The new Mongols

Bush in Babylon: the recolonisation of Iraq

Tariq Ali <em>Verso, 214pp, £13 </em>

ISBN 185984583

Thank goodness for Tariq Ali. Britain's one-man demolition squad has been leading the resistance against the American empire since the Vietnam war. For more than four decades, he has been doggedly consistent and true to his revolutionary ideals. And to the chagrin of many of his detractors, he has often been right.

Most of his predictions about the "war on terror" and the occupation of Iraq have been spot on. Before the war, Ali suggested that large numbers of young, middle-class professionals would join organisations such as al-Qaeda. He predicted that violent resistance to the US occupation of Iraq would emerge within six months. And that not just the US and Britain, but also the UN, would be loathed throughout the Arab world. In Bush in Babylon, he provides a detailed explanation for these events and skilfully dissects the policies of the Bush administration.

Iraq, Ali argues, has a long and strong tradition of resistance against occupying powers. Many Iraqis today have per- sonal memories of fighting the British. The Arabs are very conscious of their historical memory, and this conscious- ness is playing a major role in shaping Iraqi resistance.

Currently the emphasis is on low- intensity guerrilla warfare with the aim of making the country ungovernable. But, Ali argues, even the bourgeois businessmen, who were used as a prop by the British when they ruled Iraq and who could have supported the intervention, have realised this is not a traditional colonial occupation. Its aim is to privatise the whole country and impose a pro-western regime. That's why Americans are forcing their companies, businessmen and private mercenaries on every part of Iraqi society. No wonder Iraqis refer to American occupiers as the "new Mongols".

Bush in Babylon has some serious flaws. The text meanders and Ali is too fond of quoting at length from Iraqi poets of communist persuasion. He sees the Iraqis in rather simplistic terms, as either resisters or collaborators. And he wants all collaborators - who must constitute at least half of Iraq's population - to end up like Nuri al-Said, the Iraqi imperial enforcer who was executed in 1958.

Ali's analysis of Iraqi history is too superficial. Even though he claims to have relied on Hanna Batatu's noted studies on Syrian and Iraqi peasantry, the historical sections of the book appear to have been cobbled together in haste. And are we to believe that the only actors in Iraqi history are communists - that various Islamic movements, both Sunni and Shia, have contributed nothing to Iraqi history or to resistance against imperial occupation?

The limitations of Ali's historical analysis are evident in his treatment of Michel Aflaq, one of the founders of Ba'athist ideology. Given the importance of Aflaq in shaping modern Iraq, you would expect Ali to provide some analysis of how Ba'athist ideology was formed. But he is happy simply to describe Aflaq as "a man of moderate temperament". The Ba'athists, he suggests, were really pro-ballot: "the bullets were a later invention".

In fact, Aflaq, a Christian educated in France, was anything but moderate; and violence is intrinsic to both his and Ba'athist thought. He developed his ideology in opposition to Islam, arguing that a "resurrected" nationalism should take its place as the focus of belief for Arabs. Using the language of Holy Trinity, he based the Ba'ath ideology on three pillars of "unity, freedom and socialism". But these facets of an indivisible whole were subsumed by the sacred mission of resurrecting Arab nationalism, a task to be performed by the priestly class of vanguards: young "patriots" with unflinching faith in the nation and who would undertake any act, however brutal, for the sake of the nation.

By avoiding the more intricate knots of Iraqi history, Ali presents us with an account that is full of holes. For him, all resistance is good resistance. But Iraqi history teaches that zealots of all persuasions, including some of the communists Ali valorises, can easily turn against their own people. In their minds, the distinction between someone simply trying to survive and a "collaborator" is hardly perceptible. Witness how Ba'athist resistance in Iraq is now indiscriminately killing innocent Iraqis.

Whatever Ali's book lacks in analysis, the overriding message is salutary: there can be no peace, stability or security while naked imperialism rules and determines American policy. If Bush is in Iraq for the long haul, a protracted, bloody conflict is inevitable. Ordinary Iraqis will be the principal victims and the whole of the Middle East will be engulfed in the blowback.

Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies's Why Do People Hate America? is reissued by Icon Books