The Political Culture of Anti-Intervention

Support Their Troops: Towards a United Front
July 22nd, 2007

Alexander Cockburn raises the pertinent question: When every antiwar event takes pains to offer its support to the troops engaged in an illegal and immoral war against a sovereign nation, why no one is offering similar support to those defending their homeland?

Lawrence McGuire, a North Carolinian now teaching in Montpellier, France, organized a meeting of antiwar Americans and various interested French parties there at which I spoke last fall. Since then, we’ve been discussing off and on the strange fact that while two-thirds of all Americans oppose the war in Iraq and want the troops to come home, the antiwar movement is pretty much dead. McGuire raises the matter of direct solidarity with Iraqis fighting the US presence in Iraq. In other words, support their troops:

“I was reading a recent piece by Phyllis Bennis recently. She talked about the ‘US military casualties’ and the ‘Iraqi civilian victims’ and it struck me that the grand taboo of the antiwar movement is to show the slightest empathy for the resistance fighters in Iraq. They are never mentioned as people for whom we should show concern, much less admiration.

“But of course, if you are going to sympathize with the US soldiers, who are fighting a war of aggression, than surely you should also sympathize with the soldiers who are fighting for their homeland. Perhaps not until the antiwar movement starts to some degree recognizing that they should include ‘the Iraqi resistance fighters’ in their pantheon of victims (in addition to US soldiers and Iraqi civilians) will there be the necessary critical mass to have a real movement.”

Now there are many obvious reasons why the direct solidarity with resistance fighters visible in the Vietnam antiwar struggle and the Central American anti-intervention movement has not been visible in the movement opposing the Iraq war. The “War on Terror” means-and was designed to mean-that any group in the US with detectable ties or relations with Iraqi resistance movements would be in line for savage legal reprisals under the terms of the Patriot Act. Another important factor: The contours of the Iraqi resistance have been murky and in some aspects unappetizing to secular progressive coalitions in the West, or so they virtuously claim.

But such cavils were familiar in the Sixties and Eighties too as huge chunks of the solidarity movement found endless reasons to distance themselves from the Vietnamese NLF or the Nicaraguan FMLN. That said, ignorance about the Iraqi resistance is somewhat forgiveable. This time there has been no Wilfrid Burchett reporting from behind the lines, and that has had consequences of the kind McGuire sketches out above.

The personal aspect of international political solidarity is not just the stuff of nostalgic anecdote. In the late 1980s the Central American resistance was constantly among us here in the United States in physical form. While Daniel Oretega and Rosario Murillo worked the Hollywood liberal circuit, the sanctuary movement sheltered militants and sympathizers in churches across the country and defied federal efforts to seize them. Labor organizers from El Salvador traveled across North America from local to friendly local. I can remember being at a picnic of a union local striking a door factory in Springfield, Oregon, southeast of Eugene, where a man from a radical labor coalition in El Salvador got a cordial reception from the strikers and their families as they swapped stories of their respective battles.

The other day I found in a box of old papers in my garage a directory to “sister cities”-towns in the United States that had paired with beleagured towns in Nicaragua, regularly exchanging delegations. The directory was as thick as a medium-sized telephone book. There were hundreds of such pairings and many were the individual pairing they led to. People’s Express, the “backpackers’ airline,” as it used to be called, would shuttle demure sisters in the struggle from Vermont or the Pacific Northwest to Miami, for onward passage to Managua and a rendezvous with some valiant son of Sandino or oppressed Nica sister liberated by North American inversion from the oppressions of Latin patriarchy.

Today there is no draft, a prime factor in stocking the Vietnam antiwar movement. This absence of the draft is certainly a major factor in the weakness of the antiwar movement. But though there was no draft in the Reagan years, there was certainly was that very lively political culture of anti-intervention in the 1980s.

It looked as though just such a vibrant left antiwar movement was flaring into life in 2003. But many of its troops have either veered into 9/11 kookdom, or whining about global warming or nourished an often unspoken resolve to vest all hopes in a Democratic presidency after 2008. The bulk of the antiwar movement has become subservient to the Democratic Party and to the agenda of its prime candidates for the presidency in 2008, with Hillary Clinton in the lead.

To describe the antiwar movement in its effective form is really to mention a few good efforts-the anti-recruitment campaigns, the tours by those who have lost children in Iraq-or three or four brave souls-Cindy Sheehan, who single-handedly reanimated the antiwar movement last year and now vows to run against house speaker Nancy Pelosi unless the latter stops blocking impeachment proceedings, or the radical Catholic Kathy Kelly, or Medea Benjamin and her “Code Pink” activists occupying Hilary Clinton’s office and ambushing her for youtube.

A simple question: Has the end of America’s war on Iraq been brought closer by the recapture of the US Congress by the Democrats in November 2006? The answer is that when it comes to the actual war, which has led to the bloody disintegration of Iraqi society, the deaths of up to 5,000 Iraqis a month, the death and mutilation of US soldiers every day, nothing at all has happened since the Democrats rode to victory in November courtesy of popular revulsion in America against the war. I don’t think there is much of an independent Left in America today, if there was, then Lawrence McGuire’s statement about the lack of solidarity with the Iraqi resistance wouldn’t be so obviously on the mark.

Meanwhile, Sami Ramadani offers insights into how the Iraqi resistance can bring together its disparate elements and turn events to its decisive advantage.

Yesterday’s Guardian report on armed resistance organisations in Iraq and their plans to form a political front was a fresh and illuminating snapshot of the most dangerous and far-reaching conflict of our times. By eschewing the usual cliches and bundles of distortions about any Muslims bearing arms, the report enriches our understanding of the best organised of the resistance groups active in parts of Baghdad and the areas up to and including Mosul, north of the capital. What they say indicates a major shift in tactics and strategy, but also reveals these groups’ achilles heels.

Politically, one of the most telling statements was from the spokesperson of a faction of the Ansar al-Sunna resistance group:

“Resistance isn’t just about killing Americans without any aims or goals … Our people have come to hate al-Qaida, which gives the impression to the outside world that the resistance in Iraq are terrorists. Suicide bombing is not the best way to fight because it kills innocent civilians. We are against indiscriminate killing – fighting should be concentrated only on the enemy. They [al-Qaida] believe that all Shia are kuffar [unbelievers]- and most of the Sunnis as well … The Americans magnify their role, even though they are responsible for a minority of resistance operations – remember that the Americans brought al-Qaida to Iraq.”

The statement is significant in two respects. One is the fact that al-Qaida is being denounced openly, and the second is that the man making the statement is from Ansar al-Sunna, one the organisations that gained notoriety in its indiscriminate methods of fighting and sectarian ideology. Equally significant is the fact that the other faction of Ansar al-Sunna is being accused of working with al-Qaida.

One of the least sectarian of the seven groups forming the new alliance is the 1920 Revolution Brigades, whose leader, Harith al-Dhari, was assassinated recently by al-Qaida, according to Muthanna al-Thari, spokesperson of the very influential Association of Muslim Scholars. The leader of the AMS, Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, is the assassinated leader’s uncle and the most influential of the anti-occupation Sunni cleric. Reversing earlier statements, Sheikh Dhari, has also become very critical of al-Qaida. His and other recent anti al-Qaida statements are fuelled by the enormous loathing that Iraqis of all sects and ethnicities have for al-Qaida and all sectarian attacks. Indeed, popular opinion in the streets of Iraq habitually accuse the occupation of backing al-Qaida to spread sectarian divisions and split the struggle against the occupation.

The seven groups are not only anti al-Qaida but also keen to distance themselves from the Saddamist wing of the Ba’ath party, led by Izz’at al-Douri, Saddam Hussein’s deputy until the 2003 invasion.

Such political credentials should in theory make the task of unity with Muqtada Sadr’s movement less difficult. However, the resistance leaders who talked to the Guardian accuse Sadr’s Mahdi army of sectarian killings while ignoring the fact that most of the sectarian attacks have been aimed at Sadr City, Najaf, Kufa and Karbala. For his part, Sadr has conceded that his movement has been infiltrated by its enemies, including the occupation authorities. Referring to the climate of chaos and occupation presence, Sadrist spokesmen have often referred to “the ease with which sectarian crimes could be committed by anyone wearing black and claiming to be from the Mahdi army.”

Following the second attack on the Samarra Shia shrine, Sadr accused the occupation of being behind the attack – a position echoed by Sunni clergy and secular forces – and stressed unity with Sunnis. He later accused the US of sabotaging his attempts to unite with Sunnis. While it obviously suits the US to divide the opposition to its occupation of the country, Sadr’s own tactics are attacked for being one of the biggest obstacles to greater anti-occupation unity. These tactics include on-off participation in the government and the Sadrists’ presence in parliament (in the sect-based Coalition List that won most of the seats in the January 2006 occupation-controlled elections).

Though some of the criticisms of Iranian policies by the resistance leaders interviewed by the Guardian are based in fact, the seven groups’ hostility to Iran is still trapped within the old Saddamist-style anti-Iranian chauvinism that fuelled his eight-year war against Iran following the 1979 overthrow of the US-backed Shah regime. Racist propaganda against the Iranian people lasted for a quarter of a century and permeated Iraqi society and its educational system. The US-led propaganda campaign against Iran has thus fallen on receptive ears. The US is happy to see Iraqis directing their wrath against the fictitious “presence of hundreds of thousands of Iranians fighting alongside the US forces to evict Sunnis from Baghdad and replace them with Shia” – in the words of one Iraqi victim of the occupation who, with her daughter, was forced to leave Iraq after the murder of her brother.

The seven resistance groups don’t appear to be facing up to the fact that effectively by far the biggest organised armed resistance group in Iraq is Sadr’s Mahdi army, estimated to be well over 100,000 strong – or that, in the absence of strong non-religious anti-occupation organisations, millions of people across Iraq are supporters of Muqtada Sadr’s anti-occupation message. US jets and helicopters are daily bombarding Sadr City in Baghdad and towns south of Baghdad. Thousands of Sadrists are in jail and the US is acutely aware that the Sadrists remain one of the biggest obstacles to controlling Iraq.

Last but not least, when talking about the resistance in Iraq it’s important to remember that most of the thousands of military operations that the Pentagon reports are carried out monthly against the occupation forces go unclaimed by any organisation. This confirms the impression that I and many Iraqis have that most of the armed resistance to the occupation is conducted by localised groups in the villages and cities of Iraq. Armed resistance to the occupation has much deeper and more popular roots than the politicians in Washington and London dare to admit. For admitting it, at least in public, means abandoning their much trumpeted “exit strategy”, otherwise known as having your cake and eating it. Having a pro US government in Baghdad, withdrawing most of the troops but keeping military bases in Iraq is not what Iraqis mean by ending the military and economic occupation of Iraq. Such an exit strategy will not stop the resistance and the sea of popular support that feeds and protects it.

For even those who are engaged in anti-occupation political and trade union activities in Iraq do not hide their support for the “al-muqawama al-sharifa” (”the honourable resistance” as distinct from terrorism). And it is these deep Iraqi roots which are likely, sooner or later, to produce the united front that rises above the differences based on religion or ethnicity. A slogan gaining momentum in the streets of Iraq reflects this popular mood:”La lil ihtilal; la lil ta’iffia; la lil irhab”: “No to the occupation; no to sectarianism; no to terrorism.”

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