Like a Puppet on a String

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The bloody standoff continues in Najaf as we go to press, despite claims by interim (for which read 'puppet') prime minister Iyad Allawi that the Iraqi army had crushed the resistance and retaken the Imam Ali mosque.

He is wrong on two counts: not only is Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi army still in control of the mosque, but it is the US army which has been bombarding them.

The nature of the resistance is important. No one can claim al Sadr is a remnant of Saddam's rule: his father and uncle were both killed by the regime. His rise has been phenomenal - going from 1 percent support among Iraqis last October to 68 percent in May this year. His popularity stems from the increasing hatred and distrust Iraqis feel for the 'coalition' occupying forces and the joke of an unelected 'democratic' assembly that claims to be governing the country.

This assembly of 100 was appointed in late August without the slightest semblance of democracy - the list was waved through without even a vote. This stitch-up is now presented as a step on the road to representative government. But for the urban poor in Iraq's cities, al Sadr's Mahdi army is far more representative of their overriding desire to rid the country of the occupiers and the violence, poverty and unemployment they have brought.

Najaf is currently the most prominent front in Iraq - but it is by no means the only one. While the siege entered its third week US warplanes were attacking insurgents in Fallujah and the resistance was mounting attacks on the oil pipelines in Basra. More than five times as many coalition troops have died since Bush proclaimed 'mission accomplished' than during the 'war proper'. It is clear that there will be no peace until there is real democracy in Iraq.

In the meantime it is the poor on both sides who continue to do the fighting and the dying. Maxine Gentle, sister of the 19 year old soldier killed on the day of the bogus 'handover of power', encapsulated this feeling in an angry letter to Tony Blair. There is a growing feeling on both sides of the Atlantic that the sons and daughters of working class people have suffered enough, while the children of the rich and powerful are tucked up in bed. The family's campaign to bring the troops home can crystallise the anti-war feeling of tens of thousands over the next few months.

This is why the futures of Bush in November's presidential election and Blair in the general election next year are tied inextricably to Iraq. The Tories aren't gaining from the disillusionment with Labour, and the policy of the Democratic challenger John Kerry is to send 40,000 more troops to Iraq. In these circumstances, building a left alternative on a global scale becomes ever more important.

The fantastic victory of Respect's campaign in east London, seeing Oliur Rahman elected as Respect's first councillor, shows it is possible to link the anger over the war with local issues such as cuts in health, education and public services. Confident campaigns have followed in Hartlepool and Millwall. With more by-elections around the corner, building on the confidence of our side requires urgency if we are to take advantage of the problems now faced by Blair and New Labour.