Back to home page
International Socialist Review Issue 42, JulyAugust 2005
Iraqis must decide how to resist occupation
Anthony Arnove and Tariq Ali
THE FOLLOWING is an edited transcript of a speech delivered by Tariq Ali at a debate on the Iraqi resistance at the 2005 Left Forum in New York, as well as the written text of a speech by Anthony Arnove. In the debate, both sides expressed support for immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, but Stephen Shalom and Joanne Landy spoke against support for the Iraqi resistance , while Tariq Ali and Anthony Arnove spoke in support of the resistance. Znet recently published a lengthy article by Shalom based on his opening remarks at the Left Forum debate (“The Anti-War Movement and Iraq”). For the purpose of airing both sides in the debate, we are publishing Tariq’s and Anthony’s statements at the debate.
THE KEY challenge for the Western Left today remains that of ending the occupation of Iraq—which did not end with the January 30 elections—and bringing the troops home. Not in six months, six years, or some undefined point in the future when the U.S. government has determined its interests are sufficiently secured, but now.
Despite all the propaganda in support of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, sentiment against the occupation is widespread. Within the United States, a majority now thinks the invasion of Iraq was not worth the high price that has been paid as a consequence, including the death of more than 1,550 soldiers and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars. Yet an enormous gap exists between this sentiment and the level of political activity against the occupation. The antiwar movement has to find every way possible to bridge this political gap.
And here I think we should be sober about the scale of the challenge we face. Much more is at stake for the U.S. government in Iraq than was at stake in Vietnam, and the Democrats and Republicans are both determined to create a “victory” for U.S. imperialism in Baghdad.
We have to return to the central issue that motivated this war, which is that Iraq has the world’s second largest oil reserves and is centrally located in a region that has two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves—reserves over which the U.S. is determined to have control.
And we have to remember the grand claims U.S. officials made at the onset of the war—not just about weapons of mass destruction and U.S. occupiers being greeted as liberators—but about the broader changes this invasion would engender, including a wave of democratization in the Middle East. The credibility of U.S. imperialism is at stake, and the U.S. government understands that a defeat in Iraq will set back its ability to impose its will not only in the Middle East but globally.
There has been a lack of clarity on the Left, not only in the United States, about what is at stake in this war for the U.S. ruling class in Iraq. It would have taken a much greater degree of civil disobedience and mass protest to counter the U.S. determination to invade Iraq and use the invasion to redraw the map of the Middle East. The leadership of the antiwar movement in this country did not properly prepare people who marched on February 15, 2003, for what it would take to actually stop the invasion of Iraq. Millions marched, mass demonstrations took place around the world, some governments even expressed opposition to the invasion, but Washington went to war anyway—which should give us an appreciation of how much is at stake.
Then, not having properly prepared people for the invasion, the Left did not properly anticipate the demoralizing effect of seeing Baghdad bombed once again, of seeing the media propagandists swing into action, rally around the flag, and generate a story of Iraqi liberation from tyranny. Many people concluded that February 15 had made no difference, or even more fundamentally, that protest does not work, cannot work. And others then started reading from the script of Bush and Blair. Maybe Iraqis had been liberated, after all. Maybe good could come of bad, if the U.S. stayed the course and engaged in “nation building.” MoveOn has refused to mobilize against the occupation, and groups such as the Education for Peace in Iraq Center in Washington are now denouncing “troops out now” demonstrations like the one on March 19, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as irresponsible, asserting we should really be calling for, in effect, a more enlightened occupation.
So even as the antiwar movement has been proven correct on issue after issue—WMDs, the cost of this war, the brutality and torture of Abu Ghraib, the resistance of the Iraqis to occupation, and so on—the movement has declined in size and influence, a pattern that we saw in a number of countries, though it was more pronounced in the countries where the radical Left has less influence or was consciously pushed to the side. Where the Left was clearer on the links between globalization and imperialism, on the economic roots of war, the recovery has been quicker.
The antiwar movement also weathered the storm best where it maintained its political independence and did not fall into various forms of the politics of lesser-evilism. The worst counter-example to this, unfortunately, has been the United States.
Large sections of the U.S. antiwar movement gave up their independence and threw themselves into the project of mobilizing support for a candidate, John Kerry, who supported the so-called war on terror, who was calling for more troops to be sent to Iraq, and who stood opposed to many of the most fundamental demands of the antiwar movement and the Left. This forced sections of the Left into the most tortured mental gymnastics and apologetics for Kerry. And it meant that the Left was largely silent as the crimes of the occupation were being exposed even on the pages of the corporate press. The fact that no mass national demonstration took place against the brutality of Abu Ghraib is appalling, and cannot be separated from the support much of the antiwar movement gave to Kerry and to the Democrats.
Moving forward, we have a number of challenges. I’ll lay out what I see as some of the key ones.
One is to build a movement in which political debate is not only welcomed but it is encouraged—and in which exclusionism is not tolerated. There are too many examples of people being told to tone down their message or being excluded because they have raised questions the mainstream Left would prefer to ignore. You can’t raise the question of Palestine. You can’t say “troops out now.” You can’t discuss resistance to the occupation in the military or in Iraq. You can’t use the “i word” (imperialism).
We also need to build a movement that addresses head on issues of racism and Islamophobia—and the entire repackaging of the White Man’s Burden—that have been used to sell this occupation and the war on terrorism and also used to crack down on civil liberties and dissent at home. We must organize a movement that at every level is inclusive of Arabs, Muslims, and other groups that have been targeted by the war.
This goes hand-in-hand with the need to reject the racist idea that it is for us in the United States (or at City University of New York or the Left Forum) to decide the future of Iraq, that Iraqis are incapable of building their own society, that we need to teach them about democracy, or dictate to them how to resist the occupation of their country. All of this amounts to saying that the people who have done so much to destroy Iraq are, in fact, the ones who know how to rebuild it. Arundhati Roy is absolutely right when she argues:
[I]t is absurd to condemn the resistance to the U.S. occupation in Iraq as being masterminded by terrorists or insurgents or supporters of Saddam Hussein. After all, if the United States were invaded and occupied, would everybody who fought to liberate it be a terrorist or an insurgent or a Bushite?… The Iraqi resistance is fighting on the front lines of the battle against Empire. And therefore, that battle is our battle. Like most resistance movements, it combines a motley range of assorted factions. Former Baathists, liberals, Islamists, fed-up collaborationists, communists, etc. Of course, it is riddled with opportunism, local rivalry, demagoguery and criminality. But if we are only going to support pristine movements, then no resistance will be worthy of our purity. This is not to say that we shouldn’t ever criticize resistance movements. Many of them suffer from a lack of democracy, from the iconization of their “leaders,” a lack of transparency, a lack of vision and direction. But most of all, they suffer from vilification, repression and lack of resources. Before we prescribe how a pristine Iraqi resistance must conduct their secular, feminist, democratic, nonviolent battle, we should shore up our end of the resistance by forcing the U.S. and its allied governments to withdraw from Iraq.
It is not our job to dictate to the Iraqi people what form their resistance to occupation must take. Iraqis themselves are perfectly capable of rejecting those actions that are not about liberation from occupation, but sectarian violence. The key question for the U.S. Left is not to decide which Iraqi faction has the best program, whatever political judgments we may make, but to organize against the greatest enemy, which, as John Reed reminded us, is at home. And that is an enormous task.
Another central challenge we face is to embrace and give encouragement to soldiers, veterans, reservists, military families, and people targeted for military recruitment who are speaking out and who are resisting in increasing numbers.
We have to link the war abroad to the war at home, on working people, the poor. The attacks on Social security, the budget cuts. The profound crisis in social spending in this country.
And, lastly, we have to address the roots of war, the fact that military competition and barbarism flow naturally from capitalism. We have to start building a challenge not just to this particular brutal war, but to the entire edifice that produces war, and to speak of the urgency, the necessity, of building a different society globally, based on cooperation and human need, rather than on competition, war, and profit.
WE’RE AGREED that the American war was corrupt and evil—bombing cities and killing civilians. We agree on that. We’re agreed that the occupation should end immediately—there’s no disagreement on that. We agree that the war is part of an imperial strategy by the United States to establish its hegemony in different parts of the world—and that critical in this war is the region’s oil. But the United States has also taken on countries where there is no oil, to establish bases—a whole network of NATO bases in the Balkans, and a whole network of military bases in Central Asia and Afghanistan. This war is part of that strategy, and the task of the antiwar movement in the United States, as the previous speakers have said—and the key demand—has to be “bring the troops back home now.” There are no questions about that.
Then there is an additional question, which is the attitude one takes to the variegated resistance that is taking place in Iraq. On one thing we have to be clear, and I think most people are clear, on the Left at any rate: the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want an end to the occupation. If there was any doubt about this, the demonstration of a quarter of a million people in Baghdad on April 11, reported on the front page of the New York Times, made that very clear. This was a demonstration organized by Shiites and by Sunnis. It was the first large political gathering of the Iraqi masses—we can put it like that—for many years. What did people do? They burned effigies of Saddam Hussein, of George Bush, and of Tony Blair. These are the sort of things one could go along with quite easily. Neither of these three guys are people I support, or supported.
But there is another question that is related, and here we have to talk quite openly. Let us suppose that Iraq had been occupied and there had been no resistance at all. Let us suppose that people were sullen, they were unhappy, but that there was no armed resistance at all. Bush and Blair and their supporters would have claimed this as a big triumph and a victory. We’ve taken a whole country, an Arab country, and there’s no resistance. People are unhappy, but no one is fighting us—it means we’ve won.
The fact that there was an armed resistance at an early stage in Iraq was a big blow against U.S. imperial strategy. Just think about it. They thought that it was going to be a repeat of Pristina and Kosovo. They had gotten used to that kind of intervention. They were not prepared for what they encountered. And so when the resistance in Iraq started, the initial response was complete surprise. Even the media was not prepared for it. They were completely taken aback.
Who were the people who were resisting? There’s very little doubt about that. Layers of the Iraqi army, knowing perfectly well what Saddam Hussein was up to—and many of them have given interviews to this effect—decided that they were going to organize, separate, set up arms dumps all over the country, decentralize the army, and create units in certain parts of Iraq that would fight back when the time came. Well, I support that. It’s not only that they had the right to do that, I think it was even politically correct to do this at that critical point in time. This then opened up the situation for the whole of Iraq, so that when the first attack on Fallujah took place, it was the time of the highest unity of the Iraqi masses. You had joint gatherings by Sunni mosques, Shiite mosques, and secular groups, trying to break the blockade of Fallujah. And the Americans had to withdraw from Fallujah the first time. They realized then what they were up against.
The initial thought had been that the United States would set up a puppet regime, like in Afghanistan, or a friendly regime, like in Yugoslavia, and that slowly things would work out. But it didn’t work out like that. Because of the resistance, and because of the hatred for Iraqi prime minister Iyad Allawi—who he is and what he represents—the United States conceded, and allowed an election. It was a limited election, a partial election. But they conceded it after making sure that none of the groups running candidates demanded the immediate withdrawal of troops. When they did take this position, they were forced to give a press conference saying they withdrew it. But the United States agreed to holding that election, and we see the results. A chunk of the country didn’t vote, voting was high in the South, and voting in the Kurdish areas was totally dominated by the tribal leaders. Half the people involved in the election slates, even in the South, were people who collaborated with the occupation or were part of the occupation. Abdul al-Aziz al-Hakim and Ahmed Chalabi supported the occupation of the country, and worked with L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. viceroy in Iraq.
Jalal Talabani, the new president of Iraq—who is he? He’s worked with the CIA, he’s taken money from Saddam Hussein, he’s taken money from the Iranian mullahs, and he’s taken money from the Israelis. At least his tastes are catholic. And so the first statement he makes as president of Iraq is that he wants the American occupation to continue. That’s what Talabani said: we want American troops to stay here. You can support that, if you want to. I think it’s wrong.
It’s precisely because of these statements that the Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr felt obliged to organize a mass demonstration against the occupation. Because if this new so-called elected regime cannot deliver the goods, cannot get the Americans out, there will be mass opposition and there will be mass resistance.
I think it’s wrong to fetishize the electoral process. Should an election take place in a country when it is occupied by foreign troops? I may be wrong—it’s a tactical dispute—but I think it’s wrong. If the Germans had organized an election in France when France was occupied, a majority of the French would have supported the Vichy regime. No doubt about that—a majority of the French supported the Germans. Robert Paxton’s book Vichy France1 makes that very clear. Would we have accepted that as legitimate? Clearly not. The situation in Iraq is not as straightforward—it’s a complicated one, but the analogy is still instructive.
Are the religious parties very strong? They are strong, but what to do? There’s no alternative at the moment. The Iraqi Communist Party, historically the party of the Iraq Left and the Iraqi working class, is a collaborationist party. It decided to collaborate, not only on the level of the occupation, but even in terms of placing party members in the Bremer government who were the most ardent defenders of privatization, saying that’s the way we have to go.
The fight in Iraq takes place on two levels now. It’s a fight against the military occupation and a fight against the economic occupation. This is not a case where the U.S. government is going to reconstruct the country state by state. Private contractors, private companies are being taken in, and that’s why they’re being targeted. The attacks on the oil pipelines number in the thousands.
We don’t have to support any individual resistance group as such—that’s not the point. The group that is presented endlessly in the Western press is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s. To be frank, I have no idea who this guy is or where he comes from, or whether he is even what they claim he is or who he claims he is. What is obvious is that he represents a tiny, tiny organization in Iraq. If it were simply up to him, there would be no resistance. There would be small terror attacks here and there. The resistance is much, much broader, and the resistance is not any one organization. That’s what Iraq is like. The only group that so far has not come out against the U.S. occupation in a unified way is the Kurds. They are hoping that they will get their independence. But in the conditions of the world today, at best they will become an Israeli-American protectorate like Jordan. Maybe that’s what they want—fair enough. If they want that, we’ll see if the empire gives it to them or not. But they won’t go beyond that.
Otherwise, there is a broad resistance—some armed, some unarmed, and some passive. All resistance movements are like that. And many, many resistance movements do things that are ugly. The Vietnamese used to target civilian cafes in Saigon—blow them up, because American soldiers or puppet army soldiers used to gather there. Let’s not idealize them and prettify too much. The Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) targeted cafes in Algeria where the French colonialists gathered. And when the Algerian resistance was attacked, an FLN militant said: “Look, we have to do this, it is the only means we have. But if the French gave us an air force, then we would target our enemies more carefully and just aim at the barracks where there are French soldiers.”
In other words, you use what weapons you have. It doesn’t mean they’re nice or they’re pretty. I am not in favor of unconditionally supporting anyone, including myself. We all make mistakes, so you can’t give unconditional or uncritical support to anyone—that’s crazy. But at the same time, if you support the right of the Iraqis to resist, then one has to say publicly that the Iraqi people have a right to resist—and if you feel like it, or your organization or group does, then you support that resistance. I am not saying that this should be a central pillar of a broad antiwar movement to bring the troops home. We’re talking about what the Left should do, not what the Left should try to impose on the whole antiwar movement.
The question of religion is a big one. And this is a problem, as you know full well, that doesn’t simply affect the world of Islam. It also affects the Western world. If you look at the Christian Right in the United States, then you realize that there are big problems on that front. These problems exist in the world of Islam, as well, and they have to be tackled, and these religious groups have to be argued with and fought politically. But the social forces capable of doing it, alas, do not exist, and the collaboration by the Iraqi communists, in particular, and other so-called modernizing groups has not helped to deal with religious extremism in Iraq either.
The right to resist occupation is not a right that a lot of the Left has consciously supported, but I think that Joanne Landy and Steve Shalom risk taking away with the right hand what they have given with the left by imposing conditions on the right of the Iraqi people to resist occupation. The key danger that we face today is not that the antiwar movement is going to lend support to al-Zarqawi, Baathists, Pol Pot, or some of the other people that have been referenced—that we’re going to support the most reactionary fundamentalist forces. That’s not the danger. The real danger is that the antiwar movement, by and large, has seen the Iraqi resistance, those people who are opposing the U.S. occupation, with the lens that has been given to us by the U.S. media, and by Blair and Bush. And there is a danger in us equating the violence of those resisting occupation with the violence, the far greater violence, of those imposing the occupation.
In some cases I think it’s even tipped over into something even more extreme, which is the Left going out of its way to be more condemning of the violence of those resisting occupation than those carrying it out. There is a difference between the position, which was absolutely right, of rejecting the two imperialisms of Washington and the Soviet Union, and to say “Neither Washington nor Moscow” during the Cold War. That analogy does not apply to the question of supporting opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq. They key dynamic today is that Blair and Bush want to portray all resistance in Iraq as illegitimate, and they’re using racist ideas to do that. They want to dismiss those elements of resistance, the trade unionists, the elements that we’ve seen of Shiite and Sunni unity, the ordinary people who are standing up against the occupation, who aren’t the focus of the media lens, who aren’t in the headlines, and instead to force us to see the Iraqi resistance as al-Zarqawi, and to see only those tactics—the tactics of terrorism—that of course we can be critical of because we know they will not lead to national liberation, because we understand that they’re not effective strategies for fighting occupation.
Also, there’s another element of this discussion that has to come into play, which is that our role in the United States has to include challenging the chauvinism that says that we can dictate to the Iraqi people their future. That is fundamental to this debate. And I would just say, in conclusion, that we have to see that our primary task is confronting our own government. As Martin Luther King put it when he spoke at the Riverside Church during the Vietnam War, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” is our own government. Our central task is in confronting that, not in dictating conditions to the Iraqi people.
It’s not the case that the Baathists attack women’s rights. We should be clear who does attack women’s rights—the religious extremist groups. Under the Baath regimes in Iraq and Syria, women’s rights were not just protected, but encouraged. More women were educated in Iraq under the Baathist regime and served in different aspects of life—as doctors, teachers, civil servants—than under any religious regime. So we must sort all this out. It’s not that these groups are the same. They have different motivations.
Let me just put it bluntly like this: If the Iraqi army had resisted the United States and fought a long, protracted war, which side would one have supported? Would one have said that both sides are equally bad, and we don’t take a position? Or would one have said: the Iraqis have been attacked, it’s unprovoked aggression by the world’s largest imperial power, and we will give support to them in fighting against this imperial power—which does not mean you support their politics?
Traditionally, you know who the Left has supported? They supported Haile Selassie—a backward, feudal despot—against the Italian invasion. They supported King Zog of Albania against Benito Mussolini’s occupation. And Mussolini used very similar rhetoric: we’re going to modernize, we’re going to destroy this backward, feudal regime and bring civilization there. So it’s not a question of choice in that sense, that you have one bad side and the other side which you can totally identify with. That has never happened, to my knowledge. During the Cold War, there was widespread support for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Yet, everyone knew that if they won there would be a one-party state in Vietnam. There would be no democracy, let’s be honest, and there would be no freedom in the sense you talk about now. But everyone supported them. Now it can be argued, and you would be right to say, that there is no equivalent of the National Liberation Front in Iraq. That’s absolutely true. It’s a divided country, and the different resistance groups—armed resistance groups, unarmed resistance groups—don’t agree with each other, and have different trajectories. And we don’t agree with them—whether it’s Moqtada al Sadr or the others, we don’t agree with them. If they were to win a big electoral victory, and use that electoral triumph to say, “We have been elected by the majority of the people and now we’re going to impose an Islamic constitution,” would we support the imposition of such an institution? No.
When the Americans, British, and the Israelis attacked Egypt, we defended Nasser very strongly and staunchly, despite the fact that he was from the army, that he ran a one-party state, that communists were being repressed in Egypt at the time. So, one mustn’t equate supporting a country which is victimized, occupied, and attacked with giving political support to its leadership. That’s the danger you fall into.
1 Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).
Anthony Arnove, a member of the ISR editorial board, is the editor, with Howard Zinn, of Voices of a People's History of the United States (Seven Stories Press), and editor of Iraq Under Seige (South End Press). Tariq Ali is an internationally renowned writer based on London where he is the editor of New Left Review. He is the author of more than a dozen books on politics and world history, including, most recently, The Clash of Fundamentalisms and Bush in Babylon, both published by Verso.