Do The People of Iraq Have The Right To Resist The US Occupation?

Jack Smith—05/2005
If the US/UK was occupied by an invading force, wouldn't its citizens believe it their sovereign right and duty to resist such an occupation by all means possible? So why don't more of us extend this understanding to the situation in Iraq? Jack Smith investigates…

DO THE PEOPLE OF IRAQ have the right to defend themselves against violent foreign invasion and occupation by any means at their disposal against an aggressive and rapacious enemy enjoying overwhelming military superiority?

This is a right Americans unquestionably would invoke were their country invaded and occupied by a foreign power. They would take whatever measures were necessary to defeat the enemy and force it to withdraw.

The United States government supports this position and recognizes its validity in relation to all other nations invaded by foreign aggressors — except when it is Washington that initiates or supports the invasion of another sovereign state. By White House whim, the subject state loses its right to self-defense.

In Iraq, for example, President George W. Bush, who launched the unjust and unlawful invasion over two years ago, is appalled by the suggestion that the Iraqis have a right to fight back. The entire opinion-forming mass media echoes this arrogant perspective. Bush defines resistance to US aggression in Iraq as an act of "terrorism," and not a legitimate struggle to reclaim national sovereignty from the brutal occupation.

Bush declares that the 140,000 American occupation troops must remain to "defend Iraqi democracy" against the resistance. Aside from the obvious fact that the Quisling government of a subjugated country under foreign military control cannot qualify as a democracy, Bush disregards the fact that the raison d'être of the resistance is predicated on the presence of occupation forces he refuses to withdraw.

The American antiwar movement is disunited on the important question of whether or not to support the right of the Iraqi people to resist US aggression as best they can, including by force of arms. No group that supports the resistance puts this view forward as a basis for working with other peace groups. It is as a statement of political principle, not a unity demand.

Within the broad political spectrum of the peace movement, many local and national peace groups either oppose supporting Iraqi's right to resist the occupation or refuse to take a public position. Most of these groups entertain moderate or liberal agendas. A number of left groups, however, are certainly included.

One of the two principal peace coalitions in the United States, United for Peace and Justice, does not put forward the view that the Iraqi people have a right to resistance US aggression or address the question at its rallies, according to its leadership, because some groups in UPJ "strongly oppose" that view.

The other national coalition, ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), takes the following position, in response to our query May 27:

We support the right of self-determination in the struggle against imperialist domination, and believe the Iraqi people have the right to resist occupation by any means chosen. The right to resist occupation is a concept enshrined in international law…. This is not a matter of political or ideological affinity. Nor is it an issue of the tactics of war — all of which are ugly. It boils down to this simple equation: On the one side are all the forces fighting a war against colonialism and occupation, and on the other side are the colonialists, neo-colonialists and their Iraqi agents. In that struggle we take an unambiguous position opposing the colonizers. To do otherwise would be to put entirely secondary issues — ideology, war tactics, etc. — at the forefront, while ignoring the core issue of colonialism in Iraq and elsewhere. Moreover, since we are a U.S. antiwar movement, and it is our country that has invaded Iraq, we are obligated to be crystal clear on this issue.

This writer is in agreement with that position, as was the case in the 1960s, well before ANSWER came along, when sectors of the antiwar movement vociferously objected to supporting the struggle, or at least supporting the right to struggle, of the National Liberation Front to free southern Vietnam from an even more treacherous American intervention.

We will discuss the various views circulating in the peace movement and on the left, but first let's examine the importance, composition, and methodologies of the Iraqi resistance.

It is crucial to understand that were it not for the Iraqi resistance, the U.S. would have won a swift victory in Iraq and quickly implemented the Bush administration's neoconservative plan to extend American hegemony throughout the entire Middle East under the guise of "promoting democracy." Had Iraq simply surrendered, this example of the Pentagon's invincibility would have demoralized the entire region. It certainly would have tempted the White House to barge into "rogue" Syria and Iran to replace their governments with regimes subordinate not only to Washington but to the requirements of corporate globalization and transnational capital, which, after all, is what "democratization" is all about.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld even had a simple formula for obtaining this objective. Conservative Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, who supports the notion that an explicit American empire would be good for the world, wrote in the New York Times May 24 that Rumsfeld was guided by a theoretical blueprint for conquest called the "10-30-30 timetable: 10 days should suffice to topple a rogue regime, 30 days to establish order in its wake, and 30 more days to prepare for the next military undertaking."

The resistance, thus, has erected two great obstacles in the path of President Bush's drive to control the vast petroleum reserves that have transformed barren deserts into the most strategically important region of the world today. First, the myth of invincibility has been shattered by a small irregular urban guerrilla force, Rumsfeld's plans for conquest have gone up in smoke, and the Bush administration has evidently curbed some of its more unsavory ambitions. 

Second, the unexpected difficulties the resistance has created for Washington's occupation force, supplemented by the existence of a large US antiwar movement, has been the main reason why a majority of the American people feel that the Iraq war has not been worth the cost of U.S. lives and dollars. This sentiment may undermine Bush for the rest of his term in office unless the resistance is broken quickly, which is now the Bush administration's highest priority.

The nature of the fight back itself has been grossly distorted by the mass media at the behest of the White House. It is important in this regard to recognize three things: 1) The resistance is composed of political as well as armed elements. 2) The masses of Iraqis oppose the occupation and want U.S. troops to get out. 3) The resistance enjoys support from the people of Iraq, despite U.S. efforts to neutralize various constituencies through pressure, manipulation, grandiose promises, threats and bribery. How else could an armed urban guerrilla force function in heavily occupied territory without the support of the people?

The forces of resistance are diverse, decentralized and led by many different factions, including reactionary fundamentalists. There are no discernable left socialists or communists in the leadership, largely because the left has been suppressed for decades. Elements in the resistance range from patriotic secular nationalists to secular Ba'athists, to Sunni and Shia religious fundamentalists, to pan-Islamic foreign jihadists, to tribal-based groups with militias and so on. This is partially a reflection of the religious and ethnic differences of an historic nature which the foreign invader has taken pains to exacerbate under the old colonial rule of divide and conquer. 

Many of these groups use different tactics, armed or political, to weaken the enemy. Their activities are often not coordinated, and the actions of one are not necessarily the practices of another. But together they comprise an effective fighting opposition to Bush of Baghdad and his Iraqi minions seeking power in a government controlled by history's sixth (or is it seventh?) empire to call Mesopotamia its own caliphate — this time ruled from Christendom-on-Potomac.

The resistance war is largely being fought with small arms and homemade bombs. There are no countries who would dare supply more powerful weapons for fear of instant retaliation from the United States. Arrayed against these forces is an occupying power possessing the greatest arsenal of weapons, tanks, planes, communications equipment and surveillance devices in human history. Aside from street patrols, supply convoys, campaigns to round-up anti-U.S. suspects and occasional large-scale attacks, American forces are protected in military bases that are extremely difficult to penetrate. There are no hiding places for combatants, such as forests and mountains, forcing them to fight almost exclusively in heavily populated cities, towns and along certain highways.

These subjective and objective conditions determine the composition of the resistance and the means deployed to oust the invader. This is why the car bomb and suicide bombers are deployed in the towns and cities. They are the most powerful weapons the guerrillas have, and they can be transported in daylight. The targets are police stations, military checkpoints, passing U.S. patrols and officials who cooperate with the occupation authorities. The nature of car bombings in such tight quarters results in civilians casualties, but they are rarely if ever the primary target. Some of the attacks that seem directed only at civilians may well reflect sectarian religious provocations, not necessarily associated with the resistance.

Why do many antiwar groups and sectors of the left withhold support from the Iraqi resistance, or even the right to resistance? Clearly, this reluctance strengthens Bush's contention that the resistance is composed of nothing but unworthy terrorists intent upon crushing Iraq's nascent "democracy," the latest justification for keeping the army of occupation in Iraq indefinitely.

The pacifists are in a different situation than the rest of the movement on this question. They in principle oppose both defensive as well as offensive violence, and many would support nonviolent resistance to the American occupation, not that there appears to be any. At issue are those larger sectors of the movement which do not oppose violence in principal and who would utilize violence to ward off an attack on America or other countries, but who will not extend that right to Iraq, the very country their government is oppressing.

In our view, there are two reasons the liberal sector of the peace movement in particular tends to withhold support from the insurgency. First there is the political factor, as demonstrated in last year's presidential elections where the candidate virtually all liberals supported was committed to winning a victory in Iraq. John Kerry's pro-war stance continues to reverberate, manifesting itself in a variety of subtle ways.

Some antiwar friends have told me that they hesitate to call for immediate withdrawal "because we are in so deep it would cause chaos if we pulled out now." For others, who frequently proclaim they "support the troops," it's must difficult to suggest the resistance has a right to kill those troops in defense of national sovereignty. Others are beset by the possibility that the Iraqi people might be better off today than under the previous regime which Bush deposed, despite the war, occupation, 100,000 deaths, deepening chaos and the prospect of civil war.

The second reason seems be a desire for respectability coupled with the fear that appearing to support the resistance will cause the right-wing to label individuals and the movement "unpatriotic" and "disloyal." These are serious charges, but today's dreadful political environment is not comparable to periods of repression in the past, such as when they were levelled in the red-hunting 1950s or a few years after World War I. In any event, the right-wing already claims the entire movement is composed of traitors, communists, flag burners, and Bush haters. That's just every day rightist rhetoric.

The political left is also divided on the question. Many left groups, peace organizations with an anti-imperialist perspective, socialists and those further to the left explicitly support the right of Iraq to engage in a guerrilla war to defeat aggression.

But some others on the left express various qualms, mostly about the composition and the tactics of some elements in the resistance. Several sources said they were uncomfortable because "there are Ba'athist elements active in the struggle and we don't want to see the return of forces favorable to Saddam Hussein," as though the question of who will ultimately govern Iraq is for the American left to decide. Others hold back because "Sunni Wahabbists" are part of the diverse fight-back effort. And of course the supposed presence of al-Qaeda operatives, although very small in number, is another reason. Additional arguments are critical of guerrilla tactics.

Another sector of the left and antiwar movement is simply resorting to political expediency and perhaps a soupçon of opportunism, modifying its views in order to attract "mainstream" elements to its banner and if that means not backing the right to resistance (or for that matter, not calling for an end to the occupation of the Palestinian territories), so be it. Others see the resistance as constituting an obstacle to the creation of an improbable progressive coalition of forces in Iraq who are essentially passive toward the occupation in order to contest for influence, or at least be invited to table where the powerful dine. Some are supporters of the course followed by the Iraqi Communist Party (which opposes the resistance, seeks a place at the aforementioned table, and is willing to work with the occupation).

In a recent conversation in New York following the 2005 Left Forum this writer was confronted by several people of social-democratic and left disposition (who strongly supported immediate withdrawal) after indicating that it was correct to back the right to resistance. "Do you support car-bombings that kill innocent civilians, too? I was asked by one. "Do you think it's okay that they behead and kidnap people?" said another. "Do you want the Ba'athists to put in another Saddam?" queried a third. "Why not give the middle forces in Iraq a chance to work things out without the background noise of guerrilla war continually disrupting any chance of dialogue?" intoned a fourth. And lastly, "Doesn't your position lead to civil war?" 

My reply, in effect, was a follows:

It is not up to the peace movement and the left in the United States to dictate the terms by which a subject people is allowed to manifest opposition to the violent invasion and occupation of their own country by our government. The Iraqi people, like all people throughout the world, are entitled to wage their struggle against foreign invaders by any means at their disposal.

Given that the Iraqi people suffered a dozen years of killer sanctions and frequent bombings by US and British warplanes, followed by a "shock-and-awe" invasion and a recklessly repressive and racist occupation that has deprived many of them of reasonable living conditions, their means are quite limited. Their entire society is under intense surveillance and there is no freedom for its people. They cannot fight a conventional war. They do not have an armed forces to defend their rights. The task of the army of the unemployed, who are being trained by the Pentagon to be members of the "Iraqi Army," is to suppress the struggle for national liberation on behalf of the invader. So they use the means and tactics at their command.

Does that mean one must therefore support some of the excesses of the resistance? No. It means we recognize that in any struggle of this nature excesses take place, although they are simply not comparable to the "excesses" involved in George Bush's attack on Iraq. If we are so concerned about excesses, the task is not to haughtily distance ourselves from the resistance but to intensify our campaign to remove the root cause of the resistance, which is the continuing occupation and domination of a sovereign country. At this stage, and I hope I'm wrong, the U.S. has caused such a catastrophic disintegration of a complex and ancient society that it will take a long time with many hardships before things settle down, even if the U.S. is kicked out.

Listen to what our conservative ally, former UN arms inspector Scott Ritter, had to say about this several months ago when he argued it was in Washington's interest to withdraw: "The battle for Iraq's sovereign future is a battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. As things stand, it appears that victory will go to the side most in tune with the reality of the Iraqi society of today: the leaders of the anti-US resistance…"

If the U.S. continues its present course, he suggests, "We will suffer a decade-long nightmare that will lead to the deaths of thousands more Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. We will witness the creation of a viable and dangerous anti-American movement in Iraq that will one day watch as American troops unilaterally withdraw from Iraq every bit as ignominiously as Israel did from Lebanon. The calculus is quite simple: the sooner we bring our forces home, the weaker this movement will be. And, of course, the obverse is true: the longer we stay, the stronger and more enduring this by-product of Bush's elective war on Iraq will be. There is no elegant solution to our Iraqi debacle. It is no longer a question of winning but rather of mitigating defeat." 

Whether sectors of our movement support the right to resistance or not, the fact remains that this major setback for the Bush administration would not have come pass without the extraordinary uprising that developed in the aftermath of Rumsfeld's "10-day war and 30-day restoration of order." When the first signs of a fightback occurred, Bush smirked, "Bring 'em on!" Well, as an antiwar activist who of course would prefer a resistance movement with a different political leadership, I'm just glad they exercised their right to resist, or to "come on", as Bush taunted. 

Without that fightback by the Iraqi resistance, a triumphant Bush by now might be dancing a jig in Damascus or Teheran, or wherever else his neoconservative inclinations and tanks were prepared to lead him.