BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
A brutal U.S.-British assault on Iraq, beginning March 20 with what Washington called "surgical" missile strikes, was rapidly turned into a massive aerial bombing of several Iraqi cities together with a ground invasion. The invading armies killed or maimed hundreds of working people and other Iraqis in Baghdad, Basra, Umm Qasr, Nasiriyah, and other cities and towns during the first few days of the imperialist slaughter.
With lightning speed, several armored divisions of the nearly quarter-million U.S. troops and 45,000 British soldiers in the area swept much of the country’s south and began surrounding Baghdad within five days. This is about half the size of the U.S.-led military forces that attacked Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War. U.S. Marines as well as Navy Seals and army special forces are spearheading the onslaught. The imperialist armies encountered relatively small pockets of resistance, taking their first substantial casualties in the battle of Nasiriyah.
As the first U.S. casualties were reported, Washington and the big-business press stepped up their efforts to whip up pro-war sentiment by portraying Iraqis as "war criminals" for supposedly violating the Geneva Convention.
The war is marked by the sharpening conflict between the U.S. and British rulers, on one hand, and Paris and Berlin on the other, in competition for control of the Mideast and its resources. Washington’s goal is to conquer Iraq and establish a protectorate under U.S. military rule as part of its long-term efforts to establish its supremacy in the Mideast at the expense of its rivals. To camouflage these predatory aims, the imperialist assault has been named "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
For its part, Paris seeks to protect its foothold in the oil-rich region, where it has profited from lucrative commercial relations with the Iraqi government.
After months of building up an invasion force of more than a quarter-million troops in the Arab-Persian Gulf, while escalating a campaign of bombing Iraq’s defense and communications facilities in the north and south, Washington and London unleashed their military offensive in the early hours of March 20. They did so in the name of a "coalition of the willing," nearly 50 governments backing the military assault. Fifteen of these governments, however, have preferred to remain anonymous, their endorsement influenced by none-too-subtle pressures from their U.S. "partner."
The U.S. government unceremoniously dismissed the "unwilling," particularly the imperialist powers in Paris and Berlin. To guarantee their place in the re-carving up of the Mideast, those governments had called for extending United Nations "arms inspections" in order to "disarm" Iraq.
Despite the constant media references to "coalition troops," the actual combat force is made up of 250,000 soldiers from the United States, 45,000 from the United Kingdom, and 2,000 from Australia.
The attack began with cruise missile aimed at killing the top Iraqi leadership in Baghdad. Dozens of government buildings and strategic facilities in the country’s capital were reduced to rubble. U.S. officials initially claimed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had been killed or seriously wounded in the bombing.
This move was calculated to deal a decisive blow to demoralize the cadres of the ruling Baathist party and Iraqi officer corps by demonstrating that the central government was isolated and vulnerable, thus leading to the collapse of the resistance. U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced March 21 that secret surrender talks were under way with Iraqi military commanders.
On the second day, the imperialist forces launched what they called a "shock and awe" campaign of intense round-the-clock bombing and shelling, aimed at forcing Iraq’s forces into an early capitulation. Cruise missiles have rained down on Iraqi cities day and night; as of March 25, according to Pentagon spokespeople, 2,000 bombs and missiles have been launched, concentrated on Baghdad. Other major cities hit include Kirkuk and Mosul, two oil-producing centers in the north, and Nasiriyah and Basra in the south.
Working people killed, wounded
U.S. officials have sought to portray the bombing campaign as a model of precision tailored to minimize civilian casualties. The big-business correspondents "embedded" with the imperialist forces have been careful to downplay the scope of the deaths and injuries among the Iraqi population. Some initial reports, however, have provided a glimpse of the devastation inflicted on working people by the "precision bombing." Hundreds have been reported killed or wounded in Baghdad, and the toll continues to rise.
Saman Atef, a resident of a working-class neighborhood in north Baghdad, told Los Angeles Times reporter John Daniszewski that he was home on the morning of March 24 when bombs hit and three of his neighbors’ houses exploded in a rain of bricks, glass, and dust, killing four people and injuring 23. "This is not the first time that they have targeted civilian buildings," he said. "They would like to destroy the civilian population."
Atef added, "We are not frightened by the bombing--we are motivated to be stronger."
Thamur Skeikel, 53, an oil ministry employee, had returned from work to find his house no longer standing and his sister and two young nephews killed. "Bush is cursed," he said. "They want to destroy the people." The Times reporter noted that the residents of the neighborhood "counted one more reason to hate the United States."
At nearby Al Nouman hospital, where doctors were treating survivors, Aqeel Khalil, 27, said, "There is no military site in my house, and there is no gun in my house." Khalil’s wife had been killed in the assault.
Syrians reacted with outrage March 24 when U.S. and British planes accidentally bombed a bus in western Iraq full of Syrian workers returning home from their jobs across the border. Five people were killed and 15 wounded.
Thousands of protesters chanted, "Murder, murder," and "Stop the aggression" outside the British and U.S. embassies in Damascus, which have been closed until further notice.
The imperialist forces launched a ground invasion of southern Iraq from bases in neighboring Kuwait in step with the bombing campaign. Advancing rapidly and reportedly encountering little resistance in the first few days, they took much of the south, seizing the prized oil wells.
British-led forces have carried out a siege of the southern port city of Basra, subjecting it to savage bombardment. They have initially avoided entering the city, Iraq’s second-largest, to minimize U.S. and British dead and wounded. Iraqi casualties are reported to be high. Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based TV news network, reported that 50 people were killed March 22 after being bombed by a U.S. fighter jet. Hospital workers told the station that entire families had been killed.
With the water supply and electricity cut off in the city of 1.5 million people, United Nations officials have warned of a growing risk of disease, particularly among children. Iraqi trade minister Mohamed Mahdi Saleh stated in a March 25 news conference that U.S. forces had seized ships carrying humanitarian relief in the port of Umm Qasr, blocking supplies to Basra.
These developments stand in sharp contrast to statements by U.S. government officials that U.S. soldiers are bringing "humanitarian aid" to Iraqis.
To the extent that the U.S. and British bombers have spared Baghdad’s communications networks and other vital infrastructure, it is due to other than humanitarian interests. As New York Times reporter Eric Schmitt noted March 24, they want to avoid "destroying the same broadcast system that U.S.-led forces would use soon after they seize Baghdad to communicate quickly with the Iraqi people." Washington needs that as part of imposing a new occupation regime.
In the initial stage of the imperialist advance into southern Iraq, U.S. and British officials reported that substantial numbers of Iraqi soldiers were surrendering. The invading forces have so far avoided entering major cities in the south, bombing and besieging them while the major military forces head toward Baghdad, where they expect the outcome of the war will be settled.
The U.S. and British forces met stiff resistance at several key points, however, including Basra and Nasiriyah. "Outside Basra, British troops pulled back after they met ferocious resistance when they tried to enter the city where the U.S. and Britain had predicted their forces would be welcomed as liberators," said the online news service islam.net, citing reporters from the British newspaper The Independent.
As of March 24, Pentagon officials reported 20 U.S. troops killed and 14 captured or missing. Ten Marines were killed and more than 50 were wounded as U.S. forces began to battle their way into Nasiriyah that day.
British casualties so far total 19 dead or missing. They include two Royal Air Force pilots who were killed when their Tornado fighter jet was accidentally shot down by a U.S. Patriot missile. British officials have sought to downplay the "friendly fire" incident.
At a U.S. military command center in Kuwait, a soldier in the 101st Airborne Division’s 326th Engineer Battalion was arrested and accused of killing a soldier and wounding 15 others by rolling grenades into an officer’s tent. The U.S. capitalist media has highlighted the fact that Sgt. Hasan Akbar, 31, is Muslim and that he could face the death penalty.
The New York Post, for example, ran a screaming headline, "’Traitor’ GI a Muslim loner: May get death in tent slay," fueling the "homeland defense" campaign by the U.S. rulers to use military tribunals, curtail constitutional rights, and step up the use of the death penalty against working people.
With the first reports of U.S. casualties, the U.S. rulers have begun to crank up a patriotic, pro-war campaign by depicting Iraqi soldiers as subhuman and war criminals. They have denounced Iraq for showing on television five captured U.S. soldiers and the bodies of several who were killed in the fighting near Nasiriyah. Pentagon officials have alleged that three of the soldiers had been "executed." The Post headline was "Ghouls parade our prisoners: Vile video shows executed GIs and terrified survivors."
U.S. president George Bush declared March 23 that Iraqi officials could be tried as "war criminals" for allegedly mistreating U.S. or British prisoners of war. He claimed that the U.S. forces were treating the Iraqi prisoners "humanely." Defense Secretary Rumsfeld asserted that the TV broadcast of the U.S. soldiers violated the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of POWs.
U.S. officials demanded that the U.S. media not carry pictures provided by Al-Jazeera showing the dead and captured troops. Most of the big-business media readily complied with the censorship order, although they have shown pictures of Iraqi POWs. One alternative online news service, YellowTimes.org, which had posted some of these photos, was temporarily shut down by its hosting provider for publishing "inappropriate graphic material."
U.S. newspapers and TV stations have begun portraying relatives of the captured troops and soldiers on the war front responding angrily to the showing of the U.S. POWs. Meanwhile, pro-war "Support our troops" rallies have been organized in several cities, from a demonstration of 1,000 in New York’s Times Square to nearly 17,000 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
From the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties have closed ranks to support the U.S.-led war. As U.S. missiles and bombs have devastated Baghdad, Nancy Pelosi and Thomas Daschle, the Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate, respectively, used the Democratic weekly radio address to express "support for our commander in chief," as Daschle put it. The two houses of Congress passed resolutions backing the assault on Iraq.
With the imperialist armies marching toward Baghdad, U.S. and British warplanes stepped up their savage bombing campaign in northern Iraq. The bombardment of Kirkuk "effectively signaled the opening of a northern front against Baghdad," reported the Australian Herald Sun, noting that "so far the only U.S. troops in this area are believed to be special forces flown into the Kurdish-held airfields." Since the 1991 Gulf War, Washington and London have imposed a "no-fly zone" in northern Iraq, a region where the Kurdish oppressed nationality is the majority.
The Turkish regime, which has systematically suppressed the Kurdish minority in Turkey, has moved troops southward with the intention of entering northern Iraq to quash any attempt by Kurds on either side of the border to advance the fight for their national rights.
On March 23 Bush warned the government in Ankara to keep out of Iraq, concerned that Turkey’s move would disrupt Washington’s efforts to take northern Iraq as part of its occupation of the entire country. The leaders of the main Kurdish organization in Iraq have been collaborating with Washington’s campaign against the government of Saddam Hussein.
Tensions have sharpened between Washington and Ankara over Washington’s demand to use Turkey as a base for a U.S. invasion of Iraq. After the Turkish parliament reversed itself and decided to allow U.S. forces to use Turkish airspace, though not its territory, Washington dismissed the gesture as inadequate and announced that it was suspending U.S. economic "aid" to that crisis-ridden country. On March 24, U.S. authorities issued "an apology" to Ankara after U.S. missiles landed in an unpopulated area of Turkey near the Iraqi border.
It’s now clear that a Turkish entry into northern Iraq would pose the possibility of a military clash between Washington and Ankara--two NATO members.
The conflict between the U.S. and British governments and French imperialism also continued to sharpen. French president Jacques Chirac declared March 21 that the United Nations must be at the center of the post-invasion "reconstruction" of Iraq. French officials "fear that the United States will now dominate the process of reconstruction of Iraq," the Toronto Star reported.
Paris rebuffs Washington
Paris had adamantly refused to shut down its embassy in Baghdad, after Washington had demanded that all governments cut off diplomatic relations and expel Iraqi diplomats as Bush issued an ultimatum to the Iraqi regime. The French embassy did close its gates March 20, as U.S. missiles began raining on Baghdad. Interviewed on a CBS TV program four days later, former CIA director James Woolsey laughed at a reporter’s suggestion that Paris may give shelter to Saddam Hussein. "I don’t even think the Chirac government, even in the aftermath of the last couple of months, would be willing to do that," he said.
Responding to Chirac’s hint on sharing the spoils after the war, U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell said that Washington would "consult" with UN Security Council members but would move ahead with its course of military occupation and takeover of Iraq’s oil. "We’re going to use the assets of the people of Iraq, especially their oil assets, to benefit their people," Powell told the media, leaving no doubt who "we" means. "I hope that France will want to be a partner in such an effort but that remains to be seen," he said.
The International Herald Tribune reported March 24 that the Bush administration has made the "decision to invite only U.S. corporations to bid on these contracts." On what basis are companies from other countries excluded? "In order to work in Iraq, you have to have a security clearance," declared Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, "and the only companies that have security clearances are a certain number of American companies that have done this work before in war settings."
As the Anglo-American invasion proceeded, Paris belatedly announced that it would be willing to join it if the Iraqi regime used chemical weapons. The offer fell on deaf ears in Washington.
Instead, the U.S. rulers’ anti-French campaign has intensified. The U.S. big-business media has been highlighting facts about what New York Times columnist William Safire has called "the French connection." In columns published March 13 and 20, Safire has written that French companies helped the Iraqi government obtain components of rocket fuel and other compounds that Baghdad has used to manufacture chemical weapons.
"Is this component of fuel propelling ‘unpleasant’ weapons in Iraq now to be used against our troops?" he asked.
Washington has leveled similar accusations against Moscow. "The United States has credible evidence that Russian companies have provided assistance and prohibited hardware to the Iraqi regime, things such as night vision goggles, GPS jammers, and antitank guided missiles," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters March 24. "These actions are disturbing.... We’ve asked the Russian government that any such ongoing assistance cease immediately." Russian president Vladimir Putin immediately denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, the government of Iran reported March 23 that several U.S. rockets have fallen inside the country since the beginning of the U.S.-British assault on neighboring Iraq. An interior ministry spokesperson said that U.S. and British jets have violated Iranian airspace during their sorties in and out of Iraq.
Tehran did not argue that the missiles--one of which hit the oil center of Abadan, damaging a warehouse and injuring two people--were aimed at its territory. But the incident underscored the reality that the imperialist war on Iraq is part of a broader war drive pushed by Washington against countries targeted as points on an "axis of evil," including Iran.
Troops out now!