The Anglo-American war now being fought in the Middle East is without question the most flagrant act of aggression carried out by a British government in modern times. The assault on Iraq which began a week ago, in the teeth of global and national opinion, was launched without even the flimsiest Iraqi provocation or threat to Britain or the US, in breach of the UN charter and international law, and in defiance of the majority of states represented on the UN security council.
It is necessary to descend deep into the mire of the colonial era to find some sort of precedent or parallel for this piratical onslaught. However wrong or unnecessary, every previous British war for the past 80 years or more has been fought in response to some invasion, rebellion, civil war or emergency. Even in the most crudely rapacious case of Suez, there was at least a challenge in the form of the nationalisation of the canal. Not so with Iraq, where the regime was actually destroying missiles with which it might have hoped to defend itself only a couple of days before the start of the US-led attack.
But there is little reflection of this reality, or of Anglo-American isolation in the world over the war, in either the bulk of the British media coverage or the response from most politicians and public figures. Little is now heard of the original pretext for war, Iraq’s much-vaunted weapons of mass destruction, and regime change – that lodestar of the US hawks which Tony Blair struggled to dissociate himself from for so long – is now the uncontested mission of the campaign. Having lost the public debate on the war, Blair has demanded that a divided nation rally round British troops carrying out his policy of aggression in the Gulf. And under a barrage of war propaganda, the soft centre of public opinion has dutifully shifted ground – in the wake of those MPs who put their careers before constituents and conscience once Blair had failed to secure UN authorisation. Many balk at criticising the war when British soldiers are in action, but it’s hardly a position that can be defended as moral or principled when the action they are taking part in arguably constitutes a war crime. And whether public support holds up under the pressure of events in Iraq – such as yesterday’s civilian carnage in a Baghdad market – remains to be seen.
Events have, of course, signally failed to follow their expected course. The pre-invasion spin couldn’t have been clearer. The Iraqis would not fight, we were told, but would welcome US and British invaders with open arms. The bulk of the regular army would capitulate as soon as soon as they saw the glint on the columns of American armour. The war might even only last six days, Donald Rumsfeld suggested, in a contemptuous evocation of the Arabs’ humiliation in the Six Day war of 1967. His hard right Republican allies insisted it would be a “cakewalk”. British ministers, as ever, took their cue from across the Atlantic, while the intelligence agencies and US-financed Iraqi opposition groups reinforced their arrogant assumptions.
But Rumsfeld’s six days have been and gone and resistance to the most powerful military machine in history continues to be fierce across Iraq – in and around the very Shi’ite-dominated towns and cities, such as Najaf and Nasiriyah, that the US and Britain expected to be least willing to fight. Nor has the Iraqi army yet collapsed or surrendered in large numbers, while regular units are harrying US and British forces along with loyalist militias. One senior US commander told the New York Times yesterday, “we did not put enough credence in their abilities,” while another conceded that “we did not expect them to attack”. The International Herald Tribune recorded dolefully that “the people greeting American troops have been much cooler than many had hoped”.
There was little public preparation for the resistance that is now taking place. Third World peoples have after all been allocated a largely passive role in the security arrangements of the new world order – the best they can hope for is to be “liberated” and be grateful for it. There has been little understanding that, however much many Iraqis want to see the back of Saddam Hussein, they also – like any other people – don’t want their country occupied by foreign powers. No doubt Ba’athist militias are playing a coercive role in stiffening resistance. There are also those who cannot expect to survive the fall of the dictatorship and therefore have nothing to lose. But the scale and commitment of the resistance – along with reports of hundreds of Iraqis struggling to return from Syria and Jordan to fight – suggests that it is driven far more by national and religious pride. Most of these people are not fighting for Saddam Hussein, but for the independence of their homeland.
To fail to recognise this now obvious reality is not only condescending, but stupid. But then we have been subjected to such a blizzard of disinformation in recent days – from the reported deaths of Tariq Aziz and Saddam Hussein to the non-existent chemical weapons plant and Tuesday’s uprising in Basra – that it should come as no surprise to hear everyone from British and US defence ministers to BBC television presenters refer to Iraqis defending their own country as “terrorists”.
Of course, the US has the military might to break Iraqi conventional resistance and impose a puppet administration in Baghdad in order to change the regional balance of power, oversee the privatisation of Iraq’s oil and parcel out reconstruction contracts to itself and its friends. But the course of this war will also have a huge political impact, in Iraq and throughout the world. This is after all a demonstration war, designed to cow and discipline both the enemies and allies of the US. The tougher the Iraqi resistance, the more difficult it will be for the US to impose its will in the country, and move on to the next target in the never-ending war on terror. The longer Iraqis are able and choose to resist, the more the pressure will also build against the war in the rest of the world.
Almost 86 years ago to the day, the British commander Lieutenant General Stanley Maude issued a proclamation to the people of Baghdad, whose city his forces had just occupied. “Our armies,” he declared, “do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors, but as liberators.” Within three years, 10,000 had died in a national Iraqi uprising against the British rulers, who gassed and bombed the insurgents. On the eve of last week’s invasion Lieutenant Colonel Tim Collins echoed Maude in a speech to British troops. “We go to liberate, not to conquer”, he told them. All the signs from the past few days are that a new colonial occupation of Iraq – however it is dressed up – will face determined guerrilla resistance long after Saddam Hussein has gone; and that the occupiers will once again be driven out.