26 October 2005
The Iraqi Chimurenga
This article was written and published in 2004, but nothing has happened since then to change the argument.
The Iraqi Chimurenga
It is should not be regarded as unusual for socialists to come together with others to oppose the war against Iraq. The issue is not Saddam Hussein and the Baath party; the issue is opposition to imperialist aggression. If the early steam-powered left could support the Boers in their fight against the British Empire in the early Twentieth Century, then it is only right and proper that the Internet powered left should rally to Iraq’s aid in the early Twenty-First. The Transvaal and Orange Free State were hardly models of liberal government and neither for that matter was Abyssinia in 1936 nor the clerical-fascist dictatorship that was the Poland of 1939. In supporting these countries we ignore what they are because of what they represent, which is opposition to imperialism.
Neither is it unusual to see a few socialists acting as imperialism’s cheerleaders. We are lucky today in that these are minor figures whose loss is scarcely noted, but in 1899 the movement lost men of the stature of Robert Blatchford, one of the founders of modern British socialism. If the early labour movement could shrug off Robert Blatchford then losing today’s pseudo-socialists presents even less of a hardship. Blatchford made his last contribution to British politics in 1937 when he announced his support for the Tory government of the day. Few people on the left even bothered to comment.
However, what is strange about this war is how different it is from previous anti-imperialist struggles in one important aspect: there is no government or political organisation that can be said to head the resistance. Turning back to those earlier fights, the governments either continued in place – on horseback in the case of the South Africans – or they went into exile. In either case a leadership existed that could claim to speak for the people under occupation. Such a leadership could persuade the guerrilla groups to unite under one national banner. France, for instance had at least eight separate resistance groups that covered just about every shade of political opinion in the country. However, it also had General Charles de Gaulle in London who could sent his representatives into the country to cajole the groups to unite. Iraq seems to have a myriad of groups, most of whom are doing sterling service in freedom’s cause, but the outside observer is entitled to wonder just why the Iraqi General de Gaulle has not put in an appearance?
Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector for Iraq thinks that he has in the form of Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, with Rafi Tilfah, the former head of the Directorate of General Security (DGS) as his deputy. Ritter’s argument is that the Baath Party changed its ideology during the 1990s and became less pan-Arab and more Islamic. Thus the flag was changed to include the “God is Great” message and the various Sunni and even Shia tribal and clan groups were incorporated within the Baathist state framework. Ritter goes on to argue that resistance operations in such cities as Fallujah and Ramadi are “carried out by well-disciplined men fighting in cohesive units, most likely drawn from the ranks of Saddam's Republican Guard”.
Although Ritter does not state this, some evidence for the view that the Baath Party is still in charge could be deduced from the seamless transition that Iraq made from a conventional war against the foreign aggressors to a guerrilla resistance. Normally one would expect to see an interregnum as the defeated people come to terms with the disaster that has overtaken them. However, in Iraq, as the casualty figures show, the war did not end, it simply shifted from a conventional defence against aggression to a guerrilla one.
However, the first problem here is that if the Baath Party was providing the impetus for the resistance it is surely inconceivable that they would not have set up a resistance front of some kind by now. It probably would not call itself the Baath Party, so as to attract as many nationalist followers as possible, and it would probably have as its titular head an individual not directly connected to the party. However, it would be claiming to be the legitimate government of Iraq, it would be demanding to take that country’s seat at the United Nations and its spokesmen would be appearing on our television screens every evening. The Baathists may very well have been the thugs that George W. Bush and his poodle in London claimed, but there is a no evidence to suggest that they were so stupid as to not realise the propaganda value that having an underground government would bring.
Another problem is that Fallujah erupted not as a result of any well orchestrated insurrection, but because the Americans killed 18 demonstrators in April 2003. That casual act of brutality came on top of house raids, road blocks and body searches, events which had already alienated the population, anyway. What began with children throwing stones then spread to men firing rifles, but it was a resistance that grew; it did not suddenly explode, fully-formed, into life.
What was true of Fallujah was true of other cities as well. The city of Hit actually welcomed the invaders until house searches led to stone throwing and then a single grenade attack on American forces. The American response was to swamp the town with soldiers in May of 2003. The people rose up in what one correspondent called "the first popular uprising against the US occupation". In the ensuing street battles some five American soldiers and an unknown number of Iraqis were killed.
To make matters even more interesting, of the insurgent leadership that has emerged, most if not all are people who were actually persecuted and who lost family members under the old order. The case of the young Shia radical Muqtada al-Sadr is probably the best known in the West. He lost his father, two brothers and an uncle to Saddam Hussein, but that did not stop him from raising an insurgent force to fight the Americans. Less well known is the tribal sheik who seems to be acting as the spokesman for the insurgents in Fallujah. Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi is now wanted by the Americans, a situation not unfamiliar to him since as he remarked to a journalist, “during Saddam’s time I was tortured and prevented from preaching. If you say the truth you will become an outlaw and wanted. Saddam was unjust and the Americans are also unjust. That is why I am wanted”.
Moving down the guerrilla line to the rank and file insurgents, those who have been interviewed all seem to either be singing from the same choir sheet, or they are all telling the simple truth as they see it. What they say is that they had no connection to the Baath Party. The guerrilla who uses the nom-de-guerre Abu Mujahed can stand as a representative of all those nationalist who are fighting for Iraq. Here is a man who watched American films and listened to American music, especially that of Bon Jovi:
“It gave me a glimpse of a better life. When I heard that the Americans were coming to liberate Iraq I was very happy. I felt that I would be able to live well, travel and have freedom. I wanted to do more sport, get new appliances and a new car and develop my life. I thought the US would come here and our lives would be changed through 180 degrees.”
However, when he saw the rabble that had been let loose on the streets of his part of Baghdad, his welcome turned to rage and he found that his neighbours shared that fury as well. A seven man resistance group was formed. Each, according to Abu Mujahed, has his own reason to fight. Some are unemployed former soldiers, one is a strict Muslim and fights for his faith, the rest are simple patriots who want the Americans out of Iraq. They started out by buying weapons from the looters who had raided the Iraqi Army’s weapons dumps at the end of the conventional phase of the war. Then they asked superannuated army officers to give them “impromptu tutorials in bomb-making and communications”. According to this guerrilla, there is supposedly “a sheikh who co-ordinates some of the groups,” but Abu Mujahed claims not to know who this man is.
In the days when journalists could move more or less freely around Iraq, other reporters filed similar stories: the Iraqi resistance was made up of just about anyone who could beg, borrow or steal a weapon and it was born out of the "humiliations of foreign occupation".
What all this seems to show is that those who are waiting for a Ho Chi Minh or Fidel Castro Ruz to emerge and lead the people to independence are probably going to be disappointed. There is no national leadership behind the Iraqi insurrection. The guerrillas are locally based and what leadership there is only operates at regional or tribal level.
It is possible that William S. Lind is correct in his view that pre-modern forms of warfare are making a comeback. In the case of Africa the pre-modern period was yesterday, at least in historical terms, and the Rhodesian Revolt of 1896-97 will serve as a well-documented case-study of how such wars were fought. The Shona people of what is today Zimbabwe had a word to describe tribal conflicts where everyone who wanted to fight that day piled in. The word that they used was Chimurenga. Following their revolt against rule by the British South Africa Company in 1896-97, the concept of chimurenga began to be applied to any war against oppression – for that reason the guerrilla war of 1972-1980 that led to the destruction of Southern Rhodesia and to the independence of Zimbabwe is the Second Chimurenga.
However, for our purposes, it is the First Chimurenga – that of 1896-97 - that is important. On the one hand there were the Ndebele regiments that fought as conventional infantry. They managed to put the city of Bulawayo under siege, but once the British had recovered from their initial shock the rifle and machine gun soon decimated the Ndebele army. Once this had been done the Whites could negotiate an Ndebele surrender because the latter had a national political leadership that the ordinary people obeyed. However, the Shona had no such leadership because they did not live under a single political authority. Their system of government was a clan based confederacy which did not allow any single leader to emerge as the Shona’s paramount chief. The Shona revolt was led by their local chiefs and drew its inspiration from spirit mediums who were in contact with the people’s ancestral spirits. These mediums were often able to negotiate strategic alliances with other Shona groups, but this coordination remained essentially local, and each clan basically turned out to fight when the mood took it. This meant that the Shona were never able to threaten a White controlled city, but it also meant that it was the Shona revolt that lasted longer than that of the Ndebele. Since the British colonisers had nobody to talk to, they had to suppress each rebel group individually. This they were able to do because the rifle tends to outmatch the spear. This option is probably not available to the Americans and their clients in Iraq. Unlike the Shona, the Iraqis are equipped with modern weapons and have proved that they know how to use them. (See: Ranger, Terence; Revolt in Southern Rhodesia 1896-7, Heinemann, London, 1967. Esp. Ch. 6 & 8)
The jury is probably still out on the type of war that the Iraqi people are waging. A leader may still emerge to unite everyone under one national banner, but given what has happened thus far that does seem increasingly unlikely. However, in the final analysis, it really does not matter how the Iraqis choose to wage their war of liberation. What matters is that they have joined a select and heroic pantheon of nations who have refused to go quietly into imperialism’s long night. If for no other reason than that we owe them our support. They already have our admiration.