Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 12 April 2004


Global events of the past fortnight have undoubtedly been dominated by the dramatic events in Iraq.   The Iraqi resistance has been taken to a new level.  The occupying forces are a range of problems, with more casualties, the impending withdrawal of troops by coalition countries and resignations in the governing council.  As the situation deteriorates for the occupiers, many questions have emerged.


The dramatic events of the past two weeks have brought the situation in Iraq to a new boil. The occupying forces led by the United States is no longer facing only ambushes and bombs set off in various places.

They now face a fuller-blown insurgency in many towns and districts in the country, and seem to have lost control not only of conditions on the ground but of the hearts and minds of the population as well as some of their military allies.

The new cycle of the battle began on 31 March with four American civilians being ambushed in their vehicles in Fallujah, their burnt bodies dragged through the city roads, and hung from a bridge.  The horrifying images shocked the world, and brought home to millions the not only the conflict’s brutality but also the intense Iraqi hatred for the occupation that must have fueled the action.    

The demonstrations two weekends ago of thousands of the Al Mehdi militia of Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr in several cities, which was met by military action in which dozens were killed, showed the spread of the Iraqi resistance, from the Sunni to the majority Shiite Muslims.

The US helicopter attack early last week of the compound of a mosque, which killed about 40 people, further inflamed the situation.

A US siege on Fallujah last week, which led to the reported deaths of about 400 Iraqis and the wounding of thousands more, signaled the upscaling and escalation of the conflict, and turning more Iraqis against the occupation.

By the end of last week, battles had been or were being fought in many towns, with occupation troops trying to re-capture towns or parts of towns that had come under control of various Iraqi resistance fighters.

The situation has spun from being a bad dream to a complete nightmare for the occupying forces, with the unraveling of the plans to hand over power (or at least a part of power) as soon as possible to local Iraqis.

Firstly, the resistance is obviously growing in scope and scale, and it is clear many if not most Iraqis want the occupation forces to leave. A Pentagon briefing showed the “trouble spots” were widespread and included Ramadi, Fallujah, Baghdad, Karbala, Najaf, Kut, Amarah, Nasiriya and Basra.

Secondly, even those who supported the occupying coalition are now considering withdrawing their support in the wake of the ferocious US military action last week, especially in Fallujah.

At least two Ministers in the US-appointed Iraqi governing council resigned suddenly at the end of last week in protest against the recent US military actions, and more are likely to follow.

Thirdly, the US-UK led coalition is showing increasing sings of fracturing.  Many members of the “coalition of the willing” are not so willing anymore.  They are withdrawing their troops and other personnel (or planning to do so).  In the past few days, President Bush has been busy phoning leaders of his ally countries to persuade them against withdrawal.

The US (which has 110,000 troops in Iraq) has recruited about 40 ally countries as small as El Salvador and Mongolia, which together have sent 24,000 troops, mainly in non-combat roles.

The Spanish socialist party had opposed the war, and having come to power the new Prime Minister is planning to withdraw Spain’s troops by mid-year unless the UN has a greater role.  

Many countries, which sent personnel expecting to be involved only in peacekeeping and reconstruction, now realize they are caught in deadly fighting, and are planning not to extend their stay.

This is especially after the abduction last week of three Japanese, with the threat that they would be burnt to death if Japan did not withdraw its troops.  Korean personnel were also abducted but released.  Citizens from other countries are also missing.

In private the political leaders must have wished they never got involved in the first place, and are working out ways to withdraw. 

Asean countries have taken different positions. Malaysia and Indonesia are firmly against the war on and occupation of Iraq.  The Philippines, Thailand and Singapore are in support.  There are military personnel from Asean countries present in Iraq.  The Thai Premier, Thaksin, announced last Saturday that the Thai troops should stay in their camp and could be withdrawn if the situation worsens.

According to the Guardian (London), the Singapore government said its 200 military personnel had returned after finishing a humanitarian mission and there were no plans to send more troops.   And New Zealand will pull its 60 army engineers out of Iraq in September, though they may return later.

Japanese and South Korea forces have retreated to their compounds after coming under fire while Ukrainian and Kazakh forces have been driven out of the town of Kut by Shia fighters.

Fourthly, there is trouble in the US itself for the Bush adminitrsation.   Support of the US establishment and public for the occupation seems to be eroding fast in view of the resistance’s escalation and the mounting US casualties, especially the 4 civilians killed in Fallujah.

More are advising that the US pull out from Iraq as soon as possible, and avoid a Vietnam-type quagmire.

Former President Jimmy Carter last week repeated his condemnation of the war, calling the Bush actions as “ill-advised and unnecessary” and the results a tragedy.

According to a Reuter report, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy called Iraq “George Bush’s Vietnam,” and said: “Vietnam ended up in a quagmire. Iraq may, as well.”

Democratic Senator Robert Byrd said deploying more troops “will only suck us deeper into the maelstrom of violence,” and the Bush administration “should instead be working toward an exit strategy.”

And Democratic Senator Joseph Biden saw a parallel of the violence in Iraq to Vietman after the 1998 Tet offensive -  the fear that “we don’t have control there, we don’t have a plan.”   He the situation could be salvaged if Bush acted quickly to get the United Nations and NATO involved in Iraq’s transition to sovereignty.

“We’re at a tipping point in Iraq, with a real danger of losing control of the situation,” Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger, who was national security advisor to President Clinton.

“It’s time to bail out,” said Charles V. Peña, a director at the conservative Cato Institute in  Washington. “We are in a situation that is no longer in control, and we

can’t make the fairy tale outcome that we would like to see happen in Iraq.”

But some Republicans suggested instead that President Bush extend the US stay in Iraq by postponing  the June 30 deadline for the handover of power. 

“We would be wise to re-evaluate the June 30 deadline. There are so many unanswered questions, not the least of which is to whom will we be turning over power,” said Senator Susan Collins.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar said “this is not the time to be drawing down our troops unless we can replace them with troops from other countries.”

But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, a Republican, said the June 30 deadline must be met “irrespective of the increased insurgency, because it affects the credibility of the coalition forces.”

The recent events have deepened the crisis of policy for the US.  It is losing the support of several coalition countries, which do not want their troops endangered.

To face the insurgency, the US may increase its own troops in Iraq.  But if it uses aggressive military power against the insurgents, it may face a Israeli-Palestinian situation, in which military action will spawn more resistance which in turn would lead to more military action. 

This cycle will expand the base of popular support for the resistance, and cause the US to be bogged down in military operations for many years to come.

It may want to hand more military power in addition to political authority to the United Nations, which it has previously shunned.  But having itself suffered bombings and personnel losses in Iraq, the UN may well reject a military role it cannot successfully take on.  Why should the UN take over the toxic-laden baton from the US in a race it never authorized, just to enable the US to pull out of its problems?

The US is even more eager now to hasten the transfer of some political power to an Iraqi team.  But its chosen local allies lack credibility with the public, and several of the key ones are themselves resigning from the governing council.  So whilst the US may want to hand over power, there may be few of its allies left to receive it.    

The demands of many in the resistance, that an election be held to determine the government, are not acceptable to the occupation authorities.

Last week, Martin Woollacott wrote perceptively in the Guardian (London):  “Iraq is not yet the defeat for the US that it could become. But America is chastened and perplexed. The Bush administration, which believed so devoutly that it could move mountains, may now know better.

“It may even grasp that the concept to which it has always paid lip service - that it is Iraqis who will decide their own future - is now more than just useful rhetoric. It is Iraqis, in the accumulation of their choices, decisions and actions, who will largely decide whether America’s intervention ends up as a success or as a failure. The Americans went to Iraq to rescue the Iraqis, and now stand in need of being rescued themselves.”

There was a saying when the US-led forces captured Baghdad last year that may have quite easily won the war but that they will find it hard to win the peace.   The truth of this is even more evident today.   Sheer military might, however powerful, may not carr the day in face of determined local resistance.