U.S. Goes Deeper into the Middle East Mine Field

by Gerry Foley / August 2006 issue of Socialist Action

The relative failure of the Israeli military assault on Hezbullah in Lebanon and its disastrous political results for the Zionist state and its imperialist backers have highlighted the inability of the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq to consolidate their control of the country and shore up a reliable client regime.

These setbacks now threaten to bring on a far more explosive crisis of imperialist domination of the region. In particular, the threat of a confrontation with Iran looms large.

Iran is the principal material supporter of the Hezbullah. It has provided the missiles that are paralyzing the northern third of Israel and probably the training that makes the Hezbullah guerrillas such effective fighters. Thus, the assault on Hezbullah has aspects of a proxy war between the U.S. and Israel and Iran, a war that could rapidly escalate with disastrous results for the U.S. imperialism and its Zionist protégé.

Iran has considerable economic and military resources. It is one of the world’s main oil producers and it commands large numbers of dedicated activists. Reportedly, about 80 volunteers left Iran in the last week of July on their way to Lebanon to reinforce the Hezbullah. The Iranian rulers could send thousands of dedicated volunteers and probably hundreds of suicide bombers.

Furthermore, the Iranian regime and Islamic clergy have a considerable political influence among Shiites in Iraq, where the more conservative Shiite clergy is the principal prop of the U.S.-sponsored government.

Up until now, despite some complaints of U.S. official spokespersons, there has been little evidence of the Iranian rulers using their influence to turn Shiites against the U.S.-led occupation. That is, they have taken a low profile, apparently hoping that the U.S. would eliminate regimes hostile to them and thereby leave the way open for their expanding its influence some time later.

Iran has a long border with Iraq. If it wanted to smuggle arms into the country there is no way the occupation forces could stop it. And with the sort of weapons Iran has given to the Hezbullah in Lebanon, the Iraqi resistance could wreak havoc on the occupation forces.

The Israeli assault on Lebanon is already souring the relations between the U.S. and its most important Shiite tactical allies in Iraq. The Los Angeles Times reported July 24: “… more moderate Shiite clerics loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a statement urging support for the Islamist militia in Lebanon and condemning the U.S. and Israel. ‘The enemy is the same,’ said a statement issued by the Hawza, the network of seminaries in Najaf. ‘Their aim is to enslave and humiliate us. What’s happening today in Lebanon is part of a bigger scheme to crush the blessed [Islamic] nation.’”

Sistani himself issued a fatwa, a religious edict, condemning the Israeli attack and calling for solidarity with Lebanon. Among other things, it said, “The Muslim nation also needs to stand by in solidarity with the oppressed Lebanese people.”

Of course, the radical Shiite forces led by Muqtada al-Sadr have mobilized to condemn the Israeli attack, as the July 24 Los Angeles Times reported: “Demonstrators loyal to radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr marched through the city center of Najaf on Sunday evening in support of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, chanting ‘Death to America!’ and ‘Death to Israel!’”

Al-Sadr leads a mass populist movement and militia similar to that of the Hezbullah, with which he has always identified, as well as with Hamas. He also has enjoyed a certain sympathy in Iran, without his getting any important official backing. He has led two major uprisings against the occupation. But thus far he has been sidelined by the “moderate” clergy represented by Sistani.

The U.S. rulers decided that they could not crush al-Sadr and took the tack of trying to entangle him in the web of the political settlement they are supporting—with mixed results for them and for al Sadr. He has continued to be a major threat to them, and it now seems that they and their allies are moving again toward confrontation with his organization.

The sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shiite militias is offering them cover for this. The pretext is that the Shiite militias are responsible for systematic murders of Sunnis and therefore that they have to be repressed in order to achieve peace, and that al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is one of them. Actually, al-Sadr has spoken out against the sectarian conflict and called for unity against the occupation.

But it does seem that his movement has fallen into the trap of the culture of revenge in response to the al-Qaeda bombings of Shiite mosques and crowds. And that is a big barrier to any rational strategy and tactics by anti-imperialist movements in the Middle East.

The head of the U.S. backed Iraqi government, Nouri Maliki, is under strong U.S. pressure to dissolve the Shiite militias and purge their members from the police and army. (Maliki, moreover, got a rather chilly reception in the U.S. Congress on his official visit to Washington in the last week of July. Democratic congressmen called for dis-inviting him because he had condemned Israel for its assault on Lebanon. Apparently, some U.S. politicians doubt his reliability as a stooge.)

The July 31 Los Angeles Times quoted Maliki as saying: “’There are many political, military, and economic steps that will ultimately lead to dissolving or integrating the militias in such a manner that does not cause any tension and that assures the Iraqis and those shielding themselves behind militias that the government will be responsible for security.”

But in Iraq’s south, British forces took a different approach. The Washington Post of July 19 reported a major campaign by the British army against al Sadr’s Mahdi Army in the major southern city of Basra: “… Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia battled British forces for a third day. The militia fired mortars overnight at British bases, and Sadr supporters staged a protest Tuesday morning over the killing of four people by British troops.”

At the beginning of July, AP reported the appearance of a new Shiite armed resistance group, the Islamic Resistance in Iraq-Abbas Brigades.

The U.S. is also using the pretext of combating the sectarian militias to increase its forces in Baghdad, from 9000 to 13,000. The promises of reducing the number of U.S. troops—which were intended to take some of the sting out of the Iraq War issue before the fall elections in the United States —now are being quietly dropped. Obviously, the balancing game that the U.S. government has been playing in Iraq and in the Middle East in general is becoming more precarious.

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