, we stand together against this monstrous imperialist system and all its lackeys and allies, including the governments of our own countries. I have no doubt that you will fully approve my amendment.
All the best,