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Iraq: A bad day in Basra

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"A difficult day in Basra, but we have to put this behind us and move on." These were the words of Brigadier John Lorimer, one of the commanding officers of the British occupation forces in Basra, southern Iraq.

20th September was very, very difficult for the British forces - as they were forced to explain why two of their soldiers were found disguised as Iraqis carrying explosives in their car, and why the British Army felt it necessary that they had to destroy an Iraqi police station to rescue their two men.

While the British establishment and its poodle press rushed to cover up the incident, the core facts surrounding actual events are clear. Two British soldiers, disguised as Iraqi civilians, were driving a car in Basra, which is under the effective control of the UK forces stationed in the region. According to the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, the car was "packed with explosives". A source close to Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army said it also contained a remote control detonator.

When the troops opened fire on their supposed "allies" in order to escape arrest, they killed one officer and injured three more, before they were finally subdued. Senior British officers went to "negotiate" with the Iraqi police. Ominously, the "negotiators" were accompanied by a couple of armoured Warrior vehicles, a provocation which resulted in them being set on fire by an angry crowd. The occupiers were forced to beat a hasty retreat.

In typical high-handed imperialist fashion, revenge for this humiliation was quickly ordered. In the dead of night about ten tanks and armoured vehicles smashed into Basra's police station and forcibly removed the British prisoners. A hundred and fifty prisoners also took the opportunity to effect their own escape. The BBC reported that the Ministry of Defence ordered this attack. The amount of forced used in the operation shows how necessary the British state found the release of these men.

Rumours are rife that the arrested men are from the elite SAS squadron. The question remains, however, why were British soldiers dressed in disguise carrying around explosives in Basra? And why did the British Army ride roughshod over the very police force they have invested in - both in weaponry, and training - to defend the imperialist occupation of Iraq?

Given the spate of bombings aimed at Shi'ite civilians, it is reasonable to ask whether these soldiers were planning more of the same. After all, recent US proconsul on Iraq John Negroponte was noted for his undercover "dirty" war tactics in Ecuador and Honduras, whereby soldiers planted bombs which stirred up divisions between anti-US forces. So the British forces had the capacity, the know-how, and were caught with the evidence.

But did they have the motive? Who gains from these bombs, which set Sunni against Shia? Certainly not the anti-federalist forces of the resistance, Sunni and Shia! But Britain and the US have been fervent advocates of federalism. They would like nothing better than a divided (and conquered) Iraq, each at each others' throats, while they sit with a considerably reduced but technically superior force to "arbitrate", and of course to cream off the rich oil from the top of a simmering pot of inter-ethnic and inter-faith rivalry and suspicion.

The hypocrisy of the British state, in its actions in Iraq and its actions in its own domain is also quite clear for all to see. It uses the excuse of the terrible attacks in London on 7th July to clamp down on our civil rights at home in the name of defending the "British way of life" against terrorism. But when it uses similar tactics to the bombers in London to sustain its dominance of southern Iraq, this is a defence of "civilisation" against a supposedly "barbaric" enemy. While it sheds crocodile tears over the tragic losses of 7th July, it shows a reckless disregard for the loss of Iraqi life on 20th September.

For two and a half years Iraq has been occupied. In that time the occupying forces have only succeeded in creating a deeply unpopular puppet government where the US was given right of veto over any candidate in the elections to their parliament. Their aim, when the troops were originally sent in, was to "pacify" the country. But this has proved to be a near impossible task, despite having the immeasurable might of more than 150,000 superbly armed soldiers. The best they can do is keep Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari's government from falling.

The resistance to this occupation has been dedicated and serious. Attacks on occupation forces and Iraqi police are escalating, despite a blackout in the mainstream media. The US forces are now trying to use a "divide and rule" tactic over the Iraqi people, to artificially reignite - or create - sectarian tensions. For a while, it appeared to work. As the US government bought off different rival ethnic groups, it created a form of stability for the occupiers. The actions of the British forces in Basra have, for the short term at least, smashed that illusion for millions across the world.

The Iraqi puppet government has claimed that the police force, as trained and funded by the British, has been infiltrated by insurgents - their word for resistance fighters. Talk of foreign Al-Qa'ida supporters have been replaced by a new bogeyman stopping the work of "Our Brave Lads" in the reconstruction efforts. The new bogeyman is Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi Army, a leading current in the Iraqi resistance.

They are accused of infiltrating the local police force - a claim they flatly deny. Now that the Governor of Basra, Mohammed al-Waili, has demanded an apology from the British army, no doubt the next claim will be that the Basra electorate has been "infiltrated". As senior aide to al-Sadr, Abbas al-Rubaei, pointed out to The Guardian; "The real problem of stability in Basra was the fact that British forces attacked a police station and in doing so released 150 Salafists [Sunni resistance fighters] on to the streets."

The growth of the Mahdi Army in various different parts of Iraq is a real worry for the occupying forces. Al-Sadr enjoys a high level of support among young Shia poor, who have lost the most since the US and British forces seized power. Al-Sadr's message of opposition to the occupation by mass demonstrations as well as armed uprisings consistently appeal to oppressed young Iraqis.

Of course, the political programme of al-Sadr is highly reactionary, promoting an Islamic state and sharia law, which would send Iraq back to the times before Saddam Hussein took power. However, socialists support the resistance to the occupation of Iraq, because there can be no freedom from oppression or exploitation until the occupation is ended. Imperialism is the main danger facing all the Iraqi people. That's why socialists always side with the oppressed and never with the oppressor.

However, all this seems to be lost on the biggest group on the British left, the Socialist Workers Party. Convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, and SWP Central Committee member Lindsey German, claims that those who are opposed to imperialism's actions in Iraq can only call for "troops out by Christmas". This is the demand of the United Nations, the Liberal Democrat Party, editorials in the Independent and most of the trade union tops. After Christmas, no doubt, they will change the demand to Easter, and so on.

It is also, ironically, the demand of a number of ex-army high commanders and British imperialist strategists. The generals know that an early exit strategy is imperative... so long as they can ensure imperialist control will survive the withdrawal of most the troops. A long, drawn out occupation would be military political suicide for Britain's - and the US - imperialist ruling class. It is in their interests to get the task of dividing Iraq done quickly.

In this struggle we take sides. We stand for the defeat of the imperialists in their divide and rule strategy, and for the victory of those forces which want to drive them out of their country.

This is why we raise the demand of troops out now, with no strings attached. This demand sums up not just our moral repulsion of an alien occupying military force, but also the fact that we desire its defeat.

In opposition to the liberal-pacifist position rammed through the Stop the War Coalition by the SWP and the Morning Star, we demand that the troops are brought home right now, without delay. Where the SWP refuses to advance its own position - critical but unconditional support for the Iraqi resistance - in the StWC, we will be advancing this very slogan on the demonstration on the 24th September. After all, the greatest unity between the anti-war movements in the West and the resistance - economic, political and military - in Iraq is the surest alliance to win the immediate withdrawal of the troops.

However this is an international struggle, as imperialism is an international system, and also a class based system. The way forward for the liberation of Iraq from the chains of occupation is also the same way forward for the liberation of workers across the world from the chains of exploitation. Iraqi workers need to break from the collaborationist Iraqi Communist Party and found a new revolutionary party with a programme for the working class to take power. But it cannot act alone. Only a new world party of socialist revolution - a Fifth International - can free us all from the chains of imperialism's latest stage - globalisation.