The Reality Behind the U.S. “Surge” in Iraq

by Gerry Foley

The claims by U.S. political and military leaders that they are making progress in “pacifying” Iraq are based mainly on the deals the U.S.-led occupation forces have been able to make with local strongmen, largely feudal remnants or outright gangsters. The U.S. officials see this tactic as so successful that they are now considering extending it to the Pakistani tribal zone.

This is actually standard operating procedure for colonial and reactionary rulers in the Middle East. The British have a long experience in it, and the Americans, their successors in shouldering the “white man’s burden,” seem to be learning quickly.

The effect of this tactic is to use the resources of a developed country to reinforce the backwardness of the dominated country, to keep it in darkness. One of the prime advantages of this course of action is that the bribery of semi-feudal tribal leaders and bandits is far less expensive than trying to blow away the resistance with high-tech weapons, which proved ineffective and unsustainable.

The Nov. 8 Christian Science Monitor offered a portrait of one of the new U.S. allies in Iraq and his activity: “Inside a stately guesthouse on the grounds of Saddam Hussein’s palace in Tikrit on the banks of the Tigris, sheikh Sabah al-Hassani jokes that the initials ‘SH’ of the former dictator etched on the walls are his.

“I have a weakness for Cuban cigars, French cologne, and Spanish-made loafers,” he says with a wide grin. Since June, Mr. Hassani, who claims to be one of the princes of the legendary Shammar tribe, which numbers nearly 7 million across the Arab world, says he has received at least $100,000 in cash and numerous perks from the US military and the Iraqi government. “With his help, at least $1 million has also been distributed to other tribal sheikhs who have joined his Salahaddin Province “support council,” according to US officers. Together, they have assembled an armed force of about 3,000 tribesmen dubbed the ‘sahwa [awakening] folks.’ “

Presumably this money is impressive for tribal sheikhs and the like, but it is peanuts for the U.S. Probably only a few pieces of their equipment that have been destroyed by the resistance cost more than this. The U.S. Army’s poster boy, Hassani, did not make any bones about his dependence on the occupation forces:

“For his part, Hassani praises the US support and says he’s gotten only ’empty promises’ from Baghdad. He says if US forces were ever to leave the province he would be in the lead of their departing convoy. As tribes got down to settling scores, he says, there would be a ‘bloodbath.’ And presumably, Hassani is afraid of getting blood on his Spanish loafers.”

Another sheikh in the area who was more reluctant than Hassani to accept the Americans’ 30 pieces of silver confirmed his fears. “Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Obeidi, one of the chiefs of the Obeid, whose fiefdom is in the plains of nearby Kirkuk and extends to Salahaddin, says the US push for these awakening councils is ‘a recipe for endless blood feuds’ among tribes. “He went on to say: ‘This is unspeakable fitna [discord] being sowed by the Americans. They want you to kill your own cousin and brother.’”

The difficulty with the tactic of alliances with tribal chiefs and bandits is that their American patrons cannot be sure that they will not play a double game. It used to be a maxim of the British army in Afghanistan that you can rent tribal leaders but you cannot buy them. But it now seems that the U.S. allies cannot be sure of their patrons either. The U.S. forces are used to bombing Iraqis ruthlessly to show their power. It seems that they recently wreaked havoc among some allies.

The New York Times reported Nov. 16: “A tribal group tapped by American forces to root out extremists here said Friday that more than four dozen of its members were killed during United States air and ground strikes north of the capital this week. But the United States military insisted that the attacks had been aimed instead at Al Qaeda and had killed 25 insurgents.”

These conflicting accounts continue a comedy that has been played out for a long time in Iraq. The U.S. military claims that it has blown away terrorists and the local Iraqi eyewitnesses say it slaughtered innocents. It does not seem that anyone in Iraq
believes the American claims.

“Yet Sheik Jasim Zaidan Khalaf, who heads one of the area’s American-backed tribal groups, known as an Awakening Council, said the Americans had erred in the attack. The sheik said his council had been active in purging the area of militants belonging to Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, a homegrown Sunni extremist group. The council recently detained 20 insurgents from the group, the sheik said, and confiscated their weapons with the intent of turning them over to United States forces. ‘The Americans suspected our people,’ the sheik said. ‘The whole issue started with a mistake.'”

It was a costly “mistake” for the Iraqis. But the question arises, was this just carelessness of a military force that is not concerned about killing Iraqis, or was it the result of a pervasive suspicion by the U.S. military of uncertain allies? And if such suspicion led to this carnage, how long can this alliance last?

Moreover, the U.S. military’s dealings with corrupt Iraqis have already endangered American soldiers. The New York Times reported Nov. 10: “As the insurgency in Iraq escalated in the spring of 2004, American officials entrusted an Iraqi businessman with issuing weapons to Iraqi police cadets training to help quell the violence.

“By all accounts, the businessman, Kassim al-Saffar, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, did well at distributing the Pentagon-supplied weapons from the Baghdad Police Academy armory he managed for a military contractor. But, co-workers say, he also turned the armory into his own private arms bazaar with the seeming approval of some American officials and executives, selling AK-47 assault rifles, Glock pistols and heavy machine guns to anyone with cash in hand—Iraqi militias, South African security guards and even American contractors.”

This deal, it seems, was another of the marvels of private enterprise that the occupation of Iraq was supposed to demonstrate. Another marvel is the privatization of the military itself, through the use of private security companies—that is, mercenary armed forces.

The disastrous role of these agencies is now undeniable; the FBI itself has ruled that the Blackwater Security company senselessly murdered 14 Iraqis in the Nisour Square shooting on Sept. 16. But the full implications of the development of these mercenary forces undoubtedly has yet to come to light. One disturbing report is an article in the Nov. 18 Spanish-language U.S. publication Tribuna Hispana, which claims that Blackwater, which has been fattened on State Department contacts in Iraq, has funneled money into ultraright anti-immigrant vigilante organizations.

This could be another indication of the process now called “blowback,” that is, the rebound of U.S. reactionary operations in Third World countries to the imperialist homeland. It is an illustration of the inevitable logic that the ruthlessness and corruption used by imperialists to maintain control of dominated countries returns to poison their own society.

Another effect of the Iraq War is the destruction of the lives of the young soldiers who are unable to find jobs and a stable life when they return home. Thus, an AP dispatch reported Nov. 17 that one fourth of the homeless in the U.S. are veterans. Whereas veterans make up 11 percent of the population, they are 22 percent of the homeless. And among these veterans, returnees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are growing quickly.

“Some advocates say such an early presence of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan at shelters does not bodewell for the future. It took roughly a decade for the lives of Vietnam veterans to unravel to the point that they started showing up among the homeless. Advocates worry that intense and repeated deployments leave newer veterans particularly vulnerable.”

“We’re going to be having a tsunami of them eventually because the mental health toll from this war is enormous,” said Daniel Tooth, director of veterans affairs for Lancaster County, Pa.”

Another beauty of our free enterprise system is the decline in the available jobs for young men of the age of returning soldiers: “The end of the Vietnam War coincided with a time of economic restructuring, and many of the same people who fought in Vietnam were also those most affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs, DePastino [a historian at Penn Sate University who wrote a book on the history of homelessness]

Now, with the U.S. military relying heavily on reservists and calling them up for repeated tours, many of them are losing their jobs and probably their place in the job market. An AP dispatch in the Nov. 11 British Guardian reported that almost half of returning reservists were dissatisfied with the assistance the government offered them in regaining employment.

Sadly, it is probably going to be a long time before the poisoning of American society by the Iraq war and occupation is dissipated. Ultimately, the only cure is the reorganization of the economy on a democratic basis to serve society, and not private profit. That will also end imperialist adventures and all the horrors associated with them.

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