Iraq 20 years on: lessons in how not to stop a war

27 March 2023

By Dave Stockton

ON 20 MARCH 2003 the US and Britain launched their invasion of Iraq. On 1 May President George W Bush declared ‘mission accomplished’. In fact the conflict and occupation was prolonged for approaching a decade and led to 460,000 direct or indirect deaths. Far from defeating ‘terrorism’, it led to the development of the Islamic State (ISIS). It also played an enormous role in igniting other wars, destabilising the Middle East and accelerating the confrontation between the great powers that marks our world today.

The invasion, named ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’, was launched with the overt aim of overthrowing the nation’s dictator, Saddam Hussein, installing a regime favourable to American and British oil companies and strengthening US military domination of the wider Middle East.

Bush had signalled his intention to attack Iraq in his ‘axis of evil’ speech in January 2002. At various meetings Britain’s New Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, had indicated the UK would support him. In a notorious memo to Bush dated 28 July he declared, ‘I will be with you, whatever.’

This led to the better part of a year of deceitful manoeuvres to try to prove Saddam Hussein was developing ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and then to cajole or coerce the members of the United Nations Security council to authorise an invasion of Iraq—in vain as it turned out. As part of the process a UN commission under Hans Blix visited Iraq but issued a report saying that they had found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction.

Yet the invasion took place regardless. Bush had already decided to invade even without UN support, with Blair secretly pledged to support him.

The occupation was even more destructive than the initial invasion. Paul Bremer, the US proconsul imposed after the fall of Saddam, dissolved the entire Iraqi army and dismissed virtually the entire civil service, creating a mass basis for the anti-US resistance and leading to a decade of guerrilla warfare.

The anti-war movement

This long build up to the war allowed for the development of the most powerful anti-imperialist war movement the world had seen since the Vietnam War. The movement built up on all continents over the autumn and winter of 2002, leading to huge political gatherings of all strands of the anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist and social movements. Sixty thousand attended the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence in November and one million marched on its final day.

The next day an Assembly of the Social Movements issued a call for a Global Day of Action on 15 February. Despite the Forum’s formal exclusion of political parties, left reformist and far left political groupings played a key role in getting the Assembly to launch a worldwide movement. At the World Social Forum (WSF), held in January in Porto Alegre, Brazil and attended by 150,000 people, another Assembly endorsed the call.

The British Stop the War Coalition (StW) was founded on 21 September 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11 and George Bush’s declaration of a ‘Global War on Terrorism’, quickly followed on 6 October by the Afghanistan invasion, the toppling of the Taliban regime and the country’s occupation, which was to last 20 years.

StW was the initiative of the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain and various trade unions and peace movements. It was built up as a mass campaign rooted in local neighbourhood and campus groups. Faced with the prospect of an invasion of Iraq, on 28 September 2002, a demonstration of 300,000 marched from Embankment to Hyde Park. Another 350,000 strong march in London followed in November triggering a campaign of almost monthly mobilisations and local protests.

Its peak came on 15 February 2003 when between one and two million people marched in London against the impending war on Iraq, the biggest political demonstration ever seen in the capital. One huge column assembled along the Embankment; another packed Gower Street. The two joined at Piccadilly Circus and proceeded to Hyde Park, whose vast space was packed with demonstrators as far as the eye could see.

In addition, 80,000 marched in Glasgow forcing Britain’s warmonger-in chief to abandon his speech to the Scottish Labour Conference. MORI opinion polls showed that by the end of February only 24% supported Britain’s participation whereas 67% opposed it.

The 15 February demos in London and Glasgow were only part of the huge international mobilisation called for by the ESF and the WSF. It saw thirty million people on the streets in 60 countries. Three million marched in Rome and seven million marched in the major cities of Spain. Following this a youth revolt broke out, with thousands of students walking out of schools, colleges and universities on 5 March.
A critical moment was the convening of a People’s Assembly of 1,500 delegates, at Central Hall, Westminster on 12 March. The April 2003 issue of Workers Power reported:

‘The People’s Assembly was a great opportunity to hammer out a strategy for obstructing the imperialist war effort. Unfortunately, this did not occur. Instead, its organisers in the Stop the War Coalition satisfied themselves with a grand rally.’

Bob Crow of the RMT, Billy Hayes of the Communication Workers Union and other prominent union leaders and activists spoke forcibly of the need for ‘a recall congress of the TUC… to call general strike action’.

Bob Crow even said, ‘We’ve got the power to pile the pressure on. If Tony Blair is going to take illegal action, then we should also take illegal action in the form of civil disobedience. We need non-violent demonstrations. If that means sitting on motorways, stopping the traffic, sitting in the streets, occupying our factories, then so be it.’

He stated that the RMT would defend its members who took industrial action if they were prosecuted under the anti-union laws. But he added in words more significant than all the bluster, ‘I’m not saying I can call a strike.’

Centrists shield union leaders

Workers Power submitted an amendment to the main resolution, which called for local people’s assemblies with delegates from trade unions as well as local anti-war groups, to be built everywhere, in order to organise strikes and other forms of direct action.

This was no utopian dream. Already, in early January, train drivers in Motherwell Scotland had refused to move freight carrying ammunition they believed to be destined for British forces being deployed in the Gulf. The resolution spelled out what was needed—to call on the union leaders to act, but also to build democratic rank and file bodies, based on local people’s assemblies, that would act if they did not.

Stop the War Coalition chair and Communist Party member Andrew Murray opposed this proposal, warning that the Assembly could not ‘impose our will’ on the unions. SWP leaders John Rees and Lindsey German argued that the actions of the youth would inspire workers to take strike action. Typically for the SWP, they relied on ‘from below’ spontaneity to precipitate the mass strike action they agreed was essential. This strategy conveniently freed them from the awkwardness of publicly pressuring the union leaders to put their lofty rhetoric into deeds.

Using the anti-union laws which forbid political strikes as a pretext for inaction was just what should have been expected from union bureaucrats. Indeed TUC General Secretary Brendon Barber had refused an invitation to address the historic Hyde Park demonstration, saying he was ‘not prepared to be part of any movement aiming to topple Tony Blair’.

But coming from people like Rees and German, who regard themselves as revolutionaries, the failure to put these leaders on the spot revealed a classically centrist view of the united front—that forming a bloc with the reformist leaders means keeping silent about their failings and above all not mobilising their members to take action independently of them.

Yet the scale of opposition to the war and the huge unpopularity of Blair at this point provided the best opportunity to mobilise the rank and file of the unions to defy the anti-union laws with impunity. Rees and German, now leaders of Counterfire, tried to prevent us from actually putting the resolution and rallied delegates to vote it down. Nevertheless, approximately a third of them voted for the amendment.

Twenty years later Lindsey German shamelessly wrote in the Guardian: ‘While the march itself did not stop the war—mass industrial action would have been required to do that [our emphasis], and while we achieved some strikes on protest day, they weren’t sufficient—we did change public opinion’. But, comrade, pacifist public opinion does not stop imperialist wars; anti-imperialist direct action does.

War is not stopped

The day the ‘Shock and Awe’ bombing began—19 March 2003, Day X as it was called in the movement—saw mass protests shut down main roads and several city centres.

Nevertheless, on 18 March the House of Commons had approved the government’s motion for war, which passed by 412 to 149 votes. 254 Labour MPs voted for war and 84 against (69 abstained). Thus the hollow character of British democracy and, simultaneously, the imperialist character of the Labour Party were (yet again) demonstrated to millions.

As for the top leadership of the trade unions, their response was even worse. Though the TUC General Council had welcomed the ‘massive and historic demonstrations against war… on February 15’, claiming that ‘no democratic government can embark on a war without the consent of the people,’ the moment the war started it rallied to the flag.

It rejected support for the StW demonstration on 22 March saying, ‘Now that parliament is committed to this course, British armed forces and their families, and other staff involved in the military action, including those in civilian roles, will expect and must receive the support of the British people’.

Yet this miserable outcome from such a magnificent movement was not inevitable. The reasons for its failure lay in the character of the anti-war movement itself and the decisions its leaders took, or rather did not take. Its leaders either believed or allowed the people they mobilised to believe that monster protests and winning public opinion could persuade the imperialists to abandon the war. Yet once the war started and ‘our boys’ were ‘in harm’s way’ they turned from pacifism to patriotism.

Of course, the millions who had protested did not change their minds. A hundred thousand members left the Labour Party in the years following, having lost any hope of influencing, let alone determining policy. The invasion itself was an object lesson in the limits of capitalist democracy when faced with the life or death issues of our rulers.

StW’s leading figures, including those in the SWP and today’s Counterfire, just tried to repeat the marches tactic, which naturally shrank after the war began. Mass protests had shown their power to bring together and build a mass movement, but the fact that the government went ahead regardless revealed the limitations of the tactic.

If only mass strike action to paralyse the country and render the government unable to proceed with the war had been organised alongside the protests, things would have been different. Twenty years on, another brutal invasion by an imperialist power and Nato’s rapid rearmament could lead to a war even more global and deadly. Now Labour has another leader cast in the mould of Tony Blair, it is worth remembering how not to stop a war.

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