U.S. troops approach Baghdad,
accelerate slaughter in Iraq
Washington deploys another 100,000 soldiers,
as U.S. rulers debate military strategy
A U.S. paratrooper, above, of 173rd Airborne Division near Harir airfield, northern Iraq, March 30. As U.S. forces approach Baghdad, massive aerial bombings have wreaked havoc in Iraqi capital.
BY MARTÍN KOPPEL
Moving toward a ground assault on Baghdad, U.S. invasion forces have stepped up their attack on Republican Guard troops on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital while conducting a brutal bombing campaign that has killed or maimed thousands of residents of this city. U.S. commanders have also shifted some of their troops to several cities in southern Iraq to suppress resistance by Iraqi paramilitary forces.
After a rapid advance toward Baghdad in the first six days of the war, U.S. and British forces slowed down the pace for several days in order to reinforce stretched supply lines. Washington is now deploying an additional 100,000 soldiers to join the 300,000 imperialist troops already in the Arab-Persian Gulf region. On March 26, the U.S. air force dropped 1,000 paratroopers into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq to launch a second front against Baghdad--trying to make up for Ankara’s refusal to allow U.S. ground forces to invade Iraq from Turkish soil.
The unfolding of the war has intensified the debate over military strategy in U.S. ruling-class circles, between those whose main spokesperson is Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and those who defend the "Powell doctrine." Rumsfeld argues for waging war with a smaller, more agile force, relying heavily on high-tech "precision" bombs, and is willing to take greater risks in the field. Secretary of State Colin Powell defends the strategy Washington used in the 1990-91 Gulf War--launching a ground war only with overwhelming force after prolonged and sweeping air strikes.
At the same time, the conflict between Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, and other imperialist powers over who will control Iraq and its oil wealth--as well as the broader region--has sharpened through the dispute over the future "reconstruction" of occupied Iraq.
Bombings outrage Iraqi workers
The U.S. and British armed forces launched a full-scale assault on Iraq March 20 with a massive bombing of several Iraqi cities and a ground invasion from Kuwait. Some 100,000 troops--about a third of the imperialist force--have now entered Iraq.
The initial "surgical strikes" aimed at the top Iraqi leadership were turned into a broader bombing campaign, as cruise missiles and bombs rained down on Baghdad, Basra, Nasiriyah, Najaf, and other cities.
As the imperialist troops pressed toward the outskirts of Baghdad, the bombing of the capital has sharply escalated and so has the civilian toll. Pentagon officials reported that as of March 31--eleven days into the war--U.S. and British warplanes had dropped 8,000 "precision-guided" bombs, and 700 Tomahawk cruise missiles had been launched from planes, ships and submarines. In comparison, during the entire 40-day Gulf war in 1990-1991, the U.S. Navy launched a total of 288 cruise missiles and fighter planes dropped 88,500 tons of bombs.
Iraq’s health minister, Umid Medhat Mubarak, reported that an estimated 350 people had been killed and 3,650 wounded in the first week of the war, the majority of whom were women and children. He said the imperialist forces had been using cluster bombs against civilians in Baghdad and Basra.
On March 26, two missiles hit a crowded working-class neighborhood in Baghdad, killing 17 people and wounding 45 others, according to hospital officials. The bombing, which reduced a block of auto repair shops to rubble, also knocked down power lines and ruptured water pipes in the Al-Shaab neighborhood. Apartments were damaged by flying shrapnel. "This is barbarian," shouted Adnan Saleh Barseem, one of the hundreds of angry residents who came onto the streets to voice their anger. Virtually everyone in the neighborhood who was interviewed by U.S. reporters blamed Washington and London for the carnage.
"We are innocent people, and we want to know, ‘What is it that Bush wants?’" said Hisham Madloul, 28, a janitor quoted by the New York Times, who said two of his friends were killed. "If he wants Iraq to surrender its sovereignty, he will fail, because Iraq will stay Iraq."
Two days later, in broad daylight, another missile hit a crowded marketplace in a working-class, largely Shiite neighborhood of northwest Baghdad. Dr. Osama Sakhari told reporters at the Al Noor Hospital that he had counted 55 people killed and 47 wounded in the explosion. Again, residents condemned the U.S. and British military for the slaughter.
U.S. officials brushed off the accusations for both of these deadly attacks, claiming that they could have been caused by the Iraqi government. New York Times reporter John Burns did his part, too, commenting that, according to U.S.-backed Iraqi exiles, the government in Baghdad would have reason "to organize incidents like the two bombing attacks this week."
The stepped-up air raids have been increasingly destructive, with 4,600-pound bombs--the so-called bunker-busters--being dropped in downtown Baghdad. On March 28, huge bombs struck the main telephone exchange, leaving much of the capital without phone service.
While intensifying the bombing of the Iraqi capital, U.S. and British troops have begun to probe attacks on the dug-in Republican Guard units surrounding the city. As the Militant goes to press, they have fought their way into Hindiya, a city of 80,000 about 50 miles south of Baghdad, and are stepping up their march on other nearby towns. Seeking to prepare public opinion for the kind of wars the U.S. rulers expect to fight in Iraq and elsewhere, a senior officer at Central Command at Qatar stated that Washington was prepared to pay "a very high price" in casualties to achieve its goals.
Troops redirected to south
In the first few days of the invasion, troops from the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Marine Division, and the British Royal Marines advanced quickly, encountering little resistance. The U.S. forces avoided entering urban centers as they moved toward the Iraqi capital. By the third day the forward units had charged 150 miles into Iraq--about half the distance between Kuwait and Baghdad.
U.S. special forces troops, followed by Marines, began to take control of the 500 oil wells in the south. British and U.S. marines reportedly seized the seaport of Umm Qasr and then began a siege of Basra, the country’s second-largest city. Pentagon officials claimed that Iraqi soldiers were surrendering in droves.
Within a few days, however, the invaders were facing resistance in a number of towns and cities, including some that had previously been reported "secured" by the imperialist forces, such as Umm Qasr. The fighting has been carried out mostly by the Iraqi government’s paramilitary troops, known as Saddam’s Fedayeen.
After triumphalist talk about taking Basra, for example, British forces have been besieging the city "for days after meeting unexpectedly stiff resistance," an Associated Press news dispatch reported. Fedayeen forces also put up stiff resistance in Nasiriyah, where more than a dozen U.S. soldiers were killed.
In addition to the fighting organized by the regime’s militias, many U.S. soldiers have been "disturbed at the number of Iraqis who are not welcoming U.S. forces as their liberators, but fighting them as invaders," wrote New York Newsday correspondent Thomas Frank from central Iraq.
"I honestly don’t think the Iraqi public wants us here," said Chief Warrant Officer Sean McNeal, whose Apache helicopter was nearly hit by rifle fire as he flew over an outpost of a few homes in the desert. U.S. troops had been told by their officers that the war would be over soon and they would be received with open arms by ordinary Iraqis. Some thought most Iraqi soldiers would surrender as they had in the 1990-91 Gulf War, when Baghdad’s troops were occupying Kuwait rather than defending their own land.
"We are invading their country," said Chief Warrant Officer Glen Woodard. "I’d be by my window with a shotgun, too."
Near the Kuwaiti border, initial press reports stated that local townspeople had welcomed the U.S. and British troops. But since the seizure of the oil wells there by the invading troops, Iraqis have been "nowhere to be seen in the oilfield, and in nearby towns such as Safwan they remain suspicious of U.S. and British intentions and openly express their opposition to the war," the London Financial Times reported March 28. According to USA Today, "British army troops guarding the fields said they are trying to coax thousands of Iraq oil workers back to their jobs."
Among the people of Iraq, who in 1958 broke free from British colonial rule and took the country’s oil wealth out of the direct control of British capitalists, there remains widespread identification with the country’s national patrimony.
Early in the invasion, British and U.S. military commanders proclaimed that a "civilian uprising" by Shiite Muslims had begun in Basra. No revolt materialized, however. "Fear Said to Be Keeping Iraqi Dissidents From Rebelling" was the explanation given in a March 26 New York Times headline. While intimidation by Iraq’s capitalist government may be a real factor, some big-business commentators have noted that it is not the only one.
In a March 29 editorial, the Financial Times complained that "the troubling non-event...is the failure of Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and greet the allies as liberators." The paper noted that "Allied leaders were quick to blame the failure of Basra´s Shia majority to revolt on the memory of their abandonment during their 1991 insurrection. This must be part of the reason. But there is a disquieting possibility that years of UN economic sanctions on Iraq, maintained at US and UK behest, have embittered Iraqi Shia. Faced with invasion, many of them may now feel Iraqis first, and Shia second."
To deal with the persistent guerrilla harassment and ambushes in southern cities and towns, U.S. and British commanders have adjusted their tactics. They slowed their plans to assault Baghdad in order to allow thinly-stretched logistics troops to restockpile supplies and to divert some troops to the task of crushing the fedayeen paramilitary forces and other resistance.
U.S. troops have encircled Najaf, a city of 560,000 in central Iraq, and will be sent in for a "block-by-block assault" on paramilitary forces in the city, U.S. officers said. British troops have tightened a cordon around Basra and engaged in small arms fire with Iraqi combatants, with U.S. warplanes launching missiles on targets inside the city.
Special Forces and Marines were deployed to Nasiriyah, which is on the vital supply route to Baghdad. Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Finer described the detentions of civilians and house-to-house sweeps of farmers’ homes by U.S. Marines in that city. "There are no enemy tanks or infantry formations, just houses--most of them with no electricity or running water--and people in civilian clothes, some looking on with open hostility, others with friendliness that may be feigned," he wrote.
With the invasion force temporarily stretched, the Pentagon is sending 100,000 additional troops to Iraq, including members of the 4th Infantry Division. U.S. officials insist these units had already been scheduled for deployment to the region, but were sent earlier than originally planned. The 4th Infantry, reportedly the Army’s most technologically advanced division, floated for weeks off Turkey’s coast as Washington tried unsuccessfully to pressure Ankara to allow the troops to disembark and use Turkish territory for invading Iraq. This 30,000-strong division is now on its way to the Arab-Persian Gulf and will not be operational inside Iraq until the end of April.
In northern Iraq, 1,000 U.S. Rangers and other army paratroopers stationed in Italy were parachuted into Kurdish-controlled areas. Their goal is to secure the oil-rich area and open a second, limited front against Baghdad. It is the first substantial deployment of U.S. forces in the area.
Debate over war strategy
The unfolding of the war has intensified a debate on strategy within U.S. ruling circles. In a widely quoted interview in the March 27 Washington Post, Lt. Gen. William Wallace, the U.S. army’s senior ground commander in Iraq, said that overextended supply lines and resistance by irregular combat forces had increased the likelihood of a longer war than the Pentagon had expected.
"The enemy we’re fighting is different from the one we’d war-gamed against," Wallace said. He and other commanders pointed to the challenges they faced in Iraq--guerrilla harassment of supply lines, the prospect of street fighting in the cities, and the tenacity of Republican Guards.
Responding to Wallace’s comments, White House officials defended the current war plan, declaring it to be "on track."
In another widely quoted article that appeared in the April 7 New Yorker, Seymour Hersh, a liberal critic of the Bush administration, wrote that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had repeatedly rejected advice from Pentagon planners that substantially more troops and equipment would be needed to fight the war on Iraq.
Rumsfeld "insisted that a smaller, faster-moving attack force, combined with overwhelming air power, would suffice," Hersh wrote, adding that the defense secretary was contemptuous of many of the top generals promoted during the Clinton administration, especially "the Army, with its insistence on maintaining costly mechanized divisions." Rumsfeld is known for his close ties to U.S. Special Forces, which have played a key role in the initial phase of the war. Hersh also claimed that Gen. Thomas Franks, the head of the U.S. Central Command, had argued that the war should be delayed until the 4th Infantry troops (waiting off the Turkish coast) could be brought in by another route and that Rumsfeld overruled him. Franks, who has publicly defended Rumsfeld’s course, has denied this claim.
Hersh said the U.S. military was divided between those who argued "that the war plan was dangerously thin on troops and matériel" and those supporting Rumsfeld.
A March 31 Wall Street Journal article quoted unnamed "senior military officials" arguing for "a delay of several weeks in ground advances toward the capital while attack planes bomb Republican Guard units or the armored division originally intended for Turkey--the Army’s Fourth Infantry Division--arrives in Iraq."
This view is held by a number of current and retired U.S. military officers, such as Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who commanded Army troops in the Gulf War. In that military operation, Washington deployed a force almost twice as large as the current one. The U.S-led war in 1991 began with a six-week intensive bombing campaign on Iraq before a ground invasion. Advocates of the so-called Powell Doctrine, named after Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, argue that Washington should conduct a war only if it deploys overwhelming military force in order to minimize the political price of U.S. casualties.
In remarks to reporters March 30, Rumsfeld defended the current war strategy, contrasting it favorably to the "long air war" of 1990-91.
Defenders of the "Rumsfeld Doctrine," applied in the current war, seek to "transform the way in which America fights its enemies in the 21st century," the Financial Times noted. Their aim is to turn the U.S. military "into a lighter, faster-moving fighting force, more reliant on technology, and to confront a Pentagon culture that had become risk-averse since Vietnam."
As the military offensive escalates, the U.S. rulers are stepping up their propaganda campaign to win public acceptance for their war course. In the first week of the war, U.S. officials and the big-business press played up the capture of U.S. troops, trying to depict Iraqi forces as "war criminals" for showing captured and dead enemy soldiers on TV.
After a taxi used as a bomb exploded at a military checkpoint near Najaf, killing five U.S. soldiers, officials in Washington sought to whip up patriotic, pro-war sentiment by evoking the threat of Iraqi "suicide bombers" threatening U.S. troops.
U.S. troops have since begun treating all Iraqis as suspicious. The day after the taxi bombing near Najaf, U.S. soldiers shot up a minivan with 13 Iraqi civilians, all women and children, killing 10 and wounding two. A New York Daily News article reports that a U.S. Army official stated, "The soldiers responded in accordance with the rules of engagement to protect themselves." The van supposedly didn’t stop immediately after it was ordered to do so. A Washington Post journalist on the scene said that Capt. Ronny Johnson, who ordered the deadly shooting, tried to pass responsibility on to his soldiers for the "public relations" disaster the incident caused. After his men fired six high-explosive rounds from a 25-mm. cannon into the van, Johnson reportedly cursed at the soldiers, "You just [expletive] killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough!"
U.S. officials continue to claim that the Iraqi regime will use chemical weapons, although no evidence of that has been produced. When U.S. Marines first came across a chemical plant outside Najaf March 23, the big-business press was filled with allegations that it might be a facility producing chemical weapons. The story disappeared from the news within two days after reporters confirmed it was false.
As of March 31, a total of 42 U.S. GIs have been reported killed and 24 captured or missing, and 26 British soldiers have been killed. The U.S. casualties still remain much smaller than in the Gulf War, where Washington suffered 148 battle deaths.
Wrangle over ‘reconstruction’
The sharp rivalry between the major imperialist powers over control of the Mideast is the motor force of the U.S.-British war on Iraq. It has been evident most recently in the increasingly nasty dispute over who will get the spoils of "reconstruction"--both lucrative construction contracts and the oil.
British capitalists are furious that Washington has decided to award all initial construction contracts in an occupied Iraq to "a shortlist of U.S. firms," the Financial Times reported. British companies are also concerned about Washington icing them out of the oil industry as well. One of the top U.S. contenders for contracts is Bechtel. The reconstruction bonanza is expected to bring in a haul of up to $100 billion.
"We have a long history in the region and would hope to be invited back," whined a spokesperson for a British company that hopes to get in on rebuilding the port of Basra, now under siege by British troops.
London has also complained that the Bush administration has handed a $4.8 million contract to a U.S. company for the running of the port of Umm Qasr. British officials are arguing that the port should be run by Iraqis because "they do not want to seem imperialist invaders," the London Guardian stated. Breaking the stranglehold by their U.S. rivals seems to be a more likely motivation. The British big-business daily noted with indignation that the company getting the juicy contract, Stevedoring Services of America, is a Seattle-based company. It played a notorious union-busting role in last year’s contract battle by U.S. West Coast dock workers.
Trying to edge its way toward the trough, the French government has spearheaded a call for the occupation regime to be run under the auspices of the United Nations. Paris is the imperialist power that is being dealt the biggest blows in the current war. French imperialism faces losing the privileged commercial relations it maintained with Baghdad over the past decade.
Likewise, in a March 28 editorial, the Financial Times called on UK prime minister Anthony Blair to demand that a UN role in the occupation is "nonnegotiable."
White House officials have largely dismissed these demands. Washington has announced plans to establish a U.S.-run military occupation regime in Iraq after overthrowing the Hussein regime. Despite the talk of freedom and democracy as a motive for invading Iraq, U.S. officials have said they intend to impose martial law on this country of 24 million. They are trying to justify this partly by pointing to Iraqi groups hostile to Hussein’s regime that have now taken up arms against the invaders. Al Dawa, a Shiite group that operated underground in southern Iraq, for example, had been included by the Bush administration "among the opposition groups that would control postwar Iraq," Hersh wrote in the April 7 New Yorker article. Al Dawa and other armed Iraqi groups, however, are now actively opposing the U.S. invasion.
Striking the only discordant note among top U.S. government officials, Secretary of State Colin Powell echoed Blair’s calls for using the United Nations. The UN is needed to provide "international legitimacy" to the occupation, Powell said. It would serve as a "chapeau"--the French word for hat--to provide cover for Washington’s aims, he remarked.
Meanwhile, the war has also sharpened tensions throughout the region. U.S. missiles have already hit Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, sparking protests by the governments of those countries. While the bombings may have been accidental, they underscore Washington’s conflicts with those governments.
On March 28, Rumsfeld accused the governments of Syria and Iran of "interfering" with the U.S.-led war on Iraq. He claimed Syria was transferring night-vision goggles and other military equipment to Baghdad. The U.S. war secretary warned that Washington considered "such trafficking as hostile acts," suggesting the threat of a military attack on that country.
Rumsfeld accused Tehran of backing an Iran-based guerrilla group fighting the Baghdad regime. Iranian officials rejected the charges and protested the landing of U.S. missiles in the their country. Iran, along with Iraq and north Korea, is targeted as a point on Washington´s "axis of evil."
Stop imperialist assault on Iraq! Troops out now!