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The Facts You Need to Know About June 30
What the US Has in Store for Iraq

by Lee Sustar
June 5, 2004
First Published in Socialist Worker

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Just who will get "sovereignty" over Iraq on June 30?

The short answer is John Negroponte. He will become U.S. ambassador to Iraq on that date, replacing Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer as Washington’s man in Baghdad.

Which Iraqis will be nominally in charge is the source of much maneuvering.

Longtime exile Ahmad Chalabi was supposed to be in charge. Chalabi conned the CIA into backing a failed coup in Iraq in 1996, and later charmed the neoconservative clique in Washington with bogus intelligence on weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify Bush Jr.’s war. But Chalabi has fallen out with his masters, who now dismiss him as an Iranian spy and a crook who was convicted of bank fraud in Jordan in the 1980s.

Earlier in May, U.S. officials announced that the top job of prime minister would go to Hussain al-Shahristani, a dissident nuclear scientist jailed and exiled under Saddam Hussein, who is reportedly close to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s foremost Shiite cleric. But the exiles who dominate the Iraqi Governing Council -- the gang of puppets and collaborators hand-picked by Washington -- balked at al-Shahristani, according to the Washington Post, and chose one of their own. This was "a serious blow to attempts by the United States and the United Nations to fill top positions in the interim government with independents and technocrats instead of politicians, many of whom spent years in exile and enjoy little public support," the Post reported.

So having ditched Chalabi, who had no base in Iraq, the U.S. is backing his mirror-image rival --Iyad Allawi, a physician and former member of Saddam’s Baath Party who, in exile, signed up with British intelligence in the 1970s and, later, the CIA.

As a member of the CIA-funded Iraqi National Accord--made up of former Baathists and military officers -- Allawi was involved in the 1996 coup debacle, but is virtually unknown to most Iraqis. According to journalist Adam Davidson, who reported extensively on business corruption in Iraq for the public radio program Marketplace, Allawi is notorious for demanding the biggest bribes. Where Chalabi sought "de-Baathification," Allawi wants to hire Saddam’s former henchmen to run the U.S. puppet state.

Allawi’s name was announced by United Nations (UN) envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is supposed to choose the other top posts in the Iraq transitional government and submit them to Washington for approval. So there’s more confusion and flip-flops to come before June 30.

What is the United Nations’ role in the "transition?"

For now, Brahimi will try cut a power-sharing deal among the three main groups in Iraq--the Kurdish minority in the north, the mainstream Shiite parties based mainly in the south, and the predominately Sunni Muslim groupings from the old regime’s bureaucracy.

Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat, will choose the top officials and cabinet to serve until a national vote takes place, supposedly by the end of January at the latest. He first worked for the UN in Lebanon during that country’s civil war, where he brokered a peace settlement in the late 1980s, "perpetuating [religious] sectarianism as a key element of Lebanese political life," as the U.S. State Department Web site puts it.

Brahimi was the UN’s top official in Haiti in 1994, when the U.S. invaded and occupied the country -- with UN authorization -- to restore Jean-Bertrand Aristide to office in a deal that pushed disastrous free-market "reforms." His next big assignment for the UN -- and Washington -- was Afghanistan, where Brahimi negotiated the agreement that essentially carved up the country into fiefdoms run by rival warlords and drug gangs.

In Iraq, he’s using the same method--cut deals among competing factions while leaving real power in the hands of the U.S. In fact, the UN Security Council resolution proposed by the U.S. and Britain states that a U.S.-led "multinational force" will have "authority to take all necessary measures to contribute to the maintenance of security and stability in Iraq." British Prime Minister Tony Blair initially claimed that the new Iraqi government would have the right to veto military actions by this force -- until the Bush administration made him swallow his words.

As international law specialist Simon Chesterman put it: "An Iraq where the U.S. controls foreign policy, [has] an embassy with 2,000 staff, and [more than] 100,000 troops, is not that dissimilar from the Soviet Union's relations with eastern bloc states."

Security Council members France, Germany, Russia and China are pushing for changes -- but will likely approve the resolution after some horse-trading with the U.S. The International Monetary Fund has announced that Iraq will get "relief" from debts in the second half of the year -- and European countries, far from defenders of Iraqi self-determination, are out to make sure they get as much of their money back as possible.

What are the political forces on the ground in Iraq?

The media invariably puts the question in terms of competing factions of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. This is accurate to a point -- but it also reflects the divide-and-conquer politics of the U.S. occupiers, who fear a united Iraqi nationalist opposition, especially after the torture scandal.

The Kurds, who are about 19 percent of the Iraqi population, are said to be the largest and oldest known ethnic group in the world that doesn’t have its own nation-state. Their population is spread across Iran, Syria and, in the largest concentration, Turkey.

Governments in the region have historically manipulated Kurdish nationalist aspirations in neighboring countries for their own ends, while ruthlessly repressing them on their own turf. The U.S. got into this act in 1991, when George W. Bush called on Kurds and Shiites to rebel against Saddam Hussein in the closing days of the Gulf War -- but allowed Saddam to crush the revolt, rather than see Iraq break up. After Kurdish refugees flooded Turkey, the U.S. intervened to set up a Kurdish protectorate in the north of Iraq, independent of Saddam’s control -- while turning a blind eye as Turkey viciously repressed Kurds on the other side of the border.

The U.S. saw Iraqi Kurdistan as a staging ground for coups and uprisings against Saddam, but the main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), run by Masoud Barzani, soon fell out. Barzani allied with Saddam in 1996 to launch a military attack on Talabani’s forces -- and Washington had to strong-arm the two parties into an alliance prior to last year’s invasion.

Both factions fought alongside U.S. forces, and neither joined the armed struggle against the U.S. occupation, as most Kurds still see Washington as a protector. But tensions remain over Kurdish demands to reassert their historic control over the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul and other territory where Iraqi Arabs were settled as part of Saddam’s anti-Kurdish repression. An estimated 1 million Kurds live in Baghdad as well.

Shiite politics are also more complex than the U.S. media acknowledge. Iraq’s Shiites are the largest of the three main groupings in Iraqi society, constituting about 60 percent of the population, but they were oppressed under the old regime, run by Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. is courting the top cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani--but it should be remembered that the U.S. initially favored another Shiite leader, Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei, who was assassinated upon his return to Iraq with the U.S. invaders. The other major players are the Al-Dawa party, historically the main Shiite group -- and a splitoff, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which also controls the Badr Brigades, a Shiite militia armed and trained by Iran. The U.S. and the SCIRI have had an on-and-off relationship since the first Gulf War, but the SCIRI backed Bush Jr.’s invasion and plays an important role on the Governing Council, along with Al-Dawa.

That left political space for the emergence of Moktada al-Sadr, another cleric and son of a prominent ayatollah assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s forces. Sadr’s base is in the big Shiite slums of Baghdad, but the brutality of the U.S. occupation and frustration with the impotent Iraqi Governing Council allowed him to expand his support.

When U.S. forces closed his newspaper in April and announced a warrant for his arrest for the killing of Khoei, they were stunned by the scale of resistance in almost every major Shiite area, except Basra in the far south--and stunned again by the solidarity between Sadr’s fighters and the Sunni resistance during the siege of Falluja. The U.S. thought it could finally crush Sadr when Sistani and the SCIRI gave the green light for American troops to move into the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Yet after seven weeks of fighting in which the U.S. killed hundreds of people and damaged holy shrines, mainstream Shiite parties were compelled to broker--and the U.S. felt pressured to accept -- a ceasefire with Sadr, under which both his troops and American forces will withdraw.

Despite sporadic fighting afterward, the U.S. said it would honor what the New York Times called "a major concession to Mr. Sadr, whom American commanders said in April they intended to ‘kill or capture.’" The contest for influence among Iraqi Shiites will intensify amid the debate over the transitional government.

For the U.S., the pullback in Najaf and Karbala was a recognition of necessity -- just like its earlier retreat in Falluja, the center of resistance in the so-called "Sunni triangle." After facing a far more intense fight than it bargained for in Falluja, the U.S. faced the choice of leveling the city or retreating. The fighters aren’t "Saddam loyalists" or "terrorists," as the U.S. has claimed, but tribal groups and Iraqi nationalists, according to journalist Patrick Graham, who wrote about his year with the resistance in the June issue of Harper’s magazine.

Politically, Washington had no option but to pull out of Falluja and allow a militia run by a general from Saddam Hussein’s old regime to take over. Look for similar deals in the run-up to June 30 as Washington scrambles to recruit the largely Sunni members of Saddam’s Baath Party to try to hold the transitional government together.

Besides the Baathists, probably the most important secular party is the Iraqi Communist Party (CP), which collaborated with Saddam for a period before being repressed and driven underground in the 1970s. Today, the CP is a member of the Governing Council, collaborates closely with the U.S. and denounces the armed struggle. A small split from the CP, the Workers Communist Party, opposes the occupation, but has also criticized the armed resistance.

Both parties play key roles in the Iraqi labor movement. There are two union federations, the Iraqi Federation of Workers Trade Unions and the Federation of Workers Unions and Councils (which includes the Union of the Unemployed in Iraq). Both federations have organized strikes and demonstrations despite Saddam-era laws banning unions in the pubic sector -- laws that the U.S. occupation authorities continued to enforce, and which will apparently remain on the books.

Can the U.S. plan work?

Not a chance. In South Vietnam, the U.S.-sponsored regime lasted only months after the U.S. troops withdrew -- and the Iraqi government will be even more dependent on Washington. Imperialist occupation has always bred resistance. This is especially true in Iraq, where a long nationalist struggle forced out the British occupation that began in the First World War.

The scale of the fighting and the torture scandal have already shattered the U.S. plan to turn Iraq into a free-market "democracy" that could be a model for the Middle East. The best that the U.S. can hope for is to play one group off against another by institutionalizing sectarian and ethnic divisions with a strong state -- i.e., one backed by 100,000-plus troops from the world’s only superpower. This method hasn’t worked in chaotic Afghanistan, and it won’t work in Iraq, where the scale of the resistance--and the political stakes for U.S. imperialism--are vastly greater.

That doesn’t mean that Washington will simply pull out. It won’t -- until the resistance in Iraq and the opposition at home forces the U.S. to go. That’s why we have to step up our demands to get the troops home now -- and defend the right of Iraqis to determine their own fate.

Lee Sustar writes regularly for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. He can be contacted at:

Other Articles by Lee Sustar

* The Roots of the Resistance
* What’s to Blame for Lost Jobs?
* Bush’s Right-Wing Allies in Spain Defeated after Madrid Bombing
* How Washington Set the Stage for Haiti’s Uprising