Hostage crises: Divisions in the British ruling class

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At the time of writing, the British hostage Ken Bigley is still in the hands of the Islamist group 'Unity and Holy War' led by Abu Masub al-Zaqarwi. The mass media in the democracies, and Britain in particular, have not found it hard to wage an intensive ideological campaign around this kidnapping. This is after all one of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty of all the various armed gangs proliferating in Iraq today. It has already filmed the beheading of a number of its captives and is probably responsible for some of the worst bombing atrocities since the beginning of the US invasion, with the majority of its victims being Iraqi civilians. Ken Bigley is thus being held by the forces of 'evil incarnate'; his desperate video pleas for action to save his life and the dignified appeals of his family cannot fail to elicit strong feelings of sympathy throughout the world.

And yet behind the simple issue of an ordinary working man facing a horrible death, all kinds of sordid intrigues are going on; Ken Bigley is not just a victim of Islamist fanatics, but of all the conflicts and rivalries between different cliques of the ruling class.

The hostage-takers, of course, are playing their own game. They kidnapped Bigley along with two Americans, and the latter were cruelly murdered within days. If they have played cat-and-mouse with Bigley's life, it is for definite political ends. They know that the Blair government's pro-American line on Iraq faces considerable opposition from within the British ruling class, and they are surely calculating on putting further pressure on the Blair clique. In line with the US and its obedient interim regime in Baghdad, the UK government has maintained the line of 'no negotiation with terrorists' and thus appears to be abandoning Bigley to his fate. It has thus come under considerable criticism for its handling of the crisis, most noticeably from Bigley's family at a fringe meeting during the Labour Party conference.

Thus the campaign to free Bigley has been integrated into the schemes of those bourgeois factions who favour a more 'independent' British foreign policy and a more critical stance towards the US. This in turn seems to be causing the government some concern. For example, there has been a raid by British and Dutch intelligence officers on the home of Ken Bigley's brother in Amsterdam. They trawled through his computer, looking for evidence of illicit contacts with Zaqarwi's group.

The Americans meanwhile have stepped up their attacks on the group's alleged hiding places in Fallujah and Samara, making it increasingly unlikely that Zaqarwi will be inclined to cut some kind of deal. This follows shortly after the Berlusconi government apparently paid a hefty ransom for the release of two Italian aid workers; it has also been claimed that American air attacks have blocked the release of the two French journalists currently held in Iraq. There may be more than one motive behind the recent US offensive - for example, it could be seen as an attempt to crush the main centres of Sunni insurgency prior to the Iraqi elections in January. But this massive show of US force could equally be aimed at other powers involved in Iraq. As we argue in another article in this issue, the competition between America and France for influence in the Middle East is more or less out in the open. But Washington must also be increasingly worried that its main coalition partners, Britain and Italy, will start to 'lose their nerve' faced with the widespread domestic unpopularity of their adventures in Iraq.

In all these sordid manoeuvres, the welfare of Ken Bigley, and of countless Iraqi civilians suffering from the renewed bombing of their home towns, are the least of our leaders' concerns.

Amos 2/10/04

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