By Sarah Lazare, Courage to Resist, for Al Jazeera. March 19, 2010

On the eve of the the seventh anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq, American anti-war activists are still calling for a real end to a conflict that has now lasted longer than both world wars and the American Civil War. As the anti-war movement gears up for rallies and demonstrations on the anniversary, many are emphasizing long-term organizing and movement-building, rooted in a strategy of GI resistance.

Seth Manzel, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and director of the Tacoma, Washington-based GI Voice, says: “As an Iraq veteran, it really sickens me to see an eighth year of deployments to Iraq. People are being torn apart by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it needs to stop.”

The pursuit of war has outlasted the change in the White House. Barack Obama, the US president, swept into office on an anti-Iraq War ticket and has recently been claiming that the Iraq War is winding down.

But some critics are skeptical that the pledge to remove “combat troops” by September 1,leaving about 50,000 troops in “non-combat” roles, will bring about a real end to the war.

Aaron Hughes, a Chicago-based Iraq veteran and organizer with IVAW, claims the designation of non-combat status is “a false dichotomy.” He says that “everyone in the military is a combat soldier. Everyone in Iraq and Kuwait receives combat pay.”

“When they say combat soldier, what do they really mean? Creating this terminology is false and made up. They use it to manipulate the public,” Hughes told Al Jazeera.

Stay in Iraq?

Other veterans are concerned that the Obama administration will find reasons to push back the September 1 withdrawal deadline, considering that the president missed his January deadline for closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

Last month, it was revealed that the US military is developing a contingency plan to keep “combat” troops in Iraq past the September 1 deadline if necessary.

And last week Ray Odierno – the top general in Iraq – made international headlines when his official request for the military to keep a combat unit in the contentious northern city of Kirkuk past next September was leaked to the media.

“For nearly six years, the American people have been told by our government that the Iraq War will be coming to an end soon, always ‘in about six months’ if everything goes as planned,” said Jeff Paterson, Gulf War resister and project director of Courage to Resist, an organization that supports US military personnel who refuse to fight.

Top military brass nevertheless insist the withdrawal is on course and claims that the March 7 Iraqi elections bode well for the US war effort, with violence tapering off and more than 62 per cent of registered voters casting a ballot.

Yet, in a war that many believe has killed over one million Iraqis and left approximately 8mn people displaced,these elections fall short of bringing real peace and self-rule to the region.

Furthermore, US military invasions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere have destabilized the entire region; efforts to re-stabilize the region could take decades.

With foreign companies eyeing Iraq as an investment goldmine, there are fears that the war could be followed by another type of occupation.

“I believe the Iraq war is winding down. Casualty rates (injuries and deaths) among Iraqi civilians, Iraqi militants, and “coalition” forces are all down significantly compared to any other year,” says Ryan Harvey, Baltimore-based organizer with Civilian Soldier Alliance, a national organization that focuses on building networks of support for GI resistance.

“Some believe the occupation is really just now beginning, as the drop in violence means the realization of very lucrative contracts for Western companies operating in Iraq. The big oil give-away has begun, and the privatization schemes of Paul Bremer, the head of the now defunct Coalition Provisional Authority, are now really taking effect in the economy,” Harvey told Al Jazeera.

Every year since the invasion of Iraq, the March 19 anniversary has been marked by national protests, in what has become a ritual for the anti-war movement. This year is no exception, although organizers are expecting demonstrations to be smaller than in previous years, in part due to public perception that the Iraq War is winding down.

“The Bay Area will have large marches on March 20 to send the message out that these wars are still waging violently,” says Eddie Falcon, a San Francisco-based veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and member of IVAW.

“Iraq Veterans Against the War will do a Winter Soldier testimony hearing at [a local] college to give our perspectives, accounts of atrocities, and stories of resistance.”

Marches and demonstrations

In the past few years, IVAW has grown to 1,700 members – all of whom are US military personnel who have served since September 11, 2001.

Numerous anti-war organizations throughout the United States are openly embracing war resistance, with groups like Courage to Resist, the Civilian Soldier Alliance, and the War Resisters League working to build networks of support for resisters.

Included within this work is support for those who refuse to fight, either publicly or quietly, as well as counter-recruitment.

Lily Hughes, a Philadelphia-based organizer with the Civilian-Soldier Alliance, says that groups with larger political analysis and awareness are not only working to end the occupation in Iraq, but also the occupation of Afghanistan and other US military engagements in the Middle East.

But anti-war organizers recognize that they do face an uphill battle in influencing domestic and international public opinion.

Harvey of the Civilian Soldier Alliance believes that anti-war campaigners need to take their efforts to the military bases, the schools, the communities, and in the occupied-countries themselves.

Hughes of the IVAW understands that the demonstrations and protests against US military involvement in Iraq are symbolic.

He says: “It is going to take organizing around [the issue] of withdrawing our consent from the power structures that created these wars to bring them to an end.”

Sarah Lazare is an anti-militarist and GI resistance organizer with Dialogues Against Militarism and Courage to Resist. She is interested in connecting struggles for justice at home with global movements against war and empire.