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Counting down to war?

November’s UN vote showed the preparedness of the US to use its military, economic and political clout to get its way in order to unseat Saddam. But, argues PETER TAAFFE, nothing is more unpredictable than war or the path to war.

RESOLUTION 1441 passed by the United Nations (UN) security council on 8 November by 15 votes to nil is similar to the terms of surrender dictated by the victors to the defeated in battle. The resolution, and the accompanying letter from the chief weapons inspector Hans Blix, are couched in the insensitive, brutal language of an imperialist bully, calculated to humiliate not just the dictatorial regime of Saddam Hussein but also to aggravate the already inflamed national feelings of the Iraqi and Arab people as a whole.

The UN resolution virtually stipulates terms for a partial occupation of Iraq. The ultimate purpose of this is to grab Iraq’s considerable oil resources, under the guise of combating weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, this is to be initially conducted under the flag of the UN, which is now correctly seen as a tool of US imperialism. It is similar in its intent to the Rambouillet accords, which the US and Britain sought to impose on the former Yugoslavia in 1999. These proposals demanded the right for NATO armed detachments to be allowed to pass freely through Yugoslavia, unhindered by the Yugoslav government. This was rejected by Milosevic, which led to war and subsequently to his current indictment for ‘war crimes’ at The Hague.

However, this resolution is even harsher than Rambouillet in what it demands of Iraq and is designed to provide the conditions in which either war takes place and Saddam is removed, or the same task is accomplished by a ‘soft invasion’, which leads to an uprising in Iraq or a palace coup. It dictates that a UN special commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the weapons inspectors from these bodies should have "unimpeded, unconditional and unrestricted access to any and all, including underground, areas, facilities, buildings, equipment, records". It "further decides" the weapons inspectors shall have the "discretion" (to) conduct interviews in and outside of Iraq, and "may facilitate the travel of those interviewed and family members outside of Iraq… without the presence of observers from the Iraqi government". All inspection sites, including the ‘presidential sites’ should be accessible to the inspectors and "the security of UNMOVIC and IAEA facilities shall be ensured by sufficient United Nations security guards".

In addition to this, "exclusion zones, including surrounding areas and transit corridors", can be established by the weapons inspectors and "Iraq will suspend ground and aerial movements so that nothing is changed in or taken out of a site being inspected". The UN agencies shall also have "free and unrestricted use of landing and fixed and rotary-winged aircraft, including manned and unmanned reconnaissance vehicles". They also have the right to import equipment and materials and to "seize and export any equipment, materials, or documents taken during inspections, without search of UNMOVIC or IAEA personnel of official or personal baggage".

Adding insult to injury, Iraq is also expected to pay for the ‘occupation’: "The National Monitoring Directorate (NMD)… the Iraqi counterpart for the inspectors" will provide free of cost, a whole array of facilities such as escorts, a telephone ‘hotline’, the cost of transportation, etc. In addition: "Iraq will provide without cost adequate office buildings, staff accommodation, and appropriate escort personnel… aircraft fuel will be provided by Iraq, as before, free of charge".

Yet, even before the UN weapons inspectors begin their work "false statements or omissions" allegedly submitted by Iraq could be deemed to be "in material breach of Iraq’s obligations". This could then be reported to the UN Security Council, and in turn this could be the trigger for war. The Iraqi regime is supposed to give a complete declaration of all aspects of its weapons programme within 30 days of the passing of the UN resolution, by 8 December. However, the letter from the Iraqi government to the UN declaring that it did not have weapons of mass destruction has already been interpreted by US spokespersons as giving the green light for the Bush regime to go back to the UN on 8 December, to declare that Iraq is already ‘in material breach’ and demand that the UN conduct a full-scale invasion, or the US itself will undertake the task together with its ‘allies’, notably Britain.

In reality, it is unlikely that the Bush regime will be able to proceed in this fashion. The UN resolution "required eight weeks of excruciating negotiations", as the International Herald Tribune described it, before France, Russia, China and the Arab states finally came on board. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, gently chastised the ‘hawks’ in the US administration for their eagerness to go to war: "The US appeared to have a lower threshold for military action than the Security Council members". He "cautioned against turning the inspections into a hunt for excuses to go to war". He has accordingly earned the ire of the US right, as has Hans Blix, chief weapons inspector, who stated on his first day in Baghdad that war is ‘not inevitable’.

The very fact that Bush was compelled to go to the UN was a defeat for the ‘hawks’ in the US administration who were urging him to launch a unilateral pre-emptive strike against Iraq. The US hawks are typified by Richard Perle, a key adviser to Bush. He has long advocated a pre-emptive strike against Saddam and an end to the US ban on assassination of dictators. He argues: "I absolutely believe in assassinations. I have always thought an absolute prohibition was unnecessarily inflexible" (The Guardian, 13 November). Asked if Saddam should be assassinated he replied: "Yes, Saddam has killed tens of thousands of people". US imperialism killed at least 5,000 in Afghanistan; Bush will be responsible for at least ten times this number of deaths if a war is unleashed in Iraq. Six thousand Iraqi children die each month through the imposition of US sanctions, yet these are facts that are "immaterial" to Perle and the group of ‘hawks’, such as Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and others who support him.

‘Capturing the UN’

THE FACT THAT the Bush regime was compelled to go through the UN was a defeat for them and a ‘victory’ for the wing of the US administration represented by Colin Powell. He is neither ‘liberal’ nor ‘anti-war’ but understands the catastrophic consequences which would result from a pre-emptive strike. The UN resolution was also the result of the pressure exerted by France, Russia and others in the UN Security Council who are terrified at the repercussions of an invasion of Iraq. There have been worldwide protests of an unprecedented character in opposition to Bush’s war plans, even before a war has started; 400,000 marched in London, one million in Florence in Italy, 200,000 in Washington DC. Even in a period of ‘phoney war’, these rival the biggest demonstrations and protests of the Vietnam War.

Although Bush and the Republican Party have claimed that the US mid-term election results are a ‘mandate for war’, this is not true. An analysis of these elections (see p15) show that they were not the ‘landslide’ claimed by Bush, nor are they a measure of the real mood of the US population on the issue of war. As Michael Moore, the highly successful US satirist, has pointed out, "the polls show the majority of Americans oppose bombing Iraq without the support of Britain and the allies… there is a strong feeling against going to war". (The Daily Mirror, 16 November) Moreover, in Britain a mere 13% will back the Blair government if a ‘unilateral’ war is declared by the US, backed by Britain. An indication of the heightened anti-war movement, particularly in Europe, is that it has been responsible, at least partially, in deciding the outcome of one general election, in Germany.

Nevertheless, the US achieved a 15-0 victory for the resolution, something which they did not even achieve in 1991 before the Gulf War, when Cuba and Yemen voted against while China abstained, in the vote for force to be used to evict Iraq from Kuwait. Subsequently Yemen suffered ‘material punishment’ as the US spitefully cut off a $70 million aid package to Yemen and its ally, the reactionary Saudi Arabian regime, evicted thousands of Yemeni workers from its territory. This time around, there was the same mixture of arm twisting and threats. Tiny Mauritius, for instance, recalled its ambassador to the UN because he had "been insufficiently slavish in supporting Washington on the Security Council. Dollars were at stake" (The Independent, 9 November).

Even the Arab League, shamefully and blatantly at variance with the ‘street’ throughout the region, voted for the resolution ‘in order to prevent war’. Syria, which looked as though it would be the single member of the Security Council to abstain or vote ‘No’, was also dragooned into going along with the resolution at the last minute, on the same grounds that this was the ‘only’ way to prevent war. It desperately wants to avoid war against Iraq, partly because its trade with Baghdad under the ‘oil for aid’ programme is worth $1bn to its shaky economy. It is also prompted by the fear that if a pro-American regime is installed in Baghdad, Syria and Iran will be next in line for ‘regime change’. Syria also fears that Israel under the Sharon government could use the cover of a war against Iraq as a pretext for attacking Syria.

The UN vote was not a vote for a ‘just cause’ but a product of the post-11 September mood, the preparedness of the US to use its military, economic and political clout to get its way. This is summed up by The Independent’s correspondent, Rupert Cornwell: "Those who oppose America do so at their peril… (It) brought to mind the maxim of Al Capone, a figure who Mr Bush’s foes abroad might liken to him: ‘You can go a long way with a smile, you can go a lot further with a smile and a gun. Except… while the gun was sticking out of the holster, there was no smile’." Gangster metaphors for the US are much in vogue. One correspondent to the International Herald Tribune stated that the resolution on Iraq "is a bit like saying this to someone: ‘Either you provide us with the proof that you are a crook – for which you will be punished of course – or you don’t, in which case you will be severely punished for not co-operating’."

But in the process, the UN has received a body blow to its image as the representative of the ‘world community’, which will be compounded in the event of war. The naïve perception of reformists, including those on the left and even significant sections of workers and youth who look towards a body which can represent humankind as a whole rather than the narrow interests of the US and other powers, has been shattered. On the streets of Florence in the one million anti-capitalist, anti-war demonstration, some of the anger of the masses was directed as much at the UN as at the US. The US is seen to have ‘captured’ the UN and bent it to its purposes on Iraq.

One flat tyre from war?

DOES THE UN resolution therefore enhance the prospect of war, along with ‘enhanced’ weapons inspectors? Certainly, war is now possible and the anti-war movement will no doubt proceed on the basis that Bush and Blair are determined to carry through regime change through a military invasion of Iraq. But there are some ‘roadblocks’ on the ‘road map’ to war. Even Bush during the mid-term elections and subsequently softened his language and declared that ‘regime change’ would not be inevitable if Saddam ‘complied’ with the UN resolution. This has not pleased the ‘hawks’ who are itching for a war against Iraq as the most effective way for the US oil monopolies to grab the lion’s share of Iraq’s oil and at the same time demonstrate the preparedness of the US to exercise its military might against anyone prepared to stand up to it. But Powell and, it now seems Bush, understand that the full implementation of the UN resolution could possibly achieve the same effect, at less expense, as an invasion, namely such a weakening of Saddam’s regime that it will be toppled either by an uprising or by a coup from within.

On the other hand, the weapons inspectors’ regime has the potential for all kinds of incidents, which could trigger the process leading to war. Under the previous inspectors regime all kinds of bizarre incidents took place. As some of the inspectors have subsequently admitted, they were ‘intelligence gatherers’ for the US, in effect agents for the CIA. Hans Blix, chief weapons inspector, has this time given assurances that they will not be ‘spies’ for the US but ‘independent’. That remains to be seen.

Under the previous regime there were clashes, some of them serious, as when Iraqi troops removed materials from a site and were pursued by weapons inspectors, which led to the Iraqi troops firing over their heads. If it was left to the ‘hawks’ like Rumsfeld and Perle it would take a much less serious incident than that to trigger a return to the UN and for the process of war to be unleashed. Recently, Perle argued that one deflated tyre on a UN vehicle would not be the trigger for war; but four deflated tyres could be construed as a ‘conspiracy’ and the dogs of war would be unleashed! However, given the suspicions of the US and now the UN worldwide, it would take more serious breaches for war to be triggered. The international consciousness of, and hostility to, the motives of the US means that it will not be easy to contrive an incident, like the infamous Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ at the time of the Vietnam War, to justify an all-out war.

The final form of the UN resolution is a concession to the ‘two stage’ argument the French pursued from the outset. This means that any ‘material breach’ must be reported to the UN and only then would a decision be taken, either by the UN or subsequently by the US unilaterally. Moreover, as we have seen, the UN resolution can mean ‘all things to all men’ with the US voting for it as a stage towards possibly triggering war and others, such as France, etc, as well as the Arab states, believing that Iraqi ‘compliance’ will rule out the prospect of war. In other words, the alliance that has been constructed through the UN could fracture at the moment a decision is arrived at to prepare for or avoid war.

At the same time, there is a limited ‘time line’ in which an effective military strike could be organised against Iraq. After the spring of next year the heat in the Iraqi desert combined with the necessary special equipment that must be worn by US coalition combat troops for protection against chemical and biological attacks, makes it prohibitive to go to war then. Therefore, if a war is to take place it must be before the end of March 2003 (or be delayed until much later in the year). Yet it is not at all certain that the weapons inspectors will have completed their examination for the process of war to begin.

Another complicating factor in the Bush administration’s war plans include the increasing awareness, not least amongst the US population, that Iraq is not the "present and immediate danger" to them pictured by Bush. Bin Laden, still alive it seems and uncaptured, is such a threat. The tape released by him in November praising previous terrorist incidents, in Karachi against the French, in Tunisia against Germans, in Bali primarily aimed at Australians, and in Moscow, and promising similar retribution against Britain and Italy in particular, is itself testimony to the failure of the Bush regime’s ‘war against terror’. There is now a widespread perception that Iraq has been singled out not because of its part in the ‘axis of evil’ but because of the pressure of the voracious oil, gas and energy capitalists which underpin the Bush regime, who are looking to carve out for themselves the lion’s share of the post-Saddam oil industry. North Korea is more of a threat given its admission of a capability to produce nuclear weapons, and yet no war is promised against the heirs of Kim Il-sung.

Unknown equations of battle

DESPITE THE SPECULATION about Russia and the Caspian Sea supplanting Saudi Arabia as the petrol pump for the US economy, the Saudis are still the major oil supplier for the US and world capitalism. Fully 25% of the world’s known oil reserves are possessed by Saudi Arabia compared to 11% for Iraq and 5% in Russia (whose oil is relatively expensive because of the costs of extraction).

The Persian Gulf, therefore, remains of vital strategic interest for US imperialism. It is, as this conflict over Iraq shows, prepared to go to war to defend this vital interest. It is this which motivates the bloodthirsty and pro-war ‘hawks’ of Rumsfeld and co. They believe that a quick victory through ‘blitzkrieg’ methods involving no more than 50,000 troops could topple the Saddam regime. However, the US joint chiefs of staff, encouraged by Colin Powell, have won support from Bush for the traditional military doctrine of the US of ‘overwhelming military force’, involving the deployment of at least 200,000 and possibly a quarter of a million troops, to overthrow Saddam if required.

Saddam, on the other hand, by ultimately accepting the UN resolution, has opted for a humiliating retreat in the face of US power. He realises that in a full-frontal attack the US, which has enhanced its military prowess since the Gulf war while Iraq’s military force has been weakened, will ultimately prevail in a head-on trial of strength. Therefore, somewhat like Muhammed Ali in his boxing match against George Foreman – the ‘rumble in the jungle’ in Zaire in 1975 – Saddam is attempting to deploy ‘rope a dope’ tactics. This involves lying on the ‘ropes’ for a number of rounds, taking all the punches and delivering the ‘knockout’ blow when the opponent tires. The problem with this ‘contest’ is that it is like pitting a child with a peashooter against the world heavyweight champion. It is ‘no contest’.

Nevertheless, it is not at all certain that in a war the weaker power (Iraq) cannot inflict serious blows on imperialism which could rebound against the Bush regime and US imperialism. The contest between Iraq and the US will not be a ‘cakewalk’, as claimed by some of the more bellicose hawks. Rumsfeld has speculated that a war would be over in a matter of weeks, ‘at most five months’. It is possible that, such is the suffering of the Iraqi people and the hatred of the Saddam regime, that uprisings of the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north would coalesce with the resignation and unwillingness to fight of the Sunnis and other tribes in the central part of the country. In this situation the Iraqi regime could collapse.

But this scenario is not at all certain, given the widespread perception of the Iraqi people that it is not just Saddam that the US is after but also the natural resources of the country to exploit. Moreover, Iraq has been the cradle of Arab nationalism, an attack upon which will have enormous repercussions throughout the Arab world and the Middle East in general. It is therefore not excluded that the Iraqi army or sections of it around the Republican Guard will fight and particularly in any conflict in and around Baghdad. The Iraqi military is, as the Washington Post argues, "but a shadow of what it was at the start of the Gulf war". It probably has less than half of the million plus troops it had then. The 300,000 strong largely conscript army may crack quickly, particularly under massive aerial bombardment. But there are still 80,000 troops in the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, who are a praetorian guard for Saddam and pledged to fight to the death to repel the US. They come largely from Saddam’s own tribe. One US four-star general commented to the Washington Post: "I don’t think the folks I’m dealing with are thinking this is going to be a cakewalk; it never is. Anybody with a gun in his hand who is defending his town or his tribe can be a pretty tough opponent especially when he is in his own backyard".

Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter contrasts the Saddam regime to Milosevic’s Yugoslavia. He wrote: "Milosevic’s cronies were all about wealth. With Iraq’s regime it’s all about the tribe, the family. It’s about influence and pride". Moreover, Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minister, has pointedly warned that not just Iraq but US forces and its ‘friends’ in the region will pay a price in a war. Therefore the ‘nightmare scenario’ of house-to-house battles with mounting casualties of US troops as well as carnage for the population of Baghdad is possible. If there is enormous unease in the US now, with the return of hundreds, or thousands of US body bags an explosion of rage will ensue. The ghosts of Vietnam have not been expunged from the consciousness of the US population and could come back to haunt Bush in the event of a less than complete and relatively unbloody conclusion to a war.

Opening the ‘gates of hell’

THE REVERBERATIONS OF an attack on Iraq, moreover, will be immediate and massive in the Middle East. Indeed, such a war will play right into the hands of bin Laden and the right-wing political Islamists. Former US security adviser Sandy Berger has correctly pointed out that bin Laden’s real ‘twin towers’ were not in New York but the "regimes of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia". A direct consequence of the attack on Afghanistan has been the burgeoning of the Islamists in Pakistan who triumphantly came second even in the rigged elections of President Musharraf in October.

The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) warned that one of the consequences of the Afghan War could be the ‘Algerianisation’ of Pakistan. This could now come to fruition if the Islamists are prevented from entering the government. Their counterparts in Algeria won the elections in 1992 but they were subsequently ‘cancelled’ by the Algerian army. This in turn has led to the bloody terrorist and counter-terrorist war, with 100,000 victims since then. This could be the grizzly legacy left to the Pakistani people from Bush and Blair’s ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan.

But it would be as nothing compared to consequences in the Arab world as a whole in the event of an all-out war against Iraq. The chairman of the Arab League warned some months ago that it would open the ‘gates of hell’. This was followed in November by Prince al-Hassan bin Talal of Jordan warning that the US’s strategy could "lead to a domino effect of regime change in the region". He meant by this above all Jordan. This regime is sitting on a social volcano. The city of Maan, for instance, has been convulsed recently by mass conflict, with the population defending ‘Islamists’ from the troops of the Hashemite monarchy. The population of Jordan, half of whom are Palestinian, already outraged by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will unleash its fury against the regime if it backs the US, never mind if it gives facilities, in any attack on Iraq. The same goes for Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Then US imperialism could face the definitive nightmare scenario, of an uprising to overthrow the Saudi monarchy and its replacement by a new regime in which ‘state terror’ could be unleashed against the US and all symbols of US imperialism.

Not the least effect could be the dire economic consequences which have now been pointed to by William Nordhaus of Yale University. He has explained that even a ‘clean’ war is likely to incur costs for which no amount of increased Iraqi oil production could compensate. George Perry, an analyst with the Brookings Institute, has drawn up three scenarios, the middle one of which suggests "the tripling of oil prices to $75 a barrel. That would almost certainly push the world into recession" (The Independent, 16 November).

This war, moreover, would not be financed by the ‘allies’ of US imperialism as in 1991. Then, Japan, Germany and Saudi Arabia underwrote the costs of the war, leaving Washington with just over $2bn to pay. The ‘baseline cost’ of an initial military campaign is put by Nordhaus at $50bn. A post-war military occupation of Iraq would mean additional expenditure "anywhere from $75bn to $500bn" (£47bn to £316bn). Of course, US imperialism promised a massive injection of cash into Afghanistan. In the event, a mere $10 million for ‘economic redevelopment’ has been received by Afghanistan compared to $13bn spent on the bombings and Special Forces operations. The dream of a democratic, peaceful and prosperous post-Saddam Iraq is precisely that, a dream, a mirage.

The issues of war and peace are finely balanced now. A war still seems likely, but it is not at all certain for the reasons described. If, against the odds, war is postponed or delayed by Saddam and the pressure of world public opinion, this could represent a severe setback for the Bush regime unless Bush achieves his objective of ‘regime change’, the overthrow of Saddam, without a war. If, on the other hand, they launch an invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam, or the other variant, manage to topple him without a war but by provoking an uprising or coup on the backs of the work of the weapons inspectors, this in no way guarantees a victory without costs. The world, and particularly the Middle East, as well as Asia and the Muslim world as a whole, will be in turmoil. The scene will be set for further terrorist outrages which in turn could feed the war machine of the Bush regime for use in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Moreover, the dire underlying economic crisis will come to the fore even in the event that George Bush junior carries through what his father started in 1991 and topples Saddam. Bush senior won the war but lost the presidential elections which followed because of the economic crisis of the early 1990s. The US economic position is far more dire today, in some ways potentially one of the worst economic positions in its history. It is this fact, and particularly the suffering of the US working class and sections of the middle class that results from this, which will undermine the Bush regime.

The worldwide anti-war movement must seek to stay the hand of Bush and Blair and those driving towards war. Ultimately, however, only by changing society, carrying through the socialist reorganisation of the world, would it be possible to eliminate the causes of war, capitalism itself.


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