The Iraqi resistance

Submitted by Anon on 9 January, 2004 - 4:40

Clive Bradley begins a series on the issues following the war on Iraq by examining the Iraqi "resistance"

For many supporters of the war, it was "to liberate the Iraqi people." Now that Saddam Hussein has been captured, many commentators speculate that the armed "resistance" to US occupation, far from dissipating, will grow. Reports on the insurgents vary quite radically: some, like Tariq Ali (in his book Bush in Babylon, and writing recently in the Guardian) declare it to be a national liberation movement as in Vietnam or Algeria (in its "first phase"); others are less sure.
Reports suggest that sympathy for the "armed struggle" among ordinary Iraqis is growing. Salam Pax reports hearing a CD in a taxi. "It went on and on, praising the bravery of the so-called resistance." Out of curiosity, he went to buy one in a market: "At every stall is a small television and you can preview your chosen DVD... this time all the stalls were playing the same thing - the scary disc I heard in the taxi. On each stall, people crowded around watching that thing. It was selling like the hot bread of Bab al-Agha" (the Guardian 10 December).

More scientific studies report the same thing. According to Sami Ramadani, "A recent CIA report admitted that, 'there are thousands in the resistance - not just a core of Ba'athists', and concluded that 'the resistance is broad, strong and getting stronger'." (Guardian, 15 December). Certainly, support for the occupation itself is very low. In a recent poll by Oxford Research International, Iraqis think the occupying army staying in the country is the "worst possible scenario" by a ratio of 25 to 1.

Between 12 and 15 organisations have been identified as armed guerrilla outfits organising attacks on the US and other troops and their Iraqi allies; some of these are organisations which were opposed to Saddam Hussein. Ramadani, an Iraqi who fled from Saddam's dictatorship and now works as an academic in London, thinks "the peaceful and armed resistance is likely to intensify and attract greater support across the world, including that of the American people." Robert Fisk in the Independent asks: "Why... should [the resistance] not rejoice at the end of their greatest oppressor while planning the humiliation of the occupying army which seized him?" (15 December).

Non-Ba'thist groups which are involved in the resistance include the Unification Front for the Liberation of Iraq, which had been opposed to the dictatorship, and a Wahhabi group (i.e., a fundamentalist movement which subscribes to the Islamism of the Saudi ruling family), the Committee of the Faithful.

The evident isolation of the dictator himself at the time of his capture adds weight to the claim that he had little support among the armed movement.

What are we to make of this? I have argued in the past, basing my claim on the views of Iraqi socialists and academic specialists and on various reports, that the "resistance" is mainly loyalists to the old regime, with an unknown number of mainly foreign jihadis involved (the latter being more likely to be responsible for the suicide attacks). A proportion of the insurgents are also straightforward criminals. (The highly controversial shoot-out in Samarra recently seems to have involved a number of people employed by the insurgents to rob banks).

According to some reports, of the dozen or so groups which have been identified as part of the "resistance", only one is pro-Saddam. Ewan MacAskill, writing in the Guardian (15 December), describes "former regime loyalists" (FRLs as the Americans call them) as the "main group". But others, anxious about the possible return of Saddam, or reluctant to be involved in a resistance in any way linked to the old regime, may now join the fray.

A "resistance" fighter was interviewed recently, before Saddam's capture, by the Washington Times. "Abu Mujahid" agreed to four interviews in November. He claimed to be opposed to Saddam, insisting that if the dictator were to return, "We will fight him, too." Indeed, he says he originally supported the US war on Iraq, only later turning against it when he witnessed its brutality. (Washington Times, 9 December.)

However, it turns out the "Abu Majahid" and his immediate associates were members of the Ba'th Party. "When asked if this organisation was put into place before the invasion, Abu Mujahid said he thought so but could not be sure. 'We are told that Saddam might be at the top of the organization,' he said, but personally he said he believes Saddam 'is too busy hiding.' 'I think that the leaders above me are former generals who want to replace Saddam when the Americans leave,' he said."

Former weapons inspector Scott Ritter is in little doubt that the resistance is mainly "FRLs" - with very little non-Iraqi involvement: "...attacks in Iraq can be traced to the very organisations most loyal to Saddam Hussein... [O]ne must remember that the majority of pro-regime forces, especially those military units most loyal to Hussein, as well as the entirety of the Iraqi intelligence and security forces, never surrendered. They simply melted away.... [T]he reality is that the Hussein regime was not defeated in the traditional sense, and today shows signs of reforming to continue the struggle against the US-led occupiers."

Ritter's basic point here, that the elite sections of the Ba'thist military apparatus, along with the Fedayeen Saddam (a force established to crush uprisings), "melted away" at the climax of the war, is important. These are heavily armed forces with an interest in the return to power if not of Saddam personally, of others linked to the old regime.

Other reports suggests that it is a bit more complex. In place of simple loyalty to the old regime, there is a growing nationalism, fuelled by anger at the behaviour of the occupying troops, and even a sense of humiliation that it was the Americans, rather than Iraqis themselves, who overthrew the dictatorship. But this nationalism is itself complex.

The "resistance" is very largely based in the Sunni areas of Iraq: the Kurds in the north fought alongside the US, and the mainly Shi'a south has been less unco-operative, and even the growing forces led by militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have not engaged in direct military conflict with the occupation. But Sunni-based nationalism has an increasingly sectarian character, motivated by concerns about the Shi'a majority: Sunnis have, since the colonial period, been the privileged elite in Iraq.

As Mitch Potter writes in the Toronto Star (14 December): "One branch of the new resistance calls itself the Popular Iraqi Liberation Front. Its avowed mission: ousting the occupation forces. But not in the name of Saddam... 'The front claims its legal responsibility for all the armed actions against the American and British occupying forces and their allies,' the pamphleteers said in a notice picked off a Falluja street this week. 'And it also announces its non-alliance with the oppressive Baath regime. There is no link between the current popular and national resistance and any oppressive Baath regime resistance'."

He quotes a Sunni militant: "It is about stopping the Shiites from taking power and destroying Iraq... Shiites are not the kind of people who can rule even themselves, let alone a country... They can play a role, but not as leaders." As Potter comments: "[W]ith centuries of historic advantage at stake, the living generations of Sunnis weaned on 35 years of dictatorial brutality are starting to make the sounds of a post-Saddam ultimatum: no peace with democracy." (Toronto Star article)

The picture which emerges is complex, then. But the image of the "resistance" as a national liberation movement comparable to the Vietnamese, galvanising an oppressed people against colonial-style oppression, remains simplistic and false.

The resistance is a mixture of Sunni sectarianism, Wahhabi Islamism, and various Ba'thist or quasi-Ba'thist forces. Probably some leftist nationalists have been involved, too. But it seems clear that the dominant forces, one way or another, are reactionary. As the occupation becomes increasingly unpopular and unstable, naturally ordinary Iraqis are sympathetic to varying degrees with the "resistance" - although most of this sympathy remains passive, and much of it probably contradictory.

The gradually emerging independent union movement, and other organisations of grass-roots democracy, have different, counterposed, priorities to the armed insurgency. Indeed, most Iraqis list "security" as their greatest concern, and part of what they mean refers to anxiety caused by suicide bombs and the rest. Democratic organisations will need to protect Iraqis from the terrorist attacks of the "resistance".

Socialists in Iraq, and outside it, can give no support to this armed "resistance". Its victory would not be a blow in the name of freedom, but of various shades of reaction. Building solidarity with genuinely democratic, secular, grass-roots movements, is an urgent priority.

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