Under the direction of US imperialism, the political and religious leaders of Iraq met on August 15 in Baghdad in order to hold the first session of a national conference whose official aim was to organise national elections for 2005. According to the New York Times, "the Americans and the present Iraqi government sought to show, through this conference, that the electoral process is on course despite the violence sweeping the country". This electoral perspective is doomed to total failure. The same New York Times article provided the proof: "the opening day of the conference was more marked by appeals to end the fighting in Najaf than by the future elections". Hardly had the conference begun when two shells fell nearby and forced the proceedings to be suspended. From August 5 on, there has been a clear acceleration of violence all across the country. This was the day that the radical Shia cleric Moqtada-al-Sadr declared holy war against the Americans and British after the latter had arrested four of his followers. Subsequently the US army lay siege to Najaf with the approval of its governor al Zorfi. For several weeks Moqtada's gunmen held out in the mausoleum of Imam Ali, the holiest site for Shiite Muslims the world over. This prompted Sheikh Jawad al-Khalessi, imam of the grand mosque of Kadimiya to announce that "neither this pseudo-governor, a former interpreter to the US army chosen for his ability to obey the maddest of orders, nor the highest religious authorities, have the right to authorise infidels to enter Ali's mausoleum". Fighting then spread to Kut, Amara, Dwaniyah, Nassariyah and Bassorah, as well as Sadr City in Baghdad, with hundreds of casualties, mainly among the Shia militia. Eventually the supreme Shia religious leader al-Sistani negotiated a ceasefire, but it can only be provisional. Iraq is a state in chaos and has no prospect of overcoming it.
Whether it likes it or not, the USA has blundered into a military impasse. Aware that resistance against US authority can only increase, Colin Powell has proposed that other Muslim states get involved in the situation; there is no chance of this happening. The Egyptian minister of foreign affairs didn't take long to insist that Egypt would not be sending any troops. What's more the siege of Najaf can only make things worse for the US throughout the Muslim world, especially in countries which have a large Shia population.
In a world where everyone is out to defend their own imperialist interests, there's no doubt that Iran is implicated both politically and militarily in the Shia revolt in Iraq. This is why we have seen a series of threats from Washington against the Tehran regime. On 1 August Colin Powell himself accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs. The war in Iraq is also having an impact in Turkey; in fact the whole region is caught up in a process of destabilisation. The situation in Iraq is demonstrating to the whole world that the USA's worldwide authority is weakening. The anti-Iran campaign waged by the US also involves the nuclear question and it has been taken up by Israel. At a press conference in August, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that "Iran was on the list of terrorist states for years and one of the world's great anxieties concerns the links between a terrorist state which possesses weapons of mass destruction and the terrorist networks. It is understandable that the nations not only of the region but of the whole world feel deeply troubled by this". We cannot exclude the possibility that America's next step in its headlong flight into war will be towards Iran. It could even be dragged in behind the increasingly barbaric and suicidal policies of Israel. On 15 July the Sunday Times cited "Israeli sources" who said that "Israel has carried out rehearsals for a strike against Iran" and "would in no case allow Iranian reactors, notably the one at Bushehr, under construction with the aid of the Russians, to reach the critical point�in the worst case, if international efforts fail, we are quite confident that with a single blow we could demolish the nuclear ambitions of the Ayatollahs".
The collapse of the Palestinian Authority
The course towards military chaos in the Middle East is also bringing about the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. This body was set up in the wake of the Oslo accords of 1993, and was supposed to be the embryo of a Palestinian state, to be formed after five years. This was part of the illusory perspective of stabilisation in the Middle East. We have seen the exact opposite: a proliferation of massacres, murders and bombings. The decomposition of this part of the world, pushed forward by the expansionist policies of Israel, has deprived the Palestinian Authority of its last vestiges of power. Even if Arafat is still fighting to keep his position as president of the PA, his acolytes have been squabbling with increasing violence over the attributes of power. The PA is rife with corruption and these disputes are a clear expression of the total impotence of the Palestinian bourgeoisie. And even if the clash between Arafat and his current prime minister Ahmed Qureia has been resolved for now, none of this will halt the course towards the breakdown of the PA and the growing influence of all kinds of armed gangs taking advantage of the despair of the Palestinian population to launch more and more blind and suicidal terrorist attacks, the latest to date being the bombing of two buses in Beersheba which left 16 dead and hundreds wounded. The Israeli state, for its part, has every intention of continuing its policy of crushing all Palestinian resistance and colonising the West Bank of the Jordan. To this end it is going ahead with the construction of the 'anti-terrorist wall' which is turning the entire area into a vast concentration camp. And neither the fact that Sharon is encountering opposition from his own Likud party over his plan to evacuate the Gaza strip, nor his efforts to get the Israeli left around Peres on board - even if they express the weakening of the Israeli political structure - imply any lessening of Israel's war-like policies. At the same time, the altercations between president Chirac and Sharon over the dangers facing the Jewish community in France shows that the rise in imperialist tensions is having a serious impact on relations between Israel and France. This in turn corresponds to growing tensions between France and the US.
All the ingredients for further instability in the Middle East are coming together. The increasing number of terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia is only one of them; similar tensions can be felt in Egypt, Lebanon, and the other Gulf states.
Under capitalism there is no alternative to war and chaos
The accelerating weakness of the USA as the world's leading power can only encourage the other powers, in particular France and Germany, but also secondary powers like Russia and China, to take full advantage and strengthen their own hand on the world arena. The sharpening of conflicts between the great powers can only aggravate the general slide towards chaos and war, and none of it can be prevented by changing the governing teams in Israel, the USA, or anywhere else. It will certainly make little difference if Bush is replaced by Kerry. As we argued in our article on the Middle East in International Review 118, capitalism's flight into war is not the choice of individual politicians: "To lay the responsibility for war at the door of this or that head of state's incompetence, allows the ruling class to hide the reality, to hide the appalling responsibility of capitalism and with it the whole ruling class world wide".